Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Report from the Trenches

But I must begin once again with the matter that has quadrupled the traffic here at historyunfolding: the totally fraudulent email that has been circulating since around April, attributing a right-wing rant comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler to myself. May I ask anyone who has received it to go back to the email they received, hit "reply all," and inform all recipients that it is a forgery whose origins are explained at snopes.com.

About ten days ago, after blogging about the failure of Democrats to organize for health care, I emailed both my Senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, asking them to stand firmly for the public option. My reward last Monday was an invitation to attend a town hall in the northern part of the state which both of them planned to attend. It took place on Wednesday evening at a senior center and proved to be a most educational experience.

I arrived a little later than I had planned and only barely managed to find a parking space. A small contingent of right-wingers was on hand with signs and literature at the door, including some followers of Lyndon Larouche, who twenty years ago competed with the hare krishnas for space at unsecured airports. Spaghetti, meatballs and salad were provided, and I stood up rather than retreat into a distant corner where there might be a chair. Both Senators were in shirtsleeves and tieless. I was very proud of them both.

They began the way the argument should be done: health reform isn't an experiment or a question of doing good, it's a necessity. Whitehouse gave some of the chilling figures (I didn't take notes) on escalating costs. As I recall, our spending on health care has doubled in less than a decade and is on the pace to do the same. This has put a crippling economic burden on many businesses, led, of course, by the auto industry. Meanwhile, the number of uninsured is increasing (and that, as we learned later, is actually contributing significantly to increased costs.) Then came questions. The crowd, naturally, was composed of a majority of seniors, but included a number of young people as well.

The first question--and probably the majority of them--came from a dedicated, hostile conservative, who protested that at previous meetings, both Senators had expressed their support for the bill. While he complained bitterly that he and others did not want the bill passed and did not want the government messing in his health benefits, he (and many subsequent questioners) never acknowledged that there might be a substantial constituency of Americans who disagreed with him, or even bothered to threaten the two Democrats with a loss of support in the next election. His own righteousness, it seemed, should be enough to determine their vote. Both replied very calmly that they thought that something had to be done. Quite a few of the conservative questioners routinely mischaracterized the bill, making statements that simply assumed that it constituted a government takeover of the health care system. Some seniors talked that way too. Whitehouse and Reed did allow themselves the luxury of asking everyone what health benefit they had, and when many seniors replied, "Medicare," there were chuckles around the room.

Foreign health care systems came up. A 75-year old immigrant from Germany explained that his adult life had been evenly split between there and the United States, and spoke up for the kind of guaranteed care his homeland offered. "Many Americans," he said, "think they have insurance until they suddenly need it." He added that his wife's small business had had to stop offering coverage because it had become too expensive. But a younger woman, who had with her a young son who she said had cerebral palsy, claimed to have spent some time in Britain under the National Health system, and talked about how hard it was to get an appointment and how afraid she was to cancel it. (I began to wonder, on my way home, about that story, and whether in fact temporary residents can take advantage of British national health. Any comments would be appreciated.) The conservative opposition maintained an undertone of anger throughout the whole meeting, groaning, exclaiming, and challenging the two very unflappable elected officials at every turn.

Yet it gradually became clear that there were plenty of Administration supporters at the meeting as well--including several health care professionals. One nurse talked about the expense of care, and referred specifically to "what is done to patients, not for patients." In response, Senator Whitehouse talked about a move a few years back (when he was a state official) to upgrade intensive care units around the state. A half million dollars of new equipment, he said, could potentially save millions of dollars a year--and hospital administrators had actually said that it would not be easy for them to sacrifice such a large revenue stream! A young doctor, who supported reform and even a single-payer system, quoted an older doctor to the effect that he couldn't understand why he had been so opposed to Medicare, since it had made him so much money. He also told an amazing story of a patient without insurance who needed a month or two of continuous treatment for an infection of some time. Because he lacked insurance, the patient was not eligible for treatment at home and would spend that time in the hospital, at enormously increased cost. Several people spoke in favor of a single-payer system but the Senators said that it was simply not possible politically.

The crowd also included about five white-coated medical students from Brown University, and Whitehouse called on them. They spoke up very effectively for reform and cost control as well. It was interesting, it occurred to me, that while half a century ago doctors were leading the opposition to Medicare, now the insurance companies had become the main stumbling block to reform. I am also seeing and hearing more and more stories, including a recent one about stents on NPR, indicating a great deal of disagreement among doctors about how, and why, patients are given expensive care. By this time I was hoping to be called upon and had decided what I was going to say.

I was among the last called. The questioner before me was an elderly woman (though a most energetic one) who had printed out eight talking points from a conservative website, and who insisted upon reading them all. (By the time she got to "five" the crowd was rumbling, but the Senators made no attempt to interrupt her and she was not to be deterred.) They tried to respond to several of them. Then Whitehouse called on me.

I identified myself and my home town and said that I have been living in Rhode Island for almost 20 years (I wanted to mention that because my accent does not show it), and that I felt very lucky to have two Senators who were trying to address this very serious problem in a calm and rational manner. First, I said, I wanted to say about a word about Medicare. I was a few years away from taking advantage of it, I said, but I was old enough to remember when it was passed. A coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans passed it over the violent objections of conservatives who said that it was socialist, un-American, and liable to take away our freedom--an argument made in particular by Ronald Reagan in one of his standard speeches. "I hope everyone in this room," I said, "especially the undecided people here--all three of you [that got a good laugh]--will think about whether we would be better off if we had listened to the Barry Goldwaters and the Ronald Reagans and the Richard Nixons and never passed Medicare." (At that point, a few younger conservatives said, "Yes!") Then I turned to my own biggest complaint: the advertising of prescription drugs. I didn't mind, I said, that my benefit contributions and Medicare contributions were paying for other peoples' Cialis and Viagara, but I most certainly did mind that they were also paying for millions and millions of ads for those products that I saw every time I watched a major sporting event. Surely, I said, patients knew when something was wrong, and doctors should be able to prescribe the proper treatment. I asked how many people realized that the drug companies spend more money on marketing than on r & d. I said I was amazed this wasn't a bigger issue in the current debate. Reed replied that the only proposal on the table was one that would tax the money the drug companies spent on ads. Several people immediately approached me to say how much they agreed with that point.

