Friday, January 29, 2010

The Politics of Healthcare Failure

Organized labor's unfortunate role

At this very moment in time, lots of people seem to be feeling that our country is ungovernable. Even a reasonable start at healthcare reform, which seemed so very doable just a year ago, appears out of the question. The anger and cynicism of ordinary working people who have morphed over the last 40 years from lunch pail Democrats to Reagan Republicans to foot soldiers in the tea-party movement, seen in the context of falling real wages, underwater mortgages and failing public institutions like mass transit and public schools, makes sense.

Ordinarily, I confine my j'accuse to militarism, capitalism and their corporate agents, but it might also make sense to take a look at what appears to be the recent tactical failure of organized labor and the role of unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in this summer's missed opportunity for healthcare reform. It's true, of course, the union movement is a pale shadow of the powerful entity it became (despite occasional setbacks) during the middle 40 years of the last century. A strongly negative critique of unions, coming from a sometime union member and long-time ardent supporter may have a kind of "piling on" flavor, but so it goes.

Unions played a leading role in establishing the eight-hour day, the five-day week, Social Security, civil rights, Medicare and other socially and broadly important advances, but business unionism, the prevailing practice after World War II for all but a few unions (e.g., the UAW and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers) took the AFL-CIO out of the broader progressive movement for the last 30, or so, years. And, even before that, the AFL-CIO's internal red-hunting and collaboration with the U.S. Cold War-agenda undermined the entire American Left.

Five or six years ago, Andy Stern (president of SEIU) and his Change to Win initiative seemed to be leading labor back to the critical point position of a broader and growing progressive movement. The chief evidence for that has been the forceful union push for national healthcare. But, in the end, at the cost of a decent healthcare bill that never actually materialized but would, I think, already have passed the House and Senate, unions decided to come down on the side of the narrowly defined economic interests of their members by absolutely opposing a tax on "Cadillac" healthcare coverage. That union leaders would define and protect their members interests in the most parochial way has been obvious since the summer, even if it did not play a significant role in the public debate at the time. In that light, the behaviors of senators like Nelson and Lieberman, who decided that they, too, should, and could, get a little more for their own constituents makes perfect sense.

Had Stern and other leaders taken the long-term view that the eventual demise of employer-provided health coverage needs, in the interests of union members and everyone else, to be carefully managed to its extinction rather than bitterly defended to the last detail, several things might have happened:

One, Ted Kennedy would have gotten to vote to pass a better plan;

two, the House and Senate plans would have resembled each other more closely and differences might have been resolved in conference in a timely way;

three, unions could have expected more favorable treatment for the other items on their agenda, like a more sympathetic and effective National Labor Relations Board (though the Employee Free Choice Act never had a chance);

four, their own members would have suffered little or no actual economic loss (the details of which could have been negotiated) and, living in a world in which their own extended families and communities are deeply and adversely affected by the current healthcare system, likely would have applauded passage of a good bill;

five, the resulting effects would have begun to improve the global competitiveness of major manufacturing sectors (like auto);

and, six, it would have made Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts far less likely.

Unfortunately, Stern, the most pivotal union figure in this scenario, was busy visiting the White House (22 times in the past year, I heard), continuing to position himself in his own mind, I'd guess, as the most powerful and creative union leader of what turns out to be the most tediously long century (the 20th, about 110 years, or so), in American history.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Healthcare Bullet That Wounds Us All

Mom scrapes by and yet...

I just spent a week in Chicago with my mom. She was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2006, about six months before Marrianne, Brendan and I completed our move from Chicago to DC. Mom will be 85 in May, but considering her age and her disease she's doing all right. She still has all her marbles and she is still living at home on her own.

Her cancer treatment hasn't been debilitating; all along it has been aimed at slowing the spread of the disease and maintaining her quality of life. A chemo assault on the cancer, aimed at eliminating it, might have shortened her life, and almost certainly would have had side effects severe enough to rob her of much of the energy she has invested in living the life she wanted these last three years.

