November 2013 Archives

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Dear America,
Maximum Out-of-Pocket Premium Payments Under PPACA

Maximum Out-of-Pocket Premium Payments Under PPACA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Healthcare.gov has been the story at the top of the news since October 1.  The Republican party apparatus has cranked out blow after blow against the Obama administration using essentially a single gambit: government is incompetent, and the Obama administration is particularly so.  Daryl Issa, the Republican congressman who chairs the House Oversight Committee, has taken his inquisition on the road and is taking testimony from properly politically aligned witnesses all over the country.  In Georgia last week, he and his panel of three other Republicans--no Democrats would participate in the Tea Party pandering road show contrived by Mr. Issa--took testimony from a few disgruntled business owners while refusing to even acknowledge the offers to testify of a very satisfied, newly insured, never-before-insured citizen, and probably others who would have liked to tell congress what the Affordable Care Act has given them.  And Issa is taking his road show to other states as well despite the chants outside his Georgia performance of "go back to Washington and get back to work."  But the story doesn't seem to be as simple as an effort by conservative Republicans and the Tea Party to capitalize on something that happens to most big internet projects as they start out.  It is not just the notion that government is incompetent that is being promoted; it is also the notion that business and free enterprise do things better that is now in question.  It isn't the government that made this mess.

There is a single civilian corporation--a Canadian corporation at that--that is at the heart of the problems that have plagued the web site, and by extension, the millions of people whom it was supposed to serve...to help.  CGI, Inc. specializes in government projects, and with regard to the Affordable Care Act, it has been involved centrally not just in the development of the federal website, but in that of some states, Massachusetts in particular, that have decided to develop their own sites under the law.  And according to reports last week, they didn't do any better in Massachusetts than they did in Washington, D.C.  Of course, they are pointing to the governments' oversight of the project and failure to formulate specifications for the websites in a timely manner, but it has to be acknowledged that CGI put in a bid on the federal project for a certain amount of money, and it won the project based on that bid at the expense of two competitors that also bid.  So, while the proposal that they bid on may have had some ellipses in it, CGI knew what it was getting into, especially in light of the fact that this wasn't their first federal contract.  And if you add the failures they seem to be at the heart of in Massachusetts, and perhaps even other states, it gets harder for CGI to escape responsibility, which begs another question.  Is the growing emphasis on contracting out the work of government really a good idea?  Do big corporations really do any better than big government when it comes to complex projects?  The answer appears to be, no.

In this instance, CGI was a corporation that had been pre-vetted, and thus had the right to bid on contracts generally under a procedure created by congress as part of the law governing the bidding process overall.  That procedure, as it turns out, creates a de facto prejudice against small contractors that may not want to make such government work their m├ętier, but may want to bid on a particular project.  So huge CGI's only competition was only other pre-qualified corporation in reality, and they got the contract over two other bidders.  But there might have been many more except for the statutory scheme for selecting contractors promulgated by congress to bind the executive branch to do business a certain way...one that favors big business over small business, which the Republicans always claim to be the heart of the American economy.  And if the critiques of the process by which the federal healthcare site was created and is being revised to make it effective are correct, small business competitors of CGI might well have done a much better job, simply by virtue of their tendency toward simplicity rather than complexity that justifies big fees.  Of course, the issue is complicated, and even after piercing that obstacle to resolving it, what remains will be essentially opinion, and we all know that in politics, everyone involved will say only what serves him best.  Still, there is a lesson to be learned here, though it certainly will not be.

It may be true that for many tasks, government is not the best option given its size and lack of nimbleness and adaptability.  But the problem is not that it is government.  The problem is that it is big...like big business.  So, the people who are dogmatic about keeping government out of our lives should be rethinking their choice of big business as out salvation.  It is becoming ever more obvious that size does matter.  However when it comes to the operation of government it is sometimes an advantage, as in the case of old-age retirement.  No large corporation could run a system like Social Security efficiently and do as much good as the federal Social Security Administration does.  But in cases in which private enterprise is a better choice, maybe bigger isn't better then either.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
English: Bernard Madoff's mugshot

English: Bernard Madoff's mugshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


There is an "activist investor" named William Ackman who has undertaken a quest against a corporation called Herbalife.  Large chunks of Herbalife's stock are owned by other robber barons who like to think of themselves as activists too: Carl Icahn, George Soros and William Stiritz.  They all run hedge funds and other equity holding companies, and they like to think of themselves as Robin Hood types, but what they really are is the embodiment of what is wrong with capitalism today.  In the case of Ackman and Herbalife, Ackman is convinced that Herbalife is a Ponzi scheme, which it looks like to me.  But Ackman has taken it upon himself to quest after the exposure of the scheme, and the way in which he is doing it demonstrates that even when they purport to be doing good, they are really helping themselves to bigger and bigger shares of the net worth of society at large.  The form Mr. Ackman's quest has taken is a short sale of $1 billion worth of Herbalife's stock.  I have described short selling in the past as one of the most basic evils of the transmogrified financial system that was once a medium for the sharing of the use of capital, but is now a means of accruing obscene amounts of capital by manipulating the system.  In a short sale, the short seller sells stock he doesn't own, and he does so by borrowing that stock from many different owners through brokerage houses and investment banks that specialize in such loans of stock.  Thus, sometimes enormous volumes of selling occur when the sellers don't own the stock, thus placing downward pressure on the price of the stock as concerted selling almost always does.  But in the case of short selling, the sales are not real as the owners of the stock still own the shares; they have just lent them out.  Thus, short selling creates artificial downward pressure on a stock that the short seller wants to buy at a lower price so that he can give it back to the people who lent it to him and keep the difference between the short sale price and the price of the stock he buys to pay it back.  It is betting on what the short seller hopes will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  And in this case, it is the ultimate irony that a possible Ponzi scheme is under attack by a short-seller, and thus, there's no good guy to root for.  They deserve each other, but the investors will be the losers, not these villains of the piece themselves.  It is the perfect simile for the corruption of modern capitalism: manipulators warring with manipulators and destroying the civilian population in the process.

