Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Backward, Wisconsin

For about a year, I had a blog called "Economic Crisis," but I dropped it. The subject matter was too depressing, and to me it was too obvious. Cassandra was right, but does anyone remember that?

The worst-case scenario has come true, and one result is that public employees are in serious jeopardy. I suppose I can claim credit for seeing that, but I didn't imagine the sort of frontal assault launched by Wisconsin's Republican governor. He intends to destroy public employee unions in the state where public employee unionization was born. Wow, that was fast, and bold. These are not your father's Republicans. They are your grandfather's Republicans, and they are one nasty breed.

By their nature, the media tend to overstate things, but this is one case where the apocalyptic rhetoric is justified. Gov. Scott Walker, and the Republicans of Wisconsin, have cut to the chase. They have displayed the sort of audacity that Democrats have lacked for many decades. Obama talked about audacity, but he lost his nerve almost immediately after taking office.

With all due respect to the demonstrators who took their case to the state capitol last week, I think the Republicans are several steps ahead. The parliamentary maneuver by the Democrats -- fleeing the state to prevent a vote on Walker's proposal -- is a last-ditch bit of desperation. It's no solution, and by itself is bound to fail.

Democrats accuse Walker of deviousness. He never told us he was going to do this, they complain. They're correct as far as it goes, but what does it matter? Cassandra was right, and look where it got her. It's one thing to foresee disaster, and another to avert disaster. And it's yet another thing to hold those responsible for creating the disaster accountable.

The mechanism by which our collective standard of living will be cut is almost impossible to predict. How could anyone really know, for example, that the Federal Reserve's emergency zero interest rate policy would funnel speculative money into the commodity markets and drive up the prices of food and clothing, while penalizing savers?

Something had to give, and we haven't seen the end of it. Quite the contrary, we're still in the front end of what's to come. If you're a multimillionaire, you'll probably be okay, unless you blunder into a bad neighborhood either on land or at sea. If you're part of the other 99.999%, you're going to feel the pain, if you haven't already.

I wish the Wisconsin public employees well. One of them is a close relative, and I'd rather see him happy and making a decent wage rather than being cut back and humiliated. But I can't be optimistic on much of anything related to the economy. Politics, too. Barack Obama, our beta-male president, and his clay-footed tribe in Congress, pretty much blew it quite a while back. Even if he should happen to be re-elected, it's not going to matter a great deal.

Now, comes the deluge.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Meet The New (Tech) Boss

Remember when Apple was the answer to the 1984-style threat posed by IBM and Microsoft? Well, guess who has just sent the police to raid the home of a journalist?

To be sure, there are good questions to be raised about the conduct of Jason Chen, who works for Gizmodo, a technology blog. He paid $5,000 for an Apple iPhone that one of the company's engineers left in a bar in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley. Legally, the phone is stolen merchandise and belongs to Apple, and the so-called shield laws protecting journalists probably don't apply here.

So it's hard to get too weepy for Mr. Chen. But it's even harder to get worked up on behalf of Apple, whose corporate behavior has become increasingly oppressive. This isn't the first time the company has used the all-too-willing apparatus of government, both here and abroad, to intimidate the press and others. Apple's stance toward ordinary customers, hidden behind cool advertising, isn't much better.

Most Apple customers don't notice it, but if the company doesn't approve of a software application, they can't use it on their iPhone. The company regularly intimidates developers, including a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist whose work was banned from iPhones because it satirized politicians. Apple has refused access to software that does nothing more than compete with other software. Sometimes, Apple refuses access and never tells anyone why.

Is this a problem? Imagine if Microsoft claimed the right to approve of every piece of software you installed on your PC, and banned any application that had a political slant, or that competed with software that already existed. Holy First Amendment, Batman! Holy Sherman Antitrust Act, Robin!

It goes further than that. If you use Apple's iTunes on your computer, you are vulnerable to regular downloads of irrelevant and potentially harmful software. The "music" you "purchase" through iTunes is licensed, not sold, to you. It is digitally coded in a manner that eliminates more than 90% of the data that constitutes the music, essentially turning songs into the sonic equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal. Millions of Americans, most of them younger, literally have no idea what actual music sounds like, thanks to iTunes.

Thus the feisty upstart has become the arrogant corporate giant. Not that this ever happens in America. I think we're going to be hearing more about Apple.