The meeting concluded shortly thereafter and Reed, who lives in my town, approached me. I said the meeting confirmed my fear about the debate--"all the intensity is on the other side." He replied that that was why Ted Kennedy had been so sorely missed this year. I said some one had to take up the slack.

Kennedy's name brings up another issue which the Republicans have successfully made it a taboo to raise--the unknown amount of money spent on dubious care in the last year of life. A Times story on Friday on Kennedy's treatment made this point very effectively. Kennedy had the most common and most lethal form of brain tumor, for which there is no cure. Treatment improved some years ago when local radiation was substituted for irradiating the whole brain. But the chemotherapy he received was approved after a study showed that it improved median survival from one year to fourteen months. That such a result can lead to the approval of a drug--instead of an instruction to the drug company to keep working in the hopes of coming up with something better--is in my opinion a very significant symptom of what is wrong with American health care. Personally I am quite confident that if I had such a diagnosis I would be sure to find out how much the treatment could be expected to extend my life--and that if it could not, at least for some time, restore me to something resembling full health, I would refuse it. (Because of some diagnostic problems of my own a few years back, incidentally, I have been close enough to that situation to have had that belief tested in real life, and it held up.) Sadly, all the Republican lies about "death panels" have made it extremely difficult to even discuss these issues, but they are a big part of the problem.

With the help of that story, I plan to raise that question at another town hall some day. Meanwhile, the experience confirmed what I have been saying here in spades. The battle for reform is a battle between reason on the one hand and raw emotion on the other. A vote on reform, I think, would have produced a pretty evenly divided result in that meeting, and quite possibly a majority in favor. An applause meter would have registered a significant majority against. Face to face with their constituents, Whitehouse and Reed kept their cool as ably as any general under fire, and for that I admired them. But Reed was right: some one has to step into the void that the death of our Massachusetts neighbor has left.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The End of an Era

I have a very great deal to write about today, and may even divide it into two posts, one today and one tomorrow. But I must begin once again with the matter that has quadrupled the traffic here at historyunfolding: the totally fraudulent email that has been circulating since around April, attributing a right-wing rant comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler to myself. In addition to making me far more widely known than any of my books, this email has given me, interestingly enough, an indicator of the strength and virulence of conservative activism. For a while back in June it had raised hits on the blog from about 90 a day to about 300, but during July they had fallen back to about 200 a day. Now, undoubtedly because of the health care controversy, they have surged again, and during the last seven days there have been more than 3500 hits here, which I think must be a new record. I am also receiving more frequent phone calls from Americans--usually elderly Americans--who want to compliment me on my supposed insights, and my namesake in another university, who also gets a few emails on the topic every week, got one that asked if I had ever thought of running for President. (For the record, no.) I keep waiting for Rush Limbaugh, who has been shamelessly pushing the Obama-Hitler comparison himself, to call me to talk it over, but perhaps his researchers are smart enough to do the quick google search that will bring them here or to snopes.com and learn the truth. In any case, conservatives are clearly agitating in cyberspace at a pace which liberals are not matching.

But the big news this week, of course, is the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, which has affected me far more than I would have thought. Of the three Kennedy brothers who at least made it to 30 he was the one I had not studied in detail, and I had never regarded him as presidential timber. His loss is however a shock because he is the only political figure of whom I had been continuously aware for more than 49 years, since I began reading about the Kennedy family in the 1960 campaign. He has been in the US Senate since I was 15, and he is a link, in many ways, to the more distant past. I shall now try to place him generationally and historically.

Two things about Teddy stand out in historical perspective: he belonged to what Strauss and Howe called an Artist or adaptive generation--those who spend their childhoods in periods of great crisis--and he was for decades a critical figure in our national legislature who never became President. The previous analogous generations in our national life were the Compromise generation, born in the last third of the eighteenth century, and the Progressive generation, born from about 1842 to 1862. It is in the Compromise generation, I think, that Kennedy's closest analogues can be found, specifically Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Quincy Adams from his own Massachusetts.

Although Adams did serve one term as President, his life shows more external parallels to Teddy's. To begin with, he owed his eminence, obviously, to his family connections, which gave him some diplomatic experience as a child (both his and Teddy's fathers represented the U.S. in London), and enabled him to reach the U.S. Senate at the age of 36. But he broke with the Federalist Party in 1808 and was soon dispatched by Madison to be Minister to Russia, where he played an important part in events leading to France's invasion of Russia in 1812 and Napoleon's downfall. Under Monroe, he became Secretary of State and is sometimes credited with the actual inspiration for the Monroe Doctrine.

