Opinion

The Great Debate

What about Social Security’s rollout?

After the nation’s major social program finally became law, critics regularly blamed it for a slowing economy and a swelling federal bureaucracy. Fierce congressional opposition led to the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul the measure. Obamacare in 2013? Not quite. It was Social Security in 1937.

Meanwhile, after enrollment began for the far-reaching health insurance initiative, administrators wrestled with myriad, unexpected problems. Implementation, according to the man who oversaw the introduction of Medicare in 1965, “took the form of a whole year of consultation with literally hundreds of people in identified areas of concern.”

The tortuous, often controversial implementation of both Medicare and Social Security serves as an early template for the current controversies over the Obamacare rollout. The ultimate success of those social programs ought to calm the overheated atmosphere surrounding the first days of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare is but a few weeks old, and partisan opponents like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have already denounced supporters of the fledgling program — comparing them to Neville Chamberlain and other appeasers of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Even thoughtful critics like former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson are depicting the healthcare insurance program it as an “intellectual crisis for modern liberalism.”

Meanwhile, voices on the political left have called the launch a “failure.” Or they have leapt on the website glitches as evidence of the need for a simpler, universal single payer system.

Opposing Obamacare: GOP’s defining issue

After the French Revolution, the statesman and diplomat Talleyrand said of the Bourbon kings, “They learned nothing and they forgot nothing.” The same might be said of congressional Republicans after their disastrous government shutdown adventure.

Obamacare survives. That itself is something of a miracle. Look at how many near-death experiences it has been through. The loss of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2009 deprived Democrats of the majority they needed to end a Senate filibuster. They managed to circumvent the filibuster by applying a controversial rule that allowed the bill to pass with a simple majority.

Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election by promising to repeal Obamacare. The House has now voted 46 times — 46 times! — to repeal Obamacare, only to see the votes ignored by the Democratic Senate.

A year after Sandy, food and fuel supplies are as vulnerable as ever

A year ago, Hurricane Sandy revealed harrowing realities about the basic systems New Yorkers rely on every day. We now know, for example, what happens when fuel supply lines get cut and electricity goes down: mob battles at gas stations and, more terrifying, empty shelves at food stores. Worse, such breakdowns tend to cascade. No power means whatever food is left will rot. No gasoline means delivery trucks can’t restock stores.

It’s a domino effect, one that last year brought New York to the edge of real disaster. According to numerous resiliency experts I interviewed, at the moment Sandy hit, New Yorkers had only about three days of food on hand.

In the months after, city and state officials tended to focus on reinforcing the infrastructure that’s under their direct control. In New York, this means public facilities like Hunts Point Food Cooperative Market in the Bronx, which was forced to shut down temporarily.

Sandy +1: Preparing for the storms ahead

One year ago Tuesday, Hurricane Sandy, perhaps the largest Atlantic storm ever, began its path of destruction in New York City. It ultimately killed almost 300 people across seven countries. In the United States alone, the fierce storm left an estimated $70 billion in damage in its wake, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.

Substantial money and effort has now gone into rebuilding the areas most devastated by the storm. The truth is, however, that many other areas of the world, including in the United States, are just as vulnerable to intense flooding.

Existing flood protection in most countries is simply not fit for this purpose. Even in our native Netherlands, a world leader in flood management, roughly one-third of the defenses is sub-standard.

Post-Partisan: Fixing our ideological divide

As Americans examine the astounding dysfunction of their government, gerrymandering is usually cited as the prime culprit. This narrative offers a compelling villain: venal politicians who draw district boundaries for partisan advantage or to protect their own incumbency.

On the surface, it makes sense that manipulating district lines could be responsible for the increase in non-competitive, non-diverse congressional seats and the rise of ideologues who take radical positions without fear of voter retribution. But this ignores evidence that gerrymandering is only partly responsible for the current partisanship — and that eliminating it will not address the calamity we are witnessing.

No one disputes that congressional districts have become less competitive. During the last government shutdown in 1995, 79 of the 236 House Republicans represented districts that supported President Bill Clinton in his 1992 election. Today, only 17 of the 232 House Republicans represent districts that backed President Barack Obama — demonstrating more partisan consistency at the district level.

Argentine leader’s health recovering, as her dynasty ebbs

As Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner convalesces in the presidential residence after surgery, a poor prognosis for her political and economic agenda awaits her outside. Yet the populist leader is unlikely to respond with major policy initiatives as she enters a prolonged lame duck period.

Fernandez faces big losses in Sunday’s mid-term congressional elections, which will likely determine how much legislative clout she can muster. Hope for her third presidential mandate is all but extinguished. Under her administration, Latin America’s third largest economy is slipping further behind the region’s top two — Brazil and Mexico — and looking ever more like the laggard Venezuela.

The 60-year-old Peronist leader was ordered to rest after an emergency operation to remove blood from the surface of her brain, sidelining her from the campaigning she led earlier to keep “Kirchnerismo” alive.

The most dangerous mistake you can make during flu season

It’s that time of year again. Flu season is upon us, marked by public health campaigns and reminders to get vaccinated.

Every year, up to 5 million people worldwide fall severely ill due to influenza (flu), resulting in about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the United States alone, nearly 111 million workdays are lost every season due to the flu. That equals approximately $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity.

Flu is a highly infectious disease that is caused by a virus. It spreads rapidly through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It is common, unpleasant and potentially fatal. Flu vaccines provide effective, though not universal, protection against the flu.

After healthcare mess, do you want D.C. doing your taxes?

The launch of the Obamacare online exchanges this month has been a disaster for the White House.

Even the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, one of MSNBC’s favorite liberal pundits and a prominent proponent of Obamacare, has described the rollout as an unmitigated failure.

“I really don’t think people should soft pedal what a bad launch this is,” Klein said on Morning Joe this week. “They’ve done a terrible job on this website. We’re a couple of weeks in, and people can’t sign up. People have tried 20, 30, 40 times. I mean it’s one thing for that to be true the first three or four days, it’s another thing for it to be true two or three weeks in.”

Can America innovate its way to growth?

America is banking on economic growth. Its ability to pay debts, lower unemployment, and provide better living standards all depend on growth returning to its pre-recession levels and staying there. But what if it doesn’t?

Several economists are worried it won’t. Growth can come from three sources: more labor, more capital, or more innovation. The 20th century was remarkable because each of these factors grew. America’s final push to manufacturing, and away from agriculture, increased the use of capital. The volume and quality of labor also increased. More people than ever finished high school and went on to college, and many women joined the labor force. But we can’t repeat these events. Not only that, future demographic trends are not favorable. American education isn’t giving many young people the skills they need to be competitive in the global economy. An aging citizenry means a smaller share of the population will be working to support everyone else. Lower rates of economic growth will make it harder to repay America’s debt — both entitlements and outstanding treasury bonds. Servicing debt will take more resources from the economy, creating a vicious cycle of high rates and low growth.

But not all hope is lost; there’s still innovation. Innovations make existing resources more productive. Productivity is measured by calculating how much output (GDP) increased or decreased given the inputs (capital and labor) used. If you get more output for the same amount of inputs, productivity has increased. That means if western economies innovate more, and thereby constantly increase productivity, they will still grow. If productivity outpaces the economic headwinds, America can still grow at the pace it used to. But that’s easier said than done.

The militarization of U.S. police forces

This month, more Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) have found their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. These are just the latest acquisitions in a growing practice by Pentagon that’s militarizing America’s municipal police forces.

Police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. Increasingly, they are looking like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

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