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“Economic Freedom”: Capitalism By Any Other Name

I’ve been thinking about the term “capitalism” since Frank Luntz, the renowned pollster, told Republicans to quit saying it. The Occupy Wall Street movement has turned “capitalism” into a dirty word, he said. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they’d better stop worrying and learn to love “economic freedom” instead.

It’s a stunning turning of the tide. No matter the kind of conservative—Southern, evangelical, libertarian, Tea Party, or old-school Rockefeller patrician—conservatives have never hidden their allegiance to the moneyed class and power elite. I have never in my lifetime seen a conservative counsel against expressing one of the major tenets of conservative ideology. You might as well advise the GOP to stop trying to repeal the New Deal and start defending labor rights.

I’ve been thinking about this rhetorical shift while riding the bus in New Haven every day. The passengers are typically at the bottom of the 99 percent. Some are destitute; some are unemployable. Most are working poor, people with full-time minimum-wage jobs who cannot rise above poverty. I wonder what they’d think of John Mackey’s definition of “economic freedom.” The CEO of Whole Foods wrote in The Wall Street Journal in November that the phrase means “property rights, freedom to trade internationally, minimal governmental regulation … sound money, relatively low taxes, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, freedom to fail, and voluntary exchange.” My guess is they’d think very little of it.

Mackey’s definition is meaningful only if you already have money. Real money. Money you don’t have to spend right away, money that can sit around for a while. But when you don’t have real money, it has nothing to do with “economic freedom.” If Mackey were defining “capitalism,” that would be one thing. The working person might have nothing to say to that. The abstract nature of “economic freedom,” though, invites interpretation, and, for the working person, it has everything to do with making a living.

Though “economic freedom” is now synonymous with capital, it used to be synonymous with labor. It makes sense. Government isn’t the largest force in our lives. Corporations are. They dictate when to work, where and how. Or none of the above if you’ve been laid off. They don’t want to pay for full-time work, health care, or pensions. During their golden age, unions were seen as a step toward greater security, which was a step toward greater freedom. If you, as an individual, didn’t have to worry about bargaining for wages, retirement, or life insurance (because your labor posed actual physical risk), you were freed of that burden. In other words, economic freedom wasn’t freedom from the rule of government; it was freedom from the rule of corporations.

More profoundly, labor’s “economic freedom” is in keeping with the grandest narratives of American history, with colonists fighting the British colonizers, slaves fleeing their masters, women struggling for the right to vote, African Americans appealing for their inalienable rights. In each of these, a David battles a Goliath—and the underdog wins. Only in America. Where is the moral thrust of capital’s “economic freedom” narrative? Making more money? Nah.

Some have warned that Luntz is setting a trap. The temptation among progressives has been to talk even more about capitalism since Luntz is “frightened to death” by the Occupy movement. If they do, critics say, Republicans will be able to portray progressives as socialists. No doubt they will, but not because the Occupiers are focused on capitalism. Conservatives are willing to cry socialist anytime something irritates business. It doesn’t take raising a country’s collective consciousness to the dangers of corrupt capitalism to draw rhetorical fire like that.

Talking about capitalism in America is somewhat like talking about class. As a social reality, it’s so familiar as to be invisible, which is convenient for those, like the moneyed class and power elite, who don’t want to talk about it. But once you start talking about an invisible force that can affect anyone, you start wondering why it doesn’t benefit everyone. That, to me, is what the Occupy movement needs to keep doing: pointing out what should be obvious to all of us.

An enormous propaganda machine paid for by capital has made it necessary for thousands of people to march in the streets and camp in public parks to make what should be truly unremarkable observations: Rich people don’t always deserve their riches, and people who work hard often can’t make ends meet. This is about capitalism, because this is about the nature of work—and the enormous constraints faced by Americans employed or not. So, no matter what kind of rhetorical hocus-pocus Republicans come up with next year, no matter what they call capitalism, the elephant is still in the room. There’s no replacing plainspoken truths.

