Monday, January 21, 2013

All Power to the People -- Not! (yet)

I don't remember who said that famous phrase -- all power to the people -- and I suppose I could Wikipedia it. But the implications of that sentiment from my long, lost youth remains relevant and key to our understanding of our times. Where does the power reside as we begin Barack Obama's second term in office?

Tommy Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City: Could they have envisioned Obama?

It doesn't reside in the people. It resides in the hands of the moneyed interests. In all things political and economic, in the realm of the public interest, the people don't come first. They almost always come last, and this arrangement of how we work for the public good and how we actually succeed at the task is almost always shaped by forces of irrationality imposed on us by economic interests that run counter to best practices and ideal outcomes.

Why? It's not complicated. Money does all the talking.

Is health care in the U.S. being decided by the people? No, it's being decided by the insurance companies. As Paul Krugman would argue, the PPACA, Barack Obama's signature first-term, heath-care achievement, is a Rube-Goldberg imperfect solution where a simple one -- expansion of Medicare to all -- would have been much better, but still what we did get is not trivial.

We would have done so much better if Republicans and even some key Democrats weren't in thrall to the insurance lobby. (In fact, that applies to Bush 43's Medicare Part D: By not allowing the government to negotiate with the drug companies, the people gifted Big Pharma.) We don't have to ask why these measures are disappointing. When money is talking, our politicians are listening.

PPACA: some health care progress...
So it is with everything. When we contrast TARP -- a program that bailed out the too-big-to-fail banks and insurance companies -- with Barack Obama's stimulus, ARRA, the people did not come out on top, the banks did. And for the banks, that outcome was not trivial, it was huge. They're not all the way back: For Citigroup and Bank of America, the road has been choppy. In general, though, they've been given a free pass for the havoc they caused.

What about ARRA, the stimulus package? It wasn't big enough by most accounts, but it was not trivial. Without it, we'd still be in the soup. Instead, we've come a good deal of the way back to prosperity. But we'd be so much further toward full employment if the deficit scolds, the fake chicken-hawk fiscal sheriffs, the anti-tax Rottweilers hadn't fought tooth and nail to avoid spending the real money we needed to rebuild our nation's infrastructure and our road to full employment and to deal with our deficits at the same time. No, that would have meant the dreaded Moral Hazard. No free ride for the poor and middle classes. No, that's reserved for the banks and insurance companies.

More would have been better...

And so it will be for the gun issue, as well. If we're lucky, we'll get a couple of measures past the gun lobby. Universal background checks will be nice, and if we keep the size of magazines down, that will also work around the margins. An assault weapons ban, the holy grail of true, non-trivial gun reform, appears out of sight.

Yes, I'm one of those progressives who find our politics, with its non-trivial progressive victories eating away at the margins instead of taking big chunks out of the hides of the moneyed class, frustrating and disappointing. I still find our politics stinky.

We have made progress under Barack Obama. And we have hope that more can be done as we enter his second term. Still, we find ourselves with the people firmly still out of power and The Man still firmly in control, even if that grip is weakening a bit.

Let's hope the changing values of our younger generations, and the political leanings of our new demographics, lead to a new, stronger progressivism. The politics since 1980 have left us in a few ditiches and made it difficult to get out of this one. Can we turn a corner in Obama's last term? We'll see.

Now I remember. White straight men take note. (Trust me, they have.)

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