Adams' first run for the Presidency in 1824 was actually not that much more successful than Teddy's only try in 1980. The party system had broken down at that point and Adams came in second, in both the popular and electoral votes, among four Democratic candidates, trailing Andrew Jackson in both. For the second and last time in our history the House of Representatives decided the election, and the fourth candidate, Henry Clay, who could not receive any votes, threw his support to Adams, who was elected. Jackson was outraged, all the more so when Clay became Adams' Secretary of State (and therefore, according to the precedent of the last quarter century, chosen successor as well.) Adams, whose Presidency therefore ranks as one of the three most disputed in our history, along with Rutherford B. Hayes and George W. Bush, never recovered from these circumstances--he was unpopular throughout his term and Jackson trounced him in 1828.

Adams' defeat was a terrible personal blow, because he believed he had found the solution to the great problem which, as he saw it, the United States had to solve: slavery. A vast national transportation system, he thought, could bring industry to the south, unify the country, and lead eventually to abolition. His defeat at the hands of a southerner seemed to put an end to such plans, but he did not retire. Instead he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Whig in 1830, and served there until his sudden death early in 1848. It is that part of his life which bears the most striking resemblance to Ted Kennedy's, especially in the last 28 years of Teddy's life.

What national health care was for Kennedy, slavery became for Adams. A few years ago I read a remarkable book by William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery, which focused on Adams' years in the House. The issue upon which Adams emerged as a leader was the annual presentation of anti-slavery petitions from abolitionist societies to the House of Representatives. So fearful of any frank discussion of slavery were the southern representatives that they habitually ruled such positions out of order, claiming that the subject could not be discussed by the national legislature. Over the course of more than a decade, Adams struggled to find a majority against this provision, and he eventually prevailed, opening the way for the great debates that led ultimately to the Civil War. Miller also showed, remarkably, that Adams, after much thought, had predicted how slavery would be abolished: either the federal government would be forced to intervene to subdue a widespread slave revolt, or the South would secede to preserve slavery, leading to civil war. In either case, the war power of the President would allow him to proclaim emancipation--exactly what happened when Abraham Lincoln, whose only term in the House coincided with Adams' last, came into office thirteen years after Adams' death. Meanwhile, he served as the chairman of several important committees, like Kennedy. And in 1841 he successfully argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, freeing a shipload of slaves who had overwhelmed their masters and managed to reach the northern United States. It is the role of Adams as the man who kept the slavery issue alive, helped bring it to the forefront of national politics, and anticipated its solution, which puts me most in mind of Ted Kennedy's role in health care, whose climax lies ahead.

Clay, born in 1777--ten years after Adams--came from very modest origins, but like Teddy, was certainly a boy wonder in politics. While Teddy was 31 when elected to the Senate in 1962, Clay was actually elected to fill out a term in 1806 when he was only 29! (He reached the legal age of 30 before Congress convened.) Elected as a Kentucky representative in 1811, he was immediately elected Speaker of the House--something that has never happened before or since--and played a major role in getting the US into the calamitous War of 1812. He remained speaker until 1824, when as we have seen his lost his first bid for the Presidency and became Secretary of State. In 1831 he was elected once again to the Senate where he remained for the rest of his life.

Clay played in the Senate the same role as Kennedy, that of the skilled legislature who worked on both sides of the aisle. He believed in a relatively strong national government, in a national transport network (what was then called "internal improvements"), and in the gradual emancipation of the slaves, which he also practiced in his own life. He enjoyed both liquor and gambling. He was the idol of a younger generation of anti-slavery Whigs, including both Horace Greeley, the newspaper editor, and Abraham Lincoln, who had begun his life in Clay's Kentucky. ("I revered Abraham Lincoln," Greeley wrote after both men were dead, "but I loved Harry Clay.") His last and most famous achievement was the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state and helped save the union for another ten years. Like Kennedy, he was the last great proponent of bipartisanship of his time, a man whose personal qualities allowed him to rise above controversy despite his own belief in issues.

For almost unique historical reasons, Edward Kennedy was that rarest of animals in modern American politics, a liberal with independent financial means and a totally safe seat. He used that position to keep the idea of liberalism alive until its time might come once again. In his last political master stroke, he realized that Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton held the key to the future, and helped swing the Democratic nomination Obama's way. (And although the President is weathering a heavy storm at the moment, I have not the slightest doubt that she would face opposition at least as heated, and that she would deal with it with much less grace.) And meanwhile, as so many articles have shown, he was a tireless legislator, truly interested (as his brothers never seemed to be) in the details of laws and their impacts, and enjoying the Senate for what it was.

On Wednesday night I attended a Town Hall about health care in another part of my state, hosted by both our Senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. That most interesting experience will be the subject of another post, but I shall mention now that I had a chance to speak to Senator Reed. The meeting, I said, had illustrated the problem the Administration faces: while much of the country wants health reform, all the intensity seems to be on the other side. "That's where we miss Teddy," he said. So we do--and it is hard to think of any Boomer Democratic Senators whose speeches have aroused any particular attention. They must now step forward. Members of Artist generations, having been born during one crisis, almost never live through another one, and certainly not at an age when they can play a major part in events. Kennedy did what he could, and now it is up to us.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Perspectives on the Health Care Debate

[I must again inform new visitors, brought here by an email circulating under my name that compares President Obama to Adolf Hitler, that I did not write that completely fraudulent email. For comments on it see the post, "A Great Fear," below. For more information on it see snopes.com/politics/soapbox/proportions.asp.
Not since 1935, the year of the Wagner Act and of Social Security, or 1964 and the great Civil Rights Act, has the Congress faced such a critical choice as it does now. The passage or failure of effective health care reform will determine the direction that the country takes for a long time. One can understand the debate from several related perspectives, both constitutional and geographic.

