Money is Power—For Now

Went to a reception for Joe Sestak the other night. He’s not “running” for the Senate yet, but he’s “exploring” it seriously. And if you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel, you know exploration costs money, what with all the sled dogs and dried seal meat—and that’s just to get to the North Pole, which is much cheaper and easier than getting to Washington, DC, even from here in Pennsylvania.

Now, I don’t begrudge Joe my contributions, because I’d like his explorations to succeed (and I’ve hosted several events for Joe to prove it) and it does take a lot of money. Joe has $ 1 Million at his disposal but Pat Toomey, the evil Grinch who recently took over the North Pole (because Santa Claus gave away too many food presents to unworthy hungry people) has $3 million. Neither Joe nor the Grinch (quite correctly) thinks he has enough. Why on earth does it take so much?

It’s certainly not sled dogs and seal meat (interns and pizza). Nope, it’s all needed for TV advertising. After all, how would we know who was an evil, Muslim, socialist minion of Hitler if his opponent didn’t tell us that on TV—over and over and over? However, much more important than scurrilous information is the positive feedback loop of the money/TV connection. The more money candidates raise, the more seriously they are taken by their national party (which won’t back anyone who can’t generate a whopping nest egg on their own), by the pundits, by their potential opponents (what eager-beaver Republican would want to challenge Toomey knowing he’s starting $3 Million or more in the hole?) and by potential donors (nobody wants to put money into a losing cause). Thus the positive feedback loop. Candidates who have money are the most likely to get money, which then enables them to get even more money.

This isn’t anything new, and I’ve already written about it (Voting with Dollars). But there’s another way money in politics has affected democracy that I haven’t mentioned. Money has so obviously become the key to political success (as opposed to, say, voting) that the huge number of eligible voters without the spare cash to funnel to people who represent their hopes and dreams have become convinced that the game is rigged against them—so why bother. Why bother volunteering, why bother talking politics with friends and neighbors, why bother…VOTING.

And they don’t. This is the real triumph, and evil, of money in politics. The top few percent have used huge media cash infusions to convince the lower 75% that they are powerless*, EVEN THOUGH IN A SINGLE ELECTION THEY COULD THROW THE BUMS OUT AND VOTE IN CANDIDATES WHO ACTUALLY REPRESENT THEM. This reminds me of the pictures you see of hundreds of prisoners of war being escorted by a mere handful of armed guards. The prisoners could overwhelm their captors at any minute—but they’ve been convinced that they are powerless…and so they are.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Let’s modify the old slogan: “Workers of the world VOTE, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Don’t let a relatively few wealthy guardians of privilege and the status quo continue to flood themselves and their cronies with contracts, tax breaks and deregulation, things that are against the interests of almost everyone who lives here (and on the earth) yet continue to be done because the beneficiaries have convinced us that we can’t stop them. Well we can, if we only will.

*Turnouts are typically < 50% for off-year Congressional elections, and often in single digits for state and local primaries—where the $$-driven decisions are baked in (FairVote.org)

Thanksgiving Thoughts From the Right

Nick Kristoff wrote an Op-Ed piece in the NYT for Thanksgiving (“Where is the Love?”) that focused on “…a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress,” pointed out the apparent lack thereof, and followed with the rabidly liberal observation that “…success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.” He then closed with the (socialist? communist? Christian?) remark that “…compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.”

His musings struck me as reasonable and rather mild—appropriate observations on a day in which we give thanks for the good things that have come the way of some, but as per Mr Kristoff, not enough of us.

However, Mr. Kristoff’s editorializing that some in our society seem to have a slight deficiency in their sense of charity and empathy aroused a storm of indignation from the right, who countered with these devastating Thanksgiving Day rebuttals:

LD from Tulsa: “We need to let the poor know they have to start taking responsibility for their own actions.

Gmason from Left Coast: “The problem is that the so-called compassion of the left has done more to harm the nation’s poor than to help them. All of your policies kill job creation and the opportunity to lift yourself out of the poverty. You undermine the moral fabric of our nation…

Malucks from Malvern: “Depriving people of the dignity that personal achievement bestows is far more insidious than spreading around other people’s wealth.”

Al from USA: “Far to many are lazy and resentful of the success that hard work brings.”

Gene from Atlanta GA: “It is certainly true that born poor is a disadvantage…However, the majority feel like they are entitled to government health care, housing, food, etc.

Jeff, from Goffstown, NH: “We see people who could work but chose to remain “on the dole” and who think nothing about it…I’m tired of supporting those that think they are owed a living just for being born.”

