View Blog History Unfolding: September 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Working in Washington

If you have been brought here by an email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, you need to know that it is a fraud. I did not write the email. For more information on it go here.It looks this morning as if Gary Trudeau got the email, too.

If Barack Obama is going to secure the passage of a sweeping progressive agenda, including serious health care reform, a cap and trade program, some huge new infrastructure projects, and (very possibly) big new job creation programs if unemployment, as seems likely, remains very high, then the political culture of Washington will have to undergo some significant changes. The media can help provoke such changes by bringing current practices to light. I don't spend much time listening to cable news (although I do try to catch a little talk radio every day, just to hear what's happening in the Republicanosphere), but I fortunately discovered this clip, in which Rachel Maddow discusses the financial status of Congressman Joe Ross or Arkansas at some length, the other day. Maddow is emerging as the Drew Pearson of our time, although her sources are not nearly as good as yet, and the story explained why Ross, a prominent Blue Dog Democrat, is so opposed to the public health care option. Ross owned a pharmacy in his home town, and two years ago, he sold the building and the right to operate the pharmacy to USA Drug, a drugstore chain, for a price of almost half a million, and half a million more made up of various rights fees and a consulting contract that his wife signed with them as well. This is, I have no doubt, not a unique situation, and we must hope that in today's anarchic media, popular outlets will become more and more adept at bringing such arrangements to light. (For more on the source of Representative Ross's views, look here--a very interesting site on southern politics.)

Thirty years ago I heard Barney Frank, who was just beginning his political career as a Massachusetts state legislator, talk about the problem of campaign money in politics. The salary of the Governor of Massachusetts, he noted, was about $50,000 (actually might have been even less), while a gubernatorial campaign cost about half a million. "Why don't we pay for the campaign and let corporations pay his salary?" he asked. "We'd have a bigger piece of him!" Things, of course, have gotten much worse since then--campaigns have gotten more expensive and it looks very likely that the Supreme Court is about to strike down the most recent bipartisan attempt to curtail special interest spending. Today, however, I'd like to discuss a different kind of problem in our politics today--one involving the career paths of politicians.

Let's imagine that you are a man, or woman, who became interested in public policy early in life. Whatever your particular views, you enjoy the nuts and bolts of the American system, and your ego is healthy enough (or should I say unhealthy enough?) to want to feel that you are having an important impact. Coming to Washington at a young age, you are seduced by the beauty of its historic buildings and its political buzz--although if you have arrived in the last forty years you have also been intimidated by the enormous cost of living there without a very long commute. Eventually you discover that there are two ways in which you become a mover and shaker.

In option one, you will spend your days being led around by your handlers, rather like a prize bull, listening to the widest possible variety of outraged or ardent Americans pushing their particular cause. While you will enjoy some of these encounters far more than others, you will have to be unvaryingly polite. You will fly to and from some other part of the country on almost every weekend, where your days will be similar to those spent in Washington during the week, except that you will spend more time traveling. Your finances will be known in every detail to the public. You will spend a great deal of time raising money. You will depend almost entirely on subordinates to provide you with actual knowledge about legislation in which you are interested. If you are a Republican, you will learn that any deviation from the party line--increasingly enforced by ignorant demagogues broadcasting for hours every day--is likely to be punished by the loss of your job. It is no wonder, obviously, that such a life might make a roll in the hay with a more or less anonymous member of the opposite sex appealing, but should such become known, your career will be at an end.

Now let's look at option 2. In this case you will live in Washington full time, going out of town only for working vacations in expensive resorts. Your salary will be private, and at least ten times as much as in option 1. Rather than having to raise money, you will help dispense it. You'll live in a prime Washington location. You will have all the time you need not only to study the details of legislation in which you are interested, but also to help draft it. You won't have to see anyone that you don't want to see, and the public will probably have no idea that you exist. But you will see your work reflected in dozens of pieces of legislation of tremendous import to millions of Americans. You will probably have to give up any ideas that you cherished in your youth about the public good--but at least, in comparison to option one, you won't have to pretend that you haven't given them up.

The job of option one, in today's America, is that of an elected Senator or Representative. The job of option 2 is that of a lobbyist. And can anyone be surprised that option 1 has become a stepping stone to option 2, rather than the reverse? Thus, two former leaders of the Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives--Dick Gephardt and Dick Armey--are now busily plying their trade as lobbyists. Gephardt, who actually ran for President on a platform of universal health care coverage, now opposes it. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader who would have become Health and Human Services Secretary but for some financial indiscretions, is also working very hard for the health care industry. Bob Dole has had a remunerative post-Senatorial career. In this respect as in so many others, Ted Kennedy looks like the last of a dying breed, the legislator who (like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Emmanuel Cellar, and so many others from the past) simply can't imagine being anything else. And it is obviously no coincidence that his idealism was backed by inherited wealth, and that he faced only one serious challenge in 46 years in the Senate.

