Single-Payer Health Care Now!

Wake up, America, and wipe the sleep from your eyes.  You’re not dreaming but a nightmare is in the making.

It’s 17 years into the twenty-first century and our ruling – er, governing— Republican Party thinks there are currently just too many people with health insurance in this country.  While people living in all the other advanced nations of the world have the security of universal coverage and access to health care, the Republicans are divided only on just how many people should go without.

As one commentator put it, “Under the GOP’s bill, the more help you need, the less you get.”  They weren’t quite able to figure it out this time but rest assured that they’ll continue working until they get it “right.”  No matter the final outcome of the GOP plan, the bottom line is that more people will lose coverage – 10 million, 24 million, who knows? – and the cost of health care will continue to rise.

And the newly uninsured will be added to the current staggering figure of 25 million Americans who are without health care, even under the so-called Affordable Care Act.  Somehow, both Republicans and Democrats are able to sleep while knowing all this.

It’s time to end this madness.  It’s time to demand universal single-payer health care now!

Class war by other means

Obamacare and other recent attempts to reform the health care system have all fallen victim to the same forces: the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical company lobbies and the ideological opposition of Republicans, yes, but of most Democrats too.  It’s almost a religious duty for mainstream politicians, liberal or conservative, to oppose the socialization of health care.  Health care is big business and, as such, it is run as part and parcel of the class war on working people, a war that transfers wealth and reserves the benefits of society for the well-to-do.

Health insurance companies are nothing more than huge bureaucratic middle men who collect fees and allocate a crucial service according to metrics that have nothing to do with true human need.  They keep the price of health care artificially high while “earning” huge profits for executives and shareholders.  And while pharmaceutical companies provide useful benefits, the experience of Canada and other advanced countries shows that they can provide those benefits at lower prices.

While the Republicans are licking their wounds and regrouping, we should not let the Democrats breathe a sigh of relief or celebrate.  If they really want to live up to the promise of Obamacare, let them support single-payer health care.  Rep. John Conyers (Mich.) has been introducing into Congress the National Health Care Act, or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, (H.R. 676) since 2003.  Bernie Sanders has just promised to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

It’s time to demand that elected officials put up or shut up about health care.  We know that politics is war by other means; the health care aspect of the class war is literally killing people and that’s got to stop.

— James Collins

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Class War in the Keystone State

Pennsylvanians are in the middle of a class war.

It has been a less-than-dramatic event.  Instead, it’s been a protracted affair, a slow but steady, one-sided war that’s been waged for decades now, and things have gone very nicely for the ruling, upper classes, thank you very much.

This war has been waged in the open right before the eyes of the public, and the public suffers the consequences of a losing combatant.  Even though this is a class war, nobody calls it that.  Is it because there are no cops and scabs smashing through picket lines, no strikers’ heads being busted, and no jailed workers or union leaders to rally around?

Certainly that’s part of it: workers rarely strike any more.  There were only three major work stoppages (those involving 1,000 workers or more) in the entire state last year, including the multi-state Verizon strike.  No, the arena of this class war isn’t the workplace or the streets. This life-and-death struggle is something of a stealth war, fought and won during semi-annual elections and in halls of the state capitol over the crucial issues of revenue raising and spending.  The battleground is the state’s budget.

It’s the budget, stupid

As Gov. Tom Wolf enters his third year in office, he faces the same obstacle that has plagued him the previous two – a huge Republican majority of “fiscally-responsible” yokels in both houses of the General Assembly who are pledged to oppose the level of spending required to run a modern state.  As a result, Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit for the current fiscal year, as well as for 2016-17 which is against the state constitution.

Wolf’s current budget proposal attempts, to his credit, to return spending for public education to pre-Corbett levels (but without accounting for inflation).  He has chosen to limit expenditures on everything else while raising revenue through regressive taxation: personal income and general sales taxes account for 69 percent of increased revenue in this year’s budget and 62 percent in next year’s.  Another huge portion will come from still higher taxes on tobacco products.

