Less Food for the Hungry

Republicans are using the new farm bill as a vehicle to continue their long tradition of ensuring government money does not go to undeserving recipients. Oh, you say, they’re going to change the law so that rich people no longer qualify for farm subsidies and crop-insurance subsidies (see NYT article yesterday)? You mean billionaires like Paul Allen and Charles Schwab won’t continue to get government $$ for the farmland owned by the intertwined rat’s nest of corporate shells they maintain? Multistate food producing corporations that bear as much resemblance to a struggling family farm as the US Navy does to a couple duck hunters in a rowboat will have their handouts cut?

Hah! Of course not. We can’t do means testing when the well-to-do are involved. No, the undeserving recipients of aid who worry the Republicans are hungry people (as in hungry for food, not as in hungry for wealth and power—those people don’t bother Republicans a bit). The specific hungry people are those receiving food stamps from SNAP, the supplemental nutritional assistance program (interestingly always handled under the Farm Bill). The food stamp program was cut by $5 billion Nov. 1, which is already having a significant impact. And the House is proposing to cut $40 billion over the next decade which will remove 3.8 million people from SNAP the first year (and keep 210,000 kids from getting free school meals).

Why are the Republicans doing this? Well, they say the economy has recovered, so there theoretically shouldn’t be as many hungry people, so we should cut down the number we help. Unfortunately the “recovery” didn’t trickle down to the bottom. There are still 49.7 million people living in poverty and the SNAP program helps keep several million above that line (see Americanprogress.org).

And if the Republicans don’t care about feeding the poor (perhaps they all misplaced their Bibles) they should at least consider that the food stamp $$ go directly to businesses (ummm, businesses making money! Me likey!). And if that isn’t enough benefit to people who are not desperately poor, perhaps we could tack on a provision to have SNAP fund caviar carts that circulate around the offices of busy hedge fund managers. Then food aid would never be touched.

The Food was Awful…And the Portions Were So Small!

…Republican restaurant review. I know Krugman just recently used this old joke, but I thought of it weeks ago—really I did. Yeah, so the people who think Obamacare is a socialist plot of the devil are incensed that its website doesn’t work well. You’d think they’d be happy the lines to get into the concentration camp were so long. Naah, the main point is to have something to criticize. Hey kids, let’s have a hanging! Ok, fine with me. Well, Republicans, how about we hang as many people as you were willing to string up for the global financial meltdown that cost the economy (and me personally) a total shitload of money and created a worldwide recession. Oh right, that number was zero. But gosh, launching a buggy computer program is MUCH more serious than international financial disaster.

Not that I’m thinking the rollout was handled well. It was pretty botched. Even for such a complicated system, this was really poor performance (note to Republicans—you are permitted to criticize the administration even when it is your own party). BUT, this system will in fact be fixed and will in fact work. Just not as well as the “Medicare for All” that I’ve been recommending on these pages for 2 years, but it will work. Chill. (I’d like to think the Republicans would help make it work, but since we haven’t legalized pot in PA, I’m not going to have that delusion).

Now what about this “I can’t have my old policy!” whining that is all the rage this week. First of all, this only has to do with people who privately purchased their policy (only 6% of insured people) AND whose privately purchased plan does not meet current ACA requirements (an even lower number). Now it boggles my mind that people want a policy that covers only their left lung and allows them to be dropped (or their rates doubled) the first time they actually cost the insurance company $$ by having the nerve to get sick. But fine, you like your really crappy policy. And you’re mad you have to sign up for something different. How dare Obama make that happen! Well, I guess since you are buying your policy on your own, you’ve never had health coverage through a big company—the model that all Republicans just love (though God knows why). Well let me tell you something. I get my coverage through the Fortune 100 company I work for, AND IT CHANGES EVERY YEAR! And rarely for the better. I don’t get to “keep my coverage if I like it.” I’d love to have my 2014 coverage be the same as 2013, but it won’t be, and not because of Obamacare—our coverage always met the ACA standards—but because it’s cheaper for the company (but not, heh heh, for me). So get over it! And stop citing cost comparisons that don’t take into account the subsidies available to people earning up to 400% of the poverty level.

I want to hear less about this nonsense and more about how there will STILL be 10s of millions of people without coverage. And I want to hear why the Republicans who care so much about the inconvenience of a buggy computer program don’t give a rat’s ass about cutting food assistance for poor people.