 

By: John Stoehr, The American Prospect, December 16, 2011

December 17, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Corporations | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Put-up-Or-Shut-up Time For Republicans On Health-Care Reform

It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Republicans. They managed to make it through the health-care debate without offering serious solutions of their own, and — perhaps more impressive — through the election by promising to tell us their solutions after they’d won. But the jig is up. They need a health-care plan — and quickly.

The GOP knew this day would come. In May 2009, Republican message-maestro Frank Luntz released a polling memo warning that “if the dynamic becomes ‘President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,’ then the battle is lost.” Repeal, Luntz argued, wouldn’t be good enough. It would have to be “repeal and replace.” And so it was.

That, however, is easier said than done.

To understand the trouble the Republicans find themselves in, you need to understand the party’s history with health-care reform. For much of the 20th century, Democrats fought for a single-payer system, and Republicans countered with calls for an employer-based system. In February 1974, President Richard Nixon made it official. “Comprehensive health insurance is an idea whose time has come in America,” he said, announcing a plan in which “every employer would be required to offer all full-time employees the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan.”

In a moment of historically bad judgment — Ted Kennedy later called it his greatest political regret — Democrats turned him down. They thought they could still get single payer. They were wrong.

By the 1990s, they had learned from their mistake. Bill Clinton took office and, after a wrenching year of negotiations, announced legislation similar to Nixon’s.

”Under this health-care security plan,” Clinton said, “every employer and every individual will be asked to contribute something to health care.”

But Republicans again balked, calling instead for a system of “individual responsibility.” Senate Republicans quickly offered two bills — the horribly named Health Equity and Access Reform Act and the Consumer Choice Health Security Act — based on the idea that every person who has the means to buy health insurance should have to do so. We now call that concept “the individual mandate.”

Both bills attracted 20 or more co-sponsors. Neither passed, as Republicans yanked their compromise legislation the moment Democrats became desperate enough to consider it. The individual mandate, however, didn’t go away. It kicked around conservative health-care policy circles, racking up endorsements from the conservative Heritage Foundation and the libertarian magazine Reason. A year later, the mandate showed up in a law that then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts. And then it was in the bipartisan proposal that Utah Republican Bob Bennett and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden introduced in the Senate. And next, it was the centerpiece of the Democrats’ health-care reform push. Consensus, it seemed, was at hand.

Or not. Republicans turned on the individual mandate again. Senators who’d had their names on a bill that included an individual mandate — Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Bob Bennett, Mike Crapo, Bob Corker, Lamar Alexander, Olympia Snowe and Kit Bond, to name a few — voted to object, calling the policy “unconstitutional.” Romney had to explain away his signature accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts. And Republicans found themselves without a fallback.

The party’s current mood on health-care policy is perhaps best expressed by the efforts that Michael Cannon, an influential health-care wonk at the libertarian Cato Institute, has made to enlist members in his “anti-universal coverage club.”

Enter Wyden-Brown, an Affordable Care Act amendment that the White House has made a big show of endorsing: It says that any state that can produce a credible plan to cover as many people, with as comprehensive insurance, at as low a cost as the Affordable Care Act can wriggle out of all the law’s mandates but still receive all the law’s money. Vermont’s governor, for one, is stoked: He wants to try a single-payer proposal.

Most conservatives have been actively hostile. They make some fair technical points. The law envisions the secretary of Health and Human Services handing out the waivers, while the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler would prefer to see a bipartisan commission in charge. But most take aim at the proposal’s basic goals: that care has to be as universal, as good and as cheap.

Cannon, for instance, frets that there’s no conservative policy that “would cover as many people as a law that forces them to buy coverage under penalty of law.” Butler worries that it “locks the states into guaranteeing a generous and costly level of benefits.”

But as the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn points out, under the Affordable Care Act, a family of four could shell out $12,500 out of pocket for medical costs. How much stingier should the insurance be?

And Cannon is right that conservatives don’t have solutions to provide coverage as universal as what the Affordable Care Act would. But whose fault is that?

