Monday, October 9, 2017

It's a Wonderful Party

I get it now. Frank Capra is directing our politics. It's 2008 and, having let a skinny black kid with a funny name ascend to the highest office in the land, the GOP is considering political suicide.  The party intends to destroy itself in two ways. First, it will gerrymander Congressional districts so that Republican idiots can win seats by appealing only to other Republican idiots. Second, it will steadfastly refuse to act as the loyal opposition to the aforementioned SBKWTFN. As a result, the party will become politically dysfunctional and ideologically irrelevant.

But the GOP's guardian angel has come to show McConnell, Ryan, et al. how the world would be without it. Eight years of ineffective government, Harry Reid using the Nuclear Option to get lower court judges confirmed, an infrastructure that continues to crumble, and, then the coup de grace - the occupation of the party's empty husk by a snake-oil salesman who has seen the potential of appealing to idiots.

About Trump replacing Obama, wags have been saying that orange is the new black,  But more important, anger is the new savvy.  If you can get the torch and pitchfork crowd to vote for you, you don't need soccer moms.  And you can get the mob to follow you if, in fact, one party has gone off in search of every last vestige of unfairness anywhere in the land, and the other has inexplicably shot itself in every vital organ it could find.

Donald Trump is every sane American's nightmare.  Not just because he is so bad, but because his election was not a fluke.  We don't deserve better.  We applaud the gerrymandering that seems so good for our parties, whichever one is doing it in our name, never thinking that anti-democratic behavior might be, well, bad for democracy.  We believe it's better to bequeath crumbling roads to our kids rather than the obligation to pay for good ones.  We have sequestered the money our military needs. We elected bozos, and now we have a bozo-in-chief.  It's not only he who is uniquely unqualified.  So are we.

Sadly, the GOP does not yet appear to be losing its resolve to do itself in.  Paul Ryan still grits his teeth and says nice things about the usurper.  John McCain still points to the few things Trump's national security team has done right.  (That part of the screenplay needs a rewrite: in addition to the President going off half-cocked on twitter, Mike Flynn should have remained in charge of defense until he could sell us out in a more noticeable way to make the point.) 

Yes, there are straws in the wind - Sen. Corker, for example.  But is the lesson being learned? I suspect not.  In the final reel, Democrats will realize that their apathy and pique made Trump possible.  They will come out to vote and teach the Republicans the lesson that they seem unable to draw from Trump's awfulness.  Whether there are any better angels left in the GOP by then remains to be seen.

On Nativism

I am not sure what to make of Alt-Right.  I'm a third-generation American Jew.  To blacks I'm white and to "Whites" I'm not.  I was born here to people born here.  I am an unhyphenated American.  My ethnicity has nothing to do with it.

"Nativism" has been getting some bad press recently.  But I'm a nativist.  I believe that American culture - a common language, certain common values, a commitment to self-government and individual liberty - is essential to the society to which I belong.  The staunchest opponents of American nativism today seem to me, ironically, to be the Americans least comfortable with how Native Americans were treated in the past.  Can we say that those Native Americans who militantly opposed the European colonists were wrong to do so?  Do we have any doubt that they had a reason to be worried or the right to defend their culture from invasion?  Was Sitting Bull a racist?  What, exactly, distinguishes the noble Native American who fought Custer from the hated racist who would fight multiculturalism today?

European America is a multi-ethnic society, but it is not a multi-cultural one.  (I find the idea of a multi-cultural "society" oxymoronic.)   The USA is a melting pot.  Why should we Americans share our societal bounty with people who do not wish to become culturally American?  ESL, sí, bilingualism, no. Yes, we have subcultures, and that's fine.  If black people want to jump the broom at weddings, that's their business; I recall stomping a flashbulb.  Just so we agree that monogamy is right and wife-beating is wrong.  (The polyamorists among us are outliers.  There's always room for outliers.  That's part of our culture.)

It's easy to see how colonists - real, alien colonists - can pose a threat.  But what are we to make of cultural invasion?  We are already ethnically and spiritually diverse; everyone coming here already "looks like" some large group of assimilated Americans.  And yet, some people coming here are different from us natives.  Shall we not defend our culture from these invaders?

