Recent Readings for Jan. 9, 2016

January 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 9, 2016

• “The Fall of King Coal.” In December, a federal jury convicted former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship of conspiracy to violate federal mine-safety laws, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in prison. In “The Fall of King Coal,” which Mother Jones published in the fall as Massey’s trial was getting under way, reporter Tim Murphy took a close look at Blankenship’s career, which involved breaking union strikes as well as existing contracts and safety and environmental regulations.

“It was very, very obvious from the first part that [Blankenship] cared about one thing and one thing only, and that was the dollar, and it was clear that he worshipped at the altar of greed and dollars, and he wouldn’t let anything get in the way,” one longtime union foe told Murphy.

• “The Corporate Takeover of the Red Cross.” The American Red Cross did not have a good 2015, when several reports came out exposing it as a floundering and at times ineffective organization. Take, for instance, a June report from ProPublica and NPR that bore the headline “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes.”

Last month, Justin Elliott extended his reporting on the American Red Cross by describing how former AT&T executive Gail McGovern has brought a businesslike mentality to the charity that has coincided with, if not actually caused, budget deficits, layoffs, internal cutbacks, sagging morale and the loss of trust by countless volunteers and partners. One of McGovern’s apparent missteps was hiring Jack McMaster, a former AT&T colleague who ran a Dutch telecom company into the ground before getting a job with the Red Cross.

• “Republican doom doesn’t equal Democrat victory: Our political chaos could destroy them both.” Salon columnist Andrew O’Hehir blasts the left and the right in this essay:

Clinton’s tone and rhetoric have been measured during this campaign, but as Salon’s Bill Curry wrote recently, she remains an unregenerate foreign-policy hawk who shows every sign of yearning to double down on failed military overreach. Whatever you think she may have said, Clinton has absolutely not ruled out sending American troops by the thousands to fight a ground war against the Islamic State. She has called out Republican candidates for their “bluster and bigotry” and rejected talk of a “war on Islam,” which is all to the good. But the policy proposals discernible below her calm and resolute-sounding language over the last month are virtually indistinguishable from those of the non-Trump GOP contenders: More war, more surveillance, less First Amendment. “You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘Freedom of speech,’” she told a Brookings Institution audience on Dec. 6. I know! As if that’s in the Constitution or something!

• “Congress wants to hide the truth from you.” Sean Illing meditates on the decision by lawmakers in late December to maintain a ban on federal funding for research on gun violence.

[T]here’s no reason to oppose research of this kind unless your aim is to subvert the truth. If you’re a passionate defender of the Second Amendment, if you oppose gun control because you think it makes us less safe, you should welcome this research. More knowledge can only improve things — for everyone. Even the original Republican sponsor of Congress’s gag order, Jay Dickey, now laments it. “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey told the Huffington Post earlier this year. “I have regrets.”

• “The myth of ‘consumer-driven healthcare’ comes to life again.” This Los Angeles Times column by Michael Hiltzik examines why free market principles tend to work poorly in the health-care sector, in contradiction to a policy paper issued recently by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

All the evidence for the efficacy of consumer-driven healthcare is at best equivocal, and at worst negative. What that implies is that the popularity of the consumer-driven model among conservatives is based not on empirical findings, but ideology.

Sure enough, the text of AEI’s reform paper gives this game away. “An empowered citizen-patient-consumer approach,” it reads, “must be true to the Constitution and reflect a genuine federalist philosophy.” It’s anti-federal government, though not anti-state government, as though wise healthcare policy can be prized out of the concept of states’ rights.

Hiltzik’s column informs both of my following readings, by the way.

• “They’re still gunning for Obamacare: Make no mistake, the right will not rest until they’ve destroyed your health care.” Paul Rosenberg takes a close look at why the preferred right-wing fix for health care — repealing the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, repealing other government regulations and watching empowered consumers automatically begin to flourish thanks to the magic of the free market! — is chimerical.

Health care costs are heavily concentrated among a relatively small number of very sick people — the top 1 percent of spenders account for more than one fifth of all spending, the top 5 percent for almost half — and no amount of pundit incantations will magically turn them into “empowered consumers.” Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent account for just 3 percent of spending. In terms of cost, they don’t seem to need any fixing at all. Yet, paradoxically, they’re the best candidates for acting like “empowered consumers.” The top 5 percent are simply too sick, too desperate to qualify.

• “A Significant Chunk of Americans Is Still Facing Harsh Medical Debt.” Helaine Olen looks at why so many American households — one in three with total income of less than $50,000, one in four with incomes ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 and 14 percent of households making more than $100,000 — struggle with medical bills. A big reason for this seems to be that Obamacare has encouraged the spread of high-deductible insurance plans, where consumers often must pay $1,000 or more before any of their medical costs are compensated.

The problem goes back to the idea that people need to have “skin in the game” to help control medical costs. The theory is that people who are forced to pay a part of their medical coverage will turn into hyperinformed consumers and aggressively shop for medical care.

Unfortunately, it turns out health care, even when people try to cut their bills, doesn’t really work that way. Pricing is opaque. People need to see a doctor when they need to see a doctor — no one plans to get a serious illness, after all. Medical care in the United States is expensive.

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