Thursday, June 15, 2017

Prime Watergate Territory: we're hip-deep in the Big Covfefe

So, not surprisingly it turns out that Trump now wants to fire the Special Counsel Bob Mueller:  Friend Says Trump Is Considering Firing Mueller as Special Counsel (New York Times, June 12, 2017)

Why? Well, this one's easy to answer:

Special counsel is investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice, officials say (Washington Post, June 14, 2017)

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.

Trump had received private assurances from then-FBI Director James B. Comey starting in January that he was not personally under investigation. Officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

Mueller Seeks to Talk to Intelligence Officials, Hinting at Inquiry of Trump (New York Times, June 15, 2017).

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel examining Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, has requested interviews with three high-ranking current or former intelligence officials, the latest indication that he will investigate whether President Trump obstructed justice, a person briefed on the investigation said on Wednesday....

A former senior official said Mr. Mueller’s investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers.

Trump's tweeting this morning was entirely predictable:

The bit about investigating money laundering was buried a dozen or so paragraphs deep in that New York Times story, but that's the thing that I always thought would bring down Trump.

And so here we are. I can't imagine the Congressional GOP can continue to stand by if Trump obstructs justice a second time and fires the enormously well respected former head of the FBI Bob Mueller, and presumably Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with him. Of course, I've been flat-out wrong about what the Congressional GOP can stand for.

As you can see from his Tweet's, Trump is still 100% unable to take responsibility for his own actions or learn from his mistakes. It's no surprise. This is Donald Trump as he has always been and will always be: an awful human being. I believe strongly in the infinite power of forgiveness and redemption for everybody, no matter what they've done. But the first step is to acknowledge your own sins and mistakes. Donald Trump has been incapable of this for seventy years. He isn't going to change now.

Trump is now in a trap of his own making. As they say so often and as Trump would've known if he ever read a freaking book, "It's not the crime that gets you. It's the cover-up."

I've been forecasting a long, grinding march to impeachment. But Trump might accelerate his already overdue departure from the White House if he fires Mueller. And he's not smart enough to understand why it's a bad idea, so there's a real chance it could happen.

This seems a good time to introduce the ol' Patio Boat to the Watergate Defcon scale I've tweeted about a few times over on Twitter. (For those who never saw the movie War Games, the Defcon scale is the US defense condition alert scale that goes from five (total peace) to one (global thermonuclear war). Here's what I've come up with for this:

DEFCON 5 - The Obama Presidency
DEFCON 4 - Trump inaugurated. Corruption and crimes obvious and public. Think of that as the Watergate break-in period.
DEFCON 3 - Firing FBI Director James Comey to quash the Russia investigation. Probably around the equivalent of the Saturday Night Massacre.)
DEFCON 2 - Appointment of Special Counsel Bob Mueller. In 1974 we were queuing up the Senate Hearings for this stage.
DEFCON 1 - Impeachment Hearings. Interestingly enough, Nixon himself never made it this far.

We're getting pretty deep into DEFCON 2 and the summer of '17 has only begun. I still think it's likely that we enter a long slog as Mueller builds an iron-clad case. But Trump could continue to escalate things quickly if he chooses to do so. We shall see.

In the meantime, chaos embroils Washington. The Trump disaster is growing worse by the day. So I close with words I never thought I'd utter, "The sooner we swear in Mike Pence as President of the United States, the better."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Summertime, and the Trumping is Queasy: or, we are all subjects of The Orb of Covfefe

We've made it to June without having entered into a nuclear exchange with North Korea, so I'd guess this is the point where I have to say that Donald J. Trump has now managed to exceed the low side of my expectations.

Hurrah for no thermonuclear war for the first four-plus months!

On the other hand, this is still going about as well as I expected overall. So you can all mute that applause a bit.

(Still, hurrah for no thermonuclear war yet! Hey, that's a good thing!)

I'm not going to detail the sad list of developments in the last month or so, but I will hit a few highlights to keep things in context before I hit today's topic: what my best-case scenario for a Trump presidency would've been.

