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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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The People’s Climate March Is This Sunday, Sept. 21

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Peoples Climate March Sept

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If Greenland melts, seas will rise 23 feet.

Greenland + Antarctica = 38 feet. Or more.

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried—if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”  —“IEA Sees ‘Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years’” (LNW, 1/21/12)

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A Matter of National—Indeed, Global—Security

We hope you’ll come to the People’s Climate March in New York City this Sunday, Sept. 21. The more, the merrier. If you feel powerless, you are not alone. But don’t we have more power to change things for the better when we join together? The Climate March is timed to get the attention of the thousands of United Nations delegates in New York for the General Assembly (Sept. 16–Oct. 7), and, even more to the point, for Climate Summit 2014:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders, from government, finance, business, and civil society to Climate Summit 2014 this 23 September to galvanize and catalyze climate action.  He has asked these leaders to bring bold announcements and actions to the Summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015. Climate Summit 2014 provides a unique opportunity for leaders to champion an ambitious vision, anchored in action that will enable a meaningful global agreement in 2015.

Logistics: Marchers gather at Columbus Circle and on up Central Park West between 59th and 86th Streets. March begins at 11:30 a.m. Click here for more information about transportation, how you can volunteer, etc.

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Click here to see the video Disruption, an unflinching look at the devastating consequences of our inaction in the face of climate change—and gives a behind-the-scenes look at a part of the effort to organize the People’s Climate March.

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More from LNW about Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Here Comes the Flood  (5/23/14)

IEA Sees “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years” (1/21/12)

Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather (5/24/11)

Polar-Palooza and the Singing Glaciologist  (2/11/09)

Penguins Are Melting (1/23/09)

Diagnosis of a Stressed-Out Planet  (10/29/07)

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Further Reading

Bringing the Noise on Climate Change  (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker)

What’s the deal with this U.N. Climate Summit?  (Ben Adler, Grist)

What climate marchers have learned from anti-nuke organizers  (Ben Adler, Grist)

National Climate Assessment Report 2014 (“A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.”)

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods  (NYT 5/6/14)

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt  (NYT 5/12/14)

This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like  (Mother Jones, 5/12/14)

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise  (Mother Jones, 1/31/13)

The Arctic Ice Crisis: Greenland’s glaciers are melting far faster than scientists expected  (Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, 8/16/12)

12 things the Obama administration wants you to know about climate change  (Grist.org on the National Climate Assessment)

Just 90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions  (Mother Jones, 11/20/13)

What Climate Change Will Do to Your City: By 2300, these iconic cities [New Orleans omitted] could be underwater

150 Years in 30 Seconds: Sea Level Debt Sinking U.S. Cities  (ClimateCentral)

Climate Change @ WhiteHouse.gov

NextGen Climate.org

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change

Obama’s Climate Betrayal  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 30, 2011)

Top 10 Signs We Are Living in a Warming World, 2011 Edition  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 12, 2011)

Two Degrees of Disaster  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2011)

Copenhagen Climate Summit: Five Possible Scenarios for Our Future Climate  (Guardian, Dec. 18, 2009). With talks in Copenhagen descending into chaos, the prospects for stabilising temperatures ‘dangerous’ levels look increasingly slim. Here are five possible scenarios for our future climate.

Science Museum Unveils Climate Change Map Showing Impact of 4C Rise  (Guardian, October 22, 2009). A new map of the world that details the likely effects of a failure to cut carbons emissions has been developed by Met Office scientists.

International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2011

United Nations Climate Change Conference web site

Text of 12-paragraph Copenhagen Accord

Dot.Earth  (Andrew C. Revkin’s climate change blog @ NYT)

Global Climate Network

Grist.org

And read these writers’ excellent, fact-based environmental reporting: Fiona Harvey (Guardian), Elizabeth Kolbert (New Yorker), and George Monbiot (Guardian)

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Join the People’s Climate March in NYC Sunday, Sept. 21

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

People’s Climate MarchYou’re Invited—Step On Out

“There’s a world to march for—and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn’t march.”  —“Why We March: Stepping Forth for a Planet in Peril ”

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Spread the word and make plans to join the People’s Climate March in New York City this Sunday, Sept. 21  (use our Facebook and Twitter icons below). Organized in part by author and activist Bill McKibben—with support from more than 1,000 groups—the march is timed to get the attention of the thousands of United Nations delegates coming to New York for the annual meeting.