Conservatives once offered solutions competitive with what the Democrats were proposing, but over the past 30 years, they’ve abandoned each and every one of them to stymie Democratic presidents. Confronted with a challenge to provide broader access to better health care at a lower cost, they’re reduced to complaining that those aren’t the right goals for health-care reform. But we’ve yet to see how “less comprehensive insurance for fewer people” would play in Peoria. My hunch is it wouldn’t play very well.

For decades, Republicans have chosen stopping Democratic presidents over reforming the American health-care system. Now that reform has passed, the solution for members of the GOP is to press the rewind button. They’re about to find out that it’s not enough.

On that much, Luntz and I agree: If the public comes to see the GOP as opposed to reform, “the battle is lost” — at least if you believe “the battle” is to beat the Democrats rather than provide quality health insurance to every American.

By: Ezra Klein, Columnist, The Washington Post, March 8, 2011

March 8, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Constitution, Health Reform, Individual Mandate | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: ‘A government takeover of health care’

In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to overhaul America’s health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a “government takeover.”

“Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”

The line stuck. By the time the health care bill was headed toward passage in early 2010, Obama and congressional Democrats had sanded down their program, dropping the “public option” concept that was derided as too much government intrusion. The law passed in March, with new regulations, but no government-run plan.

But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn’t let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.

PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen “government takeover of health care” as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits, it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan and was a significant factor in the Democrats’ shellacking in the November elections.

Readers of PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times‘ independent fact-checking website, also chose it as the year’s most significant falsehood by an overwhelming margin. (Their second-place choice was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s claim that Obama was going to spend $200 million a day on a trip to India, a falsity that still sprouts.)

By selecting “government takeover’ as Lie of the Year, PolitiFact is not making a judgment on whether the health care law is good policy.

The phrase is simply not true.

Said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:  “The label ‘government takeover” has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a ‘takeover.’ ”

An inaccurate claim

“Government takeover” conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up “exchanges” where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don’t have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

PolitiFact reporters have studied the 906-page bill and interviewed independent health care experts. We have concluded it is inaccurate to call the plan a government takeover because it relies largely on the existing system of health coverage provided by employers.

It’s true that the law does significantly increase government regulation of health insurers. But it is, at its heart, a system that relies on private companies and the free market.

Republicans who maintain the Democratic plan is a government takeover say that characterization is justified because the plan increases federal regulation and will require Americans to buy health insurance.

But while those provisions are real, the majority of Americans will continue to get coverage from private insurers. And it will bring new business for the insurance industry: People who don”t currently have coverage will get it, for the most part, from private insurance companies.

Consider some analogies about strict government regulation. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes detailed rules on airlines. State laws require drivers to have car insurance. Regulators tell electric utilities what they can charge. Yet that heavy regulation is not described as a government takeover.

This year, PolitiFact analyzed five claims of a “government takeover of health care.” Three were rated Pants on Fire, two were rated False.

‘Can’t do it in four words’

Other news organizations have also said the claim is false.

Slate said “the proposed health care reform does not take over the system in any sense.’ In a New York Times economics blog, Princeton University professor Uwe Reinhardt, an expert in health care economics, said, “Yes, there would be a substantial government-mandated reorganization of this relatively small corner of the private health insurance market (that serves people who have been buying individual policies). But that hardly constitutes a government takeover of American health care.”

FactCheck.org, an independent fact-checking group run by the University of Pennsylvania, has debunked it several times, calling it one of the “whoppers” about health care and saying the reform plan is neither “government-run” nor a “government takeover.”

We asked incoming House Speaker John Boehner’s office why Republican leaders repeat the phrase when it has repeatedly been shown to be incorrect. Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, replied, “We believe that the job-killing ObamaCare law will result in a government takeover of health care. That’s why we have pledged to repeal it, and replace it with common-sense reforms that actually lower costs.”

Analysts say health care reform is such a complicated topic that it often cannot be summarized in snappy talking points.

