Sunday, February 24, 2008

Howard Zinn

Election Madness

by Howard Zinn

There’s a man in Florida who has been writing to me for years (ten pages, handwritten) though I’ve never met him. He tells me the kinds of jobs he has held-security guard, repairman, etc. He has worked all kinds of shifts, night and day, to barely keep his family going. His letters to me have always been angry, railing against our capitalist system for its failure to assure “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness” for working people.

Just today, a letter came. To my relief it was not handwritten because he is now using e-mail: “Well, I’m writing to you today because there is a wretched situation in this country that I cannot abide and must say something about. I am so enraged about this mortgage crisis. That the majority of Americans must live their lives in perpetual debt, and so many are sinking beneath the load, has me so steamed. Damn, that makes me so mad, I can’t tell you. . . . I did a security guard job today that involved watching over a house that had been foreclosed on and was up for auction. They held an open house, and I was there to watch over the place during this event. There were three of the guards doing the same thing in three other homes in this same community. I was sitting there during the quiet moments and wondering about who those people were who had been evicted and where they were now.”

On the same day I received this letter, there was a front-page story in the Boston Globe, with the headline “Thousands in Mass. Foreclosed on in ‘07.”

The subhead was “7,563 homes were seized, nearly 3 times the ‘06 rate.”

A few nights before, CBS television reported that 750,000 people with disabilities have been waiting for years for their Social Security benefits because the system is underfunded and there are not enough personnel to handle all the requests, even desperate ones.

Stories like these may be reported in the media, but they are gone in a flash. What’s not gone, what occupies the press day after day, impossible to ignore, is the election frenzy.

This seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clich├ęs with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won’t allow them in.

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.

The unprecedented policies of the New Deal-Social Security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing-were not simply the result of FDR’s progressivism. The Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army-thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.

Without a national crisis-economic destitution and rebellion-it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.

Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

They offer no radical change from the status quo.

They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.

They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.

Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving millions from their homes-they should remind us of a similar situation after the Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many of them war veterans (like so many of our homeless today), could not afford to pay their taxes and were threatened with the loss of the land, their homes. They gathered by the thousands around courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take place.

The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should remind us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized and put the belongings of the evicted families back in their apartments, in defiance of the authorities.

Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” “Voices of a People’s History” (with Anthony Arnove), and most recently, “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.”

Winter's Days Are Numbered


33 Degrees!


Its finally above freezing today in Chicago. Its also sunny!


After a bitter cold December, January and February... it feels as though winter is beginning to thaw. In fact the 10 day forecast gives us a lowest low of 14 on Tuesday. The high (the lowest high) that day is 22. Thats fantastic because most of this winter we haven't gone 10 days without subzero temperatures. No wonder people in the Midwest are (stereotypically) so fat. Its necessary!


The freezing temperatures may or may not have contributed to a burst pipe in my building that cause a near collapse of one of my ceiling panels, which has been removed and is now just a large square hole.


Yes the days are getting longer and the sun shines brighter. In less than a month we will be celebrating the Vernal Equinox; twelve great hours of daylight matched with an equally significant twelve great hours of night. From then until the autumnal equinox, daylight will be on the winning side of the equation. Fucking fantastic!



Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Blog is Back


The Blog is Back, again!

I haven't written the blog in a while but for several reasons am bringing it back. One of which is that I am taking a Creative Writing class at the "Chicago Free School". The classes at this school are, as the name implies, free. I believe they are taught at a commune too, which should be fun. When I called the instructor to sign up for it (first class is Thursday) she informed me that I was the second person who had called thus far. If my friend Renee comes, that makes three.

So that is one of the reasons that I am writing the blog again. I must come up with a creative writing sample to bring to class on Thursday. So I need to get back into writing. Whatever creative writing work I come up with, I may or may not post on the blog, depending on how I feel about it.

I also am applying to grad schools now and must write essays for that. So once again, it helps to write the blog for writing exercises. I may or may not post those as well. We will see. We will see.