A special counsel was appointed for the Russian investigation. At some level, what's there to investigate? We have Trump on national TV saying he fired the head of the FBI because he wouldn't stop investigating the Russian ties of Trump's campaign. There it is: smoking gun, obstruction of justice. Case closed. On the other hand, it's going to take a vast mountain of evidence to drag the GOP Congress off their butts, so have at it, Bob Mueller. There's no shortage of corruption and treason for you to dig through and I suspect we'll need every bit of it to shove the Trump gang out of office quickly.

The House passed their awful and appalling health care bill while the Trump Administration uses all of the regulatory levers at its disposal to destabilize Obamacare and run up policy costs. I'd like to believe that somehow the Senate won't follow the House's suit, but that would require believing that at least three GOP Senators would put the health and well being of Americans ahead of tax cuts for billionaires. So I have little faith that anything but disaster is looming on that front.

And on the international front ... oh my, on the international front. From the trips to Saudi Arabia and Israel to the disastrous summit with our NATO allies to announcing our intention to pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement it has been a month of utter and complete international disgrace.

So, yeah, that's about how I expected this to go. And since you now know that crossing the four-month mark without a nuclear exchange has surpassed my lowest expectation, it's time to talk about what fleetingly reminded me of my a best-case scenario when I woke up nauseous and angry on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016.

The Orb and Covfefe

So how does that get us to Best-Case Trump? Well, in the midst of the Saudi Arabia trip this delightfully weird image hit the wires:

It turns out that this picture was taken as they pressed this illuminated globe to officially open a large anti-terrorism center in Riyadh. But for a while it gave the Internet great fun as everybody riffed on The Orb and its meaning.

My favorite of the subsequent photoshoppings was this:

Yes, that's Saruman on the left. He looks right at home in this picture, doesn't he?

So, the international trip was mostly a disaster on substance, but it at least gave us all a goofy moment of fun.

And again, a couple of nights ago Trump apparently wrestled his phone away from his minders and began a tweet only to ... lose interest? fall asleep? accidentally hit "Tweet" instead of "Cancel"?

Apparently nobody in the White House was willing to wake Trump up and ask him to delete it. So for about six hours "Despite the constant negative press covfefe" stood as the foremost Tweet on Trump's account. And again, the Internet -- especially Twitter -- had a rollicking good time with the non-word "covfefe" and the fact that apparently nobody would or could tell Trump to take it down until 6 am the next morning. I won't even try to capture it all here. Go look up #Covfefe on Twitter for a sampling, and then you can go with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on this one:

The Orb and Covfefe hubbubs reminded me of that best-case scenario I had briefly envisioned on Nov. 9th after the greatest electoral debacle in history came home to roost. Somehow, I thought that maybe Trump would stumble into some useful advisors who would steer him into the sort of mediocrity that George W. Bush achieved. Yes, there were some awful mistakes and policy decisions along the way. But he managed to bumble along most of the time without the level of public disaster that we see on a daily basis from Trump, and we all at least got a few laughs out of his occasionally brutal syntax and his malapropisms.

So, yeah, that was my upside for Trump: George W. Bush. I didn't really expect Trump to achieve that, since Bush was a slightly more competent businessman, had eight years of experience as a governor, and generally had a good idea of how the U.S. government works. But I held out a tiny bit of hope that maybe Trump would find his way to that.

Of course, a week or two of the transition stripped me of that lofty notion. What has happened thus far has been much, much worse and less competent than the W. standard. Alas.

But at least we've got black humor to help lighten the load.

(And no, I don't want to hear from Internet scolds saying, "How can you laugh about Covfefe when Trump is...." We're adults here on the ol' Patio Boat. We can laugh at an occasional joke without completely forgetting every other problem in the world. The world is a mean ol' place sometimes, and that's why we have humor to help us cope.)

Meanwhile, the march to Trump's inevitable impeachment continues apace. The biggest thing that will move the dial in the short run is the upcoming special election on June 20 in Georgia's 6th U.S. House District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff has a narrow lead in the polls in a district that was gerrymandered to provide a substantial GOP advantage. Republican Tom Price won the district 61.7%-38.3% in November. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are pouring money into this race, which has already become the most expensive US House race ever. If the Republicans lose there, they may need to reassess whether they really want to ride Trump into the midterm elections in 2018.

