Edwards is out of the race, so what do we do now? On one level it makes no difference - the most important task, as it always has been, is to organize grassroots support for progressive policies and start creating democratic businesses. Edwards wasn't a true progressive anyway - an Edwards victory would have left us in a better position to push our policies, but we would have still had to organize to hold him to his word.

But it's also worth thinking about the electability issue. I find it distasteful, because I've always believed that we should vote for people who are actually giving us something we want, not just taking it away at a slower rate. But we tried the "heightening the contradictions" approach in 2000, and Bush actually fit the bill much better than expected. I thought he'd be marginally worse than Gore, but he (or rather the people actually deciding his policies) exceeded all expectations. So what about those contradictions? All the anti-Bush outrage didn't produce a new radical movement. Instead it's gone into wonkish blogging and great enthusiasm for candidates whose policies are somewhat better than Gore's were, but fundamentally of the same reformist/capitalist/imperialist nature.

So maybe it's time to try a corporate Democrat again, and hope that this time we've learned from the shocking passivity of the left during the Clinton '90s. The question then is - would Clinton or Obama be more likely to beat McCain?

I'm pretty sure Clinton would lose to McCain. The right wing's amazing and completely irrational hatred of her is the one thing that could effectively unify it behind a candidate it doesn't really like. Meanwhile, McCain appeals strongly to independents and probably some Democrats. McCain's big potential weakness is Iraq - if things start going badly again his consistent support for the war would hurt him. Except Clinton also voted for the war, came late and unconvincingly to oppose it, and is also very right-wing on other foreign policy issues like Iran.

Obama's foreign policies are pretty much the same as Clinton's, but the popular perception of them is not. If the war became an issue again, it would tremendously help Obama against McCain. Obama is also very attractive to independents and would probably hold Democrats together better. Unlike Clinton, Obama is likely to draw large numbers of politically disengaged people into the election, which would also probably increase the Democrats' gains in Congress. The far right, without the Clinton demon to rally against, would turn out in fewer numbers. I think Obama would probably beat McCain pretty easily.

I'm certainly not arguing that people in liberal states like New York, Illinois, or California should vote for Obama on election day. If the Democrat doesn't win those states, he or she has no hope of winning the election, so go ahead and vote Green. But voting for Obama on February 5 is worth considering. I just don't know if I can bring myself to do it.


Partial breach in the news blackout on meat and the environment

I've written before about the media's suppression of news on the important link between meat and global warming (here and here). Since then the blackout has remained pretty solid - a Lexis-Nexis search turned up plenty of discussion in the newspapers of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but only one major opinion article from the Los Angeles Times (2007 October 15) and no news articles.

This weekend, The New York Times finally published a full account of these findings, as well as a comprehensive list of the many other ways the livestock industry ravishes the environment: Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.

The article was in the Week in Review section, so the prohibition on treating meat-related environmental destruction as news still stands, but the article is an outstanding summary of the issue. I encourage everyone to email it to anyone who might benefit.

There is clearly a lot of hunger for news on this topic - the article rose to the number 2 spot on The Times's most emailed list before falling to number 3 right now (Times readers just can't get enough of those vapid JFK-Obama comparisons). We'll have to see if there's any follow-up on the news reporting side, or if other news outlets follow The Times's lead.

The author stops well short of calling on people to stop eating meat, and in fact manages to avoid using the word vegetarianism entirely. This may be the best way to communicate with meateaters, and I won't argue against anything that reduces the number of animals tortured and killed. Even so, I'm concerned that what could become a growing movement to eat less meat for environmental reasons might completely ignore the issue of speciesism.


Meat and cars increase hunger

Periodically you hear the antimeat argument that, because you have to feed around 10 times as much grain to livestock to produce the same amount of calories as if you just ate the grain directly, we could solve world hunger if we stopped eating meat and sent the resulting surpluses to the hungry. That's a lousy argument, because the cause of world hunger is not global shortages, but inadequate distribution to the hungry caused by market forces and wars.

Well, it was a lousy argument till now. Because over the last several years global shortages have appeared in key crops, a development partly caused by meat. As the price of key foods like corn and cooking oil have risen, popular unrest is starting to boil over around the world. The past several months have seen food riots in Guinea, Indonesia, Mauritania, México, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Food is getting more expensive in the US too, as discussed here.

The causes are complex, as detailed in this fine article. But there's no question that the two great enemies of the environment - meat and cars - are also key culprits in rising food prices. Basically, the increasing demand for meat and auto fuel is straining global food markets - grain is needed to feed factory farmed animals and can also be converted into ethanol; edible oils are turned into biodiesel. At the same time, higher petroleum prices are driving up the cost of shipping food around the world.

