Archives for: September 2017

All the President’s Tweets

This weekend, Puerto Rico was whomped by Hurricane Maria. The entire island is without power and a humanitarian disaster is unfolding. By yesterday, the internet was aghast because Trump, while sending out numerous tweets about his ongoing feud with two sports leagues, hadn’t tweeted about Puerto Rico. They claimed he was ignoring the problem.

He wasn’t:

Large amounts of federal aid began moving into Puerto Rico on Saturday, welcomed by local officials who praised the Trump administration’s response but called for the emergency loosening of rules long blamed for condemning the U.S. territory to second-class status.

In northwest Puerto Rico, people began returning to their homes after a spillway eased pressure on a dam that cracked after more than a foot of rain fell in the wake of the hurricane.

The opening of the island’s main port in the capital allowed 11 ships to bring in 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food. Dozens more shipments are expected in upcoming days.

Further reports detail that FEMA, the Coast Guard and they Navy are all on scene and helping as best they can. Congress needs to step up to the plate now by passing an aide package and waiving or repealing the Jones Act which drives up the price of goods on the island to benefit American shipbuilders.

So why was everyone on Trump about it? Because he hadn’t tweeted about it. Our political culture has become so engrossed in the 140-character emissions of our President while he is sitting on the can that we’ve lost the ability to look any further.

The President did eventually tweet about it, noting Puerto Rico’s bad infrastructure and debt problem. He got bashed for that too. I wouldn’t have said that but it crossed me less as “blaming Puerto Rico for their problems” and more of “explaining why the situation is so dire”. But I’m known to be generous in interpreting the words of Presidents because (a) I’m a bit outraged out and have been for about ten years; (b) I’m a bit of a contrarian at times.

Look, I don’t like the way the President tweets garbage. And I do think he should have used the medium to voice support for Puerto Rico and to call on people to donate to organizations helping out. But there’s a line to walk in how we respond to him. We can’t confuse Trump’s twitter feed with the government. Trump clearly sees Twitter, at least his personal account, as entertainment and a way to rile up his base (the official POTUS account tends to be more mundane and tweeted out support for Puerto Rico on the 20th). We’re going to exhaust ourselves if we continually flip out over what the President has tweeted about and what he hasn’t. And we really REALLY need to reign in this pathological need to assume the absolute worst about everything he says or does. There’s plenty of bad to go around. We don’t have to start inventing stuff.

I’ve been as bad as anyone about this. So I’m probably going to simply start ignoring Trump’s twitter feed. It is utterly devoid of substance and has no function beyond stirring up partisan bullshit. Knowing me, I probably won’t keep to that promise for very long. But this Twitter business is getting unhealthy.

The NFL and Politics

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, for both college and the pros. I grew up in Atlanta on Steve Bartkowski and Herschel Walker and having my heart broken (although this year’s Super Bowl was probably the biggest sports heartbreak of my life). But there’s something to fall weekends when you can just on turn on the TV and watch a game between two teams you don’t care about that is unique and special.

This year, we’re seeing a bit more controversy though. NFL ratings are down significantly. There’s a lot of blame being thrown around and a lot of it is being thrown at politics, particularly the recent trend of black players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police misconduct.

First of all, I don’t think that’s the reason for the NFL’s ratings drop. It is probably a reason, but not the reason. Ratings had been going up for a long time but weren’t going to rise forever. There is a growing concern about the damage the game does to players’ bodies and minds, particularly with regard to CTE. That is the one thing that really gives me pause. The dominance of certain teams — Alabama in the college ranks, New England in the pros — has turned some people off. The Falcons were the closest thing we’ve had to a Cinderella in recent year and, come on, even this lifelong Falcons fan has to admit they weren’t going to capture America’s hearts. Some people say the quality of play is down, but I’m not convinced.

But, second of all … I do think politics are a problem for the NFL. It’s very easy for the elites in our society to forget, but players kneeling during the national anthem bothers people. Politics being injected into the NFL bothers people. It may not seem like a big deal when you’re inside the political bubble. But, for most people in this country, sports is a place where we can be passionate, angry, elated, dejected or thrilled without having to worry about politics. While watching the Super Bowl last year, I shared my excitement and then my devastation with Falcons fans of all political stripes. That’s the beauty of the thing. As Doug Mataconis likes to post every year:

We’re tired of politics in everything. We’re tired of it in our movies — witness the drop in this year’s box office. We’re tired of it in awards shows — notice the plunging ratings. And we’re tired of it in our sports. Politics infests our lives in too many ways and many of us just wanted a damned break.