In her report on Representative Ross, Maddow noted that liberal Democrats are organizing a primary campaign against him. Democrats showed in 2008 that they could out-organized the Republicans nationwide and win the Presidency fairly handily by appealing to the interests of less well-off Americans. Delivering for those Americans, however, is turning out to be much, much harder. It will require the same kind of organization on a sustained basis. It will require the courage to turn down "compromise" legislation which will not, in fact, improve the lives of ordinary Americans at all, like the Baucus health care bill. And it will require time, which the President's rhetorical skills will have to buy. I refuse to believe that any of this is impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.

The modern United States is largely the creation of two bursts of legislative activity--the first beginning in 1933 and ending around 1945 with the GI Bill, and the second in 1964-5. The first was possible because of the catastrophic situation into which we had fallen--far worse, we must keep in mind, than what we face right now--and the second owed a great deal to an outpouring of grief over the death of John F. Kennedy, an opportunity which Lyndon Johnson seized to pass Medicare, two civil rights bills, and much more. The present moment can't be compared to either of those. Any victories over the next year will be dearly won, through hard-fought battles. If in fact the Democrats can actually gain seats at the next election--and perhaps even replace a few Blue Dogs like Congressman Ross with genuine progressives--the log jam could begin to break during the next two years. That is an optimistic scenario, but not, I think, an impossible one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two possibilities

Over the on the web site, a number of very smart and engaged people, ages ranging from teens to seventies, have been debating the present and future of American history for more than a decade. Essentially they have been trying to integrate current events into Strauss and Howe's theories--frequently through the prism of their own views. Those of us who had read those books in the 1990s when they first came out have not been surprised by the nation's descent into Crisis. Some of the longest threads on those forums have attempted to locate the beginning of the Crisis. It is becoming clear that we will only be able to answer the question of when it really began retrospectively, in twenty years or so. If we are then living in Barack Obama's vision of America we shall date the beginning from this year--but if we are living in George W. Bush's America--and I am increasingly convinced that that is quite possible--then we shall go back to dating it from 9/11, or possibly from the events of the fall of 2000 and the second theft of a presidential election in American history. The two Bush Administrations consolidated, and accelerated, critical trends in American government that had begun under Reagan (and which the Clinton years had done either little or nothing to reverse). President Obama, I am convinced, wants to reverse those trends--but his attempts to do so are showing what an enormous task that is going to be, and certainly raise real doubts as to whether he can be successful.

To explain my fears, I shall look at three critical issues in American life: health care reform (of course); corporate power and the workings of our new financial system; and whether our foreign policy will be based upon military supremacy or on the respect for, and promotion of, international law and diplomatic solutions to problems. We shall see that it is far from clear if the President has enough raw material to work with to make the changes he seems to want, and to make them stick, because so many Republican positions have become consensus positions over the last thirty years.

The health care reform effort, about which I have written a great deal, is going forward, but with less than no assurance that any meaningful change will occur. The emergence of Senator Max Baucus and his Finance Committee as the key locus of power is an interesting phenomenon--his was only one of several committees to produce a bill, and the others have produced far more important ones, including a public option. His own bill not only rejects that, but will allow insurance companies to charge premiums according to the age of their customers, and thus continue their practice of offering generous insurance to people who don't need it. Baucus has been a huge recipient of health care industry contributions for years, and they have gotten what they wanted. I am intrigued, though, that he became the focus of attention because he put together the Gang of Six and has gone through the motions of trying to put together a bill that would garner Republican support. That was hopeless, for reasons that his Senatorial colleague Jim DeMint let out of the bag months ago. As in 1993-4, the Republicans are determined to kill any bill to bring down a Democratic President--and their most powerful lobbies stand ready to fund an expensive primary campaign against any Senator who dares cast a pro-Obama vote, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine. (My own former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee had to deal with such a challenge three years ago.) Baucus's ostensible purpose has failed, but he has meanwhile crafted the bill the health care industry wants. Meanwhile, the Republican media barrage has successfully painted the public option as equivalent to a single-payer government takeover of health care, and the media is painting the single-payer advocates in the House, who want to use Medicare to provide a much cheaper alternative to private insurance, as a fringe group. With President Obama determined above all to pass a bill, the chances are quite high, as Paul Krugman effectively acknowledged yesterday, that it won't be one that makes any real changes.

