This graph, created a few months ago by National Geographic and reprinted today by Boing Boing has been bending my brain all afternoon (click for full size, better yet, click the link above to go to the original Boing Boing posting):
Now, it's no shock to anyone reading this that the United States is paying approximately sixty percent more per person per year than the next closest country on the graph and enjoying a far worse result, if we define "worse result" as life expectancy. That's how I would define it, but these days I think a fair number of people believe our health care system is a success because it's "not socialist," which is a bit like me deciding I'm a success in life because I'm not Kirk Cameron. There may be some merit to both arguments, but really, we're not using any logical metric for "success" in either case. I also think Americans' willingness to accept more expensive and less effective care is indicative of a deep seated paranoia in our culture - we're willing to pay more to make sure that we're not the one who gets stuck on one of those waiting lists somebody told us that they have some place in Europe. That's a post for another day, though.
No, what struck me the most about that graph is how clearly it demonstrates that we are paying more than any other civilized nation on Earth for health care that we don't even use. If you haven't clicked on the full sized version of the graph, do so now. The density of each line on the graph indicates how many times per year that an average citizen in a given country visits the doctor. Apparently, here in America we see the doctor so infrequently that our annual visits barely make it into the low single digits. What the hell?
Part of this may be our good old fashioned Yankee willingness to "walk it off." Lord knows I'm guilty of that more often than not. (I've always thought of Monty Python's quadruple amputee black night threatening to "bite your legs off" as uniquely American.) Another factor might be the large numbers of uninsured we have here in the US. Thirty million people who can't afford to see the doctor at all are going to skew your averages a bit. But let's face it: the bulk of us aren't going to the doctor because it costs a shitload of money, we know that if the doctor finds something serious we're screwed, and honestly, even in a best-case scenario, dealing with insurance companies is a royal pain in the ass.
Our "greatest healthcare system in the world" has become a white elephant. Thai emperors would bestow white elephants on nobility who had displeased them. Outwardly, bestowing such a gift seemed like a sign of the emperor's favor, but soon the nobility who had been so blessed found themselves going broke trying to take care of the damned thing. They suffered, and the emperor continued to enjoy a reputation for justice and generosity.
Who saddled us with this white elephant, and what the hell did we ever do to them?
(Hat tip to guy in milwaukee at The Crack Den. Stole Monty Python image from here.)
Enough already with the whole idea of corporate personhood. Corporations should be subject to greater regulations than actual citizens because they aren't subject to nearly as many risks as actual citizens. A corporation cannot be arrested. A corporation cannot do hard time. They can be fined, but that usually goes away on appeal. A corporation cannot get cancer from the cheap, lead-infused plastic crap it sells. They just can't. And if you think the way I just described the risks inherent in exercising your right to free expression is heavy-handed, then you weren't in New York City in 2004.
Isn't it all supposed to be about risk and reward in this country? Because, as recent events such as the bank bailout have demonstrated, these organizations take almost no risk. They are, in effect, more "free" than the rest of us.
This is especially true now that there are no regulations on the amount of money they can pour into campaigns. Yes, progressive organizations can also air all the campaign ads they like (except when, you know, they can't) but really, do you see any grass roots organization winning a media buying war against GE or BlueCross? The regulations against unlimited corporate spending weren't there to inflict undue censorship on corporations, they were there to prevent the de facto censorship of everyone else.
As Kind Ed Ra put it: "So, if you're keeping score at home, according to modern conservatives: People= Corporations, zygotes, the brain dead. Not People= Gays, immigrants, anybody else they don't like or who disagrees with them."
That about sums it up, I think.
Now that about sums it up.
The Court’s blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process. Americans may be forgiven if they do not feel the Court has advanced the cause of self-government today ... While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.
Now that about sums it up.
So, a Chinese news agency is saying that a French news outlet told them that the RAND Corporation is lobbying the Pentagon to start another war in order to bring the US out of the current, severe economic downturn. Obviously, the provenance of this story is dubious and it should be treated the same credibility as all those rumors going around saying that I've been cast as the next Doctor Who.
