Sunday, February 28, 2010

And as for financial regulation...

I'm sure that your mailbox, like mine, has been full of notices from credit card companies advising you of changes to your accounts, presumably due to the new regulations recently implemented. I've actually read every one of them. I'm not impressed, but that may because I never carry a balance on any of my cards. I'm one of the people the credit card companies call a "free rider," because I don't pay interest or fees.

Well, excuse me, but they're still collecting a nice cut from the merchants I patronize — even after they pay me my paltry cash-back rewards. Free riders (as in my previous post) cost the system money. Granted, the banks don't make as much from me as they do from some poor bastard who lost his job and is using credit cards to keep his family eating, but they're still making money — with virtually no risk involved.

So screw you, David Nelms, Brian Moynihan, Ken Chenault, and anybody else who's issued me a card. You're the free riders, riding on the backs of the naive and the unfortunate. It's clear why you so bitterly oppose an independent consumer protection agency — it might interfere with the extremely lucrative rackets you and your buddies have been working on the public for so many years.

As for real financial reform, I'm betting nothing much happens, if anything. Anybody who was paying attention knows it was the unregulated derivatives market — most notably credit default swaps — that caused the crisis of 2008. The joke is that the alleged "free marketeers" in Congress and in the banking industry are bitterly opposed to the transparency in the sale of such instruments that actually would allow a free market to operate.

An alleged "democracy" that can't serve its citizens is no democracy. Government is broken, and the plutocrats are more firmly in charge than ever.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Here's to your health...

Needless to say, nobody expected today's "bipartisan health care summit" to accomplish anything resembling bipartisanship. The advantage was in the Democrats' court for this one — Republicans would have been much happier to avoid direct interaction and just continue to snipe from the sidelines. Who won, of course, varies based on the news outlets individuals chose to get a report of the proceedings. I suspect that even members of the press couldn't force themselves to witness all six hours of partisan bullshit redux.

Like the rest of America, all I could bear was an occasional sampling — enough to assure me that I really wasn't missing anything significant. Just the same, I feel safe when I say that the biggest problem affecting health care costs — the problem of "freeriding" — was not addressed. Freeriders are those who use a system without paying their way. Good examples are those who benefit from a union contract without paying union dues. In the context of health care, the freeriders are those who go to the emergency room when their injuries or illnesses are bad enough, but pay neither for insurance nor the costs of their care.

Mind you, I have considerable sympathy for health care freeriders. Many would buy insurance if they thought they could afford it without significantly impairing their lifestyle choices — and they are inclined to wait until they are very sick before they head for the emergency room. Unfortunately, the very sick cost a great deal more to treat than those whose illnesses are diagnosed and treated early. Health care freeriders are a lot more expensive to carry than union contract freeriders, who can collect union negotiated salaries and benefits without necessarily breaking the bank.

And so, in the absence of a single payer plan financed by genuinely progressive taxation, I suppose forcing the young and healthy to buy coverage — bringing down average per-person health insurance costs — currently is the only viable option. The question remains, though: did today's "summit" give candy-assed Democrats enough political cover to dare going with reconciliation?

I suspect that a health care bill passed by reconciliation is quite likely. Sadly, it is likely to drive quite a few young, uninsured former Obama supporters into the arms of the Republicans, since money spent on health insurance cannot be spent on the latest and most fashionable clothing, drugs, and hair styles.

Was Obama really serious when he said he'd rather be a successful one-term president than a two-term president who failed to accomplish his goals? We'll see.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Conspiracy or Culture?

The Times had an interesting article today about the Tea Party movement, focusing on ordinary, previously non-political people who have become involved. Many are the kinds of people who used to tell me that I was paranoid. Well, as we used to say back in the sixties, "paranoia is heightened awareness."

Mind you, I suppose I should be at least somewhat pleased by the rapid growth of the idea that elite groups have undue control over our society and our lives. But, on the other hand, most of the details of Tea Party beliefs are dictated by mouthpieces for those same elite groups — Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, and similar faux-populists. (The persistent problem with populism is that people are such damned suckers for demagogy.)

The chief fear of those Tea Party foot soldiers is that their movement will be co-opted by the Republican Party. It's a rational fear, and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey is leading the charge. It may be that the Tea Party movement will have to choose between co-option and continued fragmentation — although a hostile takeover of the Republicans by Tea Party activists also is a possibility. Frankly, I look forward to that happening. It would leave the Republicans as fragmented as the Democrats.

So, I asked myself, why is it that the right can launch itself into a massive populist tizzy, while the left just sits around with its thumb up its ass?

