Friday, June 16, 2017

It's Blood Money: Senate R's and Healthcare

Reporting has been consistently inconsistent on how close Senate Rs are to bringing their healthcare bill to a vote, although most recently the chances for that to happen by early July are said to be alarmingly good.

As to what actually is or will be in the bill, nobody except those R Senators involved really know.  The whole thing is being done in complete secrecy.  So far there doesn't even seem to be a written bill, and there likely will not be until it is time for the vote, which will be called only if the R leadership knows it already has the votes to pass it.

So not only is the process of writing the bill being done without outside scrutiny--even and maybe especially expert scrutiny--once the bill is written, there will be no process for evaluating it.

The entire criteria for what gets into this bill seems to be what will get the needed votes.  They are not evaluating what will make the best healthcare system for the most Americans.  They aren't even getting outside evaluation on whether the thing will work at all.  It mirrors the autocratic White House attitude.  It is irresponsible, cynical and corrupt on an immense scale.

From the beginning, the repeal and replace of Obamacare has been a cynical and carelessly cruel excuse for giving more tax breaks to the very rich.  That is, as they say, the bottom line for the R party.

Here is Sarah Kliff at Vox:

"Republicans do not want the country to know what is in their health care bill.

This has become more evident each day, as the Senate plots out a secretive path toward Obamacare repeal — and top White House officials (including the president) consistently lie about what the House bill actually does.

There was even a brief moment Tuesday where Senate Republicans flirted with the idea of banning on-camera interviews in congressional hallways, a plan quickly reversed after outcry from the press.

“The extreme secrecy is a situation without precedent, at least in creating health care law” writes Julie Rovner, who has covered health care politics since 1986 and is arguably the dean of the DC health care press corps.

I don’t have quite as long of a tenure as Rovner, but I have been covering health care politics since Democrats began debating the Affordable Care Act in 2009. It’s become obvious to me, particularly this week, that Republicans plan to move more quickly and less deliberatively than Democrats did in drafting the Affordable Care Act. They intend to do this despite repeatedly and angrily criticizing the Affordable Care Act for being moved too quickly and with too little deliberation.

My biggest concern isn’t the hypocrisy; there is plenty of that in Washington. It’s that the process will lead to devastating results for millions of Americans who won’t know to speak up until the damage is done. So far, the few details that have leaked out paint a picture of a bill sure to cover millions fewer people and raise costs on those with preexisting conditions.

The plan is expected to be far-reaching, potentially bringing lifetime limits back to employer-sponsored coverage, which could mean a death sentence for some chronically ill patients who exhaust their insurance benefits.

Senate Republicans do not appear to be focused on carefully crafting policy that reflects a more conservative, free-market attempt at achieving President Donald Trump’s goals of covering every American at lower cost. They’re focused on passing something, by whatever means necessary. That may come back to haunt them electorally, but not after millions suffer the consequences."

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Psychics Predictions Coming True!

Record hot weather scorches zone from Washington to Boston in Wednesday's Washington Post.  It's Boston's second heat wave this summer, and it's not even summer yet.

'Dangerous,' potentially record-breaking heat forecast to scorch Southwest in USA Today.

Noting that "On Tuesday, some parts of the Midwest and Northeast saw temperatures 20 degrees above the historical average," Think Progress headlined:
If you want to know what climate change feels like, you’re going to find out this summer.

Yes, even if you don't believe what climate scientists say is good science--including this recent study figuring that the climate crisis is responsible for, among other things, 85% of record hot days--you have to admit that what's happening is pretty much what they said would happen.  So even if you think the science is bogus, you have to give them credit as the best damn psychics the world has ever seen!

So let's talk about hot, which you may not want to talk about if it is hot where you are, which is a lot of places.  But maybe it will lend some visceral substance to the discussion.

There are common sense conclusions quantified in studies -extreme heat is bad for your health in all kinds of ways,  and affects your cognitive ability not to mention your temper, etc.  Now there are studies showing how it leads to sleep deprivation and mental health problems.