The thing about a gerrymander is that it's usually accomplished by drawing districts that favor your party by about 55%-45%, enough to provide a substantial advantage that gives you an election day edge and that also discourages good candidates from running against you and financial backers from putting money into a campaign against you. Cutting the margin much closer than that puts you in danger of making your district competitive. Making the margin much larger means that you might not be able to pack an additional district for your party.

But if you've managed to do so badly in office that you've shifted the electorate against you by 15% or so ... well, then you've got a problem. Because you're suddenly vulnerable everywhere. It happens very seldom because it takes a true wave. It takes something completely outside the political norms to make that happen.

It takes a Trump.

(And the all-powerful Orb of Covfefe.)


BTW, if you're reading this and you're not following me on Twitter, you can do so at @Patioboater. In the pre-Trump era my Twitter account used to be a pretty quiet place with mostly retweeted space photos, weather photos, and a few other items that cracked me up or interested me. Nowadays it's a lot livelier. So come join my mighty 178 followers.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hoping for a Quiet Trump Week. A Man Can Hope, Can't He?

The Spicer-speak hit the fan last week. The point of this post, however, is not to talk about last week's news, but to plea for a quiet week this week.

If you care enough to read this post you don't really need me recount the week in detail for you, but here's a quick recap for anybody coming in late. Last week's news started energetically enough with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifying before a Senate subcommittee on several issues, including former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn's potential ties to Russia. Then it exploded into one of the craziest news weeks I can ever recall after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday. After two days of claiming that Trump had fired Comey because of unhappiness that Comey had acted unfairly to Hillary Clinton in his public statements about the investigation of her email server**, Trump ultimately admitted two days later in an interview that he fired Comey because Trump was unhappy about the continued progress of the investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia.

**Yes, Monique thought I was making this part up when I called her to tell her the news. To quote her exactly she said, "No, really. Why did they claim they did it?" In a week of ludicrous news the notion that anybody would believe that White House whopper still may be the most ludicrous item of all.

The entire week was filled with a mix of actual news, analysis of news, analysis of news analysis leaks, counter-leaks, Trump tweetstorms, rest-of-the-world tweetstorms, rumor, innuendo, unbelievably good reporting with salacious details, salacious details spun up from thin air, and enough inches of political columnist outrage to wrap around the globe.

It was such a crazy week that I even broke down and lifted the cable news ban, spending much of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings DVRing and surfing the cable news punditry.

Here's what I learned from dipping my toe back into cable news last week:

  • Anderson Cooper is very good at summarizing the scope and shape a complex news story in 5-10 minutes. He is also good at one-on-one interviews. He then has a panel of eight idiots who yell at each other for the rest of the 45 or so minutes of each hour of his show, making it unwatchable.
  • Rachel Maddow takes a long time to explain anything. But if you do stick around until she finally does get to the point, you find that she's at least given you enough context to understand why that point matters.
  • Brian Williams is back on TV. Who knew? (11 pm EDT on MSNBC.)
  • Fox News is as dishonest as ever. Interestingly, their dishonesty in the Age of Trump has taken a new form. In their earnest eagerness to serve as the State News Apparatus of the Trump Administration they end up parroting utterly dishonest White House statements, whereas during the Obama Administration they ended up making up utterly dishonest statements about the White House. So that was kinda fun to watch for five minutes or so.
  • The DVR and fast forward are your friend if you want to watch cable news. At least you can then zip past the endless hours of pundit-on-pundit filler to get to the genuine news updates and the interviews with people who might actually have something new to say.

I can't say I learned all that much more from cable news than I did from my Twitter feed, but I did appreciate the opportunity to at least see how this story was playing out for the rest of the world. As near as I can tell through the world of information, disinformation, and misinformation this is where the various camps fall right now:

Trump Administration - circular firing squad being assembled in the wake of the media disaster. Since Trump won't find himself to blame I reckon we'll see a lot of staff turnover in the next few weeks.

FBI and the rest of the Intelligence Community - pissed. I'm beginning to believe that if Trump does get taken down the epitaph will read, "Don't f*** with the FBI."

Congressional GOP - nearly all the heads are still buried deeply in the sand. A few are starting to pop their heads up, however. That'll be a trend to keep an eye on. But for now, let's face it. Trump admitted on tape in a televised interview that he fired the head of the FBI to obstruct an investigation the FBI was conducting regarding Trump and his associates. And the collective Congressional GOP response was, "Eh, so what?"

