Thursday, August 23, 2018

Information Please

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As campaign season 2018 heats up, we can see the outlines of the party messaging forming. On the Democratic side, tying candidates to Trump, family separation policy and the tax cut that blew up the budget in order to increase corporate profits should be big. Plus, now, with the Mannafort and Cohen convictions, corruption will resonate with many. On the Republican side it's a little hard to know what they can run on. They'll still have immigration and government regulation, along with their old standbys racial animus and tribal fear and hatred, but it's hard to see how well that will play after two full years of Trump. It gets them into the 30% range, but it's not going to push them over the top like it did in 2018, when people could still think hopeful thoughts about a Trump White House with unfettered congressional power.

But in the real world - and assuming the economy doesn't collapse in the next 80 days, much of the discussion will center on health care. And after the implementation of the ACA and the angry tantrum on the right that resulted as they were forced to make it clear that they just didn't think poor people should be able to go to the doctor. This 'survival of the richest' Darwinian social experiment has played out, and people have now seen what even limited government intervention in the health care marketplace can do. The American electorate, to a large degree, is ready to have a conversation about shifting the health care system to a more modern, effective, subsidized system like all other industrialized economies have implemented.

But here we find ourselves at a crossroads. What will it be? Medicare for All, a Medicare buy-in option, a full-blown public option to compete with private insurers? What will public funds be used for, and how much public money will be necessary? We got a taste of where this is leading during the Bernie Sanders campaign. He dangled a concept - single payer - in front of people without being upfront about what that meant to him, how it might be passed, what it would cost and how those funds would be raised. Many of us accepted his good faith at his word and asked questions. These questions were immediately shouted down as the desperate cries of neoliberal shills out to protect the status quo. Huh?

Look. There's hundreds of ways to implement some kind of publicly funded universal coverage system. If I ask you questions, it's not because I'm trying to prevent your preferred program from becoming law, but rather because I'm going to work my ass off to prevent a BAD program from becoming law. If I have questions, it means we're engaging with each other to try to solve this problem once and for all. And if you can't tell me how much your program would cost, we can't even begin to have a conversation about it, because THAT'S the issue we have to address. The gigantic, bloated American military is the largest in the world by far, the most expensive in history, and it costs about 4% of GDP. Here we're talking about somewhere between 10 and 20% of GDP. The Republican tax bill cost $2 trillion over ten years. Here we're talking about more than $2 trillion dollars in year one alone!

So yeah, if I ask you how your health care program would be funded, you can't just shrug and say 'tax the rich'. If you can't say how much money you need, you don't know if that's a viable solution or not. Is your program means tested? Why - or why not? How does your program control costs? Since you're using public money you can't just pay whatever the doctor or hospital puts on the invoice. Are you using Medicare reimbursement rates? What will you do if not enough health care delivery organizations agree to take patients at those rates? What about employer-funded health care? How do you transfer those private costs to the public sector, and can you require employers relieved of those costs to raise wages or benefits?

See, there's really only one point here. If you say you want universal or single payer health care in the US, you should never react negatively to people who ask questions. You NEED to be able to answer the questions, because you can't actually get what you want until you take a nebulous concept and flesh it out with some real information. You also should realize that if you support a badly designed or stupid program, many of us will point this out. Not necessarily because we don't want a better universal health care system in the US, but because we don't want one that will fail. It seems fairly clear that we're beyond the point of arguing about human rights vs. Socialism, and we can begin to have a serious conversation about caring for all American citizens. So we need to get used to talking in some detail as opposed to shouting bumper stickers at each other.

This is a GOOD thing.
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Monday, August 20, 2018

Whither the White Working Class?

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Man, there's a whole lot of stupid coming out of Democratic politics as the campaigns for the November mid-terms begin to heat up. Which is not to say that there's not even more stupid in the Republican campaign messaging - it's just that they decended into incoherent hooting and feces-flinging long ago, to the point where there's just nothing interesting to say about them. But on the Democratic side we have a full-blown, totally unnecessary argument about 'socialism' that isn't socialism - it's just basic FDR New Deal liberal economics. We have Democrats who should know better adopting the feel-good joys of old-fashioned authoritarianism, working to silence voices they don't like. But the one that really takes the cake for me is this argument about whether/how Democrats should attempt to win the votes of a demographic group we have chosen to call the 'White Working Class'.