But Mom's had a bad run for the last couple of months. She fell at home and hit her head once, suffered through spells of dizziness and nausea, and through periods of high blood pressure and high anxiety about what was happening to her. Thankfully, the last week was pretty good for her. I don't think that my presence had all that much to do with her gains in strength and appetite; my sisters Dale and Teri and brother Mark had already been on the spot during the more difficult time before I arrived.

Still, it is clear that Mom was still reeling and full of distress while I was there. Ordinarily, she's both a gregarious friend and an intensely private person. When she's feeling good, she's very clear about boundaries. The daytime is for chores and for socializing. The nighttime is private time, rest and recharge time. She likes to see her children, her grandchildren and her toddler great-grandchild, and she loves them all best when the visits are short. Most times when I come in from DC, she gives me a big hug when I arrive and, 48 hours later, begins wondering when I'm going to leave. But this visit I was still somewhat welcome a week after I got there; that's how bad she has been feeling.

There's no question aging is tough. So is being so sick that your life doesn't feel like your own anymore. Mom hates those feelings and hates being dependent, but she's luckier than most people her age and most people with her diagnosis. She's got her problems, but she's financially secure and she has first rate health insurance that doesn't cost her anything. As the widow of an Illinois state legislator who served in that role for 14 years, she has Cadillac healthcare coverage and a decent pension. Of course, she also has Social Security, Medicare (which pretty much guarantees that holes in her healthcare coverage are plugged), and what remains of an originally sizable payment from my dad's life insurance coverage. As a result, there are some things she simply doesn't have to worry about.

But most people her age have only Medicare coverage and, by itself, that has enormous holes. And many people with diagnoses as severe, or worse, live their lives with poor and inadequate healthcare. They may also live in substandard housing and have to scrape by making the choice to pay some bills and ignore others. Some are elderly, sick, homeless and hungry.

I suppose I could do a little research and come up with some estimate of how many millions of people are worse off, in many cases, much worse off than Mom, but I'm just going to say there are millions in that position. And in the best possible scenario, those millions of people are loved and cared for by millions more who undoubtedly are stretched financially, emotionally and physically in the process. These people, dependent on others for basics they cannot themselves provide, and their caregivers, live in communities and neighborhoods where still more millions are witnesses to their need and must themselves decide whether and how much to help.

The social ramifications of witnessing needs and being unable to respond adequately are huge. When such a story is repeated over and over again the social consequences of our collective helplessness in the face of injustice are almost too much to bear. I think those consequences include widespread alienation, shame and anger. We cannot bear to keep looking at what we cannot fix and so we look away. But though we may not acknowledge that we have looked away, we must do something.

One familiar option is blaming the victim. The social desperation around us is, for example, the fault of those who suffer. They were not prudent or wise or diligent or independent; they are or were lazy, unmotivated and otherwise undeserving. It is they who are bankrupting are healthcare system, creating trillion dollar deficits, weakening our country.

Never mind that our healthcare system is what it is, a disaster for some of us, a chronic problem for most of us, because it is a profit opportunity for a very few of us. U.S. healthcare is, currently, just another mechanism for concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny fraction of Americans. Our trillion dollar plus budget deficit is arguably as connected to rampant American militarism, to annual military spending that exceeds a trillion dollars (Pentagon spending plus spending by other departments plus off-budget spending plus interest on that portion of the debt attributable to past military spending), as it is to any other cause. Congressional leaders, most particularly Republicans, and tea party organizers alike, are better at finding ways to mask our shame and express our frustration at our helplessness than they are at addressing our fundamental problems. Democrats, who this past year have managed to squander every apparent political advantage, now appear ready to abandon healthcare reform altogether. This will not be a tragedy for my mom individually, who will address her own challenges with the relatively mighty set of tools at her disposal, but she will suffer her share of our collective failure, if we cannot pass even a sorry compromise of the separate bills that have already passed the House and Senate.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Passion and Optimism

No change without them

On Saturday morning (9 a.m. Chicago time) I will be on Michael James' radio show talking politics. The show can be heard on-line here. These things never go as planned, but as I have prepared by focusing on what I think people, especially young people, might do to define and develop an activism adequate to the 21st century's enormous political challenges, I find myself baffled by all the things I don't know.

