So what’s wrong with democratic socialism?

The Thinker by Rodin

We are told socialism is bad and un-American, but is capitalism really all that great? Consider how poor a job the free market is doing in providing affordable health care. Before the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies did their best to keep their insured pools as pristine as possible. They had no problems canceling people’s insurance when they judged they were too risky and often when they needed it the most.

In spite of the ACA, which Republicans and Trump are working hard to kill, premiums still are going up. Since this latest tinkering by Trump, they are going up a lot while kicking millions off health insurance. Premiums for 2019 will be announced shortly before the midterm elections and they are expected to rise twenty percent or more. This will likely result in lots of disgruntled voters. Right now, the cost and availability of health care is their number one concern. So I really don’t see why Democrats running on a “Medicare for All” platform should fear the wrath of voters. It’s much more likely they will be cheered on instead.

Ask any senior citizen if they want to give up their Medicare. Even the senior citizen gun nuts will give up their guns if the choice was between giving up guns or Medicare. Medicare is wildly popular, despite its issues. The rest of us simply wonder why if it’s good enough for old folks, we younger and healthier people can’t buy into it.

After all, Medicare takes all comers, at least if you meet the age and eligibility requirements. There are certainly aspects of the program that are annoying and baffling. I have been studying them as my Medicare eligibility looms in a few years. I’m not sure why parts B, C and D can’t come as a general benefit for one premium. I don’t understand why there has to be a donut hole if you use their drug program. In any event, universal health care is not that hard. Every major industrialized country except for ours has done it. Surprisingly, people in these countries are quite happy with their systems overall. So while we are creating Medicare for All, let’s improve the system too.

Of course with our Congress awash in health care money, their real mission seems to be to keep these companies flush with profits. Which is why I and the majority of Americans could really use Medicare for All, which is basically democratic socialism at work. It’s socialist in the sense that the government creates and manages the system. It’s democratic in that we the people get to elect people who will enact such a system.

The private sector has proven not up to the task. That’s why Medicare was created in the first place. The private sector didn’t want anything to do with insuring old people. There was no profit in it so it was either put grandma in the poor house or create a government program to fix the issue. Now health care costs are getting so high for the rest of us that we simply can’t afford it even if we can find insurance.

Republicans don’t get that the government’s purpose is to do things the private sector can’t or won’t but which the public needs. If there were no needs like this, we wouldn’t need government. Private health insurance is a failure. Rather than lowering prices, it raises them for all while kicking millions off health care altogether. Competition between insurers with an even playing field was the basis of the ACA. It helped but it has not proven to be the solution. We need something a whole lot more socialistic.

So sign me up as a Democratic Socialist. There’s no Democratic Socialist party to join, but maybe there will be if the Democratic Party can’t get its act together on these pressing issues. Government exists to help all its citizens and to provide solutions where the free market can’t or won’t affordably or at all. I see this out here in western Massachusetts where I live. Cities out here have high speed Internet, but many in the hill towns don’t. Comcast and the like can’t be bothered. It’s not profitable. No wonder local governments are engaging in some democratic socialism by creating community networks, an effort I am helping lead in my city, and we already have Comcast. (We’ve figured that without Comcast, we could get 1 gigabit per second fiber to the home for a third less than Comcast charges. No wonder Comcast can afford to buy all those arenas.)

Ironically, many of the tenets of Democratic Socialism put Trump in the White House. During the campaign he promised much better health care than we have now for much less. He’s done nothing to implement this promise; in fact he has gone in a completely different direction. Many Obama voters voted for Trump because they thought he could break this gridlock by being different. Obviously they were crassly used, but the idea of having great health care while paying a lot less for it is sound, and is now the number one concern of voters.

Let’s bring in a whole new crew of Democratic Socialists to Congress in the midterms. Hopefully we can replace every Tea Partier elected in 2010 with a Democratic Socialist instead. Let’s let government govern again. Lyndon Johnson was the right leader in the 1960s to bring Medicare to fruition. Medicare for All can be done providing we elect leaders committing to doing the people’s business first.

