Party Labels…Part 2

A couple of things before I dive into this.  (With apologies to Dr. Seuss) Thing 1: I regret that I was not able to continue in the vein of the last post, and that a week or more has gone by.  For the first time in my life, I went through a hurricane evacuation, the return to home turf, and a cleanup, an effort that may last for another week or two, so between time lost to outside labor and the fatigue caused by it, I just haven’t devoted any time to other pursuits.  And Thing 2: Having read my last post again, I realized there were things I should have said in that post and didn’t.  So here’s some more to consider as an addendum to it.  Sorry about that.

So, having described the process by which dog-whistle, “not quite” racism, or its close cousin, covert, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” almost racism came to be a component of Republican core values (Hey, it wins a lot of votes, so…) it was an oversight on my part to fail to enlarge on a “single-issue voter” comment I made.

Single-issue voters are the most faithful straight party voters in existence.  Regardless of how a party or its candidate feels about or promises to enact other policies, the single-issue voter wants to hear that this candidate is a true believer in whatever this voter’s obsessive cause is.  There are several of these issues, but the most lasting, most effective of these for the Republicans in the modern era has been abortion.  Before the late 1950’s abortion in the United States had not been a subject of controversy.  Accurate figures on the numbers of abortions performed in the country were not available; so-called “back alley” procedures were rumored.   The procedure was, for the most part, simply banned. There was some debate about a woman’s being forced to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term, but no large-scale movement to legalize it in any form.

In 1962, the local host of the children’s TV show Romper Room in Phoenix, Sherri Finkbine (already a mother of four), learned that she had taken medication containing thalidomide, a drug produced originally in (then West) Germany and marketed as a cure for nausea.  Ms. Finkbine had ingested over 30 of these pills in the early stages of her pregnancy.  (Her husband had picked up the pills on a European trip.)  After taking the pills, she learned that the medication was suspected to cause birth abnormalities if taken by the mother in early stages of pregnancy.  Her personal physician recommended that she seek a therapeutic abortion, legal under Arizona law at the time.  At the same time, Ms. Finkbine went public with her personal situation, to warn others who had taken any thalidomide-based drug of the dangers it posed.  She began to receive death threats and promises of legal action against her as well as the hospital where the procedure was to be performed; abortion had abruptly moved to the front page and to the six o’clock news.

Ms. Finkbine eventually obtained the abortion by going to Sweden; her obstetrician there eventually confirmed that the fetus was grossly deformed and stood little chance of survival.  Following her story, Gallup polls showed about half the general public thought she had done the right thing; as time went on, public opinion shifted further in favor of liberalization of abortion restrictions.   Foes of liberalization mobilized, and positions hardened as some states moved to lift absolutist laws on the subject. Lawsuits and countersuits were filed in many jurisdictions.  Eventually, all this culminated in a case before the US Supreme Court, the famous Roe v. Wade, in 1973.  That decision, which seemed to settle the issue in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, has never been accepted by a large minority of the US public, and that portion has remained active in trying to return to a more restrictive regimen of law on the matter.

Republican party politicians have gradually assumed a rather unanimous position in opposition to the current state of affairs and have promised to pass ever more restrictive laws in many states.  It is difficult to say how many of them sincerely support a more restrictive view.  It is not in question that those voters who vote with single-issue fervor against the right to abortion, even with restrictions as to late term procedures, support the Republican Party.  The national Democratic Party generally adheres to a position laid out by former President Bill Clinton, who said that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

A relatively recent addition to the single-issue voter list is known as “marriage equality.”  In another case decided by the Supreme Court, state laws against gay marriage were wiped out.  So-called “social conservatives” have sought to circumvent this change in legal climate; it is too early to know whether marriage equality has the staying power to become a long-lasting single-issue at election time, but this is another rock solid Republican issue at present.

Perhaps the most rock solid single issue, though, is guns.  Why? Well, according to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the national Democratic Party is coming after your guns.  Never mind that the Democrats have floated only  mild tweaks to gun laws in recent years–things like registration of legally-obtained guns or limiting magazine size.  ANY control of gun ownership or any restriction on the potential carnage that can be caused by guns is anathema to the NRA.  Recently, they attracted attention with a series of ads that said, in part, to those who find them too strident, “We’re coming after you.”  To perhaps millions of voters, the Democrats’ advocacy of some limits to firearms is unforgiveable, and candidates of both parties are filmed ritually at campaign time shooting at target ranges or going on bird hunts.

National health care is the final issue I’ll mention here.  You’d have to have spent the last several years on Jupiter or somewhere not to be familiar with this one.  It has engendered some of the most manifestly stupid campaign talk ever.  The ever ready to speak new levels of stupidity 2008 candidate for Vice-president, Sarah Palin, claimed that the Affordable Care Act would have “death panels” to decide when Grandma would become too expensive to keep alive, and thus, would be allowed to die.  Many Republican voters are fanatically insistent that the ACA amounted to a “government takeover of health care.”  Health care is still in the hands of professionals.  The ACA ensures payment for services through a web of insurance availability and increased Medicaid.

Enough.  My head hurts.  Next time, I promise, I’ll spank the Democrats.

Party Labels and What They Mean Today

In my last post, I wrote about Confederate statues and flags and suggested that ceasing to glorify symbols and partisans of an unconstitutional, illegal rebellion in the United States was simply a matter of decency.  I promised in that post not to talk politics.  This post will talk politics, and will lay out the condensed version of where we (that is, US voters) find themselves today, and how we came to our current situation.

Having touched last time on the emergence of the Republican party and the election of the first US president under its banner, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it seems easier to stick with them this time and talk more in depth about the Democrats in a future post.

First of all, talking of the American political landscape as a “two-party system” is an enormous oversimplification.  Both parties are in fact comprised of people with a range of opinions and positions, some of which they express openly and honestly; others they express more covertly, or at times, in less strident terms  for wider appeal to a general audience.  As a result, political commentators and even journalists (who should and probably often do know better) tend to describe today’s Republicans as “the right” or “conservative” and the Democrats as “the left” or “liberal.”  That terminology is useful only to describe each party in reference to the other party; in general, most or all Democrats hold views that fall slightly or greatly to the left of the views of most or all Republicans.  On a world scale, our Republicans would be seen by most as a coalition of center-right to hard right types, and Democrats as a coalition of centrists to moderate left-of-center believers.  But both include large numbers of simplistic single-issue voters and office holders, too.

To circle back to Lincoln’s time, then: political parties tended to come and go, based on singe issues or a narrow range of issues.  Lincoln himself served one term in Congress, and that as a Whig, not a Republican.  His election was in 1846, and he served from 1847 to 1849.  The Whigs were the more urban, educated party, as opposed to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, who traced their origins to Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic Republican” coalition,  By the late 1840’s, Whig policy was for increased industrialization and encouragement of banks so as to finance public works such as roads, railroads, and canals, which would lead almost inevitably to increased urbanization; the Democrats wanted an agrarian republic, together with liberal immigration.

The Democratic thinking of the time meant expansion of the land mass of the United States and the conversion of that land mass to agriculture.  Whigs, with some justification, pointed at the interests of Democrats were leading, and would continue to lead, to expansion of slavery ever westward and into the territories won from Mexico in the Mexican War.  (Texas proved an example of this scenario.)  Lincoln, having pledged at one point to serve only one term in Congress, hoped to be appointed to a well-paid federal job when Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won the presidential election of 1848.  Failing to secure the job he wanted, Lincoln left political life altogether rather than accept an office in the Oregon territory, and returned to Illinois.

