FAMILY CIRCUS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 29th, 2017 by Ed

It's hyperbolic to call Trump the equivalent of a third world dictator. We have functioning institutions, even if they are eroding, and no matter how much he may wish the office of the president confers upon its holder dictatorial powers it does not. Nonetheless, it's not an exaggeration to point out that there are some specific tendencies he shares with the Russian, post-Soviet, and third world strongmen he so admires (they have such great "control" of their countries!)

Trashing the media and using the state as though its purpose is his personal enrichment is old hat. Any half-assed elected leader can try that. Where Trump truly excels is the consolidation of power into an inner circle consisting almost exclusively of family members. This is like, Tinpot Dictator 101. Family members are the only people you can trust not to murder you in your sleep, stage a coup while you're traveling, or (more relevant to the American setting) turn prosecution witness and start testifying against you. Everything about Eric screams "prison snitch," though. I wouldn't be surprised if he started singing anyway.

Nepotism exists in some form in every system of government. It's simply rare for nepotism in the White House to be as blatant as it is right now or for the family members given paid staff positions to be so utterly devoid of talent. Sure, JFK gave his brother an appointed position. But it was difficult to argue that Robert was not qualified for the job. What has anyone related to Trump done except spend his money and shoot endangered animals for fun?

The way the White House has leaked like a sieve during his first 70 days in office was most likely a wake up call that many of the people he thought he could trust during the campaign are actually – surprise! – self interested professionals who would murder their own mothers if it helped their careers. As that sinks in it was only a matter of time before Ivanka moved into the White House. He still has a few kids left to hire, and I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up in various advisory roles before long. Hey, Barron is only 10, but he could be put in charge of cybersecurity or something. He does show grandpa-dad how to use the internet after all.

I suppose I should express outrage, but we've descended so far into pure farce at this point that it would feel insincere to play at surprise.

OH, WELL IN THAT CASE…

Posted in Quick Hits on March 28th, 2017 by Ed

Whenever conservatives complain that government-run health care would result in someone interfering with decisions that should be made by patients and doctors, limiting individual choice, and restricting or rationing access to certain kinds of care I ask the same question: What the hell insurance do you have? Because my insurance company does all of that, and then some. And over my working life I've had insurance (HMO, PPO, hybrid) with several large providers (Aetna, Humana, BC-BS) and this was true of all of them. There was a rule book. There were gatekeepers. There was ruthless cost cutting. And the restrictions on doctors and patients imposed by the insurer were too numerous to count.

It forces one to wonder; if this hypothetical Freedom is so important, why does the name tag of the person interfering with it matter? Why is it the worst scenario imaginable for a Government Bureaucrat to tell you that you need a referral to see a specialist but a victory for the glorious free market when the functionary imposing that rule on us works for Wellpoint? The distinction seems beyond meaningless.

We see the same thing unfolding as Republicans in Congress roll back nearly every regulation intended to protect privacy on the internet. The worst thing Joe Trump Voter can imagine is The Government invading our privacy. But if Comcast wants to do it and then sell access to your private information (including potentially to the government, of course) then…hurrah for capitalism?

Anti-government invective paired with pro-business propaganda has produced some monumentally strange results in the belief systems of many Americans.

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR. DO IT. DO IT!

Posted in Rants on March 26th, 2017 by Ed

Our health care system, with or without the ACA, is a mess. People disagree about the reasons it is a mess or what specific aspects of it are most problematic, but anyone can see this isn't working. The fundamental flaw is one thing that nobody in the Republican Party has the balls (being as male-heavy as it is in Congress, the gendered euphemism is appropriate here) to address.

On the surface it seems like the choice between a pure free market and a pure single payer system for health care would give us two options that both work as self-contained entities with very different consequences. A free market system would cost less for many individuals, cost more for others, and leave some people unable to afford health care at all. A single payer system would guarantee service to everyone but raise issues of overall cost (depending on how it were run) and how efficiently service could be provided. The problem in the U.S. is not that we have picked the wrong one of these options, but that we have neither of them.

