Archive for July, 2017

Health Care: Let them eat cake

July 18, 2017

Democrats long caricatured Republicans as the party of tax cuts for the rich and callousness toward everyone else. Now Republicans have been working mightily to prove it true.

To quote GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, “Let them eat cake.” Or rather, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

I’m frankly dumbfounded that here in 2017 — after all the attention to rising U.S. inequality, middle and working class struggles, declining economic opportunity, while the rich get richer — in the teeth of all this — Republicans would try to pass a bill so blatantly coddling the richest at the expense of the rest. Could they actually get away with it?

Note that I didn’t call it a “health care” bill. It was a take-away-health-care-to-fund tax-cuts-for-the-rich bill.

Maybe having become a Democrat, I’m beginning to sound like one. But I’m not one of those with a “Tax The Rich” bumper sticker. As if the rich aren’t already taxed, and quite heavily. About 70% of all income tax revenue is paid by the top 10% of earners; about 38% by the top 1%. So are they paying their “fair share?” You might argue otherwise, but it’s far from obvious. Nor do I believe the rich are the problem. It’s a fallacy to think they get their wealth at the expense of the rest. The answer to inequality is not to take down the rich but more economic opportunity for more people.

Furthermore, I happen to be one of those who would have benefitted from the bill (especially the original version repealing the “net investment income” tax). And my wife and I, being very healthy, would have welcomed repeal of the mandate and associated tax penalty.*

But despite all that, I was glad the bill failed, not only for the egg on Trump’s face, but because it was bad public policy. It would have worsened the division in American society. It would have done nothing to fix all that’s wrong with our healthcare-cum-insurance system. I don’t favor tax cuts for anyone given our ticking fiscal time-bomb. And people do die for lack of health care.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary legislative project was the complete lack of any public advocacy for it. No effort was made to sell it to voters, who overwhelmingly opposed it.

Of course, Republicans were not promoting the bill on its merits because it had none. For eight years they raved against Obamacare, but never came up with an alternative, leaving it somewhat unclear just what was so awful about it — in truth it was mainly that Obama was a black Democrat. But now they had to come up with something. I’m reminded of how in fourth grade I tried to bluff my way through an oral report on colonial New York without any research.

The bill actually failed because too many GOP lawmakers considered it not cruel enough. Now they propose to just repeal Obamacare and worry about a replacement later. This is even more craven. They’d slate a two-year window to come up with a plan. What are the chances? Most Republicans went along with the now-dead bill only because they knew they’d look like fools if they fluffed their long-headlined pledge to repeal Obamacare. But once it’s repealed, that pressure would be off.

But at the end of the day, Trump’s voters don’t seem to care much about health care, not even their own. What most of them mostly care about is Mexicans, Muslims, and N——.

* I’ve seen mention that the IRS is not actually enforcing it, but an IRS rep I spoke to said otherwise. Does anyone know the facts on this?

Trump and Russia

July 15, 2017

This is a big deal. A very, very big deal.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

When Creepo Junior was offered campaign help from a representative of a hostile foreign government, the correct response was to call the FBI. Not, “I love it.”

Whether the law was violated is murky (depends on whether an offer of assertedly useful information amounts to a campaign donation). But the violation of fundamental precepts is crystal clear. You do not collude with a hostile foreign government for its help in a U.S. election campaign. An absolute no-no. Even the most brain-dead Trump asskisser should be able to grasp this.

That is why, for months, Creepo Senior repeatedly denied any such collusion. Of course he was lying. Surprise? If Donald Trump says the sun is shining, better grab your umbrella.

And even in their pretence of phony transparency, supposedly coming clean about that meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian operative, the Trumps still did not in fact come clean — failing to mention the attendance of someone else — a former Russian spy!!

Rinat Akhmetshin, ex Russian spy

Let me repeat that. The Trump campaign’s highest honchos met not only with a Kremlin fixer, but also a former Russian spy, and covered it up.

