Barbaraehrenreich.com

The Economic Fallout Has Decimated the Black Middle Class

To judge from most of the commentary on the Gates-Crowley affair, you would think that a "black elite" has gotten dangerously out of hand. First Gates (Cambridge, Yale, Harvard) showed insufficient deference to Crowley, then Obama (Occidental, Harvard) piled on to accuse the police of having acted "stupidly." Was this "the end of white America" which the Atlantic had warned of in its January/February cover story? Or had the injuries of class -- working class in Crowley's case -- finally trumped the grievances of race?

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How a Man Was Thrown into Gitmo and Tortured for Clicking on My Article

I like to think that some of the things I write cause discomfort in those readers who deserve to feel it. Ideally, they should squirm, they should flinch, they might even experience fleeting gastrointestinal symptoms. But I have always drawn the line at torture. It may be unpleasant to read some of my writings, especially if they have been assigned by a professor, but it should not result in uncontrollable screaming, genital mutilation or significant blood loss.

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The Nouveau Poor Have Reached Numbers Too Large to Ignore

Ever on the lookout for the bright side of hard times, I am tempted to delete “class inequality” from my worry list. Less than a year ago, it was the one of the biggest economic threats on the horizon, with even hard line conservative pundits grousing that wealth was flowing uphill at an alarming rate, leaving the middle class stuck with stagnating incomes while the new super-rich ascended to the heavens in their personal jets. Then the whole top-heavy structure of American capitalism began to totter, and –poof!—inequality all but vanished from the public discourse. A financial columnist in the Chicago Sun Times has just announced that the recession is a “great leveler,” serving to “democratize[d] the agony,” as we all tumble into “the Nouveau Poor…”

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How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy

(A shorter version of this appears as an op ed in the New York Times yesterday.)

Greed -- and its crafty sibling, speculation -- are the designated culprits for the ongoing financial crisis, but another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. As promoted by Oprah, scores of megachurch pastors, and an endless flow of self-help bestsellers, the idea is to firmly belief that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, "visualizing" them -- ardently and with concentration -- actually makes them happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits, the reasoning goes, if only you truly believe that you can.

Positive thinking is endemic to American culture -- from weight loss programs to cancer support groups -- and in the last two decades it put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won't get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you're a "positive person" -- doubt-free, uncritical, and smiling -- and no one becomes a CEO by issuing warnings of possible disaster.

According to a rare skeptic, a Washington-based crisis management consultant I interviewed on the eve of the credit meltdown in 2007, even the magical idea that you can have whatever you truly want has been "viral" in the business culture. All the tomes in airport bookstores' business sections scream out against "negativity" and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence -- a message companies relentlessly reinforced by treating their white collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events. The top guys, meanwhile, would go off to get pumped up in exotic locales with the likes of success guru Tony Robbins. Those who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal "coaching" or of course, shown to the door.

The same frothy wave of mandatory optimism swept through the once-sober finance industry. On their websites, scores of motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Mortgage whose subprime ventures precipitated the entire crisis, was known for his congenital optimism and described in the Guardian earlier this year as "absurdly upbeat" even as his industry unraveled. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times, when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on. In May, the New York Times reported that Merrill, caught up short, was suddenly trying to "temper the Pollyannas in its ranks," and force its analysts to occasionally say the word "sell."

For those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. They actually could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. CEO compensation has ballooned in recent years, creating the new class of billionaires and centi-millionaires who inhabit Lear jets and four-figure a night hotel rooms, who can dispatch a private plane to pick up a favorite wine, or a pet, they happen to have left in the Hamptons. According to a new book from the UK, Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, these masters of the universe tend to be seriously uninformed about how the other 99 percent lives and, Toynbee told me, often uncomprehending of the financial operations -- the derivatives, CDS's, etc. -- that their wealth is derived from. If you live in a bubble of perfect wish-fulfillment, how could you imagine that, for example, some poor fellow in Cleveland might run up against unexpected medical bills or car problems that could waylay his mortgage payments?

