Tag Archives: U.S. politics

not the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sheldon Stern, who was a historian at the JFK library for 23 years, points out that JFK stood up to his military leaders who were hell-bent on a full-scale invasion of Cuba, while today we are hoping that our military leaders might stand up to a President’s reckless decision to unleash the military and risk nuclear war.

It is all but impossible to imagine this kind of informed, rational and mature leadership coming from the Oval Office today. If discretion and common sense are to prevail, it will require, as noted above, turning the central dynamic of the Cuban missile crisis upside down; this time, the top military figures in the administration may be forced to try to short-circuit an impulsive over-reaction by their commander-in-chief. Today, fortunately, most senior military officers are vastly more politically sophisticated and historically educated than their 1962 counterparts (who received most of their formal military education before the advent of nuclear weapons). Indeed, Mattis has edited an important book about American views of our military and McMaster is the author of a highly-regarded study of the failure of civilian and military leadership to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. There is room for hope.

I too hope that cooler heads will prevail, and if the coolest heads are in the military at the moment I am behind them. But if the coolest heads are the military, it is a sign that the civilian leadership has completely failed. I am not confident that it will get us out of trouble this time, and even if it does it is a scary precedent for the future. Basically we are saying it is okay for the military to step in and take over in an emergency. Nothing in our constitution is supposed to allow that, and for it to happen the President has to be extraordinarily weak and the entire rest of the civilian government has to stand by and do absolutely nothing.

a “soft military coup” for the U.S.?

This New Republic article is clearly very partisan. But it points out some concerns about three active or very recently retired generals being given unprecedented power over our country.

His complete failure to grow into the job has allowed multiple power centers to emerge and vie for ascendency within the administration. It has impelled other institutional actors to essentially expropriate from Trump governing tasks that should be his exclusively. In some cases, as when he gave military leaders a free hand in fighting terrorism, he has willingly parted with these obligations. In others, as when Congress wrested discretion over Russian sanctions away from him, he has been layered over reluctantly.

But the most alarming development is the one that ironically has official Washington the most relieved: the emergence of a trio of military officers (two retired, one actively serving) as de facto caretakers of the presidency.

It is perfectly consistent to say that the growing clout of generals John Kelly (the White House chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (the national security advisor), and Jim Mattis (the defense secretary) is preferable to an alternative in which Trump shambles through his presidency unencumbered, but also dangerous in its own right, and evidence of serious institutional failure. The hope is apparently to keep Trump’s administration within certain guardrails, so that if and when it fails, he doesn’t take the country and the world off the road with him.

If there is some kind of international crisis, I think I feel more comfortable with these guys making decisions than Trump. But I don’t like the idea that we have the military in charge rather than the civilian leadership, because they are very likely to come up with military solutions to problems. I always thought Trump would be lazy and delegate a lot of his job to subordinates, but this has taken a disturbing turn. It seems unlikely that Trump would be removed from office by Congress in the next four years, so at the moment I am hoping to avoid any major geopolitical crises through luck, and that someone will convince him not to run for reelection.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

Trump’s Russian Laundromat

The New Republic has a long history of Trump’s ties to Russian mobsters. At the absolute minimum, he is guilty of taking their money and not asking any questions.

The very nature of Trump’s businesses—all of which are privately held, with few reporting requirements—makes it difficult to root out the truth about his financial deals. And the world of Russian oligarchs and organized crime, by design, is shadowy and labyrinthine. For the past three decades, state and federal investigators, as well as some of America’s best investigative journalists, have sifted through mountains of real estate records, tax filings, civil lawsuits, criminal cases, and FBI and Interpol reports, unearthing ties between Trump and Russian mobsters like Mogilevich. To date, no one has documented that Trump was even aware of any suspicious entanglements in his far-flung businesses, let alone that he was directly compromised by the Russian mafia or the corrupt oligarchs who are closely allied with the Kremlin. So far, when it comes to Trump’s ties to Russia, there is no smoking gun.

But even without an investigation by Congress or a special prosecutor, there is much we already know about the president’s debt to Russia. A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money. Some ran a worldwide high-stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower—in a unit directly below one owned by Trump. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics. “They saved his bacon,” says Kenneth McCallion, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration who investigated ties between organized crime and Trump’s developments in the 1980s.

It’s entirely possible that Trump was never more than a convenient patsy for Russian oligarchs and mobsters, with his casinos and condos providing easy pass-throughs for their illicit riches. At the very least, with his constant need for new infusions of cash and his well-documented troubles with creditors, Trump made an easy “mark” for anyone looking to launder money. But whatever his knowledge about the source of his wealth, the public record makes clear that Trump built his business empire in no small part with a lot of dirty money from a lot of dirty Russians—including the dirtiest and most feared of them all.