If we were to be honest, the white working class shouldn't even be a thing. The working class has very serious issues - education, health care, addiction, flat wages and job losses. But none of these issues are problems for white members of the working class alone. They are serious problems for every American who works for an hourly wage. And yet, we know with certainty that the working class voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while the subset of that same demographic group with white skin voted overwhelmingly for Trump. So one has no choice to ask, if they all face the same problems - hunger, addiction, substandard housing, lack of health insurance and a dark future for their children - why did people of color vote for the party whose very existence is predicated on solving these specific types of problems while the white members in precisely the same set of circumstances turned out to elect a millionaire liar heading a party that has done everything in its power to destroy their lives and families for decades?

The answer is we KNOW the answer. Those white people, less educated working poor, may have the same needs as their African American and Latino peers. But for decades the Republicans have used their racial animus, their hatreds and their fears, their superstitions and their willful ignorance to convince them to vote against their best interests. And they have, turning out reliably in droves to support a party that goes to work every day hell bent on making them poorer, sicker and ever more miserable. Even today, when thousands of them die every month from opioid overdoses, when their wages are lower than they were twenty years ago, when their children can't go to college and have zero hope of a better life, the Republicans know they can count on them to do everything they can to perpetuate their own immiseration.

So now, if you tell me that just turning out  the Democratic base isn't enough, that in order to win enough congressional seats in November to make a difference we have to change the minds of the 'White Working Class' I'll tell you you are deluded, and desperately wrong. All we can do is the same thing we've ever done - keep telling them their lives and their families would be much better off under a Democratic government, and if their own self interest isn't enough to make them change their minds, they are well and truly a lost cause. Indeed, they are the enemy of the American people in a very real sense, working to help the most authoritarian nativist bigots destroy the most important American constitutional values in the name of raw power and tribal hatred.
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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For

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So, as has been discussed and documented endlessly, the arc of the Republican party over the last several decades has been to increasingly put winning politically over governing responsibly. Under Clinton, they tried hearings and even impeachment. Then, under the odious GW Bush, they discovered that, hey, governing is really hard and probably takes a level of expertise and careful attention to detail that they were unable to muster. Then, under Obama, they discovered that full on burn-it-down, sand in the gears obstruction didn't result in any political costs at all. And now, under Trump, they are fully prepared to sacrifice American sovereignty as long as they can hold onto power.

So now, as the truth about the 2016 Trump campaign slowly trickles out, the Republicans, both in government and in the electorate, are working themselves around to a simple conclusion about Russian interference. It amounts to "so what?" Once it becomes impossible to argue, even on the margins, that the Russian government didn't intentionally hack the Democrats and work with the Trump campaign to influence American voters in the run-up to the 2016 elections, the party and its voters will simply decide that foreign interference doesn't matter - that it's essentially no different from any other interested party. Voters can make up their own minds, and if no actual votes were changed, the election was free and fair.

But here's where that's going to get dicey. If the November mid-term elections go as expected, the Republicans are going to be massively butthurt. Led by their Tweeter-in-chief, they're going to be screaming about rigged elections and voter fraud and...wait for it...interference. As soon as they need evidence of electoral shenanigans to support their desperate cries that they simply COULDN'T have lost, suddenly that interference by the GRU and the Internet Research Agency is going to take on a whole new look.

Now, hypocrisy as a political gaffe long ago lost its cachet. You can look at Mitch McConnell shepherding through the Kavanaugh nomination and compare what he's saying to what he said when Merrick Garland was the nominee, and see that the most blatant hypocrisy doesn't merit any more than an occasional snarky tweet. But this is going to be political hypocrisy on an entirely new level. Suddenly all the denials about Russian interference and collusion with the campaign are going to switch to a full-throated condemnation of the Republican party and its candidates for winning as a result of Russian interference and campaign collusion.

And just like that, in the course of two years, American electoral credibility will be gone forever. By placing this stunted, angry man-child in the highest position in the land and letting him and his cult members dictate so much of the narrative, we will have reduced every electoral outcome to a matter of opinion to be argued about and never accepted. I always thought American small-d democratic institutions were strong enough to withstand even the GW Bush/Trump onslaught. That might have been optimistic, because I just never anticipated the attacks would follow such a bizarre path, and the institutions would be threatened in such an indirect manner.
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Monday, August 13, 2018

Liar!

