Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wealth Care 

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
 
Medical costs are the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness,—Warren Buffet   
 

     Nitroglycerin, used to treat heart problems, isn’t exactly a breakthrough drug. It’s been around for nearly 150 years. I’ve been on and off it for twenty years. Those tiny pills that you stick under your tongue when your angina acts up used to have a tiny price: pennies a piece. Today, they’re going for a buck a piece. Thanks to our faith in the sacred free market there’s nothing  to stop them from soaring to a hundred bucks apiece.  After all, what’s more important, people averting heart attacks or investors getting richer?
     The capitalist world decided decades ago that nitro should keep selling for pennies and that health care should be treated as a public service like police and fire protection. Not quite the whole capitalist world.  Here in the U.S., the decision was that health care should be organized as just another business, like selling used cars or operating a casino.
    It was assumed that doctors, hospitals and drug companies would compete with each other on price, keeping costs low. It was an appropriate assumption in a country dedicated to free markets and the maximization of profit. Only it didn’t work.
    The problem, right from the start, was the free market itself.  On the demand side it meant just about everyone will spend every cent they have and fall hopelessly into debt to keep themselves and their loved ones alive and healthy. On the supply side it meant that those who provide the means for keeping us fit and above ground had no reason to compete on price. The strength of demand demanded instead that they charge whatever the traffic would bear. What’s more, the business law of maximization of profit demanded that they continually raise prices and/or lower costs to make more money in the next quarter than they did in the last one.
    The result has been the ever faster and ever greater growth of the health part of our economy.  Today, it’s running at 17 percent, or up to double that of other capitalist countries. Consider that total manufacturing in the U.S. accounts for just 12 percent. Unfortunately, health grows bigger but but much better.  The rest of the world also leads us in outcomes

     Economists used to classify health care as a maintenance cost of society.  It fell into the same category as getting your car serviced. The less you paid for it the more money you had in your pocket to buy products and services in the broader consumer economy. Now health care has become an industry like any other that expects to constantly grow in size and profitability. That’s great for its investors but terrible for people who get sick.
    As noted above, all of those other capitalist countries have long since bypassed this outcome by providing health care as a public service.  They don’t expect their fire departments to get richer every year, so why should they expect that of their hospitals?
    The sad part here is that we’re already part way to running health care like those other countries do.  It’s called Medicare. If our leaders had any brains or integrity they would solve the health care dilemma by extending Medicare coverage to everyone. But to do that would obviate the need for the most needless part of our health system: private insurance companies. Their administrative costs and profits consume about a third of our spending on health. That’s money that has nothing to do with making people healthier and everything to do with making investors wealthier.
    There has seldom been a better time to move to a Medicare for all system. Obamacare is unsustainable and the Republican solutions are the opposite of health care.  What we need is what the rest of the world already has: Medicare for all, otherwise known as single payer.     



