Tuesday, June 20, 2017

To my dear readers, I'm slowly moving to Steemit

I know I haven't been posting much lately. I'm a father and I have one kid who likes to stay up late to read books and play chess. I have another that wakes up at the crack of dawn to find me in the basement, writing. I'm a father and being a father comes first, before this blog and before anything else. When they're awake and I'm not at my day job, I'm a dad first.

So I haven't had much time to read, to research articles and to write them. I've been looking for inspiration to write about and I can find it, but it's tempered by at least one little kid who wants to be with Daddy. Day and night. 

Now there is the realization that I'm obsolete and that everything I do everyday is so that they can have a better life than I have had. Fathers Day just passed. I spent the day working at my job with a rotating shift. No one, other than my Mom, sent me any kind of message wishing me a nice day.

While I do find time for subjects of interest, beyond my fascinating kids, writing is it. I write to live and I do what I can to make sure I find time to write ten things I'm grateful for every day. I write a morning page everyday (from The Artists Way) and often, ideas for my articles spring for there. I write more than a million characters to that morning page every year. I've been writing a morning page since 2008. That means I now have more than 9 million characters just for that alone.

I've learned a few things about promotion on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. I'm still not very good at it, and for awhile there, I got 78k pageviews in one month. It was nice, but it wasn't very profitable. My wife would surely like to see me make good money at it. But I still have a day job and am looking for a way to transition from that to being a well paid freelance writer. I have a feeling my days are numbered in IT just because of institutional age discrimination. I guess you could say that I'm an old fart in the realm of IT.

I'm a stickler for details, I probably don't do as much volume as they would like me to do. I like to document everything so that I can say, "I did that" when the procedure calls for me to do it. But I'm dedicated and I do find some enjoyment in my day job. I get to work with command line *NIX. I get to run that command line logic I've come to love in *NIX. I'm perpetually fascinated with the way the command relates to the output.

And so it is that I write. I love watching the thoughts come to the fore, and the characters flow onto the screen. I love engineering a sentence just so. To make it say exactly what I want it to say. I love making a point. I love spreading the ideals of peace that are so dear to me now.

For now I have come to a place where peace to me is the understanding that we are all doing the best we can. That personal criticism is to be left for those who are more qualified. I'm learning to discern that in politics, I criticize the idea, not the person. I want ideas that work for everyone, or at least, most of us, rather than a minority interest.

I have come to a place where I know that punishment teaches no skills. I've seen it all the time in social media. People bashing each other, saying hurtful things and thinking that somehow, that is "going to teach them a lesson". All that name calling really does is belie the strength of one's position in a debate. The words that people write are a window to their mind their thoughts. When I see someone trashing another, I see how that person might talk to himself.

When I see one person call another a really nasty pejorative, I think, "Oh, is that how you talk to yourself?" I see someone lost in the world of reward and punishment. The idea is that if we want to reinforce good behavior, we reward it. If we went less bad behavior, we punish it. The problem with this is that humans are far more complex than that.

Humans will take action that they believe to right, without regard to reward or punishment. They will work towards a goal that they have in mind without reward. They will give of themselves without regard to themselves, in order to make someone else better, or give them a better life. The same line of reasoning and experience shows that people will continue behaving badly no matter how awful the punishment may be. Perhaps that is because people who are punished for challenging behavior do not have compassion for themselves, and therefore believe that they "deserve" to be punished.

Regardless of reward and punishment, behavior will not improve unless the skills required to net the reward or curb the unwanted behavior are taught. This is what matters to me, more than anything right now. I've been thinking and writing and researching this for more than a year now, and I just don't see any other way that it could be. If humans want world peace, then teaching the skills to achieve that peace should be paramount.

So let me tell you why I will be slowly moving to Steemit. Steemit is the first social media and blogging site I've seen that takes social media and blogging activity and turns it into cash. Steemit converts every like, every comment, every story, into digital currency called Steem Dollars and Steem Power. Both of these can eventually converted into real money that we use every day to buy things. Steem Dollars are similar to Bitcoin and Ethereum. They are alternative mediums of exchange that are governed by the laws of mathematics, not men.

I have never put a single cent into Steemit. But I have grown my account from nothing to about $140 depending on exchange rates, and that is not with a great deal of effort. That is far more than I have earned with Google. I have squat to show for Twitter and Facebook. There are other sites like Steemit, but for now, I'm going to be there.

Going forward, when I write a new article, I will write it on Steemit and promote it on Google+, Twitter and Facebook. My blog will still be here and I'll post from there on a periodic basis to keep it alive and prevent it from being deleted. But my most current writing will be on Steemit.

Some of you may be asking, "Wait. What about Patreon?" Patreon is nice, but it just seems too complicated for me. I rather like the idea of converting social media action into digital currency that can later be used to buy things. It seems like a natural evolution of social media.

You can find my blog on Steemit here:

https://steemit.com/@digitalfirehose

You'll find familiar articles there as I've been copying those that I like the most there when I don't have the time to write. There are some that I will always treasure and they will find a new home there. The reason for this is that all Steemit activity is recorded to a blockchain, making it pretty close to permanent. Blockchain is an encrypted, distributed database for recording and verifying transactions. That distributed part means that there is no single point of failure. That's what makes Steemit so appealing to me.

I'll still be around, debating, posting, and commenting, but over time, I will be shifting my efforts to Steemit. I hope to see you there, too.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Skills, punishment and reward, and the war on drugs

After I wrote my last article, Skills, punishment and reward in the context of American politics, I heard a voice in my head talking about the drug war. I could just hear Nixon's voice talking about what he'd like to do to the hippies and the African Americans of the counter culture revolution. And I thought of my own kids and how they should be able to live in a world free of drug violence. My family and I live a life of relative peace and I intend to teach my kids how to do the same as adults.

So I recalled this meme. It was about John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser. There was a cool quote on the meme, so I looked for the meme but didn't want to spend an hour poring over hundreds of images to find the right one for this article. So I did some more digging and found this article, "Legalize it All", by Dan Baum, in Harper's Magazine and the quote used by so many meme artists:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Baum also dug up a priceless quote by H.L. Menken which is well worth repeating here because it is worth a laugh: "Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." The drug war was a lie and still is. God forbid that someone should be happy without God, or even on their own motive force.

Decades ago, I read a story about Pete Townsend, a singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band, The Who, in OMNI Magazine. Back then, Townsend was drinking a fifth of cognac a day and shooting heroin and he wanted to stop. Then someone contacted him about a potential solution, "a little black box". Townsend received treatments that involved attaching small electrodes to the skin on his head and passing a small current across his brain. The idea was that the current was at a certain wavelength and amplitude that would induce his brain to release the endorphins that were replaced by the heroin and the booze. After some weeks of treatment, Townsend was unhooked and happier. It was then and there that I realized that my brain is a 2.5 million year old pharmacy.

The Townsend story was well documented and isn't it interesting that the little black box never came into popular use as a drug addiction treatment? Maybe that's because at least one science fiction writer I used to read figured out that the same black box that could get you unhooked from drugs could be the drug. We wouldn't want people figuring out that they could use tiny amounts of current to induce their brains to get high, either. But I digress...

What I find so interesting in the drug war is that the entire effort is based on punishment as a deterrent. Why provide an alternative solution that people can use when a punishment will provide all the motivation anyone will ever need to stay off drugs? Because that would require teaching the skills needed to stay off drugs. Skills?

Happiness is not a destination or even a state of mind. It is a skill. You can experience joy to be sure, and you can do it without God or drugs. In fact, the pleasure people feel on God or drugs depends on the capacity of the brain to produce the endorphins required to generate the perception of pleasure. But it takes skill to get to that place, to establish the context to know you're experiencing pleasure.

It takes skill to go to a church and sing until you're crying with joy just as much as it takes skill to know where to buy the smack, heat it up on a spoon and inject it. Both of them require knowledge, and repetitive experience with anticipation of the reward. But neither can fill empty arms if you lack interpersonal skills to really get to know someone else, or to be of service to someone else.