Republicans are simply racists and classists

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.

Obama is losing his Democratic moorings

The Thinker by Rodin

Like many liberals, I am going through a painful disillusionment phase with Barack Obama. I am disheartened and saddened by his approach to governing since his reelection. I fear he is setting Democrats up for failure in 2014.

If there is one thing that unites Democrats it is a passion for the needs of the middle class and the poor. Since his reelection Barack Obama is showing signs that he is putting some nebulous legacy and quest to “get things done no matter what the odds” ahead of the best interests of the American people.

The most painful aspect has been Obama’s repeated declarations, most explicitly in his FY2014 budget, that he is prepared to scale back social security cost of living adjustments and increase Medicare payments in order to balance the budget. He says this will only happen if Republicans agree as part of a grand bargain to also raise taxes elsewhere.

Obama is way too smart a politician to not realize that social security is not contributing to the deficit. Indeed in most years it diminishes the deficit by putting its surpluses into the treasury. This proposed means of diminishing social security benefits is through a mechanism called “chained CPI” (consumer price index). Basically it would reduce inflation protections built into social security, on the assumption that people will reduce spending patterns when prices rise, for example going with ground beef instead of steaks. However, the elderly spend a disproportionate amount of their income on health care expenses, which has proven resistant to the “ground beef for steak” approach. Regardless, this would still amount to a cut in income generally compared with inflation for people who can least afford to take the hit. This means they will endure a reduction of standard of living, which is already pretty poor for many social security beneficiaries without pensions or high valued 401Ks. Worse, it would do nothing to control the deficit. Obama appears to be willing to balance the budget on the backs of those least able to afford it, and who contributed to their social security over the years based on certain assumptions which may well go by the wayside. It’s unfair and it is back stabbing.

As for Medicare, the president is proposing means testing, essentially requiring those at somewhat higher income levels to contribute more in the way of deductibles and copays when we use Medicare. There is no question that Medicare is a growing entitlement and there is enormous waste in the system. I am all for removing the waste in the system, which can be done by moving it from a fee-for-service model to an outcome-based payment model. As a driver of medical inflation, Medicare is a laggard not a leader, with significantly lower costs and inflation per enrollee than private health insurance. As for means testing, it is unfair because those who earn more have contributed more of their income over the years toward Medicare, effectively subsidizing the care for those at lower income levels. The tax is 1.45% of your income. Someone making $20,000 pays $290 a year in Medicare taxes. Someone at my income level pays closer to $1900 a year in Medicare taxes. The result of this proposed change would be to charge people like me more for the same benefits when we claim them after having already paid more by contributing more to the system during our working lives. It’s sort of like paying an income tax twice. It is fundamentally unfair.

To add insult to injury, yesterday the president signed into law changes to the STOCK act that essentially undid the work of the last Congress to provide better visibility into stocks owned by members of Congress and the Administration. This was a no-brainer for a supposedly progressive president: veto it.

Meanwhile, the former organization Obama for American has morphed into Organizing for Action, and the organization has been petitioning people like me to contribute to it, supposedly to help promote progressive causes. What is progressive about cutting social security benefits for people in a solvent system? Why would I contribute to an organization that works for a president who wants to do the exact opposite of what Vice President Joe Biden promised in the last campaign: not to cut social security benefits, not even by one dime? How do I get excited about sending them money when they want people to contribute more toward Medicare instead of removing the waste in the system?

The worst part is this could easily set up a repeat of the disastrous 2010 election, which brought in Tea Party members that have largely obstructed work from getting done. What drives people to the polls is motivation. Seniors, already disinclined to vote for Democrats, will be even gladder to vote for Republicans who promise not to cut their social security benefits, as even Paul Ryan has pledged. How do you excite the Democratic base to turn out when they are being asked to enthusiastically endorse an agenda that further stiffs it to the working class and seems more a product of Republican thinking than Democratic thinking?

