Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What happened to "win-win"?

Nitsuh Abebe, in a major essay in the June 25th issue of The New York Times Magazine, explores the current absence in our political life of the concept of win-win, a solution to a problem in which all parties benefit.   Surely, if any issue deserved that approach, it would be health care.  If both sides could have come together in a win-win situation to make the easy adjustments that would have improved the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), it would have been the rational and the humane thing to do.

Instead, our politics has sunk to the crass level of "pure winning," and Republicans had to have their "win."   After trying, and failing, dozens of times to repeal Obamacare while Obama still held the veto pen, now was their chance, with control of both houses of Congress and the White House.

As Abebe writes, we have a climate now where "all promises of balance and mutual gain are actually humiliating traps, set by exploitative people still snickering in secret over how easily you fell for the last one.  And so we have barreled instead into the realm of pure 'winning,' where there is no such harmony of interest.  Either exert your power or slink home ashamed."

Remember when Mitch McConnell declared, on day one of the Obama administration, that their first agenda item would be to ensure that Obama was a one-term president.   And his passage of the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote must have felt like a humiliation -- one that McConnell and his other Republican leaders have been determined to avenge ever since.

But, even controlling the White House and Congress, they can't do it.  Here's where Abebe's article is especially relevant.  He writes that winning is "often used in contexts that are not competitions."  Stop and think about that.   Why should providing health care for our people be a competition between representatives of the people themselves?   Do we send our representatives to Washington to fight?

It's long bothered me how often the word "fight" comes up in political rhetoric, in both parties, used by both men and women.   "If you vote for me, I will fight for you every day."  The word rings in my ears as much in the voices of Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton as it does in the voices of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.   Why?

Abebe writes:  "One obvious drawback of this [scoring points] mind-set -- a gut-level inclination toward the hyperbolic exercise of power -- is that it makes winning purely about imposing your will on reality, rather than, say, reaching an outcome that's actually desirable or defensible. . . ."

Obama knew this.   He preferred to get solutions with broad support.  That's how we got the Iran nuclear agreement.   Compare that to Donald Trump's rhetoric about "winning."   "We going to win so much you'll get tired of winning."   Yet he scorned and demeaned Obama as "weak" because he was not basically a fighter.   Trump thinks of himself as a "deal maker," meaning imposing his power or his tricksterism on the other to win, win, win.   Right now, he's edging us dangerously toward a ground war in Syria.   And he seems itching for a fight with Iran.

Winning should be a measure of accomplishing something for the good of the people, not scoring points.  At least we have a short breathing spell, now that McConnell doesn't have enough votes to pass the senate health bill.  He announced late Tuesday that he will delay the vote on the Senate bill until after the July 4th recess.  He hopes to be able to twists arms, "bribe" senators with money from his $2 billion slush fund for pet projects the hold-out senators favor.   It also gives more time for people to actually learn what this terrible piece of legislation would actually do -- starting with reducing the number covered by it by 22 million people by 2026.

Can you imagine the fantasy that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump would come to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and say:   "Look folks, we can't do this the way we wanted to.   So let's work together.  Let's see how we can improve the Affordable Care Act so that it works better for the American people.

Now what would be so hard about that?


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SCOTUS gives Trump a partial win on his (revised) travel ban

The Supreme Court handed down a decision on the Trump administration's appeal to restore its ban on travel from six countries.   So what does the decision mean?

To review:   Trump's first travel ban that created such airport chaos a few months back was blocked by two different appellate courts.   So they withdrew that version and rewrote a second version, based on some of the criticisms of the court.

Lawsuits were filed to put a stay on the new version, and two more appellate court decisions blocked this version too.   So the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

The decision yesterday was on whether to lift the stay, which the lower courts had imposed, pending the decision on the constitutionality of the ban itself.   Arguments on that will be heard by SCOTUS in October.

The decision was 6 to 3 to partially lift the ban in the meantime.   The four liberal justices, plus Roberts and Kennedy were the majority for a partial lifting of the ban.   Thomas, Alito, and Korsuch wanted to lift the stay completely, pending the hearing -- i.e. to allow the full ban to take effect now.

So, what exactly will this do?   The government will now be able to bar citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the US for a period of 90 days (120 days for refugees) -- unless they already have a valid visa.  The court further said that visas should be issued to those who have a "bona fide relationship" with a person or organization in the US.   This means people visiting family, students coming to school in the US, or someone with a job,   About the only ones who will be barred are tourists -- or, possibly, terrorists.   But what about an academic coming for a conference?   A businessman coming to negotiate a deal?