Still, I'm linking to the debunking above because the author makes some interesting points, especially regarding the idea that war is the ideal economic stimulus. (Really, by that reasoning, with two bloody misadventures going on right now we should be living in a new Gilded Age.) The author quotes an economist who tells him that war, in fact, always causes a recession, as the long conflict becomes a drag on the economy. Slipping on my "I'm-not-an-economist-but-I-play-one-in-my-rich-fantasy-life" hat, I'm not sure I agree with that. The current recession was not caused by our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was caused by the entire financial market losing its collective mind at the same time. Iraq and Afghanistan are simply not large enough conflicts to engulf the entire culture or require enough spending to turn the economy around. (They do, however, tie up enough resources to hamper efforts to end the recession.) The same could be said for the recession following the first invasion of Iraq. There were mild recessions after World War II and the Korean War as industrial production was scaled back in the aftermath of the crisis.
So, taking the conservative mantra that "the New Deal failed and World War II ended the Depression" at face value, and comparing it to the negligible economic "benefits" gained from our recent and current overseas conflicts, we can see that we don't just need a war to turn things around, we need a really, really big war, a global conflict. I sure as hell hope that no one at any think tank in Washington is lobbying for that, but I don't put anything past these people anymore.
Still, in light of all this, I think it's worth restating the point that I made here, that a war, in broad terms, is basically a massive government spending program of the type that deficit hawks generally decry. As the administration prepares a jobs bill, there is going to be all manner of huffing and puffing from the deficit hawks about not saddling our children with a huge national debt - pretty much the same blather they blathered during the debate over the stimulus package. Sure, we won't saddle our children with a huge national debt - we'll just saddle them with the smoking ruins of a once proud nation instead. This is a real crisis - don't let any knuckleheaded tea bagger tell you otherwise. We're the most grotesquely wealthy nation in the world and we're having a hunger crisis, for God's sake. By the most narrow measure of unemployment, there are nearly 20,000,000 people out of work.
The best part about approaching a new jobs bill and stimulus package as war spending? There's no actual war! No one has to die. With a massive number of infrastructure projects and a new energy grid to build as well, there doesn't have to be a post-war "recession" for a long time to come, either.
Still caught up in the hustle (with virtually no flow to speak of), but on the other hand, at least I'm working.
In the media, unemployment is like the deficit - a vague, poorly defined number that pundits kick about because it's a number, and therefore useful as a benchmark or indicator of something equally vague and poorly defined. Of course, to economists and hopefully to policy-makers unemployment isn't poorly defined at all. But when was the last time you heard anyone on the teevee break down exactly what the number meant and how the BLS arrived at it?
Allow me to put a human face or two on the statistic: in the United States, a nation of 304,059,724 people, an unemployment rate of 10.2% means there are approximately 31,000,000 people looking for work. That's about half the population of the United Kingdom and roughly equal to the population of Iraq. The broadest measure of unemployment, U6, is 17.6%, which translates to nearly 54,000,000 people looking for work.
Those are brutal numbers. Keep them in mind over the next few weeks as pundits kick the unemployment number around in order to score political points.
EDIT/UPDATE: Culture of Truth has corrected my math; I was calculating my numbers out of the total US population rather than the working adult population. Stupid. That's what I get for ciphering while I'm at work. The proper number of unemployed comes out to around 15,700,000 - still a staggering number, nearly twice the population of New York City. Using the U6 measurement there are nearly 28,000,000 out of work. Still a horrendous number, and it sounds a lot worse than "ten percent."
This is probably pointless, but I'm going to try anyway: before everyone from Glenn Beck to Jim Cramer to your office wingnut (every office has one, and you all know who I'm talking about even though I've never met you) freaks the fuck out over this:
Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration slammed Wall Street by ordering pay cuts of an average of 50 percent and caps on benefits for top executives at companies owing the government billions of dollars from taxpayer-funded bailouts.
