In the Wake of A Sinking Ship

By Leonard Fein

Published October 28, 2005, issue of October 28, 2005.
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In November 2004, just after the reelection of President Bush, I wrote that the Republicans are “off to such a furious start that their excess may presage their early demise. Simply stated, the likelihood is that the Republicans will over-reach. The early indications are that they have not merely been buoyed by their victories, but inflated by them. And inflated politicians are first and foremost a danger to themselves.”

It is too early by far to break out the champagne — nor, truth to tell, will it be appropriate even if and when the Bush administration implodes. The cost of indulging this pack of misanthropic liars has already been too high, and will surely be higher still, to permit a full-fledged celebration at its collapse. Better to bentsh goimel, the prayer Jews recite upon recovering from a serious illness or when an impending disaster is averted.

But at least there is now, finally, some reason to suppose that Martin Luther King was right when he famously said, “The arc of history moves slowly, but it bends toward justice.” (Emphasis, for the time being, on “slowly.”)

Let us leave aside the most obvious and most notorious of the Bush administrations bungles. Leave aside the war in Iraq, which may well go down in history as The War of False Pretenses, false pretenses in the justification for the war and continuing false pretenses in the public “information” regarding the war’s conduct and prospects.

Leave aside the apparently imminent indictment of two or more high-ranking officials of the administration in the Valerie Plame case and leave aside the malodorous no-bid contracts that have been so prominent both in Iraq and in post-Katrina reconstruction.

And leave aside as well the insult to the Supreme Court and to the nation called the nomination of Harriet Miers, save to note that the strident conservative opposition to Miers is at best a mixed blessing, since there is every reason to believe that if she has the good sense to withdraw her name she will likely be replaced with a more able and more dependable nominee, one who not only knows how to fill out a questionnaire but who also knows constitutional law.

No, let us focus simply on smaller items, the kind that are so often overshadowed by such things as war and peace, high crimes, high bids and high courts. Let us focus on just some of the second-tier events of this past week or two.

The last increase in the minimum wage in the United States was in 1997. Since then, given inflation, the purchasing power of the minimum wage, fixed at $5.15 an hour, has declined by 17%. Work a 40-hour week for 50 weeks a year and at year’s end you will have earned $10,300. Last week, the Senate rejected a proposal to increase the wage to $6.25 an hour. (That works out to $12,500 a year, still well below the poverty line, but more than a trivial improvement.) So it stays at $5.15.

Well, you may think, at least poor people have their health care covered. There’s Medicaid, specifically designed to provide health care to poor people, as also children and people with disabilities. But while it is true that there is Medicaid, there is also Florida.

Medicaid is a partnership between the states and the federal government, providing health insurance for 50 million people; its costs have been rising with disheartening speed. Now the rules for Medicaid in Florida are to be changed — and in this case, as Florida goes, so will other states likely go as well.

Specifically, decisions regarding the benefits a person receives will no longer be made by the state-federal partnership; they will me made, instead, by private health plans: HMOs. I will spare you the tedious details, which put a cap on the reimbursement for medical care that any Medicaid enrollee can receive. Henceforward, it appears, poor people will be covered if they are sick, but not if they are too sick. (Since there’s a cap on HMO spending per patient, HMOs do better as they limit the services they provide.)

The government calls this new arrangement a “demonstration project.” It sound more like a demolition project, and it is interesting to note that children and pregnant women are exempted from the spending limits — as if the sponsors of the new plan were too embarrassed to go all the way, or, more plausibly, as if they knew the political firestorm that would result were their cruel frugality not tempered.

So it turns out that health care coverage for poor people is dispensable, while tax cuts for rich people — so say our president and the Republican leadership of Congress — are sacred.

There’s more, even if you don’t count Tom DeLay’s indictment or the revelations regarding Senator Bill Frist’s stock in his family’s health business. (It turns out that the blind trust Frist set up to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety” of a conflict of interest achieved only that. There was no appearance of impropriety; there was merely the reality of impropriety.)

There’s the indemnification of gun manufacturers from tort claims, even when there has been manufacturer negligence, there’s the waiver of “prevailing wage” requirements in letting contracts for reconstruction in the wake of Katrina, there’s lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s evident corruption and suborning of corruption. And on.

It is somewhat heartening that the president’s job approval rating has declined to just 39%. But something’s still missing: Where’s the genuine outrage, the popular indignation? Jokes about the president’s incompetence are unavoidable, but in the end, this is no laughing matter. Whether the president and his people are inept or malign, real people — our neighbors — are their victims.






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