More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march—environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups—which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.

Logistics: Marchers gather at Central Park West between 59th and 86th Streets (map here). March begins at 11:30 a.m. Click here for more information about transportation, how you can volunteer, etc.

The organizers are pushing hard to get everyone involved. Coordinator Paul Getsos says “our march has been endorsed by the largest union in New York City, the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] and by the two largest unions in the country, SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and NEA [the National Teachers Association].”

PCMobama01web2

In a report on the march for The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard writes:

Planning and decision-making for the People’s Climate March has followed a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests. “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs” are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers,” said Jamie Henn, the Strategy and Communications Director at 350.org. The initial idea for the march grew out of conversations early in 2014 involving the following groups, many rooted in New York City: 350.org, the Sierra Club, SEIU Local 32BJ, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Align Alliance for a Greater New York, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE and Avaaz.

“To Change Everything, We Need Everyone”

The Nation reports that the People’s Climate March “is also departing from the usual script by downplaying participation by celebrities and politicians. Instead, it will have more representatives from communities that have suffered the wrath of climate impacts address the crowd and brief the press.” One such person is Alexis Smallwood, who lived in Far Rockaway, Queens, until it was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Echoing comments by New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina, Smallwood, a 30-year-old African-American, said she is joining the march because “it’s been hard in our community to get back home after the storm. There are no jobs out here, public transportation is coming back, but slowly. Now they’re raising rents, which is hard because our community has a lot of elderly and disabled folks on fixed incomes.”

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Respect Ya Mominem

We will be there, fellow earthlings, and we hope to see you and your friends, too. Invite everyone. There will be at least 100,000 of us, so plan to make friends and influence people. It’ll be fun, and a nice thing to do for Mother Earth. As we say in New Orleans, “Respect ya mominem.” (Illustration by Dirty Coast.)

If you can’t be there, please help spread the word, and click here to see how you can contribute some “spare change for positive change.” Text “change” to 97779 to join in. Click here for PDFs of flyers, posters, etc.

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Further Reading

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change

National Climate Assessment Report 2014 (“A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.”)

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods (NYT 5/6/14)

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt (NYT 5/12/14)

This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like (Mother Jones, 5/12/14)

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise (Mother Jones, 1/31/13)

The Arctic Ice Crisis: Greenland’s glaciers are melting far faster than scientists expected (Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, 8/16/12)

12 things the Obama administration wants you to know about climate change (Grist.org on the National Climate Assessment)

Just 90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions (Mother Jones, 11/20/13)

What Climate Change Will Do to Your City: By 2300, these iconic cities [New Orleans omitted] could be underwater

150 Years in 30 Seconds: Sea Level Debt Sinking U.S. Cities (ClimateCentral)

Climate Change @ WhiteHouse.gov

NextGen Climate.org

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city_lights_asia_720

Image by NASA.

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Labor Day Is for the Workers (the 99%)

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Labor-day-1-AT-8-27“Labor Creates All Wealth”

“Our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity.

“It stands for the right. It is the greatest protestant against wrong. It is the defender of the weak.

“Its members make the sacrifices and bear the brunt of battle to obtain more equitable and humane conditions in the everyday lives of all the people.”

Samuel Gompers, president, American Federation of Labor, “The Significance of Labor Day,” in The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1910

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We are delighted to see that, yes, there actually are still parades on Labor Day. New York City’s will be Saturday, Sept. 6. New Orleans, on the other hand, is in the throes of Southern Decadence—not quite the same, but, still, a celebration.

A special day to celebrate the worker was first proposed in 1882, and was made a national holiday by Congress in 1894. The first Monday of September was chosen as an appropriate midway point between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving; it would include elements of each holiday: patriotism and gratitude.

The first labor day celebration was proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a leading official of the American Federation of Labor and founder of the carpenters’ union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. (Credit for the idea has also been given to another Maguire, one Matthew Maguire of the Knights of Labor.) In any case, a celebration of labor, including a picnic and speeches and a big parade, was organized for September 5, 1882. It was a great success, with some 10,000 workers parading on Broadway past City Hall and Union Square, carrying signs reading “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” (The eight-hour workday was not yet legally protected—and in too many cases it still isn’t.)

