Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Case for a Strong Estate Tax

By Brian Miller

On New Year's Day the estate tax, an essential part of the U.S. tax system for nearly 100 years, will disappear because Congress failed to act in December. Congressional leaders now are pledging to act in early 2010 to reinstate the federal estate tax retroactive to Jan. 1. In the meantime, rhetoric over the estate tax will heat up while Congress grapples with what to do now.

This crazy situation is the result of the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich, tax cuts that were supposed to lead to “trickle-down” prosperity for the rest of us. What we have seen instead is stagnation of wages for most Americans, while those at the very top have become extraordinarily rich. In fact, disparities of wealth and income are now at the highest level since the Gilded Age just before the stock market crash of 1929.

With so much wealth in so few hands, our economy has begun to operate more like a casino, with high-risk speculation fueling boom-and-bust cycles that have wrecked communities across our country. The gilded yachts of the super-rich have left in their wake capsized rafts of the unemployed and whole communities drowning in foreclosures. That’s not what America should be about.

Click here to view full op-ed.

By Mark Mellman

A few months ago, I warned that some folks were attempting to misuse health care reform to restrict access to abortion. They have come a long way since then, endangering the vital struggle for health care — indeed, torpedoing reform is a key goal for many involved in this effort.

Americans oppose using abortion as a means of derailing health care reform and oppose using health care reform as a means of restricting abortion. The more voters find out about what is happening on Capitol Hill with respect to this issue, the angrier they are getting, because language inserted in the House bill will take away coverage for abortion that tens of millions of women already have.

Taking away existing coverage not only violates the public will, but also does fundamental violence to Democrats’ explicit promise that if you like what you have, you will be able to keep it.

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By Emilie C. Ailts and Vicki Cowart

As national health care reform faces its next hurdle -- a conference committee bill that reconciles the House and Senate bills -- we believe it's critical to draw attention to a provision contained in the House bill. This provision, brought by Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and known as the Stupak abortion coverage ban, would create barriers to women's reproductive health care far worse than any encountered since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

This new abortion coverage ban makes insurance coverage for abortion virtually unavailable for millions of women purchasing insurance plans through the newly created health insurance exchange.

Federal law already bans use of federal funds for abortions, but the Stupak measure goes much further. It denies use of private money -- not just public money -- to cover abortions.

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By Susan Shaer

A flu pandemic is nasty, brutish, and a global danger. All U.S. Senators and other leaders agree, and leap to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Another nasty, brutish and global danger, which additionally is outrageously expensive and out of sync with today’s defense needs, is the continued maintenance of our huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons. All our senators should agree on this.

However, since there are threats and plotters, the U.S. needs to have a strong and effective defense.

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By Riane Eisler

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference makes evident potential catastrophic effects of climate change, including its enormous economic and human tolls. It also clearly shows how poor nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and island states will suffer most from the inevitable floods, droughts and other weather disasters.

But there’s more that needs to be made clear in Copenhagen. If we look closely, there’s a hidden truth with huge implications that we must bring to the attention of conference delegates to ensure that allocated funds actually protect those most vulnerable to these natural disasters.

Studies show that women are 14 times more likely to die in natural disasters. One heart-rending study of a Bangladesh flash flood found that 90 percent of casualties were female. Many factors contributed to this high casualty rate, all were avoidable. A woman’s role in this Southeast Asian nation, as in most of the Middle East and parts of Africa, is one of dependency -- so of course, these Bangladeshi women were not taught to swim. But perhaps the most important factor was that they lived and died in a culture where women are so rigidly controlled that they aren’t permitted to leave their homes without being accompanied by a male family member. When the flash flood occurred, they sadly stayed and drowned.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Stimulus Needs Better Reporting

By Greg LeRoy

Aside from health-care reform, probably the most divisive issue in Washington today is the $787 billion economic stimulus program.

One camp argues that the Recovery Act has done a good job in preventing the country from plunging into a more serious crisis than the one we’ve got, while another camp says the whole effort has had little effect and was an expensive mistake. We suspect the former conclusion is correct, but would like better evidence.

Most arguments are based on differing assessments of the first round of jobs data released in October. The Recovery Act’s exemplary transparency provisions cover direct federal contracts and some of the grants to states—a limited part of the overall stimulus program. They counted about 640,000 jobs created or saved so far.

Click here to view full op-ed


By Max Bartlett and Jose Aguilar

One issue has generated little discussion during the heated health care reform debate: whether states should have the right to develop their own approaches to universal coverage.

The Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign wants to see language included in the national proposal that gives states flexibility to develop their own approaches to solving rising health care costs and growing numbers of uninsured.

The focus of current health care reform proposals is to create “insurance market exchanges.” These one-stop-shopping insurance exchanges must offer consumers -- primarily the uninsured -- choices of different insurance products, including some type of public option. A less than robust public option is in the proposal passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate is in the process of negotiating an alternative to the House version.

Click here to view full op-ed


By Dick Williams

The Tennessee Voter Confidence Act (TVCA) requires replacement of paperless touchscreen voting machines with optical ballot scanners by November 2010. Optical-scan voting systems read marked paper ballots and tally results, providing a tangible record of the voter's intent. They are now the most widely employed voting systems in the nation, used by 60 percent of voters in other states.

The TVCA was adopted nearly unanimously by the Tennessee Legislature – by both Democrats and Republicans -- and in 2008 enthusiastically signed into law by Gov. Phil Bredesen. But implementation of the law has been ensnarled in legalities and technicalities.

Tennessee's secretary of state and coordinator of elections have argued that the new law requires scanners be federally certified to 2005 standards, and because no machines have yet been certified to that standard, the law cannot be put into effect in time for 2010 Elections.

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By Susan Wysocki and Susan Scanlan

It’s not surprising that women are confused about the recently changed recommendations for cancer screening and prevention. New guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – the leading medical group that provides health care for women – say women should wait longer to begin cervical-cancer screening and that they should be screened less frequently. On the heels of similar changes to breast-cancer screening guidelines, it’s understandable that many women might see this as a step backward.

On the contrary, the new cervical-cancer screening recommendations reflect advances in our understanding of this disease and in tools now available to prevent it. More importantly, they present an opportunity to educate women about the significant opportunity we have to further prevent – if not eliminate – cervical cancer.

New ACOG screening guidelines recommend women should begin getting Pap tests at age 21 (as opposed to within three years of becoming sexually active) and that, from ages 21 to 29, most women should have Pap tests every two years instead of annually. Additionally, screening for women 30 and older with a history of normal Pap test results now moves to every three years.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reducing the Nuclear Risk

By Nan Orrock

When President Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, it is an opportunity to articulate a new international direction, away from nuclear proliferation, away from nuclear tests, and away from loose materials and increased risk. Hopefully, he will join the Nobel Committee in putting out the call that we must act now to reduce the enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons.

It will not be easy, or quick. And it shouldn’t be. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. must have a safe and reliable arsenal. The road to disarmament is, necessarily and rightly, long, and will take many years and many small steps to guarantee our safety and prevent any cracks in our security. But it is also vital; the longer nuclear weapons lurk, and grow, the graver the danger that a rogue state or a terrorist will use one.

One of the first steps should be to prevent new nuclear weapons. The easiest way to do this is to ban nuclear weapons tests.

Click here to view full op-ed.

See my i-Commentary about this topic here:


By Timothy D. McBride

Despite the importance of passing health care reform, it appears that the general public has very little understanding of the scope and importance of these reforms, or how the wide-ranging positive benefits will have on average Americans.

Much of this is due to overheated rhetoric, a misunderstanding of the proposals by the press, purposeful distortions by both sides of the debate, and the complexity of health reform. For example, much attention has been paid to the so-called “public option” which the right wing has described as a “government takeover of health care,” and the left wing has described as the only provision worth fighting for because it will keep the insurance plans “honest.” Both claims overstate the significance of the public option since by all estimates, even if it survives, not many will sign up for it, and the plan will resemble private plans, not a Medicare plan.

When the reforms are phased in, 96 percent of American citizens will be covered by health insurance -- up from an insurance rate of 83 percent today -- according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Contrary to fears that the legislation will lead to a government-run health system, 58 percent of the persons obtaining coverage will obtain coverage from private insurers, in a new Health Insurance Exchange. This Exchange will be much like the array of private insurance plans offered to Congress and the President today. The remaining persons insured under the plan would be low-income children and adults insured through Medicaid and the children’s health insurance plan.

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By Timothy Sweeney, MPA

Leading congressional health insurance reform proposals include expanding Medicaid, which could not only bring coverage to nearly one million low-income, uninsured Georgians, but would provide at least 90 percent of the funding to do so.

Despite the obvious and significant benefits to the state’s economy and its citizens, Gov. Perdue, Lt. Gov. Cagle, and others opposed to reform are arguing that Georgia cannot afford its share of the proposed Medicaid expansion in either the House or Senate proposal.