Regarding Wall Street, this week's news is rather interesting. The rest of the G-12--the world's other industrialized countries--have made up their minds about American capitalism's latest gift to the world, megabanks who pay their employees bonuses based upon short-term gains. That practice puts a premium on arranging deals for their own sake (which in turn involves the creation of new financial instruments of dubious economic value), on leveraging investments to increase profits, and on artificially bidding up the values of commodities and securities, leading, inevitably, to disastrous crashes, of which we have had two in the last decade. Their obvious solution is to put tight restrictions on such bonuses--but the Administration, according to today's New York Times, along with the British government, opposes actual caps on pay. Caps would be difficult to administer. The alternative that saw us through the Second World War and the high-growth twenty years that followed it--90% marginal tax rates that would remove any incentive to pay those bonuses--is, of course, never even mentioned, thanks to thirty years of Republican anti-tax propaganda. The Administration's economic team, in any case, is deeply implicated in the current system, which Larry Summers also defended for the managers of the Harvard Endowment, whose tens of millions (yes) of bonuses during the first half of this decade did not prevent them from losing 1/3 of the endowment's value and leaving the University lacking the case it needed to pay its bills during the last year. Like the Clinton Administration, which continued the trend towards deregulation that has left us in this mess, the Obama Administration does not seem committed to a fundamental reform or a return to the more disciplined world of our parents and grandparents.

Lastly there is foreign policy, where the President has shown the most striking break with the past, accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq slightly, demanding that Israel halt settlement construction, and now, scrapping the plan for ICBM defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. Taking those in reverse order, the latter is a step backward from the Bush foreign/defense policy of trying to assure American military supremacy and invulnerability, partly by undertaking preventive war to keep nations from acquiring weapons we do not think they should have. It was also a very welcome recognition of the essential fact about missile defense which Republicans have been trying to conceal for the past 25 years--that it does not work. (All this was brilliantly handled about ten years ago by Frances Fitzgerald in her book, Way out There in the Blue.) The Bush Administration's denunciation of the ABM treaty--a Republican legacy--was a terrible step backward for the US and the whole word. Sadly, it will be many years, I am sure, before anything similar is attempted again. And indeed, the Administration found it necessary to announce that it was going to work on a different missile defense system instead--although there is enough lead time to back down on that decision should they or their successors find another way out. However, the President has also branded himself an appeaser among Republicans--and his pressure on Israel will play into that as well. Here too Bush and Cheney did their work well. As I have pointed out here many times, President Bush essentially informed the world early in his first term that Israel could keep any land that it had settled in a peace treaty, and the Israelis and their American allies are now arguing that this binds future Administrations as well. It doesn't, but peace has gotten a lot less likely since then, and I'm not confident the President's well-intentioned step will have a good result.

The story of how a new generation of Republicans (very different from the Nixons, Rockefellers and even Goldwaters) managed to reverse the trend of American politics on economic, social and international issues from the 1980s until 2009 is an extraordinary one that should eventually produce some great history. In so doing they created, and relied upon, an active intellectual elite, a strong and growing presence in the media, and an emotional mass movement that now uses the techniques developed by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. For various reasons--which I shall try to take up at another time--the Democrats cannot at the moment deploy comparable forces. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 benefited from another historical accident--he came into office after three-plus years of catastrophic depression which had given him much more freedom of action, and much bigger majorities, than President Obama has. How the next four years, and the next twenty years, will turn out, remains a very open question.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Supreme Court in historical perspective

To begin with my customary update, the President's health care speech--which I thoroughly enjoyed--seems to have had a mildly negative effect in the traffic in the scurrilous email comparing him to Hitler, fraudulently attributed to me (that's right), which as undoubtedly brought many of you hear this morning. In the build-up to the speech hits continued to rise, reaching an all-time record of 1384 on Tuesday, but since the speech they have fallen by over a third, failing to top 1000 yesterday, and promising to fall much lower today. In addition, after about half a dozen phone calls from fans over Labor Day weekend, I have had only one, I believe, in the last few days. The speech, I thought, was excellent, and the President has to find ways to give more like it. He also has to make clear that health care reform is only the first of a series of huge challenges that we have to face. This article in today's New York Times, for example, makes it very clear that the successful bail-out of Wall Street has simply encouraged all its players to go back to business as usual, more confident than ever that the federal government will rescue them the next time things go wrong. An earlier article even unveiled the hot new Wall Street product, securities based upon life insurance policies which desperate consumers have had to sell back at a discount. Pushing several reforms at once, moreover, would make it harder for Republicans to focus upon the imagined defects of any particular one, and would ram the point home to the general public that the Republicans will simply oppose anything the President wants. In a crisis era, the common belief that Presidents have just one year to put through one big initiative does not, and cannot, hold.