Chadds Ford Roadside Cleanup & Scientific Conundrum—Courtesy of the Litterati

We just had our twice yearly neighborhood cleanup today, organized by the Civic Association, where volunteers traverse the streets of Chadds Ford, removing the detritus of modern American civilization (cups and bottles, not homeless people—of whom we apparently have none, perhaps because they are against some zoning ordinance or other). I must say that this event always makes me think that Chadds Ford must be the locus of a gravitational anomaly of some sort. That seems to be the only explanation for the need to have a cleanup. How else to account for the way the full beverage container, bearer of delicious Miller Lite, of refreshing “tea,” of mysterious fluorescent frozen liquid, so easily borne in the lightness of anticipation becomes, upon emptying past parched lips, an immense weight, nay an intolerable burden of such magnitude that the mere act of returning it to its former place of honor on the vehicle floor becomes a Sisyphean task so extreme that the only response can be, and is, to release the newly empty, now apparently massive container into the vastness of the universe, free, spinning and drifting like the untethered astronaut, George Clooney, in Gravity; but unlike George, coming quickly and safely to rest in the welcome harbor of someone’s lawn. What else could explain it? And why did I find an oar?

Anyway, kudos and thanks to all who participated. A genuinely non-partisan event (even litterati were welcome, though if any were in attendance, they were incognito).  However, I must say, the Cleanup has clear Democratic overtones (unintended, I’m sure)—you know, people working together for the benefit of all, not just themselves. No one said, “The trash is all on private property, and if the owners don’t mind beer cans in the gutter, that’s their right.” No one said, “We won’t remove trash from the property of anyone who doesn’t participate.” No one said, “You can remove litter from my yard when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” But nobody would think like that, right?

Maybe the Republicans Really Mean It?

You know, I’m starting to get the idea that the Republicans actually don’t like Obamacare. You have to admit, the first clues were pretty subtle. I mean, they haven’t even voted 50 times to eliminate it—and that’s over how many years? But they’re starting to leave better hints, like shutting down the government (except for the parts that shoot people and blow stuff up).

So now I get it. And after all, how can you NOT be driven into a mouth-frothing, head-exploding, purple-faced Fox News anchor rage by the thought that more people in the country might get health insurance? Really! Because you know what that would mean, don’t you? That’s right. It would mean that when those people got sick or hurt, they’d be able to pay their medical bills! And what self-respecting doctor, nurse, therapist, ambulance service, pharmacy or hospital would ever want anything like that? No real capitalist (or Republican) could in good conscience support anything that would increase their number of paying customers. More income? How commie is that? And doesn’t it just make you sick to think that all those people will now go to the doctor and get their high blood pressure treated instead of doing their patriotic duty by dying of a heart attack or stroke and thus ridding the country of some more Takers? The whole thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Or is that reflux? Maybe I’d better see my doctor—good thing I have medical coverage. Too bad about you, though (ha ha, just kidding—it’s not too bad about you).

All right, maybe I turned the sarcasm dial up to 11, but last night I had a conversation with some Republican friends and relatives who were astounded by the fact that I didn’t think Obamacare was pure socialism. Right. I pointed out that getting lots of people to purchase a product from for-profit companies was kind of the core of capitalism (and the point of every tv commercial). But they countered with the idea that it was the government plan to help some people pay  for it that was the socialist-plot part. Hmm. By those lights, then I guess that when the government pays private companies outright for tanks and planes and bombs that we must be looking at pure Marxism. Or is it only socialism when the government spends money to heal people rather than kill them? Guess so.

Republicans Continue Attempts to Thwart Republican Health Plan

So, the Republicans in Congress continue to strain every fiber of their being and every last cent of the Koch brothers’ carbon-based loot in their valiant effort to fight off—the Republican Health Care Plan. Yes, the evil Obamacare, its nefarious schemes unmasked to all in a Web video recently that showed a leering Uncle Sam preparing to do a pelvic exam, was for the past TWO DECADES—the Republican Health Care Plan. Yes, it’s a Republican baby, paternity confirmed on public record, conceived in response to the Clinton health care plan of 1993, and built on the foundation of an individual mandate to purchase insurance from private insurance companies. A Republican governor (what was his name again?) actually implemented this plan and Republicans continued to advocate for it—right up until the time a Democratic president proposed it in the apparently mistaken belief that Congressional Republicans could at least be persuaded to vote for a Congressional Republican program. “Hah! Consistency? We spit on consistency! Though foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and we have small minds, and are foolish, we reject consistency as it is much less important than denying health care to the poor and a victory to the Muslim president whose socialist plan will result in a windfall of profits for private insurance companies and…Never mind! Remember what we said about consistency!”

