John Buell

Political Elites and Fiscal Irresponsibility

Where are the real fiscal conservatives? The business media anguish over how we can pay our escalating debt down. The best they can offer is draconian reductions in a successful well-funded Federal program, Social Security. Conservatives pride themselves on going beyond symptoms to address fundamental causes. They are, however, stunningly blind to the implosion continuing right under their nose. Fiscal apocalypse is avoidable, but if one occurs its horsemen are likely to be investment bankers, discretionary Middle East wars, and the big pharma/health insurance complex.

Health insurance premiums, war taxes, and expensive or non-existent bank credit are strangling US manufacturing and small business. Why union rights and minimum wage become such rallying cries while wars, the health insurance complex, and banker bailouts receive little more than sporadic howls of protest from small business and major media remains a mystery to me.

Even before Obama took office, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz calculated that the final cost of the Iraq war, including troop deployment, depreciation of military hardware, veterans’ pension and health costs, and interest on new debt, would likely total $3 trillion. Horrific as these numbers are, Obama, with hardly a word from mainstream media, is now piling on. Congress is already allocating billions more for Afghanistan. Since the administration’s commitment is virtually open-ended even $3 trillion may not cover our metastasizing overseas ventures.

It remains to be seen whether the Geithner/Obama bank bailout will restore health to the banking system. The plan will be extraordinarily costly and is exceptionally unpopular. The early Henry Paulson versions of the plan elicited nearly a 99% rejection. Timothy Geithner’s plan to subsidize purchase of toxic assets is only slightly more popular—in part because it is more opaque.

Yet even in the face of great bank unpopularity, Democrats could not secure enough of their party’s votes to force banks, beneficiaries of tremendous federal largesse, to renegotiate mortgage terms.

Even the one budget buster that does receive some media attention, health insurance, is hardly subject to the same scrutiny as those infamous UAW workers. The health insurance/pharmaceutical lobby and the major media would have us believe that the industry is committed to controlling costs, yet their vaguely worded, unenforceable promises amount to what James Ridgeway describes as “getting doctors to create computer records of all the overpriced drugs they prescribe, and giving patients easier forms to fill out before they get turned down six times by their private insurance companies...”

The larger problem with health insurance is the very existence of this private middleman between the patients and the healthcare providers. Robert Reich nicely summarizes this: “the real problem isn’t even health-care costs; it’s a system that pushes up costs by rewarding inefficiency, causing unbelievable waste, pushing over-medication, providing inadequate prevention, over-using emergency rooms because many uninsured people can’t afford regular doctor checkups, and spending billions on advertising and marketing seeking to enroll healthy people and avoid sick ones.”

A majority of the American people worry that war, the health insurance pharma complex, and profligate investment banks are endangering our future. Yet the media hardly touch these subjects. Obama has conspicuously taken Medicare for all, the best answer to our health care economics, off the table. Banks and banking regulation operate behind a shield of secrecy.

Seldom has our democracy been as dysfunctional. On the even of ’60s turmoil, C. Wright Mills spoke of a “Power Elite” controlling the nation’s vital policy choices. More recently, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wondered if banks “don’t own the place.” If by elite we mean a tight coterie of executives who collaborate to control outcomes, such a claim is too simplistic now. But the current triumvirate does have two traits in common. They have made immense profits in recent years and they have channeled much of this money back to both political parties. It is thus not surprising that big banks are treated differently than local banks or that Medicare for all is off the table.

Nonetheless, talk of a power elite is simplistic in one other sense. Citizens are not absolutely powerless, both to pass the broad public campaign finance that a few states like Maine and Arizona have enacted, to demand media reform so that more voices can be heard, and to construct through our proliferating digital technologies other ways to highlight the mainstream’s fiscal irresponsibility.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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