Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that this is an election year full of passion, activism and real historical importance.
I've written in this space about the powerful surge of internet "e-activism," which has given ordinary people extraordinary tools to challenge big money and big media. And I've welcomed creative groups like Billionaires for Bush, the Radical Cheerleaders and the Babes Against Bush, which are bringing humor, satire and fun to the struggle to (re)defeat the president.
Now there's a recently launched new group which is giving the term "Bush-Free Zone" a whole new meaning. For a peek at what I mean, check out WomenAgainstBush.org. It's the website of a new political action committee, Running in Heels, started by a twenty-something trade lawyer in Washington, DC.
The site asks people to, "Join Us in Brunching Against Bush, Wine Against Bush and for the really outrageous--Wax Away Bush!" With that rallying cry in mind, the group kicked off its first fundraiser last month by distributing certificates for free bikini waxes and panties with slogans. Two of my favorites--"Bush-Free Zone" and "Kiss Bush Goodbye."
I was in Moscow last month the day http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20000417&s=kvh "> Vladimir Putin was reelected in whatever is the opposite of a cliffhanger of an election. His victory was as predictable as it was overwhelming. Months of media suppression and harassment of opposition candidates helped the former KGB officer (plucked from obscurity by Boris Yeltsin in 1999) secure 71 percent of the vote. And documented instances of vote fraud and coercion ensured that turnout crossed the fifty percent threshold needed to avoid a new election.
One of my favorite stories involved patients in Moscow's Psychiatric Clinic No. 4 receiving ballots pre-marked for Putin. (This led one of Putin's opponents to quip, "By 2008, the whole country will be voting according to the same principle as in Psychiatric Hospital No. 4.") Then there were the students at an aerospace university who faced being thrown out of their dorms if they didn't cast a ballot. Or the officers in a local military unit who were cabled by the Defense Ministry with instructions to report when they and their family members had voted.
Most Western commentators--and independent Russian groups monitoring the election--condemned the Kremlin's heavy-handed tactics. But they didn't seem to bother leading GOP apparatchik Trent Lott. Arriving in Moscow just a few days after Putin's reelection, Lott told the Russian news service Novosti, "I would like to congratulate Mr. Putin and the delegates of the State Duma with their victory. I would like to learn how we could reach the same level of support for Republicans and President Bush for the elections in our country."
At a 1993 press conference, when Teresa Heinz-Kerry declined to run for her late husband's Pennsylvania Senate seat, she explained, "the best ideas for change unfortunately no longer come from political campaigns." She added: "Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."
Forgoing a Senate race, Heinz-Kerry instead took the reins of the Howard Heinz Endowment and became a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Under her leadership, the foundations has supported smart environmental and women's programs.
Heinz-Kerry's statement was prophetic. Now more than at any time in recent memory, too many politicians--and their campaigns--lack the courage to debate, let alone adopt, big ideas in this country. As a result, America has a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. And, as Heinz-Kerry argued, we've lost sight of big ambitions.
Polls, 30-second attack ads and partisan sniping often drown out serious policy debates. The mainstream media shoulders a lot of the blame as well. Too often, the press, enthralled with scandals, fails to cover ideas and issues. The media is instead obsessed with the politics of style--the candidates' hair, clothes, favorite sports, vacation plans, and, of course, wives. After campaign debates, reporters descend on so-called Spin Alleys, where consultants dissemble, and journalists lap up the PR offensives.
In a December New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem when he urged reporters to reject "political histrionics" and focus instead on the candidates' records and policies. So far, too few reporters have failed to listen to him.
Finally, there's the Internet, which fueled Howard Dean's rise and empowers progressives in exciting ways. The web is a bubbling stew of big ideas and low gossip, and the political blogs I've started reading (Micah Sifry at Iraqwarreader.com, for example) actually have a fairly meaty conversation going. Yet many of the most popular sites, like Drudge or Wonkette or Gawker, attract eyeballs by plying gossip above all, eschewing serious debates about politics and policy.
One big (and under-reported) story is that America's communities are laboratories for progressive reform. Over the last few years, The Nation's series "What Works" has called attention to creative programs that have built affordable housing and reduced urban poverty; neighborhood initiatives that attacked inner-city blight; and a living wage movement that improved the lives of thousands of workers. We've also looked at victories of clean money and www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20010611&s=sifry20010529"> clean elections in Maine and Arizona and reported on Maine's passage of a universal health care bill, which is putting pressure on other states to follow suit.