By a long series of events, Lincoln gained a reputation among Illinois political figures as a strong orator and a formidable intellect over the next decade.  It all came together in his being nominated as the Republican candidate for the US Senate seat then held by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. The Whigs, having fractured in the mid-1850’s, principally over the expansion of slavery–with their northern faction actively in opposition to the expansion while its southern branch was not inclined to “rock the boat”–simply ceased to function as a national party, and Lincoln, as did most Northern Whigs, went to the new Republican party.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are famous for having given Lincoln a national stage.  During seven face-to-face encounters, Douglas talked at length about “popular sovereignty,” the “state’s rights” argument before the latter was well-formulated.  In essence, Douglas was stating that if the people of a state wanted things one way, their will should be sovereign, rather than a statement of national principle or law.  Lincoln argued that the Founders were more anti-slavery than pro, and that the national consensus was shifting toward a prohibition on expansion.  In those days of state legislatures’ electing US senators, the Illinois legislature was composed of a majority of Democrats and Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln had won a large following all over the northern states, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1860.

To recap Lincoln’s presidency relative to the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, please see the immediately preceding post on this blog.  For the purposes of this post, suffice to say that the tone was set for the next several decades, with Republican candidates and administrations standing for reconciliation with the ex-Confederate states, and standing for the rule of law.  From Lincoln’s assassination until 1913, the only Democrat to be elected President was Grover Cleveland, in two separate terms.  Memories of the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership lasted and are influential even today.  The next Democratic president was Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921, who won with the aid of a split electorate when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican party to run a third-party campaign.  Wilson was followed by three more Republicans, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 only after an inept and seemingly cavalier response to the stock market crash 0f 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

During all these years, though, of Republican administrations in Washington, southern states elected a long series of Democratic governors and state legislatures.  In the early 1900’s, with Southern sensibilities looking for relief from the humiliation of  defeat in the Civil War, and seeking, without admitting it, to maintain a strict white supremacist social order, these state legislatures enacted and enforced ruthlessly the infamous Jim Crow laws over most of the southern states.  Marriage between the races was illegal.  Voter laws were written, and enforced, to ensure minority input into state government was minimal.   Maintenance of separation of the races, with African-Americans firmly established as inferior, was maintained by a legal façade of state laws.  And lest it be thought that this system was restricted to the South, some northern cities were just as guilty of oppression as their southern counterparts.

Change began in earnest only with World War II.  African-American workers stuck in menial occupations or sharecropping in the South migrated to industrial jobs in northern cities.  They also were called upon to serve in the military during the war, and sentiment grew for a more equitable treatment for all; in 1948, President Harry Truman, a Democrat from Missouri, signed a decree desegregating the US military, an order which was not fully carried out until 1954.

It was during that same year of 1948 that Strom Thurmond, a Democratic senator from South Carolina, broke from the national Democratic Party to run for President under the “States’ Rights Democrat” party ticket, in protest of Truman’s action for desegregation of the military.  In a campaign speech, he told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters,

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954,came the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, a 9-0 decision that held that separate schools for African-American students and white ones were inherently unequal, and thus violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.  No more could states legally enforce segregation, even under “separate but equal” justification.  State governors Orval Faubus (Arkansas) in 1957, Ross Barnett,( Mississippi) 1962, and George C. Wallace (Alabama) in 1963, made showy objections to federal enforcement of desegregation orders, but the train of societal change had left the station.  A way of life was going to change, even if grudgingly and slowly.

The seismic shift in American politics came in 1964.  The Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a self-described conservative, to run for President against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who, on July 2, 1964, had signed the Civil Rights Act into law.  Johnson, himself a Southerner from Texas, took up the battle as a memorial act for President John F. Kennedy after the latter was assassinated.  Goldwater opposed the Act on the grounds of federal overreach and Senator Thurmond heartily approved of that opposition.  Thurmond soon changed parties, and other southern Democrats followed; the “solid south” became solidly Republican, largely over the Civil Rights issue.

A mere four years later, in 1968, the defeated Republican nominee for President of 1960, Richard M. Nixon, embraced, little by little, a “southern strategy,” holding that he would speak for the “silent majority, ” and that the majority of the electorate was “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.”  I believe, although it can never be proven, that Nixon was probably not a racist or absolutely callous to the plight of those less fortunate among us.  He just subsumed the importance of absolutely everything else to that of winning elections.  I have treated him harshly here before, but it bears repeating.  He was, in my estimation, the most corrosive figure in modern American public political life.  His insistence on winning at any cost caused him to lose any scruples he had in favor of a “take no prisoners” campaign philosophy.

Subsequent Republican actions reinforce the Nixonian view that it doesn’t matter as long as you win.  Ronald Reagan, a Republican candidate for president launched his campaign from  Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights workers had been kidnapped and murdered a few years before.  Part of his opening statement was “…I believe in states’ rights.”  Both of these things are so-called “dog whistle” statements–something that makes a statement to those attuned to know what the words mean.  In this case, the most likely meaning is “I’m with those of you who advocate ‘popular sovereignty.’ ”  I don’t think Abe Lincoln would have missed the context.

Thirty years after Reagan’s heyday, we got Donald Trump, he of “I’m the law and order candidate” fame even as his campaign has come under scrutiny for conspiring with a hostile foreign country, even as his finances continue to draw draw the attention of federal and state authorities.   Even after he began his ascent into politics by slandering the last president.   I know…nothing has been proven. I know, he’s the president.  He won’t be forever.  Politics like his, beginning with advocating and currying hate by some Americans against some others are nothing to be proud of.   And I know, the Democrats are not as pure as the driven snow.  (Their turn is next.)  I just can’t pretend I see anything to admire on the “right” side of the aisle.

 

 

With Malice Toward None: A Matter of Decency

An apology, first off: I just write when I feel prodded to do so, and even then, more immediate things may delay me.  This summer has been largely taken up by some of those more immediate things.  I have missed writing.  You may not have missed reading it, but, anyway…  No purely political stuff this time.  No Trump.  But for some, this probably is a political issue.  It’s not political for me.  It’s a matter of decency.

If you grew up in the United States of America, as I did, you studied the history of this nation: its birth in revolution from the English crown, its growth, its struggles, and the leaders of all of those struggles that led from our colonial past to where we find ourselves now, more than two centuries after our independent beginning.  Several huge events shaped that history, the most momentous of which were several wars that defined a path this nation would follow.  The horrific death tolls of wars, the sad memories of the sacrifices made in the name of those wars are especially important.  The Revolutionary War, in the eighteenth century, gave this embryonic nation its independence.  The Civil War, in the nineteenth, defined the type of nation it would be from that point on.  Two World Wars in the twentieth dragged it, most reluctantly, from its isolation, where it had watched from afar the ancient cycles of aggression and revenge that consumed so much of the world.

Not everything in our national history is worthy of pride.  The treatment of the original aboriginal inhabitants of this  land was nothing to celebrate.  Starting with the arrival of Columbus and his exploring party in the West Indies, the pattern was set–the New World, including its people, was plunder for Europeans.  Several of these “Indians” were carried back to Spain as slaves: supposedly, they were to  benefit by their introduction to Christianity.

At later times, and in other locales, other Indian (the name was well established by then) populations were subjugated, forcibly relocated, or exterminated if their continued existence was inconvenient to the progress of a technologically superior society that was being built.  Morally, this turn of events was, of course, unjustifiable.  It went on with a simple Darwinian justification: survival of the fittest.  “These savages,” the thinking of the majority went, were not worthy to survive: not Christian, not endowed with immunities to the diseases the majority population carried–the list was long enough to result in the elimination of enough of the original occupants that they were no longer a threat, confined as they were to reservations or dead and maybe buried, and some melting into the American population at large through intermarriage.

