Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trump Fatigue

Fewer people are reading my blog these days.  And I am signing fewer online petitions, and sending more political appeals to trash without opening them.  After all, how many $3 donations can one person make?

We have been overwhelmed since the day Donald Trump paid people to watch him ride down an escalator and begin to spew his bigotry and ignorance with an aim to becoming president.  We laughed at his ignorance, but we were also appalled, and like a car crash, the media couldn't stop filming and we couldn't take our eyes off him.

I can't watch him speak anymore.  I now assume it is totally unnecessary and a waste of whatever hours I have left of my life.  I safely assume that there will be far too much coverage of what he says, hours and hours of rerunning the same quotes and then analyzing those bon mots -- whose thoughts David Brooks has notably said amount to "six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar."  It is beyond disturbing that overnight we went from a president of strong values and intelligence as well as a great orator to a president with no moral compass, who is unable to face the nation without a teleprompter, whose words can be so obviously categorized as being ghost written or spewing from his own small and petty mind.  A president who chooses to communicate with the world through the safety of 140 characters.  A president who for-gods-sake "tweets."

His stupid phrases echo throughout our lives.  He faces world leaders who are intelligent and thoughtful with the same inane compliments, and shouts the same lame and angry promises -- and threats -- at his rallies.  A president who lives for his rallies, because his staunch supporters haven't noticed that it is not Mexico that will pay for his wall, but they themselves.

I was happy to hear that he is using the funds from his 2020 campaign to pay for his lawyers, lawyers who appear to be as stupid as he is, or maybe are just taking his money while not putting a lot of energy into a losing battle.  On the other hand, we seem to have tired of getting angry at the theft of America by the Trump family business; for the moment we are shocked that his cabinet members are following his lead by literally and figuratively flying first class on America's dime.  Eventually there will be a new horror uncovered and the excesses will continue.  Meanwhile, the ironically named "Department of Justice" and the excitable Attorney General Jefferson Sessions goes about the business of dismantling our individual rights.  Too many distractions, 24/7.

And then there is Congress.  We are tired of having to yell at republicans for their slimy attempts to placate their wealthy donors with bills that will take away the safety nets of most Americans.  They keep saying that their truly ugly bills to repeal Obamacare are really a need to fill campaign promises; what has become clear is that those promises were to their wealthy donors who are threatening to throw them out of office if they don't repeal.  Which explains why town halls and ground level approval ratings have been ignored.

And I am exhausted whenever I hear a Democrat or someone in the media refer to the latest planned heist as "tax reform."  There is nothing reformative about tearing down our social institutions in order to add more billions to the billionaire class.  Maybe we need to put David Brooks on the job to find a more fitting phrase, one that would alert Americans to what is really behind the tax cut plan that has Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan salivating.

I worry that we are so tired of fighting this unfair fight that we have turned back to the day-to-day things that really matter:  our families and our homes.  We made time to march, and to call out legislators at town halls, but we have jobs to go to.  And this is what Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham count on.  This is why they continue to try to pass the noxious bill that would destroy health care for millions.  Donald Trump is not a brilliant thinker, but he has wealth and a lifetime of being a successful con artist.  He knows that government can be manipulated, and he has a cabinet that has spent their careers doing it with great success.

Will we be able to bring forth the energy and outrage we had in January to fill our statehouses and Congress with people who represent us and not the wealthy and powerful?  Will we be able to spread the word to those who barely have time to care for their children and get to work on time?  Will we get out to vote and be able to convince those even more exhausted than we are to do the same?

I call it PTTD:  Post Traumatic Trump Disorder.  The trauma was the election, but the effects are the aftershocks that never stop.  Trump fatigue, Trump anxiety.  We feel discouraged; we don't believe we can win against the tsunami of hate and corruption.

But we have won an amazing number of victories.  We have won local elections across the country in once red districts.  We have stopped, and stopped again, the repeal of Obamacare.  We have turned the tide on the repeal of DACA and the Muslim ban.  We have, by our numbers of peaceful counter-protesters, halted the march of the white supremacists.

We are allowed our exhaustion.  We need our time with our families and we need our time to laugh as well as to cry.  We need to keep talking to each other.

We can't make all the phone calls or fight all the battles, but when we feel that spark of outrage we can use it to fight, and we can support those who are fighting other battles.  If we do this, we can reach inside and find the energy to drain the swamp -- no, the sewer -- that Donald Trump has brought to our government.  More important, we can clean out the Congress that since the election of Barack Obama has eroded the integrity of the legislature and the trust of the American people.  It took a dirty Congress to create the atmosphere that spewed forth a Donald Trump, but we the people can clean it out.  We have done it before.

Yes, our country has survived ugly times before.  We will do it again.  I believe that Trump fatigue is a treatable disease.

George W. Bush didn't last forever.  Even Hitler didn't last forever.  And our democracy is strong, with millions fighting all in our own way.  When we come back from this, we will come back stronger still. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Success: Democrats' Best-Kept Secret

Once, not too long ago, CNN and MSNBC carried news about Russia, all day every day.  Then hurricane season hit, and now we have Russia and Harvey, Russia and Irma, Russia and Maria.  And every now and then we hear about confederate general wannabe Jefferson Sessions and the human rights he is working to rid us of, and the republican Congress' umpteenth bill proposing to take health care away from Americans, and Kim Jong Un's latest missile test with subsequent threats and insults by our bully-in-chief.