Despite all the sturm un drang that seems endemic to our political culture, I'm under the impression that there are fewer people actively engaged in politics and more young adults convinced that they are powerless to address the issues that concern them most. Of course, as I set out to investigate this assumption further, I confront only more questions that I will have no time to answer by tomorrow morning:

1. I know, or know of, plenty of young people who are passionately engaged. The daughter of one friend is living in Central America and working as a volunteer on village development projects. Others have committed their working lives to investigating and writing about a wide range of issues, from climate change to how to use new media to build progressive political networks. Some of them do these things without much concern for career path or compensation. Still others have entirely rejected the more material aspects of our culture and focus their efforts on building community and pursuing their art. But it seems to me that there are nowhere near enough young people who are persuaded that their efforts will make a difference and are proceeding accordingly.

2. In a world where climate change will reach a tipping point before efforts to abate it begin to have an effect, and in a country where racism and discrimination still devastate lives and communities, and almost everyone must struggle with the Great Recession--the worst domestic economy in 70 years--how does one go about priortizing the targets for activism?

3. The Supreme Court's decision to throw out campaign finance restrictions on corporations has to be one of the most anti-democratic rulings in years. The notion that absolute limits on corporate contributions to campaigns violate the free speech provisions of the constitution is nonsensical. The whole point of the constitution and the bill of rights was to establish, protect and extend democracy. The court's use of the free speech principle to advance anti-democratic practices is a clear and present danger. The effects of this ruling will increase individual feelings of powerlessness and apathy, but by how much?

4. People I talk to are devastated by the Republican victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday. They want to know how such a thing could possibly happen. The how of it all isn't obvious, but some of the factors are clear. Thought the turnout was high for a special election, the fact is that many Obama voters, mobilized and enthusiastic just 13 months earlier, sat out the election (see a good analysis here). I suspect that the Right saw an opportunity to "steal" a Senate seat a month before Democrats recognized the seat was at risk. It seems likely that many of the people who voted for Brown have had little or no effect on previous statewide elections. But the election gave them an opportunity to convert their sideline cynicism into an angry and passionate rejection of the liberals and Democrats they have learned, these past 10 or 20 or 40 years, to fear. In an environment where Obama voters have learned to question their earlier passion, the quick special election created a huge opening for a loud "no". How much of this is because of what the Obama administration failed to accomplish in its first year?

5. How much of the Left's frustration with current politics are connected to unrealistic expectations for change? How much progressive change can be achieved without a larger and more vibrant Left? Where does political optimism and passion come from?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Peace and Justice the Hard Way Is the Only Way

The Right will fervently oppose even the smallest changes

There is this: that the Right opposes virtually every single small move to build a more democratic and humane future. This strategy is based on the understanding that each success, however small, makes the pressure for the succeeding step harder to resist. That is why the Right opposes the efforts of even the smallest community to sanctify gay marriage; that is why the Right mobilizes to stop every initiative aimed at legalizing private marijuana use even to relieve suffering; and that it is why it is not OK to pass even the most limited of health reform measures. And as long as the Right understands this, and proceeds accordingly, the Left must come to understand the same thing--that incremental change is the way most change happens in this country, slowly, slowly and arduously. The Left must make that understanding a strategic cornerstone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

King's Day...

and other things
on my mind

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and, while I consider Dr. King the most effective, progressive leader of my lifetime, my thoughts are only briefly on him, focused instead on a radio show that I’m going to guest on in Chicago on Saturday, the 23rd. Host Michael James, whose business card identifies him as an activist and an entrepreneur, is a former SDS member and co-owner, with Katie Hogan, of Rogers Park’s legendary Heartland Café. It’s worth noting, as an aside here, that SDS was not only basically correct in its political analysis and righteous in its fury, but also entrepreneurial to the core. There was not a soul running or sympathizing with SDS who was not themselves capable of falling out of line at any given moment.