What if Ackman succeeds in bringing Herbalife down.  He runs a "hedge fund," which is a syndicate of millionaire investors--you have to have a million dollars to invest in a hedge fund by law--and he is leading them in this battle probably unbeknownst to most of them because their money is just parked in Ackman's $11 billion fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, for someone else, Ackman, to manage.  That's more or less what Bernie Madoff did for a living.  Madoff also managed other people's money.  He also lied to them about it because in the end, it wasn't there anymore.  Ackman probably isn't a mammoth defrauder of many, but he isn't Saint Francis either, though he would like to convince everyone else, as he seems to have convinced himself, that he is doing God's work.  But if he wins in this quest, he will make a ton of money, not just for his investors but for himself as well.  The owners of hedge funds make their livings by taking a share of the profits from their "hedges," like this short sale.  They produce nothing although they want everyone to believe that they produce money instead of the reality, which is that they just take it from someone else's pocket and put it in those of their clients and themselves.  It will be a victory for someone who is little more than a river boat gambler, not the vindication of a principle of some kind that Ackman has made up in this case.  To put it concisely, this whole short sale strategy of Ackman's is nothing more than an effort to make something out of nothing: alchemy, it used to be called.  And there's nothing noble about it...not even Ackman's purported quest for truth and justice, though he is doing it the American way.  It's all so unseemly...and morally bankrupt.

So, the bottom line in this case isn't a sum total.  It is that there are only bad guys playing this financial game, and thus, some bad guy is going to win in the realm of American finance.  That seems to be the way it always goes.  The significance of this corruption is that it is as much a part of our current politics as is the Affordable Care Act.  The Dodd-Frank Act is being sabotaged by the Republicans in congress, who are obstructing the formulation of the regulations that are needed to implement The Act, especially the Volcker Rule, which is supposed to prevent banks like J.P. Morgan-Chase from investing money they hold for others and risking its loss at those depositors' expense, but that never seems to make the 6:30 news, or even the New York Times.  And no one has even broached the subject of capital market manipulation through short selling.  We continue to endow these tactics with respectability with the institutionalization of options trading on an official exchange out in Chicago and commodities trading by people who could never take delivery of what they are buying and selling, all of them skimming off the top of the wealth produced by working Americans, complaining all the while that hard working people should be glad to have the minimum wage they get and stop asking for more...but that's food for another thought.

My hope is that some time in the next decade or so we will see the ascendance of a politician who isn't afraid to point out that all these emperors who claim to be benevolent oligarchs really have no clothes on.  Of course, such a politician can only hope for one term, because the money that will be arrayed against him if he runs for reelection will by boundless, but it will be a start.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
English: United States Senate Action on Clotur...

English: United States Senate Action on Cloture Motions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Democrats in The Senate acted today to require only fifty one votes to confirm federal  presidential nominees, and all I can say is, finally.  The Republicans bellowed like stuck elephants, but the effective repeal of the filibuster rule relative to such nominations wasn't a result of their being elephants...of their being Republicans.  It was a result of their being pigs.  They made "compromises" relative to the filibuster--specifically with regard to judicial nominees--at the beginning of this session of congress.  They promised in that "gentlemen's agreement" not to abuse the filibuster by holding it in abeyance except for dire objections to a particular nominee, but then they used it for every presidential judicial nominee, in particular those for the Federal, or 12th, Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the second most influential court in the United States, behind only The Supreme Court.  That Federal Circuit Court of Appeals rules not just on cases from the federal courts within its geographic jurisdiction, but with regard to all matters stemming from certain laws and on certain issues, patents for example.  There can be only twelve active judges on the court, and there are currently two vacancies, but the Republicans claim that they aren't needed, and that is how they have justified their filibuster of President Obama's nominees for those slots.   But then there is Janet Yellen, President Obama's nominee to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  They have expressed their intention to filibuster her nomination as well, but there is only one Chairman of the Federal Reserve, now Ben Bernanke, and he wants to retire; he isn't being allowed to for the moment because of the Republicans' filibuster of his successor.  The Republicans response to the threat to change the filibuster rules over the past few weeks has been...well, to filibuster it by contriving reasons for doing what they were doing.  And now, since they have left the Democrats no choice, they are complaining, and more importantly, threatening.

