Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Meaning of ANZAC Day

above: The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia.  Built originally to commemorate Australia's fallen in World War One.

ANZAC Day is the day on which Australians remember those fallen in war.  In this article Tristan Ewins considers the real meaning and relevance of that day.

by Tristan Ewins

ANZAC Day is a day of remembrance for Australia and New Zealand: a time of reflection upon the involvement of those countries in terrible wars. Specifically, the term ‘ANZAC’ is derived from the words “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”: the military organisation within which Australians and New Zealanders fought in World War One.

All in all almost 80,000 Australians and New Zealanders died during the First World War: and many more still were terribly maimed, or left with grievous psychological scars.

The day has also developed to be considered a day of remembrance with regard to all wars and conflicts in which Australia and/or New Zealand have been involved. It should also be mentioned, therefore, that in the Second World War almost 30,000 Australians died. And tens of thousands suffered terrible cruelty as prisoners of war – especially of the Japanese.

More recently annual commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey have seen tens of thousands of Australians undertaken a ‘pilgrimage’ to ANZAC Cove. The bloodbath of Gallipoli has been established as a cornerstone of Australian identity.

Australians have also been involved in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and more recently elsewhere – including Afghanistan and Iraq.

In modern times AZNAC Day has been developed into a day whose meaning and significance is hotly contested.

Australian academic Marilyn Lake has contributed to a book: ‘What’s Wrong with ANZAC?’ - along with Henry Reynolds, in which she dares to criticise the ‘ANZAC legend’. Her views were expressed recently and concisely, also, in an op-ed in ‘The Age’ – a Melbourne newspaper.

Lake criticises the ‘coming of age’ narrative: the idea that Australia needed its ‘baptism of fire’ to prove itself in the horrors of war, and thus take its place amongst the nations. But instead Lake sees a way beyond what she calls ‘the AZNAC myth’:

“until we have the courage to detach ourselves from the mother country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, draw up a constitution that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against indigenous peoples. Thus we can truly make history in Australia.”

For Lake, ANZAC is a myth which excludes women: essentially “[locating] our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare.” Further she sees the ANZAC story as eclipsing other narratives: of struggle against war and oppression, racism and sexism; and “the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia.”

As many of us would have expected, the reaction from the dominant right-populist elements in Australia’s media has been one of apparent outrage and indignation.

Neil Mitchell from radio 3AW in Melbourne might be considered a liberal in comparison to Melbourne Talk Radio’s Steve Price, but on April 21st he went so far as to say about Marilyn Lake and other contributors to ‘What’s wrong with ANZAC?’:

"I think today there is screaming proof that some academics should be legally required to get a real job, in the real world, and be legally required to keep their mouth shut…. A bunch of academics have announced today that ANZAC day is past its use-by date and is just an exercise in male bonding which is not diversified enough for modern Australia… For heavens sake, what do they want, do they want marches for vegetarian lesbians?”

Mitchell’s treatment of the matters raised by Lake and others is regrettable as it trivialises the critical issues raised in ‘What’s wrong with ANZAC?’ concerning colonialism, and what Lake has called “the militarisation of Australian history”. His response also needs be called into question in that it challenges that right to dissent and free criticism which really ought to be at the heart of our identity as a liberal democracy.

As Lake observed in an interview with Mitchell, though – also on April 21st – war destroys men. Many Australians who experienced war in the 20th Century were so deeply scarred not only in their bodies – but also in their hearts and minds - that not only did they not march on ANZAC Day, but they tried to avoid even talking about those experiences.

For now, though, we will consider the Australian experience in World War Two.

There is no problem in solemn commemoration of the costs of war. And indeed we should remember that in the Second World War Australians played a vital role in fighting fascism in Europe and North Africa, and ending Imperial Japanese domination and oppression of Asia and the Pacific.

