ARCHIVES


A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Media ignore effects AND causes of construction fatalities

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 20, 21 or 22

After a recent, rare getaway to New York City, where cranes and other signs of a construction boom were common throughout Manhattan, I read a report that revealed the price paid for building – and bossing.

The four-day trip included visits to the New York Times and the New York Public Library, a Broadway revival of “The Front Page” and lunch at the Algonquin Hotel – where the “Algonquin Round Table” decades ago hosted writers such as Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote “The Front Page”), Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross and Heywood Broun, the columnist who launched The Newspaper Guild labor union.

It was a sort of “literary/journalism” pilgrimage, except for attending “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a stroll past Trump Tower, where protestors’ good humor helped shield the bad news from inside.

We avoided Wall Street like one would detour around polluted water, or some evil place possessed by manic, malicious fools.

Then a Times story about fatal accidents at New York’s construction sites brought home the disparity between the risks and rewards on Wall Street and where workers labor.

In the last two years, 47 construction workers suffered fatal injuries in New York City, according to its Department of Buildings, and though the number of building permits grew over that period, deadly accidents outpaced project growth. From 2013 through 2015 (the last year for which complete figures are available), permits went from 88,290 to 104,087 – a 17.9-percent increase. Fatal construction accidents then went from 17 to 25 – a 47-percent jump.

It’s not just New York. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data on fatal work injuries in the United States in 2014 (issued last April) was 4,821, the highest annual total since 2008.

Deaths rose, but so did the Dow Jones Industrial Average, from 16,458.56 on Jan. 20, 2014, to 19,732.40 on Jan. 20, 2017 – a 19.9 percent increase.

“Some of the same factors that make Wall Streeters fabulously rich are making construction work tragically unsafe,” said Sam Pizzigati, author of the book “The Rich Don’t Always Win.”

Pizzigati fills in blanks in the news story. Fatal consequences are an effect of causes, mainly declining union representation and deregulation of government protections.

The total number of union members in both private and public sectors fell in 2016, the U.S. Labor Department says, and organized labor’s rate of representation – the percent of wage and salary workers who belonged to unions – was 10.7 percent last year, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

That fall is despite almost three out of five respondents in a Peter Hart Research Associates survey saying they’d join a union if they could, and despite BLS statistics showing union workers earning 25 percent more pay than non-union counterparts.

Why? Workers trying to unionize face a hostile legal environment and typically must cope with threats by anti-union bosses. Even if such intimidation violates federal law, there are few consequences to labor lawbreakers.

In the private sector, industries with the highest unionization rates are utilities (21.5 percent), transportation and warehousing (18.4 percent), telecommunications (14.6 percent), and construction (13.9 percent), BLS reports. Geographically, California has the most (2.6 million), followed by New York (1.9 million) and Illinois (800,000).

However, “fewer construction workers today carry union cards, and this declining union presence has severe consequences for safety,” Pizzigati said. “Construction unions have traditionally run well-regarded safety training programs, and they give individual workers the clout they need to challenge hazardous working conditions. Without unions, workers in construction regularly find themselves both inadequately trained and forced to labor in situations that could – and do – kill them.”

Besides an increasingly anti-union climate, government’s once-moderating influence has been debilitated. Regulations in general and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in particular have been weakened and look to lose even more under Republican control of all three branches of the federal government.

“The anti-government and anti-regulation hysteria of recent decades has left OSHA woefully understaffed,” Pizzigati said. “Chronic budget squeezes have trimmed the ranks of OSHA job-site inspectors down to about 2,200 – or approximately one compliance officer for every 59,000 American workers.”

Wall Street titans’ enormous pay is justified as rewards for the risks they take – a rationale ignored for workers risking their lives.

That’s news, in New York and everywhere.

[PICTURED: chart from the New York Department of Buildings.]

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Growing outrage coming from many fields

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Feb. 16, 17 or 18

Maybe it was the poets.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently held a poetry contest about the new administration in Washington, and among some 2,000 entries was this verse from Stephen Benko, a retired Connecticut businessman:

“If God has made man in his image,/ please explain our new President’s visage./ That pucker and scowl/ look like murder most foul./ What in heaven, Lord, earned us this priv’lege?”