“If you’re going to tell the truth about something as complicated as health care and health care reform, you probably need at least four sentences,” said Maggie Mahar, author of Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much. “You can”t do it in four words.”

Mahar said the GOP simplification distorted the truth about the plan. “Doctors will not be working for the government. Hospitals will not be owned by the government,” she said. “That’s what a government takeover of health care would mean, and that’s not at all what we”re doing.”

How the line was used

If you followed the health care debate or the midterm election – even casually – it’s likely you heard “government takeover” many times.

PolitiFact sought to count how often the phrase was used in 2010 but found an accurate tally was unfeasible because it had been repeated so frequently in so many places. It was used hundreds of times during the debate over the bill and then revived during the fall campaign. A few numbers:

• The phrase appears more than 90 times on Boehner’s website, GOPLeader.gov.

• It was mentioned eight times in the 48-page Republican campaign platform “A Pledge to America” as part of their plan to “repeal and replace the government takeover of health care.”

• The Republican National Committee’s website mentions a government takeover of health care more than 200 times.

Conservative groups and tea party organizations joined the chorus. It was used by FreedomWorks, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

The phrase proliferated in the media even after Democrats dropped the public option. In 2010 alone, “government takeover” was mentioned 28 times in the Washington Post, 77 times in Politico and 79 times on CNN. A review of TV transcripts showed “government takeover” was primarily used as a catchy sound bite, not for discussions of policy details.

In most transcripts we examined, Republican leaders used the phrase without being challenged by interviewers. For example, during Boehner’s Jan. 31 appearance on Meet the Press, Boehner said it five times. But not once was he challenged about it.

In rare cases when the point was questioned, the GOP leader would recite various regulations found in the bill and insist that they constituted a takeover. But such followups were rare.

An effective phrase

Politicians and officials in the health care industry have been warning about a “government takeover” for decades.

The phrase became widely used in the early 1990s when President Bill Clinton was trying to pass health care legislation.  Then, as today, Democrats tried to debunk the popular Republican refrain.

When Obama proposed his health plan in the spring of 2009, Luntz, a Republican strategist famous for his research on effective phrases, met with focus groups to determine which messages would work best for the Republicans. He did not respond to calls and e-mails from PolitiFact asking him to discuss the phrase.

The 28-page memo he wrote after those sessions, “The Language of Healthcare 2009,” provides a rare glimpse into the art of finding words and phrases that strike a responsive chord with voters.

The memo begins with “The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Healthcare.”  Rule No. 4 says people “are deathly afraid that a government takeover will lower their quality of care – so they are extremely receptive to the anti-Washington approach. It’s not an economic issue. It’s a bureaucratic issue.”

The memo is about salesmanship, not substance. It doesn’t address whether the lines are accurate. It just says they are effective and that Republicans should use them. Indeed, facing a Democratic plan that actually relied on the free market to try to bring down costs, Luntz recommended sidestepping that inconvenient fact:

“The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around politicians, bureaucrats and Washington … not the free market, tax incentives or competition.”

Democrats tried to combat the barrage of charges about a government takeover. The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly put out statements, but they were drowned out by a disciplined GOP that used the phrase over and over.

Democrats could never agree on their own phrases and were all over the map in their responses, said Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee.

“It was uncoordinated. Everyone had their own idea,” Dean said in an interview with PolitiFact.

“The Democrats are atrocious at messaging,” he said. “They’ve gotten worse since I left, not better. It’s just appalling. First of all, you don”t play defense when you”re doing messaging, you play offense. The Republicans have learned this well.”

Dean grudgingly admires the Republican wordsmith. “Frank Luntz has it right, he just works for the wrong side. You give very simple catch phrases that encapsulate the philosophy of the bill.”

A responsive chord

By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that “the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover.”

Exit polls showed the economy was the top issue for voters in the November election, but analysts said the drumbeat about the “government takeover” during the campaign helped cement the advantage for the Republicans.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat whose provision for Medicare end-of-life care was distorted into the charge of “death panels” (last year’s Lie of the Year), said the Republicans’ success with the phrase was a matter of repetition.

