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Was The New Deal A Disastrous Sellout?

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In comments, McManus points us to what he considers a good progressive argument against passing the health care reform bill.   The argument, I think, can be fairly distilled into this point:

The Senate bill further entrenches the private health insurance system. It continues the terrible pattern of privatizing our social safety net in such a way that business skims 20% off the top.

This kind of heighten-the-contradictions argument has a certain power — if you can construct a plausible scenario under which an actual president, an actual majority of the House of Representatives, and an actual 60th most liberal member of the Senate would vote to create either a single-payer system or even a Swiss-like system of very tightly regulated non-profit private insurance. The argument not only fails but is deeply irresponsible because such a scenario is in fact wildly implausible, and while we would be playing Vladimir and Estragon a great deal of preventable suffering and death would occur. The simple fact is that high-veto-point American political institutions protect the status quo in general and powerful vested interests in particular. It’s not just that times when even significant incremental change is possible are rare — the American welfare state was basically constructed in two 2- or 3-year periods following historically unusual landslides in all three branches. It’s that even in those periods, reform involved compromises as bad or worse than what’s being contemplated in the current legislation.

Let’s take the New Deal. The parts of the New Deal that didn’t involve the creation of corporate cartels — the enduring parts — were not only incremental reforms but were all deeply compromised with interests much more morally odious than insurance companies: Southern segregationists. Social security and unemployment benefits both, through discriminatory labor definitions and by allowing for discretion in local enforcement, gave many more benefits to whites even though they would have gotten proportionately less in a fairly constructed and administered system. The New Deal not only further entrenched but disproportionately benefited the apartheid power. And yet not only FDR (who, in truth, was even more tepid on civil rights than was politically necessary) but most of his African-American supporters understood that the programs were a good deal on balance: it wasn’t a choice between a discriminatory welfare state and a non-discriminatory one; it was a discriminatory one or nothing. And they were right.

The fact is, compromises with venality and/or evil are almost always necessary in the American political system; it’s virtually impossible to accomplish anything without buying off powerful interests. Getting anything like universal health coverage is going to require giving protection money to insurance interests. This is nothing to be happy about, but arguments that fail to recognize this aren’t going to be very useful.

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  • I wrote about this yesterday but Harper’s story on “The Vanishing Liberal” explains very well what is wrong with our political system and why. For 130 years liberal movements have opened up seats at the political table to immigrants, Jews, Catholics, women, blacks, Hispanics, etc. etc. etc. We have unprecedented numbers of people who come from neither wealthy nor well-connected families serving in high office (Obama? Bill Clinton? Justice Sotomayor?). And now they are closing the door. Game over.

    To truly turn our political ship around we need a true grassroots reshaping of the liberal movement, because the Democratic Party is as entrenched in the military and corporate status quo as the Republicans. So no, there won’t ever be a Single Payer as long as we keep going as is, in fact, I doubt if this healthcare reform package passes few if any of the needed fixes will ever happen.

    The question is, can liberalism be reborn? I’m just not sure that it can.

  • Ed

    “….if you can construct a plausible scenario under which an actual president, an actual majority of the House of Representatives, and an actual 60th most liberal member of the Senate would vote to create either a single-payer system or even a Swiss-like system of very tightly regulated non-profit private insurance. The argument not only fails but is deeply irresponsible because such a scenario is in fact wildly implausible, and while we would be playing Vladimir and Estragon a great deal of preventable suffering and death would occur.”

    Ah, but lefties aren’t bothered by needless suffering and death. That’s why they keep agitating for health care reform decade in and decade out. Fortunately there are many caring folk around to set the sillies straight.

    I’m just ignoring the Single Payer or Nothing strawman thing. LGF is a great site and this stuff is really not worthy of you. Respectfully, etc.

    • I’m just ignoring the Single Payer or Nothing strawman thing. LGF is a great site and this stuff is really not worthy of you. Respectfully, etc.
      Didn’t he mention the Swiss model too? And if the current Senate with Scott Brown wouldn’t be able to overcome a filibuster on even this version of the bill, when would it vote yes for something more progressive?

      • DocAmazing

        Maybe when the public option is put back on the table? It is terrifically popular with the voters.