If you're familiar with the history of the drug war, ask yourself, why those god-fearing people felt it incumbent upon them to punish others for not falling in line and being good citizens? Where does a god-fearing man get the idea that his hands are the right hands to punish other people for their sins? Didn't their conception of god say that, "Vengeance is mine", not a task for mere mortals? Who knew that there are natural consequences to our actions?

As I was writing this article in my head the last few days, I could not help but recall the scenes of torture in the movie, 12 Years A Slave. There is one particular scene that I will never forget, where a white man holding a bible and reading scripture while another white man whips an African woman who knows not why she is being punished. Now I look back on that scene and wonder again, why didn't they teach their slaves the skills they needed to achieve the morality they preach?

This to me, is the essence of the war on drugs. If the war on drugs is about morality, then teaching the skills to achieve that morality would come first. But what followed the war on drugs was a war on education. In the 1950's, 60's and 70's, we had some of the finest public primary education in the world. Then Paul Gann came along to limit taxation in a way that changed the face of California. Since then, the State of California has been mired in huge budget deficits and an ailing public education system. It wasn't just California. Conservatives the land over have worked hard to weaken public education to make way for privatization. The path to privatization of a public service is to weaken it so much, that a private solution seems palatable. Just think Betsy DeVos.

What if the alternative to the war on drugs is to teach skills that kids need to get along with others? Those skills include collaboration, critical thinking and discovery. Those kinds of skills help kids to stay off of drugs, because if you know how to collaborate on a solution to a problem, you know how to ask for help. But that's not what the powerful and elite Christian conservatives want. They want the rest of us to seek their version of a punitive god first, you know, for redemption. Their concept of redemption is what they were taught by their parents, so how would they know any better?

With millions of people in prison for drugs, with their lives destroyed, and future generations starting at a disadvantage, we need to rethink our punitive ways. The failure of the drug war is proof that punishment teaches zero skills. Well, it does teach one skill: obedience. Punishment and threats of punishment have another element that few parents seem to understand: punishment wipes out critical thinking skills.

I know this from my own experience. A young mind juiced up on adrenaline from punishment is not able to think critically about what went wrong, how to ask for help (a parent bent on punishment is not interested in helping their kid, let alone collaborating with him), and is incapable of talking about how to avoid the problem next time the same situation comes up.

One last thing about the whole punishment and reward mentality. If you're a fan of Pavlov, you know that punishment and reward make animals more susceptible to suggestion. The skill missing here is discernment, discernment of the natural consequences to an action. If you're teaching punishment and reward, then making a young mind open to suggestion is what you're doing. That suggestion could come from anywhere, and usually, that is what we call "peer pressure".

Consider the following situation: For years, a couple had been teaching their kids reward and punishment to get them to do what they want, to behave better. But now those kids have friends. Some of them are drinking or popping pills. And now, those kids are thinking, I better do what they do or my circle of friends will punish me. I may lose my friends.

When we collaborate with our kids to solve the problems in their lives they will surely encounter, we teach them to ask for help. When we punish them for their misbehavior, we teach them not to ask for help. I have kids and I want to see them asking me for my help to solve their problems. I'm not talking about solving the problems they encounter for them. I'm talking about collaborating with them to solve the problems they encounter. Then when they are adolescents, I want them to know that if they have any questions about drugs, they can always come to me for help.

The skill of collaboration isn't just for kids. It's for adults, too. Adults who are using drugs to check out don't know how to collaborate enough to avoid using drugs, for if they did, they wouldn't be using drugs. The joy of collaboration is a joy unmatched by any drug. Collaboration is baked into our genes and is the primary tool that has allowed the human race to survive.

Collaboration is the antidote to the war on drugs. Collaboration is the ultimate morality, for when we collaborate together to solve our problems, we will have peace.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Skills, punishment and reward in the context of American politics

Years ago, shortly after the Iraq War began to settle down somewhat, someone had shared video of a adolescent Iraqi boy. He was caught stealing and the punishment was to slowly roll a truck tire over his arm. Back then I could watch such a video and not flinch, but I knew he was going to lose his forearm as I watched that video. I look back now and ask myself a simple question: did that punishment teach that boy any skills beyond learning how to adapt to life with one hand?

While it is easy for some to claim that Muslims are barbarians, it is a fair stretch to say that Americans are any less barbaric. One look at the way our police state has mercilessly killed kids in our streets should give one pause.

In the context of political discourse in social media, I see debates in which some parties seem unable to restrain their urge to mete out punishment upon those they disagree with. Their punishment is laced with profanity, invective and aspersions. I've seen responses completely bereft of facts in what would otherwise be a straightforward discussion and debate of the facts. I've even felt it within myself, the urge to "punish" someone else in social media, but I've held back, let the feelings pass, and cobbled together a reasoned response instead.

In all my interactions with other people, I strive to avoid the urge to punish, for I have gained awareness of what happened to me and how I was punished myself by my parents. I was punished for not having the skills to meet the standards set by my parents. I am learning, in no uncertain terms, that punishment does not teach skills, and just to be clear to those who are fans of Pavlov, reward doesn't teach any skills either.

Every animal has a primary instinct to preserve oneself. Every animal has a primary cause and that is to stay alive. Animals, humans included, stay alive by meeting their needs. therefore, every animal action can be traced to a primary cause: meeting needs required to stay alive. Readers familiar with my work here on this blog already know that that I'm a fan of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, here's a sample below:

A basic guaranteed income in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Prison reform in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The conflict between good and evil in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

In the intervening months and weeks since I wrote those articles, I've been slowly refining this concept to reduce it to the simplest explanation for all human suffering when it is caused by human beings, and sometimes when its just mother nature. In every case, it boils down to the same statement: Humans suffer when they lack the capacity to respond adaptively to their environment. 

No longer do I make the assumption that evil exists for the sake of evil. No longer do I assume that the 7 deadly sins exist just because. The root cause in all actions by human beings is to satisfy an existential need. Whether or not we can satisfy that need without hurting others depends on the skills we possess.

For example, I'm watching House of Cards, quite possibly some of the best political drama I've ever seen on any screen. While it would be easy to say that Francis and Claire Underwood are evil and without conscience, we still don't know why they are evil. Yes, Mr. Underwood is consumed with a thirst for power, leverage and control, but after 5 seasons, we still don't know why he's like that. The writing in this show is so good that I forget what I'm thinking about with human needs most of the time. I don't know what is going to happen next and that's why I continue to watch. Even now, there is a part of me that wants to see how the Underwoods will slip away, unscathed, if they do.

When I started writing about this business of good and evil, I had come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as good and evil. Good and evil are supernatural explanations for cooperative and challenging behavior in human beings. There is a continuum of people. On one end there are the confused - those we might call "evil" and the less confused - those we might call "good". All of us are seeking to meet existential needs.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I've watched social media and I can tell you, the catharsis is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. On and on, the memes (pictures with captions) just get more and more insulting to Donald Trump and others within his power circle. I get the catharsis, I really do, but I fail to see how those memes will influence the policy debate in a positive fashion, particularly for progressives seeking a meaningful discussion with those in power now. I can assure you that criticism doesn't teach any skills. I know. I've tried it from both ends and it doesn't work.

When I see Donald Trump announce that "we're going to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate" for "a better deal", I see a man who has not articulated the need for a better deal. Who will get a better deal? America? Against 194 countries who have already signed and will go forward without us? I see a man who told us that with Obamacare we must come up with a better plan before replacing Obamacare, but has no compunction to pull us out of an agreement on climate without offering a better plan, first.

When I saw the news reports of Donald Trump bragging about groping women, I see a man who has everything he wants and still wants more. At the time that he bragged about groping those women, he was already fabulously wealthy, yet he is still not satisfied with who he is as a person, so he must degrade someone else. And somehow he still managed to get elected.

When I see how Donald Trump fired James Comey and expressed dissatisfaction with Jeff Sessions, I see him bringing his Apprentice character to the White House. I see him bringing all the drama that he loves to the White House. And I wonder, what need is he trying to serve?

