That Late Summer Buzz in Your Ear

No, they won’t let you alone. Yes, it is Labor Day weekend – three full days off from work, if you’re one of the few Americans who still has a job, or one of those who somehow dodged finding yourself retired far earlier than you anticipated. But everyone gets the weekend off one way or another. It’s time for burgers on the grill and lemonade in the shade and so forth – long naps may be involved. But the politicians aren’t taking the weekend off. It’s that critical period between the Republican convention, now over and done with, and the Democratic convention about to begin, so they’ll have a lot to say – not than anyone will be listening. Civilians – those who think about who they might just vote for in November in November itself – probably only remember one thing from the Republican Convention in Tampa – Clint Eastwood having that lively conversation with an imaginary man in an empty chair. They remember how surreal that was, not the mean stuff Eastwood was saying – “We OWN this country” and “Make my day, punk!” It was just odd – in an old-man-yells-at-cloud way – and most of the nation probably hopes the Democrats will trot out Betty White to do the same sort of thing. Old coots who no longer give a damn about what anyone thinks of what they say are always fun.

Betty White? That’s not going to happen, and the politicians won’t let us alone on our weekend off either, because Sunday morning means there will be the Sunday morning political shows:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff for the first two years of his presidency and helped guide President Bill Clinton to his second term victory in 1996, said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that Mitt Romney’s speech last week at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. was “devoid and vacuous” of substantive ideas and noteworthy phrases.

Yeah, and what else is new? Mitt is who he is, a careful man. Offend the most people the least. That’s not a bad political strategy, but there was this:

Emanuel said, “The president clearly understands the frustration the American people feel” because the economy is not growing quickly “and he is working on that to get this economy focused on the middle class.”

He also contended that the Nov. 6 election would be less a referendum on Obama’s performance than a choice between Republican economic proposals and Obama’s.

That sums it up well enough. Romney wants this to be a referendum on Obama and not about him at all – no one needs to see his tax returns or look too closely at what he did at Bain Capital, or review his beyond-vague policy proposals and ask what he really intends to do. He’s not Obama and that should be enough for any informed voter. Rahm Emanuel, speaking for the Obama campaign, argues no, wait – think about this. Mitt Romney is a real person, even if he’s been rather good at hiding that real person as his positions change over the years and now change day to day, depending on the audience at hand. Maybe you don’t want to elect a cipher as president. Maybe you want to know what you’re actually getting, not just what you think you want to rid yourself of. If you think anyone is better than Obama you could be in for a rude surprise.

That sort of argument could concentrate on some of the things the Republicans are proposing, like ending as much government spending as possible, to get us out of our massive debt overhang and goose the economy. But shutting down as much of the government as possible would mean shutting down a quarter to a third of all economic activity in the country – laying off more cops and firefighters and teachers, and shutting down work on basic infrastructure like roads and bridges and schools and airport runways and so on, not to mention wiping out all the companies big and small that provide the government with everything from paper clips and janitorial services to systems work to keep the air-traffic control gizmos running and so on. That’s throwing a lot of people out of work – probably tens of millions. That’s not going to make things much better. Even Ben Bernanke has just wailed in despair – the tight budgets of the gleeful austerity enthusiasts are holding back the recovery – the Federal Reserve can only do so much with monetary policy. Throwing more people out of work, because they work for the government or provide the government with goods and services, is killing us.

No one will listen to Ben Bernanke of course, at least no one on the Republican side will. That’s what Rahm Emanuel is talking about that, along with the Republican plan to save Medicare by making it a voucher plan.

That’s a free market thing – give folks a coupon to buy health insurance and they’ll shop around for the best deal, and insurance companies will compete with each other for their business, offering better and better deals and lower and lower costs, fixing the whole system, making it amazing efficient and effective. Of course there might be no insurance to buy. No insurance company in its right mind would offer a policy, at any price, to someone over sixty-five, sure to get sick sooner or later, and probably sooner. You make money by insuring those who are young and healthy and unlikely to get sick – paying out only when the unlikely happens. That’s the business model. On the other hand, if no one sees any profit in insuring those over sixty-five, even with the guaranteed government coupons, the market has spoken. And if the free-market is always right then these folks should not be insured, ever – the infallible Invisible Hand knows such things.