The rising prices build on each other: America's asinine corn ethanol subsidies have led many farmers to switch away from soy in favor of planting corn, which lowers the supply of soy oil and puts pressure on an already tight market in edible oils, themselves being diverted to biodiesel. Most tragic, all these developments threaten to make global warming even worse - corn ethanol probably adds more greenhouse gases than it avoids and tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia are being burned to clear the way for palm oil plantations, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the process.

Americans still aren't feeling the pinch too badly, but people in countries like México depend heavily on cheap corn, while people in Asia get a large number of their calories from cooking oils. Higher prices for these people don't mean cutting expenses by seeing one less movie every other week, it means spending less by going hungry.

So now, possibly for the first time, the desire of the world's best-off to eat meat (and drive cars) is directly causing the world's poorest to go hungry. Commodity prices are notoriously volatile, so it's too early to tell if this is an aberration or a permanent problem that will get worse with time. But even if a sudden drop in the price of oil takes some of the pressure off momentarily, the trends driving food price inflation - high rates of both meat-eating and driving in the rich countries and rapidly increasing rates of the same in China and India - are probably here to stay. If global warming wasn't enough reason to make some big changes, how about the prospect of global food conflict?


Poverty and the election: More polemics on Obama vs Clinton

Lorrie Moore's op-ed today is the counterpoint to Gloria Steinem's deeply flawed argument for privileging gender over race while ignoring class and voting for Hillary Clinton. The first third of Moore's op-ed is the best opinion piece I've read in the mainstream media about the election. For a brief, shining moment, "likability", "change", "experience", the latest polls, and incessant campaign advice from so-called political analysts disappear, replaced by a harsh reminder that politics is actually a matter of life and death. Moore is the first person I've seen who raises what is probably the most urgent social issue in the country - poverty and its connections to institutionalized racism. This is a theme ignored by all the candidates except John Edwards (chastised as being too harsh by those so-called political analysts the few times they bothered to mention his candidacy), but Moore does not mention Edwards.

Moore also reminds us of what the Clinton years were like - something that many have forgotten or are too young to remember. There were a few big initiatives - the killing of around a million Iraqis thru sanctions and bombings, a variety of airborne war crimes in Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, military aid to state terrorists in Turkey, Colombia, and elsewhere, an unprecedented neoliberal offensive to remove all limits on the power of capital, an end to the last few guarantees to a basic standard of living. But mostly the Clinton presidency was an era of minute poll-tested policies designed to buy the electoral support of the middle class while avoiding the central problems of the time - global warming, deindustrialization, poverty, skyrocketing inequality of wealth, race and gender discrimination, punitive criminal justice laws and the drug war, rising numbers of uninsured coupled with rapid increases in the cost of healthcare, the crippling debts of the global south, the unchecked power of corporations.

In other words, the Clinton approach was to combine major negative policies with a paralysis of low expectations on central social problems. There is good reason to think a Hillary Clinton presidency would replicate this pattern - a point made nicely by Frank Rich, who notes that Clinton's top campaign strategist is a pollster - the same man who helped make the 1996 presidential election primarily about school uniforms and V-chips.

After pounding home the execrable Clinton legacy, Moore shifts gears and argues that the worst-off social group in the country is not girls but boys.
The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by. The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys — especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls.
Designed by and for white girls? Moore provides no evidence for that, and it seems pretty implausible to me. Given the level of segregation in this country, most boys of color don't even go to school with any white girls. I'm even more troubled by Moore's refusal to admit that gender inequality remains a huge social problem in the US. But her point that boys of color are faring worst in our society seems pretty fair (altho Moore's failure to mention girls of color even once seems motivated exclusively by her polemical anti-Clinton, pro-Obama aim). So if you buy the idea that a president who belongs to an oppressed social group might somehow alleviate that oppression - even if his or her policies do not address it at all - then Moore seems to be on pretty solid ground in endorsing Obama.

But wait a minute. Why are these boys doing so badly? Is it because they don't have any role models in national politics? Moore herself knows the answer:
their families [have been] torn apart by harsh economics and a merciless criminal justice system. Why does it seem to be the Republicans who are more vocal about reforming our drug laws? Why has no one in the Democratic Party campaigned to have felons who have served their time made full citizens again?
I'm not sure where she's getting the idea that Republicans are calling for the reform of the drug laws, but otherwise this is a pretty good summary. Deindustrialization and the flight of capital that accompanied the creation of the suburbs robbed these communities of their jobs. The enforcement of drug prohibition, targeted primarily at people of color, and punitive rather than rehabilitative criminal justice laws imprisoned a large percentage of the community. Exploitative landlords and banks and criminally negligent public housing agencies and school systems ground these communities into the dirt. The explosion of violence surrounding the drug trade and the emergence of gangs as surrogate families ravished these communities, and left most of their young men with felony records that made it impossible for them to reintegrate into society.