It’s not that I’m not sympathetic. I do think these players have a point. I will never understand how enraging it must be to see cops caught on video gunning down unarmed black people only to be acquitted. Yeah, some of those shootings turns out to be justified (e.g, Michael Brown). But not all of them. And every time it happens, the media starts going through the dead man’s past to find any black mark that can retroactively justify his death. It is a relentless and maddening rhythm. So … I’m not going to begrudge them their small non-violent protest. I’m not going to tell them to just shut up and play football.

But protest comes at a price. There is always a price to pay for social activism. And that price may be falling ratings and a lot less money. I suspect Kaepernick et al. are fine with the price being paid if it brings attention to the issue. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a price or be all surprised when the bill comes due.

Cassini Ends

In 1997, I was starting my third year of grad school. My girlfriend at the time watched the launch with me and we wondered where we would be in the seemingly endless six years between launch and arrival at Saturn. Here we are, 19 years later. I’m still friends with the ex-girlfriend. I’m plus a wife, two kids and minus a gallbladder. And Cassini was sent to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere after one of the most successful missions in human history.

Fare thee well, Cassini. You did us all proud.

The Single Payer Con

So yesterday, Bernie Sanders introduced his “Medicare for All” proposal. Single payer has suddenly become chic in Democratic circles with all of the 2020 hopefuls jumping on board. Because, apparently, the lesson they learned from 2016 was that they weren’t socialist enough.

I’m not going to get into the debate over single payer … ah, who am I kidding? I’ve written about it many times. Years ago, I wrote a post detailing why the claims that single payer would be more efficient were nonsense. It’s actually gotten worse since then. Medicare has tried to institute quality controls which have imposed billions in compliance costs on hospitals. Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid pay 80 cents and 60 cents on the dollar of what private insurers do. Switching to that would mean a lot of providers leaving the field. Which means fewer services and longer waits. It would also slow the pace of innovation, which I’ve previously identified as my biggest fear with regard to socialized medicine. I worry about the cures and miracle treatments we won’t get because our government controls the purse strings.

It would also put Congress in charge of deciding which medical procedures get covered and which don’t. This would not be based on any scientific evaluation but on politics. We’ve seen this already. Research has repeatedly shown that the guideline used for mammograms — every year or two after age 40 — is outdated. The new recommendation is that women get them every other year after age 50. The main reason is that mammography for low-risk women is more likely to result in unnecessary surgery than finding a cancer that wouldn’t be detected by other means. Congress, however, under intense pressure from women’s groups and mammography providers, overrode that decision. And this is not the first time they’ve done that.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here because, in those two paragraphs above, I’ve already invested more thought into this than the Democrats have. Suderman

To call it a plan is, in some sense, too generous: Although it envisions a sweeping and generous system that would make government the primary payer for nearly all health care in the United States and virtually wipe out employer health coverage in the space of just a few years, it is not really a plan. Instead, it is a legislative fantasy built on a combination of wild overconfidence in government and an almost comical refusal to grapple with costs or trade-offs.

The likely outcome of such a transition would be massive, sustained chaos across the health care sector. Even if the chaos were somehow manageable, the easy access that Sanders promises would be swiftly undermined by service disruptions and other complications stemming from the changeover. In making his case, Sanders tends to ignore all of this. His plan exists in an imaginary world without economic tradeoffs or consequences.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in its promise of benefits. Sanders frequently argues that his preferred system would merely put the United States in line with other developed nations. On the contrary, it would go far beyond what other countries with single payer systems offer. The Sanders plan would offer a far greater array of benefits than Australia, the Netherlands, or Canada—a country that Sanders often uses as a comparison with the U.S., but where the majority of the population relies on supplementary private insurance to cover the gaps left by the government system. Many international single-payer systems also require some form of copayment from the individual seeking service; the Sanders plan would make all of its benefits available without any individual contribution.