And of course, it is devastating for the poor and in poor regions, many of which happen to be in hot places to begin with.  A place in Pakistan just set a record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth in the month of May: 128F.

Heat begets violence, and prolonged heat without rain that devastates the food supply is a chief cause of wars. (You may not believe that but the Pentagon does.)

  Unfortunately, it's going to get hotter for the foreseeable future, so we need to honor these psychics by recognizing this, and preparing for it, factoring it in with every decision for the future.

In addition to doing all we can to prevent it from getting worse for future generations by invoking this psychic magic of not burning carbon or otherwise sending emanations from certain gases into the heavens.  Before it gets too hot to do anything.  Like think.

The Russians Are Coming (If They Aren't Already Here)

Before the Coverup (including obstruction of justice), and in a sense even before the underlying Crime (coordination or collusion between the 2016 R campaign--possibly extending into now--and the Russian government/oligarchy under dictator Putin) there is the very strangely forgotten Super Crime: the Russian invasion of the US, attacking our elections.

How could this possibly be forgotten?  Maybe in a virtual age we aren't quite up to imagining a virtual war?  Instead of guns fired or cities incinerated there are votes changed and manipulated, perhaps resulting in outcomes manipulated and changed.  Damage that is harder to see, less visceral, longer term.  The ultimate Trojan Horse.

But this all started with warnings by the western intelligence "community," meaning numerous spy agencies in the US and abroad, that the Russians are coming, and in 2016, they were here, attacking our elections,  attempting a virtual political assassination of one candidate, and skewing the outcome to the one they wanted.

Why hasn't this been a screaming headline for months?  Possibly because of this other problem: the one they wanted, the one who got in, denies that any of it took place, doesn't want anybody to suggest it did or might have, and doesn't want anybody investigating it further.  He certainly isn't leading the charge, despite the certainty expressed by all the nation's intelligence agencies.  Because his Russian pals say they didn't do it.

If anything should unite the country it is attack by a foreign power, but so far the public doesn't seem to care much.  It apparently takes an ex-FBI agent to be shocked by all of this.  It sure doesn't seem to bother the Attorney-General.

Meanwhile, more information on the Russian invasion continues to come out, such as this story about a cyber attack that seemed intended to get access to actual voting machines just days before the 2016 election.  According to Bloomberg News: Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election reached deeper than previously believed as people with direct knowledge of the investigation say electoral systems of 39 states were hit in the cyberattack.

And guess what?  You know that big congressional election in Georgia that's getting all the buzz because of what it might say about 2018?  It turns out that Georgia's voting system appears to be particularly vulnerable to cyberattack.

And this doesn't even take into account the Russian secret manipulation of social media and Wikileaks.

Some Senators seemed restive about all of this--the Russian attacks, the White House apathy-- during the Comey testimony.  Now, pretty quietly, the Senate has passed--almost unanimously--a package of stronger sanctions on Russia, and more:

"By a 97-2 vote, the U.S. Senate approved stronger sanctions on Russia Wednesday and took the first step toward limiting President Trump’s ability to ease those sanctions."

"More problematically, at least as far as the White House is concerned, the package also codifies into law five executive orders sanctioning Russia issued by President Obama. That means President Trump would not be able to strike them down as easily as Obama ordered them."

According to Politico, the dictator apprentice White House and State Department don't like it (surprise) and are lobbying to stop it in the House.  It also requires a presidential signature, which should be an interesting prospect.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Apprentice Dictator's Progress

Update: Wednesday's Washington Post: "The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said....The obstruction-of-justice investigation of the president began days after Comey was fired on May 9, according to people familiar with the matter."

He was off to an absolutely blitzkrieging good start, destroying (and purporting to destroy) policies and regulations that were almost always carefully crafted as the result of long processes of expert investigation and report, debate among affected parties and often with public discussion, working towards a final product that addressed the problem in a way that most involved could at least live with, and most could view with pride.  His administration is still doing this.  Update: And doing this--almost always serving a corporate interest's creepy behavior. 

