Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 14. Partisan Wars Over Foreign Policy

    Mitt Romney is inexperienced in foreign policy. Much attention has been paid to his recent verbal blunders, from criticizing English Olympic preparations while visiting London in July, to calling American diplomats’ efforts to deal with hostile crowds in Cairo “disgraceful”. Many presidential candidates are inexperienced in foreign policy, as Barack Obama was in 2008. If Romney is elected President, he would improve at enunciating his policies. More important is to know what those policies would be.

    Republican foreign policy under George Bush was a disaster. The war in Iraq was unnecessary and unwinnable, and the war in Afghanistan was going nowhere. Osama bin Laden remained alive and Al Qaeda was spreading. No progress had been made on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. World opinion about America, even among our allies, reached a low point.

    Republican leaders do not mention Bush, and have not discussed what went wrong and why. Many of the neoconservative experts who orchestrated the Bush foreign policy are now advising Romney. They have been very critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, without clearly outlining one of their own. What would they do differently?

    Republican foreign policy can most easily be described in the negative. In March, Romney called Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Republicans spend more time talking about China: Romney repeatedly says that punishing the Chinese for unequal trade policies will happen on Day One. Mexico and the rest of Latin America are the sources of all those illegal immigrants who should deport themselves back home.

    The vast Muslim world is dangerous, populated by a religion which many conservatives label as morally deficient. They attack those, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who might apply Islamic ideas to government, while arguing that our government should be ruled by their version of Christian fundamentalism. In the section of their Party platform about foreign policy “Islam” appears twice, both times as the threat of “radical Islam”.

    Western Europe used to be our closest allies, but today’s Republicans only criticize Europe. In campaign speeches, Romney calls Europe “a social welfare state” and an “entitlement nation.” He describes the coming election as a battle for “the soul of America”, because voters must choose between “a European-style welfare state” or “a free land.”

    Whom do Republicans like? Israel. But only the most extreme politicians there, who refuse to limit settlement activities on the West Bank. Any effort to move Israel toward compromise is equated with “throwing Israel under the bus.” Republicans appear ready to let Israel draw us into a war with Iran on Benjamin Netanyahu’s timetable.

    A frequently used Republican word about Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless”, meaning weak and ineffective. That reflects the overall Republican strategy of projecting more strength, more power. The Democratic administration has been reluctant to use power, especially military power, compared with the ostentatious use of military power by their Republican predecessors. There is not much difference between the parties on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are widely unpopular among American voters. Partisan interpretations of the withdrawal of troops from both war zones notwithstanding, the pace of withdrawal has been cautious under Obama.

    Obama has pursued the broader war on terror as vigorously as did George Bush. He has not closed Guantanamo and uses drones to kill enemies, even if they are American citizens. He ordered the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, although Republicans appear peeved at his success.

    In the turbulent Middle East, Obama has been reluctant to intervene in unpredictable situations. Each country touched by the Arab Spring has followed a different path away from dictatorship. Egypt was a major ally, whose government was dictatorial and unpopular, so there was little American interference in the rebellion there. Libya was ruled by a sponsor of terrorism, for whose overthrow international approval, especially from NATO, was immediately forthcoming, so limited American military assistance was offered to the rebels. Syria sits in the center of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Obama has refrained from anything beyond verbal support of the revolutionaries.

    Republican foreign policy is really driven by their domestic effort to unseat Obama and the Democrats. The New York Times reported in July that European leaders who felt slighted by Romney’s words had been told by his advisers not to read too much into statements made for a domestic political audience.