My sense of them remains that nothing changes for them until and unless all of this translates into losing gerrymandered seats. If Democrat Jon Ossoff wins the special election for a US House seat in Georgia on June 20th -- a seat won by the Republican by 20 points in 2016 -- a lot of GOP Congressmen may suddenly rediscover their regard for the rule of law. Right now the polls have him in a dead heat for that seat.

Congressional Dems - a mix of genuine concern, genuine outrage, faux outrage, and unsightly glee. Hey, Congressional Dems, it'd be a bit easier to believe that you are "putting country over party" in this matter if every single damn email you spammed me with last week didn't also contain a fundraising demand.

Twitter - All atwitter.

Me - Freaking exhausted. I'd done a pretty good job through the first few months of the ongoing Trumpiness keeping it all compartmentalized and only letting it intrude on my work day during lunchtime. My ability to do that broke down after Comey got canned. I tried my best to ignore it all, but I simply felt compelled to check in fairly frequently on the decline and fall of Western Democracy. And every time I checked back in on the news, there were genuinely new developments. It was crazy. Plus, aside from Comey and the Russia investigation, there were a lot of other substantial developments and real news that I haven't even mentioned here.

What I really need this week is for the world to not have another crazy news week. I have things to do this week, and I need to be able to focus on them. I can't do that if the news repeats the pace of last week.

Trump is headed off on his first overseas trip on Friday. So maybe he'll spend this week looking at maps of his overseas properties and staying away from Twitter, constitutional crises, and public confessions to obstruction of justice.

I can hope, can't I?

Last week felt like one of the most consequential news weeks I can ever recall. What those consequences will be remain to be seen. Despite the iron-clad pronouncements of clouds of pundits arguing vehemently on my TV last week, only history will tell us if last week was a good week or a bad week for the rule of law.

As I told Monique and a few others last week, I used to think that living through Watergate was probably exciting and maybe even a little fun. I now realize that the only reason I thought that was because I know how it turned out ... with a triumph for the rule of law. In reality, living through this sort of disaster is equal parts frightening and horrifying. I'm hopeful this one will turn out okay, too.

But there are no guarantees. Dark Ages all have starting points.

I'm rooting for the light.

But I'm worried.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Trump at 100 Days: yeah, this is the train wreck I was expecting...

There are lots of detailed overviews of the last 100 days of the ongoing White House dumpster fire and yard sale out there. So I'll make this check-in brief.

What's worse than I expected?

The Russian stuff -- It was obvious that something foul was afoot during the campaign. But there's far more paper trail, money trail, and documented violation of law than I had expected. It looks pretty clear to me that if the GOP-run Congressional oversight committees care to exercise a bit of investigation and oversight, this whole rotten structure is coming down. Which brings me to...

GOP Congressional Partisanship -- I underestimated the willingness of the Republican Congress to sell out our nation and any remaining principals they may have ever had in service of partisan power and their unquenchable thirst for tax breaks for the millionaires and billionaires who bankroll their party. They aren't just bad, uncaring representatives. They are rapidly proving themselves to be bad Americans.

Trump's increasing incoherence -- Read the text of any of the recent interviews. Donald Trump was always an appalling human being, but I don't remember him being nearly this incoherent. His words are convincing me that the whispers of encroaching dementia are correct. I'm not doctor, but that is not a well mind.

What's about what I expected?

Ego and Arrogance -- Donald Trump's infinite insecurity and need for self-aggrandizement.

Greed and Corruption -- The Trump family's venality.

Lies, lies, lies -- The endless lies, both petty and substantial. The word "dishonest" greatly understates the problem.

Assault on democratic values -- The relentless erosion of rules, standards, and enforcement mechanisms to keep our government basically honest and competent. Even if he's impeached tomorrow, this is probably Trump's most damaging legacy to date.

What's not as bad as I expected?

The bright spot of his incompetence and incoherence is that even with single-party Republican rule in Washington he has yet to push through substantial legislative disasters like dismantling the ACA or a half-dozen other looming disasters for most Americans.

I'm not optimistic that happy state of affairs can last all the way until January 2019.

What do I expect going forward?

