Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Impeachment, partisanship, and defending the indefensible

January 21, 2020

Now it’s official: the Government Accountability Office (chief federal watchdog agency) has determined that Trump’s Ukraine aid shakedown broke the law.

So Republicans can no longer pretend “he did nothing wrong,” and that holding up the aid was within his presidential prerogative, regardless of the reason. No, says the GAO, it was not — regardless of the reason, genuine or fake.

And of course there was no plausible genuine reason. Trump’s “combating Ukraine corruption” doesn’t pass the laugh test. He was trying to extort a bribe (smearing a political opponent) in exchange for releasing the aid. Republicans point out the articles of impeachment don’t actually say “bribery” or “extortion.” Omission of those plain words doesn’t change the reality; they’re the substance of the case.

Exactly the sort of “high crime” the founders meant in the Constitution’s impeachment section. Abuse of the presidential office for personal gain. (Not “abuse of power” because Trump actually didn’t even have the power to do what he did.)

Is impeachment an attempt to “undo the last election,” or pre-empt the next? No, those cries are ridiculous. Elections and impeachments are separate in the Constitution. And that’s particularly pertinent in this case, where it’s the election itself Trump tried to corrupt. His attempt failed only because the whistle was blown.

Lawyers say if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table. That’s what Republicans are doing. Screaming, with intensifying hysteria, that Democrats are perverting the Constitution out of sheer partisanship. But let’s examine this seriously.

Are Democrats Trump’s political opponents? Yes, of course. Just as Republicans opposed Obama. We do have a two-party system. Have they forgotten the ferocity of their partisan opposition to Obama? Talk about trying to undo an election — they actually denied his right to office, Trump himself leading the “birther” crusade, challenging Obama’s citizenship. Vile nonsense, by the way. There was no record of his mother ever being in Kenya. And being a U.S. citizen, her son would have been born one too, even if overseas.

But this shows how deranged Republican hatred for Obama was. Now they talk as though Democrats’ opposition to Trump is somehow similarly deranged. As though it’s just blind partisan tribal hatred, unmoored from any rational reasons. But there are perfectly rational reasons. Democrats hate Trump because he is hateful. The worst human being, biggest liar, most corrupt selfish person ever to hold the office. But never mind his character. It’s his actions. Coddling dictators while shredding our alliances. Separating children from parents. Not summoning the better angels of our nature, but stirring a toxic brew of people’s worst impulses. The list goes on and on. Republicans blind themselves to it all; Democrats cannot.

Yet not for any of this is he being impeached. Nor even his clear attempts to obstruct justice as proven in the Mueller report. It’s for his incontrovertible, indefensible Ukraine crime.

Is that partisanship, perverting the Constitution? No, it’s upholding the law and the Constitution, Congress fulfilling its assigned duty, protecting our democracy. If Trump’s Ukraine extortion attempt didn’t incur impeachment, no presidential misconduct ever could, and the presidency would now be above the law.

“People of color” versus “colored people” — call in the language police

January 11, 2020

A recent local newspaper story* reports a Schenectady council meeting, where one member touted the election of a nonwhite council president, rejoicing in the body’s diversity, including two “colored — people of color.” He almost said “colored people” before catching himself.

The article reports “an audible gasp,” an “incredulous-looking councilwoman,” another saying she was “offended” (adding “at least try to be politically correct”), another observer saying she was “stunned,” an African-American man who “walked out of the room in apparent disgust,” and the local NAACP head saying he was caught off-guard and the issue will be taken up at the group’s next meeting.

The relevant linguistic background is fraught.** “Colored people” once was a term they themselves preferred, as the polite one. Eventually it acquired a demeaning odor and was supplanted by “Negro.” That word echoes a past paradigm classifying people into three races — “negroid,” “caucasoid,” and “mongoloid.” (It’s not really that simple, nor even is the concept of “race” scientifically coherent.)

And using “Negro” was not new, but repurposed an old word, which originated as the Spanish for “black,” and had actually referred to slaves. The N-word was a more degrading version. Some southerners would later snarkily pronounce “Negro” as “Nigra,” to be just this side of politeness while conveying what was really meant.