The fate of the “American Indian” is a stain on the American psyche, but not the only stain,  and I should note, as a history professor once pointed out, we today (hypocritically) can weep all the tears we like; the struggle for dominance is over and resolved in present-day Americans’ favor, after all, by our ancestors who performed the dirty deeds.  And the Indians altogether were no more than a population of a few million, many of whom survived and even thrived.

A much larger stain is the institution of slavery on a large scale.  It must be understood that at the time of the American Revolution slavery was legal, or at least not illegal throughout the territory of the United States (Vermont had outlawed slavery in 1770, while still independent territory); in the same breath, we all should recognize that individual states began to ban it shortly thereafter.  All states north of the Mason-Dixon line (between Pennsylvania on the north and Maryland on the south) and west to the mouth of the Ohio River had banned it by 1804, and the federal government had banned further importation of slaves to any US state or territory in 1808.  Why did the federal government not ban slavery, period?  That’s easy for anyone who lives under today’s deeply divided government to understand.  It simply could not get support from any southern state for prohibition.  Slave-breeding was common and slave markets were numerous in the pre-Civil War South.  Southern legislators watched westward national expansion critically so as to avoid a situation under which so-called “free” states would outnumber (and presumably, outvote) them in Congress as new states came into the union.  They were able to maintain this rough equilibrium until the eve of the Civil War.

Now, to understand the mindset that prevailed in the Deep South circa 1850-1865, we should take a look at some conditions that prevailed there.  The soils and the climate there were ideal for the cultivation of cash crops such as cotton.  Subsistence farming could be carried on in relatively small plots of land so that tables could be furnished with vegetables as food, but the cash crop meant money for the “finer things in life.”  Virginia tables were spread with Victorian china bought with labor-intensive cotton sold into English textile mills.  The planter class could live well as long as large quantities of cotton could be grown without large labor costs.  The invention of the cotton gin (c. 1800) had caused increased use of cotton, which caused a higher demand for slaves for the growth and harvest of more cotton.  Never were the slaves considered as more than an economic asset to their owners.

In the late 1850’s, though, Abolitionist sentiment was on the rise through most of the country outside the South, and the scales tipped as new territories in the West were organized into states–states that rejected slavery.  By the time a gangly lawyer named Lincoln campaigned for the new Republican party’s nomination for President in 1860, Southern oratory was rife with talk of secession to protect “our way of life” and other coded language understood by all to mean the institution of slavery.  Lincoln swept free states while advocating an anti-slavery position, won the election, and was inaugurated in March of 1861.  Several slave states adopted “articles of secession” before he even moved into the White House.  An attack by “Confederate” partisans on Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina, caused the states that willingly remained within the Union to rally to Lincoln’s calls for a Union military campaign to put down the insurrection.

The Civil War followed–not a “War Between the States.”  Connecticut did not go to war against New York, nor did Alabama make war on Georgia.  It was the Union, as it was called, against the Confederate States.  The Confederates were hopeful of recognition from Britain and France, but did not succeed in getting it.  After more than four years of bloody, merciless, and very expensive (to both sides)  war, it ended in the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant’s Union Army at Appomattox Courthouse, near Richmond, Virginia in 1865.  The death toll will never be known for sure; it is variously estimated at from 620,000 to 850,000 (both sides).  That toll was not equaled in all the nation’s other wars combined until some point during the Vietnam war, or if the 850,000 figure is correct, not yet at this writing.

Lincoln hinted at his hopes for a quick national reconciliation in his second Inaugural Address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Shortly after the end of the war, Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, who shouted “The South is avenged!” just before escaping from the stage in Ford’s Theater, Washington, D. C.

Lincoln’s benevolent position toward those who had attempted to destroy the Union can never be objectively evaluated as a success or a failure in terms of the reunion of the country.  A Reconstruction of the former states of the Confederacy had been planned before his death; there is much disagreement as to its success or lack thereof, and Lincoln himself was not around to see it through.  As early as 1863, he had outlined a policy for the pardon of former Confederates and their reinstatement as American citizens on three conditions: that they had not served in a Confederate government civil position, had not abused Union prisoners, and were willing to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States government.  Had he lived, he might have been inclined to return the Confederate states to the Union sooner rather than later.  It was largely due to his efforts, though, that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, enshrining in Constitutional law the abolition henceforth and forever over all US territory the institution of slavery.

Lincoln was a complicated man, as we all are, who at times changed his mind, at times struggled to change things he knew had to be changed, and is often quoted by his detractors as to his main goal of preserving the Union, whether that meant retaining some slavery or not, but it is hard to misunderstand his musing that “…this union cannot stand half-slave and half free.”  He did save his country and eliminated slavery at the same time.   I have visited his memorial in Washington many times.  I see a brooding, tormented man, determined to continue the struggle on which he and so many others had embarked, simply because they were on the right side.  To such leaders are monuments rightfully built, and they remind the population of such strength of purpose.

Now comes the point of all the history I have thrown in a short time.  The country finds itself once again in a spasm of strained race relations.  I have seen these come and go before.  I feel confident this one will go its way as the others have.

If you have read this blog before, you know how I feel about the exhibiting of the Confederate battle flag in public places.  It is a symbol of defiance of the legally-constituted government of the United States, the same government I twice swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Though I have no power to enforce my beliefs, I do not like to see this emblem on public display.  This flag was not widely flown in the United States before 1948, when Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina walked out of the Democratic national convention in protest of President Truman’s nascent push for civil rights.  The counterpush–for preservation of a system of caste based on skin color, from elementary schools to cemeteries, putting persons of color permanently in a position of inferiority–gained strength during the administration of President Lyndon Johnston, as Johnston engaged in a prolonged, and successful, effort to establish equal right to strive for all under the law.  There is no other meaning to it, despite smooth-talking types who insist it is a representation of some vague “heritage and way of life.”  Well, OK, maintain your heritage of a distinct speech pattern, public manifestations of religion in defense of whatever you want. Those are matters of heritage.  But just the fact that some forbear of yours rode with General Lee does not entitle you to ignore the law of the land.  You may hate in your heart, but not incite violence and foment hate in the public square with your speech or your actions.

Similarly, I have been disgusted by the outpouring of sympathy for some statues in various public spaces, mostly, though not all, in southern states.  Two examples will suffice: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee.  The former was a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army who led troops mostly in Tennessee.  He was a ferociously talented military tactician, by all accounts, but his fame/infamy stems from a couple of deeds, primarily.  In Tennessee, during one battle, his troops had defeated a Union garrison composed in large part of freed slaves, poorly trained and poorly armed.   When Forrest’s troops surrounded the survivors, they simply murdered the survivors where they stood, even as survivors begged for their lives.  Some historians claim Forrest was unaware of the actions taken by those in his command.  At any rate, neither he nor anyone in his command was ever called to account for this action.  A couple of years after the war, he was or was not, according to the account you choose to believe, named the first Grand Dragon of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. What is not in dispute at all is that he was there at the Klan’s founding.  For this you get honored with equestrian statues all over the South?

As for General Lee, he was married to a descendant of George Washington, and was Virginia aristocracy as pure as they came.  He had a good position in the US Army, even serving as the Superintendent of the US Military Academy at one point.  Lee at one point swore that same oath to defend the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, but instead served at the head of an army of those enemies.  Just as Lincoln was complicated, I suspect Lee was, too.  He was not severely punished for his role in the deaths of so many over the fate of the Union.  He spent many lives on his own side and took many on the other side.  His land was later appropriated for the land that today forms Arlington National Cemetery.  A soldier’s grave there might have been appropriate.  Statues in his honor in public squares are not.

After the war, such figures as Jefferson Davis, the supposed President of the Confederacy, and others, began a campaign of revisionist history that would cast the rebellion and insurrection of thousands against the United States as a noble but doomed “lost cause.”  Don’t believe it.  There was nothing noble about the “cause” of racial supremacy, and there isn’t now.  They deserved to lose.  Putting this all behind us as a nation is just a matter of decency.

