Archive for September 2019

Shh, Who’s In My Pocket

September 30, 2019

Amid all the ruckus this week over the Trump extortion-like telephone call with the Ukrainian President, there was a Kaiser Healthcare news release picked up by most newspapers including the Wall Street Journal which quickly became “below the fold” news.  The article revealed the continuing rise in employer provided healthcare insurance cost, this time topping the $20,000 a year cost tag.  Hmmm.

The article went on to point out that on average the insured paid about 1/3rd of this cost through deductibles and co-pays.  That means that on average, Americans who obtained their insurance through work were paying about $6000 per year.  Hmmm.

As is always helpful in these matters, US minimum wage is $7.25 per hour or $15,080 per year.  So if one is employed at minimum wage, healthcare cost would amount to 40% of your “before tax” annual salary.  The average annual income is $59,039, so healthcare cost for those earners is about 10% of “before tax” income.  Hmmm.

These are just interesting statistics unless you believe healthcare is a right.  I mean a right like access to water, clean air, and safe streets.  Healthcare is not free just like water, air, and safety.  Everyone must pay in some way.  But it should be clear that with healthcare everyone cannot afford to pay the same amount.

Some politicians would suggest the problem lies with “high cost” insurance and Americans ought to be able to buy stripped down policies.  Really!!! How does buying less healthcare with second class healthcare insurance make everyone equal?

If one has “employer provided” health insurance, the new $20,000 threshold represents another hand in ones pocket.  The employer isn’t paying for the employees health insurance, the employee is.  The employee’s wages are artificially lower by the amount the employer pays not just the amount co-pays and deductibles represent.  And why is that important?

Healthcare spending in the US is twice as much as two dozens other modern industrial countries and the healthcare outcomes are no better.  With people thinking that healthcare is free (since healthcare insurance comes with their job), who cares.

Basic healthcare has become a right for most people’s expectation.  What’s needed is for Americans to realize that not all Americans are covered, the quality of healthcare service varies widely across the US, and the price Americans are paying for healthcare is increasing each year at a pace far greater than the rate of inflation.

It is time to realize, “who’s in my pocket”?

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To Impeach Or Not To Impeach, That Is The Question

September 25, 2019

I am always stunned when I see a “Trump 2020” sign or hear someone I had otherwise considered an “informed” person proclaim his/her unflagging support for President Trump.  Forgetting the absence of moral fiber (if it is ok with Melania, then it is ok with me), I can not think of any Trump endorsed issue, domestic or foreign, which makes sense.  Trump’s policies are fatally short sighted, disastrous for the country, and thinly disguised to hide their real intent… to help Trump, his family, and his loyal supporters, financially.

Yesterday at the United Nations. President Trump outlined his views that the world is divided between “globalists” and “patriots (aka nationalists)”.  Hmmm. 

You can be sure that Donald Trump has never wasted even minutes studying history books, nor has Trump taken advice from sociologists about the virtues of “win-win” a negotiating strategy.  It should not be lost on anyone that the “nationalist” approach allows President Trump to cannibalize America’s existing relationships, economic power, and institutions while claiming victory after victory, all the while draining the country’s wealth, influence, and power.  This is a presidency of living off the accomplishments of the past while telling Americans how smart he is.  Hmmm.

But these Presidential shortcomings are not grounds for impeachment.  Trump’s poor job should be the subject of the 2020 Presidential election where hopefully Donald Trump will become a one term President. 

President Trump is projecting himself as a nationalist.  In reality, Trump is a would be “thug” who has a lifetime of getting his way through fraud and intimidation.  So what should happen if as President of the United States employs bribery as part of his “statecraft”?  What if the President induces certain behavior from a foreign leader in return for some favorable treatment by the US?  Does impeachment seem appropriate?  Hmmm.

While bribery sounds bad and unpresidential, “horse trading” has gone on between countries and their leaders since recorded time began.  So for example, President Trump might say to another foreign leader, if the US provides your country with $400 million in military assistance, will your country do “X”, “Y” or “Z” for the US.  Normally “X”, “Y”, or “Z” refer to some mutual defense agreement or provision of some land for US bases.  Horse trading does not sound like the basis for impeachment.

But what if the President says “I” will approve $400 million in military assistance if your country investigates someone who may be my opponent in the next election?

Bingo, such action should qualify for an impeachable offense because (1) the President would be inviting foreign interference in a US election, and (2) the President is using $400 million of tax payer money to obtain a favor for himself.  Third world countries may find this antic unsurprising but isn’t the US better than that?