To say the least all of this is disappointing, which amounts to leaving us Democrats dispirited, which gives us little incentive to vote or to get further engaged in politics, which is supposedly the whole purpose of Organizing for Action. But OFA is really about promoting the president’s agenda, not the people’s agenda. They no longer align.

I will support and vote for true Democrats who will fight for the working class, who will fight to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, including corporations that pay increasing fewer taxes every year. Once these under taxed groups have paid their taxes, then I will consider tax increases on the working class. I will not vote for Republican-lite candidates.

I hope Obama wakes up because he is making a fatal mistake not just to his legacy, but to his agenda and to the needs of Americans. The compromise he is chasing simply will not happen with the current Congress, which is good, because Republicans in Congress will put lower spending ahead of deficit reduction, as they have shown time and again. However, there is no reason to move our goalpost first when they won’t move their post at all. The mere act of moving proves not statesmanship but cowardice because it will show conciliation without affect. It also drains energy from progressives and makes us feel all our energy was for naught.

Democrats would be wise to estrange themselves from Obama and OFA. I know I am until he asks for contrition and puts the American people ahead of the concerns of the rich.

Bet on more debt

The Thinker by Rodin

Revolution is breaking out not only in Egypt but also on Capitol Hill. While protestors demanding freedom are taking over Tahrir Square in Cairo, Republican senators and legislators complaining that oppressive “socialism” is diminishing our freedom.

On Capitol Hill, we have the expected noise principally from Republicans about how dreadfully awful our $1.5 trillion dollar deficit this year will be (I agree) and how it must be stopped now! The chess pieces are moving. Earlier in the week, Senate Republicans forced a vote on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which predictably lost. Certain federal district courts apparently don’t like the ACA either. One Florida judge declared the whole act unconstitutional.

Glimmers of Republican sanity are emerging. House Republicans, or at least its leadership, seem to be backing away from an earlier threat not to extend the federal debt ceiling later this year, realizing that the resulting economic meltdown may not be good for their reelection prospects. Meanwhile, President Obama is playing a clever game of defense, setting boundaries on what is acceptable and not acceptable to cut and vowing to veto bills with earmarks. Overall, the momentum certainly seems to be on the side of those trying to cut deficits and reduce the size of the federal government. This time will the cut federal spending and deficits crowd actually succeed?

My vote: bet on more debt. It seems likely that non-defense discretionary spending will be frozen for a few years. Of course, there will be lots of threats and wailing about how bad things are and how the dynamics must change now. However, that’s all they are: threats and wailing. To effect real change, new external drivers are needed. Specifically, our creditors need to stop lending us money (or slow the amount of money they are lending us) or bond rating firms (some of whom were bailed out by federal tax money just a couple of years ago) need to downgrade the U.S. Treasury’s AAA bond rating.

There is little evidence now that either of these things will happen. Why? There are many reasons but principally there is an enormous surplus of capital in the world, including trillions held by U.S. companies. Many of those holding the capital are already heavily invested in U.S. treasuries and do not want to see their investment’s value diminished. A lot of their extra money can certainly be invested in other stocks and bonds, but even blue chip companies are not as safe a refuge for money as U.S. treasury bills. Seeking safety, it seems unlikely that capital will flee U.S. securities.

The improving economy will eventually increase tax revenues. It will be hard to see over the next few years, particularly since Congress and the president have already agreed to borrow money to fund a cut in social security withholdings. Nevertheless, eventually the economy will pick up a head of steam, bringing in more in the way of revenues and thus lessening the deficit. As the deficit shrinks, however marginally, the animus to cut federal spending eases as well. Getting out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will help eventually as well.

Another reason to bet on debt is to consider what really matters. For Republicans, the deficit is a talking point toward their real utopian goal of cutting the size of the federal government. To seriously do this they need sixty plus votes in the Senate, a majority of the House and a Republican president. Two out of three are possible in 2012, but three out of three are very unlikely. As for right now, we will all have to muddle through somehow. What this will amount to in the end is probably a freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech that this is only fifteen percent of federal spending, so a freeze does not solve any underlying problems. Medicare costs in particular will keep rising.

