Thursday, November 09, 2006


Post-Election Musing

Many progressives are cheering the election results as a sign of a new direction in our society. Many say that the election is a "landslide" or a "tsunami." I've lived long enough to have witnessed many elections. This one was no landslide. It was a very close election for the critical seats in the House and the Senate. It seems pretty sure that the Democrats will have a majority of 51 to 49 in the Senate. Three of the changes from Republican to Democrat were in States in which the difference in the vote for the two candidates was only a few thousand. It was a close election, not a landslide. In addition, one of the 51 is the "independent" Senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman. He ran against the Democrat who won the primary election in his State. He owes the Democrats nothing, although he has promised to vote with the Democrats on organizing the Senate. The Democratic control of the Senate is as tenuous as that of the Republicans after the election of 2000, when they had an even split and Vice President Cheney cast the deciding vote on organizing the body. Later, Senator Jeffords left the Party and became independent and voted with the Democrats. The Republicans lost the Senate for a couple of years. The same could happen now. One defection among Democrats lets Mr. Cheney cast the deciding vote.

It is generally thought that the election was a referendum on the Republican Party and its President. It is said that the public voted their dislike of the Republicans and not their preference for the Democrats. As usual, the election was decided by independent voters, voters not allied with either of the major political parties. If this analysis is correct, Democrats will have to show that they can behave better in office than Republicans. Otherwise, things will go against them a few elections from now.

There are some growing problems in our society that require political solutions. If left to themselves, they will simply fester and grow worse. Unfortunately, there is a split in public opinion that makes a political solution very difficult, if not impossible. Here are some of the problems:
  1. The nation's health care system is going from bad to worse. People with money and people with good health insurance plans and some people on Medicare are well taken care of. Others have to depend on hospital emergency rooms for care when a medical problem becomes a crisis. Some hospitals are having to close their emergency rooms because they don't have the resources to take care of all the uninsured patients that use them.

  2. The pension system for retired workers is breaking down. Some companies have abandoned their guaranteed benefit pensions and are encouraging their employees to invest some savings in 401k plans. It is reported (and you are invited to do the calculation) that one must invest at least an amount equal to fifteen percent of his wages over his working life to have a big enough investment at retirement age to last him for the rest of his expected life. The amounts that workers with these plans are saving are nowhere near the required fifteen percent. In addition, the workers must choose how to invest their money and many will make poor choices.

  3. The quality of the public education system is spotty. Some areas have excellent schools. Some have very poor schools. Many attempts to remedy this problem have been based on ideology rather than pragmatism. An example of an ideology-driven reform is testing the students to determine the quality of the schools and teachers. Another example is privatizing, or letting a for-profit company take over the operations of schools in an area, including designing the curriculum. Still another is issuing vouchers to allow students in an area where poor quality public schools prevail to attend private schools.

Liberals like myself look for public means of solving these problems. We believe that in two of the cases, medical care and pensions, the problems arise from unregulated private firms making decisions that increase their profits but do not improve services. Health insurance is left to insurance companies. Pensions are left to the companies that provide them. We believe that Canada has provided a model for universal health insurance that is practical, fair, and effective. We believe that California's Public Employees' Retirement System (CALPERS) is a good model for pensions. Another model is provided by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association that provides retirement pensions for employees of many universities. (I receive a small pension from TIAA for having worked briefly for two universities: University of Arkansas and Columbia University of New York.)

Many Conservatives reject public or political approaches to these problems. They believe in the power of the market place to provide both efficiency and satisfactory service. If a particular company doesn't provide good health insurance, people won't sign up for it. If companies default on their pension promises, people won't work for them. Besides, people should look out for themselves and not depend on government to take care of them.

More later.
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