Discouraging as that may be, there has been good news.  It may be the best kept secret in America but for Donald Trump's taxes, but there have been special elections across the country, and it looks like our protests and demonstrations are paying off.  If only someone would tell the Democratic Party.

Back in the spring, we actually had a special election that made national news.  In a solidly republican district in Georgia, apparently where IQ's are higher than most, Hillary had lost to Trump by only one percent.  Encouraged by that fact, a young man named Jon Ossoff garnered so much excitement that people who had once been afraid to put out lawn signs for Democrats were now campaigning door-to-door.  When republicans got wind of this excitement -- and while they suck at governing, republicans are really, really good at sniffing out the political winds -- they went all in against Ossoff.  Oppo research went into high gear, ads that were so nasty Mitch McConnell could only look on in envy.  Trump did a robocall telling republican voters to protect their right to not have Democrats be part of the electoral process in Georgia's 6th.

And despite Karen Handel's relative unpopularity, she won.  But despite all the dirty attacks against Ossoff in a staunchly republican district, he only lost by four percent.

And even more significant, in a race in South Carolina that went pretty much under the radar, Archie Parnell lost to his republican opponent by just about the same margin.  Here!  In South Carolina!  With little acknowledgement or help from the national party.

Well, if the situation had been reversed and these were republican losses in Democratic districts, the republican party would be celebrating a huge win.  We would have heard for days, maybe weeks, about what an upset had just occurred.  But what happened?  Democrats wondered if Ossoff was too young.  They worried that they hadn't done enough in SC's 5th.  In a masterly irony-free comment, the ever invisible state hero, Jim Clyburn, said,

"I don’t think we had the campaign that was designed to win," said Clyburn. "If we had gotten the resources, I think we would have won."

Ya think?

A week or so ago, I got an email from Ryan Grim who writes at The Intercept.  It had some amazing news...

A Democrat stunned in a special election in Oklahoma last night. In November, Trump won this state legislative district by 11 points, and Jacob Rosecrants, the Democratic candidate, lost his election by 20 points. Last night, Rosecrants -- the very same guy -- ran again in the special, and upset his opponnent by 20I'll do the math for you: that's a 40-point swing.
It's the third special election Democrats have flipped in Oklahoma (!) since November -- and in a fourth, in May, they lost a race by two points in a district that Trump had carried by 50. (That’s not a typo; it was a 48-point swing.)
And in New Hampshire, in a 29-point swing, Democrats flipped another district. (There are like five gazillion members of the New Hampshire legislature, so I wasn’t paying close attention to that one.)
In the race I was watching closest, in Mississippi, there were reports of people -- many students -- showing up to the polls and being told they were no longer registered. The Democrat, Kathryn Rehner, finished second, but forced a runoff election in October. If you know anybody who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss., forward them this email and tell them to get in touch with me if they were turned away at the polls. (And tell them to sign up while they're at it.)
El-Yateem, the democratic socialist running for city council in New York, lost by 7 points.

Apparently, the Democratic Party has decided to keep the good news under their hats.  Now, some of you who do more serious news watching than I do may have heard of these victories somewhere, but please keep in mind that most voters just don't go beyond the headlines.  And these victories were not headlines.

Be aware that these are state and local elections, not national.  What is important about this is what we have been learning since November:  that we need to fight on the state and local level; that when we change the fight on the local level, it moves up to the national level.  Keep in mind that the abhorrent attack on redistricting could only have happened in states where republicans controlled the drawing of the maps.  And 2020 will be the election that determines who will draw the next census districts.

If the Democratic Party celebrated the narrow losses in once-republican districts as well as all those local victories, eventually the voters who don't have time to read the fine print will start to recognize that something important is going on, and the republican party is on the wrong side of it.

And believe me, it will convey to national elections, which is something republicans have known all along, or at least since the Kochs, Art Pope and ALEC recognized it and started throwing their money at local elections.

Our SC state party has begun to send out informative emails about upcoming candidates as well as those who are already in the Statehouse fighting for us.  If you aren't on their email list, go to their website and sign up.  I've been very excited to see them move away from their "Give $3" fund-raising emails to actually informing us about issues and individuals.

On the other hand, the national party continues to hide out, which I suppose is preferable to all that public hand-wringing.  My philosophy has become throw all my support and enthusiasm behind all those great candidates, and don't expect much from the party.  They may figure it out someday, but the excitement comes before the money.

There are a couple of national campaigns I've recently heard about.

In Texas, besides having a really great name, Beto O'Rourke has decided to take on the evil Ted Cruz.  A friend alerted me to him via a link describing what is becoming a famous road trip.  O'Rourke took a congressional seat away from a long-time republican incumbent, and looks like he could actually do it again against Cruz.  He has a strong personality and a strong progressive message.  What he doesn't have is Ted Cruz' wealthy donors.

Two things about that.  Social media has been proving to be more powerful than big bucks.  And Jon Ossoff proved that when the message is right, we will find the money.