People who come here with no intention of learning English should not be welcome here.  Language has semiotic significance way beyond the simplicity of communication.  Our shared language is how we share our culture.  By choosing not to speak and understand it, you announce that you do not care to be one of us.  Yet you expect us to provide the blessings of liberty to you as if you were the posterity of our founders.  But our founders' posterity speaks English.

Why would we admit anyone who believes America should be subject to Sharia law?  Is the arrival of such a person not an invasion?  This is the problem posed by the horrid Donald Trump.  He has latched onto a form of nativism that subsumes all of what I would call appropriate cultural nativism, and then altered it to appeal to those who don't really understand that ethnicity and nominal religious affiliation are beside the point.

Race and religion become screening proxies for bad ideas because people can lie about their ideas but not their ethnicity.  If we can keep out all the "mud" people and all the Muslims, then we will keep out every non-White person who would not assimilate, i.e., most of those who would not assimilate, which is enough.  We'd keep out a lot of good people, too, but those denied admission are not marked for extermination, just sadly excluded because we have no better screening tool.

But it is in the nature of our species not to believe in proxies.  We are not capable, in large numbers, of understanding that we might choose to ban all Muslims simply as an engineering solution to the problem of excluding bad Muslims.  To resolve this cognitive dissonance, we simply assume that all Muslims are, in fact, bad people.  It's easier that way for a large number of human beings to implement an exclusionary policy that may be necessary to cultural survival.

The flip side of this argument is the claim that multi-culturalism does not threaten native culture but seeks rather to enhance it.  But we come back to human nature.  The concept is fine, but the reality is balkanization and, eventually, a battle for cultural primacy.  People want to be "normal," and that requires norms.  Multi-culturalism eschews norms.

This, then, is the dilemma of philosophical nativism: if it isn't racism, it doesn't happen.  And if it is racism, well, then it's racism.

Monday, September 25, 2017

President Doughtard Does the Dozens

[It's my blog, and I'll be un-PC no matter how many thousands of followers it costs me.]

Kim Jung Un's Korean language insult to our Feckless Leader has been translated as "dotard," an old fool, someone in his dotage.  But I prefer the homophone "doughtard," which does not exist, but would exist if it were not politically incorrect to attach "tard" to things, and, if it did exist, would mean someone with more money than brains.

I googled "doughtard" before writing this and discovered that it already has its own hashtag; so obviously apt a pun was hardly going to go unpublished.  I don't use the twitter, but I hereby virtually retweet any tweets that call our Head Twit a "doughtard."

Watching Trump play the dozens with Kim is more than dispiriting.  This is not a school-yard where young males sort out their pecking order by creative public name-calling.  I suspect that Trump senses the advantages that accrue to the best blusterer in less august settings, and, having no sense of place or occasion at all, he acts as if those same advantages apply on the world playground.  He is wrong.  And he is dangerous.  He has more money than brains - no matter how much (or little) money he actually has.

While I bemoan the President's name-calling, I admit that the urge to label him is overwhelming.  There must be a way to capture the essence of this guy with a trope we have all seen. The common expression "What's it like to ...?"   is literally deep.  We know what we know, and we have experienced what we have experienced.  We want to know which of the things in our personal database we should consult to grasp this unknowable thing.  Name-calling is one way of doing that, and, because our need to understand the President is so great, the need to put a "what he's like" label on him is powerful indeed.

Good communicators are experience brokers.  They look for a name that matches the man and matches something in their own experience that matches something in their audience's experience, too.  I am blessed to have a small enough audience that I don't really have to go for a common denominator.  I can find my label and apply it because it works for me, and let readers take it or leave it.

So, I keep coming back to "Rough Beast," as in:
The Second Coming  By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   Are full of passionate intensity. 
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?   
[Because poets do tricky things with orthography, I note that the color was added by me for emphasis.]
Or in terms our literarily challenged President might understand, Yo' mama, Doughtard.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

President Chemo

I must applaud President Trump for his deal with the Democrats on Harvey aid and the three-month delay of the fiscal cliffs before us.  The most interesting thing about the deal is that Republicans fell in line behind it.  Why didn't McConnell and Ryan say "Sorry, Don, but we're not going to bring that bill to the floor"?  My guess - they don't want to say that.  My guess - they do want to return to regular order.  My guess - they don't want an approval rating of 19% or whatever it is.  All they needed was political cover, and the President, nominally of their own party, has given it to them  This is how the fever breaks in American politics.  If it breaks.

The Republican party has destroyed itself, and race remains at the heart of the problem.  When Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the GOP became the party of the unreconstructed South.  The votes were there, and, having no scruples, Richard Nixon and his pals went for them.  A voting (but not philosophical) coalition arose among white voters, even those who hated what the Yankee business interests in the party actually stood for.  From Nixon onward, the GOP has been on the wrong side of domestic history, bailed out in the 1980's by being on the right side of world history.   Now, the party is on the wrong side of everything, all because it has put "winning" over deserving to win.

No doubt, the Democrats lowered the bar, and they get no praise for becoming the party of the disenfranchised and no one else.  The Democrats abandoned Big Labor and its members in favor of victims of "oppression."  Oppression is a bad thing, but a party devoted to its remediation is a makeweight, a group whose support one seeks - like the Greens, or the Libertarians - not one of two "major" parties.  Yet here we were, with one party representing racists and plutocrats and the other representing victims and moralists, and nobody representing Joe Sixpack, except to the extent he was also a racist or a moralist.

Without big strategies, the parties descended into color war - winning and losing as institutions and not as ideologies.  The Red side - our right wing, ironically - won via Operation Red Map.  Now, our local and Congressional elections can be won by the biggest wack job on the right, because the winner of the Republican Primary doesn't need swing voters. That sends Tea Party morons to Congress and makes Congress dysfunctional.  Which gives the very same voters who elected the Tea Party morons the idea that "Congress" is broken, but not because their bozos are breaking it.

And so the stage is set.  Everyone hates Congress, but no one blames his or her representative.  Someone has to come along and tell the idiots who elected the Tea Party that they have elected morons without telling them that they are idiots for doing so.  Trump pitched his candidacy perfectly for that purpose - racist enough to get the white vote but also anti-establishment enough to peel off the unorganized mass of opponents, several of whom are more competent and deserving of high office, but none of whom would have had the balls to do what Trump didn't need any balls to do last week.

Trump is chemotherapy for the cancer of intransigence that afflicted the Congress.  He is going to make Congress work by freeing non-Tea-Party Republicans to compromise without being primaried.  The toxic side effects include denigration of just about everything that makes America great - free speech, checks and balances, the truth - but that's how sick we have become.  Trouble is, the side effects won't be felt for years, so we may get eight years of what we only needed for one week: someone who says it's ok to compromise.  Because, make no mistake, by going along with the Trump/Schumer plan, the GOP is compromising, and the voters are going to like the result.  Especially if the next step is elimination of the GOP's annual hostage-taking when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling.  (Sad to see Ben Sasse lament the loss of his party's ability to threaten to kill our credit rating in order to get its way.  And he calls himself a patriot.  Yikes.)

So, score one for President Chemo.  Perhaps Congress will figure out that he will sign anything he can take credit for, and praise everyone who participates in getting it for him, including "compromising" Republicans.  That shifts the game away from satsifying the GOP base to satisfying the electorate.  At least, it would, if Operation Red Map had not been so successful.  It remains to be seen whether the GOP majorities in gerrymandered districts are ok with compromise once "their" President has blessed it.  One hopes so, but only time will tell.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Healthcare is not a right, but...

Remember the last episode of Seinfeld?  The gang is imprisoned forever with each other for failing to rescue a stranger.  For them, at least, Hell will be other people.  I didn't like that last episode, not because I didn't think the characters deserved each other as eternal punishment, but because the premise - that one can be punished for not helping others - is bad law.  Indeed, the greatest difference between here and the hereafter is that here we are not punished for being selfish jerks. I have since forgiven the dramatic license, but in the moment, the lawyer in me got the better of me.

Being rescued is not a right, because it is impossible to prove that one knew that one could have effected a rescue without paying some unreasonable price.  Where does one draw the line on who should rescue whom from what?  The idea is unworkable, and common law, at least, has rejected it.  You cannot have a right to be rescued if no one has a duty to rescue you.

And yet, certain politicians - I hesitate to call them "liberals" anymore, as such labels are losing their focus - claim that healthcare is a "right."  But healthcare is a rescue, and the law says you have no right to be rescued, because no one has the duty to rescue you.  People can volunteer to rescue you, and the society as a whole can agree, in a binding way, to "rescue" you by giving you the funds to buy healthcare from someone who will voluntarily sell it to you.  But those decisions do not arise from the idea that healthcare is a right, but rather from a political consensus that having others pay for one's own care should be a right.  Pols like Pelosi and Sanders argue that we should make healthcare a right because it is a right.  Huh?