Does Jon Stewart read this blog? Later on the day I posted this item, he lampooned Apple in the same terms, right down to the clip from the Super Bowl ad. Great minds think alike, huh?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Democrats, Can You Be Surprised?

It looks like the institutional Democratic Party is starting to run scared about what's coming. Core constituents are uninspired, and might sit out this fall's election. There is an enthusiasm gap. Gee, I wonder why.

Could it be that the Democratic leadership, such as it is, forgot the people who put them in office, and why they did it? President Obama, your coolness under attack is a double-edged sword. We appreciate that you don't go screaming into the night, but even the old dogs in your core constituency don't want you to sit there and do nothing as americanus reactionus picks up whatever rock is handy and starts throwing it your way.

Democrats to Obama: It's not just about you. It's about us, too. When they call you a nigger and a socialist, they're insulting all of us and what we stand for. You don't have to be black to be offended. I might even argue that many of your white supporters are even madder about it than a lot of your black ones are. Plenty of black folk might roll their eyes and say, "What else is new?" A bunch of white Democrats are appalled and embarrassed, and want those attacks answered in no uncertain terms.

Congressional Democrats, half of you are too comfortable for your own good, sitting in safe seats that haven't faced a serious challenge in many years. The other half of you are scared of your own shadows, and/or too corrupt or jaded to even notice, much less care. We don't like that, either. Unlike too many of you, we take it seriously all the time. Imagine that.

I'd like to think you'll learn a lesson this fall, but I'm not too sure.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is the Tea Party A Racist Movement?

Stupid question! Just look at these people. Racism drips from their fangs. Of course they are racists.

Hold on a second. I have a different take.

I see the Tea Party as a reactionary movement. They are against any sort of social progress of any kind. In the 1700s, they led the "Whiskey Rebellion" against federal taxation of alcohol and the East in general. In the 1800s, they were the "Know Nothings" against Catholics, immigration, and federal funding of highways (such as they were), canals, and railroads. Later, they were against the abolition of slavery, and in favor of wiping out the Indians.

In the early 20th Century, they were against women's suffrage, popular election of senators, national parks, Teddy Roosevelt, and immgration. Then they were against the New Deal, and railed against American aid to Britain on the eve of the second world war. After the war, they wanted to dismantle Social Security, find communists everywhere, and ban modern art. They hated birth control, progressive education, the integration of the military, and Medicare.

In the 1980s, after their genial representative, Ronald Reagan, was elected, they actually believed that he wanted to shrink the federal government, and overlooked his rescue of Social Security and gigantic deficits. In the 1990s, they went after Bill Clinton's infidelities, and hated his wife for not being a demure First Lady in the traditional style. And they despised anything having to do with gay people.

Throughout most of American history, americanus reactionus has been virulently anti-Semitic. That changed in the 1980s, when the best-selling "Left Behind" books popularized the rapture heresy, a Christian doctrine that arose in the 19th Century. Suddenly, Jews who had once been hated were embraced, on the belief that the State of Israel's existence is key to the return of Jesus H. Christ. Bagels for everyone!

So, now Barack Obama is president, and the Tea Party is hauling out every racist cliche in the book, while claiming the American flag as their own. But does that make the Tea Party a racist movement? Nope, it makes it a reactionary movement. For sure, racism is a wrench in the tool kit. But there are plenty of others. I don't mean to excuse their racism for a microsecond, but rather to place it in an accurate historical context.

We are a complex country of 308 million people with two political parties. Each of them is a fragile coalition of disparate interests. The Tea Party is the crazy aunt in the Republican Party's attic. She's been there forever, but for the past 15 years, she's been running loose on the front lawn, waving her shotgun and screaming her demented head off.

Where are the men in the white coats, holding the nets?

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Coming Democratic Wipeout?

It's bad news, but hardly surprising: The Democrats could lose 50 or more seats this fall.

This is April, and a lot can happen between now and then. And the polling that went into this particular analyst's first take on the elections is biased toward the Republicans. Even he says that the "50-seat" loss would wind up being more like 15 or 20 seats. Or it could be 60 or 70. My own guess is at the low end of the range. Still, the analyst in question, Nate Silver, is one of the best in the business, so his view deserves attention.