That’s what was going on this Labor Day weekend, a discussion of this Republican concept:

Wading into Paul Ryan territory, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a blistering critique of the GOP vice presidential nominee’s Medicare proposal and warned that the Republican ticket would turn the health care system for seniors into “Vouchercare.”

As he campaigned in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin on Sunday, Biden hammered Ryan and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for endorsing a Medicare proposal that would give seniors subsidies to purchase private health care plans. Biden, echoing a common Democratic attack, accused Republicans of wanting to “end the guarantee of Medicare.”

“Ladies and gentleman, it’s just that simple: We are for Medicare; they are for Vouchercare,” Biden told the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of about 1,000 at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay.

Everyone chips in to take care of the old folks or we leave the whole thing in the hands of the free market, with this additional twist from Biden:

“My mom was a smart woman,” he said. “But, my mom, I can’t picture handing her a voucher at age 80 and saying – you go out in the insurance market and you figure out what’s best for you.”

That generously assumes there is an insurance market, and Matthew Yglesias extends what Biden was getting at:

We all know that some cognitive impairment tends to be a part of the aging process… That’s why elder fraud is a recognized problem. A great study by David Labison finds that about half of 80-somethings have “significant cognitive impairment, effectively rendering them incapable of making important financial choices.” …

This is one of the problems with the Romney/Ryan plan to replace Medicare with a system of subsidies for the purchase of private health insurance on regulated exchanges. This is essentially the same idea as what ObamaCare will do for the non-elderly, but in the opposite direction. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, it’s not clear to me that there are sound non-political reasons for doing it this way rather than constructing a single public program. But in the case of a program targeted at the elderly, the case for consumer sovereignty is clearly weaker. Insurance forms are confusing, and calculating the real actuarial value of different offers is difficult. This is not an ideal task to assign to a 92 year-old. It’s possible to make it work with adequate regulation, but you really are counting on building a very effective regulatory agency to manage the program. So why not just build an effective agency and manage Medicare?

Kevin Drum adds this:

If private competition among insurance companies were truly likely to lead to substantial cost reductions, it might be worth doing this regardless. But the evidence we have suggests that competitive bidding, at best, would lead only to modest savings. The reason is simple: The high cost of healthcare in America is mostly related to the high prices we pay to providers – hospitals, doctors, drug companies, device manufacturers, etc. – and only slightly related to insurance company efficiency. There’s just not much reason to think that competition among insurance companies will have a big effect on provider prices.

It might still be worth trying. That’s a judgment call. But everyone should understand both the tradeoffs and the likelihood that, at most, it will produce only modest savings.

But that’s what is being proposed, and being questioned:

Campaigning his way toward the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama slapped a “Romney doesn’t care” label on his rival’s health-care views Sunday and said Republicans want to repeal new protections for millions without offering a plan of their own.

It’s a simple attack:

“Gov. Romney promised that on his first day in office he’s gonna sit right down, grab a pen and repeal Obamacare,” the president said, referring to the law by the name Republicans first attached to it as an insult.

“What that means is that right away he’d kick 7 million young people off their parents’ plan. He’d take hope away from tens of millions of American with pre-exiting conditions by repealing reform,” the president said.

“You know, he calls it Obamacare. I like the name. I do care. …. I don’t know exactly what the other side is proposing; I guess you could call it ‘Romney doesn’t care.’ But this law is here to stay.”

It is here to stay. The last best effort to shoot it down, the case that the whole thing was unconstitutional, failed. Even the heavily conservative Supreme Court couldn’t find a way to say it was. So now Obama gets to say he cares, the other guy doesn’t. You may be disappointed with him, but get over it. Consider the alternative. It’s a choice you have.