I'd like to think that Trump doesn't make it to the November 2018 mid-term elections for Congress. But I dunno. Maybe he eventually shuffles in a reasonably competent assortment of White House staff and they right this capsizing ship. If he continues to be a disaster and the Democrats can regain one of the Houses of Congress, then 2019 will be interesting and chock full of investigations.

Of course, by then we'll probably be involved in several large regional wars, so ... well, yeah.

In other words, taken as a whole it's all going about how I expected. That is not a good thing.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Trump at the Two Month Mark: "The S***show Won't Be Playing Out for the Full Four Years."

My thanks to my friend Ray Abruzzi for the tweet that gave me today's subtitle. It came in a post that linked to one of the many, many, many news stories filed today after FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign's collusion with Russian hackers during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign.

I'm not sure how that revelation can lead to anything other than a special prosecutor, though I have to admit that I have thus far underestimated the Republican Party's determination to pretend that they can't see the parts of this scandal that played out in plain sight during the 2016 election.

We seem to be plunging quickly into prime Watergate territory despite the best efforts of the US Congress to avoid the inevitable. How it all ends is anybody's guess. About the only thing that has surprised me thus far is the sheer ineptitude of the Trump gang. Although I expected the malevolence and untruthfulness of the Trump Administration, the incompetence has fallen below even my low expectations.

Here's my best guess about what may really will matter as we head down this path:

1. Trump's popularity continues to fall. His approval rating is down to 39% in the Gallup poll and 42.6% in the compendium of polls. Beyond being unprecedented territory for a newly elected president, some historic lows are not too far from here. This matters because the Congressional GOP will eventually have to decide if their agenda faces a larger threat from internal divisiveness -- which will certainly increase if they impeach Trump -- or from voter fury in the 2018 election. Most Republican voters still back Trump, but that number is falling, too.

Thus far the Republicans in Congress are focused on unity, but that could change quickly as 2018 looms or if GOP agenda items like the repeal of the ACA falter because of the distractions or because of Trump himself. Mike Pence will sign their bills just as happily, if not more happily,. It sounds as if an increasing number of GOP Congressmen are starting to admit off the record that this would be fine with them.

1A. Whatever shreds of credibility Trump used to have seem to be fading away. The true diehards who never raise their heads from the Breitbart/Fox/InfoWars/Limbaugh fever pits may not see it, but the rest of America does. This will be very important in media coverage of this scandal as we progress.

2. New revelations: There's nothing like new news to keep a scandal growing. It seems that new information comes forth nearly every day. As reporters keep digging, they keep turning up evidence that increasingly tie Trump's campaign staff to Russian hackers. This continuing drip, drip, drip of information is what forced the House Intelligence Committee to hold today's hearing. The drip, drip, drip seems likely to continue and to continue to force action.

And at some point the FBI will release the results of their investigation.

3. Concrete evidence that directly ties Trump to the actions of his staff: At this point it seems clear that Trump's campaign staff colluded with Russian hackers, though many of the details are still a bit muddled and hidden. Trump seems unlikely to have issued written orders to collude with the Russians, so it will likely take either testimony or a recorded conversation to provide the smoking gun. Trump's fear of concrete evidence coming out is likely behind is bizarre charges that Obama and/or British Intelligence tapped his wires during the campaign. That accusation feels like the sort of weirdly specific charge issued by a paranoid and guilty mind.

4. Will somebody cut a deal? There's a lot of money changing hands right now to try to secure loyalty. Among the former Trump campaign staffers who haven't been able to get a security clearance for a White House gig it's hard to find one who isn't on a foreign payroll right now. But the FBI is pretty good at finding a wedge. Taking the fall and a long prison term sounds romantic in gangster fiction, but it plays out a lot differently when crony crooks face the option of hard time. Heck, given the rate at which Russian diplomats linked to this scandal seem to be dying premature deaths, the witness protection program may soon start to look pretty good.

So, what next?

Beats me. This is an unstable situation that continues to escalate. But the FBI moves at its own pace, so how quickly it comes to a true head is really hard to predict. Maybe they keep grinding out progress and get to the top eventually. Or maybe the FBI is only able to pin this on a fall guy like Roger Stone, and things ramp down eventually.

The betting odds that Trump gets impeached and removed from keep dropping -- now down to 10/11 at Ladbroke's. The odds seem likely to drop again after today's hearing.