The written decision also prodded the Trump administration to get on with doing the evaluation of the vetting process, which was supposedly the reason for asking for the temporary ban in the first place.   It further suggested that -- given that they originally asked for 90 days to accomplish that -- it's quite likely that, by the time of the court hearing in October, the whole matter of the temporary ban will be moot.

One problem with this, as pointed out by the dissent written by Justice Thomas, is that what counts as a bona fide relationship is likely to be disputed and lead to multiple lawsuits to settle the question.   This is even more likely when it comes to refugees.   They are less likely to have established relationships or jobs in this country.   And the decision specifically ruled out the sponsoring refugee agency as filling that requirement.

This constitutes some vindication for President Trump, although the real ruling will come after the substantive hearing in October.   That isn't stopping Trump from trumpeting his victory.  However, the lawyer who argued the case before the 9th circuit appeals court saw it differently.  He said that the court's exemption of those with visas and those with a bona fide connection really takes care of the ones they were mostly concerned about in the appeal.   So he saw it as a positive outcome.

Remember, however, that this is all about a temporary, 90/120 day delay.  The real decision in this case has to do with the constitutionality of setting up the ban to start with.   The question is whether it was based on religious discrimination.

In writing this, I relied for information on a Washington Post article by Matt Zopotosky and one on by Dara Lind.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Catching up on the weekend's outrages

We don't even get a rest on the weekends anymore.    Donald Trump makes news every day during the week;  and then his aides and surrogates go on the Sunday morning talk shows and make more outrageous statements.   Here is a sampling.

1.  A large percentage of Trump voters get their news only from Fox News.  So, as reported on, 'There's a real chance Trump voters won't understand anything about [the health care bill] until it's too late."    It seems that on Fox News, the rule about the Senate bill is not to talk about it.  Reporter Jeff Guo then ran through a list of their news shows to prove the point.   Both Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson barely mentioned it.

Carlson did have as a guest HHS Secretary Tom Price, who described the bill as offering "greater choices" for patients -- and then they both turned to citing what they saw as wrong about Obamacare.   There was no discussion about what the Senate bill actually does.

The roundtable discussion show, "The Five," did spend 10 minutes on the Senate bill -- or, rather, not on the substance of the bill itself, but the politics of whether it will pass.  And to blame the Democrats for "refusing to cooperate in drafting the bill."   Yes, you got it.   They're talking about the secret bill that Mitch McConnell didn't even let his fellow Republicans know about;  even some of the 13 white men who were supposedly writing the bill in secret, didn't seem to know what was in it.

2.  White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway (better known as the blond woman who spins the news by talking so fast, and telling so many lies, that it's hard to keep up with what she's saying) -- was on the Sunday morning talk shows.   Spinning like a top.   She said that taking Medicaid away from able-bodied adults is no big deal, because they can just go out and get jobs that provide health insurance.

Now the facts are a  little different.  The "able-bodied adults" that she's talking about -- i.e. non-elderly adults who don't qualify for disability -- 59% of them already have jobs.   The problem is that most are low-paying, temporary, or part-time and don't include health insurance.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine followed Conway on "This Week With George Stephanopolis."   Sen. Collins, always polite, said:  "I respectfully disagree with her analysis."    Sen. Collins is one of the more moderate senators who might vote against the bill, although she has not yet said more than that she "has concerns" about it.

3.  USA Today printed an opinion piece from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the mastermind behind the "behind closed doors" plan to force a vote on a bill that neither the public nor the senators have time to understand.   He begins with the outrageous statement that "Democrats imposed Obamacare on our country." 

Compare the year-long, open process of crafting the bill, the scores of hearings, the  more than 100 amendments from Republican senators adopted into the bill, and the many many hours of debate before it was passed.    The fact that no Republican voted for it does not mean the process was done covertly, as McConnell claims and as he is now trying to do with his bill.

His essay tries to portray Republicans and their process as trying to find consensus on what they and the Democrats agree on, including this:  "We also agree on the need to strengthen Medicaid."   He concludes by saying:  "It's time to act because Obamacare is a direct attack on the middle class, and American families deserve better than its failing status quo.  They deserve better care.   That's just what we're going to continue to work to bring them."

To anyone who has followed this process even minimally (excluding Fox News viewers who have not heard the truth), this is outrageous in its deviousness and untruths.   In his plan, reductions in Medicaid are estimated to be about $800 billion over 10 years;   almost exactly the amount of tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, that are projected in the Republican plan.