That wasn’t all. There are other choices:

President Obama blasted Republicans Saturday for an agenda he said was so “last century” that it was like watching “black-and-white TV.” …

The president said that Republican nominee Mitt Romney offered voters a “rerun” agenda with few details at the GOP convention, which ended on Thursday.

“Let me recap it for you: ‘Everything is bad, it’s Obama’s fault and Gov. Romney is the only one who knows the secret to creating jobs and growing the economy,’” Obama said mockingly of the GOP convention.

“And when Gov. Romney had his chance to let you in on his secret, he did not offer a single new idea, just retreads of the same old policies that have been sticking it to the middle class for years.”

It seems that’s the message now:

Two days before their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Democrats are gearing up to present the election as a choice between President Obama’s vision for the future and a return to Bush era policies of the last decade.

Democrats made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to preview their re-election pitch to Americans, emphasizing that it would be a choice between going forward – their campaign slogan – and letting Mitt Romney double down on the policies of President George W. Bush that caused the economic downturn.

“What you’re going to hear this week in Charlotte is a president who is going to present a clear agenda for the future that talks about how we build a sound economy and lift the middle class in this country,” Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said on “Fox News Sunday.” But Republicans’ ideas, he continued, “are derivative of what we did in the last decade that brought our economy to its knees.”

Rahm Emanuel said Romney’s basically laid out the policy for Groundhog Day – like the Bill Murray movie – and that was the theme:

“Voters understand it took us years and years of tremendously bad decisions, by running up huge debts and providing huge tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires that didn’t create jobs,” Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And they understand it’s going to take us a while to get out of that mess. And I think that’s essentially what the choice is and I think that’s what the choice is that you’ll see presented in Charlotte.”

George Bush wasn’t invited to Tampa however, and Romney is now saying he’ll do well what Bush did badly:

“We’re going to finally have to do something that Republicans have spoken about for a long time, and for a while we didn’t do it,” Romney told a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio on Saturday. “When we had the lead we let people down. We need to make sure we don’t lead them down this time – I will cut the deficit and get us on track to a balanced budget.”

It will be the Bush policies on steroids, done right this time, and really, are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?

That was supposed to be a devastating riposte – touché and all that. But Time’s Michael Grunwald parries:

As a savvy media professional, allow me to suggest an answer: Yes.

Four years ago, the U.S. economy was in smithereens. It contracted at an 8.9% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, which is Great Depression territory; at that rate we would have shed an entire Canadian economy in 2009. We lost 800,000 jobs the month Obama moved into the White House. Then Obama passed his $800 billion stimulus… and the second quarter of 2009 reflected the second-largest GDP improvement in 25 years, and the largest jobs improvement in 30 years.

Of course, the improvement was from absolutely hideous to really bad. And since then we’ve only improved from really bad to disappointingly mediocre. Still, I don’t understand why the Obama team feels like it can’t point out that a 2% growth rate with 150,000 new jobs a month is better than a -8.9% growth rate with 800,000 jobs lost a month. It’s not good, but it’s better, and better is better than worse.

There’s more:

While they’re at it, the Obama aides could argue that Americans are better off with al-Qaeda obliterated, including what’s-his-name; the salvation of the U.S. auto industry; the approval of universal health insurance; the start of a clean-energy revolution; Wall Street reform; the end of don’t-ask-don’t-tell for gays in the military; and all kinds of other achievements that Obama presumably believes moved the country in the right direction. …

When Obama kicked off his reelection campaign, I described him as the counterfactual president, preventing even worse messes, and I warned that “things could have been worse” would be an awkward message. But things could have been worse. In fact, they were.

So there you have it. Obama is the counterfactual president – things could have been worse but weren’t – and Romney is the mystery man – we’ll go back to the Bush years and somehow do them right this time, or go even further back in time.

