Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas Carol

By way of Charles Dickens and the Marx Brothers, Paul Krugman offers a near-future version of A Christmas Carol, set in the U.S. after current health care legislation takes effect--Tiny Tim's bleak 2009 fate with a pre-existing condition and expensive health insurance (not through Scrooge, of course) is changed by the Senate of Health Care Past: "But reform legislation enacted in 2010 banned insurance discrimination on the basis of medical history and also created a system of subsidies to help families pay for coverage. Even so, insurance doesn’t come cheap — but the Cratchits do have it, and they’re grateful. God bless us, everyone."

While Krugman sees merit in progressives who grieve for the bill's insufficiencies (but says this was the best that could get enacted), he scorns opposition from the "Bah, Humbug" fiscal conservatives who ignored the CBO's evidence that the bill is fiscally conservative, and especially "the crazy right, the tea party and death panel people — a lunatic fringe that is no longer a fringe but has moved into the heart of the Republican Party. In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists. But those rules are no longer operative. No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause."

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Invention of Holidays

“Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman. It was Sir Ethelbert’s hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things...that the population at large would fall into a collective deep depression. Holidays would regulate joy so that anyone who didn’t feel joyful on those days would feel bad. Single people would be sad they were single. Married people would be sad they were married. Everyone would feel disappointment that their lives had fallen so far short of their expectations.”--Christopher Durang.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays anyway.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This One's For Ted

Dana Milbank of W Post, writing about Senator Ted Kennedy and the final Senate health care vote: " The president pro tempore of the Senate, 92-year-old Robert Byrd, shot his finger into the air to signal his "aye" vote. "This," the West Virginia Democrat called out strongly from his wheelchair, "is for my friend Ted Kennedy." That was very much the story of the massive health-care legislation that finally cleared the chamber early Thursday morning...
More than anything, it was his memory, and his final exhortation, that allowed the Senate Democrats to overcome considerable differences between moderates and liberals in drafting a compromise. President Obama, in his address to Congress in September, read from a letter Kennedy had written as he neared death, saying he was 'confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who at long last signs into law the health-care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society.'""One after the other, Senate colleagues invoked his name in a manner more often associated with his slain brothers."

The Eve of History

Today's New York Times:

President Obama said after the vote that the health care bill was “the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s” and that together with the House bill, represented “the toughest measures ever taken to hold the insurance industry accountable.”

If the bill becomes law, it would be a milestone in social policy, comparable with the creation of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Politics 2009

Now just hours away from the last Senate vote on the health care bill, which once again is expected to be 60-40, with all GOPers voting against, David Herszenhorn in the New York Times opines that " [t]he votes also marked something else: the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inverse proportion to a rising influence of lobbying, money, the 24-hour news cycle and hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere."

Meanwhile the voices pointing out the dangers of current misuse of the Senate filibuster now include President Obama, in a PBS interview: " I mean, if you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s - even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control for example and Ronald Reagan was president - you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule. So I think that if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us."

Update: The actual final vote was 60-39. One GOPer didn't bother to show, but the elderly and ailing Senator Robert Byrd, who earlier this week some of those Christian Republicans prayed would die before the vote was taken, made sure he was there. He voted in honor of "my friend," Senator Ted Kennedy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shortly after I took photos of the rainbow last Saturday I've already posted, I walked around to the back, and took some photos of the clouds above the setting sun. This is one of them.

This Fateful Moment: Follow-Ups

Copenhagen is over, the health care bill passed its first and probably decisive test in the Senate on a straight party-line 60-40 vote, the minimum necessary to avoid an unbreakable filibuster. So evaluations of the outcomes have begun.

Internationally there's a lot of skepticism about the Copenhagen agreement, expressed particularly in UK papers, like the Guardian. This BBC summary is a bit more balanced but still pretty brutal.

Update: Sam Hummel's useful and detailed account at Salon questions much of the reporting on Copenhagen. He asserts that no better accord was rejected, that while they were disappointed that the accord wasn't stronger, most developing nations supported it; the accord was put together by a representative group rather than a "backroom deal" of a few countries; and that the accord is meaningful: "The importance of getting an agreement under which the major developing nation emitters recognize they have a responsibility to act cannot be overstated!" He also says that Obama is not to blame for any perceived weakness in the accord, and that his contribution was positive. He concludes: "The things I saw, in every segment of the COP15 negotiations that I had the opportunity to watch, gave me hope."

On the health care bill, while some on the left are still angry, some oppose provisions or especially what's lacking so intensely that they remain opposed to the bill, others--like Kos--are calling for the left to continue to try to improve the bill until it is in absolute final form. At that point, if it doesn't become "worse," he and others will likely support it.

