Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Archive for August, 2009

Thoughts on the “public option”: bad policy and bad politics

Posted by Kevin on August 30, 2009

“I also understand the term used often by our hero Ted Kennedy, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. However, in this case, I’d like to turn that spin around and say that, in the instance of the public option, half-assed and inadequate is the enemy of the necessary and the acceptable.” –Steve Steffens [article link]

In comments to my last post dealing with healthcare, I was criticized (rightly, as I’ll explain) for supporting a public option. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my thoughts on the issue.

I’m definitely a single-payer supporter, and while I’ve never been one of those progressives who says “Single-payer isn’t going to happen right now, so lets not even bother talking about it,” at the time of that post I thought the public option was an acceptable compromise, at least better than doing nothing. But the more I’ve read about it, the less sure I’ve been.

These days, I’m of the opinion that it might be better to just hold out for single-payer, and that as terrible as the status quo is, the substantial risks associated with even a well-designed public option (let alone the crappy bill that will almost certainly come out of Washington) could make doing nothing the better choice. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to the public option, more like ambivalent; I wouldn’t see it as a bad thing if a decent public plan passed, but I’m not really willing to expend any effort on its behalf.

It’s amazing to me how virtually everyone who believes in the basic concept of universal healthcare agrees that single-payer is the best way to achieve it, and yet even among very progressive people it’s seen as almost taboo. If they mention it at all, it’s almost always along the lines of, “Well yeah, in a perfect world we’d have single-payer, but…”

But what? But, as “progressive” Congressman Henry Waxman put it when asked why he removed his co-sponsorship of H.R. 676, the House single-payer bill, “It isn’t going to happen.” We see this often from politicians like Waxman, and Obama as well: they support single-payer when they’re out of power, but once they get any actual ability to implement it they suddenly start backtracking, talking about how “we need to be realistic”. Gosh, it’s almost as if they aren’t really serious about it and they’re just telling us what we want to hear!

Still, he’s absolutely right; I think we can be pretty certain that a single-payer bill, even if by some miracle it passed the House, stands little-to-no chance of surviving the Senate. But instead of insisting on what they know is right, many like Waxman are rallying around a “compromise” plan that’s far more complicated and expensive, and far less effective, even in the best case scenario.

I think progressives made a huge mistake in giving up on single-payer so easily, in not even putting it on the table. There is no “right” time to start talking about it. It might not pass today, but if we want it to pass in the future then we need to be laying the groundwork now, and at least keep the idea alive until then. This is the position of Dick McCormack, one of my state senators and primary sponsor of a single-payer bill here in Vermont. Even though by his own admission the bill is going nowhere, he says it’s important to keep people talking about it, and keep its failure from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I’ve said before, if nobody’s at least talking about a given position, that alone guarantees it will never happen.

Even if you disagree with me on the efficacy of the public option, I think it’s clear that by compromising so early, progressives ensured that they’d have trouble getting even that much, that the final plan would be watered down even further. Progressives have a long proud history of ignoring one of the basic rules of negotiation: asking for twice as much as what you want in the hope of bargaining down to something you can live with. Instead, we start from a compromise position, and then we’re surprised at being expected to tone things down further. As a result, instead of single-payer being the Left position and a strong public option being the compromise, the public option is the Left position and Blue Dog position is the compromise.

But isn’t the public option at least a step in the right direction? I won’t get into the specifics of what I think its problems are, because others have done it a lot better than I could. Here is a great article from Physicians for a National Health Program explaining the problems with the public option and why we should insist on single-payer instead.

Generally, I think the public option is very hard to do right, and given the current Congress anything that could actually pass will almost certainly not be done right. In fact, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the final plan will even have a public option, or do much of anything other than funnel money to the insurance and drug companies. (Some, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, argue that Obama and the Dem leadership were never really serious about having a public option in the bill and planned from the beginning to bargain it away in order to placate the lobbies.)

In addition, as the PNHP article points out, there’s no reason to believe that incrementalism would somehow lead to single-payer, as some proponents of the public option argue. That hasn’t happened anywhere it’s been tried; I would argue that minuscule reform of this type just has the effect of delaying real reform. Democratic politicians are the experts at this: doing just enough to shut people up for a little while, without seriously challenging the interests of their corporate backers.

If the public option does fail, then in addition to creating an enormous, entirely deserved backlash against the Democrats it will probably sour the public on the basic idea of universal health care. This is already happening in regard to the stimulus and government intervention in the economy, as Chris Bowers argues at Open Left:

Whether or not the Democratic trifecta actually passes progressive legislation, the legislation that is passed and the policies that are followed will still be perceived as progressive. We simply can’t avoid that.

