James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway

In 1965, James Ridgeway helped launch the modern muckraking era by revealing that General Motors had hired private eyes to spy on an obscure consumer advocate named Ralph Nader. He worked for many years at the Village Voice, has written 16 books, and has codirected Blood in the Face, a film about the far right. In 2012, he was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow.

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The Insurance Industry Can't Lose

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 9:21 AM PDT

The health insurance industry’s double cross of Obama has created a storm of controversy. But it probably won’t amount to much. There's been a lot of talk about punishing the industry for its actions: through a barely conceivable threat to remove the industry’s antitrust exemption or by resurrecting the public option. Neither seems very likely.

Historically, with solid support in Congress—especially from the Dodd family (father Thomas and son Christopher) the insurance industry has evaded federal regulation. Instead, it's regulated by the states, which—lacking sufficient money and political nerve—have been a pushover. Under Obama, there's little likelihood of this changing.

The public option itself is fraught with weak points that ought to reassure the industry.  Even if it passes, they may make more money, not less. That's because a public option won’t create a new federal insurance program but rather a contract apparatus whereby the government would in effect buy policies from private companies and let existing insurance entities—Blue Cross-Blue Shield, for example—run the public option system. In fact, the entire concept would resemble an outsourcing scheme more than anything truly "public." Similarly, the newly fashionable co-op proposal would most likely involve a local health insurance co-op contracting out the insurance function to private companies or systems like Blue Cross-Blue Shield.
 

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The Ugly Truth About 401(k)s

| Wed Oct. 14, 2009 12:39 PM PDT

Back in the spring, Mother Jones published an issue with cover line “Who Ran Away With Your 401(k)?” and a series of articles about America’s broken retirement system. This week Time magazine has a cover story by Stephen Gandel that’s worth reading, even though by now it’s stating the painfully obvious: It’s called “Why It’s Time to Retire the 401(k)”:

The ugly truth…is that the 401(k) is a lousy idea, a financial flop, a rotten repository for our retirement reserves. In the past two years, that has become all too clear. From the end of 2007 to the end of March 2009, the average 401(k) balance fell 31%, according to Fidelity. The accounts have rebounded, along with the rest of the market, but that’s little help for those who retired — or were forced to — during the recession. In a system in which one year’s gains build on the next, the disaster of 2008 will dent retirement savings long after the recession ends.

 In what must seem like a cruel joke to many, the accounts proved the most dangerous for those closest to retirement. During the market downturn, the 401(k)s of 55-to-65-year-olds lost a quarter more than those of their 35-to-45-year-old colleagues. That’s because in your early years, your 401(k)’s growth is driven mostly by contributions. You control your own destiny. But the longer you hold a 401(k), the more market-exposed it becomes. It’s a twist that breaks the most basic rule of financial planning.

And don’t think that the problem is solved by the stock market’s partial rebound, or pronouncements that the recession is over. As the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out, the retirement crisis preceded the recession, and will endure long after it’s over:

Only half of full-time workers have a retirement plan through their employer, and coverage is much lower for part-time workers. Participating in a plan doesn’t mean a worker is adequately preparing for retirement. The median 401(k) account balance was only $25,000 in 2006-$40,000 for workers approaching retirement age. In other words, half of those who had a 401(k) were nearing retirement with less than $40,000 in their account.

Even before the stock market slide, the average person with a 401(k) was on track to retire with only 20-40% of what they need to maintain their standard of living.

The Economic Policy Institute, Pension Rights Center, and others are part of a new initiative called Retirement USA, which “is working for a universal, secure, and adequate retirement system to supplement Social Security for those workers who are not in plans that provide equally secure and adequate benefits.” Based on the current effort to achieve universal health insurance, it’s clear whatever they come up with will arrive too late to help present-day geezers like myself. (Death panels, anyone?)

Health Insurance Industry's Latest Double-Cross

| Mon Oct. 12, 2009 12:48 PM PDT

Just in case anyone thought the insurance companies couldn’t sink any lower, they've made yet another sleazy move in the ongoing battle over health care reform. This morning, American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the main industry shill group, announced a new "report" warning  that the proposed reforms would raise a "typical family's" health insurance premiums by as much as $4,000 over the next ten years.

The report is a particular stab in the back to President Obama and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus. Both have spent recent months assiduously kissing the insurers’ gold-plated butts in exchange for their "co-operation" on health care reform. The Baucus bill is already a giveaway to the health insurance industry. By requiring millions more Americans to buy private health insurance plans, it stands to shovel even more money into their coffers, while imposing little government regulation and no competition from a public plan.

