Friday, July 31, 2009

The Daily Paper Sets the Agenda

for today's blog

Health care (two stories) and the White House beer-sipping with Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley made the front page of the Washington Post today. Elsewhere in the paper there are more stories on health care, a short piece on the approval of a $636 billion military budget by the House, a look at Israeli settlements and a lengthy piece about corporate banks, TARP money and generous employee bonuses.

Health Care
In "Industry Is Generous To Influential Bloc," reporter Dan Eggen's story begins with a focus on Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), leader of the Blue Dog opposition to important aspects of proposed health care reform. Ross has been the beneficiary of "at least seven fundraisers...held by health-care companies or their lobbyists this year," Eggen wrote. A reader of the story would be forgiven for concluding that the results of health care reform would be better if we also had public financing for political campaigns.

"Doctors Reap Benefits By Doing Own Tests" explores the corrosive effects that wealth and self-interest have on health care reform. "A host of studies and reports by academics and the federal government shows that physicians who own scanners order many more scans than those who do not," wrote Shankar Vedantam. Though Vedantam used multiple sources for the story and includes both pro and con opinions, the story ends with the conclusion "that eliminating incentives for needless care could reduce the nation's health-care bill by as much as a quarter." A further look at which key players in the current health care debate are getting the most money from medical PACs would have strengthened the story.
(Though it does not focus exclusively on campaign contributions by physicians' groups, this study tracks the flow of dollars to key members of Congress.)

Blue Dog Democrats show up again in "GOP Senators Try to Slow Health Talks," a story that takes a look at slow progress and difficult compromises in both houses of Congress. There are two health care columns on the Post's Opinion page. "Health Reform's Taboo Topic" outlines one way to control the tremendous amount of wasted dollars generated by "defensive medicine." The piece ends on a note of despair.

"The real crisis here is not that health care is broken; people of good will could come together and create the conditions for rebuilding the incentive structure of health-care delivery. The real crisis is that Congress is broken, and that it answers to special interests instead of the needs of all Americans."

Racism and White Skin Privilege

Yesterday's White House meeting (over beer and peanuts) between Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley moved the "national conversation on race" only the tiniest bit (Post stories here and here), but a series of halting starts on that conversation is way better than the usual silence on the matter.

There is no reason to be critical of the lameness with which that conversation is lurching forward, either. The burdens of race and racism are huge.

A significant portion of the great wealth of this country has been built out of the coerced labor of black people, which materialized as profit controlled by Southern slaveholders and their business partners in the North and which was subsequently reinvested in industrial development (notably railroads) and in westward expansion. African Americans have never been compensated for that exploitation, or for economic disadvantages and the social and cultural attacks that Black America has suffered since.

White skin privilege does not spread its benefits equally. The bounty has fallen preponderantly on the haves. Have nots get less, though almost all whites have more immunity from suspicion, detention and arrest than any African American, including Professor Gates.

Still, whether they choose to cop to it or not, whites approach conversations about race with their own version of the burden of history. Sgt. Crowley, an instructor on policing in black communities, is one of the Cambridge PD's go-to guys on race, and he couldn't handle the confrontation with Gates. For the average white person, showing up daily, perhaps, to a job that doesn't pay all the bills or feed the soul, maintaining a household wrestling with all the slings and arrows of life, facing up to the notion that black folks sacrificed blood and sweat to create your life of dubious privilege and entering in to a conversation about race must seem nothing short of dangerous.

Regardless, race remains a major variable in determining who gains and who loses and, not surprisingly, who lives and who dies. Focusing on a single African American on death row, Gary Younge's piece, "Beer and Sympathy," in the Nation suggests another subject area that a conversation on race should explore.

Military Spending Is Killing Us
Clearly, it's killing them (mostly Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis), but Americans die, too, as weapons and weapons systems seek relevance and justification, their own compelling raison d'etre. But the cost of buying weapons and maintaining a huge military establishment drains funds that could be invested in domestic infrastructure, job creation and health care. In a country which has the highest infant mortality rate and shortest life expectancy among Western democracies, not investing in those things kills people.

But, as the Post reports today in "House Backs $636 Billion Defense Bill," the enormous sum we are spending includes lots of things even the Obama administration doesn't want. And though it is not included in the story, the fact remains that our military has no equal worldwide, is equipped for wars that we will never fight and is supported by a budget that will almost certainly exceed one trillion dollars a year by 2020, if not sooner. And that does not include military and related spending that is buried in other budgets (including energy, homeland security, spying and classified spending).

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
There are deep, reasonable and contentious questions about Israel's continued existence as a limited democracy and Jewish theocratic state that need far more discussion in the United States, though it is unclear when we will have the gumption, as a nation, to have that discussion. It isn't even completely clear to all parties to the conflict that Jewish settlements on land that has been part of the West bank since 1967 are continuing violations of international law. But "Settlement Foes Take Fight to Israel's High Court" reports on the work of Israeli "anti-settlement activist Dror Etkes," who has assembled a database that should simplify the challenge of proving that the settlements have been established on land owned by Palestinians. After years of apparent dormancy, the story of Etkes' efforts is one of many examples of a revived Israeli peace movement.

"Bankers Bonuses Beat Earnings as Industry Imploded"

The Post also carried an article about the spectacle of bank's, so recently on the government dole, turning around and paying more than $30 billion in bonuses during the same 12-month period in which they received billions in federal aid. (Read the story here.) The story talks about steps various banks have taken to blunt some of the public criticism of their pay practices. But the biggest problems here lie with the zealous belief in "free markets" that have allowed banks and other major corporations to go largely unregulated and grow "too big to fail." Here's an old post from Robert Reich on the subject and a more recent one from Joseph Stiglitz on why we ought to breakup the big banks.

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