The loophole that makes our system the enormous clusterbang that it is results from Republicans not having the courage to back up their tough talk on people who can't afford health care. As long as the law requires Emergency Rooms to take people irrespective of ability to pay, the system we use today is guaranteed to be an expensive mess. A system that requires people to buy insurance from a for-profit insurance industry or face a penalty is going to leave some people uncovered. Those people are going to get sick and get in car accidents just like everyone else. When they do, they end up getting services they have no intention of or ability to pay for. The costs get passed on to everyone else. This is why health care in the U.S. has been such a disaster – because we treat it like an industry rather than a social service.

The logical solution is to have a single-payer system in which people don't have to go to the ER when they have the flu because it's the only service provider they have access to that can't reject them for being uninsured and poor. The alternative, though, is for the Republicans to sack up and change the law that requires ERs to take uninsured patients. If they really are committed to the idea of health care as a product, the provision of which is governed by the invisible hand, then go all the way. Tell people, "If you don't have insurance, the ER will leave you outside on the sidewalk and lock the door. Hospitals don't have to treat you anymore, even if you're comatose, until they determine what you can afford."

That's abhorrent, of course, but they don't seem to have any problem being abhorrent as long as they know that their poorest constituents can get into a hospital somehow (and then suffer under a mountain of medical debt they can't begin to pay back, which is a win for the debt collection industry). Nonsense. Take away the safety net. If you want a market in which health care is treated the same as any other product or service, then stand behind your ideology and let's do this for real. See how it looks in practice. Let people experience it. See how they like it.

It's the only way for Americans to make an informed choice, after all, on the merits of treating access to medical care as an issue of personal responsibility and a privilege one must earn.

ON THE NATURE OF TIDES

Posted in Rants on March 22nd, 2017 by Ed

CNN is reporting that the FBI has evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. At this point we have no idea what that evidence consists of. If it is firm evidence, he is not going to last the year.

I know, I know. You've heard "This is the end of Trump" before. Too many times. But consider the following points before you disregard this, remembering that the argument is contingent on the evidence being firm and more than circumstantial.

1. "The GOP will never turn on him in Congress." Look, I know it doesn't feel like it – it feels more like an eternity – but Trump has only been President for sixty-one days. Nobody could realistically expect they would impeach him at the first hint of a scandal. They've stood behind him thus far, but "thus far" hasn't been very much time in this case. So…

2. Two months of constant damage control might be OK with the Congressional Republicans. After six months? Eight? Remember, members of Congress do not like wasting their time on things that provide them with no benefit, and that midterm election will be here before you know it. What they feel willing to put up with today may not be what they're willing to tolerate in six months. Remember Watergate; Republicans stood firmly behind Nixon, right up to the point where they didn't. If the tide turns, it will turn with dramatic speed.

3. Trump has surrounded himself with a group of people (excepting family) who seem almost comically self-interested and ready to turn on each other in a heartbeat. There's no Ollie North ready to take a bullet for the old man. Some of his hangers-on look like they would squeal on their own mother under the slightest pressure.

4. It's Russia. Russia. Americans agree on few things, but almost everybody hates the Russians ("Alt-Right" dead-enders who recently discovered a deep love for Russia excepted). The Russians are The Bad Guys. Sure, your core group of 20% of the population will defend Trump to the bitter end. Your McCain-style Republicans will end up deciding between a GOP president they never wanted in the first place and America's long-time rival and enemy.

5. The GOP realizes that an impeached Trump would be replaced with another Republican from whom they can get anything Trump can give them…except for constant headaches and bad press.

6. The most important point is that, as I've repeated to the point of absurdity, the Russia story gets worse almost by the day. Like clockwork, a new piece of Even Worse News for Trump comes out like clockwork every two or three days. There is no indication this is going to stop.

61 days is not long. Even a principled party with a sense of shame would stand behind one of their own for two measly months. Six? Twelve? Eighteen, which would run smack into next year's midterm elections? That they will indulge him for that long and potentially imperil themselves to defend a guy they don't like and didn't want in the first place seems questionable.

I don't believe this is the end. But I believe that what has been happening since December – new, incriminating revelations about Trump-Russia connections surfacing every few days – will continue to happen. It is like Watergate or any other scandal; it doesn't strike like lightning. It builds like a wave, and sometimes it becomes big enough to do fatal damage when it finally hits the shore.