        • Scott Lemieux

          1)The public option that was on the table was a minor improvement; arguments against health care as too incremental collapse on themselves if that’s you’re breaking point.

          2)Please explain how you’re going to get Lieberman, Nelson, et al (or their equivalents in future Senates) to support one.

          • Scott Lemieux

            I should also to say that calling my argument a strawman is just erroneous. The argument that that any bill that maintains for-profit insurance is bad is made explicitly in the post I’m addressing.

          • DocAmazing

            When one is called on to compromise, one always has a “last straw” point–and for many, that was the public option. No one really cares about the arguments that HCR was too incremental; it’s that the sold-out mess that eventuall was put together is to excremental. “At least put back in a public option–it’s the least you could do” went the thinking. No one really cared much about the arguments about process after that long and exhausting ordeal.

  • Ed

    Oops, LGM. Sorry ’bout that.

  • We aren’t playing Vladimir and Estragon, we’re playing Lucky.

  • Progressives who oppose the current legislation must accept the great risk that, should the legislation fail, it will be 20 years before there is another meaningful attempt at health care reform. That’s pretty much the historical trend: Truman in ’48; Johnson in ’65; Clinton in ’93; Obama in ’09.

    Which means that these so-called progressives are in effect arguing that 20 more years of the deterioration of the “system” we have now is better than the bill on the table. That’s 20 more years of rescission and of no coverage for preexisting conditions. That’s 20 more years for the number of uninsured and underinsured to increase. That’s 20 more years toward a health care reality in which the only people with solid health insurance are those who work for the federal government or successful companies in an industry that competes for people. In other words, Mitch McConnell will have his insurance, but I’ll be s.o.l. Ironically, so will most teabaggers.

    • RobW

      Why must we assume this to be so? Everywhere I go, I hear this stated as a given: it’s now or never, if we don’t pass this crap, it’ll be a generation before we even address it again. This isn’t even a prediction, it’s an assumption, accepted as a given.

      So, the status quo won’t continue to get worse? The aging population won’t become both more in need and more vocal? There will be no increase in popular pressure to achieve real reform? Nobody can predict what will be the political climate on any other issue over the next 2-4 years, but we can say with absolute certainty that nothing will change on HCR issue over the next 20? It dies in this Congress, and nobody ever brings it up again?

      Yeah, I know, that’s what happened in the 90s. This ain’t the 90s.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Since when did the objectively bad performance of the American health care system bother Republicans or moderate Democrats? With these groups about to gain more power for a while, what makes you think better legislation is coming anytime soon? What president is going to invest his political capital in health care anytime soon if Obama fails? People assume this for good reason, and people whose argument depends on rejecting it assiduously avoid explaining how the 60th most liberal vote in the Senate is going to become much more liberal in the next decade or two…

  • DocAmazing

    The specific way in which the Senate bill replaces the public social safety net with private in a way that’s likely to cause suffering is in the cutting of Disproportionate Share Hospital funds. I know you’re all tired of me going on about it, but the fact remains: DiSH fund will be cut by 50% when insurance penetration hits 45% in a state’s population. That’s not 45% of the population; it’s 45 % of those eligible, which pointedly excludes the homeless and the undocumented, who are two of the groups most supported by DiSH funds going to hospitals to care for medically indigent adults. It is quite predictable that this will result in the closures of emergency rooms and hospitals that serve large numbers of medically indigent adults. Put into simple terms, this bill, working the way it is supposed to, will screw the poor.

    We’ve all heard how necessary its passage is, so pass the God-damned thing already–but start immediately to agitate for repeal of the DiSH cuts. I keep hearing about the thirty million who will have access to insurance, and that’s a powerful argument, but it doens’t make the homesless and the undocumented go away.

    • larryb33

      I did not know about this. Yet another reason to love this bill.

    • Sam

      this is why my rep, bobby rush, has become a “maybe” from a “yes.” maybe he’s just bluffing them to try to get them to put it back in, but i wouldn’t have even known about it if he hadn’t made a little noise.

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  • larryb33

    Ah– but is not “single payer or nothing”. This bill just sucks. Yes, I’d like single payer, but I would settle for something that does not have a very high probability of making things worse.

    • Scott Lemieux

      This bill just sucks

      Compared to what?

      • DocAmazing

        We just spent months going over possible alternatives, so “compared to what?” is a somewhat disingenuous question.

