Saturday, February 25, 2017


      Perhaps because it feels so good when I stop, I again watched C-SPAN’s morning call-in show, Washington Journal, yesterday. The topic, for the first three-quarters of an hour, was the Affordable Care Act. What should be done? Fix it, repeal it, leave it alone. Callers went back and forth for a time, suggesting various fixes and/or alternatives. Then a woman called to announce that “single-payer systems” were the “worst systems in the world.” Her proof? The disaster called the Veteran’s Health Administration, run by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

       I’ll leave aside Forbes Magazine’s assessment of the V.A: “There is ample evidence” that outcomes at V.A. hospitals are “at least comparable” to outcomes in private hospitals. A bastion of kick-ass capitalism, Forbes Magazine surely took no pleasure in its analysis of the V.A. But that said, misjudging the V.A. was the least of this caller’s problems.

      Simply put, the Veterans Health Administration (the A.C.A, too) is not a single-payer system. The V.A. is a government-run health care system, like Britain’s National Health Service. The Department’s personnel, including doctors, nurses and administrators, are employed by the government. Its facilities, from hospitals to clinics to scientific labs, are owned by the government. By contrast, in a single-payer system, the government becomes an insurer. Doctors, hospitals etc., acting independently in the private sector, bill the government for the services they perform. Canada’s national system, universally called Medicare by Canadians, is a single-payer system.

      Okay, she made a mistake. Big deal, right? But even if she was correct and the V.A. was a single-payer system and dysfunctional, her reasoning was completely bogus. The V.A. is dysfunctional, therefore single-payer systems don’t work? Gimme a break. You can’t use a single example to prove a universal. Not unless you’ve been effectively brainwashed.

     Brainwashed? Sure enough, a second caller, only a few calls later, made exactly the same point in exactly the same way. Then a third, moments before the segment came to a close.

      The great glory of the American political system is that everyone gets to vote. The great flaw is that everyone gets to vote. In real life, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. And what we’ve got, when you peel away the layers, are human beings. Now what?


Monday, February 20, 2017


      Trump’s approval ratings have dropped since the election. They now vacillate between 40% and 38% on Gallup’s daily tracking poll. Clearly, some of the voters who chose him on election day are having second thoughts. For Democrats, the importance of reaching out to these voters is too obvious to debate. But first, of course, they must be identified. So, I ask you to consider the following question.
     Are these disenchanted voters, in the main, drawn from the evangelicals who voted for Trump, the southern whites who voted for Trump, the white, working-class northerners who voted for Trump, or from college-educated, country-club suburbanites who voted for Trump?
      Bernie Sanders proposes that Democrats adjust their policies to attract the white, working-class voters who chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. He’s not alone. The two main candidates to Chair the Democratic National Committee, Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, are pitching their messages to these same working-class voters. They’re trying to restore the coalition assembled by FDR. Good luck.
      Myself, I believe the Republican voters currently experiencing buyer’s remorse are from the last category. These doctors and lawyers and small-business owners are not happy to be associated with a party that appeals directly to the racists, misogynists and xenophobes among us. If not for the two years of relentless attacks on her character and Comey’s interventions, they would have voted for Hillary. If we can convince them of the obvious, they’ll come to us.
      The obvious? That the Democratic Party is the centrist party in American politics today. The Democratic Party is the sane party.


          Trump in the course of a recent FOX interview: "A balanced budget is fine. But sometimes you have to fuel the well in order to get the economy going. I want a balanced budget eventually, but I want to have a strong military."