Elsewhere, hundreds of attorneys swept into airports to help travelers trapped by the Executive Order coming from the Oval Office, overturned days later. And besides the New York Immigration Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union, there were corporate lawyers, and attorneys whose practices were in family law, workers comp, criminal defense, personal injury and other specialties.

In the business world, 97 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix and Twitter took a stand opposed the travel ban, filing a “friend of the court” brief in a court challenge.

National Catholic Reporter praised the Jan. 21 Women’s March and other grassroots actions, noting “the broad religious representation of groups condemning orders on immigration.

“Candidate Trump … bullied and insulted his way to nomination,” its editorial said. “But something deeper in the American soul is being stirred … a confrontation between Trump's dystopian, combative worldview and an understanding that the American character is at its best when the people's pragmatism is heavily influenced by a generosity of spirit.”

That spirit’s on the gridiron, too, as six Patriots (!) and counting say they won’t attend a White House party celebrating New England’s Super Bowl win.

Scientists are stepping up, too, answering administration restrictions on government scientists’ work and threats to cancel the Paris Agreement on climate change. That’s especially dangerous, according to Scientific American, which wrote, “There is little margin left between where the world is now and where it does not want to go.”

So New York science writer Caroline Weinberg, University of New Mexico anthropologist Valorie Aquino, and University of Texas scholar Jonathan Berman met and started working on a response from the scientific community. Now, some 40,000 volunteers are reportedly helping organize not just the March for Science in Washington on April 22 (Earth Day), but 100-plus events in U.S. cities and in dozens of other countries, all celebrating science and the curiosity that leads to progress.

“The time has long passed where it’s OK to stay silent,” Weinberg said. “The point of science is getting to the truth, and acting as though this has no role in politics is ridiculous.”

There are other scientists groups, too, such as 314 Action (named in honor of pi), which is planning its own activities March 14 (another pi reference). Chemist Shaughnessy Naughton of 314 Action said, “This is not just dangerous for academic freedom, but for our whole country.”

Also, architects issued an open letter trying to inject normal perspective into the far-from-normal discourse in Washington, from energy use to climate change. Sent by “Architects Advocate,” organized by professionals at Krueck & Sexton, the Chicago firm that designed Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain, it says, “Because buildings alone account for almost 40 percent of total U.S. energy use and 72 percent of U.S. electricity use, America's architects are on the front line addressing climate change in a meaningful way. By taking decisive action now we all can be remembered as historic and courageous actors who helped secure humanity's future.”

For its part, March for Science offers a non-partisan, big-tent approach, saying, “The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue – which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence – is a critical and urgent matter. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities.”

And from many vocations.

Will scientists from Peoria’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (the “Ag Lab”) step up? How about poets laboring over lines at Knox College or Western Illinois University, architects working in Canton or Moline, attorneys in Kewanee or Pontiac, business leaders in Pekin and Monmouth?

Progress can be poetry to our ears.

[PICTURED: Graphic from Iowa Science Interface.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In health care, are the wages of sin still death?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 13, 14 or 15

Valentine’s Day is celebrated this week, when St. Valentine is remembered as the Patron Saint of love. But he’s also the Patron Saint of plague and epilepsy, which in ancient times was interpreted as a sign of sin. In Christianity, the “seven deadly sins” are anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride and sloth, and as one looks at Republican plans to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, several sins sure seem present – maybe even to the self-identified Christians who voted for GOP control of the White House, Congress and Supreme Court.

Ironically, the deadliness of ripping health-insurance coverage from millions of Americans is oddly reminiscent of Republicans’ false claim of ACA’s “death panels.” And people with epilepsy or modern or milder equivalents of plague may soon have to rely on St. Valentine for intercession for their conditions.

Further, if there are deadly sins at work in Washington, they might be put into context when considering the “Seven Social Sins,” which India’s heroic reformer Mahatma Gandhi first published in 1925.

Gandhi said they should be known “through the intellect but [also] through the heart so as to avoid them.”