        • jdkbrown

          Compared to what that actually has a chance of passing?

          • DocAmazing

            For example, sticking back in the gee-it-polls-pretty-well public option.

            • jdkbrown

              How does it poll among Senators and House members? You know, those people who actually get to vote on it.

              • Anonymous

                Rather than the people they supposedly represent, and who can send their asses home if they don’t agree with the vote?

  • This bill just sucks

    Compared to what?

    Ohhh I’ll play!

    a) Compared to what is NEEDED to fix our broken system;
    b) Compared to what other Western nations enjoy;
    c) Compared to what we could have had, if the party in power truly had the political will to see it through.

    • djw

      Right. The bill sucks when you compare it to all kinds of things. How does it do compared to the status quo?

    • Halloween Jack

      Compared to what we could have had, if the party in power truly had the political will to see it through.

      Green Lanternism: Not just for wingnuts any more!

  • rea

    I am so bloody tired of people more interested in the purity of their ideals and principles than in the practical problems of governing a country, of people who don’t seem to grasp that living in a republic means you don’t get your own way every time, of people who think they can ignore reality if only they have enough willpower, and above all, of people who don’t have the stomach for the long struggle, who wanted cheap total victory, and failing that, propose to go have a good sulk. There was never any chance of fixing health care with just a single bill; it’s going to take a generation of effort. But, until the bill is passed, we can’t even start.

    Progressives don’t have a silent majority in this country. Unless you want to abandon democracy for the dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariate, you have to accept that you’re going to spend your whole life fighting for incremental improvement, and paying off powerful interests to get out of the way of reform.

    • larryb33

      Did you read the link provided? The author is quite willing to settle for incremental change– as long as it is change for the good. He makes some very good points. I happen to think his argument is sound.

      If you don’t want to pander to corporate interests, you’re a purist. So get with the program! Before you know it, it is Clinton all over again. Hmmm… let me think. Now what were his greatest policy achievements? Telecommunications act, “ending welfare as we know it” (“The era of big government is over”) NAFTA, Oh yeah– The Repeal of Glass-Steagall (OK, I’ll admit I probably would not have included that one 3 years ago). Lets not forget he did his part to privatize government functions too.

    • DocAmazing

      Health care reform is actuall very popular when the questions are not phrased Fox News-style. The problem isn’t progressives being intransigent: it’s centrists surrendering the framing of the issue and refusing to push for greater reforms (for example, taking the public option off the table at the outset, rather than after a whole bunch of give-and-take) or surrendering to reactionaries on the details (for example, the DiSH cuts). The public is actually way ahead of the Senate on this–as long as the questions are asked correctly.

  • bob mcmanus

    “Unless you want to abandon democracy for the dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariate, you have to accept that you’re going to spend your whole life fighting for incremental improvement, and paying off powerful interests to get out of the way of reform.”

    You mean I really have this choice? Or are you teasing?

    Pretty fair post Lemieux, with my biggest objection already expressed by Ed at 2:18

    I would ask, however, why we have such high veto points? To say the veto points are institutional is to make a circular argument, that the filibuster prevents us from getting rid of the filibuster, or Senators don’t want to get rid of the filibuster, or the Constitution is very hard to amend.

    We apparently have a culture that preserves and protects those veto points. How many Constitutions or Governments have the French and Italians been through in the last 200 years? I see no reason America cannot have a culture that is less respective toward tradition and institutions.

    If you object to the veto points, then would you be willing to help change American culture to an extent that the powerful interests, institutions, and civic religion that protect and preserve the status quo are disarmed of their most powerful weapon, respect for and obedience to law?

    “if you can construct a plausible scenario…”

    We ended slavery.

  • bob mcmanus

    Or to phrase 6:36 more bluntly, why the hell do we keep letting Mitch McConnell and the Republicans kill people? Explain this to me, why people have to die or suffer because McConnell will filibuster.

    I am not in the way of universal healthcare, and you damn well know it.

    • I am not in the way of universal healthcare, and you damn well know it.

      Of course, and neither is Jane. Obviously, the blame will belong to moderate Democrats and Republicans if it fails, and they’re to blame for most of the compromises as well.