      By the close of WWII, our national debt had risen to 120% of GDP. It dropped steadily over the next thirty-five years until it stood at 32% of GDP when Jimmy Carter passed the baton to Ronald Reagan. In the first year of Reagan’s administration, Republicans passed an enormous tax cut without offsetting cuts in spending. Twelve years later, when the first George Bush presidency gave way to Bill Clinton’s, the national debt, as a percentage of GDP, had risen to 62%, nearly doubling. Clinton began his administration with a tax hike and produced a budget surplus in his second term. As a result, our national debt had dropped to 55% percent of GDP by the time he left office. His successor, George W. Bush, passed another huge tax cut in the first year of his first term, then fought two unfunded wars. By the time his administration gave way to Barack Obama’s - who in the depths of a terrible recession inherited both wars - our national debt had risen to 80% of GDP.
      Don the Con campaigned as a budget hawk, condemning both the deficit and the debt. Now he boasts of a tax cut he expects to pass, of increased defense spending (to make our military great again) and of an infrastructure program costing several trillion dollars. All without offsetting budget cuts.
       Don the Con isn’t enacting the definition of insanity. He’s not doing the same thing, over and over again, all the while hoping for a different outcome. Trump knows the deficit and debt will both grow if he gets his way. He doesn’t give a damn. It’s boom time, kids, financed on tomorrow’s dime.

       And by the way, the figures I’ve cited can be verified by a search on Google Images for “US national debt as a percentage of GDP.” They’re not controversial.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


      First, a definition of regulatory capture (from Investopedia:

      “Regulatory capture is a theory associated with George Stigler, a Nobel laureate economist. It is the process by which regulatory agencies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating. Regulatory capture happens when a regulatory agency, formed to act in the public interest, eventually acts in ways that benefit the industry it is supposed to be regulating, rather than the public.”

Consider the following quote:

      “For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency and every restraint known to society without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Eerie – swaying power such as never in the world’s history has been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens, controlled by single men, after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption – will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance.”

       Part of a longer essay first published in Westminster Review in 1870, the passage was written by Henry Adams, son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams. The “Eerie” mentioned here is the Eerie Railroad. The men referred to in the piece are the 19th Century robber-barons, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk.

      Although it appears that George Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture arrived a bit late, one point remains to be established. Stigler believed that regulatory capture was inevitable. I’ll cite one example to illustrate Stigler’s thinking, the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to enforce the Clean Air Act. The stakeholders here form a vast pool. After all, every American breathes. But the interests of the average stakeholder, many of whom don’t live in an urban center, are relatively small. In addition, the average stakeholder’s life is consumed by the need to survive. Stakeholders have jobs and families and all the obligations that come with them. The various corporations that compose the fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, not only have a larger individual stake in EPA rulings, they have the means to influence government and the will to persist no matter how many setbacks they encounter. In the end, according to Stigler, they must win.

      Guess what? The future is now and it ain’t pretty.

      The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is now, thanks to Don the Con, headed by Acting Director Ann-Marie Buerkle, a one-term House Member from New York. Buerkle is hard-core when it comes to regulation. She voted to repeal Obamacare in 2010 and to defund Planned Parenthood. Along the way, she attracted the support of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. As a regulator, she has consistently favored “market-based” solutions that pile up profits for the entities she regulates. In 2011, Obama appointed her, upon John Boehner’s recommendation, to be a delegate to the U.N., a largely ceremonial position. From there, again by Obama. she was appointed one of five commissioners at CPSC. Now, thanks to Trump’s victory, she’s been promoted to Acting Director.
      Why? Why would Barack Obama nominate a Tea Party conservative to a position on a regulatory board?
      CPSC was created in 1972 as part of the Consumer Product Safety Act, so I guess, if anyone’s to blame, it’s the ’72 Congress and Richard Nixon. The legislation specifies that of the five commissioners on the board, only three can be from the same party. Thus, a Republican vacancy during Obama’s tenure demanded a Republican replacement. Obama, of course, would have chosen a less-extreme candidate if the choice had been up to him. It wasn’t. When a Republican vacancy occurs, the appointment comes, by tradition, from the Republican leadership in Congress. Buerkle was Mitch McConnell’s choice. Obama might still have refused to appoint Buerkle, but it seems there was also a vacancy on the Democratic side that Obama could not fill without the cooperation of Mitch McConnell. (In fact, two CPSC commissioners were later confirmed on the same day, Buerkle and Marietta Robinson, a Democrat.)
       Mitch McConnell has been out front about his choices. He will nominate the most extreme candidates he can find to the various commission and agencies where they can “gum up the works”.
       Welcome to Washington, boys and girls. This is the way it works when the only entities paying close attention are the entities to be regulated. I’ve drawn some of this material from a short article in Mother Jones, the only independent media outlet, as far as I can tell, that covered Buerkle’s appointment. However, the appointment was noted on a very dependent website, that of the Toy Industry Association, the political arm of the toy industry, which is heavily regulated by CPSC.