This is beyond Groundhog Day, this time stuck in the same day in the recent past, over and over again, trying to get things right. Obama wasn’t kidding about the days of black-and-white television. That’s the past that Rebecca Traister explores:

Among the most unvarnished sentiments expressed at the Republican Convention in Tampa this week was the disregard for the Obama campaign’s 2012 slogan, “Forward.” The derision of propulsive movement was perfectly appropriate for Republicans, who this week drew a bright, unmistakable line around a desire that has been getting ever clearer in recent months.

What the right wants, and what they tried to build for themselves in Tampa, was a time machine.

It’s that desire to go back in time:

To a period when the power structure was fixed and comfortable, when there were no black first ladies or black camerawomen, when loud Jewish ladies were not in charge of national political parties, back to a time when only a select few – the white, the male, the straight, the Protestant – could reasonably expect to exert political or financial or social or sexual power.

This is pretty clear:

The mission to drastically curtail women’s reproductive rights, taking aim not just at abortion but at birth control; the blocking of the Paycheck Fairness Act; objections to expanding the Violence Against Women Act; crazed locutions about rape and sluts: In word and deed, conservatives have been telegraphing their hope to return us to a moment not just before Roe, but before the birth-control pill, before the sexual revolution, before second-wave feminism hammered pesky terms like “harassment” and “equal pay” into our lexicon, to a moment when women’s bodies and sexuality and identities were men’s to define, patrol and violate at will.

The state-by-state assault on voting rights, a dizzying array of propositions designed to keep brown and black people, poor people and young people from the polls? This too is an attempt to turn back time – to return the country to a moment before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped ensure safe enfranchisement for African-Americans.

For many months, we have been watching a lengthy, multi-tentacled attempt to shut tight doors that were opened by the social movements of the mid-20th century, to push back those who have apparently gotten their hands on a little too much power, by aiming back toward a time when men were white, women were long-suffering vessels, and black men were definitely not president.

That’s back to the good old days, which weren’t so good – unless you were the right sort of person – and that was on full display in Tampa:

First there was the swooning over the Greatest Generation, the fetishistic shout-outs to hard-laboring forebears, Welsh coal-mining grandfathers and Breyer’s Plant employee dads. Speakers were presenting us with visions of men who lived in an earlier America and the women who sacrificed their own passions (as Mitt Romney recalled of his mother, who gave up Hollywood) to marry them, move to Detroit and raise their babies while the men embraced success and made money.

None of the stories of ye olde American achievement actually jibed with the convention’s “We Built It” theme. The tales were of white men whose class mobility and moon-walks were boosted by G.I. Bills, state-school educations, government-funded space programs and unions. These guys and their unconditionally loving wives were part of a white American middle class that was able to expand thanks to the kinds of post-Depression financial regulations and government-goosed infrastructure and housing programs that modern Republicans are keen to obliterate.

But the incoherence of message didn’t matter, because what all these stories were really flicking at wasn’t the size of the government, but the whiteness and the maleness of those who were helped along with their businesses and wealth and broods of straight-parented families. Just listen to Romney’s assertions about this “nation of immigrants” who came here seeking freedom, a sentiment that is both disingenuous from someone who wants this nation’s current immigrant population to self-deport, and that does not even bother to acknowledge those Americans whose forebears were brought here against their will in an exercise of freedom’s opposite. Romney didn’t include those people because they don’t exist – in a meaningful, threatening way – in the America Romney and his party is trying to bring back.

Traister sees 1958 here – but 1953 would do too. It’s the America of Ozzie and Harriet, when we listened to Patty Page and Perry Como, those golden days before slash-rock and all the nasty rap stuff. With enough money, from the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson perhaps, and the star of Rawhide talking to an empty chair, we can bring those days back – like magic.

There is no magic of course. It’s just a long holiday weekend, the one at the end of summer, and the politicians talking. It can wait. Sip some lemonade in the shade. They’ll still be talking when everyone goes back to work on Tuesday.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Medicare Voucher Plan, Mitt Romney, Obamacare, Republican Framing Devices, Republicans Living in the Past and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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