    The Democrats offer a known quantity, the continuation of this cautious foreign policy of the previous four years. What Romney would do in office is much less certain. The aggressive and risky proposals that Republicans advance in the campaign, like openly arming the Syrian rebels and threatening Iran with air attack if their nuclear program is not stopped immediately, may just be for show. But the nationalist arrogance of Romney’s “American century” rhetoric, the wholesale distrust of the world’s Muslims, the disinterest in seeking allies, and the support of the most belligerent section of the Israeli electorate are likely to continue to determine the foreign policy choices of Republicans, in or out of the White House.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 25, 2012

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 13. Republicans at Home, and at Heart

    Mitt Romney was in a good place in May. His dinner host was Marc Leder, who made a fortune, just like Romney, by founding a private equity firm, Sun Capital. Mitt stood in front of about 30 people of his own small class – very rich, very important, and very conservative members of America’s real elite. Rich enough to spend $50,000 a plate for dinner with Romney, because he had just clinched the Republican nomination. Rich enough to give lots more money to any politician who might make America an even better place to be rich, important, and conservative. And they were giving it up for Mitt, their messenger, their mouthpiece, their leader. Mitt was at home.

    Here is what he said, to them and now to us all, since video of that dinner can be seen on your computer: “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this President no matter what . . . . These are people who pay no income tax. 47% of Americans pay no income tax. . . . So my job is, is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    Romney made a lot of mistakes that night. It is not true that 47% of Americans pay no income tax. That many pay no federal income tax, but many fewer pay no state income tax. Everyone in politics knows that only 18% of households pay no taxes at all; two-thirds of households who pay no federal income tax still pay payroll tax.

    That is a serious mistake, because Romney and his campaign advisers know that he was not telling the truth. But a bigger mistake was to put into the same basket all the people he doesn’t like. The 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax are, for Romney, the same 47% who vote for Obama “no matter what”. Those people feel entitled to everything they need from the government because they see themselves as victims, and those same people will never take personal responsibility for themselves.

    Who are these people that Romney will not worry about, who will never be convinced to act responsibly? They are millions of retirees on Social Security, students who are no longer their parents’ dependents, the unemployed, poor families with children, and working families whose Earned Income Tax Credit eliminates their federal tax liability. And thousands of millionaires who used our tax code to pay no federal taxes.

    Most of the people who use the EITC to reduce their federal taxes soon pay taxes because their economic situation improves. Romney knows that, and he knows something else: his father George “was on relief, welfare relief for the first years of his life,” as Romney’s mother said in an interview when George was running for governor of Michigan in 1962.

    Where do these people whom Romney dismisses live? Even Whoppi Goldberg knows, as she said on “The View”, that of the 10 states with the highest percentage of people who do not pay federal taxes, Republicans are governors in 9. She’s wrong, though: all 10 governors are Republican.

    The contempt for Obama voters could not be clearer. I think that is the source of the much more focused Republican hatred of Obama. Obama is the opposite of this characterization of Obama voters. He is an even better all-American story than the anecdotes that conservatives tell to prove that any American can get anywhere with hard work. But Obama has turned his back on the American Dream. Instead of being grateful for everything America has given him, he put himself at the head of the rabble, the non-tax-paying 47%, the won’t-hold-a-good-job welfare abusers, the whining masses who feel sorry for themselves. For that, conservatives hate him.

    Once he found out that his remarks were being broadcast to the nation, Romney held a hasty press conference on Monday. Here he told the truth. “This is, of course, something I talk about a good deal in rallies and speeches and so forth . . . Well, um, it’s not elegantly stated . . . I’m sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that . . . . but it’s a message which I’m going to carry and continue to carry.”

    No mistake here, no correction of any of his false statements. That’s because it is not just Romney’s message. The other Republican candidates, as they each took the lead in the primaries, said the same disdainful and untrue things about half of Americans. A staffer at FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s huge organization behind many Republican campaigns, got excited: “A new video that makes me like Mitt better than I did.”

    Romney does not want to be President of these Americans. He said on Monday that he approves of that message. So does the Republican establishment.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 20, 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 12. Who Should Make Our Foreign Policy?

    Just as the presidential campaign settled into repetitive boredom comes a September surprise, an upheaval across the Muslim nations. Violent mobs in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen target our diplomatic buildings.

    A foreign crisis becomes a foreign policy crisis. Let’s watch our foreign-policy-making rivals, the Obama administration and Mitt Romney’s campaign, at work.