I offer these examples not as criticism of Donald Trump. I offer these examples to show that even with fabulous wealth and power, it requires a certain amount of skill to appreciate that wealth and be satisfied with it, to know when enough is enough. In America, we are being trained to idolize the wealthy, as if somehow they need it. I suspect that some of the wealthy need fans, for our media would not idolize wealth unless the wealthy media owners wanted that to happen.

What I see is that money, power, beauty, or whatever, are very poor substitutes for interpersonal skills. If you lose that power, you're going to need to find a way to get along with others who watched you abuse it. If you lose that money, you're going to need to negotiate for your next meal. If you lose that beauty, then you will need to hone up on your conversation skills.

The primary human skill, the one that made humans one of the most successful mammals on the planet is cooperation. Set aside for a moment the enormous ecological damage we have done to the planet, for it's a safe bet that natural selection does not favor animals that degrade the environment they live in, and walk with me down this path. A path to world peace and survival of those who know how to cooperate.

Cooperation is baked into our genes. We know this because we have language. Language provides the most efficient means of communication between animals of the same species. Language allows humans to cooperate for their mutual safety, and allowed culture to follow, to blossom.

When we cooperate, we use language to collaborate, to share ideas, to help each other. A basic human instinct is to help others, even if there is no apparent and immediate reward. Somewhere at the base of our brains, we know that the person we help now might save our skins later, but we don't know for sure, so we work together. This is one reason I make a point never to burn bridges, to always leave the door of communication open. I can't help it if the other person does it, but I will always remain open to talking again.

I have had the time to think through revenge and punishment and have learned that revenge is never sweet, so I avoid situations where that might even come into play. I err on the side of peace every day. I have thought through punishment and have figured out that punishment, like reward, doesn't teach any skills. The only skill that punishment and reward teach is obedience. And as Don Henley famously said in his song, The Heart Of The Matter, "pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms". No amount of achievement can replace interpersonal skills, or to put it differently, love.

Donald Trump represents to me, the ultimate American schism, that we can reward ourselves out of misery, that we can punish others with impunity for our own personal relief and gratification. I say this without disrespect to Mr. Trump, for he is only doing what he has learned to do. I am forever an optimist. I believe that if Mr. Trump, and every other human could, they would do better. Everyone wants to do well, to do better than before. 

All of what you see here has been extrapolated after reading many books on suffering, recovery and relationships. I have looked long and hard to make sense of human suffering, for I too, have suffered and wanted relief. I believe that we can put humanity on the path to world peace by teaching our kids the skills they need to live in peace. These skills are learned, not bought. They are taught through innumerable acts of collaboration with our kids, and everyone we come into contact with everyday.

We can have peace by raising human beings.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Trump is the pied piper for the GOP on the debate over health care

Remember how the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign elevated Trump and a few other candidates as "pied piper" candidates? Politico documented their effort in great detail here, quoting a campaign memo:
“The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right. In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party,” read the memo.
“Pied Piper candidates include, but aren’t limited to:
• Ted Cruz
• Donald Trump
• Ben Carson
"We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously."
Who remembers the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin? I happened upon the Pied Piper story a few months ago while reading bedtime stories to my kids. As you will see below, that story kind of stuck in my head and it took me some time to put two and two together.

The story goes that a town was infested with rodents (just think elite GOP for this article) everywhere and no one knew how to get rid of them. Then one day a man with a pipe showed up and offered to remove the rats for a certain fee. The town council, in their excitement at the prospect, offered 1000 gold pieces even though they did not have it.

The pied piper played his music and walked. The rodents followed him as he played. Then he stopped at the side of a river where the mesmerized rodents made a turn into the river where they all promptly drowned.

Could Trump be that kind of man for the GOP? I think so. Consider that for the duration of their quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare, members of the GOP have returned home to conduct town halls only to face angry, hostile and frightened constituents. Most of that anxiety stems from uncertainty about health care, and more specifically, Obamacare.

The GOP has been having a hell of a time trying to figure out how to repeal it with very little luck behind them and ahead of them. Trump has told all of us that unwinding Obamacare is incredibly complex. From the New York Times:
President Trump, meeting with the nation’s governors, conceded Monday that he had not been aware of the complexities of health care policy-making: “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
This is an open admission that repealing Obamacare is going to take a lot more time and effort than Trump anticipated. It gets better from here. Governors from around the country want to avoid losing coverage for the people that have already found it under Obamacare, further adding to the complexity. Even Ohio Governor John Kasich has little enthusiasm for the repeal effort. They know that if they lose coverage, they lose votes.

And then Trump said that Congress must deal with Obamacare first before they can go after tax reform. From the same NYT article cited above:
Because of the intricate procedures that govern budget legislation and the inherent complexity of health care, Republicans appear unlikely to undo the health law as quickly as they had hoped. Mr. Trump said Congress must tackle the Affordable Care Act before it can overhaul the tax code, also a high priority for Republicans. And those delays could slow work on other priorities like a trillion-dollar infrastructure push.
Trump has been creating a legislative logjam for enthusiastic Republicans in Congress who can't wait to "do the people's business". To get to what they really want to do though, they're going to have to repeal and replace Obamacare without losing any coverage for the people who have it (though lately, Trump appears to waiver on letting people lose coverage). Trump is clear that he also wants to shift spending priorities to the military, also from The New York Times:
President Trump put both political parties on notice Monday that he intends to slash spending on many of the federal government’s most politically sensitive programs — relating to education, the environment, science and poverty — to protect the economic security of retirees and to shift billions more to the armed forces.
This will further restrict the ability of the GOP to grow the economy. What Trump is pursuing for cuts are peanuts compared to the military and social safety net programs, which are funded by their own distinct taxes. An obscure economist who goes by the name of "Dean Baker" provided some interesting analysis of the same NYT article including this nice tidbit:
The claim that Paul Ryan is concerned that these programs would "swallow the bulk of government spending" directly contradicts everything Paul Ryan has been explicitly advocating for years. Ryan has repeatedly put forward budgets that would reduce the size of the federal government to zero outside of the military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (See Table 2 in the Congressional Budget Office's analysis.) It is difficult to understand how a major newspaper can so completely misrepresent a strongly and repeatedly stated view of one of the country's most important political figures.
So Ryan wants to reduce the federal government to nothing but the military and and the most popular social programs? What a surprise. So do many other Republicans. Suppose Trump let's them have their way? I can just imagine the blowback from Main Street America on the spending cuts alone. And the really odd thing is this: no amount of tax cuts are going to grow the economy. We've tried it. During the last decade, taxes were at their lowest ebb in modern history and we still got the Great Recession.

Trump seems to be dramatizing his role as president. Whatever he does, it's going to be extreme or make him appear stupid or incompetent, or to contradict himself. Whether it be cuts to social programs, or how he conducts himself with other leaders, I see the liberal press painting Trump as a buffoon. Here is a short list of recent fumbles on the part of Trump that have been offered by the press to confirm their narrative:
He touched an orb in Saudi Arabia [Trump criticized Obama for the same thing], met the Pope and became a meme, got snubbed by Macron and pushed aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
...
The other six world leaders managed to play nicely posing for a group photo in front of their respective flags after a brief walk.
Trump was late - because he couldn't manage to walk 700 yards (that's about a third of a mile or 640 metres) to take the photo.
From foreign policy fumbles to domestic gaffes, Trump is proving to be one of the most unpopular presidents of modern times, and now its starting to show in the polls. The debate over health care has been a major case in point. Millions of Americans across the political spectrum are filled with anxiety to the point of agitation, and they are now starting to mobilize for single payer health care, according to In These Times:
In early April, a public radio program in the Rust Belt city of Rochester, N.Y., spent an hour discussing healthcare—but not, as you might expect, the GOP’s attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. It focused instead on the brightening prospects for a single-payer healthcare system. The guests included a Trump voter and small-business owner, Tim Schiefen, and the co-chair of the Rochester chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Karen Vitale. What was remarkable was how little they disagreed. 
Asked his opinion of single-payer, Schiefen responded that it was worth exploring. “The problem is putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse,” he said. “Why are we allowing these gross, overspending health insurance companies … to administer this stuff?” 
Increasingly, the single-payer solution is generating that sort of consensus across ideological and party affiliations. In early April, an Economist/ YouGov poll showed that 60 percent of respondents supported a “Medicare for all” system, including 43 percent of people who identified as conservative and 40 percent of Trump voters. 
The energy behind single payer is partly a result of the GOP’s success in pointing out the flaws in Obamacare, then failing to offer a workable alternative. Vitale believes that, in a paradoxical way, it’s also driven by Trump. 
“I think Trump broke open a lot of things,” says Vitale, who grew up in a rural small town an hour south of Rochester. She says that the Trump voters she knows trusted his populist pitch— and “now they’re activated, and they’re acting from a place of self-interest. You can’t put them back in the box.” When Trump breaks campaign promises, she predicts, “They’re going to notice really quickly. They noticed with Trumpcare.” 
Takeaway: In the state of New York, a member of the Democratic Socialists Party of America and a conservative business owner who voted for Trump both agree on single payer health care. And they both agree that Trump has made a promise to enact a replacement for Obamacare that doesn't lose coverage. Both are mindful of this promise and both want a solution that works for everybody. And both will take action if Trump breaks his promise.

