Neo-liberalism at Work

27.04.2016 - USA - Pressenza New York

Neo-liberalism at Work
Anne Kass (Image by William Kass, PhD)

Anne Kass

When she had just retired after being a judge in a Family Court for 18 years, the Albuquerque Rotary Club invited her to give a speech which words are still very accurate:

“Thank you for inviting me today.

Since I retired on December 31st, people have been asking me what I’m doing and what I plan to do. I’ve been musing. Today I thought I’d share some of my musings on healthcare, the military-industrial complex, free markets, campaign finance reform, journalism and racism. Don’t get anxious. My musings are relatively short.

Proposed legislation called the New Mexico Health Security Act, designed to make access to health care available to all New Mexico citizens, was tabled by two legislative committees early in the session and appears dead. The hearing rooms, when the committees considered the bill, were packed with citizens who supported it. The bill had been crafted by a broad-based, interim committee that included legislators, physicians, health care management and labor, insurance representatives, small business owners, and citizens. This interim committee worked for more than a year, traveling the state, holding workshops and community meetings. These grassroots gatherings considered the views of all affected by the bill. That is, they attempted to make law the way it’s supposed to be made: building consensus with citizen input—democracy in action.

Some suspect the tabling, and likely demise of, the bill occurred because HMOs and the health insurance industry wanted it dead. Indeed, a health insurance agent, Henry McIlvaine Lewis, after attending the hearing, wrote to the House Committee Chairman Fred Luna to say that he (Mr. Lewis) was embarrassed by the industry he’s been a part of for 27 years because industry representatives had misled the committee with, (quote)–“blatant scare tactics, distortions of fact and at least one out-and-out untruth.” (un-quote) (The untruth seems to have been telling Representative Luna that dialysis, which he apparently needs, would not be covered under the plan. Mr. Lewis noted that Chairman Luna commented more than once that under the plan he would be dead within three weeks.)

Almost 50 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower sounded an alarm to Americans about the “military-industrial complex.” There was danger, he warned, in allowing private business, especially military contractors, open-ended access to public dollars. The inevitable result, he cautioned, would put massive amounts of continually flowing money (tax dollars) and political influence into the hands of private corporations, enlarging their political power and control. That half-century-old omen has become our reality, and, I think, this reality is now the single greatest threat to the democratic ideals the United States claims to live by.

Too much of the current so-called free marketplace, as it has developed in the United States, has so-called entrepreneurs getting as close as possible to large pipelines of public dollars, (tax dollars), and calling it “privatization.” (I think feeding at the public trough is more accurate.) We now have, in addition to the military-industrial-complex, the prison-industrial complex, the highway-building-industrial complex, the newly-arrived  educational-testing industrial complex, and, revealed for all to see in the bright light of Santa Fe, the healthcare-industrial complex.

Small business owners, including most of you here today, continue to earn their money the old fashioned way—developing a product or service that others, called customers, might want or need, persuading them that they want or need the product or service, and providing the product or service in a way that is more appealing than a competitor does. Small businesses engage in honest competition in a genuinely free marketplace—more democracy in action.

In stark contrast, the various industries that have successfully attached themselves to pipelines of tax dollars need only to whisper to a few well-connected buddies to keep the flow of public dollars coming. They blithely call this the “magic” of the free market. Magic, of course, involves sleight of hand and misdirection of audience attention.

The tabling of the health care reform bill was a demonstration of the healthcare-industrial complex at work.

Beginning in 1997, three HMOs contracted with the State of New Mexico to “manage” the public dollars ($800 million public dollars in 1997) designated to provide health care for the poor (called Medicaid) and others. It is their minions who lobby against true health care reform. Why? Because one of the cornerstones of health care reform is the elimination of unconscionable profits and practices that condone, or even encourage, outrageous administrative costs and even more outrageous, not to mention useless, advertising expenditures: that is to say, the elimination of a protected skimming off the top which provides no direct benefit to the customers or the caregivers.

Too many of our political leaders are now overly influenced by these various, tax-funded “private” industries, as the death of the New Mexico Health Security Act demonstrates, where a small number of moneyed interests outvoted scores of supportive citizens. It remains to be seen whether campaign finance reform efforts will be able to resurrect our democracy.

Well, there you have healthcare, the military industrial complex, free markets, and campaign finance reform Now for the journalism and racism parts.