This isn’t “fake news” or a “witch hunt,” or a mere “distraction.” It proves — as if it still needed proving — that Putin’s regime did try to mess with our election. To subvert our democracy. To elect its preferred candidate, Trump. And if the Trumps, in colluding with them, did not technically commit treason, it sure smells pretty close.

Even after being caught with his pants down so flagrantly on this, Trump still could not restrain his deranged compulsion to spin what is, to any non-brain-dead observer, blatant bullshit, arguing publicly that the Russians actually must have preferred Hillary. This insult to intelligence shows his contempt for the poor creeps who still worship him.

And what does all this do to America’s standing in the world? When it’s obvious, to every foreign leader, that our president is a total piece of garbage whose every word is worthless?

“Make America great again.” Look upon this greatness, and despair.

My psychology re Trump: Crime and Punishment

July 13, 2017

This blog might seem to show a Trump obsession — “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” But I have explained that this is not normal politics, it’s a discontinuity, with huge long-term ramifications. Attention must be paid.

I acknowledge an emotionality to my blogging.* My love for America, and the values I thought it stood for, are deeply felt. Their being trashed elicits correspondingly strong emotion. I feel as if betrayed by a lifelong beloved — and also as if she’s been raped, defiled, degraded.

Throughout my half century of political engagement, I’ve had strong opinions about issues, candidates, and personages. But nothing like this. There’s an added element operating here.

Evolution endowed human beings with strong justice feelings. This enhanced survival for early people living in close-knit cooperative groups. Rewarding behavior good for the group, and punishing antisocial conduct, made groups work better. That gave us pre-installed bad behavior detectors, and desire for punishment of transgressors.

Knowing myself, my own justice settings are on “high.” (At eleven, as Nigel said of the amplifiers in Spinal Tap.) And Trump triggers them in a way no other American political figure ever has.** My politically opposing them never extended to seeing them as moral violators meriting punishment. In fact I always used to criticize that kind of attitude, and the demonization of political opponents, arguing that we’re all sincere in wanting what’s best for our country.

That was then. This is different. In demonizing Trump it would be hard to overstate the case. And for him I do want not just political defeat but punishment. I want to see him suffer for what he’s done. Cellphone shoved down his throat (or elsewhere). (That’s the self-censored version of what I originally wrote.)

He’s the poster boy for the ancient conundrum — why does evil prosper? A man who’s done nothing but evil, cheating and lying his way through life, screwing people, leaving a scorched earth of injured victims (yes, that’s his business history), and reaping nothing but rewards. Indeed, what this narcissist craves most is attention, and has anyone ever gotten more?

I was brought up to believe lies and cheating should be punished. But never mind all his business victims. Of course Trump’s damage to our country is the really grievous crime. His getting away with it all, being rewarded, flouts my sense of justice. Remember too why we have one — to keep society working properly. People seen to get away with crime undermines the very basis on which we all live together. This is a cancer on our body politic. Unlike with normal political to-and-fro, I feel things are now cosmically out-of-whack, as though what I understood to be the laws of nature are scrambled. Trump’s comeuppance would restore the order of the Universe.

The religious might say that evildoers get their punishment in Hell. It was exactly to assuage justice cravings like mine that Hell was invented. But of course that’s as big a lie as any Trump tells.

And most religious Americans actually think he’s doing God’s work. And that God imparts morality!

* But emotion is never actually disconnected from reason. I have written about this.

** Though many in other countries deserve the Ceausescu-Qadafy treatment.

“The Fix” — What is real leadership?

July 9, 2017

Jonathan Tepperman’s book The Fix is prefaced with a quote: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” It’s from Marx. (Not Karl but Groucho.)

My daughter gave me this book for Christmas. The Fix is great.

Its subtitle is How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. Tepperman begins, like my own Rational Optimism book, with “The Litany” — the familiar catalog of everything wrong with the world. Admittedly that list has grown since I wrote in 2008. Yet I still don’t see, in the big picture, “a world in decline.”