Krugman

Op-Ed Columnist

Clinton, Obama, Insurance


Published: February 4, 2008

The principal policy division between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama involves health care. It’s a division that can seem technical and obscure — and I’ve read many assertions that only the most wonkish care about the fine print of their proposals.


Paul Krugman.


But as I’ve tried to explain in previous columns, there really is a big difference between the candidates’ approaches. And new research, just released, confirms what I’ve been saying: the difference between the plans could well be the difference between achieving universal health coverage — a key progressive goal — and falling far short.

Specifically, new estimates say that a plan resembling Mrs. Clinton’s would cover almost twice as many of those now uninsured as a plan resembling Mr. Obama’s — at only slightly higher cost.

Let’s talk about how the plans compare.

Both plans require that private insurers offer policies to everyone, regardless of medical history. Both also allow people to buy into government-offered insurance instead.

And both plans seek to make insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. The Clinton plan is, however, more explicit about affordability, promising to limit insurance costs as a percentage of family income. And it also seems to include more funds for subsidies.

But the big difference is mandates: the Clinton plan requires that everyone have insurance; the Obama plan doesn’t.

Mr. Obama claims that people will buy insurance if it becomes affordable. Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise.

After all, we already have programs that make health insurance free or very cheap to many low-income Americans, without requiring that they sign up. And many of those eligible fail, for whatever reason, to enroll.

An Obama-type plan would also face the problem of healthy people who decide to take their chances or don’t sign up until they develop medical problems, thereby raising premiums for everyone else. Mr. Obama, contradicting his earlier assertions that affordability is the only bar to coverage, is now talking about penalizing those who delay signing up — but it’s not clear how this would work.

So the Obama plan would leave more people uninsured than the Clinton plan. How big is the difference?

To answer this question you need to make a detailed analysis of health care decisions. That’s what Jonathan Gruber of M.I.T., one of America’s leading health care economists, does in a new paper.

Mr. Gruber finds that a plan without mandates, broadly resembling the Obama plan, would cover 23 million of those currently uninsured, at a taxpayer cost of $102 billion per year. An otherwise identical plan with mandates would cover 45 million of the uninsured — essentially everyone — at a taxpayer cost of $124 billion. Over all, the Obama-type plan would cost $4,400 per newly insured person, the Clinton-type plan only $2,700.

That doesn’t look like a trivial difference to me. One plan achieves more or less universal coverage; the other, although it costs more than 80 percent as much, covers only about half of those currently uninsured.

As with any economic analysis, Mr. Gruber’s results are only as good as his model. But they’re consistent with the results of other analyses, such as a 2003 study, commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that compared health reform plans and found that mandates made a big difference both to success in covering the uninsured and to cost-effectiveness.

And that’s why many health care experts like Mr. Gruber strongly support mandates.

Now, some might argue that none of this matters, because the legislation presidents actually manage to get enacted often bears little resemblance to their campaign proposals. And there is, indeed, no guarantee that Mrs. Clinton would, if elected, be able to pass anything like her current health care plan.

But while it’s easy to see how the Clinton plan could end up being eviscerated, it’s hard to see how the hole in the Obama plan can be repaired. Why? Because Mr. Obama’s campaigning on the health care issue has sabotaged his own prospects.

You see, the Obama campaign has demonized the idea of mandates — most recently in a scare-tactics mailer sent to voters that bears a striking resemblance to the “Harry and Louise” ads run by the insurance lobby in 1993, ads that helped undermine our last chance at getting universal health care.

If Mr. Obama gets to the White House and tries to achieve universal coverage, he’ll find that it can’t be done without mandates — but if he tries to institute mandates, the enemies of reform will use his own words against him.

If you combine the economic analysis with these political realities, here’s what I think it says: If Mrs. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, there is some chance — nobody knows how big — that we’ll get universal health care in the next administration. If Mr. Obama gets the nomination, it just won’t happen.