From my own perspective, my grandfather served in Singapore during World War II as a Corporal in the 8th Division Australian General Hospital. My grandfather did not wield a rifle. Rather he was an ambulance driver whose job it was to save lives. Apparently his bravery in the face of fire, rescuing the many wounded, was such that his mates would later quite earnestly insist he deserved a Victoria Cross. In military history, however, this kind of bravery is seldom recognised.

In the heat of battle my grandfather’s leg was shattered by gunfire. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and witnessed incredible cruelty during his many years in Changi POW camp. Beatings and torture were common. POWs were subject by Japanese guards to cruel and unusual punishments, and summary executions under the most brutal of circumstances. I have been asked by family not to go into details as “the men wouldn’t want it”. But while I’ve accepted this, I do still hope somehow the full story will come out – and for survivors to receive the recognition they deserve from the Japanese government.

In Changi food was scarce also. Prisoners were sometimes fed banana skins – and if they were lucky a handful of dirty rice. Malnutrition, and conditions such as beri beri, malaria, dysentry and infections were common.

Australian and other POWs were also used as slave labour – even when they were obviously ill or wounded. Thousands thus were to die in captivity.

Specifically, my grandfather had contracted beri beri and malaria while a POW in Changi. Beri beri was generally caused by a lack of Thiamine (B1) in the diet. The most visually obvious symptom was extreme swelling, including of the stomach. (akin to images many people will have seen of starving children in Africa) Symptoms included paralysis, mental and emotional disturbance, awful pain, vomiting: with the risk of heart failure and death.

Women also endured suffering and brutality in Changi at the hands of the Japanese. One such Australian was Vivian Bullwinkle, a nurse in the 13th Australian General Hospital.

Attempting to flee Singapore, Bullwinkle’s ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. Some of the survivors managed to make their way to shore: but none would have anticipated what happened next. First male survivors were bayonetted. Thereafter, Japanese troops gathered the women together and ordered them to wade into the ocean.

What followed was a barrage of Japanese machine gun fire. All the women were thus slaughtered: with the exception of Bullwinkle herself, who while injured (shot in the hip), feigned death. Fortunately, when later captured by other Japanese soldiers, these did not know of the atrocity, and Bullwinkle was formally taken as a prisoner of war. (POW)

The next few years were to be a living hell. Eight of her nursing colleagues where to perish of starvation. But Bullwinkle survived. After her liberation, Bullwinkle committed herself to nursing, and worked to raise awareness about Japanese wartime atrocities.

The point of these stories is to emphasise the extent of the endurance amdist suffering of Australian POWS: soldiers and nurses. The spirit of mateship, especially: of camraderie between soldiers in intolerable conditions; ought never be forgotten. For women, these stories are also crucial: the Second World War was a time of transformation and of perseverance amidst hardship for women as well as men. ‘Total war’ mobilised and impacted upon the lives of women as never before.

There are some who look upon these stories as relics of a past-age: of a ‘White Australia’ which no longer holds resonance. But if we insist on an inclusive narrative of Australian history: why should these stories be excluded? And why ought Australia’s diverse communities – welcomed into the Australian nation – not take these stories also as their own? That is: a narrative which emphasises solidarity between ordinary people – even in the worst of circumstances?

But this ought never be distorted into a nationalist device which glorifies war as ‘the making of men’ or ‘the birth of nationhood’.

There is a danger that uncritical celebration of Australia’s military traditions and history could well give support to those today who seek to legitimise Australian participation in unjust wars in the here and now – by reference to such sentiment.

It is troubling even today to hear talk of the First World War as a ‘fight for freedom and democracy.’ These kind of rationalisations, it should be remembered, were employed by the Germans as well. In reality the war was a struggle not only for domination of Europe, but to carve up the world into spheres of influence; spheres of imperialist exploitation. In World War One soldiers of the Australian Dominion fought for the interests of the British Empire.

