Monday, January 21, 2008

Are the Democrats the right tool for the job?

"The median American family is going into what looks like a recession owing more than 100 percent of its income."
Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor
David Seaton's News Links
Are the Democrats the right tool for the job? I ask such an unpleasant question at such an awkward time, because the only candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination that is talking about a real, universal health care scheme on European lines, John Edwards, seems to be going nowhere.

As to the front runners, Hillary had her chance at bringing health care once and failed so miserably that a decade was lost and Obama's idea of sitting around a table for a "friendly chat" about health care with the insurance and pharma crowd is well... Mike Huckabee might say that Barack is "constipated". After Obama's paeans to the Gipper, anyone who expects anything progressive from him is simply indulging in political onanism.

All of this tends to lend credit to Gore Vidal's idea that there is only one political party in the USA, the "Property Party" with a Democratic wing and a Republican wing. In short it looks like nothing much is really going to change very much at all and that is the basic idea of the system, that nothing much change. To say this is a crying shame is a screaming understatement.

As we see, by Elizabeth Warren's quote above, the median American family is heading into a major recession not only without any savings, but in debt as well. Thanks to the bursting housing bubble many people are also going to lose their homes. Obviously in such times, many who have some health insurance will have to cut back on it, or drop it all together. We are talking about a meltdown of the American middle class's self-image and its basic well being. Having abandoned the traditional virtues of thrift and prudence, they stand naked in a very cold breeze.

This presents a historic opportunity to create a progressive consciousness that cuts through racial, regional, sexual orientation, religous and ethnic divisions. Nobody wants to get sick and die unattended and no one wants to see their children get sick and die unattended either. The money is there, of course, but it will have to come out of the "defense" budget which, if my memory serves me, is greater than the military expenditures of the next fourteen countries on the list combined. This would mean the end of American militarism as we know it. With a defense budget only bigger than say the next five countries combined we could take care of everybody, right down to braces on little poor girls' teeth.

Most commentators ignore or pretend to ignore what a political sea change a federal, universal health care system would bring to the dynamics of American politics. For example: One of the greatest objections that "conservatives" have against a universal health scheme on European lines, is one they hardly talk about: unions. In Europe the health systems are unionized and the unions are powerful. Doctors, nurses, cleaners etc, are all in unions. So not only would socialized medicine save people from disease, death and humiliation, it would also help to rebuild America's unions that Reagan did so much to cripple.

Health, the end of militarism and the rebirth of the labor movement. Pretty heady stuff, nu? But that is what strategic opportunities are about: the "game changers". They don't come by very often and they are not to be missed. I don't say that most Democratic voters wouldn't like to see all this happen, but if they wait for their "leadership" to pull it off, they are worse than fools. How can I say this in a way that will sound good to the reticent progressive ear. How about, "these are the times that try person's souls"? Or, "Now is the time for all good persons to come to the aid of their country"? This the big one. DS

Roger Cohen: U.S. Soldiers and Shoppers Hit the Wall - New York Times
Abstract: Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed the U.S. armed forces to the limit. Many soldiers have scarcely seen their families in recent years. But a much larger American army, the one that's spent this century shopping, is even more overextended and its pain is now coming home to roost. Nobody ever made money exhorting people to save. But U.S. banks and financial institutions have spent huge amounts in recent years telling people debt is good and savings are dumb.(...) And here we are, with the rainy day our grandparents always droned on about appearing in the form of a deluge, and no savings stashed for it, and President George W. Bush, the debt-spender par excellence, conjuring up a $150-billion stimulus package that evokes the injection of steroids into a prone athlete wrecked by a marathon. This "shot in the arm," as Bush put it, may dampen a little pain. But this patient will be in intensive care for a long time. As Stephen Roach, the chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, said to me: "The very low U.S. savings rate, and related huge balance of payments deficit to attract funds from overseas, are not sustainable things." The adjustment is likely to be long and painful. Think of it as getting the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and the obliviousness of U.S. shoppers a little more in sync. The non-relation between expensive wars and exempt non-warriors, a mirage Bush has fostered, has become unsustainable. Roach estimated U.S. net national savings at a tiny 1.4 percent of national income and household debt at 133 percent of personal disposable income. That last figure means middle class families are tapping into home equity - borrowing against their homes - to buy their kids socks. And if they can't pay the resulting never-sleeping debt, they lose not a room or two, but the house. Headlines in recent weeks have focused on the international investors - from Japan to Kuwait - riding to the rescue of such American symbols as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s has gone into reverse. This turnabout has provided eloquent evidence of the Asian-tilted power shift of the past decade and of the way countries from Korea to Singapore have built up dollar war chests as the United States has plunged into debt.(...)As my colleague Floyd Norris has written of ballooning (and now plunging) property prices: "The only way prices got so high was that people who could not afford to buy those homes were given mortgages they could not hope to repay unless home prices kept rising." A staggering number of these mortgages were either interest-only or so-called "negative amortization" contracts that left the principal owed either unreduced or mounting after monthly payments. "The median American family is going into what looks like a recession owing more than 100 percent of its income," Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Warren said. No wonder Citigroup just set aside $4.1 billion to cover possible defaults on home-equity loans, credit cards and auto loans - shoes that have yet to drop. READ IT ALL

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