Gandhi’s list: commerce without morality, knowledge without character, pleasure without conscience, politics without principle, religion without sacrifice, science without humanity, and wealth without work, Regular Americans can recognize for themselves where these social sins occur as millions of our fellow citizens are adversely affected by losing insurance they gained through the ACA or its exchanges.

However, Kaiser Health News reported that even workers covered through employer-sponsored health-care plans could suffer consequences:

* Waiting periods for coverage, which before the ACA could be set by employers, is now limited to 90 days. That could rise to whatever employers want.

* Maximum limits on coverage used to be common before the ACA, which removed limits that formerly restricted coverage over a time period, like a year, or the lifetime of a policy. Costs above such limits were paid by insurers under the ACA. That could disappear, too.

* Another result could be fewer preventive services such as vaccines, flu shots, blood-pressure and cholesterol screening, and tests for hepatitis C, colorectal cancer and diabetes – plus preventive measures for women (from breast and cervical cancer screening to pre- and post-natal services) and for kids (who benefit from the ACA’s no-copay for hearing, vision and autism screening). If ACA is repealed, no plan will be required to continue such services.

Prevention is especially vital since the biggest opportunity to reduce health-care spending in the United States is in preventive care, according to a study out this winter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA found that Americans spent $3.2 trillion in 2015 on health care, largely driven by chronic and usually preventable conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and back and neck pain. (The latter two ailments over the last 20 years showed spending increases of about 6 percent every year.)

The JAMA analysis also says that within the next decade, health-care spending will make up almost 20 percent of the U.S. economy. (That compares to about 11 percent for much of Europe, 10 percent for Canada and Japan, 9 percent for Australia, and 8 percent for the United Kingdom, according to the private Commonwealth Fund foundation.)

So anticipating an aging (and more expensive) population makes cost-cutting significant, and prevention and the services that help patients and health providers reduce susceptibility to diabetes, heart diseases and so on are important.

It would seem to be a sin to ignore the need. Maybe commerce without morality?

It would seem to be a sin to ignore people: politics without principle?

After all, as acclaimed Christian author Shusaku Endo of Japan wrote, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be. It is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

[PICTURED: Poster from Sojourners - sojo.net.]

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Resistance through civility, civil disobedience

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Feb. 9, 10 or 11

Some Americans willing to give the new administration a chance have noticed the White House’s nominees, attack on the Affordable Care Act, orders to build a border wall and ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries (where the President has no business interests), and de-regulate protections for consumers, taxpayers and other regular people. And they’re becoming dour and downhearted.

So a 10-point call for nonviolent resistance must begin with “Take heart!” – fight the temptation to feel hopeless and helpless.

After all, freedom for slaves, women’s right to vote, workers’ rights, voting rights protected for African Americans oppressed by “Jim Crow” laws, treating AIDS patients as neighbors needing treatment, realizing breakthroughs in clean air and water, and in bringing climate change to a global stage happened because of grassroots actions. And it didn’t take 51 percent of voting-eligible citizens.

“Historical studies suggest that it takes 3.5 percent of a population engaged in sustained nonviolent resistance to topple brutal dictatorships,” says Erica Chenoweth, author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.”

“If that can be true in Chile under General Pinochet and Serbia under Milosevic, a few million Americans could prevent their elected government from adopting inhumane, unfair, destructive or oppressive policies,” she adds. “The Women’s March on Washington and its affiliated marches – which may have been the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history – show a population eager and willing to show up to defend their rights.”

“Huh,” you may think. “How?”

Back to the 10 points.

It’s been strongly suggested by several optimistic folks in articles and on social media that rekindling the embers of American activism might be achieved with a few approaches, starting with eliminating the hopelessness/helplessness chatter (and the feelings will diminish). The others:

2. The situation stems not from one individual, but a regime, including Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and a right-wing bloc on the U.S. Supreme Court.

3. Respond to (or anticipate) actions more than Twitter, appearances or emotional flaws in leadership.

4. Don’t get sucked in to irrational arguments with online trolls or our friends and neighbors who voted for the Electoral College victor. Instead, listen (like to those who oppose “Obamacare” without realizing their health insurance from the Affordable Care Act IS Obamacare – or the Tea Party protestors carrying signs such as “Keep government out of my Medicare”).

