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Weekly Audit: The Closing Bell

11:25 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

This week marks the final edition of the Weekly Audit. It has been a pleasure compiling the best financial and economic writing in the Media Consortium. Thanks to all the contributors whose work we’ve showcased and to all the loyal readers who have shared in this experience.

Debt Ceiling 101

As the Weekly Audit wraps up, we’re looking ahead to some critical economic issues facing the country. Christen Simeral and Veronica Beebe of The American Prospect explain what the debt ceiling is and why the debate over raising it is shaping up to be the political battle of the year.

In short, the debt ceiling is the maximum amount the government can borrow. The debt ceiling is currently $14.294 trillion. At the current rate of spending, we’re due to hit the wall around May 16, if Congress doesn’t vote to raise it. Usually, raising the debt ceiling is a formality. Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling 10 times in the last 10 years.

If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the government can’t take on any new spending commitments. Worse still, the government may not have the cash it needs to pay tax refunds, Social Security payments, and other critical disbursements. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would hurt the U.S.’s credibility in global markets, making it more expensive for us to borrow money in the future.

The war on unions

All across the country, right wingers are trying to turn union workers into scapegoats for the nation’s economic woes.

Right wing media baron Andrew Breitbart tried to frame some labor history instructors at the university of Missouri by deceptively splicing together hours of classroom footage to make it look like the professors were advocating violence and sabotage, Dave Gilson of Mother Jones reports. The unedited video shows that the instructors are discussing the bloody history of the American labor movement, in which violence has overwhelmingly been perpetrated by management against workers.

NAFTA reprise

Multinational corporations are renewing their lobbying push for more NAFTA-like trade deals, Michelle Chen reports for Colorlines.com:

The construction giant Caterpillar is reportedly planning to treat its workers to steaming cups of Colombian coffee in the coming weeks, to warm them to the benefits of doing business with their “partners” in Latin America. While employees enjoy their break, lobbyists will be working hard, in their name, to peddle so-called “open markets” in Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Chen reports that lobbyists for multinationals are besieging Congress to push for three new accords. The Panama deal is expected to be first on the agenda. Advocates for fair trade have been fighting these deals since the George W. Bush administration.

The push for deregulated international trade is on at the state level, too. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is handing out boilerplate resolutions to state representatives urging Congress to approve the trade deals. Chen notes that the Koch Foundation is among the major backers of ALEC.

High gas prices

Gas prices have long been seen as a bellweather of the electorate’s state of mind. When gas is cheap, incumbents rest a little easier. When gas prices rise, challengers start licking their chops. Daniel J. Weiss and Valeri Vasquez report in Campus Progress that rising gas prices are frustrating consumers and enriching speculators:

This year “it’s like déjà vu all over again.” Oil prices are rising to heights not seen since 2008. Oil rose from $85 per barrel to $112 per barrel in a little more than two months—a whopping one-third leap. Gasoline prices have followed along, rising by 70 cents per gallon—or 23 percent—during this same time. As our economy struggles to recover from the Great Recession, Americans are again forced to pinch pennies to afford their commute to work, school, and worship. Meanwhile, oil companies prepare to reap record profits in the first quarter of 2011.

The authors note this combination of rising pump prices and soaring corporate profits looks an awful lot like the oil shock of 2008, which helped push the economy into recession.

Archives from The Weekly Audit can be found here and will remain posted at this site. If you’d like see more top news and headlines from independent media outlets, please follow us on Twitter, or fan The Media Consortium on Facebook.

Weekly Pulse: Single-Payer Bills Pass Vermont Senate, House

8:03 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Creative Commons, Flickr, Jobs with Justice

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Vermont state Senate passed legislation to create a single-payer health insurance system, Paul Waldman reports for TAPPED. Since the state House has already passed a similar bill, all that’s left to do is reconcile the two pieces of legislation before the governor signs it into law.

Waldman stresses that there are still many details to work out, including how the system will be funded. Vermont might end up with a system like France’s where everyone has basic public insurance, which most people supplement with additional private coverage. The most important thing, Waldman argues, is that Vermont is moving to sever the link between employment and health insurance.