What goes around comes around, they are saying, and that's true.  But when you are dealing with the Republicans, it comes around whether it goes around or not.  As I heard one reporter on NPR put it, it is of no avail to threaten to shoot the hostages once you have shot the hostages, and that is the Republican strategy on everything.  The threat is, if you don't give us what we want, we're going to do to you what we're already doing to you.  And frankly, the fact that Harry Reid and the other veteran senators refused to confront the Republicans before this has astounded me.  The reason for many of our woes, economic in particular, is the filibuster rule in The Senate, followed closely by the power of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to keep votes from occurring.  So, the next step is for the Democrats to start calling for votes in The House, which requires of Speaker Boehner that he change what is called "the regular order"--under which any congressman can call for a vote--by procedural votes in which Republicans will vote unanimously to make the change, if he wants to continue to obstruct legislative progress as he did to keep the government shut-down going a few weeks ago.  By changing the regular order, the Republicans can change the rule that any congressman can call a vote on a bill so that only Boehner, his designee or Eric Cantor will be able to call a vote on a particular bill.  Once the Democrats get that kind of gumption, it will become an election issue, and then the Republicans will no longer be able to obstruct with impunity.  Sooner or later, the voters of this country will hold it against them, and that will be the beginning of the end for the Republican/Tea Party reign of terror.  I can't wait, but there will have to be more.

The major impediment to legislative progress on issues like immigration and gun control is the senate filibuster rule as it applies to legislation in general.  Sixty votes are required for cloture, which is the termination of debate on a bill.  That is how the filibuster works.  The Republicans just say that they are going to filibuster in a procedural vote and if sixty votes cannot be mustered for cloture, the filibuster has succeeded and the Senate moves on to other business.  Senators on both sides of the aisle hail this process as a damping mechanism that slows popular movements, purportedly allowing wiser heads to prevail, but that isn't what happens anymore.  Today, the filibuster is used to impede and obstruct, and both parties have been guilty of it.  But the Republican Party has raised the use of the filibuster to a nefarious art form, and that is demonstrable.  Last night on NPR, Robert Siegel asked a senator from Mississippi if, since Republicans think that the rule is necessarily to cool our political environment, the Republicans will restore the filibuster when they can change the rules, which will occur if they take a majority in The Senate.  The senator hemmed and hawed, and in the end, after being asked the question a second time because he evaded the issue the first time, he said maybe they will.  But I've got a bridge for sale to anyone who believes that, but I hope he isn't telling the truth.

The filibuster is the means by which the will of the American people has been thwarted.  The Republicans have used it to sabotage the Democratic program, and thus to discredit the Democrats as failures because while they have a majority in The Senate, the Democrats don't have a majority of sixty.  The filibuster is anti-democratic, and it should be abolished, or at least returned to its original form in which a senator filibustering had to take the floor and stay on it, speaking all the while as Rand Paul did recently.  That was just showboating, but when it is the only way to filibuster, the senator responsible is on trial with the American people for as long as he speaks, and if they do not demonstrate favor toward his position, he assumes the risk.  This initial change in the filibuster rule is a historic moment, and it is to be savored, but it is just a good beginning.  I hope the Democrats are up to finishing the job.

Your friend,

Mike

English: John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Ov...

English: John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Oval Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

P.S.: Today is the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  I was a senior in high school in my last period history class on this date in 1963 when one of the teachers, a yellow-blond man with a pasty complexion stuck his head in the room.  His cheeks were maroon with the flush of the moment and he said that President Kennedy had been shot.  My teacher, Mr. Lavin, launched on a rant about lunatics and why there always had to be one, and the class sat in stunned silence for about ten minutes until the final bell of the day rang.  I had largely forgotten the feelings I had in that moment, but over the last few days, and last night in particular, the recapitulations of the Kennedy years--Camelot as his administration was dubbed--and that of Kennedy's assassination have been ubiquitous, and rightfully so.  Last night as I heard the tape of the announcement of the assassination on the radio at the Boston Symphony performance that afternoon, I found myself crying again...this time silently, alone in my living room with no hope of explaining what I felt to my family, all of them far too young to remember that day.  I still cannot recount the accomplishments of President Kennedy, but I remember vividly seeing him on television in October 1962 telling us all that only the Soviets could pull us back from the brink of nuclear war.  I went to bed that night thinking that missiles would fly in my sleep and I would never wake up, but I did, and Kennedy's will and political fortitude carried us through that potentially lethal moment in our history.  I remember the confrontations in The South over what we used to call Negroes going to school with white kids because while it had been the law for seven years or so that separate was not equal, it still was in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama...and in Dallas, Texas too.  I remember Jimmy Hoffa being pressed in his congressional testimony about the corruption over which he presided in the Teamsters' Union, and most of all, I have the general memory of a vigorous, intelligent, charismatic man leading the country.  While Lyndon Johnson continued Kennedy's work and added some of his own that was transformative, we haven't seen Kennedy's like since except for Bill Clinton, who suffered from the same peccadilloes as it turns out Kennedy did.  Still, our country needs another transformative figure today, because although President Obama portended to be one, it just hasn't worked out for him...or for us.  I hope the next president will fill the bill, but all I know now is that I wish John F. Kennedy were here
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Dear America,
Illustrates the intersection of supply and dem...

