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Nurses’ prescription for healing our economy

Washington Post, 10/4/11

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, October 4

If you want to know just how bad things are for those hit hardest by the Great Recession, ask a nurse: They see more young men suffering heart attacks, more anxiety in children, and more ulcers and stomach illnesses in people of all ages. Financial struggles are forcing more patients to forgo necessary medicines and treatments. A Princeton/Georgia State study reports a 39 percent increase in ER admissions for suicide attempts precipitated by home foreclosures, and a direct correlation between foreclosure rates and increases in emergency-room visits and hospitalization for hypertension, diabetes and anxiety.

Given this widespread hardship and pain, it makes sense that nurses who are on the frontlines in our communities every day are leading an effort to hold Wall Street accountable for causing these economic troubles while raising hundreds of billions of dollars for vital human needs.

National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s largest union and professional association of nurses, representing 170,000 RNs, is out in the streets, in congressional offices and just last week in Liberty Park with the Occupy Wall Street protesters pushing a good idea that has been around for decades and whose time has come: a financial-transactions tax. This is a small levy on trades of stocks, derivatives and currencies meant to curb short-term speculation while raising massive revenue for urgent needs.

Since June, thousands of nurses have protested on Wall Street, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, and the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, as well as participated in actions ranging from working in soup kitchens to staging sit-ins at 60 district congressional offices in 21 states to lead the fight for this common-sense measure.

“In my practice as a staff nurse in a downtown Boston teaching hospital, I am seeing the effects of this crisis every day,” said Massachusetts RN Ann Marie McDonagh. “A nurses’ union must do so much more than just negotiate fair pay and decent working conditions. It must use its power to promote the overall well being of its members and the public they care for.”

Last month, at NNU’s convention in San Francisco, filmmaker Michael Moore praised the union for its creativity and initiative. “It’s so necessary,” said Moore. “Your movement on [this tax] is genius; it has to happen.”

Moore is onto something. There is indeed a sense that this idea needs to become a reality. This is no marginal idea: The “Tobin Tax” to discourage short-term currency speculation was originally suggested by Nobel laureate economist James Tobin in 1972. Just last week, Bill Gates endorsed a small tax on financial transactions as a way to raise substantial resources for development spending.

In Europe, centrists and even some conservatives now embrace such an idea. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have both signaled their support, and the new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was a strong proponent of a financial-transaction tax as finance minister of France. Last week, the European Commission released proposed legislation for an EU-wide financial-transactions tax.

Also last week, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a conservative, made his strongest statement yet on the matter. “Before the end of the autumn we are going to create a tax on financial transactions. If necessary, I’m sure, just in the eurozone,” said Schaeuble.

But in the United States, top members of President Obama economic team have torpedoed this idea. According to Ron Suskind’s new book, “Confidence Men,” President Obama supported the tax  before then-chief economic adviser Larry Summers nixed it. It comes as no surprise that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who Suskind reports was referred to as “our man in Washington” by one top banker ” has been no smarter on this front. He recently attended a meeting of eurozone finance ministers, urging them to get a grip on their debt crisis,then immediately said that the United States would not impose a tax on financial transactions as a way of dealing with the crisis.

Geithner drew a strong rebuke from Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter, a conservative. “I would have expected that, if he explains the world to us, that he would also listen to what we want to explain to the Americans,” she said.

“The Europeans are way ahead of us on this, with the real possibility of implementing financial transactions taxes in the next year,” said Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, who zealously follows this issue. “The nurses union is doing a tremendous job of pushing the United States in the right direction.”

It’s no surprise that the corporate-owned mainstream media isn’t paying much attention to the activism around this issue by NNU and organizations such as the National Peoples Action, Jobs with Justice, the American Dream Movement and Americans for Financial Reform. Thousands of nurses insisting that they be heard on an issue that would help their patients seems to be of little interest to most in the national press, while three tea partyers on a corner are treated as a major media event.

But a financial-transactions tax now has support at the highest levels of economic power and out on the streets, where tens of thousands of nurses and their allies are helping to lead the fight to heal Main Street. What we are now seeing is an unprecedented opportunity for a transnational alliance to generate revenue from those who created the economic debacle, and to restore Wall Street and global finance to its proper role of serving the real economy.

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