Anyway, Michael wants a little summary of what I want to talk about. He will, he says, do his homework on whatever subject I choose. But that won’t be necessary. There’s nothing I want to talk about that he hasn’t thought about himself. There’s a high probability that we will talk about Chicago’s 1983 mayoral race, because the show originates at the Heartland Café on the city’s Northside, and because I am Bernie Epton’s son and because there is always more to say about that election and the people who made it what it was..

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to outline some other things to talk about. Here’s a list:

1. Politically, the real dangers of this moment are more compelling, lethal and closer to overwhelming, than were IMO the challenges of any other decade of my adult life.

2. Poverty and the failure of democratic institutions, like the public schools and mass transit, affect a larger number of people more severely than ever before.

3. Climate change, militarized agendas, market health care and the socialized liabilities of private capital are poised to sicken, maim, wound and kill more people in a single century than the total sickened and killed by similar means in the entire history of the world.

4. Inevitably, consider also the accuracy of the previous statements.

5. The people alive now, especially people under, say, forty years old, can not only stop the looming catastrophe, they can be the force that ushers in a global Golden Age.

6. What is there that we can offer from the perspective of those of us who once believed we would be the agents of some sort of similarly creative and humane epoch?

Also, time permitting, what might we say about the collapse of mainstream journalism enterprises, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the meaning of life?

From 1993 to very nearly the last day of 1999, Marrianne McMullen and I ran the Dayton Voice, aka Impact Weekly. In combining so much life and so much love, at least for me, the mini-decade of my life largely defined by my association with the Voice and my colleagues there and the whole city of Dayton, OH stands out in memory as seven fruitful and creative and satisfying years.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Voice would run a graphic image of King on the front page and excerpt one of his speeches. Here’s a brief quote from one of those speeches:

“It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must admit that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon On Peace”
Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, December 1967

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Washington Post's Bad Example

Time to cover real news

Here's my 26th letter to the Washington Post over the last two and a half years (one published to date):


The January 8 Post had no fewer than four opinion pieces and three news stories about intelligence failures related to the Christmas Day "underwear bomber, " who manages to somehow continue to terrorize journalists and politicians despite the fact that he actually failed to ignite his bomb, as did shoe bomber before him. That incident was also the occasion for much political handwringing about security failures and the need for reform. But the fact is, the US has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on homeland security since 9/11. Though it is impossible to determine precisely the exact level of security necessary (and the commensurately appropriate expenditure), it seems likely that what has been both spent and reformed to date has something to do with the fact that there has been no successful attack on US soil by a foreign terrorist since 9/11.

Moreover, it is very likely that Osama bin Laden is as perplexed at the failure of his own operatives as we appear to be perplexed by the failure of ours, despite the fact that human beings working under extreme conditions in complex operations likely fail more often than they succeed. Simply put, to err is human.

In the meantime, we have spent much smaller sums to expand health coverage that might have saved thousands of actual American lives. And on January 8, the Post ran one story on a scientific study focussing on the environmental harms created by the common practice of coal mining by mountaintop removal ("Scientists in mining study ask for action"). There is nothing theoretical about the illnesses, deaths and environmental degradation that arise from that method of extraction. Would it be asking too much of the Post's editors that they back off from the hysteria about terrorism and that they assign and encourage reporters and columnists to follow up on the very real consequences of mountaintop removal?

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

War As Profit Opportunity

Why we need a military draft, why we won't get one

On Monday, Fresh Air host Terry Gross introduced an interview (on-line here) about civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan by quoting a severely injured contractor who said, "It's almost like we are an invisible, discardable army."