In countless cases, the unmet social needs of the American people are more extreme than in other rich industrialized nations. But, if you listen to our candidates, read our papers or watch our television, you wouldn't hear a lot about the tragically high rates of child poverty; the desperation of our inner cities; the absence of effective mass transit; or the lack of decent health care and housing for millions.
In 2004, the election could be a testing ground in which to clarify the stark choices facing this country. But where is the millennial equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's Fair Deal, and Johnson's Great Society? Don't these times cry out for an electoral system that nurtures big debates over large issues?
Ralph Nader continues to fantasize that his candidacy will succeed in peeling as many Republican and Independent votes away from Bush as progressive votes from Kerry. But, as comic Jon Stewart quips: "Conservatives for Nader. Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.'"
The problem is that, as Micah Sifry writes in his smart weblog, all the polls show Nader drawing anywhere between 3 and 7 percent of the vote, with the internals skewing heavily to the left. Sure, some people who will vote for Nader would otherwise not vote at all. But it's clear that most of Nader's support--whether he tops his 2000 showing of 2.7 percent or not--will come from many who would otherwise vote for John Kerry.
This does not deter Nader. In a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times and in a live on-air appearance on the brand new liberal radio network Air America, he seemed to relish tweaking friends and former allies. He even hung up the phone in a live on-air interview with one of Air America's hottest radio hosts, Randi Rhodes, who was challenging him about why he felt the need to campaign in swing states, among other key issues. The click came after the two engaged in a bitter discussion about progressive values and political strategy in this election and beyond.
As the editor of a magazine with one of America's greatest humorists-- Calvin Trillin--I love a good joke. But there's a time and a place for humor. President Bush's joke about the failure to find WMD in Iraq--made at the annual black tie dinner for radio and television correspondents last week--was callous and tasteless. As one Iraq war veteran put it, "war is the single most serious event that a president or government can carry its people into. This cheapens the sacrifice that American soldiers and their families are dealing with every single day." Or as David Corn wrote in his Nation weblog, "Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident."
Matthews: Would you have him [Bush] tell those jokes as he tours the VA hospitals?
Eskew: He tours the hospitals an awful lot. He doesn't need a lesson in compassion toward the American soldiers, Chris.
Matthews: Maybe there's a question here of taste.
Eskew: I think the president has very good taste.
Matthews: You felt the jokes were right?
Eskew: That's self-deprecation, Chris. I think you misinterpret it.
Matthews: So, you think the guys who got hurt and killed in this war thought it was funny? I just don't think it was funny.
But over at that joke of a news operation, Fox "Fair and Balanced" News, Sean Hannity thought it was all a big laugh. When I went on his show last Friday I listened to him huff and he puff as he tried to pin the blame on liberals for not having a sense of humor. (I'd link to it but the show, oddly, doesn't make transcripts available.) Sean--hang it up! What Americans need from this President is truthtelling--not joketelling.
The letter below suggests there are others out there--in this case, a man who served his nation in a previous war--who agree.
March 26, 2004
Dear Ms. vanden Heuvel,
I saw you on Hannity & Colmes this evening. You are absolutely right on. As a Vietnam veteran I thank you for standing up to Sean Hannity (and Alan) regarding George Bush's rather distorted sense of humor regarding his inability to find WMDs in Iraq. May all the souls of those who have died in this insane war rest in peace.
Thank You,Bob Luce
I recently received the letter below. It's so moving, powerful and illustrative of the situation of many young US soliders in Iraq that I thought it was worth sharing. I am grateful to Marianne Brown and Michael Shepard for their kind and thoughtful words. Everyone at The Nation hopes that their son will return safely and quickly.
My stepson, who is in the 428th Military Police reserves, was just sent to Iraq. Needless to say, my husband and I now live daily lives of terror and worry. I want to thank Katrina vanden Heuvel for her persistence in bringing up the fact that 547 (and probably more) of our loved ones have died and thousands more wounded each time she speaks on TV.
She is one of the only people who has the goodness to remember these young people, some of them teenagers, who are being thrown into this bloodbath for who knows how many years. I did everything I could to talk our child out of going. He was a weekend warrior, a kid, a twenty one year old whose lack of worldly expertise and hopes of a grand college education would allow him the option to serve as a police officer someday.
If I hear one more flag draped miscreant sniff and tell me "well he signed up," I may slap them. No, he did not sign up for this bloodbath and occupation. I offered to send him overseas to hide. I offered him a lawyer to get out. I begged him to embrace jail time and a dishonorable discharge. But all to no avail.