For example, right now the stimulus package pretty much equals left-wing economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people. If it doesn’t produce results, we are all going to see our ideas become discredited in the eyes of the American public, even if we thought policies of the Democratic trifecta did not go nearly far enough. The country is never going to say “well, that idea didn’t work, so let’s try a more extreme version of it.” People just don’t think that way in America.

Given the inadequacy of the public option and the improbability of passing single-payer on the national level in the near future, where do we go from here? I think we need to shift attention to the state level, where there’s often a much greater possibility of getting real reform. The main thing to do on the national level is to keep the federal government from standing in the way of state efforts to do the right thing. A key part of this is making sure the Kucinich amendment, which would make it easier for states to pass single-payer, makes it into the final healthcare reform bill.

We also need to work on reforming the Senate, which is obviously the main obstacle to real healthcare reform (and progressive reform in general) on the national level, pretty much no matter which party is in charge. David Sirota points out that it’s unresponsive by its very design, giving enormous weight to a group of Senators representing an extremely small number of Americans. As a result, Sirota says, the healthcare debate is being controlled by a small handful of legislators from small, rural states. The first step to reforming the Senate, Tom Geoghegan argues, is to get rid of the filibuster, the primary weapon of the opponents of reform. This entails a bloody battle, but it’s absolutely necessary.

And, of course, we need to ignore the false promise of bullshit “incremental” reform that just tinkers around the edges, and support policies that go to the root of our problems. In addition, we need to be suspicious of politicians like Obama who care more about ensuring a legislative victory for themselves than they do about actually doing something substantive.

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Joe Arpaio, Skip Gates, and our authoritarian culture

Posted by Kevin on August 2, 2009

“I’m an equal-opportunity law-enforcement guy – I lock everybody up.” -Sheriff Joe Arpaio

[in reference to the Skip Gates arrest] “…to me, this situation actually has far broader implications about all citizens’ relationship to the police and the way we are expected to respond to authority, regardless of race. I’ve watched too many taser videos over the past few years featuring people of all races and both genders being put to the ground screaming in pain, not because they were dangerous or threatening and not because they were so out of control there was no other way to deal with them, but because they were arguing with police and the officer perceived a lack of respect for the badge.” Digby

I always cringe whenever Joe Arpaio’s name pops up in the news. I have trouble even saying his name without throwing the phrase “that fucking fascist” in front of it.

For those who don’t know, Arpaio is sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and somewhat of a national figure. His reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” has gotten him multiple book deals and a reality TV show, and made him a hero to the right. In the present instance, he’s the subject of a profile by William Finnegan in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker, which unfortunately isn’t available online. But if you can find it, it’s an excellent read. A couple good summaries can be found at Feministing and Immigration Impact.

I don’t want to go into much detail (you can find plenty of info at the sources previously cited), but basically, the problem with Arpaio is his brutally inhumane county jail, his flagrant abuses of power (including harassment of critics by his deputies), his transformation of the sheriff’s department into an immigration enforcement agency (and his subsequent racial profiling of Hispanics), and the fact that he’s a total publicity whore. His office is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and there have been thousands of lawsuits alleging abuse filed against the department (resulting in $43 million in costs for the county). In one outstanding example, Finnegan writes that the family of an inmate killed by deputies received an $8.25 million settlement “after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.” Even the mayor of Phoenix has denounced what he describes as Arpaio’s “reign of terror.”

In short, Arpaio is a sadistic, racist, authoritarian thug. I wasn’t kidding when I called him a fascist.

So why do I care so much about this? I don’t have any personal attachment to Arpaio or Arizona politics. But it bothers me what Arpaio’s popularity says about us as a culture. He’s not just some obscure backwater nutjob. As Finnegan notes:

Maricopa County is not a modest, out-of-the-way place. It includes Phoenix, covers more than nine thousand square miles, and has a population of nearly four million. Joe Arpaio has been sheriff there since 1993. He has four thousand employees, three thousand volunteer posse members, and an over-worked media-relations unit of five.

Finnegan further points out that Arpaio remains the most popular political figure in Arizona, despite his scandals. In fact, it might be because of them. As Ann at the Feministing article I linked to argues:

Arpaio is popular because he’s hateful. He racially profiles Latinos, his ratings go up. He divides families and goes out of his way to deport peaceful people who are just here to make a living, his ratings go up. He treats jail inmates — some of whom have not even been convicted of a crime — as subhuman, his ratings go up. He sort of functions as a conduit for the worst impulses in our society.

