Tag Archives: regulation

Congress’s Oil Industry “Reforms” = Election-Year Greenwashing

This morning’s Washington Post reports on efforts in Congress to strengthen regulation of oil companies. 

Two key Senate committees approved legislation Wednesday that would change the way the federal government regulates offshore oil drilling and penalizes companies for oil spills…Both measures passed on bipartisan voice votes. One approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would raise the civil and criminal penalties for a spill, require more safety equipment redundancies, boost the number of federal safety inspectors and demand additional precautions for deep-water drilling. The other, passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, would remove oil companies’ $75 million liability limit and retroactively remove the liability cap for BP and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The Post says that these measures “demonstrat[e] lawmakers’ eagerness to respond to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.” They might more accurately say that the measures demonstrate lawmakers eagerness to look like they are responding to the disaster. In the real world, the proposed measures will serve mostly as election-year greenwashing, with little genuine impact.

Just about everyone at this point knows that liability awards will be determined not in the hallowed halls of Congress, but by knock-down, drag-out court fights. More safety precautions can gradually be rolled back or ignored, just as the current safety regulations were in the years leading up to the BP spill.  And none of this goes to the basic dilemma of whether drilling at these depths should be allowed at all, when the dangers are so great and the stakes so high. Members of Congress can see the heat the White House has gotten for daring (in an uncharacteristic move) to impose even a partial moratorium on deepwater drilling: a federal judge declared the move illegal, while right-wingers attacked it as something just short of a Communistic plot to destroy the nation’s economy. As long as Congress tinkers around the edges of the issue, they can avoid the explosive core. As a character in a famous Italian political novel once said, “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

Let’s talk about the overriding fact that no one, apparently, sees fit to mention: The great bulk of our domestic oil lies in public domain territory along the outer-continental shelf of the United States. Since it is already owned by the public, and is supposed to be held in trust for our well-being, the threat of “nationalizing” oil is nothing more than a strawman. Oil is already nationalized in the United States–it is owned by the nation, and by the people. But we have basically turned over this huge asset  to the energy industry, especially the oil and gas companies. We have done this through a huge system of undervalued, underregulated leases that give companies a free hand to exploit the wealth of the public domain. And we have placed the disposition and oversight of this valuable resource in the hands of the federal Interior Department, with its long history of connivance with the extractive industries.

In sum, the citizens of the United States have given over the greatest natural resource wealth of our nation to private business interests–who naturally run it for their own profit, rather than for the public good. In return, we have demanded virtually nothing. And the little we have demanded–the most basic of safety precautions, the most modest of demands for fair pricing–have been ignored and derided by companies that regularly top the Global 500 list for profitability.

Keep in mind that these are not the mythological “Main Street” American business interests, the scrappy entrepreneurial spirits so beloved by conservatives and libertarians alike. These are not hundreds and thousands of little companies duking it out in the free market. They’re a few big multinational companies, whose hold on the world’s energy resources dates back a hundred years or more. They operate in secret through cartels to determine how these resources are parceled out, priced, and used.

One of many obstacles to any real change in this system is the absence of transparency and reliable information. For example, the oil companies, not the government, have been tasked with mapping oil and gas reserves on the public domain. This stands in the way of any real public scrutiny, and any impartial scientific judgement on how to administer the public trust. It also serves to obscure from view the massive ripoff that constitutes the leasing system. Historically, disagreements over this system—over whether reserves are over- or under-estimated, details of environmental impacts, disputes over fair costs–all have come down to information.