Then “Negro” was discarded and “black” became the chosen word. Even though it too had designated slaves. At least “black” is English, rather than Spanish. Though brown might be more apt — as well as unfreighted with historical baggage.

Next it was “African-American.” A bit of a mouthful, but possessing a certain verity, since most people so described do have African ancestry, albeit usually far in the past.

And so we come to “people of color.” I generally believe in calling people what they want to be called. But I’m frankly baffled by this latest rehabilitation of old words once considered derogatory. “People of color” does perhaps entail a nuance of putting “people” first; and whereas “colored people” typically implied just African ancestry, “people of color” today encompasses all non-caucasians. Yet still the words in the two phrases are actually identical in meaning, and both arise from the same linguistic roots, using the same word as a signifier of ethnic difference. If “people of color” is now acceptable, “colored people” should be too. Maintaining a sharp distinction seems absurdist hair-splitting.

True, the two terms can have different meanings depending on who uses them and why. But political correctness tends to put that cart before the horse, with inferences drawn from the bare words alone, regardless of context. What it’s really all about is people setting themselves up as paragons of right-thinking, while wrong-footing others, as offenders against purity, consigning them to outer darkness.

This syndrome was on full display in the Schenectady council episode. A few people quoted did acknowledge that the “offender” was guilty merely of a slip of the tongue, and nothing ought be made of it. That’s just common sense and reasonableness. After all, the fellow was applauding nonwhites. But common sense and reasonableness go out the window in such cases. There are now always people eager to mount high horses, getting out their pitchforks and torches.

The absurdity here rises to dizzying heights, when it’s not even about something the man said, but what he almost said. Nevertheless, that was sufficient pretext for those who relish the deliciousness of taking offense.

A final irony: the article, again, quoted the local NAACP head. Perhaps in that future meeting he talked of, they can also discuss their own organization’s name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Councilman-s-remarks-rankle-some-members-of-14960079.php

**Here’s a good article discussing it: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/11/07/362273449/why-we-have-so-many-terms-for-people-of-color

Psycho-sociology, politics, and reality lenses

January 5, 2020

“Events, dear boy, events.” That was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous reply, when asked what could shake up the status quo.

We’ve seen a lot of events in the last three years. Government shut-downs. Mueller investigation. Cruelties at the border. Charlottesville. Kavanaugh. Ukraine scandal. Impeachment. Yet nothing moves the political needle. Trump’s poll ratings have stayed stuck at around 40%.

This is actually very strange. If anything, historically, and throughout the world, voters have exhibited not steadfastness but fickleness. France’s President Macron was elected in 2017 with 66% of the vote (unimaginable in America), then his favorability polling plummeted to only 23%. Never mind whether that made sense — at least the French were attuned to events, and changing opinions in response thereto. In almost any country, a leader conducting himself as abominably as Trump, caught in so many lies, etc., would see his support plunge close to zero.

A recent David Brooks column tackles what’s going on. “Events,” he writes, “don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.” Who you are as a person tends to be determinative. This by itself is no revelation: a gay urban artist is likely to vote Democrat; a rural churchgoing construction worker Republican. But Brooks goes on to say an event itself is not what’s salient; “it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event.” Each seeing it through our own lens.

And, says Brooks, different segments of American society “now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psychosocial categories have hardened.”

This cultural segmentation has very deep roots. Brooks writes that if a region was settled, in the 17th and 18th centuries, predominantly from East Anglia, it probably votes Democratic; if from the North of England, for Trump. He adds that the 1896 election is also a good predictor of today’s politics — 22 of 23 states voting for Democrat Bryan in 1896 are Republican now.

But if that kind of sorting is not new, it has greatly intensified in recent decades. For reasons Brooks says he doesn’t understand.

Nevertheless, in the rest of the column, Brooks contends that any political analysis must today concern itself not just with the ostensible ramifications of events themselves but with the different ways different groups see them. However, nothing he writes here suggests that those very different lenses are not equally valid. Yet therein lies much of the tale.

I wrote recently of a conversation with some Trumpers which included assertions that Adam Schiff had been outed as a pedophile; that Biden was not a candidate when Trump spoke with Zelensky; that child migrants were caged only during the Obama administration; they weren’t separated from parents, as proven by DNA tests! And so on and so forth. All right-wing fake news. Including saying mainstream media spouts fake news.