We should never forget the suffering and the sacrifices of Australian men and women in wartime. And we should celebrate and sustain traditions of solidarity even in the worst of circumstances. Furthermore, again to this day there are survivors of, and families of those who experienced war-time atrocities: who have waited decades for recognition by a Japanese government that remains in denial.  Even today – with time running out – these people deserve justice.

But also, we need to recall the human costs of war in the broadest sense: that war ought only be a last resort in the face of oppression and conquest which threaten our lives, our rights and our liberties. And even then we need be aware that there are those would appeal to such values: but behind whose rhetoric there lies cyncial geo-politics.

To conclude, regardless of the importance of Australian wartime stories, we should take seriously claims by Marilyn Lake and others of a “militarisation” of Australian history.

The narrative of Australian history needs to be broader: telling also of Australian egalitarianism and democracy; and also of the struggle for recognition and justice amongst Australia’s many-varied communities.

The fight against fascism was a crucial one, but we should not harbour illusions about the nature of other conflicts: allowing them to be rationalised behind a veil of nationalism.

Behind mock-populist outrage about the contributions of Marilyn Lake and others there is a debate that needs to be had about Australian identity and history. We should never forget - but we ought never abandon our critical faculties either: especially when it comes to matters of war: of human suffering, and of life and death.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

'Battlelines' - what’s Tony Abbott really about?

above: an image of Tony Abbott
For those interested in understanding the political thinking behind the politically-resurgent Tony Abbott, they could do worse than to read about the “Abbott agenda” as proclaimed by the man himself in his manifesto, Battlelines.

Abbott begins by proclaiming himself “the pragmatist”. “Ideology”, after all, has become something of a dirty word in western democracies - associated with such “evils” as socialism: compared with which neo-liberal practice is “objectively” sound economic management (please note the irony).

By contrast Abbott portrays his “pragmatism” as a fluidity of policy responses to political and economic contingency: but for which conservative values remain fixed. And in this context - Abbott sees conservatism in the sense of respect for Western traditions and institutions as both wise and practical.

For Abbott “Ideologues want to impose their values on others” while “pragmatists want to solve … problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease” (p.xi).

While this is a clever piece of rhetorical posturing, critical minds might point to the dominance of neo-liberal ideology in Australia and world-wide without care for the real world consequences.

Interestingly, Abbott raises the opposition between compassionate conservatism and the kind of ruthless neo-liberalism that cares nothing for the social consequences of austerity (pp.xii-xiii). Here the author juxtaposes the “[single-minded] cutting [of] public expenditure … striving to deliver smaller government” to “compassionate conservatism, stressing solidarity with those who are doing it tough” (pp.xii-xiii). By this reckoning the “social fabric … has to be respected and preserved”, while individuals should enjoy such circumstances that they are “empowered, as far as reasonably possible, to live the life that he or she thinks best” (p.xii).

Abbott’s proclaimed support for those doing it tough might be traced to the influence of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) early on in his life. While the DLP helped shut Labor out of government for decades, and to this day retains a socially-illiberal outlook, its Catholic origins were such that there remained a measure of compassion for workers, and for the poor (p.10).

Regardless of whether this stance is a political ploy, or whether it echoes Abbott’s true sentiment, Abbott is captive to the Liberal political machine. The Opposition has tried to undermine the stimulus without regard that this would compromise the recovery from the global financial crisis. They have fear-mongered about tax and trade unions. Ruthless neo-liberalism remains the dominant current within the parties of the Australian Right - and should the Coalition be elected later this year, it is very likely that this would be reflected in policy.

This opposition between “compassionate conservatism” and what I call “ruthless neo-liberalism” is one that Abbott attempts to dispel later on, but for those of us interested in interrogating the contradictions of the Australian Right, the issue demands greater attention.

We will return to this theme later.

Abbott attempts to mould an image of conservative and liberal impulses as interlocked and complementary. He emphasises this again and again.