 

Venezuela: the Agony and the…Well, More Agony

As I try to assemble some reasonable thoughts on the topic of Venezuela, here and now, we may be about to see a modern, prosperous, beautiful country breathe its last.  This is not an exaggeration, and not said for shock value.  One of Latin America’s more prosperous, modern countries is in the throes of dissolution.  It may well be that in a year or two, we will all look back on this week as either the fuse that lit a civil war or as the moment that Venezuela began its final act on the world stage, and pulled inward to start a quick decline into an ungovernable failed state, remembered by many but known to few.

As I finished that first paragraph, I could picture large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere thinking only in clichés, nodding, and saying with a “knowing” nod, “Well, that’s what happens when you choose socialism.  It never works.”  As is the case with all clichés, this has an element of truth, but only an element.  I would agree that the economy of Venezuela was largely doomed to fail, but other economies and other countries, faced with similar problems, have faced and even solved them, avoiding in the process, the human and material catastrophe that looms over Venezuela.  But nobody took the crucial, necessary steps to avoid the current situation and its likely outcome.

Too many look at Venezuela and assume that it is  “just like Cuba was” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a country that had choked off social revolt for years, only to embrace some revolutionary figure and later watch as that revolutionary figure revealed his true colors and began a despotic multi-decade rule over the people who had elevated him.  No.  NO.  It’s not that way.  Cuba, though it always had had its high society, shoeless rural population, and deep class divisions, was not a country with a well-developed economy.  Its economy was all too typical of Latin America at the time,  typifying what a Latin American economist called “economias de postre,” i.e., dessert economies.  Their fortunes rose and fell with the success of export crops such as sugar, bananas, and other tropical fruits.

20th and 21st century Venezuela, on the other hand, has had its share of military government and (at least) two-party democracy, until the late 1980’s and the rise of Hugo Chavez.  Its economy was based, not in dessert, but in oil.  Yeah, the black, oozing gold.  Oil rigs sprout from the surface of Lake Maracaibo and here and there throughout the country.  Its agricultural sector was less robust than one might expect, given the climate and the fertile soils.  If neighbors Colombia and Brazil could earn export millions from coffee, why could not Venezuela?  A strong agricultural sector, together with an investor class, and untold oil millions, should have produced a vibrant economy that young Venezuelans should never have abandoned.  No such economy ever became strong enough for that outcome, though.

Anyone who has read this far is probably entitled to ask why.  Venezuela is not utterly unique in its economic development, but the order in which things unfolded there is unusual and at least partly to blame.  The agricultural sector as a source of exports, and thus income, was small in the early part of the 20th century, when oil was discovered.  Subsequently production of oil became profitable for investors, a source of employment for laborers, and a national asset.  World War II meant that both the Allied powers and the Axis became, shall we say, intensely interested in the country’s oil reserves.  Because American oil companies had bought more than half of known exploitable reserves, the Venezuelan government of the time both moved to increase its control of the nation’s oil, and to take a somewhat larger share of the profits from it.

By 1947, oil profits had grown sixfold as compared to the 1941 figures.  The country was largely able to fund its own economic development in the post WWII environment.  There was simply little reason to work in agriculture or other labor-intensive and less rewarding pursuits.  Oil had become the country’s only real export commodity, and the country did not diversify; by the 1980’s, it was a food importer.  All the foregoing led to a crash in the national economy in the late 1980’s, when a world glut in the oil market depressed prices, and Venezuela’s economy dived.

As always, economic disruption produced political turbulence.  A lot of it.  By 1992, an obscure Army colonel named Hugo Chavez had led two unsuccessful coups against the civilian government, and then had been granted a full pardon by President Rafael Caldera in 1994.  By 1998, Chavez was himself running for president at the head of a so-called Bolivarian Revolution; this movement was said to have incorporated the political philosophy of Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator of South America, through a “socialist” lens.  Chavez won.  He quickly obtained a rewrite of the Venezuelan Constitution, granting him increased power to implement his version of the socialist vision.  This is the key to the unceasing hatred shown by US politicians toward Chavez, given the American tendency to assume that the terms “socialism,” “communism,” and “totalitarianism” are all basically versions of the same thing.

In practice, Chavez was, until his death, popular with his natural constituency, the poor.  He accumulated vast personal wealth through the misappropriation of oil revenues (which are still 96% of the nation’s export earnings).  Contrary to much popular belief in the USA, he did not nationalize the nation’s oil.  PDVSA, the national oil monopoly, had been legally constituted in 1976, so as president with large power of distribution, he found it a ready source of cash, both for himself and the other Chavez constituency–the military.

In stark contrast to the love shown to Chavez, a larger than life figure with a natural charisma, by those two groups, was the lasting enmity shown to him by the country’s middle class and its hereditary landed class.  After a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 (and the Bush administration’s clumsy handling of it) he returned to power on the strength of support from the poor and the military.  But by Chavez’s death in 2013, things were already unraveling.

Oil prices have never returned to their boom levels, and Venezuela’s external debt and oil subsidies given (for political reasons) to Cuba and even China have all added to the crisis which Chavez’ hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been manifestly unable to cope with.  He has no charisma to rely on, and he has dealt with every setback to him personally with massive repression.  His ruling party lost the parliamentary elections last year, and he has resorted to heavy-handed packing of the courts to frustrate opposition efforts to bring him to heel.  Only the military remains as his support system.  About 20 Venezuelans have died in recent political demonstrations.

This is all at a critical stage.  In practical terms, Mao’s ancient political adage that “political power comes from the end of a gun” appears to be Maduro’s  governing philosophy.  He recently called for (and rigged) an election to a new “Constituent Assembly” whose job it will be to rewrite the Constitution again, putting more power in the hands of guess who.  Sadly, the only real hope for a brake on Maduro is if the military turns on him.  He has avoided that by turning a blind eye to corruption in the military.

I have friends in Venezuela.  It is a beautiful country, wealthy in terms of resources.  It doesn’t have to go into political eclipse.  I really hope it doesn’t.

Six Months Later

As I sit drafting this post, it is only a few hours until six months will officially have passed since Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.  Looking back on many of the opinions I offered over those months (and before) as well as what a lot of people who actually get paid to write down their opinions on political affairs, there has been a lot of doom and gloom.  Six months is not a lot–there are still (supposedly) 42 months to go in Trump’s administration, and a lot could change.  I have no confidence, though, that there will be any positive change any time before 2020, and if there is not a change in thinking by a lot of the US electorate, maybe not even then.

To take a look at trends and directions and the possible effects on the body politic of the USA, six months is probably long enough to evaluate who Trump is and is not, as well as to take a look at how he seems to see the political landscape of the country, and maybe to take a stab at predicting how he will react to what has happened during those six months, as well as what may happen during months to come.

One frequently-asked question is whether Trump is in fact a Republican.  Commentators from both ends of the political spectrum have tried to assign him to one place or another on that spectrum.  I think that is a waste of time.  It appears to me that he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, in any conventional sense of either term.  His public pronouncements and his unconventional methods of communicating with the public (especially his tweets, which are worth a whole analysis of their own) reveal several things.  Foremost is an enormous ego, reinforced by a seemingly rock-solid conviction that no one will or should ever call him on some of his more absurd statements.