In the last energy crisis in the 1970s, I wrote a book called New Energy together with Bettina Conner, a colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies. At that time, there was a move in Congress to make knowledge of oil  reserves transparent. My book includes an excerpt from the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress in its investigation of the energy crisis in 1974. That report said: 

The lack of accurate,well-analyzed data regarding energy sources and uses has placed the United States government in a ludicrous position.When those officials directly charged with administering energy policy are unable to determine accurately the extent of the present fuel shortage or to estimate reliably its potential impact on the economy.  Nor can they determine fuel production costs with anything approaching the degree of accuracy necessary to administer the price control program.The government knows almost nothing about the extent of the vast mineral fuel resources contained in public lands.  Tax policy formulation is hampered by the lack of analysis of existing special tax provisos for mineral fuel extraction  and consequent ignorance of their impact.

William Simon, Nixon’s administrator  of the Federal Energy Office, acknowledged the situation before the joint economic committee in January 1974 when he declared, “Let me say right at the outset that there has never been in existence an adequate energy data  system…Today and in the years ahead we need better data on everything from reserves to refinery operations to inventories…Data we can check, verify, and cross check.’’

Despite all the study and debate, the Congress never did anything to remedy the situation. The late Wisconsin Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson introduced legislation to create independent public libraries of basic information. Under his bill, failure to make public such details would make officials liable to prison sentences and fines. The legislation was bottled up in committee and died a silent death at the hands of powerful energy interests in Congress.

Then there was a move to establish a Federal Energy Corporation to conduct research on alternative energy and new uses of fossil fuels. This Federal Energy Corporation would have been empowered to gather and decipher data on oil and gas holdings, and even produce a limited amount of oil and gas itself, for our strategic reserve. The government would control no more than 20 percent of total oil from public territories offered for leasing, and would be a supplier of last resort. In effect,it would act as a yardstick against which to measure the private petroleum industry. It would be a hedge against the unrestrained power of this industry, which periodically gouges the American public at the pump, even though the public owns the very oil and gas it is buying from these companies. Needless to say, that initiative, too, died a sudden death.

In the 1970s these measures may have failed; today they would never even be proposed. Set against the national debate that took place four decades ago, the current discussion in Congress and the proposed remedies, the passive stance of Obama and his administration, are extraordinary. It seems like our members of Congress don’t know recent American history–or, when it comes to the older members, even remember it. But they seem to know, by instinct, well that adage from the Italian novel: “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

The U.S. Government, Brought to You By Big Oil

Long may she wave: The flag of the United States of Oil

Oil companies have begun to “weigh strategies to fight off tougher regulations” in the wake of BP’s spill to end all spills, the New York Times reported earlier this week. Supposedly, the companies are nervous because of President Obama’s angry takedown of the oil industry last week, as well as rumblings in Congress, where there are now efforts “to extend bans on new offshore drilling, strengthen safety and environmental safeguards and raise to $10 billion or more the cap on civil liability for an oil producer in a spill.”

Frankly, I don’t buy it. I’m quite willing to believe, as the Times story says, that the petroleum industry’s lobbyists have kicked into high gear. But I can’t believe the companies are really all that worried. Ever since John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870, the federal government has pretty much given the oil men exactly what they wanted, when and where they wanted it–from oil depletion allowances to tariff protection to cheap leases on the federal public domain (which includes the outer-continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Periodic government attempts to contain or regulate the industry have been little more than temporary annoyances, rather than major obstacles to Big Oil’s power or profits. This is hardly surprising, considering the kind of influence the oil companies wield at all levels of the U.S. government.

In 1911, for example, the U. S. Supreme Court found that Standard Oil, which was then controlling 85 percent of the industry, had violated anti-trust laws and conspired against the public good. “For the safety of the Republic,” the Court declared, “we now decree that this dangerous conspiracy must be ended” within six months. Standard Oil was broken up into a few dozen closely related smaller companies–the only result being that the nation’s energy lifeline was controlled by a cartel instead of a monopoly.