Why am I not surprised? For starters, the party in power usually loses some seats in the mid-term elections after a presidential victory. And the economy, while marginally appearing to be improving, is still rotten. But there is another problem: The Democratic Party lost six critical months by dithering on health care legislation that it could have passed last fall. For that, the blame goes mainly to President Obama, who is the leader of his party. It also goes to congressional Democrats, who never met an idea they could stand up for.

There is some poetic justice in this, just as there was poetic justice in Kerry's 2004 loss to George W. Bush. When the going got tough, the tough went windsurfing, and the rest is history. I visited Hood River, Oregon last week and am as big a fan as anyone, but it was not the place for John Kerry to hide out while the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked his war record. And Obama & Co. had no business kowtowing to the corporate funded Tea Party movement while loading up their health care legislation with the usual corrupt side deals.

Politics, like so many other things, is often a matter of balance and timing. Or, as the classic National Lampoon Radio Dinner comedy recording put it: "Know what to kiss -- and when." When it came to health care, the Democrats had solid majority backing from the public, and they frittered it away. Whatever their losses this fall, I hope they will file their complaints in the right place: in front of the nearest mirror.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Peter Watts Convicted

For some reason I got interested in a border altercation  involving Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction writer with an over-inflated ego and an underdeveloped capacity for common sense. Last week, he was convicted for resisting and obstructing a Border Patrol officer. The maximum sentence is three years in prison.

Watts is a marine biologist, and has attended various conferences in the United States. As a convicted felon, he faces the probability of being barred from future entry -- after he's served his time, that is. He should have taken the plea bargain.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Reform: Sound 'n Fury Signifying What?

Last summer, I wrote about A Beta Male's Imminent Health Care Failure, and asked President Obama "to grow a pair."

I predicted that Congress would eventually pass something, but that without a government insurance component the promises of near-universal coverage and cost control would be empty. The Democrats would put lipstick on the pig, and the Republicans would walk away laughing, knowing that health care's grim future would now be universally deemed a Democratic catastrophe for their having passed health care "reform" to begin with.

Well, here we are. Obama and the Democrats are doing the victory dance. The Republicans aren't laughing for the cameras, anyway. I doubt they are laughing in private, either. While I still think it's a weak law that won't adequately address the crisis, it's equally true that the Democrats achieved a crucial political goal: The federal government will forever be visibly planted right in the center of health care.

The "Government Takeover" of Health Care?

In a political sense, the Republican opponents are correct: The feds have taken over health care for all to see. Once in, they won't be back out. Oh, and my prediction that this would lead the Republicans to pin all health care problems on the Democrats? Have a look at this.

But in real life, how different is it? On the day I write this post, with Obama yet to sign the legislation, government is already the 20-ton gorilla in the room, spending half of the health care dollars by means of Medicare and Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, and subsidies for medical research. 

We all had a chuckle at the signs seen last summer reading, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows that the government requirement for hospitals to open their emergency rooms to everyone established a de facto national entitlement at least to critical care, if at the cost of bankruptcy to anyone without insurance but possessing other assets. The VA is literally socialist: Government owns the hospitals, and employs the doctors and nurses. And if you believe the latest stories, the VA has an enviable record when it comes to both cost control and outcomes.

But for the civilian majority with jobs and insurance, the face of health care has been doctors and insurance companies. From here on out, there's a new sheriff in town, the federal government. Congrats, Democrats.

Responsibility Without Control: Be Careful What You Wish For

At some point, it's always worthwhile to have a look at the reality of a situation. Politicians hate it when people do that. The corporate-funded Tea Party, which has taken over the Republicans, would have people think we're headed for communism and death panels. The Democrats would have you believe that Barack Obama has driven the dragon from the cave's mouth.

Both views are bullshit to the moon and back, of course. The health care bill, for all the sound and fury, is limited in scope.  It symbolically puts Uncle Fed in charge, but the insurance companies will still be at the wheel, charging unregulated rates for the essential service of collecting premiums and denying claims -- and, far more importantly, for paying the outrageous prices charged by doctors, hospitals, and drug companies.

The dirty secret of the U.S. health care system isn't the gigantic bonuses given to insurance company CEOs. I'm as upset about that as anyone, but when analyzing a company or a system, you'd better look for the real money. And here's where the real money is -- in the U.S., doctors charge three times as much as their counterparts in Europe; diagnostic scans cost three times as much; drugs are double, triple or more.