Illustrates the intersection of supply and demand curves as the free market equilibrium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Embedded deep in the folds of the venerable old New York Times, there appeared an eminently modern article last Saturday.  Its import was obscured by its placement on page four of the business section, but its significance was undiminished by that obscurity.  The article was about Arizona imposing a fee on solar energy providers...not those who provide such energy on a large scale, but on those who place solar panels on their roof tops and send the surfeit of what they produce back through the electrical grid, thus running their electric meters backwards.  It seems that at least twenty states have laws and regulations that permit such practices, but the electric company in Arizona at least complained about it.  Their plaint was that such small scale solar energy producers take advantage of the infrastructure of "the grid" for when they cannot produce what they need, but they pay less for it than other consumers, though I cannot fathom the reasoning behind the claim.  First, the electric companies sell the power the small scale producers don't use for themselves to other consumers at the going rate, and thus the transaction between the two produces a net zero on the company's balance sheet.  But second, the fact that the households that produce some of their own power don't burden the grid when they are doing so should redound to their credit in direct proportion to the diminished amount that they pay for it.  But the reason for my attribution of such importance to the article is that I have long believed that the future of energy production is not in better production and use of fossil fuels or massive wind farms in the mid-west...not in large scale energy production but in the production by every structure of some or all of the energy it needs through use of renewable source technology--solar panels, wind mills, potential energy harvesting, geo-thermal wells and who knows what else will develop--on a small scale.  Thus, this trend toward those who provide for themselves and conserve paying the traditional providers for the fact that their business is thereby diminished is a devious way for the power companies to continue to profit from what has been until now a captive market, even when it is captive no longer.  It just isn't fair, and it isn't really reflective of the free market by which corporate America, of which they are a major part, claims to live and die.  If we use too much of anything, we have to pay more because the market favors the producer over the consumer.  But if we use less...we also have to pay more because the market favors the consumer over the producer.  How can it work both ways for the producer?

The formula seems to be the same in every business: the old heads I win, tails you lose formula.  The petroleum industry claimed that prices were rising because of a shortfall in the amount of oil produced.  The market favored the producers because consumers wanted more than was available.  But now with the advent of fracking and horizontal drilling into shale deposits, petroleum is flowing like water, and while the price of gasoline has fallen over the past few months, no one seriously believes that such will continue to be the trend.  And here in the Hartford, Connecticut area we have a water producer that is a municipal utility called MDC, which stands for the Metropolitan District Commission.  The MDC was chartered by a group of towns about eighty five years ago under an enabling statute, but also by statute, the MDC is unregulated; it has no oversight whatsoever.  So, when the efforts at conservation of the users of the water supply here reduced consumption over the course of about ten years by almost twenty percent, the MDC was left with supply in excess of what it could sell.  The solution to the resulting cash flow problem was to raise rates on some of its customers--those who live in towns it supplies outside the boundaries of its chartering towns--by imposing surcharges that more than doubled their bills.  In essence then, we have to pay more because the water that the MDC has too much of isn't being used fast enough, not because their isn't enough to go around.  It's just more of the same perverse math.  Instead of divesting itself of the supply it can't use, our MDC wants us to pay for it to sit there...unused.  I say that if the law of supply and demand no longer relates to, well, supply and demand, we ought to acknowledge that there is a new rule that has taken its place.  Maybe we could call it the corporate oligarchy rule, or the you can't win rule.  Or maybe we should just call it unconstrained greed.  It's kind of like democracy.  At one time it meant that everyone gets to vote and then the winners of the majority of those votes went to Washington, D.C. and acted as our surrogates: a republic.  But then came the filibuster, and in the House of Representatives "Regular Order," and parliamentary procedure became more important that who has the majority of the votes.  By simply not voting on things, those things could be prevented...and prevented by the very people we sent to Washington to vote on them and thus make them happen.

What it comes to is that everything has been turned upside down.  Power is flowing up to the very few from us, the very many, and the very few are using it for their own enrichment at our expense.  That's why we need a new name for the rule...something other than supply and demand or the free market, or democracy.  What I suggest is this.  Let's just call it what it is.  In this country, and probably all over the world, the few who benefit from the toil and travail of the many are in control and they are getting rich of all of the rest of us.  The tail is wagging the dog, so let's just call it what it is.  From now on, let's just acknowledge that it isn't market forces that create price trends.  It's our tail ends.  From now on, let's just call it the tail rule that is resulting in the vast majority of us taking it in the...well, you get the idea.  It's kind of a double entendre, but I like it.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
English: FOX News Channel newsroom

English: FOX News Channel newsroom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I have been watching "Brideshead Revisited" on DVD recently.  I saw the series on public television about thirty years ago when I was still in law school and I bought the DVD set after the film came out.  My wife and I saw it and she became as enthralled with it as I had been when I had seen it all those decades ago, so we bought the discs of the original series.  It was a serialization of Evelyn Waugh's novel about the British aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, depicting them with many of the same personal and developmental problems that the rest of us suffer with a particular focus on the role that dogma, religious dogma in particular, plays in our lives.  The reason I have begun to watch the program again is that I find it difficult to get interested in what is on television these days.  There is no sophistication and depth for the most part in what passes for entertainment in the modern media.  There is only the crudeness of "2 Broke Girls" and "2 and a half Men" or the apocryphal accounts of forensic science in law enforcement to view, and the ennui of those who provide that kind of "entertainment" is contagious.  It's as if we have all been taught to expect less, and our expectations are then never disappointed.  With few exceptions there is so little to watch on television today that when we returned the booklets to the Nielson Company that they sent us so as to monitor our viewing, they were almost empty.  I find myself listening to jazz on NPR most evenings rather than turning on the television, and even my children, both in their twenties, don't watch anything but those "reality shows" about renovating real estate and finding antiques in old barns out in the hinterlands.