Republicans talk about cutting Medicare and Medicaid, but it is mostly talk. What they really want to do is cut non-defense discretionary spending. They want symbolic victories, like getting rid of the Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting because these agencies offend them. Even if they succeed, which is unlikely, they don’t address the real problem. Discretionary spending outside of Defense has not been the principle cause of deficits since the Great Depression.

The real problems driving up the debt, aside from the bad economy and tax cuts are: Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending. Of the three, only one is a realistic target for major cuts. Can you pick the right target? If you said Medicaid, come up and claim your prize. Why Medicaid? Because when push comes to shove, the disenfranchised are always the first to go. You can see it in being played out right now in state and local governments. Here in Virginia, for example, services for the mentally ill were one of the first cut. A few people speak for the mentally ill, but not many and they are not well organized. Nor do they contribute to politicians’ war chests. Even with Medicaid, it is not going to go away, but if forced to choose between the three, it will be the first to be sizably cut. That is because those who buy influence ultimately win. The poor, being poor, cannot buy influence, and survive only on largess. So Medicaid stands a decent chance of being a loser, while farm subsidies will doubtless continue. (After all, they go principally to red states, and principally to large agricultural companies.)

The Defense Department may get symbolic cuts, but that’s all they will be. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is proposing “cuts”, but this does not mean he expects DoD’s budget to go down. No, he is proposing slowing its rate of growth. While there are some Tea Partiers who would favor real and painful cuts to the Department of Defense, there are too many teats feeding off the military industrial complex. Cuts will be mostly symbolic and weapons systems built in large numbers of congressional districts, as usual, will be mostly immune to cuts.

Social Security is largely untouchable. Social Security will neither be abolished nor will it be replaced with some sort of voucher system. Any honest Republican knows this. At worst, the retirement age will be increased but that will prove unpopular with voters, who can hardly keep a job now. Moreover, social security is not insolvent. It will always have a steady revenue stream through withholdings. The only concern is that over the next twenty years it will be slowly drawing from its trust of already accumulated savings, i.e. Treasury bills, unless the law changes.

Medicare spending is the most chronic and largest problem. Cutting it and raising taxes are the only two things that will seriously reduce the deficit. Unfortunately, it remains popular with the public and retirees depend on it. Republicans live in a fantasy world that it can be converted into a voucher system. To fix Medicare will require making painful choices among many vested interests including doctors, drug companies, retirees, hospitals, ancillary insurance providers and clinics. For it to become solvent will require that hardest of work: everyone must share in the misery. Of course, everyone will want someone else to endure the misery, not them.

The last reason to bet on debt is that tax increases have become anathema. When push comes to shove, Republicans will put deficit spending ahead of tax increases. This is as sure as the sun will rise. The only way to seriously raise tax rates is to have a Democratic congress, sixty plus Democratic votes in the Senate and a Democratic president. That too is very unlikely.

So for the short term, unless our creditors and rating firms force our hand, expect barbarians at the gate, but wielding only noise as weapons. More debt will win because it is the least painful choice. Future generations, after all, aren’t yet of voting age.

Introducing the non-retirement retirement

The Thinker by Rodin

With stocks in some cases at half or less of their value of a year ago, many Americans are wondering if they will ever be able to afford to retire. To retire with a decent standard of living you generally need to have a number of financial ducks lined up. First, you depend on Social Security and Medicare benefits to provide basic subsistence and medical care. Second, if you are lucky enough to have an employer that actually provides a pension, you need to hope that the company does not go belly up before or during your retirement. Third, you have the value of anything in your 401-K or IRAs that you have squirreled away. Fourth, you may have some other savings or some sort of inheritance to draw from. Lastly, and really as a last resort, you may have equity in your house you can draw from, which perhaps you can draw from with a reverse mortgage. With enough of these assets, you can afford to retire when you hit a certain age. How many of us reaching retirement age can honestly say our financial ducks are lined up?