Instead, however, I want to turn to a new book covering the whole sweep of American history, one of the more remarkable that I have read recently--Packing the Court, by the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, whom I got to know during my year at Williams College. Because Burns has an encyclopedic knowledge of American history and because he has, as I mentioned last week, remained faithful to some of the beliefs of his youth in the 1930s, the book's 259 pages come from a unique perspective and make a unique contribution. It must certainly be one of the half-dozen best books ever written by anyone in their tenth decade and is therefore quite an inspiration to yours truly. And although its conclusion will be a hard one for younger liberals to accept, they should certainly do some thinking about it.

Anyone of liberal sympathies born between about 1935 and 1955 grew up grateful for the Supreme Court and its works. Such people first became aware of the Court while Earl Warren was its chief, and watched it strike down school segregation, eliminate significant parts of the anti-Communist legislation from the McCarthy period, order the redistricting of state legislatures, outlaw prayer in schools, vastly expand the rights of defendants, eliminate (for a time) capital punishment, legalize birth control and then abortion, expand freedom of the press, and (under Warren's successor) deliver a key ruling that led to Richard Nixon's resignation from office. Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, William Brennan, Arthur Goldberg and Thurgood Marshall were liberal heroes, and with good reason, and many of us wondered where the country would be without the Supreme Court's exercise of its powers to enforce the Constitution and strike down state and federal laws.

Burns' book strikes at this view--which he apparently never held--from two directions. First, at the theoretical level, he argues that the Framers never intended to allow the Court to strike down, at any rate, federal legislation. (I do not think he takes a clear position regarding state legislation, although he frequently criticizes individual court decisions that overturned state laws as well.) I was not entirely persuaded by his summary of the evidence of what the Founders intended that they shared his views. A most scrupulous scholar, Burns does not in fact claim that they rejected judicial supremacy, but simply notes that they rejected explicit proposals for routine judicial review of pending legislation (an option even today in several states), and argues that judicial review contradicted their basic philosophy. The key point of the book, made by the title, is that once John Marshall had asserted that power (ironically without actually exercising it) in Marbury vs. Madison, Presidents preferred to use the appointive power (a much more powerful tool in an age of shorter lifespans than our own) to shape the court according to their own views, than to challenge its powers head on either by defying it or proposing a Constitutional amendment to limit them. (Until 1869, moreover, they sometimes made strategic changes in the size of the court; not until then did Congress fix the number of justices at 9.) That he clearly regrets, since it has not only turned the Court into the single most powerful branch of government (since there is no immediate way to countermand its decisions), but also put selections to it at the center of our political life.

Burns's second point, however, is the most troubling one--especially now. The Warren Court's role was the exception in American history, not the rule. For most of our history--and especially from the end of the Civil War until FDR's court packing plan--the court has been a reactionary influence in American life, zealously defending the rights of the powerful against the weak. It played a key role in the 1870s and 1880s in dismantling the protections of new black citizens that Reconstruction had put in place. During the same era it gave corporations nearly absolute liberty against state and local governments by defining them as "persons" under the 14th Amendment whose property--that is, profits--could not be taken away by legislative restrictions that did not, in the court's view, represent "due process of law." When the Progressive era began to restrict that power, the court in the first three decades of the twentieth century repeatedly struck down state legislation regulating wages and hours and attempting to protect the public in other ways. From 1922 to 1928, the court, led by the enormously influential Chief Justice William Howard Taft (who in one way or another had managed to choose over half its members), invalidated an average of eighteen federal, state or municipal laws a year.

This process reached a climax, of course, from 1934 to 1936, when the Court, which still included five members born before the end of the Civil War, struck down a number of major pieces of New Deal legislation, including the NRA, the AAA, and a law to prevent farm foreclosures. Every piece of New Deal legislation seemed to be in jeopardy. Roosevelt at one point in 1934 had planned to defy the Court, when it threatened to overrule his decision to take the dollar of gold and effectively reduce its value by about a third, but the Court, which as we shall see seems to have a sixth sense about exactly how far to push its powers, had surprisingly allowed that to go ahead. After his enormous re-election victory in 1936, when he carried 46 out of 48 states, he decided on new legislation to allow him to appoint six new justices--one for every justice who had not retired at the age of 70--rather than propose a Constitutional amendment specifically limiting its powers. He prepared the step poorly, giving Congressional leaders no chance to weigh in, and suffered a devastating defeat from which his domestic prestige never recovered.