Just to take an example, he has made pronouncements on the current state of health care law that have been all over the map–from braggadocio to the effect that he would be signing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) on his “first day” in office to complaints that such a repeal has not yet been possible because of Democratic obstruction.  He thus has gone from complete confidence that he could dictate the fate of the most significant federal legislation of the last decade to whining that legislators of the opposite party won’t assist him in undoing their biggest accomplishment of that period!  What does this represent in terms of his thinking?  In partisan terms, I would submit that these pronouncements mean precisely nothing: they are self-evaluations of his own goal of self-promotion–he wanted to show his own mastery of the whole government apparatus, and reacted with anger and frustration when he was thwarted.

In the James Comey affair (I love the guy, no, he is a disastah who had to be fired because he had lost the confidence of the bureau.  Or something…anyway, I had to fire him!)  I am old enough to remember Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre; there was a significant debate over whether the President could fire someone who was investigating the President, and in the end, Nixon fired people in the Justice Department until he found one who was receptive to his own views,  but Trump didn’t even look for such a fig leaf.  He simply fired Comey totally on his own, with no recourse to anyone else, and apparently no advance consideration of possible backlash.  The backlash continues to this day, though, and Trump’s discomfort with the situation has been related chiefly to his inability to stop anyone from questioning the propriety of his action.  Again, he appears still to be absolutely convinced of his own ability to do as he pleases without criticism or questioning.  In truth, he appears to have believed that he was elected to exercise dictatorial powers.  None of this indicates an inclination toward either major political party, but a serious tendency toward megalomania.

Much has been written or said about Trump’s treatment of the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, about his own insistence that the President of the United States can not have a conflict of interest, and other such flouting of convention, at the least.  The more extreme examples of this type of operation are going to come back to haunt him at some point, I think.  The comedy (that wasn’t really funny) of Trump’s trotting out a private attorney, complete with audio visual aids consisting of a pile of papers, to tell the country that his “arrangement” to have members of his own family directing his business affairs during his term satisfied the need for a “blind trust,” as had been customary in the case of previous presidents, was ludicrous.  Not a single government attorney supported it, but of course Donald, Jr., repeated in interviews that this constituted a blind trust, and Trump, Sr. continues blatantly to  helm his various business ventures.  Similarly, he has named various members of his own family to official positions requiring security clearances.

Jared Kushner may find himself in significant trouble over this in months to come.  He filled out a government from (SF-86) that requires disclosure of financial interests as well as any dealings with foreign nationals. (Disclosure: I have filled out several of these, and each contains a warning that failure to disclose requested information or to furnish false information may create legal problems.)  Kushner not only omitted contacts with several Russians (of course, this was inadvertent, wink, wink), but I suspect that coming months may bring news of financial interests in foreign countries, most notably Russia.  This is not an accusation, just a hunch–for now.  Information continues to drip, drip over time.

Fervent Trump supporters point at President Kennedy, who named his own brother as Attorney General.  Bobby Kennedy, though, despite his relative youth, was an attorney of some note and considerable experience in the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice when he was chosen.  Jared Kushner’s chief qualification is that he is Trump’s son-in-law.

What, then, is the aim of Donald J. Trump in becoming President of the United States?  I would submit he saw it as a chance to enlarge his “brand” and concentrate even more wealth in his own hands as well as the hands of his extended family, and was confident he could bluster his way past any objections.  His unfortunate tendency to venerate Russia and with it, the bloody-handed Vladimir Putin, is, I think, mostly a result of an excess of trust in Steve Bannon.

Bannon would merit considerable exploration as a topic.  I’m not going to do it here or now, and I don’t even want to know enough about this sinister character to do it at all.  Suffice to say that before coming aboard the Trump campaign, he was the publisher of Breitbart news, an online source about which the eminently innocent Wikipedia says,

“…A far-right American news, opinion, and commentary website…”

and adds

Breitbart has published a number of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.”

With this as your “strategist’s” background, who needs an erratic, megalomaniacal personality of one’s own?

All in all, in my own humble opinion, Trump eagerly grabbed at a job that is much too big for him.  He is relying on advisors whose expertise is sparse.  He speaks recklessly on topics on which he is ill-informed.  And he seems not inclined to admit any of it, preferring to try to intimidate all in his way.

Two things, I think, can happen within the next three years.  First, Trump could change and moderate his habits and his behavior, which  is not likely, given his self-image as the ultimate success story.  Second, the adults in the Republican party could find a spine and begin to try to purge themselves of this menace.  We’ll see.

Tantrum Time!

Now and then, just because it’s my blog, and no one else’s, I get to use it just to vent, just to say what I find really irritating in daily life.  That, and because, even though there is so much to say about politics and government these days, I do get fatigued with saying it.  So, here goes: if you have never heard a guy of sufficient age to wear caps with statements like, “Don’t Forget My Senior Citizen Discount,” list things he would like to see disappear, here’s your chance.  These are in no particular order, and not by any means exhaustive, just on my mind today.

Highway “work zones”

Don’t deny it.  I know these get to you, too.  I’m just going to describe what they are and why they cause me to lapse into rages.  Last month, my wife and I were on a long road trip.  Each stop on the trip had a purpose, some for career reasons (Hers, not mine: I’ve been out to pasture for a while now…) and some for family reasons.  In the space of 13 days, we passed through (or stopped in) a total of eight different states, some of them twice, since we were making a round trip, and covered more than 2000 miles.

During this time, we traveled on mostly interstate highways, those ribbons of concrete or asphalt with limited access and multiple lanes in each direction, designed for high-speed travel.  I drove at or just over the speed limit, which most often was 65 or 70 miles an hour (104 to 113 kph, for non-US readers) for fairly long stretches, when there suddenly would appear a temporary road sign, warning of a work zone for the next ___ miles, reduced speed for the duration of the work zone, blocked-off lanes, and, often, the threat of doubled fines for speeding throughout the zone.

No problem, right?  Roads do have to be maintained, right?  And surely an abundance of care would dictate slowing traffic.  All good points!  On the other hand, we passed through at least fifteen such zones on this trip, often at the cost of much travel time lost due to slow passage, and how many of these sites were actually being, you know…worked on?  ONE.  Driving on mostly weekdays, and almost exclusively during daylight hours, I counted exactly one of these work sites actually hosting workers.  You protest that surely there were many places where a square of pavement had been removed, requiring closure of a lane so that unwary motorists would not fall in, or that paving in progress or incomplete bridges or whatever, but…no.  Most of these areas just represented long stretches where barricades or orange barrels or traffic cones closed off lanes, causing congestion in the open lanes, and a slowdown of the highway in general, with no work apparent.  And such, I suspect, is the condition of many roads during the summer months across the USA.

Hostility between generations based on stereotypical assumptions

I’ve mentioned that I am a member of the large group of the population that social scientists christened “baby boomers.”  Once you know that, you know…well…uh, just that.  You know how old I am within broad parameters, and you (may) know, more or less, conditions in the country when I passed through childhood, adolescence, etc.  You do not know anything about my work habits, my likes or dislikes in food, cars, movies, vacations, etc.  What you think you know is likely a collection of stereotypes picked up from satirical references in mass media or, increasingly, through social media.

What about you?  Are you a so-called “millennial?’  Do you have a lackadaisical attitude toward work?  Toward education?  If you are a millennial, you probably (and rightly) resent it when people “size you up” thinking they can predict how you will work out in a certain situation, just by identifying  your cohort of people of a similar age.  People–all people–deserve to be seen as individuals.  All will have their quirks and all will adhere to your stereotypes in some cases, but not all, and maybe not in many.  And prejudging anyone based on such categorization is just as lazy and blameworthy as doing so by race or belief system.

Recently, I have seen several cartoons or written descriptions depicting older people enjoying long vacations and material wealth while criticizing younger people for a perceived lack of drive toward self-improvement and advancement.  The younger generation, in turn, is depicted as unable through no fault of their own to get ahead.  As is the case with stereotypes, generalizations can contain an element of truth; the danger is in overreliance on such generalizations and accepting them as givens.