This particular contractor got both legs blown off by a roadside bomb and subsequently discovered that he was not entitled to any sort of federal compensation for his loss or for his health care. He had to fight his private insurance company to get a shot at prosthetic legs. I didn't hear all of the interview with reporter T. Christian Miller, so I don't know if the conversation pursued the deeper point that while the US maintains both an all-volunteer army and a private mercenary army, war becomes a profit opportunity that is largely shielded from effective political opposition.

Here we are, involved in two of the longest wars in American history, at a cost to the federal government of over one trillion dollars and climbing, with minimal effective public and Congressional opposition to those wars. The Vietnam War, in its many phases--military advisers and trainers, CIA mercenary armies, the mobilization of a fighting force over 600,000 strong, and secret bombings and incursions in Cambodia and Laos--was longer and killed far more American soldiers than have been killed to date in Iraq and Afghanistan (more information here and here). The Vietnam War also killed more civilians than the current wars have killed so far, but the difference is not worth applauding.

But here's the thing: the Vietnam War was pursued by two presidents in the face of relentlessly increasing public opposition. Though that opposition did not end the war in a timely way, say, 1969 or '70, rather than 1975, active resistance and public disapproval forced both Presidents Johnson and Nixon to conduct portions of the war in secrecy and otherwise compromise war aims. Arguably, public and Congressional opposition is also forcing compromise on President Obama, but it seems more likely that weapons manufacturers and military contractors are currently forcing political compromises that will prolong those wars.

Indeed, the influence of the military-industrial complex might right now be at an all-time high, at least in proportion to the influence of the public and anti-war organizations. In each of the six complete election cycles since 1998, the contributions of corporations in the war business have climbed 10 to 20 percent, with the exception of the 2008 cycle when the increase was
more than 20 percent (go here to explore the ugly truth, note that the 2010 cycle promises to break all previous records). In a 1997 article, "Guns r' Us" in In These Times, a magazine I worked at for two years, writer Martha Honey recounts the many ways that weapons manufacturers seek to increase markets for their products. Ten+ years later, the situation is worse.

Of course, anti-war opposition has limited some of the options of those who would rather pursue the current wars more vigorously. But the practices of maintaining an all-volunteer army, and employing contractors to reduce the direct cost of war, have obvious roots in the lessons that political, military and corporate chiefs learned from the civil unrest and mass opposition that they confronted during the Vietnam War.

First, make sure that large numbers of people do not serve in the front-lines in a manner that is obviously against their will. This lesson was initially applied with the end of active conscription in December 1972. To ensure an adequate supply of volunteers, regular pay for members of the armed forces was increased significantly in 1971. By itself, the pay increase would not have been sufficient, but by the mid-'70s, the economy began to stagnate and the real value of workers pay began to drop; to drop far enough, in fact, that many women not in the workforce at the time, began to work in order to maintain household income. Thus began a cascade of economic changes (including relative reductions in unemployment compensation, financial aid for higher education, cuts in welfare payments and childcare) that has often made enlistment in the all-volunteer army an economically coerced decision. This state of affairs has made it much more difficult for many working people to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the use of private companies providing personnel for security and other non-military services (like transport, food prep and garbage services) has helped to reduce war visibility and exported some of the costs of the war onto the shoulders of those least able to afford it and powerless to do much about it. These are the individuals who work under contract with the Blackwaters and Brown & Roots who pull down tens of millions of dollars annually from the Pentagon. These individuals, like the man quoted at the beginning of Fresh Air, are among those coerced by economic conditions at home to serve in harm's way abroad. And they do so, largely at their own risk.

I started at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1965. The spring before I got to Ann Arbor, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first teach-in against the war. At the time, there was still very little public opposition to the war, and little need for the military to resort to an active draft to maintain the then relatively low force levels in Vietnam. But Ann Arbor and the U of M were a center of anti-war fever and it didn't take very long for me to succumb to the virus. In point of fact, focused as I was on what could be learned outside of class, I quickly lost interest in maintaining my student status. I opposed the war and, soon after, began active opposition to the draft.