But there are other conflicts at work also. Even within the broad gamut of liberalism, there is division between social liberalism (concerned with social justice) and economic neo-liberalism (utterly indifferent to it).

For Abbott there is the practical imperative to reconcile competing currents in the parties of the Australian Right to present the kind of “united front” needed to win the confidence of voters. And there is also the need for Abbott to pitch his message broadly, to maximise his support base.

For his own part, Abbott does not show respect or recognition for many of the marginalised and the oppressed. He speaks of his experience in student politics: mocking his then-rivals on the Left as being typified by an outlook of “Land Rights for Gay Whales” (p.12).

There remains within Abbott a sense of injustice - perhaps even outrage - at the marginalisation of Conservative forces within the broader student political sphere at that time. As he writes: “the student paper wouldn’t print conservative arguments” (p.13).

Fast forwards to today and the Conservative parties in government passed legislation (so-called “Voluntary Student Unionism”) which hindered student self-organisation, and especially the position of the Left. This also had the added impact of draining the lifeblood of student culture from campuses all over the country.

Here, it must also be emphasised that the position of the Left has itself been broader than the “identity politics” held up to ridicule by Abbott. Student poverty and the imposition of increasingly onerous fees have for decades been flashpoints of concern for the student movement.

Perhaps student culture and organisations should have been more inclusive. But the extreme outcome of voluntary student unionism which, in effect, shut down student organisations was never a legitimate answer.

Abbott attacks unions often in Battlelines raising that same “bogey” which has figured in conservative fear-mongering in Australia since time immemorial.  But workers need self-organisation to have the industrial strength to bargain effectively and maintain wages, conditions and rights. Weakened unions, combined with deregulated labour markets means exploitation and a poor deal for workers.

WorkChoices took away unfair dismissal provisions; took away the “no disadvantage test” in enterprise bargaining; removed the right of workers to withdraw their labour except under the strictest of circumstances; and outlawed “pattern bargaining”. Removal of the right to pattern bargaining in itself promised a race to the bottom in wages and conditions for Australian workers.

It says something of the real underlying sources of economic and political power in Australia that much of the WorkChoices agenda has been maintained by Rudd Labor- despite broad opposition among the public. The legitimate electoral power of ordinary Australians has not been able to stand against the economic power of an aggressive employer lobby.

The only hope ordinary Australians have of reversing the long-term trend is to organise independently. But the critical point, especially with a Federal election looming later this year, is that Abbott cannot be trusted on industrial relations.

Labor is torn between its union base, and the pressure applied by employers, but the Conservatives and neo-liberals still want to crush the union movement, and will not be nearly as inhibited. Should the Conservatives get their way, ultimately there would be no labour movement to resist their agenda into the future.

Conservative disdain for the rights of workers in Australia dovetails with a broader scepticism about social and distributive justice. Abbott makes the usual noises about “soaking the rich” only being able to be taken so far (p.80). And for Abbott spending cuts were justified in order to “allow lower taxes” and “give more incentive to people who could create wealth” (p.81).

But the truth is that under the Howard government - in which Abbott was a key Minister - the tax mix became increasingly regressive. There was the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Massive superannuation concessions were provided which mainly benefitted the wealthy, and there was regressive restructure of income tax; with the tax free threshold remaining fixed. These policies impacted against those on lower incomes.

Low taxes and small government do not necessarily mean a “bigger economic pie”. All workers create wealth regardless of incentives in the form of tax cuts. In reality, it is possible to gear the economy to something approximating full capacity without gross exploitation, a gutted public sector, or ever lower and more regressive taxes.

In the coming Federal election Labor could do worse than to challenge the Liberals on the issue of distributive justice, engaging with Henry Tax Review recommendations, and restructuring the tax mix in favour of most Australians - especially for the most vulnerable.

Abbott himself is incredulous that families on combined annual incomes of $150,000 are considered “rich”, and thus opposes means-testing benefits such as the Private Health Insurance rebate (p.94).

