Nick’s Essay on America’s Decline, with Big Solutions (long)

Posted by – May 15, 2010

I’ve been away for quite some time, I know, but I haven’t stopped thinking about public policy and the way things are going.

They aren’t going well. I followed the health care reform debate with a magnifying glass throughout, and came away deeply disgusted in both the final product and the process that made that sausage.

We desperately needed SERIOUS reform to the United States’ health care non-“system”; we’re in the richest country on Earth, but among OECD nations, our health care is at the back of the pack. No country with our level of wealth has our level of dysfunction in basic health care.

Instead of “the change we need,” what we got when Congress was done kowtowing to big insurance donors and passed the damn thing, was incremental change to half the health care industry (the private insurance market) while leaving the half the government actually runs, Medicaid and Medicare, nearly untouched. The goal of the Obama reforms is to give more Americans access to the health insurance market, more people buying insurance, with subsidies to help the poor afford private insurance. The health insurance industry stands to rake in BILLIONS! I was devastated with disappointment.

Meanwhile, the frenzy on the right wing about this bill (which was nearly a straight copy and paste of the 1993 Republican health care bill (full text of that bill, see for yourself) taking us to “socialism” are patently absurd! I’m like “really? The first thing communists do when they take over a country is enact tepid, insurer-friendly reforms that set up a free market exchange so more people can buy insurance plans? Seriously?” A volcano of right-wing rage exploded, including dozens of death threats and some vandalism across the country. How can anyone take the Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck seriously that health care reform is anything but weak-kneed incrementalism?

The Tea Party is more disconnected from reality than any political movement I’ve ever seen, and yet, they seem to be the only major grassroots force out there and their impact is unavoidable. They’re protesting more private insurance as socialism, railing against the lowest income taxes since the 1920s as communist tyranny (simultaneously, the largely graying group opposes changes in entitlements–“get the government out of my Medicare”) and now that they’re doing the one thing that Republican politicians really care about, picking off incumbents, you’re going to see the GOP tilt even more toward the radical fringe (a terrifying prospect).

Real sign, real Tea Partiers. Medicare is a government-run program.

Since the Tea Party guys’ claims have little relationship to reality, and none of them took to the streets when George W. Bush took us from record surpluses to record deficits, centralized power and forever gutted the Bill of Rights in the name of the War on Terra, the Tea Party has to be about something else. You never see the huge, angry backlash and anti-government “patriots” in funny hats and militia terrorists like McVeigh come out of the woodwork when THEIR party is in power! I’m guessing the root of the dispute here is the right-wing’s belief that government shouldn’t have the right to interfere in the market AT ALL, and add in some good ol’ American racial panic when the multicultural Democratic party took over from the virtually whites-only Republicans. Expect another McVeigh-style attack before Obama leaves office (there have already been several shooting rampages, including one targeting religious liberals at a Unitarian church, one targeting policemen for “gonna take our guns,” and one by a long-time rightist fringer targeting Jews at the National Holocaust Museum in DC).

All that furor against the health care reform bill, while, of course, from the disability rights perspective, Obama’s reforms don’t go nearly far enough, because they only make meaningful changes in private insurance, not Medicaid and Medicare, which most of us with disabilities rely on for our care.

Medicaid and Medicare are BADLY broken and rapidly going bankrupt, but aside from expanding eligibility so that more people will be crowding already scant Medicaid resources, nearly NO changes are being made there. The home care reforms I’ve devoted a decade to are not in the bill; America’s long-term care programs remain frozen in 1965, with government continually making expensive, antiquated segregation in nursing homes THE ONLY OPTION for the disabled, including children and young adults. The horribly dysfunctional patchwork of Medicaid waivers that I rail against? Despite years of demands for change from many quarters, including the National Governors Association, those injustices will remain firmly intact, untouched by “comprehensive health care reform.” People like me will continue struggling to wring bad care from what’s left of Medicare and Medicaid; our lot will not improve at all after “Health Care Reform” takes effect. I am fighting this battle every day, and the problems with hospitals closing due to inadequate payments from Medicaid, not being able to find doctors who still take Medicaid patients, and more, just continue to escalate for me.
Meanwhile, the insular Washington leadership is curiously detached and unaware of what’s happening to their own Medicaid and Medicare programs right under their noses. President Obama made me sick when, during the health care reform “summit,” Congressman Peter Roskam (R – Illinois’ 6th district) asked him, “how can we expand Medicaid when in some counties, NO doctors that take Medicaid are left standing?” and the gist of Obama’s response was “my word, what is this that you speak of my good fellow? if this is so, we can look at raising reimbursement rates!” Everyone knows that they’ll never hike Medicaid funding, and that’s why so many in Congress sought special provisions in the bill (e.g. “The Cornhusker Kickback”) for the feds to cover their states’ new unfunded mandates to expand eligibility to millions of additional people. These expansions are not going to go well, particularly in poorer states, especially since the “kickbacks” to soften the fiscal blow were all removed from the bill with reconciliation.

The failure to even attempt changing the glaring problems with Medicaid and Medicare has left me more jaded and frustrated than ever, to the point [b]I can no longer call myself a Democrat[/b]. Especially since I know that Congress exhausted itself scraping through this tinkering with private insurance, and most likely won’t have the political will or sense of urgency to revisit health care issues for another 10, 20 years. I hate being stuck with our dysfunctional Medicaid system but that’s what people with disabilities are, stuck.

While some pundits hailed the passage of health care as a colossal foreign policy victory, proving America can tackle huge issues, marking our “comeback” as problem-solver on the world stage, I see the opposite. I see a government that lacks the dynamic, bold decision-making capability that these ultra-competitive times demand, a Congress that always cops out or kicks the can down the road in the face of huge problems. I see an America so paralyzed by corruption and red tape that we’ll never catch up with competitors (people in India have already stuck a fork in the U.S., considering the Chinese their only real rival for economic dominance at this point).
Referring to China, I’ve often heard President Obama use the rallying cry, “why can’t we be the world leader in technology again?! Why can’t we have the fastest trains in the world?” Well Mr. President, I would answer him, we will never build trains and train tracks faster than China, because we have so much “environmental impact study” and “archeological impact study” red tape, followed by years of hearing lawsuits from anyone who doesn’t like the project, that it takes an average of 10 years to get any major transportation project off the ground, much less completed. China, meanwhile, simply makes a decision on future train projects, then enforces it by any means necessary. How can we compete with that given our bureaucracy?

While those panicked about executive power right now can take a sigh of relief, because presently it seems Obama can’t even take a $#!T without 60 votes from the Senate, I worry that, before long, fierce foreign competition, falling standards of living, plus a completely paralyzed Congress will lead the American people to demand a dictatorship. Another sudden economic crash, or, G-d forbid, successful terrorist attacks (by Islamist nutbags or another McVeigh) and I fear that the Republic will gasp its last gasp.

The only real solutions are solutions as big as the problems, pushed through by reform groups that aren’t just as dysfunctional as the institutions they’re fighting.

Big Solution #1: Ban campaign contributions (bribing) to public officials, as this has limited access to the halls of power ONLY to moneyed interests, as well as fostering a culture where those who spend more time working for the people than working on fundraising are immediately replaced by candidates with backing from deep-pockets, leaving only self-interested scoundrels remaining. Free speech must be immutable, overturn all McCain-Feingold restrictions on when and where and how candidates can advertise and get their message out, independent expenditures by corporations, unions, advocacy groups and private citizens are unfettered, you can say whatever you want, whenever you want with your free speech, because that’s what the 1st Amendment guarantees–you’re just not allowed to bribe public officials with campaign contributions and rig the system. Campaigns will be publicly financed like in Canada, the UK, and most of Europe. Speech is speech. MONEY IS NOT SPEECH!

Big Solution #2: Breaking the Duopoly is crucial, but WILL NOT happen without a change in the Constitution to allow Proportional Representation via STV (“Instant Runoff Voting,” AKA Single Transferable Vote, as is done in Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland) to bring more parties into Congress. Allowing more parties will enable more principled views to be expressed (because, for example, if you want less intrusive government and less taxation, you won’t have to vote Republican for the tax cuts and get warrantless surveillance, anti-gay crap and anti-immigration laws too as part of the package, instead, you can vote for a party that closely matches your views). More parties also mean regional parties representing genuine regional people’s interests get into the mix. And parties would have to work together to coalesce into viable majority coalitions, and would have to curb the extremist nonsense to keep their coalitions together. Overall, Proportional Representation allows for a much, much healthier democracy, whereas currently we have the opposite of healthy democracy, the Duopoly nearly always wins 100% control of the House and Senate with the support of as little as 20-25% of eligible voters, at the cost of all other parties and their viewpoints.

Big Solution #3: This is my most radical view, but failing Solution #2, maybe we could be far more functional as a people and be much better represented, plus have no more imperialist ventures sapping our wealth, if we were to make a new version of the old Articles of Confederation for the new Information Age that separates the country into 6 or so federated regional powers (see: superstates) to avert any FURTHER deadlock, dysfunction, or civil war (each new state under parts of the current Constitution they elect to have, but empowered to each craft very different rules, based on their shared culture, for how society should work). I’m talking about ending the United States as we know it, replacing it with a federation of nearly autonomous federated republics named “the United Federation of America” (UFA! UFA! UFA!) Each federated republic would choose their own military spending and so on. Think of The Federation (United Federation of Planets) in Star Trek! That’s the type of idea I’m batting around here.

Click to enlarge the map!! In this vision of the future, South Carolina even secedes from the Southern Republic, because, hey, they've wanted to secede since birth.

I’m going even farther than “states’ rights.” I’m altering how the country operates–root and stem overhaul–by almost completely eliminating federal centralization as we know it. Why go this far? Because the paralysis of government has become so bad over the past 30 years that we have to consider crazy, radical ideas we would have shunned in disgust before.
Southern culture should never block Northeasterners’ ambitions for reform in New York where I live now, and visa versa. I moved to NY in large part to escape Alabama’s far-right public policy that was blocking my advancement, but while it’s better here, those policies (tax cuts causing huge deficits, social service cuts, the corporatist approach that keeps the institutional bias in Medicaid alive) FOLLOWED ME to New York because they’re federal policies too. And I believe the policies that affect me would be very different if only a Northeastern bloc could decide their own policies, vs. a national consensus accommodating Southern, Western, everyone’s views being forced on the Northeastern states. National compromises should no more be forced on the Northeastern states than on the Southern states (with some exceptions: states can’t disregard the certain parts of the current Constitution, like reinstating slavery or segregation).

This won’t happen any time soon (there is no public support for it) but maybe we’d all be better off if it did…

I just know that the only real solutions here are solutions as big as the problems. Without trying at least one of these big solutions, get ready to shout “HAIL CAESAR” and go full Banana Republic, while China becomes undisputed world hegemon.

Nick