The solutions are pretty straightforward: end drug prohibition or at least decriminalize drugs. Make it illegal to discriminate against felons in employment and allow them to vote. Sever education financing from property taxes and equalize funding across neighborhoods. Harshly penalize predatory commercial practices. Undertake massive investment in job creation and infrastructure in the poorest neighborhoods.

Is Obama supporting these kind of policies? This may come as a surprise to the progressives who have low expectations of Obama, but to a certain extent he is. There's a huge hole in the part of the proposal where an end to drug prohibition should be, and the job creation section seems far too weak, but Obama actually has a pretty good list of policies that would constitute a decent start to addressing the issue.

The problem is that Obama has intentionally excluded any discussion of poverty from his campaign, which continues to be built around empty rhetoric and biography. Can we really expect Obama, if elected, to spend any of his political capital pushing expensive programs to help the systematically disenfranchised underclass? If progressive forces remain silent, or demobilize in the wake of the election, I think the answer is an obvious "no".

But here's the difference with Clinton: she doesn't even have a poverty proposal. And if she ever did try to push an antipoverty agenda, she'd be tarred as an unreconstructed liberal. Ironically, Clinton is the least liberal candidate but is popularly identified as the most liberal, making it even harder for her to push good policies even if she wanted to. Obama, precisely because he is campaigning as a post-partisan candidate, would probably have more room to advance liberal policies if he were so disposed.

We shouldn't kid ourselves - to the extent Obama's policies are progressive, it's because the mood of the country is progressive and he was afraid of losing support if he didn't match Edwards's proposals. And we certainly shouldn't settle for Moore's terribly naive optimism that simply having a black man in the White House will save the victims of poverty. But if we get organized before a President Obama takes office, we have a shot at ending up with positive reforms. The chances seem much smaller if we face a President Clinton.


On voting for people based on their anatomy or melanin

I think it's worth raising the question, as Naureen does, of how such a symbolically loaded thing as electing the first woman president or the first black president would affect American culture and even culture in other countries. (Naureen supports Clinton because she thinks electing her would strengthen the fight against misogyny, but she doesn't explain why electing Obama wouldn't have the same effect on racism.)

I've already written about my fear that an Obama presidency might actually make race inequality worse. What about a Clinton presidency? Clinton, like Obama, periodically panders to reactionary forces by casting herself in traditional gender terms. Last October she famously taunted her opponents, saying, "if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And I'm very much at home in the kitchen." Yet her aggressive style probably does more to undercut traditional gender expectations than her obviously calculated attempts to play into those norms reinforces them. We should, however, be careful here. Do we really want to promote unprincipled triangulation and ruthless power-grabbing as the alternative to feminine docility?

In the Obama post I didn't give any consideration to the possibility that having a black man in the White House might give blacks themselves greater confidence to confront racism and capitalism, or that it might reduce the incidence of racism in white people (if only among younger white people). The same positive cultural effects on gender issues might be a result of a Clinton presidency.

At the same time, either a Clinton or Obama presidency - both likely to govern as centrists at home and as liberal imperialists abroad - might reduce the capacity of progressive forces to mobilize against their conservative policies. It might also inflame patriarchal or racist forces and increase identity polarization (this seems more likely under a Clinton presidency given the powerful and widespread personalized hatred of her - nothing similar has emerged around Obama). Whether this would be good or bad is hard to say.

How these things play out culturally is probably too complex to predict. So I think it should be less of a factor in our decisionmaking than the imperative to undertake popular mobilization and push progressive issues on whoever is the next president.

I also think it's about time the left stops using identity politics as a central organizing principle. We should recognize that identity-based inequality is still a thriving part of our culture and resolutely oppose that. But unless our goal is a society composed of a finite number of rigidly-defined identity groups that individuals "should" belong to based on their genetic heritage, we should also be criticizing the facile prescribed identities that so animated the left in the '90s.


After the caucuses

It's disappointing that John Edwards's solidly progressive campaign was beaten by Barack Obama's huge advantage in money, Obama's adulation among the media, and the surprising popular enthusiasm surrounding his contentless mantra of hope and change. Edwards is basically finished now. Despite winning second place, the media only talked about the first- and third-place finishers. The only chance Edwards had of breaking thru the media's indifference and hostility was by pulling an upset in Iowa. The media don't have much interest exploring corporate domination of politics or policies that might mitigate poverty or global warming, but they will respond to a big story in the horse race.