Another serious stab at regulation began in 1938 with the passage of the Natural Gas Act, which again tried to combat monopolistic pricing by giving the Federal Power Commission (predecessor to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) the authority to set “just and reasonable rates” for the transmission or sale of natural gas in interstate commerce. In 1954, in the Phillips decision, the Supreme Court held that the federal government should also regulate the price of natural gas at the wellhead–that is, at the point where the gas comes out of the ground. For the better part of a decade, the government fiddled around doing nothing, but then in the early Kennedy administration, the FPC came up with an area pricing plan. Although the focus here was on gas, everyone knew it was a warning shot at the oil industry, which owned and controlled most of the natural gas. To price gas, it would be necessary to get at the oil industry internal documents, revealing such things as the amounts of reserves, costs, and the like.

Immediately, the big oil and gas companies warned we would run out of gas if prices were not raised to stimulate greater production. In 1974, during the (largely manufactured) energy “crisis,” the FPC took the first steps to undercut its own proposed regulations by giving in to industry and hiking prices. Under Jimmy Carter, the government began the formal process of deregulating gas, a policy which carried forward under Reagan and both Bush’s as part of the Republican right wing’s drive against regulation. Once the government gave in, the gas shortage disappeared and today we are supposedly awash with gas. All this was accomplished by industry manipulation of production and reserve figures—the same thing that has happened during all oil “shortages.”

In the wake of the BP disaster, it’s become abundantly clear that the oil industry itself has been writing the rules for offshore drilling, and not federal regulators at the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. “Nearly 100 industry standards set by the American Petroleum Industry are included in the nation’s offshore operating regulations,” McClatchy reported last month. “The API asserts that its standards are better for the industry’s bottom line and make it easier to operate offshore than if the Minerals Management Service set the rules.”  

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the MMS approved “categorical exclusions’’ from environmental review for BP’s offshore wells in the Gulf, including the Deepwater Horizon. Congressional probes already suggest Minerals Management worked in collusion with BP and other oil firms to increase offshore production without regard to safety or environmental standards. Over the last month, the litany of MMS’s failures, and its more than “cozy” relationship with the oil industry, has been extensively documented by the press (including MJ’s Kate Sheppard, here and here).  With government oversight of this caliber, we ought to stop wondering how a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill could happen, and start wondering where it’s going to happen next.

Failure to devise any sort of meaningful regulation of the oil and gas business means that we really don’t know what the industry does, or where or how. Information on the country’s reserves are left in the hands of the companies, not the federal government. Since the US Geological Survey, which is supposed to map the public domain never had the money to do the job right, large parts of the public lands have not been thoroughly mapped by anyone but the companies that exploit it. Relying on industry data has resulted time after time in false information–as in the case of gas in the 1970s energy crisis–to inflate or deflate the amounts of oil and gas reserves.

Beyond failing at its own oversight function, the workings of the MMS also make it difficult for independent analysts to assess what is really going on. Earlier this week, a coalition of scientific societies underlined the problems in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:  

Without a transparent and ethical process for dealing with scientific research and scientific conduct, the science that is performed at DOI may be called into question. This will not only harm the reputation of DOI, but will threaten the conservation of the nation’s treasured natural resources.  To ensure that science is being used properly to implement natural resource decisions, science should not be suppressed, scientific misconduct should be punished, and scientists who report suppression or other scientific misconduct should be afforded whistleblower protections.  Additionally, the science that informs natural resource decisions must be clear, transparent, and subject to independent peer review.

Such changes are unlikely to be implemented even in the wake of the BP spill. The secrecy surrounding federal energy policy was underscored by the confidential meetings organized by Dick Cheney with the oil and gas industry, as part of the Vice President’s “task force” to design a new national energy policy in the early years of the Bush Administration. Those meetings, the details of which remain hidden from the public—their confidentiality supported by the courts—are the most glaring recent example of energy policy formed in secret, and in collusion with the energy industry. In other words, in America, the oil companies not only write their own regulations and perform their own oversight; they also set energy policy and draft laws.