For President Trump, impeachment presently appears to not include “removal from office” since the Senate is Republican controlled and a Senate trial is unlikely to produce a 2/3rds majority to convict.  One must therefore consider whether impeachment without conviction is worth the effort, especially recognizing that a Trump impeachment would likely make it easier to impeach the next President for strictly partisan reasons.  Not a good precedent to establish.

So the quandary, impeach or not impeach probably boils down to whether a majority of voters can be convinced that the President has stepped over the line and his actions rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”.  With the House under Democrat control, impeachment can be assumed if pursued.  The Republican controlled Senate is very unlikely to convict so why impeach?  On the other hand, impeachment proceedings should inform voters of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” President Trump has performed.  Under such circumstances, voters are likely to remember in November 2020 and vote Trump out of office.

Enslaved

September 23, 2019

Recently there have been articles in the Washington Post and New York Times which reported visitor’s reaction when guides spoke about the role enslaved people played, particularly at sites like Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg.   Visitors apparently have been surprised to hear African enslaved people included in the everyday life of Monticello or Colonial Williamsburg.  More to the point, visitors had expected to hear mainly about Jefferson’s or the early English settlers’ genius and great accomplishments and not the critical role played by the enslaved.  Why?

This past week I visited Colonial Williamsburg and took a tour including the Randolph House (Home of Payton Randolph, once President of the Continental Congress).  At the Randolph House, guides presented, in addition to the history of Randolph, the role slaves played during his lifetime.  The guide spoke convincingly that enslaved people made possible the everyday lives of landed people such as the Randolphs.  The guide spoke, even more convincingly, of actions and their consequences when Randolph decided to hold slaves while being a leader in the rebellion from Great Britain (to achieve freedom from the crown).  

The Guide felt that history was not sullied by inclusion of the previously unspoken enslaved parts.  History is just that, history is what happened in the past, not what one would hope to have happened.

The next day, I ventured on to Monticello and specifically to learn how the foundation charged with preserving Thomas Jefferson’s home were dealing with the experiences of enslaved help. Amazingly, there was copious references to “enslaved” help, almost to the point where Jefferson’s accomplishments were understated.  Hmmm.

The Monticello management has embraced the proposition that Jefferson fathered at least 4 children with Sally Hemings.  Only a few years ago, this possibility was denied.  DNA testing, however, has made denial not possible.

Another aspect presented by a “period actor” dealt with Jefferson’s contradiction in writing “all men are born with inalienable rights” and yet content that enslaved Africans did not count.  Jefferson was a learned man, one of the best in the entire world.  How could Jefferson miss the connection?

The issue was not whether Jefferson or other (most less educated) slave owners recognized the contradiction, rather the issue was one of pure economics.  The southern business model was not productive enough to survive if African slaves were paid a living wage and allowed to work or not.  It was all about how to maintain the southern free person lifestyle, and that clouded the wisdom of slave owners.  In essence, the cost for Jefferson’s life style was too costly to consider freeing his enslaved servants.

The inclusion now of “enslaved” in tours of historic sites should serve a good purpose if only to anchor current day discussions of race on fact and not myth.  There is no explanation that can make the notion of slavery “right”.  Rather, there is need to understand the real reasons “why”.

Today we can feel the long arm of slavery reaching the 21st century and impacting the relationship between whites and blacks.  We hear the call for reparations and the end of racism.  We can see inequality in income and prison population, for example, between blacks and everyone else. How does using “enslaved” help?

Enslaved makes one think about why was anyone enslaved?  Were enslaved people guilty of some crime?  Were enslaved people a sub-class of humans incapable of leading independent lives?  Were enslaved people happier as slaves and preferring not to pursue the inalienable rights Jefferson promised?

There is, of course, no evidence that blacks were guilty of any crime and plenty of examples of intelligent, articulate, and gifted humans who happened also to be black.  And history books record with frequency enslaved people attempting to run away and gain their inalienable rights.

Just as an infant begins to walk by first crawling, our generation, if it wishes to treat others as they would like to be treated,  must include in any discussion of American history, a full discussion of enslaved people and the root cause being “economic”, and the root enabler, “because they could”.

Elizabeth Warren?

September 17, 2019

Democrat Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren (Senator from Massachusetts) held a rally last night in New York’s Washington Square.  Crowd estimates ranged between 10 and 20 thousand which puts Warren in the big leagues.  Her stage appeal is growing, her oratorial skills are evident, and public recognition is beginning to register.  While there are still many months and many primaries ahead, Warren seems to be gathering momentum while other Democrat candidates seem stagnated or declining.