He attacked the budgets of departments and bureaus in which mostly decent and often knowledgeable public servants had devoted their working lives to fulfill their mandates and serve the people.  He slashed at every environmental regulation in sight, and served his fossil fuel masters by ignoring the climate crisis and other realities.  He urged congressional Rs to concoct in secret and pass in bullying fashion a cruel and spiteful healthcare bill, one of many acts that are already creating untold suffering, while the Senate tries to finish the job while hiding in the darkness.

Though many of his actions would be symbolic, his minions carried out others that will damage the country for years and generations.  And he did it with no justification other than he, the apprentice dictator, said so.

But then came his most blatant dictatorial acts--especially firing the acting Attorney General, all the federal Attorneys in all the states, and then the FBI director.  To some he gave no reasons, weak reasons or several reasons. But basically his rationale was that he wanted to.  Because he has that absolute power.

Late in the day on Monday an observation by a presidential pal on the PBS News Hour of all places sent shock waves through the media and political Washington: he was considering firing the special counsel Robert Mueller investigating the Russian interference in US elections, including all attempts to interfere with the investigation itself (such as, maybe, firing the FBI Director.)

There were two main themes to the media discussion: First, that as politically crazy as this would be, he just might do it.  Second, he can't do it directly but only through a messy process that would likely see more casualties in the Justice Department than even Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre caused.

It took well over 24 hours and several non-denial denials (as well as a sourced NY Times story confirming that he has been contemplating this action) before the White House gave an actual answer.  According to his spokesperson, it was:      that "while the president has the right to" fire Robert Mueller, "he has no intention to do so."

Apart from the dubious grammar, the statement speaks volumes.  Despite his own Deputy AG (who is in charge of overseeing the investigation, and who appointed Mueller) saying earlier Tuesday that only he can fire Mueller, that according to his mandate he must have good cause, and without good cause he would not obey an order to fire him, our dictator apprentice is asserting the absolute right to fire the guy investigating his campaign and probably him.

On the firing and the context, I can do no better than refer to this column by Jonathan Chiat.  He believes that eventually he will try to fire Mueller, first because he is probably guilty of a lot, and second, because nobody has stopped him so far.  Chiat:

"Trump is almost characterologically bound to test the limits of the system until he finally goes so far he cannot go any further. Firing the special prosecutor is the next unthinkable step before him, very much like all the other unthinkable steps he has already taken."

That's where we are in the apprentice dictator's progress.  A lot of people in Washington, in the media, in the country and around the world are onto him:  they know he is a shameless, know-nothing egomaniac authoritarian liar and thief who demeans the presidency relentlessly every day, who is in it for money as well as power, even as he functions as the chump of the moneybags he and his party serve.

A lot of people know that. They know he is dangerous to the country, and is lawless.  But nobody seems to know what to do about it.  And nobody so far has come up with anything to stop him.

Nobody has ever seen anything like him in this country.  Laws, rules, even the Constitution did not fully anticipate him.  The unwritten rules that everyone accepts have no defense against him.  From the beginning, Chiat observes,"Trump has endlessly violated a series of norms that appeared to be inviolable."

He's gotten away with it all.  So far.  And the federal investigation headed by the special counsel is only one ongoing process to hold him accountable.  As of Tuesday there are now three separate and serious law suits charging that he has (in the words of the New York Times story, the definitive one so far) "accusing President Trump of violating the Constitution by profiting from business dealings with foreign governments."  

The latest is by 200 members of Congress.  Another is by the AGs of Maryland and DC, and another by competitors in the hotel industry.  If any or all of them are given the go-ahead by a judge, it can mean that the family's business finances--and tax returns--will be subpoenaed.

This profiteering is another activity that is so blatant and ongoing that nobody seems to know how else to confront it.  Also on Tuesday, the NY Times business section had a story headlined  Trump Adds More Trademarks in China.