The history of the Republican plan was described by Ezra Klein in the New Yorker. Briefly, in 1989 the Heritage Foundation published “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” which suggested that all individuals be required to purchase health insurance (like they must auto insurance). Then in 1993, as an alternative to the Clinton plan, the Republicans included the individual mandate in their Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act (sponsored by John Chafee, RI and co-sponsored by 18 Republicans). In 2006, Sen. Ron Wyden (D, OR) and Bob Bennett (R, UT) sponsored the Healthy Americans Act (11 R and 9 D co-sponsors). Broad Republican support. No Uncle Sam ob/gyn videos…until president Obama changed his mind in 2009 and used the Republican plan to design the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Then the blue-blooded, rock-ribbed Republican baby morphed into the evil Obamacare.

So what exactly is in Obamacare that inspires such vitriol and hatred from Republicans? What makes Georgia state insurance commissioner, Ralph T. Hudgens, say he will do “everything in our power to be an obstructionist.” Well, Obamacare tries to help poor people, and that ought to be enough right there, don’t you think? But besides that, what’s in the plan? Fasten your seatbelts, folks, and raise the blast shields, because here’s a straight look into the maw of hell that is Obamacare, which proposes to:

  • Prevent insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums to those with preexisting conditions, and from rescinding coverage after people have required expensive care
  • Require plans to cover preventive services without cost-sharing (deductibles)
  • Allow children to remain on their parents’ insurance up to age 26
  • Eliminate lifetime limits on coverage
  • Raise Medicaid eligibility to 138% of federal poverty level
  • Create health insurance exchanges in which people without employer or Medicaid coverage can buy insurance (and cost-sharing for some of those who need help paying for it)
  • Require everyone to have health insurance beginning in 2014 (the individual mandate)
  • Require plans to spend at least 80% of premiums on actual medical costs
  • Penalize employers that do not offer affordable coverage to their employees (with exceptions for small employers)

OMG! OMG! Insurers can’t drop you when you get sick or get so sick that you cost too much! They can’t deny you coverage because you had asthma when you were young? They have to spend 80% of the premium money you pay them on actual medical care (note that Medicare spends 96% on medical care)? Help, help! Call the Thought Police!

You know, I’ve looked at more detailed summaries of Obamacare (see this summary from the Kaiser Foundation) and I’m still looking for the evil. The only evil I can come up with is that it’s not Medicare for All—but that’s because it’s a Republican plan, now isn’t it?