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It's endlessly amusing to watch how Trump responds to every accusation, charge or innuendo. He's like a pathological eleven-year-old, stealing cookies and breaking lamps and repeatedly denying it. Everybody's lying. All the women who accuse him of sexual misconduct are lying, even though we have all heard him on tape saying he regularly gropes and abuses women. He says people who call him a racist are lying, despite the fact that he regularly says racist things right out loud. He says the media is lying whenever it reports on his own behavior, even when we all witnessed that behavior. And now we have Omaraosa and her book. He says she's lying - and she says she has audio recordings.

In the end, it doesn't matter if she has recorded conversations. Because to Trump, it's not about reality - it's about what's in his own head. He told Lester Holt on live television that he fired Comey because of 'the Russia thing'. And still he claims there was no obstruction of justice. He dictated the message for his son Don Jr. claiming the meeting with the Russian agents at Trump Tower in June was about adoption, something we now know was not true, and that Trump knew it was false at the time. Still he claims there was 'no collusion'.

I know, we've been at this for a couple years now. But sometimes you have to take a couple steps back and look at who America elected to lead the free world. This stupid, intemperate, fragile little man is making a mockery out of political leadership and good governance all over the world. It's the tyranny of a toddler, throwing tantrums, stealing cookies and insisting that everyone else is lying about everything. We've been so lucky, with all the turmoil with Russia and China and Turkey and Syria that we haven't faced a serious international crisis. Because it's very hard to see a way this administration might navigate a true crisis without making it worse.
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Sunday, August 12, 2018

The OTHER Facebook Problem

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So we've been discussing endlessly the rights and responsibilities of the social media companies that have effectively taken over and 'privatized' the public square. First it was Russian GRU influence operations, and lately it has been Alex Jones and free speech in the age of privately owned platforms. Ironically, it was that latest argument about what Facebook can - and more importantly should - do about publishers like Jones that led me to my most existential problem with Facebook.

See, I LIKE Facebook. It seems like a wonderful idea, a whole bunch of people all over the world hanging out together, shooting the breeze, laughing and joking and also discussing the important issues of our time. That really appealed to me. I'm interested in a lot of things, from music and science to foreign affairs and public policy, and being able to discuss them with people who may not agree with me seems like an exciting, stimulating opportunity to learn and grow from each other. And while that's true in a perfect world, the world, alas, is a lot less than perfect. And people, well, that's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.

It was in a conversation on Facebook the other day that I had this rather unpleasant epiphany. See, I don't much care for Alex Jones, but when it comes to his right to access the public square I would always err on the side of too much speech. I can - and do - choose not to read Jones' idiocy, but as soon as somebody is banned, I no longer get to make that choice. And if it's Jones today, it might well be you or me tomorrow. Well, most people I know disagree with me on this topic. That's fine, in fact it's downright interesting to hear what they have to say. But one of my 'friends' took the opportunity to post a needlessly harsh, mean, rude, personal attack on me, and to make it worse, he was blatantly dishonest in how he characterized my position.

Now, communicating in text form can get dicey, as it's not always clear the intention of the people doing the communicating. But when you have been 'friends' on Facebook for a long time, you should be able to expect kindness, not hostility, and you should always give your friends the benefit of the doubt. But people are, at the end of the day, emotional animals, and when communications happen in a format that is not in any way face-to-face, they sometimes feel empowered to indulge a kind of hard wired mean streak. That same mean streak exists in other formats, but it is suppressed because it's HARD to be mean, rude and insulting right to someone's face. But most of those social inhibitions just seem to vanish in conversations on the internet.

So for now I find myself avoiding Facebook. I'm not one to make grand pronouncements - I'LL NEVER POST ON THIS SHITTY WEBSITE AGAIN!! - but until I feel comfortable scrolling through my newsfeed again, I'll probably mostly refrain from posting. Because this is the most intractable kind of problem - it's something we evolved a solution for hundreds of thousands of years ago, and therefore have no solutions for today. People are mean. They're self-interested and often angry. And if you give them a safe platform from which to fly that mean-human flag, you can often expect them to do just that. But when it comes from someone you like and trust, someone who you felt was a friend, it feels like betrayal...
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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Terms and Conditions

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Lemme tell you why we're doomed.