And maybe it is better these days to not be controlled by a twitchy party.  I read an article a few weeks ago talking about all the great people who are stepping up to run for office in 2018.  The article talked about how they made the pilgrimage to the national party office to ask for support, which the party made clear was contingent upon their fund-raising ability.

Pardon my French, but fuck that.

While they obsess about why Democratic voters have stopped responding to the deluge of fund-raising emails, they seem to have no clue as to why Democratic voters have stopped going out to vote.  So, candidates first.  First, last and in the middle. Candidates with a message that puts the 99 percent ahead of the one percent should not have to make raising funds for the big dogs part of all the hard work they are having to do to be heard.

Candidates need to be fearless.  They need to know that the closer they come to being heard, the dirtier their opponents will stoop.  They need to incorporate that into their campaign, as in, "The reason my opponent's party is attacking me is because he knows I can win.  They know I am going to fight for you, and that you know I am going to fight for you.  Their special interests have lots more money than me, and they will do anything to keep us from talking about the issues.  I am not going to let that happen."

And our candidates need to resist the party message of cautiousness.  That is how republicans divide us.  They have used abortion and gay rights to throw shade on the real issues of individual rights and income disparity.  In January, Indivisible led the way to a movement in which our unity gave us power.  We have let that unity work for us in our fight for health care and against the Muslim ban, for transgender and reproductive rights, for DACA and voting rights and environmental rights.  We can get the candidates who reflect that unity elected.  We just have to show up and be heard.

We can help by letting everyone via email, on Facebook, Twitter and all those other social media outlets that I haven't yet gotten to, know right now about those great people who are considering running.  We need to show up at their debates and rallies, and we need to get them in the news on local TV and the newspaper.

I would like to end by talking about the other potential candidate, one who has me pretty excited.

Annabelle Robertson is an employment discrimination attorney.  She is also founder of Indivisible South Carolina.  Today she is contemplating a 2018 run against US House Representative Joe Wilson.  You may recall that he made it to national fame by yelling "You lie!" during Barack Obama's speech to Congress in 2009.  What was less well-known is that it was Wilson who was lying, and that he later apologized to Obama for his crude outburst.  He may have been wrong, and he may have apologized, but he has done lots of fund-raising on that undignified act.  Not only did those two words reflect a new low in respect for the office of the president, but once again made South Carolina a laughingstock on the national stage.

Robertson represents everything the Democratic Party should stand for, as reflected in Indivisible.  And the icing on the cake is that she is a really smart woman.  So we need to a) encourage her to run, b) support her any and every way we can, c) get the word out.

The naysayers may be out there, but you know what I say to them.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Religion and Me

Apparently, I’ve recently offended a friend by making a smartass crack about the hypocrisy of the Christians running the government.  I admit, I should have put quotation marks around “Christian,” but assumed the irony was obvious.  Of course, I wasn’t referring to all those good, moral Christians out there.  But in fact, I do have an anti-religion bias, and sometimes it gets away from me.  Maybe it is because I get tired of the self-importance, the way my own atheism is considered to be an anomaly, and the belief that if you don't believe in God you have no moral compass.  Maybe the NRA's success at jamming Jesus into the 2nd Amendment has put me over the edge.  Or the fabrication that goes into taking holy books as fact instead of historical documents, while rejecting the parts they disagree with -- and then breaking into factions to argue about which interpretation is true.

I don’t know much about my father’s history; he didn’t share much and he wasn’t easy to talk to.  But I do know that in Italy, as he was being held as a prisoner of war, a Catholic priest came to his cell to try to convince him that he should fight for Mussolini.  For him, so the story goes, that was the end of his belief in religion, if not in God.  At my First Communion or maybe my Confirmation, he was taking a home movie as the monsignor of the church came down the stairs at the procession at the end.  He held out the ring and advanced toward my father, at which time the movie goes haywire as he turns around and tears out of there.

As a child, I tended to be an overachiever.  Not very popular, I went from wanting to be a nun, to wanting to be a saint.  And then, around age 16, when I fell in love with Paul McCartney and said a failed prayer to God that Paul would find me and fall in love with me, I lost my belief, completely.  And that, folks, is something I have never, ever shared.  Not quite the dramatic come-to-atheism moment as my father, but there it is.

Catholicism for me was having to go to church every Sunday.  But somewhere in my life, probably in elementary school, I was taught the Golden Rule, which seems to me today something we could all get back to.  Back in the 50’s in Rhode Island, as far as morality was concerned, they didn’t talk about “Christianity,” but of the “Judeo-Christian ethic.”  This despite the fact that there weren’t too many Jews in my neighborhood.  We only knew who they were because they were absent on the Jewish holidays.  But the message was that both those religions conveyed the ethical rules by which we should all live.  Still, it seemed to me to be the Golden Rule in a different wrapping paper.

I have toyed with belief in God a few times since then, but I keep coming back to how silly all the religions are.  The rules beyond the Golden one are silly; the ideas about afterlife are silly.  And yet, if that is what it takes to help a person deal with mortality, I respect that.  I am proud of the fact that, as a psychologist many years ago, I had a number of clients that were Jehovah's Witness, referred by one another.  They never preached their religion to me, and I in turn respected it as an integral part of their lives.