Ten or twenty years ago I read an interesting article in the New Republic arguing that the Senate had turned into the fatal flaw in our constitutional system, because it gave too much power to tiny states, many of which had little involvement in the great problems of modern life. Because those states were white and lacked industry, they were largely Republican, and their Senators played key roles in blocking liberal legislation and demoralizing Democrats around the country, the article argued. I thought the argument was interesting, and it certainly occurred to me in 2000 that the Senate--and the 100 electoral votes it represents--was the only thing that had made the lamentable presidential election of that year even close. George Bush beat Al Gore not only because he managed to escape with Florida's electoral votes, but because he carried 29 states to Gore's 22 (counting DC), giving him 14 more electoral votes unrelated to population. Take away those 102 electoral votes and Gore would have won. I am not sure but I suspect that is the only election in which this has occurred.

Now, however, this problem is re-emerging. The House, apportioned by population, seems ready to pass health care reform and the Democratic leadership is committed to a public option. In the Senate key positions are held by two Democrats from very small (in population) states, Max Baucus of Montana and Keith Conrad of North Dakota. Conrad in particular is trying to stop the public option and claims the votes for it are not in the Senate. When one thinks about this, especially in contrast to the two earlier great crises in American life in the 1860s and the 1930s, some interesting differences occur.

Differences between small and large states were far less significant in the mid-19th century, largely because the United States was still overwhelmingly agricultural. The main difference, of course, was between slave and free states. The smaller free states of the west opposed slavery for some of the same reasons as the larger states of the North: they wanted to preserve their own land for free labor and small farmers. (Ironically, the strength of the Democratic Party in the North was largely in urban immigrant populations, who disliked the Yankee elites and particularly despised black people.) Similarly, in the 1930s the depression had devastated farmers everywhere, enabling Roosevelt to put together a truly national coalition because he saved people all over the country from foreclosure and starvation. The paradox today is that those who need help the most--the citizens of the red states, including the smaller ones in the upper midwest and the mountain states, but especially in the South--have become most distrustful of the government and of the educated elites. The problem the President faces is to convince those people that broader, reformed health insurance will improve their lives, and it is not clear, in the current climate, that he can do so.

A second, unrelated problem may be equally serious. The New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society grew in tandem with the American labor movement, which provided much of the lobbying support and the votes for their programs. Over the last 40 years, as I have noted many times, unions in the private sector have suffered a spectacular decline. That is why, in my opinion, the right seems to be out-organizing the left during the health care controversy, successfully packing town meetings and turning them into bear-baitings similar to the confrontations I saw as a student more than 40 years ago between university Administrators and the SDS. (I'll be posting on that soon.)

There seem to me to be three sides to the health care debate right now. One is the insurance industry, determined once again to avoid real reform and to protect its profits, and its equally powerful allies in the drug industry. They are of course heavy contributors to all sorts of key legislators (including Max Baucus), and they are probably helping orchestrate the town hall protests (see below.) They are allied, as the President recognized on Thursday, with the Republican Party, which wants to replay the scenario of 1993-4 when its determined opposition sank the Clinton health care plan and paved the way for victory in the 1994 Congressional elections. And the strength of that party is among the roughly 30% of the population which evidently cannot reconcile itself to the election of Barack Obama and will therefore believe the most absurd accusations about him and the health care program--the ones who are providing the troops for the town hall meetings. Most of them are relatively elderly, although there are exceptions, like the young woman who asked Barney Frank why he continued to support Obama's "Nazi plan" the other day. (Frank's reply should be seen on youtube.) On the other side are younger, more educated Americans who want to see the new President bring intelligence, analysis, and sanity into various aspects of national policy. They have not found a way to make their voices heard yet.

We do not have a smoking gun regarding the health care industry's campaign, but one did emerge this week regarding another key issue, the cap and trade bill. The American Petroleum Institute has circulated a memo to all its members describing its strategy against the bill. It deserves to be quoted in full.