To date, Warren has been noted by her capacity for producing fairly well fleshed out policy statements on a wide range of issues.  Yesterday, Warren published another policy statement and moved closer to the “how to fix government” silver bullet.  The topic was political corruption.

The usual image conjured when one thinks political corruption is the bribe, “you do this for me and I’ll do that for you”.  While Warren undoubtably would find that version of corruption repugnant, she spoke of something far more systemic, politely discreet, and a true poison for our political process. 

Warren highlighted the Washington norms built around the “revolving door” and “paid lobbyists”.  The “revolving door” involves government legislators and regulators who cycle between government jobs and private sector jobs where their influence and knowledge is exploited and while in government, fulfill their debts to private sector employers .  Treasury Department to Wall Street and back.  Defense Department to industry and back.  and so forth.

Lobbying, on the other hand, is a first amendment right (information and constituent’s feelings are good to know).  Lobbying in today’s world is far more about how much money can pass from the lobbyist to the legislator or secretly to the regulator.

Warren connects this “political corruption” to explain why commonsense issues (like there are no limits on military style weapons) with the existence of political corruption.

Her cure prescription is transparency and elimination of the revolving door.

While Warren is emphasizing “government corruption”, Congress right before our eyes has ceased to function as a deliberative body.  America’s needs have been supplanted with the special interest.  Hmmm.

Elizabeth Warren may or may not win the nomination.  And if nominated, may beat President Trump or not.  And, if Warren become President may be able to end this corruption or not.  Regardless, the characterization of political corruption cannot help but make  the public more aware of why nothing sensible is happening.  Stay tuned.   

Bolton’s Lesson

September 12, 2019

John Bolton’s recent resignation/dismissal (?) was the big news item.   Ironically, Bolton was as unfit for any Government role as has been Donald Trump as President Trump.  As national security advisor, Bolton has been described as unable to deliver the most up to date intelligence without putting his thumb on the scales, shading the intel towards his own personal views.  Bolton combined two questionable traits, (1) performing as an unapologetic chicken hawk (neoconservative) and a well developed inability to work with others, especially those who did not hold the same ideology.  

Bolton has not changed since he assumed the Nation Security Advisor role following General McMasters.  Press reports have consistently pictured Bolton as cock-sure, good guys wear white hats, bad guys wear black.  His 2019 persona is indistinguishable from the image generated during his service in the Bush/Cheney White House.  So, why would have President Trump chosen Bolton as his National Security Advisor?

President Trump has said his management style is to surround himself with good people, let them fight it out, and then in the end, the President would tell everyone else which option he wanted.  Maybe that style is ok for some businesses, but the world is far more complicated and nuanced.

The President appears to prefer telling his staff the answer and then expecting them to make the world conform to Trump’s whims.  Regrettably, the world doesn’t work that way nor does John Bolton.

So President Trump’s selection of John Bolton as National Security Advisor was flawed even if the President thought Bolton was a good fit.  The President cannot claim he got damaged goods.  John Bolton has carried out his duties as should have even expected.

At the end of the day, the most prominent “Bolton’s Lesson” is how poorly the President understands how the US Government ought to work.  The President appears to think he can make snap decisions, cutting out red tape and soul searching.  Of course, President Trump can make the calls.  What the President cannot do is confidently tell Americans that his decisions offer the best results for Americans.  (President Trump will most certainly claim he remains the smartest person in the room but there is copious evidence that that is not true).

John Bolton was temperamentally unqualified for the NSA job and has been burdened with too much neoconservative baggage.  In short Bolton should have never been picked.  It is, however, not clear that the President is better off with an all “yes man” team, or still having a contrarian Bolton in the mix.  Hmmm.

Republicans Versus Socialists?

September 10, 2019

There is a “infomercial” running this past weekend in Pennsylvania featuring Republican Senator Pat Toomey.  I suspect twin infomercials are running in other States just substituting the local Senator.  A breathless woman narrator tells us that Pat is looking out for Pennsylvanians by standing against “socialist price controls” which hurt consumers and stunt medical research.   When it comes to healthcare services, Toomey supports free market forces.  Hmmm.

Did you catch the dog whistles?  Try “Socialist”, “Price Controls”, and “Free Market”.   One is supposed to read these dog whistles as Republicanism corner stones.  In Republicans parlance everything liberal or progressive as “socialist” and the first step down the road to America becoming Cuba or Venezuela. Communism is on the way.