Similarly, the news has been diluted with continual booster-ism and chauvinistic tripe like ABC News's "American Strong" and their "Instant Index" in which instead of telling us what happened today in Syria they purport to bring us the news by informing us as to how to weather strip our homes so as to save money on utilities.  Even on all the networks, it's the equivalent of Fox News all the time.  Diane Sawyer led off her broadcast two nights ago by telling us not just that only 27,900 people had signed up for insurance on the federal healthcare website, but gratuitously adding that the total wasn't enough to fill Yankee Stadium, as if that was a legitimate metric by which to understand the new health care law's initially languorous reception.  About the details of that issue, she said almost nothing, but her furrowed brow and grave tone were obviously intended to tell us what to think about it.  None of this may seem sufficiently interesting to read on, but I submit that it is all part and parcel of the same decline in the quality of our thinking in this country.  We settle for so little.  There is the news on public television, and with regard to the Affordable Care Act, the subject was covered on the day of the announcement of the subscriber totals by the Obama administration with interviews of experts that lasted about fifteen minutes.  We can see and hear the details of the news from a reliable source...ironically one that is half subsidized by the federal government...but by far most of us prefer the pap that the networks feed us.  What this means is that we have become the thing that Alexander Hamilton claimed justified the creation of The Senate in our bicameral legislature: an institution that was necessary to mitigate the effects of mob mentality as would be reflected by the House of Representatives.  And sure enough, we have John Boehner and the Tea Party dedicated to sabotaging the ACA while the American public is being allowed to forget their motives and how they are going about it, meanwhile preventing any significant legislation from passing not by voting it down, but by parliamentary maneuvering.  All this might make one despair of us Americans, and in fact, people all over the world do just that.  We are no longer the paragons of human political evolution that we were once, but more importantly, we represent a danger in that we have so much might at our disposal.  The last time there was a confluence of this kind of chauvinism with the power of a nation of such comparative size as to be regarded as a super-power was when Hitler came to power in Germany and his Nazi Party aspired to rule the world.

I don't know how we can insure that everyone sees our problems rationally and seeks solutions based on reasoned analysis rather than finger pointing and name calling.  Our politics have come to be stilted by dogma on both sides, but more importantly by internecine defamation of character directed at both the 47% and the 1%.  People throw around politically charged words and phrases like "socialized medicine" without considering what would be wrong with it if indeed it eventuated, and it is all too easy to think of the relationship between government and big business as "fascism."  Honestly, I don't have an opinion about where this nation is headed, but I have to admit, it doesn't look good to me, and I have no idea what we can do about it other than cast our votes based on what we know rather than suspicion.  I've said it before and I still think it is a good idea.  Each of us has to start thinking with his own head rather than someone else's...and rather than Diane Sawyer's in particular.

Your friend,

Mike  

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Dear America,
Governor of New Jersey at a town hall in Hills...

Governor of New Jersey at a town hall in Hillsborough, NJ 3/2/11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It appears that the winnowing of the Affordable Care Act one piece at a time is having a more deleterious effect on the law than could have been anticipated.  Insurance companies are playing their role in the undermining of Obamacare by killing coverage plans that people currently have for a variety of reasons and offering only more expensive, less provident plans in their stead.  The numbers of people who have suffered such inconvenience is minimal, but their consternation over it is not.  And the nearly half of the states that declined to accept the 100% federally funded expansion of Medicaid have inadvertently created a tangential problem.  The hospital funding that the federal government formerly provided for the uncompensated emergency room procedures of the poor was reduced under the ACA, but when the Supreme Court struck down the ACA mandate that states participate in expanded Medicaid, the revenue stream that was supposed to replace that federal funding was eliminated in the states that declined.  Thus, it is possible that the poor who could always go to the emergency room in conservatively governed states like Texas and Georgia may not be able to anymore, nor will they be able to go elsewhere under Medicaid because hospitals may no longer be able to provide the interstitial care that those who fell between the other available resources used to get.  Obamacare will probably survive, but the conservatives have certainly diminished its merit overall, and for what.  It's all about winning the next presidential election.  But the joke may be on them if the conservative they nominate wins in 2016 and it happens to be Chris Christie, which looks more and more like a possibility with each passing day.

With conservatives...even those of moderate stripe...continuing to scramble to make political hay out of things like the now discredited 60 Minutes report on Benghazi, the number of potential options for the Republicans is being continually pared down by the missteps of the possible choices.  Lindsey Graham--a possible assistant king maker though not a potential candidate for president himself--touted that report as grounds to reopen the congressional inquiry into security in Benghazi, even though nothing new was added by the CBS news program except what now appears to have been the fictions purported by the program's supposed star witness.  Thus, the political and journalistic acumens of both Graham and the reporter respectively have been impugned, perhaps beyond redemption.  And the commonality of the experience of most Americans with new websites, along with the likelihood that all of the problems with the healthcare website will be forgotten by the forty-some million people who will have health insurance for the first time by next November's election, will shed a jaundicing light on the Republicans who think they have jumped onto a juggernaut by complaining about it.  But while Christie complains about it too, he has accepted the notion that a good idea is just that, even if it is a liberal idea.  New Jersey, the state of which Christie is the newly re-elected governor, has accepted the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thus putting Christie on a safe ideological island on which he takes the good and leaves what he claims is the bad.  By doing so, he projects non-partisanship, not bi-partisanship; the difference is that one is obviously well-motivated and the other is merely a forbearance of the corruption of the democratic ideal that all are supposed to serve once in office rather than a virtue in itself.