But that still wasn’t enough for the insurance companies. As the Los Angeles Times reports, health insurers have concluded that Baucus bill doesn’t do enough "to draw young, healthy people into the insurance pool. Industry analysts predict that by postponing and reducing penalties on those who fail to buy health insurance, it would attract less-healthy patients who would drive up costs." In other words, some of the new policy-holders might actually require insurance companies to pay for health care in exchange for their bonanza of new premiums. That, of course, might chip away at their profit margin, whch would never do—so their only option is to raise already sky-high insurance premiums even higher. Or so they say.

The Myth of the Greedy Granny Strikes Again

| Mon Oct. 12, 2009 7:49 AM PDT

Just about every week, it seems, the New York Times has yet another piece that adds fuel to what I’ve called the phony intergenerational conflict over health care. Last week it was about how we lucky Medicare-eligible oldsters are scarfing up our free health care while our slightly younger compatriots (ages 50-65) can’t even get health insurance.  This week it’s even worse: We greedy old geezers, it seems, are now responsible for the deprivations faced by helpless little children. 

In an Editorial Notebook” entry this Sunday, Eduardo Porter laments the fact that a majority of people over 65 oppose health care reform efforts that would provide for the uninsured. Porter writes:

The elderly, of course, are already covered by government-run health insurance. The president’s plan offers them little. It might even trim some Medicare expenditures. But their opposition to the expansion of health insurance does make me wonder: what about the grandchildren?

So let me get this straight: The only way for the children of America to get the health care they need is for old people to give up some of ours? Never mind the insurance companies, whose useless, bloodsucking participation in the U.S. health care system raises costs by at least 20 percent. And never mind Big Pharma, who siphon another 10 percent or so directly into their runaway profit margins. Forget all about the bulging pockets of the private health care industry. The real reason little Timmy and Janey can’t afford to go to the doctor is because their selfish old granny wanted a hip replacement, and grandpa insisted on having his blood pressure meds.

But wait, that’s not all. Porter takes things a step further, suggesting that it’s old folks’ gluttony at the public trough that leaves millions of American children living in poverty:

The age gap sheds light on a deep generational inequity. In the United States, as in most industrial countries, government spending skews heavily in favor of the old. Social spending on the elderly amounted to $19,700 per person in 2000, according to one study; children got $6,380.

One might be tempted to think the spending imbalance reflects a difference in needs. After all, the elderly tend to get sick more and require expensive medical treatment. But children could do with more help too. The percentage of the elderly living under the poverty line dropped from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.7 percent last year. For those under 18, the incidence of poverty rose from 17.6 percent to 19 percent.

So let’s not talk about military spending, the Wall Street bailout, or the ridiculously low tax rates paid by the rich. Want to know the real reason why the world’s wealthiest nation can’t find money in its budget to lift nearly one in five of its children out of poverty? It’s all because of us greedy old geezers.

Angola 3 Appeal Denied

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 7:25 PM PDT

The Louisiana State Supreme Court Friday denied an appeal from Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement for more than 37 years. Wallace and Albert Woodfox are members of what has become known as the Angola 3, whose story has been covered extensively by Mother Jones. Convicted of the 1972 murder of a prison guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, both men maintain their innocence; they believe they were targeted for the crime and relegated to permanent lockdown because of their organizing work with the prison chapter of the Black Panthers. Wallace, who is now 68 years old, was recently transferred from Angola to the Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, where he continues to be held in solitary. Two days ago, Wallace descended even deeper into the hole, placed in a disciplinary unit called Beaver 5 for unknown violations of prison policy.

Herman Wallace launched the appeal of his conviction nearly a decade ago. His lawyers have introduced substantial evidence showing that the state’s star witness, a fellow prisoner named Hezekiah Brown, was offered special treatment and an eventual pardon in exchange for his testimony against Wallace and Woodfox. In 2006, a judicial commissioner assigned to study the case found that there were grounds for overturning the conviction, but Wallace’s application was subsequently denied--by the state district court, court of appeals, and now by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

While every setback comes as a blow to a man nearing 70 who has spent nearly four decades in lockdown, one of Wallace’s attorneys said tonight that this denial by the state’s highest court came as no surprise, since it has a reputation for refusing to overturn the decisions of lower courts. Today’s ruling opens the doors to a federal habeas corpus challenge, beginning with the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana at Baton Rouge. Here, if Wallace is lucky, his case will be reviewed by a fact-finding federal magistrate, and his conviction overturned by a federal judge. This is what happened to Albert Woodfox last year. Yet Woodfox, too, remains in prison--and in solitary confinement--as the state appeals the judge’s decision.

Louisiana’s Attorney General, James “Buddy” Caldwell, has stated that he opposes releasing the two men “with every fiber of my being,” while the Warden of Angola and Hunt prisons, Burl Cain, has more than once suggested that the two men must be held in solitary because they ascribe to “Black Pantherism.” In addition to their criminal appeals, Wallace and Woodfox (along with Robert King, who was released in 2001), have a case pending on constitutional grounds. They argue that the conditions and duration of their time in solitary confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that they are being held there for their political beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.
 

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