Smack! Bam! Take that, you liberal lefty you for daring to say we lack empathy and compassion! We have plenty of empathy—for ourselves! And we’re very compassionate for those who pay taxes! Other commenters felt moved to add their preferred alternative to providing food and shelter to those in need:

Walker in Bar Harbor: “Perhaps poor people should not have kids…

De Ruiter, from South Central PA: “I am tired of paying for other people’s mistakes. Our government is using my hard earned tax dollars to pay unfit women to churn out large numbers of illegitimate, doomed to poverty children by a series of stray men who breed for a night or two and them move on to impregnate the next welfare woman.”

John Taylor from Millbrook NY: “If your income is below a certain level then you cannot have children. Additionally, if you are collecting any form of government subsidy then from the moment you start collecting you cannot have anymore children. Yes, this is crude and of course would have to be refined a bit…”

George Gharda-Ward MD, from Jacksonville FL: “How about forced sterilization. Let’s say that if a woman doesn’t have a household income of at least $40,000 by age 25 we just operate on them?”

Ah yes, the party that doesn’t like poor people, doesn’t want to have as many poor people, and explicitly states it doesn’t want them to breed, continues to fight with tooth and claw—to deny them birth control. At least they didn’t go so far as to advocate the solution to the problem of poor children that Jonathan Swift put forth in A Modest Proposal. Hope Michelle Bachmann never reads that.

Happy Thanksgiving—to all

Death of the Filibuster

Well, not really death, maybe more of a wounding. Well, not really a wounding, maybe more of a paper cut (ooh, but those things are nasty!), since the recent Senate rule change (see NYT article) blocked the filibuster only in regards to certain executive branch nominations and lower federal court appointments (not the Supreme Court). So it’s still fine to filibuster each and every one of the myriad other Senate bills that come up to help make the world safe for American business. But it raises an interesting question. How many votes should it take to decide something?

Our first response is that of course it should just be a simple plurality. What got more votes? If 51 people want Tom to be dog catcher (I’m sorry, Animal Control Officer) and 49 want Bill, then Tom’s got the job. That’s the default of democracy, right? But what if the Community Association is ordering pizza for its annual meeting? Should 51 meat lovers be able to order only pepperoni and sausage pizzas and force the 49 vegetarians to go hungry (or violate their principles)? That’s certainly “democratic” (small d) but somehow just doesn’t seem right. It’s what they call tyranny of the majority and of course has impacts far beyond pizza. After all, if Hitler found 51% of Germans (a not unlikely percentage) willing to say “Let’s get rid of all the Jews” and “Let’s invade everybody, even though we’re hopelessly outnumbered,” should the Germans have gone ahead with those plans even though a significant minority of the population thought “this is evil and insane and will destroy our country”? (the survivors getting to say “We told you so” after the war doesn’t make up for it)

No. Clearly some things are too important and/or too risky to enter into without more significant consensus than 51 to 49. Maybe 75% of people should need to agree to start a war?

But which things are that important? What decisions are so impactful that we would like to see more than 50.1% agreement? Hard to say—that would require some thought and careful analysis, substances that are in short supply in the government right now (and the country at large, for that matter). I suggested that going to war and ordering pizza are some possibilities (and the Constitution says amending the Constitution also is one) but there certainly are many others. Since it’s pretty hard to come up with a comprehensive list, the Senate, by permitting filibusters, has simply allowed significant minorities (originally 33%, now 40%) to decide on their own what issues they think are momentous enough to require more than 51% agreement. However, the original intent was that the minority would demand such greater consensus only when they had serious, strongly-held, principled objections (like to going to war or to denying Black people the vote). But the way the filibuster is now conducted, the “serious, strongly-held, principled” part has become simply “whenever we don’t like something.” Every vote has become vegetarians vs carnivores and the minority always feels justified in requiring a supermajority. Hmm. That doesn’t seem right either.

