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

Overcoming the Trumping of Democracy to Restore the Commonwealth

Trump is not merely rolling back countless federal programs that attempt to protect society from the ravages of unrestrained extractive corporate capital and industrial consumerism. He is going one worse. Think of the premise of his actions and the way he frames those actions in claiming to “make America great again.” That premise is that The Great Leader knows best. Ignore and deny facts; abandon democratic process; submit to his will alone. Just have faith in The Great Leader.

EPA programs and operations Suppressed; Military energy-star efficiency trashed; national parks plundered for mining and drilling; safety, pollution, and worker protections in industry rolled back; plunder the nation’s public lands. These are some of the president’s ‘practical’ goals. We must ask, “Who benefits?” Certainly not the public.

In all of these actions and more, especially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the premise is that the maximal leader is the only legitimate source of power and correct action.

As Thomas Snyder, Yale historian has so powerfully explained in his recent small eloquent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the twentieth Century, “the president” has embarked on actions that parallel those used by various demagogues to destroy democracies in Europe. Every American should read this brief but powerful essay on how fascism overcomes democracy. We tend to think our democratic institutions are inviable, but they are not. They are now at high and growing risk.

Every executive order by this president is an attack on some public value, from due process to environmental protection, from plunder of the nation’s natural resources to escalating military adventurism. Corruption of public values in service to private plunder is elevated to the status of an unassailable new normal. The greatest danger now is that it is easier to acquiesce than to resist.

Underlying it all is the triumph of the ego over the human instinct for civility, altruism, reason, confirmed fact, and the public good. Lies are elevated to the status of faith in the decisions of a real estate swindler indebted to Russian oligarchs, whose misogynistic narcissism and corrupt business practices we must not question.

In all this, the stock market provides an interesting indicator of the ‘state of mind’ of the investor class, including institutional investors and wealthy individuals. Shiller’s indexes of stock market confidence are now at remarkably high levels. One interpretation is that investors believe the Trumping of democracy will offer expanded opportunity for plunder capital to ravage the social and natural environments for fun and profit, even though market valuations appear much higher than underlying fundamental business value. The U.S. One-Year Stock Market Confidence Index numbers have shot up since Trump’s inauguration, reaching well beyond those seen just before historical “corrections” in market valuation preceding recessions.

Schiller one-year investor confidence index

Source: http://som.yale.edu/faculty-research/centers-initiatives/international-center-for-finance/data/stock-market-confidence-indices/stock-market-confidence-indices

As one ‘contrarian,’ Eric Parnell, a registered investment advisor, put it, “All of this implies a toxic combination. Nearly everyone is bullish, thus leaving nobody new to join the game to take on the hot potato of already expensive stock prices.” But in today’s environment, greed knows no bounds, from the offices of predatory purchasers of bad debt to the oval office, plunder is the new normal – well, not so new, but radically more normal than ever.

During the Katrina catastrophe, minor looting got all the media attention; cooperative behavior, was not sensational enough to garner media attention. However, many made personal efforts to help others. Around the world, communities are rising to protect the land, water, air, and ecosystems upon which they depend for survival. The enemy of living Earth systems, including humanity, is the endless economic growth machine that Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere.” The new president is the most ‘visible hand’ in perpetuating the plunder of the biosphere by the technosphere.

Resist the oppression. Replace the destruction. Restore the Earth. These choices we the people must make by learning the lessons of failed democracies of the twentieth century. These difficult actions are the only choices left to achieve the societal resilience necessary for survival. Overcoming Trumpery is a necessity in that process.

Community: Some Fragments Remain

Little old airports near small towns have a story to tell. I have been flying since 1976. For most of that time, I flew mostly in the Southern California area, to and from small and medium sized airports surrounded near or in cities. In 2010, I flew from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the annual airshow and fly in put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association. It is one of the biggest air meets in the world. My wife and I had decided to camp right on the airfield, where airplane camping was available in designated areas.

I took the back seats out of the Glasair Sportsman II, which I had built in 2008, and loaded it with all our camping gear. We flew from Santa Fe to Oshkosh, Wisconsin – well, almost to Oshkosh – in two legs with a stopover in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As it turned out, many of the aircraft parking areas as well as the camping areas at Oshkosh were flooded. A year’s worth of rain fell in the four or five weeks before the air show. Only about fifty miles out, I picked up the information on the radio, that they had closed the camping areas. I diverted to the nearest small airport, Dodge County, where I found that many other small aircraft had landed, diverted from Oshkosh. There I learned that airplane camping was available at Fond du Lac airport, about twenty miles from Oshkosh. We took off immediately and landed at Fond du Lac, and got one of the last available camping spots at the edge of a taxiway. The air show organizers had arranged a shuttle bus to get campers to Oshkosh each day. That camping experience is a whole other story.