That's worth repeating for emphasis. Two months into his first term a President whose party also controls Congress is now more than a 50-50 bet to be impeached and removed from office in his first term.

There's lots else that we could talk about: the lying, the more lying, the lying about the lies, the abandonment of his promises to working-class Americans about the sort of health-care reform he'd support, the myriad foreign policy blunders. But as I look around at the big picture today, it seems to me that the most astonishing thing is that the legal mechanisms for removing him from office are already in motion, despite the best attempts of the party that controls the White House and the Congress to stop them.

I expected a Trump presidency to be historically bad, but I didn't expect things to go downhill so quickly. Honest to Pete, we're just two months removed from the Inauguration and we're already hip deep in FBI and Congressional investigations.

As I quoted in my subtitle, this disaster can't possibly last four years. It just can't.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Health Care: how did we get here? Where are we going?

If you're wondering who socialized medicine in the United States, it wasn't Barack Obama. It was Ronald Reagan.

In 1986 Reagan signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which prohibited hospitals from refusing to admit or dumping uninsured patients who arrived in emergency rooms.

This was a good, humane idea. Some hospitals were literally putting people with heart attacks and stab wounds out by the curb to die.

But it also created a spiral in which an increasing number of the uninsured showed up at emergency rooms for treatment either for minor issues that weren't really emergencies, or for major emergencies that would have been much less costly to treat had they been treated earlier.

Literally leaving people to die at the curb is unpleasant, but it is a good deal cheaper than actually treating them.  And aside from the extra costs of emergency room services, the amounts charged to uninsured patients for treatments is often much larger than the amount charged to insured patients for the exact same treatment. This is because insured patients are covered by contracts with prices negotiated by their insurers. Not surprisingly, bill collections against these uninsured folks for these inflated debts generally resulted in poverty, bankruptcies, and very little actual money collected -- per the well established economic dictum, "You can't squeeze blood from a stone."

It's also worth noting here that "poor" in the health insurance debate doesn't necessarily mean "destitute, homeless, on welfare, etc." Most of the poor in this context were the working poor: people working full- or near-full-time jobs that didn't provide affordable health insurance. The truly destitute often were at least partially covered by Medicaid. The working poor were often left out in the cold.

Still, somebody had to pay the bills. One of the reasons the cost of insurance for the insured rose much faster than inflation was because our health care system had to absorb these additional overhead costs.

There were many other contributors to the rapid rise in health insurance costs before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was adopted in 2010: increasing use of technology, pharmaceutical costs, malpractice lawsuit costs (themselves made worse by the spiraling cost of health care itself), forcing the sick out of the insured pool due to preexisting conditions, etc. But the basic math of covering the poorest people in America in the most expensive way possible is immutable. Eventually, more people become uninsured and the people with insurance have to pay more to cover their costs.

Ultimately, you face three options:

1) Remove emergency-room care. Leave the working poor, the elderly and the truly destitute to die in the streets.

2) Cover those people with some sort of jury-rigged private market and government healthcare approach that balances things like requirements that individuals carry health insurance, financial support for policies that cover the poor, and requirements that insurance companies accept all comers.

3) Expand government insurance like Medicaid and Medicare to cover all of the uninsured. Or perhaps even expand it further to become basic insurance for all Americans.

Ronald Reagan and the US Congress rejected option #1 in 1986 for good reasons. If I need to explain them to you, you probably need to take a deep look inside your dark soul.

It's worth noting that Republicans do have a lot of good reasons to seek a better health care system. Spiraling health care costs are a genuine drag on businesses because of our employer-based insurance system. Those uncontrolled costs also contribute greatly to increased government costs. A better health care system that delivered better (or at least similar) results for less money would be of great benefit to a party that is in favor of business owners and reduced government spending.

Option #2 emerged as the conservative Republican alternative for the emerging health care crisis because #3 -- directly expanding the government safety net -- was at complete odds with a conservative political philosophy. So, creating an alternative based on the private market was kicked around for years.

Then, much to everybody's surprise, Mitt Romney managed to implement exactly that in Massachusetts in 2006 while he was governor. And it sorta worked. It at least made a bad situation better.