But most families are not receiving incomes in this vicinity. To provide for the educational, welfare, infrastructure and health-related needs of ordinary Australians - and especially the most vulnerable - restructuring and targeting the social expenditure mix could be vital. And for deep and meaningful progress, tax reform would need to target a broad enough cross-section to fund the necessary social expenditure programs.

In his “manifesto” Abbott concedes that Australia’s conservatives were wrong to oppose Medicare. As long as bulk billing is not “absolute” or “total”, there remain, as he says, “price signals in the system” (p.143). But government subsidies make most general health services affordable for all. Basically “collective consumption” via Medicare works better and is fairer than the free-for-all of US-style health care system.

In the same spirit, Abbott needs to be open minded about social wage expansion. Provision of “universal dental care through Medicare”, which Abbott identifies as having cost $4 billion if it was implemented in 2007, should receive bipartisan support (p.144).

While Abbott identifies such a program as being very expensive, a practical Opposition Leader would not obsess about small government (p.144). The Australian economy, after all, is valued at well over $1 trillion. Rather, they would realise that collective consumption provides better value for taxpayers and consumers, and provides access on the basis of genuine need for people who would otherwise be excluded.

Should Abbott genuinely prefer to adopt a “compassionate conservative” persona - as opposed to one of “ruthless neo-liberalism” - he could do worse than engage with these issues, and break the taboo against progressive tax and social expenditure reform.

Drawing to the conclusion of this critique, it must be conceded that there are many dimensions of the “Abbott manifesto” that I have not covered. But I will try and make some observations prior to closing.

In Battlelines Abbott continues to support positions which could be at best described as controversial for the Australian public.

He tries to justify Australian participation in the Second Gulf War despite questions surrounding its legality, and the false pretences (for example, “weapons of mass destruction”). And he does not acknowledge the terrible and enduring human cost.

He supports increasing the retirement age to 70 without recognising the difficulties this would mean for manual workers, or for older Australians to re-skill. This is also aside from the “human dimension” in this context. Even if taxes must rise to support an ageing population, after a lifetime at work older Australians should have the freedom to develop their human potential. Possibilities include study, civic activism, engagement in creative arts, and quality time with family.

He supports “punitive welfare”, especially “work for the dole”, appealing to “dark and judgmental” tendencies in the electorate. This is without addressing the failure of student payments and job search allowances to provide even for the bare necessities. And when students work part-time to support themselves the distraction could compromise their study.

He lauds the centrality of civil society as opposed to the state, yet he provides no account of the Howard government’s bullying of charities, threatening to revoke their tax-free status should they criticise government policy.

For those desperately ill who cannot afford potentially life-saving medication not included in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), he refers to their pleas as “political blackmail” (p.5). What price a person’s life?

Truly practical politics would balance collectivist and individualist impulses and currents; and would balance and mediate between civil society and state.

By contrast, it is neo-liberal ideology which blinds the Conservatives - and to a lesser extent Labor - to the benefits of a democratic and mixed economy; a strong social wage and progressive tax system; and robust protections for the rights of workers.

But again, and in conclusion: should Tony Abbott fully embrace the “compassionate conservative” persona over that of “ruthless neo-liberalism”, this could precipitate a “political sea change” of benefit to workers, and also for those most vulnerable.

THAT would be a worthwhile legacy.

Battlelines by Tony Abbott, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2009.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wage-Productivity Gap Caused Crisis

Economist, Boris Anisimov argues that there is more to the world economic crisis than meets the eye. In fact, stagnating wages are impacting upon demand, with ramifications for economies the world over. 

By Boris Anisimov

Many speak of the current crisis as a financial one, which means that the source of all the problems is believed to be in the way the financial system is functioning. I have joined the ranks of those who are of an opinion that the roots go deeper than the financial sector. In fact, an analysis from the standpoint of political economy reveals that there is much more to the crisis than meets the eye. A different set of disparities than publicly acknowledged is becoming more obvious.