    A few Egyptian Coptic Christians, disavowed by their church in Egypt, are using American freedom to promote hatred of all Muslims. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who earlier spent a year in jail for meth production, lives in LA, released from prison on probation for forging checks. During 2012, Nakoula made the film “Innocence of Muslims” with the help of Media for Christ, a Los Angeles group founded by Joseph Nasralla Abdelmasih, who has been part of extreme anti-Muslim agitation in the US.

    The filmmakers told cast members they were creating a fictional story, but later dubbed into the actors’ mouths a portrayal of Mohammed as a sadistic womanizer and child molester. Nakoula promoted the film by posing for radio interviews as the non-existent “Sam Bacile”, an Israeli Jew, who called Islam a “cancer” and lied about the support of “a hundred Jewish donors”.

    Two trailers were dubbed into Arabic and put onto the internet by a third Coptic Christian critic of Islam, Morris Sadek, whose Egyptian citizenship was revoked, because he called for war against his homeland. On September 6, Sadek sent YouTube links to Egyptian journalists.

    Here things spiraled out of control in precisely the way that the anti-Islam creators wished. On September 8, a two-minute excerpt was broadcast on Egyptian television. Protests developed in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Tunisia. A crowd gathered outside the American Embassy in Cairo on September 11, although the Ambassador was not in residence.

    Someone in the Embassy posted a statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. . . . We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

    Later that day, protesters stormed the Embassy, pulled down the American flag and burned it.
A more violent mob then attacked the US consulate in Benghazi with rocket-propelled grenades, killing the American Ambassador to Libya, 3 other Americans and 10 Libyan police.

    Now the foreign crisis became a campaign issue. About 10 PM on September 11, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement, which began, “I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today.” About 15 minutes later, Mitt Romney released a message, which had been prepared earlier: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

    Although it was already clear that the Embassy message had been posted before the attacks in Cairo, and that it was not the work of the Obama administration but a low-level staffer, Romney put his statement on his website, where it still stands. The next morning, Romney repeated at a news conference that “the administration” was “sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions.” He repeated variations of “apology” five more times, saying the Cairo embassy was “effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.”

    At about the same time, President Obama released a statement: “I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. . . . While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

    It is useful to see who condemned whom. Obama, Clinton, and Romney all condemned the attacks. The US Embassy in Cairo, and Obama and Clinton later, condemned the makers of the provocative and fraudulent film, as well as those Muslims in the Middle East who used this as a pretext to attack Americans. Before he knew what had actually happened, Romney condemned as “disgraceful” the American diplomats in Cairo who were under siege, as well as Obama, for making an apology they did not make. After it became clear that he had made a number of incorrect statements on the night of September 11, Romney repeated them the next day.

    Mitt Romney defends those who condemn all Muslims as representing American “values” and condemns our diplomats in danger who try to explain that “Innocence of Muslims” does not represent US policy. When anyone rejects the film and its intent, Romney calls that sympathizing with the anti-US mob.

    We do have friends in these nations. The Libyan Prime Minister condemned the attack, and the President of the Libyan General National Congress said, “We owe an apology to the US government, it’s people and in fact to the whole world.” How long we would have any friends in the Muslim world under a Romney presidency is questionable.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 18, 2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 11. The Candidates, Up Close and Personal

    The political rivals for the presidency and vice-presidency talk a lot about the policies they like and those they don’t like, usually everything their opponents like. They also talk about their personal lives, and bring out their wives and children to demonstrate what swell family men they are. Is this important? What do we need to know about the personal lives of our top political candidates?

    At the party conventions, both Romney and Obama used their wives to demonstrate their character as good fathers and husbands to voters. Their argument was simple: good family men make good presidents.