But while such efforts slowly unfold, and amazing headlines assault us nearly every day (along with equally astonishing stories that don't make the headline cut, like Trump’s Personal Lawyer Boasted That He Got [NY US Attorney] Preet Bharara Fired because he told Trump Bharara was out to get him.)

Meanwhile, the apprentice dictator continues progressing towards full dictator status, sometimes in audaciously sad and ridiculous ways, as in a Cabinet meeting unlike any in American history, he received fealty, praise and expressions of loyalty by those "blessed" to serve him.

But as cartoon Mussolini-like as this appears, it is of a piece with his dangerous destructiveness.   As Chiat observes: "His need for deference and flattery is abnormal by the standards of either human beings in general or non-dictator politicians in particular. Trump is an instinctive authoritarian; the existence of an independent law enforcement system beyond his control is intolerable to him."

Another bad/good sign is that his best chosen instrument for oppression, head of Homeland Security John Kelly, is being called out:

"John Kelly’s sterling reputation as a Marine general with an appreciation for nuance led many Democrats to back his nomination as Homeland Security secretary in the hope that he would rein in President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration and security policies.

Instead, Kelly has moved to impose those policies with military rigor. He has pursued an aggressive deportation campaign; defended Trump’s effort to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries; and hinted that he might separate migrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kelly has joked with Trump about using violence against reporters and defended Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, amid allegations that he tried to set up a secret back channel to the Russian government.

Today, it’s tough to find anyone on the left willing to defend Kelly. He has alienated potential allies on Capitol Hill, including Democrats who voted to confirm him, and is endangering his reputation as a nonpartisan figure in a presidential administration that has relatively few."

But again, no one is actually stopping him.  And he's in position to do even worse when called upon.

So where does that leave us?  Greg Sergeant's Morning Plum in the Washington Post on Monday began:

"Are Republicans prepared for the possibility that President Trump’s abuses of power could continue their slide to depths of madness or autocracy that make the current moment look relatively tame by comparison? This isn’t meant as a rhetorical question. It is genuinely unclear — from the public statements of Republicans and the reporting on their private deliberations — whether they envision a point at which Trump’s conduct could grow unhinged enough, or threaten serious enough damage to our democracy, to warrant meaningful acknowledgment, never mind action."

In other words, we know what creek we're up.  If there's a paddle, nobody's found it yet.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Back in the UK: The Great US/UK/EU Unravel Continues

President Obama spoke in Montreal on June 6.  Though he didn't directly mention it as an anniversary of D-Day, the launching of the massive Allied military campaign to finish the Nazi dominance of Europe, he shaped his address (of 30 minutes, see above) by describing the past 70 years of relative peace, growing prosperity and democracy in the West as first of all a result of what began to be created as a consequence of World War II.  It is possible to think anew and act anew, he said, because that's what we did then.

If you need an immediate sense of the widespread hunger for change in America and England during World War II, click on one of the broadcasts by Norman Corwyn that can be heard on Youtube or elsewhere on the Internet.  It came from the bottom up.

Corwyn's broadcasts on CBS radio were enormously popular. For example, one English officer in a Corwin script insists that after the war “things are never going to be the same as they were...We’ve discovered that the idea of every-man-for-himself, that the old class distinctions have outlived their usefulness...” Ordinary soldiers and their families must insist “on a new life—by demanding that the same tremendous sacrifice and energy, the same resources of men and material that are put into a successful war be put into a successful peace.”

Corwin wrote about “the little guy” in America as well, who proved his mettle and judgment in the war, who could do great things when given the opportunity, and who deserved good housing, health and education.

These sentiments were the underpinning for what wartime and postwar leaders did ("though not without hypocrisy" as President Obama noted in Montreal.) He talked briefly about the establishment of an international order, beginning with the creation of the United Nations, that not only kept the peace (mostly) but increased freedom and quality of life.  The changes were "based not only on power but on principle."