From 1987 through 1990, Garry Carruthers was Governor of New Mexico. After four years of public service, during which the notion of block grants was hatched, (that is, large pipelines of federal public dollars were to be sent directly to States to dole out) he returned to the private sector. In 1993, Mr. Carruthers started an HMO he called Cimarron. By 1997, when the state had $800 million to dole out, Cimarron had teamed up with the University of New Mexico, and it got a piece of the $800 million pie.

Rumor has it that today Mr. Carruthers is a wealthy man who runs an HMO that presumably opposed the tabled New Mexico Health Security Act. (It certainly did not speak in its favor.) And our so-called journalists have done practically nothing to inform the citizens of New Mexico about what’s happened or remind them of historical facts or report about how much public money Cimarron (and the other two HMOs) have received and how that money has been used.

In contrast, journalists have always managed to inform the citizens every time Senator Manny Aragon played golf at the expense of someone who might want to curry favor with government, and journalists tenaciously reported about his employment arrangement with Wackenhut, a member of the prison-industrial complex. Journalists also managed to inform the citizens about Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez’s PAC money arrangements, practically daily, on the front page, for months on end.

But, when it comes to reporting about what’s happening to $800 million healthcare dollars, the laptops remain unplugged. What we get instead are paid, full page advertisements announcing the benefits of enrolling in one of the HMO healthcare plans, from which the newspapers coffers grow, and, unfortunately, while the numbers of uninsured grow as well.

I’m certain many of you here are well aware that health insurance premiums are predicted to increase by as much as 15%, or more, in the next few weeks or months, which leaves many of you having to make difficult decisions about what employee benefits you can afford. If you find you must pass the increase along to your employees, they will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to join the ranks of the many uninsured citizens in New Mexico.

I happen to believe that the journalists did the right thing in reporting the golf trips, the Wackenhut employment and the PAC arrangement. But I object to how they lose their resolve and tenacity when it comes to reporting details of what has happened and is happening in the healthcare-industrial complex (and in all the other industrial-complex industries, for that matter.) Sure we get a single story now and then, but these are the sorts of stories that should appear on page one, day after day, for months on end until things get made right as they did when Senator Aragon resigned from Wackenhut and when the Albuquerque Ethics Board conducted an investigation and the PAC arrangement ended.

And this is where the racism comes in. By racism, I am not referring to discrimination against people of a minority race based on hatred or ill will. I am talking about institutional racism where, through unconscious, habitual practices and attitudes, some people are handled with kid gloves and others aren’t. In this instance, my complaint is about the people who get the kid glove treatment. I couldn’t think of a better explanation, given that the money involved in the golf, the Wackenhut employment, and the PAC arrangement was peanuts ( a mere $100,000 or so for ABQ PAC) compared to $800 million tax dollars made available to the private HMOs in 1997 alone, and also given that the golf, Wackenhut and PAC money was private money transferred to public hands as opposed to public money transferred to private hands.  Given that, I just couldn’t get around the facts that Mr. Carruthers is well off and Anglo while Senator Aragon and Mayor Chavez are neither.

I, for one, am more concerned about public dollars going to private hands, than I am about private dollars going to public hands. The public hands belong to public officials whose activities can be and are scrutinized. There is public accountability. On the other hand, (so to speak) once the public dollars get into private hands, the scrutiny and accountability stop. What is Mr. Carruthers’ salary arrangement (including stock options, and other percs, please)? What about the CEOs of the other two HMOs? (I’m picking on Mr. Carruthers here in part because I don’t know who the other two are, but mostly because Mr. Carruthers was once a public official, and I think that gives him an on-going responsibility to the public given that he also has on-going contacts and on-going access to inside information.

In any case, the flow of money both ways needs to be carefully regulated and monitored, which we seem to do without hesitation if the hands belong to minority people, both inside and out of public office. But when the hands belong to wealthy white people in the private arena, the strict scrutiny and intense criticism fades. Ken Lay of Enron, for example. Has anyone heard about Mr. Lay lately?

Interestingly, here at home, I understand Mr. Carruthers is considering returning public service. I hear that he has applied to be Dean of the Business School at New Mexico State University. I wonder if he will teach future would-be entrepreneurs to do business by finding pipelines of public dollars and allowing the government to collect their profits for them from citizen-taxpayers who have no choice but to pay. Or will he teach them to do business by creating products or services wanted or needed by citizen-customers who are free to choose and convincing them to freely exchange their dollars for the product or service, as do most, if not all, of you here.

And, of course, I wonder how long we’re going to put up with a healthcare industry that is not much about health or care, but very much about industry.”

Categories: Economics, Health, North America, Opinions, Politics
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