    Some personal facts would seem to be very important for the voters to know about. Herman Cain’s tendency to sexually harass women might say a great deal about what kind of man he is. It might have been logical for conservative voters to reject Newt Gingrich as a candidate, because his personal life involved multiple divorces, discussing a divorce with his first wife while she was in the hospital, and having an affair with his future third wife years before divorcing his second. Yet those facts had little effect on his popularity during the Republican primaries of 2011 and 2012.

    How much do marital fidelity and sexual morality matter? Jack Kennedy’s extra-marital flings while he was President were silly, dangerous, and immoral, but they don’t appear to have affected his working life as political leader or commander-in-chief. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s family morals could hardly be worse. Had he been a loyal faithful husband, Al Gore would have swept into the White House in 2000. But those weaknesses had little to do with his presidential policies.

    Presidential affairs seem commonplace. Both FDR and Dwight Eisenhower appear to have affairs. Thomas Jefferson sired children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. But if being a loyal husband has little relationship to the work of being President, perhaps too much emphasis is placed on candidates as family men.

    On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the Gulf of Tonkin brought us a divisive war, just as George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s reluctance to tell the truth about Saddam Hussein put us in an unnecessary war we could not win. Dick Nixon’s dishonesty overshadowed his domestic and foreign achievements, and brought his Presidency crashing down. Lying in office to the American people has a much stronger relationship to bad policy decisions than sex in the office.

    How do the characters of our current candidates appear to Americans?

    Some past behaviors have dogged Mitt Romney’s candidacy. A great deal was made of his strapping a carrier with the family dog to the roof of their car during a 12-hour vacation trip in 1983, by both his Republican rivals and by Obama supporters. In 2012, a much earlier incident came to light, in which a teenage Romney led a group of his private school friends in an attack on a fellow student they thought was unconventional, even gay.

    In that case, it is certainly worth asking how much abhorrent behavior fifty years ago matters today. Perhaps more insight into the character of Romney the candidate is his claim that he doesn’t remember this incident, which is hard to believe.

    Paul Ryan recently said that he ran a marathon in under 3 hours, a remarkable athletic feat for anyone. Only when that claim was ridiculed by runners, did Ryan backtrack to say that he had made a mistake. Apparently Ryan believed, like John Kerry before him, that making up things about his physical prowess would win him some votes.

    Obama opponents have collected every one of his public statements which could be attacked as false. Many of those were predictions he made about the economic future when he took office. There appears to be no particular incident of bad behavior in Obama’s past which has risen to the level of importance of Romney’s gay-bashing or Ryan’s marathon falsehood.

    Americans have more concerns about the honesty of Romney-Ryan than they do about Obama-Biden. The Pew Research Center asked for one word to describe these four men. For Romney, words like distrust, fake, liar, dishonest, and phony came up more than twice as often as similar words for Obama. Two of the most common words for Obama were incompetent and failure, words not used much to describe Romney. For Joe Biden, the negative words disparaged his intelligence, such as idiot, buffoon and clown. In Ryan’s case, there were many more negative words which doubted his honesty: sneaky, opportunist, disingenuous, phony.

    The admission in August by a Romney pollster named Neil Newhouse, that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” may be responsible for Americans’ distrust of Romney. A July Gallup poll showed that Obama’s character is rated much more highly than Romney’s by the voting public, who was asked which candidate was better on the following characteristics: likable (Obama won 60 to 30); understands Americans’ daily problems (Obama won 50 to 39); honest and trustworthy (Obama won 47 to 39), and can get things done (Romney won 46 to 41).

    From an historical perspective, the most important characteristic may be “honest and trustworthy”. Too bad that both camps seem wedded to the use of distortions and even outright falsehoods in their campaign arsenals.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 10. Dealing with Garbage

    Nobody who comes to my home smokes. But cigarette butts litter the ground near the curb and the sidewalk in front of my house. If you multiply those butts by every building in town, thousands of acts of littering, constantly repeated, are dirtying our town.

    What should government do about littering? Like every community, Jacksonville has an ordinance against littering. The city could put greater enforcement on the streets to catch litterbugs, raise the fines much higher, even prescribe jail time for repeat offenders.