Roe showdown

Anti-choicers are gunning for a Roe v. Wade showdown in the Supreme Court before Obama can appoint any more justices. At the behest of an unnamed conservative group, Republican state Rep. John LaBruzzo of Louisiana has introduced a bill that would ban all abortions, even to save the woman’s life. The original bill upped the anti-choice ante by criminalizing not only doctors who perform abortions, but also women who procure them. LaBruzzo has since promised to scale the bill back to just criminalizing doctors. This is all blatantly unconstitutional, of course,. but as Kate Sheppard explains in Mother Jones, that’s precisely the point:

The Constitution, of course, is exactly what LaBruzzo is targeting. He admits his proposal is intended as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy included the right to abortions in some circumstances. LaBruzzo says he’d like his bill to become law and “immediately go to court,” and he told a local paper that an unnamed conservative religious group asked him to propose the law for exactly that purpose.

Drug pushers in your living room

Martha Rosenberg poses a provocative question at AlterNet: Does anyone remember a time before “Ask Your Doctor” ads overran the airwaves, Internet, buses, billboards, and seemingly every other medium? Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it was illegal until the late ’90s. In the days before DTC, drug advertising was limited to medical journals, prescription pads, golf towels, and pill-shaped stress balls distributed in doctors’ offices–which makes sense. The whole point of making a drug prescription-only is to put the decision-making power in the hands of doctors. Now, drug companies advertise to consumers for the same reason that food companies advertise to children. It’s called “pester power.”

DTC drug ads encourage consumers to self-diagnose based on vague and sometimes nearly universal symptoms like poor sleep, daytime drowsiness, anxiety, and depression. Once consumers are convinced they’re suffering from industry-hyped constructs like “erectile dysfunction” and “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” they’re going to badger their doctors for prescriptions.

That’s not to say that these terms don’t encompass legitimate health problems, but rather that DTC markets products in such vague terms that a lot of healthy people are sure to be clamoring for drugs they don’t need. Typically, neither the patient nor the doctor is paying the full cost of the drug, so patients are more likely to ask and doctors have little incentive to say no.

Greenwashing air fresheners

A reader seeks the counsel of Grist’s earthy advice columnist Umbra on the issue of air fresheners. Some of these odor-concealing aerosols are touting themselves as green for adopting all-natural propellants. Does that make them healthier, or greener? Only marginally, says Umbra. Air fresheners still contain formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, and other questionable chemicals.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: The Shocking Truth About Taxes

11:25 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The super rich are different from you and me. For one thing, their tax rates are lower.

According to IRS statistics, the nation’s top 400 taxpayers increased their average income by 392% and slashed their average tax rate by 37% between 1992 and 2007, Dave Gilson reports in Mother Jones. Furthermore, when you factor in payroll taxes, the tax rate for Americans earning $370,000 is nearly equal to the rate for those making between $43,000 and $69,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie notes that, in 2007, more than 10,000 Americans reported incomes of $200,000 or higher and paid no income tax at all. These lucky ducks are known to the IRS as HINTs, which stands for High Income, No Taxes.

Pseudo-farms of the rich and tax-dodging

The ultra-rich are using deluxe hobby farms to dodge millions of dollars in taxes, Yasha Levine reports for The Nation:

Take Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers and the second-richest Texan, who qualified for an agricultural property tax break on his sprawling 1,757-acre residential ranch in suburban Austin and saved over $1 million simply because his family and friends sometimes use the land as a private hunting preserve to shoot deer. Or take billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who got more than a 90 percent property tax reduction on hundreds of acres of his multimillion-dollar estate in upscale Bedminister, New Jersey, just by putting a couple of cows out to pasture.

Agricultural tax breaks were originally designed to help farmers stay on their land as suburban sprawl grew up around them. As neighborhoods shifted from rural to residential in the 1950s and ’60s, farmers struggled to keep up with rising local taxes.

So, who’s a farmer for tax purposes? Levine reports that the standards are ridiculously low in many states, like New Jersey, where a yard full of weeds can qualify as a farm.