That, however, as Burns pointed out, was only part of the story. On March 29, 1937, just weeks after FDR had sent the court packing plan to Congress, the court, led by Chief Justice Hughes, gave in to the New Deal on two crucial decisions, upholding exactly the kind of state wages and hours law that it had thrown out a year earlier, refusing to annul a new law on farm bankruptcies which Congress had passed in response to their rejection of an earlier one, and upholding a new law on railway labor. Two weeks later the Court stunned the country by refusing to strike down the Wagner Act, then as now the federal law that guarantees unions the right to organize. After that came the resignation of the aged Willis Van Devanter, whom FDR replaced with southern liberal (but one-time KKK member) Hugo Black, my own personal court favorite, and then, in subsequent years, a slew of deaths and resignations which eventually enabled Roosevelt to replace nearly the entire court and lay the foundation for the Warren Court decision of the 1950s and 1960s and some equally controversial ones during the next decade.

Those decisions, however, had long-term consequences that are only now reaching their climax. Like their counterparts earlier in American history, conservatives, while decrying judicial supremacy initially, chose rather in the long run to turn it to their advantage by appointing justices who would reflect their views and reverse Warren and Burger Court decisions. Although Richard Nixon's attempts to put a majority in place that would halt the momentum of school desegregation failed, Roe v. Wade became the chief target of the conservative movement after 1973 and Republican Presidents, relying increasingly on Evangelical religious groups for their support, became increasingly dedicated to the cause of appointing justices that would overturn it. (To be sure, three justices--Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter--disappointed conservative Republicans on this point, but Kennedy has now apparently shifted his ground.) Recognizing the power of the Courts, the Republicans have created the Federalist Society to propagate conservative judicial ideas. Conservative justices have in addition invalidated local school board desegregation plans, given state governments immunity against suits under federal law (in direct violation of the supremacy clause), and most famously, awarded the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2000, clearly usurping powers delegated in the first instance to the state of Florida and thence to the Congress. The court now has four dedicated, unified conservatives--Thomas, Scalia, Roberts and Alito--three of them Baby Boomers who could easily serve twenty more years apiece, and one swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, who has joined them in the most recent abortion and gun control cases (the latter the subject of a lengthy commentary here.) How they will deal with legislation passed by Democratic-controlled political branches remains to be seen, but Burns obviously fears the worst.

The remedy he proposes is simple: Presidential defiance of a Supreme Court decision to strike down federal legislation, in order in effect to make that power, never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, null and void. Perhaps, once again, because of the 30-year difference in our ages, I have mixed feelings about such a step. The whole history of the nation shows, I think, that we do need the Court as a bulwark against usurpations of the Bill of Rights, although most (but not all) of those have come from the executive rather than the legislative branch. (The Court, I am suggesting, should be free to rule both on the administration of justice, so as to protect the rights of defendants, and on the kind of assertions of unilateral executive power, not backed by statute, of which the Nixon, Reagan and Bush II Administrations were so fond.) But although Burns does not mention this, the supremacy clause, which declares the Constitution and "all laws and treaties made under it" to be "the supreme law of the land" can be read to support his position, since it puts a federal law on an equal footing with the Constitution itself and thus could be said to leave to the legislative and executive branches, acting together, the right to decide what the Constitution requires or allows. In general, one could say, the whole effect of the various overlapping jurisdictions in the US--not only within the federal government, but involving states and localities as well--has been to introduce more randomness into our political outcomes than European states, where power tends to be more centralized, generally experience. The United Kingdom has always allowed Parliament to reverse High Court decisions by passing a new act, for example. We cannot foresee the consequences of any particular institutional change, but Burns, in addition to providing a very entertaining history of our most arbitrary institution and its works, has alerted us to a long-term danger that will need to be met again.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Health care, youth and age

[More than 5000 people have visited this site in the last seven days. Most of you visited because of a fradulent email comparing President Obama to Hitler, which has been circulating under my name for the last five months or so, and whose circulation has dramatically increased this month. You can read its full history here. Quite a few, however, have appreciated what they found and apparently intend to return.]

Since we have had so many interesting comments about health care, I am going to begin with that subject before moving on to something else.

I am sorry, to begin with, that the reader who described himself (I think that's the right pronoun) as a "career civil servant" has so little respect for his, and my, profession. Actually his comments illustrate the biggest problem surrounding the health care debate: the American people's colossal ignorance of the most basic facts. This is not altogether surprising. TV news has a notoriously short attention span and hardly ever provides enough information to understand a complex issue, and it is very easy to pass through even a leading university today without learning much of anything about the workings or history of government and public policy. In this case the relevant facts are as follows. The US government already runs two health care systems, Medicare and the Veterans Administration system. Both are extraordinarily cheaper than privately provided care. Nor is there any real need to worry that the proposed public option will be any different. Although I myself did not know it until yesterday, the public option in the bill being considered by the House of Representatives is simply an extension of the Medicare system to the general population. Here is the text of the letter which the progressive caucus in the House sent the White House last week--short, to the point, and far more informative than 99% of the media coverage on the subject.