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Down Memory Lane 
      Did I tell you about when I was a dreamer—an American kid born to highly deportable parents?   Both were illicit immigrants. My mother arrived here at age 12 from Trieste with her family nearly a century ago: 1921 to be exact. For reasons still unknown to me, she never obtained what were called ‘first papers’ in those days.  
      My father, born in Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, became a merchant seaman. He jumped ship in New York. I don’t know the year or the circumstances.    
      In the thirties, they both became communists—not a smart move for either political or practical reasons. In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, they both paid for that decision by being arrested and ordered deported as subversive aliens.  
     Fourteen at the time, I ended up sleeping on my grandmother’s couch and visiting my mother and father at Ellis Island on Saturdays. They were paroled after a few months and, in fact, were never deported.
Old reds. My parents, Nick and Maria Karman, circa 1945
 My father, who had become a waiter, fell dead of a heart attack in the midst of this crisis while serving lunch at the Waldorf Astoria.  My widowed mother managed to remain in America thanks only to the geopolitical rearrangements in Europe following World War I.  She had been born on a gorgeous Dalmatian island with the ugly name of Ugljan.  It was a tiny fleck of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when she came into the world. When the Habsburgs fell, Ugljan became Italian and later Yugoslav. 
      My mother and her kin were listed as Italians on the manifest of the S.S. Belvedere, the Italian liner that carried them in steerage to America.They settled in Hell’s Kitchen, just a couple of blocks from the pier where they had disembarked. 
     Jump ahead to the spring day in 1954 when I got home from high school to learn from an uncle that my parents had been arrested and ordered out of the country.  At 77, that day and the day on which my dad died remain the worst two days of my life.  
    To be sure, Uncle Sam can deport any non-citizen.  The catch is that one country or other has to be willing to take them in. My multinational mother was obliged to apply to Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia. Each passed the buck. They were not interested in adding a poor, middle-aged sewing machine lady to their respective populations. Neither were any of the other countries to which the immigration authorities made her apply. 
    Her case hung fire for years. The government finally dropped the matter in the more liberal sixties. By then my mother had retired. She was free to live out her years in the country in which she had lived since age 12.  Eventually she was even issued a green card. And though the Yugoslavs wouldn’t take her in as an immigrant, they did give her a travel document.  She used it to visit beautiful Ugljan.
She succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1988.
    The numbing anxiety I was feeling during my teenage years about having my family’s life torn apart is what millions of American kids with paperless parents are feeling now. Today, they call them dreamers. What I recall was a nightmare.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Big Trouble In Small Places
  There is no corner of the world so remote, no nation so insignificant that it does not represent a vital interest of the United States—Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration 
     Are you itching to go to nuclear war over Yongbyon, Dombass, Hormuz, Riga, Tartus, Sebastopol or the Spratleys? If not, you’re no doubt a peacenik liberal wimp.
    In higher and more sophisticated circles it’s perfectly proper to describe these United States as an empire with a self-proclaimed prerogative to rule the globe and punish disobedient nations. It’s only for the less knowledgeable classes that America’s role in the world is portrayed in comic book terms they can understand, with us, always the good guys, versus whatever bad guys of the moment.
    This fantasy calls for a fantasy solution.  So you will hear quite sincere but naive people saying we should stay at home and take care of America first rather than rushing around the globe to drone bad guys and do good after the day's killing is done.  That’s like telling the New England Patriots they should stop playing football and instead become checkers players.
    The bad guys of the moment are Russia, China, North Korea Iran, Iraq, Syria and the democratically-elected but unacceptably leftist governments of Latin America. Our goal is to put their governments out of business and replace them with obedient regimes like that of, say, Bahrain.
    That goal is not working out and, in fact, making more trouble for our empire than we had to begin with. Putin is solidly in place in Russia, where the people remember the economic catastrophe visited upon them when Washington bossed Moscow in the Yeltsin era after the collapse of the sclerotic Soviet Union. Not even the most pollyannish diplo in DC can see China turned into yet another U.S. client state anytime soon. Indeed, it’s more likely that we will become their client. Meanwhile, there’s little we can do about North Korea without risking a nuke or two on our heads. 
         The great scandal of this era is the shameful failure of our corrupt and incompetent military to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan and bring down the Assad regime in Syria--not that I approved of those wars. There’s little hope then that Washington will be able to intimidate, let alone overthrow, the Iranian theocracy,  a far bigger and more fearsome foe than the feudal tribes people of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been running our vaunted military in circles.
    All in all, American foreign policy is in shambles.  Hillary promised us only a bigger mess.  Trump is clueless, but influenced—or compromised—by the same ultra-nationalist movements that rule Russia and are gaining sway in Europe. The only good thing about them is that they are not
jingos like Hillary and the Dems with their same animus for communist Russia now transferred to a capitalist Russia.  Their demand that Russia leave Crimea, a Russian-speaking integral part of Russia for hundreds of years and home to its only warm water outlet to the world, is equivalent to Moscow demanding the U.S. get out of California. It's not going to happen.
    In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, America, Russia, Cuba and the world were saved from oblivion by Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet sub commander who decided on his own not to fire his nukes.  We need some Vasilis now lest we end the world over Yongbyon, Dombass, Hormuz, Riga, Tartus, Sebastopol or the Spratleys?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Regulatory Ripoff
   Years back, my cousin ran a successful concession on the Queen Mary, the grand old ocean liner that ended up as a tourist attraction at Long Beach harbor in California.
    It was a wedding chapel. For a fee, you could be married by someone dressed as a ship’s captain against a background of nautical luxury. When the owners of the Queen Mary saw how well my cousin was doing they raised his rent until they forced him out of business and then started running the chapel themselves.
   We are told, daily if not hourly, that taxes and regulation are strangling business. Get rid of them, says our new president among others, and a rebirth of prosperity will give us all a ticket on the gravy train.
    That doesn’t quite line up with the facts happily recorded in the financial media that if business is suffering, it's from gluttony rather than government. The equity markets are hitting all-time highs while companies are sitting on trillions (yes, with a T) in profits that they don’t know what to do with.
    This raises the question of just how many more trillions in profit business requires to recover from its supposedly strangulated state? Of course, there’s no real answer to that. What business wants, as ever, is every dime and dollar on Earth.
    At this point, an apologist for the plutocracy would ask what about small businesses?  Aren’t they getting slammed down by Washington’s heavy hand? No, they're getting devoured as usual by big business.
    That  brings me back to my cousin. What happened to him goes on daily in this country. Just about anyone who’s been in small business knows that the real number-one scary-as-hell predators are not the tax collectors and regulators of various stripe but the big boys who gobble up small businesses like whales munch on sardines. Who’s murdered more neighborhood businesses than Walmart and Home Depot? 