Christie's counsel to President Obama--admit your failures and mistakes with regard to Obamacare--was sage in this era of incessant political fault-finding.  It immediately disarmed The President's critics, but it didn't do anything for Mr. Obama's image.  But Christie isn't like his Republican colleagues in that while he says that the Affordable Care Act is something too big for government to do, he never says that it can't ever work, nor does he excoriate the Democrats for The Act's failures.  That is a position that most voters, conservative or liberal, can accept as noble whether they agree or not, and that is the key to the next presidential election.  The people of this country want someone who is on their side, not someone who is on the side of his party or his philosophical camp.  Take what's good and leave the rest behind; that's the motto that will win votes, and that is Christie's motto.  Whether you agree with his assessments of what to keep and what to jettison, you sense when you listen to him that he is intellectually honest and genuinely dedicated to enhancing the common weal.  After all, no one agrees with everything any candidate says, so why not choose the devil you believe you know rather than the one who's hiding behind slogans and demagoguery.  Maybe the next election will have this theme: no more surprises.  Christie might do well if such is the case.  What you see in him is what you get.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
Ronald Reagan's casket, on a horse-drawn caiss...

Ronald Reagan's casket, on a horse-drawn caisson, being pulled down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The current election cycle has turned on one issue: the ACA (the Affordable Care Act).  In fact, the obsession with "Obamacare" is so complete that one never hears the reasons for it anymore.  Initially, there were arguments about big government and states' rights, but those philosophical bases for objection to the law have withered and died as fodder for the discourse on the issue of universal health insurance.  People favor or oppose Obamacare based on party affiliation, and perhaps something a little less venerable...or maybe even despicable: dislike of the eponymous president.  But that issue is about to get resolved in the form of success or failure of the law because votes will be either won or lost based on how well the ACA does what it was created for, and there is nothing that Republicans or Democrats can do about it.  As a flash point, universal health insurance is a thing of the past when it comes to electoral politics.  There will still be some gum flapping, but it will not capture public attention, and in the end, it will still be just more hot air.  But every election has a theme, and while the next one--the mid-terms in 2014--may still be liberally laced with talk about Obamacare, it will also portend the central theme of the election after that...the next presidential election in 2016.  In that election, the issue will be the growing gap not just between the rich and the poor, but between the rich and all of the rest of us.  The next election will be about reversing what will then be the thirty-five year old trend that is the true legacy of the conservatives' patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

What supply-side economics has done to us is profound.  Our economy has become the engine of a kind of social Darwinism that pervades everything we do as a nation.  The Calvinistic preoccupation with the question of who deserves what is the real product of Reagan-omics.  We are a nation that is driven by wealth rather than social awareness today, and the consequence is that we are a far less worthy people.  We have become a modern feudal system in which plutocrats have taken the place of aristocrats, but just as surely dole out the product of our labors as they see fit regardless of merit.  The next election will be about accretion of large caches of money by people other than those who do the work in our country.  It will be about a financial system that used to be the medium through which business was done, but is now a business unto itself, serving no purpose except to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few by siphoning it off the process of finance, which was intended to facilitate commerce rather than to take its place as a means of generating prosperity.  The United States today is a small tail wagging an enormous dog, and with every year that passes...every year in which the working people of our country make no economic progress in relative terms while the corporate oligarchy gets ever richer and moves ever more wealth out of our country never to be seen again...the electorate becomes more aware of the fact that something is wrong.

The specific topics will be things like the Dodd-Frank Act, which is a pale imitation of Glass-Steagall, but just as the ACA is better than nothing though it is not as good as a single-payer system, Dodd-Frank will have to do for now.  It provides for consumer protection from predatory lending and if it is ever fully implemented will prevent financiers from making money gambling on things like derivatives based on mortgages and oil futures.  In the presidential debate to come, the issue will be framed that directly and simply, as the liberal candidate demands of the conservative that he justify his opposition to Dodd-Frank in support of the privileged few who, in the final analysis, never did anything for any of us.  The issue of taxes will once again be on the agenda, and higher taxes on the top 1% in particular will be demanded by the liberal establishment and the Democratic Party, leaving the conservatives and the Republicans that 1% to support them...that 1% and their money.  There will be subterfuge as they try to vilify what Mitt Romney called the 47%, but the 47% vote and that is likely to be a losing strategy...again.  There will be moral diversions like abortion and gay rights, but again, the majority does not subscribe to the views of the basic conservative constituency.  Trying to tell the majority that they are sinners is another losing strategy, and in the end, it is just a diversion anyway.  The political battle will be joined by two enormous forces: those of the privileged and those of the working people of the United States.  The election in 2016 won't be won on party affiliation.  It will be won on the next president's fealty to the kind of Americans who waged a revolution so that they could be independent in thought and religion and egalitarian in their politics.  And oddly enough, that is probably what will make the next election close.  The Republicans will nominate someone who they think can win...probably someone like Chris Christy, or even Rand Paul.  And the Democrats?  Well, the only bet in town is Hillary Clinton, who is probably the richest of the three.  Still, the people who go to work every day will see something in each of them; in Christy's "everyman," candid style; in Paul's restrained libertarianism, misguided as it often is when he says things like the government is overreaching when it bans incandescent, low efficiency light bulbs because that he should have the right to use whatever light bulbs he wants, even though we are struggling to produce enough electricity to keep insufficiency of energy availability from bringing us to our knees.  And Clinton will not look like the new-era patrician that she and her husband have become because she is liberal in her politics...and at her core, which entails a kind of populism that has resonated with the American people at least since FDR.   The race will be close, but the winner will be the one who can convince the American people that he or she will do something about the rich...who are eating us all.  And in the final analysis, who could ask for anything more.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