Neither does Tepperman, really. He deploys exactly what I meant by rational optimism — not Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses, but a belief that problems can be solved through reasoned effort. He discusses ten in particular (“the terrible ten”) and, for each, how one nation at least did solve it. Mostly how leaders solved them, because leadership is key.

Lula

The first issue is inequality; the country Brazil; the leader Lula. Of course Brazil hasn’t completely eradicated inequality, but it was previously one of the most unequal nations, and has made great strides. Lula came to the presidency in 2003 (on his fourth try) seen as a Marxist radical. But he defied expectations by acting instead as the most orthodox steward of the economy. That gave him the credibility to implement his Bolsa Familia program.

Government programs for the poor typically entail “doing things for them” — which is complicated, inefficient (much bureaucracy), costly, and prone to corruption. Bolsa Familia instead just hands out cash. But to get it, your kids must go to school and get immunizations and medical check-ups. This helps them escape the poverty trap, with better future prospects. Also smart is giving the money to the mothers, sidestepping feckless dads and empowering women. And its simplicity makes the program actually quite cheap, costing less than half a percent of GDP; moreover, by turning the poor into consumers, it boosted the economy, arguably more than paying for itself. All this helped sell the program to skeptics.

Next is immigration, and Canada — one of the world’s most welcoming nations. In fact, Canada seeks out people to come — most of them nonwhite. It uses a point system encompassing factors like education and skills (in contrast to America’s relationship-based system — “extremely irrational” says Tepperman).

Canada’s system developed to kill two birds with one stone. The vast nation was underpopulated. And it was experiencing ethnic tension between English and French speakers. The solution, spearheaded by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was to subsume those differences into a broader ethos of multiculturalism.

The point system makes most Canadians see immigration as a plus, without the kind of xenophobic feelings so prevalent elsewhere. In fact, most actually consider multiculturalism important to their national identity.

On December 10, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) stood in an airport arrivals hall handing out winter coats to the first of the 25,000 Syrian refugees Canada was welcoming. “You’re safe at home now,” he told them. While Trumpmerica currently bars all Syrian refugees.

But America is not the book’s villain. Indeed, one of its chapters is a good news story about the USA (imagine that). It concerns our recent energy revolution. (What, you didn’t notice?) It’s the fracking explosion (poor choice of words) to extract natural gas from shale, turning America into one of the world’s biggest energy producers.

No other country has tapped into shale gas to such an extent. Tepperman explains why. American property owners (unlike elsewhere) own everything under their land. That creates a huge incentive to exploit those resources; which has led to a proliferation of small energy companies; and competition among them has triggered a wave of technological innovation.

Remember how we pined for “energy independence?” Seemed hopeless — until the frackers got busy and started producing. Likewise all the Cassandra warnings about “peak oil.” Don’t hear that phrase much anymore either.

But I know what you’re thinking. At one time our local paper was filled with almost daily commentaries and reader letters expressing fear of fracking — a widespread movement which led some jurisdictions, including New York State and much of Europe, to ban it. But Tepperman dismisses all that fearmongering in barely a paragraph. The fact is that while fracking does (like every technology) entail risks, it has advanced sufficiently to deal with them quite well. So fracking has gone on for years now, producing bazillions of granfaloons of energy, and all the horror stories have proved to be basically chimaeras.

Peña Nieto

Another tale concerns Mexico, but has great relevance for the U.S. Mexico’s President Peña Nieto came to office upon a background of bitter partisan gridlock, among three main parties, no less. But he initiated a dialog among key leaders, that wound up committing all three parties to a big package of important reforms.