PATIENCE IS A FINITE RESOURCE

Posted in Rants on March 20th, 2017 by Ed

Many years ago I saw a judge at on academic panel making a great analogy in defense of laws that punish "sovereign citizen" and Tax Protester types for filing frivolous lawsuits based on their gibberish-level understanding of the law and a whole lot of nonsense they find on the internet.

Imagine that a man in attendance at an academic conference raises his hand to ask a question to a panel of astronomers. He steps to a microphone and asks if anyone on stage can prove that the moon is not made of cheese. Laughter ripples through the room. He smiles and waits politely for it to die down. "I am waiting for an answer," he says. Only light laughter this time, as everyone realizes that he might be serious. He waits. Someone on the panel will eventually say, with tenderness due a person who may not be quite All There mentally, that multiple space programs have flown to the moon and taken samples and conducted observational studies of the moon and ran tests that demonstrate, with complete confidence, that the moon is made of rock.

Still, the guy persists. No, that is all fake, nobody has ever been to the moon, and the moon is actually cheese. Now there is no laughter from the audience and the panelists are probably getting a little cranky. No, they say sharply, you are proposing a conspiracy theory. It is easily debunked and there are literally millions of pieces of information, freely available, that demonstrate the fact that the moon is a rock. "No, it is similar in color to cheese," he says. "Therefore it is cheese." What started out as polite amusement devolves into a general frustration at wasting time. Having politely played along for a bit, now they just want someone to drag this guy out of the room so they can get back to doing something more useful (or at least more interesting; useful might be a high bar for an academic panel to achieve).

Consider at this point the number of things our political system and government have had to devote time, money, and attention – all valuable and finite resources – to things Donald Trump insists are true that are not. Birtherism. Mass voter fraud. Having a record inaugural crowd. The size and historic nature of his victory in the election. And now this ridiculous two week long fiasco about being wiretapped. Despite the continued partisan nature of the reaction – at the Comey hearing on Monday the Republicans asked questions exclusively about leaks, ignoring the Trump-Russia ties more broadly – there is a sense of weariness from everyone involved at playing this game. In less than three months in office, even Republicans and people generally friendly to Republicans appear to have found this exercise useless and frustrating.

It was cute the first time, maybe. The birther thing didn't waste the time of members of Congress. Trump was just Some Guy back then. Now the need to respond to his fantasies and conspiracy theories eats into their time directly, time they would prefer to spend raising money, distributing the benefits of being in power, and passing some legislation. Every moment they have to devote to explaining with practiced patience to the President of the United States that, no, that thing he saw in the comment section on Brietbart is not actually true is a moment they have wasted.

Without a doubt there will be some new and equally baseless conspiracy theory from the White House before we know it, and the hearing that took place on Monday – not to mention the time the FBI was forced to waste "investigating" his delusions – will be repeated in the future. One certainty is that patience for playing a redundant and pointless game is not infinite, at least for an adult. A toddler will throw his sippy cup on the floor a thousand times just for the joy of watching you have to pick it up. At some point you simply stop giving it back.

THE ART OF THE DEAL

Posted in Rants on March 19th, 2017 by Ed

It is a common negotiating tactic in any context to begin with an offer that borders on outrageous. If I expect to pay around $250,000 for your house, my first offer will be $180,000, yours will be something equally silly like $400,000, and after we haggle the price will end up right where we expect it to be.

Most people understand that in a process of negotiation, not every proposal is intended to be taken seriously. The budget recently proposed by the President shares some things in common with budget proposals from previous presidents; it has not a chance in hell of getting through Congress, as it turns out that even (or perhaps especially) Republicans love the gravy train of benefits and projects they can bring their districts. In short, the budget proposal from the White House often is kind of delusional unless one understands it for what it is – an exercise in position-taking. It's symbolic of the president's priorities and is as much an exercise in Public Relations as a serious proposal.

In that sense it isn't unique to this President to look at the proposal and declare confidently that it is DOA as even hard right Republicans are doing. What is unique, though, is that nobody in the White House seems to understand that their ludicrous proposal is indeed a ludicrous proposal. This is becoming one of the hallmarks of this surreal administration: They propose something without understanding that in our system the first proposal is not what you are actually going to get.

The belief that they can make whatever they want happen is rooted in the baffling insistence that 45 is some sort of Master Deal-Maker. In reality, he doesn't seem to understand even the basics of how a negotiation between two parties works with the ability of one of them (Him, that is) to bark out orders unilaterally. For all we know, he might not even fully understand that he can't make a budget without Congress signing off on it.

