Open Enrollment Should Close The Book On McCain’s Un-Health Care Plan

On the heels of an explosive political document that has been hitting millions of mailboxes of potential voters— third-quarter 401(k) statements showing how much the Wall Street meltdown has hurt individual retirement savings—another potential game-changer is beginning to brew in employee conference rooms and lunch halls: the annual open enrollment sessions for health insurance benefits.

When workers hear—as I did earlier today—how much their health insurance premiums are about to rise or what kind of compromises in coverage they will have to accept to keep them from going even higher, a lot of them will be reminded just how hazardous the right-wing plans to remake health care embraced by Sen. John McCain—highlighted in an opinion-page ad by the Institute for America’s Future in The New York Times on Tuesday— will be to their health.

I just got word today that the insurance premium for the health insurance plan my employer uses will go up almost 17 percent. That will mean a total premium of $463 for individual coverage and $1,296 for family coverage. The premium increase, we were told, would have been closer to 25 percent if we had not agreed to accept up to 50 percent higher co-payments for prescription drugs, which means that a prescription drug will cost us as much as $60 for a 30-day supply. (more…)

Conservative Clarion Call: Lending To Minorities Is A “Disaster”

neil-cavuto-book-cover.thumbnail.jpgWhy does Neil Cavuto still have a job on the Fox News Channel?

He should be sitting on the porch of some villa in Argentina, where he would probably stew over how he became the latest casualty of political correctness. Instead, he blithely slanders people of color and beyond some progressive circles it’s greeted with a collective shrug — or worse.

In an interview on his show on Sept. 18 with Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., Cavuto blamed excessive lending to "minorities" for the financial meltdown on Wall Street. (Rick Perlstein at OurFuture.org has the video, plus a scathing critique.) He asked if Becerra and other members of Congress weren’t complicit and "irresponsible" for "pushing for more minority lending and more expanded lending to folks who heretofore couldn’t get mortgages." Referring to mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now placed in receivership by the feds, Cavuto said, "I’m just saying, I don’t remember a clarion call that said, ‘Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.’"

The assertion that a $700 billion Wall Street bailout became necessary, even in part, because financial institutions were catering to black people is deeply offensive and profoundly false. Yet it is not just the blather of an insensitive, right-wing cable talk host. It is part of a systematic campaign on the part of the right and the financial services industry to get out from under one of the few laws on the books that addresses discrimination in lending.

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The Violated Social Contract: A Debate Worth Having

When Sen. John McCain said on CNN this morning that "we are a victim of the violation of the social contract between capitalism and the American citizen," he may not have fully appreciated the kind of national conversation that statement could-or at least should-provoke.

McCain’s statement, taken at face value, is dead on. What’s missing is an honest and thorough diagnosis of who broke the contract and how that contract needs to be renegotiated. Now that the rapid implosion of some of Wall Street’s most storied financial institutions is paralleling the millions of financial implosions on Main Streets all over America, we just might have the right climate to have that conversation at a level that matches the severity of the economic crisis we face.

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Something Else To Apologize For: Neglecting AIDS in Black America

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You know we have a real race problem in America when The New York Times, in the second paragraph of its story on the severity of AIDS infection in the African-American community, writes that a just-released report "provides a startling new perspective" on the epidemic.

Where have y’all been?

The report, by the Black AIDS Institute, is old news. The problem is that the news media has been so dazzled by the show of support for people living with HIV in Africa by President Bush and other conservatives that it doesn’t ask the question I always ask when I hear Bush talk oh-so-compassionately-conservative about AIDS in Africa: "What about us here in the U.S.A?"

The answer: We’ve been dying.

The report, "Left Behind: Black America: Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic," notes that AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between 25-34 years and the second leading cause of death in Black men between 35-44 years of age.  There are about 600,000 African Americans living with HIV in the U.S. today, and another 30,000 are infected each year, the report says. If the U.S. African-American population were a separate country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people with HIV, and ninth among the 15 countries targeted by the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief.

President Bush made a show Wednesday of signing a bill that wouild over five years commit $48 billion to PEPFAR. The transcript of the signing ceremony was filled with platitudes — "With this legislation, America is showing its tremendous regard for the dignity and worth of every human being" — but betrayed no indication that AIDS was anything other than a distant problem for a distant people.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has actually proposed cutting funding for HIV programs targeted at the African-American community, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative was funded at just under $400 million in 2006 and peaked last year at $402 million; the current budget request for fiscal year 2009 is $387 million, a 4 percent cut. The total domestic HIV/AIDS budget in that period would increase from $15.9 billion to a proposed $18.2 billion. Given inflation, that’s just slightly better than level funding in real terms. Spending on the global AIDS initiative, meanwhile, is set to increase from $3.2 billion in fiscal 2006 to $5.9 billion in fiscal 2009, an 84 percent increase. The share of U.S. AIDS spending that goes overseas has grown from 17 percent of the budget to 25 percent.