A few years ago, my daughter told me with some trepidation that when she married she had promised to raise their children in her husband's Catholic faith.  I was surprised that she thought that I would object.  Likewise, my son's agnosticism has been a thorn in the side of his girlfriend's mom.  Unnecessary man-made miseries.  Everyone trying to define -- for everyone else -- what life is all about.

My own belief is that mortality is what this is all about:  what motivates us, what forges our perceptions and our emotions.  What makes us make rules about how we live.

Up until my husband died just three years ago, I tortured myself over the thought of my mortality.  I couldn’t imagine being here and then just not.  I am an older parent, and when my kids were born and through their young lives I did the math thing:  when they are this age, I will be that age.  It drove me crazy.

When Stephan died, I did some soul-searching, some reading and some therapy.  I ended up finding peace in the greater picture of the universe, the one in which we humans are not the center.  I began to feel some of the excitement that Neil deGrasse Tyson conveys.  Look at the sky and the stars, we are minute immeasurable particles of the universe, those particles are here today and somewhere else entirely tomorrow.  Our minds haven’t come anywhere near the ability to understand the complexities of time and the vastness of space.  But, man, isn’t it great that we have the consciousness and the intellect to try?!  And aren't each of those discoveries miraculous?

It is a shame that religion constrains the potential we have to be excited by our existence, to make the most of our time here.  It is really shameful that in this country that they keep telling me is great, our leaders and too many of our fellow citizens have rejected science that was accepted when I was a teenager in the last century.  Politicians have warped religious belief to twist it into a fight to make women less free, to defend their racist ideologies, to lead us to war, to frighten people into accepting jealous and fearful rules that hurt us.  They make rules that in the end hurt those who accept them as well as those who are attacked by them.

Personally, I find talk of religion, at best, boring.  I have no need to understand different theologies; to my mind, they are rationalizations of a pretense that some people are more important than others, that some have the right rules and the rest do not.  That some will reap reward and some won’t.  When I am with people who begin to talk about religion, I space out.  And let me be clear about this:  I am not an intellectual, I don’t like ideas that go off into the stratosphere.  Philosophy too often seems to be an auto-erotic exercise.  I am just as bored hearing justifications for atheism.  I would much rather talk about science than atheology.  Science is fun.  Science is us.

The recent eclipse brought to light the idiotic hypocrisy of the people currently running our country, and those who support them.  There you had the idiot-in-chief and the idiot-general along with all those other anti-science freaks donning their special glasses at the exact time that scientists predicted that the moon would block the sun.

Granted, the idiot-in-chief had to be persuaded to wear the glasses,

but still.  No one at the White House was saying that they wouldn’t go blind because God wouldn’t let them.

The same is true for medicine.  Those jackasses that bring the bottom fraction of a percent of physicians to testify against abortion would never go to the bottom of the barrel for cancer treatment.  They want the best physicians, and they want the best treatment by consensus.  And damn, they may pray for that tumor to go away, but they do it while they are getting surgery and chemo.  I guarantee, when they choose their doc, they aren't as concerned with religious belief as with medical expertise.

This week we are watching the double whammy of Harvey followed by Irma.  We are trying to determine the best course of action by following the reports of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  an organization for which the current administration will be cutting funding.  Sadly, there are those in the path of Irma who are saying God will take care of them, using God to rationalize the fact that they don’t want to leave their homes, and possibly putting rescuers at risk.  At least come out from behind God and take the responsibility for your own stupid choices.  Even the God-fearing Florida Governor Rick Scott  isn’t telling you to listen to God to decide whether to evacuate.

I don’t do the math thing where I wonder where I will be in so many years anymore.  My mother died at 63, and for years I thought I would not outlive her, and now I am 66.  I am healthy today, and instead of being afraid of dying, I try to look at today, to appreciate my good friends, and I try to contribute through my writing to make days and lives a little better for someone, somewhere.  I don’t take offense as often as I once did; I don’t carry the anger with me that my father carried all his life and that he passed on to his three daughters.  There just isn’t time, and in the end it is just going to drain the pleasure that could be here each day.

It saddens me to see how difficult we all make our lives.  How we choose our leaders for stupid or selfish reasons.  How we categorize and judge each other.  Sure, I do it.  I’m human.  But in the back of my mind is the awareness that I am a gazillion particles that come and go in the universe, and maybe beyond the universe.  That we all wrestle with our mortality, and that in the end, one day our consciousness leaves us and we die.  And that is fine.

My sarcasm and flippancy helps me cope with my anger and frustration at those who use religion to manipulate people, to block progress, to rein in our potential rather than celebrate it.  So, to those who are offended by my flippant attitude toward religion, I hope that at some point you will be able to understand that when we are all said and done, my attitude doesn’t matter at all who you have chosen to be.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Ironic Cherry Reads about Steve Bannon... you don't have to

The Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon,
Donald Trump, and the Storming
of the Presidency
by Joshua Green

Reading Devil's Bargain was a dirty job.  In light of what has happened, how our worst fears have come true, the details of the meeting of these two evil minds -- one stupidly evil and the other brilliantly so -- was like reading about Hitler and World War II if it had had a different ending.  So many people hurt, with more devastation to come.

