The Insurance Scam

As the corporate dominated congress struggles to perpetrate the greatest insurance scam ever upon the American people, it might help to put the concept of insurance itself in perspective. The deliberations’ secrecy is a big clue. The attempt to eliminate health insurance coverage for some 23 million or more Americans and destroy Medicaid for the poor, to fund yet another big tax cut for the super-rich whose political power is far greater than that of the people ought to enrage every ordinary American. The one percent of the one percent are about to Trump American democracy once again with the greatest Insurance Scam of all times.

insurance.1Insurance is a concept fraught with contradictions in U.S. culture. For most of us, it is something we must pay for to protect ourselves from likely bankruptcy resulting from the costs of some major tragedy in our lives. If we crash our car, causing someone to be maimed or killed, most Americans do not have the resources to pay the massive costs for which we may become liable. The medical costs of a life-threatening disease or severe injury reach far beyond the pocket book of most Americans. That is why we pay insurance premiums. In theory, if everyone pays a small premium, the resulting large pool of money is available to pay the costs of whatever adversity befalls an insured person of family.

The Scam

However, it is much more complicated than that. Over time, the insurance business has become a “cash cow” for the corporations involved. We understand our insurance simply as an individual or family’s way of protecting itself from the risk of financial disaster or the risk of lack of access to medical treatment. After all, we live in an individualistic culture and it is up to us to take our own precautions or risk catastrophic consequences. But it was not always like that. Other options were available. Today, not so much.

In 2014, $1.274 Trillion was spent by Americans on insurance premiums.[1] Now, setting aside the administrative costs of managing an insurance program, the amount of money taken in by insurance companies today far exceeds the amount paid out in “benefits.” Insurance companies invest the difference, their large profits, in any number of ways. Often, they invest in large-scale projects such as big real estate developments. Today, most insurance companies are stock companies, that is, private corporations owned by their investors and managed in the interests of the company with the use of funds collected from customers in the form of premiums.

The Cooperative Approach

Mutual insurance companies are different; their members, who are also their customers, own them. Mutual companies are rare today; many converted to stock companies decades ago when management sought to operate for profit instead of for the “mutual assurance” of members. The underlying principle remains the same, pooling money from many customers to provide payment of benefits to those who “qualify.” Many “exclusions” restrict qualification. The added cost of corporate profit is the big difference for the “insured,” whose coverage may be less than expected.

Mutual insurance companies were more like cooperatives, such as credit unions. Because their owners are their members, cooperatives eliminate the cost of corporate profit, to the benefit of their member-owners.  I got my mortgage through my credit union simply because it offered the best interest rate of all financial institutions I compared. At the end of the year, I get a dividend based on any surplus revenue the credit union has generated, and the proportion of that revenue generated by my financial activity. In other words, the credit union equitably shares any surplus revenue is among its members. Cooperatives are simply more cost-effective for their member-customer-owners than stock companies whose interests require profits to outside owners and higher stock prices in quarterly reports.

Congress Amplifies the Scam

In the U.S., medical insurance business has evolved into a giant fraud, sanctioned by the federal government. By excluding as many categories of persons or conditions as they can, the insurance companies work hard to avoid any risk of insured individuals needing coverage. Every other nation in the industrial world has some form of universal health insurance in which the government pools the money through taxes and pays doctors, hospitals, etc., for their work. Citizens (members) use health professionals and facilities as needed. The costs are far lower because these systems eliminate both the profits of a business and the complex private insurance bureaucracies needed to restrict access to increase profits. Even more important, the health outcomes are superior to those in the U.S., since the focus is on health, not corporate profit. The Republican health care bill would make things far worse for Americans.

As one European doctor put it, “You Americans treat medicine as a business; we treat it as a profession.” Doctors in most industrialized nations do not think about insurance billing requirements or business profits; they work for respectable professional salaries. Most likely, they also feel less stressed. These differences result from a distinctly American cultural defect that inhibits cooperative behavior in service to the neo-liberal economics of the corporate state. That defect allows insurance to operate as a fraudulent institutional practice that drains the meager resources of the American people.

Breaking Good

As long as we continue to hold to the extreme illusions of individualism fostered by the corporate media and the corporate-controlled congress in support of corporate exploitation of the population, the grand insurance scam will continue. The elites that exploit government as well as the people perpetuate the lie that “private enterprise” is more efficient than government. It is very efficient at exploiting people and politics for corporate profit and the enrichment of corporate elites. But it is clearly less effective at providing health care to the people. The insurance scam continues. The people remain exploited and ill served by medical organizations and practices that serve the insurance companies and other profiteers, not the people. Where is the outrage?