Dear President Obama:

Thank you for continuing to work with Members of Congress to draft a health reform bill that will provide the real health care reform this country needs.

We look forward to meeting with you regarding retaining a robust public option in any final health reform bill and request that that meeting take place as soon as possible.

Public opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Americans want the choice ofa robust public plan and we stand in solidarity with them. We continue to support the robust public option that was reported out of the Committees on Ways and Means and Education and Labor and will not vote for a weakened bill on the House Floor or returning from a Conference with the Senate.

Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates-not negotiated rates-is unacceptable. A plan with negotiated rates would ensure higher costs for the public plan, and would do nothing to achieve the goal ofproviding choice and competition to keep rates down. The public plan with set rates saves $75 billion, which could be lost ifrates are negotiated with providers. Further, this public option must be available immediately and must not be contingent upon any trigger.

Mr. President, the need for reform is urgent. Every day, 14,000 Americans lose their health care coverage. We must have health care reform that will effectively bring down costs and significantly expand access. A health reform bill without a robust public option will not achieve the health reform this country so desperately needs. We cannot vote for anything less.

We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the importance of your support for a robust public plan, which we encourage you to reiterate in your address to the Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday.

Lynn Woolsey
Raul Grijalva

The comment which I posted yesterday reminded me of another health care story which I heard about seven or eight years ago, involving my late friend William Strauss, the co-author of the books on generations and eras of American life upon which so much of these commentaries are based. For the last 25 or so years of his life Bill earned his living as the co-founder and co-producer of the comedy troop the Capitol Steps. The troop employed about 25 people and provided health insurance under a group policy from a private insurer. (Unfortunately I can't remember which one it was.) In 1999 Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but was given a new procedure called a Whipple, and spent at least a week in the hospital. He was initially declared cancer free, but within a few years tumors had appeared in his liver, and he had several near-fatal chemo treatments before he eventually died in 2007. (See my obit under December 2007.) Anyway, a year or two after the initial surgery, Bill told me an interesting story. The insurance company had informed the Capitol Steps that their group premium was going to be doubled or tripled--I can't remember the exact details, but it was a huge increase, big enough to make it impossible for the company to function. Their intention was obvious: to recover the entire cost of Bill's initial treatment. Fortunately he managed to drop out of the plan, easing their concerns, and get health insurance through his wife, a public servant. Had he not done so, he would either have gone bankrupt, died years earlier than he did, or both. I am sure that story is not unique.

I am beginning to see a need to collect citizens' stories about health care, and I hope that any readers here who have any that they feel are significant will also share them in comments. If that is sufficiently popular, I'm thinking about putting up a whole new blog devoted solely to posting them.

The gentleman who pointed to the lack of community spirit in the United States in comparison to other Anglo-Saxon countries (or, he might simply have said, other advanced countries) had an important point. I suggested in another forum that the Europeans, in particular, take civic responsibilities more seriously because they actually experienced the effects of Nazism first hand and know how important it is to provide basic services and a real safety net. The United States was 50 years behind Germany and about 30 years behind Britain in getting social security. More importantly, it's clear that through the New Deal era and the High that followed,a substantial Republican minority (though far from the entire Republican Party) never accepted the expanded role of the government. Then, sadly, in the 1960s, the whole issue of providing for less-well off Americans became hopelessly entangled with racial issues. The antitax movement, I am sorry to say, succeeded in much of the country because it was a movement against giving any kind of benefits to undeserving minorities. In much of the South that even translated into a prejudice against now-integrated public schools. Now President Obama and some Congressional Democrats are trying, amidst a very hostile climate, to restore some sense of public responsibility.

On another front, I began reading last night a most remarkable book, Packing the Court, by the political scientist James Macgregor Burns. While so far I have read only the first few chapters, it has already inspired quite a few reflections.

I got to know Professor Burns two years ago when I spent a year as a visitor at Williams College. He was then 89, and just had his 91st birthday. He was showing no signs of age, however, a point that is more than confirmed by this book, which does a brilliant job of condensing the entire Constitutional history of the United States into a relatively short space. I shall probably have more to say about its content when I have finished it, but one fascinating point is already clear: it is an example, like much of my own work, of how profoundly we can all be shaped by our youth.