Worst of all, tax breaks for faux farms are depriving public schools of billions of dollars of desperately needed revenue. In Texas–which loses over a billion dollars a year in property taxes from pseudo-ranches of the rich and famous–hundreds of public school students are taking to the streets to protest massive proposed layoffs of teachers and support staffers, Abby Rapoport reports in the Texas Observer.

Tax me, I’m rich

A group of self-proclaimed “trust fund babies” is demanding higher taxes, Pete Redington reports for Working In These Times:

Resource Generation recently teamed up with another nonprofit that organizes affluent activists, Wealth for the Common Good, to form a Progressive Tax Campaign. They will be organizing and advocating a change in the policy, laws and perceptions of our tax system. Specifically, the campaign aims to draw attention to the social services that taxing the wealthy could fund, and advocates higher tax bracket rates for top income earners, as well as higher taxes on investment income.

Major debt

Student loan debt is likely to reach $1 trillion this year, outpacing credit card debt for the second year in a row, Julie Margetta Morgan reports for Campus Progress. Student loans can be a smart investment if they lead to a lifetime of higher earnings. However, Margetta Morgan notes, the average bachelor’s degree holder will shell out $250 a month for a decade to pay back the loan.

Many Americans won’t pay off their debt until their own children are in college. President Obama was still making payments into his late 40s.

As college tuition continues to rise, we can expect students to borrow even more for their education in years to come. Much of this debt is guaranteed by the taxpayer. Margetta Morgan argues that colleges should be doing more to educate students about smart borrowing.

The economics of happiness

Kristy Leissle reviews the new documentary, The Economics of Happiness, for YES! Magazine. The film argues that community is the foundation of happiness and that globalization is the enemy of community. The movie also examines what ordinary citizens can do to nurture their own communities.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Pulse: Paul Ryan’s Medicare Swindle

7:22 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Creative Commons, Flickr, Jason L. Parks

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Robert Parry in In These Times examines how Paul Ryan’s budget test would turn healthcare for the elderly into one big free-market death panel.

Ryan’s plan privatizes Medicare, replacing it with premium support for insurance companies. That means the government would kick in a fixed amount of money towards insurance premiums for Americans over age 65. Ryan also wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions. Ryan’s plan doesn’t guarantee that Americans over 65 could get insurance in the first place. Even if they could find an insurer willing to take them, there is no reason to believe that premium support would cover more than part of the cost.

Maybe the plan is to save money by pricing most seniors out of health insurance entirely. If you can’t get insurance in the first place, you don’t qualify for premium support.

Mitt Romney and health care

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney kicked off the exploratory phase of his campaign this week, Lynda Waddington reports in the Iowa Independent. Ironically, this prospective frontrunner is best known for bringing Obama-style health care reform to Massachusetts.

Aswini Anburajan of TAPPED wonders whether Romney’s record on health care will hurt him in the primary. Repealing health care reform is one of the major themes for the Republican Party, and Romney is the architect of a similar system. However, Anburajan notes, campaigning to all but abolish Medicare hasn’t hurt GOP Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s political status, even though seniors are a big part of the GOP base..

Part of the reason why Ryan hasn’t felt a backlash from seniors is that his plan preserves Medicare for people who are currently over 55 and will only decimate the program for younger people.

Demonizing pregnant users

At RH Reality Check, Lynn Paltrow takes the New York Times to task for a sensationalized story about children born to women who are dependent upon prescription painkillers. Paltrow notes that the same alarmist language was used to hype a non-existent epidemic of crack babies in the 1980s. The evidence suggests that the impact of drug use during pregnancy on the developing fetus is relatively minor compared to the effects of other factors that are correlated with drug use, such as poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of prenatal care.

If we assume there’s a clear causal relationships between using drugs and hurting babies, it’s easier to lay all the blame on the mother. The truth, Paltrow argues, is much more complicated. Drug use is just part of a constellation of unhealthy factors that conspire to give the children of poor and marginalized women a worse start in life.

Positing a distinct syndrome caused by drug abuse is often a first step towards stigmatizing, and even criminalizing, poor women who give birth to sick children.