And that's just a sample of the weekend's outrages -- on one subject.  I didn't even mention the Russia investigation and Trump's bald-faced inconsistencies.  On the one hand, he denies that Russia had anything to do with the hacking;  on the other, he blames Obama for not having retaliated against Russia last year when he found out about the hacking.   And, if you have three hands, there's another "other hand."   Trump is resisting Congress's attempt to pass a bill imposing more sanctions on Russia and -- most importantly -- making it harder for the president to reduce the sanctions without congressional approval.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Our Fake Democracy" -- Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote what I think is an essential commentary on the current state of our "fake democracy."   Here are excerpts.

". . . . For the United States, the biggest institutional lie of the moment is that we have a government of the people, responding to majority will.  On almost every single concern, Congress . . . is going against what most of the country wants. And Congress is doing this because there will be no consequences.

"We have a fake democracy, growing less responsive and less representative by the day.

"The biggest example of this is the monstrosity of a health care bill, which a cartel of Republicans finally allowed us to peek at on Thursday. . . .  a radical overhaul of one-sixth of the economy, something that touches every American, comes too late to make our voices heard.

"Crafted in total darkness, the bill may pass by a slim majority of people who have not read it. Inevitably, with something that deprives upward of 23 million Americans of health care, people will die because of this bill. . . .

"It would be understandable if Republicans were doing this because it’s what most Americans want them to do. But it’s not. Only about 25 percent of Americans approved of a similar version of this bill, the one passed by the House. . . .

"Why would the people’s representatives choose to hurt their own people? The answer is further evidence of our failed democracy. About 75 million Americans depend on Medicaid. This bill will make their lives more miserable and perilous in order to give the top 2 percent of wealthiest Americans a tax cut.

"And where are the 75 million now? . . .  The sad fact is, the poor don’t vote. Up to 80 percent of low earners do not show up at the polls. . . .  So, little surprise that Republicans are also working to make it even harder for the poor to vote. . . . 

"The symptoms of democratic collapse . . . cry for immediate action. . . .   The United States, once known for our American Dream, now has the lowest class mobility of any Western democracy . . . .

"What is Congress doing? Nothing on wages. Nothing on college tuition. And the health care bill will most surely force many people to choose between buying groceries and being able to visit a doctor.

"Our fake democracy reveals itself daily. Less than a third of Americans support President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In a truly representative government, you would see the other two-thirds, the common-sense majority, howling from the halls of Congress.

"Most Americans are also against building a wall along the Mexican border. They would prefer putting taxpayers’ billions into roads, bridges, schools and airports. But the wall remains a key part of President Trump’s agenda.

"Trump is president, of course, despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million people. Almost 60 percent of the public is against him now. In a parliamentary system, he’d be thrown out in a no-confidence vote. In our system, he’s primed to change life for every citizen, against the wishes of a majority of Americans. Try calling that a democracy while keeping a straight face."

But it's not just the president.   Republicans control both houses of congress.   And gerrymandering, voter suppression, and big money control Congress.   Egan fails to mention the effect of Big Money in our elections.   Campaign finance reform hasn't been mentioned since the election.

The weak spot in their power right now is the Senate.    They can afford to lose only two votes on a partisan divided vote, like the health care bill.   Surely there are three senators with spine enough to stand up and say No.   Right now, five are saying they can't vote for it as is.   But some of them will cave in to party pressure.   We only need three.   Who?


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ramadan and religious pluralism in U.S.

In the Islamic religion, observance of the holy month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.  During this time, Muslims avoid eating or drinking from dawn to sunset each day as a way to cleanse the soul and to have empathy with those who are less fortunate.

Ramadan is a time of self-reflection and prayer, a time of self-restraint, as well as a time to focus on helping others.   Each day's fast ends with a special meal, called "iftar," a time of joyful sharing with family and friends.

The end of the Ramadan month is a major celebration, Eid al-Fitr, meaning the Feast of Fast-Breaking.  It lasts for three days, during which special foods are prepared, feasts are shared with family and friends, and gifts are exchanged.  For those one cannot visit in person, contact is made through phone calls.   A friend of mine, whose family all live in another country, will make 25 or 30 phone calls.   The Ramadan month of fasting ends today, June 24th, at sundown.   Then the celebration of Eid al Fitr begins.

For those who doubt that our Founding Fathers intended for this country to be welcoming of all religions, it should be noted that President Thomas Jefferson held a White House dinner for a visiting Tunisian envoy that happened to be during Ramadan.  The invitation specified that "dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set" to accommodate the visiting Muslim's observance of Ramadan.

When Bill Clinton was president, the First Lady began a tradition by hosting an Eid al-Fitr reception for 150 people.  She told her guests that:  “A greater understanding of the tenets of Islam in our national consciousness will help us build strength and resilience as a nation. . . .  The values that lie at the heart of Ramadan — faith, family, community and responsibility to the less fortunateresonate with all the peoples of this earth.”