In addition to having their way with the executive and legislative branches of government, the oil companies have largely triumphed over the judicial system as well. Government policy plays into oil company interests not only by letting them do as they please, but also in limiting their liability when things inevitably go wrong. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, White House energy advisor (and former Clinton EPA head) Carol Browner repeated the pledge that BP would pay all cleanup costs for the spill. This is true, as far as it goes, and BP too has promised to pay for the cleanup. But you can just see lawyers haggling in court over what constitutes a cleanup cost.

In addition to the outright cleanup costs, BP also  faces cost of  up to a total of  $75 million for damages not associated with the oil spill itself—such things as fishing and tourism. That amount would be woefully insufficient in this case. Finally, some of the $1.6 billion stashed in Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund could be spent in a cleanup. This fund is made up of industry taxes of 8 cents per barrel, and there is a cap of $1 billion on how much of that can be withdrawn. The House  recently undertook efforts to raise the cap and increase the industry taxes going into  the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. But since this Trust Fund is created by taxing oil, you can be sure that one way or another, the cost will be passed on to consumers, rather than coming out of oil company profits.  

Finally, the Supreme Court could decide to give a special parting gift to BP, as they did to Exxon following the Valdez spill. In that case, an Anchorage jury brought in a verdict of $5 billion in punitive damages against Exxon. In 2008, after nearly two decades of litigation, the Supreme Court reduced the damages to $500 million–a tenth of the original verdict. The decision, written by Justice Souter, cited ”the need to protect against the possibility…of awards that are unpredictable and unnecessary, either for deterrence or for measured retribution.” It’s hard to believe five Supreme Court Justices believed that $5 billion wouldn’t be a more effective “deterrent” to future negligence than $500 million. But apparently, the highest court in the land wanted to make sure that a jury of citizens didn’t go overboard in demanding responsible behavior from America’s favorite industry.

Obama’s “Revelations” and the Oil Industry’s Slimy History

“What’s been made clear from this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves,” President Obama said last week in his press conference on the BP oil spill. “I was wrong,” he declared,  “in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.”

Ya think? If this isn’t a textbook example of closing the barn door after the horse is out, I don’t know what is. In fact, it isn’t even closing the door so much as acknowledging that the barn actually has a door, which we might want to consider using once in a while if we don’t want the horses running wild. What the President’s statement reminds me of most is Alan Greenspan’s admission, after the economic meltdown took place, that there just might be a tiny “flaw” in his approach to financial regulation. “I made a mistake,” Greenspan told Congress in October 2008, “in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”

In the aftermath of his press conference, political pundits seem to be focused on whether Obama–and by implication the federal government–was taking too much responsibility for the spill, or not enough. Only a few have pointed out the patent absurdity of believing in the first place that the oil companies could be trusted to “have their act together” when it came to either preventing or dealing with massive spills. The history of global oil spills over the last half-century shows a pattern of carelessness and ineptitude on the part of the industry–and of failure on the part of governments who tried to intervene after the fact.

When the tanker Torrey Canyon drove straight into the rocks off Land’s End in Britain in 1967, spilling its 31-million-gallon cargo, chemical dispersants were spread on the expanding slick with no result. According to the “Report to the Committee of Scientists on the Scientific and Technological Aspects of the Torrey Canyon Disaster,” the British Air Force was called in to set the oil afire by bombing it. Some of it eventually caught fire; most of it did not. A Dutch salvage team  thought they could fix things by pulling the ship off the rocks, but the tow cable broke. The spill ended up killing marine life and spreading glop all over the beaches of Southern England and some in France as well.

In 1969, a well on the outercontinental shelf six miles off Santa Barbara, California, went out of control. All initial efforts to control the spilling oil were as futile. When the flow was finally stopped after 11 days, 3 million gallons had escaped and coated the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara channel. (At the time it was considered a devastating disaster, and helped fuel the fledgling environmental movement in California–though the numbers sound almost quaint compared with the current BP spill.) After the Santa Barbara spill, the U.S. government came up with a plan to keep teams of experts from different parts of government on standby, so they could fly in and assess damage in the event of a spill.

