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A N D N O W I T ' S T H E L A W O F T H E L A N D.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trumpocracy: Reply to a Reader

My longtime truckbuddy Frank raised some very pertinent questions in a comment box the other day, and it has taken your Head Trucker from then till now to find the inner oomph to answer them - though not particularly well, I'm afraid, for there are no truly satisfactory answers to the, being as they are merely subsets of the Problem of Evil, which has been endlessly discussed for several millennia now without a cheerful resolution, alas.  But to give Frank what I owe him and get this off my chest, here are the Q and the A for all to see:

Frank:  I have given up posting political news. I watch the news (but somewhat less than I used to) and read the news on the web. I feel my "anger" boiling up with each new artrocity and it is not healthy.

We have an "Indivisible" group here, but I have pretty much dropped out. I just have no patience for "meetings" and talk. I signed a bunch of petitions but wonder how much that makes a difference, especially as in return I get more petitions to sign...and ALL asking for money.

I've also been disappointed in the fact that organizations that I've supported with small donations seem to choose to use my few dollars to mail me newsletters and further solicitations.
It's not that I'm apathetic. Just tired and disgusted. I'm not sure what good "preaching to the choir" does, which is why I gave up facebook. I am waiting for this administration to implode, but it seems beyond teflon...perhaps kevlar is a more apt description of its indestructibility.

It is not only those in the government that irk me...the supporters of this evil so-called president are like spectators at the colosseum screaming for blood and gore every time they see or hear their "emperor" as he tosses them more meat. The worse he is, the more rotten the meat, the more they cheer.

I don't understand how such blind loyalty is even possible. Where did these people come from? Where were they educated? Did they never learn the important lessons in kindergarten? What perverted form of christianity do they follow? Too many questions.

I wonder what, if anything, will be the lesson that history will take from this era.

Russ:  It was a busy weekend here with one thing and another; but more than that, I have pondered how to reply to the excellent questions you raise. Alas, the awful truth of aging is that one loses (bit by bit and day to day) one's strength not only of body but also of mind - and also loses the patience and equanimity to deal with frustrations calmly. And yet one knows only too well that ranting, raving, screaming, and shouting will do no one any good, while the universe rolls on quite oblivious. One is reminded of the Stephen Crane poem, which I here transcribe in its entirety:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

And if prayer is unavailing, one is left with pious hope as the last, dwindling comfort. But a consciousness of individual futility at least relives one from the burdensome fallacy that all the outcomes of the world depend on me. Whatever blame may be laid for society's woes and failures, it must be spread across many millions of other backs. No one person can save or break the system of things -- despite what you may have heard.

But even in the most circumscribed, insignificant life, one can choose to do right or do wrong, at least in some respects where one is not otherwise constrained. We humans are not mere animals or robots, though various fools from one extreme or another would have us so: we are, furthermore, not merely a reasoning but also a moral species. And even where age, illness, or circumstance prevent us from acting we can yet assent by voice or thought to what is right and good -- and thereby encourage our fellow singers in the "choir."

I too feel the futility of such preaching, Frank - but how much more ghastly would it be to live without ever hearing your own thoughts validated?

To answer some of your other questions, or attempt to: yes, we now can understand how the Romans were so fond of their Caesars, and the Germans so wild about their Nazis. Those moments of long-ago schoolboy amazement are now quite cleared up, no? For we have seen in our own time, with our own eyes how all that comes to pass.

But the very important point is that "these people" did not "come" from anywhere, Frank. They have been right here all along. Some of them, we are sad to admit, are our own blood kin, and former friends, and near neighbors. They are no strangers, no invaders or aliens, but quite ordinary Americans we are familiar with. Just look over the crowds at the Trump rallies - beyond the sign-waving, posturing people in silly hats, look at the thousands in the background just sitting there, smiling happily and clapping enthusiastically. They could just as easily be found, and no doubt are, at your local movie theater or football game or charity run.  They have sat beside us in school and at work and eaten from the same dishes; they are us, only they have made a different choice somewhere along they line.

They are not outlandish aliens or horned-and-hoofed devils, or wild-eyed monsters - they are quite ordinary folks. And here I must refer you to Hannah Arendt's famous phrase about "the banality of evil."