This isn’t just seeing reality through a different lens. It’s seeing reality on a different planet.

Can 40% of Americans have succumbed to mass psychosis? If Brooks is baffled by what’s happened, I’ll suggest a theory:

Our reality perception was honed by evolution to promote survival. That makes us very good at seeing reality insofar as that aids coping with all life’s hazards. You won’t mistake a red light for green. But that doesn’t apply to the realm of public affairs; that’s a freebie, where reality perception isn’t life-or-death, giving us the luxury of a different criterion: what makes us feel good.

That’s a perfectly valid human concern. One might even say it’s the very purpose of being alive. Hence feeling good, along with the survival instinct, is a powerful motivator.

Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, we don’t really see it as an option to believe something that’s false just to feel good. However — if it does somehow seem to be an option — if one can rationalize believing it — then heck, let’s go for it!

Trump and his enablers have hypercharged this. Helped by the explosion of garbage on the internet, much put there with cynical intent. They’ve made it seem a valid choice to believe things that actually are, well, lies. Indeed, they’re undermining the whole concept of truth versus lies. Truth is whatever you’d like it to be.

It helps if you’re not alone, if there’s a whole community of others with you. And a major TV network. Even  the President of the United States. 

In this environment, “events” actually don’t matter much at all. It’s not just that you see events through your own sociological lens. Social psychology dictates your politics regardless of events. 

All this plays to people wanting (naturally) to feel good about themselves. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile support for Trump with the rotten reality. Without having to give it up and admit to yourself you’ve been conned. Especially with everyone around you staying conned. Far preferable to live in an alternate universe where what you’re supporting is all good (and opponents are all bad). Where DNA tests prove no children were taken from parents.

 

America’s reality problem

December 19, 2019

Reality. We have to live in it. Humanity may one day escape the confines of Earth, but we cannot escape reality.

America was the one nation actually founded on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. Such rationality is grounded in reality. It’s also the substrate for reasoned discourse, another element of the Enlightenment. Reasoned discourse means opinions can differ; indeed, it is through such argument, as opposed to everyone thinking alike, that we work toward truth and wisdom. But argument must be rational — grounded, once more, in reality.

And America, we have a problem.

It’s not news that we’re polarized into two mutually antagonistic tribes, each inhabiting a very different reality. Political opinions can, again, differ, but each must be reality-based. The two contradictory realities can’t both be true.

Democrats (being human) certainly have their biases, blind spots, even irrationalities. But their big picture perception of today’s political reality is basically grounded in fact. While Republicans’ picture is a false one self-servingly painted by a monstrous liar, Trump. I say this as a Republican myself, for half a century, until I saw the party plunge down that rabbit hole.

The other night I attended a dinner, with a couple of Trumper friends (I do have some). They are not (otherwise) stupid or crazy; one has a Masters in History. One mentioned “Shifty Schiff” unmasked as a sex criminal. They avowed lack of surprise, wondering only how such a scumbag got away with it so long.

Amid all the despicable Trumpist smears against Schiff, I’d never heard this one. I held my tongue, but googling at home, immediately found (as expected) reports debunking this totally false garbage sloshing around the internet.

I did suggest my friends take care about their information sources; and was told I should stop listening to the fake news on lying mainstream media.

As talk inevitably turned to impeachment, trying to swat down, with facts, all the Trumpist spin, was a waste of breath. The History guy even insisted Trump couldn’t have been trying to smear an opponent because Biden wasn’t even a candidate at the time. (He was.)

To change the subject I mentioned thousands of children snatched from parents at the border — including toddlers, most of whom will be never be reunited — a Trump atrocity I thought no decent human being could defend. But I was told that every picture of children in cages was taken during the Obama administration. And that those adults were not their parents! DNA tests proved it.

DNA tests? They weren’t even properly recording children’s names. Good God.

After this alternate reality bath, at home on TV I then caught a clip of Trump reacting to the DOJ Inspector General’s report. Trumpists have long been salivating for this to prove the whole Russian meddling investigation was a “deep state” plot to take Trump down. Inspector General Horowitz found nothing of the kind (of course). While faulting the FBI for some irregularities and mistakes, he concluded that its investigating Trump’s campaign was wholly justified based on actual evidence, with no political bias.