Trump may not be able to keep his promise if plaintiffs in a court challenge to Obamacare subsidies prevails. If the plaintiffs prevail, the subsidies will be lost and the costs of individual insurance plans will rise by 19% or more next year. According to CNBC:
A federal district court judge had previously ruled in favor of House Republicans, who in 2014 sued over billions of dollars in payments to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act because they had not been granted via a congressional appropriation. The Obama administration appealed the case, and the Trump administration asked to put the case on hold while it established its position on the matter.
The matter is now in appeals court and while the Obama Administration sought to defend the subsidies, Trump appears to be changing course. Note here that House Republicans sued to have the subsidies declared illegal for lack of a Congressional appropriation. They may be right, but it might cost them dearly in 2018 when people go to the polls to decide if Congress represents their interests.

Even if Obamacare is not repealed, the mobilization of voters will get serious if voters who use Obamacare find their bills went up because of Republican indifference to their cause. There is a high probability that insurance companies will sense the unease and raise prices for everyone else, too. We're already starting to see signs of that mobilization in local races here and there. Progressive Democrats are starting to win in jurisdictions where Trump won. The UK Independent has taken notice of a small race in New York:
In the 9th Assembly District, mere miles from Mr Trump’s birthplace in Queens, New York, Republicans hold a 13-point registration advantage over Democrats. But Ms Pellegrino – who served as a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention – pulled off a striking upset this week, beating her Republican challenger 58 to 42 per cent.
“We worked hard. I don’t know what happened,” her competitor, conservative Tom Gargiulo, said.
How did they do it?
“Bold populism that puts working families’ issues front and center,” Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, said on Tuesday. “This is how we win in Trump country. This is the lesson for Democrats around the country.” 
There is another part to the story of the Pied Piper. After he lured the rats out of town and to their untimely demise, he asked to be paid, as I would expect of Trump. When the piper came calling, the town could not pay, so the piper played again to take the children of the town with him.

This is about to happen to Trump, but probably not in the way that he had planned. Polling analysis by Salon.com shows that Millennials are very unhappy with Trump and they are organizing, too. Millennials perceive Trump as an illegitimate president by a wide margin and they show little if any love for our two party system, so blithely assumed to be a "democracy":
Overall, only 22 percent of young adults approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 62 percent disapprove. GenForward polls further show that across all racial and ethnic groups the majority of millennials disapprove of Trump. With 71 percent of African-Americans and even 55 percent of whites against him. They are overwhelmingly negative on his policies and his demeanor.
Those who study millennials knew that even if Trump pulled out a win in 2016 “his insular appeal to his preponderantly white coalition has exposed the party to a clear long-term risk.” As the Atlantic reported before the 2016 vote, “Win or lose, all evidence suggests Trump is further alienating a Millennial generation that is already cool to the GOP — and is poised to become the electorate’s largest cohort in 2020.”
Trump may have been the Pied Piper for the GOP, but he may also become the Pied Piper for the Millennials who are not happy about their prospects as a result of the "I, Me, Mine" generation that voted for the Reagan Revolution.

Lest Democrats get too happy about their prospects resulting a Trump presidency and a GOP gone wild, they had best prepare for campaigns based on “Bold populism that puts working families’ issues front and center". If Democrats fail to heed the message, they may find themselves facing a progressive insurgency the likes of which they have never seen before, with the largest voting demographic behind it, the Millennials.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A bizarre explanation for the high cost of health care in the land of austerity

The hysteria over Trump's budget has been mounting for weeks. There is nothing in the news but deep, deep cuts to everything except the military. And even then, some say that we're not spending enough on the military - never mind that we spend more than the next 6 to 12 countries combined (depending on the source you choose to read). It may be awful to watch, but the debate has subtext.

Lately, most of the focus has been on the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare) and the American Health Care Act. Most of the press has been given to the Republicans and their surreal opinions on the state of health care. Naked Capitalism has a very good shortlist of some of the untruths Republicans are brazen enough to speak, which you can read about in full detail here. I've reduced it to a short list here for your review so that we can explore then in some detail from a different perspective:

  1. The poor don't want health care and the fact that they have such poor lifestyles proves it.
  2. The people who are healthy pay for the sick.
  3. Men shouldn't have to pay for prenatal care for women.
  4. People who lead good lives do not get sick.
  5. No one dies due to lack of access or coverage.
  6. People who don't take care of themselves don't deserve health care or insurance.
That is a short list of talking points that Republicans have made about the current state of health care. The first thing we should notice, as the Naked Capitalism article notes, is the complete absence of science. There is no scientific or empirical evidence backing up these outrageous claims. They are all judgments on the people who suffer the most from the current crisis of health care.

Since Congress is 91% Christian and 99% of Republicans in Congress are Christian, we can infer that according to some members of Congress, "God is punishing those who are sick, so lets pile on". So sorry for the 1st Amendment. I also note with interest that as far as I know, there has been nothing provided in the budget to teach people the skills they need to stay healthy. Even if they did, people who have the skills to lead a healthy life can still get sick and they can still have accidents. Perhaps they did not see or hear of Carl Sagan with his brainy quote: "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception." I guess that's a bit much for people who believe in an afterlife.


From the faith of some members of Congress, we can also infer that "sick people should not be rewarded, they should be punished". I'm still thinking about the 1st Amendment here. Can we also infer that some in Congress believe that they are "doing God's will"? If so, there needs to be a healthy and public discussion of just what "God's will" is. Who knows what God's will is? I sure don't and I doubt anyone in Congress really knows. Given the immense egos of the people in Congress, it would be easy for them to conflate their own will with God's will.

Somewhere in their Good Book, God said, "Vengeance is mine". That would seem to mean that it's not up to those in Congress to decide who gets to live and who gets to die. I think I'll go with Gandhi, "An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind".

So from what we can see, we have members of Congress constituting a majority, preaching a faith, and being unwilling to use federal funds to teach the skills necessary to "deserve" health care. Are those poor people who are so undeserving of health care really contributing to the high costs of health care? I don't think so. As one member of Congress put it, "the poor will always be with us", and they always have, so the poor can't really be used to explain the high cost of health care.

Our health care costs were in line with the rest of the industrialized world for much of modern history until sometime around the Reagan Administration. Economist Dean Baker has some interesting numbers to share with us, and a nice little chart he got from the OECD:



Notice how American health care costs were fairly close to other industrialized countries for at least 10 years since they started collecting data in 1971. Notice also, how health care costs in the United States diverged in 1981. Hmm. Isn't that around the time of the Reagan Revolution? I think it is.