Instead, it would be paid for entirely through tax increases. Which tax increases would those be? On who, and for how much? On these questions, the Sanders plan is silent.

This is the real tell in Sanders’ pitch. Although it is willing to imagine long lists of benefits in great detail, but it has essentially nothing to say about how to pay for them. It is a fantastical sales pitch for a luxury product with no price tag attached.

One can support universal healthcare. I’m somewhat neutral on it. But one has to acknowledge that it’s going to be expensive. You can not insure million of currently uninsured people and save money. We’ve been down this road before. For example, we were told that Obamacare would save money because people wouldn’t need to go the ER as often. But ER visits actually rose under Obamacare, as anyone with two brain cells to rub together could have predicted. When healthcare is cheap, people use more of it. As P.J. O’Rourke famously quipped, if you think healthcare is expensive now, just wait to see how much it costs when it’s free.

The Democratic “plan” doesn’t grapple with this at all. It says nothing about controlling costs or how to pay for all this. It’s just a collection of vague promises. In this sense, it’s way worse than the Trumpcare fiasco which, for all its massive flaws, at least acknowledged the tradeoffs.

To be fair to Sanders, specifically, he actually does have a plan to pay for this. He just couldn’t get any of his fellow Democrats to sign on if it was included. And it’s easy to see why. Here are the details on it. It includes an 11.5% payroll tax, the elimination of tax breaks for insurance, an income tax rate as high as 52%, capital gains taxed at income rates, a massive estate tax, a wealth tax, etc., etc. All told, the wealthiest Americans would be facing marginal tax rates of 82% — just for federal. With state and local taxes, marginal rates could exceed 100%.

Yeah, we once had 97% marginal tax rates. Very few, if any, people ever paid those rates. Bernie is almost certainly massively overestimating the revenue he’ll raise. Even with his rosy assumptions, analysts in 2016 estimated that he was many trillions of dollars short in paying for Medicare for all. In the end, as I’ve said many times, you can only pay for a welfare state with heavy taxes on the middle class. That’s how the European welfare states do it; that’s what we would have to do.

One last thing. The slogan of Bernie’s circus and of the Medicare-for-all movement is that healthcare is a “right”. This is straight garbage. You can not have a right to things. You can not have a right to people’s labor. Real rights — like freedom of speech — are unlimited. When I exercise my right to free speech, that does not preclude you from exercising yours. But if I exercise my right to healthcare, that may take it away from someone else. Doctors can only treat so many patients. There are only so many organs to go around. Yes, our healthcare system grows. But at any one moment, those resources are limited. If there’s only one heart available for transplant, which patient gets it? Who has the “right” to it?

That’s not necessarily an argument against universal healthcare. No one has a “right” to food, but we can make sure people don’t starve because we are a wealthy and generous nation. No one has a “right” to housing, but we can keep people off the streets because we are a wealthy and generous nation. That may sound like hair splitting, but it’s an important hair to split. Because the minute you decide people have a “right” to healthcare, you change the shape of the debate. It suddenly becomes a race to give away as much as possible and an effort to keep the hated evil rich from getting care that’s too good.

So apart from the Democrats having unveiled a comically incomplete plan that makes no hard choices and promises to plunge us into a bureaucratic nightmare and an orgy of spending while destroying a major industry … how did you like the play?

Cersei Clinton

Hillary Clinton has a book coming out blaming everyone but herself for her loss in 2016. It’s mostly an academic exercise. The election was so closely decided — 70,000 votes in three states — that you could literally blame it on anything you want. Comey’s letter? Yeah, that might have moved the polls less than a percent. Sexism? Sure. Bernie? Of course. Russia? Fine. In the end, however, she won the popular vote. She lost the election because three states she was supposed to win easily — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — went to Trump by tiny margins. And she barely campaigned in those states. Everything else — Comey, Russia, Bernie, sexism, Mars being in the house of the ram — were not things she could control. The one thing she could control — campaigning in those states — was the thing she didn’t do.

Anyway, excerpts from the book are coming out now and some of them just make you say … Wut?

In the book, Clinton manages to work in references to both Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel that is now a hit Hulu drama. Because Clinton is down with the kids.