The sales tax and the flat income tax now regularly account for 70 percent of the general revenue raised by the state.  (Visit the Pennsylvania Budget Policy Center for a detailed analysis.)  Politicians and pundits say that Pennsylvania faces an intractable “structural” debt problem, but the reasons for this situation aren’t hard to fathom and the problem is far from unsolvable.  It is now unheard-of for our state “leaders” to suggest levying taxes on those who can afford to pay.  Wealthy Pennsylvanians and corporations that make huge profits here are considered sacrosanct.  So the money has to be raised from those of us of more modest means.

Royal Dutch Shell will receive some $1.65 billion in taxpayer incentives for locating its ethane cracker plan in Beaver County.  Shell says building the complex will create thousands of jobs, and that once it is up and running it will employ 600 workers.  This is all well and good but, besides the fact that many of those jobs will be taken by people living in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, why should Pennsylvania taxpayers subsidize a profitable corporation like Shell?

The conventional answer is that if we don’t offer incentives to the company, another state will.  Large corporations and their executives are engaged in dividing and blackmailing the country, state by state, municipality by municipality.  And yet, they’re lionized in the general and financial media as fine, upstanding citizens whose goodness and motives are not to be questioned.

The biggest beneficiaries of state and local subsidies in Pennsylvania include Alcoa ($5.7 billion from 1995 to 2016), U.S. Steel ($100 million from 1995 to 2016), BNY Mellon ($76 million from 1997 to 2016), and PPG Industries ($54.6 million since 1992).  You can track government subsidies to corporations at Good Jobs First.

Wolf is to be commended for substantially raising K-12 spending, and he proposes small increases in vital programs that had either disappeared altogether (for example, the Conservation Corps) or were receiving next to nothing to begin with (shelter for the homeless, domestic violence and rape centers, mental and behavioral health services, long-term care, help for those with intellectual disabilities, and many other county-based services).  Funding for other crucial services hasn’t fare as well.  In just one example, the failure to restore cuts to the higher education budget leaves Pennsylvania’s spending 49th in the nation!

As mentioned earlier, corporations no longer shoulder a fair share of the state’s tax burden, nor do wealthy individuals, who pay taxes at the same rate as a fast-food worker.  Corporate and business taxes now generate about 15 percent of the state’s General Fund revenue, down from 28 percent in the 1970s.  According to the Budget Policy Center, “From 1988-1989 to 2002-2003, when business tax cuts first began, taxes on corporations were, on average, 22.25% of all General Fund revenues.”

To those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, Pennsylvania may not have seemed like a Utopia but at least an adequately funded safety net existed and helped people.  There was money coming in from federal programs and the state raised enough money to fulfill its obligations while balancing the budget because corporations paid higher taxes – at federal and state levels.

Taxes on corporations and wealthy people have been low for more than three decades now.  They accumulate, hoard and waste great amounts of wealth, in turn increasing their lock on political power.  Life will get better for everybody when we start taxing these people at a socially just rate.  Taxes have been low for decades at the federal level, as well as the state level, so there is no legitimate “crying poor” on the part of the wealthy and corporations.

We must demand that the corporations contribute to the general fund at rates like those in the 1970s and 1980s.  We must demand a progressive state income tax and an end to endless sales and sin tax increases.  The future of the quality of life in this state hinges on these changes.

— James Collins

The Beautiful Struggle

Just one day after the inauguration of a man who was amazed that it would rain on such an auspicious occasion, Americans turned out against him in the largest one-day demonstration the nation has ever seen.  In fact, people were protesting on Inauguration Day, they were protesting long before, and they’ve been protesting ever since – bigly.

(Even as I write this on a Saturday night, spontaneous demonstrations are breaking out at US airports in support of foreign detainees affected by the Trump executive order on immigration.)

The millions of people who turned out for the Washington, D.C. Women’s March and its sister demonstrations were protesting about more than women’s issues, front and center though they may have been.  This unpopular President has made enemies of every interest group and demographic that has experienced some social progress over the years – minorities, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants –and he relished the notoriety.

As unpopular, unpredictable and reactionary as Trump is, let’s not forget that he is supported by an economically and socially conservative, rabidly right-wing Republican majority in both houses of Congress.  And our own once “Blue” state is solidly in the grip of a backward GOP that controls both chambers of the legislature, effectively rendering Gov. Tom Wolf impotent.  Donald Trump is merely the culmination, the inevitable consequence, of a national politics that has been tilting to the right for decades and given us the current GOP dominance at the state and federal levels.