Even then it was obvious that some companies would profit from the war. President Eisenhower, soon to leave office, had given a speech in 1961 warning the country of the existence of a "military industrial complex" with interests separate from a broader national interest. And, as the Vietnam War heated up and middle-class students enrolled at colleges and universities escaped service, it also became obvious that the brunt of war fighting and dying was falling largely on minorities and the white working class. In that context, maintaining a student deferment became a moral conundrum that troubled many young men who had such deferments, and troubled many working people who saw family members fighting and dying in Vietnam while others went to college.

The obvious solution to those who would prefer to fight wars less encumbered by controversy would be to reduce the flash points, and nothing flashes quite like being forced to leave home to fight and die. That is why there will be no draft. And the absence of a draft is also one of the reasons why obvious elements of economic justice, like a reasonable minimum wage, an adequate supply of affordable housing, and universal health care are not a part of this democracy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Future Calendar

Next year, it says, we get much stronger

On this date in 1890, a woman assassinated Solotouchin, chief of the Moscow secret police (there are no web references to this guy that I can find, though there are references to the use, by Chris Brown, of the phrase 'solo touchin'). Also, 77 years ago today, 16 peasants and workers were murdered in Spain by the Guardia Civil. That event, my 2010 organizer tells me, is known as the Massacre of Casa Viljas. Just 12 years ago, 25,000 people occupied the construction site of a dam being built on the Narmada River. The proposed dam was part of a series of projects on the river that would wipe out the homes and livelihoods of millions. A people's organization, Narmada Bachao Andolan, organized opposition to the projects. At least three major literary figures were born on this day, as well: Eugenio Maria de Hostos, a philosopher, novelist and true citizen of the Americas (read about him here and here) in 1839, American author William James in 1842, and Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, in 1903.

I learned all these things from, variously, my Half Price Books 2010 calendar, the Peace Buttons on-line calendar, and, as noted, from my 2010 organizer, produced by the Slingshot Collective. I consider such little bits of historical data helpful. The political stuff provides a consistent reminder that people everywhere refuse to suffer indignity and injustice quietly, that the instinct to build community based on humane vision and opposition to authoritarianism is actually written into human DNA. And, though the births and deaths of revered historical figures often come to be celebrated at the expense of the memories of the mass of individuals who built the cultures from which individual achievement sprang, it is nice to be reminded that artistic and creative genius does exist, even if I am also reminded, in the process, that such genius does not dwell in me.

In these calendars there is a sort of half-baked genius. The calendars vaguely suggest stories. But they don't do any of the work of detailing specific stories. To accumulate detail we have to consult other sources, historians, teachers, books, songs, friends, imagination. In his book, 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed To Know, Mickey Z appears to have taken some left political calendar of some kind and lavished it with research and imagination. This he does, I am certain, because he believes that what each of us contributes toward progressive change is more important than we individually can ever imagine. To that effect, Mickey Z quotes Howard Zinn:
"[Revolution is] an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society."

I'm pretty sure that Mickey's z is a self-chosen last name, with plenty of possible references. Z standing alone, for instance, might suggest revolutionary resistance, as it does in the Costa-Gavras movie "Z." Or it might be that Mickey is simply announcing his own subversive intentions, identifying himself and others as a "zigzagger," the human embodiments of Zinn's revolutionary waves. Or, I suppose, it could be that Mickey's last name starts with z, is hard to spell and harder to pronounce. No matter. His book is an act of radical imagination.