      In terms of veto points, most of them are permanent. Where I do agree is that the Dems blundered horribly in not forcing the Republicans to use the nuclear option, which would have put the filibuster on the road to history’s dustbin. Even if every single one of Bush’s neoconfederate judges (rather than 95%) had got confirmed it would have been more than worth it quickly.

  • hv

    I don’t even understand why the “heighten the contradictions” argument is thought to be so straightforward.

    Aside from the general maxim that heightening contradictions is a tricky business with unexpected outcomes, it is very possible that health care reform that contains silly or bad ideas would more quickly heighten contradictions. Right now, corps can sweep their contradictions under the “free market” rug.

  • witless chum

    I don’t really approve of anyone to right of Dennis Kucinich, but I think the best thing to do AT THIS POINT is pass it. I hate to believe this was the best we could do, because that makes the U.S. look like a shitheap, but it’s what we’ve done.

    My rationale for supporting passage of the crap bill is to get the federal government entrenched into the healthcare system. That’s honestly the best thing about the bill. That’s what I perceive to be the real conservative objection, too. In some ways they’ve done us a favor by screaming about ‘a government takeover of healthcare.’ I think they’re right that if we pass this now, the federal role in health care will rise. The bureaucracy will be tasked with doing bureaucratic things. When this bunch of reforms fails to really solve all the problems, which it obviously will, I think the chances of getting a better healthcare bill in a few years are higher if we’ve already fought the ‘should the feds be involved in the healthcare system?’ battle and won. That’s why it’s worth passing, IMO.

  • soullite

    Wow, you know you’re jumping the shark when you compare this piece of shit to the New Deal. Even half the people who support passing it consider it a piece of shit.

    Really, where in this is anyone actually getting anything that will help them? Where is the government program being created here? All you’re doing is telling people they have to buy insurance, not giving them enough money to actually do so, and instituting a $5k fine on acts of rescission. Everything else requires an extremely generous reading of the regulatory structure involved. Even that 5k fine won’t ever actually be levied if the regulation of other industries is any clue. That isn’t the New Deal. I’m pretty sure you’re going to find that out when you see the difference between Obama’s electoral gains and FDR’s electoral gains.

  • Even that 5k fine won’t ever actually be levied if the regulation of other industries is any clue.

    Really — you think there’s would be no difference between in the amount of pollution emitted if the Clean Air Act was “repealed”? “Imperfect” is a far cry from “meaningless.” At any rate, if you’re going to assume in advance that no regulation will work than no viable policy can ever work, so we might as well go home right now.

    • larryb33

      Well, you do have a point.

  • I’d find some of the complaints from the FDL crowd much more credible if they could actually maintain consistency on them. For example, for all the complaints that the current bill cements private insurers, nothing does more to prop up private insurers than the massive subsidy that is the employer health benefits tax exemption. Yet who was protesting the loudest when Democrats decided to put a modest roll back of that into the bill? FireDogLake, Marcy Wheeler in particular.

    Any way you slice it, I think te simplest answer for most of this opposition “from the left” is just pique from people realizing they aren’t as important as they thought they were.

  • “Really, where in this is anyone actually getting anything that will help them? Where is the government program being created here?”

    Also, this. I know a lot of people who will be helped greatly by the Medicaid expansion, and last I checked, Medicaid was a government program. I also find it hilarious that the people who were obsessed with a new public plan, but were willing to accept Medicare buy-in as a substitute have basically ignored Medicaid expansion. In fact, I can’t help but notice that pretty much everything the FDL crowd has been focused on disproportionately affects the middle class, and the fact that the bill would be a great improvement for poor Americans has been systematically ignored.

  • Anonymous

    While it’s true that we can’t do large scale progressive things right now, I think it’s important that we get the ideas into discussion.

    Sure, the media will treat them like it does every other progress ideas, but with repetion the ideas have a chance to percolate through.

    Look at the success the right is having by simply repeating the core mantra’s, no matter how disconnected from truth they are.

  • zak822

    While it’s true that we can’t do large scale progressive things right now, I think it’s important that we get the ideas into discussion.

    Sure, the media will treat them like it does every other progress ideas, but with repetion the ideas have a chance to percolate through.

    Look at the success the right is having by simply repeating the core mantra’s, no matter how disconnected from truth they are.

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