1st Labor Day parade NYC 1882

Oregon declared the first statewide holiday for Labor Day in 1887, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Thirty-two states had established the holiday by the time President Grover Cleveland signed a bill on June 28, 1894, making Labor Day a national holiday. Cleveland, a Democrat but no friend of labor, had just called out thousands of federal troops to suppress the turbulent Pullman railcar workers’ strike (1894) near Chicago that had paralyzed the nation’s rail system. [See “Behind the Pullman Strike” in Further Reading below.] Cleveland’s signature, however, did not placate labor, and he was not nominated for reelection in 1896 (the Democratic candidate would be William Jennings Bryan).

How Labor Unions Strengthened America

With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men. —Clarence Darrow

In the national bestseller Who Stole the American Dream? (2013), Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith explains what labor unions did for the nation’s middle class before a systematic dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society safety net shredded Middle America:

. . . the anchor of middle class-power during the long postwar period and its most consistent and effective advocate was the American labor movement. Union power played a central role in creating the world’s largest middle class by pushing Corporate America to share the economic gains from rising industrial productivity and efficiency with average Americans. Shared labor-management power delivered shared prosperity.

Organized labor’s impact extended far beyond bread-and-butter gains for its own members. The trade union movement fought for and won the eight-hour day, the five-day week, child labor laws, and labor safety laws. Not only did unions bargain with America’s biggest corporations for a better middle-class standard of living, but the AFL-CIO, the labor federation, vigorously supported consumer activists, environmentalists, and the drive to strengthen regulatory agencies. It backed political candidates—mostly Democrats, but some moderate and liberal Republicans, too—who voted in Congress for a more level economic playing field. What’s more, by establishing a social contract and economic benchmarks that many non-union employers felt compelled to match, labor’s tough bargaining with big business gained higher pay levels and better benefits for non-union workers as well as union members.

WPAWith strong governmental support during the New Deal period, labor had become a force to be reckoned with during the era of middle-class prosperity. Trade union strength had tripled in size, reaching 35 percent of the private sector workforce by the mid-1950s. By the late 1970s, unionization of public as well as private sector employees had tapered off to 27 percent of the total workforce. But that was still an army of twenty-one million, by far the largest organized body of middle-class Americans. Every big industry—autos, steel, construction, food, trucking, textiles, garment making—had big, muscular unions pressing for a better standard of living for average Americans. (p. 38)

Legislative limitations and rollbacks of union power, beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959), shifted into higher gear during the Carter administration (1977–81)—more by Congress than by Jimmy Carter—and into overdrive under Ronald Reagan (1981–89), and continue in the Obama years through the blunt-instrument tactics of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and other Republican governors. Still, in 2011 the median yearly earnings of union members were $47,684, and of non-union members, $37,284.

“In the past 20 years,” reports Mother Jones, “the US economy has grown nearly 60 percent. This huge increase in productivity is partly due to automation, the internet, and other improvements in efficiency. But it’s also the result of Americans working harder—often without a big boost to their bottom lines. Oh, and meanwhile, corporate profits are up 20 percent. . . . Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.” (“Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil,” Mother Jones, July/August 2011.)

“$15 and a Union”

On a more positive note, a movement to raise the minimum wage, stymied by a paralyzed U.S. Congress, has sparked a push for wage hikes in cities and states around the nation. Seattle recently approved a $15 per hour minimum wage, and San Francisco and Chicago are considering a similar raise.

The CEOs of McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, each earn more than $10 million a year—more than twice as much in a day as many of their employees earn in a year. 

FASTFOOD-master675Fast-food workers, who are often paid from about $7.35 to $8 or $9 per hour—work part-time, irregular hours, often with no benefits—have been campaigning in recent years for a $15 per hour minimum wage. One worker, a single mother in Charleston who earns $7.35 an hour after ten years as a McDonald’s cashier, told a New York Times reporter, “If we win $15, that would change my life. I get paid so little money that it’s hard to make ends meet, and I’ve had to move back in with my mother.” Mother Jones notes that one year’s earnings at the minimum wage amounts to only $15,080, while the income required for a single worker to have real economic security would be $30,000 per year.

