Monday, August 31, 2009

Paul Krugman: Missing Richard Nixon

August 31, 2009
Missing Richard Nixon

Many of the retrospectives on Ted Kennedy’s life mention his regret that he didn’t accept Richard Nixon’s offer of a bipartisan health care deal. The moral some commentators take from that regret is that today’s health care reformers should do what Mr. Kennedy balked at doing back then, and reach out to the other side.

But it’s a bad analogy, because today’s political scene is nothing like that of the early 1970s. In fact, surveying current politics, I find myself missing Richard Nixon.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. Nixon was surely the worst person other than Dick Cheney ever to control the executive branch.

But the Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren’t as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system’s ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable.

As many people have pointed out, Nixon’s proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today. In fact, in some ways it was stronger. Right now, Republicans are balking at the idea of requiring that large employers offer health insurance to their workers; Nixon proposed requiring that all employers, not just large companies, offer insurance.

Nixon also embraced tighter regulation of insurers, calling on states to “approve specific plans, oversee rates, ensure adequate disclosure, require an annual audit and take other appropriate measures.” No illusions there about how the magic of the marketplace solves all problems.

So what happened to the days when a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?

Part of the answer is that the right-wing fringe, which has always been around — as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, “crazy is a pre-existing condition” — has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence. Whom are Democrats supposed to reach out to, when Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was supposed to be the linchpin of any deal, helped feed the “death panel” lies?

But there’s another reason health care reform is much harder now than it would have been under Nixon: the vast expansion of corporate influence.

We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That’s especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon’s day. The health insurance industry, in particular, saw its premiums go from 1.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1970 to 5.5 percent in 2007, so that a once minor player has become a political behemoth, one that is currently spending $1.4 million a day lobbying Congress.

That spending fuels debates that otherwise seem incomprehensible. Why are “centrist” Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota so opposed to letting a public plan, in which Americans can buy their insurance directly from the government, compete with private insurers? Never mind their often incoherent arguments; what it comes down to is the money.

Given the combination of G.O.P. extremism and corporate power, it’s now doubtful whether health reform, even if we get it — which is by no means certain — will be anywhere near as good as Nixon’s proposal, even though Democrats control the White House and have a large Congressional majority.

And what about other challenges? Every desperately needed reform I can think of, from controlling greenhouse gases to restoring fiscal balance, will have to run the same gantlet of lobbying and lies.

I’m not saying that reformers should give up. They do, however, have to realize what they’re up against. There was a lot of talk last year about how Barack Obama would be a “transformational” president — but true transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader. Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
Privacy Policy Terms of Service Search Corrections RSS First Look Help Contact Us Work for Us Site Map

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I am sure they will not be missed

Things that I do not need and will not miss!

Grande lattes
Those plastic chairs that they sell at Home Depot for $6 that bend this way and that, and that some outdoors terraces use for their customers to sit down in. Don’t see them here, and good riddance.
Lots of ice in your drinks. Get them cold from the refrigerator, but don’t dilute them.

More to come.

I will have to write about small things, while still in the thrall of exoticism. After some weeks I presume that the observations will get subsumed in the quotidian.

The homeless are present on the street of Paris, like everywhere else. They are not called homeless, though; they are designated under the nicely taxonomic and unemotional name of “sans addresse”, without an address.

On our way along the Faubourg Saint Antoine (a busy street) we saw a lady in a raincoat and a headscarf lying on the ground next to her crutches, stirring sugar into her expresso cup, before starting her daily begging job.

Everybody does a lot of walking. It is rare to see anybody eating or drinking while they walk, and those are mostly tourists. I used to think that thirty minutes per day on the Precor qualified as exercise: here, in the first days, I was charleyhorsed to death, but now I am building real stamina.