On the flights between New Mexico and Wisconsin, I did my flight planning in part based on my intention to stop at small airports for refueling. I was aware that fuel prices are lower at small rural airports where rents and other costs are cheaper. I had never flown an airplane in the Midwest. When I needed fuel, I landed at more remote airports. I knew that many such small airfields were scattered among the towns and fields of “the nation’s breadbasket.” The main users of these small airfields are farmers and crop-dusters. On the way home, a storm system chased me further southeast, over Missouri, so we stayed in Springfield the first night. On that trip across the rolling green fields of the Midwest at the end of July, I noticed some distinct differences from the urban and suburban airports where I had normally landed for thirty years in California.

major-samuel-b-cornelius-field-airport-spearman-texas

Major Samuel B Cornelius Field Airport, Spearman, Texas.

First, almost no security was evident at these little airports. Even when nobody was around, the little airport office would be open along with the restrooms. At small rural airports, a “courtesy car” is often available on the airport in case a pilot and passengers want to run into town for lunch or for any other reason. It doesn’t matter. The car key is hanging in an obvious spot in the office. An unwritten rule expects guests to top off the gas tank full for the next user. The key code for the gate is always a number that would be obvious to a pilot who had landed there.

Once, at a small airport at Spearman, Texas, to be exact, access to the fuel pumps required a local credit card unless the attendant was present. As I unsuccessfully attempted to use the pump, finally figuring out the problem, a man drove up in his pickup truck and offered the use of his card if the attendant did not return by the time we got back from our lunch in town. “Here’s my business card; just call me if you need it.” It was just the neighborly thing to do. He was a farm implements dealer.

Stepping out into the parking lot at the front door of the “Cowboy Grill,” we saw a massive black cloud formation, a virtual wall, moving in from the East. We did not want to have to stay at the only motel in town that night, a dingy cinder-block structure. So, we rushed back to the airport and took off in a very strong crosswind, heading west. We outran that storm and still had plenty of fuel to reach another town ahead.

We landed at the Dalhart, Texas airport. Dalhart is a larger farming community, and the airport has an FBO (fixed base operator) supplying fuel and aircraft services. Dusk was fast approaching, so we concluded that we had had enough flying for the day. A man came out of the office to greet us and offered us space in a hangar to shelter our aircraft from the approaching storm. We accepted. He then drove us and another couple of people to the motel he recommended in town, and picked us up the next morning when we said we’d be ready to take on the next leg of our flight. He owned the aviation service business on the airport, where we re-fueled for the final leg of our journey.

On our recent aborted camping trip to a small grass-and-gravel airstrip in the middle of the Gila National Forest, we diverted from our planned flight path near our remote destination because I was getting a wildly erratic fuel pressure reading. While I believed that the problem was due to a faulty sensor, we did not want to risk a fiery crash in the trees. We landed at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to try to resolve a fuel-pressure problem. “T or C”, as the locals refer to it, has one of those small airports where it is more about people and flying than about economics. When Steve, the gentleman in the airport office, learned of our problem, he offered us the use of the airport courtesy car. “Well, we don’t usually give it to people overnight, but since you’re stranded until you can get your plane fixed, go ahead, that’s what it’s for.”

ktcs-areal-photo

Truth or Consequences Airport, New Mexico.

We had the car free of charge, for five nights while we waited for a part to be delivered to the mechanic we had tracked down on the Friday of our arrival, another interesting character with his own story. Steve called me three days into our “inadvertent adventure” to see how we were doing. I expected him to demand the car back. He never mentioned it. I thanked him profusely for its use. He simply said, “that’s what it’s for,” without reference to when we might bring it back. We had to wait until Monday to order the fuel-pressure sensor, known as a “sender,” for overnight shipment.

Overnight took two days; we got to know the community, which had the same small-town America traits we appreciated in those rural airfields and towns in the Midwest. The loss of community is one of the important effects of the endless-growth corporate economy that is destroying all that is good (other than consumer goods, of course) in communities and ecologies around the world.

Olympic Teamwork and the Ugly American

biles-raisman-lochte

I have never been much for ceremony. Neither Michael Phelps leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Stadium nor the pomp and circumstance of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics interested me. I marveled at both the individual and team efforts, especially those of the Brazilian and the U.S. teams. As always, Olympic performances do not fail to impress.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team was particularly astonishing, and not only for their individual talent and skills. Gymnastics seems to represent pure generic physical talent and skill. Yet there is a very important mental factor. I grew up near the beaches of Southern California and played volleyball there myself as a teenager. Naturally, the beach volleyball competition drew my attention. Each team has only two players; the indoor variety involved plays by the larger teams that are more complex.