      Even as I write this, Scott Pruitt is being confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt wrote a three-page letter to the EPA. His complaint? That the EPA was vastly overestimating the pollution generated by new gas wells. But the letter, as it turned out, wasn’t composed by Pruitt. It was written by lawyers from Devon Energy, an Oklahoma gas and oil company.
      According to Pruitt, global warming is a matter of opinion among scientists and there is no evidence to support the belief that fracking causes water pollution. Further, the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink should be regulated by the states, not the federal government.
      Pruitt has sued the EPA thirteen times on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

      Andrew Puzder, nominated for Labor Secretary, has withdrawn his name. But his record speaks for itself, and for Trump’s intentions. Hardees’ employees have filed thirty-three separate actions, charging the company with a variety of infractions, including failure to pay wages, failure to pay overtime and sexual harassment. All told, sixty percent of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants have had at least one labor violation filed against them. Perhaps resenting these assaults on his integrity, Puzder advocates replacing workers with robots. They “never show up late, there’s never a slip and fall, or an age, sex or racial discrimination case.”

      Confirmed as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price’s rejection of the Affordable Care Act is on the record, as is his desire to transform Medicare into a voucher system (that might, or might not, cover the cost of an insurance policy) and to replace traditional Medicaid with block grants to the states. Price’s office, of course, is charged with implementing the very programs he wishes to destroy. Make no mistake here, Price is utterly cold-blooded, just like the man who nominated him. If Don the Con really wanted to preserve Social Security and Medicaid - as he promised - he wouldn’t have nominated Tom Price, an obscure Attorney General from Oklahoma.
       Here’s an interesting question. Given the fiduciary obligation of corporate managers to maximize profit for the shareholders, what insurance company would be willing to sell a policy to an octogenarian? How ‘bout a sick octogenarian? How ‘bout a terminal octogenarian? Medicare was created, in part, because nobody wanted to sell insurance policies to the elderly at a price the elderly could afford.

      Betsy DeVos is now our Secretary of the Department of Education. Back in Michigan, DeVos engineered a takeover of public education by for-profit charter schools. A grand experiment, for sure, but one that, if DeVos intended to prove that charter school provide a better education, failed.
      The Detroit Free Press, on January 16, 2017, described the end result of this experiment.
      “Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.”
      The charter school experiment in Michigan was heavily funded by Betsy DeVos, the billionaire daughter of a super-rich family who never spent a minute in public schools. She revealed her ignorance of even the most basic educational issues at her confirmation hearings, but was confirmed anyway. As Secretary of Education, even if she cannot destroy the public-school system and replace it with for-profit charter schools, she can use regulatory powers to degrade and defame the system. And the Michigan experiment has definitely been a failure. Thirty-eight percent of the State’s rated charter schools fell below the twenty-fifth percentile in performance. Only 23% of public school were similarly rated. So, why appoint her? An estimate of total spending on public education, K-12, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, exceeded $600,000,000. If for-profit schools manage to skim off a quarter of the total, charter schools will form a $150,000,000 per year industry. Betsy DeVos will do her best to make that happen, whether or not charter schools outperform public schools.

      Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is Montana’s sole House Member. As Secretary, he will be responsible for overseeing the tens of millions of federally owned acres scattered about the fifty states. But this is a man who hopes to eliminate his own job. Zinke wants to turn federal land, including the National Parks, over to the states, there to be used for whatever purposes state governments see fit. Until then, he plans to satisfy himself with opening federal lands to exploitation by grazing, logging and mining interests.

      I could go on, but I think the point is made. Don the Con has appointed the most reactionary candidates he can locate to head the various federal agencies. Regulatory capture is almost complete. I say almost because the civil servants who staff these agencies, and who still believe in their core missions, seem ready to oppose the slaughter. Let’s hope they can hang on until Trump implodes. But even if they succeed and the agencies are not completely destroyed, of one thing we can all be certain. The regulated industries will still be out there, still pursuing regulatory capture. They will never give up. They have too much at stake.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


      I was watching C-SPAN’s call-in program, Washington Journal, yesterday when a Trump supporter made the following statements.