COPY OF EMAIL FROM AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE TO ITS
MEMBERSHIP - OBTAINED BY GREENPEACE – AUGUST 2009
Dear API Member Company CEO/Executive,
As I have outlined in the past few editions of the weekly
“Executive Update,” API is coordinating a series of “Energy
Citizen” rallies in about 20 states across the country
during the last two weeks of Congress’s August recess. Most
of these will be held at noontime, though some may be at
different times in order to piggyback on other events.
Thanks to the leadership of API’s Executive Committee, I am
pleased to report that we have strong support for this
first-ever effort moving ahead. Now we are asking all API
members to get involved.
The objective of these rallies is to put a human face on the
impacts of unsound energy policy and to aim a loud message
at those states’ U.S. Senators to avoid the mistakes
embodied in the House climate bill and the Obama
Administration’s tax increases on our industry. Senate
Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid reportedly has pushed
back consideration of climate legislation to late September
to allow Senators time to get their constituents’ views
during the August recess. It’s important that our views be
heard.
At the rallies, we will focus our message on two points: the
adverse impacts of unsound energy policy (e.g., Waxman-
Markey-like legislation, tax increases, and access
limitations) on jobs and on consumers’ energy costs. And we
will call on the Senate to oppose unsound energy policy and
“get it right.”
Recent opinion research that Harris Interactive conducted
for API demonstrates that our messages on Waxman-Markey-like
legislation work extremely well and are very persuasive with
the general public and policy influentials. After hearing
that Waxman-Markey-like legislation could increase the costs
of gasoline to around $4 and lead to significant job losses,
these audiences changed their opinions on the bill
significantly. Opposition to the bill within the policy
influentials cohort grew 23 points, from 40% to 63%; with a
19 point increase in those who now “strongly” oppose the
legislation. The data clearly demonstrate the softness of
support of the current approach and very strong opposition
when people are educated about the potential job losses and
energy cost increases. Our expectation is to translate
peoples’ real concerns for job losses and increased energy
costs to all unsound proposals (e.g., Waxman-Markey-like
legislation, tax increases, and access limitations).
We have identified 11 states with a significant industry
presence and 10 other states where we have assets on the
ground. We also have attracted allies from a broad range of
interests: the Chamber of Commerce and NAM , the trucking
industry, the agricultural sector, small business, and many
others, including a significant number of consumer groups,
which have pledged to have their membership join in the
events in states where they have a strong presence. We also
are collaborating closely with the allied oil and natural
gas industry associations on these events.
While such efforts are never easy and the risk of failure is
always present, we must move aggressively in preparation for
the post-Labor Day debate on energy, climate and taxes.
The measure of success for these events will be the
diversity of the participants expressing the same message,
as well as turnouts of several hundred attendees. In the 11
states with an industry core, our member company local
leadership—including your facility manager’s commitment to
provide significant attendance—is essential to achieving the
participation level that Senators cannot ignore. In
addition, please include all vendors, suppliers,
contractors, retirees and others who have an interest in our
success.
To be clear, API will provide the up-front resources to
ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This
includes contracting with a highly experienced events
management company that has produced successful rallies for
presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups. It
also includes coordination with the other interests who
share our views on the issues, providing a field coordinator
in each state, conducting a comprehensive communications and
advocacy activation plan for each state, and serving as
central manager for all events.
We are asking all API members to assist in these August
activities. The size of the company does not matter, and
every participant adds to the strength of our collective
voice. We need two actions from each participating company.
ACTION NEEDED
Please provide us with the name of one central coordinator
for your company’s involvement in the rallies. (We will look
to this person as your representative to assist the overall
effort.) If you will let me know ASAP, we can be in touch
quickly and provide that person with additional details
about the project.
Please indicate to your company leadership your strong
support for employee participation in the rallies.
(Unfortunately, we are already experiencing some delay from
your regional people since they are not yet aware that
headquarters supports the effort.) I believe that expression
of support to your company leadership is a fundamental
predicate to organizing quickly and achieving success in
this endeavor.
The list of tentative venues is attached. Please treat this
information as sensitive and ask those in your company to do
so as well, as some of these places may be subject to
change, and we don’t want critics to know our game plan. You
can assume with confidence that the advocates for Waxman-
Markey-like legislation and the critics of oil and gas are
going to be very active, particularly during the August
recess.
Once the list of venues and exact rally dates are
determined, we will contact your company’s coordinator to
distribute the information internally and to coordinate
transportation to the venues, if required, for your
employees. In the meantime, your company’s coordinator could
assist us by telling us in which of the venues listed below
your company has facilities or employees who can
participate.
I look forward to working with you to make the August rally
project and the other advocacy steps we are undertaking to
deliver the policy outcomes we support with measurable
results. Don’t hesitate to call me with questions.
All the best,
JACK
Jack N. Gerard
President & CEO
API
Tentative Venues
Houston TX
Perry GA
Detroit MI
Roswell NM
Greensboro NC
Farmington NM
Ohio (venue being finalized)
Greeley CO
Nashville TN
Indiana (venue being finalized)
Bismarck ND
Tampa FL
Sioux Falls SD
Greenville SC
Anchorage AK
Joliet IL
Charleston WV
Fairfax VA
Philadelphia PA
Lincoln NE
Missouri TBD
Arkansas TBD

What strikes me about this is the complete lack of interest in the details of the Administration's proposal--just repeated references to "Waxman-Markey like legislation," which is by definition bad. Greenpeace, which discovered the memo, pointed out that the $4 gasoline estimate comes from a study by the Heritage Foundation, which receives much of its funding from oil companies as well. The insurance industry has presumably sent out similar instructions. Because most educated, professional Americans of liberal views are not organized and because unions have become so weak, they--like myself, for instance--aren't getting any comparable instructions. That's a problem. Roosevelt's reforms faced the same mixture of determined and hysterical opposition, much of it from older Americans as well. He however rode into office on a much bigger wave of discontent, and even increased his majorities in Congress after the first two years of the New Deal. He made the United States the first truly advanced industrial nation in economic and social policy. The question now is whether we will fall out of the ranks of those nations.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Battle for the Soul of America

14 years of acquaintance with Strauss and Howe's books prepared me for the current crisis in American life, but could not (by the nature of their theories, actually) predict exactly what form it would take. They proposed an organic theory of atrophy, death and rebirth--but the new United States now being born was as unpredictable as the personality of a new child, since it will carry, in one way or another, all our DNA in combinations we cannot predict. Meanwhile, the two previous crises in our national life--the Civil War and the Roosevelt era--provide some basis for comparison. We are off to a most depressing start, and health care reform is beginning to look like the first Battle of Bull Run, but the struggle is going to be a long one.

That we are seeing a battle of reason against emotion is becoming clearer and clearer. The President, as Paul Krugman pointed out this morning came to office believing that he could inspire a change in the tone of our politics so that we could work together to solve our very real problems. He has failed to do so, albeit through no fault of his own, because he faces a Republican opposition that has defined him and all his plans as evil by nature. Anyone who doubts this should simply listen to one hour of Rush Limbaugh. Since in his view Obama is determined to establish a dictatorship, there is no reason to believe anything that the President actually says, much less to acknowledge that he might (for instance, with the cash-for-clunkers program, which has actually given the Ford motor company a huge boost) have done some good. Millions of Americans obviously share that view--and did before Obama ever took office, as illustrated by the fraudulent email, first published the week after the election, that has brought many of you here. Nor is this all. Today's Times also included a fine piece of front-page journalism on the origins of the "death panel" rumor. That rumor had nothing to do with the text of the health care bill--it began months before one was written, fueled by the simple belief that since Obama favored abortion rights he must be in favor of genetic culling and euthanasia as well.