In Baker's article he had this to say about the costs of health care:
The reason our health care costs have risen so much more rapidly than anywhere else is not Baumol's disease. Health care is a service everywhere, not just in the United States. The difference stems from the fact that doctors, insurers, drug companies, and medical equipment makers are far more capable of controlling the political process in the United States than in these other countries. They use their political power to restrict competition and get government subsidies. As a result, these actors are able to secure massive rents that come out of the pockets of the rest of us.
Rent seeking? Really? Since the poor have always been with us, it can't be them. It must be the changes in public policy made during the Rent Seeking ... I mean, Reagan Revolution. Doesn't it seem odd then, that no Republicans are talking about this development in our history and what we can do to reverse those changes?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The conflict between good and evil in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

For months now, there has been a quiet conversation in my head, a sort of reduction process to understand just where good and evil come from. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I do not believe in good and evil. Good and evil are terms that come from religion, a sort of supernatural explanation for helpful and challenging behavior observed in human beings.

In this context, there are really only two kinds of people. There are those who are confused, people we might call "evil" and those who are less confused, those we might call "good". I use the terms "good" and "evil" here to keep the subject matter simple and easy to understand rather than to justify that behavior with a supernatural explanation.

When I watch pop culture, a movie or a TV series, or read articles in the news, and there is violence in the story, my mind will go to that question, without fail, and ask, "why would anyone do such a horrible thing to another person"?

To put it differently, and a bit more personally, I ask the following question of myself, every day, all the time: does this serve me? Does this action meet my needs?

Good and evil, for the purposes of this article and discussion are really about how we get our needs met. Children will learn to lie if they fear for their lives or physical safety. They are not being evil. They are just confused by caregivers who believe that violence will grant the caregivers the relief they need. Even the caregivers are not being evil when they commit violence against children. Yes, their actions are abhorrent, but those actions are evidence of confusion, not evil. Violence doesn't serve any need other than self-preservation in self-defense, and even that is a matter of controversy.

In almost every example that I choose to look at, transgressions are really about getting needs met, but not knowing how to get those needs met without saying, "please". From a trivial offense, to violence, to corruption on a massive scale, it must be clear to anyone on the outside that negotiation in good faith is not a skill held by the "evildoer".

When I see one man seeking to acquire and exert power and control over another, I have to ask myself what need, exactly, is that person seeking to satisfy? We can explore this a bit with the chart below, a chart of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and take an act which we might define as "evil" and place it in context.


Physiological needs are like air, water, space and are governed by instinct. Safety is the need to preserve oneself from harm and is also governed by instinct. Love and belonging, managed by the higher thinking parts of the brain along with some instinct, are best described as fellowship, friendship, mate or spouse, and family. Esteem is a warm regard and compassion for oneself. And then there is self-actualization, the realization of one's calling and utilization of one's talents in the service of others.

I can take any movie plot and deconstruct it with this line of thinking. I wrote about Star Wars not too long ago and attempted to put the plot in this context. I wondered aloud about the antagonists in the Star Wars movies. When the lead antagonist gives the order to blow up a planet, what need is he seeking to meet? As a leader of a well financed, very well organized military organization, all of his basic needs for food, air, water and space are met. He is safe in his ship, which is armed to the teeth and has no adversaries to fear.

Has our Star Wars antagonist ever experienced love and belonging? Well, that is an open question. In almost every interaction that Darth Vader or Senator Palaptine had with others, there is no question of the power they hold over others. Subordinates know that if they speak out of turn, their throats will be constricted by the use of the Dark Side of The Force, in a possibly fatal encounter.

So, when Darth Vader crushes the throat of his subordinate almost to the point of suffocation, what need is he meeting? It is most certainly not fellowship or anything even remotely close to that of love. Is he meeting his need for personal safety? He's wearing a suit for his own protection, is armed with a laser gun and light saber and can count upon the obedience of everyone else in his army for protection. Side note: the only thing that punishment teaches is obedience, and in that army, obedience is in abundance.

Fellowship exists where intimacy is permitted. You cannot have intimacy between two people when one person exerts and maintains overwhelming power over another. Both parties are scared. The one with the power is afraid that at some point, his subordinate will lose fear of that power. The subordinate fears for his life. You cannot have intimacy with all that fear hanging around. So fellowship and any possibility of true love are lost with an overwhelming imbalance of power. In such a relationship, there is power and obedience, and there is no room for love or even a mutual warm regard.

Where there is a vacuum of esteem, we can expect to find a boatload of power and the willingness to use it against others. To put it differently, if you don't respect yourself, you won't respect others. If you talk with negativity and profanely against others, there is a very high probability that you do the same to yourself, too. Most people who think poorly of themselves, believe that everyone else knows the same thing.

So if you have power, but still don't believe that your need for personal safety has been met, you will continue to seek more power, more security, and you may never find that what you have is enough. An all powerful being who is still mortal, will spend days and even months, planning for every possible contingency to ensure his needs are met and that everyone else is obedient to him. At some point, that person will need a break. He might need to get high so that he can stop all that thinking.

Blowing up a planet would induce the brain to release adrenaline. That would be nothing less than an exciting event for someone who lives on power. That is a gigantic high for someone we might deem to be "evil". But is it self-actualization? Being responsible for the deaths of billions of other living beings is not exactly creative. It will not prove that one is lovable, far from it, even when love is what we really want. At best, it is addiction in the extreme.

Taken in context, I can't think of a single act of evildoing that really meets any human need. At best, evildoing serves as a distraction from the pain that one can be in when the skills to sooth oneself, or to ask for help are lacking. Evildoing is really just challenging behavior, but we use the term "challenging behavior" to describe kids, not adults.

Challenging behavior in kids is modeled by the parents. If the parents yell, the kids yell. If the parents are not flexible in their expectations, then kids will not be, either. If the parents hit, the kids will hit. If the parents lie, the kids will lie. If the parents have a low tolerance for frustration, the kids will, too. Kids look to the parents to know how to act and respond to changes in the environment - they imitate the behavior of the people around them.

Challenging behavior is what kids do when they lack the skills to meet the demands of their environment. In adults, this is what some challenging behavior looks like:


What Mr. Reich observes may be a moral crisis, as he put it, but to me, it's a lack of interpersonal skills. White collar crime is not what we see on the local news. The local news is about violent crime, one person doing something awful to another. The local news is replete with stories about one poor person doing some awful thing to another, and neither person has the skills to get their needs met. These are people with no power to control the news of their unfortunate fate.

A person committing a violent crime is "acting out" because he lacks the skills to meet the demands of his environment. We can call him "evil" but that doesn't really explain why someone would commit an act of violence against another. Once that person is caught, we cast him off to prison as if prison is going to teach him the skills he needs to avoid that situation again. But American prisons are hell on earth by design, they are not places where one learns the skills of civilization. In prison, Americans learn the ways of the jungle.

Let's have a look at the white collar transgressions above:

  • Insider trading
  • CEO pay that is unhinged from productivity
  • Wage theft
  • Bribery
  • Gambling with other people's money
It's almost automatic that when we look at those activities, we think, "evil". I look at those kinds of activities and wonder what needs are met by participating in such activity. With some effort, I can imagine how one might feel doing all that. Here I think of someone like Bernie Madoff, or a hedge fund manager who is caught trading on insider information that everyone else is not privy to.

In every case listed above, there is adrenaline, pure and simple. White collar crime involves adrenaline just as much as violent crime, if not more. Because it often plays out over time, it is a longer, slower high, but it is still mood altering, it is a distraction from reality - how we are feeling, thinking and doing. White collar crime is just a very profitable addiction.

What needs are being met by white collar crime? We're talking about people who have so much money, they're never going to be on the street. They're never going to be poor. Even after paying fines, they can park what remains of their money in a Vanguard 500 fund and live quite comfortably selling a part of the growth at 5% a year on average. Then they can just paint pictures in quiet solitude if they want to. So now we know that the first two rows of the hierarchy of needs are fulfilled. 

What about love and belonging? White collar criminals might not have that anymore once their family figures out what is going on. Or maybe the family is fine with it, but as any soap opera fan knows, it's thin ice. And I can't imagine how anyone could have esteem while committing a white collar crime. Even if the transgression is "legal", like how the CEO of Home Depot still got a pot of cash after being ejected from the company in 2007. He was a taker. How does one find esteem in that?

None of that activity, even if it's legal, comes even remotely close to "self-actualization". How does one feel good about buying a company, loading it up with debt and wiping out the employee pension fund for personal gain? This is what Mitt Romney did, yet millions of people voted for him in a presidential election.