It's not particularly hard to grasp. We're doomed because there are two 'factions' that hate each other viscerally because, ultimately, they just can't agree on a basic starting point. One set of facts, one observed reality. From there, we could figure out what needed to happen, from government intervention to civil war. At least there would be a way forward, even if it was fatal.

But as long as people are alowed to argue 'they're protesting the anthem' when they tell us very clearly what they're protesting, as long as people can argue that the people in power are the victims of racial prejudice and animus, when they can ignore the way 21st century American law enforcement treats African American men despite voluminous documentation - well, see, there's the problem.

If there's no problem, there's nothing to solve, and if those in power are actually the victims the solutions - however harsh - are clear...

Monday, July 9, 2018

All the News that's Fit to Complain About

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Both sides do it. Complain about the news, that is. On the Conservative side, they've been so deeply enmeshed in lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories for so long that they can't begin to figure out how to address actual facts, quotes and events. On the Liberal side, well, we hate pretty much everything. You don't see nearly as much whining about 'Fake News' from liberals - Fox News is state TV, the propaganda outlet for the Republican party, and other outlets like Breitbart traffic in such bizarre nonsense that to call it fake news would be to lend it a cachet of credibility far beyond its own intrinsic worth. Liberals complain about coverage and content choices. At this point one might reach the conclusion that Twitter exists primarily as a medium for complaining about the media.

But here's the thing. The 'news' all these politically active people on both sides of the ideological divide are complaining about? It's not. News, that is. In many cases it is a costly, extravagantly produced television show designed not to inform, but to sell products. Television shows, just as a reminder, are profitable because they are a delivery medium for advertisers. As a result, the television news suffers from time constraints - it is fundamentally impossible for them to discuss ANY issue at even the minimal depth to actually inform their viewers. It doesn't matter if they're talking about health care policy, SCOTUS, North Korea or immigration, they leave out even the most salient details. They leave them out because the producers don't believe people want to know them, and because, with only 40 minutes of content per hour, they simply don't have time to deliver a complete picture of the issue, let alone the events of the day.

Then there's the other delivery mechanism, an anachronism from previous centuries we like to call a newspaper. This is where the complaints get, well, weird. People complain about what's being covered, and they complain about what's NOT being covered. They complain about who's writing the stories, the topics of the stories, the amount of coverage the story gets (too little/too much) and they complain about the overarching editorial choices the newspaper's management staff makes. Person X has a paid job writing for the NY Times? That's shameful and ridiculous. Person Y DOESN'T have a job writing for the NY Times? They are silencing our voices. Person Z wrote something I disagree with - he must be fired now.

Frankly, I don't understand any of this. Sure, the right-wing echo chamber is an embarrassment of false and incomplete narratives, primarily because it exists to support a right-wing political contingent that long ago ran out of anything of value to offer, and is now utterly dependent on false and incomplete narratives to sell its toxic set of policies to a public that is every year worse off for supporting them. But we're supposed to be the smart ones, literate and deeply concerned with actual facts, whether they support our desired policy positions or not.

Read what you want - don't read what you choose. But complaining about what is said or written in these ridiculous entities we call television and newspapers is pointless. They will never get it right, because they are so fatally flawed that it is impossible for them to do so. They will take shortcuts, offer anecdotes, quote sources and frame a narrative that is at best so incomplete as to be hollow, and at worst just farcically incorrect. If you actually care about public policy, read the source material, seek out the authoritative sources, read the longform deepdive white papers and research studies. If you're concerned about legislation, read the bill(s). If you're concerned about regulation, read the rules. If you care about international affairs, see what the politicians, journalists and pundits in other nations are saying.

Here's an example. When Supreme Court Justice Kennedy resigned, the immediate implication was all around abortion, and Roe v Wade. But Roe was decided almost fifty years ago - did you go back and read the original decision, just to be clear on what might be at stake? Have you read it, even now? What about Casey v Planned Parenthood? When Trump rants about NATO funding, did you do a little research on how NATO is funded, just to see what the hell he's talking about? Whining about what CNN isn't covering or what some NYT OpEd writer said in a clickbait weekend column isn't informing you or anyone else - once again, because it is impossible to be informed by watching TV/Cable news and reading newspapers online.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor - find out what's happening, don't complain about how certain flawed media outlets are telling the story. Because they no longer have value as sources of information.
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