After Obama was elected in 2008 he decided to take that Republican approach and expand it to the federal level. This worked in one way, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was passed in 2010 and it has succeeded in greatly expanding coverage and slowing the rate of growth of health-care costs. It didn't do these things as completely or quickly as something like a full expansion of Medicaid and Medicare would have. It was also less completely disruptive to the existing health-care model, and that had genuine benefit for a country still suffering from the Great Recession.

There was, however, an unexpected side-effect. The Republican Party's leadership decided that they would benefit from outright opposition to Obama on all things. The debate over the ACA became the prime battlefield for that proposition. To Obama's credit he managed to secure enough Democratic support for a proposal that originally came from Republicans to overcome the unified opposition of the GOP. The Republicans, however, were right that their opposition would energize their base. That led to their Tea-Party fueled victories in the 2010 elections and the subsequent gerrymanders that established political dominance for them in state legislatures and the US House ever since.

Thus was the frame of the debate for the last six years or seven years set, with Democrats uncomfortably but unanimously supporting what most of them thought was a flawed half-measure and Republicans unanimously blasting the ACA's very existence and claiming they could do better without ever producing a genuine proposal. To compound the problem, many Republican controlled states refused to implement the expanded Medicaid coverage, leaving many Americans needlessly uncovered. In the meantime, some genuine improvements to the ACA that could have been made were ground to dust beneath the tracks of the Washington, DC, gridlock of 2011-2016.

So, why did the GOP never produce a genuine health-care proposal of their own in all that time?

Most likely because the Democrats had already passed their proposal. Obamacare was never anything more than federalized Romneycare. If you thought Mitt Romney looked uncomfortable in 2012 trying to explain how he completely opposed a health care structure that he fathered, that's why.

Which brings us to 2017 with the GOP finally in charge of Congress and the White House. What has Paul Ryan and the GOP produced? A bill that makes the situation that existed in 2009 worse, and that now has the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis to prove it. In exchange for throwing tens of millions of people off health care and greatly increasing insurance costs for most other Americans, it offers up massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. As just one note among many items in the report, the CBO does find $3 billion potential deficit reduction for Social Security costs because they estimate that between 17,000 and 29,000 Americans will die needless premature deaths because they will not have access to health care.

I would say this means the GOP's long con on health care policy is finally exposed and this bill is dead, but with Ryan, McConnell, and Trump all on board I wouldn't be in the least surprised if they still try to ram some form of it through. More likely, though, it sputters out somewhere between the House and the Senate, after which the Republican Party continues to loudly blame Democrats for all things related to health care.

We shall see. Darned if I can accurately predict anything politically these days.

What might I like to see for health care in the US? Well, it seems to me that the most useful approach would probably be incremental: maybe an expansion of Medicaid as a bottom-level medical benefit for everybody, dropping the Medicare eligibility age to 60 or 55 to bring healthier folks into that pool, while also providing a higher-level of health care coverage for those who can afford supplemental insurance. It probably doesn't move all the way to a true single-payer system as is seen in other industrialized nations. But somewhere in there might be a recipe for building on what we already have -- keeping some genuine market mechanisms for improving efficiency and quality while not kicking tens of millions of Americans to the side to be bankrupted before dying in the streets.

Of course, that sort of thing would take some level of genuine fact-based policy work and bipartisan cooperation to implement. Those are qualities sadly lacking in Washington, DC, at the moment.

But even that may change one day. And the problem will still be with us for a long time to come.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Yes, Global Warming Is Real and Man-Made: and the Earth doesn't care if you believe that

So, I posted this status update on my Facebook page Wednesday:

It's mid-February in Michigan and I drove to work with my sunroof open. We're expecting a high of 67 degrees. Global warming is the greatest man-made ecological disaster in history, but some of the individual days are quite pleasant if you live in the North but aren't a fan of winter.

Tom Schoenberg, another FB friend of mine expressed the same notion more elegantly, "The weather is absolutely delightful, assuming you don't think about it."

I wasn't really trolling for global-warming deniers on purpose, though it ended up that way. Mostly I was just trying to express the notion that although I've been enjoying the warm weather we've had in Michigan -- which is usually a hopeless, frozen, iceball of grey death this time of year -- my enjoyment is muted a bit by the knowledge that it comes as part of a weather pattern exacerbated by global warming, and that the same weather pattern that brought me a pleasant drive to work has also resulted in a lot of hardships elsewhere.