And Arpaio’s message clearly resonates with a lot of people outside Arizona. I don’t know if it’s a majority, but it’s undeniably widespread. Our country is still very much in love with his brand of “tough on crime” horseshit. I remember the first time I heard about Arpaio: it was through a chain email from my grandparents talking about how cool he is and how they wished we had a sheriff like him. (MyRightWingDad has an example of this) And at the time, I thought, “Wow, what a fucking fascist.” But my family loved it. The people he abuses are just criminals (and mostly brown), after all, so who cares what happens to them? [Actually, many of the people detained by Arpaio are awaiting trial and haven’t actually been convicted of anything, but I doubt this is a distinction many of his supporters care about.]

So what does this say about us as a culture? To me, it says that there are some ugly authoritarian impulses in the American psyche, and a lot of inhuman callousness toward certain classes of people – criminals, foreigners, the poor, etc. We think the authorities should have a mostly free hand, and that if they target you then you must have done something to deserve it. We don’t think we’ll ever end up someplace like Arpaio’s tent city – we’re good people, and only bad people get sent there. Think this has something to do with our relative lack of outrage about civilian casualties in our wars, or the torture and abuse of detainees in the “War on Terror”? When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Bill Maher drew attention to the parallel between that issue and our prison policies [this is from his book New Rules, which in turn is from his show Real Time with Bill Maher]:

[Abu Ghraib happened because] we’re also comfortable pretending that anyone in America who winds up in prison deserves not just loss of freedom but a brutalizing, terrifying trip to hell…

In a way, we are all Lynndie England because we know what’s happening in our prisons and we clearly don’t care. We tell ourselves the convenient lie that anyone who bears the label “criminal” or “terrorist” is irredeemable, subhuman psycho scum, and so whatever happens to them behind bars is justified, when the truth is that millions of nonviolent Americans have been traumatized for life in our prisons simply because they either did drugs or made a bad judgment, usually when they were young, stupid, and drunk – you’d think President Bush could relate.

Another example of our authoritarian culture can be found in the response to “Gatesgate.” I’m sure just about everyone reading this has heard the story by now, where Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home for “disorderly conduct,” in other words for failing to show proper deference to a police officer. Not for threatening Officer Crowley, or refusing to comply with his orders, but rather just for talking back. One could argue Gates was being a jerk – but who wouldn’t be mad in that situation? And how does that justify arresting him? Is there any law requiring him to respect police officers?

This sort of thing happens all the time, and unlike Gates a lot of people don’t get off with just an arrest; they get beaten, tased, or even shot. And cops often face little to no consequences for doing it. As Ian Welch at OpenLeft points out:

My interactions with police in the US have all reinforced to me that even something as simple as a question is interpreted by many policy [sic] as a direct assault on their authority, and that they have no tolerance for any such thing. If a policeman in the US asks you to do something, or tells you, you’d best do it, right now, whether he has the right to order you around or not. And if you don’t, be ready to deal with the consequences.

The real problem, though, is the complete lack of public outcry over stuff like what happened to Gates. There’s a lot of people out there who see no problem with this. Some of Officer Crowley’s defenders, like the one quoted in Digby’s post on the matter, explicitly argue that either we give police a completely free hand, or we content ourselves with living in a Mad Max-style lawless wasteland; as if those are the only two options. And it’s not at all uncommon for people to say things like, “Well, Gates should’ve known better than to mouth off to a cop; he got what he deserved.” As Digby put it, “I have discovered that my hackles automatically going up at such authoritarian behavior is not necessarily the common reaction among my fellow Americans, not even my fellow liberals.” Even if they don’t necessarily agree with Crowley, they think it’s pointless to resist. The only reason anyone even notices is this case is because the victim was someone prominent.

We as a culture often mindlessly submit to authority, and don’t place much value on civil liberties. Hence the non-outrage over torture and warrantless wiretapping; and hence you get even many progressives arguing that it’s okay that Obama isn’t doing more to roll back Bush admin abuses of power, and is even embracing or expanding them, because health-care, the economy, etc., are so much more important. Who cares if we live in a dictatorship as long as the guy running it has a (D) next to his name?

So why should civil liberties and the rule of law matter? To quote Digby’s post yet again, “Police are emboldened when they repeatedly get away with using bullying, abusive tactics against average citizens who have not been convicted of any crimes.” Even if the officers have the best of intentions, that kind of power inevitably leads to abuse, because there’s nothing to keep it in check. And it never stops at just the “bad” people, but quickly spreads to anyone they deem a problem. If they can do it to poor blacks and Hispanics (let alone a Harvard professor), they can do it to you too. That’s something to keep in mind since, as Ted Rall points out, many white people have police horror stories of their own.

That’s why I care so much about Joe Arpaio or the Gates arrest, and why I’d deny that I’m trying to undermine the police when I complain about violations of civil liberties or abuses of power. Instead, I’m trying to keep the cops honest.

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