“Crowds at Trump rallies called for my imprisonment more times than I can count,” Clinton writes. “They shouted, ‘Guilty! Guilty!’ like the religious zealots in Game of Thrones chanting ‘Shame! Shame!’ while Cersei Lannister walked back to the Red Keep.”

Clinton refers to GoT’s Season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” in which Cersei—confessing to adultery—is forced to walk, naked, through King’s Landing to atone for her sins under the radical Faith Militant religious group’s regime. All the while, Septa Unella, walks behind her ringing a bell and chanting “Shame,” while passersby heckle and spit at her.

This is … not a comparison Clinton should be making (assuming it’s genuine and not just made up for gits and shiggles). First of all, Cersei was guilty of adultery. And incest. And treason. And everything else under the sun. Second, Cersei became queen, which Clinton never managed to do. Third, just … seriously? I can’t put it better than Robby Soave:

What’s the difference between Game of Thrones character Cersei Lannister and failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? One is an entitled narcissist who quietly supported her lecherous husband (whom she clearly loathed) when it was politically convenient, then insisted it was her turn to rule (even though it wasn’t), chose boot-lickers, ass-kissers, and elitist bankers as her advisors while alienating more competent and better-liked people who might have helped her, exacted petty vengeance on imagined enemies, escaped justice and the judgment of the people by destroying her main rival—the charismatic, income-inequality obsessed populist—with an explosive cheat, and was left confused why so many people in her country would rather be ruled by a complete political unknown who tells it like it is.

The other fucks her twin brother.

I suspect this was inserted by a ghost writer or someone who wasn’t terribly familiar with the series. I’m reminded of Joe Posnanski writing about Ted Cruz (who had his own hilarity today):

One of my dream jobs is to become a political sports consultant. It works pretty simply. Let’s say that Carly Fiorina decides during her Iowa caucus campaigning to send what she might later call a “tongue-in-cheek” tweet about how she loves her alma mater Stanford, but she’s “rooting for a Hawkeyes win today” in the Rose Bowl.

I would tell her: Don’t do it. That’s all. If it is a joke, nobody will get the joke. And if it’s a pander, hey, that’s fine, but it’s a terrible pander. No real sports fan in Iowa would expect you to root against your alma mater in a bowl game.

I bring this up now, obviously, because I sure as heck wish that presidential candidate Ted Cruz had come to me first. He was in the gym where they filmed much of the movie “Hoosiers,” and he was referring to the scene where coach Norman Dale has his players use a tape measure to show that the rim is the same height in Indianapolis as it was in little ol’ Hickory.

“The amazing thing is,” Cruz said, “that basketball ring in Indiana, it’s the same height as it is in New York City and every other place in this country.”

Basketball ring. He called it a basketball ring.

“Fortunately,” the writer Anthony Castrovince tweets, “It was in Indiana. Not a big basketball state.”

Great “Spinal Tap” reference. Anyway, I feel like one of those “superheroes” who helplessly watches a senseless calamity. I could have stopped him.

It’s hard to know exactly where “basketball ring” falls in the list of awkward sports talk by politicians. At first glance, it seems like THE most awkward because, honestly, nobody on planet earth has ever referred to a “basketball ring” except when pointing out that Carmelo Anthony hasn’t won one. Put it this way: My 14-year-old daughter laughed, and she actively loathes sports.

Politicians desperately need a position of “pop culture advisor” who will keep them from doing things like comparing themselves to the biggest villain in a popular TV series or urging their supporter to “Pokemon Go” to the polls.

Sixteen Years

This day is, I think, a good day to call or write to friends you haven’t heard from in a while or family members who’ve grown a bit distant. It’s always a good time to remind people that they’re in your heart. But today of all days is a good time to remember who quickly and horribly someone can be snatched away from us.

Trump’s Deal

So, here’s the thing. Yesterday, Trump, during intense negotiations over the debt ceiling, basically caved into the Democrats:

President Trump struck a deal with Democratic congressional leaders on Wednesday to increase the debt limit and finance the government until mid-December, blindsiding his own Republican allies as he reached across the aisle to resolve a major dispute for the first time since taking office.