5. Support the First Amendment protecting free speech, the right to assemble, the right to worship (or not) however one wants, the right to push for a redress of grievances, and for freedom of the press – and neither accept nor pass along “fake news” or “alternative facts.”

6. Support the expansive culture and open civilization that permits expression through the arts.

7. Recognize and appreciate science, thought and the curiosity that fuels seeking.

8. Have faith, whether an institutional religion that speaks to you, a general “be good to each other philosophy,” or the approach advocated by author Kent Keith in his wonderful book “Anyway - The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World.”

9. Take care of yourself, your family and your community.

10. Be civil but avoid extending the respect of actually naming the Leader (like the late, great Beatle George Harrison referred to the man who murdered bandmate John Lennon as “He who shall not be named”).

Resistance won’t be easy, of course. There will be stumbling blocks and losses.

However, as Chenoweth says, “Long-term change never comes with submission, resignation or despair about the inevitability and intractability of the status quo.”

Or, in the words of Frederick Douglass – the great African-American journalist, abolitionist, reformer and orator (who died in 1895, despite the implication uttered in a recent administration meeting in the Roosevelt Room about Black History Month): “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

So make a demand.

And make a smile.

[PICTURED: Photo from theforward.com]

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Can’t we feel compassion for Israel AND Palestine?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 6, 7 or 8

Few people live on their ancestral land; few reside where they believe their religious faith originally preferred. If they did, more Mormons would populate Illinois, and more Native Americans would demand a return of property throughout the country.

So it can be perplexing to see Israel’s reluctance to bargain for a geographic area in the Middle East.

First: People shouldn’t launch rockets at residents of Israel, who should be able to live in peace. Also, it’s common sense that resentment and resistance follow territory being seized. (If a group of Potawatomi came to my house, showing artifacts proving their people lived here in the 1800s, and demanded ownership, I’d object because I bought my lot and have lived here for decades.)

Also: Most folks are against “internment camps” or “reservations” for some people, against “separate but equal” policies, and against ethnic cleansing, whether horrors committed in the Darfur region of Sudan, by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, or, yes, North America.

Still, the long-proposed “two-state solution” for the area – two states, neighbors, living in peace – seems as dead as the Dead Sea.

If so, the future seems doomed to either have an Israeli democracy that, by definition, could not be theocratic and extend privileges to Judaism, or to have a Jewish state imposing apartheid making Palestinians non-citizens (which would surely be exploited by terror groups like ISIS – which itself claims territory as ordained by its interpretation of Scripture.)

In and apart from Scripture, Palestine existed for Millennia, historians say. Along the present area once known as Judah or Canaan, there was peaceful coexistence for centuries. But after the Nazi Holocaust, Zionists, a national movement founded in the 19th century to establish a sovereign Jewish state called Israel, focused on Palestine, ruled by Great Britain from 1920-1948.

Zionists eventually won global support, but a fair process wasn’t spelled out. In 1948, Jewish fighters killed hundreds of Palestinians in al-Dawayima and Deir Yassin, and some 750,000 Palestinians were exiled. After years of armed conflict, Palestine is scattered, with the Palestinian National Authority managing about a third of the West Bank and Hamas governing the Gaza Strip.

The settlement issue is timely because the UN Security Council in December voted 14-0, with the U.S. abstaining, to criticize Israel’s continuing settlement program, which violates the Geneva Convention of 1949. The 14 nations backing the resolution were China, France, Russia and United Kingdom, plus Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The measure also criticized Palestinian violence. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said, “This was a resolution that we could not in good conscience veto – because it condemns violence, it condemns incitement, it reiterates what has long been the overwhelming consensus international view on settlements – and it calls on parties to take constructive steps to advance a two-state solution.”

In the last decade, Israel has constructed thousands of homes and roads, schools and shops for Jewish settlers, further isolating Palestinians between checkpoints and segregated zones.

However, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who’s been intrusive in U.S. politics – strongly criticized the UN measure and the Obama administration.

International law forbids gaining territory by force (although occupied lands aren’t uncommon, sadly). Further, the same Old Testament that suggests it’s destiny that the Chosen People will inhabit the land from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea also notes that the land is God’s and humans merely caretakers, and five times prohibits moving boundary markers (twice in Deuteronomy, twice in Proverbs and once in Job).

In the last 50 years, every U.S. administration has opposed settling occupied land (Republican Secretary of State James Baker in1992 even threatened to stop aid because of the settlements), and concern isn’t anti-Semitic. Israeli human-rights groups such as B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund and Yesh Din also prefer negotiations, and respected voices such as Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have criticized Israeli policies.

And in context, the resolution occurred just months after the U.S. government approved $38 billion in military aid to Israel for the next decade – the largest commitment ever for a U.S. ally.

Isn’t it possible for people of good will to have empathy for a group that suffered the Holocaust and also for those being displaced from their homes or discriminated against?

With at least 20 percent of Israel’s population ethnic Arabs who practice Bahá'í, Christianity or Islam, according to Israel’s census, how would Israel provide for the common defense or ensure domestic tranquility for them and Palestinians in a “one-state” solution? At best, it would be comparable to democracy in the United States before minorities and women gained rights.

Israel should stop or start: Halt settlements in occupied land or build a democracy with rights for all its residents.

[PICTURED: Illustration from peacenow.org.]

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Trump-shaped judiciary is daunting

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Feb. 2, 3 or 4

Federal Judge Amos Mazzant’s December ruling blocking President Obama's attempt to expand overtime pay protections to millions of Americans was a post-election reminder of the significance of the judicial branch, from District Courts to the U.S. Supreme Court. That was clarified last weekend when Judges in Virginia, New York and elsewhere blocked some of President Trump’s executive order affecting travelers – and lawful residents – who originate from seven Muslim-majority nations. And at press time, it was expected that Trump was poised to nominate a Justice to fill the vacancy of the late Antonin Scalia.

Given Trump’s first 10 days in office, would anything be surprising? He could nominate his sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He could nominate TV’s Judge Judy, or the funnies’ Judge Parker (who might be “unbelievably highly respected,” as Trump teased, but leaning toward the unbelievable since he lives only on newspapers’ comics pages).

Since the death a year ago of Scalia, a Reagan appointee, the Supreme Court is split into four mostly liberal and four mostly conservative voices, and three could retire. Stephen Breyer is 78, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, and Anthony Kennedy is 80.
That’s more relevant because key issues of public concern are “settled” but could be revived through related cases:

Affirmative Action: “Fisher v. University of Texas” (2016); Campaign finance: “Citizens United v. F.E.C.” (2010); Class-action suits: “Wal-Mart v. Dukes” (2011); Climate change: “West Virginia v. EPA” (2016); Handgun restrictions: “District of Columbia v. Heller” (2008); Immigration reform: “U.S. v. Texas” (2016); Labor unions: “Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association” (2016); Redistricting: “Arizona v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission” (2015); Same-sex marriage: “Obergefell v. Hodges” (2015); Voter-ID laws: “Shelby County v. Holder” (2013); Women’s contraception: “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014).

Apart from specific issues and past cases, the Court’s makeup can have a chilling effect on litigation. For example, in 2013 the Graphic Communications sector of the Teamsters union, following a six-year battle over Santa Barbara News-Press journalists fired after joining the union, decided to drop the case after losing in federal court – because the U.S. Supreme Court seems hostile to labor and an adverse ruling there could set a dangerous precedent making organizing difficult for all U.S. workers.

For months, Trump has listed 21 names as his possible nominees, people suggested by the arch-conservative Federalist Society, which embraces the idea of an “originalist” interpretation of laws, a perspective that the Constitution means exactly what the Founders intended in the 18th century, when single-shot muskets were used, women couldn’t vote, and black people were property.

“The people he has said he will choose from are straight out of conservative central casting,” said Richard Wolf in USA Today. “They are overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged.”

Two fervent voting-rights opponents are on Trump’s list: William Pryor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, and Robert Young, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“Taken together, the records of these potential Trump nominees reflect a radical-right ideology that threatens fundamental rights, and that favors the powerful over everyone else – especially people from historically marginalized communities,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign.