The “Global Wage Report: 2009 Update” issued by the International Labor Organization on November 3, 2009 mentioned years of stagnating wages relative to productivity gains as one of the reasons for the current economic crisis. This echoes conclusions by Dr. Ravi Batra (an economics professor at Southern Methodist University), Mikhail Khazin (a Russian economist and publicist), William I. Robinson (a sociology professor at the University of California) and Karl Marx himself.

“Productivity” and “wages” are not financial concepts – they deal with the economic situation rather than financial markets and banking regulations. The above mentioned sources point out that the current crisis is an economic one first of all. Let’s look into this more closely.

The wage-productivity gap concept is rarely brought up in modern textbooks on economics, but in fact it should be because the economists I have mentioned see this disparity as the main cause of the crisis. The wage-productivity gap is the gap between the real wage and labor productivity, the real wage being the purchasing power of an average salary. Productivity is the main source of supply, whereas wages are the main source of solvent demand. If productivity rises faster than the real wage, then supply rises faster than demand, the result being a crisis of over-production. Some economists prefer calling it “over-accumulation”, but that does not change the essence of the problem.

In other words, wages are only part of the costs that a capital owner has to incur. The ultimate cost of a good or service will be higher than the wage that the business owner pays to his/her employee to have that good or service produced. Let me simplify it even more - if all the employees in a particular country put their wages and salaries together, they will not have enough money to buy all the goods and services that they have produced. The same principle applies when we talk about the entire world economy.

Each time the wage-productivity gap widens, the economy has no other choice but to contract because of overproduction. This occurs on a regular basis in the form of crises (the Great Depression is a perfect illustration). A long-term solution would be to find new markets and boost demand thereby. Thus, availability of new external markets becomes vital for the stability and predictability of profit-making, but when that availability is limited for any reason, finding new markets can be quite costly and troublesome.

That is why back in the 1970’s when another depression-like crisis became obvious, a less costly solution was found - it was decided to raise demand to the level of supply by means of more aggressive credit expansion (this applies to both government debt and household debt). The abolition of the gold standard was in line with this logic (the excess of the global money supply over the golden bullion was becoming obvious anyway) thus making it possible for governments to increase money supply and keep interest rates down. In the case of the US dollar, as long as active international involvement was maintained, the excessive money supply could be moved abroad thus reducing inflationary pressure on the US markets.

Debt can temporarily postpone wage-productivity gap problems. As productivity rose, debt had to increase as well unless wages were to rise. An exponential global increase of debt puts the entire global economy (not just its financial sector) in jeopardy because it is obvious that the credit system will have to explode one day. Household debt grew from $705 billion by the end of 1974 (60% of disposable personal income) to $14.5 trillion by mid-2008 (134% of disposable personal income).[41] During 2008, a typical US household owned 13 credit cards, with only 40% of households able to carry a balance.[42] U.S. home mortgage debt relative to GDP increased from an average of 46% during the 1990’s to 73% during 2008, reaching $10.5 trillion.[43]

In these circumstances, boosting demand any further by means of credit became impossible. The model of economic development based on artificially-boosted demand, constantly-increasing money supply and the lowering of interest rates has collapsed – the credit bubble did explode in our faces. The dependence of manufacturing and the service sector on credit for the last 30 years made them just as vulnerable as financial institutions. The growing interdependence of markets worldwide spilt the problems over to other countries. This is how we got the current global ECONOMIC crisis.

Banks have frozen their lending in fears that the falling consumption will make any investment unprofitable thus lowering the chances of getting their money back. The response from the governments worldwide is quite predictable – they went to save the credit system, the hardest-hit sector of the economy, in hopes to boost credit thereby increasing national debts. It is now estimated that the US national debt is going to hit the GDP level (approx. $14 trillion) in 2010. The national debts of countries like the UK, France and Germany are expected to reach 90% of GDP. Thus, 2010 may see an unprecedented number of government defaults as the debt-to-GDP ratio for some smaller countries has already exceeded 100%.

