Friday, February 26, 2010

Why doesn't big business support a national health service?

It is often argued that a "single payer" health insurance system run by the federal government or a national health service would be in the interests of American big business apart from the health insurance companies. The growing burden of healthcare costs on the economy would be brought under control, and companies would no longer have to pay insurance premiums for their employees. Companies in Britain and Canada are quite happy with the national health service in those countries.

So why does big business not promote a real healthcare reform? This is the question asked by Doug Henwood is Issue 120 of his Left Business Observer (a publication that I highly recommend for its astute analysis of American economic and political developments; see

Apparently some people offer a "web of influence" explanation that focuses on interlocks (overlapping membership) between insurance companies and other companies and on the role of insurance companies as a source of finance for other companies. Henwood presents detailed evidence to show that these are not very significant phenomena.

Basing himself on testimony from researchers who have interviewed top executives on the issue, Henwood states that some (perhaps even many) executives support "single payer" in private but are reluctant to make their views public for two reasons.

First, they worry about the possible reaction of other firms with which they do business. Small companies especially are considered hostile to "single payer." They do not stand to gain in terms of costs because they do not provide health insurance to their employees, while they would have to bear part of the additional tax burden. So they would see such a reform as an attempt to shift costs from big business to small business.

Second, they are afraid of "encouraging would-be expropriators." One informant formulates this fear as follows: "If you can take away someone else's business -- the insurance companies' business -- then you can take away mine." In other words, the politics of capitalist class solidarity trumps the economics of cost reduction.

Henwood adds another consideration: "Employers like workers to feel insecure. Fear of losing health coverage makes workers less willing to strike or resist pay cuts or speedups."

At least in this case, it is misleading to view reform politics solely as an arena of conflict among diverse business interests. It is also an arena of class struggle.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Memory Lane: I discover white racism

Some time in my early twenties, while I was working in the (British) Government Statistical Service, I went on a bus tour of Italy. At our first meal I happened to sit with a young couple who had immigrated to England from Trinidad. The man's name was Louis; the name of his wife I no longer recall. They were the only nonwhites in the tour group.

At the second meal I happened to sit with some of the other tourists. When I next ran into Louis and his wife, I saw that they were quite upset. "Stephen, why did you abandon us?" they asked. It became clear that they wanted me to stay with them all the time. At first I thought it was ridiculous. Then I realized that if I did not keep them company no one else would and they would feel miserable right through the tour. What sort of a vacation would it be for them? So I did as they asked.

Reflecting on the situation, I concluded that when black people say that the great majority of white people are racist they are not exaggerating. Of course, the really virulent racists may now be in the minority, but I had gained an inkling of the amount of suffering caused even by the passive racism of those who do no more than ignore and keep their distance from black people.

Later, when Louis and I were walking down a lane in Florence, I was astonished to see Mr. X approach us, a beautiful young woman by his side. Mr. X had been a colleague of mine in the statistical service. He was originally from Martinique. I did not know him well; we had met two or perhaps three times. I recall another (white) colleague remarking that he "had a chip on his shoulder," meaning that he had the irritating habit of complaining about racial discrimination -- which as we all know does not exist, or if it does exist is insignificant, or if it is significant is fast declining. Anyway, Mr. X recognized me too and the four of us stopped to talk.

I introduced Louis. "This is my friend Louis," I told them. Mr. X looked surprised. "This is your friend?!" he asked, as though he couldn't believe that he had heard correctly. Louis and I nodded. Then it was as though a wave of joy suddenly swept over Mr. X. He invited us to a nearby cafe. As we sat there I noticed that he kept gazing at Louis and myself, like a man in the desert who finally reaches an oasis and drinks and drinks and drinks to quench an enormous thirst. And I thought: what a world that such an ordinary thing (or something that SHOULD be a very ordinary thing) should evoke such a disproportionate reaction.

While we were still in Florence, Louis and I went at my suggestion to visit the synagogue there. I showed him round and explained what things were. He had never been in a synagogue before; it was a wondrous experience for him. Then later, when Louis and his wife and I were sitting together as usual at the hotel, his wife started to say something bad about "the Jews." Louis sprung to his feet in agitation and began yelling at her, over and over: "You stupid woman! You stupid woman!" She did not respond but just sat there frozen. After a bit things calmed down (I can't remember exactly how) and we were dancing and joking.

Memory Lane: How I got to kick the ball

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I recall experiences that helped to shape my outlook.