... please remember this: we're talking about a move that affects a grand total of 25 people. That's not some number I pulled out of the ethers for hyperbole's sake. It affects a grand total of 25 people. 25 people who damn near managed sink the planet's economy. You don't get a raise for that unless you work for the villain in a James Bond movie. And this is not government over-reach, either: after the bailout, the government pretty much owns these companies, and their bonuses are pretty much being paid with our tax dollars.
Now, if you do decide to freak the fuck out over this, you can't ever again think it's OK for someone who buys a company to come in and fire half the workers and cut the remaining workers' salaries. Never again. You're a socialist now, fighting exploitative management on behalf of labor. Welcome to the glorious struggle, comrade.
Like I said, a futile gesture. But that's what the Internet is for.
My older daughter is studying the Great Depression in her history class. She's in fourth grade, so obviously she and her class are only getting a cursory treatment of the period. Her study materials (as you can see here) generally state that Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped alleviate the Depression, although "some say" the Depression didn't really end until the United States entered World War II and industrial production ramped up to meet the country's military needs.
I'm not an economist so I have nothing to add to that debate; it's been going on for years and it's a conservative mantra that the New Deal failed and it was World War II that ended the Great Depression. I'm reminded of Paul Krugman's assertions that the Roosevelt's stimulus wasn't big enough to end the Depression, although he adds that the package wasn't nearly as big as Roosevelt wanted because he ran into fierce political opposition. Krugman makes this point because he believes that we need a much bigger stimulus package than we currently have, although he doubts that will be possible due to the opposition President Obama encountered to the first stimulus package. Krugman concisely summarizes his positions in the video interview posted here.
Getting back to the conservative belief that the New Deal failed and that World War II ended the Depression: They insist on this point because they believe that government spending is ineffective at providing economic stimulus. But, to paint World War II in the broadest possible way with the crudest possible brush, what was it besides a massive government spending program*? They make it sound like the war was some beneficent angel that appeared in our hour of need to render unto us a boon. But someone had to pay for all those tanks, planes, jeeps and liberty ships, and it wasn't the private sector. That was all government money. The people building them might not have been government employees but they might as well have been.
I've written before about the conservative movement's belief that any government spending is considered wasteful unless it's spending on the military. I don't think this will change any time soon. But it might be helpful to appeal to relatively sane majority of the population by framing any future stimulus package and even health care reform as "war" spending. The United States was in grave mortal peril during World War II. I believe it is in grave mortal peril again, though not because of any outside enemy but rather due to our crumbling infrastructure, outdated energy policies, shortsighted economic policies and a litany of other hazards. We face not the imminent threat of military conquest but instead the chronic threat of slow rot. I think it's worth spending a few bucks to turn that around.
(*Of course, I believe World War II was much more than a government spending program. Anyone who knows me or is familiar with this site knows how I feel about war and how it wastes lives and blasts dreams. If you're not, feel free to poke around the site and see for yourself.)
One of the most egregious practices of modern journalism is the constant creation of false equivalencies, that is, equating one demand or argument proffered by one side of an issue with an unrelated demand or argument proffered by the other side in order to make the coverage seem "balanced." This New York Times article on lobbyists' efforts to sway the health care debate uncorks a doozy:
And now the last two initiatives with real bite that are still in contention — a scaled-back “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans and a nonpartisan Medicare budget-cutting commission — are under furious assault.
Most economists’ favorite idea for slowing the growth of health care spending was ending the income tax exemption for employer-paid health insurance to make lower-cost plans more attractive. But that would hurt workers with big benefit plans, and a labor-union lobbying blitz helped kill that idea by the Fourth of July.
Did you catch that? Labor unions' efforts to protect the employer tax exemption get lumped in with the "Cadillac tax" on high-end health plans purchased by the very wealthy. I suppose because labor unions can be classified as a "special interest," but look more closely at what they actually fought for: a tax-exemption for employers. They defended management! That doesn't sound like typical labor union behavior, does it?
