Sunday, November 2, 2008

Political Climate Change

Conventional Wisdom will insist that launching universal health care in America is out of the question in light of the financial meltdown. On the contrary, this is not only a good time to do it but society will literally have no choice.

Fifteen percent of Americans currently lack health insurance, another 30% are underinsured - large numbers of people who’ve been declaring bankruptcy for medical reasons actually had insurance but were buried in co-pays. A friend who came down with breast cancer who had reasonably good insurance had to come up $18,000 in co-pays for her treatments.

When large numbers of people become unemployed they will also lose their medical coverage. Concurrently, many employers, taking drastic measures to try to cut costs and remain in business, will reduce or eliminate insurance.

The current system will begin to go on life support, leading to a total breakdown. Government rescue will be imperative; action will also be essential from the standpoint of needing to cut costs on a systemwide basis. In spite of the many uninsured and underinsured in the states, per capita medical costs are consistently higher than in Europe; nearly double that of the UK. The current system will simply become unaffordable.

Change will also come from falling property prices: after the dust settles from the financial crash, that will turn out to be blessing for the bottom half of society. Once people have eaten their losses, both imaginary – when a way overpriced property goes down to a rational level it feels like a loss to the individual involved but it’s really just a reality check - and real – people are loosing their homes - housing will become much more affordable. In the process of throwing money at the wealthy - the economic imperative of the last 30 years - prices of many things have gone up, but especially in housing. Many Americans have been struggling to pay the rent for years; falling prices will provide some respite.

It was recently said that housing is still 10 to 15% overpriced, but that was based on the heady levels of artificially inflated neo-con economic irrationality. Thought of in the context of very high unemployment and general economic hardship, prices have to go down a lot more than that.

The punditry talks about the inevitability of boom and bust cycles: They are not inevitable. Ups and downs can not be avoided, but booms and busts are only part of the picture because of warped economic paradigms. Were subprime mortgages inevitable? Only because public policy made them so. If prevailing economic wisdom dictates that a government must do all in its power to maintain growth then there will certainly be extreme ups and downs.

The more frantically a government tries to push the economy upward, the more likely a serious crash on the downside, even though it may take a while. And it’s not like there’s no financial or monetary consequence when vast sums of money are expended on (ultimately futile) rescue and stimulus plans.

On the other hand, if the goal is long term stability and sustainability in a context of minimum income disparity (and no superwealthy) where every citizen has work to do and a home to live in, then there’ll never be another crash. The problem revolves around manic desire for growth.

Take Japan and Europe, for instance: There is constant lament over the very low growth rates they’ve been experiencing for a long time. But look more closely and you see mature and aging societies with stable or sometimes even declining populations.

Those kinds of societies have no reason to grow. Older people need and consume less with the exception of medical care. There’s no need to build a lot of new residential, commercial or government buildings in a stable population, only upkeep and a small amount of replacement is necessary. Infrastructure is largely in place, only maintenance is needed.

There is absolutely no reason for them to grow unless that growth involves societal advancements like renewable energy and conservation, more efficient transport, better educational and cultural opportunities; things that actually improve life and the environment. America needs some growth to provide for increasing population - entirely the result of immigration - and possibly to correct for extreme disparity in wealth, but to borrow and spend, to consume for its own sake - like building giant houses in the exurbs and manufacturing monster SUV’s to access those far flung mcmansions - is totally unnecessary, destructive and stupid.

Most important of all, now is not the time to pull back on tackling climate change because we somehow now can’t afford to. The extremely modest goals the world has set for itself will already have no impact whatever on the problem. They are only a start on a change of consciousness that will hopefully evolve into real progress on the matter; a change in thinking that might actually someday save the planet. The work that needs to be done to tackle the problem of global warming is the only kind of growth that makes sense.

The world cannot continue to increase its population and consumption and still survive. Fixation on growth must change. It is a theoretical impossibility that is nonetheless embraced by nearly all Serious thinkers and Important people.

The worldwide economic crash provides the opportunity to settle into a new, sustainable, lightly-living lifestyle; however, I am not optimistic. No matter how badly the Establishment has fucked up the world, they will insist that their way is the only way to right it; obviously a ridiculously inane conclusion.

Many people over the world are going to suffer tremendously from this man-made disaster, we can only hope against hope it isn’t totally in vain.

It may even be possible that the poor, who have not existed in American political discourse since Reagan, will actually have their needs considered again. If that does happen it’ll only be because a lot of formerly middle class people find themselves heading towards the bottom.

Meanwhile we can try to suspend our disbelief that the feckless, spineless, close to worthless Democratic Party will somehow find the will to do at least some permanent good – like universal health care, regulation of the financial sector and building of sorely needed infrastructure. The Dems haven’t had a leader with the guts to stand for anything for a long time. Will Obama stand up to the plate, play that role, come through for America and the world?

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