In November 2012 in New York, 200 workers went on a one-day strike at 60 fast-food restaurants, and in May this year, restaurant workers walked off the job in 150 cities around the U.S. The movement’s motto has become “$15 and a union.” In July, 1,200 fast-food employees, with backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), gathered near Chicago for a two-day convention about raising low-wage workers’ pay and fighting income inequality. One of the speakers, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, told the audience:

“You have to stay in the $15 fight until it is a reality. When you raise people’s wages and it raises the standard of living and you increase purchasing power, you actually not only do the right thing morally, but you do the right thing economically, and the whole country is blessed.”

The New York Times explains that SEIU has been trying to unionize the fast food workers, and has “brought several cases before the National Labor Relations Board, asking its general counsel to declare McDonald’s a joint employer of the restaurants run by its franchisees. If the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the S.E.I.U. to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.”

In this midterm congressional election year we want to see Democrats standing with the low-wage workers. And, even more, we want to see them standing with the workers after the election.

“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned—this is the sum of good government.” —Thomas Jefferson

“Splendid as has been the progress in organization and federation within the recent past, yet there is much to do to convince the yet unorganized workers that their duty to themselves, their wives and children, their fellow-workers, their fellow-men is to organize and help in the great cause. We must win or regain the confidence of the indifferent, negligent, or ignorant non-unionists, to impress on his mind that he who will not stand with his brother for the right is equally responsible with the wrongdoer for any wrong done.” Samuel Gompers, “The Significance of Labor Day”

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Further Reading about Labor Day and the American Worker

History of Labor Day  (U.S. Department of Labor)

The Origins and Traditions of Labor Day  (What So Proudly We Hail)

The Meaning of Labor Day  (What So Proudly We Hail)

Behind the Pullman Strike of 1894: The True Story of How One Man Shut Down American Commerce to Avoid Paying His Workers a Fair Wage  (Think Progress)

“Living Wage” Effort Eclipsed By Minimum-Pay Battles  (NPR)

Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil  (Mother Jones, July/August 2011)

The Truth About the 40-Hour Workweek: It’s Actually 47 Hours Long  (Think Progress)

Jefferson R. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class  (2010)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001)

Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker  (2009)

Simon Head, The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age  (2005)

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America  (2013)

David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004)

Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class (LNW, 10/6/11)

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OccupyChicago

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First Labor Day 1882 image from U.S. Department of Labor website; worker with Raise Up for $15 button by Nathan Weber for The New York Times. Bottom flag / 99% image from Occupy Chicago, 2011. • Thanks to Stephen in NYC for suggesting the quotations by Clarence Darrow and Thomas Jefferson.

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House Democrats Demand to Know Why GOP Govs Rejected Medicaid Expansion

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

elijah-cummings.TimSloan-GettyImagesShow Us Why You’re Keeping Your People Poor and Sick

“In order to better understand the basis for your opposition, I request that you provide . . . copies of any state-specific analyses, studies, or reports that you ordered, requested or relied on to inform your decision.” Rep. Elijah Cummings, letter to GOP governors, July 29, 2014

In a rare and delightful display of Democratic vitality and imagination, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md., above), has sent requests to six Republican governors to provide documentation to justify their decisions to reject—or to accept—federal funding that does, or would, enable expansion of Medicaid coverage under  the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Three governors spurned the money, and three  accepted.

Talking Points Memo reports that Cummings sent letters to governors Rick Perry of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, and Pat McCrory of North Carolina, each of whom turned down millions in available federal money that would have helped thousands of low-income people in their states have access to health care (individuals with incomes up to $14,856, and families of four with incomes up to $30,657; see graphic below). The three Republican governors who have accepted federal funding for Medicaid expansion are Jan Brewer of Arizona, John Kasich of Ohio, and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

A press release on the House Oversight Committee’s website explains, “Under the Affordable Care Act, Congress pays 100% of costs to expand Medicaid for the first three years, declining gradually to 90% by 2020, with states paying only 10% of these costs. Democratic governors have consistently supported expanding Medicaid, but Republican governors have disagreed among themselves, with widely differing explanations.”  

The press release adds:

At a national level, if the 24 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid were to do so today, they would provide healthcare services to an additional 5.69 million people in 2016, receive an additional $423 billion in federal funds for their state budgets through 2022, and help create an additional 734,000 jobs through 2017.  

Let’s Ask Bobby Jindal

JindalYesterday Levees Not War phoned Cummings’s office (202-225-4741) to request that the congressman also demand answers from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, who frequently boasts of turning down federal funding with the air of teetotaler virtuously abstaining from alcohol. In 2009, Jindal spurned nearly $100 million that would have aided some 25,000 unemployed Louisianians through the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or “stimulus” bill of early 2009.