The answer, of course, is the last election. Most people on the left — not me, regular "view from vicworld" readers may recall — believed we had "won," then were totally stunned when Obama and the Democrats let us down. Nascent populist groups like were co-opted by the mainline Democrats very early in the election cycle. The innocents who actually bought the hype about "hope" and "change" are crushed, having seen neither.

It's kind of like the left is in a clinical depression, unable to get out of bed.

Is it really all a big conspiracy, as the Tea Parties believe, orchestrated by the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve, and (as some of them doubtless believe) the Elders of Zion to boot? It's kind of fun to believe in conspiracy theories, of course, and when conspiracy theorists get together, they feed off each other.

Sorry, but its not a conspiracy. It's culture — the culture of the modern world. It makes as much sense to say that Italian men "conspire" to pinch women's asses as to say that the rich "conspire" to control the government by buying our esteemed political leaders. That's just the way it is.

And, as Marx correctly noted, if you kick out one pack of plutocrats, a new pack of plutocrats slips right into place. All the tea parties in the world won't change that.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

McChrystal and Marja

If General Stanley A. McChrystal actually makes a success of the Marja invasion — which is to say, actually keeping it rather than just conquering it — I might become a convert to the Obama plan for Afghanistan. One thing McChrystal already is doing which I find quite encouraging is redefining Afghans for the troops.

Typically, when an army invades a country, the inhabitants automatically become "the other." Military training encourages such thinking, which makes it possible for soldiers to kill efficiently without excessive guilt. McChrystal is making a concerted effort to teach his troops to discriminate between enemy fighters and civilians, minimizing civilian casualties. His effort to help the troops understand that "the population is the prize" is almost completely novel in the history of warfare. Will it work? We'll see.

I'll also be interested to see McChrystal's "government in a box, ready to roll in" when hostilities subside. If he truly has managed to locate enough non-corrupt Afghan administrators and policemen to run Marja without alienating and antagonizing the locals, that would be another genuinely novel accomplishment. Will he be able to come up with more, to govern the other towns in the Helmand River Valley that will need to be pacified? What will keep them honest, right there in the midst of Afghanistan's most important opium growing region, once NATO forces have moved on?

Frankly, I'm not especially hopeful — but I suppose there's no choice but to give McChrystal a chance.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ask. Tell. Kill.

It appears that Our President has concluded that the gay vote still matters — hence, the State of the Union promise to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell." Admiral Mike Mullen, reflexively loyal to the Commander in Chief, supports the President, albeit on a personal rather than an institutional basis. Defense Secretary Gates, another good soldier, does his best to sound loyal while saying little or nothing.

As for me, I think it would be a great advance for the women in the military to get some idea of which of their fellow warriors are willing to admit they're gay — that is to say, which guys are far less likely to rape them. Mind you, quite a few of the gay guys in the military still won't be coming out — hell, they don't want to be raped either.

Institutions designed to train young people to kill, but nevertheless must maintain a facade of high moral standards, have a lot of trouble dealing with sex. There is, you see, that nasty propensity of a substantial number of the prime candidates for such institutions to conflate sex with violence. To control the violence, many believe, the institution must control the sex as well — meaning that the sex, like the violence, must be standardized. The real obstacle to having openly gay men in the military is, more than anything else, administrative. Controlling the gay sex as well as the straight sex would be just too hard for the officer corps.

(Disclaimer, of sorts: thirty years in public education have predisposed me to believe that incompetent administration is at the root of most institutional problems. On the other hand, Philip Zimbardo's exhaustive analysis of systemic failures leading to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib provides substantial evidence that, in the military as well as in the public schools, the shit floats to the top.)

Gays, of course, have been in the military all along. If a fellow is looking for a place where it's raining men (hallelujah), and he doesn't have the skills for professional athletics, there are few better choices. "Don't ask, don't tell" has been military policy since the demise of ancient Sparta, where homosexuality was pretty much compulsory. When Congress codified that policy during the Clinton administration, it actually made things worse for gays in the military. Once "Don't ask, don't tell" was part of the law, anybody who was outed was automatically out.

In the unlikely event that Obama actually manages to get a repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" through Congress, what dire consequences might occur? Will evangelical Christian boys stop joining the military out of fear, leaving our national defense sorely understaffed? Will the straight and gay members of Marine patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan tolerate each other's tastes in rape victims? Will the next set of photos out of Abu Ghraib or the prison at Bagram be even more homoerotic?

Don't ask. Don't tell.