How do you tell a twenty one year old what to do? He detests Bush, as do we, but he said, "I can't say anything bad about Bush in front of my unit commander. I'll lose my promotion." He didn't want a dishonorable discharge. The folly of youth. Now he is in Iraq. We don't know where yet. We don't know if we will ever see him again. What we do know is that he just walked into a civil war which, as I speak, is erupting daily into unadulterated hell on earth. We know he may come home in a box, or maimed for life, or psychogically damaged beyond comprehension.
He grew up in a small town and has no clue as to what he will see. When in 2003 my husband and I marched against the war in DC, when in 2001 we marched against the stolen election in DC, we had no idea this would become so personal, that it would hit us in the face and hearts by removing a loved one and put us in the position of being antiwar activists even more radical in our opposition to this occupation.
This hits home like nothing else does, not like losing my job or my elderly mother filing for bankruptcy. We can handle that, we can work that out. This time it's wondering daily, as our kid travels in inadequate Humvees, whether we will ever see him again, or see him again in one piece.
As a sidenote: the military is so desperate for warm bodies, they sent him over with scoliosis of the spine, which they verified he had at Fort Dix with an x-ray exam. I told my stepson to send me his medical records. I wanted a paper trail. The next day they loaded him onto a plane and took him away. The army says now, they lost his x-rays. How convenient for them.
I ask Ms. vanden Heuvel to please continue to speak with her eloquence she shows on TV to the anger many military families feel who watch the laughing, tittering talking heads on corporate TV make jokes all day, run puff pieces as news, and ignore the very real horrors of wondering where a child is in Iraq, will he come home, is he okay, what's it like for him to endure 120 degree heat, is he afraid, will someone be with him if he dies, or is wounded, will someone hold his hand and tell him we love him, is there a way out of this, when will he come home, will we ever see him again?
Thank you for remembering to bring up the children soldiers who have died and continue to be used as cannon fodder for this corporate bloodbath.
Respectfully, Mrs. Marianne Brown and Mr. Michael ShepardParents of Michael Shepard, Jr. (428th MP army reserves)South Haven MI
Conservatives used to have all the fun. Many years ago, right-wingers managed to use one-liners and political spoofs to skewer liberals as out of touch with mainstream American values. A good example was Ronald Reagan, who once defined a hippy as "a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, actually interviewed himself at the National Press Club about why he was running for Mayor of New York. ("To breed a little fear in the political nabobs who believe they can fool all the people all the time," Buckley said.)
Those days, thank God, are finally dead. Currently, progressives are busily bridging the humor-and satire-gaps that once separated liberals from Rush Limbaugh and his countless imitators. Comedy, one of the biggest weapons in the progressive arsenal, is once again (remember Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Second City) being used to effectively get the liberal message out in fresh, irreverent ways.
According to a January Pew Research Center survey, 20 percent of those under 30 receive their political news from places like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Since late-night comedy, more often than not, skewers the right, the young are hearing a brief against President George W. Bush, and watching these shows not-too-subtly support causes like gay rights, reproductive freedom, alternative energy sources and Internet privacy. Bill Maher, star of HBO's Real Time, for example, lambasts Bush for refusing to send troops to Haiti "unless they start doing something there that is really dangerous, like letting gays marry."
Most promising is that Maher, Al Franken and others like Michael Moore and the Texas populist Jim Hightower are using humor to expose conservatives for what they truly are--mean-spirited, hyperbolic, and hypocritical. (Remember how in Bowling for Columbine, Moore lampooned NRA gun nuts at a pro-gun speech by Charlton Heston in Denver, the NRA's president, just 10 days after the Columbine shootings.)
And the level of liberal comedy activity is rising quickly. On March 31, Air America, a progressive radio network, will launch a new 24-hour radio program in three cities, including New York, with hosts ranging from comedian Al Franken ("The O'Franken Factor") and Janeane Garafola to rap artist Chuck D., Nation author Laura Flandersand former Daily Show writer and co-creator Lizz Winstead.
Will Air America have the appeal to go toe-to-toe in the ratings war with the right's radio heavyweights? The moment seems right, what with an election that has galvanized progressives in ways not seen for decades and with an audience that is terribly under-served.
Meanwhile, the Daily Show's Stewart consistently skewers President Bush for misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the 2000 election debacle--"Indecision 2000." Columnist Molly Ivins --Texas's La Pasionaria of intellect and humor--describes Bush as a "shrub" and "another li'l upper-class white boy out trying to prove he's tough." Franken, in his brilliant anti-conservative primer Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, exposes Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter as bullies and frauds.