      “We had eight years of Barack Obama. We didn’t have an economic uptick in eight years.”

      When Obama took office, at the height of the Bush recession, the country was shedding 800,000 jobs each month. That came to a halt in the third month of 2010 and was followed by 70 straight months of job growth. Further, in January of 2009, the Dow stood dipped below 7,000. By December 31, 2016, just before he left office, it had risen to 19,974.62.

      That level of denial is hard to top, but this caller managed it in his next sentence.

      “It’s so nice to have a humble president, who’s not conceited, who doesn’t think he’s a king like Obama, who put the interests of the American people first.”

      Oy, vey. I should have made an earlier appointment for my root canal. It would’ve been less painful.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


      Last week on MSNBC, Chris Hayes, a man I admire, hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the causes, and potential cures, for the shocking violence in Chicago. A few years ago, it would have been Detroit. A few years further back, D.C. or New York, or some other city run by Democrats. This year it’s Chicago.

      Let’s leave an inconvenient fact aside: among major cities, Chicago’s homicide rate per 100,000 residents is far from the highest in the country. Not only does that honor belong to New Orleans, there are eighteen cities between the top of the list and Chicago.

      But I’m not writing this to dishonor Chris Hayes, although he should be ashamed of himself. I want to urge an investigation, by academicians as well as government agencies and the media, into the cause of the elevated homicide levels in Southern States, a phenomenon that has persisted for many years.

      The state with the highest homicide rate per 100,000 residents? Louisiana with 10.3 homicides per 100,000. By contrast, the state with the lowest homicide rate is New Hampshire with 0.9 homicides per 100,000, a tenth of Louisiana’s. But the southern trend doesn’t stop with Louisiana. Mississippi has the second-highest levels in the country with 8.6 homicides per 100,000. Further if we examine states with high murder rates – rates between 5 and 6 per 100,000 – we find Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. On the other hand, the states with the lowest rates, between 1 and 2 per 100,000, include Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont.

      So, it’s time, right? Time to fully investigate the horrific violence that haunts states below the Mason-Dixon Line? Perhaps we should examine the relationship between slavery and violent crime, or poverty and violent crime since the states mentioned above also rank at the top of poverty lists per 100,000 residents. Or maybe the more sophisticated among us, like Chris Hayes, should avoid copping to a persistent Republican claim, repeated again and again, as with any big lie: Violent crime, Democratic mayors and Democratic cities are triplets walking hand-in-hand.

      Final note. The statistics cited above were taken from the FBI Uniform Crime Report. They’re unimpeachable.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


      Do you think rank-and-file Kentuckians know that My Old Kentucky Home is an anti-slavery ballad? Do they know that Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, singled the ballad out for special praise. He called it a "heart song".

Thursday, February 9, 2017


      The other morning, I listened to a woman extol Don the Con’s virtues on C-SPAN’s morning program, Washington Journal. This woman loved everything about Trump, presumably even the hair and the raccoon makeup, but she was especially drawn to the Con’s honesty. Trump, it seems, unlike the deceptive politicians on the other side, always speaks from the heart.

      PolitiFact is a website that rates the truthfulness of statements made by politicians of both parties. They rated 69% of the statements made by Trump, during the campaign and after his election, as either mostly false, completely false or pants-on-fire false. By contrast, 16% of Hilary Clinton’s statements obtained similar ratings. But PolitFact’s judgments amount to little more than preaching to the choir. Confronted with the truth, as determined by PolitiFact and FactCheck, the woman I listened to on C-SPAN would simple close her eyes and whisper the magic mantra: liberally biased media. Whereupon all those nasty facts will be sucked into the great void of liberal propaganda, there to be lost forever.

      How did we get here?