The bottom line: The Bush administration, and its enablers in Congress, have chosen to make black Americans losers in an AIDS-funding musical-chairs game.

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McCain Channels Booker T. Washington

In a speech before the NAACP on Wednesday that displayed a remarkable but unsurprising detachment from the realities of the African-American community, it was nonetheless telling that Sen. John McCain, in reaching for a historical marker for his speech on equal opportunity, grabbed onto Booker T. Washington’s 1901 visit to President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

It would not have been lost on the delegates at the NAACP convention that it was Washington who in 1895 gave the infamous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, the one in which he counseled black people to “cast your buckets where you are,” to focus less on agitating to change the racist structures that limited their opportunities and to instead emphasize putting “brains and skill into the common occupations of life.” He cautioned patience and gradualism in eradicating racism, for “the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly.”

Intentionally or not, McCain channeled Washington at the convention in Cincinnati, spending roughly half of his speech talking about public education and virtually none of it talking about the continuing inequities African Americans face, often regardless of education.

When he did talk about public education, it was in the disingenuous school-choice language of conservatives, in which private schools and charter schools are offered as antidotes to what he called the “public school establishment,” the “entrenched bureaucracy” and the “teachers’ union” that is filled with people “who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children.”

McCain’s embrace of the right-wing line on public education is fatally flawed, but what is more insulting is the implication that if only black people were better educated, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. (more…)

School Children Thrown Under The (Private) Bus

Photo by shadowplay

It seems that whenever that old cliche applies, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," the Bush administration finds new ways to respond, "We’re breaking it. The fix is in."

One of the things that the Bush administration is breaking now is public transportation for school children. Why? So that private businesses like the owner of Greyhound Bus Lines can open up new lines of business offering more expensive private bus service to school districts.

The Federal Transit Administration last month closed its comment period on a new regulation that will cut off federal funding for bus routes that it believes primarily exist to get children to and from school. Under the new rules, a school system could subsidize a child’s bus ride on public transit, but a public bus system could not significantly order its routes or schedules for the convenience of these children.

The regulations are a response to a federal court ruling in January that allowed the regional transportation authority in Rochester, N.Y., to do just that. The authority, at the urging of the school board, had created a network of new bus routes after the board changed the class times for its high schools and after the private bus service that the board had contracted with said it could not provide service during the new times. The FTA’s regional administrator, Brigid Hynes-Cherin, said the authority’s actions violated regulations governing federal mass transit funding because even though the routes could be used by general public, they weren’t primarily for the general public. Plus, she added—and here is where we get to the real nub of the issue—public bus systems can’t use federal money to provide services that compete with, or crowd out, private sector bus companies.

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Right-wing “Opportunity Scholarships” vs. Real Opportunity

Photo courtesy Krissie P at Flickr

Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” To frighten many African Americans, though, it only takes eight: “I’m a conservative, and I’m here to help.”

Case in point is the effort by conservative groups to protect something called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a monstrosity foisted onto District residents—who have no vote in the House or the Senate to have a voice in the matter—by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2004. The noble-sounding program—what’s not to love about “opportunity” and “scholarships”?—is an $18 million private-school voucher program, a weapon in the conservative arsenal to erode support for public schools.

It is sold as a lifeline for African-American children in the District who would otherwise be condemned, as supporters of the vouchers would have everyone believe, to not knowing their ass from their elbow in D.C.’s public schools. It is a prototype for a $100 million program the Bush administration has wanted to spread nationwide.

The problem is, the results don’t match the hype. A Department of Education report released this week said, in effect, that children in the District who are sent to a private school with a voucher are about as likely to not know their asses from their elbows as children attending those so-called awful public schools. To quote the report:

After 2 years, there was no statistically significant difference in test scores in general between students who were offered an OSP scholarship and students who were not offered a scholarship. Overall, those in the treatment and control groups were performing at comparable levels in mathematics and reading.

That’s the second report by the Education Department that has reached that conclusion about the program, and this latest one helps bolster the case of some Democrats, including District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who want to phase out the program. The program got a something of a reprieve this week from a House appropriations subcommittee, which approved continued funding for the program, but there is a chance that the full committee could reverse that decision when it meets either later this week or next.

So the right-wing spin machine is going into overdrive in the name of African-American children. Typical is a statement issued Wednesday from the Cascade Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Oregon, which warned that “the U.S. Congress is about to put thousands of low-income black students in the back of the bus” by killing the program. (more…)

Bobby Jindal: Worse Than Katrina?

jinzilla.JPGLouisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is on a path to finish the job Hurricane Katrina started, destroying the public infrastructure that served, however imperfectly, poor and working-class New Orleans residents.