Hungry women and children

Speaking of threats to the health of poor women and their children, the new budget deal slashes $500 million from nutrition programs, with the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food support program at the USDA taking the hardest hit, Tom Laskawy reports for Grist.

If you get your meals through an umbilical cord, the Republicans want to protect you; but if you have to eat groceries, you’re on your own.

Big Pharma hikes HIV drug prices

Elizabeth Lombino at Change.org reports that more than 8,000 people nationwide are on the waiting list for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), a government program that helps poor people living with HIV/AIDS pay for medications. Lombino notes that even as the ranks of patients who can’t cover their drugs continues to swell, pharmaceutical companies continue to raise their prices. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is calling upon pharmaceutical companies to lower prices to help grapple with what has come to be known as the ADAP crisis. So far, it’s been to little effect.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Pulse: GOP Would Privatize Medicare, Gut Medicaid

2:38 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Creative Commons, Flickr, Robbie Kennedy

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled a draft budget resolution for 2012. Ryan’s program would privatize Medicare and gut Medicaid.

“Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is waging radical class warfare and ideological privatization schemes and selling it as a debt reduction plan,” writes Karen Dolan in AlterNet. Indeed, Ryan’s plan is larded with tax cuts  for wealthy citizens and profitable corporations, which according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), would actually increase the national debt over the next decade. The CBO projects that the debt would reach 70% of GDP by 2022 under Ryan’s plan compared to 67% under the status quo.

At TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie predicts that Ryan’s budget plan will become the de facto platform for the GOP in the 2012 elections. Presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty is already gushing about the plan. He notes the irony in Republicans seizing upon a plan to eliminate Medicare when they campaigned so hard to “protect” the program during the fight over the Affordable Care Act.

Attacking Medicare is politically risky. The conventional wisdom is the program is all but invulnerable because it is so popular with the general public, and especially with senior citizens–who reliably turn out to vote in large numbers.

Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones argues that, in order to win this political fight, the Democrats need to emphasize what they’re doing to grapple with the rising costs of Medicare–such as creating an independent board to regulate the reimbursement rates for all procedures covered under Medicare. Republicans have harshly criticized such a board as an example of health care rationing. Their proposed plan, however, would ration care far more severely, based on ability to pay. Ryan’s plan would give seniors a voucher to defray part of the cost of buying private health insurance. The voucher wouldn’t cover care equivalent to that which is offered under Medicare. So, under Ryan’s plan, care would be rationed based on each person’s ability to pay for extra coverage.

In a separate piece, Khimm notes that the GOP is taking a further political gamble by proposing massive cuts to Medicaid. She cites a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that only 13% of respondents favored major cuts to Medicaid. Republicans may be betting that they can cut Medicaid because they associate it with health care for the very poor, a constituency with little political capital and low voter turnout. But while Medicaid does serve the poor, a large percentage of its budget covers nursing home care for middle class retirees and services for adults with major disabilities–care that their families would otherwise have to pay for.

How to save $15 billion in health care costs

New research suggests that the federal government could save $15 billion by reducing unnecessary emergency room visits through investment in community health centers, Dan Peterson of Change.org reports:

This week, new research, from the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative, pinpoints just how much we stand to lose in health care efficiency savings if the funding is cut as proposed; $15 billion. Put another way, for every $1 invested in CHC expansion, there is a potential savings in health care costs of $11.50.

Peterson reports that money to expand the CHC program may be cut from the budget. The report explains that if the funding is lost, then CHCs will not be able to serve the 10-12 million additional patients who were supposed to get care through expanded CHCs under the Affordable Care Act. If Congress refuses to allot $1.3 billion for cost-effective primary care, $15 billion in projected savings will evaporate.

If Republicans are serious about balancing the budget, they should happily expand the Community Health Center network.

Danish Antibiotic Resistance Education

D.A.R.E. to keep pigs off drugs. The U.S. hog industry is heavily dependent on low-dose antibiotics to keep its swine infection-free. This practice comes at the cost of increased antibiotic resistance. Sixteen years ago, the government of Denmark, the world’s largest exporter of pork, took the bold step of asking its pork industry to reduce the amount of antibiotics given to pigs. Ralph Loglisci of Grist notes that the experiment has been a huge success: The industry has slashed antibiotic use by 37%, antibiotic resistance is down nationwide, and production has held steady or increased.