    That seems like overkill. Littering is an anti-social act, which should be fought by social persuasion, not serious legal consequences. Keeping our town looking good is a collective responsibility. The more pride that citizens take in their own community, the less likely they are to drop garbage on other people’s lawns or toss it out their car windows. This problem is better solved through education and public awareness than with government programs.

    But litter is garbage and garbage requires public policy. When I lived in Maine, the state passed a bottle and can deposit law. That nickel deposit suddenly cleaned up the streets, as returnables disappeared from sight. Bottle bills reduce litter by at least one-third, sometimes up to two-thirds. Currently 10 states have bottle bills, and they are all blue states: California, Oregon, and Hawaii in the West, Michigan and Iowa in the Midwest, and New York and 4 New England states. They were all enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, except for Hawaii, which means that the enthusiasm for bottle bills has waned or that the opposition has become more persuasive. Illinois has no deposit law and drink containers litter the streets.

    Bottle deposit laws insure that a sizable proportion of potential garbage is instead recycled. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans, instead of sitting in the soil for centuries, are turned back into new products. The millions of electronic devices which are thrown away every year contain toxic metals, which can be recaptured, as well as glass and plastic.

    The economic value of recycling depends on the material. Producing new aluminum from recycled products uses only 5% as much energy as producing aluminum from ore. About one-third of all aluminum produced in the US comes from recycled scrap. That means that much more could be recycled, at great savings.

    Recycled paper still costs a bit more than new paper. My local Staples charges $10.49 for a ream of new paper, $12.29 for paper with50% recycled content, and $13.29 for paper with 100% recycled content.

    Perhaps some of the cost difference comes from paying people to sort recyclables, which here in Jacksonville are just all dumped together. Popular unwillingness to do sorting ourselves raises the costs of recycling. As with litter, consumers could take responsibility for the garbage we create. Across the country, Americans produce so much garbage that landfills are filling up. Millions of tons of daily garbage pollute the environment, now and for the future. Communities can no longer afford to deal with their garbage.

    The newest method of keeping trash out of landfills is to recover the energy released from burning trash, while keeping the toxic gases and residues out of the atmosphere. This waste-to-energy process can conflict with recycling, which decreases the amount of trash available to burn and thus reduces possible profits for companies which incinerate the waste. If a community’s trash becomes energy, there is less motivation to institute recycling programs.

    Our garbage problem calls for political solutions. Garbage is usually managed through a working partnership between government and private industry. Localities set rules about recycling and provide sites to dispose of waste, while private companies collect the trash. States make laws about bottle deposits. Entrepreneurs take old computers or TVs, and make money by recovering the valuable parts.

    Many communities have considered political solutions to garbage issues. Dozens of cities nationwide have banned plastic bags, including Los Angeles and Seattle. A proposal was floated in Illinois to enforce the recycling of plastic bags. The Illinois legislature passed a law requiring manufacturers of plastic bags used in the state to increase their recycled content, eventually up to 30%. The law also prohibited Illinois communities from passing their own plastic bag laws, which might have been more stringent, including banning them altogether. Governor Pat Quinn just vetoed the legislation, saying that he did not want to prevent towns from approving bans on plastic bags.

    Garbage does not appear to be an issue in this year’s political campaigning. Neither of the parties mentions garbage, landfills, recycling, plastic bags, or litter in their political ads, nor do these words appear in their party platforms, with the exception of a statement in the Republican platform that “Efforts to ... encourage recycling ... have been a success.” But in our daily lives, in our home towns, the increasing loads of garbage that we create must be dealt with. We must reduce the amount of stuff we throw away. We must find places to put the garbage we still create. We must figure out how to recycle products that poison the earth or contain valuable materials.

    That work is public and collective, whether it happens through laws, education, or simple social responsibility.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 11, 2012

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 9. Who Gets to Vote?