I was amazed when I heard a commentator describe Michael Phelps’ unique physical characteristics. Wingspan wider than his body height, lung capacity several times larger than the average person, huge hands, a long torso and double-jointed limbs, all contributed to the success of his drive to win. His superior performance became less surprising. Yet, there is much more to Olympic performance than physicality.

A Special Kind of Olympic Teamwork

Something very special about the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team drew my attention. The “Final Five” were a team in the truest sense of the word. Gymnastics is an individual sport. Whether on the uneven parallel bars, floor exercises, etc., it is all about the perfection of individual performance. The team called themselves the Final Five because their world-famous team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, was to retire after the 2016 Olympics, making them her last of many Olympic successes. Their “team spirit” was exceptional. Simone Biles talent reigned supreme. Yet her teammate Aly Raisman performed her role as team captain as superbly as her own spectacular comeback performance.

The mutual aid and support of the five young women who work so well together reminded me of the total commitment and training of the Navy Blue Angels or the Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic teams, whose individual performances and mutual coordination constitute life-or-death challenges every time they fly. I saw a documentary once depicting the level of precision piloting, interpersonal coordination, rigorous physical training, and individual discipline required for the Thunderbirds’ achievements in formation flying. They have to do extreme physical training in the gym in order to handle the extreme g-forces their maneuvers entail. The level of individual commitment and mutual trust is almost inconceivable to a non-pilot or even an ordinary pilot. But it is not about the flying itself; it is about the almost unbelievable level of coordination and self-control needed to accomplish their mission. Very similar qualities were quite evident in Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and their teammates.

The Ugly American Exposed

Enter Ryan Lochte and friends. As one commentator put it, his performance represented the worst stereotype of the “Ugly American” during his night on the town with his teammates in Rio de Janeiro. It reflected the unfortunate reality of, as the commentator said, the attitude that, “Anything goes south of the equator” for white wealth and privilege. It is not just that some athletes partied most of the night in town after the high stress of competition. That would not be unusual or outrageous in itself.

After urinating in public and vandalizing property at a gas station in Rio, Lochte and his white-privileged friends figuratively urinated on the brown people of Brazil. Exercising their sense of self-importance and privilege, he and his teammates lied about their vandalism. A security guard at the gas station had confronted them demanding that they pay for the damage they had done. Exercising their sense of privilege, they denied their own culpability and projected it onto the security guard. They falsely claimed to police that someone impersonating a police officer had robbed them.

Later, on reflection, Lochte exacerbated his culpability in response to Matt Lauer’s softball questions in a televised interview after his return to the U.S. He gave pathetic partial excuses, claiming he had “over-exaggerated” what had happened. Say what? His “apology” did not really extend beyond excusing his behavior by reference to his drunkenness. The Ugly American plunders the world, then blames his victims and claims he did not really mean to do any harm. The U.S. media meanwhile ponders the financial cost of his losses of corporate product endorsements. Give me a break.

Camaraderie of a Higher Order

It is hard to imagine Lochte’s and his fellow swimmers’ behavior in the home of their hosts having been much sleazier. The contrast with the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team could not be greater. Its members represent not just the best of athletic performance, but also the best human values of self-discipline and mutual aid.

Simone and AlyThe positive energy and mutual support of the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team were a remarkable sight. In a sense, they represent far more than a superb athletic achievement. Even more important, they symbolize what humans are capable of when they put their minds, bodies, talent, and skills to the test. These women stepped up, took the challenge before them, and did what they had to do to meet that challenge together.

These are exactly the qualities that we need most to pull off the Next Great Transformation of human economy from environmental plunder to ecological harmony. Too much in the behavior of the Lochte gang reflect the widespread U.S. culture of corporate greed, self-righteousness, and individual self-aggrandizement. Lochte’s false contrition reflected a total lack of compassion. Simone, Aly, and their teammates have shown a higher order of respect and camaraderie, capable of great things, capable of achievements greater than we could have imagined.

Today, as a society we face challenges that require social changes so deep they too are hard to imagine. As a nation and as a species we face the necessity of making changes that go far beyond what might seem to be the limits of our capabilities. Just as on the gymnastics floor, no guarantees assure success. Far too many of us are complacent or indifferent to the damage we have done to our home – the planet.

In thinking of what lies ahead and the level of social mobilization needed to deal with the climate crisis, I often think of the economic and social transformation U.S. society accomplished through collective effort in order to fight and win World War II. The level of effort and social mobilization necessary to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid catastrophic consequences will be far greater. In that effort, we will all need to behave like a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman.