An effective resistance must recognize this and oppose not just Trump – an easy target, after all – and deal with all of the right-wing crazies and their political vehicle, the Republican Party.  The demonstrators who showed up in Philadelphia for the strategy session between Trump and Republicans in Congress are a hopeful sign of this understanding.

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Opportunity in crisis

The key to social and political progress is whether the American people can build unity between those on the left of the political spectrum – so-called progressives – and those in the middle, the people who consider themselves to be liberal, “reasonable” and nonconfrontational.  We are lucky to have Trump as a lightning rod, a figure so vulgar and open in his enthusiasm for mean, nasty policies that even middle-of-the-roaders are appalled.  He is the biggest recruiter for center-left unity.

Trump’s lack of experience, extreme narcissism and strong-man pretentions do not endear him to members of his party.  When the going gets tough for Trump and his popularity plummets further, there is reason to expect that huge segments of the GOP will desert him.  The movement that we are building should encourage and exploit these splits, and our movement should be aggressive and not defensive.  For example, rather than merely oppose the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or demand its restoration, we should call for the creation of a modern, long overdue single-payer health care system.

Such a call will only be pie in the sky if we can’t do two things in the coming years. First, we must expose and discredit the forces behind the GOP – the social nuts like the Tea Party and the evangelicals, and especially the businessmen and women who are bloated with power and money – and relegate it to the trash can of history once and for all.  Then, we must wean ourselves from our dependence on a Democratic Party that is, when it comes to economic policy, the mere flip side of the GOP.  We need to build our own independent political vehicles that do not rely on the money of rich people, who will never support the kind of policies that we need – policies that put the well-being of all the people before the profits and well-being of the wealthy few.

It will not be easy to build the unity and political clarity necessary to achieve these goals.  But it is not impossible.  Trump has barely been in office a week and millions of people are nervous, restless, ready to act.  Powerful forces – or potentially powerful forces – have yet to leap into the fray, especially organized labor.

As we continue our beautiful struggle, we will learn: we will learn who our real enemies are; we will learn that progress does not come easy; we will learn something of our own mettle; we will recognize those who share our common interests; we will learn to trust each other.

We will learn the meaning of the word solidarity!

— James Collins

 

 

 

The Morning After

There was a lot of talk among Democrats and their fellow travelers before the general election about the crisis in the GOP. Donald Trump – outlandish, buffoonish and downright unelectable – had, by winning the party’s nomination, led the Republican Party to drink from the waters that it had so terribly polluted.  He had taken the party’s possibly cynical embrace of rightwing crazies like Tea Partiers, creationists and anti-choicers to its logical conclusion: implosion.

 But who’s in crisis now? Whose party is in danger of, if not implosion, then sliding into a period of weak and floundering opposition to the know-nothing GOP juggernaut that is now firmly in control of things?

If the Democrats can’t even defeat a candidate like Donald Trump, can they ever be expected to retake the White House or regain a majority in either or both houses of Congress? Will our citizens ever be freed from the tyranny of state governments run by ignorant Republicans hell bent on destroying all that is public and not profitable?

We’re at the long receiving end of the so-called Reagan “revolution,” my friends, a decades-long realignment of political forces and economic priorities. It’s been a long time since Democrats could count on unorganized white workers to vote for them – maybe because it’s been a long time since the Democrats have done anything for anybody because they’re workers.  Black, Latino, and women workers benefit from civil rights policies, which the Democrats are still willing to support, so they still support Democrats but not as workers.

As for organized workers, it’s long past time for labor to stop busting their asses for the Democrats who only repay them with support for economic policies that must have folks like John L. Lewis, Phil Murray and even FDR spinning in their graves.

Occupy the political space

For the past decade or so, liberal Dems have staked their fortunes and future on demographic changes that their naïve, if well meaning, policy wonks have termed “cultural.” Culture is somehow interwoven with “identity,” and everybody has to be identified.  She’s not just a woman; she’s an Afro-Asian with a hint of Scotch-Irish woman!  Once everyone is correctly identified, we can come up with the algorithm for optimum “diversity.”