I think it was at the age of 12 that I developed a hostility to the principle of competition. The context was not economics or politics but sport -- to be precise, football (as I grew up in England, this means soccer). I very much wanted to play football -- or rather, not so much to play football as simply to run around after the ball with the other boys and kick it now and then. Unfortunately I couldn't run fast -- I had a tendency to asthma -- so I hardly ever got the chance to kick the ball, and I felt it was very unfair of the faster boys not to give me more of a chance to kick it.

In the formal games, we all lined up and the team leaders picked those they wanted. I was always one of the last to be selected. True, I wasn't the only one in this position. There were a number of others who were not wanted, but unlike me these others did not seem to mind not being wanted. They didn't even try to run after the ball, but chatted among themselves by the side of the field. They put on superior airs and regarded (or pretended to regard) football as a stupid waste of time.

There were also informal football games during break (recess), but the players did not allow me to take part. One day I defied their prohibition, ran after the ball, and managed to kick it two or three times. This annoyed them, especially as I did not attach myself to either team but just kicked the ball in any direction. Their patience quickly ran out and I was forcibly pushed out of the game. In the course of the struggle my glasses fell off and got broken. I started to cry.

The teacher on duty noticed me crying and came over. He was a decent sort and seemed very concerned. He did not quite understand what had happened and asked me to explain. Instead, I tried to explain, quite truthfully, that there was no need for him to be so concerned. The fact that I was crying did not mean that I was as upset as all that; sometimes you can be much more upset when you are not crying. I was a bit disoriented, but mainly I felt happy that I had kicked the ball.

Movements for democracy and the movement for socialism

Ideally there should be no conflict between movements to establish, defend and strengthen democratic rights and the movement for socialism. Socialism, understood as common ownership and democratic control of the means of production in the interests of the community, is a natural extension of democracy from the narrow sphere of politics to the whole of social life (and in particular, of course, to the economy). That is why an alternative term for "socialism" is (or used to be) "social democracy." Political democracy is also a prerequisite for the effective spread of socialist ideas and for a peaceful transition to socialism.
In practice, movements for democratic rights often get mixed up with causes that are antithetical not only to socialism but also to democracy itself. This happens in two different ways, depending on the type of regime that is suppressing democracy in a given country.

In countries where the anti-democratic forces rely on the backing of the US and other Western powers -- above all, in Latin America, e.g. Honduras -- the democratic movement is prone to fall hostage to the "struggle against US imperialism" waged by other dictatorial regimes that are at loggerheads with the US and its allies. Hence the warm relations between Chavez' government in Venezuela, which is still basically democratic, and the anti-democratic regimes in Cuba and Iran. Conversely, democratic dissidents under anti-Western regimes (Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, China, etc.) are easily fooled by the hypocritical Western propaganda in favor of democracy and human rights. Thereby people struggling for the same ideals in different places are set against one another and manipulated as pawns in the power game of world politics.

Democratic movements have weak defenses against such manipulation for two reasons. First, people suffering under intense repression understandably feel vulnerable or even helpless and look for help wherever they can find it. They may not be sufficiently suspicious of the motives of those who are so generous -- and selective -- in offering their "support" to struggling democrats. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? And second, they may be poorly equipped intellectually to analyze the motives of foreign "benefactors." The same people who understand the politics of their own country very well and exhibit a healthy cynicism in the domestic context may be terribly naive when it comes to the politics of a foreign country with a system rather different from that with which they are familiar. Or they may simply not care: all they care about is the situation at home and they view the rest of the world solely from that angle.

As a result, even if -- with assistance from foreign anti-democratic forces -- democratic activists succeed in overthrowing one form of oppression, all they will end up with is oppression in a slightly different form. The only way out of the trap is for them to broaden their horizons beyond national and bloc confines and reach out to those "on the other side" who work in a different context and use a different political language but nonetheless share their deepest aspirations.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Haiti "aid": follow-up

Yesterday I remarked that I didn't know what the effect of the current food aid to Haiti might be. I am now slightly better informed as a result of watching the Al Jazeera Fault Lines documentary "Haiti: The Politics of Rebuilding" on The Real News network at (a source that I highly recommend).

First, it appears that food is being distributed not only in Port-au-Prince but also in other towns that were NOT affected by the earthquake, and as in the past this must be harming local farmers and therefore increasing malnutrition.

Second, many of the people who earlier left the countryside to swell the shanty towns of the capital (now destroyed) have returned to their home villages. The big question is whether reconstruction efforts will be directed at agriculture so they can stay there or whether they will be forced to return to work in rebuilt factories in Port-au-Prince and once again make apparel and other trash for the US market. The popular organizations are pressing for the first option, while the official reconstruction plan backed by the US, World Bank etc. is geared to the second option, with the number employed in offshore industry envisioned to rise from 25,000 to 150,000.