That was just the start of Jindal’s rejecting of funds that would help Louisiana. When he attacked Obama in October 2012 for not waiving a federal 25% local matching requirement for emergency disaster assistance after Hurricane Isaac, Senator Mary Landrieu (D–La.) had had enough:

“The governor can’t have it both ways. He cannot complain about the federal government being stingy when he turned away $80 million in broadband for rural communities, $300 million in high-speed rail for urban areas and $60 million in early childhood education for all Louisiana’s children.”

Readers who want to ask Jindal’s office directly can call 225-342-7015 or (toll-free) 866-366-1121; fax 225-342-7099, or e-mail him here.

Remember “Country First” in the presidential campaign of 2008? It turns out that, for the party that used it, it was only a campaign slogan. We knew that at the time—we just didn’t anticipate to what extremes the cynicism would stretch.

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See also:

Jindal: From Rising Star to Black Hole (LNW, 2/25/09)

Mr. Jindal, Tear Down This Ambition (LNW, 2/20/09)

Republicans Against Medicare: A Long, Mean History (LNW, 10/15/12)

Think Progress: Bobby Jindal’s Obamacare Replacement Could Kick Millions Off Their Insurance Plans

More about the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) at Levees Not War

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Check out The Commonwealth Fund to learn more about how the Affordable Care Act is working.

The Commonwealth Fund: Implementing the Affordable Care Act: State Action on Quality Improvement in State-Based Marketplaces

Affordable Care Act Uninsured

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Photo credits: Elijah Cummings by Tim Sloan/Getty Images; Bobby Jindal by Tim Mueller for The New York Times. Graphic by The Commonwealth Fund.

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Wishing America a Happier Birthday

Friday, July 4th, 2014

democracy_a-challenge@TP. . . And Many Happy Returns

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

—from ¶ 2 of The Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776

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Bloggers on politics and current affairs tend to welcome the Fourth of July not only for the fireworks and cookouts like everyone else, but also because America’s Birthday provides an occasion for a kind of midsummer Thanksgiving. It’s also a time when we cannot help but feel the contrast between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s present-day actualities. Of course the nation is inevitably found wanting—as any nation would be—but the holiday can be a time to take stock of our fitness, in the same way a person who wants to lose weight or build strength weighs herself, looks in the mirror, and resolves to strive harder and smarter at the gym and the grocery store.

America.2In the neighborhood cinema last week we saw a trailer for America: Imagine the World Without Her, the new film by Dinesh D’Souza (based on his book of the same title), which challenges audiences to imagine the world without the greatness that is the United States of America as we (conservatives) know it, or her. The film shows the Statue of Liberty and other national icons disintegrating as one what-if after another strips away the essential components of our national history.

Now, the film may or may not be worth seeing, but what these images of disintegration called to mind almost immediately was the ravaging effect of the Supreme conservatives and Tea Partiers in Congress and in state legislatures who are dismantling the New Deal, the Great Society, stripping away the social safety net, refusing funding for rebuilding roads, bridges, and levees, revoking hard-won voting rights protections, and blocking access to health care for women and the poor and to common forms of birth control. (See William Greider’s powerful essay “Rolling Back the 20th Century,” a survey that’s as illuminating today as when The Nation published it in 2003.)

Here are some things we are thankful for on the nation’s birthday:

Domestic affairs: Although the Labor Department’s reports are not to be taken at face value because their numbers do not indicate the nearly 6 million who have given up trying to find jobs, we are pleased to see that about 2.5 million jobs were created in the last year, and over 9.4 million jobs have been created over the last several years. A New York Times editorial today (“Jobs Rebound, Prosperity Lags”) reports:

The economy added 288,000 jobs in June, and tallies for April and May were revised upward, bringing job creation over the past year to 2.49 million, the highest level in five years. The unemployment rate also fell to 6.1 percent, the lowest level in nearly six years, and, even better, the decline was unambiguously good news. It resulted from people getting hired and not leaving the work force.

The editorial goes on to note, however, that

Job growth is still falling short by 6.7 million jobs, including government jobs that were lost and not replaced, plus jobs that were needed to keep up with the population but not created. The jobless rate would be 9.6 percent, if it counted nearly six million people who would be looking for work or working if the economy were stronger.