Sarah Palin's endorsement and inflation of that rumor, by the way, can be matched with another piece of information that surfaced this week that confirms what she really is: a professional hate-monger who enjoys being as inflammatory as possible. That information, published in a new book about the 2008 campaign, is a sequence of text messages between her and the McCain campaign staff (who apparently designated her as agitator-in-chief while keeping the candidate on the high road, in the best Eisenhower/Nixon and Nixon/Agnew manner.) The sequence--featured this week by Gary Trudeau on his Doonesbury site--follows.

"[Obama] is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country."
-- text sent to Sarah Palin by McCain staff during '08 election

"Yes yes yes. Pls let me say this!!!"
-- Palin's e-mailed response

"It was awesome."
-- Palin, in another e-mail after delivering the lines


How could such a person resist the idea that the President wanted to put her child to death?

Now the impact of the "death panel" campaign does not bode well. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, identified this week in yet another Times story as the place where the real health care negotiations are happening, now want to drop the actual proposal, which simply would have require to pay for an end-of-life consultation if patients desired one. Today Limbaugh immediately jumped triumphantly upon this--how could the death panels have been dropped if they had never existed in the first place? In addition, the media are not helping matters, because the hostile protests at town hall meetings, rather than the content of various proposals, have now become "the story" of the hour. The Times (yet again) contributed to this on Wednesday. On the previous day the President had held a town hall in New Hampshire while Arlen Specter held one in central Pennsylvania. Specter's made page 1 while the President's was buried inside--the only possible reason being that Specter's crowd was much more hostile. This plays into the hands of the Republicans, who enjoy provoking outrageous behavior, which in turn allows them to complain that they are being misrepresented by the media (which Limbaugh now refers to as the "state-run" media.) That the atmosphere of the meetings, rather than the content of the bill, has taken over the news represents a major Republican victory.

It seems quite possible that all this may culminate in actual acts of violence. Another piece of required reading this week is the report of the Southern Poverty Law Center on the resurgent militia movement, now more closely allied than ever to white supremacists in the wake of Obama's elections. Armed men have been showing up at town hall meetings.

Meanwhile the President continues to try to remain largely above the fray. Krugman's column today, linked above, argues clearly that this simply cannot work. This is a classic generational divide. Krugman, like me, is a Boomer who enjoys calling a spade a spade rather than a shovel, and whose instincts are to meet fire with fire. That, as I showed a couple of weeks ago, was what FDR did when his achievements only aroused greater and greater hatred. But Obama is a Gen Xer who does not give in to his emotions, and his style may indeed be more appealing to the younger generations, if he can find a way for them to make their weight felt in the health care and other debates. A little-noticed Gallup poll this week showed his popularity increasing to 60%. In last year's campaign for the Democratic nomination Obama proved to that quintessential Boomer Hillary Clinton that he was the smarter and wiser of the two. He may do the same to Krugman and myself, or, he may not.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Finance capital!

Marxism has become awfully unfashionable in the last four decades, and not without good reason. Its utopian experiments have failed, and even in academia, where it was very strong (though hardly dominant) when I entered graduate school in 1971, it has been overtaken by more trendy ideologies involving gender and race. The experience of countries like the Soviet Union and China suggest that its visions simply do not reflect human nature, although the Chinese experiment has shown, to the surprise of many, how surprisingly it can evolve. Yet ironically, it has occurred to me over the last couple of months, one could argue that at no time have advanced countries seemed closer to confirming certain critical Marxist-Leninist hypotheses than right now.

Let us get one thing on the table first: Marxism would never have become so influential had not Marx come up with some world-historical insights of great importance. Marx understood both the significance of the bourgeois and capitalist revolutions--which were actually only just beginning in Germany when he began studying these questions--and some of the consequences that they were destined to have. The failure of regimes based upon his thinking should not blind us to the genius of some of his thought--for instance, with respect to the relations between the newly capitalist West and the rest of the world. Here, in one of his most striking passages, is how he and Engels described that iteration in the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.


One must keep in mind that when this passage was published in 1848, the whole gigantic process it describes had barely begun. That is evidence both of the genius and the flaws in Marxist theory: while on the one hand Marx could see where certain only embryonic developments would lead, he also committed himself to a vision of a world transformed by further processes--the proletarian revolution--that had not yet even begun. Had he stuck to analyzing bourgeois capitalism and its consequences his work might have been more enduring. As it was it provided a foundation for various political movements, the most important of which was led by V. I. Lenin.

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, Lenin published Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism., many of whose ideas were borrowed from a bourgeois English critic of imperialism, J. A. Hobson. There were, as I recall, three major parts of Lenin's argument.

First, finance, rather than industry, had become, Lenin argued, the leading sector of capitalist economies. Secondly, having exhausted opportunities for investment at home, capital was forced to seek new markets for investment abroad, most notably in Asia and Africa. And thirdly, because finance capital controlled governments, the World War had broken out because of the efforts of the leading industrial powers to control larger shares of those critical new markets in poorer countries of the world.

Like Marx's passage about the worldwide impact of capitalism, these arguments had more than a grain of truth. Tragically, although the European nations, the United States and Japan did not need to control third world countries, the desire to do so was indeed large part of the reason for the outbreak (and the persistence) of the First World War. The Second World War grew out of German and Japanese attempts to find a different solution to the problem of resources and markets, by conquering autarkic empires. The capitalists, however, learned from their mistakes. For the last 60 years the industrialized world has accepted the political and military pre-eminence of the United States and the economically privileged status of the dollar, largely, I would argue, to avoid the kind of political and economic competition that had such disastrous consequences in the first half of the last century. Competition among capitalists did not become hopeless.