“There was a uniformity of Republican messaging that was disconnected from facts,” Blumenauer said. “The sheer discipline . . . was breathtaking.”

By: Bill Adair, Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact-December 16th, 2010

December 17, 2010 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republicans Play Us For Dupes on Financial Reform

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gestures while meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington

Conservatives are representing themselves as anti-bailout populists, while serving Wall Street.

Senate Republicans today debuted their new strategy for financial reform: Refuse to cooperate with Democrats on grounds that the Dems are too willing to give Wall Street what it wants.

I’m not making this up.

In a Senate floor speech, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans couldn’t support the legislation that emerged from Chris Dodd’s banking committee because it “institutionalizes” future taxpayer bailouts of the Street, giving the Federal Reserve “enhanced emergency lending authority that is far too open to abuse.” Senator Bob Corker, a senior Republican on the committee who had spent many weeks negotiating the bill with Dodd, huffed that Dodd’s final bill provides “the ability to have bailouts.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, blasted Dodd for partisanship — “Dodd jerked the rug out from under Sen. Corker and went back into a partisan bill” — that is, partisanship toward Wall Street. Alexander said Republicans will hold out for a plan “that would end the practice of too big to fail and that would make certain that we don’t perpetually use taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street.”

Republicans have been looking for a way to oppose Senate Dems on financial reform without looking like patsies for the Street. And now they think they’ve found it — by trying to make Democrats look like patsies for the Street. The strategy is surely the handiwork of Republican pollster Frank Luntz who for months has been telling Republicans “the single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout.” (See Luntz’s memo.)

Let’s be clear: The Dodd bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to rein in the Street. It allows so-called “specialized” derivatives to be traded without regulatory oversight; its capital requirements are weak; it gives far too much discretion to regulators, who, as we’ve seen, can fall asleep at the switch; it does nothing about conflicts of interest within credit rating agencies that rate the issues of the companies that put food on their plates; it puts a consumer protection agency inside the Fed whose consumer bureau didn’t protect consumers; it doesn’t do anything to control the size of banks; it delays dealing with other hard issues by assigning them to vaguely-defined “studies”; and, yes, it preserves the possibility that the Fed could launch another bank bailout.

But the Street thinks the Dodd bill goes way too far, and wants its Republican allies to water it down with more loopholes, studies, and regulatory discretion. Republicans figure they can accommodate the Street by refusing to give the Dems the votes they need unless the Dems agree to weaken the bill — while Republicans simultaneously tell the public they’re strengthening the bill and reducing the likelihood of future bailouts.

It’s a bizarre balancing act for the Republicans, reflecting the two opposing constituencies they have to appease — big business and Wall Street, on the one hand, and the emerging Tea Partiers, on the other. The Tea Partiers hate the Wall Street bailout as much as the left does. It was the bailout that “really got this ball rolling,” says Joseph Farah, publisher of WorldNetDaily, a website popular among Tea Party adherents. “That’s where the anger, where the frustration took root.”

The awkward fact, of course, is that the bank bailout originated with George W. Bush and a Republican congress. “Without this rescue plan,” Bush told the nation in September 2008, “the costs to the American economy could be disastrous.” New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, the leading Republican negotiator of the bailout bill, warned that without the bank bailout, “the trauma, the chaos, and the disruption to everyday Americans’ lives would be overwhelming.”

Republicans figure the public’s attention span is so short they won’t remember, and that the public understands so little about the details of financial reform that Republicans can weaken the Dodd bill without leaving any fingerprints.

I have a suggestion for Senate Democrats: Don’t let them get away with it. Smoke the Republicans out. Respond to their criticism that the Dodd bill leaves open the possibility that some future bank will become too big to fail by amending the bill to limit the size of banks to $100 billion of assets — so no bank can become too big, period. Challenge the Republicans to join you in voting for the amendment. If they decline, force them to explain themselves to their local Tea Partiers.

By Robert Reich April 14, 2010, Salon; Photo-AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Financial Reform | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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