Regrettably (to put it lightly), much of this weakness could be avoided by aggressive congressional action—and it’s never too late. Many, many jobs could be created, and others kept, if another stimulus were to be enacted, a really robust one this time; or if congressional Republicans would allow a vote on the American Jobs Act that President Obama first proposed in a speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2011, and for which he campaigned vigorously. (Click here to see what that act would have provided for—e.g., $35 billion in aid to states and cities to prevent teacher layoffs, and $50 billion for investments in transportation infrastructure.)

Executive actions: We are pleased that President Obama, who for too long tried to be reasonable and conciliatory with an opposition party that had already resolved to block him at every turn and allow no legislative accomplishments, ever, has recently, and with evident relish, turned to executive actions to do what he can on issues that cannot wait—such as raising the minimum wage for federal workers and for workers employed by federal contractors, on making the U.S. better prepared to combat climate change, etc. Other executive orders can be found here. As President Obama remarked before a July 1 cabinet meeting:

. . . what I’m going to be urging all of you to do, and what I’m going to be continually pushing throughout this year and for the next couple of years is that if Congress can’t act on core issues that would actually make a difference in helping middle-class families get ahead, then we’re going to have to be creative about how we can make real progress.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans offer no solutions of their own and continue to block all Democratic attempts at progress on creating jobs, on funding of badly needed infrastructure projects, on comprehensive immigration reform, on gun control, and other matters on which the Obama administration has pushed for legislative action. (See, for instance, “GOP Is Not to Be Trusted with Adult Responsibilities,” LNW 10/17/13, and “Jobs, Jobs . . . Senate Republicans Keep Vets Unemployed,” LNW 9/25/12.)

Foreign affairs: We are reassured (for the most part) that this president is secure enough in his own judgment about national security and the expertise of his advisers that he will not be rushed into a knee-jerk military response to the latest crisis in Iraq (or what used to be known as Iraq). We are relieved, for example, that he does not worry about what John McCain will say. Regarding Iraq and the ISIS crisis, we are writing to the White House and to the Democratic Senate leadership to urge them to keep diplomacy first, to keep U.S. involvement minimal, military action nonexistent if possible, and to use every opportunity to think long-term and use diplomatic pressure to try to bring about more equitable representation of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in Iraq’s national government.

We remain impressed that the president opted not to authorize military strikes on Syria, as he considered doing around last Labor Day—that was the right call, in our view, and a courageous exercise of restraint—and that he and Secretary of State John Kerry have worked to reduce Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile (nearly all disposed of now, we’re told), with cooperation from Russia. We also applaud Obama for being a vigorous supporter, since his days in the Senate, of nuclear nonproliferation efforts and of arms reduction agreements with Russia, particularly the New Start Treaty of 2010 (thanks also to former Senator Dick Lugar, Republican of Indiana, along with then-Senator John Kerry).

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“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends”

vintage-flagWe continue to believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, and, as long as gross inequities and injustices exist, we expect never to be really satisfied with this nation that has such immense potential. Much has been given to this country, and much is expected of it. Perhaps it is only through our own individual efforts at cultivating peace and protecting liberty, including our neighbors’—the America within each of us—that the nation can be brought closest to its fulfillment.

This formerly (and ever potentially) great country deserves better, so much better, than what many of its elected officials are doing for it at present. (Country First, or Party First?) On this national holiday, the nation’s birthday, let us all, let each of us, recommit to do our part.

“Work as if you are in the early days of a better nation.” —Alasdair Gray

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Further Reading:

On July 4, Yearning for a Progressive American Revolution” (LNW 7/4/13)

Charles M. Blow, New York Times: “Barack the Bear

Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog: “Obama no longer cares whether the GOP is outraged

GOP Is Not to Be Trusted with Adult Responsibilities: Two-Week Tantrum Epitomizes GOP’s Recovery-Strangling Refusal to Share in Work of Governing (LNW, 10/17/13)

Review of Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution 

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Illustration credit: “Democracy . . . a challenge” found at Think Progress.

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Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1950)

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On the night of the Mississippi GOP primary runoff between U.S. senator Thad Cochran and state senator Chris McDaniel, PBS aired Freedom Summer, a powerful American Experience documentary of the summer of 1964. Fifty years ago, on the invitation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), some 700 college students, mostly white and mostly from the North, volunteered to work in Mississippi to register black people to vote and to teach children and adults. The contrast, and the overlaps and continuities, between Tuesday’s election and 1964’s Freedom Summer are striking.