Gay-bashed, uninsured

Twenty-nine-year-old Barie Shortell’s face was shattered in an apparent anti-gay attack in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in February. Joseph Huff-Hannon reports on AlterNet on an obstacle in Shortell’s already-long road to recovery:

After blacking out, and spending 10 hours in surgery and five days in the hospital, Shortell is now taking another whipping from one of the insidious antagonists of 21st-century American life—the private health-care system. Shortell, like many of his fellow American twentysomethings, is uninsured.

Up to 30% of people in their twenties are uninsured. The Affordable Care Act should reduce the number of uninsured twenty-somethings, but as Huff Hannon notes, the number of uninsured young adults is expected to continue to rise for some time. The ACA allows young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, but this reform is of little help to the millions of families who lost job-linked health coverage during the recession.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Republicans’ Budget Declares War on Medicare

8:49 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Republicans are poised to unveil a model budget on Tuesday that would effectively end Medicare by privatizing it, Steve Benen reports in the Washington Monthly. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) is touting the budget as a strategy to reduce the national debt.

Ryan’s plan would turn Medicare from a single-payer system to a “premium support” system. “Premium support” is a euphemism for the government giving up to $15,000 per person, per year, to insurance companies to defray the cost of a health insurance policy.

As Benen points out, privatizing Medicare does nothing to contain health care costs. On the contrary, as insurance customers weary of double-digit premium increases can attest, private insurers have a miserable track record of containing costs. They excel at denying care and coverage, but that’s not the same thing.

The only way the government would save money under Ryan’s proposal is by paying a flat rate in vouchers. Medicare covers the full cost of medical treatments, but private insurers are typically much less generous. So, after paying into Medicare all their working lives, Americans currently 55 and younger would get vouchers for part of their health insurance and still have to pay out-of-pocket to approach the level of benefits that Medicare currently provides.

Taking aim at Medicaid

The poor are easy targets for Republican budget-slashing, Jamelle Bouie writes on TAPPED. Ryan’s proposal would also cut $1 trillion over the next 10 years from Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, by eliminating federal matching and providing all state funding through block grants. Most of this money would come from repealing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which is slated to add 15 million people to Medicaid.

Block grants are cuts in disguise. Currently, Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means that states have to enroll everyone who is eligible, regardless of the state’s ability to pay. In return, the states get federal matching funds for each person in the program. Ryan and the Republicans want to change Medicaid into a block grant program where the federal government simply gives each state a lump sum to spend on Medicaid. The states want to use this new found “flexibility” to cut benefits, narrow eligibility criteria, and generally gut the program.

This is incredibly short-sighted. The current structure of Medicaid ensures extra federal funding for every new patient. So when unemployment rises and large numbers of new patients become eligible for Medicaid, the states get extra federal money for each of them. But with a block grant, the states would just have to stretch the existing block grants or find money from somewhere else in their budgets. Medicaid rolls surge during bad economic times, so a block grant system could make state budget crises even worse.

Ryan’s proposal has no chance of becoming law as long as Democrats control the Senate. The main purpose of the document is to lay out a platform for the 2012 elections.

Fake debt crisis

In The Nation, sociologist and activist Frances Fox Piven argues that the Republicans are hyping the debt threat to justify cuts to social programs:

Corporate America’s unprovoked assault on working people has been carried out by manufacturing a need for fiscal austerity. We are told that there is no more money for essential human services, for the care of children, or better public schools, or to help lower the cost of a college education. The fact is that big banks and large corporations are hoarding trillions in cash and using tax loopholes to bankrupt our communities.

She notes that Republican-backed tax cuts for the wealthy are a major contributor to the debt.

Jesus was a non-union carpenter?

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones reports on the religious right’s crusade against unions. He notes that James Dobson of the socially conservative Family Research Council tweeted: “Pro-family voters should celebrate WI victory b/c public & private sector union bosses have marched lock-step w/liberal social agenda.”