I don't believe in economic rights.  In the grand scheme of things, everything is a luxury that some people cannot afford.  How many people are denied the luxury of a roof over their heads and three square meals a day?  We call these things necessities in common parlance to distinguish them from things we can more easily do without, but in the great algebraic continuum of desiderata, there are no necessities, only priorities.  Thus, by calling healthcare a luxury, I am not saying that only wealthy individuals should have health care.  I am saying that only wealthy people can have it.

I say "wealthy people" because a society can declare that all of its people are, by virtue of their membership in the society at any given time, wealthy enough to have healthcare.  All of the industrialized West, except the US of A, has determined that their polities are wealthy enough for all of their members to have healthcare regardless of their individual ability to pay.  One could say that, in such places, healthcare is a "right."  But that's a post hoc legal term, not an a priori bit of natural law from which one can reason - or argue- to a legislative conclusion.

How, then, do we get there?  There's been a lot of talk recently about a guaranteed basic income (GBI).  Lifetime healthcare has an actuarial cost that is more or less equal for all people.  If we assume that healthcare is a valuable commodity, then lifetime healthcare is a guaranteed basic income, delivered in a gift card rather than cash.  I'll bet there's a pretty strong overlap between those who favor universal healthcare and those who support the GBI.  But is the GBI a right?  If not, how can a targeted, actuarially determinable GBI be a right?  Because that's all universal healthcare is.

I like the GBI.  I think the time has come to make "survival" a right.  We should provide a roof and three squares a day to any American who wants them.  And healthcare. We are that wealthy.  We can afford that luxury.  But we can start with healthcare.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lyin's of the Senate

Without a scorecard, one cannot be sure who is voting for what in the Senate.  But one thing seems to be clear: votes are not politically wasted.  No one votes against a stupid idea his stupid constituents want unless it may actually become law.  Then, as few senators as possible are given the task of "standing on principle," "showing political courage," "putting country over party," or whatever cliche will work to kill the stupid idea before it makes the senators look dumb in retrospect for passing it.

My best guess is that all of these acts of "courage" are carefully orchestrated.  Take last week's "battle" over whether to bring the various doomed Obamacare repeal bills to the floor.  After the vote was taken to proceed to a floor vote, Senator McCain gave a wonderful speech about how the Senate should return to regular order, with committees and hearings and inter-party negotiations and compromises.  It was a stirring speech, delivered after the thing to be stirred was already fully baked.  The horse had left the barn, and McCain was not gonna let him escape some more.

Why was this speech not given before the vote to do the opposite?  The answer is simple: leadership wanted to give members the ability to vote to repeal Obamacare one last time.  They could not get that opportunity if the motion to proceed was defeated, and it would not be seemly at all for them to vote to proceed after the heroic McCain had struggled from his deathbed to exhort them to legislate like, well, legislators.  So, McCain voted for the motion to proceed and then pretended to urge his brethren and sistren to do exactly the opposite of the thing they had just done.  A profile in courage?  Not hardly.

But wait, there's more.  Once the bill got to the floor, something had to be done to keep it from becoming law, because it was terrible and unpopular, without requiring too many senators to vote against repealing Obamacare.  Collins and Murkowski were already committed - it's not clear why, but let's call them brave and move on - but who would be the third necessary vote to bell this particular cat?  Who can exhibit such remarkable independence?  Who can be a maverick and put country first?  In other words, who had the least to lose?  Maybe some old guy with a short life expectancy and maybe a score to settle with our Feckless Leader?  Who might that be?

Reports are that McCain spent a fair amount of time openly chatting with Chuck Schumer on the night of the Obamacare repeal vote.  These are not dances one does as if no one were watching.  This dance was done in plain sight to suggest that McCain got something for his bravery, that his appeal to regular order won't end up making him look like a sap.  One can only hope that he did get something, that regular order does return to the Senate, and that they produce a popular bill that even the morons in the House won't be stupid enough to reject.  I'm not a fan of Schumer - he's a walking platitude, elevated by seniority to a position where a statesman might be useful - but he's not a terrible person.  We Americans may be approaching our Churchill moment, when we do the right thing after trying everything else.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Rand Paul Compromise

I wish I knew St. Paul's view on healthcare.  Maybe he thought it was a right.  If so, Rand Paul would certainly be the right guy to propose the solution to the healthcare mess that he has come up with.