Burns himself tells how he heard in February 1937 of President Roosevelt's plan to pack (in effect) the Supreme Court by adding six new justices--one for every justice who had reached the age of 70 without retiring. He and most other scholarship students, he reports, favored the plan. During FDR's first term the Court had struct down the National Recovery Act, the first Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Guffey-Snyder Coal Act (which regulated that basic industry), and a state minimum wage law. The ability of the "nine old men," several of whom had been born before the Civil War, to overturn the will of the President and Congress in the midst of a national emergency, appalled many Americans at the time, and created something of a scholarly backlash. Several scholars argued that the framers had never intended to give the federal courts the power to overrule federal legislation. The young James M. Burns evidently accepted that argument. What is more interesting is that he accepts it still, 70 years later--making him virtually the only American I know who would make that argument.

Although he obviously has strong convictions on this point, Burns is much too scrupulous a scholar to bend the evidence. He briefly but succinctly goes over the debates in the Constitutional convention and during the ratification process on this point, and certainly did not convince me that the Founders unequivocally shared his view. And although I must wait to finish the book before going into this in any more detail, it seems to me very arguable as to whether on the whole the Supreme Cout's power of judicial review has been a good or a bad thing. Yes, the Court overturned both much of the Reconstruction legislation that tried to give former slaves equal rights and much important work of the New Deal (although it retreated, partly because of some fortuitous vacancies, after FDR lost the court packing battle, and did not invalidate Social Security, the Wagner Act, or federal wages and hours legislation.) But I, like Burns, am marked by my youth, and I grew up under the court of Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, and Hugo Black, which outlawed segregated schools, established the Constitutional rights of defendants, and eventually even legalized abortion. (That last decision, I have come to believe, was a mistake. Abortion in 1973 was already legal in some major jurisdictions, including both New York and California, and I think that abortion rights would be more secure today had the issue been left in the hands of legislatures.) It is not easy to see how many of those changes--especially integrated schools in the South--would have come about without the Court, but at the same time, it is true that liberals came to rely far too much upon it. In addition, the Court became a rallying point for conservative activists, whose persistent efforts to establish a right-wing majority are now bearing fruit.

Burns's book, at any rate, is a great inspiration to me, since it suggests that I too might have as much as 30 years of productive historical work ahead of me--and the nation benefits from hearing such a voice, an echo of an earlier time, whose relevance may in fact be returning.

It is perhaps because Burns, like myself, is an academic, that he has had no trouble sticking to the beliefs he formed so early. In my case, the Vietnam War made me a skeptic about American third world interventions, and nothing that has happened since has changed my mind. Movers and shakers, alas, tend to change with the times. In 1962, a new foreign service officer just out of college was posted to Vietnam. Full of energy and self-confidence, he asked to be appointed the provincial adviser in Ba Xuyen province in the Mekong Delta, with a population of over one million people. This was the era of the strategic hamlet program, and Vietnamese officials immediately assured him that they had completed several hundred hamlets. When he insisted upon seeing them, however, he discovered that quite a few of them were simply neighborhoods in the largest provincial towns, while others had not had any actual work done on them. The problem, he remembered in the 1980s, was that the distribution of aid to the provincial government was tied directly to the number of completed hamlets they could report. (One of many parallel stories about today's Afghanistan can be read here.

The name of that young foreign service officer was Richard Holbrooke, who today is the President's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have been hearing a good deal lately about Afghanistan from people who have spent time on the scene, and their reports, combined with the news, suggest that the situation there is much worse than the situation in South Vietnam in 1962. While everyone agrees that the Afghan people do not want or like the Taliban, they also agree that the Taliban is by far the most dedicated and organized political force in the country. Operating in Afghanistan is a logistical nightmare without secure supply lines, and the country is simply too large and American forces too small to create a NATO presence among the whole population. The main excuse for our involvement, as stated by Secretary Clinton and by Holbrooke,is to prevent the Taliban from taking power in Pakistan, but since 1) much of the Pakistani government has always wanted the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and 2) the Taliban has grown exponentially within Pakistan since we drove them out of Afghanistan, I am not convinced that that argument makes any sense. Holbrooke's 1985 oral history effectively described his own frustration at trying to get the reality of the situation across to higher ups, including President Johnson. While I have no specific information on this point, I am afraid today younger Americans may be having the same trouble with him.