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn't get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily "visualizing" success. Calvinists thought "negatively" as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose -- among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists -- in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, "negative" is not the only alternative to "positive." As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism -- seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

Suicide Spreads as One Solution to the Debt Crisis

A few days before Congress passed its Housing Bill, Carlene Balderrama of Taunton MA found her own solution to the housing crisis. Just a little over two hours in advance of the time her mortgage company, PHH Mortgage Corporation -- may its name live in infamy -- was to auction off her home, Balderrama killed herself with her husband's rifle.

This is not the kind of response to hard times that James Grant had in mind when he wrote his July 19 Wall Street Journal essay entitled "Why No Outrage?" "One might infer from the lack of popular anger," the famed Wall Street contrarian wrote, "that the credit crisis was God's fault rather than the doing of the bankers and the rating agencies and the government's snoozing watchdogs." For contrast, he cites the spirited response to the depression of the 1890s, when lawyer/agitator Mary Lease stirred crowds with the message that "We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out .... We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides by force if necessary"

Grant could have found even more bracing examples of resistance in the 1930s, when farmers and tenants used mob power -- and sometimes firearms -- to fight foreclosures and evictions. For more on that, I consulted Frances Fox Piven, co-author of the classic text Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, who told me that in the early 30s, a number of cities were so shaken by the resistance that they declared moratoriums on further evictions. A 1931 riot by Chicago tenants who had fallen behind on their rent, for example, had left three dead and three police officers injured.

According to Piven, these actions were often spontaneous. A group of unemployed men would get word of a scheduled eviction and march through the streets, gathering crowds as they went. Arriving at the site of the eviction, they would move the furniture back into the apartment and stay around to protect the threatened tenants. In one instance in Detroit, it took 100 cops to evict a single family. Also in Detroit, Piven said, "two families protected their apartments by shooting their landlord and were acquitted by a sympathetic jury."

What a difference 80 years makes. When the police and the auctioneers arrived at Balderrama's house, the family gun had already been used -- on the victim of foreclosure herself. I don't know how "worthy" a debtor she was -- the family had been through bankruptcies before, though probably not as a result of Caribbean vacations and closets full of designer clothes. It was an Adjustable Rate Mortgage that did them in, and Balderrama, who managed the family's finances, had apparently been unwilling to tell her husband that their ever-rising monthly mortgage payments were eating up his earnings as a plumber.

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock's brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. "All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once," Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, "describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, 'If you don't help me, I've got a gun in my car.'"

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can't pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition -- like an ever-rising number of Americans -- you're no longer needed at the workplace, then there's no further point to your existence. I'm not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one's credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, "Just shoot me!"

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn't God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans -- often masked as financial institutions -- did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins's article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it's so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?

Body Fat Holds The Key to Energy Independence

Everyone talks about our terrible dependency on oil -- foreign and otherwise -- but hardly anyone mentions what it is. Fossil fuel, all right, but whose fossils? Mostly tiny plants called diatoms, but quite possibly a few Barney-like creatures went into the mix, like Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus and other giant reptiles that shared the Jurassic period with all those diatoms. What we are burning in our cars and keeping our homes warm or cool with is, in other words, a highly processed version of corpse juice.

Think of this for a moment, if only out of respect for the dead. There you were, about 100 million years ago, maybe a contented little diatom or a great big Brontosaurus stumbling around the edge of a tar pit -- a lord of the earth. And what are you now? A sludge of long-chain carbon molecules that will be burned so that some mammalian biped can make a CVS run for Mountain Dew and chips. 

It's an old human habit -- living off the road kill of the planet. There's evidence, for example, that early humans were engaged in scavenging before they figured out how to hunt for themselves. They'd scan the sky for circling vultures, dash off to the kill site--hoping that the leopard that did the actual hunting had sauntered off for a nap-- and gobble up what remained of the prey. It was risky, but it beat doing your own antelope tracking.

We continue our career as scavengers today, attracted not by vultures but by signs saying "Safeway" or "Giant." Inside these sites, we find bits of dead animals wrapped neatly in plastic. The killing has already been done for us -- usually by underpaid immigrant workers rather than leopards.