Many Americans do not know that in the early 1960s black people in Mississippi (though not only in Mississippi) risked being murdered simply for registering to vote. At the least, they could be fired from their jobs or driven from their homes. At the time, only 7 percent of the African American population of Mississippi was registered to vote, compared to about 50 to 70 percent in other southern states. Cochran won, but McDaniel has not conceded. It was widely reported before the election that the Cochran campaign realized they must appeal to Democratic voters, which in Mississippi means primarily black voters, to come out and vote for longtime senator Cochran. Mississippi has open primaries, which means that anyone of any party can vote for any candidate. The McDaniel supporters—mostly Tea Party conservatives who regard Cochran as a Democrat-like sell-out—are furious, and some are urging a break from the Republican Party, which they see as not much different from the Democratic Party.

Is It OK to Vote in Another Party’s Primary?

We confess to having some misgivings about the idea of large numbers of citizens who usually vote for one party getting involved in a primary election organized by a different party. We did not like it when, apparently, GOP operatives were behind the 2010 candidacy of an unemployed African American veteran in a senate primary in South Carolina ultimately won by Jim De Mint; this unemployed veteran’s candidacy drew Democratic votes away from other, more serious Democratic contenders. (Then–House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat, also found the whole affair very suspicious.) In short, Republicans have played so many dirty tricks on each other and on Democrats over the years that we have no sympathy when fair play brings about a result that displeases one of their candidates. (And, anyway, the McDaniel campaign was behind the sneak-in photographing of elderly Mrs. Cochran in a nursing home for an anti-Cochran video—in connection with which a Tea Party activist has now committed suicide—and just after the June 3 primary several McDaniel supporters were found after hours in the Hinds County Courthouse where the ballots were kept; that still has not been explained.)

In any case, though, it strikes us as reasonable that in a state with an open primary law, which allows any registered voter to give their ballot to any candidate they choose, to vote against a candidate who one has reason to believe will be harmful to oneself or one’s state. It was clear that McDaniel would not continue the flow of federal funding that Thad Cochran has succeeded in bringing to the very poor state of Mississippi, which needs all the money it can get for better roads, schools, water purification systems, and the like. An anti-government Tea Party firebrand like McDaniel somehow did not instill the same confidence as the 36-year veteran of the Senate. So, if you legally could, why not vote against him?

As reported in Talking Points Memo, McDaniel said, “Naturally sometimes it’s difficult to contest an election, obviously, but we do know that 35,000 Democrats crossed over. And we know many of those Democrats did vote in the Democratic primary just three weeks ago which makes it illegal.”

Who Is This Chris McDaniel?

chris mcdanielMany Democrats voted in the primary runoff to keep a Tea Party Republican from replacing a traditional conservative (but comparatively moderate) Republican who at least believes that government can play a beneficial role in public life. McDaniel said he was not sure he would have voted for federal relief funding after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in late August 2005. He has pointed out that education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. This time last year McDaniel delivered the keynote address at a gathering in Jackson, Miss., of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that contends that the wrong side won the Civil War. A spokesman for the group said McDaniel has addressed the Sons of Confederate Veterans on other occasions as well. Mr. McDaniel is certainly free to address any group he pleases, at any time, but what does this affinity of his say about someone who seeks to represent an entire state in the nation’s capital? It seems to us that he is more likely to be anti-government, certainly unfriendly to the concept of the federal government, and will have pro-secessionist inclinations. How well would such a person “play with others” in an institution whose work, at least historically, calls for occasional cooperation and compromise? And—just one more question—how sympathetic can such a friend of the Confederate Sons be to the aims of Freedom Summer?

Red State Republicans ‘Free at Last’

“The Court’s finding reflects well on the progress states like Mississippi have made over the last five decades.  I think our state can move forward and continue to ensure that our democratic processes are open and fair for all without being subject to excessive scrutiny by the Justice Department.”Senator Thad Cochran, June 25, 2013

Freedom Summer handshakeAlmost exactly one year to the day after the Supreme Court narrow-mindedly struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and thus opened the way for new restrictions on likely Democratic voters in the former Confederacy—which GOP-led legislatures in southern states began taking advantage of by introducing new voter I.D. laws and other restrictions on the very day the ruling was issued—a Republican candidate finds himself depending on the votes of the very people his party has worked so assiduously to discourage from the polls. Because the mostly white Republican voter base is increasingly a minority, the party must find ways to prevent the other side from going to the polls in substantial numbers.