This post has already ranged widely, but I shall make one more unrelated comment. During the election campaign last fall I had one recurring thought. Every time I saw, or heard about, a small child, it occurred to me that if Obama won--as he did--the youth of America would grow up without seeing anything odd or unusual about a black President in the White House. Sadly, I see now that I was wrong. The disgraceful, hysterical response to the President's decision to make a brief speech to schoolchildren on Tuesday shows that many parents are failing a basic test of citizenship: to teach their children some essential respect for our government and those who have been elected to it. It is already clear that, like Lincoln and Roosevelt, Obama will face paranoid, utterly unreasoned opposition, derision and hatred until the day he leaves office. Yet those examples show that such opposition need not prevent the President from doing what has to be done. Meanwhile, despite their parents' opposition, some of today's youth will grow up to revere the first President whom they remember. Three years ago, James Macgregor Burns explained to me that his family were rock-ribbed Republicans.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Guest contribution

As of this moment, 324 people have visited this blog this morning, making a total of over 3500 since Monday, which I am pretty certain is a record by a wide margin. Most of them, sadly, have come here thanks to an anonymously written right-wing email that some one attributed to myself last spring. Because the hysterical campaign against the President is growing in volume, the circulation of the email is growing as well. (You can read the full history of the email here.\\

Meanwhile, however, the increased traffic has in one way or another brought interested people to the site, people with something to say about health care and other issues. One such just posted a comment--and I would like to ask everyone who gets here today to go ahead and read it and ask yourself if you are really satisfied with the health care in this country.

My thanks to the author, whose story is far more eloquent on this topic than I could ever be.

"Re NHS services in the U.K: Our daughter spent six months (2002-2003) as an undergrad student at Pembroke College in Cambridge. We were urged to purchase student health insurance coverage for her despite the presence of NHS in England, and we did so. It was a waste of money. She had one brief illness while there and did consult with a physician. As with David's experience above, she found the NHS the way to go, and also found that her "insurance" was more of a hindrance than help.

"We are a blue collar couple in our late 50's. My husband is clinging to his physically demanding job despite severe rheumatoid arthritis that leaves him in pain at the end of each work day. Every time he sees his rheumatologist he's told to quit. He stays because our health insurance is tied to his job and because I also have a chronic condition that would go untreated without insurance. We have a profoundly autistic son who was just kicked off our insurance arbitrarily at age 22, despite our repeated compliance in providing physician's forms certifying that he is never going to be able to care for himself. If his care defaults to Medi-Cal, he will not be able to see his present neurologist for care of epilepsy and our area has no other neurologists who will accept Medi-Cal as payment. He will also be refused dental care (but cannot speak to tell us when his teeth hurt). We lost our home years ago as a result of having to pay childhood medical bills for our son during the very early years of the explosion of autism--years when insurance companies classified autism as a non-covered mental illness. Doctors in every specialty including family practice who accept Medi-Cal are all but nonexistent in our area. I'll be spending today working to again prove our autistic son's disability to the insurance company.

"Meanwhile, our grad student daughter's (History, U.C. Irvine)insurance comes & goes, entirely dependent on when she is actively working as an instructor as opposed to periods of fellowship work on her PhD. She is the poster child for starving student; she's done it all on her own because she had to, but she is also only one serious illness away from losing all she has worked so hard for.

"Our oldest son followed his father into a service trade and has a wife and two children. While the trade is one that blessedly has not yet experienced deep layoffs, our greatest collective fear as a family is loss of that all important job--not because we could not eat or pay the rent (we'd figure that out) but because we'd lose our health care.

"Something must change, and I voted for change. I pray that President Obama hits this one out of the metaphorical park. We need it.

"I arrived here as a result of that awful forwarded email. I'm glad I found your blog. I'm not a regular on any blog, but I enjoy your insight and will return!"

In response I am going to share a story of my own.

William Strauss, as many of you know, was my college classmate, close friend, adn the co-author of the theory of generations and turnings upon which so many of these commentaries is based. He actually earned his living for the last 25 years or so of his life as the producer of the comedy troop, the Capitol Steps. He and his co-owner provided a health plan to all the members of the troop--about 25 of them I think.

In 1999 Bill got pancreatic cancer. Fortunately he was a candidate for a new procedure that initially restored him to full health and left his pancreas cancer-free for the rest of his life. However, within a few years the cancer was in his liver as well, and between 1999 and 2007, when he died, he had several chemotherapy treatments that required significant hospitalizations. The interesting part of the story is that just a couple of years after his operation, as I recall it, the insurance company informed the Capitol Steps that there was going to be an enormous increase in their group premium--more than 100%, as I remember. It was obvious what was happening: they wanted to recover the money they had had to pay out on Bill's treatment! Since the enterprise could not afford the increase, Bill dropped out of the plan--fortunately he was able to get insurance through his wife, a public servant. Otherwise he would have gone bankrupt, died years earlier than he did, or both.

Yes, readers, there is a very serious health care problem in America that needs--I will not shrink from the word--a radical solution.

Stereo 411