English: President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As conservative Republicans scramble for means by which to diminish the lead of the Democratic Party in political polls, they tend to return to the issues that require nothing of them but that they can use to criticize their opposition.  Lyndsey Graham demonstrated the principle last week when he attempted to revitalized the moribund effort to discredit Hillary Clinton--and make no mistake about whom they were targeting--with the Benghazi attack.  Relying on a pulpy 60 Minutes piece purportedly revealing something scandalous when in reality it just repeated what everyone already knew, adding at the end only the sensationalistic, but otherwise insignificant fact that no one has cleaned up the rubble left behind from the attack, Graham tried to revitalize the claim that the Obama administration was preventing witnesses from testifying when the only two witnesses presented by CBS were the author of a book and one who had already been before Darryl Issa's committee.  With that strategy in mind, when the new federal healthcare web site started out with a whimper and not a bang, the Republicans all jumped on what they thought would be a juggernaut, banging away at the dubious point that the failure of technology that could have, and has, happened to all kinds of efforts to use the world-wide-web in an effort to communicate with the public, was a manifestation of the essential deficiency of the law.  But like all the other attempts to hang an albatross around the collective Democrat neck, this one is failing to capture the public's imagination as improvements are being made and more are to come...purportedly enough to render the web site fully operational by the end of November.  The public may have been less than impressed by the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) debut, but interest in enrolling in insurance plans under the law seems to be booming, and in two weeks, the Obama administration will announce the figures on just how many people are availing themselves of the opportunity--in some cases the first they have ever experienced--to provide for their own healthcare with affordable insurance.  Those figures may well put the lie to the notion that Americans abhor the ACA, and the word "Obamacare" may become a badge of honor that Republicans wish they could wear on their lapels instead of those tiny little American flags that they think are somehow large enough to hide their essential political bent toward self-service, even at the expense of the American people, behind.

Still, a troubling issue has emerged from the inception of the ACA's enrollment period in the form of cancellations of extant insurance for a very few, concomitant with offers from the same insurers of new plans that are more expensive and have higher deductibles.  If it turns out to be a wide-spread problem, it will be significant, but before it can be wide-spread, it has to be real.  There was an article on the subject in the New York Times last week that makes that point, albeit perhaps without the intention to do so.  The article cited three anecdotal instances of this phenomenon in which the "victims," so to speak, had their insurance policies cancelled by their insurers and were offered instead plans that were different and far less advantageous.  Of the three, one found a better plan on the ACA website.  Another found a better plan through another insurer.  Only the third did not experience an improvement in her insurance situation, and the article suggested that she really hadn't tried.  And in all three cases, the insurance that they were starting off with entailed high premiums and high deductibles as well, so in two of the three cases the outcome was an improvement over, or at least the equivalent of, what they had lost.  In addition, they were all privately insured rather than through their employers, which puts them in the minority in this country, though some people are also reporting that their employers are discontinuing the coverage they have been providing and referring their employees to the ACA website for replacement coverage.  Of course in those cases, the ACA is just an excuse that such employers use; they could have done the same thing without there being an ACA website for their employees to turn to, so the passage of the ACA actually works for those people rather than being a cause of distress.  That is the real problem with reports like that in The Times.  Anecdotes make the point that the person relating them wants to make, but they don't necessarily reflect general reality, much less the nuances and subtleties that should truly be taken into account when formulating a response to the situation in issue.

So, here we are with the ACA finally becoming a reality, and we don't know whether it is working or not.  The data needed for an inductive assessment won't be available for some time, the information to be released in two weeks or so being just the beginning of what will be needed to determine whether the ACA will work for Americans rather than against them.  But one thing is certain: the efficacy of the ACA in addressing a problem that American political leaders have been trying to address since Teddy Roosevelt will be the subject of debate, but there will be millions of Americans who won't die because they can now go to the doctor instead of sitting on lethal health problems because they can't afford to deal with them.  That also means millions of people producing and consuming, which has the effect of expanding our economy.  It means millions fewer funerals and commensurately less suffering by the infirm and their families.  It means medical prevention of much of that suffering because the ACA requires preventive care in every health insurance policy, and I predict that by the 2014 elections, the vast majority of the American people will have noticed those benefits from the law...and one other thing as well.  Through all of the Republican histrionics and the political maelstrom they created with their carefully orchestrated opposition to the ACA and their concerted, assiduous efforts to enlist the support of the American electorate in their criticism of the law, the one thing that has been absent is a Republican alternative.  Actually, that isn't exactly true; the ACA was the Republican alternative when the Democrats tried to do what should have been done...what every other industrialized nation in the world has done: create a single payer, public healthcare system.  And obfuscation of that fact with plaints about the technical quality of a website won't cover that up come election time no matter how many little American flag pins they wear.

Your friend,

Mike

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Dear America,
The -foot ( m) diameter granite CIA seal in th...