At the same time, capital, and production, have been flowing steadily to the Third World for a long time now, chasing cheap labor, just as Marx and Lenin had predicted. Again some cooperative relationships have emerged: China wisely (in my opinion) takes the dollars it accumulates by producing for our needs and invests them in American securities. But this process has actually brought about something that Marx predicted for industrial economies: the gradual impoverishment of the proletariat. In the middle of the last century, shaken by Fascism and Communism, the western nations wisely promoted trade unions and a variety of benefits for ordinary people. Now, especially here in the United States, unions and the good jobs they protected have been in headlong retreat for more than thirty years. Indeed, the whole drama of our current political crisis, as I have already argued here, revolves around the issue of whether the Obama Administration will actually be able to give the American working class a better life, or whether enough of them will be moved by anger and resentments to return the Republican Party to power.

But the last and most troubling aspect of Marxist Leninism at the moment has to do with finance capital. Our economy remains a mess. The President made a serious mistake yesterday, in my opinion, to suggest that the economic news in any way suggested that we were emerging from the recession. Jobs are still down and unemployed Americans are still on the rise. The only reason the unemployment rate dropped last month was that the total of those employed and seeking work fell, as more people dropped out of the labor force. I plan to investigate this situation more thoroughly this week; suffice it to say for the moment that things are not, as yet, improving.

Yet despite this, Wall Street has been in the midst of an extraordinary rally for months, and is threatening the 10,000 barrier again. Finance capital--as embodied in the big banks, also showing renewed profits, and Wall Street--suddenly seems to me to be more or less completely disconnected from the actual productive sectors of the economy, and from the life of ordinary Americans. This is a staggering and obviously very important development. The stock market began as a place where business firms could raise money they would repay in profits, but it now seems to be something very different, a speculative futures market which will go up as long as there is money to fuel it. And that money, of which there has been more than enough for the last six months or so, is not coming from any increase in economic activity. I am afraid, in fact, that it is coming from the enormous infusions of cash the Federal Reserve Board is putting into securities markets, and I read one article from the Wall Street Journal some time ago that suggested it was coming from the stimulus. The apparent lack of much connection between the fortunes of our financial giants and the American people strikes me as worthy of more investigation. It is not reassuring.

Marxism and Leninism are not the answer to our current woes--but I do not think we know what the answer is. I am not sure anyone really understands our economy as it has evolved, or how to make it benefit the mass of Americans. I am sure we can make some progress, but only by admitting what we do not know.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The South, the poor South

Slavery was America's original sin, one which four centuries of history have failed to extirpate. To be sure, the northern states secured its formal abolition in the bloodiest war in our history 150 years ago, and although the Civil War constitutional amendments failed to secure the rights of citizens for the freed slaves, the great civil rights acts finally corrected that problem. That did not, of course, end discrimination against black people, but it has allowed for enormous progress, culminating in Barack Obama's election. Yet it seems to me that slavery's most enduring effects, ironically, have fallen upon the descendants of those who owned the slaves, rather than the slaves themselves--and those effects still are a terrible burden to the American South.

One of my deepest beliefs--one which I cannot scientifically demonstrate--holds that human beings have an innate sense of equality--that they understand that the recognition we all crave depends upon extending that same recognition to others. That understanding, to be sure, eternally conflicts with other equally primal human feelings, such as the desire to rule; but it is there all the same. Although no other critic ever seems to have realized it, that belief, I argued in my undergraduate senior thesis, was the key to George Orwell's particular contribution to western thought, precisely because he had been denied that essential recognition throughout his childhood and understood its consequences. The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, specifically affirmed this in the enduring phrase that "all men are created equal"--and my blood boils at recent scholarship, by Gary Wills and others, that argues that the slaveholder Jefferson could not actually have meant what he said. The Founding Fathers were effective politicians, as well as theorists, because they could deal with contradictions between the real and the ideal. The American failure actually to implement that phrase, well known to Jefferson, did not, to him, invalidate it--it simply left us with more work to be done.

Jefferson's whole generation of slaveholders was in fact quite ambivalent about the practice, and many, like himself, freed their slaves in their wills. In the early 1800s Virginia came very close to passing a plan for gradual emancipation, but it narrowly failed. Then came two revolutionary developments: the cotton gin, and the rise of a generation of Southern Transcendentalists, who, like all Prophet generations (including Boomers) preferred to see life in absolute moral terms. They turned slavery, in their eyes, from a necessary evil to a positive good. The Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist churches split off so as to proclaim that slavery was an expression of God's law, and southern fire-eaters plotted the annexation of Cuba and the rest of Mexico to give slavery more scope. The Civil War resulted.

The South lost the war and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but white southerners, driven perhaps by a very bad conscience as well as by economic interest, held to their beliefs on race and re-established white supremacy through insurgency and terror. With agriculture at the beginning of a long-term decline, the South already led the nation in poverty and trailed in every basic public service by 1900. It was by then pursuing a new regional economic strategy, using cheap labor (including not only blacks, but poor white children) to build a textile industry. Meanwhile, Birmingham, Alabama became an industrial center and Atlanta a commercial center--but the United States remained two nations.