The Ruse in Syria

Well, if the dodgers and duckers in Congress are going to take a position on Syria, then I guess I should as well. Here goes. Basically, I think the chemical weapons issue is really just an excuse to mobilize public (and Congressional) opinion behind a regime change operation—or I should say, an attempt at regime change. I think this is highly likely to end poorly for the US and rather likely to end poorly for most Syrians. Thus I am opposed to both what is apparently being proposed (limited air strikes aimed at degrading Assad’s chemical capability and deterring him from using them) as well as the hidden agenda that I think is actually being planned (unlimited attacks plus whatever aid and assistance to the rebels it takes to bring down the regime—essentially Libya v2). Here’s what’s wrong.
Chemicals a ruse: I’m as reluctant as anyone to underestimate the stupidity of politicians but the alleged rationale goes far beyond the borders of even American political logic and reason. Kerry and Obama have specifically stated that our only goal is to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again. That’s the only casus belli; we’re not intervening to stop civil war and civilian massacres (then we would have to explain why we haven’t intervened in even bloodier wars in Africa), we’re not trying to bring democracy to yet another Muslim country. No, we’re just enforcing the international ban on use of chemical weapons. That’s all folks!
This is nonsensical because by our own arguments, we would therefore have to consider it “mission accomplished” if Assad used no more chemical weapons but accelerated his pace of shooting, shelling and bombing his people. Our “logic” is such that 10,000 dead by conventional means but no chemical casualties is more of a “win” than 1,000 dead by nerve gas. Really? That’s a preposterous ethical judgment. Not even US politicians could believe that—and I don’t think they do. Is this just verbal quibbling? No, assuming for a minute that we do “persuade” Assad to stop using chemicals, is he just going to give up and move into exile? I suppose that’s a theoretical possibility, but I think it’s much more likely that he’ll accelerate his conventional attacks in order to crush the rebellion quickly before we decide to intervene further. More deaths will ensue. I suspect that this likelihood is planned for by the White House, perhaps even counted on. Once Assad escalates his butchery, it will be easier to sell the public on the case for more direct action. That’s the only reason I can see that we would maintain the otherwise irrational prioritization that dying in agony in the street from a bullet through your abdomen or being burned alive trapped in the ruins of your bombed house is so much more acceptable than being killed by nerve gas.
Why it’s likely to end poorly for us: I know we’d all like to see the Syrian butchery stop, and if Harry Potter showed up with his magic wand, we would all insist he wave it. However, there’s no magic wand; there’s only military force, and before we pull out the sword (or before we do anything, really), we’re obliged by the standards of rationality to weigh the risks/costs vs the benefits.
Now, Kerry and all the spokespeople have tried to do an end-run around the need to make this assessment by saying, “The worst that can happen if we fail to act is that things continue as they are.” Really? You’re telling us this is a military attack with no downside? Only good things could come of this? The risk is zero, so it’s all benefits? That’s the same failure of anticipation that got us into trouble in Iraq. Even though I don’t think Kerry and Co. actually believe this, no one on the shows where they made these claims (all this past weekend) or in commentary afterwards challenged this absurdity, so let me help them by listing a few of the possible downsides of our (ostensibly limited) bombing of Syria:
• Increased killing of civilians by conventional means (by Assad as per above, plus whatever ones we kill ourselves)
• Increased Muslim anger due to yet another US military intervention in yet another Muslim country leading to further East-West polarization, more Muslim radicalization and more terror attacks on the US
• Increased likelihood of equally direct intervention by Assad’s supporters, Iran and Russia, escalating the conflict from an internal Syrian one to a regional if not international one
• And if greater intervention does manage to drive Assad out, the subsequent regime is likely to be equally repressive and non-democratic but more Muslim extremist (and likely to commit atrocities on government supporters, particularly the Alawites)
Possible upsides?
• The attacks somehow convince Assad to negotiate with the rebels who, despite all current appearances, somehow unite into a coherent bargaining force that can find enough common cause with each other and their opponents to participate in forming a stable government
• The US looks like a champ for bringing an end to a war that no one seems happy with (including the participants)
I think the downsides are highly undesirable and the upsides are highly desirable, but I find the downsides much more likely than the upsides, and thus I come down against unilateral US attacks on Syrian installations (if you want to talk about things that the world could do as a united front to help solve the problem, that’s a different issue from what is now being proposed by the White House and a matter for another essay).

Voter ID Again

Friday, Judge Bernard McGinley of PA Commonwealth Court (see http://www.inquirer.com/local/pa/220015271.html) once again temporarily barred enforcement of last year’s Voter ID law. Didn’t overturn it, didn’t give a permanent injunction, didn’t make it unconstitutional, just barred enforcement pending a final determination. Gotta think about it some more. What’s to think about, other than how to explain his lack of fealty to the Republican overlords of the state who bragged about how the law would give PA to Mitt Romney last year? What, exactly do you need to scratch your head about in regards to a law designed to keep registered voters from voting?
Now, one of my Republican friends (yes, I have Republican friends) insists that the law is there “To keep Mickey Mouse from voting.” That is, he thinks that the law was passed to protect us from people (or rodents) who aren’t legitimate, registered voters. Well, I don’t want M. Mouse, or Ben Dover, or Walter Melon coming and voting in Chadds Ford either. But the thing is, we already have a way to keep them from voting. It’s the list of registered voters that is given to every polling place. If you aren’t a registered voter, you’re not on the list. If you’re not on the list, you don’t vote. You can be a 4-star retired general with a pocketful of picture IDs including signed pictures of yourself with the president and the pope, BUT if you’re not on the list, you don’t get to go in the booth and push buttons. And, if you ARE on the list, the state has determined that you are a duly registered voter in that precinct. The Voter ID law kicks in only at that point, when duly registered voters come to vote. The law says that they need to show certain forms of ID (which conveniently are less likely to be held by the young, poor and elderly) to prove that they are in fact that registered voter—and not someone else impersonating them. And, despite having over a year to provide the court evidence that voter impersonation occurs in PA (and hence would need to be blocked by an ID law), the state has come up with precisely zero cases of voter impersonation in PA. But the plaintiffs in the case are actual people who are registered voters who have legitimate reasons why they either cannot get or have extreme difficulty getting the state-mandated ID. So we have clear harm (not just theoretical) from the law and not one bit of benefit. What’s to think about, Judge McGinley?