Frontrunners for Trump’s favor are Pryor, Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia, and Neil Gorsuch of the 10th Circuit in Denver. Pryor (a protégé of controversial Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions) also opposes women’s choice, gay rights and gun regulations. Hardiman is a staunch conservative and serves with Trump’s sister. Gorsuch is another originalist and has deferred to faith groups objecting to the Affordable Care Act.

“As Democrats and the labor movement prepare for a possible fight over Trump’s imminent appointment to the Supreme Court, they should recognize that several major labor cases, brought by some of labor’s most persistent enemies, are waiting in the wings,” said attorney Moshe Z. Marvit, co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of “Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.”

“Senators should question nominees about … Supreme Court precedents that protect public employees’ labor rights,” he said. “And if labor has any sway within the Democratic Party, it should make it clear that these issues should be disqualifying for any new appointment to the Court.”

Confirmation of any nominee will require eight Democrats in the current Senate. Will they resist a Judge Juggernaut? Will Republicans try to change Senate's rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold needed to bring the nomination to the floor (which Trump endorsed last week)?

Maybe THIS is bad TV, or the funny papers?

[PICTURED: Cover of a 1956 comic book compilation of newspapers' Judge Parker comic strip.]

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Health insurers must be held to account

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Jan. 30, 31 or Feb. 1, 2017

Big News last week, when a judge’s ruling and the announcement of a big insurer’s profits should have gotten the attention of people concerned about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – folks perhaps distracted by the diversions of a series of outrageous edicts from the Oval Office.

On Jan. 23, Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia blocked the merger of Aetna and Humana, two of the country’s biggest health-insurance corporations. The $37 billion deal was targeted by the U.S. Justice Department and a handful of states, such as Illinois, that objected to a consolidation that would lessen competition and ultimately hurt policyholders and patients.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan had said that the proposed merger would hurt people in at least 35 Illinois counties.

Before President Trump’s Inauguration, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch had said, “If the Big Five [Aetna, Humana and UnitedHealth, plus Cigna and Anthem – who also seek to merge] were to become the Big Three, not only would the bank accounts of the American people suffer, but the American people themselves.”

On Jan. 18, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan on Charlie Rose’s public-TV show claimed that Aetna lost money because of its business in public exchanges of the Affordable Care Act (ACA: “Obamacare”), a justification for dumping the program – and millions of Americans covered by it. However, Bates – a George W. Bush appointee – found that Aetna’s claim that the ACA was to blame for financial losses was false. Instead, it was a tactic to pressure the government to approve the merger.

“Aetna was willing to offer to expand its participation in the exchanges if DOJ did not block the merger, or conversely, was willing to threaten to limit its participation in the exchanges if DOJ did,” bates wrote in his 158-page decision. “This is persuasive evidence that when Aetna later withdrew from the 17 counties, it did not do so for business reasons, but instead to follow through on the threat that it made earlier.

“The evidence provides persuasive support for the conclusion that Aetna withdrew from the on-exchange markets in the 17 complaint counties to improve its litigation position,” Bates wrote.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent Snyder commented that Bates’ ruling is a victory for consumers that will save customers and taxpayers as much as half a billion dollars a year.

The ACA cost insurance companies more because they had been prohibited from excluding people with pre-existing conditions and also had customers who formerly couldn’t afford to be covered at all. So insurers had to spend more of the premium dollars they collected, invested and built up as substantial assets. However, health-insurance companies – the ones who actually raised premiums, not government – still made enormous amounts of money.

In fact, UnitedHealth (which previously announced its withdrawal from much of the ACA marketplaces) recently reported a 56 percent increase in profits in the 4th quarter of 2016, according to the Jan. 18 Wall Street Journal – $1.9 billion on $45.5 billion in revenues.

Of the Big 3, Aetna and Humana aren’t scheduled to release their 4th quarter reports for several days, but all three showed similar performances in the 3rd quarter:

Aetna reported $603.9 million in net income on $15.7 billion in revenue, a 7.8-percent increase.
Humana reported $940 million in net income on $13.7 billion in revenue, a 38-percent improvement.
UnitedHealth reported $3.6 billion in net income on $46.3 billion in revenue, a 20-percent increase.