I say to my fellow humans: It's time to stop feeding off the dead and grow up! I don't know about food, but I have a plan for achieving fuel self-suffiency in less time than it takes to say "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." The idea came to me from reports of the growing crime of French fry oil theft: Certain desperate individuals are stealing restaurants' discarded cooking oil, which can then be used to fuel cars. So the idea is: why not could skip the French fry phase and harvest high-energy hydrocarbons right from ourselves?

I'm talking about liposuction, of course, and it's a mystery to me why it hasn't occurred to any of those geniuses who are constantly opining about fuel prices on MSNBC. The average liposuction removes about half a gallon of liquid fat, which may not seem like much. But think of the vast reserves our nation is literally sitting on! Thirty percent of Americans are obese, or about 90 million individuals or 45 million gallons of easily available fat -- not from dead diatoms but from our very own bellies and butts.

This is the humane alternative to biofuels derived directly from erstwhile foodstuffs like corn. Biofuels, as you might have noticed, are exacerbating the global food crisis by turning edible plants into gasoline. But we could put humans back in the loop by first turning the corn into Doritos and hence into liposuctionable body fat. There would be a reason to live again, even a patriotic rationale for packing on the pounds. 

True, liposuction is not risk-free, as the numerous doctors' websites on the subject inform us. And those of us who insist on driving gas guzzlers may soon start depleting their personal fat reserves, much as heroin addicts run out of useable veins. But the gaunt, punctured, look could become a fashion statement. Already, the combination of a tiny waist and a huge carbon footprint -- generated by one's Hummer and private jet -- is considered a sign of great wealth.

And think what it would do for our nation's self-esteem. We may not lead the world in scientific innovation, educational achievement, or low infant mortality, but we are the global champions of obesity. Go to http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/hea_obe-health-obesity; and you'll find America well ahead of the pack when it comes to personal body fat, while those renowned oil-producers -- Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran-- aren't even among the top 29. All we need is a healthy dose of fat pride and for CVS to start marketing home liposuction kits. That run for Mountain Dew and chips could soon be an energy-neutral proposition.

The Fall of the American Consumer

How much lower can consumer spending go? The malls are like mausoleums, retail clerks are getting laid off, and AOL recently featured on its welcome page the story of man so cheap that he recycles his dental floss -- hanging it from a nail in his garage until it dries out.

It could go a lot lower of course. This guy could start saving the little morsels he flosses out and boil them up to augment the children's breakfast gruel. Already, as the recession or whatever it is closes in, people have stopped buying homes and cars and cut way back on restaurant meals. They don't have the money; they don't have the credit; and increasingly they're finding that no one wants their money anyway. NPR reported on February 28 that more and more Manhattan stores are accepting Euros and at least one has gone Euros-only.

The Sharper Image has declared bankruptcy and is closing 96 U.S. stores. (To think I missed my chance to buy those headphones that treat you to forest sounds while massaging your temples!) Victoria's Secret is so desperate that it's adding fabric to its undergarments. Starbucks had no sooner taken time off to teach its baristas how to make coffee than it started laying them off.

While Americans search for interview outfits in consignment stores and switch from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart for sustenance, the world watches tremulously. The Australian Courier-Mail, for example, warns of an economic "pandemic" if Americans cut back any further, since we are responsible for $9 trillion a year in spending, compared to a puny $1 trillion for the one billion-strong Chinese. Yes, we have been the world's designated shoppers, and, if we fall down on the job, we take the global economy with us.

"Shop till you drop," was our motto, by which we didn't mean to say we were more compassion-worthy than a woman fainting at her work station in some Honduran sweatshop. It was just our proper role in the scheme of things. Some people make stuff; other people have to buy it. And when we gave up making stuff, starting in the 1980s, we were left with the unique role of buying. Remember Bush telling us, shortly after 9/11, to get out there and shop? It may have seemed ludicrous at the time, but what he meant was get back to work.

We took pride in our role in the global economy. No doubt it takes some skill to make things, but what about all the craft that goes into buying them -- finding a convenient parking space at the mall, navigating our way through department stores laid out for maximum consumer confusion, determining which of our credit cards still has a smidgeon of credit in it? Not everyone could do this, especially not people whose only experience was stitching, assembling, wiring, and packaging the stuff that we bought.