Come on, junior.  Maybe you think I (and others) never worked through years-long periods in jobs we didn’t really care for, making not enough money?  And to those my own age, do you think Grandma and Grandpa’s generation never looked on us as a bit unmotivated?  And to be fair, boomers had, and millennials have, challenges the other group does not grasp.  We had a military draft and the expectations of “the greatest generation.”  They have student debt many times worse than ours ever was, and they have a fast-changing labor market.  It’ll all work out in the long run.  And millennials, your time is coming–your children and grandchildren may not find you as coolly ironic as you would like.  Deal with it.

And, in some much less wordy pronouncements, here are some daily irritants:

Loud TV commercials. 

No explanation needed.

Common, correctible errors in spelling or diction.

 These are legion, and too easy to avoid to be as prevalent as they are.  “There” means in that physical or metaphorical place, or is used in the expression “there  is” or “there are.”  “Their” means “belonging to or related to ‘them.’ ”  “They’re” means “they are.”

“Your” means “belonging to or related to you.”  “Your sister” or “your car.” “You’re” means “you are.”  “You’re my friend.”  I recently saw (really) a social media argument that included the comment, “Your a idiot.”  Wow.  I can’t even bring myself to comment.  If you are not literate, don’t expose yourself like this.

“To” is either a preposition or an indicator of an infinitive–i.e., “to the store,” or  “to make some money.” “Two” is one more than one.  “Too” is “in an excessive degree or amount,” as in “too tired” or “too slow.”

About a hundred things Donald Trump says often.

“Believe me.”  Sorry, I don’t.

Any superlative, as in “the greatest,” the best,” or “the greatest in history…”

 

Oh, wait.  I’m veering into politics again.  Until next time…

 

 

No Time for Celebrations

If you read the last post on this blog, you know that I was glum at the prospect of Mitch McConnell’s preparations to announce that he had finally succeeded in repealing (most of) the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  Secret drafting of a “replacement” bill that was actually a huge tax cut for the truly wealthy, and equally secret rehearsals by Republican Senators for their bravura performance–great drama over their sensitivity toward the elderly and the sick, or the opioid-addicted, etc., followed by McConnell’s moves to direct funds to the states where those Senators come from–would end with relatively fast passage of his bill.  Obamacare would be (mostly) dead and the USA would once again be safe for huge profits by pharmaceutical companies and health insurance company executives!  USA!  USA!

An odd thing has taken place in Washington, though.  In a Senate where two Republicans could have voted against McConnell’s bill in order to save face with enraged constituents, then tut-tutted when it passed, for some reason, more than two of them said they would not support the bill.  And they did not follow the script I spoke of, at least not right away.  All this week I have waited for all but two Republican dissenters to return to the fold and announce their support.  But it has not happened.  At least not yet.

There are rumblings behind the scenes and even some out front that the legislation was no good.  Notably, Ohio’s Governor John Kasich forthrightly condemned it as nothing more than a tax cut for the rich while the less fortunate would lose.  The Republican tandem in Nevada of Republican Governor Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller have not wavered publicly in expressing doubt at the intent and effect of the bill.  You will not be surprised to learn that Heller is up for re-election next year, and that this office has been besieged by calls urging him not to support it.

Have some high-ranking Republicans acquired a conscience?  Or perhaps they have considered what civic duty entails?  More likely there are some few of them who worry that casting a vote in favor of this legislation might do grievous harm to their re-election chances, and, further, that it is fruitless to think that President Trump will somehow “have their back” down the line.  In fact, none other than Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has been quoted as saying (out loud!) quite the opposite.  Trump, in other words, has shown himself to be concerned mostly with Trump.  Further, many party elders may be more concerned that the Donald may not last even one term as president, and thus will not be able to stand behind anyone among Republicans in any meaningful way.  (How many Republicans were elected to the Senate, House, or State House in 1976 with the support of Richard Nixon?)

So, is the McConnell bill dead?  I doubt it.  Donors to his many campaigns, on one hand, and Political Action Committees funded by the Koch Brothers and others are not happy at this turn of events, and they are not going to give up. I still think we will see passage, but perhaps with some more rounding off of the roughest edges than we might have otherwise seen.

One interesting sidelight, though, to this whole piece of performance art is that other voices are being raised, not least of which is that of Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator from Vermont, whom I heard voice some thoughts just yesterday on the current impasse.  Sanders, though known to favor a single payer “Medicare for all” solution to health insurance, said that perhaps a gradualist approach would be timely, specifically, lowering the Medicare eligibility age from the current 65 to 55.  This would have the effect of creating a larger, comparatively healthier pool of  those insured by Medicare.  Looking, as always, at whose ox would be gored, you will see health insurance companies at the front of the line, as many not-quite-golden-agers would opt for Medicare at reduced rates (even with perhaps higher deductibles) than they pay now.  The CEO’s of Blue Cross/ Blue Shield and their colleagues with other insurers will howl against the idea for years to come, and, of course, their donations flow not only to Republicans.  Don’t look for this to happen any time soon.  But hearing it injected into the discussion is a beginning.

Further, if the idea of health care/insurance reform is for real at all, costs must be reduced.  How? Start with the cost of prescription drugs.  Sanders (again) points out that Americans pay the highest prescription drug costs in the world.  Canadian drugs, virtually identical to the versions sold on this side of the border, are often one-half to one-third the cost of their American counterparts.  Why is that?  And Medicare itself, the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the country, is currently prohibited from negotiating drug discounts with any suppliers.  Or importing many drugs from Canada or anywhere else.

Politicians who talk long and loudly about the virtues of cost reduction in government, where are you?  Many have acted hypocritically, refusing to change current regulations on procuring medicine, citing risks to American consumers from medicines manufactured by other than American companies.  (Cory Booker, I’m looking at you…)  OK, but–Canada?  We can’t trust Canada’s controls?  Give me a break.

There will be a lot of strutting, preening, and citing danger to Americans if any changes are made to monopolistic practices in procurement and delivery of health care.  It still will probably not end well.  Don’t count McConnell’s vision out yet.  And don’t give up, on the other hand, on improving a system that is failing many while making a few rich.  Er, richer.

 

USA! We’re the Best! Even When We’re Not.

First, if you haven’t already done so, you will need to follow this link to a Slate magazine article:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/06/trumpcare_is_right_where_republicans_want_it.html.

Now, if you’ve read the article, what I’m going to talk about will make more sense, but, if you haven’t, in capsule form, what it says is that the coming “debate” over Trumpcare in the Senate will have all the suspense of a pro wrestling event, and perhaps all the drama as well.  Jim Newell, a staff writer for Slate, has done the analysis to show that the current hand-wringing by a few Republican Senators over “Trumpcare,”  designed to overturn (for the most part) the Affordable Care Act, is all scripted, and that Mitch McConnell has reserved a few bones to throw to selected Senate colleagues (after an appropriate interlude, of course) so as to guarantee at least 50 Republican votes for the measure, and thus, its passage as soon as next week.  One or two Republicans can opt out, for the sake of optics, but the outcome is foreordained.

Is Newell right?  We’ll all know in a short time, but as I read his scenario, I could not help but hear the depressing ring of truth.  The Congressional Budget Office markup of the House-passed version of this has forecast that 24,000,000 Americans will lose healthcare insurance and that Medicaid funding will drop over the next decade by billions; those of us who have insurance now and will continue to carry it even after all this will probably see our rates rise because, well, that’s what they do.  We’re used to it, aren’t we?