The good news is that Hillary Clinton was beaten even more badly than Edwards. The Democratic establishment's candidate lost in Iowa, where the establishment candidate is generally safe. Morever, she lost to a black man in one of the whitest states in the country, and she was even outpolled among women (Clinton got 30 percent versus Obama's 35 percent). However, Clinton is still ahead in the polls for the New Hampshire primary, which will be held January 8.

But does any of this matter to progressives? Obama's policy proposals are nearly identical to Clinton's, and both are tied into very similar networks of political and economic power (Obama's are based in Chicago rather than New York). Obama, like Clinton, is campaigning on platitudes and biography rather than the progressive reforms that might build momentum for positive legislative change after the election.

Despite the overwhelming similarities, on policy Obama is probably still preferable. His foreign policy advisers are demonstrably less bloodthirsty than Clinton's - even if the whole lot remain American supremacists. Obama has stated his willingess to meet directly with the leaders of America's designated enemies, while Clinton has criticized him for doing so and said that using nuclear weapons against Iran should remain an option. A final, far more significant difference is that Obama has called for the abolition of nuclear weapons while Clinton has avoided any clear statements on the issue.

If we could trust Obama to follow thru on even these few commitments, he would obviously be preferable to Clinton. But even tho Obama's voting record in the Illinois and US Senates has been fairly liberal, his policy initiatives have been pretty lackluster and there's no evidence he has any particular loyalties to a progressive agenda. My impression is that Obama is an opportunist - even his community organizing stint on the South Side might best be seen as Obama positioning himself for an anticipated run for mayor of Chicago (keep in mind those were the days of Harold Washington, when being an organizer would have made sense as a way into politics).

Nevertheless, Obama seems more open to a progressive agenda than Clinton, who remains rigidly attached to centrism in her own peculiar blend of elitist ideology and opportunism. If a popular movement for single-payer healthcare, high carbon taxes, or the abolition of nuclear weapons arose, I expect Clinton would be hostile but Obama might well be supportive. Obama may have the same DLC-type associations as Clinton, but Clinton grew completely out of those networks and has flourished within their warm embrace for twenty years, while Obama is still fairly new to politics and his loyalties may still be fluid.

We should also keep in mind the incredible popular enthusiasm Obama has generated. The sight of a politician summoning huge crowds and drawing previously nonvoting constituencies into the electorate hasn't been seen for forty years. If Obama wins the nomination and the election and chooses to pursue liberal policies, he has the potential to form a powerful new progressive majority. Under the right circumstances, this majority might even take the lead and push Obama onto a truly left-wing path. I think it's obvious that a similar scenario under a Clinton presidency is laughable.

I admit that a surging radical politics associated with Obama is pretty unlikely. But in strong contrast to the previous three elections of my adult life, 2008 presents us with some hope - because Obama as (potential) nominee is not a priori hostile to the progressive agenda and because the political climate in the country is so much better (talk of universal healthcare, for example, was strictly avoided by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry). With Obama we have about an even chance of turning things around - depending entirely on how strong popular forces are. With Clinton there is no such chance.

Progressives should use the election to mobilize people into grassroots organizations that present the Democratic nominee with hard and fast demands on healthcare, global warming, foreign policy, immigration, and poverty. They should make clear that Obama's rhetoric of unity disguises the antidemocratic forces that are a central component in his campaign. And they should prepare for the real fight, which is over the direction of the country once the new president, whoever it is, takes office.


Hard numbers on healthcare

The completely unacceptable performance of the American healthcare system has been widely recognized for at least 30 years. So it's baffling that politicians and the media have almost completely ignored the experience of a dozen other industrialized countries whose approach to healthcare has produced far better results.

Baffling, that is, until we recognize what following the lead of the other rich countries would entail - the almost complete elimination of private insurance providers and perhaps private pharmaceutical companies as well. The health industry is one of the richest in the nation, with plenty of money to corrupt politicians and threaten them with massive hostile propaganda campaigns if the lure of campaign contributions is inadequate. Since the media are too timid to venture beyond the incredibly narrow mainstream political debate, there has been almost no attention to the experience of other countries that spend significantly less per person on healthcare yet manage to insure everyone.