George W. Bush and Barack Obama both continued hosting either an iftar or an Eid al-Fitr dinner each year they were in office.  Bush, notably, spoke at the prayer service following 9/11 where he declared that we were fighting against terrorism, not Islam.   Charlotte Beers, who had served as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the Bush administration, still remembers the first White House iftar following 9/11:  “That dinner was extremely important and heard around the world. . . .  [It] speaks to . . . freedom of religion. It was extremely timely, we felt.”

President Obama spoke at the 2010 iftar dinner, saying:  “Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America.”   At the 2012 iftar, the White House had a special display from the Library of Congress that included Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran.   Obama called it "a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islamlike so many faiths — is part of our national story.”   Obama has also hosted Jewish Passover Seders in the White House, as well as the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

This year will be an exception.   There won't be any gathering in connection with Ramadan at the White House, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did put out a statement with "best wishes to all Muslims celebrating Ed al-Fitr. . .  This day offers an opportunity to reflects on our shared commitment to building peaceful and prosperous communities."

The White House was silent.    Officials did not respond to a request from the Washington Post for comment, although some long-time staff members told them that planning for such an event begins "months in advance;" they didn't believe the Trump White House could organize it in time.

One might note, however, that they managed to have a pretty successful Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn this year, with far less time to prepare.

To my Muslim friends, I apologize for the ignorance and bigotry of our current president.   He does not represent most Americans.

But I would like to wish them Eid Mubarak.


The truth about the alleged "collapsing" Obamacare markets

A week ago (6/16/17) on "The Daily Intelligenser," Jonathan Chait tackled this false mantra that Republicans use to try to justify their tax-cut-for-the-rich-disguised-as-health-care-reform.

"Right-wing critics of Obamacare have been predicting for years that the law would enter an actuarial 'death spiral,' in which healthy customers flee and insurers raise rates to unsustainably high levels as only the most sick and expensive patients remain. . . .When President Trump repeatedly insists Obamacare is 'collapsing,' 'dead,' or 'gone,' he is popularizing in vulgar form an analysis that people like Paul Ryan have been spreading for years.

"The most obvious sleight of hand in this argument is that, even if it were true that the Obamacare exchanges were entering a death spiral and collapsing, it would hardly justify the Republican health-care bill. The exchanges account for a bit less than half the coverage gains in Obamacare. The rest of the newly insured come from expanded children’s health insurance and, especially, Medicaid.

"Remember, Medicaid expansion is how Obamacare provides insurance to the poorest Americans (those with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level). The allegedly collapsing exchanges only insure people with incomes above that level. And the spine of the GOP plan is hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid. There’s not even a patina of an argument that Medicaid is collapsing. The supposed 'death spiral' in the exchanges is the Republican pretext for cutting a completely different program.

"In any case, the 'death spiral' is a fiction.  [A study found]. . . that health costs of people buying insurance on the exchanges have converged with health costs of people who get insurance through their employer.

"So why are we reading all these stories about insurers pulling out of markets and premiums going way up?   Oliver Wyman, an actuarial firm, examines the markets and concludes . . . two-thirds of the higher premiums next year are due to political uncertainty created by the Trump administration and Congress. The administration is threatening to withhold payments insurers are owed under the law, and also not to enforce the individual mandate. These deliberate efforts to subvert the exchanges are having their intended effect. But the underlying expected cost of insuring patients is lowwithout a government engaged in deliberate sabotage, the firm estimates premiums would only rise 5–8 percent, a very modest level by the historic standards of health insurance costs.

"Obamacare can be improved, especially in rural markets where hospitals and doctors are spread far apart and competition has always been difficult to produce. But the threat to the exchanges is the same as the threat to Medicaid: not any inherent flaw in the operation of the programs, but a governing party that ideologically opposes the transfer of resources that is needed to make health care available to the poor and sick."

"In a separate article, reporters asked a number of Republican senators what they were trying to accomplish with their health care bill.   None really had a satisfactory answer -- except perhaps John McCain.   The old maverick just said it:  "They're trying to get to 51 votes."

And both of those were written before anyone saw the actual, awful secret bill that they've produced.   This vote is going to be a test for those senators who have any integrity or human decency left.

Yes, Sen. Schumer is right.   The Republicans were trying to keep the damned thing secret because:
 "They . . . are . . . ashamed . . . of it."


Friday, June 23, 2017

Correction on Planned Parenthood funds in senate health care bill

Yesterday, my understanding was faulty when I wrote about the just released senate version of the Republicans' health care bill.  I stated that payment to Planned Parenthood for (non-abortion) medical services would be extended but for only one year.  Instead, according to a news story in the AJC, there is a one-year freeze on payments to Planned Parenthood.