    The key to democracy is voting. White colonists in America insisted on voting as the basis of government. But voting in America has always been limited. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans only let settlers vote who conformed to their religious doctrines. Only men could vote, with a few exceptions, until the 20th century. African-Americans were excluded from voting by slavery and the law, then by violence and local Jim Crow laws, until the 1960s. Eliminating voter discrimination required constitutional amendments, congressional legislation, and federal enforcement.

    Throughout our history there have been other forms of discriminatory voting restrictions, serving local partisan purposes. In New York City in 1908, the Democratic administration tried to suppress the Jewish vote by picking Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, as voter registration days. They feared that many Jews would vote for socialists. The official justification was, of course, to prevent fraud.

    In 2008, a number of attempts were made to limit access to the polls. Between January and October 2008, 666,000 Ohioans registered to vote, and 200,000 of them provided driver’s licenses or Social Security information that did not match government records, for example, in the spelling of their names. Five weeks before Election Day, the Ohio Republican Party asked a federal court to require the state to list all these people, so they could be purged or their votes challenged.

    The Republican Party of Montana challenged the registrations of over 6,000 voters in 6 Democratic-leaning counties based on change of address information. Many were service members and students eligible to vote in Montana, who had their mail forwarded to where they were serving or going to school. The Republican Lieutenant Governor criticized these challenges. A federal judge found them frivolous.

    This year, who can vote has become an even more contentious national discussion. Many state legislatures have passed laws requiring voters to show a government-issued ID. These state laws have much in common. Their proponents all allege that the purpose is to prevent voter fraud, even though there have been very few cases across the country which such an ID would prevent. ID laws create hardships for those who do not have a driver’s license, do not have easy access to birth records, cannot drive to distant government buildings to procure IDs, or have recently been registered. Such people are disproportionately poor, African-American or Hispanic, groups who tend strongly to vote for Democrats. The new laws were passed by Republican legislative majorities and signed by Republican governors.

    Republicans say they are protecting democracy. But the partisan nature of these efforts peeks through. In June, the Pennsylvania House Majority leader, Mike Turzai, was videotaped at a Republican gathering saying that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Turzai’s comments produced loud applause.

    Judges have not looked favorably on many of these laws. In July, Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan ruled that the new Wisconsin voter ID law was unconstitutional. Flanagan had been appointed by a Republican Governor.

    In August, a federal court rejected the new Texas ID law. All three judges, two appointed by Democrats and one by George Bush, agreed that the law imposes “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” and noted that minorities in Texas are more likely to live in poverty.

    The number of voters who could be disenfranchised by strict voter ID laws is staggering. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 21 million Americans do not have current government-issued photo IDs. They are disproportionately African-Americans, working poor, and students – exactly the groups which won the 2008 election for Obama.

    Laws about when voting may take place also affect who gets to vote. More than 20 states have sought to restrict early voting and Sunday voting. In Ohio early voting was greatly expanded in 2008, including Sunday voting. On the Sunday before Election Day many black congregations came out of church and went straight to the polls to vote for Obama. Republicans in Ohio then passed a law to restrict early voting, and eliminate Sunday voting, except for members of the military. Last week a federal judge ordered the previous rules reinstated.

     One more method of distorting voting through partisan politics is in determining who is on the ballot. Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee for President. He was Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. Republican party officials in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oklahoma have tried to get Johnson’s name off the November ballot by mounting legal challenges to petition signatures.

    Johnson is a Republican, and took part in the early Republican primaries. He is trying to appeal to libertarian-minded voters who had favored Ron Paul’s candidacy. Paul drew over 10% of the vote in 29 of the 40 Republican primaries. Sizable numbers of voters for Johnson in November could make the difference in the race between Romney and Obama. In August, the Republican Secretary of State of Iowa rejected these challenges.

    For years Democrats have tried to make voting easier. Republicans in many states are trying to restrict voting. The only bipartisan agreement about voting has been among judges and state officials who have struck down these laws as unconstitutional limitations on our most fundamental right.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 6, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 8. Who Will Pay for Health Care?

