Monday, October 26, 2009

The News Today, Oh Boy

I read the news today, oh boy. (some of you may remember this Beatles’ line from one of their albums, Sgt. Pepper maybe.)

            Actually, most of these itemscome from sources other than newspapers.

            Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, for example, is reported to contain this lovely statistic:

            Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of American households saw their share of all pretax income nearly double—while the share of the bottom 80% of households fell by 7%! To put this in another perspective, according to the NY Times, it is as if every household in the bottom 80% had written a check for $7,000 every year and sent it to the top 1%.

            The question is, why has there been no reaction to this???


            Another item, this one heard on “This American Life,” NPR’s radio show hosted by Ira Glass, added to my ire about healthcare, which was the theme of the show. The first segment was titled “One Pill Two Pill, Red Pill Blue Pill”—after Obama’s admonition to consumers to buy the blue pill if it’s cheaper. On the segment, Planet Money’s Chana Joffe-Walt explained the scam behind the drug companies’ generosity in handing out prescription drug coupons. Here’s how it works. First, the ploy was invented to combat the moves by Health Insurers to use co-pays (what the customer pays after his Health plan pays part of the drug’s cost) to discourage customers from choosing very expensive, name-brand drugs and choosing cheaper generics instead. That is, generics, in virtually all cases, are just as effective as name brand drugs like Lipitor, but are many magnitudes cheaper. If you use the generic, the Health plans make your co-pay considerably less, because their payment is also less. Seems to make sense.

            But the drug companies couldn’t let their cash cows be dissed this way. And so they came up with the prescription coupon. You get the coupon “free”—either from your doctor, or directly from the drug company. With it, you can get a huge discount on your prescription. Thus, one name-brand drug used by a guy with acne, sold for about $600-800 a month. His co-pay had been $130, but with the prescription card, it was only $10. What a great deal! he thought. And who wouldn’t? The problem comes in the details: though the drug company only got $10 from the consumer, it billed the health care provider over $600. And it worked beautifully: the doctor prescribes the name brand, knowing his patient can get it cheaply, and having no idea that the drug company is making a huge profit from the health provider. But that’s not the end of it. In order to stay profitable with this kind of payout, the health care provider will naturally have to charge its customers more—all of which comes back to the poor consumer in the end, who is hit with rising costs for health care.

            This is really the gorilla in the room of the whole health care debate. Doctors say they can’t be expected to know how much drugs cost—so they just assume patients have health care, and prescribe name brands which cost 10 or 20 times what the generics do. Who makes money? Pfizer and their ilk. And who gets screwed? As always, it’s John/Jane Q. Public.

            As for the doctors, whom everyone seems inclined to excuse from having any role in rising health care costs, a recent medical experience I had demolished that theory as well. I had a knee problem, and though I was wary of the suggestion, after two months or so of pain agreed to have the knee x-rayed—even though my GP (a damn good one) allowed as how it probably wouldn’t show much, but was a necessary step in the progression. Anyway, since he had no x-ray machine, he sent me to the local hospital (Marin General). I knew it was going to be bad when I had to go through a full registration, the way one does when admitted. Finally got the knee x-rayed after a fairly long wait—with three or four pics taken. Then they told me the report would be sent to my doctor. “But I thought I was getting the results,” I said. “We’ll give you copies of the x-rays,” they said, “but our radiologist will send the diagnosis.” I knew that was trouble, but had no idea how much.

            The x-rays came back showing the normal degeneration of a knee in my age range. No help. But for that little diagnosis (which, by the way, any competent doctor can do unaided by specialists), I received two bills. One was from Marin General: my charge was $59.50, but only after Medicare paid $409.50 (i.e. the total charge for a simple knee x-ray was $469.00). My daughter tells me that in a veterinarian’s office, the x-ray charge is usually around $90. Same x-ray, same competent diagnosis. But that’s not the worst of it. I also received another bill, this one from Advanced Imaging Medical Association, for diagnosis—you know the guy who reads the x-ray—and for his services, the total charge was $719.86. Medicare paid most of that, but the point is clear. For one x-ray (actually they took 3 shots), which contributed virtually nothing to the diagnosis or the healing of my knee, the charge was $1189.86. And though one tends to imagine that because Medicare pays for this, it’s free, the truth is, it’s not. Ultimately, we all pay for this stuff. And there can be little question that everyone—the doctors, the hospitals, the insurance companies, and everyone in between—is in on the take.

            Finally, today’s news had a piece about foreclosure auctions going on in long-suffering Detroit, once the thriving Motor City, now the most depressed and distressed city in the nation. Homes were starting at $500. There were pages and pages of them. One comparison showed the number of homes in foreclosure (or abandoned completely), if put together, would cover an area the size of Boston. And who was getting to buy most of these places? You guessed it, not Detroit natives who were hoping to be able to get a house cheap and live there, but mostly speculators from California and New York, seeking to make a killing while the killing was still good.

            But then again, this is the free market, folks. And the “free” market, after all, is the most efficient and most humane of all systems yet devised by man. Oh boy.


Lawrence DiStasi

Bend Over, Suckers

I have just been on the phone with my Congresswoman’s office (Lynn Woolsey), and with my bank credit card representative. The news is not good. The taxpayers are being screwed once again, this in order to beat the deadline mandated by the new Credit Card Bill of Rightswhich goes into effect soon. So get ready: the banks will all be socking it to their customers to the limit before their options are limited by the new bill.

            It starts with a letter—like the one I received yesterday. It notifies me that my interest rate is being increased, both the standard rate and the cash advance rate. There is an increase both in the “margin” to 10.45 percentage points; and in the APR on purchases (based on the Index Rate plus the “Margin”) to a now hefty 16.20%. That is nearly a 4-point jump in my interest rate, which has already been bumped recently by a couple of percentage points. Worst of all, “these increases to the Purchase APR will apply to both new Purchases made on your account AS WELL AS ANY EXISTING PURCHASE BALANCES.”  And if you don’t like it, you can drop your card so long as you pay your entire balance.

            Of course I was outraged to read this. I have never missed a payment on my credit card, a fact which was confirmed when I called my credit card representative, who said, “you have an excellent credit history.” And yet, my rate is being bumped. But why??? I asked the representative, who said it was a “management decision. All Wells Fargo credit card customers are having their rate bumped by upwards of 3%.”  But why, I again asked, noting that the prime rate which banks pay for their money from the Fed was down around 3% the last time I looked. The banks have been in difficulty, she said (yes, I argued, because of the rapacity of their greed to cash in on subprime lending, which loans have gone bad and left the banks needing to ramp up their other cash cow, credit cards.) She said she had no information on that. She also said she had no information on the upcoming changes mandated by the Credit Card Bill of Rights either. But I had already learned about this, with a little help from my Congresswoman’s office, and here’s the news.

            The bill was passed to great fanfare and signed by President Obama on May 22, 2009. Among other things, the bill says:

            “No interest rate increases on pre-existing balances. If your credit card issuer decides to increase your interest rate, that new rate would only apply to new balances. Your current balance would continue to be subject to the old interest rate. There's an exception, however, if you become more than 60 days late on your credit card payments.”

( )

Aha, I thought. I’m protected; they can’t do this. But then I looked to the bottom of the website and found this disconcerting news: These rules won’t take effect until February 22, 2010.

            So now you get the picture. The banks, devils that they are, are fully aware that after February 2010, their ability to screw their credit card customers will be circumscribed. They won’t be able to arbitrarily raise rates, and apply them to purchases that were made previously, in full faith and knowledge by the customer, based on the old interest rate. Under the new rules, rate hikes can be applied only to new purchases; the old balance will be charged at the old rate. Poor old bankers—they won’t be able to just make an announcement that your rate is now higher, and have it apply retroactively. What an imposition! And so, in order to rake in billions and billions before the new rules go into effect, they’re hitting us all with higher rates now. 

            So this is our payoff, suckers, for allowing the Washington boys to bail out these same banks, to the tune of trillions of dollars, which bailout is going to sink this entire nation soon. Which is to say, sink all of us. Bail them out, let them continue raking in their usurious bonanza, and then bend over for your individual reward. 

            I let both my credit card rep and my congressional rep know my feelings about this. I would suggest that every single person who feels the same let their reps know as well. Because sooner or later, somehow or other, the criminality that is the banking system, along with the white-collar thugs who profit by it—and I include our sitting so-called representatives and president who all have their hands in the same cookie jar—are going to have to be brought to heel.  The only question is, what’s it going to take?


Lawrence DiStasi

Dictating Democracy

The logic behind American foreign policy becomes more difficult to fathom each day. Last night’s news, for example, informed us that the State Department was exploring new initiatives to open diplomatic contacts with the Generals who rule Burma. Now this is a lovely regime made up of those geriatric thugs who came to power by overturning a peaceful election which should have brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, and who have since employed the most brutal methods to eliminate protestors, including the beating and jailing of Buddhist monks. After that, they ripped off much of the international aid sent to that benighted country by America and others to relieve the suffering population after the monsoon floods in May 2008. And the American State Department now thinks it’s a good idea to open negotiations with these creeps. On what grounds exactly? On their notable commitment to democracy and the rule of law?
            Similarly, in late June, reactionary forces in Honduras overthrew the democratically-elected president of that country, Manuel Zelaya, by arresting him in the middle of the night and hustling him out of the country. This wholly illegal maneuver, reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie, was initially greeted by the United States with temperance and patience and hemming and hawing calls for both parties to negotiate. Negotiate? This was a wholly illegal coup, engineered by thugs who have consistently employed the U.S.-trained military to put down the populace protesting such blatant disregard for international law. Virtually every Latin-American nation and the Organization of American States have all condemned the coup in no uncertain terms—all, that is, except our Clintonesque State Department, which continued to resist calling the overthrow a “coup,” and which took its sweet time cutting off aid as its statutes required it to do. What is going on here? Is it that the United States, even under Obama, really hoped (schemed?) to see another episode of the sick drama that played out in Haiti, where leftist President Aristide was also spirited out of his country and has remained in exile ever since? Can it be that there’s a little pattern here, a pattern that, regardless of the administration’s color, blue or red, Republican or Democrat, pays lip service to the glories of democracy, but in reality makes certain that only certain democracies—those that toe the imperial line—receive U.S. support?
            What else can one conclude? Recent so-called elections in Afghanistan have been routinely condemned by most observers, including Peter Galbraith, as not only flawed, but outright fraudulent. Ah, but our man in Kabul, the drug-dealing Hamid Karzai, is allegedly, and necessarily for us, the winner. Because we’ve sacrificed hundreds of American lives and billions upon billions in treasure to defeat the terrorists we say have a home there. So admitting that we’re sacrificing so much to maintain a crook in power just wouldn’t do: imperial interests are one thing, but theft requires a deodorant. By contrast, when the 2006 elections in Palestine produced an internationally validated outcome, but one that displeased us—the victory of Hamas, otherwise known in the western press as muslim devils incarnate, with the gall to advocate resistance to Israeli oppression—why then it was a different story. Then, we, with our “democratic” ally Israel, decried the stench and cranked up the propaganda and strong-arming to the point where an international boycott was imposed, a boycott so cruel and crippling that it has left over a million people in Gaza bereft of even the most basic human elements—food, fuel, shelter, medical supplies—even before Israel invaded last year and destroyed most of what was left.
            And then, of course, there’s Iran. When recent elections there produced street demonstrations, the American media covered the protesters night and day. For a few days it appeared that yet another “orange” revolution similar to that in the Ukraine, fomented and financed by the CIA, was about to take place. But no, the Ayatollahs clamped down on the demonstrators, and the American press duly condemned those in power as illegitimate, the result as undemocratic. Because, after all, Iran might some day threaten the “middle east peace” we’ve done so much to preserve. Because, after all, Iran has centrifuges and is producing fissile material. And that material, we are sure, is meant for nuclear weapons. And if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, why it would upset the entire balance (i.e. Israel’s death grip) in the region because now muslim devils would possess the bomb. But what about the devils who already have the bomb, and not just one puny nuke but hundreds! Israel, that is, not only has a stockpile of nuclear weapons that numbers at least two hundred, but that includes not just your puny atomic bomb but thermonuclear ones as well, complete with the most sophisticated delivery systems outside the U.S. And has threatened to use them on Iran, and Egypt and Russia, among others. Furthermore, it has never even signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which we so dramatically accuse Iran of violating (which it has not; the treaty gives every nation the right to produce nuclear power, which is what Iran appears to have done so far); nor has Pakistan, also equipped with numerous nukes, signed the NPT,  nor India, which also possesses an unknown but considerable number, aided and abetted recently by the Bush administration which generously gave the Indians more technology to build still more.
            So what is going on here? What is this rhetoric about democracy? What is this hysteria about rogue states, and nuclear proliferation when, in fact, the United States now and in the past has supported and colluded with some of the most vicious dictators on the planet? Including the late and not lamented General Musharraf of Pakistan, who also took over in a coup and who also had his rogue nuclear program, but whom we coddled and cuddled until the stench and incompetence and unpopularity of his regime demanded that he be scuttled. Nor can we forget that it was the United States, in the person of Kermit Roosevelt, who, in 1954, engineered the unrest that forced the democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadegh from power in Iran, and replaced him with the Savak-wielding Shah—thus necessitating the rise of the Ayatollahs.
            In which regard, some statistics put together by Anthony DiMaggio are revealing:
Number of major U.S. invasions since World War II: 13—including attacks on North Korea (1950 and 1951), Cuba (1961), South Vietnam (1962), The Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Lebanon (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Haiti (1994), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq again (2003). And that doesn’t count covert invasions and attempted overthrows and crushings of populist-nationalist movements.
Number of Iranian invasions: 0 (Iraq invaded Iran to initiate the 1981 war)
Number of countries the U.S. has explicitly threatened with nuclear annihilation: 8
Number Iran has threatened: 0.
            So what is this nonsense demanding that Iran show its “peaceful intentions”? What about the thugs in Burma—have they ever shown even a hint of “peaceful intentions”? Have the Honduran coup leaders? Indeed, has the United States? (check the stats).
            Perhaps a little less invading and a little more withdrawing might be in order. Perhaps a little less dictating to others might be in order. Because dictating democracy, not to mention dictatorial democracy is an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms. A beast with two heads—or two asses; can’t be. There can’t be a dictated democracy, or a partial democracy, or a democracy with rights for only certain religious or ethnic groups. In which regard we might ask if the United States itself has ever been a real democracy—i.e. a democracy governed by all its people rather than a small elite serving wealthy or propertied or corporate interests. But that is a question for another blog. For now, it is enough to observe that the United States would do well to look to itself, rather than seeking to dictate democracy elsewhere.
Lawrence DiStasi