Jindal, the wunderkind who is being touted as conservatism’s rising new star and an at-least-half-serious contender for being John McCain’s running mate, has openly embraced some of the most extreme components of the right’s agenda, from tax cuts for the wealthy to public funding of private and religious schools. The New Orleans area can least afford to be the staging ground for a bankrupt conservative ideology, but Jindal is zealously leading the state into the void nonetheless, even to the point of criticizing President Bush for not being right-wing enough.

The impact of the ideological decisions coming out of the governor’s office for many of the people of New Orleans, as they approach the third anniversary of the hurricane that devastated their city, is that to the extent that the city is being rebuilt, it is not being rebuilt for them. "We’re getting the message that he is not open to us," Beth Butler, lead Louisiana organizer for ACORN, told me in an interview this week.

The signals are loud and clear as Jindal presides over the dismantling of public infrastructure for education, health care and housing.

With Jindal’s blessing, the majority of New Orleans schoolchildren are now lab rats in a massive conservative experiment in private and charter school education. More than half of the 79 public schools that have been reopened since the hurricane — there were 128 schools before Katrina struck — are now charter schools. On top of that are the 63 private and parochial schools operating in the parish, which Jindal wants to support through a $10 million voucher plan. In an article on New Orleans charter schools in The Washington Post this week, Leigh Dingerson, education team leader for the Center for Community Change in the District, called the result "a flea market of entrepreneurial opportunism that is dismantling the institution of public education in New Orleans." (more…)

Barack Obama and the Man in My Basement

Flickr photo by v1rotate

My phone rang moments after the cable news networks announced on Tuesday night that Sen. Barack Obama was the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. "Did you believe that this could happen in our lifetime?" my neighbor asked me, wanting to bring over a bottle of wine so we could clink glasses and celebrate. "Aren’t you excited?"

Of course; this is huge, I said. In a nation built on racism, a man in whom symbolically flows the blood of the oppressors and the blood of the oppressed stands to become the Democratic nominee for president.

But I was preoccupied with the fate of another black man last night.

He’s 20 years old, and for about six weeks, until this past Saturday, he was living in the basement of my house, teetering precariously between life at the ground floor of the nation’s economy and the pit of homelessness and desperation that lies below it.

I got to know this man, whose name I’m withholding to protect his privacy, and his family several years ago through my partner’s connection to Capitol Hill Group Ministries, an organization that offers various types of support to young families in economic distress. He comes from a family with three other siblings, each from a separate father. On his birth certificate, where his father’s name should appear, is a row of asterisks.

His early childhood includes being bounced among other relatives and a stint at Boy’s Town, a Washington residential facility for troubled youth. By the time I met him, he was living with his mother but was struggling both academically and attitudinally in school. His seeming lack of initiative, focus and ambition finally caught up with him in the 12th grade, when his grades were so bad he couldn’t graduate and had to repeat.

At least he finally did graduate. In the District of Columbia, 17 percent of the men in the city between the ages of 18 and 25 have yet to get a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Several people pushed so that he would not be in that number, and he responded.

But now he’s a man-child in search of the promised land, and the journey isn’t off to a good start. He’s got a notch-above-minimum-wage job at a local Wal-Mart, but this is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. According to the Center for Housing Policy, it takes an hourly wage of $21.81 to be able to afford the average one-bedroom apartment in Washington. (more…)

Boehner And Buddies Hope The Public Forgets Whose Energy Policy This Is

gasprices.jpgIn one of the most laughable stunts ever to come out of the House Republican leadership, Minority Leader John Boehner and his minions are labeling the recent stratospheric rise in gasoline prices "the Pelosi premium." The fumes from their oil company friends have finally gotten to them.

There is no credible case to be made that Democrats in general, and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi in particular, is responsible for the perfect storm that is bringing $4 per gallon gasoline to a gas pump near you. But Republicans, perhaps taking a cue from their standard-bearer Sen. John McCain, aren’t much into being coherent these days, and so there was Boehner at the Capitol on Wednesday, issuing a statement reminiscent of the smolder and toxic smoke of his trademark cigarettes:

Across the country, while families are preparing for their summer vacations and travel plans, they are doing so with the black cloud of the Pelosi Premium hanging over their heads. Americans are paying an additional $1.48 per gallon of gasoline today compared to the price they were paying when Democrats took control of Congress.

Actually, if we rolled the clock all the way back to when President Bush took control of the White House in 2001 and the Republicans had rock-solid majorities in both houses of Congress, Americans are now paying roughly $2.33 more per gallon of gasoline than they were then—or perhaps as much as $2.50 more, as I noticed hours after Boehner’s tirade as I drove past gas stations in the nation’s capital. Granted, that still makes the bulk of the increase coincident with Pelosi’s term as speaker, but not even Republicans can trash an economy overnight. We’re reaping the fruit of seven years of conservative favoritism toward the oil industry and outright obstruction of meaningful treatment efforts for an oil addiction even President Bush admitted the nation had. (more…)