In retrospect, it shouldn't have been a surprise to me that some of my conservative amigos chose this post to dispute the notion that global warming is real, that it is man-made, and that it might just be related to unprecedented record high temperatures across the US.

But here's the thing. The reality of man-made global warming is not a "belief." It is a fact. And the Earth doesn't care if you believe that or not.

A belief that global warming is not real or caused by human activity has become a bedrock conservative belief, enshrined with "cut taxes" and "cut government." While I think we'd all agree that reduced taxes and smaller government are core beliefs of conservatism, I'd certainly argue that opposition to man-made global warming is no more intrinsic to conservative political philosophy than opposition to gravity, chemical combustion, or the "theory" that the Earth is round and orbits the Sun.**

As the oft-ballyhooed statistic goes, the fact of man-made global warming is supported by 97% of climatologists and nearly 100% of climatologists not funded by the fossil-fuel industry. However, since the fossil-fuel industry also provides a ton of funding for Republican politicians and media, an entire political party has now bought in to the cottage industry of pseudo-science devoted to disputing the reality of man-made global warming. This is part and parcel of the same industry-funded lobbying pattern that has disputed other proven facts to try to avoid or ease anti-pollution regulation: "Nobody knows whether smoking is bad for you." ... "There's no connection between lead in gasoline and lead blood levels in children" ... etc.

There's another factor at work, too. If you conclude that global warming is real and man-made, then lots of individual decisions that you make on a daily basis -- everything from choosing a car to turning on a light bulb -- are complicit in making the Earth a worse place for future generations. That sort of knowledge is really a drag. It's a lot easier on the conscience to just ignore it if you can find a good rationalization for doing so.

The opposition to the reality of man-made global-warming has transcended tactical lobbying. It has become a tribal marker for Republicans. If you say that global warming is real and man-made you are immediately marginalized with the RINO (Republican in name only) tag. Ask Jon Huntsman. The only parallel I can think of is evolution, the mention of which immediately conjures similar debates, though that controversy has its roots in religious beliefs, not a profit motive.

And herein lies the problem with almost everything in our political culture these days: selective bias abetted by paid shills with a profit motive. People choose to believe things based on their allegiance to one side or another in our partisan world, then cherry pick the pile of crapola that Information Age has become for support. Beliefs based on tribal loyalty override beliefs based on a preponderance of the evidence.

And in the middle of it all, truth and facts die.

I don't know how to fix that. I wish I did.

Making reliable information available to people is the very heart of what I do professionally.

For what it's worth, my own certain knowledge that global warming is true and man-made has roots that go much further back than the partisan wars or even my decision to eventually align with the Democratic Party. For me it's probably worked in the opposite direction: repeated denial of global warming by the Republicans is one of the factors that pushed me to become a Democratic voter, then an active Democrat.

I took an Earth science class back in 1987 at Cornell that included a substantial unit on the science of global warming, which was at the time a much less well proven theory. Aside from going through a lot of the basic science of how it works -- looking at absorption spectra, testing results in small-scale samples -- it also served as a good marker for me in terms of the forecasts that existed at the time.

There are lots of complications in climatology: feedback loops, complex air and ocean currents, natural variation, natural trends, the difference between climate and weather. There's lots of room for debate among the details. But as far as man-made global warming goes, from my perspective we've been running a big, giant experiment for the last 30 years. As far as I'm concerned, the results are in.

Theory (1987): Greenhouse gases warm the earth. If you add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the Earth will warm further.

Experiment: Add "x" amount of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, a few others) for 30 years. Measure temperature before and after.

Prediction: Earth warms.

Results (2017): "x" amount of greenhouse gases have been added to the atmosphere. Earth has warmed.

Conclusion #1: Adding greenhouse gases to the Earth's atmosphere warms the Earth.
Conclusion #2: We have no idea what happened. It's inexplicable!

You literally would have to live that experiment then choose Conclusion #2 to believe that global warming is not man-made and caused by increases in greenhouse gases. That is not a rational choice.

But it is tribal. And very human.

**True story: about six months ago I was unable to convince one particular conservative Republican that the Earth is round and orbits the Sun. I don't suffer the delusion that this particular essay will change anybody's mind about global warming, either.