Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Impunity Happens

Anthem Blue Cross of California recently announced price-hikes of up to 39% for its subscribers. This after a year in which the largest health care insurers saw their profits rise by 52% over the previous year. This in the midst of the worst economic conditions in eighty years.

It’s as indefensible as it is unconscionable. Health care costs exist so far outside the realm of free-market capitalism they ought to have their own dimension. But this isn’t about health care. It’s about why Anthem Blue Cross of California can do something so brazen, and do it with impunity.

And that would be the cost of a political campaign.

The two at first seem unrelated. But they’re not. A line can be drawn between the rising costs of campaigns and the ballooning power of corporate America. In other words, the more expensive it becomes to mount a campaign, the more sway those wielding the checkbooks have.

Campaign costs warp the political process. They inflict more damage than Osama bin Laden ever dreamt of. They reduce politicians to corporate puppets while they deliver an inordinate amount of control to the doorsteps of the wealthy. However lop-sided the power dynamic was a year or two ago, thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it's now a forfeited ballgame just waiting to happen.

In this new world, why shouldn’t Anthem raise its charges 39%? Why not 212%? At least that has a chance of making us boiling mad. With politicians neutered by the cost of campaigning and forced to beg corporations like Anthem for funding, is any other outcome even possible?

What needs to happen is that a third entity—not government, not business—is designated to write new campaign finance reform. Not the Bush-era reform with loopholes a crustacean could pilot a 747 through, but real reform that not only sets limits on what can be spent, but creates a window limiting the time candidates can spend campaigning. And while we’re at it, why not make TV spots within that window free of charge?

When a company like Anthem can stick a gun in the back of its customers in the midst of a ravaged economy like ours, and with health care reform (supposedly) still on the table, something is very, very wrong. Without genuine campaign finance reform, government will become little more than a speed bump for the jackals inhabiting our corporate suites.

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