The idea of the FBI nefariously plotting against Trump in 2016 is obviously absurd because they publicly revealed their investigating Hillary’s e-mails, and a reopened investigation right before the election, almost surely sinking her; but didn’t reveal investigating Trump’s campaign! If they were biased against anyone, it was Hillary.

That’s factual reality. But your reality may differ.

As does Trump’s. Concerning the Horowitz report, he said it’s “far worse than expected. This was an overthrow of the government . . . a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.” He called the FBI officers “scum.”

This was an overthrow of the government?!

Trump’s reality is just exactly what he wants it to be. Nothing he says need have any resemblance to actual reality. If this were not so cynically calculated, by a president, in anyone else it would be seen as severe mental illness. Yet his fans march in lockstep to his tune. This is destroying the basis for reasoned discourse upon which a democracy depends.

Factual reality: Trump tried to extort a bribe (smearing an opponent) from Ukraine’s president, in exchange for releasing congressionally-mandated aid. Compromising national security. The aid was only released because the scheme was blown by the whistleblower. Who got it totally right, as confirmed by mountains of hearing testimony. Trump doesn’t even deny what he did. The idea that he was concerned about “corruption” is ludicrous. He wasn’t even asking Ukraine to actually investigate — merely to announce an investigation, to besmirch Biden. And trying to pin 2016 election meddling on Ukraine, not Russia, makes a mockery of what America’s intelligence services determined, confirmed by tons of evidence in the Mueller probe. While Trump ordered the entire executive branch to defy lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents.

These charges are extremely grave, and indisputable.

Republicans’ devotion to Trump has an intensity without parallel in U.S. history. It might be comprehensible if he were some paragon of virtue; a Nelson Mandela. Yet we’ve also never seen a political figure so obviously corrupt, selfish, lying, divisive, irresponsible, and immoral. A reality to which Republicans blind themselves.

Lincoln said this nation cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can it endure half in reality and half in a corrupted alternate reality.

America’s coming redemption — or its demise?

December 13, 2019

I never expected Communism’s collapse. Still less America’s — in terms of what it stood for.

I awakened in 1964. Living near the World’s Fair, one day at West Germany’s pavilion I saw a film about the Berlin Wall. I started to understand.

For the next quarter century the Cold War was a defining political reality. A dark one. Around the late ’70s, it seemed the world was going headlong in the wrong direction. I felt despair. But then things turned around. Like Hemingway’s line, gradually, then suddenly. And the Wall came down.

When 1989 closed, watching new year fireworks (with my new wife — another seeming miracle), I saluted it aloud as a blessed golden year. In 1993 I visited Russia — now a free country. Seemed a miracle. Walking up St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, the grim grey Soviet facades were interspersed with occasional flashes of color — new stores! I returned in 1995 and now the Nevsky was all color. I was elated at this total triumph of my deepest ideals.

It wasn’t “the end of history.” But it appeared humanity had turned a corner, into a new dawn, finally putting behind us so much that had hobbled and afflicted us.

The “Flynn Effect” is named for a researcher who revealed a perhaps surprising global trend: people getting smarter. IQs literally rising over a long time span. More education and more exposure to different kinds of people are partial explanations. And if we were putting a lot of bad stuff behind us, better thinking played a role.

But now we see bad thinking is more tenacious than we may have realized. Especially when, as always, some people can benefit from exploiting it.

Of course I’m talking about today’s America. In the great moral triumph that was the fall of Communism, America had a leading role. We won the Cold War not because we were more bad-ass than the Communists, but because we won the war of ideas. Because our kind of society, the values we reflected, were more attractive to human beings. As a deep student of history, I’d always loved my country as (for all its human imperfections) a uniquely good creation in humanity’s story. Those triumphant American values were key positive components of my own personal identity.

Now that’s been betrayed. How could America have gone so far off the rails? I could never before have imagined a regime here that so travesties everything the U.S. once stood for. With four in ten Americans idiotically cheering it on. Defying the Flynn effect. Seems you can fool enough of the people all the time.