And, on the grassroots front, a slew of activist groups--two good examples are the Radical Cheerleaders and Billionaires for Bush--are using humor and savvy political messages to bring progressive values to the media's attention. Finally, on the off-Broadway stage at New York's Public Theater, an antiwar satire, written and directed by Academy-award winning actor Tim Robbins, is drawing big crowds nightly for its skewering of White House war planners.
The beauty of all this liberal satire is that progressives, armed with a new bully pulpit, make conservatives seem musty, mean and out of touch. Meantime, Franken & Co. are flat-out funny, deftly promoting progressive values in populist language that seems targeted to win hearts and minds. Let the Franken reign begin!
Uncle Sam hovered over the small crowd of 200 protesters gathered in Moscow today to mark the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. The papier mache puppet--with dollar signs for eyes, a red white and blue top hat and cigar stuffed in his mouth--was held tightly by two young women wearing bandanas and Che buttons as a gaggle of photographers snapped away.
The demo--organized by an eclectic alliance of groups, including the Russian Communist Party youth offshoot, the Radical Socialist Party, Trotskyists, anarchists, Punk Rockers Against Putin, and the Globalization Institute--was one of many taking place across Russia. The marchers--most in their early twenties--were there to protest all forms of occupation and several of the speakers roused the crowd, despite a primitive sound system, by drawing a link between the US occupation of Iraq, Russia's occupation of Chechnya and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For many of these groups, the war in Chechnya is a cancer on their country's soul and without ending that war, they do not believe democracy in Russia is possible.
There were even chants of "Intifada, Intifada." Many called for "Vova"--as Vladimir Putin is nicknamed--to step down. "Down with this War President," the crowd chanted. Many spoke hopefully of the Socialist party's victory in Spain. "Let us take an example from the Spanish people and oust this war government." "Che unites, Putin divides," one protester said. Other placards at the demo said: "No war for Oil!" and "Capitalism Kills, Death to Capitalism!" The only English language sign read simply: "No War!"
Most of the kids out protesting were born during the perestroika years and have come to their leftism out of choice not necessity. ("We know our Marx far better than the older generation, which was forced to read him in school," one young woman told me.) When it came to style, the crowd looked like it would have at home at any protest march in the West: bandanas covered mouths, black ski masks were in vogue (as much to protect against Moscow's subzero temperatures as a political statement), Eminem t-shirts and Che buttons were worn and protest flags were flown. The few babushkas present--elderly Russian women who told me they hadn't received their pensions for months--were handing out Communist party pamphlets.
As the rally wound down, there was a roar from the last speaker--"Let us stomp out imperialist aggression!" Several protesters then gathered around Uncle Sam and began to tear apart the papier mache puppet. A young guy wearing an Arnold Schwarznegger/Terminator shirt began to stomp on Uncle Sam's top hat. "Let us march to the US Embassy," someone shouted through the megaphone. "Yankee, Go Home," chanted a half dozen people. The last speaker then thanked the militia for their help in ensuring that the rally proceeded in an orderly way.
Correction:Thanks to Dr. Ross Worthington, who alerted me to a mistake in my recent weblog looking at how the idea of single-payer healthcare was catching on among businessmen and members of the medical profession. I should have wrote that "sixty-four percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system," rather than sixty-four percent of doctors nationally. Click here to read the full article.
My March 2 weblog, "Let's End the Duopoly," laying out proposals for democratic reforms of our electoral system generated a number of valuable reader letters. Click here to read the weblog and see below to read five good letters.
Wade Dygert, Coopersburg, PA
Katrina vanden Heuvel's "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly" is right on the money. Electoral reform, meaning proportional representation and instant runoff voting, is the most critical issue in American politics today. Liberals should stop wasting their time demonizing Nader, and channel that energy into pushing for electoral reform. And The Nation should be leading the way.
Instead of writing cover stories telling Nader not to run, I would want to review Steven Hill's "Fixing Elections." Not only does it point out the flaws in America's electoral system, it also provides solutions. A good online resource is www.fairvote.org, the website for the Center for Voting and Democracy, in which Steven Hill is involved, by the way.
PLEASE write about proportional representation in your magazine...most people are unaware of the options we have in how we turn votes into seats, and The Nation is the perfect place to educate people on the matter.
Thank you for your time.