    My mother is slowly losing her hearing. Hearing aids allow her to talk with us, if we are close and speak loudly. Pretty good for 90, I could say, but that’s not much consolation to someone who is 90 and going deaf.
    Modern medical science has created amazing devices to perform functions our bodies can no longer do. Here’s one you may not know about, if holding back deafness is not part of your family life. A cochlear implant is an electronic device which replaces the normal process of sound transmission to the brain with a series of electrodes. Cochlear implants have been used successfully in infants born deaf and in older people who have lost hearing.
    These tiny devices are expensive, at least $45,000 each. So insurance providers restrict the circumstances under which they will pay. My mother can understand words now at 70 decibels, but not less. Only when her hearing gets worse will her doctor recommend an implant, unless she pays herself. So we have an appointment for another test a year from now. The same is true of the more common and much cheaper operation to save eyesight from cataracts. Sight must deteriorate to 20/40 before insurance will cover an artificial lens.
    In both kinds of operations, private insurance companies and Medicare have similar thresholds to determine when they will pay. That’s the meaning of rationing care. People at the top of giant organizations decide when and where and by whom health care is provided to all of us. Health care is already rationed and private insurers also specify which doctors they will pay.
    Where do the parties stand on cochlear implants? By her next appointment with her ear doctor, we could have a Republican or Democratic President, implementing their party’s platform. The trouble is, it is very difficult even for experts to figure out the long-term effects of the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act, usually called Obamacare, or the Republicans’ proposals contained in Paul Ryan’s  budget plan. Factcheck.org says: “The presidential campaign is overflowing with claims from both sides designed to scare seniors into thinking Medicare is being gutted or about to end altogether.”
    The Republican proposal for cochlear implants, and for the whole Medicare system, is to do nothing to the system for my mother and me and anyone over 55, and to completely change it for everyone under 55. Instead of Medicare’s specific benefits, like payment for cochlear implants or prescriptions, younger people would get a voucher from the federal government to pay insurance premiums when they retire. Would the voucher pay for insurance plans as good as current Medicare, or would seniors have to pay much more out of their pockets? Since this would not take place for a very long time, nobody knows.
    But there are some hints in their party platform.“Medicare . . . is the largest driver of future debt. . . . Without disadvantaging retirees or those nearing retirement, the age eligibility for Medicare must be made more realistic in terms of today’s longer life span.” Since Republicans emphasize reducing the debt by spending cuts alone, younger people will be “disadvantaged”, most obviously by raising the age eligibility.
    Obama’s Affordable Care Act envisions considerable cost savings in Medicare over the next 10 years by reducing payments to hospitals and insurance companies. Democrats propose no reductions in benefits or eligibility. The hope for these future savings may be wishful thinking, because nobody knows how much medical costs will rise.
    For all the hullabaloo about Medicare, however, the real difference between the parties is on Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. The Affordable Care Act would expand Medicaid coverage from about 60 million people to 77 million by 2016, as part of the Democrats’ effort to provide health care insurance to everyone. Costs would be shared between the federal and state governments, and it is not clear how that would be financed.
    Republicans want to end the federal program and have the federal government give grants to the states for 50 different Medicaid programs. The Ryan budget plan would make cuts of $1.4 trillion to Medicaid over the next 10 years, although that is not mentioned in the party platform. According to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, that “would almost inevitably result in dramatic reductions in coverage.”
    Those cuts would mainly affect the poor, typically invisible in American politics, and completely invisible in the Republican Party platform. During their working lives my parents saved well more than the average for people who are retiring now. But that nest egg is being spent on nursing home care for my mother. Modern medicine has brought about 1.4 million seniors like my mother into nursing homes, because they need 24-hour professional care. In a couple of years, her savings will be gone, and then she will qualify for Medicaid. Right now about 60% of all nursing residents get Medicaid, which also assists paying for one-third of all babies born in the US.
    By that time, the Republicans might have severely cut Medicaid, as the Ryan budget foresees. That would certainly disadvantage her and millions of seniors like her.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 4, 2012