The agreement would avert a fiscal showdown later this month without the bloody, partisan battle that many had anticipated by combining a debt ceiling increase and stopgap spending measure with relief aid to Texas and other areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. But without addressing the fundamental underlying issues, it set up the prospect for an even bigger clash at the end of the year.

Mr. Trump not only accepted the spending-and-debt plan advanced by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, but also aligned himself with them on immigration. A day after rescinding President Barack Obama’s program protecting younger illegal immigrants on the grounds that it went beyond a president’s authority, Mr. Trump said he wanted to work with Democrats to legalize the program.

“We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Mr. Trump told reporters after the Oval Office session without mentioning that Mr. Ryan and other Republican leaders had also attended. Regarding the immigration program, Mr. Trump said, “Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I.”

Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi pressed for a three-month deal to keep the government running and raise the debt ceiling along with the hurricane aid to give Democrats leverage later this year when other matters, including a longer-term government funding deal, could be negotiated between the two parties. By ensuring that all the pending issues converge at the end of the year, Democrats hope a longer-term agreement on fiscal matters could include immigration, health care and any number of other issues.

So instead of siding with the Republicans to push for an 18-month debt ceiling hike that would push the issue past the 2018 elections, Trump decided to deal with Pelosi and Schumer to put us on the path to yet another fiscal crisis in December. I’m normally one for compromise. That’s how government has to work. But when you compromise, you should get something. Trump’s gain was a Harvey relief package that was going to pass anyway. He didn’t get immigration reform or a Wall or tax cuts or anything else. But he gave the Democrats the crisis they need to force their issues to the floor in December. Mainly, as far as I can tell, so that he could boast about having made a deal.

Here’s the thing. For years, Republican leadership have been pilloried and blasted for making deals with Obama. The debt ceiling deal, the fiscal cliff, the sequester — the deals that cut the budget deficit in half by keeping spending flat for six years. These were supposedly the actions of “RINOs”. Yet these deals were way more favorable to conservative interests than the one Trump just cut. And yet the same people who blasted Republicans for “giving in” to Obama are praising Trump for bypassing Republican leadership.

The revelation I have had since 2016 … and a big reason my blogging has tailed off … is because I’ve realized that a lot of people don’t really care about issues. They care about identity. And nowhere is this more distilled than in the ongoing presidency of Donald Trump. The support for Trump is not based on issues or philosophy or conservatism. It’s based on one or both of two Cults of Personality: one based on worship of Trump; the other based on hatred of Obama. Cutting deals, no matter bad they are, is suddenly OK.

DACA in Danger

So this happened:

The Trump administration on Tuesday formally announced the end of DACA — a program that had protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security will stop processing any new applications for the program as of Tuesday and rescinded the Obama administration policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday at the Justice Department.

Trump has given the program six months to live and challenged Congress to replace it. He has, however, undermined that a bit by saying he might “revisit” the issue if Congress fails to act. DACA originally passed the House but fell five votes short of breaking a Senate filibuster. So Obama enacted it by Executive Order.

First of all, I think this demonstrates yet again how dangerous rule by Executive Order is. Thanks to DACA, about 800,000 individuals came forward to gain status under it. They provided the government with tons of documentation on their location, how they came into this country illegally and so on. But because DACA was passed with the stroke of a pen, it can now be undone with one. And so now these people are more vulnerable deportation because they tried to do the right thing.

And that brings to the second point, which is how cruel and pointless this policy is. DACA isn’t an amnesty. It grants legal work permits to people who came into this country as minors, have not broken the law and are either in school, have graduated school or are in the armed forces. On balance, they add to our economy. Cutting them out of the workforce would impose billions in compliance costs, estimated to be along the impact of a few dozen new regulations. These are the kind of immigrants — working, law-abiding, serving — that we want. And now they are in danger of being sent to countries they have never lived in so that can Trump can pander to the nativists.

The gripping hand however is that … Trump is right in one respect. DACA is something that Congress should do, not the President. They’ve been screwing around with this legislation for 16 years. I don’t know that this kind of deadline will make them do their damned job (although the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling games of chicken worked). But they need to stop playing around. It’s time to make DACA permanent. And it’s time to do it through the proper legislative process.