The Dilemma of Transformation: From Petro-Economy to Eco-Society

What will it will take to reduce world carbon emissions enough in the short time necessary to fend off the worst of the effects of climate disruption? So much of the economy and energy technology is involved that it is hard to even imagine the magnitude of resulting social disruption.

Yet here we are, faced with such colossal dilemmas that any serious student of the climate crisis is easily overwhelmed. Where to start? Everywhere. How much to do? Everything. But priorities must be set and optimal sequences of action must be developed. Here are some of the key dilemmas.

Individual change
“If everyone would just stop driving so much and using all those plastic drink-bottles…,” etc. Well, yes, many everyday behaviors will have to change if we are to even stop the continuing growth in carbon emissions, no less reverse the trend. But a serious consideration of the colossal scale at which many things must happen, the means to accomplish them appear perplexing at best.

Human habits would be hard enough to change without the social pressure to consume in our current manner. Beyond that, little exists in the way of a model for “responsible” ecological behavior. Besides, most folks barely have time to get the dishes done before work the next morning to spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I have always been a strong advocate for education, even as I saw its quality slide over the past 40 years in the U.S. But something much faster and more intense is needed.

Leadership AWOL
“George W. Obama,” someone called the equivocating “environmental president” who, as Naomi Klein put it the other day, just can’t bring himself to just say no to the dangerously destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, The Congress-of-No reeks of a vulgar racism that is willing to cost America whatever it takes to prevent “Obama” (the title “President” deliberately missing) from accomplishing anything at all. And as the rest of the world puzzles over how to respond to the growing climate crisis, U.S. Congress members wallow in sanctimonious denial. Their minds and their morals: Absent Without Leave.

Leadership in responding to climate disruption would take both recognition and bold public articulation of the catastrophic nature of the planetary climate emergency. Real leadership would entail mounting a major operation to mobilize all the major economic institutions to respond to the crisis. Each corporate and government sector should be required to develop plans for immediate ramping up of a maximal conversion of all energy systems. No special deals. If you are waiting for that you might as well plan for societal collapse; that is where the AWOL “leadership” is taking us.

So, leadership can only come from the “grass roots,” not just in individual ‘lifestyle’ changes – which must accompany economic, industrial, and technological conversions. Grass-roots leadership must force the restructuring of all the major institutions, public and private/corporate, that drive the fossil-fuel economy. Many local community actions, such as public banking, local non-chemical agriculture and small manufacture, etc., are needed, now. But the ultimate and proximate necessity is for large scale institutional transformations. These can only come from broad popularly supported collective demands upon the larger system. That will come when the crisis is sufficiently severe. But will it be soon enough?

Collective Action
Some sociologists specialize in studying “collective behavior and social movements.” Crowds, mobs, fashion, riots, rebellions, all have certain characteristics that distinguish them from everyday actions and normal social processes. Ordinary norms and beliefs are suspended as a collective recognition of special circumstances arises. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and collective definitions of it. In context of natural disasters, sometimes whole communities have spontaneously risen up and responded to crises with highly organized mutual aid. Or, a riot can be a collective act of spontaneously organized destruction. Anti-colonial liberation movements resulted from a another form of collective consciousness. It all depends on the level and focus of awareness and collective definition of the situation.

But the climate crisis is somewhat different. It has emerged as an ecological consequence of the multiple converging crises of economics, politics, and expanded capital investment in extractive technologies of overproduction. Its scope is so broad, yet its impact is often very local and also episodic. A super storm here, a drought there, a super-hot wildfire or raging flood somewhere else, a lot of species extinctions everywhere. At the early stages the effects were diverse and diffuse. That does not lend itself to collective recognition or a focus for action. That must come from science, and science is something too many people are unfamiliar with and have been indoctrinated to mistrust. But the scientific evidence is now so clear that it constitutes a call for action.

Unprecedented Social Mobilization
The immediate dilemma is that deep and comprehensive structural change is needed on a very large scale and very quickly. But massive change will only happen when enormous numbers of people demand it. “National leadership” is unavailable; it serves the corporate state, the very source of these converging crises. Oddly, massive mobilization, which is driven by recognition and emotion, may be easier to launch than education.

This Changes Everything,” as Naomi Klein’s new book title accurately proclaims the essence of the climate crisis. But such immense transformation of all fundamental human systems requires complex coordination too – much akin to the rapid mobilization initiated on the U.S. entering WW II, but on an enormously larger scale. The social mobilization needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis must be national and international as well as local. But people in places are the only hope for launching such an unprecedented multifaceted human social mobilization to avoid extinction.

So a massive social mobilization is unequivocally necessary. It has happened before on a much smaller scale – the civil rights struggle, anti-apartheid movement, Poland, India, even Argentina in a sense, and with varying ‘success’ – but it is highly unpredictable and difficult. We are in for quite a ride….