In 1969 alone, the Coast Guard was reporting 1,007 oil spills in U.S. coastal waters. Many others were not reported. (It was standard practice for ships to pump waste oil into the water on approaching port.) That same year, a Woods Hole Oceangraphic research project in the Sargasso Sea, reported “quantities of oil-tar lumps up to 3 inches in diameter were caught in the nets…It was estimated that there was three times as much tar-like material as Sargasso weed. Similar occurrences have been reported worldwide by observers from this as well as other institutions.’’

In 1970 an Onassis tanker called the Arrow hit Cerberus Rock off Nova Scotia.  It was the Torrey Canyon all over again. Detergents were sprayed with no effect. The U.S. Army dispatched teams armed with  flame throwers to burn it up, which didn’t work. Chemists from Pittsburgh Corning Glass arrived with bags of little glass balls intended to act as wicks for burning the oil, but these did not ignite. Fiberglass collars set up to keep the spreading oil out of a fish processing plant also failed. Attempts to pull the ship off the rocks were futile. Eventually a gale broke the tanker’s back and the stern sank in one hundred feet of water with one million gallons of congealed crude oil aboard. In this case, by pure luck, the remaining oil stayed inside the tanker until a salvage team pumped it out a few months later.

In 1979, Pemex’s Ixtac oil well, in the Gulf off of Campeche, Mexico, suffered a blowout. Through various measures–some of them similar to those currently being used on the Deepwater Horizon spill–the flow of oil from the blown well was slowed from 30,000 to 10,000 barrels a day, but it took nearly ten months for it to be stopped completely. By that time, an estimated 3 million barrels had reached the U.S. Gulf coast. 

The 1970s through the 1990s saw more than a dozen spills larger than the Exxon Valdez, pouring oil into the waters off Trinidad, Uzbekistan, Iran, Angola, South Africa, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Mozambique, Chile, and Sweden.

As for the Valdez disaster itself, its effects still linger nearly two decades after the 1989 spill. During that time, suits against Exxon made their way through courts, resulting in a $5.5 billion jury trial settlement. But the Supreme Court later thought this was too much money, and cut the settlement to $1 billion. No fine ever levied against the oil industry has seriously inhibited its ability to keep doing business as usual–or employing lobbyists, or making campaign contributions. And to my knowledge, no oil company executives have ever gone to jail for the environmental devastation caused by their negligence or greed.

This, perhaps, is the real lesson of history when it comes to oil spills: It isn’t enough, even, to close the barn door, if you allow the horses to keep making hay.

“Obamacare” and the Facade of Regulation

Plenty of countries have created excellent health care systems largely through regulation–so why can’t we  do the same? The French and Japanese health care systems, for example, do not exclude private industry. They are not socialist in any sense of the word, and even retain a role for private insurance companies. What each system consists of is a regulatory apparatus that serves as the instrument for carrying out national policy–which is providing high quality health care for all the country’s citizens, at a reasonable cost. The regulation works because you can’t get around it, and because it was designed–and actually operates–in the public interest.

To achieve anything similar in the United States, however, would require a virtual revolution in how our government operates. Our system of government regulations isn’t really what we think of as regulation at all. Rather, it throws up a facade of rules, which corporations walk right through. And no wonder, since although the regulations are supposed to be arrived at independently and designed for the public good, corporations have long had a hand in writing them, as well, thanks to the power of lobbying, campaign contributions, and the revolving door between business and government.

Rather than being enacted to protect the public from the limitless greed of private industry, many regulations are actually passed in support of corporations. The worst example is probably the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is just a clubhouse for Wall Street. Another top contender is the Food and Drug Administration. The basic legislation passed by Congress in the 1930s and updated in the early 1960s set policy governing the sale and use of drugs, which demanded that companies demonstrate the proposed product is safe and efficacious. But that policy directive was quickly abandoned. Today the drug manufacturers breeze through the FDA, setting their own rules for use, establishing their own prices, and exercising their monopoly rights within the patent system which in the case of pharmaceuticals is  maintained for their benefit.