Sitting next to "50 Revolutions" on our pile of bathroom books is The Future Dictionary of America(FDA). Let me say, as a person once convicted of malicious destruction primarily on the testimony of a self-described "unemployed lexicographer," that as dictionaries go, FDA is probably on the unreliable end of the spectrum. But FDA is also an act of radical imagination. Edited by a quartet of young (heartbreaking) geniuses, it includes numerous entries that try to imagination a richer, more humane future. One entry written by revered graphic novelist Art Spiegelman reads:
"Geneva Convention [jen-ee'-vah kon-ven'-shun] n. a large annual Spring gathering of cartoonists that takes place in Geneva, Switzerland...The highlight of this convocation is a drawing contest [in which] cartoonists compete to best capture [an] audience's shifting expressions of shock, awe, disgust, prurience, anger and anguish[in reaction to] pornographic video footage of early 21st century American soldiers performing atrocities on Moslem civilians..."

Well, OK, that definition is more of an inspired critique than a vision of a benign future, but I personally see the image of a bunch of cartoonists sitting in judgement of war crime as a bit of alternative futuring. And though FDA has far more critical and satirical definitions of the tired and corrupt normal, there are many definitions of a future world that are as inviting as a warm featherbed in winter.

But what I really want here is this, a calendar based on the good real people aspire to accomplish within the span of their own lives, a calendar that takes such personal visions and reports all the good things that will happen in the future. Like, say, the entry for January 11, 2034: writer Sylvia Waters transmits the completed manuscript of her biography of the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to her publisher.

And I know this happens how? I know this happens because SW told me that is her deadline for finishing the book. And, as we all know, individual aspirations are the tributaries of the rivers that flow to the oceans where the tidal waves of change are generated. Frankly, though I will be 88 by the time the book is finally available to me, I can hardly wait to read it. Further, if there are readers out there who aspire, openly or secretly, to move a certain change by a particular date, please share your dream with me, if you would. Personally, I feel a strong need to see visions, to feed on the nutritional richness of such a future calendar.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Great Terrorism Scam

The Century's Biggest Boondoggle

On any given day, your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack on the United States in the 21st century are vanishingly small, say, less than one chance out of 35 billion. Lower than that, actually, unless, you are living on a military base in Texas, which does get attacked (in the 21st century) about one day every 3,500 days, or so. But on a really bad day--September 11, 2001 comes to mind--your chances of being killed go up to something less than one in 100,000. There are plenty of likelier ways for each of us to die.

Nevertheless, we are fighting a War on Terror that has to qualify as one of the biggest wastes of national treasure and brainpower and collective energy in our history. We kill about 100 of our own with our cars and trucks every single day (about 37,000 deaths per year). A death toll that we tolerate and, even, encourage. After all, we encourage driving, spending tens of billions of state and federal dollars annually to repair and expand our system of streets, roads, highways and bridges. Daily risk of dying in a driving accident: still pretty low at less than one chance in 3 billion, though higher, of course, if you are actually out driving.

One of my favorite books is Jeffrey Reiman's The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice, now out in its eighth edition. In my experience, Reiman improves and updates the book with every new edition, but I am looking now at chapter two from the sixth edition, "A Crime by Any Other Name...". The chapter includes subheads like "Work may be dangerous to your health," "Health care may be dangerous to your health," "Waging chemical warfare against America," and "Poverty kills." As you might guess, in this chapter Reiman demonstrates his thesis that our criminal justice system goes to great expense to "punish" criminal harms while national policy essentially overlooks far greater risks to individuals that arise from poverty and from routine occupational, medical and environmental practices.

Using data from 1997, Reiman points out that the FBI's "crime clock" showed a murder happening once every 29 minutes. A similar "clock ticks for half of the population that is in the labor force--this clock would show an occupational death about every 17 minutes! In other words, in about the time it takes for two murders on the crime clock, three workers have died just from trying to make a living." He goes on:
"To say that some of these workers died from accidents due to their own carelessness is about as helpful as saying that some of those who died at the hands of murderers asked for it. It overlooks the fact that when workers are careless, it is not because they love to live dangerously."