Because I’m no cynic, an idealist really, the country’s disgrace, by a regime behaving so contemptibly, lacerates my soul. My shock and pain have continued to intensify, and will not abate until this evil is purged.

This has re-energized, in the past three years, my political engagement (mainly through blogging). People find meaning in life through concerns larger than themselves. Seeing my country’s fate at stake is certainly such a cause, and my advocacy has been a source of meaning in my life, a deep part of my very personhood.

I have no illusions about what Trump’s 2020 defeat would portend. I have seen too many hopeful developments in the world turn sour. Trump and his minions will not disappear,* their poison will long continue to infect American politics. Their reality denial extends to believing victory is certain; losing will unhinge them even more. I worry about his gun nuts. He’s already darkly tweeted about civil war. At a minimum, thirsting for revenge, Republicans will wage partisan war against a Democratic administration with an intensified deranged ferocity. Untethered from truth and reality, with morality askew, there are no limits.

Yet nevertheless, their 2020 defeat will, for me, feel like a great moral triumph, on a par with the fall of Communism.

Maybe it could even be a turning point for the whole world, bending back a trend of brainless voting for authoritarian populists. And even while the infection will persist here, demography would militate against its recrudescence. That whole nasty strain in American politics will inexorably die off along with the older religious white voters upon whom it depends.

But on the other hand — if they cannot be defeated in 2020 even with a candidate so blatantly vile as Trump, then what hope would there be for the American ideal? How much more will that monster, drunk with triumph and unconstrained by any further need for votes, crush that ideal? His second term would be the end of America.

That would crush me; it would be existentially demoralizing.

I’d have to figure out a different way of being in the world. Deploying the serenity prayer. Perhaps going into exile — if not literally to Canada, then mentally. Disengaging, tuning out — at my age leaving it for another generation to deal with. For them to re-achieve, finally, the human revolution that I’d once thought had been achieved.

* Or maybe, given his off-the-charts narcissistic personality disorder, unable to handle the humiliation of defeat, he’ll kill himself. It wouldn’t surprise me. How would his supporters react? Would it break the spell — or martyrize him?

How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

December 3, 2019

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.

“Treated very unfairly” — a Trump trope

November 26, 2019

“Treated very unfairly” is an incessant Trump trope. Like he’s a great stickler for fairness.

First it was National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, “treated very unfairly” Trump said — after he himself fired Flynn for lying. Flynn was later convicted.

Then he pardoned racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of defying a court order.

Then it was Paul Manafort — also fired by Trump, as campaign manager. Later convicted by a jury for illegally concealing his work for foreign dictators, and failing to report the income to the IRS. But somehow he was “treated very unfairly,” said Trump.

Others he’s said were “treated very unfairly” include right-wing propagandist Dinesh D’Souza, who he pardoned after pleading guilty for a campaign finance felony; Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson; National Intelligence Director nominee John Ratcliffe; Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, facing recall; and various others including, of course, Trump himself, unremittingly whining of “very unfair treatment” in innumerable instances. He said he’s changing his residence to Florida from New York because he was treated unfairly there. He’s even said the writers of the U.S. Constitution treated him very unfairly; even that Fox News has treated him very unfairly!

Of course he never says why, exactly, something was unfair. It never works that way with him. It’s enough to just say “unfair.” One of his many forms of lying.

Now it’s navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, court-martialed for war crimes in Iraq, convicted by a military jury, and demoted. Trump ordered Gallagher’s rank restored. He also pardoned two other soldiers punished for misconduct. “Treated very unfairly.”

War is hell, and bad stuff happens. But America has long insisted on the highest standards of conduct by our military. Trump’s actions shred that honorable tradition, sending totally the wrong message. That’s why they horrified our military; higher-ups said this would undermine maintaining good order and discipline, calling this a crisis in military governance.

They pushed back, scheduling a review board to consider Gallagher’s expulsion as a SEAL. Trump tweeted he wouldn’t permit that, and Gallagher is being allowed to retire as a SEAL with no demotion. But meantime, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who opposed Trump’s action but tried to work something out with the White House, has been fired. His resignation letter said he’d been given an order he could not in good conscience carry out.

“Treated very unfairly?” Gallagher, convicted of war crimes? Or Spencer, ousted for trying to uphold standards of honor?