 An excellent article in the December Harpers, “Understanding Obamacare” by Luke Mitchell,  provides a better understanding of how the  American system of regulation in the corporate interest works. “The idea that there is a competitive ‘private sector’ in America is appealing, but generally false,” writes Mitchell. He continues:

No one hates competition more than the managers of corporations. Competition does not enhance shareholder value, and smart managers know they must forsake whatever personal beliefs they may hold about the redemptive power of creative destruction for the more immediate balm of government intervention. This wisdom is expressed most precisely in an underutilized phrase from economics: regulatory capture.

In the case of health care, Mitchell argues, “The health-care industry has captured the regulatory process, and it has used that capture to eliminate any real competition, whether from the government, in the form of a single-payer system, or from new and more efficient competitors in the private sector who might have the audacity to offer a better product at a better price.”

What’s really sharp about Mitchell’s analysis, though, is his recognition that “the polite word for regulatory capture in Washington is ‘moderation.'” As he explains it:

Normally we understand moderation to be a process whereby we balance the conservative-right-red preference for “free markets” with the liberal-left-blue preference for “big government.” Determining the correct level of market intervention means splitting the difference….The contemporary form of moderation, however, simply assumes government growth (i.e., intervention), which occurs under both parties, and instead concerns itself with balancing the regulatory interests of various campaign contributors. The interests of the insurance companies are moderated by the interests of the drug manufacturers, which in turn are moderated by the interests of the trial lawyers and perhaps even by the interests of organized labor, and in this way the locus of competition is transported from the marketplace to the legislature. The result is that mediocre trusts secure the blessing of government sanction even as they avoid any obligation to serve the public good. Prices stay high, producers fail to innovate, and social inequities remain in place.

This seems to me an extremely accurate depiction of the forces that have governed our current health care reform–from the start, when Big Pharma struck a secret deal with the White House, right up to the present moment, when Big Insurance’s bag man Joe Lieberman is deciding the fate of hundreds of millions of Americans.

And no wonder, since as Mitchell points out, the “moderation” formula has been perfected not by Republicans, but by Democrats: “The triangulating work that began two decades ago under Bill Clinton,” he writes, “is reaching its apogee under the politically astute guidance of Barack Obama.”

The piece goes a long way toward explaining how health care reform could have turned out so screwed up despite (or, as the case may be, because of ) Democratic control of the White House and Congress, and  is well worth reading in full.

Democrats Won a Health Care Battle—But Are Losing the War

On the House floor Saturday night, Nancy Pelosi managed to muster enough votes to pass a health reform bill, in what’s being widely celebrated as a great victory for the Democrats. (Pelosi herself has even compared it with the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 and the Medicare Act in 1965.) But while Republicans may have lost this battle, they continue to take their shots in what’s clearly a larger war. Lindsay Graham has already pronounced the bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate. And in the House, as the debate wore on, one after another, GOP members of Congress rose to denounce the Democratic health care plan as a socialistic plot that will lead to government-run medicine and bankrupt the country. While they were at it, many also took the opportunity to blame Democratic policymaking for the rising unemployment figures and the continuing recession.

It’s the height of gall, of course, for Republicans to lay any of our economic woes at the feet of the current administration. The frenzy of deregulation and speculation that have left a reported 10 percent of Americans without jobs (and in reality, closer to twice that figure) can be traced directly to conservative policies, which got a leg-up during the Clinton years and flourished under Bush. So why can’t the Democrats seem to fight back? In part, perhaps, because they aren’t willing to engage in the kind of all-out, brazen, incendiary lying that’s become commonplace within the GOP. But there are other reasons, as well.