When I think of human suffering in the context of skills, I find compassion for others. When I see people suffering, I see people who lack the skills to respond adaptively to the demands of their environment. When I see grown men and women defending a system that allows white collar transgressions against the people who serve them as employees and how they justify it, I also see people who lack the skills to meet the demands of their environment - without saying please. Money is a terrible substitute for interpersonal skills.

To me, this is the subtext of the circus on display in the White House and in our Congress. Underneath all the drama is the realization that most of those people do not know how to get their needs met without imposing their will upon someone else. Negotiation in good faith is a rare skill to find. Corruption is rampant.

This is why I use compassion first when someone makes a mistake. I avoid assuming that people are motivated to make mistakes. I assume that a mistake arises from a lack of skill, not motivation. When I see people suffering, I see them as lacking the skills to do better, not motivation. And it doesn't matter how much money or power you have. It doesn't matter if you're beautiful, either. If you don't have the skills to appreciate what you have, you will always want more.

No amount of punishment nor reward will teach the skills we need to appreciate what we have or each other. The best tool for teaching the subtle skills of discernment and appreciation is collaboration. When we collaborate, we teach the skill of cooperation, too. And when we collaborate, we begin to discover that The Force is within, not without.

True, some see the situation in American politics as dire, and I would agree. But it took a long time to get here. It may take some time to get out, maybe a generation or two. While we're waiting, we can focus on teaching our kids (and everyone else in our lives) the skills of collaboration, for when we teach them, we teach ourselves, too. It's time for Plan B for Humanity

We must teach skills before punishment. We must teach compassion before punishment. Perhaps then, we can finally find peace as a species, because we're going to need peace in order to collaborate and solve the problems we've created for ourselves.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

To prevent another Trump, open the primary elections in every state at every level

The bile and the acid Clinton Democrats have flung at Sanders supporters has become a river. It is particularly evident on Facebook, especially now, with a class action lawsuit underway against the Dingaling National Committee and Debra Wasserman-Schultz for "tipping the scales" for Clinton. Given the deep and wide Clinton News Network, it is hardly a surprise that there is a virtual blackout on the story. I guess that would explain why the press has turned to the story on Trump and Russia.

Clinton supporters claim that Sanders wasn't a real Democrat, but conveniently omit the fact that he registered as a Democrat to run as a Democrat. He met all the criteria to run for president as a Democrat, and the DNC allowed him to run, but to Clinton supporters, he's not a real Democrat. He's caucused with Democrats in the Senate and in the House and voted with Democrats in both houses, but he's still not a real Democrat. Sanders wasn't just running for president, he was ringing a bell. Did any of you Clinton supporters hear it?

Clinton supporters tell me I should just stop whining and get with the party, that I should have voted for Clinton. That her loss is my fault. How convenient it is for them to omit that Clinton collected commitments from more than 400 superdelegates before the first primaries were held. How convenient it is for Clinton supporters to omit that mainstream media were there to apologize for her and cover her butt and used their positions of power to create an implicit bias against Bernie Sanders. And somehow, she still lost the general election.

Through it all, Clinton was supported by Barack Obama, nearly every sitting Democrat in federal and state office, and the DNC, despite losing more than 900 seats nationwide during the 8 years that Obama was president. How did they lose those seats? By acting like Republicans and voting for policies that redistributed income upwards. By fundraising like Republicans (that link is to a ginormous 1986 article that describes ground zero - the point at which the Democrats lost their way) and ignoring their base. Clinton ignored Sanders supporters at her own peril and lost.

Do you think that Democrats losing more than 900 seats nationwide had anything to with Clinton's loss? I do. Democrats lost those seats because they failed to offer a meaningful and progressive liberal alternative to Republicans.

Clinton supporters have told me how I have to stop crying over the loss that Sanders suffered. I demur. I'm not crying for Sanders. As an independent voter, I'm crying for relief from the disenfranchisement imposed by both parties with their allegiance firmly held for Boss Tweed. Here are some well known quotes from Mr. Tweed:
I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.
The way to have power is to take it.
From the Wikipedia article on Boss Tweed:
According to Tweed biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman:
It's hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed's system ... The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.
What happened at the DNC is probably the best demonstration we've seen in recent history of how much control the wealthy seek to maintain over the nomination process. And when I say "wealthy", I'm not talking about your small business owner pulling a few million a year in gross business income. I'm talking billion dollar businesses running defacto monopolies. Think Walmart, Amazon, Facebook and Google. Think Mobil, Exxon and Shell. Think Comcast, ATT and Verizon. I saw coverage of the Convention and all the logos everywhere.

Sanders said he's nobody's savior, that his campaign was not about him and he never told us who to vote for, anyway. He told us over and over again, that his campaign was about the issues, not about him. I agree. The debate is not about Sanders losing the nomination to Clinton even though there is serious contention as to that point. The context of the debate between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters is about accountability.

The DNC is not willing to be held accountable to the people they claim to represent because the people they serve (the real party in interest), do not want any changes. The DNC claims to represent "Democrats", but after what I saw in the news about the nomination process, I will not call them "the Democratic Party", anymore. The superdelegates are unaccountable and are not democratic. The primaries are all for show because, with a few exceptions like Bernie, the vast majority of candidates must win the "money primary". That's where Boss Tweed chooses who gets to run and do well in any election.

The DNC defense in the courtroom over a motion to dismiss in the class action lawsuit can be summarized as follows:
  • We have the right to tip the scales to any candidate we choose.
  • Votes don't matter.
  • We're a private organization with zero fiduciary duty to anyone who sends us money.
Seriously? This is an organization that claims "democracy" in their namesake yet refuses to listen to the will of the people they claim to represent?

And what's with this "we" business? Who is "we"? If the DNC has no obligation to follow the will of the people as expressed through their votes, why are they here? They are here as a conduit for the concentration of power. If the vote doesn't matter, who do they represent? The 0.02% who use money to exert control over the outcome of the primary elections. They don't really care who votes in the general election, they just want control over the nomination process, and it would follow, the nominee. That is the walled garden erected by the wealthiest people in this country. This is the context of the struggle between the middle class and those who seek to marginalize the middle class.

My opponents in this debate on Facebook (and elsewhere) insist that primaries should be closed for the people who work so hard to cultivate a candidate, to prevent the primaries from being hijacked by the opposition party. It takes two to tango. If one party can do it, the other party can return the favor. Our party politics are so very polarized precisely because we have closed primaries. And once you close the primaries, then the 0.02% can go wild, serving us up with candidates many of us neither needed nor wanted. Like Trump and Clinton.

Opening the primaries in every state would provide a check on the power of the dominant parties. It would necessarily moderate the choice of candidates for office by each party. Open primaries would allow independents, now 45% of voters, to have a say in who they want to vote for in the general election. Indeed, it is a neat trick to see that the Republicans with 26% and Democrats with 30% of the national voter registration maintain absolute control over state and federal politics. Open primaries would go a long way to reducing the extreme polarization of our politics.

It would seem to me then, that extreme polarization of our politics is by design rather than an accident, for nothing in politics is accidental. Closing the primaries has increased the polarization of our politics, dividing our nation and preventing us from acting as one. Opening the primaries at every level of government would dilute the polarization. Open primaries would serve as a reminder to political parties running as private organizations, that they serve the public at large, not just a few very wealthy and organized interests. Open primaries would allow the entire country to work together, to prevent a hijacking of our government by a few very wealthy and entrenched interests.

It also follows that we need to open our debates. The Democrats and Republicans must not be allowed to keep the debate stage and the free media exposure that follows, to themselves. The tide is starting to turn on the Commission for Presidential Debates and the courts are starting to take notice. In Leveling the Playing Field v. FEC (Case No. 15-cv-1397), a federal court has ruled that the Federal Election Commission must reconsider their rules in light of the evidence presented in that case. They must acknowledge that only one third party candidate has appeared in a presidential debate since 1988. Just one in nearly 30 years.

