Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Student Survey on Health Bill

I took a survey in my classes last week that indicated a surprising level of support for the recently passed health care legislation. It was published in the local newspaper. You can find the article posted on the Visalia Times-Delta's website.

While the poll of 191 community college students is not a large or diverse enough sampling to be considered a scientific survey, the results are quite interesting considering they come from Tulare County, one of the most conservative-voting counties in California. By lack of diversity, I refer particularly to the respondents' ages. Most are in their late teens or early twenties. Ethnically, they are plenty diverse. Overall, 62% approved of the legislation, 33% disapproved and 5% indicated no opinion.

The figures for the specific facets of the Health Care Act were extremely high for the benefits. These include such things as the ban on refusing insurance to people for pre-existing conditions or forbidding cancelling people who get sick. Yet even the costs were popular. 62% were in favor of the higher taxes on higher income people and 61% supported the mandate to buy and subsidies for those making less than $88,000 to help them do so.

Coupled with the recent Gallup poll that found 49% thought the Act was a good idea while only 40% a bad one, it is possible the opposition has been overstated. It certainly hasn't been overstated in vehemence, but perhaps it has in numbers. After all, some of the opposition came from people on the left, who wanted to see a public option. It is likely most of those folks are moving into the pro-reform camp now, rather than supporting a return to the status quo and getting nothing at all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Great Day for America

President Obama today signed the Affordable Health Care for America Act. It was a moment that will go down in history alongside presidential signings into law of Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as red-letter days in American social history. It is now a fundamental American principle that access to health care is a right, not a privilege.

The nature of the thirteen-month fight just concluded has been instructive. On one side were people determined to solve a serious problem in national life. They wanted to make it possible for every citizen to get the care they need when they get sick or injured and to get regular checkups to maintain their health. They wanted to do this while decreasing the national deficit. It was a tall commitment to accomplish both at the same time. They were intent on working with all their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make this happen. As evidence of this intent, they incorporated over two hundred of the minority-party amendments suggested in committee into the final bill. The congressional committee chairmen worked long and hard to try to meet minority party concerns. For his part, the president himself hosted numerous meetings and attended the opposition caucus in a long and thorough effort to invite bipartisan cooperation.

On the other side were people determined that nothing should be done. They announced their intention to impede any action early and often. They pretended to negotiate, later admitting (Charles Grassley) such was just for show in an attempt to stall the process. They appealed primarily to fear and invented references to "death panels" (Sarah Palin) and "Soviet totalitarianism" (Devin Nunes, R-CA, my own Congressman) to whip up hatred and panic and demonize their opponents. They refused to introduce a serious proposal of their own.

Consequently, the Congressional Budget Office analysis found that the majority plan would cover 32 million people at a savings of $138 billion the first ten years and $1.2 trillion the second. The minority plan would cover only 3 million people at a savings of $68 billion the first ten years. It was not a serious proposal to solve the problem of uninsured Americans. That final non-partisan analysis of effectiveness combined with savings pushed the effort over the top with wavering legislators and the bill passed.

Confident of public antipathy toward the bill, the opponents are vowing to carry on the fight and to work for its repeal. See, for example, John McCain's statement. In one extremely enlightening comment, Newt Gingrich even said passage of the bill may do as much harm to the Democrats' election chances in the South as the passage of the Civil Rights Bill did in the 1960s. But the many benefits kicking in right away are making people reconsider. Among these are the tax cuts for small business to provide coverage, a $500 reduction in the Medicare "doughnut hole" for seniors, young people being able to stay on their parents' coverage until their 26th birthday, the banning of rejecting children from coverage because of pre-existing conditions, forbidding anyone from being dropped because they get sick or exceed a predetermined "cap" on services, a new high-risk pool for adult uninsured with pre-existing conditions and increased funding to graduate more primary-care physicians. More will be added as the years go by, such as the extension of the pre-existing conditions language to everyone and subsidies to help families making less than $88,000 to buy insurance. Of course, increased taxes on individuals making over $200,000 and families earning over $250,000, and a mandate to buy coverage will kick in too. These, though necessary to fund the program, will displease some, without question.

But still, we are already seeing indications that the opponents may have overplayed their hand. The reaction to the bill's passage has already created a big shift in public opinion. A Gallup Poll released today finds that 49% feel passage of the health care bill is a "good thing" and only 40% regard it as "a bad thing." Though facing furious conservative resistance when enacted, Medicare, Social Security and Civil Rights are now considered cornerstones of American society and essential foundations of the nation's social compact with its citizens. There is every likelihood the Health Care Act will one day be regarded in the same way. After the presidential signing ceremony this morning, a card left at the grave of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy by his son Representative Patrick Kennedy said it all: "Dad, today the unfinished business got done."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nuclear Proliferation Must Be Stopped

I gave a talk on nuclear proliferation issues at the Visalia League of Women Voters meeting on Tuesday, March 16. The League is considering making that a key issue for their study this year.

I did some research and came to a few conclusions: 1) The existence of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has slowed down the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, though it has not eliminated it. 2) The United States and Russia still possess nearly 95% of all nuclear weapons. 3) China is central to the success of efforts to reign in would-be nuclear weapons states Iran and North Korea. 4) The greatest danger may well be the possibility of "non-state actors" such as terrorist or private groups gaining possession of a device. It is to this end that a movement of former superpower statesmen has begun campaigning for the global elimination of all nuclear weapons.