I have Medicare, since I am over 65 years of age.  Contrary to a common belief, it is not free.  It costs me somewhere over $200 per month, as a deduction from my Social Security annuity.  Also, contrary to a common belief, Social Security is not “welfare for seniors,” and should not be derided as an “entitlement.”  I and millions of others who receive Social Security do so because we paid into the program for many years.  And, primarily because I continue to pay for the group private health insurance that I had for upwards of 40 years during my careers, I keep that, too, both to maintain a secondary insurer, since Medicare only pays part of my own medical expenses, and because there are family members who can be covered under my membership.  In all, I pay several thousand dollars per year for the privilege of handing a doctor or hospital a card to show that they will be paid if I need their help.

So, some ask, why would I care about the fate of the Affordable Care Act?  It won’t affect me personally.  And that attitude always causes me to shake my head, even if only mentally.  You see, the whole idea of “civics,” which Wikipedia defines as ” …the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government,” is the give and take of those rights and duties among the citizens of an organized nation, whether it is a republic, a monarchy, a dictatorship, or any other type of governance you can think of.  Suppose, in December of 1941, President Roosevelt had responded to the Pearl Harbor attack by noting that Hawaii was, at the time, only a territory of the United States, not a state, and that the 48 states (at the time) of the United States were not affected?

Get away from the keyboard–I know that hypothetical is ludicrous; I’m not stupid.  Usually not, anyway.  And anyway, citizens of the US and property were lost at Pearl Harbor.  All citizens were called on to defend the wrong done to the civic body.

But I find it equally ludicrous that in the 21st century, the United States as a nation is choosing repeatedly to protect the privileged and the wealthy to the detriment of the weak and the poor.  It’s nothing new; it’s been going on for nearly four decades now.  One of our two principal political parties stands openly and proudly for that position, and the other lacks the unity and the moral standing to make a strong moral case against it.

It has been often said that where one stands on any issue can be told by determining whose ox is being gored.  This particular issue–the American health care system, its ability to heal the sick, and maintain the public health, is being steered by interests rather than by principles.  Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other figures on the Republican side of it endlessly spout their credo that this country has the best health care in the world, but when pressed for why, in every important measure of how healthy Americans are, it is demonstrably not true that we have the best, they can not rebut the facts.  We do not rank among those countries whose health is being well-maintained by that health care system.  In one metric after another, be it infant mortality, average lifespan, maternal mortality, etc., we are outranked by other nations.  The apologists have resorted to assertions that, well, those statistics fail to take into account that the average American has access to this or that medical specialty or facility.

Having access to something is not the same as having it.  If your house is struck by a hurricane, and you must rebuild, and if your homeowner’s insurance retreats behind claims of “acts of God,” the facts are that the labor and the materials to rebuild your house probably exist in your community, but your access to that labor and those materials then are absolutely defined by the money that is available to you.  If you are someone who has put aside enough to make a new construction fall within your means, then you will be able to rebuild.  If not, you are reliant on the indemnification your insurance provides.  No money, no insurance=homelessness.

Equally, the citizen who is struck by catastrophic disease will survive and prosper only if he has resources or if he is protected by insurance.  But the consequences are not homelessness: they are death or perhaps disability.

Thus, my somewhat extreme analogy.  The exercise of civic duty in every other developed nation in the world has led to the establishment of a base of public health freely (and truly) available to every citizen.  The quality of that care may vary, but it is accepted by the populace that all should find the access to needed health care available as a common right of all citizens.

Getting back to the ox’s being gored, look at who stands to benefit by a return to an every man for himself, “survival of the fittest” system.  Money flows from consumers of health care to its providers and its facilities, but also to another class: the insurers, and the purveyors of patented drugs.  Corporations and executives of those corporations give no shots, bathe no infants, and dispense no medications, but they do donate to politicians.  Into the millions of dollars.

And so, the senior Senator from Kentucky, who has been the beneficiary of a goodly share of those insurance millions (as well as pharmaceutical companies’ millions) should be able to look at his handiwork some day soon and tell his real masters that he has made the world safe again for enormous profits in insurance and pharmaceuticals.

And, just think, that same Senator, who proclaimed in 2008 that his priority would be to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president, will also get his revenge by working so hard to undo Obama’s most famous legislative achievement.  Mitch McConnell, you are a hateful old man who has used your office to glorify the pursuit of profit over the health of children and over the sincere efforts of a political opponent to protect the well-being of those children.  Sleep well.  You, too, are mortal.

If I Were King

Now this is just a harmless exercise.  I am a thoroughgoing believer in democracy.  As has been said (endlessly), it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others, but…admit it.  I bet you have thought at times how much better the country would be if you were, even for a short time, the omnipotent monarch.  Not some so-called king or queen like the ones in Britain or Spain. The real thing, attempting to show wisdom while ruling over a country.  What would I do?  Glad you asked. Here are a few things I would enact and change.

In government, I would maintain most of the current structures.  Congress would continue as a deliberative body.  Voting law would be uniform in all 50 states, though.  Registration would be in person with some proof of age and residence, and there would be a national registry of voters–any move by a voter to a different place (locality or state) would be a mere change of address.   Uniform regulations in all jurisdictions would be brought into being.  Why should voting in Vermont carry different qualifications than voting in Mississippi?  A national registry would also eliminate concerns of registry in multiple states and most any other fraud concerns.

There would be term limits.  Why should some 80-year old dementia sufferer just keep holding a seat in Congress?  And please don’t tell me that because Congressman X “helped my uncle get his social security,” Congressman X is deserving of 20 terms.  All those problems are farmed out to some staffer, anyway.  So, my thought would be that no person could be elected to more than 10 terms, or 20 years.  And each of them would be entitled to an “ombudsman” who would deal with constituent complaints.  And maybe one other staffer for legislative affairs.  Other employees?  OK, as long as you pay them.

Similarly, Senators would get a maximum of three terms: 18 years.  Just because.  And under the same staffing limits as Congressmen.  And donations to a political candidate would be severely restricted, replaced by air time on local TV and radio, which would be a condition of stations’ licensure.

I would have line-item veto authority over all budget matters.  No more would one state, by virtue of a long-term representative in Congress, get preferential treatment in matters of large federal expenditures, such as military bases or call centers.  Government expenditures are all “pork” according to some, except when that “pork” goes to their own districts, when it becomes “long overdue economic stimuli.”  I can’t give you a set formula that would govern my actions here.  You’ll just have to trust me.

Health care: big problem, but not insoluble.  I would set a timetable for long-term overhaul–say, 10 years.  And I would listen to the concerns of all who are involved.  Congress, of course, must represent the will of the people.  Pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the insurance industry, too.  I would start with the premise that we all need to recognize that there is truly no such thing as a free lunch–someone, in the end, pays the freight for everything.  And most people just nod at that notion and accept that the costs are out of line, and that it is all too big for us to solve.

Here’s the thing: it’s not really that way.  I’d start with some assumptions that are not widely considered.  “The cost of medical care” includes much that is not salaries or bandages or saline solution, etc.  A primary care physician may pay thousands of dollars in malpractice insurance, for example.  Why? Just think about that robocall you got today advising you that if you or a loved one has suffered from side effects from XYZ drug, you may be entitled (emphasis mine) to compensation, etc., etc.  Drug companies spend millions to develop chemicals that will have this or that effect on humans.  Then, once the drugs are approved for human use, the companies spend millions more to advertise them!  The costs of all this development and branding, of course, are paid by the consumer…well…in reality, by his insurance, assuming he has insurance.

The insurance industry is, like all industries, out to make a buck.  There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but, unlike some guy who works in a hardware store or a woman who runs a beauty salon, an insurance company, if it has to pay out a multi-million dollar claim, can pass on the cost of that payment to its consumers in the form of higher rates.  And they all get hit with this sort of catastrophic cost at times, and all pass on the costs.  Who pays the increased costs?  Doctors, nurses, and other people involved in the delivery of health care.  How do they pay?  Through cost of services that builds in money for that insurance.  And who pays that?  You and I do, in premiums.