The word diversity is now spoken as if there’s some magic in its very utterance. It might come as a surprise to some people to learn that this has always been a diverse country, made up of people of many different races, from many different places, who have had many different experiences. And here’s a tidbit about “minorities:” people who have been excluded aren’t concerned about diversity – they want inclusion and fairness.  Inclusion might refer to the right to a decent education, good-paying job and a nice house or apartment to live in.  An example of fairness would be not being shot by police under circumstances that white citizens would survive.

The Occupy movement was on the right track when it said that there are those making money, and then there are the rest of us. The ninety-nine percent includes people of all races, genders, nationalities, religions and ages.  Once upon a time, they were called members of the working class and the middle class.  We don’t use that working-class term much anymore, except to disparage (some of) the people who voted for Donald Trump.  I suggest we start using that word again to describe the people who, well . . . work.  Then we might want to rethink what it really means to be in the middle.

On this “morning after” an election where we learned just how cuckoo our political system has become, I suggest we save some of our vitriol for Trump voters and give it to the Democrats who haven’t really been for the working people for a very long time. It’s time to stop supporting smooth, cynical, venal politicians who don’t give a rat’s ass about common people once the election season is over.

I wrote earlier that the ruling class – even elites in the Republican Party – had lined up behind Hillary Clinton, and so they had. But now the GOP controls the entire federal government and the majority of state governments as well, and you can bet that that’s just fine with this same ruling class.  Their interests will be well served by a billionaire landlord who believes in lowering taxes on corporations and the rich, while lowering the boom on the rest of us.

And so I suggest, once again, in the words of the immortal Joe Hill: Don’t waste time mourning; organize! Let’s make the next four years very uncomfortable for Trump and the GOP.

— James Collins

Sacrificial Lambs

The Good Book tells us that those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied, that the merciful shall obtain mercy and that the meek will inherit the very earth.  This is good news for Pennsylvanians who fit into those categories because the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor Wolfe are using this year’s budget showdown to further the ongoing, successful bipartisan crusade to make life for our state’s needy hell on earth.

The bad news is that the Bible doesn’t tell us when to expect this relief but it is definitely not forthcoming from the leadership of either political party.  Austerity is the name of the game.  The two sides are duking it out over conflicting conservative budgets.  In a state that already has one of the most unequal tax structures in the nation (according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy), we are given the choice of balancing our budget on the backs of poor and working people through such measures as regressive taxation; cuts or freezes in services; and increasing our pious state’s involvement in gambling (and preying on people who are often low-income or suffering from a serious addiction).

Not mentioned so far are state-run brothels, although it’s been said that pimping is profitable if not easy.  Also off the table is any talk of taxing profitable corporations (including fake nonprofits like UPMC) and the rich.

So intent are both sides in “winning” — and so great is their disregard for the people who are suffering while programs aren’t funded — that they can’t even agree on stopgap funding measures while they calibrate the extent of our long-term suffering.

Meanwhile, who are the sufferers?

  • The meek. They don’t come much meeker than foster children,many of whom are victims of abuse and neglect; public and parochial school children, pre-K to twelve; homeless adults and children; victims of domestic violence; people who suffer from serious mental illnesses and disabilities; and those caught in the throes of serious addictions, including gambling.
  • Those who hunger for righteousness (a.k.a., justice). Just about anybody who utilizes Neighborhood Legal Services or a women’s shelter needs some justice. So does anybody mentioned above.
  • The merciful are about to be laid off, if they work for legitimate nonprofits and tend to the aforementioned sufferers: social workers, therapists, counselors, nurses, case managers, etc.  School employees are next if the budget stalemate, now well past the 100-day mark, drags on much longer.

I love reading the gospel according to Matthew, to which I’ve alluded in this piece, but I disagree with his conclusion. The meek and humble will not get what they deserve on this earth — or in this state — unless they become decidedly unmeek in making their demands known. Instead, they’ll continue to be the sacrificial lambs for the austerity budgets demanded by the wealthy and faithfully passed by Republicans and Democrats alike.

— Jim Collins