Paul Klinkman, Providence, RI
Congratulations on your "duopoly" editorial. I wish that you had mentioned Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge City Council has had Proportional Representation for 63 years running. I observe that a permanently corruption-resistant city council has been a boon to Cambridge's homeowners. Cambridge has a top rating of AAA from Moody's Investor Service and outrageous property values. In similar cities with no protection from machine politics, even in cities with great colleges, homeowners often have crushing city mortgages hanging over the value of their homes which any judge can order them or their children to pay off.
I'm sorry to appeal to people's individual financial interests, but some conservatives can see nothing else. Either we stop the crooks from owning City Hall or we get cleaned out time after time, people. This same truth applies equally to our state legislatures and to Congress.
Proportional Representation disappeared from two dozen American cities because it allowed black people to become city council members, and it also allowed people who didn't hate communists enough to become city council members. Was this ever a sane reason to spit on and ignore a successful crime-fighting tool?
For generations, small groups of citizens have struggled to rid their cities, states and nation of all candidate corruption and all machine politics permanently. Proportional representation has been a successful set of government-changing experiments which our forefathers fought to implement. I'm ashamed that so many of us ignore the learning that our ancestors won with their vision and perseverance. Did some forgotton Galileo really lose this fight and die with our knowledge? Can we name any other type of learning in all of history that has been so forgotten and yet so needed?
Sean Hill, Vancouver, Canada
In response to Katrina vanden Heuvel's recent article "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly": I couldn't agree more that electoral reform needs to have a more prominent place on the US political platter. But Ms. vanden Heuvel's comment that "Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises" is outright myth propagation. Comments like these highlight an endemic lack of belief in the validity of merit and democracy towards determining political leadership and direction.
Electoral reform begins when each of us decides to show more confidence and less apathy towards the multitude of outcomes made possible by a self-determined electorate.
In Canada, we recognize that it's not really about whether we or our political opponents win. What matters is whether the country wins, and it's the pressure generated by a range of choices which keeps our leaders in line.
Running an election strategy as "anybody but Bush" is a with us or against us proposition. The Dems are looking for the sure win but instead they're betting the bank on the next roll. You might luck out. But you're more likely to end up with some wishy-washy, opportunistic, fly-by-night who turns things upside-down and has the electorate calling for a Bush return in 2008.
Now is the time to be expanding and encouraging choices, all choices. Neither Nader, nor anybody else, right or left should be discouraged from offering themselves for the future of their country.
If we're all really that cynical then we don't deserve a better world.
Keith Schilhab, Rollinsville CO
Re Katrina vanden Heuvel's piece on Ending the Two Party Duopoly: I read this article with much interest, as it has become increasingly clear over the last 20 years or so that our "representative" government no longer lives up to its name. Instant runoff voting, proportional representation, fusion voting are all terrific ideas and deserve a hard look.
However, in the case of politics it seems obvious to me that money is indeed the root of all electoral evils (as Ms. vanden Heuvel writes: "Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money...") Admittedly, reducing the cost of getting elected in this country will not be an easy one, and I do not have all the answers here. However, we can all agree that it is ideas and not the size of one's wallet that should count in elections.
With that in mind then I would propose either strictly re-regulating the current networks to provide free and equal time to all "qualified" candidates. Or, banning all campaign/party advertising from national TV/Radio and establishing government owned and financed radio/TV stations whose only purpose is to run equal and free political adverts. All commercial advertising in either case would be made illegal. In addition, strict money limits would be placed on a party's or campaigns fund raising. Four of five million dollars perhaps.
Yes, this idea is not complete and there are difficulties. What does it mean to be qualified? How do we re-define political speech within the context of the first amendment?
However, the stakes are far too high not to take up this question. The public is supposed to own the airwaves. They no longer serve us, and the FCC seems more like a prostitute with one customer: the broadcasters. Political speech is NOT free when the guy with the fattest wallet can dominate the conversation. Our politics has degenerated horribly within the last 20 years. I am much afraid that if something is not done, no matter how draconian it might appear at onset, then in another few years this country will be unrecognizable.