     Conservatives never seem to notice that phenomenon. To them, big business can do no wrong.Their concern for the little guy is no more real than a diploma from Trump U.



  


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Lies, Damn Lies and Intelligence   
    The NYTimes reported the other day on a newly discovered  big fat lie that Nixon told about Vietnam, a war that Lyndon Johnson lied us into.  In fact, our pols have been lying us into wars since 1812, which, if truth be told, amounted to an incompetent U.S. attempt to conquer Canada.
    Usually, we learn about the lies decades afterward. Since we live in a country where the word “history” is a synonym for boring, they make little impact on the public.  Who today knows or cares about the Tonkin Gulf incident or what the initials WMD stand for?
    It’s today’s lies that we closely guard because revealing them could be embarrassing, if not harmful, to those now in power. What a surprise then when a big lie is foisted on the citizenry along with an admission that it’s probably not to be believed, at least by anyone with half a brain.
    I refer to the much bruited U.S. intelligence report that Russian hackers, and Vladimir Putin personally, involved themselves in our
presidential election, to the detriment of Hillary and the benefit of Donald.  And we thought only the CIA pulled such stuff.
    Anyway, that report begins with the following:
   “Disclaimer: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.”  

      Also of note is that the report make no reference to Wikileaks, which was supposedly at the heart of the hack attacks. What the report does spend seven pages on is a 2012 intel report that, hold onto to your hat, RT the public Russian media outlet, takes a consistent pro-Russian and anti-American line in its news coverage. Who’d have guessed?
    The thinking is that our intelligence people gave themselves a disclaimer this time should their report blow up in their face. Those who know what WMD stands for will recall that the Bush II regime demanded that the CIA and other such agencies fabricate intelligence showing that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction and blaming it for 9/11.
    These two super whoppers led to 15years of war (so far) and the destruction and destabilization of vast parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.  Let’s hope this current self-disclaimed report doesn't end up with us going nuclear toe-to-toe with those disobedient Russkies.



Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Same Old Same Old 2000 Years Later 
     Joseph Schumpeter was a brilliant Harvard economist who claimed to have accomplished two of his three greatest goals in life: to be the world’s greatest economist, Austria’s greatest horseman and Vienna’s greatest lover. But he never said which ones.
    Writing a century ago about events of two thousand years ago. he left us a short description of the foreign policy of the Roman Empire that reads uncannily like the foreign policy of today's  American Empire. I published it on this blog four year ago (KarmanTurn, 9/5/12). It seems like a good time to revisit it. So here it is from Schumpeter’s The Sociology of Imperialism 1918:
    …A policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not those of Rome, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest--why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs. They were enemies who only waited to fall on the Roman people …
    Sound familiar?  

    Happy New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2016

What Goes Around...
      Hillary said the other day that Putin hacked the Democrats' email because he has a “personal beef” against her.
    You're damn right he does. Hillary’s been trying to overthrow him just as she and/or her successor John Kerry have lawlessly toppled the leaders of Honduras, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter two repeatedly) and are now trying their damnedest to bring down Assad in Syria, not to mention various democratically elected Latin American leftists.

      In any event, it’s Hillary not Putin who’s been toppled. Was her downfall God answering Putin’s prayers, or thanks to the talent of Wikileakers and Russian hackers, or was it from the most obvious of causes, the arrogant cluelessness of Hillary and the Democrats?  All of them, I would say, but mostly the hubris of the Dems.
    They ran a hapless campaign against Trump and already, with the Donald and a Rep Congress yet to take power, the Dems are promising their usual pusillanimous opposition to anything to the right of their business as usual politics.  It’s movements to their left that infuriate  them. Trump would have to disguise himself as Ralph Nader to stir up some real rage by the Dems.
    There are two battles looming. One is the resistance to Trump and the Trumpen element by everyone and anyone in this country who loathes and fears him.  The other is the gathering conflict within the Democratic Party between its corporatist, banker-loving right wing and its so-called progressives who range from wimpy centrists to Sanderista leftists. It’s anyone’s guess who will win.
    Back to the hack, the NY Times, as paper of record, will occasionally acknowledge our leaders’ sins of the past.  On Sunday, December 18, the Times put electoral shenanigans by us, the good guys, in perspective with the following:
     “…it is worth remembering that trying to manipulate elections is a well-honed American art form. The C.I.A. got its start trying to influence the outcome of Italy’s elections in 1948…in an effort to keep Communists from taking power. Five years later, the C.I.A. engineered a coup against Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s democratically elected leader, when the United States and Britain installed the Shah.
    ‘The military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,’ the agency concluded in one of its own reports, declassified around the 60th anniversary of those events, which were engineered in large part by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.
     'There were similar interferences over the years in Guatemala, Chile and even in Japan, hailed as a model of post-World War II democracy, where the Liberal Democratic Party owes its early grip on power in the 1950s and 1960s to millions of dollars in covert C.I.A. support."
       Of course. it's only wrong when they do it, not when we do it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

 Lemme Be Honest With You
        It’s not like we didn’t tell lies before D. Trump came along. Consider the following national fabulations:
    We live in the only country in which the candidate with most votes doesn’t necessarily win the election and one in which laws are enacted to prevent certain racial and ethnic groups from voting at all. Still we call ourselves a democracy.
    We live in a country that imprisons more people, by magnitudes, than any other in the world, including China a dictatorship with five times our population. And yet we call ourselves free.
    We live in a nation forever at war or preparing for war, typically with countries that have done us no harm, present no threat, and that most of us have never heard of. No matter, we call ourselves peaceful.
    We live in a country dominated by ever engorging monopolies and oligopolies but nevertheless call ours a free market economy.
    We live in a country with an astounding imbalance of wealth in which the fruits of our labor go to a tiny and select few (less than one percent) to whom we grant immunity from our laws and veto power over any public initiative that does not make them the main beneficiary. Despite that, we call ours a land of opportunity.
    And then there’s the most fabulous fabulation of all, that we live in the greatest country on earth. This we endlessly repeat even though it would only take a moment to ask ourselves the names and accomplishments of the second and third greatest nations and thus  reveal the fatuousness of our
braggadocio. 
    Maybe it’s time to select more accurate terms to replace democracy, freedom, peaceful, free market, opportunity and greatness to define our polity.  Instead of democracy, how’s about being honest about our cupidity and call our system a buckocracy?  With our millions of jailbirds we should be talking about a pen state.  Given our wars, it would be fair to change the name of the Pentagon to bellicocity. We should be calling our economy The Grab and our claims to opportunity Fat Chance. As for our greatestness, how about Hat Trick?