[ See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past,” LNW 6/26/13  •  “How Many White Folks Does It Take to Pass a Jim Crow ‘Brain-Teaser’?” LNW 6/30/13  •  and “The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South,” LNW 7/11/13. ]

Now, Mr. Cochran, Stand Up for Voting Rights Act’s Protections

New York Times editorial, “Thad Cochran’s Debt to Mississippi,” asserts that Cochran owes it to the people of his state—particularly those who helped him keep his job—“to return the favor by supporting a stronger Voting Rights Act and actively working to reduce his party’s extreme antigovernment policies.”

Last year, Mr. Cochran praised the Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. He can now make it clear that bipartisanship goes both ways by crossing party lines to support a new measure that would restore the act’s protections, becoming the first Republican senator to do so.

It remains to be seen what William Thad Cochran will do with the power he continues to wield, and whether McDaniel will contest the election, or form a third party. McDaniel has signaled that he has no interest in remaining in a timid, “pastel” GOP that is sometimes willing to compromise (or even to speak) with Democrats. He is clever, articulate, photogenic, and he has a strong base of support—not only in Mississippi: allies include talk radio hosts Glenn BeckMark Levin, Sean Hannity, and a former GOP vice presidential candidate this blog prefers not to mention by name. Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner

Early on, a tragic pall was cast over Freedom Summer by the disappearance on June 21, 1964, of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (left). Goodman and Schwerner had come to Mississippi earlier than most of the other volunteers and met their SNCC partner James Chaney. It was later found that the three were murdered by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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Photo of Thad Cochran (top) by Joe Ellis/AP; photo of Chris McDaniel from campaign website.

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7 Million Cheers for ‘Obamacare’

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

more than 7 millionPublic Health, Too, Is ‘National Security’

Congratulation to President Obama, the White House, and the courageous Democrats in Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the most ambitious expansion of health care for Americans since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

After the March 31 deadline for enrollments, President Obama announced that the goal of 7 million by April 1 has been met—and more: some 7.1 million previously uninsured Americans have signed up for coverage. And the numbers will rise because those who were not able to finish signing up by midnight Monday will have another two weeks to complete their registration. (Go to Healthcare.gov to learn more.)

So, congratulations to the elected officials and policy makers, and “best of health” to the American people—those who are now covered, and especially to those who do not yet have health insurance.

Let’s look briefly at some numbers. According to The New Yorker:

Three million young people remain on their parents’ health-care plans; more than eight million uninsured people are eligible for Medicaid; and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than a hundred million people have received preventive-care services, like mammograms and flu shots, at no cost.

ObamacareWhat Does Obamacare Do for You?

Per “The Affordable Care Act by the Numbers” at WhiteHouse.gov (2012):

Click here for more benefits.

The present system of Medicare and Medicaid was signed into law in 1965 by Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. As Jeffrey Toobin explains in The New Yorker:

Medicare, providing health insurance for all Americans over the age of sixty-five, proved popular almost immediately: after the rollout, about nineteen million people signed up, more than ninety per cent of those eligible. Medicaid, covering the poor of all ages, is financed jointly by the federal government and the states. The first year, only twenty-six states agreed to participate, and the program didn’t include all fifty until 1982, when Arizona, the final holdout, joined.

Conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act has been principally directed at the Medicaid aspects that are mainly tailored to the very poor: “Ideas such as the requirement that everyone obtain insurance, with subsidies for people who can’t afford it; the mandate that insurance companies offer coverage to all comers; and the incentives for states to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid have meant political war,” as Toobin explains.

Steven Benen at The Maddow Blog points out that “the single biggest hindrance to expanding coverage to the uninsured is Republican governors in red states blocking Medicaid expansion. That’s not conjecture; it’s what the CBO has already documented.” Benen wrote last August:

The Affordable Care Act originally made Medicaid expansion mandatory for states, guaranteeing coverage for millions, but a narrow Supreme Court majority ruled that it must be optional – if states want to take advantage of an amazing deal they could, but if they choose to turn down the federal money, Washington can’t force them to accept it. 

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Affordable Care Act Uninsured

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