Workers, Reiman says, have quotas to meet that they do not set, workplaces to work in that they did not design with an eye to their own safety, equipment that they did not purchase themselves and may not be empowered to maintain. The point, updated to 2010, when far fewer dangerous jobs exist because they have been moved to China or elsewhere, is that far more Americans die each year from workplace accidents and work-related illnesses than will die from terrorist attacks in the next decade, or, even, during the remainder of this century. Yet we spend billions more every year on protecting ourselves against attacks that rarely happen (and when they do, happen with consequences that don't compare to other more regular events) than we spend on improving workplace safety and protecting workers against occupational illness.

In his section on health care, Reiman leads off with a quote from the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, released more than 35 years ago: "A recent study of emergency medical care found the quality, number, and distribution of ambulances and other emergency services severely deficient, and estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year as a result of improper emergency care." Reiman demonstrates that little has changed since the report was released. Thousands of Americans still die from poor, inadequate and improper emergency care, while the number of deaths from terrorist attacks on American soil is, in most years, zero. And tens of thousands die annually in nonemergency situations from unnecessary, inadequate, improper and/or unavailable health care and from medical mistakes (malpractice). Yet we have spent perhaps a trillion dollars this decade on homeland security and "anti-terrorist" activities, while debating the appropriateness of improvements in national healthcare that would cost less and save and prolong and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Washington National airport recently closed down for an hour in the middle of the day after someone entered a high security area by walking through an exit passage. Though the individual who did so was never found, thousands of airline customers waited in security lines and at gates while police combed the airport. That single incident may have cost several million dollars in lost productivity and further delays at other airports.

After a passenger on a Detroit-bound international flight was overpowered with a faulty bomb he had snuck onto the plane in his underwear, President Obama declared that the intelligence failures which permitted the man to fly in the first place would "not be tolerated." This is an interesting phrase.

Googling "will not be tolerated" reveals a vast range of things that someone somewhere stands ready to oppose. The list of intolerable things includes indiscipline in political parties, bleaching of hair and skin, homosexuality, terrorism, harassment of commuters, foul language, slandering the dead, foreign terrorists, mistreatment of fellow cannabis users, intolerance and something called "swine flu supplement fraud" to name just a few. Most of these things happen anyway, which suggests that nothing fails like a firm commitment to keep people from doing very human things, like failing to widely share information about suspected terrorists.

It would be far more helpful if President Obama were to say something like "hysteria about terrorism will not be tolerated," though it's quite clear that there is little that can be done to prevent that kind of hysteria, other than, perhaps, a return to form by the man once promoted as No-drama Obama. The truth is, there probably aren't very many people in the world, al Qaeda members, or otherwise, who are both capable of and willing to pull off a terrorist attack on American soil.

Sure there are regular suicide bombings in countries struggling with open conflict, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, to name three. But these are locations where people have been brutalized by acts of war and a variety of other assaults. They are also places where the line between combatants and noncombatants has been all but erased, and the possibility for vengeance, real or imagined, is high. But to travel to the US from one's homeland, or to immigrate here and subsequently evolve the mindset that might create a terrorist substantially reduces the number of possible attackers. Estimates available on the web puts the number of possible attackers somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand (see Ken Silverstein's 2006 piece, "The Al Qaeda Clubhouse: Members lacking" in Harper's Magazine here).

Further, you can bet that terrorist leaders, like Osama bin Laden "will not tolerate" failure by terrorist conspirators. That fact suggests that terrorists, like CIA agents and airport security personnel, fail frequently. So, yes, there will be more attacks (and many more failed attacks), but most of us, almost all of us, in fact, will survive. We may wait untold hours with our shoes and belts off, holding up our pants, waiting to be screened, and pay more to fly because somebody has to pay for the delays and the extra personnel, but we will survive. Meanwhile, people in power must want it to be this way, because they know, like we know, that lack of affordable healthcare and unsafe employment and climate change will kill (and sicken) more of us than terrorists ever will.