Harkinson reports that the Family Research Council is backing the Republican incumbent, David Prosser, in today’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election–a battle that has become a proxy fight over Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill:

The FRC’s new political action committee, the Faith, Family, Freedom Fund, is airing ads on 34 Wisconsin radio stations in an effort to influence the April 5 judicial election that could ultimately decide the fate of the law. The ads target Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who’s running against a conservative incumbent, David Prosser, for a seat on the state Supreme Court. If elected, Kloppenburg would alter the balance on the court in favor of Democrats, giving them the ability to invalidate the recently enacted ban on public-employee collective bargaining. “Liberals see her as their best hope to advance their political agenda and strike down laws passed by a legislature and governor elected by the people,” say the ads. “A vote for Prosser is a vote to keep politics out of the Supreme Court.”

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times argues that recalling Republican state senators in Wisconsin is not enough to defend workers’ rights from Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union onslaught.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing–The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

8:56 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy of Mother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on
birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current cr:p of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly
exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can
decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such
information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Pulse: Vermont Poised to Pass Single-Payer

7:39 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Creative Commons, Flickr, Lindsay Beyerstein

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Vermont is poised to abolish most forms of private health insurance, Lauren Else reports for In These Times. The state’s newly inaugurated Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, unveiled his health insurance plan in early February. If the state legislature passes the bill, Vermont will become the first state to ban most forms of private health insurance.

The bill is getting support from some unlikely quarters:

On February 24, the Republican Mayor Christopher Louras, of Rutland, urged the state to adopt the single-payer legislation, noting that more than a third of the city’s $7 million annual payroll is consumed by healthcare costs. “The only way to fix the problem is to blow it up and start over,” Louras said.

A very bad doctor

In the Texas Observer, Saul Elbein tells the bizarre story of small-town huckster Dr. Rolando Arafiles and the nurses who exposed him as a quack and paid with their jobs.

Arafiles came to work at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in 2008. Nurses Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle noticed that patients were walking out of his office with mysterious liquids. Arafiles was selling untested dietary supplements.

Sometimes, he even took patients off their real medicine and directed them to buy his cure-alls, which he sold online, and promoted in seminars at the local Pizza Hut. He prescribed powerful thyroid-stimulating drugs to patients with normal thyroid levels, a potentially lethal practice. He was also performing “unconventional” surgeries, even though he wasn’t a surgeon.

The hospital ignored the nurses’ complaints, so they reported Arafiles to the Texas Medical Board. After the board informed Arafiles that he was under investigation, Arafiles got his golf buddy, the local sheriff, to issue a warrant to search the nurses’ computers. The hospital fired the nurses. The local prosecutor indicted them for “misuse of official information” but these charges fizzled out. In 2010, the two women were awarded $750,000 in compensation from the county, but they still haven’t found new nursing jobs.

What are they doing out there?

Lon Newman is the executive director of Family Planning Health Services, a Wisconsin health clinic that offers birth control and other reproductive health care, but doesn’t provide abortions, or even abortion referrals. Anti-choice protesters picket the clinic anyway, Newman reports at RH Reality Check. They carry signs with misleading slogans like “The Pill Kills” and “Stop Chemical Abortion.”

Newman wonders why, given all the pressing problems in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world, some people make it a priority to hang out at Family Planning Health Services and badmouth birth control:

There are so many struggles for freedom, social justice, and disaster relief right now, that I do not think it is justifiable to be blocking access to health care for our uninsured neighbors who want to delay childbearing so they can finish school or take a new job or even wait to have children until they can afford them.

South Dakota institutes 72-hour abortion waiting period

The governor of South Dakota signed legislation this week that will force women seeking abortions in the state to observe a 72-hour waiting period. As Scott Lemieux argues in TAPPED, mandatory waiting period legislation is based on inherently sexist assumptions. By instituting a waiting period, the state is institutionalizing the stereotype that women seeking abortions are acting irrationally and must be coerced into waiting.