[1] Federal Insurance Office (2014). Annual Report on the Insurance Industry (PDF). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury. p. 45. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurance_in_the_United_States

Individual Climate Ethics and Social Action

Climate action: can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything we can, take shorter showers, and install some solar panels, will that prevent the looming climate chaos? We could buy an electric car and low-emissions consumer products, maybe even go “off the grid.” But would that be enough to avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem is far deeper than that. Global warming and the climate destabilization it causes result from systemic defects endemic to industrial civilization itself. Changing middle class consumer “lifestyle” choices is only one small, though necessary, part of the whole solution. Alone, it would be far too little and much too late. That means, in some sense, everything must change and change quickly. The massive changes required are a very uncomfortable prospect for middle and upper class sensibilities. Most of the remaining middle class (and above) believe that the “climate problem” can be fixed with new energy technology, better consumer choices, and recycling, but it cannot. the flaws endemic to a system cannot be fixed by tinkering with its symptoms.

So, how can change adequate to this rapidly advancing climate crisis be accomplished? That is the big politically unacknowledged question left largely unaddressed. False promises abound. I have read too many emissions reduction targets to count (you know, 20% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, etc.). The reasons for choosing the baseline year are never explained, but they are arbitrary and politically self-serving. Why are the CO2 levels at the beginning of the industrial revolution not the baseline?

The politicians never specify the source of the numbers touted. They appear unrelated to any findings of climate science. Nor do they specify how or fr.om what industrial process emission reductions can be obtained – they mean nothing. They are no more than feeble political gestures meant to dodge the questions the elites don’t want to answer. The non-binding “commitments” made at the latest UN climate conference, COP21 in Paris, 2015, have been promoted by governments and corporate media as a major breakthrough. Yet they lack substance, being devoid of any specific actions to reduce energy use by industries or consumers, as emissions continue unabated.[1] We are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity, both historical and current.  And we have lots of data on every form of ecological and climate disturbance, including evidence of their accelerating expansion. We are also awash in vacuous platitudes and abstract “plans.”

The Crisis is Now

From dozens to two hundred species are variously estimated to be going extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway and thoroughly documented.[2] Its primary cause is indisputably the ecological havoc produced by industrial civilization. In the U.S., new car sales are booming, as is consumer finance debt, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has yet to exceed ¾ of 1%. Some coal-fired power plants are slowly being replaced by natural gas, which, because it is extracted by fracking, now produces as much in carbon pollution as coal. Other coal-fired plants are being replaced by utility-scale solar power. At the same time, solar credits for homeowners and businesses are being cut back or eliminated as investor owned utility companies desperately try to hold on to their economic power by exerting political influence.

The environmental damage and total emissions from natural gas, when the toxic waste and methane leakage of fracking are considered, are well documented. They are at least as bad as those from the coal-fired plants they replace. Nuclear power, a miserable financial and environmental failure, is still touted as a zero-emissions option. Corporate nuclear power interests still seek government subsidies for construction and insurance that corporate underwriters will not write. Nothing is being done about the vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of the national power grid; it could be taken down not just by a terrorist attack, but by its own internal weaknesses.[3] Actual security of power grids can only be achieved by distributed power generation. Smart metering and local power management would allow automatic isolation of failed components. All of this is technically feasible now. Only the political power of corporate financial and energy elites prevents the needed changes from being implemented. None of this is affected by individual consumer lifestyle choices.

There are so many ecological fronts on which climate destabilization is accelerating that it is nearly impossible to keep up. It is no less difficult to mount the massive changes required of us to actually make a difference. Euphemisms continue to trump direct confrontation of difficult political and economic policy decisions. Given the inaction of moribund national institutions, it seems only some kind of mass social movement can put enough pressure on those institutions to act in the public and planetary interests. Public resistance to the status quo is necessary – think 350.org’s rapidly growing fossil-fuel divestment movement. Rapid replacement of institutionalized fossil-fuel energy production is required – think accelerated installation of distributed solar and wind technologies for power production. Also think universal upgrading of insulation and weather stripping on existing buildings and net zero energy efficiency for all new construction – not just showy demonstration projects. We don’t need Bill Gates’ pie-in-the-sky technological innovation to feed his venture capital; we need to take the critical steps that present no technical problems, are available today, and have the most near-term chance to mitigate the current trajectory of climate destabilization.

The building of local and regional institutions and community actions must create resilience, not just by adapting to increasingly dire rapidly deteriorating conditions. The best way to adapt to the climate disruptions that are already happening and accelerating is to mitigate them both locally and nationally. That will require significant curtailment of excessive and superfluous production, consumption and unnecessary waste. To do these things we must radically changing our relations to the institutions – collectively best described as the corporate state – that perpetuate the problem while issuing political platitudes and false hopes.

What if the true costs of extraction-production-transportation-consumption-waste had to be paid at the big-box checkout line? Or better, let each currently “externalized” cost be paid at its respective point of extraction, manufacture, transportation, or consumption. The total of such payments should reflect the full environmental cost and be deposited in a public trust to be applied directly to mitigating the causes of global warming. The culture of consumerism would be significantly dampened if the true costs of industrial society had to be paid up front. Again, this is entirely beyond the reach of individual ethical action.

Individualism and Collective Action

For those of us who already take climate disruption seriously we must directly address one of the most important factors that contribute to weakening the climate movement. We must not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. When it comes to climate mitigation, self-satisfaction is a very dangerous vice. Individual action by those who are aware of the planetary crisis and care, while necessary, will never be enough. Widespread individual action will not happen by itself. We could each recycle everything we can, and the industrial juggernaut would still march on to climate collapse and social chaos. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism. It will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan continuing its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. The paradox of individual and collective action will remain as long as individuals do not organize to produce large-scale collective action.[4]

The extant momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some plausible level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. Some argue that it already has – all the more reason to take maximum collective action to minimize the damage. The change we need is systemic and it is now. That will not happen until a social movement even broader than the political revolution Bernie Sanders hopes for can mobilize at a vast scale.

Only a mass social movement can force the economic and political elites to transform the extractive industrial economy (or get out of the way) so that an ecological society can be built. Such a movement is emerging in part from such actions of resistance as the movement for fossil-fuel divestment by universities, retirement funds, and government agencies, initiated by 350.org. Movements of resistance are also growing at the local level in some initially small ways all across the U.S., as well as around the world. Particularly committed and active are indigenous groups whose lands and ecosystems extractive industries threaten. Only when these and other local movements take off, will the societal level changes we need be possible. That is why collective action at every level possible is necessary in diverse ways.

Much more is needed and on a much larger scale than has so far occurred. One might suggest the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s or Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence from colonial Great Britain as models for a new climate movement. Numerous other examples of non-violent political movements could be cited. However, the kind of change required by the climate crisis is of a very different order. It is vastly more complex and involves deep structural changes, especially in the industrialized nations, that remain yet to be started or even fully envisioned. The U.S. civil rights movement forced some major changes in public behavior toward Black citizens; it is now clear that the more complex and deeper cultural change sought remains far from achieved. Today, it is not just freedom from oppression for individual groups that we need; it is the total transformation of the global political economy.

Transformative Action

The needed transformation is not unrelated to current struggles of diverse oppressed groups around the world. It is, after all, the capital-driven process of industrialization that has caused most of the poverty and oppression so widespread in the world today. The Black Lives Matter movement, despite fairly broad support by individuals in the white middle class, is unlikely to make significant progress in itself. Until the politics that created a militarized police across the U.S. is transformed into a democratic government whose priorities are guided by a commitment to the quality of life of the people, police will still act in the interests of the corporate state. Similarly, government climate policy will continue to favor corporate techno-industrial false solutions until forced to do otherwise. So far, climate politics favor the conveniences demanded by wealth. They do not reflect the needs of the people or the planet. Instead, a strong commitment to human values and wellbeing must guide climate policy. It is currently guided by corporate financial interests. Only a massive social movement for democracy can change that.

At the same time, we must all do whatever we can do individually, knowing it is not nearly enough. We must do what we can and not be satisfied by our limited personal actions; we must forge alliances to organize larger socially transformative actions that can penetrate the shield of corporate wealth. Most importantly, we must join any effort we can in our local communities and regions to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path that will otherwise add human extinction to the rapidly growing list of other species already destroyed.

[1] Sara Nelson, “The Slow Violence of Climate Change,” points to James Hansen’s assessment that the COP21 accords are “just worthless words.” She also points out that current national commitments, in the unlikely event that they would be realized, would add up to a 2.7 degree Celsius global temperature rise, which would, by sea-rise alone, annihilate many of the world’s major cities as well as island nations, producing massive climate induced population displacements. Accessed at:  http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/35293-the-slow-violence-of-climate-change.

[2] Details of the currently accelerating mass extinction and previous such events can be found in The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert.

[3] Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (New York: Crown, 2015) points to the vulnerabilities of the national power grid, discusses responses to an attack or failure. But he never questions the centralized structure of the grid or how it can be decentralized to distribute power production, increase efficiency, and reduce vulnerability. Koppel’s book does, however, provide a sobering view of the devastating consequences of a widespread power outage as it would occur with our current power grid.

[4] The recent article by Peter Kalmus, “How Far Can We Get Without Flying?” Yes! Magazine, illustrates the dilemma of individual vs. collective action. Kalmus, a climate scientist, decided to stop flying to cut his carbon emissions and became aware of some of the implications of a post-oil future. But neither all climate scientists, nor the general public, will stop flying or engaging in other climate-destructive consumer behavior on their own. It will take a large scale social movement to change the culture of consumerism that feeds the industrial leviathan. Accessed at: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying-20160211  Reposted at:  http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-02-16/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying

Imperious Imaginaries and the Necessities of Now

Power over Nature is an old cultural ideal in the Western world.  It seemed largely achieved by the exploding rate of industrial invention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  This core western value continues unabated today.  A major downside of the unprecedented successes of the industrial age is the growth of a deep  institutionalized hubris.

This entails major risks, especially for Americans.  That’s not surprising, given our short history of western conquest, our experience as the world’s most powerful economic force, and our well practiced cultural amnesia. The power of expanding industrial and military might is nothing if not seductive and has become the norm for our economic and imperial expectations.

Imperious Imaginaries

The web of institutional relations between Big Banks, Big Government, Big Corporations, Big Media, and Big Military assures a certain cultural uniformity. This giant institutional complex shapes the framework for public discourse, thereby controlling the focus of any debate. Unfortunately, this powerful establishment also assures that little of the critical problems we now face become the subject of much serious public discussion. The cult of “American Exceptionalism” exacerbates the failure to recognize, no less deal with, political, economic, social, or environmental problems — even as they reach crisis levels.

Even so, many Americans do recognize that something is amiss. Scientifically confirmed and increasingly urgent problems are steadfastly ignored or denied by the power elites. Corporate management of both information and media controls the content and flow of mass communications. That is why “net neutrality” is so important.

Consider this. As a culture, our problems with Nature are due to our core imaginary separation from and dominion over the natural world. Modern Western Man — gender reference intentional — in both religious tradition and philosophical attitude expects and believes himself meant to control nature. The intellectual and power elites believe themselves to be rightfully and inherently in charge of the outcomes of their projects in the natural world.  Harmonizing with nature is not part of that equation.

Currently, disastrous results of the unjustified U.S. war on Iraq are coming to a head. The radical Sunni insurgency, ISIS, is taking over major Iraqi cities as the U.S. installed Shiite sectarian government and army falter. The U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi army has largely failed to defend the repressive regime the U.S. created. Yet, who do the Sunday talk shows invite back to explain what we should do next about the crisis that American Hubris caused? Why, the very neo-conservative war mongers whose imperious hubris got us into that mess in the first place, that’s who. Just how much hubris can we take?

Where are all the analysts who warned of the folly and had it right? Oh, they’re just “isolationists,” so should have no standing, and besides, there are the ratings to consider. And who do the talking heads invite to explain the consequences and offer solutions for the economic crash caused by the Big Banks?  Why, the Biggest Banksters, of course! The corporate media are not interested in a Joseph Stiglitz or a Nomi Prins. Opposition to hubris is not allowed.

Necessities of Now

But the cycle of the industrial era operates on a trajectory, a time line with a launch point and an unavoidable landing. The history of the great transformation to a capital-growth driven industrial society is well documented. But as the transition to its decline and fall begins, it is excluded from public discussion, at least by ‘the usual suspects.’ Mainstream economics is the ideology of corporate capitalism  and does not accept an end point for its growth. That is one reason it is imaginary.