The role of political leadership cannot be underestimated, beginning with FDR but including Europeans whose names are not so familiar here.  But that leadership, which began during the war, not only created new international structures and new national institutions (like democratic governments in the defeated nations of Japan and Germany) but by empowering ordinary people, not only politically but in terms of opportunity, income, health and education.

In the United States, there was the GI Bill of Rights, instituted mostly to provide income for returning soldiers in the period of postwar adjustment.  But it was the less emphasized provision for a period of free higher education that changed everything.  Most soldiers didn't use their free money, but many more than anyone believed possible went to college.  Moreover, the GI Bill was one of the few postwar programs that did not discriminate against minorities.  The GI Bill built the future for millions of Americans.

The US partnered with western European nations in the Marshall Plan that went beyond saving millions from starvation to creating economic stability and paths for growth.  As part of that process, closer relationships among nations resulted in the Common Market and eventually the European Union.

Meanwhile, the hunger for change for ordinary people resulted in the Labour government in the UK immediately after World War II that created the institutions referred to as the welfare state.  Both the US and the UK also did two very important things: first, they supported the growth of labor unions which, for all the corruption that tainted them later, were instrumental in lessening income disparity as well as weakening the rigid class system in England and in growing the middle class in both countries.

Second, they both instituted high rates of taxation on the rich, partly to pay for infrastructure and institutions that served the entire society, and furthered economic prosperity. In the UK, this money paid for National Health and nationalized industries. In the US this money built highways, airports, public utilities and subsidized housing in suburbia and well as the cities.  (It also bought a huge military industrial complex, which nevertheless transformed the US map and provided middle class incomes.) Various expansions of rights (sometimes after conflict, as in the Civil Rights movement) and benefits continued.

But for at least the past 35 years, in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, many of the underpinnings of the middle class expansion and a strong and shared public sector were eroded, weakened and destroyed, along with the public support that sustained them.  It seems the further we get from the time when the rationale for creating them was clear, the less we understand their importance.

The victims of these collapses were persuaded to blame each other, but certainly to find fault with governments and political leadership.  Now we find ourselves in a period of deep confusion and disarray, in both the US and UK.  The recent UK election has created political chaos there.  It seems to have revealed a polarization of left and right as complete as the US version, but because of the parliamentary system, it has risked the possibility that a government cannot be formed.  The Conservatives are in disarray, and need additional minority party help they can barely tolerate and may not get anyway, while Labour and its possible allies don't add up to the majority necessary.

I've listened to a lot of BBC radio lately as well as reading analyses, and it seems nobody can agree what the message of that election is, or why it came out as it did. Was it just a matter of a bad campaigner running a bad campaign, versus a tech-savvy Bernie Sanders type of candidacy that brought out young voters hungry for free college tuition and radical change?  Was it terrorism?  Brexit?  Income inequality?  Nobody knows, especially on Brexit, as neither major party leader mentioned it in the campaign.  Update: Here's a later--and more upbeat-- analysis by John Cassidy that makes the most sense so far: Corbyn changed the dynamic by running against austerity, for taxing the rich to fund public services, and for a less severe break with the EU.

And just as Russia won the US election, some observers say that Russia seems the clear victor in the UK, with the government weakened, negotiations with the EU and consequently the EU itself in disorder, and either a weak Conservative leader or a leftist with a reputation as a pro-Russia EU skeptic (or as they say over there, sceptic.)

From this distance it seems that the UK as well as the US is suffering at a particularly unfortunate time from not having good leaders or even good potential leaders.  Just as it's hard to think of a candidate for President worth voting for who could actually win, it's hard to think of a British leader with the stature to bring together a stable government.

But apart from the acute deficiency in the quality of leaders today (imagine if we'd had them in the 1940s)  this larger context created after World War II and especially its deterioration in the past several decades go a long way in accounting for the mess we're in.      

Update: A more optimistic (if news hooky view) on a resurgent EU here at Politico.