But it is also important information.  We need to understand just who these people are and how this fouling of American democracy was allowed to happen in order to fight it.  Because 2018 is here.

Steve Bannon may look like something the cat dragged in, but this is part of his look, a cultivated don't-give-a-damn appearance.  He reminds me of a mirror-image Antonin Scalia, in that both came from immigrant backgrounds and were raised in strict Catholic families, with strong education in classics and history.  Where Scalia's father was a professor in romance languages and made education a priority, Bannon grew up in a blue collar family and neighborhood; he was scrappy and a fighter, taking on the rich prep school kids.  Scalia clung to law-and-order by virtue of a right-wing philosophy and the pursuit of law.  Bannon went right-wing into the Virginia Military Institute, followed by of all things a degree at Harvard Business School and a career at Goldman Sachs, followed by of all things Hollywood and the movie industry, using his Goldman Sach education to invest and take over failing businesses.  Through all their pursuits, both worked their asses off, determined never to quit, to work their way to the top.

Scalia's path took him towards the most extreme radical Catholic beliefs, Bannon's education nurtured his political paranoia, hardening nationalist philosophies that he had held since his youth.  Business speculation and internet coincided when Bannon's interests discovered the gaming universe -- and the realization that more than money, there were networks of gamers and message-board inhabitants looking for a challenge... and a way to blow up the status quo.

There is a huge web of denizens of the "alt-right," those who have been motivated by their paranoia to network, some with great success.  Breitbart would naturally lead to Bannon, which would inevitably lead to Trump.

At this point, we all know way too much about Donald Trump.  A man of privilege, who like Bannon, set his sights high.  He  is not intelligent, but his insecurity has given him a fine-honed instinct for who has power that he can use, and who can be bullied and manipulated.  Trump always seeking to be the news, Bannon knowing how to get that done.  Both enjoying the heady feeling of controlling the message, and both seeking yet greater power.

The similarities aren't as interesting as the differences.  Bannon fought his way up, had to prove himself at every turn.  Trump was handed his fortune and his career.  Bannon had to be smart to make it where Trump only had to be a con artist.  To be a con artist Trump had to be front and center; Bannon grew his power in the shadows.  A perfect fit.

If anyone believes that letting Bannon go was Trump's idea, and that Bannon and Trump are no longer a thing, they have truly underestimated Bannon's power over Trump.  The White House may have a lot of ears, but there are still lots of terrifying lines of communication open to a president who doesn't give a shit about the national security he bleated about on the campaign trail.  We know Trump can't keep his tiny fingers off Twitter, neither can he stay off the phone.  He needs constant reassurance, and that is what has made him vulnerable.  But Bannon is the real go-to guy when Trump needs that reassurance, and Bannon isn't going to let those calls leak.

And Bannon's goal continues to be to blow up civilization, to bring about chaos while claiming anarchy is libertarianism.  With Trump as his mouthpiece, no doubt he has spent hours gleefully rubbing his hands together, as the rest of the country runs headfirst into each other trying to make sense out of what could be impending apocalypse.  Steve Bannon is not going to allow Trump to stray too far from his influence, and Donald Trump needs Bannon's conviction to continue to batter the nation in order to remain king.

The grown-ups in the room may continue to work to contain Trump's madness and narcissism, but Steve Bannon is the one the angry toddler goes to for fun and games when the grown-ups aren't around.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Ironic Cherry Reads... An American Sickness

An American Sickness:
How Healthcare Became Big Business
How You Can Take it Back
Elisabeth Rosenthal

It takes a lot of hands to mess up healthcare as badly as we have done in this country.  And Elisabeth Rosenthal has described pretty nearly all of those interested parties and how they have affected us and our health care in this book.  She has done it in a way that makes each aspect of the healthcare disaster personal to each of us.

Rosenthal is a writer and non-practicing physician who now writes for Kaiser Health News.  Not only is the book well-researched, but she does have her finger on the pulse of American healthcare.  In the book, she documents chapter by chapter the different pieces of the healthcare puzzle, with personal stories about wrestling with the massive and systemic incompetence and corruption.  These personal stories come from people not in the field, but also other physicians, and Rosenthal herself.  Importantly, the people whose experiences she describes are not anonymous.  They have all come forward to tell their story in order to help change this awful system.  And then she details practical ways we can effect both political change and fight personal battles over things like drugs and hospital bills.

I would like to run down all the most important details, but it seems that I would have to basically transcribe the entire book.  There is critical information on every page.  And it is information that could affect any of us.  Rosenthal has broken the book down into chapters about each aspect, from insurance, hospitals and doctors, to pharmaceuticals, medical appliances and research.

Each of those facets of health care, since the sixties, has contributed to changing the goal from improving health to increasing profit.

Blue Cross Blue Shield was once a true non-profit which goal was to make health care affordable, but when for-profit companies like Cigna stepped in, the competition forced Blue Cross to make profit a goal in order to survive.  Money was increasingly spent more on advertising and executive salaries than on health care, to the point that the Affordable Care Act now requires that the industry spend at least 80% of premiums on health care.