The antipathy directed by Clinton supporters to Sanders supporters must be seen as an excruciating example of resistance to change, rather than a desire for it. The tension created by Clinton supporters demonstrates a clear lack of empathy for Sanders supporters. Sanders supporters wanted someone who was not of the old guard. They wanted someone they could trust and did not find that in Clinton.

So dear Clinton supporters, if you want the Democrats to win in the midterms, remember, we're progressives and we're here. We're waiting. We'd like to see some inclusion. We'd like to be welcomed. We'd like to agree upon a candidate that all of us progressives want. But if you continue to browbeat us, I'm sure Sanders supporters like me will find something else to do.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Skills vs morality in the debate over health care

I found myself inspired to do a little bit of research on Mo Brooks after reading about his interview with CNN just the other day. In this particular instance, his grandiosity (or that of any Congressperson for that matter) was simply breathtaking. Numerous outlets have covered the apparent gaffe by Brooks and I found that Salon had a particularly insightful account:
As Brooks told [Jake] Tapper: “My understanding is that (the new proposal) will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.”
Clearly, Brooks ignores the question of whether or not those people with higher health care costs have the capacity to offset those higher costs in the first place. When people are ill, their capacity to earn more money is diminished, and getting a job is more difficult when employers see your health insurance as a liability.

The implication of his statement is that people who have higher health care costs are "bad" and that "they deserve" their suffering for being bad people. To put it differently, Brooks seems to think that "people who lead good lives do things the right way" and that the bad people should be punished. The Salon article did mention that Brooks seemed somewhat aware of his gaffe:
Perhaps realizing that his previous comments sounded insensitive, Brooks did try to backpedal later in the interview. “In fairness, a lot of these people with pre-existing conditions, they have those conditions through no fault of their own,” the Alabama congressman told Tapper. “And I think our society, under those circumstances, needs to help. The challenge though is that it’s a tough balancing act between the higher cost of these mandates which denies people coverage because they can’t afford their health insurance policies . . . and having enough coverage to help those people truly in need.”
So, people who are addicts are not people who are truly in need? People who have compulsive diseases are not people who are truly in need? According to Brooks, people should get assistance only under certain circumstances. Which circumstances? If someone received a "preexisting condition" through no fault of their own, like an accident or genetics, they're covered. Oh, wait. Brooks wasn't talking about genetics now, was he? He must be thinking about people living in a polluted environment. Hmm. That's not it, either. Brooks believes that manure is not a pollutant and that business will regulate itself. I guess a disease from pollution is not a pre-existing condition then.

The underlying assumption here is that people who are bad should be punished. People who are bad have failed at making good decisions about their health. They should face the consequences of their decisions without government protection. Brooks claims that those bad people are the people who are increasing costs for the good people, yet he doesn't mind that members of Congress have no compunction about exempting themselves from their own laws.

I used to think this way, too. I used to be one of those "good people" who didn't want to pay for the poor health decisions made by others. But I've made plenty of mistakes of my own and I received plenty of help from other people along the way. In my life, I've learned to be more forgiving, and to let the one without sin cast the first stone.

Brooks seems to think of himself as a rational person. But he did pretty much what many other people do at the checkstand after shopping for groceries at the market. He seems to have made a rather impulsive decision about health care policy. From the Wikipedia page on Mo Brooks:
In March 2017, Brooks said that he would not vote in support of the American Health Care Act, the GOP's initial plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Brooks said, "I will vote against the American Health Care Act because it has more bad policy than any bill I have ever faced."But on May 4, 2017, Brooks voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and pass the American Health Care Act.
If the assumption is that good people make rational choices for their own health, and Brooks implies that he's one of those good people by his own statements, how did he flip on the vote? A few months ago he said that Trumpcare had more bad policy than any bill he had ever faced and still voted for that bill. I bet he succumbed to peer pressure.

The Nation set the record straight by noting that most members of the House had almost no clue about what they were voting for. It's like watching a flock of birds decide which way to go:
To do this [vote], Ryan’s Republicans voted for a devastating piece of legislation without knowing:
  • the cost of their plan
  • how many tens of millions of Americans will lose insurance
  • how their plan will be implemented at the federal or state level
  • what will remain of their plan after it is reviewed by the Senate
House Republicans simply did not care. The overwhelming majority of them cast their votes as Ryan said they should, and then they ran the gantlet—past crowds of citizens chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”—on their way to a White House Rose Garden “celebration” of their partisanship with Donald Trump.
So it was peer pressure! Is this is Mo Brooks' idea of rational? I find it supremely ironic how the conservatives in Congress seem so fixated on individuals making good decisions and yet they vote for bad legislation and know that they're voting for bad legislation. To vote for that bill, they must be thinking more about all the dark money that funds their campaigns than the people who live in their districts. Brooks is a member of the Freedom Caucus and was elected to Congress in 2010 with that infamous wave of Tea Party upstarts, but apparently, that isn't a sign of a rational thinker.

I believe that the debate about personal responsibility is a ruse, a deflection, a misdirection. Congress is asking the American people to take responsibility for themselves but at the same time, exempting themselves from the changes in law they propose to make. They are asking people to take responsibility for themselves while protecting doctors from international competition. They are asking people to get into shape while inflicting huge costs with drug patents. They are asking people to take responsibility for their own health care costs, but refuse to address 40 years of wage stagnation.

At the same time, they are not willing to acknowledge that living a "good life" requires skill. Remember 92% of Congress is Christian and the conservatives among them seem to think that if we could just "let Jesus into our heart" that all would be well and good. Perhaps those God fearing Christians in Congress believe that if we prayed about our health conditions, we could lower our health care costs, too. Ergo, we won't need universal health care because God offers the best plan of all: immortality through salvation.

Here's the thing. If you're a believer, and I say this with the utmost respect for your faith, and you are praying for something specific, then you're treating God as a personal assistant, not your master. You could just pray for knowledge of God's will for you and the power to carry that out, and be the servant you claim you want to be. Especially if you're a member of Congress (sample prayer in Congress here). As a believer, you can have only one master, and it's not you.

If you're a believer, and believe that all humans are God's Children, you would not make another person a slave or your personal assistant, either. Slavery, racism, and violent "redemption" (thinking of the movie, "7 Years A Slave" here) are all incompatible with Christianity. Yet history is replete with numerous examples of white Christians subjecting other human beings to awful indignities as punishment for their skin color or lack of religious fervor. Our Congress is mostly white, male and Christian, and seems to rely more on punishment for compliance with their ideology than compassionate teaching of skills, First Amendment be damned.

Evidently, religious fervor is not a very good substitute for skills. Consider sex education as a way to teach the skills young people need. Sex education can teach kids how to treat their sexuality with all the care and respect they need to avoid getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant until they're in a committed relationship, prepared to accept the responsibilities and duties of parenthood.

Conservatives think that sex education is a private matter that should not be taught in school. But if kids live in God fearing homes where there is a lot of shame about sex, there will be no discussion of the subject, and like Sleeping Beauty, they're going to make the mistake that the parents always feared. At that point, can kids go to their church to learn what they need to know? You know, something beyond "just abstain"?

The point about teaching sex education in public schools is to put all the science on the subject together and explain it in a way that kids can comprehend and use. Yet conservatives the land over, seizing the power that they now have, are cutting funding for public education wherever they can. Education is what our society uses to transfer knowledge, including skills, from one generation to another. We teach reading, writing and arithmetic as basic skills. We teach communication as a fundamental skill because we transfer all skills through communication, not just genes.

Oh, yeah. Genes. We use genes to transfer knowledge in the form of instincts, but our brains are big enough to ignore or override our instincts, often at our own peril. Have you ever noticed that when you punish kids, they lack the ability to be rational? That's because punishment sends kids right into their instincts. They're all about fight or flight in the face of physical punishment. Is that love?

Communication leads immediately to collaboration. Humans collaborate to solve problems, even really big problems created by humans, and collaboration requires skill. And when governments cut funding for education to give a few very wealthy people large tax breaks, they reduce the capacity for our culture to teach the skills our next generation needs to not just to survive, but to live. I know, it seems evil, doesn't it?