Yesterday,Thursday, we walked for four hours. Because Linda was feeling unwell, we requested an appointment at the American Hospital, where we were snottily dismissed until next week, and threatened with a $150 charge if we did not show up. Consequently we located a clinic downtown and walked there. We could easily have taken the Metro or the bus, but we thought it would be more fun to walk and watch the neighborhoods and the people. We got to the clinic, next to the Gare St. Lazare, at around 10 am, without an appointment. We waited for about fifteen minutes, and were seen by a general practitioner, in a well equipped small office, who looked at Linda’s throat, wrote a prescription for three products, put her mind at rest with a laughing reference to “Microbes, microbes!” and sent us on our way. Cost: Euros 28 (about $45), and the receptionist was not very sure on how to handle a paying customer. In the pharmacy, just across the street, as we lacked the universal medical card that everyone carries, there was some confusion on how to enter a cash transaction for Euros 19 ($27 aprox.),
The whole medical event took about an hour. Then we happily went to lunch on the roof of Le Printemps for an all-around spectacular view of Paris under a cool blue sky.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Steps and stones

In the two narrow streets where our third floor apartment overlooks a corner the most reverberating sounds are the scooter engines flitting by day and night, and the clickety -clack of shoe heels against the pavement, until the last neighbors have retired home. It is summer and as people like to stay up and enjoy the cooler evenings their conversations flow out of the open windows, a higher-pitched, staccato sound over the background buzz of the great city around us.

We are just three blocks south of Saint Antoine, a busy thoroughfare that becomes rue de Rivoli to the West, and, to the East, across the Bastille with its high green column crowned by golden angels and its carousel of cars swirling around it, becomes the rue du Faubourg de Saint Antoine. This is revolutionary Paris; even today the great convocations of the left meet where the Bastille used to stand and unfold toward the Place de la Republique, further North. The column commemorates the three days in June 1830 when the people of Paris rose up to overthrow the ancient, tired, inept Bourbon monarchy, who, as the saying goes “neither learns nor forgets”.

Few cities in the world have a history as soaked in blood as Paris. A very fanciful writer said that if you stepped hard enough on the cobblestones of what is today the place de la Concorde, you could see the blood seeping up. The romantic Seine flows over myriad bones. As late as the 1960’s the Paris police rounded up Algerians in the wake of a succession of terrorist bombings, and stupidly dumped hundreds of their bodies into the river, where they bloated and floated. Modern attempts to clean up the Marsellaise, the French national anthem, eliminating that part of its lyrics that refers to the enemies’ blood soaking the homeland furrows, have successfully been resisted.

Cobblestones, that other component of the romantic haze, have been the people’s weapon of choice, century after century. A call to the barricades was a call to dig up the streets and use the stones to obstruct the way of the cavalry. After the violent and protracted student uprising in 1968 the municipality finally decided to repave the Boulevard St. Germain with asphalt.

The relationship between the French Government of whatever stripe and the people of Paris, be they subjects or citizens, has always been fraught. The temper of the city is skeptical and sour towards whoever holds power. In spite of being the cradle of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the French nation has loved few of its rulers, and those it loved often showed little respect for that document. The Revolution was not made for love or by charismatic men and women, it was driven by indignation and power-grabbing.

Napoleon, to a point, was loved because of the adroit propaganda that he unleashed around his person. The concept of French glory and grandeur he took from the overthrown monarchy; but when the cost of so much war started to weigh too heavily, the love was gone.

De Gaulle was probably more respected than loved to the end. Fortunately he was a wonderful foil for cartoonists and comedians, who imitated and spoofed his style, manner and diction, thus bringing him nearer to everyday man.

The most recent uprising of Parisians in the latter years of the 1900’s was against the building of skyscrapers in down-town Paris; a protracted media campaign under the motto “Paris-Las Vegas, a city that only Americans could love” after the Tour Montparnasse was built, pushed developers towards the outskirts in La Défense, and the Francois Mitterand National Library was planted out of the way upstream of classical Hausmannian Paris.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

One step more and there we are!

We have been in Paris since Wednesday morning. On arriving, sticky and disheveled, the luggage hall was packed with pasty people in funny clothes in various degrees of sunburn. Air Madagascar’s Airbus had just disgorged its load of French vacationers, still disbelieving that they were back home. The baggage conveyor along the wall was slowly spewing forth their belongings, and we stood four deep peeking over shoulders to recognize ours. For the most part deodorants and air conditioning had given up, and our three hundred strong Newark contingent added more heat to the gathering. A man at the baggage desk was holding a long conversation in Arabic, pouring vowels into the phone and pausing for short periods of listening. Into one of his silences I tried to explain how I did not expect our luggage to be on the plane and could we start the paperwork right away? Please, of course? He looked at me with a slightly reproachful mien for having interrupted so rudely his fascinating exchange….but three pauses later he smiled and asked me not to worry, as soon as the last piece of baggage was on the conveyor a faithful informer would phone him (if he ever hung up), and we could get on with our business then. Meanwhile, please scoot.