The years 1933-65 now seem to me to embody a second great southern tragedy. Roosevelt's New Deal aimed to helping the poorest Americans, and many of them lived in the South. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, federal relief, and public works projects literally saved millions from possible starvation. The Rural Electrification Administration (whose work is lovingly described in the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson) brought electric light to the South; the TVA developed a whole region. Such enormous works inevitably created a liberal white Southern constituency. Politicians like Lister Hill and Hugo Black of Alabama, Claude Pepper of Florida, Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson from Texas, and quite a few more, were New Deal stalwarts. They won a number of important victories over more traditional Democrats, who saw both the New Deal and the slowly emerging civil rights movement as Communist attempts to mongrelize and destroy America--and a second generation followed. By the mid-1950s the two Senators from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver and Al Gore, Sr., were both liberal Democrats. Alabama had a Governor, Jim Folsom, who publicly championed the interests of blacks, arguing that as long as they were held down, poor whites would be held down with them. And even some of the more conservative Southern politicians of the mid-century era, such as Richard Russell of Georgia and Sam Ervin of South Carolina, were men of formidable intellect, quite capable of making real contributions to other areas of national life despite their hostility to civil rights. All this, however, did not stop the steady migration of black (and some poor white) southerners into northern industrial eras, especially during the two world wars. And on one critical point the South remained aloof--it was resolutely, implacably hostile to organized labor. According to a contemporary source, the main point of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was to make it impossible for the AFL-CIO to organize the South. It succeeded.

The civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965, sadly, turned out to have tragic consequences for the South--perhaps because too much of the white South was still not ready for them. White southerners in border and middle south states had been slowly moving towards the Republican party during the 1950s, and the civil rights movement and the legislation it secured accelerated that process. Hubert Humphrey won only one former Confederate or border state, Texas, in 1968, beginning a trend that dominated the next forty years. More importantly, "government" and "government programs" apparently became hopelessly associated in white southern minds with help for black Americans. Essentially the Reagan years spread a trend that had already begun in the south--a trend towards smaller government a lower taxes--to the country as a whole. Meanwhile, cheap labor and pro-business practices moved more and more enterprise southward, until the whole American textile and clothing industry operated below the Mason-Dixon line. That, too, is where foreign automakers began building non-union auto plants. With the decline of the rust belt, the migration trend of 1914-65 was reversed, and the South (and the Southwest) gained population and political influence. The only Democrats elected to the White House between 1964 and 2008 were southerners who could carry southern states.

In the last ten years all this has culminated in a new catastrophe--the de-industrialization of the South, thanks to NAFTA and the general movement of industry overseas. Regions that live by cheap labor, it turns out, die by cheap labor, because there is always somewhere where labor will be cheaper still. The election of 2008 drew a clear line around the deep South. Virginia and North Carolina, both of whom include substantial new urban and educated areas, voted narrowly for Obama, as did Florida, which is only partly a southern state at all. But the rest of the old Confederacy voted overwhelmingly for McCain, based on the same sad resentments that have controlled much of the poor white vote for most of the last 150 years. Republicans control all the Senator seats and the majority of the House seats from those regions--and there are no Richard Russells or Sam Ervins in this crop. The Sotomayor hearings displayed several of them before the nation, and they were of appallingly limited intellectual ability. That the Deep South now lives largely in a different mental universe is confirmed by a new poll on the question of whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S.A.--broken down by region.



Where all this has led can be seen in a front page story in today's New York Times, on the financial crisis in Jefferson County, Alabama, which may have to lay off 2/3 of its work force in the next few days. I did not recognize "Jefferson County" (as I would have recognized Fulton County, Georgia, or Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana) when I saw the headline and expected it to be depopulated and rural--but no, it includes Birmingham, and ranks as the wealthiest county in the state!. Several factors have contributed to its unprecedented crisis. The recession, of course, has hit every area of the country, but Jefferson County also lost enormous sums on a complicated financial deal designed to finance a sewer project--one that sounds a bit like Harvard's notorious interest-rate swap. In addition, the county has lost the right to levy a kind of income tax, upon which it relied beginning in the 1990s. The reporter's comments on that tax must be quoted:

"The tax that was ruled illegal, known as the occupational tax, is essentially a 0.5 percent tax on income, but the phrase “income tax” does not sit well with Alabamians. One of its peculiarities is that it exempts a long list of professionals like doctors and lawyers, as well as phrenologists, circus managers and crystal gazers. In 1999, state lawmakers from Jefferson County, who are allowed by legislative tradition to control the county’s ability to levy taxes, tried to earmark part of the money for their own projects, and the county balked.

"In response, the lawmakers voted to repeal the tax. But the county, buoyed by court rulings in its favor, continued to collect it, bringing in about $75 million last year — more than 25 percent of the county’s general fund."

Now the court has reversed itself and it is not clear that the legislature will restore it. The reporter discreetly left race out of her story almost completely, but I would assume that Jefferson County has a large black population which a Republican state legislature is not likely to want to help. What was once one of the most advanced economically (as well as the most bigoted racially) areas of the South has now been reduced, by long-standing southern political trends, to near anarchy. I suspect it will not be the last.

Crisis, in medical terms, leads either to death or to recovery, and this may be the last chance for the deep South to join the modern world. Parts seemed like they might do so during the New Deal, but sadly, racial prejudice wiped out that progress in much (though not all) of the region. Now, it seems to me, the old Confederacy faces another problem: most of its smarter folk, both black and white, have migrated away. There must somewhere be an opportunity in all this, however. If the Obama Administration can actually improve the lives of average white Southerners, it could deal a death blow to retrograde politics for a long time. If it can't, however, the possibility of a Republican resurgence remains--and that will mean that the rest of the country will move closer to the South once again, rather than the other way around.