For many of you younger readers retirement may be an abstraction. You are probably far busier trying to hold on to your job and standard of living than to worry about something so far away as retirement. For us middle age Americans, retirement is on our horizon. For example, I am a civil servant who will soon be 52. In theory, I can retire at age 55 with thirty years of service, which will be in May 2012.

Will I retire and begin a life of leisure at 55? Probably not. If I did, certain other expenses would need to be trimmed. Even with my very generous government pension, I would get at best something like 60% of my government salary. However, I still will have bills to pay and I do not particularly want to reduce my lifestyle. Moreover, my mortgage will not be close to being paid off in 2012.

Without some substantial adjustments in my lifestyle, I cannot afford to really retire at 55. Since my investments like yours are in the toilet, it is unlikely I will be able to draw from them in a couple years. So I will still have that 40% gap in income to make up, at least until the mortgage gets paid off. Also, I have many more productive years ahead of me. I am a restless creature too. I simply do not have the constitution to “retire”, at least not at 57, the age when I currently plan to “retire” but when in reality I hope to simply start my next career.

I am betting though that many of you do not have these options. Your “pension” is probably anything in your 401K or IRA, which if you assess it at today’s value might make your heart skip. If you “retire”, your retirement home may be in a trailer park. It is also possible with today’s economy that your “retirement” will be involuntary and you will end up with a fraction of the benefits you were promised. So your “retirement” could simply mean getting one or more new jobs at a fraction of the wages you are used to, perhaps while also working more hours than you do right now. Even with all this, you may end up with a lower standard of living.

In short, for many in the fifty to 60 something age range, retirement, which used to seem almost tangible, is now off the table. We might as well pretend we are twenty or 30 somethings again. If this sounds like your situation, you will have one option: the non-retirement retirement. With this is a retirement you work as long as you are physically capable of working even after you “retire” by collecting social security benefits. You will be likely working at substandard wages perhaps making little more in real dollars than you did as a teenager. However, you will still have Social Security income to draw from and Medicare benefits to cover most of your medical expenses. The combination will not let you really retire, but it will keep you from having your standard of living drop through the floor.

Unless our new President Obama and Congress are able to fix things, and the macro-economic forces work in our favor for a change over the next few decades, “retirement” as our parents knew it may become a luxury most of us can no longer afford. In short, even though the Social Security system will survive the New Deal will have largely unraveled. Social Security and Medicare will provide seniors with a foundation for keeping their financial heads above water, but still not provide enough income to retire.

Many senior citizens are already dealing with this reality. Many retired to discover that they really could not afford to do so. Their actual cost of living exceeded their income and assets. For many, the new model looks like you retire when you absolutely, positively cannot earn money anymore. In other words, when you retire, you will have one foot in the nursing home.

Suppose you are fairly young and headstrong enough to think that you should be able to enjoy a real retirement someday, perhaps when you are in your mid sixties? What do you do? You can invest now while stocks are cheap and hope they will become nice juicy retirement assets by the time you retire. There is no guarantee here, of course, but stocks have tended to provide a higher returns over long periods than other forms of investment. You can also choose not to have children, or if you have children, have just one. (This is what my wife and I did, in part for economic reasons.) Children may be loveable and give purpose to your life, but they suck enormous amounts of money out of your wallet. In addition, you can spend your earning years living frugally while doing your best to climb the income ladder by having a well paying job and specialized skills. Perhaps these things, a resurgence of the American economy relative to the rest of the world, and a government that works for the people, will turn the dynamics around. My gut feeling is that we are sailing into very strong headwinds. We can tack as much as we want but moving forward is likely to be daunting.

For many of us, particularly those of us nearing retirement age, our retirement can be clearly envisioned and it is scary. The vision that we are seeing bears little resemblance to what we envisioned some decades back. The retirement our parents knew is dying from a combination of economic forces and bad government. We are likely to pay the price in an anxious non-retirement retirement.

Let us hope that President-Elect Obama and our new Congress can actually move us in the direction we need to go so we can really retire someday. I sure hope that a real retirement does not become something we lose in the 21st century.