Here's why they did it - and why killing the employer-paid health insurance tax exemption was a crappy idea in the first place. Most of us get our health insurance from our employers, and for years labor has passed up wage increases in favor of better health benefits, primarily because premiums are rising much faster than the rate of inflation and way faster than any increase in real wages. (I've had to do this myself.) By putting employers in a situation where they have to shunt employees into cheaper plans they would undo even those modest gains. And this would not have affected a small group of people: remember, the vast majority of Americans get their health insurance from their employers. This proposal would have had an impact on society as a whole. Sounds less and less like the "Cadillac tax" on high-end plans, doesn't it?
It's irritating to see elected officials and the journalists who cover them lumping anyone who lobbies for anything together as "special interests." Sometimes, just sometimes, people lobby for good reasons - and there is such a thing as a the "public interest." There is such as thing as the "general welfare." And sometimes you have to spend money to promote it, money that is not necessarily pork, although any money spent by Congress that isn't dedicated to warfare tends to be regarded as such.
This confusion may be a result of the vague, muddy terms being used to define the health care debate. A frequently stated purpose of reform is to control health care "costs," and therefore many proposals are aimed at controlling what doctors and hospitals can charge for certain procedures. But, again, for the vast majority of the population health care "costs" are our insurance premiums. Payment for various procedures is an argument between the doctor and the insurance company and nine times out of ten the patient isn't even involved in that discussion beyond the co-pay and deductible. Controlling poorly defined health care "costs" by targeting health care providers only benefits the insurance companies, whose skyrocketing premiums are the reason many Americans don't have insurance or are struggling financially to keep the policies they have.
The insurance companies, it seems, are the gorilla/elephant/Limbaugh/large mammal in the room when it comes to the health care debate, or at the very least that's what certain parties want us to think. That Times article I link to above doesn't even mention the insurance companies when it discusses the special interests lobbying for or against various proposals for reform, which is odd, really: who do you think is lobbying against the "Cadillac tax" on high-end plans? We're never told. But we are told that labor and doctors are gumming up the works. Isn't that special?
OK, that tech bubble thing didn't work out so well for us, and that housing bubble thing did even worse. Dammit, there must be some new bubble we can inlfate to make this economy look like it actually functions! Think, think, think ...
... I've got it! We can use DEATH:
As they say on the Internets, go read the whole thing. The banks interested in inflating the death bubble are not fringe players - Creidt Suisse and Goldman Sachs, among others, are heavily involved with this. And with good reason: the authors of that New York Times article claim that securitized life insurance policies could be a $500 billion market.
I'm guessing that the old-fashioned way of investing - you know, find a company that is either performing well or is poised to start performing well, give them money, get money back - is just too dull or too slow for the modern investor. Besides, it's so much more fun to root for people to die:
In addition to fraud, there is another potential risk for investors: that some people could live far longer than expected.
In other words, these securitized life insurance policies function pretty much the same way a dead pool functions: a young starlet overdosing is worth more money than 92-year-old Walter Cronkite dying after a long illness.
With no end in sight to the current economic crisis - and don't let anyone fool you, it won't end until companies actually start hiring again - there should be no shortage of people willing to cash in their life insurance policies in order to eat, or to pay for the prescription drugs that are keeping them alive. Of course, by staying alive they lessen the value of their securitized life insurance policy, which hardly seems fair. If we're serious about turning this economy around we're going to have to nip this whole longevity thing in the bud.
That's why I'm suggesting that whatever health care reform bill we end up passing have actual death panels in it. Oh, sure, we all know the death panels were just something concocted by the wingnuts to fire up the base, but now that I see the big picture I think we could have a golden opportunity on our hands. Why, once investors get wind of actual death panels being formed the market for these life insurance policies will go through the roof. Presto! New economic bubble! Who doesn't love economic bubbles? The Republicans will, of course, bitch and moan about the death panels but once Goldman Sachs tells them to STFU they'll fall into line.
Think of it - health care reform AND an economic turnaround. I think we have a winner here.