Republicans do not seem concerned that voters will recognize that Cuba and Venezuela for both authoritarian States lacking a free press as well as open and free elections.  Republicans do not point out that most of Europe operate on social democratic government and provide better healthcare per capita than the US,

And the only thing worse than price controls is socialist price controls.  Sort of Government interference.  (The last use of price controls was during Richard Nixon’s, a Republican, Presidency.  Hmmm.)  Through out American history, Government has had to step in when “unfettered capitalism” threatened the American economy.  Big oil, railroads, and war time shortages all needed the Government to hurd in capitalist excesses.  

But wait, isn’t the free market the answer for capitalist excesses?

Unfortunately not in all cases.  Entrepreneurs have tried withholding product as a means to drive up prices.  Others have colluded with competitors to set prices.  And still others have bought out their competition and set prices knowing there would be no competition.  Consumer protection was left to the “buy, don’t buy” decision.

What is very helpful in a “buy, don’t buy” decision is knowledge and the consumer’s ability to assess whether the article or service was worth the value the seller was asking. Consider the decision of whether to buy tap water versus some high priced specialty water.  It is not unreasonable to assume most consumers understand tap water is safe and as good for ones health as available.  High priced water is a reasonable purchase if the consumer valued fancy packaging, serving size, or prestige more than the cost difference with tap water.

Healthcare, however, is not close to a “fee market” because most consumers simply do not understand medical diagnoses or the underlying costs.  There simply must be some transparency such as what makes up the initial price and what justification exists for price increases.

So, what’s going on? Why is Senator Toomey even interested.

Could it be that there is mounting information and more damning data to be released concerning the greedy and predatory pricing practices prevalent in the US drug industry.  Could it be that “Medicare for All” campaigning is familiarizing Americans that their healthcare industry spends twice as much per capita as two dozens other modern countries and delivers no better outcomes.  Could it be that Americans are wondering why well known established drugs like insulin have suddenly risen several hundred percent ?

Senator Toomey is not taking his marching orders from the RNC I would guess.  Rather lobbyists representing the drug industry are trying to frame the issue of serious drug reforms as some scary socialist plot.  One really can tell what “big Pharma” thinks of the average American.  Easy to distract? Uniformed on what’s really going on? Insulated from most healthcare costs (the average diabetic can’t be fooled but everyone else doesn’t need insulin).

The Toomey infomercial speaks to the notion that “capitalism-free markets-America’s prosperity” go together like apple pie and hot dogs.  Transparency and reasonable controls on healthcare costs makes common sense when viewed on a global basis.  Transparency, like sunlight, is so needed before the US healthcare delivery system bankrupts the American economy.

Hmmm. 

Unfit For Office?

September 4, 2019

A casual observer who reads this post’s title, “Unfit For Office”, is probably thinking well of course President Trump is unfit for office.  But wait, that is not who the title is referring to.

There are many factors cited by historians to explain the United States in its birth, development, and maturity as a nation has been fortunate.  Along with two oceans which separated the US from other warring countries, the rich and bountiful land contributed mightily too.  But in any list of keys to America’s success, the most revered is the Constitution upon which the nation began its independence.

The Constitution set out a “balance of power” between the three branches of government.  Our founding fathers learned well from history about the tendency for all previous forms of government to concentrate power in one branch and subsequently one person.  Our founding fathers wanted no “King George” or “Napoleon” or “Czar”.  

So, fast forward to 2019.  The country is faced with an unimaginable problem concerning gun availability and misuse.  No other civilized country in the world has as many guns per capita than the US.  No other civilized country has as many killings associated with gun possession than the US.  No other civilized country has as many mass shootings where the shooter did not know the victims than the US.  Hmmm.

Logically there is no justification for this situation or the patch work of US gun laws… concealed carry, open carry, stand your ground, gun show gun sales without background checks. and on and on.

Gun advocates point to the 2nd Amendment underlining each citizen’s fundamental right  to own guns.  The Supreme Court has ruled that the 2nd Amendment indeeds allows all Americans to own guns, but has also ruled that “reasonable” regulations can be applied to gun ownership.  The provenance for regulations falls to Congress and to date, this responsibility appears to have been too great for our 454 Congress members.  No meaningful actions have come forward.

Recently the country has experienced three mass shootings and as usual, the question of more thorough background checks, on all gun sales, has been put forward.  The NRA, of course, is dead (pun intended) against background checks.  The NRA says it opposes any laws which would infringe on “law abiding citizens” from exercising their full 2nd Amendment rights.  Hmmm.

This week, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would not bring up gun control measured unless President Trump first gave his ok to specific gun control measures.  What?

Since when is President Trump (or any President for that matter) the head of the Senate or the House?

Abdicating one of the key separation of power responsibility qualifies  McConnell for the designation – “Unfit For Office”.