The -foot ( m) diameter granite CIA seal in the lobby of the original headquarters building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I heard something interesting on the news the other day.  We all know that the appropriations process in Washington, D.C. doesn't work very well these days, but what I didn't know is that congress is supposed to pass a dozen appropriations bills every year, and they haven't done that for the past four years.  The reason apparently is that since the Republicans made a big show of superficial integrity by banning "earmarks" from those appropriations bills, and from all other legislation as well as I recall, so that now, without inducements in the form of earmarks, they can't pass appropriations at all.  In other words, without a bribe, you can't get anything done in this Republican congress.  Sounds a little "third world" doesn't it.  Mind you, the idea that there should be pet projects attached to every spending bill, much less to other bills about unrelated subjects, seems corrupt and contrary to the concept of modern democracy--that "what's in it for me" attitude doesn't feel like a good policy making tool in the government of a country that prides itself on egalitarianism and following the straight and narrow path--so I applaud the Republicans for their effort.  But unless the party members...and Democrats as well...accept the "no earmarks" policy in terms of political morality, if political morality isn't an oxymoron, passing the policy was a Pyrrhic victory at best.  But that isn't the first instance of our congress taking policy steps that do not redound to the efficacy of the institution in the end.

For example, recently the Republicans were holding up so many presidential nominations for leadership positions in the executive branch that the Democrats in control of The Senate, which has to advise and consent on those nominations, threatened to change the rules of the filibuster.  The filibuster is the means by which senators "block" nominations.  In essence, they threaten to talk those nominations to death if they are ever brought up for a vote, so they aren't.  The threat is called the "nuclear option."  But rather than give up the filibuster for all purposes, the Republicans agreed--it was a gentlemen's agreement mind you, nothing formal--that the filibuster would be used to block appointments only in the most dire circumstances and for the most compelling of reasons.  But on Wednesday, Senator Lyndsey Graham put blocks on three nominations, one of them the proposed new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellin, whose intended position needs filling if any position does.  Obviously, a gentlemen's agreement requires that gentlemen enter into it, and while Graham is a Republican, he is what passes for one: a moderate (by Republican standards), and I always thought somewhat bipartisan, but it appears that I was wrong.  His purported reason is that he watched a feature on 60 Minutes last Sunday in which CBS reported that witnesses had seen evidence of Al Qaeda activity in Benghazi over the course of the three months before our diplomatic mission there was overwhelmed and four members of the diplomatic corps were murdered in their compound and at the CIA annex nearby.  Mind you, the primary focus of the report was a man who appears to have been a British mercenary hired by the State Department to run the security at the facility, and another who has already testified before Darryl Issa's committee in The House, Greg Hicks.  CBS's reporter characterized these two as heroes, but Hicks at least was the object of some scornful characterizations by fellow members of the diplomatic corps when he testified.  And the British military consultant is hawking a book he has written on the subject.  CBS said he was using a pseudonym because he feared for his life, but he appeared undisguised and gave enough history about himself that anyone who wanted to discover his identity could probably do so with a few phone calls.  There was plenty of melodrama in the report, but nothing new.  The issue raised by CBS seems to have been the same one raised by the Republicans from the outset.  Intelligence officers suspected that Al Qaeda's presence in Libya was growing and that an attack on U.S. personnel and facilities was imminent, but the Obama administration seems not to have known it, and wasn't aware of it even a week after the attack.

It may be that the performance of the people in our diplomatic corps who make decisions about security levels missed something they should have known, but it was no surprise to anyone that Libya was in turmoil and that Al Qaeda was there.  And as reported during the original Issa hearings, there had been cuts in funding for the State Department, and security is one of the areas that suffered.  But as CBS reported, it isn't the case that there was no one there to defend U.S. diplomats.  The CIA had a compound about a mile from the diplomatic mission, and during the riots in Benghazi, several CIA staff members were able to fight their way over to the diplomatic compound and to bring some American staff back to the CIA compound, which was also attacked.  Still, in the final analysis, there wasn't enough of a military garrison on the premises of the diplomatic compound--what was there was composed of armed Libyans the State Department had hired and unarmed Americans led by the British consultant who starred in the report--were obviously inadequate.  All of that is on the record.  What else is there to know?

What this is really about is that the Republicans aren't doing too well in the polls.  They are looking for something that will attract public attention with which to tar the Democrats, and the executive branch in particular...Hillary Clinton if possible.  After all, she is the presumptive Democratic candidate for president in 2016, and if the Republicans are in the ill repute then that they are burdened with now, the election will be a walk over for her.  That's what this is all about, as are the hearings about the website for Obamacare.  Republican tactics never change.  They will use the filibuster, calumny, hyperbolic assertions and outright misrepresentations if they must in order to get elected, and all this smoke emerging from their numbers is not a sign of fire.  It's a sign of political pragmatism in the worst sense.  George W. Bush's foreign policy was a disaster, so they want to mar the reputation of President Obama's.  They have no plan to enhance the healthcare of the 50 million or so uninsured Americans, so they seek to discredit the Affordable Care Act, which admittedly has its problems, but come the elections in 2014, it may well be the success for the vast majority of the uninsured that President Obama hopes it will be, and they know it.  That's why they'll pick every nit they can between now and then.  It's the Republican way.  As for Graham and his blocks on nominees, I hope he keeps it up.  The best thing that could happen in American politics would be the abolition of the filibuster, and with that being threatened, it will be interesting to see whether the Republican Party takes Graham's side...or leaves him to fend for himself like those diplomats in Benghazi.

Your friend,

Mike

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