Who benefits from this spiral of costs and benefits?  Lawyers (Why do you think they make those robocalls?) and some winners of lawsuits.  If our hypothetical hardware store employee dies from some negligence or malpractice, his wife and his kids should be entitled to have his insurance make up for the loss of his earning power.  But why, if he makes $25,000 a year, should that compensation soar into the tens of millions?  Two words: “pain” and “suffering.” Remember, I said ten years to settle health care?  Huge rewards are at the root of high insurance rates, both for participants in health care delivery and for those who are its consumers.  There has to be reform of that system, and that means that ambulance-chasing lawyers will have to settle for less, and so will survivors. There should be a common-sense solution, but the current system has huge rewards, and the lawyers will howl.  We’ll get it worked out–within a few years.  The long-term final result is single-payer health care, just as it is in every other first-world country in the world.  It’s inevitable.

Church and state are separate in US law and practice, right?  Then why does the state permit any organization that meets certain minimum standards (really minimum) to evade many of the taxes that a flower shop or bakery would pay? This has had the effect of permitting some organizations to operate tax-free or at least at a reduced tax rate.  I would abolish this early on.  To the idea that some would no longer be able to operate, I can only shrug.  The state has no interest in fostering religion, or it must impartially foster all religions.  I opt for none.  Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen,  Jerry Falwell, Jr., will not starve. They are in reality TV personalities or corporate pitchmen anyway.

Infrastructure?  We really need it.  Trillions of dollars’ worth.  Decaying roads, bridges, water lines, and more must be rebuilt, and this is not open to debate.  Financing it all is a major problem, but not one that can’t be solved.  Institute, if need be, a 50-state lottery.  Or some combination of that and a spree of closing tax loopholes.  Or a temporary raise in gas taxes–a 25-cent levy on each gallon of gas sold in the US would raise billions, and it could be sunsetted, made to expire after 5 or 10 years.  Remember, in the runup to the election of 2008, we were paying nearly $4.00 a gallon, nationwide.  Now with gasoline at about $2.50, we’re driving more but enjoying it less.  Fix those roads!  And every road that gets repaved, every bridge that gets rebuilt, all create jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or Bangladesh.

There is a lot more that could be done, even without a king.  Will it?  I don’t know.  Will we sink into the crowd of second-tier nations?  We could; some would say we already have.  Let’s dream bigger.

President Pence

In yesterday’s post, I laid out the grim circumstances vis-à-vis a possible impeachment of President Trump.  I take no joy from such guesswork, but I think that even if you are a blind Trump worshipper, the possibility has to impinge on your thought processes by now that the man is a walking disaster as President of the United States; whether he is temperamentally unsuited to the job, mentally not quite up to it, or just too devil-may-care for the awesome responsibilities, he is not a good president.  What’s more, I sense no desire in the man to “grow into” the job.  For all of you who think that being the head honcho of a family business enterprise is a good way to prepare to be President of the United States (and leader of the Free World), I beg you to look at the results.

Today’s news brings even more reason to suppose that the Trump/Russia/Comey saga will turn out to be even more of a whack-a-mole game wherein each time Trump tries to bash some emerging scandal, another just crops up.  One consequence of advancing age is that “everything old is new again,” and I am eerily reminded of something from a time when I had much more hair and much less worldly experience—a steady drip-drip of scandal that came to be called Watergate and came to cost Richard Nixon the White House.  All the same, I do not see Trump being impeached by the current Congress, as I explained yesterday.  I would not be surprised, though, by Trump’s resignation at some point (or removal via the 25th Amendment), which leads to the same end: Mike Pence is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

Who is Mike Pence?  You probably know he was the Governor of Indiana, but before that, did you follow his career at all?  I will present no brilliant insight here, only a boring list of the things he did or signed into law as the chief executive of that state.  It’s all a matter of public record.  You can even find it through Wikipedia.  But once I had read through it all, I had the sinking feeling of knowing that a Pence presidency will not end the country’s struggles, and it may make the whole things worse.

In capsule form, then:

Mike Pence, the grandson of Irish immigrants, was, in his earlier life, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic.  He graduated from the University of Indiana’s law school in 1986.  During his college years at Hanover he converted to evangelical Christianity and to Reagan-inspired “conservatism.”  He was in private legal practice for two  years before deciding to run for Congress in 1988 at age 29.  He lost.  Two years later, he ran again, and lost again.  He spent 1991-93 as president of an Indiana “think tank” closely linked to the Heritage Foundation, that well-known reactionary, oops, “conservative” national think tank that loves to hinder the power of government at every level to work for things like a higher minimum wage and regulation of pollution, etc., that it regards as necessary byproducts of modern society.  Lower corporate taxes are another of its favorite causes.

Pence left that position to go full-time into “conservative” talk radio as host of his own show, where he billed himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”  He continued his radio gigs until 1999.  At some point in the 1990’s (I don’t care enough to find the particular dates) it became known that Pence, during his Congressional campaigns, had used donated campaign funds to pay for a host of personal expenses.  Such diversion of campaign donations was found not to be in violation of the law at the time, though it did damage his campaign and his reputation,  In 2000, after Indiana had undergone redistricting, and the boundaries and numeration of its Congressional districts were different from those of his earlier runs, he ran again, and this time, he won.

Pence served in Congress from 2001 to 2013, and in 2006, associated himself with the “Tea Party” faction of the Republican Party.  In that year, he ran against John Boehner for leadership of the Republican caucus and was soundly defeated.  In his dozen years in Congress, he introduced 90 bills and resolutions.  None became law.  In 2010, he was the top choice for President by the Values Voters Summit, that collection of voters who seek commitment by political figures to stop social change through government action on matters such as drug legalization, LGBT issues, and abortion.

2012 saw Pence declare for the Republican nomination for Governor of Indiana.  He won the republican nomination, and then went on to win the General Election with 49.1 % of the vote in a reliably “red” state.

So Pence’s term as Governor ran from 2013 to 2017.  The list of accomplishments of that term include the following:

Reducing college and university funding in Indiana.

Reducing funding for Family and Social Services.

Reducing funding for the Department of Corrections.

Overseeing a job growth rate in Indiana that lagged the national rate.

Killing Indiana’s inheritance tax.

Cutting business taxes in several categories, a favorite Heritage Foundation position which supposedly improves business climate in a state and leads businesses from other states to relocate.  Job creation did not respond, and Carrier Corp. resisted Pence’s entreaties to maintain its manufacturing in the state.  Later, Trump joined in this effort, and let him and Pence argue that they had “saved” Carrier jobs in Indiana.  Nonetheless, many Carrier jobs were lost, along with several million tax dollars in “incentives” given to Carrier in the deal.

Sought increased funding for charter schools and voucher programs.

Declared Indiana to be a “pro-coal state” and resisted the “overreach” of EPA clean air standards.

Defunded Planned Parenthood clinics, even those that did not furnish abortion services.

Signed and defended a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which critics said was designed to let businesses and private individuals discriminate legally against LGBT persons.  Later, faced with the possible loss of millions of dollars in convention business and business expansion, he backed down and signed a revised law.

Signed a controversial abortion restriction measure which would have required, among other things, burial or cremation for any “remains” after an abortion procedure.  It was struck down soon thereafter.

Attempted to ban resettlement of refugees from Syria within Indiana.

There’s more, but if by now (or maybe a while ago) you got the idea that Pence is one more reactionary who talks calmly and works for an agenda of restrictions on personal liberty, lack of restrictions and low taxes on corporations, I’m with you.  I do not want to see President Pence, but I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed.