How to Talk About Health Care

John McCain will be spending the week promoting his health care scheme. The crux of the plan is to abolish employer-based health insurance and throw middle class working Americans to the wolves. It is market fundamentalism at its worst.

But I'm not here to talk about the policy details. I want to discuss message framing. During an election campaign, when our ultimate audience is persuadable voters, how do we talk about health care?

Let's first understand McCain's frame. His campaign understands one crucial fact (if nothing else): About 95 percent of the voters in the 2008 general election will be insured -- the uninsured don't tend to vote. Extensive polling and focus group research has shown, without a doubt, that people who are insured are more interested in preserving and improving their own coverage than in covering the uninsured. Americans want "quality, affordable health care." But of the two concepts, they are more focused on affordability than on quality.

McCain is trying to convince voters that Democrats are all about covering the uninsured while he, on the other hand, is all about lowering health care costs. Understand that this is a good strategy because it fits voters' stereotypes of Democrats (and is fairly true). To our credit, we focus on "universal" or "single-payer" coverage, "Medicare for all," "Canadian-style" health, and the like. But this is not good message framing for the 2008 election.

"Single-payer" makes persuadable voters -- the swing voters who will decide this election -- think of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and bad service (like the "typical" department of motor vehicles). You'd think that one way to sell health coverage would be to refer to one of our nation's great success stories -- Medicare. Unfortunately, Americans have become wary of Medicare, in large part because the Bush administration botched Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit.

And unfortunately, many Americans have a negative impression of the Canadian health care system. More important -- because it applies to more than just health care -- Americans are not persuaded by comparisons to other nations. If they were, we'd already have single-payer health care, strict gun control, and voting rights for ex-offenders, and we would have abolished the death penalty and signed the Kyoto treaty on global warming years ago. Americans want an American solution. (You're going to hurt your eyes if you roll them like that.) This is politics; just go with the flow. Evoking national pride helps us enact programs that benefit our fellow citizens -- so just do it.

But, you respond, these voters are wrong! We need to educate them about the merits of single-payer, Medicare, and the Canadian system, you say. I'm sorry, but politics doesn't work that way. You can't change people's minds in the course of a campaign -- that takes years and there's not enough time. No, our goal is not to change minds, it is to convince voters that they agree with us already.

We do that by starting from a point of agreement -- where polls show that persuadable voters are on our side -- and lead them to see that our solution fits their preconceptions.

In the case of McCain's proposal, the key fact is that the tax provisions will encourage companies to drop health insurance as an employer-provided benefit. Fortune Magazine points this out by quoting an expert in the field: "I predict that most companies would stop paying for health care in three to four years," says Robert Laszewski, a consultant who works with corporate benefits managers.

Put another way, the McCain plan will cause businesses to drop health care benefits like a rotten egg from a picnic basket. The argument for McCain depends on the idea that once they cut health care benefits, corporations will increase our salaries to offset our loss! And no persuadable voter in America will believe this. So if you're middle-class in America, this plan should scare the sox off of you. This is Bush economics on steroids!

But also, look at it this way. There may be no more important ammunition in the fight against McCain than his health care scheme. If on Election Day voters truly understand this proposal, McCain will be defeated in a landslide.

So let's reframe the health care debate. It's not about Democratic coverage versus Republican cost-cutting. It's about McCain's radical scheme to dump our employer-provided health insurance coverage into a ditch.

McCain Shows Us How to Kill an Army

John McCain, who from the early 1980s worked hard to establish himself as one of the Senate's shining champions of Vietnam veterans' issues, completed his betrayal of the Iraq-era troops today. Brandon Friedman of has the details:

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What We Can Learn from Conservatives About Winning in Politics

Make no mistake: When the conservatives set out to take over America 30 years ago, they were working off of a well-thought-out plan.

The plan was put in place by a wide variety of thinkers -- but three of the main strategists were Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich, each of whom wrote important books and papers laying out the goal of creating a conservative America, and showing specifically how the movement could make that happen.

The ideas in these plans went through various iterations through the decades; but their essential goals and intentions never changed much. And, as it turned out, they didn't have to: the plan worked so well and kept the conservative base so focused and engaged over the long term that it didn't need much more than an occasional refresher, or the odd subplan elaborating on how the main ideas should be applied in some specific domain.

Reading these plans now, as a progressive, it strikes me: We're now living in an America in which every institution is dominated by these guys. Every facet of our looming disaster was dictated by bankrupt conservative ideas; yet our very ability to visualize fresh alternatives has been constricted by the frames they deliberately laid around our language and discourse. Most of the country finds it hard to even contemplate or discuss our predicaments in anything but conservative terms. It's clear they've done more than merely mess up our country; they've also, quite intentionally, messed with our minds.

As it turns out, messing with our minds wasn't just one part of the plan; it was the essential goal of the entire plan of conquest. They used sociology, social psychology, linguistics, and a subtle understanding of human motivation to get into our heads and change the way we processed reality itself, in ways that made it impossible to question all the other things they were up to.

Ending conservative dominance will require us to undo the vast memetic and ontological damage they've wrought on two entire generations of Americans. We have no choice but to fight this fire with fire of our own. And the first thing we need to do is understand, very specifically, how they did it. Fortunately, this isn't hard: the basics are all laid out in their original written plans.

Last year, over at Talk2Action, Bruce Wilson dug up one of the most recent rewrites of Weyrich's version of the plan -- a 2001 manifesto published by the Free Congress Foundation, written by Eric Heubeck that concisely summarized and updated the essentials of the plan Weyrich had been promoting since the early 80s. Wilson rewrote the document -- mostly by replacing the word "conservative" with "progressive" and sprinkling in a few liberal philosophical points. The results are worth a careful reading, because in Heubeck and Weyrich's complaints and solutions, Wilson found a great deal of wisdom we can use about how to build a lasting progressive majority.

Over this and the next two posts, I'm going to revisit Weyrich and Heubeck's Free Congress manifesto, and lay out the specific lessons progressives can draw from the plans and strategies that drove 30 years of conservative movement-building. We'll get the map to the the battlefield they're really fighting on; and what it will take for progressives to engage them there and win. The same strategies that allowed them to take control of the country and change the shape of American history may, with some adaptations to our own liberal values, allow us to undo the damage as well.

The first post addresses the role ideas -- which ones they specifically chose to promote, and why -- played in the conservative renaissance, and should play in the coming progressive era as well. The second one will discuss the details of how these ideas are presented to the public. The last one discusses specific tactics that the conservatives used -- and we might consider emulating -- to embed their desired memes in the mass culture, ensuring their continued dominance of the discourse.

Many Tactics, One Goal: Promoting the Progressive Worldview

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Smirk of the Union

A small and beaten man spoke to Congress and the nation last night, convinced in his own mind he's a hero. Snoopy battling the Red Baron. Walter Mitty, imagining himself dying bravely before a firing squad.

For those who missed it, here's the Big Con run-down. Let me start with the facial expressions. Because, more than any of the words, they told the sad story.

The entrance: He raises both eyebrows puckishly, like the frat boy he is. Introduced by Speaker Pelosi, he reacts curiously to the wave of applause: he blushes. He actually thinks this applause is for him--they love me!!--and not a perfunctory gesture of respect for the office. He still thinks he is a great man, and that others think he is a great man. He looks about a thousand years old. He begins: "Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum." Or that's what the transcript says he said. If you missed it live, what he actually said was, "...stood before yuh at this rostr'm...."

John Wayne taking on the desperadoes.

Then, the arrogant bastard, he makes a joke: "These issues"--he's named "peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens"--"deserve vigorous debate. And I think history will show we've answered the call." He gives the chamber that famous smirk, to let them know it's OK to laugh, even amid all the pomp: get it? These people keep insisting on debatin' with me. Washington! Bicker, bicker, bicker.

Then, he obliquely announces the speech's theme, also with a smirk: Bush's greatest hits. A golden trip down memory lane. He says, of public servants' job to "carry out the people's business," that "it remains our charge to keep." Dog whistle: this is the Methodist hymn that by which entitled his campaign book. Because remember: George Bush is a Christian Unleashing the "armies of compassion." Or it it this "army of compassion"?

Which brings up one of the creepiest features of the speech: "more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's Capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other non-public school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities." I didn't know--and perhaps the Constitution has something to say on this--it was the job of the U.S. government to fret over the disappearance of "faith-based" institutions. Well, our president now proposes we shore them up with "Pell Grants for Kids." Senator Clayborn Pell, a great man, now unfortunately suffers from Parkinson's disease, and probably lacks the wherewithal to slap the president in the face for the insult to his great progressive legacy.

I suppose we should also attend to the words, because this pathetic washout happens to be the most powerful man in the world, so the words he uses are important.

He repeated the Great Republican Lie of 2007, implying that the Democrats in the 110th Congress is obstructionist--"Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time," he piously intoned.--when it's really himself and the Republican minority who are willfully obstructing, with an aggressiveness unmatched in modern history. He still trumpets his own disastrous Ownership Society rhetoric (How disastrous? See here) and barely acknowledges the massive economic pain Americans are feeling and our about to feel -- and only then to issue one more obstructionist threat, on the stimulus package: "The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it." Mafia words: my way, or else.

But back, again, to the facial expressions. The most fulsome smirk came, I think, winding up to his promise, "If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it." He said something interesting, perhaps referring to the remarkable poll results consistently showing a majority of Americans believe Bush's tax cuts were not worth it, or that they would be glad to pay higher taxes if it meant healthcare for all Americans. Such national maturity--indeed any occasion to call Americans to some higher sacrifice--can only but be mocked by the smug bastard running our country. He said this: "Others have said they'd be happier to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm. The IRS accepts both checks and money owners."

Cheney joins his smirk.

What else? There was his promise of an executive order canceling earmarks not voted out in the open--because, of course, now that the Democrats run Congress, procedural irregularity and pork-barrel spending has suddenly become a national crisis.

There was some fairy dust about making "health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control." The Republicans' barks of approval at that one are guttural. He add that medical decisions must be "made in the privacy of your doctor's office, not in the halls of Congress."

About medical decisions made in callous insurance company cubicles, of course--which is to say, most medical decisions--he has nothing to say.

"Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results." No one can deny they suck. Read this.

"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow"? Only if those breakthroughs accord with conservative dogma. Read this.

Perhaps later, I'll give you more on the fairy tales he's propounding our nation on its place in the world. I'll leave you with this one peace of jargon: "protective overwatch mission." That's the new Bushism for "We're staying in Iraq for ever." You'll be hearing it much more in the days ahead.

EPA Spews Auto Industry Propaganda

The recent holiday season is a reminder that among the most vile of creatures is the religious hypocrite on the taxpayer dole.

There are no doubt numerous examples that could be cited within the Bush administration, but top of mind this week would be Steve Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ignoring all legal and technical evidence -- and the advice of his career experts -- Johnson sided with the car industry and rejected the request of California to enforce the state's landmark greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. (No fewer than 19 other states have already adopted these standards or are considering them, representing about half the U.S. population.) In fact, Johnson took action that his own legal team said was probably illegal.

To top things off, when it appeared that the story was about to leak (thanks to excellent reporting by The Washington Post), Johnson abruptly called an evening news conference by telephone to put his "spin" on the situation.

In the process, Johnson lied through his teeth to the media. Among other lies, Johnson claimed approving California's request would create a "confusing patchwork of state rules" (No, this is just auto industry propaganda. There would only be one standard that other states could adopt. So many had either done so or contemplating adoption, that it could have become a de facto national standard.). Johnson claimed that the standard would save less gasoline than the new fuel economy standards in the energy bill. (Another lie. The car companies opposed the California standards because they would require them to do more.) And the EPA chief gushed over his "world-class professional staff" at the same time that he froze them out of the decision-making process.

Instead, Johnson did what the White House wanted him to do, which was give a giant Christmas gift to the car industry, which had lobbied various White House agencies and even Vice President Cheney in an effort to kill the California request.

This compulsion to lie might be considered normal in a standard politician, but Johnson has postured that he is a devoutly religious man -- in fact, he even taped a promotional spot for an evangelical proselytizing organization known as Christian Embassy.

In that video tape, Johnson states that "I can't imagine doing this [job] without the Lord."

He also claims he meets with the group at his office early in the morning to "have a Bible study." (It's worth noting that Johnson claimed he was "too busy" to meet with Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before announcing the California decision.)

Ultimately, Johnson will be exposed for his mendacity in this matter. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is demanding all the internal documents and other relevant material -- and has warned EPA to "preserve all documents" related to the issue. And California and 15 other states are suing and likely will eventually win in court.

But it's worth pointing out that it's not the first time this EPA head has blatantly lied about a critical decision that helped polluting industry. In order to save industry money, last year Johnson set weak national standards for airborne soot -- a decision that will lead to many thousands of premature deaths. Even the mild-mannered head of EPA's science advisory board noted Johnson was "a little disingenuous" in claiming there was scientific doubt about what to do.

And soon Johnson will make yet another decision that could either save -- or take -- lives, since he is under a court order to announce a decision by March on new national air quality standards for ozone, or smog.

Last year, Johnson proposed a slight tightening of the standard -- though not as tight as unanimously recommended by his science advisers -- because scientific evidence is overwhelming that the current standards don't adequately protect the health of kids with asthma and many millions of other Americans.

But with a final decision looming, polluting industries have ramped up their lobbying activities. Prompted by the National Association of Manufacturers, 11 governors wrote to the EPA head, urging him to make no change in the current standards.

The lobbying blitz so alarmed Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., head of the Senate clean air subcommittee, that he sent Johnson a handwritten note urging him not to cave under political pressure.

Maybe Carper should have sent a Bible along.

The GOP Has Become the Party of Moral Depravity

Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a groundbreaking paper back in the 1960s about the alleged weaknesses of often female-headed African-American families. He described a culture of loose morals and indulgent self-destructive behavior which the right successfully demagogued into a decades long, thinly veiled racist attack on government welfare programs. The common wisdom was that welfare institutionalized and rewarded failure leading to an immoral social order. Throughout the period there were sustained conservative attacks on those who defended such programs and participated in the vast cultural transformation of the era, characterizing these behaviors as "moral depravity."

As recently as the early '90s, Moynihan himself was busily coining snappy slogans to illustrate liberalism's essential immorality, the most memorable being "defining deviancy down":

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The Art of the Hissy Fit

I first noticed the right's successful use of phony sanctimony and faux outrage back in the 90's when well-known conservative players like Gingrich and Livingston pretended to be offended at the president's extramarital affair and were repeatedly and tiresomely "upset" about fund-raising practices they all practiced themselves. The idea of these powerful and corrupt adulterers being personally upset by White House coffees and naughty sexual behavior was laughable.

But they did it, oh how they did it, and it often succeeded in changing the dialogue and titillating the media into a frenzy of breathless tabloid coverage.

In fact, they became so good at the tactic that they now rely on it as their first choice to control the political dialogue when it becomes uncomfortable and put the Democrats on the defensive whenever they are winning the day. Perhaps the best example during the Bush years would be the completely cynical and over-the-top reaction to Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial rally in 2002 in the last couple of weeks leading up to the election.

With the exception of the bizarre Jesse Ventura, those in attendance, including the Republicans, were non-plussed by the nature of the event at the time. It was not, as the chatterers insisted, a funeral, but rather more like an Irish wake for Wellstone supporters -- a celebration of Wellstone's life, which included, naturally, politics. (He died campaigning, after all.) But Vin Weber, one of the Republican party's most sophisticated operatives, immediately saw the opportunity for a faux outrage fest that was more successful than even he could have ever dreamed.

By the time they were through, the Democrats were prostrating themselves at the feet of anyone who would listen, begging for forgiveness for something they didn't do, just to stop the shrieking. The Republicans could barely keep the smirks off their faces as they sternly lectured the Democrats on how to properly honor the dead -- the same Republicans who had relentlessly tortured poor Vince Foster's family for years.

It's an excellent technique and one they continue to employ with great success, most recently with the entirely fake Move-On and Pete Stark "controversies." (The Democrats try their own versions but rarely achieve the kind of full blown hissy fit the Republicans can conjure with a mere blast fax to Drudge and their talk radio minions.)

But it's about more than simple political distraction or savvy public relations. It's actually a very well developed form of social control called Ritual Defamation (or Ritual Humiliation) as this well trafficked internet article defines it:

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Neocons Embrace Islamic Terror Group

During the week of October 22-26, an official announcement effuses, "The nation will be rocked by the biggest conservative campus protest ever - Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a wake-up call for Americans on 200 university and college campuses." Ringmastered by David Horowitz, this circus will be performing under the tent of something called the "Terrorism Awareness Project."

The purpose of this ballyhoolooza, we are told, is to confront the "Big Lies" of the Left regarding terrorism and militant Islam. Worthy subjects, to be sure. Indeed I would like to help the sponsors of the "wake-up call" promote awareness of them. Toward this end, let's consider the American Right's "special relationship" with one group of terrorists.

The U.S. State Department officially considers the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While those honors date back to 1994, they've been renewed during the Bush years. Indeed in 2003 Foggy Bottom went further, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- an MEK alias -- under the terrorist designation. (The MEK is also known as the People's Mujahedeen.)

To make a long and bizarre story short, the MEK got its start in early 1960s Iran, helped overthrow the Shah in 1979, but quickly turned on the revolutionary government it helped bring to power. Employing an ideological blend of Stalinism and Islamism, the tactics of a paramilitary guerilla faction, and the organizational structure of a cult, the group went into exile, eventually making their home in Iraq in the mid-1980s. Not only did Saddam give the organization cover: he armed, funded, and utilized them for a variety of ends over two decades.

The group's wicked political brew was on spectacular display on the old MEK flag (since abandoned), with its sickle and Kalashnikov positioned beneath a Koranic verse. (Not -- to state the obvious -- that the mere presence of a Koranic verse in and of itself implies Islamist political commitments, but in this case the shoe very much fits.)

Here you have virtually everything the Right claims to oppose all rolled into one: Islamism, Marxism, terrorism, and Saddam. Naturally, then, neoconservatives would utterly deplore the MEK and everything it stands for, right? The MEK would in fact make an ideal target for Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week and Terrorism Awareness efforts, no?

Well, no. At least one of the carnival's acts, it turns out, is rather fond of the Islamo-Stalinist-terrorist cult group, and has repeatedly argued for the removal of the MEK from the State Department's list of terrorist groups and indeed urged the U.S. government to embrace it. Daniel Pipes, who will be speaking at Tufts on October 24th as part of the Horowitz high jinks, has made the MEK a recurring theme in his writings going back several years: here, here, and here.

Pipes has also gone to bat for the MEK right in the pages of Horowitz's house organ.

But Pipes is far from alone on the Right in championing the MEK. He co-authored the first piece linked to above with Patrick Clawson of the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Right-wing commentator Max Boot has argued not merely for the removal of the MEK from the terrorist list but for funding and unleashing it to do battle with Iranian forces -- this while casually acknowledging that it is a "political cult." (More on Boot's disfigured views here.)

In some cases the MEK plays a stealth role in the media machinery of the American Right. What the FOX News Channel tells viewers about Alireza Jafarzadeh when he appears on its airwaves is that he is an "FNC Foreign Affairs Analyst." What you have to go to the FOX News website to discover, however, is that Jafarzadeh served "for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran." But it is scarcely known that the sonorous-sounding National Council of Resistance of Iran is in fact a front name for the MEK.

Now, it's true that Jafarzadeh discontinued his post with the National Council of Resistance of Iran--but only when (and only because) its Washington office was forced to close in 2003 as a result of the State Department decision about it being a front for the MEK. It's not like he had a change of heart.

If you attend an "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" event, you might want to ask the speakers about this terrorist cult and whether they condemn it. Some of them might -- not all neoconservatives agree on the MEK. (See here and here for examples of right-wing criticism of the outfit -- though the lines of argumentation are sometimes bizarrely convoluted.)

But the fact that several prominent American conservatives have cozied up to an Islamist-Stalinist cult that was on Saddam's payroll and the State Department considers a terrorist organization -- this raises serious questions (to put it mildly) about the Right's bedfellows and the calculus that determines them.

It suggests the need for a little more terrorism awareness.

The Right Plays to its Nativist Base

So Republican candidates were busy finding better things to do this week than appear at a forum where they could debate minority issues. Rudy's excuse was the best: he had to go off and hobnob with Bo Derek.

Digby's right, as usual: It's not just that the no-show reveals the undercurrent of racism that runs through the conservative movement like an ancient underground sewer -- the snub also played an important role in sending a signal to the conservative base.

We've known for some time that the GOP's fake inclusiveness -- hosting black children onstage at campaign events, trotting out big-name minorities in key public positions -- isn't actual minority outreach. It's part of its strategic appeal to fence-sitting white voters as somehow racially sensitive, while continuing to empower and indulge in wink-and-nudge racial politics that sends coded messages to the more naked racists in their base. It also gives them cover even as they pursue policies that reduce civil-rights enforcement on a broad scale.

A big part of playing that game is to keep the signals going to the base. Sometimes it's plain old race- and gay-baiting, couched in ways that let them erect flimsy facades of deniability. At others, it's making subtle snubs like this week's to make sure no one's deluded into thinking that defending white privilege isn't the first and most important job on the right's agenda.

So in the meantime you get a broad range of right-wingers, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck to Bill O'Reilly,, and all points in between, finding themselves increasingly comfortable coming out and saying things that no one in their right mind would have found acceptable or reasonable as recent as a decade ago. And the troops are taking note; they're even openly frothing along with their icons at the very thought of an African American running for the presidency.

The big opening for this shift in the dialogue towards near-open acceptance of old-fashioned bigotry is the immigration debate:

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Getting to the Bottom of the SCHIP Debate

The State Children's Health Insurance Program battle -- soon to heat up once Bush vetoes a bipartisan compromise and attention turns to the politically tenuous House Republicans -- is about two things.

One, of course, is the children themselves: 6 million currently covered under SCHIP (less if conservatives get their way) and 9 million still uninsured.

Without more health insurance, more kids will get sick and die. Period.

Conservatives, being compassionate and all, will swear up and down they don't want more sick kids. They just don't want "big government" to deal with them.

Now, I could give you some defensive arguments to insist SCHIP really isn't "big government." States take the lead in implementing the program. Private insurers generally deliver the coverage.

Which would be true. But that would leave out a critical part of the program's success: our federal government.

We all chip in and fund children's health insurance through our federal government. And we make sure the coverage is decent by regulating the private companies involved.

In return, we all save money and strengthen our economy as kids get more preventative care, instead of waiting for grievous illness to take them to the ER.

This is not theory. While more and more adults have had to go without health insurance, SCHIP has increased the percentage of kids with health insurance.

It is simply a proven success.

And local media has begun introducing their readers to kids who are alive and well thanks to that success.

None of this was happening, or would happen, without government -- without us citizens calling on our federal government to invest our taxes and set ground rules to solve this problem.

Having said that, this is not really a debate of government versus no government.

This is a debate between good government and bad government.

As I wrote in an earlier post:
Bush and fellow conservatives are just fine with government subsidies to prop up Medicare Advantage private plans, even though they cost taxpayers more than the traditional Medicare public plan.
They are just fine keeping the children's insurance program, so long as we underfund it and millions remain uninsured.
As Robert Borosage commented earlier: "faced with a choice of providing children with health care or protecting the profits of private insurance companies, the president chooses the latter."
Conservatives fear losing the SCHIP debate because they fear losing the entire health care debate. This fear is unchanged from 1993, when they decided they had to kill universal health care, because "[i]ts passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party."

Politics over policy. Party over people. Bad government over good government.

SCHIP is not health insurance for all. It's just a rare bright spot in our overall inefficient, convoluted, patchwork, private-sector dominated health care system.

Expanding SCHIP does not automatically get us to quality, affordable health insurance for all.

Nor does defeating SCHIP -- and further upsetting the public by worsening our health care system -- ensure conservatives (despite their delusions) that they can stop the momentum for universal health insurance. Perhaps the opposite.

And that bigger debate is rapidly coming, as Sen. Hillary Clinton's new health care proposal joins plans from Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.

To address the myriad of domestic problems that Americans want solved, including our shoddy health care system, we need effective government.

To win these debates with the public, we need to be able to propose solutions that involve our government.

That means when we have a program where our government has shined, we must praise it for that very reason.

The fundamental question that is always before the public is: whose people and which philosophy knows the difference between good government and bad government?

We must make it clear: if you're against SCHIP, you don't know good government. And you can't be trusted to lead on the challenges we all face.

More information on the State Children's Health Insurance Program »

Green Legislative Breakthrough?

A young man came to my door the other day, seeking money for the Democratic National Committee. "We need to elect Democrats next year," said the young man, "to work on issues like Iraq and global warming."

Implicit in this pitch, similar to one on the DNC website was the notion that the current Congress (and President) will not take on the global warming issue, and that it could be a defining issue in the next election.

But there have been some interesting developments in the past few weeks that leave open hope that the current Congress could actually take on the global warming issue directly and in a bipartisan way.

Consider, for example, the global warming plan unveiled earlier this month by Senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va. Their draft strategy, culling ideas from other proposals, would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2050 through a cap-and-trade system.

This plan does have some real warts. Initially more than half the initial credits would be given free to coal burning power companies and other big polluters based on past pollution levels -- raising the prospect of only slightly smaller windfall profits than a rival plan advanced by Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

Their overall target probably would also fall short of the mark needed to stabilize the climate. Even so, as my friends with Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out, the Lieberman-Warner initiative is "a big step forward" in the global warming debate and—with appropriate improvements—could be the basis for a bill that could clear the Senate Environment and Works Committee and head to the Senate floor this fall.

The plan may have gotten an additional boost from an Environmental Protection Agency analysis of an earlier global warming plan drafted by Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The analysis found that the economy would continue to grow despite new limits on greenhouse gas emissions, undermining arguments of cleanup opponents such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Across the Capitol, advocates for climate action should take heart from a energy bill vote in favor of requiring that power companies increase the amount of electricity they produce from renewable energy sources, a favorable vote despite opposition from big global-warming polluters like Duke Energy.

A renewable energy requirement alone would be a positive step on global warming—though it faces a real challenge in upcoming conference negotiations with the Senate. But it also suggests that House could support a strong overall plan to reduce global warming emissions.

But, wait—isn't President Bush going to oppose anything meaningful on global warming? After all, he has threatened to veto the less significant energy package unless his oil industry cronies get a better deal.

Perhaps. But he also could be influenced by one of the less-publicized developments of recent weeks—a call to action by the Business Roundtable, the CEOs of America's biggest companies (its energy task force is headed by Michael Morris, President and CEO of America's biggest global warmer—American Electric Power), a group usually somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan on environmental policy.

Though the Roundtable didn't endorse specific legislation, it did call for "collective actions" to reduce emissions.

These folks, who pull the puppet strings of so many D.C. pols, may have been sending President Bush a message: Consider signing global warming legislation if it makes its way to your desk.

The President has already scheduled a climate change summit in Washington in late September. Now that Karl Rove is packing his bags, would the President consider forging a legacy other than being the guy who created the Iraq mess?

American Workers Get an Overdue Pay Raise

With all of the talk about the conservative obstructionism in Congress that is keeping important bills from becoming law, Tuesday brings something worth celebrating: The federal minimum wage, which had been frozen at $5.15 an hour for almost 10 years, increases 70 cents an hour, to $5.85 cents an hour.

The minimum wage increase is the one item on the Democrats' change agenda that has actually become law since the party took control of Congress last year. It came at what some activists consider too high a price, since it was attached to a measure authorizing continued funding for the Iraq war as well as a package of business tax cuts. Nonetheless, for more than 5.3 million workers, the increase is real, and real important as the first step in a broader effort to improve conditions for working people in America.

The sponsor of the minimum wage increase bill in the House, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, has called the increase a "down payment" on a larger effort to make sure that American workers receive their fair share of the wealth their labor produces.

"Thirteen million Americans will be able to better provide for their families because of action taken by this Democratic Congress to raise the minimum wage," Miller said in a statement his office issued Friday. "In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, it is an outrage that anyone who works full-time would still wind up in poverty. Everyone who puts in an honest day's work should receive a fair day's pay. That's why, as a first step, this minimum wage increase is so urgently needed."

It is also a day to reemphasize that while conservatives insist on doling out favors to America's richest, with the predictable outcome that the wealthiest 1 percent have massively profited while the bottom 20 percent have fallen behind in the Bush era, a progressive economic policy of ensuring fair wages and benefits for workers helps the entire economy.

"I think it is very symbolic that this was our first accomplishment," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. He added that it was particularly, and sadly, ironic that a bill intended to help people at the bottom of the economic ladder was attached to a bill that continued the administration's catastrophic policies in Iraq. It showed the contrast between the priorities of the Democrats and those of the Bush administration, Cohen said. Cohen and Miller were among the members of the House who spoke to bloggers and progressive radio hosts in the Capitol Tuesday in a room set up by the Democrats to celebrate the minimum wage increase.

John Arensmeyer, a former owner of an e-commerce company who now is president of Small Business Majority, said in an interview I did with him that all of the evidence that he has seen from such organizations as the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Economic Policy Institute is that "when you have a higher minimum wage, you have a healthier economy."

"In order to have a healthy, stable, 21st century economy, it's necessary to have a wage floor that approximates the minimum you can live on," Arensmeyer said. While conceding that there are some differences in the economics of running a technology firm and a restaurant or a small grocery store, he said that in his own experience "at the end of the day it was worth it to pay a little more" for a more loyal, committed worker.

And while some businesses may have to increase prices to cover the cost of increased worker pay, there is also increased spending power to offset those increased costs. In the end, the economy is better off.

Two more 70-cent wage increases are on the horizon as a result of the bill passed by Congress, which would bring the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour by July 2009. That sounds great-but consider this: In my first jobs as a teenager in Washington D.C., I earned what was the federal minimum wage from 1968 to 1974, $1.60 an hour. The equivalent wage today, if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, would be $8.96 an hour. (You can use one of several consumer price index calculators available on the Internet, such as this one from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, to compare the new federal minimum wage to the wage you earned at your first job.)

A multi-front offensive helped overcome obstinate conservative opposition to the minimum wage increase. It included well-honed economic arguments, state-level initiative campaigns, compelling personal stories, hardball electoral politics and the framing of the issue in moral terms. Given the continued Republican intransigence on everything else on the Democrats' "new direction" to-do list, all of that and more will be needed in the coming weeks to break through the wall of resistnce set up by Senate Republicans and the White House.

"We just keep prodding and keep trying to raise the visibility of these issues," Miller told me in an interview. "Clearly in the case of the minimum wage there was so much agitation in this country to get this done; it had been 10 years and people said, 'Get over it. Get it done'—which works every now and then in Congress."

Framing the Climate Crisis Solution

Saturday's Live Earth global event will hopefully take the global warming issue beyond raising awareness and towards rallying support around a comprehensive solution.

As Eric Alterman and I said in our recent segment, the film "An Inconvenient Truth" has already accomplished the goal of solidifying consensus that there's a human-created climate crisis. Global warming deniers have been effectively marginalized. The remaining challenge is the solution.

Two recent essays point us in the right direction.

One is by Al Gore, the driving force behind Live Earth, from Sunday's New York Times. The other is from Peter Teague and Jeff Navin in The American Prospect.

The two pieces may seem at first blush to be at odds, but in fact they both offer critical counsel and complement each other well.

Gore's op-ed seeks to build support for the number one item on the Live Earth Pledge, a global agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions: "we should demand that the United States join an international treaty within the next two years that cuts global warming pollution by 90 percent in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy Earth."

Teague and Navin, however, caution against emphasizing regulatory measures, arguing that would raise fears of higher energy costs on working-class Americans. They recommend emphasis on "large-scale, long-term investments" of "billions of taxpayer dollars to speed the transition to a clean energy economy" which will "create jobs and economic opportunity."

But both pieces recognize that this is not an either-or debate and that a comprehensive approach is needed.

Teague and Navin properly observe that:

[Regulation is] one piece of a larger set of strategies designed to speed the emergence of [a clean energy] economy, with interlocking investment, tax, and fiscal policies also designed to send the right market signals and prompt private-sector investment and innovation.

And Gore urges readers to:

focus ... on the opportunities that are part of this challenge. Certainly, there will be new jobs and new profits as corporations move aggressively to capture the enormous economic opportunities offered by a clean energy future.

Gore also notes that forging the desired global treaty will be much easier once "we give [American] industry a goal and the tools and flexibility to sharply reduce carbon emissions...". Providing "tools" would surely require the sort of public investment Teague and Navin champion.

Articulating that comprehensive message will be much easier if Congress proposes bold legislation that does the needed investment and regulation at the same time.

The energy proposals currently working their way through Congress do invest and regulate. It's just not on a grand enough scale to completely solve the climate crisis.

But congressional leaders fully acknowledge their current legislation is just one step in the right direction, and they plan to offer bigger legislation in the fall, including a "cap-and-trade" strategy to cap carbon emissions.

As I and others have said previously, cap-and-trade can be structured well or structured poorly. Close attention will need to be paid to make sure special interests don't undermine the goals of any such bill.

And a strong cap-and-trade bill will be fortified from special interest attack if it's coupled with the visionary Apollo Alliance program - investing $30 billion a year for 10 years to build a vibrant clean energy economy.
When it's clear that good jobs will be created and affordable clean energy choices will be readily available, the predictable special interest scare tactics will have no place to go.

Right-Wing Judicial Activism Runs Amok

Way too many folks rolled over when John Roberts and Sam Alito were nominated for the Supreme Court. And now we're seeing the consequences.

In my recent book, I characterized the conservative judicial activist agenda as "elitist government, no longer representative of and responsive to the people, handcuffed from insisting upon responsible corporate behavior, but free to subject all Americans to one group's version of morality."

And today, we're seeing that vision in all its glory.

The conservative activists on the Supreme Court decreed in a series of 5-4 decisions:

* Individuals, who believe their tax dollars are being unconstitutionally misused by the White House to promote religious beliefs, aren't allowed to enter a courthouse to make their case.

* The Environmental Protection Agency can avoid its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, even though it's a law reflecting the public will as passed by the democratically-elected Congress.

* Corporations can once again use their checkbooks to flood the public airwaves with political ads during election season, again overruling Congress.

It's critical to recognize these decisions -- along with earlier decisions to end privacy between a woman and her doctor, and to make it harder to challenge pay discrimination -- are part of a pattern.

Because the battle for the Supreme Court is not over. As Justice Anthony Kennedy remains a swing vote, conservative activists do not have complete control. Yet.

Roberts and Alito were able to get on the Court because their dishonest PR operations went largely unchallenged. Roberts was christened "brilliant" and lauded as a lover of grammar. Alito was heralded as an "open-minded" judge who loves baseball and his mom.

All that was meaningless fluff intended to mask their conservative agenda.

We must remember how these nominees were misrepresented so they could get confirmed.

We must catalog the damage they did after being confirmed.

We must crystallize what the conservative activists are trying to achieve, and how it undermines what our founders wanted our judiciary to do.

If we do all that, the next time a conservative activist is being sold to the public, we can insist on proof that the nominee will uphold constitutional principles of representative government, not undermine those principles with elitist government.

And if we don't get any proof, we can reject that nominee on the merits -- that we cannot risk granting another lifetime appointment to someone who will not protect our constitution and our democracy.

Dems Who Are Selling Out on the Environment

An ingenious Democratic political strategist might have concocted the following scenario:

Recent polls show not only heightened public concern over global warming, but much more confidence that congressional Democrats would do a better job on this than President Bush.

So global warming could be used as a wedge issue going into the next elections. Democrats should take action that would capture the moral high ground and accentuate the differences. Try to pass something tough, and force the President to threaten a veto or get polluter-friendly Republicans such as Jim Inhofe to filibuster.

But key House Democrats have exploded that fantasy amid a festival of special-interest pandering. Indeed, they seem to be trying to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot by promoting parochial concerns over those of country and party. Meanwhile Republican leaders are laughing their heads off at internecine Democrat warfare. (Clean Air Watch, for the record, is nonpartisan.)

Consider, for example,legislation drafted by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Buried within the fine print of the draft are nefarious provisions that not only would overturn the recent Supreme Court decision, which verified that the U.S. EPA does indeed have authority to limit global warming emissions from motor vehicles, but would take away the right of states like California to limit them as well.

Boucher is a genial and usually thoughtful lawmaker who has represented a generally conservative southwestern Virginia district for a quarter-century. He is perhaps best known for his leadership on Internet-related legislation (he originated the House Internet Caucus) and for being a stalwart pro-choice advocate.

But it came as a shock that Boucher would promoting a policy that could have been written in the boardroom of General Motors. Boucher has argued that his plan is needed to straighten out "confusion" prompted by the Supreme Court decision.

But in a scathing editorial, the Roanoke Times pointed out that Boucher's argument is "nonsense."

"California has long had stricter standards for different emissions than the federal government. The auto industry has not seemed confused by that," the paper noted.

Boucher's plan not only drew the ire of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- imagine her embarrassment if this blatant attack on California succeeded! -- but of numerous state attorneys general, state environmental officials and at least a dozen Democrats on his committee.

Though he hasn't said so publicly, Boucher appears to be taking the heat for the real author of this shameless, special-interest deal, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime car company advocate. Dingell, though a terrific force for environmental progress on many fronts through his dogged oversight, was nicknamed "Tailpipe Johnny" in the early 1980s by former Rep. Ed Madigan of Illinois because of his slavish devotion to alleged car-company interests.

Dingell tangled with Pelosi earlier this year when she first raised the idea of creating a special committee to deal with global warming. Eventually they compromised with a plan that did set up a select committee, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., but vested it principally with hortatory powers.

Dingell's response then was understandable, since it involved defense of all-important congressional turf. But it's harder to defend siding with the car companies against his House leader.

Dingell has defended his stance by asserting to public radio's "Living on Earth" program that "I wrote the clean air law," and thus was justified in trying to change it. Note to chairman Dingell: if former Senator Ed Muskie, the genuine author of the law, were still alive, he'd take you to the woodshed for that resume enhancement.

Promoting the interests of car and coal companies is sometimes described as appealing to "blue-collar" constituencies. But the antics of Dingell and friends conjures up the adage by brilliant blue-collar comic Ron White : "You can't fix stupid."

How To Confront the Dangers of Tuberculosis

The latest twist in the case of Andrew Speaker, the American lawyer now under quarantine because of his infection with drug resistant tuberculosis (TB), is that the border guard who let him back in the U.S. has retired. That's all well and good, but the reality is that the spread of dangerous drug resistant tuberculosis can't be stopped at the border. By obsessing on how Speaker got back into the United States, we are missing an important opportunity to confront the real dangers that TB poses to America and the world.

Andrew Speaker is just one of the billions of people walking around in the world infected with tuberculosis. Even the dangerous strain of TB that Speaker contracted already existed in the United States before his return. Fully one-third of people on the planet carry TB in their bodies, and 1.6 million people die each year from the disease. It is one of the leading killers of people living with HIV.

Tuberculosis is an ancient killer which has become even more dangerous in recent years. Evidence of TB has been found in Eqyptian mummies dating back 4,000 years. One hundred and twenty-five years ago the bacterium that causes TB was identified and drugs to treat TB have been available for over 50 years. As TB survivor Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote:

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Green Momentum Hits Congress

The news barely made a ripple outside the Twin Cities.

But Senator Norm Coleman’s, R-Minn., recent decision to co-sponsor legislation aimed at reducing global warming pollution could be a harbinger of better things to come for progressive environmental policies.

It’s easy to become depressed by the latest daily dose of bad news—Congress caving on the war funding vote…the Supreme Court's disregard for women workers…three Republican presidential candidates who don’t believe in evolution !—but progressives ought to be encouraged by a quiet series of positive environmental developments in recent weeks.

These events all stem from the last election, or the prospect of the next one.

Coleman, for example, appears to be reacting to recent polls which show he could be vulnerable to challenges by Al Franken or other progressives.

(By contrast, the last time global warming was debated on the Senate floor, in 2005, Coleman missed one key vote and then voted with a reactionary majority to continue the failed policies of voluntary activity.)

Whether Coleman is acting now from belated enlightenment or from fear, his decision still helps build momentum for positive action on global warming.

In another unpublicized but very positive sign last week, a Democratic-led House Appropriations subcommittee voted to boost funding for such key environmental programs as cleaning up toxic diesel emissions and restoring Bush administration spending cuts for state and local clean air agencies. (Clean Air Watch was among the many groups that had urged both moves.)

The bill also would put lawmakers on record in favor, at least in concept, of mandatory cuts on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

And, in a surprise move prompted by Senate Democratic opposition, thwarted Bush nominee and industry pal William Wehrum resigned from his position as acting head of EPA’s air pollution program, effective tomorrow.

Only a few weeks ago, Wehrum declared he had “no plans to go anywhere,” but he apparently wore down under the continuing glare of congressional scrutiny.

Will this positive trend continue? Here are a couple of key things to look for when Congress returns from its Memorial Day break:

Energy legislation will come up for consideration by the full Senate, which will have several opportunities to begin pointing the nation in a more positive direction. One key vote is likely on a plan by Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, that would require electric utilities to create more electricity from renewable energy sources. Last week, a diverse coalition or almost 200 corporations, trade associations, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and environmentalists urged Bingaman to press ahead with his plan for a “renewable portfolio standard.”

Needless to say, the coal lobby will oppose this progressive idea. Coal will also be at the center of a possible second floor fight over a controversial plan to promote conversion of coal to liquid fuel.

Environmentalists will oppose government subsidies for this process (which isn’t used in the U.S. today because it costs so much—the Energy Department recently reported that one plant alone could cost $4.5 billion) because it could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and go directly against the general tide of dealing with global warming.

One other very important story to monitor in the coming weeks is the upcoming decision by the Bush administration on national health standards for smog, or ozone. The White House began reviewing an EPA proposal last week, and there is a theory afoot that the Democratic-led Congress has emboldened the EPA career professionals to press for tougher standards needed to protect kids with asthma and many millions of others harmed by smog.

EPA is under a court order to announce a proposed decision by June 20. Industry groups are mounting a quiet campaign to oppose tougher standards. Already a dozen governors and numerous state and local officials have joined an industry alliance in protesting the idea of better standards.

It would be nice if some in Congress (Norm Coleman, you could join progressive Democrats and Republicans on this one, too) were willing to send EPA a simple message: enforce the Clean Air Act, and make sure that clean-air standards actually protect the breathing public.

The FBI May Have the Inside Scoop on You

Thanks to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine's March 9 audit report detailing the FBI's handling of expanded surveillance powers granted under the USA PATRIOT Act, subsequent media reports and congressional hearings called to probe the findings, we now know that the FBI's been doing the same "heckuva job" with respect to information gathering and storage characteristic of other sectors of the Bush administration.

Though the toothpaste is out of the tube, I wonder if people generally grasp the enormity of the damage done. There is in existence an electronic database with over a half-billion records containing information collected via extrajudicial requests made in National Security Letters, the majority of which pertain to U.S. citizens. Your banking and credit activities, telephone and internet usage records, insurance policies, post office box rental, and car, boat and home ownership records could already be in the FBI's Investigative Data Warehouse. If so, no one need inform you. If the information is incorrect, there's no way to fix it. It is shared among 10,000 government employees at multiple agencies and is stored for 20 years even if you have no connection whatsoever to a crime. In fact, only 65 convictions correlated to information obtained by the FBI from over 143,000 NSL demands made from 2003 to 2005.

When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March 2006, I asked my senators why they voted in favor of such obviously heinous legislation. Schumer's office promptly sent an auto-reply message thanking me for my inquiry. "It makes me proud to know that my constituents take an active role in our government by corresponding with me, and I look forward to responding to your concerns in greater detail." Fifteen months later, that would make two of us.

In August 2006, Sen. Clinton sent a two-page letter describing her efforts to improve the act with stronger citizen safeguards. "Ultimately, the Congress reached a bipartisan reauthorization compromise. I voted in favor of this reauthorization compromise, although I did so with some reluctance. The compromise does not address all of my concerns regarding the protection of civil liberties and the sensible allocation of homeland security funds. However, when measured against the original Patriot Act, the compromise is a positive step forward, and so I supported it." (Sigh.)

Lack of congressional oversight contributed to this horror show and without sustained citizen pressure we can only expect more of the same. Fortunately, on April 11 a letter signed by 69 courageous citizen organizations representing millions of Americans was sent to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid providing a curative roadmap for reform. (I found the text on the website, but perhaps I missed the congressional leaders' written response outlining their timeline for addressing these issues?) On April 18 the ACLU and other privacy groups met with the FBI to express the view that the self-corrective measures being proposed were insufficient to the task. They could have saved the carfare. On May 1 citizen groups were back testifying before the Senate Select Subcommittee on Intelligence, protesting administration-proposed amendments to "modernize" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a euphemism Orwell would have been proud to coin, in which "modernize" actually means pardon wrongdoing and gut judicial checks on more government surveillance of us.

We look to Congress hoping it will soon find remedies. While days, weeks and now months have passed since the issuance of the inspector general's audit report, how many thousands more NSLs have been delivered accompanied by their repugnant gag orders? How many additional unjustifiable intrusions into our privacy will be tolerated by our representatives in Washington? Combined with NSA illegal wiretapping, everexpanding definitions of "domestic terrorism" and initiatives to promote national identity cards, a truly horrifying and wholly un-American landscape is on the immediate horizon.

None of this is inevitable; it happens only if we let it happen. The more this administration and their would-be successors celebrate the savagery of Guantanamo and call for its expansion (Romney), sanction waterboarding (Giuliani) and lay Baghdadian waste to our desire for an enduring American democracy, the more we must and will morph from our mundane selves into mini-Jeffersons and Betsy Rosses stitching our homespun flags and stoking the fires of liberty.

Personally, I'm resolute. I'm not a child, slave or extra in their video game fantasies. I'm a grown American woman -- hale, hearty and up for this fight for my nation's soul -- and try as they will to debase that, it still means something beautiful to me.

American Corporations Getting Rich Abroad

I'm spending my spare time these days debating supply-siders who are convinced that the record-breaking Dow proves the correctness of the Bush tax cuts.

Yes, the Dow did reach a record high last month. But the Commerce Department also reported that economic growth slowed to its weakest pace in four years. How can investors do so well while the real economy is doing so poorly? My supply-side friends don't have an answer, but I do.

It's because of two great decouplings that have occurred in recent years. First, the rest of the worlds' major economies have decoupled from the United States' economy. China, India, Japan and Europe are now such large markets, they can grow briskly even as America slows.

Second, America's largest corporations have decoupled from the United States. Their overseas subsidiaries are booming even as their American operations stagnate. General Electric expects more than half its revenue this year to come from outside the United States for the first time. More than half of Boeing's new orders are from overseas. Ford is struggling in America but doing well in Europe.

In other words, the president's supply-side tax cuts are great for America's global investors, who have been investing their extra money around the world -- either in foreign companies or in global American-based ones.

But little or nothing is trickling down to average working Americans. Half of U.S. households do own some shares of stock, usually through their IRAs or 401Ks. But the vast majority own less than $5,000 worth. Their equity is in their homes, whose values have slumped. They're paying far more for health insurance and fuel. And their wages haven't kept up.

Bottom line: The Bush tax cuts have delivered for Wall Street but done zilch for America's Main Streets.

Fair Labor Laws Would Benefit All Working Americans

A bill now moving through Congress to expand workers' rights could be the most important legislation in decades to advance the concerns of environmentalists, public schools, higher education, senior citizens, universal healthcare, housing, women's and gay rights, and civil rights.

The bill -- called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) -- is understandably the top priority for America's labor unions. It would mean better wages, benefits and working conditions for all employees. It would also make it more likely for unions to win organizing drives in workplaces.

But why should other constituencies rally behind this effort to reform the nation's labor laws? The reason is simple. The labor movement is still the most effective political force for electing liberal candidates at the local, state and federal levels. Once in office, pro-labor politicians are typically also the strongest advocates of strong environment laws, funding for public schools and higher education, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, universal health insurance, affordable housing and protection of Social Security. A strong labor movement benefits these other agendas and causes, which have been under attack by conservative forces in recent years.

The Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field between management and workers, making it more likely that union organizing campaigns will be successful. It would help reverse the labor movement's four-decade decline in membership.

Current federal laws are an impediment to union organizing rather than a protector of workers' rights. Elections held under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules are bureaucratic and inefficient, and put workers and their unions at a disadvantage. Any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits. According to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, one-quarter of all employers illegally fire at least one employee during union campaigns. In 2005, over 31,000 workers were illegally disciplined or fired for union activity, according to the NLRB. The lucky workers get reinstated years later after exhaustive court battles. Indeed, penalties for these violations are so minimal that most employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business. Employees who initially signed union cards are often long gone or too afraid to vote by the time the NLRB conducts an election.

The rules are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most committed and talented organizers and workers to win union elections. Big business spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hire anti-union consultants who use elaborate strategies to keep unions out. Employers in the United States can require workers to attend meetings on work time, where company managers and consultants give anti-union speeches, show anti-union films and distribute anti-union literature. Unions have no equivalent rights of access to employees. To reach them, organizers must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. This is hardly workplace democracy.

Business leaders argue that employees' anti-union attitudes account for the decline in union membership, which was 12 percent last year after peaking at 35 percent in the 1950s. In fact, a December 2006 poll found that 58 percent of nonmanagerial workers would join a union if they could. But they won't vote for a union, much less participate openly in an organizing drive, if they fear losing their jobs for doing so.

The Employee Free Choice Act would allow employees to form unions by simply signing a card stating that they desire union representation. If a majority of employees in a workplace sign a card, the company would be obligated to bargain with the union the employees choose. The law would also increase penalties for companies who violate worker rights and provide for mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes -- a key provision given that employers often drag out negotiations to wear down a new union.

If this law were adopted, the United States would match other democracies in the protection of worker rights. In Canada, for example, the "card check" process is in place, and union membership is more than twice that in the United States.

American workers' rights gained a foothold in 1935 with passage of the National Labor Relations Act, commonly called the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act granted workers the legal protection to organize and set up a democratic process in the workplace to gain representation. The NLRB was set up to oversee the effective functioning of workplace democracy. The frequently violent clashes between workers and owners was channeled into a government mechanism for managing conflict.

After World War II, unions faced a major assault from business and conservative forces. At that point, the labor movement was bigger and more powerful than it had ever been, representing more than a third of American workers. In 1947, the Republican Congress enacted the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Harry Truman, who described the act as a "slave-labor bill." The new law restricted workers' rights to strike, picket and boycott.

During the subsequent three decades, business groups used the Taft-Hartley restrictions to reduce union membership and political clout. In 1978, the labor movement sought to restore some of the workers' rights that had been eroded by Taft-Hartley. A labor law reform bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate. Pressured by heavy lobbying from business, Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas was instrumental in the failure to override a Republican filibuster.

This victory strengthened business' hand even more. Nothing symbolized this more than President Ronald Reagan's busting of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association after they engaged in an illegal strike in 1981. Under Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and now George W. Bush, federal agencies designed to protect workers rights -- such as the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- have had their budgets cut and their enforcement staffs eviscerated. Meanwhile, business' violations of labor laws have increased exponentially. A new union-busting consulting industry has flourished.

Despite all these setbacks, the labor movement remains the nation's most potent force for progressive change. In recent years, a few unions have become more feisty and effective. For example, in Los Angeles unions have used innovative and aggressive strategies not only to unionize workers, but also to build effective community relationships that connect struggles in the workplace to broader social issues, such as housing, the environment and immigrant rights. Thoughtful union leaders and rank and file members have built coalitions with churches, college students, environmentalists and affordable housing advocates that link these struggles for justice. Hotel and hospital workers, janitors, nurses, and security guards have used these new relationships to gain support for organizing drives.

It's do-or-die time for the American labor movement. In the next decade or two, unions will either make a comeback or become marginal players in American society and politics. If labor stumbles towards irrelevance, our overall society will become nastier, more unequal and individualistic than it already is. It's not a happy prospect.

The weakness of the American labor movement -- compared to its counterparts in other affluent, democratic societies -- accounts for many troublesome aspects of our society. The United States has the widest gap between rich and poor among democratic nations. It also has the highest poverty rate; 13 percent of all Americans, more than 37 million people, live below poverty. The pay gap between men and women is wider in the United States than in other affluent countries. We are the only democratic society without universal health insurance; 47 million Americans lack even basic coverage. We spend less on job training, child care, and affordable housing, and more on prisons, than these other nations. Americans work longer hours, get fewer paid vacation days, and have fewer rights on the job than workers elsewhere. Our environmental and workplace safety laws are weak and poorly enforced.

Political scientists argue that the decline of union membership in recent decades has contributed to the fall-off in voter turnout, because unions were traditionally the most effective vehicle for mobilizing low-income and worker class voters. When labor unions educate and mobilize their members, they are very effective.

Organized labor still has a significant capacity to marshal resources -- both money and members -- to influence the outcome of elections. Union members are more likely to vote, more likely to vote for Democrats, and more likely to volunteer for campaigns than people with similar demographic and job characteristics who are not unionized. In the November 2004 presidential election, union members represented 12 percent of all workers, but union households represented 24 percent of all voters. Despite John Kerry's tepid campaign and upper-crust demeanor, union members gave him 61 percent of their votes over George W. Bush. In the battleground states, where unions focused their turnout efforts, they did even better. In Ohio, for example, union members favored Kerry by a 67 percent to 31 percent margin.

When voters' loyalties were divided between their economic interests and other concerns, however, union membership was a crucial determinant of their votes. For example, gun owners favored Bush by a 63 to 36 percent margin, but union members who own guns supported Kerry 55 percent to 43 percent, according to an AFL-CIO survey. Bush carried all weekly church-goers by a 61 to 39 percent margin, but Kerry won among union members who attend church weekly by a 55 to 43 percent split.

Among white males, a group that Democrats have had difficulty attracting in recent presidential elections, Bush won by a 62 percent to 37 percent margin. But again, Kerry carried white males who were union members by a 59 percent to 38 percent difference. Bush won among white women by 55 percent to 44 percent, but Kerry won white women union members by 67 percent to 32 percent.

Had union membership reached even 15 percent of the work force, Kerry would have won by a significant margin.

In this climate, union leaders and their liberal allies are making a new effort to reform the nation's outdated and one-sided labor laws. On March 1, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the EFCA in a 241-185 vote. House members who supported the bill stood up to heavy opposition by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which launched a costly barrage of radio ads in 51 House districts. Two Southern Democrats -- Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi --voted against the bill.

Across the country, business leaders, the gun lobby, the religious right, and their Republican allies in Congress understand that a resuscitated labor movement would be an effective counterweight to their political influence. That is why they are on the warpath against the EFCA. President Bush has pledge to veto the bill if it passes the Senate and reaches his desk.

All the major Democratic candidates for president support the EFCA. The labor movement is likely to make support for the EFCA a litmus test for targeting its endorsement, money and ground troops to candidates running for House and Senate in 2008, particularly those in swing districts and states, where Republican incumbents are vulnerable to defeat. If labor's liberal allies (such as the Sierra Club, NOW, ACORN, and NAACP) do the same -- and if Democrats gain more seats in both houses of Congress after the 2008 election -- the EFCA has a good chance of passing. A Democrat in the White House will guarantee its victory. But even a Republican president could face a veto override.

America is now closer than it has been in decades to having labor laws that truly protect workers' freedom to make their own choices about union representation without management interference. If Congress can pass a veto-proof EFCA, it would do more than increase union membership, it could lead to a rebirth of progressive politics in America that would quickly echo across the United States for decades. All liberals and progressives should view the battle over the EFCA as a fight for their own future as well.

Arctic Ice Melts Create New Land Rush

Recent news reports state that global warming and the shrinking Arctic icecaps are opening new sea lanes and making barren islands suddenly very valuable. In fact, the international community might experience a new race of exploration, conquest and acquisition for this "new world" -- these newly available lands and sea routes. Conflicts could arise over shipping lanes, islands, fish stocks, minerals and oil that are now becoming accessible and commercially exploitable.

Governments are even now engaged in asserting their sovereignty over these areas and assets. Canada, Denmark and the United States are already involved in diplomatic disputes over these issues. For example, Canada and Denmark have sent diplomats and warships to plant their flags on tiny Hans Island near northwestern Greenland.

In 1984, Denmark's Minister for Greenland Affairs landed on the island in a helicopter and raised the Danish flag, buried a bottle of brandy, and left a note that said "Welcome to the Danish Island."

Canada was not amused by this assertion of Danish sovereignty. In 2005, the Canadian Defense Minister and troops landed on the island and hoisted the Canadian flag. Denmark lodged an official protest. In addition, Canada, Russia and Denmark are claiming waters all the way to the North Pole.

Moreover, the United States and Canada are disputing Canadian claims that the emerging Northwest Passage sea route is in its territory. The U.S. insists the waters are neutral and open to all but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper states that he will place military icebreakers in the area "to assert our sovereignty and take action to protect our territorial integrity."

This kind of conduct is nothing new. It mirrors exactly the actions taken by European and American governments in the 15th -- 20th centuries in their race to claim the lands and the assets of the New World of the Americas, Africa, and other areas.

That race was conducted under the international legal principle known today as the Doctrine of Discovery. Under various papal bulls, Spain and Portugal could establish claims to the lands of indigenous, non-Christian, non-European peoples by merely "discovering" the lands.

Spanish, Portuguese, and later English and French explorers engaged in numerous types of Discovery rituals upon encountering new lands. The hoisting of their flag and the cross and leaving evidence that they had been there was part of the Discovery process.

In 1776-78, for example, Captain Cook established English claims to British Columbia by leaving English coins in buried bottles. In 1774, he erased Spanish marks of ownership and possession in Tahiti and replaced them with English ones. Upon learning of this, Spain dispatched explorers to restore its marks of possession. Furthermore, in 1742-49, French military expeditions buried lead plates throughout the Ohio country to reassert the French claims of discovery dating from 1643. The plates stated that they were "a renewal of possession."

Americans also engaged in discovery rituals. The Lewis & Clark expedition marked and branded trees and rocks in the Pacific Northwest to prove the American presence and claim to the region. They also left a memorial or memo at Fort Clatsop in March 1806 and gave copies to Indians to deliver to any whites that might arrive to prove the U.S. presence and claim to the Northwest.

The memorial stated that its "object" was that "through the medium of some civilized person ... it may be made known to the informed world" that Lewis & Clark had crossed the continent and lived at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean. This was nothing less than a claim of discovery and possession of the region and a claim of ownership under the Doctrine of Discovery.

A decade later, as the U.S. and England argued over the Pacific Northwest and the possession of Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe took actions based directly upon the principles of Discovery.

In 1817, as they despaired that England would voluntarily return Fort Astoria, Adams and Monroe ordered an American diplomat and naval captain to sail to Astoria "to assert the [American] claim of territorial possession at the mouth of Columbia River." Adams wrote that this mission was designed "to resume possession of that post, and in some appropriate manner to reassert the title of the United States."

Accordingly, Monroe and Adams ordered the American diplomat John Prevost and Captain James Biddle to sail to the Columbia and to "assert there the claim of sovereignty in the name of ... the United States, by some symbolical or other appropriate mode of setting up a claim of national authority and dominion."

The President and Secretary of State were ordering them to engage in Discovery rituals. Prevost and Biddle did as they were ordered. In August 1818, Captain Biddle arrived at the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River and in the presence of Chinook Indians he raised the U.S. flag, turned the soil with a shovel, and nailed up a lead plate that read: "Taken possession of, in the name and on the behalf of the United States by Captain James Biddle." He repeated this Discovery ritual on the south shore of the Columbia and hung up a wooden sign declaring American ownership of the region.

John Prevost arrived at Fort Astoria in September 1818 and with the cooperation of the English he proceeded to use Discovery rituals to reclaim the fort for the United States. First, the English flag was lowered and the U.S. flag was hoisted in its place. Then the English troops filed a salute, the American flag was taken down and the Union Jack was returned to its place, and the American diplomat sailed away with his Discovery mission accomplished.

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. M'Intosh declared that the Doctrine of Discovery had been the law on the North American continent since the beginning of European exploration and controlled how Europeans and Americans could claim and acquire land from the Indian nations.

Discovery is still the law in the United States today and in the international arena as is well demonstrated by the actions of modern day countries attempting to claim new lands and assets in the Arctic. We appear to be at the start of a new race to establish claims to this "New World" of the Arctic as the icecaps retreat, and it is evident that the rituals and principles of the Doctrine of Discovery provide the legal framework for claims to newly discovered lands and assets.

Conservative Policies Are Ruining Your Health

First, they came for the spinach.

I remember the day last September. The supermarket had a new kind of salad dressing, one that looked like it would taste good with spinach. I went to the produce section to buy a bag. But they all had been recalled. Three people had died from E. coli contamination from eating spinach. I decided I could live without the spinach.

Next they came for the peanut butter, and I didn't pay much attention. I don't much like peanut butter.

The Big Con: Join the conversationThen they came for the tomatoes. Then the Taco Bell lettuce. Then the mushrooms, then ham steaks, then summer sausage. I started worrying. Then, they came for the pet food.

I remember the sinking feeling, hearing that dogs and cats had died eating contaminated food. Then the flash of guilt—had we poisoned our dogs? I remember hearing the name of the manufacturer, my wife searching the web frantically for a catalogue of its products, the stab of fear when we found the name of the food our own dogs eat. Then the wave of relief—it was only canned food; our dogs eat dry.

I began investigating more. One of the things I learned was that the Food and Drug Administration hasn't been able to confirm "with 100 percent certainty" that the offending agent didn't go into human food. Then it neglected to reveal the name of the tainted product's U.S. distributor.

It is time to get to the root of the problem. I blame the conservatism.

I've been studying the conservative turn in American politics pretty much fulltime since 1997. I never was a conservative. But I admired conservatives. The people then running the Democratic Party just did not seem to me strong people. They were "triangulators"—splitting every difference, selling out any principle, in the ever-illusive quest to divine the American people's fickle beliefs at that particular moment. They did not lead. They followed—Chamberlains, not Churchills.

I wrote a book that came out in 2001 about the conservatives who took over the Republican Party in the early 1960s. Whatever my differences with them ideologically, I didn't write a single negative word about the conservative movement for nearly seven years. Until then, I considered them honorable adversaries. They inspired me. They took risks for a cause. They were principled. They were endlessly determined.

I've come to different conclusions now. They were, yes, endlessly determined. It was over 35 years ago, in "Conscience of a Conservative," when Barry Goldwater wrote these stirring words: "I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size." Twenty years after that, President Reagan intoned at his first inaugural address, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

But Barry Goldwater lost his 1964 presidential race in a landslide. Reagan was inaugurated, and we began seeing headlines like "Wide Spectrum of Regulations Set for Reagan Team's Scalpel." But actually, the Reagan team wasn't able to deregulate all that much, or nearly as much as they wished; the political obstacles, in the 1980s, were just too great.

For these brief four years, however, between the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2002 under President Bush and the recent return of Congress to Democratic control, the scalpel has become a machete. We've been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?

Surveying the results, what once looked to me like principle now looks to me now like mania. Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.

Let's start connecting the dots.

The Associated Press studied the records and found that between 2003 and 2006 the Food and Drug Administration conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices have 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States have gone down by three quarters—have almost ground to a halt—in the previous year alone. What does that mean, in practical terms? Consider the peanut butter.

Factories producing the foods most susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year. (That's cold comfort to those who ate this year's bad batches of spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes and tomatoes.) Since the last known outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter was in Australia in the 1990s, that puts it in the "low-risk" category; peanut butter factories are inspected only every two to three years.

People started getting sick in February. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control traced the illnesses back to a single plant in Sylvester, Ga. The next day, the FDA arrived for a post hoc inspection (by then 425 people in 44 states had been sickened). Then they covered their own back : "What you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the peanut butter, is when we see those signals, we're going to act to protect the public health," a spokesman promised.

He was saying: The system worked. In a sense, he was right. This was the system working as it is presently designed. Barn door: closed. Cow: already long gone. That, basically, is as good as it gets in the modern FDA.

As Dr. Phil would say: How's that working out for you?

Not so well, it turns out. It was months later before we learned the eminently preventable reason our peanut butter had been poisoned: a leaky roof and a faulty sprinkler provided the culture for the salmonella bug at the Georgia plant. How did we find that out? Not from the FDA inspection. We had to rely on the company's own investigation. They had a public relations crisis on their hands. They want to return Peter Pan Peanut Butter to shelves in the middle of July. So they undertook their own belated, two-month investigation. The Georgia plant will open in August—with the new roof the FDA never noticed they needed in February.

Public relations has a lot to do with the way you've been learning about the Third Worlding of America's food safety system. The Georgia source of the bad peanut butter was discovered in the middle of February. The very next day Dole recalled several thousand cartons of cantaloupe that their own "routine" inspections suggested might be carrying salmonella. Four days later, B.J.'s Wholesale Club recalled packaged fresh mushrooms: more routine inspections, this time coming up with E. coli. They always say the inspections are " routine." But they also always manage to somehow come in clusters.

Connect the dots, and you suddenly notice a lot of these ...coincidences. Last month the FDA abruptly announced new rules for fresh-cut produce. They claim it's a huge step forward. "We've never before formally recommended that the industry adopt such regulations," said a spokesman. But, oops: he's hustling you. Meat inspections are mandatory. Produce inspections will remain voluntary.

George Bush's Food and Drug Administration—and our other major food-inspection arm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan's noble words made flesh. But don't let your family get too close to the flesh. They might get sick and die.

I'll be writing a lot more about this on The Big Con. A lot more. I'll leave you, for now, with this quote from a disgruntled FDA inspector on this "huge step forward"—voluntary inspections. "Let's be honest," he said. "The plant people are not going to slow down the lines for something they find wrong. How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?"

I'd love to provide a link for the quote but it's too old. It's from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article on May 26, 1991.

"I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size."

"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

"How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?"

This con's been in the works for some time now. Check back frequently. I'll be filling out the story in all its rancid particulars.

Will Women Ever Get Paid What They Deserve?

We're coming up on Equal Pay Day again. That's the day in April every year -- this year the 24th -- when women's earnings finally catch up with what men made by Dec. 31 of the previous year. Women's groups, led by the National Committee on Pay Equity, will rally on Capitol Hill to call attention to the issue.

The pay gap is still a stubborn problem, with women who work full time year-round making 76 cents to a man's dollar. Though it consistently polls No. 1 with female voters in election years, politicians don't seem motivated to do much about it.

Some people say pay disparities between women and men are an illusion -- women just like to choose jobs that pay less because they're not as risky or have shorter hours. But the data don't back up these claims. Even when researchers take into account such factors as part-time work or time out of the work force to care for kids, the numbers show that men make more. Another problem that just won't go away is that so-called "men's jobs," like plumbing, pay more than "women's jobs," like nursing. That tells us something about what we value as a society, and it's not women's work.

The Fair Pay Act, a bill that would help narrow the gap, has grown old bouncing around Capitol Hill since the early 1990s, never receiving as much as a hearing. If the FPA ever passed, it would require employers to rate their jobs on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions, and equalize pay for comparable jobs even if the job titles and duties are different. Employers naturally resist this, citing loss of "competitive advantage," but women's advocates suspect the real reason is that the numbers would be too damning. Women might even get big ideas like suing their employers for sex discrimination in pay and promotion, as female workers at Wal-Mart have done in the largest class-action suit in history.

A new book released this month from The Feminist Press -- "Taking On the Big Boys" by Ellen Bravo, longtime CEO of 9 to 5, an advocacy organization for working women -- attacks the pay equity issue head on. Bravo enlightens the reader in a no-nonsense way on deep-seated workplace attitudes and practices that hinder women's progress on the pay front. More importantly, she shows us how public policy is influenced through a variety of tactics used by opponents. One such tactic is catastrophizing, meaning predicting the downfall of capitalism as we know it if women catch up with men in earnings. Poster boy for this tactic is Chief Justice John Roberts, who dismissed the concept in the FPA as a "pernicious" redistribution of wealth, saying, "Their slogan may as well be 'From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender.'" Pretty scary stuff for the women of Wal-Mart, should their case, now on appeal, reach the Supremes.

"Taking On the Big Boys" shows us how continued monitoring and enforcement will be necessary, even for companies that want to do better. The FPA also contains a provision that would require companies to report earnings by race and gender in each job category -- not anybody's salary on a bulletin board, but just overall statistics, so women could see how they were faring compared to the guys in the company overall.

While there's no law now that says companies have to disclose how they pay and promote their workers, there's no law that says they can't. Wal-Mart agreed last year under stockholder pressure to post its EEO-1 form online, showing broad job categories by race and gender (the form does not include pay data). Some disclosure is better than none, but all companies should go a step further and release pay data for women and men by job category, as Ben & Jerry's has done for years. If pay scales are equitable, there should be nothing to hide. Women could see right up front if the company is fair. It would eliminate the need for lawsuits and create tremendous employee loyalty and customer good will. That ought to be worth 24 extra cents in the pay envelope.

Strong Women Are Scaring the Pants Off the Right

Last month saw Al Gore's triumphant return to Capitol Hill -- the once-ridiculed candidate now acknowledged as a visionary and treated with long-overdue respect. But the most remarkable moment of Gore's hours of testimony in both houses may have been one in which he wasn't even involved. It shined a light on both the changed atmosphere in Washington today, and the fear and loathing that that change is bringing on.

The most confrontational part of the day came when Gore was being questioned by Oklahoma senator, famed global warming skeptic and former chairman of the environment committee James Inhofe, in a battle of wits that was not exactly an equal match. Inhofe had trouble getting Gore to answer questions the way he wanted to, and kept interrupting him and complaining about the limited time he was given.

After some back and forth between Inhofe and Gore, the new chair of the committee, Barbara Boxer of California, put a hand on Inhofe's arm and said, "I want to talk to you a minute, please." After Boxer suggested that Inhofe give Gore the time to answer his questions, Inhofe replied, "Why don't we do this: at the end, you [Gore] can have as much time as you want to answer all the questions..." Boxer then interrupted: "No, that isn't the rule. You're not making the rules. You used to when you did this," she said, holding up the chair's gavel. "Elections have consequences. So I make the rules."

Boxer spoke with appropriate authority: not angry, not loud but unmistakably firm. There was no doubt who was in charge in that room. You could almost see the steam coming out of Inhofe's ears, not only because he had been deprived of his power, but because he was deprived of it by a woman. She even held up the gavel, the symbol of that power, and practically taunted him with it. Freud couldn't have scripted it much better.

The response in some quarters was unsurprising. Michael Savage, whose hateful rants are reportedly heard by 8 million radio listeners every day, hit the roof. Referring repeatedly to "foul-mouthed, foul-tempered women in high places bossing men around," he opined that the image of a woman giving a man orders would lead to more terrorist attacks (or something like that -- it was a little hard to follow).

And it isn't only extremists like Savage who are having trouble stomaching the idea of women in positions of increasing power. We now have a female speaker of the House, and the strong possibility of the first female president; the prospect is sending some men over the edge. MSNBC host Tucker Carlson recently described Hillary Clinton as "castrating, overbearing and scary." Why Carlson looks at the junior senator from New York and immediately fears for the safety of his testicles might be something he and his therapist should explore, but he's hardly alone -- after the election Chris Matthews wondered on the air if Nancy Pelosi was "going to castrate Steny Hoyer." And Matthews has gone through a series of man-crushes on politicians whom he sees as super-hunky in their masculine ways. First it was George W. Bush, then John McCain and the current object of Matthews' affections is Rudy Giuliani. "I think he did a great job," Matthews said about Giuliani's tenure in New York. "And I think the country wants a boss like that. You know, a little bit of fascism there."

If Rudy ends up getting the Republican nomination, it will be because the GOP primary voters ignore his stands on hot-button culture war issues in favor of that little bit of fascism they crave. And if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, we can expect a virtual explosion of sexist rhetoric, every last drop of it based in fear and anxiety. She already gets described with a whole series of derogatory adjectives that don't seem to ever be applied to male politicians -- she is "ambitious" (unlike the men running for president) and "calculating" (unlike every other politician), to take just two. U.S. News recently noted that a speech she gave "was devoid of hard edges, contrary to her longtime image among critics as a harridan and a polarizer." She must have appreciated the compliment. Conservative radio and TV host Glenn Beck admitted that Hillary Clinton's voice drives him crazy. "She's the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean?" he said. "After four years, don't you think every man in America will go insane?" (ABC News recently announced that Beck will be offering his insightful commentary on Good Morning America.)

For years, our campaigns have been marked by the "gender gap," the fact that Democrats do marginally better among women and Republicans do better among men. The gender gap in the 2004 election was actually relatively small -- John Kerry won women's votes by 3 points (51 to 48), while George Bush won men's votes by 11 points (55 to 44). But it is the fact that the latter margin is so much larger than the former that is worth noting. It is men, and white men in particular, who are so easily persuaded by campaigns like the one Bush ran, which can be boiled down to, "I'm a manly man, and my opponent is a sissy." Bush beat Kerry among white men by an astounding 25 points.

Should Hillary Clinton be the nominee, the gender gap will no doubt be bigger than it ever has been before. Part of this will come from some women who might have voted Republican (or not voted) casting their votes for her. But more of the gap will come from men fleeing from her, spurred on by the likes of Savage, Carlson, Beck and Matthews insisting that if you vote for a woman, then you must not be a real man.

One can't avoid noticing that as a group, conservative media figures are not exactly secure in their masculinity. Forever promoting war when they avoided military service themselves and doubling over to protect their tender parts every time a strong woman appears on their television screens, it's no wonder they are so impressed by politicians who may not be real men but know how to present a convincing facsimile of manliness.

Much of the audience that tunes in to the corps of overcompensating pretend macho men is just as insecure about their manhood, ready to cast a manly, masculine vote lest anyone raise an eyebrow at their choice for president. That doesn't mean that Hillary Clinton -- or any female presidential candidate, for that matter -- can't win. But if she goes around holding up any long, firm objects, a lot of guys' heads might just explode.

How Corporations Are Trying to Cheat Environmental Law

Let's start with a question perhaps suitable for a fifth-grade student: If you allow more pollution to spew out of an industry smokestack, does that mean the pollution increases? With apologies to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, President Bush is not smarter than a fifth grader! And neither are the politicos he has planted at the Environmental Protection Agency.

I say this after learning that the president's men intend to ignore one of last Tuesday's big environmental rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, a case about government authority to enforce pollution standards at coal-fired electric power plants.

The case here is awash in legal jargon, but the concept is pretty simple: Existing power plants don't have to use modern pollution controls unless the plant is refurbished in such a way that emissions "increase." If that happens, the plant is supposed to be cleaned up.

For decades, federal enforcers have interpreted "increase" to mean actual pollution, measured over the course of a year. But when the Clinton administration started aggressively enforcing the law, some polluter lawyers came up with an ingenious defense: they asserted that "increase" meant the rate of pollution per hour. Under this polluter-mouthpiece interpretation, a company could overhaul an aging plant so it could operate many more hours -- and emit much more overall pollution -- yet still be exempt from using modern pollution controls.

This legal legerdemain would basically destroy the chief government enforcement program against the nation's biggest polluters. And literally thousands of lives could be cut short by the resulting pollution. Astonishingly, a federal appeals court bought this pretty obvious sophistry, advanced by Duke Energy Corp.

The Bush administration, always happy to cut a break for those big power industry campaign contributors, cheerfully declined to appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. It also began preparing a rule change that would codify the bad court ruling.

Thankfully, my friends at Environmental Defense stepped in and not only convinced the Supreme Court to review the case, but brilliantly won a unanimous decision which clarified that an "increase" in pollution really is an increase.

Enter President Bush. When quizzed last Tuesday about the Supreme Court ruling on global warming (more on that in a second), the president declared he intended to follow "the new law of the land." But, at the same time, his henchmen at the EPA are moving forward with a new rule that would adopt the very get-free-out-jail-approach rejected by the Supreme Court.

If you are scratching your head at what looks like a blatant attempt to defy the high court (I suspect it's all part of a broader administration ploy to stall off pollution controls for its friends for as long as it can -- 21 months now and counting down) consider his response to last Monday's other big Supreme Court decision, on global warming.

Despite the best efforts of Bush-appointed justices, the high court ruled 5-4 that the EPA has legal authority under current law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

When quizzed about this last Tuesday, the president replied that "I care about the working people of the country" (sounding like a parody of the side-stepping, double-talking Texas governor in the musical "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas").

The president argued that he had already advanced a solution: his alternative fuel proposal in his most recent State of the Union Address. He conveniently forgot to note that an element of that plan, to convert coal into liquid fuel (a plan embraced by coal-state politicians of both parties, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill.), would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, that ugly word, increase, yet again.

If the president really wants to do something about global warming emissions quickly, here's a suggestion: California has adopted standards designed to reduce global warming emissions from cars and SUVs. And 13 other states have either adopted those standards or are about to.

But before California and the other states move forward, the U.S. EPA must check a box granting permission. Following the Supreme Court ruling, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reiterated his request for EPA approval. Even a first grader ought to be able to figure out the right answer to this one.

Is There Hope for Health Care?

What a difference a year makes. Just 12 short months ago, health care was nowhere on the political agenda, and pundits were confidently stating that, after the failure of the Clinton health plan a dozen years prior, Americans continued to be wary of serious action. Affordable, quality health care for all Americans was a pipe dream.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, when leading presidential hopefuls gathered in Nevada for the "New Leadership on Health Care" forum, jointly sponsored by Center for American Progress and the Service Employees International Union. The event didn't create the kind of political fireworks that journalists crave. No Republican candidates showed up, unfortunately, and the Democrats who came -- in the order they spoke, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel -- were all civil and, to varying degrees, substantive. But the event did showcase something far more important than inter-campaign squabbles: Health care is the number one domestic policy issue going into the 2008 presidential race.

Why now? Surely, American health financing is a mess. The United States spends far more than any other nation on health care, yet leaves nearly 50 million of its residents uninsured. Even insured Americans are pervasively insecure. Medical costs and health premiums are skyrocketing while employers are cutting back on coverage, and medical debt is a mounting even among the middle class. Perhaps half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are due, at least in part, to medical costs and crises.

But while these problems are substantially worse than they were when Bill and Hillary Clinton, as president and first lady, pledged to provide health security to all Americans, they are not qualitatively different. What's really changed is perceptions of the politically possible. The 2006 midterm featured a highly successful drive by winning Democrats to highlight the insecurities created by the new economy, especially on health care. Yet it's three deeper changes in the debate that best explain why bold reform plans, rather than piecemeal fixes, were talked about on the campaign trail in 2006 and are now atop the agenda.

Acknowledging Failures, Changing Positions

The first is the clear failure of the incremental policy strategy of the past fifteen years. Yes, expansions of Medicaid and the creation of state children's program have done enormous good. But they have not stanched the rise in the number of uninsured and underinsured, because employers have raced away from providing insurance even faster than government has signed up new enrollees. And these fixes have done little or nothing to deal with the underlying cost explosion that is the root cause of health insecurity. All the leading Democratic presidential candidates made clear on Saturday that "stay the course" is no longer a viable strategy on the health policy battlefield.

The second change concerns the positions of business and labor. We hear a lot about the business conversion -- earlier this year, Wal-Mart's CEO famously appeared alongside service workers head Andy Stern (a cosponsor of Saturday's event) to declare that real reform is desperately needed. Though many corporate leaders were favorable toward action in the early 1990s -- at least until the Clinton plan came out and Republicans and key industry interests went on the warpath -- even more today seem to recognize that absent action, they will increasingly be caught between the rock of rising costs and the hard place of hurting their workers by dropping coverage or providing bare-bones plans.

The shift in organized labor's stance isn't as obvious or discussed, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Leading unions were deeply split in the early 1990s over the right course on health care, and a substantial number still clung to the notion that the generous employer-provided benefits they negotiated after World War II could be sustained against the tide of economic transformation and business resistance. Today, there's a bold new pragmatism evident in the labor movement, born of greater realism about the health of voluntary employment-based benefits. Labor leaders know their movement's future rests on getting health care right, and that clearly means moving beyond the current system.

Which bring us to the third change: an emphasis on simple, jargon-free policy solutions that really work. There's still too much of the policy wonk in some of the leading Democrats' discussions of health care. But at the same time, there's a refreshing return to first principles. Much ink has already been spilled noting, correctly, that former senator John Edwards had the most detailed and thought-out plan of the leading Democrats who came to Las Vegas. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say Edwards plan bears more than a family resemblance to the Health Care for America proposal that I have developed as part of the Economic Policy Institute's Agenda for Shared Prosperity.) But Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, despite not arriving with detailed blueprints, were both refreshingly straightforward in their discussion of the big issues at stake -- and, beneath differences of emphasis, the ideas for reform they offered were remarkably similar.

Five Key Questions

What are these common elements? In a piece written before the debate, Campaign for America's Future co-director Roger Hickey laid out five key questions that all candidates should be required to answer:

1. Will the candidate's plan really cover everyone -- with a decent guaranteed level of coverage -- at an affordable cost?

2. Does the candidate offer a public plan, like Medicare, that has a predictable, guaranteed level of benefits that "cannot be taken away?"

3. Has the candidate thought through how his or her plan will be financed?

4. Will the candidate's health plan control spiraling health care costs?

5. Is the candidate's health plan simple and clear enough that they can explain it -- and get us to describe it to someone else?

Of the leading candidates, only Edwards answered all five questions. He promised to cover everyone who works by requiring that employers either provide good insurance to their workers or pay into a new publicly overseen insurance pool. Americans without direct or family ties to the workforce -- no more than a tenth of the population -- would be signed up through public assistance programs and other outreach efforts, and all Americans would be required to have coverage. Cost control would come through the administrative savings of insurance pooling, competition among insurers, and, most promising of all, the creation of a Medicare-like public plan option with free choice of medical providers that would be available through the new insurance pools. As all this suggests, the Edwards plan is still a bit complex, but it's much simpler than the norm, and Edwards has gotten better and better at talking about it.

The other candidate with a clear plan isn't a frontrunner, by any stretch of the imagination. But Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio representative who has been an outspoken advocate for a universal national health plan, proved to be a forceful spokesperson for an idea that has been unfairly dismissed as a government takeover of American health care. (The fairer critique is that it would be a government takeover of American health insurance, a politically unlikely prospect, for both fiscal and political reasons. But government would no more be involved in providing or dictating the terms of care than it is in the operation of Medicare, and it would almost certainly be a lot less heavy-handed as an insurer than are most private plans.)

Where Kucinich racked up the most points was in emphasizing the inherent superiority of public insurance in pooling risks and bargaining for lower costs. He even scored some points against Edwards by noting that Edwards's call for competition between public and private insurance wouldn't work because, as with the private health plans that provide insurance to Medicare beneficiaries today, the game would be rigged in favor of private insurers.

Edwards's and Kucinich's plans were known quantities, so what was perhaps most notable about the event was how strongly both Clinton and Obama criticized the present system and called for major change. Reading between the lines of Clinton's impassioned oratory and Obama's more apologetic presentation of the principles that would guide his still hazy reform effort, it's possible to discern a common vision shared by all three of the top Democratic hopefuls. It is this: a system that is loosely based on the best elements of what we have now, but which decisively moves us away from a reliance on voluntary employer-sponsored insurance and toward a framework in which risk is pooled broadly across the non-elderly population.

This means a new (hopefully, national) insurance pool that provides a choice of public and private plans, and a requirement that employers either provide coverage or pay to enroll their workers into this pool. It also means a system with enough flexibility to evolve away from heavy employer involvement in administration and financing -- not only to ensure health security for all, but also to allow employers to focus on their prime mission: to innovate, produce, and prosper.

This is an attractive vision -- far, far better than the complicated blueprints of the recent Democratic past; much more attractive than plans that simply require that everyone have coverage, however substandard that insurance might be; highly consistent with public opinion; and politically and fiscally feasible (or at least much less infeasible than other options). But even in Edwards's admirably forthright plan -- which rightly says that taxes will have to be raised to create the new system, even if the economy as a whole will save big money -- this emerging vision still remains too fuzzy on two key issues. First, will the cost-control advantages of public purchasing be used to the fullest extent possible? Second, and related, will a good Medicare-like plan be offered on terms that are attractive to Americans and allow fair competition between public and private insurance?

A Movement Is Needed

The one point on which all the candidates seemed to agree is that health care reform requires a movement to press opponents toward political compromise. That movement is forming, and the political leadership on display in Nevada is essential to keeping health care on the agenda and pressing for comprehensive action. Movements demand transformative change; they don't necessarily push for 10-point policy blueprints. And so it was refreshing and inspiring to see all the candidates who came to Nevada agreeing that transformative change is the order of the day.

But when the time comes for the details to be hashed out and compromises to be made, we should remember why American health financing is in its current mess. It's not because Americans are medical moochers -- we visit the doctor and hospital less often than do people in other rich nations, despite having poorer overall health on many measures. It's not because we burden employers with regulations -- the United States is the only rich country where there isn't a basic requirement of coverage. And it's not because our insurance is overly generous -- ask the millions of uninsured and underinsured whether they feel coddled.

The problem is that health security in the United States is hostage to the choices of insurers and employers, rather than to the choices of the American people. If and when that finally changes, affordable, quality health care for all Americans will no longer be a pipe dream. It will be the American dream.

Polluters Are Working Overtime to Woo Congress

If the script were written in Hollywood, Al Gore’s bravura performance and triumphant return to Washington would be followed, in quick order, by:

  • Polluter lobbyists’ dropping efforts to block new global warming pollution limits,

  • Congress’ coming to its senses and racing to pass effective new greenhouse gas controls and

  • President Bush’s admitting the error of his ways and agreeing to sign a meaningful global warming bill. 

(Alternate, Frank Capra-esque ending, perhaps titled "Mr. Gore Really Returns to Washington" -- Gore would be elected president, and would sign the global warming law himself.) 

Unfortunately, there are some other would-be script writers in the nation’s capital -- and they are not going to win an Academy Award. 

Beneath the surface of the polar bear pageantry, polluter lobbyists are busy throwing up obstructions at every turn, dispensing both propaganda and big checks. And President Bush has been as stubborn in opposition to global warming limits as he has on his Iraq policy and his defense of his political hatchet men.

Let’s look at the good news first. Thanks in part to the former vice president’s proselytizing, there is perceptible momentum for action. Just this week, Representative Henry Waxman, D-Calif., introduced visionary legislation that would call for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. global warming emissions by mid-century. Waxman initially enlisted an impressive 127 cosponsors (though only two of them Republicans) for his Safe Climate Act. 

But to turn this vision into law, Waxman needs to secure quite a few more “yes” votes, and the polluters are working overtime to make sure they slow down the process.  

Take the coal-mining lobby, for instance: The day before Gore’s appearance before Congress, it scheduled a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Congressman Rick Boucher, D-Va., who happens to chair the House subcommittee in charge of global warming legislation.

Boucher is also a favorite of the nation’s biggest coal-burning power company, Ohio-based American Electric Power (its political action committee gave Boucher $10,000 in the last congressional cycle), which, coincidentally, testified to Boucher this week that it would oppose any legislation which doesn’t require action by China and India. 

In a similar hearing last week before Boucher and auto industry champion John Dingell, D-Mich., major auto makers made it clear they would strenuously oppose any efforts to require big improvements in fuel economy. (The car companies are simultaneously suing in Vermont to overturn state standards—modeled on those adopted by California -- that would set vehicle global warming standards.)

The car companies tried to throw the blame for global warming partly onto the oil companies. Not surprisingly, the oil companies are trying to blame someone else. This little Alphonse-and-Gaston routine recalls the old line by former Senator Russell Long: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”  

The political complexities have prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lower near-term expectations for comprehensive action on global warming in the House. A similar scene is playing out in the Senate, where Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., acknowledged to Roll Call this week that she has not yet been able to secure enough votes to report a strong global warming bill out of her Environment and Public Works Committee. 

It’s unfair to blame Boxer. One problem there is that committee Republicans are—so far—a stone wall of opposition or silence. Even Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a committee moderate who previously co-sponsored progressive legislation, has gone south. Last week he issued a startling press release praising the Bush administration’s environmental record.

Surely, it’s mere coincidence that administration ally American Electric Power gave moderate Lamar’s re-election campaign $1,000 last month. (For the record, Max Baucus, D-Mont., a likely swing vote on the Boxer panel, got an equal amount last month from AEP. So did Dingell. Boucher raked in another $2,500.)

Meanwhile, true to form, the White House continues to undermine attempts at international cooperation on global warming. Last weekend, the U.S. stood alone in blocking a consensus among industrialized and other nations for an international carbon-trading market. 

Perhaps more amazingly, the Bush administration has quietly stopped collecting comprehensive information on electric power plant operations -- information that could prove critical in designing an effective global warming strategy. 

So before we respond appropriately to Al Gore’s warnings, it may take another election to throw the proverbial bums out. But the list of bums is growing.

Five Health Care Questions for the Democratic Candidates

The presidential candidates are feeling the pressure from voters to tackle the escalating health care crisis with bold and comprehensive solutions. So when the Center for American Progress and the Service Employees International Union invited all the candidates to Las Vegas this Saturday morning to debate health care, nearly all the Democratic candidates agreed to participate. (Alas, all the Republican candidates will be taking a pass.) 

You can view the debate and join a live blog and discussion.

At the onset of the debate, former Senator John Edwards is likely to be the center of attention, and not only because of the wrenching news of his wife’s recurrent cancer. Edwards has been driving the health care debate with a  very detailed plan to assure health coverage for everyone in America. Now the other candidates are determined to match him, though most have yet to offer specifics at this early stage of the race.

Of the other leading candidates, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has rejected “tinkering and half-way measures.” He declared in January that he plans “in the next few months” to lay out a health care plan that will cover everyone “by the end of the next president’s term”—meaning his first term.  And Senator Hillary Clinton, who as head of Bill Clinton’s health care task force, tried and failed to move an ambitious health care program, is somewhat more cautious, saying she won't lay out a plan until she “listens to what the people want.” As reported by Bloomberg News, on January 28, she said, “This time, we're going to build a consensus first.'' 

Congressman Dennis Kucinich doesn’t have the poll numbers to be treated as a leading candidate, but he will come with a clear and detailed plan for health care for all. He is a co-sponsor of H.R. 676, a “single-payer” plan covering all Americans in a public system. Kucinich can be expected to be a provocative challenger to the other candidates– especially those who feel the need to subsidize, and try to regulate, the private health insurance companies to get them to go beyond “cherry picking” —insuring only healthier Americans who bring in more profit—with more subsidies to private insurance companies.

[We at Campaign for America’s Future are promoting an important new “benchmark” health care plan written by Yale professor Jacob Hacker. The Health Care for America plan would start with choice—allowing individuals and companies to continue with their current health care arrangements if they are happy with them. All employers would be required to provide their workers private insurance of good quality, or pay five percent of payroll to have their employees covered through a Medicare-style public plan. Hacker sees this approach as essential to providing guaranteed coverage while controlling costs in the entire health care system.]

As we watch the debate on Saturday, how will we tell if the other candidates are as committed as Edwards and Kucinich to fundamentally solving the health care crisis? And how will we tell if Edwards or Kucinich has the plan and presentation that can get the job done?

What follows are some questions for every candidate, to help judge whether each is really serious about health care for all:

1. Will the candidate’s plan really cover everyone —with a decent guaranteed level of coverage—at an affordable cost? Calling a plan “universal” is not enough. Massachusetts’ new ”universal” plan requires everyone to purchase health insurance, but the legislature has still not shown that it will devote the resources necessary (or exert the regulatory control over private insurance companies) to assure that everyone has a good health plans at an affordable premium.

2. Does the candidate offer a public plan, like Medicare, that has a predictable, guaranteed level of benefits that “cannot be taken away?” Or, will the candidate rely on private insurance companies, using a combination of subsidies and heavy regulations to get private companies to do what their business model does not now allow them to: provide good health insurance at a decent price for all Americans. Does it include people with pre-existing conditions, the poor, older Americans not yet eligible for Medicare, and people with dangerous occupations?

Note: Edwards tries to do both, mandating regional buying pools that would heavily regulate private insurers and offering a public plan, like Medicare, that, if enough people chose it, might become the dominant health care plan for the nation.

3. Has the candidate thought through how his or her plan will be financed? Edwards has bitten the bullet, calling for all employers to either provide health insurance to their employees or pay into a fund to finance his public plan. And he’s honest enough to know that additional progressive tax revenues will be necessary—he says forthrightly about $100 billion per year—which he would cover by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich. It is true that after a successful health care reform, the whole country would end up paying less money for better and more comprehensive health care. But beware the candidate that tells you that there won’t be any up-front costs.

4. Will the candidate’s health plan control spiraling health care costs? We pay much more per person for health care than any other developed nation—and all those other nations guarantee health care for all. A big part of the problem is the private health insurance system, which spends billions on advertising, administration and gaming the system to avoid paying claims. As a result, doctors and hospitals have to spend fortunes on paperwork to satisfy the different billing arrangements of hundreds of different reimbursement systems. By comparison, Medicare is a model of efficiency with a much better record of controlling costs than the private insurance industry, even while covering an expensive elderly population.

Jacob Hacker, and other advocates of Medicare-style plans, emphasizes a system that can share risk through broad pooling arrangements and control costs over much of the health care economy. If a candidate doesn’t go in that direction—if he or she depends entirely on the private health insurance system—we need to know how they ever expect to get a handle on rapidly growing health care costs.

5. Is the candidate’s health plan simple and clear enough that they can explain it—and get us to describe it to someone else? Does anyone remember the 2004 John Kerry health care plan? It was a complicated system of subsidies and catastrophic insurance—best described with the boxes and arrows of complex flow charts—and completely incomprehensible to even a quite educated citizen. If a future president is going to overcome the rabid opposition of the special interests, he or she must offer a plan that is bold but simple, comprehensive yet understandable. And it had better resonate with important American values, including choice, fairness, compassion and efficiency.

We’re having a presidential debate about health care because the public demand for solutions is so strong. Leadership at the presidential level is crucial, but so is continued grassroots engagement. The Campaign for America’s Future will be working with national organizations and grassroots groups to stimulate a public debate led by citizens demanding straight talk about health care. With grassroots pressure, we can force all the candidate—for the House, the Senate and the White House—to respond in detail to the five questions posed here, as well as to the concerns and values of the new progressive majority that is putting health care on the agenda for 2008 and beyond.

The Richest Year in History

Billionaires have it made.So what's new? What's new is that there are lots more of them and they're a lot richer. The number of billionaires around the world grew by 19 percent since last year, up to 946, with a total net worth increasing by 35 percent to $3.5 trillion, according to a report released by Forbes magazine. That's trillion with a "T."

Says Forbes Chief Executive Steve Forbes: “This is the richest year ever in human history. Never in history has there been such a notable advance.”

Of course this historic advance is largely confined to those who were already mind-bogglingly rich to begin with. For working people as a whole, there’s at best a holding action and at worst a retreat. Let’s look at the figures without Steve Forbes’ rose-colored glasses.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

From 2003 to 2004, the average incomes of the bottom 99 percent of households grew by less than 3 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, the average incomes of the top one percent of households experienced a jump of more than 18 percent, after adjusting for inflation.

In fact, it’s worse than that. The CBPP explained that the enormous gains at the top of the income pyramid caused a rise of income as a whole. But median income dropped between 2003 and 2004, and has not risen appreciably since then. In short, while the rich get richer, the middle class is shrinking, as economist Paul Krugman has pointed out.

Other economic indicators also show a less rosy scenario for working, such as the drop in construction jobs, which fell by 62,000 in February, after posting a net gain of 28,000 in January, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As The Bonddad Blog notes,

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A Farm Bill for the Environment

Policymakers don't necessarily associate the farm bill with the environment. This year, however, they should be prepared to pass a bill that reflects the U.S. public's growing concern over global warming.

This increased concern, which can be attributed to an explosive increase in media coverage and a broad scientific consensus on humanity's contribution to climate change, has already generated significant discussion in key congressional committees and corporate boardrooms. Most importantly, it has generated discussion at the kitchen tables of voters, who increasingly demand that their representatives pass legislation to address their environmental concerns.

The farm bill is a multi-title bill, meaning that individual sections (titles) address different portions of the U.S. agricultural sector. These titles include commodity programs, conservation, agricultural trade and aid, nutrition programs, farm credit, rural development, research, forestry and energy.

Opportunities to enhance environmental benefits can be found under many titles of the bill, but some of the more significant lie within the conservation title --for things such as protection of wetlands, wildlife habitats, freshwater reserves and, potentially, the global climate system. These are in high demand, but are also drastically under-funded. In 2004 and 2005, farm bill conservation programs accounted for roughly 12 percent of total United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) support payments. By comparison, the share of USDA awards for support of commodities like wheat, corn and dairy was approximately 77 percent.

Conservation programs could play a pivotal role in the fight against global warming by potentially offering excellent opportunities for the U.S. agricultural sector to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. That is no small matter. The agricultural sector of the U.S. economy is responsible for 85 percent of total U.S. emissions of nitrous oxide and 32 percent of total U.S. methane emissions.

While they are emitted in lower quantities than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas responsible for most human-induced warming, these gases are far more potent. One ton of nitrous oxide, for example, warms as much as 310 tons of carbon dioxide does. Conservation practices such as no-till agriculture, manure management and general crop management can decrease these dangerous greenhouse gases, but only if the farm bill capitalizes on their ability to do so.

Policymakers can do four things to make conservation programs more able to combat global warming while benefiting farmers.

Increase the budgets of farm bill conservation programs. Due to the limited budget of conservation programs, many conservation title applicants are left out in the cold. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), for example, has only awarded grants to an average of 43 percent of applicants over the last several years. The same is true for other programs in the title. The Conservation Reserve Program did not even have a general signup period in 2005, and the Grassland Reserve Program, Wetland Reserve Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program together only funded an average of 32 percent of total program applications in the same year.

Concentrate payments on environmental services instead of commodities. Environmental services are the benefits land can provide in addition to crop production, such as the inherent ability to clean our water and air through nutrient cycling and carbon dioxide storage.

There is virtually no potential for commodity support payments to benefit the environment, but the potential is great for conservation projects. By re-allocating funds from commodity to conservation programs, policymakers increase the incentive for farmers to implement projects that provide environmental services. Also, commodity payments are generally allocated according to historical market trends, while conservation program payments are awarded in advance for their anticipated services -- therefore, their environmental effectiveness has the potential to be assessed.

An example of an environmental service is a grant that establishes buffer strips along a streambed to filter nutrient runoff into the stream. This project promotes a vital environmental service by capitalizing on the filtering capacity of grasslands or shrubs. Further, the environmental benefits of this project can be assessed before it is awarded. This will only occur, however, if policymakers develop methods to measure the outcomes of an environmental service (using tools and methods explained in the final recommendation, below).

Concentrating on environmental services will be even more efficient and cost-effective if USDA programs "pay for performance." Conservation program applicants should demonstrate that their proposed practice offers the greatest environmental outcome for the least cost. Reverse auctions, for example, are one way to do this. In a reverse auction, sellers compete to supply buyers with a good or service, instead of buyers competing for a good or service offered by a seller.

This funding allocation method enrolls the largest number of farmers possible and maximizes environmental benefits. The federal government even has an in-house example to use for this method of award allocation -- in July 2006, a wetlands reserve program pilot used reverse auctions to reduce the acquisition costs of program easements. It was a huge success, enrolling 3,500 acres and reducing acquisition costs by 14 percent, or $820,000.

Broaden the scope of environmental services to include greenhouse gases and incorporate ways to lower them into the farm bill. Currently, methods to evaluate the environmental benefits of applications for conservation funding do not consider greenhouse gases. If they did, conservation programs could greatly contribute to efforts that reduce them from agricultural operations.

For example, a farmer in Texas could conceivably receive Conservation Security Program funding (another conservation title program) for planting wet rice on flooded fields. In his proposal, he could make the case that "artificial wetlands" increase wildlife diversity. However, this practice also increases methane -- a natural byproduct of plant decomposition that is not evaluated in the Farm Bill awards structure.

Take advantage of technological advancements. USDA agencies that award grants should develop ways of measuring the outcomes of an environmental practice. These methods should capitalize on the increasing access that farmers, agricultural consultants and county extension agents have to computer-based watershed models, GIS software and studies that analyze the efficiency of certain agricultural best management practices.

Quantifying the impacts of proposed practices will assure that grant applicants deliver environmental benefits, and better allow USDA program administrators to track and evaluate the effectiveness of their awards.

Taken together, these policy solutions will deliver a farm bill that helps farmers while addressing the U.S. public's environmental concerns.

Why Rudy Guiliani Is Destined to Fall

According to the latest polls, Rudy Giuliani has a commanding lead over his rivals for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Though polls this early mostly measure name identification (ask Joe "Mentum" Lieberman, who was leading the Democratic pack at this time four years ago), it's hard to ignore the good feelings Giuliani generates among the GOP faithful.

Yet at the same time, conventional wisdom has it that as conservative Christian voters learn more about Giuliani -- specifically, his positions on abortion and gay rights and his marital history (infidelity along the way to three marriages), the support will quickly fade.

This conventional wisdom is partly correct, but not for the reasons we usually hear from the talking heads. The problem conservative voters will have with Giuliani isn't just about disagreement on issues, and it certainly isn't about bad behavior in his personal life. It's about the fact that no matter how hard he tries, Giuliani just isn't going to be able to convince them that he's part of their tribe.

The entirety of Giuliani's appeal, of course, is built on the fact that on the day of 9/11, he managed to hold a series of press conferences without wetting his pants. And so he has left no doubt that 9/11 will be the beginning, middle and end of his presidential campaign; as a recent headline in The Onion put it, "Giuliani To Run For President of 9/11."

No one could accuse him of failing to grasp an opportunity when he sees it: Giuliani has turned himself into a one-man September 11, Inc., charging $100,000 a pop to give speeches touting his steely resolve in the face of terror. When it comes to exploiting the memory of 9/11 for personal gain, George W. Bush has nothing on Rudy.

But for all the benefit he has reaped -- including the prevailing idea that Giuliani somehow has credibility on foreign affairs and national security, when his experience in both arenas is basically zero -- he is destined to fall. That fall should be one of the more interesting political stories we've seen in a while, but it's important to understand the reasons which factors will cause the GOP electorate to spit him out like a rotten peanut, and which won't. Commentators tend to lump Giuliani's positions on abortion and gay rights with his personal history. It's the former that will matter, and the latter that won't.

For all the talk of "family values" and the passionate condemnation of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, conservatives are enormously understanding when it comes to their own. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out recently conservatives don't seem to care whether their leaders have violated the personal morality they claim to hold:

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