Until the wage-productivity issue is addressed, no actual recovery is possible. Any financial measures recently undertaken by governments of different countries will temporarily “numb the pain”, but they are of no avail when it comes to addressing the very essence of the problem. Politicians and corporations have been viewing developing markets for growth opportunities, which seems like an attempt to find new external markets now that domestic markets in developed countries are unlikely to be able to boost consumption significantly any time soon. This can also address the wage-productivity issue, but developing markets are not yet ready to lead a consuming lifestyle typical of US consumers. So finding new markets ready to “spend, spend, spend” may take some time.

In the mean time, potential negative economic developments in the near future are still possible. Back in the times of the Great Depression, consumers did not have so much debt, which leads us to a conclusion that we are now in a greater mess. This in fact may turn into a systemic crisis, the possibility of which is deliberately concealed by corporate management, politicians and media for obvious reasons by confusing cause with effect.

It must be remembered that business news that we hear on the radio or watch on TV often reflect only one side of the economic reality, the side that transnational banks and corporations are interested in. That is why the recent rallies on stock and commodity markets thanks to government-boosted liquidity have been presented as signs of an inevitable recovery. In fact, for some companies the increased liquidity is a blessing considering the fact that most developed economies are greatly reliant on financial speculations and debt-driven consumer spending to make profits. Such companies believe (and do their best to convince others including politicians) that the mere availability of liquidity will encourage more credit and pull the entire world out of the economic troubles. The small positive signs that we have seen lately in fact may lift up the spirits of corporations, but as for the common people the situation is still grave. While banks and corporations enjoy protection from the governments, common people’s investments and jobs are in serious danger – they are likely to continue losing both (as for developed countries, savings are meagre anyway).

Since debts are assets for the financial system, writing off household debts will be a scary step to take since massive collapses of credit institutions will be inevitable. Besides, the powerful Wall-Street lobbyists will be more willing to shoot themselves in the head than allow any write-offs to occur. But any measures that do not address the wage-productivity gap will only be beating about the bush and continue to confuse cause with effect. The re-introduction of gold- or silver-backed currencies will be of little help as well. Thus, it is rather difficult to come up with a solution when the entire economic model caves in. This only proves that the existing economic paradigm (including college courses in economics and MBA’s) that serviced that model must change as soon as possible.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Finally! US Health Care Reform

Driving the Traders from the Temple

Above: Barack Obama

Barack Obama has had greater success on health reform than other US Presidents spanning back decades. The gains are significant: but as Wes Bishop argues, the task of building a public health system still remains before him – and before his fellow progressive Democrats.  As this article is published during Easter, the use of Christian imagery is appropriate: especially given the confounding resistance of Conservative 'Christians' to health reform vital for the poor and the vulnerable.  Callous indifference to the needs of the vulnerable was not the way of Jesus, and Easter is an appropriate oppportunity to push that message.

By Wes Bishop

In the time of Christ it was reported that in front of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem a porch stretched out in front of the structure and was the home of many a businessman, entrepreneur, and con-artist. These individuals would hope to make a profit off of the faithful as they made their way into the temple to worship. According to scripture this infuriated the pious Jesus who took it upon himself to rid the temple of these traders. In the Gospel of Matthew it is reported that Jesus used force to drive the merchants away turning tables over, yelling, and throwing objects.

The Spanish-Greek painter El Greco famously depicted the biblical scene in his masterpiece Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. The scene for El Greco served a double meaning for the scene of Jesus chasing away the greedy from the faithful was not only viewed as a historic occurrence but also an allegory of what needed to be done in society and specifically the Catholic Church. For in the time of El Greco, as in the time of Christ, and in many ways our own modern world, it was perceived by many that the desire to make money hindered people from seeing what was truly important in life.