But if we thought we were special, they thought we were marks. They could make anything, and we would dutifully buy it. I once found, in a party store, a baseball cap with a plastic turd affixed to its top and the words "shit head" on the visor. The label said "made in the Philippines" and the makers must have been convulsed as they made it. If those dumb Yanks will buy this ...

There's talk already of emergency measures, like making Christmas a weekly holiday, although this would require a level of deforestation that could leave Cheney with no quail to hunt.

More likely, there'll be a move to outsource shopping, just as we've already outsourced manufacturing, customer service, X-ray reading, and R & D. But to whom? The Indians are clever enough, but right now they only account for $600 million in consumer spending a year. And could they really be trusted to put a flat screen TV in every child's room, distinguish Guess jeans from a knock-off, and replace their kitchen counters on an annual basis?

And what happens to us, the world's erstwhile shoppers? The president recently observed, in one of his more sentient moments, that unemployment is "painful." But if a pink slip hurts, what about a letter from Citicard announcing that you've been laid off as a shopper? Will we fill our vacant hours twisting recycled dental floss onto spools or will we decide that, if we can't shop, we're going to have to shoplift?

Because we've shopped till we dropped alright, face down on the floor.

Clitoral Economics

With all the talk about how to stimulate it, you'd think that the economy is a giant clitoris. Ben Bernanke may not employ this imagery, but the immediate challenge--and the issue bound to replace Iraq and immigration in the presidential race--is how best to get the economy engorged and throbbing again.

It would be irresponsible to say much about Bush's stimulus plan, the mere mention of which could be enough to send the Nikkei, the DAX, and the curiously named FTSE and Sensex tumbling into the crash zone again. In a typically regressive gesture, Bush proposed to hand out cash tax rebates--except to families earning less than $40,000 a year. This may qualify as an example of what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism," in which any misfortune can be re-jiggered to the advantage of the affluent.

But even the liberal stimulus proposals have me worried--not so much for their content as their rationale. Most liberals want a stimulus package that includes an increase in food stamp allotments and an extension of unemployment benefits, which are both screamingly obvious measures. Currently, the food stamp allotment amounts to about $1 per meal, and when four Democratic congresspersons tried living on that for a week last May they ended up even crankier than if they'd had to sit through a week-long filibuster by Tom DeLay.

As for unemployment benefits: They last just twenty-five weeks in most states and end up covering only a third of people who are laid off. If ever there was a time to create a real working system of unemployment compensation, it is now. Citigroup has announced plans to eliminate 21,000 jobs; investment banks in general will shed 40,000. The mortgage industry is in a state of meltdown; and Sprint--how did they get into this?--will lay off 4,000 full-time employees as well as 1,600 part-time and contract workers.

The economic rationale for more a progressive stimulus package, which we hear now several times a day, is that the poor and the freshly unemployed will spend whatever money they get. Give them more money in the form of food stamps or unemployment benefits and they'll drop more at the mall. Money, it has been observed, sticks to the rich but just slides off the poor, which makes them the lynchpin of stimulus. After decades of hearing the poor stereotyped as lazy, stupid, addicted, and crime-prone, they have been discovered to have this singular virtue: They are veritable spending machines.

All this is true, but it is also a form of economy fetishism--or should I say worship? If we have learned anything in the last few years, it is that the economy is no longer an effective measure of human well-being. We've seen the economy grow without wage gains; we've seen productivity grow without wage gains. We've even seen unemployment fall without wage gains. In fact, when economists want to talk about life "on the ground," where jobs and wages and the price of Special K are paramount, they've taken to talking about "the real economy." If there's a "real economy," then what in the hell is "the economy"?

Once it was real-er, this economy that we have. But that was before we got polarized into the rich, the poor, and the sinking middle class. Gross social inequality is what has "de-coupled" growth and productivity from wage gains for the average household. As far as I can tell, "the economy," as opposed to the "real economy," is the realm of investment, and is occupied by people who live on interest and dividends instead of salaries and wages, aka the rich.