How was this remarkable breakthrough achieved? Tepperman: “quiet negotiations, painful compromise, political leaders willing to take risks and keep their word, and above all a recognition that zero-sum politics accomplishes nothing.” He also stresses the virtues of pragmatism as opposed to wearing ideological blinders. I was surprised Tepperman didn’t quote Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Deng was defending policies that shredded Communist orthodoxy. Of course, ideologies are not arbitrary irrelevancies: we have reasons for what we believe, and those beliefs guide what one thinks is the right answer to a problem. But the trouble is that other people may think differently. Tepperman argues for satisficing — making the kinds of compromises among competing viewpoints and interests such that everyone gets something, though nobody achieves their maximum goals. As ever: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Returning to Mexico’s reform pact, Tepperman sees no reason, in principle, why it couldn’t be repeated in America. I’m skeptical. While Mexico’s deal did encounter cries of “Treason!” such compromises here would meet a firestorm from enflamed partisans. And as Tepperman highlights, Mexico’s political parties were losing popularity because of the prior stalemate. America’s geographic political segregation and gerrymandering create a different set of incentives; despite abysmal approval ratings for Congress, its members almost all get re-elected.

Still, one of the book’s key points holds true: leadership matters. America has suffered from a notable lack of the kind of leadership Tepperman depicts. Obama certainly did not have it. He created the Simpson-Bowles commission to produce a big compromise plan like Mexico’s, then walked away from it. Unlike Peña Nieto, Obama was content to let the partisan dynamics just play themselves out, with predictable results. And as for our current president: oy.

July 4, Part 2: An Americanism booster shot

July 6, 2017

Every July 4 there’s a ceremony swearing in new citizens at Saratoga National Historical Park. Seeing one was kind of on my bucket list, and I decided this was finally the year for it. Frankly, I felt in need of a patriotic “booster shot.”

I’ve always gotten goosebumps from the National Anthem, and other symbols of the America that has meant so much to me. But nowadays they inspire unsettlingly mixed emotions, an elegiac feeling, because I see America going off the rails. A great sorrow at what’s slipping away. Yet an intensified determination to stand by it.

Hence this booster shot, a living manifestation of those cherished and embattled ideals. A gratifyingly huge crowd turned out. The oratory (seemingly in conscious challenge to contrary sentiment) emphasized how immigrants renew America. Nineteen new citizens, from fourteen countries, raised their hands and took the oath. I stood close enough to one (the guy on the right) to be the first to shake his hand, congratulate him, and welcome him to the fold.

Shortly after, at a table with voter registration forms, I saw another (the guy on the left) sitting and filling one out. “You’re not wasting any time,” I remarked.

“This is what it’s all about,” he replied.

I got my booster shot.

The park is the site of the 1777 Battle of Saratoga. My own iconic one is Trenton — Christmas 1776, when the Americans, beaten repeatedly and chased across the Delaware, defied fate by getting back in their boats, recrossing the river, and surprising the British at Trenton. It was America’s near-death experience. But it was Saratoga that really sealed the deal, with the Brits effectively done for. Here America won freedom.

At the Humanist party (photo by Wolfgang Kurth)

The ceremony began at ten, perfect for us to make the noon start of the Capital District Humanist Society’s Independence Day party. Another booster shot reminder that America is a wonderful country full of wonderful people.

And the eats were great too.

July 4: The Twitter Hymn of the Republic

July 4, 2017

Mine eyes have seen vainglory in the president’s dumb tweets,
He is trampling out the vintage of the grapes of wrath he eats,
He hath loosed the feckless lightning of his idiotic bleats:
His lies are marching on.

Glory, glory, to the Donald!
Glory, glory, to the Donald!
Glory, glory, to the Donald!
His lies are marching on.

I have read his fiery gospel writ on tiny cellphone screens,
In a hundred forty characters, this crazy person preens;
He has no mind or heart, but he sure does have a spleen,
His garbage marches on.

(Chorus)

He has sounded forth a trumpet with each and every tweet;
He is savaging every critic, before his judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, he thinks, to insult them! Be jubilant my feet!
The Donald marches on.

(Chorus)

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
In contrast our president is disgraceful as can be.
The nightmare marches on.

(Chorus)