To the extent that there is any thought, strategy, or logic behind such a stupid proposal, it should be seen as a budget proposal designed to cause a shutdown. If I need to make you an offer on your house for some reason but I don't have any real desire to buy it, I can throw out the dumbest offer imaginable and declare it 100% firm and final. Perhaps – doubtful, but perhaps – someone in the Inner Sanctum sees a shutdown as the true goal and knows that Congress will oblige by making huge changes to the basic outline proposed by the White House. Then the standard "my way or nothing" response from the President will guarantee a lengthy shutdown. Incidentally, the Republicans have engineered two notable shutdowns and were wounded politically in both cases. For some reason they think shutdowns will increase their popularity, but it turns out that people tend to get pretty mad when things they depend upon stop working.

If engineering a shutdown is indeed the goal, then this budget proposal is a smart move. But something tells me that a lot of inmates running the asylum at the moment do not fully understand that this is not going to happen. To be on the safe side, if you feel the need to visit and federally funded institutions in the near future you might want to do it before May 1.

RACE READS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 16th, 2017 by Ed

Apropos of nothing, if you're looking to add to your reading list and want some informative non-fiction, the two best academic-sociological books about race in the United States are Omi & Winant, Racial Formation in the United States and Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. The latter, in case the title gives you second thoughts, is not a "Well white people had it just as bad, because 200 years ago Americans were mean to the Irish but bootstraps!" screed. It is actually a really well historically grounded explanation of how, by virtue of being white, Irish people transitioned from being a minority targeted with derision to part of the American Majority.

Oh, hell. While we're at it, want to read something about a period in American history that's both relevant to current events and almost completely forgotten? Are you ready to start throwing punches if you see one more book about World War II or the Civil War? Alasdair Roberts' The First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 is pretty great. What we Americans know about our own history is not only limited but also focuses overwhelmingly on a small number of discrete events. This is a good read about the nation muddling through a long economic downturn that threw the political system and social institutions into disarray. It also – teaser! – led to the creation of American cities' first municipal police forces.

MORE LIKE RACHEL MUCH-ADO, AMIRITE?

Posted in Quick Hits on March 14th, 2017 by Ed

There are two possibilities to explain the random release of a random piece of tax information about Donald Trump. Three if you count coincidence.

One is that Trump had these released as a red herring to redirect attention away from additional revelations about his Russian ties that may be coming out this week. Or, in a less Machiavellian sense it may just be an effort to garner attention that has been drifting away from him and toward the stillborn House GOP health care bill.

The other is that Donald Trump is a very vain, dumb, and predictable person, and that somebody – perhaps a fired U.S. Attorney who was leading the investigation into DeutscheBank's ties to Russian organized crime and money laundering – wanted to establish that Donald Trump earned a huge amount of income in 2005. Perhaps they knew that if a document showing Trump in a favorable light were leaked, he would rush to confirm its authenticity. Having released it himself to deny the hated media a chance to scoop him, there's no plausible way to refute it now.

The crystal ball is murky, but one thing is absolutely certain: There are but a few reasons one person pays another vastly more than the actual value to buy a piece of property. None of those reasons involve things that are legal. Aaron Schock is about to go to prison for it. Duke Cunningham did go to prison for it. And Donald Trump received $100 million from a Russian organized crime figure for a property not worth 1/3 of that, which the buyer never even occupied and eventually had demolished. This came at a time when Trump was deeply in debt to a German bank that is under investigation for helping Russian criminals launder money using third parties.

Most people saw a big non-story on Tuesday evening. Maybe it's actually a prosecutor building a case.

AN OBLIGATION

Posted in Quick Hits on March 13th, 2017 by Ed

"Barack Obama is spying on me through my microwave."

Depending on what you do for a living, you could be legally (or at least ethically) bound to take action upon hearing this statement from another person. Imagine yourself in any number of scenarios – Teacher and student. Doctor and patient. Therapist and client. Service provider and customer. Supervisor and employee. Coworker and coworker. Or simply a friend, relative, or casual observer who hears an adult make that statement. Your first inclination might be to verify that the speaker was serious and not speaking figuratively. Your next would be to figure out how to get this person to a competent mental health professional for a check-up.