Body positive

Body hatred hasn’t been this popular since the days of the hair shirt. Hundreds of millions of women, and no shortage of men, spend billions of hours and billions of dollars despising their bodies. A new movement is afoot to find the political in this very personal issue, Sarah Seltzer reports in AlterNet. This year, the Women’s Therapy Center Institute will hold a series of  summits in New York, London, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne. In keeping with the theme of “Loved Bodies, Big Ideas” participants are discussing a range of ideas for helping to improve body image, including  a so-called “reality stamp,” a seal of approval that would indicate that a photograph hasn’t been digitally altered beyond the bounds of reason. Come to think of it, a “reality stamp” could be useful for all kinds of politics.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Hostile Takeover Threat Spurs Concessions from Michigan Unions

9:17 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Michigan’s new Emergency Manager Law is already forcing major
concessions from unions. The law gives the governor the power to declare a
city insolvent and appoint an emergency manager with virtually unlimited
power to reorganize every aspect of city business, including dissolving
the city entirely. The emergency manager even has the power to terminate
collective bargaining agreements.

As a result of these expanded new
powers, public employees unions in some Michigan municipalities are
already making large preemptive concessions to keep their cities from
tripping any of the “triggers” in the new law that might give the governor
an opening to send in a union-busting
emergency manager, Eartha Jane Melzer reports in the Michigan
Messenger.

In Flint, the firefighters’ union agreed to increase
contributions to health insurance and give up holiday pay and night shift
differentials. Flint Firefighters Union President Raul Garcia told the Wall
Street Journal
that these concessions were driven by fear of a state
takeover of Flint. “I would rather give concessions that I would like than
have an [emergency financial manager] or something of that magnitude come
in and say this is what you are going to do,” Garcia said.

The new
law also gives the Emergency Manager the power to privatize prisons, Melzer notes.

Detroit grows green

The citizens of Detroit
aren’t waiting around for an emergency manager to take over. The city’s
industrial economy is dying, but its grassroots economy is stirring to
life, Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd report in In These Times. Detroit
residents have been growing their own
food
in town for decades, but recently activists and the city have
joined forces to link many small producers into a network that will
provide food security for the city.

Wal-Mart and wage
discrimination

Next week, the Supreme Court will take up
the case of 100 women who are suing Wal-Mart for wage discrimination. As
Scott Lemieux explains in The American Prospect, the Court will
decide whether these women can band
together
to sue the nation’s largest retailer, or whether each must
sue the firm individually.

Lemieux argues that, for the sake of
women’s rights at work, it is very important that these Wal-Mart employees
be allowed to sue together instead of one at a time:

Given the compelling stories these individual women can
tell, does it matter whether they can file suit collectively? Absolutely,
for at least two reasons. First of all, only a class-action suit can
properly create a record of the systematic gender discrimination
at Wal-Mart. Any individual case can be dismissed as an anomaly or a
misunderstanding, but the volume of complaints makes clear that gender
discrimination was embedded deeply within the culture of the corporation,
a very relevant fact for a discrimination suit.

Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, for the individuals and for
the court system. Forcing victims of discrimination to sue one by one
makes it less likely that they will seek justice, especially if they’re
suing because they were underpaid in the first place. Wal-Mart claims that
the class is too large to be allowed to proceed, and that the women
couldn’t possibly have similar enough claims. But as Lemieux points out,
the class is huge because Wal-Mart is huge.

War and the
deficit

Jamelle Bouie writes at TAPPED, in response to the United States’
new military commitments in Libya:

I just wish we could
at least acknowledge the obvious truth: conservatives don’t care about
deficits but will use them to cut spending on poor people. When it comes
to things they like — wars, for instance — they’re willing to pay any
price.

The U.S. fired 110 Tomahawk Missiles at Libya
on Saturday, at an estimated total cost of $81 million, or 33 times the
annual federal funding for National Public Radio.

Sally Kohn of
TAPPED notes that the United States scraped together $2.3 million worth of “blood money” to
pay off the families of the victims of Raymond Davis, a rogue CIA
operative who shot and killed two men who tried to rob him in Pakistan.
Laura Flanders of GRITtv calculates
that $2.3 million ransom for a single killer would have paid the salaries
of 45 Wisconsin public school teachers
for a year.