And how about Trump himself, his endless business history of screwing people? All those left holding the bag in his bankruptcies? Victims of his “Trump University” fraud? All the contractors and workers he just stiffed? Were they not “treated very unfairly?”

And how about our former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch — our longest serving envoy with a sterling record of exemplary service — smeared by Trump as prelude to abruptly yanking her from her post. To serve his corrupt political scheme. And then, right amid Yovanovitch’s congressional testimony, Trump tweets idiotic juvenile insults. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” She was a junior foreign service officer there, as if that made her responsible for Somalia’s mess. She went into a very tough, dangerous situation, serving her country, and that’s the thanks she gets from the President of the United States.

“Treated very unfairly?”

Normal human beings have some basic sense of what fairness means. Trump does not, and uses the word with perverted cynicism. Those he calls “treated very unfairly” are typically scumbags, like Flynn, Arpaio, Manafort, D’Souza, actually getting what they deserve. While upstanding people like Spencer and Yovanovitch are in fact treated very unfairly, by Trump.

One more way in which Trump’s is a bizarro world, where black is white and white is black; wrong is right and right is wrong.

Medicare for All: a critical look

November 21, 2019

Bill Hammond gave a talk on this to the Capital District Humanist Society. He’s the Empire Center’s Director of Health Policy, and is critical of the single payer concept. CDHS members being mostly well to the left, Hammond was received like a skunk at a picnic.

He started by quoting Bernie Sanders that “Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege.” Which Hammond said nobody really disputes; but Sanders and his fans equate it to a “single payer” system. (The “single payer” — seems they’re afraid to say this plainly — would be government, responsible for all health care.)

Hammond noted that a “right to health care” would have been unintelligible to our founders. Health care itself was not even a concept; he described how George Washington was really killed by the medical “care” he received. We’ve advanced a lot since. But meantime they saw “rights” as things the government should notget involved with, whereas for Sanders backers a right means an entitlement. And his “Medicare for All” plan goes even beyond a “universal access” model (e.g., schools, libraries, and indeed existing Medicare), with only government being allowed as a payer for health services.

Hammond also saw equality of access as a big part of it; the idea that people should get the same care regardless of income. This, he said, is a kind of extreme egalitarian moral reasoning we don’t apply in any other sphere (for example, food).

He presented some figures illuminating the status quo. Private insurance penetration is 67%, the bulk of that employment-based. Most of the rest is public coverage — Medicare and Medicaid. Medical costs are paid roughly half from private sources and 42% from taxes. Nine percent is self-pay and charity care.

Major flaws in the existing landscape include millions uninsured; out-of-pocket costs too high even with insurance; a fragmented, poorly integrated delivery system; and health care is 17% of our economy, an excessive burden far above other countries’, with no corresponding benefit in health outcomes. Hammond said “single payer” would not tackle the latter two problems.

He also cited some misconceptions. First, that our private insurance model is the cause of high costs, with too much profit. One audience member, a friend of mine, insisted no one should be allowed to profit providing something as vital as health care. I would turn it around: why should anyone be forced to provide her with any service (let alone one so vital) without compensation? People get paid for their work (she does). Those who expend effort to set up, invest in, and operate health care systems surely deserve compensation in the form of profits too.

But are they excessive? Hammond presented numbers showing that while compared to other countries, our health care overheads, including all administrative costs, arehigher, they’re only about 8% of total outlays, with the bulk of the cost difference being what we actually spend on care. And that’s not for more or better care but, rather, in the prices paid for care — mostly due to much higher salaries for medical professionals than in other advanced countries.

It’s also often asserted that all other advanced nations have single payer systems. Not so. Most actually have mixed systems (which ours is), but are more tightly regulated (hence their lower price levels). Obamacare was a step toward convergence with those other countries. But Hammond noted that even in Britain, which does basically have a single payer system, you’re still allowed to buy private insurance, which many Brits do. Sanders (and Warren) would disallow that.

Another notion is that their plan would merely be an expansion of the existing and successful Medicare system. Hammond pointed out that existing Medicare actually entails a lotof cost sharing; it’s far from free*, and there are out-of-pocket costs at point of service too.