The initial function of hospitals was charitable.  These days many of those hospitals have become an important way to bring in money to the Catholic Church.  Again, executive pay and advertising run up the bill.  Hospitals compete by offering the services that will increase profit rather than those that are most needed.  Part of their business model is that they must continually get larger, swallowing up smaller hospitals or forcing them to close.  Hospital administrators now tend to have business backgrounds rather than medical experience.  And those administrators work hard for their big paychecks, by figuring out ways to increase profit.  Unnecessary tests and extended hospital stays, $10 aspirin, contracting out rather than having in-house doctors -- just a drop in the bucket of creative ways to jack up hospital profit, with little to no accountability.

Likewise, physicians were increasingly likely to run their practices with an eye to profit rather than the needs of their patients or community.  The doctor that stops by your bed to see how you are doing is billing you for it.  "Physician extenders" can step in and do the work of the specialist without the qualifications; double billing; coding for a more costly procedure; out-of-network physicians who are contracted by a hospital without your knowledge, leaving you with a huge out-of-pocket bill.  And you may never see the doctor who quickly scans your treatment from an office miles away, yet bills you as though he has actually provided treatment.

If you are wondering why our drugs cost so incredibly much more than those sold in any other country, the culprit is a for-profit system with a pharaceutical industry that pays lobbyists a fortune to keep government regulations at bay.  The tricks they play to keep the prices sky-high are mind boggling.  There are actual legally accepted methods that can keep a generic off the market for years after the patent should have expired.  Competitors actually make deals with companies that have big-name drugs, agreeing to keep their drug off the market for a price.

Remember Martin Shkreli, the cocky, immoral narcissist who bought the rights to a cheap generic and raised the price from $13.50 to $750 a pill?  The thing about Shkreli is not so much what he did, but that he did it so publicly and shamelessly.  In fact, that kind of abuse goes on all the time, at every available opportunity.  The government is unwilling to step in and regulate.  The drug companies make billions from our suffering.  Marketing new, expensive drugs that are less effective than older generics, extending a patent by adding a new coating to a pill, fishy FDA rules that allow drug approval with inadequate testing... again, I could go on and on.

Medical devices are another area of creative price gouging, one that is buried in other bills.  The device manufacturers' lobby has been so successful that as some members of the Senate are attempting to work together on fixing the ACA, thus far the only item that has been altered is eliminating the 2.3% medical device tax, which is actually closer to 1.5% after deductions.  20,000 jobs were not lost as a result of the tax.  The tax is not on consumer devices, like eye glasses, but only on "non-retail medical devices," like MRI's and pacemakers.  And like the $4,000 screws used in some back operations.  The prices from hospital to hospital vary like crazy; there is no rhyme or reason to the pricing.

One of my favorite boondoggle stories is a personal one.  A few years ago, while I was working at a branch of the Charleston County Public Library, each branch had installed a defibrillator.  It was a great source of wonder and comic relief for the staff.  As a library assistant, high school degree required, the assumption was that one of us would be required, with no training, to operate the defibrillator on a patron suffering a heart attack.  One of us thought that it should only be used if the patron was unconscious.  We hadn't even been given an emergency phone number.  In a very cynical way, it cracked me up.  But wasn't it a damn clever idea to sell those things to zillions of local governments across the country? With little proof of effectiveness of defibs in public places, no funds for training, and a pretty good-sized price tag for governments that, in the 2000's were bearing the weight of huge budget cuts.  Hate the government?  Blame the corporations that prey on them.

Medical tests are overpriced and overused; in-house testing creates greater profit for doctors and hospitals and sometimes ridiculously higher bills for patients.  Ambulances are now in many areas contracted out, and the costs non-negotiable, and often, not covered by insurance.  Physical therapy used to be an affordable service but is now big business.

Medical coding, rather than being a language that makes it easier for professionals to know a patient's medical status, is now an opportunity for obfuscation and profit.  Consultants are hired to find a way to pad the bill by entering a more highly reimbursed procedure code.

And then there is research.  Research is the excuse given by pharmaceuticals and device manufacturers for their exorbitant prices and insistence on longer patent times.  But "new" items too often these days merely replicate old, tried and true -- and less expensive --  drugs or devices, research is oftentimes not as rigorous as seems to be required.  And results and follow-ups, well, they just aren't cost effective when it comes to the bottom line, so when the regulators aren't paying attention, they too often are minimized or don't happen.

Medicare and the Affordable Care Act have both attempted to improve medical outcomes and curb costs, but those who stand to profit work tirelessly to get around those efforts to provide affordable quality care.  And lobbyists ensure that our lawmakers don't do much to get in the way of the industry.  Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar and -- my god -- Elizabeth Warren, all worked across the aisle to support REPEAL of the medical device tax, which had been intended to finance Obamacare.  Why?  Because Minnesota and Massachusetts are home base for three of the largest device manufacturers.

On that sobering note, the author goes on to itemize by category our $3 trillion health care bill.  And then, in a short but important section, she gives practical instructions for combating the health care behemoth in our own lives, as, for example, when you get an unexplained charge on a hospital bill.