Public pensions 101

We often
hear that public pensions are unfunded.
On the Breakdown, Chris Hayes of The Nation asks economist Dean
Baker what this actually means. Baker explains that s0-called “defined
benefit” pensions have become rare in the private sector, but remain
relatively common in the public sector. A defined benefit pension
guarantees the pensioner a certain income. Most private sector pensions
are so-called “defined contribution” plans, which means that employer puts
aside a certain amount of money each month for the employee, but there’s
no guarantee how much return the pensioner will eventually get on that
investment.

A state pension fund is considered unfunded if the
assets the fund has today aren’t sufficient to cover the defined benefits
that are due to workers over the next 30 years. Baker notes that many
funds are a lot healthier than they look because their values were
calculated at the nadir of the stock market in 2009. The market has since
made up a large percentage of that ground. A handful of states were
mismanaging their pension funds, but most states have been
responsible.

Ethical outlaws

Bea is a
manager of a big-box chain store in Maine. The company pays her staff
between $6 and $8 an hour and many are struggling. Even as she tries to
keep a professional atmosphere in the store, Bea has been known to bend the rules to help an employee in
need, as Lisa Dodson describes in YES! Magazine:

When one of her employees couldn’t afford to buy her
daughter a prom dress, Bea couldn’t shake the feeling that she was
implicated by the injustice. “Let’s just say … we made some mistakes
with our prom dress orders last year,” she told me. “Too many were
ordered, some went back. It got pretty confusing.” And Edy? “She knocked
them dead” at the prom.

Andrew, a manager in the
Midwest is quietly padding his employees’ paychecks because he knows their
wages aren’t enough to live on. Andrew knows he might be accused of
stealing, but he does it anyway because the alternative is
unthinkable.

Dodson interviewed hundreds of low- and middle-income
people about the economy between 2001 and 2008. Along the way, she
stumbled on what she calls “the moral underground,” a world where managers
bend the rules at corporate expense to enable their low-wage staff to get
by. It is legal to pay people less than a living wage, but increasing
numbers of people like Bea and Arthur have decided that the situation is
morally unacceptable, and quietly acted accordingly.

This post
features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the
economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is
free to reprint. Visit the Audit for
a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best
progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and
immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse
and The
Diaspora
. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of
leading independent media outlets.

The Wavelength: What does proposed AT&T and T-Mobile Merger Mean?

1:15 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Dog barking into the telephone

Dog barking into the telephone by State Library and Archives of Florida, on Flickr

By Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium Blogger

Welcome to the Wavelength, your bi-weekly field guide to the world of media policy. Over the next four months, we’ll be compiling great content, connecting the dots, building context, and reporting how media policy impacts the lives of everyday people. From the ongoing battle over Net Neutrality to the wild world of Internet regulation, from partisan crusades to media accountability, the Wavelength is here to keep you in the know.

This week, we’re focusing on major mergers, holding telecom giants accountable, and the revolving door at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

So, without further ado, let’s take a spin through the media zone.

AT&T to Absorb T-Mobile?

On Sunday, AT&T announced it had reached an agreement with T-Mobile to buy the mobile phone service provider for $39 billion. As reported in the New York Times, the deal would “create the largest wireless carrier in the nation and promised to reshape the industry.”

The immediate upshot is that the number of nationwide wireless carriers would drop from four to three, with Sprint Nextel running a distant third behind AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon. Another impact could be higher rates for current T-Mobile customers. Advocates of the deal suggest it could improve AT&T’s oft-criticized service, resulting in fewer dropped calls. However, critics note that the roughly $3 billion in projected annual cost savings will likely come at the expense of workers at the hundreds of retail outlets expected to close, if the deal goes through.

Both the Justice Department and the FCC have to sign off on the merger before it can be approved, a process that could take up to a year.

House adds insult to NPR’s injury

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Republican-controlled House voted 228-192 to end federal funding for NPR. The move came on the heels of a secretly recorded video from conservative activist James O’Keefe that purportedly showed NPR fundraiser Ronald Schiller expressing support for Islamic fundamentalism and disavowing the Tea Party as “racist” — leading Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign. The video was later revealed to be excerpted and heavily edited from a longer video which places Schiller’s remarks in context.
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