If your friend started posting conspiracy theories at this level of paranoia you would be alarmed. And you would be right to be alarmed; thoughts of being the subject of surveillance or conspiracies are a sign of a person in the early stages of losing contact with reality. Yet it is apparently the New Normal to have thoughts like this expressed by the President of the United States and his inner circle. Conspiracy theories are a useful tool for someone like Trump, but we have to start raising the question of how much of this is believed versus how much is spat out for calculated effect. There is no way to ascertain the truth now that the tidal waves of ridicule have washed over Kellyanne Conway. Certainly she will hide behind the "I was just kidding" defense that serves the far right so well. But I am not entirely convinced that these delusions about being spied upon are all a case of artistic license. We have to consider the possibility that these people in control of the Executive Branch believe that their appliances are being used to spy on them.

If a student said this to me and was not obviously kidding, I would be obligated to do something about it. Fortunately there are some things I could do – involve health professionals, report it to a higher authority at the university, and so on. There's nothing I can do when I hear it on the news, though, from some of the nation's most powerful people. We are taking another step toward life in a sub-Saharan style kleptocracy, right down to the crackpot dictator and his inner circle of relatives and cronies. Trump isn't necessarily Mobutu-level crazy, but he isn't necessarily sane either.

BRANDING

Posted in Rants on March 12th, 2017 by Ed

For myriad reasons Shaun King is not the most reliable of commentators, but I'd encourage you to give this take on the fundamental problem with the Democratic Party moving forward a look. In particular this part at the conclusion is worth thinking about:

Recently, I’ve asked the crowds where I am speaking two key questions about the Democratic Party. The response that I get is always the same – mass laughter or audible frustration.

The first question is, “If I asked you, in just a few sentences, to sum up what specific policies the Democratic Party stands for, what would you say?”

People have no genuine idea. They know some things the party stands against, but it’s genuinely hard to be sure of what they stand for.

The other question is, “What exactly is the strategy of the Democratic Party to take back the government from conservatives across the country?”

That one always gets the most laughs. Nobody has any idea. Not once has somebody stood up and said, “Hey, I know the strategy.” Hell, I don’t know it. I don’t think one exists. Whatever the strategy was this past election, it didn’t work either. And again, I don’t just mean in the presidential election. Democrats lost all over the place in national, state, and local elections.

I think this is as good a way to sum up the current problems on the left as any – twenty years into the experiment in forever moving toward the middle to "peel off moderate Republicans," nobody can really tell you what the Democratic Party stands for anymore. Republican Lite and the post-Reagan death of actual liberalism have left the party without any meaningful identity other than "Not the Republicans" and the GOP has managed to brand a party that is barely left of center on most issues (and to the right of it on a few) as some sort of radical Marxist death cult. That was a problem before 2016 and it's a problem now.

Ask people what the GOP stands for and they will say small government and low taxes. Now, you and I know that they don't actually stand for small government in practice; they merely want the government to be very big, expensive, and intrusive in a way that suits their preferences. But the point is that people can tell you what the Republican Party is about. They can tell you what the brand name means.

Try to explain what the Democratic Party stands for using any amount of words, from a short slogan to a healthy paragraph, and you'll find that you can't. "Liberal on social issues" is about the clearest, most concise true statement I could come up with, and even that is a comparatively recent development. Ten years ago they were still talking about Civil Unions, the most prominent example of their inability to show leadership on these issues and instead to wait until they're absolutely, 100% positive that a majority of the public will support them before embracing any changes.

Economically and in terms of foreign policy, they've signed off on so much of the Republican agenda since 1990 that it's essentially impossible to give a meaningful explanation of their overall ideology. "Like the Republicans, but maybe not quite as much" is disturbingly close to the truth. A party can only throw its support behind so many wars before they can no longer sell themselves as anti-war and so many neoliberal economic ideas before it can no longer claim to be usefully distinct from the right. The centrist Democratic Party has had some electoral successes; that is undeniable. It has also had some staggering failures, though, and its biggest shortcoming may be that it has left Democrats poorly positioned to recover from those failures. Lacking any real identity, the path to success, as was the case in the early George W. Bush era, seems to be to wait until people tire sufficiently of the Republicans and then elect some Democrats because our system offers no other real options.