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

What’s interesting about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is that it is not a constitutional amendment. As I understand it, because the Constitution gives the states a fair amount of leeway to decide how they want to cast their electoral votes, the “winner take all” electoral college system as it has existed in recent years could be circumvented without legislative or judicial action at the federal level, and each vote would be equal. One person one vote, what a concept for the world’s self-proclaimed greatest democracy!

The organization’s website tallies which states have agreed to this so far:

The National Popular Vote bill has now passed a total of 35 state legislative chambers in 23 states.  The National Popular Vote bill will take effect when enacted into law by states possessing 270 electoral votes (a majority of the 538 electoral votes).  It has been enacted into law in 11 states possessing 165 electoral votes (CA, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA).  The bill will take effect when enacted by states possessing an additional 105 electoral votes.

So we’re more than halfway there, which sounds pretty good. However, the states represented above are ones that have very good reason to feel that their citizen’s votes have been marginalized. Big “swing” states like my home state of Pennsylvania end up having much more power in picking the President than is really warranted by our populations. Even though a majority of citizens supports implementing the popular vote (which is just logical and obvious), our cynical state politicians are not likely to support it. States like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin may eventually lose some electoral votes over time if our populations keep shrinking. Populous and growing states with a lot of electoral votes like Florida and Texas are where this fight would have to be won.

I think the world would be a better place if Al Gore and Hillary Clinton had both been elected, per the clearly stated preference of the citizens of our country. But this really shouldn’t be a partisan issue because sooner or later it will sting both parties. I recognize that sooner or later, an election will come in which a candidate I support might lose the popular vote and win the electoral vote. I still support abolishing the electoral college system anyway, because it is just the obviously right thing to do.

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

single payer

What is there really left to say about single payer? It works well, almost everywhere except the United States, where it is deemed too expensive and politically impossible.

On the quality of our system, here are some stats from the Commonwealth Fund:

Adults in the U.S. are more likely than those in the 10 other countries to go without needed health care because of costs. One-third (33%) of U.S. adults went without recommended care, did not see a doctor when sick, or failed to fill a prescription because of costs. This percentage is down from the 2013 survey (37%). As few as 7 percent of respondents in the U.K. and Germany and 8 percent in the Netherlands and Sweden experienced these affordability problems.

Fourteen percent of chronically ill U.S. adults said they did not get the support they needed from health care providers to manage their conditions. This was twice the rate in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

Although the U.S. has made significant progress in expanding insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, it remains an outlier among high-income countries in ensuring access to health care. The authors point out that all of the other countries surveyed provide universal insurance coverage, and many provide better cost protection and a more extensive safety net.

So the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world” appears to be somewhat sick and poor compared to its peers at similar levels of wealth and development.

Our health care system is expensive because the finance and health care industries pay politicians to write the rules in ways that stifle competition, use cynical propaganda campaigns  and scare tactics to convince the public they are engaged in competition, keep information away from consumers that would allow them to make reasonable cost-effectiveness choices, and generally maximize their short term profits at the long term expense of public health and the economy. Hillary Clinton had a very succinct way of summarizing this:

In the past, the health insurance industry has deployed sophisticated propaganda efforts to divide single payer proponents and weaken any political support for the idea. Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton once considered such a system, but wondered, “Is there any force on the face of the earth that would counter the money the insurance industry would spend to defeat it?”

Like I said, our health care system, including all the public and private elements, is off the global charts insanely expensive both in terms of total spending relative to our economy, and in terms of the value we get in return for that spending. Shifting any portion of this expensive system from private to public funding would mean that the government would be paying more of the price tag, and government revenues would have to go up to pay for that. In other words, yes, we would be paying higher taxes in place of the high insurance premiums, co-pays and out-of-pocket payments we are making directly to the finance and health care industries now. Cynical politicians, who remember are bought and paid for by these industries, purposely confuse voters by equating the portion of the bill paid by the government with the total cost of health care, as in this Washington Post article:

But the government’s price tag would be astonishing. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed a “Medicare for all” health plan in his presidential campaign, the nonpartisan Urban Institute figured that it would raise government spending by $32 trillion over 10 years, requiring a tax increase so huge that even the democratic socialist Mr. Sanders did not propose anything close to it.

Single-payer advocates counter that government-run health systems in other developed countries spend much less than the United States does on its complex public-private arrangement. They say that if the United States adopted a European model, it could expand coverage to everyone by realizing a mountain of savings with no measureable decline in health outcomes, in part because excessive administrative costs and profit would be wrung from the system.