The NPT was introduced in 1968 by Ireland and Finland and ratified in 1970. By its provisions the five nuclear powers agreed not to disseminate nuclear weapons technology to any other state or entity. The five powers were the United States, Soviet Union (now Russia), China, Britain and France. The rest of the signatories pledged not to pursue nuclear weapons, and in return the five agreed to share peaceful nuclear technology with them. The five NPT nuclear weapons states also agreed to pursue negotiations for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. Only three nations have never been signatories to the Treaty: India, Pakistan and Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established as the investigative arm of the Treaty. There have been some successes. Libya renounced its program in 1993. South Africa yielded its six fission bombs and closed its program in 1994. Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus repatriated the former Soviet weapons on their soil to Russia after they achieved independence. The IAEA was in the process of proving that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program in 2003 when the Bush administration ordered it out of the country.

The United States and Russia still possess an overwhelming percentage of the world's nuclear arsenal, nearly 95% of all devices and 89% of all that are operational. This amounts to about 23,000 bombs today, down from a high of 65,000 in 1985. The last Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the two expired last December, but talks are currently underway and are expected to reduce the respective stocks by another 25%.

The nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea are presently an area of tremendous concern for the world. Iran is an NPT signatory and claims to be pursuing only peaceful nuclear technology. North Korea is a former signatory that renounced its adherence in 2003. North Korea appears to have gotten assistance from the A. Q. Khan network of Pakistan. Khan is known as the father of the Pakistani atomic program. Iran is thought to have gotten its from North Korea, thus a spinoff of the Pakistani effort. The common denominator in international enforcement against both states is the importance of the Chinese attitude. It is not coincidental that China has been the most reluctant to approve strong sanctions against Iran. For instance, a recent proposal by the US, Britain, France and Germany for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard apparatus was supported by Russia, but China has made no public comment. Iran is China's primary oil supplier. It would be a good idea to find China another reliable oil source to change this dynamic. Similarly, though an unstable, unpredictable and nuclear-armed North Korea on its border may not be in China's interest, its leadership may feel that neither is a prosperous, free, united Korea with a sizable American military presence. To secure China's cooperation and U.N. Security Council vote, its interests in these matters will need to be addressed.

Finally, the fear of accident, miscalculation or proliferation to a terrorist group or other non-state actor is also a matter of rising concern. It has prompted an unprecedented effort on the part of former Republican Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Democrats former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sam Nunn to write joint editorials in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007 and January 2008 calling for the total elimination of these weapons and a no-nonsense international body to enforce this. The 2008 article lists a number of steps that could be taken to make this a reality. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered his concurrence with this goal in his own letter to the Journal. As he put it, "It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chinese Teaching Their Teachers on Economics

I saw an intersting item this morning on the Chinese economy. Click here to see the entire article. Charles Hurtzler of the Associated Press reports that China's "economic growth rebounded to 10.7% in the final quarter of 2009." That's about twice the rate reported for the U.S., where the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the Commerce Department reports a 5.9% gain for the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter of '09.

So, how did they do it? "China, the world's third largest economy, escaped the worst of the global financial crisis by ordering $1.4 trillion in bank lending and government stimulus." The U.S. stimulus, passed about a year ago, was $787 billion on an economy four times the size of China's.

The Chinese have learned their economic lessons from the Westerners well. When demand slumps and the economy enters recession the government can supply the demand itself and spur recovery. That was the process first put forward in the New Deal and explained by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936.

Once again, the evidence shows it works. Calls to slash spending and lay off millions more workers now would lead to a downward spiral of demand decline, rising unemployment and back into severe recession. There will be a time to work on the deficit, but now is not that time. That will be a project to address when employment and demand are running strong, such as they were in the late 1990s when we were running surpluses and paying down the debt.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blaming the Victim Makes Headway

As economic recovery inches slowly along with Republicans ideologically opposed to anything that would alleviate it and Democrats struggling to keep a majority together to act, a movement to set up a new class of scapegoats is gathering steam. This new group against whom animosity and envy are now being directed are public employees. I saw a CNN report on Saturday that discussed the nationwide protests March 4 against drastic cuts and rising tuition. Here in California, for instance, tuition at the Cal State schools has gone up 68% and at the University of California 61% over the past five years.

I was most distressed to hear the anchor ask a guest "expert" for commentary about the situation. His take was that the protesting students should look at the teachers next to them in the protest line for the blame on service cuts and tuition hikes. If they would simply accept a pay freeze, he stated, none of these budget-balancing steps would be necessary. This kind of talk is absurd. No one is getting pay increases as it is now. At Fresno State, faculty is taking 18 "furlough" days per year, resulting in a 9.23% pay cut. Los Angeles Unified laid off 4,000 personnel in 2009, more than half of them teachers. Its Board voted last week to ready another 5,200 layoffs this year, including another 2,300 teachers.

Consider how the dialogue is changing. Until a few months ago, the primary blame for the Great Recession focused on selfish and short-sighted mortgage practices and derivatives brokering. Most public anger was directed at the banks and investment firms that inflated and then crashed the housing and credit markets, took public bailout money and then used it to reward themselves with billions of dollars in bonuses.

Now that large cuts to public services are underway thanks to declining earnings and thus revenues, much attention seems to be zeroing in on workers who have managed to secure half-decent wages and respectable pensions. The idea seems to be to take these away and relegate the middle class to third world status. They spread resentment that a higher percentage of public sector workers are unionized, rather than encouraging more private-sector workers to organize and improve their conditions. They seek to divide the middle class against itself rather than point out that CEO's who used to earn 30 times what their workforce averaged now earn 344 times as much. And these upper earners do so at tax rates that are half what they were in the 1970's.

Rather than calls to return to the compensation and tax ratios, particularly for the super-rich, and the stricter regulation and levels of public expenditure and unionization that were producing good schools, expanding infrastructure and widespread middle class prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s there is more and more "race to the bottom" talk about cutting more from the middle and bottom--the approach that has been followed since 1980 and that has led to the current situation. It is easy to see whose interest this line serves. For a chart of historical top marginal income tax rates click here. You might find yourself amazed.