Friday, October 27, 2017

Rome Redux    
     With America on the brink of world-shattering war with North Korea, Iran and—why not?— China and/or Russia, it’s time once again to roll out one of the most apt descriptions of how we find ourselves in such a scary situation. It comes, as you may recall, from Joseph Schumpeter. He was a brilliant  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 brief summary of the foreign policy of the Roman Empire that reads exactly like the foreign policy of our American empire. 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 …"


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why We Still  Love to Hate Her 
    I was shocked and amused this morning to learn that Hillary Clinton was “shocked and appalled” at the revealed lechery of Harvey Weinstein. I assumed irony:  Hill was making a Hollywood joke by paraphrasing that tired old cliché from “Casablanca,” as if saying,”Hey, another casting couch scandal. So what else is new?”
    Not at all. Check her CNN interview and you will see that Hillary seemed as sincere as her value system would allow. Here she was, former first lady, U.S. senator, Secretary of State, A-list celebrity, erstwhile seasonal next door neighbor of Weinstein in the Hamptons and major recipient of his largesse, saying that she, someone with about as much access to the world’s secrets, including gossip, as anyone on earth,  knew nothing of what by all accounts was the biggest open secret in Tinseltown. If she’s “shocked and appalled" by Weinstein, imagine how outraged she’ll be when she learns about the cavortings of Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner.

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.