In our modern world, where western capitalism reigns as the king of economics it is near heresy to question the mantra that “greed is good.” We, especially citizens in the United States, are told that greed is good because it works. It keeps people on their toes, it grows the economy, it harnesses human ingenuity and takes societies to new, unprecedented heights.

This was largely the argument that was being made for the past year as Congress and the newly elected President sought to bring reform to the American health insurance industry. On a daily basis appeals to the ideas of greed, free market capitalism, and laissez-faire economics were heard on such outlets as CNBC, FOX, and a host of other radio personalities while calling any proposed measures of health insurance reform a breach of liberty and a slide into dark socialism.

Yet, when all was said and done these voices were ultimately ignored and for the first time in American history the blockade of health insurance reform was broken and legislation was passed.

The health insurance reform law is far from perfect. As the legislative process dragged itself out on Capital Hill approval ratings for the President, the Congress, and Republican opposition all began to slide as voters became increasingly angry at the inability of politicians to make good on promises made in the past campaign. Yet, poll numbers for politicians was not the only thing that was damaged. As compromise upon compromise was made much needed reform measures were lost.

These blatant inconsistencies and painfully apparent sweeteners, that were added to appease certain members of the Congress as well as the titans in the pharmaceutical and health industries, will eventually have to be taken back up in another reform battle. This battle will be one that will once again test the resolve of liberal statesmen and women, and the common idea that no one should be punished or financially ruined because of health problems.

However, much has been made about the shortcomings of the new law, and much more time has been spent on the various personalities and political implications the law has. Instead of rehashing these points it would be much more productive to look at what has been accomplished. For the first time ever a President and Congress have been able to take up the cause of health insurance reform and actually win. Never before has this occurred. From Theodore Roosevelt, to Franklin Roosevelt, from Truman to Johnson, from Nixon to Clinton this has never occurred before.

For the first time American companies will not be able to charge an individual for insurance only to drop that individual because they become ill. That is now illegal. No longer will a child be able to be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. That too is now illegal. And for the first time tens of millions of Americans will be able to afford health insurance.

Like it is said above this law is not perfect. The pharmaceutical industry was able to buy off and threaten enough politicians so that the ability to buy medication across the border with other countries remains impossible for many. Illegal immigrants, humans in every sense save for the bigotry of borders, will not be able to reap the benefit of many of these reforms even if they pay into it. Abortion, a perfectly legal medical procedure, hangs somewhere in legal limbo as the right for a woman to choose what she does with her body is continually assaulted by a vocal percentage of the population.

Finally, there was the causality of the Public Option, which brings this essay full circle to the opening mention of Jesus and El Greco. One of the persistent criticisms of health insurance reform is that by forcing companies to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions, and by forcing companies to pay for their clients when they become ill, the government will effectively bankrupt these institutions.

No argument is made that people with pre-existing conditions and the sick do not need health insurance to cover the cost of health care. The argument is instead that private industry is not adequate in providing a necessary service to a people of a country. The answer then is simple. Just as capitalists were not the answer in the time of Christ to help people connect with God, so to are capitalists not the answer in assuring the health of a citizenry.

In the spirit of capitalism though it is only fair to keep competition alive, therefore it is time to create a public option where individuals have the free choice as to whether or not they want to take their chances with a private firm or whether they want to have a plan that is backed by the collective might of the American government.

Undoubtedly, this reform measure will be met with much resistance and rancor. The individuals who make a fortune off of the industry will fight tooth and nail to preserve their way of wealth. It will therefore be the responsibility of the citizenry, the saviours of any democracy, to chase the traders from our temple which is and always will be the halls of our legislative centers.

The snows of winter do not melt in the span of a single spring day, but we have seen with this current government that reform is possible. We must continue the push for reform, and paint our own act of chasing the greedy away from our temple.

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