He also discussed the proposed New York Health Act, seemingly on the verge of passage. In Hammond’s telling, this would be a “Medicare for All” plan on steroids; a “carte blanche” with the state simply paying allhealth related costs for all residents. He presented various studies attempting to estimate the costs. While there might be some cost savings, increased demand for health services would likely raise overall spending levels. Total taxation would have to double or triple. Hammond acknowledged that a majority of New Yorkers would probably come out ahead after higher taxes are set against lower health bills. But this would require richer people paying dramatically more. (A notion garnering vocal approval from attendees; but it was pointed out that rich people could simply leave the state.)

A comparable federal plan would, he said, entail similar ramifications. [Though presumably richer people would be less apt to leave the country than the state — FSR.] Hammond cited an Urban Institute estimate that over ten years, $34 trillion in higher federal taxes would be required, replacing $27 trillion in current outlays.

Questioners from the audience gave Hammond a rough time. My own question said I agreed with him about single-payer, but that we’re a rich country and can afford to somehow make sure every citizen gets a minimum level of basic care. (This elicited applause!) Hammond responded that actually this can be achieved with modest tweaks to our existing system. In particular, the Medicaid program already aims to do it for low income people; a problem is that many of those eligible simply don’t sign up for it. [Also, Medicaid requires money from states; red state Republican regimes hate it and try to limit it — FSR.]

Hammond concluded with a story about Fidelis Care, a New York health insurer run by the Catholic Church, which received a $3.75 billion buyout offer. Long story short, Gov. Cuomo figured out a way to get control of $2 billion of that, which he used as a kitty to hand out goodies to favored entities in the health care industry; in return for which he glommed unprecedently large political contributions.

Hammond said that single payer advocates seem to imagine that having the entire health care industry under government control would be a good thing. They idealize government. But the Fidelis story is a cautionary tale about how things really work; tending to be run for the benefit of insiders; and big players in this industry have tremendous clout to make it work for them.

After his talk, Hammond was taken outside, where he was tarred and feathered.

* My own monthly Medicare payments were high enough that I opted out.

Foreign service heroes and patriots, telling the truth

November 13, 2019

Foreign service professionals normally toil for their country under the radar. Now some are at the center of a storm. Trump has tried to keep them silenced, to bar them from giving evidence to Congress. But their loyalty to the nation, and its rule of law, comes first.

Testimony from them — dedicated professionals like former Ambassadors William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, and Alexander Vindman, George Kent and others — has already been devastating. They’ve documented factually how Trump’s Zelensky phone call was just the tip of an iceberg of corruption: a lengthy scheme to force Ukraine’s government to give Trump political dirt (likely trumped up), in exchange for military aid. All the foreign policy professionals who became aware of this were horrified.

Let’s be clear. Of course aid to a country is often conditioned on its doing things consistent with U.S. policies. But serving a president’s private political interests is entirely different. In fact, literally a crime — it’s against the law for a foreign government to give anything of value to a U.S. political campaign. That’s what Trump sought from Ukraine. Not just a quid pro quo, but extortion. Soliciting a bribe.

Moreover, what he did actually undermined U.S. policies and security interests, by hampering Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. Saying he was really concerned about corruption in Ukraine is a laughable lie.

The scheme was only stopped by the whistleblower’s blowing the whistle. Only then was the Ukraine aid finally released. It’s questionable whether Trump even had the authority to withhold it in the first place.

Not an impeachable offense, say Republicans? If this isn’t one, nothing ever could be. Manipulating $391 million in Congressionally-mandated foreign assistance, to get another country to smear a political opponent. A worse abuse of power is hardly conceivable.

And anyone inclined to give it a pass should consider the defendant’s record. This vileness is just the latest in a long sickening string of one vile thing after another.

Republicans who bray that this is a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax, disgrace themselves. By saying it, they’re the ones perpetrating a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax.

The whistleblower, and the foreign service officers who are testifying, telling the truth, in the teeth of presidential intimidation and threats, are courageous patriotic heroes. They show that the American ideals, which Trump so travesties, are not dead yet. Republicans who vilify them as shameful treasonous partisan hacks are themselves the shameful treasonous partisan hacks.

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.