Being a complete hypocrite, Sen. Paul does not care whether Obamacare disappears.  He just wants to be able to say he voted to repeal it and did not vote to replace it.  It makes no difference to him what the replacement says or does, so long as he can "keep his promise" to vote for the repeal.  After that, if Republican moderates and Democrats want to destroy the country, at least his pecker tracks won't be on the bills.  He'll be the author of the procedure that made the new law possible, but he'll have voted against it, and that's all he has to do to fool enough of the people enough of the time in Kentucky.

I really like this solution.  By allowing Republicans to vote for what Sen. Paul calls "clean repeal," he gives each of them the ability to go home and shout from the rooftops the wholly irrelevant fact that he or she successfully voted to repeal Obamacare.  That's the promise Republican have been making for eight years, and it's the promise they can claim - substance aside, of course - to have kept.  After that, a compromise bill can be created.

On substance, Dr. Paul doesn't understand the issues.  He has latched onto an important insurance notion - adverse selection - but he has not shown any useful grasp of it.  Adverse selection is the tendency of people with the greatest risk to buy the most insurance.  In other words, the people voluntarily buying health insurance are, in general, sicker than those choosing not to buy it.

Adverse selection is a problem for insurers today because, under Obamacare, people can buy insurance from any carrier with no exclusion for pre-existing conditions.  The mandate that forces people to buy when they are healthy does not help insurers, because the insurer acquiring a sick person does not get the money that that person may have paid under the mandate when healthy.  If the person paid the penalty for declining coverage, or was covered by Medicaid or a parent's group plan, the new insurer must rely on a subsidy (or higher premiums on everyone it covers) to defray the cost of pre-existing conditions.

Senator Paul doesn't like these subsidies because the "health insurance industry" is making $15B annually, and he doesn't see why an industry that is making so much money should get a government bail-out.  This is really a stunningly stupid claim.  The insurance companies are making that much money only because they are not forced to participate in the individual Obamacare market.  They have withdrawn from that market so that they can remain profitable.  If the subsidies under Obamacare were increased to the level necessary to attract private insurers, those insurers would make some more money - they are entitled to profit on every class of business - but no more than is usual under our capitalist system.  That's not a "bail-out," as Sen. Paul likes to call it.  It's just how a free private market works.

What Paul does not seem to see is that he is exposing the thread on which the fans of single-payer are dying to pull: administrative costs.  If the insurance companies are making so much money, maybe it's because they charge more than a public payer - Medicare, say - would charge for covering the same ailments in the same way.   (That is, of course, the case.)  He is laying the groundwork for single payer by attacking the insurance industry.  Is that any way for a guy named Rand to think?

But wait!  There's more!  Sen. Paul's solution to the problem of insurers leaving the individual market is to get rid of that market by letting people form non-employer groups.  There are group policies available in other areas of insurance - life insurance through AARP, say - that are based on affinity of some sort, so why not health insurance?  The answer: all of these other insurance programs do have some underwriting requirements; they are actuarially sound and benefit primarily from the economies of scale.  Health insurance policies without pre-existing exclusions are not actuarially sound (see adverse selection, supra) and, therefore, cannot work that way.

Sen. Paul also argues that these pick-up groups would be viable just like employer groups.  If the large-employer market is profitable without subsidies, he, er, reasons, why wouldn't group plans of random citizens be healthy?  Well, one of the first thing one learns in the group insurance business is that group insurance isn't insurance.  Group insurance is "experience- rated." The employer basically pays the cost of all claims, plus an administrative fee.  The insurance policy simply smooths out the peaks and valleys, but premiums are adjusted to match claims over time.  An employer-based plan is an employee benefit, part of the compensation of the employees, with the added benefit of a healthier workforce for the sponsoring employer.  A random group of people with no interested third-party to pick up the rising costs simply would not be viable.

The employer's backstop for employee plans, and the entanglement of membership in the plan with having a job, make the employer market a wholly different place from the random group market.  Indeed, if these sorts of plans were viable, is there any doubt that insurance companies would have lobbied to make them legal?  If they made any damn sense, they would exist already. Because they don't make sense, they don't exist.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for Rand Paul.