It would be in your own interest to read this book.  But we don't all have the time.  But I urge you to check it out of the library, glimpse through it, and pick a chapter that calls out to you.  Fifteen minutes of your time (if you can put the book down) will give you an idea of why it has taken so long to get to Obamacare and why there has been so much energy, and so many dollars, put into dismantling it.  And why it is so important to take down this massive waste of money and lives.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

When the Lesser of Two Evils Is Equally Evil

One of the games we have been playing since November 9 is:  which is worse, Trump or Pence?  This is a game that is not only engaging, but terrifying.  In it we have to decide which of two evil leaders we would choose to be in charge of destroying our country.

You have probably heard the pros and cons.  Trump is crazy and could do irreparable harm, as in nuclear war.  Pence is pure evil and will do irreparable harm, but probably won't engage us in nuclear war.  We may be able to repair the harm Pence does to our civil liberties... or maybe not.

There is a strange show on Comedy Central that I just discovered called The President Show.  The guy who plays Trump is just eerie, because he smiles.  Trump does not smile.  When he attempts to smile it is a grimace, a slash, as opposed to the sides of his mouth actually turning up.

Note that the eyes also grimace.

But the Mike Pence character, played by the funny and talented Peter Grosz, really nails it.  In a sketch with three actual world-renowned ethicists, Pence "explores" what "ethics" actually is.

This is a brilliant sketch that ends with the Rev. Paul Raushenbush saying that he is most worried that Pence would be "better at being president than Donald Trump but with the exact same goals."

The three ethicists and Grosz play their parts in such a way that it sent chills through me.

It turns out, however, that the Trump/Pence philosophical debate has merely been the warm-up for the ethical dilemma that is the Age of Trump.

When Trump began to gripe about "Attorney General" Jefferson Sessions and his failure to support Trump in the Russia investigation by stunningly doing the right thing and recusing himself, a whole new can of worms turned up in the White House cafeteria.  The bitching was so sharp-tongued that it seemed to leave no other option but for Sessions to resign.  The reason resignation was so important is that, according to one interpretation of the law, only if he resigned could the president appoint a replacement.

Of course, we know Trump was pissed off because he has assumed a Sessions A.G. would refuse to prosecute Trump crimes in colluding with Russia to influence the election.  And public pressure has been such that even the House of Representatives' convoluted attempts to block the investigation have thus far failed.

Coming up on summer recess, with increasing attacks by Trump on Sessions, it seemed that Sessions just couldn't stay.  And if he left while Congress was not in session, Trump could assign a recess appointment, and it would be someone who would be more compliant, someone who would be more than willing to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller at the president's behest.

The quandary with which we philosophers of democracy were suddenly faced was yet another reverse Sophie's choice.  Would it be better to have the evil Jefferson Sessions quit and be replaced by someone who would no doubt derail the Russia investigation and leave Trump safely in the White House?  Or would it be better to leave Sessions in his powerful position at DOJ so that Mueller's investigation can safely proceed?

Turns out that a tantrumming Trump is no match for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.  He has been waiting for the opportunity to wield this much power all his life.  And while we are all distracted by the other horrors of this administration, as well as the cascade of purely stupid presidential tweets, Sessions has indeed gone about his business of destroying our rights and freedoms, with relish.

Sessions learned a lot growing up alongside the KKK.  Whereas they wore sheets and committed their hateful acts in the dark, Sessions moves quietly in daylight.  He denies his bigotry while devising his schemes to harm people of color.  In his relatively short time at the DOJ, Sessions has worked feverishly -- but again, quietly -- to knock down hard-won pillars of freedom.  It turns out that, like Forrest Gump, Sessions has found his way into the most important halls of history, where he can do his dirty deeds with impunity.

Since he received his loyalty award from Trump, he has begun to go after states that have legalized marijuana.  This defender of states' rights -- "except when he doesn't"  -- is going after sanctuary cities which seek to protect undocumented immigrants who live and work peaceably in their communities.  He is attempting to overturn protections against civil asset forfeiture, the seizure of property prior to criminal conviction.  He is now placing the federal government front and center in the war against affirmative action.  Of course, he has a different take on states' rights where minority rights are being attacked:  he decries federal involvement in cases of possible police abuse, voting rights, and LGBT rights.  And he is demanding data on visitors to an anti-Trump website, an attack on our right to privacy that we must not ignore.

This insult to the Keebler elf never sleeps.

But would we rather have him leave and pave the way for Trump to derail the investigation that could prove the way to his impeachment?

So many of us have given over sleepless nights to the bad choices we have.  I have decided that we have to trust the rules of law, and our ethical and moral compass.

In the case of Trump/Pence, it can't be a matter of who will do the more harm.  If we allow Trump to continue to control the government because we fear Pence, we are rejecting the protections that were built into our democracy.  We need to rid ourselves of the rot that is currently corrupting the presidency.  And then we need to battle the evils that Pence will attempt to enact.

More difficult is the question of Sessions, because he has no plans to leave, and he is fortunate enough to be able to go about his dirty deeds while Trump is tossing his feces around Washington and the nation.  At this point we can philosophize and debate, but there isn't much we -- meaning moral Americans -- can do.

