26 May 2011

The Ryan plan: Robin Hood for the rich

This article, by Amitai Etzioni, gives a good summary of what the Ryan plan really means:

At first, I was taken in myself. I heard that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's bold attack on the deficit would reduce federal spending by some $4 trillion. It sounded like a truly new start after months of haggling about whether to reduce the budget by thirty-some billion or sixty-some billion; now we were finally talking about real money. And I could not but agree that it took political courage for the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee to take the knife to Medicare. But then I looked at the small print.
Actually, it did not take a lot of digging to see something was amiss.
Ryan's proposal enlarges the federal debt (as a result of accumulating deficits each year) by $8 trillion over the next 10 years and continues to generate deficits until 2040. One wonders: How is it possible to significantly cut Medicare spending, which is often said to be a major reason our deficits are so large, and still grow the deficit? The answer is that the Ryan plan calls for making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich and further reduces the taxes levied on top individual and corporate earners. To maintain the plan's revenue targets with these cuts, as a new analysis by the Tax Policy Center shows, Congress would have to eliminate more than $2.9 trillion in tax breaks over the next decade. This would probably require the elimination of tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction.
Cutting these deductions on a large scale makes for good copy, but in fact, such cuts are not likely. Ryan's suggestion would be much more believable if he followed the "pay-as-you-go" idea and demonstrated that his favors to the rich and to business would not exceed what can be gained by closing loopholes.
As to Ryan's plan to rely on private health insurers, this will do nothing to address major causes of rising health care costs: reimbursing doctors and hospitals for procedures (which generates an incentive to do more) rather than paying them per patient care (known as "capitation"); reimbursing health care providers for interventions that have no proven benefits, which are estimated to costs up to $325 billion every year; and administrative costs that are nearly double those of countries like Canada.
One may say that insurers will compete with each other, and thus the costs will decline. However, by looking at those who are now covered by private insurers (many of whom are too young to qualify for Medicare), we see that this is not the case. Instead, insurers are raising rates, in some cases by as much as 60%. Bold can cut both ways: It can be very good or God awful. This one is good for the richest Americans and bad for the rest of us. One must give credit to Ryan for not trying to hide that he is, in effect, transferring trillions of dollars from future retirees to businesses and the super-rich. In this way, he is miles ahead of what happened in 2010, when a similar maneuver was carried out.
First, the GOP fought and gained a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2% of Americans, costing some $82 billion lost in revenues to the government in the next two years (and if they are extended again, $700 billion over the next 10) -- one of the very few items it agreed to enact without offsetting the cost by making cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. (At the same time, it opposed extending unemployment benefits unless some parallel cuts in expenditures were made.)
Then, the GOP and even some so-called moderate Democrats pointed to the swelling deficit as a major reason why social programs and entitlements, including Medicare, must be cut. Thus, it was not obvious that the cuts in domestic programs that followed were in effect paying for the tax cuts for the rich. The virtue of Ryan's plan -- that he plans to stand Robin Hood on his head by taking from all future retirees in order to increase the income of those least in need -- is there for all to see.
One can only hope that Kathy Hochul's upset in NY is an indication that Americans won't stand for this.

25 May 2011

Fracking our food

This is a good article warning about what fracking will do to our food supply. I'd also recommend, for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, the documentary Gasland.

19 May 2011

Dancing as the world ends

Harold Camping, who heads 66 Christian radio stations, is telling everyone that the world will end the day after tomorrow based on calculations from biblical passages. Atheists in Seattle and elsewhere are holding "rapture parties." The reasoning goes that if the prediction's true, all the Christians will fly away so that we won't have to fret over those separation of church and state issues anymore (not to mention all the free houses and cars that'll be left behind) and if they're wrong . . . we can smirk and say I told you so. All I can say is that God should have been creative and ended the world on a Monday. We'd all love a reason to skip work.

18 May 2011

Please pass the freedom whine

That great bastion of rightwing media bias The New York Post recently published an article about Dominique Strauss-Kahn (the French head of the IMF) with the clever title "French whine" (please tell me we aren't going to start calling are table wine "freedom wine".) In response to DSK being forced to do a perp walk in front of cameras, the mayor remarked:

"I think it is humiliating, but if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime."

I like the first reader's comment to the online NY Post article:

I don't support rape and I don't support false accusations but luckily somehow Mike Bloomberg already knows that Dom Kahn actually committed the crime he has been accused of. Why go through a costly trial that will produce evidence and facts? Just bring him before Mike Bloomberg for immediate sentencing.
It goes without saying that I have no problem with the rich and famous being subjected to the same legal system that everybody else is forced to use.  The problem is that the person charged with the crime happens to be someone who was likely to be the next president of France. Common sense says that we would take extreme care with such case that may involve political machinations. DSK was a member of the French socialist party (Parti Socialiste, defeated by Sarkozy in 2007) and was very likely to reverse France's slow gravitation towards American-style policies that favor wealthy elites. In such case, it would be the simplest thing in the world to pay one woman to make up a story if it would mean bringing down a key political opponent. Bloomberg's comments, presuming guilt before a trial, coupled with Geithner's comments that DSK is now disqualified to run the IMF show a rush to judgment that is highly suspicious.

17 May 2011

Six cups of joe

Good news for coffee-swiggin' men. We can apparently guzzle our six cups of joe a day (I probably drink more than that!) without even a smidgen of remorse. This article just came out in the JNCI:


Background Coffee contains many biologically active compounds, including caffeine and phenolic acids, that have potent antioxidant activity and can affect glucose metabolism and sex hormone levels. Because of these biological activities, coffee may be associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer.