Note to Mr. Brooks:

The word "evil" is a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in children and adults, therefore, evil doesn't really exist. There is only confused (what we might call "evil") and less confused (what we might call "good"). Challenging behavior arises from a lack of skills needed to get one's needs met.

Teach the skills needed to get needs met and the challenging behavior goes away. This is how how brute nature yields to love. I say this because love is more than having a warm regard for another. Love includes teaching the skills required to get needs met, respectfully, honestly, openly and with regard to the needs of others.

As humans, we have cooperation baked into our genes. Love is the highest level of cooperation, includes sharing of knowledge and including skills, and is ultimately, human nature.

End of note to Mr. Brooks.

Human nature is to teach skills for survival, not punishment, and punishment doesn't teach any skills. If Mo Brooks wants high maintenance humans to pay for their health costs, he might take an interest in teaching those humans the skills required to make the money they need to pay for it. Or he can settle for creating a system where everyone pays for it with a universal health care system (think HR 676).

If Brooks is truly interested in making the world a better place, he may also want to take notice that in his faith, there is only one master, and it's not him.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Myth: The Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to make bad loans

In recent days, I've been participating in an interesting debate in the Fox News Politics community of Google+. You can find it here. It started out as a debate over trickle down politics, but after a day or two, turned into a debate on the collapse of the housing bubble.

First, let me show you the meme that I shared in that community:


It's an interesting meme and point of departure for discussion. None of the tax cuts we've seen since Reagan was president have ever closed the federal budget deficit. Yet the pretense is that if you cut taxes, businesses will flower and blossom that will employ more workers in a virtuous circle. During the Bush Administration, tax rates were at a historical low yet, near the end of the 2nd Bush term as president, our nation was plunged into the Great Recession.

What I find interesting is not how the debate turned to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) as the cause of the Great Recession. What I find interesting is that many conservatives hold a sincere belief that the CRA forced banks to make bad loans. It's like an urban myth, literally, but it's a conservative myth.

I recall the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 very well. I was working a new job as "the IT guy" at a debt collection shop. I enjoyed working there because I saw the other side of debt collection, having at one point in my life, been the person of interest with debt collectors. Working there gave me a window into how at least one loan collector runs his business.

Every Monday, the owner (who shall remain nameless for this article) would hold a meeting in the lunch room to educate his employees about the law. During his meetings, he would discuss both federal and state laws concerning debt collection. He was quite enthusiastic when he talked about the laws, but he really shined when he talked about the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The Act has been modified since then, but I can recall with clarity, how he discussed the first few sections of the Act, as codified at Title 15, United States Code, section 1692, in shorthand, 15 USC 1692.

He seemed to glow as he discussed the Congressional findings and purpose, the intent of Congress. He explained, with some glee, that "no debt collector shall be disadvantaged from following the spirit and the letter of the law". He understood that the law was intended to curb or eliminate abuses in debt collection practices and he emphasized that point to a room full of debt collectors every Monday. He said, "Your job, as debt collectors is to follow the law."

What he showed me is that the preamble to the act, as codified, demonstrates Congressional intent.

So, during the debate on the subject of the CRA at Fox News Politics, I researched the CRA. It is codified at 12 USC 2901, et. seq. As with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Congress saw fit in 1977, to state their intent concerning this law:
§2901. Congressional findings and statement of purpose
  (a) The Congress finds that—
       (1) regulated financial institutions are required by law to demonstrate that their deposit facilities serve the convenience and needs of the communities in which they are chartered to do business;
       (2) the convenience and needs of communities include the need for credit services as well as deposit services; and
       (3) regulated financial institutions have continuing and affirmative obligation to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered.
  (b) It is the purpose of this chapter to require each appropriate Federal financial supervisory agency to use its authority when examining financial institutions, to encourage such institutions to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with the safe and sound operation of such institutions. (emphasis mine)
The CRA grants authority to agencies responsible for implementing this law, to encourage lending institutions to make loans that are safe and sound. There is nothing in that law about "liars loans" or directing banks to make loans without checking for income or the ability of the borrower to pay back the loan.

Conservatives cry foul and claim that banks were forced to make bad loans, but they conveniently ignore the preamble of the CRA which states the intent of the law. That means that everything that follows within that chapter of law must conform to the intent of Congress - the law must be taken in context. Agencies charged with executing the laws are not free to exceed the authority granted to them. If Congress says that agencies must encourage lending institutions to make loans that are consistent with the safe and sound operation of the institution, then agencies must do that. If they did not, any bank could sue for relief from such a rogue agency.

Did any banks sue over the CRA? Did any banks ever cry foul over a law that purports to make them sell bad loans? Not that I'm aware of. But the banks had no problem selling expensive loans to minorities, even when they could have qualified for better terms. Just ask the city of Miami, Florida, where they're still cleaning up the mess from all the bad loans that were made. That city sued Bank of America and Wells Fargo over the costs of cleaning the blight left from abandoned homes left by people who could not pay back their loans with bad terms. Those people were sold loans at higher interest rates based on the color of their skin, not their credit scores or history.

Conservatives in their defense of the banks will blindly ignore the fact that four men were acquitted over loan fraud because executives at the lending institution did not check for income for years before the collapse of the housing bubble. I mentioned this in said debate above, and Salon has that story here. Here are some highlights:
  • Four men charged with loan fraud used a novel defense: the bank never checked for income and made "stated income" or "liars loans", so if the bank knew that information on the loan application could be false and just wanted to make the loan, how could they have committed fraud on the bank?
  • Bill Black, a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Financial Regulation at the University of Minnesota’s School of Law, says that bank executives knew what they were doing and committed "accounting control fraud". Bank executives were allowing risky loans while earning bonuses from the sales of the loans.
  • The Federal agent who had investigated the case—a man with plenty of experience detecting mortgage fraud—told the court that he had not talked to executives at the firms in question and, indeed, had not interviewed any top mortgage executives, ever. As if the bank had no responsibility at all.
  • The bank CEO never appeared at the trial. He wasn't even subpoenaed.
Conservatives (even neoliberal Democrats like Barack Obama) will tell you that the banks were the victims. But given what we learned in this trial and acquittal of 4 men, banks knew very well what they were doing. When Bank of America bought Countrywide, do you think they performed due diligence? I think they did, and they knew about all the bad loans that Countrywide was holding, expected a bailout, and they got one. All of the big banks knew what was going on.

The same people who defended the banks as victims of government regulation are also willing to overlook one simple fact: banks who can wrangle an $800 billion bailout at their darkest hour are most certainly not powerless to stop a bad law. Banks have the money and the influence to get the laws they want. They act as if we live in an oligarchy. They could have stopped or amended the CRA to their liking in Congress, but they did not. They could have amended the CRA with a more sympathetic Congress later. They did not.

The debate at Fox News Politics then turned to vagueness, that there is too much vagueness in the law to fight it. Well, there's a legal doctrine for that. "Void for vagueness" from the Legal Information Institute:
Under vagueness doctrine, a statute is also void for vagueness if a legislature's delegation of authority to judges and/or administrators is so extensive that it would lead to arbitrary prosecutions.

An enterprising law firm hired by the banks could have made that argument to stop a law they believe is bad. But they did not.

Banks do not have clean hands in the meltdown. Not only did they participate in an orgy of bad finance practice, they contributed to the stagnation of wages that made it difficult if not impossible for borrowers to pay back their loans. Banks used their money to influence the public policy decisions that decoupled productivity from wages and have been doing so since the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, CEO salaries (including bank CEOs) have grown more than 900% while wages have grown a mere 30%. This is a result of a long line of public policy decisions that distributed income upwards. These public policy decisions didn't just decoupled wages from productivity. They decoupled CEO salary from productivity as well, but at the expense of the working class.

The rise of CEO salary relative to wages cannot be explained by mere economics. A far more plausible explanation is that extreme inequality is a public policy choice, not economics. Economist Dean Baker has that story in plenty of detail in his book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (it's free, too).

Not only did the big banks cry foul when they stood to lose billions, they created the situation to begin with. They could have acted proactively to prevent the housing bubble and its collapse, but did not, and they had no problem leaving the taxpayer with the bill.