“Health insurers once again are demonstrating that nothing – absolutely nothing – is more important to them than making their rich shareholders even richer,” said Wendell Potter, a former health-insurance executive and author of “Nation on The Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.”

Despite health insurers’ complaints that the ACA made them (gasp!) insure patients, they remained very profitable. If Trump and the GOP have their way, the coverage will vanish for millions of ordinary people, and the extraordinary profits will get even bigger.

[PICTURED: Editorial cartoon by David Horsey, from fogcityjournal.com.]

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Authoritarianism: ‘It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion’

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Jan. 26, 27 or 28, 2017

It’s not the size of the hands, it’s what they do. (As countless bluesmen sang, “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

Last week, after Donald Trump’s Inauguration and mass marches worldwide the next day, it became obvious that the threat ahead isn’t Trump, Mike Pence or Paul Ryan, but the authoritarian agenda being forced on the nation like some foul fruitcake.

Within minutes of Trump’s being sworn in, the White House scrubbed its web site of pages devoted to health care, Civil Rights, the National AIDS Policy, climate change, and more..

Within hours, Trump started reversing recent reform, signing an executive order letting the Department of Health and Human Services or any agency with legal authority to stop enforcing Affordable Care Act regulations.

“While President Trump may have promised a smooth transition, the Executive Order does the opposite, threatening disruption for health providers and patients,” said Leslie Dach, director of the Protect Our Care Coalition.

Republicans for years blasted President Obama’s executive orders, but they didn’t criticize Trump’s (much less put Obama’s actions into context. According to the University of California’s American Presidency Project, Obama’s 277 Executive Orders were the fewest since President Grover Cleveland in the 1800s – fewer than Republicans George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon or Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

Next, Trump blocked a Federal Housing Administration plan to cut mortgage fees for homeowners, a plan scheduled to start this week. And White House staff confirmed to The Hill newspaper that Trump plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The cuts follow a blueprint from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which also calls for eliminating the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the Economic Development Administration, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Violence Against Women grants program, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Minority Business Development Agency, and reducing funds to the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources and Civil Rights divisions.

On Capitol Hill, the conservative-dominated House recently passed bills to de-fund women’s health-care facilities and weaken how standards are set. (The REINS Act could repeal every environmental, public health, consumer, labor, occupational safety, and civil rights standard by requiring such regulations to be approved by specific resolutions by Congress within 70 days.)

Also, the House approved a measure to repeal all of Obama’s regulatory actions since May, and in House Resolution 5 laid the foundation for giving away 640 million acres of national land.

Elsewhere, five state legislatures have introduced bills to make illegal peaceful protests like the Women’s Marches, plus picketing and concerted activities that Right-wing lawmakers call terrorism.

Michigan Republicans introduced an anti-picketing law that would increase penalties against protestors and would make it easier for businesses to sue them, and Republicans in Washington state proposed a bill to reclassify as a felony civil-disobedience protests deemed “economic terrorism.”

In Minnesota, a Republican bill seeks to dramatically increase fines for freeway protests and would allow prosecutors to seek a year of jail time for demonstrators blocking highways. In Iowa, a Republican lawmaker promises to introduce legislation to crack down on such protests, and North Dakota Republicans went a step farther, introducing a measure that would let motorists run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway (as long as a driver does so “accidentally”).

Authoritarianism looms. As Nobel Prize-winning musician Bob Dylan wrote in his song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

“I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’. I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, and the executioner’s face is always well hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, where black is the color, where none is the number, and I’ll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it, … it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

In sunny Peoria Jan. 21, Women’s March speakers linked women’s rights to civil rights to human rights – as 2,000 demonstrators stood shoulder to shoulder, standing up for women and men, young and old, all races, faiths, sexual preferences and homes, workers, and the environment.

In Washington, the Women’s March’s cheering and chanting was heard from the White House, encircled by demonstrators a block away, but Trump and staff showed no sign they’d heard the furor.

But there and in the 673 such protests involving 4.7 million people from Springfield and Galesburg to coast to coast and around the world, the outpouring of determination was invigorating – recognizing that we’re all targeted as victims by the new authoritarians, and that we’re a great alliance in formation.

[PICTURED: Graphic from sott.net.]