But as with Trump/Pence, we can't excuse evil because it may be the lesser evil.  Sessions is daily corroding the rights and freedoms of Americans, happily going after minority rights, but also his pet right-wing peeves, and possibly most serious, our right to privacy.  I have to believe that Trump's crimes are so bad that there is no way out for him, whether he is able to figure out a way to rid himself of Mueller or not.  Meanwhile, we must be aware of the evil that is being enacted by the "Department of Justice," and we must, we must, speak out.

And lest we forget whose side the majority in Congress is on:

It was encouraging that before the recess, republicans worked on a bill that would prevent Trump from making a recess appointment that would potentially replace the AG with someone who would fire Special Prosecutor Mueller.  But their concern masked their loyalty to their former colleague.  The abhorrent acts that Jefferson Sessions is undertaking fall right in line with the goals of the republican Congress.  Restrictions to civil rights, enhanced police powers, curtailing privacy and freedom, they all come under the goals of the right wing.  They are delighted that Sessions is in the DOJ fighting for them.  So the bills put forward to prevent a potential recess appointment was more about loyalty to their own than protecting the Russia investigation.  And the fact that they seemed to be finally willing to fight to find out the truth about the election was just pure gravy.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Few Words about the Price of Gas

I flipped when CNN ran a banner a few weeks ago saying that the price of gas was the lowest it has been in years.  I KNEW that was not true, because, being on a limited income and living out in the boonies, a few cents a gallon up or down adds up.  Politicians, and organizations that represent the oil and gas industry, have been playing fast and loose with the price of gas since forever, but I have been fascinated with the way they are working the public since the price finally began to come down a few years ago.

But going back into the painfully high gas prices of the Bush era (here in SC I remember paying nearly $4/gallon before the price began its drop), the right-wingnut cry was for -- you guessed it -- more freedom for the gas and oil industry:  Drill, Baby, Drill.  If that had been the most stupid thing Sarah Palin said during the 2008 campaign, I believe history might have been really different, because promising to lower the price of gas by drilling appealed to an awful lot of Americans.

And sadly, from fracking and resultant earthquakes, to pipelines and the leaks and spills caused by poor design and maintenance, to coal mining and its risk to workers due to its inherent danger and abhorrent safety practices, it has been nearly impossible to counter the demand for more and yet more oil.  The siren song of more jobs has been magnified by Trump's narcissistic rendition of reality.  He promised 28,000 jobs as he signed the executive order allowing the building of the Keystone pipeline.  It is actually two to four thousand temporary jobs while it is being built and 35 permanent jobs when finished.  The truth comes too late; the industry pockets its profits and we are forced to deal with the environmental and human disasters.  And the price of gas doesn't go down.

Newt Gingrich bloviated about the price of gas when he ran his pathetic presidential campaign in 2012, claiming that Obama intended to get the price of gas up to $8 to $9 a gallon, and he alone could get it down to $2.50.  And yet, when the price of gas went down as low as $1.50 last year, someone in the crowd at a Hillary rally had to shout out at the President about the low price of gas, because nobody was talking about it.  Of course, Dems, unlike republicans, are reluctant to take credit for something they haven't had anything to do with.  But Obama's stealth energy policy (again, nobody bragging about accomplishments) had managed to make gas cheaper without trashing the environment.  And unemployment declined without all those dirty energy jobs being added; in fact, renewable energy has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US.

So what has been happening to the price of gas, really?  A three-year chart shows the plummeting of gas prices in 2014 and 2015, only beginning a steady rise in February of 2016, as tension mounted around the presidential campaign.

After the election which promised to shitcan environmental regulations and give a go-ahead to fuel industry rape and plunder, it seems the Wall Street speculators are ready to party.  And just as they did during the Bush years, the media is reporting the gains as though there will be no dark side, ever.  But as the price of oil goes up, the price of gas at the pumps goes up.

But here is the thing that really drives me nuts.  The price doesn't just go up and up and up.  There is a method to the madness of the oil industry.

When I check the price of gas as I leave my Wadmalaw Island home and venture out to Johns Island and civilization, I see that it has gone up TEN CENTS a gallon since the last time I passed, a couple days earlier.  The very next day it goes down four or five cents.  Well, that feels like a relief, doesn't it?  And then it goes up a couple more cents, maybe down a penny.  This goes on for a month or two, and then steadies.  Until it goes up another ten cents, and the shock is followed by relief which eventually leads to being acclimatized to the big hike and ready for the next wave.

In November, the price of gas by me was $1.59 a gallon.  Today it is $2.19.  Last week it was $2.09.

At some point, when people start complaining, the oil industry will produce some rationale for the hike.  Nobody will be there to debate whatever reason they give.  We will have pipelines producing a handful of jobs and drilling destroying our earth, and we will be tightening our belts to buy gas, just like we did in the good old days of the Bush administration.

By the way, here in South Carolina we have been waging the battle of the gas tax for years, until our roads and bridges got so damned bad they finally passed the hike.  I am sure that many of our less informed citizens will be quick to point out that the rise in the price of gas is due to the tax hike them damn liberals voted in.  Actually, the price of the gas tax in South Carolina did go up in June, by two cents a gallon.  So please feel free to poke a hole in that one when it floats by.