Winning a single-payer health insurance system, which in practice would mean extending Medicare to everyone in the country, is one of the most urgent political issues we face. So it's extremely important to counter the widespread ignorance and misconceptions among Americans about government-provided healthcare in the other rich countries. Here are some hard numbers that demolish the idea that private insurance is superior to single-payer in any way.

A survey of Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Britain, and the US found that the US spends twice as much per capita ($6697) as even the second-highest spending country (Canada, $3326). The other countries spend even less - New Zealand spends only one-third as much as the US. This disparity is even more shocking in light of the fact that even with our astronomical healthcare expenses we leave 16 percent of the population without coverage, while the other countries cover everyone.

What about the results of the health system? I looked at the WHO's health statistics for Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Britain, and the United States - all have universal, government-provided healthcare except the US. The US is last in life expectancy - as many as 6 years behind the leaders. The US had the highest infant mortality rate (7 per 1000 live births) - South Korea was 6 deaths per 1000 live births and the other countries were between 3 and 5 deaths per 1000 live births. Per capita number of doctors varied - France and Germany had the highest, Australia, Canada, Britain, and the US were in the middle, and Japan and Korea had the lowest.

A survey of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Britain, and the United States gives some more information. The US had the highest number of years lost to diabetes and circulatory and respiratory diseases, as well as the largest number of deaths due to surgical or medical mishaps.

In terms of overall opinions on healthcare, Americans are less satisfied than those with universal healthcare (see the first study). 16 percent of Americans said there were only minor problems in the health system, while 34 percent said the health system should be completely rebuilt. In the other countries, around 25 percent believed their health system had only minor problems (42 percent in Netherlands), while only 15 percent or so called for fundamental changes.

Confidence in the likelihood of receiving good-quality care was about the same in countries with universal healthcare as it is in the US (it was slightly lower in Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Britain, about the same in Australia, and much higher in Netherlands). Wait times for surgery in the US were shorter than other countries (except Germany, which was significantly shorter than the US), but the differences were not overwhelming. Even Canada and Britain, the worst performers, held 85 percent of surgeries in under 6 months - and this relatively poor performance might be because of recent conservative attempts in both countries to reduce medical spending.

Another study assigned rankings to the health systems of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States. Rating the countries on "right" (effective) care, safe care, coordinated care, patient-centered care, access, efficiency, equity, and capacity to promote healthy lives, the US scored last or second-last in all categories except right care (the US's strong performance in preventive medicine was responsible for this single bright spot).

In 2000 the WHO ranked all the health systems in the world. Here are some of the rankings: France (1), Italy (2), Japan (10), Britain (18), Germany (25), Canada (30), Australia (32), US (37). Costa Rica was 36, Slovenia was 38. Cuba was 39.

(Also check out this Paul Krugman column, which tears apart the standard arguments in favor of private insurance.)

The conclusions are inescapable: the US spends by far the most money per capita on health care in the world - 2 to 3 times more than other rich countries. Yet the US leaves 1/6 of the population uninsured while the other rich countries cover everyone; the US's health indicators are no better and often worse than those countries with universal coverage; and Americans are less satisfied with their health system than are people with government-run systems. What makes our healthcare system operate so poorly?

The main reason is that private health insurance is a remarkably inefficient way to deliver health insurance. Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, notes that we spend "almost a third of every health care dollar on administration and paperwork generated by the private health insurance industry" while "[c]ountries like Canada spend about half that much on the billing and paperwork side of medicine". An even more relevant comparison is Medicare - America's own government-run insurance program for the elderly, which would be extended to everyone under single-payer insurance. Compared with the 30 percent administrative costs of private insurers, Medicare's administrative costs are significantly lower - between 2 and 5 percent depending on how they're figured.

Why is Medicare so much more efficient than private insurers? One reason is that Medicare doesn't spend millions of dollars on advertising and the ridiculous pay packages of HMO corporate executives. At least as important, Medicare benefits from economies of scale. The US has hundreds of private healthcare bureaucracies duplicating each other's work and paying thousands of employees to figure out how to deny care to sick people. Other countries do the paperwork through a single comparatively efficient government agency, with no profit incentive to deny care.

By Woolhandler's calculations, Medicare for everyone would save so much money that we could extend coverage to the 47 million uninsured and still have enough money left over to improve the coverage of those currently underinsured. So single-payer should be a no-brainer - it should look good to those who want to help their fellow Americans struck down by horrible illnesses, but it should equally appeal to those who simply want to stop spending so much on healthcare. The only reason we're denied this obvious solution is the tremendous power of the private healthcare lobby. It's up to us to organize and apply as much pressure as needed to convince our representatives to implement the only efficient and ethical answer to the healthcare crisis.