I know the prevailing opinon among the mainstream punditocracy is that Obama is in trouble because he is trying to do  too much, too fast. I think it’s the other way around. There’s no doubt that the president faces tough opposition, much of it fueled by the kind of ignorance and racism that nearly impossible to quell. But they still do, after all, control a majority, both in Congress and among the American public. What makes Democrats most vulnerable to conservative attacks is the fact that they have no compelling message of their own to offer—and nothing to match the soaring rhetoric of the Obama campaign. Instead, they tiptoe cautiously down the middle of the road, and wonder why no one feels terribly inspired to follow them. 

Take their health care legislation. When Obama addressed the Democratic caucus on the Hill this morning, they reportedly responded with “scattered chants of ‘Fired up, ready to go.” But fired up is exactly what reform supporters are not. There’s nothing in the bill to inspire any fervor on the left that could rival the tea parties. In fact, Republicans are partly right when they say that it won’t do much of anything but run up the deficit. The reason for this is not, as they claim, because it’s a socialistic big-government plot to take over the private medical system; the reason is that it isn’t any of those things–not by a long shot. The Democratic legislation is a costly, futile mess precisely because it refuses to rein in the industries that have been ripping off the American public year after year.

Obama and the Democrats have no real vision for a transformed health care system, so they’ve gone for a slightly modified version of business as usual. They’ve cut backroom deals that win a few meager concessions toward the public good, while at the same time ensuring the profits of the insurance companies, Big Pharma, and other health care profiteers by maintaining their basic control of the health care system and rewarding them with bigger assured markets and more and more money. (To make matters worse, at the last minute they also cut a deal with anti-choice members of their own party that will further undermine women’s access what was, when I last checked, still a legal medical procedure.) In other words, they’re doing what Democrats have done since at least the Clinton years–acting like kinder, gentler Republicans, rather than like the defenders of the common people.

A whole lot of Americans don’t like the current health care system, and a whole lot more hate insurance companies. The Democrats might have been able to translate that into some sort of populist support for real change. Instead, they dithered and compromised, and failed to invoke any compelling ideology. Health care ought to have nothing to do with profits. It should be a basic human right in a civilized society. But that’s precisely the kind of statement the Democrats are unwilling to make—so they end up saying nothing at all.

Likewise, the Obama White House has yet to take any strong, principled action against the forces responsible for wrecking the economy. And how could it, since it is staffed by the old Clinton economic team that set the financial debacle in motion a decade ago? At the root of the economic mess was the decision to rip down Glass-Steagall, the law that separated Wall Street from commercial banking. One of the men at the center of that endeavor was Larry Summers. And having been a prime cause of the recession, where is Larry Summers today? Ensconsed in the White House, running the Obama economic program.

There was a time, shortly after Obama took office, when a rising populist rage at Wall Street greed might have been harnassed to fuel some genuinely meaningful regulatory action. Instead, with men like Summers and Tim Geithner at the helm, we’ve seen Wall Street recover while Main Street continues to suffer. We’ve seen a large portion of the stimulus funds chanelled through the private sector, where they’ve yet to trickle down to the people who need help most. Obama says his goal is for every American who wants a job to have one. So why not start creating government-funded jobs, as FDR did in the early years of the Depression? Why not launch federal projects to create a new green energy industry, instead of waiting for the energy monopolies to come up with a way of making a killing off it?

Obama was elected because people took him seriously when he said sought real change. So why won’t he take bold action on any of these fronts? Is it because if he did, the Republicans would abandon him and crush his dream of bipartisanship? Or because he doesn’t want the Democratic party to lose electoral ground among the so-called swing voters? Or because he’s afraid of being branded a crazy maniacal socialist? Oh, wait—all those things have happened already. So what does the president have to lose? If he’s going to be called a radical when he’s acting like a timid moderate, why not be a little more radical (or mildly progressive, even) in service of the public good? Then he might actually bring about some change we could believe in.