Methods We conducted a prospective analysis of 47 911 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study who reported intake of regular and decaffeinated coffee in 1986 and every 4 years thereafter. From 1986 to 2006, 5035 patients with prostate cancer were identified, including 642 patients with lethal prostate cancers, defined as fatal or metastatic. We used Cox proportional hazards models to assess the association between coffee and prostate cancer, adjusting for potential confounding by smoking, obesity, and other variables. All P values were from two-sided tests.

Results The average intake of coffee in 1986 was 1.9 cups per day. Men who consumed six or more cups per day had a lower adjusted relative risk for overall prostate cancer compared with nondrinkers (RR = 0.82, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.68 to 0.98, Ptrend = .10). The association was stronger for lethal prostate cancer (consumers of more than six cups of coffee per day: RR = 0.40, 95% CI = 0.22 to 0.75, Ptrend = .03). Coffee consumption was not associated with the risk of nonadvanced or low-grade cancers and was only weakly inversely associated with high-grade cancer. The inverse association with lethal cancer was similar for regular and decaffeinated coffee (each one cup per day increment: RR = 0.94, 95% CI = 0.88 to 1.01, P = .08 for regular coffee and RR = 0.91, 95% CI = 0.83 to 1.00, P = .05 for decaffeinated coffee). The age-adjusted incidence rates for men who had the highest (≥6 cups per day) and lowest (no coffee) coffee consumption were 425 and 519 total prostate cancers, respectively, per 100 000 person-years and 34 and 79 lethal prostate cancers, respectively, per 100 000 person-years.

Conclusions We observed a strong inverse association between coffee consumption and risk of lethal prostate cancer. The association appears to be related to non-caffeine components of coffee.

15 May 2011

Unamerican elimination of tax breaks

Conoco Phillips Mulva has decried the "un-American" tax proposal that would eliminate tax breaks for big oil. In a sense, he's right--the U.S. has become a plutocracy, a system who's sole aim is to reward the wealthy and unproductive class using the hard-earned fruits of the working poor. Elimination of tax breaks for industries making record profits certainly doesn't jive well with the current political zeitgeist.

14 May 2011

Insuring the insurer

The lobbyists for the healthcare industry clearly deserve a bonus. Americans pay double what they should for healthcare and new data shows that they aren't even accessing the healthcare that they've paid for. (I guess the co-pays and hassles have finally dissuaded the poor and sick from standing in line at the doctor's office.) Of course, the insurers are still raising prices just for that rainy day. In other words, we're now paying for insurance for our insurance.

Some of the nation's biggest health insurance companies are enjoying record profits as many Americans postpone trips to the doctor or dentist. Despite the trend, "The New York Times" says major insurers continue to push for double-digit rate increases to offset the potential for a future spike in demand. The paper notes one of the largest commercial insurers, UnitedHealthGroup, reported a decrease in average hospital stays this year. Cigna also noted lower levels of medical use. According to the "Times," analysts believe the tough economy has led to fundamental changes in the way people use the health care system.

12 May 2011

The forever war continues

The Detainee Security Act of 2011, introduced by Buck McKeon in the House, had a rather ominous provision allowing for:

"Long-term detention without trial until the end of hostilities against the nations, organizations, and persons subject to the Authorization for Use of Military Force."

The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (Section 1034) repeats this language. I rack my mind trying to imagine the U.S. president appearing on TV at some point to declare that the war is over and we'll never have to worry about the possibility of terrorism again. Section 1034 also contains the following grant of authority to the president to carry out war with vague objectives:

"The committee notes that as the United States nears the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat has evolved as a result of intense military and diplomatic pressure from the United States and its coalition partners. However, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces still pose a grave threat to U.S. national security. The Authorization for Use of Military Force necessarily includes the authority to address the continuing and evolving threat posed by these groups."

Would this also allow the use of the military against Americans in the U.S.?

8 May 2011

Julia Howe's first Mother's Day Proclamation

The First Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts.
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all
that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender
of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of the devastated earth
a voice goes up with our own.
It says “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of Justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil
at the summons of war,
let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women,
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel
with each other as to the means
whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God –

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
may be appointed and held
at some place deemed most convenient
and at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
to promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
the amicable settlement of international questions,
the great and general interests of peace.

4 May 2011

The One Percent

Last night I watched "The One Percent," a 2006 documentary about the wealthiest Americans (The film should probably be called the "Point One Percent.") The film was created and is narrated by Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. There's much here that won't surprise you. Some of the wealthy people justify their wealth, while others say simply that they don't know what could be done to fix things. For me, the most interesting comments were when the interviewees kept warning Jamie to "be careful" and to not rock the boat. The possibility of upheaval or outright revolution seems to be much more real to these people than it is to the other 99%. One also senses that extreme wealth creates tremendous unconscious fear--there's a lot to lose after all.

The film includes a few more noble types such as Bill Gates, Sr., who has pushed for the government to maintain the estate tax. Milton Friedman comes off as quite an idiot, insisting at one point that money from the wealthy or corporations doesn't influence the U.S. government at all and that the government does exactly what the public wants. As a pointed counter-argument, the documentary chronicles U.S. government's support for the sugar industry--a policy that costs jobs, costs both tax-payers and consumers a lot of money, damages the environment, and further enriches billionaires. The documentary's worth seeing. While short on definitive answers, it certainly asks the right questions.

Link: Another review of the film

1 May 2011

Happy International Workers Day!

This May Day has special relevance at a time when unions and the working class are under a concerted and relentless attack. It's time to organize.