      Conservative think tanks have produced a convoluted explanation for the alt-fact reality we now face. This explanation, with some variation, follows a consistent narrative, one well-expressed by Bruce Thornton on the Hoover Institution’s website. Until late in the 19th Century, Thornton explains, newspapers were biased by design. Wholly owned by a political party or an individual or even a trade union, they spewed the company line. This was all right because competing interests produced an essential balance - my propaganda versus your propaganda - but then something odd happened. Late in the 19th Century, led by the New York Times, the movers and shakers in the newspaper business decided to focus on objectivity. Ferret out the truth, print the facts, inform the reader.

      Sounds good, right? An informed public making fact-based decisions? Who could object?

      Thornton and other conservative historians have a ready answer to these questions. Advocates for an objective approach to the news, which grew to include radio, television and now a digital universe, never sought to achieve objectivity. No, no, no. Objectivity was merely a pretense, a disguise for the liberal agenda they intended, all along, to promote. In direct contrast with the unconcealed biases of the 19th Century, deception was the name of the objectivist’s game. Liars and cheats, their control of the media, especially television, resulted in the mass propagandizing of American culture.

      And that’s why conservative media bias, as an antidote, is ultimately defensible. That’s why FOX News, when it propagates right wing positions, merely provides a just balance to mainstream media’s left wing positions. Plus, unlike the mainstream, right-wing media outlets don’t hide their conservative orientation, making them the only honest actors in the equation.

      Thornton would have you believe the New York Times or the Washington Post are just as biased as Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh. (The Wall Street Journal, too, when it questions Trump.) Preposterous as that may sound, the conservative attack on the mainstream media, ongoing since the 1970’s, has been extremely successful. The first forty-five minutes of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, a daily program beginning at 7 AM every morning, are set aside for viewer phone calls on one topic or another. As I listen on most days, I’ve heard hundreds of callers express opinions utterly at odds with the facts. Remember the Obamacare death panels? And the millions of Americans who lost their jobs when Obamacare went into effect? And then there’s the NRA’s mantra: Look out, pardner, cause they’re comin’ to take your guns.

      The NRA told this lie for the entire eight years of the Obama administration. Millions of people believed it even though no agent of government confiscated a single, legally-owned firearm. These same members would surely have continued to believe themselves under threat if Hillary had been elected. But don’t knock the propaganda. The NRA’s hysteria has produced results at the highest levels of government, including the Supreme Court. In D.C. v. Heller, five Republican-appointed justices established a personal right to gun ownership the framers surely did not intend. I’ll explore this at length in a subsequent posting.

      Thornton offered no proof that liberal bias resulted from a conscious decision on the part of the mainstream media to spread liberal propaganda under the banner of objectivity. Hardly surprising, because he didn’t provide evidence of liberal bias, either. The firewall between the editorial and news divisions of the better newspapers, like the Times (New York and Los Angeles), the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were, apparently, unworthy of mention.

      There’s a bottom line here. I’ll get to it now, though I am mightily tempted to fill a few pages with a catalogue of the many lies told by conservatives over the years. And that includes the newest, that Obamacare is in danger of “imminent collapse”, a phrase we’ll hear many times as Obamacare repeal moves forward.

       The woman I listened to this morning, along with the great majority of Trump’s supporters, cannot be reached. Maybe down the line, but not at present, and not in the near future. They voted for a man labeled a racist by members of his own party, a self-confessed sexual predator who has flagrantly displayed a consistent xenophobia, a man who lies almost every time he addresses the public.

       Face it, they didn’t care and we’re not going to reach them with pie-in-the-sky promises to abrogate trade agreements. Remember, these white, working-class voters regularly turn out for the same Republican office holders who provided majority support, without exception, for every trade pact that came up for a vote. Until these voters abandon their alt-fact dream world, they are lost to the Democratic Party. We’d be far better off courting those country-club Republicans, now a distinct minority, who find themselves uncomfortable with the Republican Party as the White People’s Party.  

      Democrats can only succeed by maintaining the Obama coalition. Our future lies in diversity, not false promises, not drill-baby-drill, not build-that-wall, not lock-her-up. This country has weathered bad times before. Consider the No-Nothings in the mid-19th Century, or the red purges following the First- and Second World Wars, or the post-Civil War Supreme Court. Consider the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Consider centuries of slavery followed by Jim Crow. We survived those attacks on our basic principles and we can survive this one, too. Eye on the prize.