So I'm proposing a radical shift in rhetoric: Any stimulus package should focus on the poor and the unemployed, not because they spend more, but because they are in most in need of help. Yes, when a parent can afford to buy Enfamil, it helps the Enfamil company and no doubt "the economy" too. But let's not throw out the baby with the sensual bubble bath of "stimulus." In any ordinary moral calculus, the baby comes first.

Far be it from me to make the revolutionary suggestion that babies are more important than profits. My point is just that our economy--with its dizzying bubbles, wild lending sprees, reckless downsizings, and planet-wide hyper-sensitivity--has gotten too far disconnected from ordinary human needs. We could take the current crisis as an opportunity to fix that, at least in part, by shoring up government support for the needy and the dislocated. Or we can wait around and watch while the appropriate imagery gets nasty, as this ghostly creature, "the economy," starts acting like a nymphomaniac junkie in withdrawal.


Are Re-Runs Really Such a Bad Thing?

In solidarity with the striking screenwriters there will be no laugh lines in this blog, no stunning metaphors, and not many adjectives. Also, in solidarity with the striking Broadway stage-hands, no theatrics, special effects or sing-along refrains.

Yes, I realize the strike could deprive millions of Americans of news as Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, and the rest of them are forced into re-runs. If the strike and the re-runs go on long enough, the same millions of Americans will be condemned to living in the past and writing in Kerry for president in 08. But are re-runs really such a bad thing? After opening night, every Broadway show is a re-run in perpetuity, yet people have been known to fly from Fargo to see "Mamma Mia."

And yes, it's a crying shame that so many laugh-worthy news items will go unnoted on the late night talk shows: The discovery of Chinese toys coated with the date rape drug. The news that pot-smoking Swiss teenagers are as academically successful as abstainers and better socially adjusted. Bush's repeated requests for Musharraf to take off his uniform. Could there be a simple explanation for the powerful affinity between these two men?

True, a screenwriters' strike is not as emotionally compelling as a strike by janitors or farm-workers. Screenwriters are often well-paid -- when they are paid. All it takes is for a show to get cancelled or reconceptualized, and they're back on the streets again, hustling for work. I know a couple of them -- smart, funny women who clamber nimbly from one short-lived job to another, struggling to keep up their health insurance and self-respect.

But my selfish hope here is that the screenwriters' action will call attention to the plight of writers in general. Since I started in the freelancing business about 30 years ago, the per-word payment for print articles has remained exactly the same in actual, non-inflation-adjusted, dollars. Three dollars a word was pretty much top of the line, and it hasn't gone up by a penny. More commonly in the old days, I made a dollar a word, requiring me to write three or four 1000-word pieces a month to supply the children with their bagels and pizza. One for Mademoiselle on "The Heartbreak Diet." One for Ms. on "The Bright Side of the Man Shortage." One for Mother Jones on pharmaceutical sales scams, and probably a book review thrown in.

There was a perk, of course -- the occasional free lunch on an editor's expense account. These would occur in up-market restaurants where the price of lunch for two would easily exceed my family's weekly food budget, but I realized it would be gauche to bring a plastic baggie for the rolls. My job was to pitch story ideas over the field greens and tuna tartare, all the while marveling at the wealth that my writing helped generate, which, except for the food on my plate, went largely to someone other than me.

For print writers, things have gone steadily downhill. The number of traditional outlets--magazines and newspapers -- is shrinking. Ms., for example, publishes only quarterly now, Mother Jones every two months, and Mademoiselle has long since said au revoir. You can blog on the Web of course, but that pays exactly zero. As for benefits: once the National Writers' Union offered health insurance, but Aetna dropped it and then Unicare found writers too sickly to cover. (You can still find health insurance, however, at www.freelancersunion.org.)

So, you may be thinking, who needs writers anyway? The truth is, no one needs any particular writer, just as no one needs any particular auto worker, stage-hand, or janitor. But take us all away and TV's funny men will be struck mute, soap opera actors will be reduced to sighing and grunting, CNN anchors will have to fill the whole hour with chit chat about the weather, all greeting cards will be blank. Newspapers will consist of advertisements and movie listings; the Web will collapse into YouTube. A sad, bewildered, silence will come over the land.

Besides, anyone who's willing to stand up to greedy bosses deserves our support. A victory for one group, from Ford workers to stage-hands, raises the prospects for everyone else. Who knows? If the screenwriters win, maybe some tiny measure of respect will eventually trickle down even to bloggers. So in further solidarity with striking writers, I'm going to shut up right now.

Why Does Everyone Bow Down to the Health Insurance Industry?

Bow your heads and raise the white flags. After facing down the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the U.S.S.R., Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, the United States has met an enemy it dares not confront -- the American private health insurance industry.

With the courageous exception of Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic candidates have all rolled out health "reform" plans that represent total, Chamberlain-like, appeasement. Edwards and Obama propose universal health insurance plans that would in no way ease the death grip of Aetna, Unicare, MetLife, and the rest of the evil-doers. Clinton -- why are we not surprised? -- has gone even further, borrowing the Republican idea of actually feeding the private insurers by making it mandatory to buy their product. Will I be arrested if I resist paying $10,000 a year for a private policy laden with killer co-pays and deductibles?

It’s not only the Democratic candidates who are capitulating. The surrender-buzz is everywhere. I heard it from a notable liberal political scientist on a panel in August: We can’t just leap to a single payer system, he said in so many words, because it would be too disruptive, given the size of the private health insurance industry. Then I heard it yesterday from a Chicago woman who leads a nonprofit agency serving the poor: How can we go to a Canadian-style system when the private industry has gotten so “big”?

Yes, it is big. Leighton Ku, at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, gave me the figure of $776 billion in expenditures on private health insurance for this year. It’s also a big-time employer, paying what economist Paul Krugman has estimated two to three million people just turn down claims.

This in turn generates ever more employment in doctors’ offices to battle the insurance companies. Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physician, wrote in The New Yorker that ''a well-run office can get the insurer's rejection rate down from 30 percent to, say, 15 percent. That’s how a doctor makes money. It's a war with insurance, every step of the way.'' And that’s another thing your insurance premium has to pay for: the ongoing "war" between doctors and insurers.

Note: The private health insurance industry is not big because it relentlessly seeks out new customers. Unlike any other industry, this one grows by rejecting customers. No matter how shabby you look, Cartier, Lexus, or Nordstrom’s will happily take your money. Not Aetna. If you have a prior conviction -- excuse me, a pre-existing condition -- it doesn’t want your business. Private health insurance is only for people who aren’t likely to ever get sick. In fact, why call it “insurance,” which normally embodies the notion of risk-sharing? This is extortion.

Think of the damage. An estimated 18,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford or can’t qualify for health insurance. That’s the 9/11 carnage multiplied by three -- every year. Not to mention all the people who are stuck in jobs they hate because they don’t dare lose their current insurance.

Saddam Hussein never killed 18,000 Americans or anything close; nor did the U.S.S.R. Yet we faced down those "enemies" with huge patriotic bluster, vast military expenditures, and, in the case of Saddam, armed intervention. So why does the U.S. soil its pants and cower in fear when confronted with the insurance industry?

Here’s a plan: First, locate the major companies. No major intelligence effort will be required, since Google should suffice. Second, estimate their armed strength. No doubt there are legions of security guards involved in protecting the company headquarters from irate consumers, but these should be manageable with a few brigades. Next, consider an air strike, followed by an infantry assault.

And what about the two to three million insurance industry employees whose sole job it is to turn down claims? Well, I have a plan for them: It’s called unemployment. What country in its right mind would pay millions of people to deny other people health care?

I’m not mean, though. If we had the kind of universal, single-payer, health insurance Kucinich is advocating, private health insurance workers would continue to be covered even after they are laid off. As for the health insurance company executives, there should be an adequate job training program for them – perhaps as home health aides.

Fellow citizens, where is the old macho spirit that has sustained us through countless conflicts against enemies both real and imagined? In the case of health care, we have identified the enemy, and the time has come to crush it.

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