America has lost its soul

The Thinker by Rodin

I hate what Bush and the Republicans are doing to my country. I feel like I am living in some sort of foreign land that superficially seems to be American but has had its soul sucked out. I live in a meaner and more divided country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the powers that be believe in their hearts that this is good. The powers that be have become the moneychangers in the temple to whom Jesus alluded.

There was a time when I felt we were all in this together. We were one nation and one people. Now, thanks largely to Bush and his Republican cronies, I feel like we are one nation very much divided. The oligarchy is now firmly in control and big business owns the country.

As if we needed more examples to see it, the new Medicare prescription drug care bill is a perfect case in point. As this chart points out the effect of the new law will be to pay only a modest percentage of seniors’ total drug costs. But this bill does little to restrain drug prices from rising. Instead of using the buying power of the federal government to purchase Medicare drugs, it creates numerous buying groups. The effect is to prop up the drug company prices (as if they were hurting for revenues in the first place) and add even more burden on the taxpayers and senior citizens. Not surprisingly the drug companies were big donors to Bush’s presidential campaign, and to the campaign coffers of those putting together this legislation.

Meanwhile, the rape of our government continues. Voters are bought off by modest tax cuts that create unheard of levels of deficit spending, burden them and their children with future public debt, but actually put the bulk of the money in the hands of the richest Americans who need it the least. The energy bill likely to be passed by Congress hands billions of tax dollars to already rich energy companies. It throws more money on research into technologies, like ethanol, that are have repeatedly proven not economically viable. Our Environmental Protection Agency goes out of its way to make it easier for polluters to pollute. Here in the Washington area it looks like once again we will get a waiver so we don’t have to seriously address our regional air pollution problem. I guess the growing numbers of people with asthma don’t yet constitute a majority of citizens locally. The Congress is saying in effect: screw their lungs and let’s keep buying those Hummers to exacerbate the problem. Oh, and speaking of Hummers, MS-NBC recently ran a story that indicated Hummers, as well as most SUVs or luxury cars, can now be written off as business expenses by the self employed. Yes, take a tax credit for making the air more polluted that necessary!

Overseas we squandered our good will and sympathy through obnoxiousness and ignorant foreign policy based on ideology instead of an impartial appraisal of the facts. Much of the money for our unwinnable war in Iraq goes to support companies that funded Bush’s 2000 election campaign. (Example: Haliburton charges the U.S. Army up to $1.70 a gallon for gas in Iraq, when it is locally available for 4-15 cents a gallon.)

I don’t understand why Americans can’t see how our country is being so recklessly pillaged. Our skies are dirtier, our water more polluted, our military is overextended, our nation is less safe, more Americans lose health insurance every day, three million new unemployed have been created in three years and we are bought off by tiny tax cuts which are quickly taken from us in the form of higher local taxes.

Meanwhile, as Bush’s poll numbers finally plummet the Massachusetts Supreme Court decides that homosexuals in the state should be allowed to marry. It’s a great decision, but the timing is disastrous. Now instead of focusing on the mess Bush has made, the 2004 Election will focus on the “immorality” of gay marriage. Republicans will be beating their religious base to pass constitutional amendments to forever keep gay people from enjoying the same partnership rights as heterosexuals, even though the idea is deeply evil and wrong. They intend to make the next election focus on reasons why we should discriminate against people in our own country because it distracts us from the mess they made of the last three years.

There is hope that Americans will sober up by the next election. But Californians apparently haven’t arrived there yet and that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country. They replaced a governor with an actor whose first act was to increase the state’s financial problems by repealing some unpopular taxes. Way to go Gov. Fiduciary!

What hope there is comes from Americans starting to realize that they are not better off than they were in 2000, and likely won’t be better off for the foreseeable future. As we start to sober up we have begun to realize we will have to invest a little of their own money to change the country. Howard Dean believes if he can get two million Americans to send him $100 he can retake the White House and win an election where he is not tainted by special interest money. Let’s hope he is right.