Eliminating the filibuster (either completely or only for certain types of bills) would just take us back to tyranny of the majority. But keeping the filibuster as it is makes every decision, from appointing postmasters to agreeing to pay bills we’ve already incurred, as momentous as going to war. What seems more sensible is to raise the bar for when a minority is allowed to put on the brakes. And that would involve coming up with some way to distinguish strongly-held, principled objections to major policy issues from mere annoyance at not getting one’s way. Now we know we can’t just ask politicians how important something is. They’re all capable of describing the closing of a post office in terms worthy of the apocalypse. No, we need them to demonstrate their level of commitment—prove that their issue is really important stuff and not just partisan pique. Perhaps holding their breath until they turn blue? That would be fun to watch, but probably too easy. The original filibuster rules required speaking until you turned blue. That’s a bit harder, how about that? Well, it demonstrated commitment but also blocked every other bit of occasionally-legitimate business of the Senate for an extended period of time. We need something that doesn’t stop the government in its tracks. Hunger strikes? Getting a face tattoo (“Block Senate Bill S. 47!”)? Shaving their head and painting their scalp green? Hmm, I sort of like the face tattooing, but maybe there’s something that also shows that their constituents go along with the idea. How about saying senators can only “super” a bill (ie, require a supermajority) if they present a petition signed by a significant percentage of their constituents? How many? I don’t know, but demonstrating buy-in by more than a core of rabid partisans would entail major effort that wouldn’t be undertaken at the drop of a hat (or bill) and would also ensure that senators couldn’t filibuster something that most of their constituents agreed with.

Anybody have other alternatives? Unlike the Congress, I’m open to ideas.

Lies, Damn Lies and Mistakes

A staple of knucklehead-dom is the man who, on being challenged about some inane statement he made like “Obama is a Kenyan-born, Muslim socialist,” “The Apollo moon landings were Hollywood fakes,” or “Sarah Palin would make a fine president, ” blusters the retort, “You callin’ me a liar? Huh, are ya’?” Although the tempting reply is simply a whack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper (something you can’t do with your iPad—more than once, anyway), the rational person instead sighs and points out, “No, I’m not calling you a liar. I’m just saying that you’re mistaken—sadly and deludedly mistaken, but nonetheless simply mistaken. There’s a difference.”

So how is it that so many people on all sides, including the typically rational Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, seem to have bought into the Fox trope that Obama “lied” to us about the ACA. You know, the part where he said “If you like your coverage, you can keep it.” Well, he was certainly wrong. But was he wrong on purpose, that is, was he lying? Was he muttering to himself, “If we tell people their shitty coverage isn’t allowed under the new law, they’ll be really upset and will call Fox News and complain. I know! Let’s tell them that they can keep policies that are specifically banned by the law! Even though it’s written down in the ACA in black and white where everyone can read it, who will know?”  Really? Because that’s the thought process that would have to have been going on for this to be a lie. And that would make it not just a lie, but a really, really stupid lie. I mean, you’ve got a better chance arguing that the shadow angles on the videos prove the moon landings were fake than you do arguing that a law doesn’t require what it specifically says it requires. Now the 15% of the population who would believe absolutely anything bad about the president also have no trouble believing he’d lie like this. As for me, it doesn’t make much sense. Especially when there’s the alternative possibility that he was mistaken.

I think he (mistakenly) meant something else, and I say that mainly because I (mistakenly) thought he meant something else. When I heard him talk about keeping your policy if you liked it, I interpreted that to mean the fairly minor points that if you liked having health insurance, the insurance company couldn’t throw you off for outrageous offenses such as getting sick and costing them money, and that if you were already covered at work, then you wouldn’t be required to drop that plan and sign up on the exchanges—that the ACA didn’t apply to the vast majority of people who had coverage through their company. It was designed to facilitate coverage of people who were unable to get basic health insurance on their own. I (mistakenly) wasn’t thinking about the few percent (and that’s all it is) of people who purchase their own insurance, and purchased a plan that doesn’t meet the basic ACA standards, and don’t want a better one, and don’t qualify for enough subsidies to make one of the ACA plans cheaper. Mistake? Yep. Lie? No way.

I think the president (and I) have done enough mea culpas. Let’s remember what this whole thing is about. We’re trying to make health insurance available to more of the nearly 50 million Americans who do not have it, AND we’re trying to set some pretty minimum standards for what can be offered as “health insurance.” There are standards for what’s in gasoline and how your house plumbing has to be put together, so why not standards for health insurance? And just a reminder, here’s what we’re talking about:

The essential health benefits include at least the following items and services:

  • Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization (such as surgery)
  • Maternity and newborn care (care before and after your baby is born)
  • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services

In addition, health insurers will be prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on coverage and will be prohibited from rescinding coverage; new health plans will be required to cover certain preventive services with no cost-sharing; increases in health plan premiums will be subject to review; insurers will be required to spend at least 80% of premiums on medical costs; young adults will be allowed to remain on their parent’s insurance up to age 26.

Don’t like that? Maybe you also like water in your gasoline and plumbing made out of cardboard. The rest of us think it should be standard.

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).