The American imaginary has little memory and its likely fate remains unrecognized. It is folly is to project past trends into an indefinite future. But that is the core of the corporate economic ideology. At a certain point, it was understandable that the industrial elites would see no end to their growing enterprises. But now the evidence is in, and the jig is up.  End point indicators proliferate all around us. The real issue, the choice of a hard or soft landing is up to us.

Imperious imaginaries have no useful place in the strategic planning that is now necessary to carve out a smooth transition to survival in the coming decades. In fact, they are downright dangerous. How to achieve a broad recognition of the necessities of now is our biggest immediate problem. What is necessary now, beyond general needs for energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, is neither taken seriously nor widely discussed.

The most urgent necessity of now is to develop and immediately implement a strategy to radically reduce carbon emissions. In order to restrain the rapid acceleration of global warming, we need to target the most extreme and easiest to mitigate sources of carbon emissions first. Many of these are interconnected, so a coordinated plan is called for but not discussed among all the political finger pointing and denials. Well, that compounds the other imperious imaginary: the sovereign right of each individual to do whatever the (corporate) “person” damn well pleases, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us, and for the planet. Catch-22 is in full force, and time is not on our side.

Individualism and Its Discontents

Why Our Culture Keeps Us from the Pursuit of Happiness

Individualism may be the most entrenched and pervasive icon of American civilization.  After all, personal liberty was one of the founding principles of the republic formed in rebellion against the oppressive rule of the British monarchy and its economic elite.  Rarely mentioned, however, is the historical fact that the economic elite in the British colonies retained power in the new republic and were the main beneficiaries of the political freedom that came to be expressed as individualism.  Yet, over time, liberty has been transformed from a right of political independence and free political expression to an ethic of unlimited shopping.  I will never forget George Bush’s emblematic admonition to the American people after the tragedy of 9-11, to “go to the mall,” as a reaffirmation of the freedom and individualism for which “they hate us.”   Perhaps it is not so odd that the emblematic day of shopping madness is named “Black Friday,” the near-violent or actually violent character of which bring to mind the catastrophic nature of the numerous Black Fridays throughout history.

From its origins in the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment philosophers who developed theories of the individual citizen’s relationship to society and government, American individualism has remained central to the political-economy and culture of the nation.  Yet it has been gradually transformed into a more contemporary ideology that serves the economic interests of the neo-conservative wealthy class – heirs of the colonial economic elite – that shapes the nation’s political and economic policies.  We need not recite the familiar mantra of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or the utopian supposition that the “free market” makes the world right for everyone, to grasp the fact that current economic theory and governmental policy are driven by the usefulness of these illusions in retaining and gaining ever more social control by the power elites that fund their political campaigns.  Do we really know that these concepts are illusions meant to preserve the shape of power in the declining American empire?

I think most people know and understand that the power elites direct the giant financial, corporate, fossil fuel, political and military institutions.  They know that the name of the game for the rest of us has become all against all in the economic realm and that the game is rigged.  Upward social mobility is largely a thing of the past.  Most importantly Americans mourn the loss of community and the fragmentation of families.  But the game is also driven by the use of ideology to control public perceptions of what individualism really is about in this era’s unique race to nowhere. 

Personal identity is now very much tied up in the culture of individual consumption.  The cultural core of the endless-growth economy, which requires unbounded expansion in order for the debt on which it is based to be paid, is driven by orchestrated wants that have little if anything to do with achieving happiness, and everything to do with capital formation in the biggest banks.  Individualism and freedom are equated with the ability to buy the products of the giant corporations, while shrinking paychecks make it impossible to do so without incurring further debt.  In a cultural world dominated by advertising, the corporate media are the primary sources of our images of need, which uphold unrestrained consumerism.  While people know deep down that something is very wrong, it is difficult to see our own relation to the problem when it is the very source of the problem that also shapes our images of reality.

Neither ecology nor human relations are considered by an economy that is driven by profits through increasing debt and endless expansion.  While the ecological limits of growth will ultimately stop the profit-through-debt machine, if we do not override the consumer culture with reality-based behavioral and social change – and a new ethic that recognizes interdependence – the end of unbounded consumerism will be globally catastrophic – both ecologically and socially.  Only by seeking happiness in the areas known to actually produce it, such as personal and community engagement in the context of a steady-state economy based on the pursuit of happiness in an ecologically sustainable economy, will the end of the endless-growth economy mitigate global catastrophe.  Black Friday symbolizes the illusions of individualism by its frantic embodiment of the most absurd elements of the culture of consumerism.