There's a growing sense that it's the best that could be expected, that all major "revolutionary" legislation began in a limited, inadequate form, and that what it does is better than things as they are. And there's the beginning of admission that it's an historic achievement for the Obama administration. As Andrew Sullivan wrote, "It was as grueling a victory as the one in the primaries, and took even longer. But it was a victory, a substantive, enduring legislative victory the like of which no president has achieved since Reagan."

In the context of the ongoing madness in the U.S. Senate on health care, several more voices have joined mine and Ezra Klein's in asserting that the current misuse of the filibuster as demanding a super-majority for any substantive bill is the prime suspect in a government that can't quite govern: The Nation's Chris Hayes said so on MSNBC, and Paul Krugman concludes that "the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional."

But what does all this mean for "this fateful moment" in the shape of things to come? It's more than a truism to say, only time will tell. It's a reminder that quite a lot is unpredictable. But from this perspective, it is ominous. The basic fact is that neither the need for a decent health care system in the U.S. and a concerted effort to address the Climate Crisis by the entire world could overcome the power of other political and economic interests.

While there is plenty of responsibility to go around, the usual suspects of the huge financial and economic interests--the multinationals and their banks, the big fossil fuel and insurance conglomerates--have been busy in the shadows, pulling silent strings.

Those interests mightily influence U.S. politics, and since I know this landscape better, this is where I see the most disgusting and disquieting evidence. It's true on the Climate Crisis as well as health care--for the lack of congressional action on carbon limited what President Obama could promise or persuade in Copenhagen.

This is despite what I believe is much stronger public support for universal health care and for action on the Climate Crisis. Polls suggest this as well, including a new one on the Climate Crisis, in which 65% favored regulating carbon emissions.

So at this moment, the conclusion on both issues suggest important beginnings, but containing flaws that may turn out to be fatal. The health care bill may not control costs or lower premiums enough, may impose an unpopular and perhaps unconstitutional "individual mandate" to buy products from private insurance, and may be phased in so gradually that it remains vulnerable to political destruction before it takes full effect. The Copenhagen agreement may not lead to real agreements to act, and may signal that national governments won't act quickly enough or sufficiently to either blunt the effects of the Climate Crisis in the near future, and especially stop the worst from happening later on.

I agree with those who say that even if he had done some things differently, President Obama could not have altered either outcome for the better. And I'm not going to waste my energy on political posturing. I have no editors to please or ideological banner to wave from my masthead. I have no producers to please by being outrageous.

As far as what we do to make a better future using the instruments of politics as well as of science, business and law: this is where we are. Both the health care bill (assuming that something like this becomes law) and the Copenhagen agreement do reverse the recent and seemingly unstoppable official refusal by the U.S. government to recognize and confront these fateful issues.

Most of these efforts will be conducted by people younger than me. To them I reiterate that hope is not what you feel but what you do.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Health Care Deal

Senate Democrats have apparently secured the necessary 60 votes to pass the current version of their health care bill by Christmas. Judging from what I've read about the contents of the bill, I believe it should be passed.

Here's some sense of the latest changes, and while I am troubled by what the bill lacks, I am most persuaded by descriptions like this--in a Washington Post oped Sunday by Victoria Kennedy--of what the bill does do:

" Thirty million Americans who do not have coverage would finally be able to afford it. Ninety-four percent of Americans would be insured. Americans would finally be able to live without fear that a single illness could send them into financial ruin.

Insurance companies would no longer be able to deny people the coverage they need because of a preexisting illness or condition. They would not be able to drop coverage when people get sick. And there would be a limit on how much they can force Americans to pay out of their own pockets when they do get sick."

It is even more important to pass this bill, and quickly get through conference committee and get the final bill signed into law. It is time for this to be over.

Once the bill is passed, the light can shine on the disgraceful conduct of congressional Republicans. As a candidate, Barack Obama made a persuasive case for an end to political divisiveness for its own sake, particularly on major issues of common concern. He tried to work with Republicans on this issue and others, and was rebuffed, insulted, lied to and lied about, and worse. For the next several days anyone paying attention will see even more clearly the Republican strategy of obstruction for its own sake. At at time when we need substantive attempts to find the best solutions for increasingly dangerous problems, we are mired in politics of the worst sort, and discourse that is as crude as any I remember, and even more shamelessly mendacious than any in my lifetime.

The end of the health care debate will free the White House from the pretense that congressional Republicans are acting as a legitimate partner in governing, or that the political hysteria Republicans are whipping up nationally is either normal or useful. It is all unpatriotic and undemocratic. I expect President Obama to unleash hell on the Republicans in the next year for their obstructionism, for their abdication of a constructive role in democracy. And they deserve it.