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Publisher's Letter

We Can Do Better

By PAM BERNS
    At this time in 2008 it’s difficult to see anything more important than to support the upcoming election of our next president. There are tremendous hurdles to overcome on many serious levels, but few are as important than our challenge to extricate our country’s involvement in Bush’s Iraq war, which is costing each of our households $100 a month. This sum, revealed in Stiglitz and Bilmes’ book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, does not reflect the cost of human suffering by our dedicated soldiers and innocent Iraqi citizens who have been victimized in the violence of war. More than 4,000 soldiers have lost their lives and nearly a million Iraqis. How many of us would have chosen to invest $100 per month to continue to fight in an endless civil war in a country that did not invade our shores? How many of us want to continue to invest in this debacle at the expense of our health care, education and the environment?
    Can you imagine if that same amount of money had gone into medical research to fight Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and spinal cord injuries? Can you imagine if that money was invested in bringing universal health care to the 47 million Americans who are at risk of financial ruin because of one health problem in their family? Can you imagine the impact on our future if such an enormous amount of money was invested in education? Or putting tens of thousands of Americans to work fixing our languishing infrastructure and building energy-efficient green technologies?
    In the best-selling book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) by David Cay Johnston, the author presents case studies of corporations that have become wealthy by influencing government. Johnston writes that “influencing government is one of the fastest-growing industries in America.” Some 35,000 lobbyists registered in 2006 in Washington—more than double the number who were registered in 2000. And it’s no wonder. Many of these lobbyists earn more than $1 million a year plus many perks. They are paid  handsomely for sneaking tax-payer funds into their clients’ pockets, as well as influencing legislation to make all this legal. From confiscating land from the little guy to give it to the guy with the deep pockets (i.e., eminent domain) to giving tax breaks to oil companies to subsidizing stadiums to benefit the very wealthy, Cay points out that it is “morally reprehensible for the rich to take from those with less.”
     As we are imagining how we can contribute to making this world a more just and better place for all, business-as-usual practices reveal record-setting dollars swirling around Washington by corporate lobbyists. This election is seeing record sums of money being spent to support candidates and influence government. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)— an organization funded by the Pew Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and other respected foundations—is reporting that even in an economic slowdown, special interests seek even more support from government. This past year, lobbyists, unions, governments and other special interests have spent more than $2.7 billion trying to influence policy. That’s more than $17 million a day, and that amount still doesn’t include activites like advertising and public relations.
    CRP reports, “The defense industry’s interest in maintaining powerful U.S. weapons systems and its attention to the National Security Committee is reflected in its strong giving pattern to committee members. The industry gives primarily to lawmakers who sit on Armed Services and Appropriations Committees.” As we go to press, the CRP reports that the largest defense contributions to presidential candidates have gone to Clinton, followed by McCain.
     Some of us might substitute the word “lobby” with “legalized bribery.” Consider the perpetual revolving door between exiting congressmen and highly paid lobbyists. Is this system serving our best interests as a democracy? Are our representatives listening to the needs of our country’s poorest citizens in this system?
       According to the Economic Policy Institute, new data from the Social Security Administration reveals a widening of the longevity gap between the rich and poor in our country, especially in recent years. The lifespan discrepancy between the wealthy and poor in the United States has grown from 1.2 years in 1972 to 5.8 years by 2001. Experts expect this gap to widen. They also point to the widening socioeconomic difference in our country which doesn’t affect our neighbor on the north, Canada, which has universal health care. How can we continue to ignore the importance of universal health coverage for all? How can anyone defend our system of “private” market health care when this is the result? Is this what we stand for? Longer lives for those who are lucky enough to have acquired health insurance before an illness or accident befalls them?
     Ask anyone over 50 who previously had group insurance coverage if he or she was able to purchase moderately priced health insurance after being laid off from a job. Many friends I know have  found themselves in that situation—unable to purchase private insurance after COBRA ran out. Pre-existing conditions such as a bad knee, asthma, cancer or high blood pressure prevent people the ability to purchase individual health insurance. If the market can deliver moderately priced health insurance for all, as Republicans claim, why haven’t the insurance companies risen to the occasion? The cherry-picking of young, healthy people to insure while rejecting others should not be permitted by insurance companies doing business in this country. Discrimination should not be permitted and rewarded.
    We can do better. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to have group health insurance for ourselves may not have it in the future. The economy is precarious for many. We cannot tolerate a system that keeps us in a perpetual war of choice at the expense of a quality of life for the majority of our citizens. I, for one, am not willing to keep investing my $100 per month to keep us in Iraq. The Iraqis have had more time than necessary to make peace among themselves. Bush dumped this mess on our next president to solve. Let’s support the candidate who can bring this to a close.

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living