The health care legislation just passed by Congress does nothing to control those prices. Nothing. Zero, nada, zilch. Unless and until anyone grows the stones to take on the real issues, "health insurance reform" will be a shell game. Oh, and without a government-operated "public option," the chances that the federal government will step up to the plate and do that are less than they otherwise would have been.

The Hope, and the Risk

This legislation is pretty bad, and it's going to have to be changed. For this Democrat, the hope is that, over time, the public will come to see where the real problems are, and will look to the federal government to address them.

In my view, only the government can do that. Big Health Inc. is too big for any one state to do it. The insurance companies? Forget it. Even if they wanted to take on the providers or the drug and device companies, they are too fragmented, and lack important regulatory powers. Bringing to heel the likes of Pfizer, Roche, G.E. Medical, every surgeon charging $1,000 for 15 minutes of his time, and every hospital gouging $2,000 a night for a noisy room -- that's a job for the federal government. The free market has failed abysmally.

The risk for Democrats is their usual timidity and fragmentation, not to mention corruption. The latter will only get worse in light of the recent Supreme Court decision declaring corporations to be "people" for political purposes, able to openly dump unlimited funds into the electoral system. It was hard enough for the Democrats to approve a timid start at health care reform. I won't hold my breath waiting for them to tackle the real issues, although now that federal government is widely seen to be at the center of things, they might find it tougher to hide than before.

As tough as this is for Democrats, I'd hate to be a Republican looking at the future.

The government is now in the game for all to see. All the Tea Party's horses and all the Tea Party's men won't be able to change that. Someone should have noticed along the way that George W. Bush failed to privatize Social Security, i.e., loot it and turn it over to the banks. The Republicans were forced to defend Medicare during the debate on this legislation, and the overtly socialist VA is untouchable.

The most the Republicans can now do is be sideline snipers. They've backed themselves into the "No" corner, a place occupied by only a small minority of Americans. They are no Republican solutions, only invective. From time to time, they'll make short-term gains with health care complaints, but the response (from their viewpoint) will be even worse: More government involvement. There'll be no other alternative, because the Uncle Fed is in it for keeps.

Ultimately, the Republicans will have to do what they did on Social Security in 1952. After two decades out of power, they turned to a popular general named Eisenhower. Along the way, that popular general beat out a Tea Party kinda guy named Taft. At issue was F.D.R.'s New Deal. Taft wanted to repeal it and Eisenhower wanted to keep it. The rest is history. That's what will eventually happen on health care, but it'll take a while to unwind all those wingnuts who they whipped up into such a frenzy. Democrats, being politicians just like the Republicans, will think they are smart and will grow fat and lazy, etc.

A Short-Term Political Note

When you go gunning for the king, better make sure to get him. Now that the Republicans have failed, they're in a pickle, at least for a while.

For the past year, they've allowed the Tea Party to set their agenda. Now the screamin' wingnuts are demanding that Republicans call for repeal. I think that's an electoral loser. The polls showing opposition to "health care reform" reflected public distaste for the messy battle. When it comes to the specific provisions, the public supports them. Moreover, once the "Ts" have been crossed and the "Is" have been dotted, most people are going to want their politicians to calm down and try to make it work.

But not the Tea Party. They'll continue to scream their heads off, and because the Republicans depend on them for votes, they will have to keep calling for repeal. I think that'll be a losing tactic this fall, and in 2012. But internal political realities will force the Republicans to stay in that corner.

Forgive me for feeling a little like the Japanese feudal leader in the James Clavell novel, Shogun, who meditated for a couple nights on the screams of the English sailor being boiled alive. Tea Party, keep wailing. Has anyone told you how beautiful you sound?

Okay, But What Does It Mean In Real Life?

Not a lot's going to change right away. The providers (doctors, drug companies, hospitals, device makers) will stay fat and get fatter. The insurance companies will keep their rakeoffs. If you're poor, you'll get help. If you're in the middle class, maybe you'll get some help but it's not going to feel very good. If you're rich, you'll have one more reason to bitch about your taxes.

Over time, I think the effect of health care reform will be to focus now-diffused complaints about health care onto Washington. The clamor will be to "fix" the legislation. The Republicans, locked into a stance of repeal and denial, will find themselves increasingly locked out of that debate. But, in the long run, it'll all depend on what's done about doctor's fees that are triple those in Europe, about scanner fees triple those in Europe, and drug prices double, triple, or higher than those in Europe.

Can we look those dragons in the face and bring them to heel? Your guess is as good as mine.