We also learn that many workers were crushed to death in the earthquake because they were locked inside factories and unable to escape.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An expose of "aid" to Haiti

I don't know what effect foreign "aid" has had in Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake, but we are entitled to be highly skeptical in light of the revelations contained in a book that appeared not long before the disaster (on January 22, 2010 to be precise) -- Timothy T. Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti. The subtitle reads: "A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking." And on the back cover we find this summary description: "An anthropologist's personal story of working with foreign aid agencies and discovering that fraud, greed, corruption, apathy, and political agendas permeate the industry." The book is published by the author: no publishing house would touch it.

Timothy Schwartz went to live in a poor fishing hamlet in Haiti to gather material for his Ph.D. thesis, which he hoped would land him a good job with an aid agency. He was also hired to conduct a survey for CARE International. But when he applied for a position with this agency he just couldn't keep his mouth shut about the unwelcome realities he had discovered (though he had resolved to do so). He didn't get the job. Apparently he now works in tourism.

The most important single fact that the author proves beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt is that increases in the flow of food aid have led to INCREASES in malnutrition. This is because most of the food is stolen and enters the market, thereby depressing prices and ruining local farmers. Moreover, the aid agencies know very well that this is the result of their "humanitarian" efforts. Their real function is to dump American and EU food surpluses and expand export markets for American and EU agriculture.

Another striking revelation is an "orphanage" for children who are not only not orphans but whose parents are quite capable of providing for them -- basically an elite boarding school masquerading as an institution for poor orphans in order to defraud naive American donors who are actually poorer than these children's parents!

By turns horrifying and entertaining, this book is a very good read and will even teach you something about Haiti.

The novels of Duong Thu Huong

I am currently immersed in the novels of the Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong that have appeared in English (Beyond Illusions, Memories of a Pure Spring, Paradise of the Blind, Novel Without a Name). Born in 1947, she was one of three survivors of a group of forty Communist Youth League volunteers who sang and danced for the troops at the front in the American war. She was published and honored in Vietnam during the period of liberalization in the late 1980s, but then she was suddenly banned, expelled from the party in 1990, and imprisoned without charge for seven months in 1991.

In 1997 she was interviewed (through a translator) by the writer Robert Stone at the PEN Center in New York. You can find videos of the interview on YouTube. She confirms that she cast the deciding vote for her own expulsion at the meeting of her party organization. She also says that her neighbors are propagandized to regard her as an enemy of the state. Nevertheless, she is left at liberty and has evidently been allowed to make at least one trip abroad -- an ambiguous position that suggests she has protectors as well as opponents in high places.

In her novels as well as in the interview, Duong Thu Huong promotes an ethic of uncompromising integrity that seems inhumanly fanatical as well as unrealistic. Linh, the heroine of Beyond Illusions, recoils in disgust from her devoted journalist husband who has abandoned the revolutionary ideals they once shared in order to gain promotion at work and provide well for her and their child, so that she should eat well during pregnancy, so that the little girl should not "long in vain for a pair of new shoes." Any "normal" person who has made such "compromises" -- no less "necessary" in the West than in the East -- will sympathize with the husband and with the child devastated by her parents' divorce. That at least was my initial reaction. Then I thought: what kind of world would we be living in now if everyone for the last hundred years or so had indulged in such ruthless integrity? We would surely have achieved genuine worldwide democracy and communism long ago and our species would not be facing self-induced extinction. So much for our love for our children! New shoes, yes, but a horrifying future.

Duong Thu Huong is sincere and courageous, but like most dissidents in the "communist" countries she seems naive about the West -- although this is a natural reaction to the simplistic propaganda she has been force-fed throughout her life. She recounts how after "liberation" she went to Saigon and found cafes, bookstores, laughing people. Why did they need "liberating" at such a horrendous price? True, the price paid was excessive, especially considering what they were "liberated" into, but there was plenty of misery under the glittering surface, in the villages and sweatshops. Otherwise why did so many people join the Vietcong?

Apart from their value as literature (no doubt partly lost in translation), Duong Thu Huong's books are a mine of insights into Vietnamese "communist" society, which has never received the academic attention devoted to its Soviet, East European, and Chinese counterparts. To some extent her work compensates for the apparent absence of serious middle-level books on the society and economy. At least I have not yet located such books, but only superficial journalistic accounts and highly specialized (and extremely expensive) studies.