In fact, the savings would be less dramatic; the Urban Institute’s projections are closer to reality. The public piece of the American health-care system has not proven itself to be particularly cost-efficient. On a per capita basis, U.S. government health programs alone spend more than Canada, Australia, France and Britain each do on their entire health systems. That means the U.S. government spends more per American to cover a slice of the population than other governments spend per citizen to cover all of theirs.

But they go on to point out that the reason these costs are so high is that “A big reason [the government] does not clamp down now on health-care spending is that it is hard to do so politically.”

It’s almost impossible to even try to tackle these problems unless and until we have constitutional reform making it clear that big business ownership of politicians is not the same thing as free speech by individual members of the public. And our elected officials who are owned by big business are not going to give us this constitutional reform. It’s a conundrum that seems almost impossible to solve – if the 2007 financial crisis did not whip up enough public anger to counteract and overcome industry propaganda, it is hard to imagine a crisis that would.

So we would have to get that constitutional amendment (somewhat blandly called “campaign finance reform”, which understandably does not spark the public imagination) done. If we did that, we could look at some incremental reforms to move us toward either single payer or a more efficient public-private system. One idea seems particularly attractive to me. The state exchanges under the Affordable Care Act are an attractive idea because they encourage insurance companies to compete against one another for consumer health care dollars. The ACA also established a pretty uniform set of minimum coverage requirements that make it clear what we are paying for. Understanding what you are buying, and then having some choice of providers of that service, is the basic foundation of a functioning market system. The market should be able to set reasonable prices under these conditions, in theory. The insurance companies have the bargaining power and incentive to take on the health care industry over price and drive prices down.

So this all sounds pretty good. Where it is clearly failing, it is because some insurers are choosing to pull out of the exchanges, leaving buyers without any choice and destroying that link between supply and demand. What would make sense to me is to figure out what the premium would be for people to buy into Medicare and/or Medicaid directly, and then require these Medicare and Medicaid options to be available on the exchanges in a given state if at any time the number of private insurers competing on the exchange drops to less than 3 (or maybe 2, but 3 seems better). That way the insurance industry has complete control over whether they choose to shoot themselves in the foot or not. This won’t happen without the constitutional amendment first.

A shorter-term incremental measure that could help without the constitutional amendment would be to create some kind of common platform for all insurance companies to share price and outcome with consumers. Some insurers already have their own systems for doing this, and we have the system of common procedure codes, but it is all way too confusing. The government could force the insurance and health care industries to get together, come up with a crystal clear communications strategy, and put it all on a common platform. They would be required to provide you with this crystal clear information at the beginning of every doctor, hospital, and pharmacy visit. All without the government paying a dime more of people’s health care cost or providing any more price controls than they do now.

Oslo vs. cars

Oslo had a plan to go car-free, but “conservative” politicians are pushing back.

One big idea: ban cars from the city centre. If pulled off, the plan would see Oslo become the first major European city to have a permanent, complete no-car-zone, racing ahead of a long list of cities seeking to do the same…

“A Berlin Wall against motorists,” declared one conservative party politician. “Car owners feel ‘bullied’ in Oslo”, blared an English-language news site.

The biggest backlash, however, came from the city’s trade association, the Oslo Handelsstands Forening (OHF). It said it feared the plans would create a “dead town”, and a “poorer city [with] less life”.

That’s silly, of course. When pedestrian-only streets have failed in the United States, it is because nobody lived there to begin with. Pedestrian-only environments work just fine where people live, work, and shop all within easy walking distance.

What is it about the “conservative” impulse that loves cars so much? “Conservatives” come in many stripes, but what they seem to have in common is a belief in some kind of natural social order. Whether it is based on race, religion, nationality, business success, family wealth, or whatever, if it benefits you, a “conservative” mind set allows you to mentally justify the existing social order that benefits you, and to justify “conserving” and strengthening it, sometimes even by force. And you don’t have to be at the top of the ladder to have the “conservative” impulse, all you have to be is not on the bottom rung of the ladder, so you have someone to look down on and a vested interest in the existing social order. This mindset is complemented nicely by a lack of imagination – if you perceive that the social order as it exists benefits you, you can convince yourself that it exists for a reason, and you will find ways to rationalize any change to the existing order. You end up opposing anything new and different, whether it is immigrants, religions other than your own, bike lanes, renewable energy, a functioning health care system, or the idea that humans have wrecked Earth’s atmosphere to the point of no return. The people higher on the ladder than you are very good at manipulating and exploiting these impulses for their own benefit, of course, but although you do not lack raw intelligence you are now too closed-minded to give a new idea like that any consideration.

carbon emissions and other data

Even though Donald Trump has decided the U.S. will not help reduce the world’s carbon emissions, at least you can get data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Get it now because it sounds like they are going out of business in September.