Tracy Winter, aol.com
Good piece by Katrina Vanden Huevel. I would add to her "Toolkit" for repairing our democracy not just publicly-financed election campaigns, and a few more PBS stations, but also the banning of partisan campaign commercials from the airwaves in lieu of more inclusive and comprehensive debates, thus effectively removing the biggest (and dirtiest) money concern from the electoral process, and allowing it to become more affordale for new parties. Despite the predictable-but-innaccurate howls of protest over "free speech" that will surely ensue from the media giants, it is entirely possible within the original parameters of the media's charge to provide "Public Service" in return for the incredibly powerful use of OUR airwaves since the advent of TV. Frequent and extensive debates on the issues should satisfy anyone with a first amendment ax to grind. Why should the despicable Media Moguls who have already trashed responsible journalism, be allowed to go on enriching themselves at the expense of our Democracy?
As a recent Washington Post business article reported (an article that should have been on the Post's front page!), manufacturers are quietly embracing the concept of universal healthcare. While the major papers have been virtually MIA on this issue, Kirstin Downey, a Post staff writer, admirably called attention to how rising costs are roiling the debate over healthcare reform. Sen. Kerry and leading Democrats should pay close attention to this trend. It could be a very helpful issue in a close election.
Downey reports that employers saw their healthcare costs rise 12 percent last year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase in 2002. Such dramatic increases have damaged manufacturing in America, prompted labor strikes, and encouraged corporations to ship jobs overseas.
Back in 1994, Jack Smith, a former CEO of General Motors, went on record as "personally favor[ing] the Canadian system." Smith, an anomaly ten years ago, today looks like the weatherman who knew which way the wind was blowing. The volume and intensity of anguished, bitter public complaints by business executives about the costs and burdens of health care has grown to major proportions.
In one of the more exciting if little-noticed developments for progressives, a coalition is beginning to emerge that includes not just CEOs but also America's doctors and unionized workers. Executives from the Big Three automakers, upset over insanely high healthcare costs, recently sent the Canadian government a letter urging Canada to keep its single-payer system so GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford could hold operating expenses down.
And why not? After all, in 2003, GM spent $4.5 billion on health care for its US-based employees and retirees, at a cost of $1,200 per car, according to a GM spokesman. "If we cannot get our arms around this [healthcare] issue as a nation, our manufacturing base and many of our other businesses are in danger," warned Ford's Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour.
The nation's supermarket chains, for their part, facing stiff competition from non-union rivals including Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, have a healthcare crisis on their hands. In 1999, Giant and Safeway paid $112 million in medical costs for employees in the Washington, DC region; by 2003, they were spending $180 million on healthcare subsidies. These rising costs, and the chains' efforts to slash workers' subsidies, recently prompted 70,000 California grocery workers to go on strike. Desperately looking for ways to stay competitive, the supermarket chains could find their salvation in a single-payer system. (Workers too would benefit tremendously, receiving guaranteed access to healthcare at affordable prices regardless of their employment status.)
Ditto for other corporations. William Rainville, CEO of Kadant Inc., a papermaking manufacturer, recently told the Washington Post that healthcare costs make operating in the US nearly unsustainable. Kadant says it will spend $6,500 on health care in 2004 for each of its American employees. But, the single-payer system in Canada is so inexpensive that Kadant is considering moving all its operations north of the border.
Labor unions, meanwhile, have good reason to support a single-payer system. The average worker saw out-of-pocket healthcare spending climb from $1,890 in 2000 to $2,790 in 2003; a 48 percent jump, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the percentage of employers that fully subsidized health care for employees' families dropped from 27 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2003.
According to a Harvard Medical School survey, 64 percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system. Frustrated by the costs and cumbersome paperwork, doctors said they would gladly cut fees if it would eliminate those pesky piles of insurance claims forms.
"Most doctors are fed up with the health care system," explains Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, an author and a leading reformer. "It's not just the paperwork and insurance hassles, but knowing that many of our patients can't afford to fill the prescriptions we write for them. And millions of people who are uninsured avoid care altogether until they're desperately ill."
A single-payer healthcare system will also save jobs, increase profit margins and attack the mushrooming problem of outsourcing jobs to India, China and other nations boasting cheap labor markets. In addition, by enacting a single-payer system, the US will significantly reduce health care administrative costs, saving an estimated $286 billion annually. That's enough to cover over 43 million uninsured Americans, create a real, universal prescription drug benefit, retrain laid-off employees, and strengthen preventative care.
America's conservative critics like to portray Canada's single-payer healthcare as socialistic, inefficient, and second-rate. A vast majority of Canadians, however, give consistently high marks to their single-payer system. Moreover, the Canadians, on average, live two years longer than us. (If that's not an endorsement for single-payer reform, I don't know what is.) If the politicians and media refuse to lead the fight for universal health care, then enlightened CEOs and doctors, perhaps, will.