Monday, November 21, 2016

You Terrify Me and I Hate You
...Now Help Me

 The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help—Ronald Reagan
 
     The sentiments expressed in the Reagan quote above have been around and ingrained for a long time. God only knows how many millions of Americans believe their government and the pols who run it are at best do-nothings and at worst corrupt and malefic. They stand in contrast to, say, the French, who instead of fearing the government have through their heads-up politics gotten the government to fear the people.
     Many, if not most, of these same millions of Americans voted for Trump because they felt abandoned and abused by the very Washington they abominated. It was like getting angry at your evil witch of a stepmother for leaving you out of her will as she always promised she would.
    The Trumpens were said to be furious at their loss of jobs, the influx of immigrants, and the shattering of their communities. Lots of them felt that being white no longer gave them them a goose up on the national pecking order. They conveniently forgot that for decades they had voted for the pols and policies they were now blaming for their miseries.
    So they cheered at Trump’s promise to build a wall to shut out undocumented immigrants, even though the fact was that the vast majority of them get into the U.S. by overstaying their legal visas.

     They believed that a realtor for the richy rich with a long reputation for ripoffs and his likeness in the dictionary under the definition of megalomaniac could make things like they used to be when the white man’s writ ruled and store signs were still in English.   
    So why were conservatives and their kith expecting help from the government they detested?  Why were they complaining about politicians and plutocrats lining their pockets when that’s exactly what popular modern day conservative-inspired capitalism is all about?
    The answer? It comes from the very conservative Henry Mencken a century ago: no one ever lost a dime by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

    Imagine an Academy Awards presentation in which none of  the judges had seen any of the movies in contention but had voted merely on what they might or might not have heard about them.   That’s a ringer for our political system.  Millions who know and care little about events apart from those of their daily existence are called upon on election day to pick political leaders whose politics are a mystery to them. So they vote their feelings, their attitudes, their casteism, their hopes—anything that doesn’t require knowing how our system works.  And thus we end up with the likes of Trump. The only slight saving grace here is that half the populace, not knowing and/or not caring, never bother to vote.  Perhaps they have internalized the old Wobbly dictum that if voting could change things it would be against the law. Nah, they never heard of the Wobblies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

After the Election
    Millions of Republicans are far to the right of their leaders.  Millions of Democrats are far to the left of their leaders. While tons of these Reps have joined the Trumpen element, the disaffected Dems remain a wild card. Will they hold their noses and vote for the Hillary they hate or will they stay home?  We’ll find that out on November 9.
    What we can already see is that our present political arrangement is on the verge of collapse. A  Trump victory will put us on the road to fascism while a Hillary win will tear apart both parties. In any event, big changes are coming.
     A president Hillary will, like Obama before her, quickly abandon her progressive agenda and instead seek to reconstitute the Dems as a center right party by recruiting the anti-Trump “moderates” among the Reps. She’ll be strongly opposed by the Dem base, which wants to move the party leftward.  It’s going to be a helluva donnybrook. Either the lefties will somehow gain control of the party or they will be beaten and leave the Dems to form a new party.    

    A Trump in the White House promises chaos. What Trump’s Breitbart-oriented cabal openly plump for is the destruction of the GOP and its replacement by a white nationalist party.  With whites already a declining plurality of Americans, the only way such a party can gain and hold power is  by violence and repression. In other words, turning the U.S. into what South Africa used to be.
    Along with giving racists a chance to use those assault rifles they’ve been stockpiling, a white nationalist America will mean another Civil War.  And that will mean that for once since the Civil War, Americans, at least those on the left, will be fighting for freedom in their own country rather than someone else’s.