They claim that expanding Medicaid will cost Georgia more than $2 billion over six or seven years, but they rarely mention the billions in new federal funds that would flow to Georgia’s economy during this time.

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By Lynn Evans

This was certainly not the way Gov. Haley Barbour wanted to end his term in state office. Tax revenues are down $371 million and counting. State budget alternatives are grim, with cuts of at least 12 percent for most agencies, including education.

Seeking opportunity amid crisis, Barbour is recommending major government realignment and simplification, as well as consolidation in K-12 and at the university level. By including such incendiary proposals as combining Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley with Jackson State University, Barbour took the chance that his proposals will be dead on arrival at the Capitol in January. His challenge to support his proposals or “come up with a better way” ought to be taken seriously.

Cuts and consolidation should not be the only options on the table. The kind of cuts the governor is proposing will be a severe shock to the economy, just when Mississippi and the nation are trying to climb out of the Great Recession. This decade’s declining growth in Mississippi’s major revenue sources – personal and corporate income and sales taxes – should have lawmakers looking at the state’s tax structure.

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by Melissa Reed

The House vote to establish near-universal health-care coverage came at a steep cost to women. That cost, issued as an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), eliminates abortion coverage by private insurance companies even when women are paying for all or most of the premium.

Stupak’s amendment is a cynical attempt to push an anti-choice agenda that imperils badly needed reform. His amendment restricts women’s access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market as well as in a “public option,” undermining the ability of women to purchase private health plans that cover abortion. It reaches much further than the Hyde Amendment, which has prohibited public funding of abortion in most instances since 1977.

Before its introduction, health-care reform measures in both House and Senate contained agreed-upon compromise language regarding abortion. Public funding for abortion would remain prohibited and women with private health insurance would continue to receive benefits they already have. Though this language satisfied neither side completely, it enabled health-care reform legislation to move forward without being derailed by abortion politics.

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by Sarah van Gelder

As the Copenhagen Climate Summit approaches, some world leaders predict there will be either no deal or one so weak that it will be virtually worthless.

Little wonder. Climate change could be one of the toughest issues the world has ever faced, less because of the technical challenges than the politics. That’s why the growing climate movement is so important to watch. Its success could determine if world leaders feel enough heat to take action.

What makes the politics of this moment so challenging? Unlike other critical issues, this one requires that we take action, based on science, before we see much damage. If we wait until the effects of long-term pollution are fully felt, climate scientists tell us, we will have passed critical thresholds that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to turn down the global thermostat.

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By Dr. Sekou Franklin

The emergence of a grass-roots movement pushing for green economic solutions to climate change and poverty has been a surprising development. This movement believes environmentally sustainable policies and the shift to a clean energy economy can lead to reduction of pollution and greenhouse gases. It also believes green-collar employment – family-supporting jobs in the clean and renewable energy sector – must be accessible to residents of economically distressed communities.

The Green-Collar Jobs Task Force of Nashville-Davidson County (a network of environmentalists, work-force development professionals, and social justice activists) was formed in 2008 to advocate for an inclusive green economy. In meetings with state and local officials, task force members have pushed for green work-force training programs modeled after similar initiatives in Chicago, IL; Washington, DC; Oakland, CA; Providence, RI; Boston, MA; Portland, OR; and Newark, NJ. These programs share a common thread: As public-private partnerships, they provide work force development (vocational training, wraparound services, career coaching, environmental literacy) in the clean energy sector for underemployed workers and veterans, formerly incarcerated persons, transitional housing residents, low-income women, and workers with language barriers.

Sadly, no major city in the Southeast has a public, privately backed, green training program targeting the aforementioned populations, even though it is the most polluted and poorest region in the country.

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By Anita Kuennen, RNBy Anita Kuennen, RN

A glaring absence of the Emperor’s clothing seems to be escaping our attention in the recent House health care reform proposal with the inclusion of the Stupak amendment. The Emperor is naked and while everyone is critiquing, arguing and validating the fabrics, thread and adornment of his new clothes, those of us looking at his bare bottom wonder how everyone became so deluded.

The collective blindness of the Kingdom is truly exposed in the concession of excluding abortion care to pass a House proposal that included a public option. Using women’s health and reproductive justice as the deal breaker once again demonstrates that reform is not intended to address basic issues of health care disparity in our country.

Similar to the members of the Emperor’s Kingdom, who believed there was substance to the garments, we are overcome with disillusionment. The grand solution of tweaking health insurance to magically cure the ingrained, systemic issues at the core of our health care failure is the ultimate fairytale.

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