At the conveyor I made the acquaintance of a man, like myself just arrived on Continental, who told me all about all of his experiences with luggage retrieval in various airports of the world (but he did not seem to want to hear of my similar experiences), and how his friends in Paris were waiting for him to join them on the Glacier Express in Switzerland. 91 tunnels and 291 bridges were in his 6000 feet high future.

Luckily and amazingly and comfortingly our three pieces of checked luggage were in our present. Those guys at Continental really did a heroic job in rushing them from the arriving flight onto the departing one in less than fifteen minutes. They also took time to draw smiley faces on the labels. Thanks guys, you are amazing!

Any airport looks good compared to JFK. In NY the taxis and buses are dirty and dented, personalized to the temper of the city. Here we were surprised as the security guys, the French Army in full gear, a man and a woman, gently nudged us towards a queue where we picked up a spotless Mercedes taxi in less than ten minutes, with throngs of returning vacationers swirling around us. Thirty minutes later we reached our address in central Paris.

In front of the house that contains our apartment stood a man of about my age, looking somewhat agitated. His daughter had asked him to feed the cat and water the plants while she was on the beach, and this morning the electricity had failed and none of the security devices on the building’s doors would work. He could hear the famished cat, but was unable to raise anybody to come down and open the door. Everybody must be away on vacation, probably including the repair people!. We deposited our bags in the hall of a neighboring small hotel and left to have some breakfast. When we returned about 45 minutes later the gentleman must have done his job and gone home. We never found out what had happened.

Carefully following the instructions we had in writing we conquered two successive doors with different codes and pin numbers on separate keypads and one key. Thirdly the apartment door was also secured with a massive key. But, we were in, ready, dirty and exhausted. But that café au lait with croissant was heaven.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Travel with the Ullmanns! See the world! Listen up! This is how we began.

As planned, and with a friend’s kind help, we loaded the five pieces of luggage resulting from weeks of negotiation into a van and set off for Albany International and Paris. Summer clothing, winter clothing, two laptops, a suit and a coat in a garment bag, our pills, our snacks assured our survival for the next four months in the wilds of Europe.
Five hours later, in mid-afternoon, we had made it as far as the Wolf Road Best Western’s triteness.

USAirways was having a bad day. The sign showed 1:10 pm as the departure time for our flight and three hours later, after boarding, watching the engines revving up and down, deplaning and retrieving cabin luggage that did not fit the cabin of the Dash airplane, it was still flashing “on time”.

Meanwhile two more feeder flights to Boston and Buffalo had been scrapped. We were told that it must be the heat. US Airways does not do “hot”. Maybe it is considering moving to Canada.

The ladies at the podium demonstrated, in my opinion, the superiority of the female gender: unflappable, their fingers embroidered at lightning speed proposals of alternatives on the computer keyboard. Firmly but gently they steered us away, one after the other, from the impossibilities, to the probabilities and impassibly expected our decisions.

We decided on Best Western, for which we had negotiated a voucher from another very festive supervisor called April. Again her demeanor and competence, time after time, towards all comers, was admirable and enviable.

The next morning (now we are talking August 18th) we negotiated our expeditionary luggage back onto the somewhat ramshackle shuttle and to the terminal This time we were trying our luck with Continental flight 3202 to Newark, ETD 12:50 pm. The tension mounted when that time arrived and passed, and no plane materialized at the end of the ramp. Our connection was with a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle at 6:10 pm….so there seemed to be no reason to fret.

But fret and sweat we did. The gentleman at the podium kept us informed of the fact that he had no information...two other flights to different locations came and went, while he assured us that the flying time to Newark was only 35 minutes….if only we had a plane.

We boarded at around 2:30pm, but by that time the company had missed its “wheels up” time with traffic control, so we sat at the end of the runway until we finally left around 5 pm. In Newark we deplaned at a quarter to six and galloped through what seemed miles of terminal (of course, most of the people movers were “being repaired”). Suffice to say that we made the connection with no minutes to spare .

In the 21st century there must be a better way. Where is Scottie when we need him to beam us up? It is clear that air travel has had its day, that the repeated declarations of chairmen of airlines of being focused on getting us to our destinations safely and quickly look good on the monitors but are totally removed from reality. Twenty six hours from Albany to Newark! In the most technologically advanced nation in the world! What a joke!