It seems that scholars have debated what she meant by that, but what I mean is that evil is an inherent part of the human personality, always latent, always potential - as much so as goodness - and so one must be carefully taught to distinguish between the two motives, and keep choosing the latter. A difficult task of instruction, and a more difficult task of living! But not mysterious at all - you as a Catholic must recall that this has been the constant advice of the Doctors of the Church and other worthies for the last two millennia, so I need not plow all that ground again. Of course many if not most of "those people" have been instructed in moral choices since childhood, but not enough it would seem - or at least not enough to overcome baser instincts and selfish advantages.

Alas, people do choose evil sometimes out of rage or lust or fear or greed, and sometimes choose it carelessly by mistaking it for the good. And those two clauses pretty much sum up the entire history of the human race, the long, sad tragedy of Man. So again, there is no point in my taking time to rehearse such a well-known story of cause and effect, of progress and relapse, repeated ad infinitum.

The lesson? "We have here no abiding city . . . ." And we also know now that when our history books and civics texts used the puzzling phrase, "the American experiment," that it was not a mere rhetorical phrase, but a fearsome fact: democracy and constitutional government have always been subject to the weather and road conditions - they are not part of the unalterable form of the universe, just a flowering in a certain place at a certain time. Whether they continue long or vanish soon has always been tentative, a question that hangs in the balances. We see that clearly now, don't we?

Do what you can, Frank, not what you can't. That's all this tired old queen can say at this point, when "can" has shrunk to miniscule size. But even when we can no longer do, we can still hope, and with the encouragement of our friends, keep that alive in our hearts - mayhap it will bloom anew in a better place and time. That, at least, is something worthwhile.

Isn't it?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Waitin' for the Weekend

Pete Kuzak

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Westminster Attack

Map from the BBC report; click to enlarge.

A crazed terrorist plowed through pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London today, then tried to enter Parliament.  Your Head Trucker has once upon a time walked across that very bridge, and up and down the Thames embankment there in the shadow of Big Ben, so he feels this as a rather personal affront.  My heart goes out to all the victims and their families, and to the British people.

This grievous outrage, this demonic disregard for human life is beyond horrifying.  I don't know how Western society can ever rid itself of the murderous microbes it is infected with, without suppressing all civil liberties for the rest of the population, but something has to be done.  This cannot go on.

BBC report on the attack.

Telegraph report.

Guardian report.

Prime Minister Theresa May was in Parliament at the time of the attack and was quickly taken to safety by her security guards.  She later made a statement to the press in front of Number 10 Downing Street:

Update, 3/23/17, 4:20 p.m.: I am pleased to see that the old indomitable British spirit is still very much alive, as witness this computer-generated Underground notice now making the rounds of social media over there:

The Prime Minister and others praised it in Parliament, as the Guardian reports here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Turning Point

Your Head Trucker regrets that he just can't keep summarizing all the ghastly, grizzly goings-on in Trumpworld - it's quickly gotten to be such a boatload of ugliness that it overwhelms me, and sours my whole day.  What I see is that Liar-in-Chief Trump and his fascist minions are determined, like a herd of bulls in a china store, to wreck the American government and likewise wreck the international order that has preserved the general peace and stability of the world for the last seventy years - and what can anyone do to stop them?

Probably the world will not grind to a total halt - history records many, many cycles of ruin and recovery in human history - but I fear that the world and this country will be crippled, blighted, altered beyond recognition, and who knows at what cost in lives and treasure and needless suffering.

For the record, the conversation on Morning Joe today nicely sums up much of my own thinking about the Comey-Rogers revelations before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday:

How to Measure a Happy Nation

The World Happiness Report was released yesterday, and Norway is officially number 1 on that scale.  It is of course not a strictly scientific measurement, like the freezing point of water, or the diameter of the moon, but a made-up statistic:  a conglomeration of numbers put together by some bright boys to make a point.  Next year, they might decide to use a totally different scale - so don't put too much faith in a thing like this, fellas.  How on earth could anyone know whether Nils Nilsson in Norway is any happier or sadder than you are, just at this moment?  Still, it is mildly interesting to think about.

The actual report is found here.  Or you can watch a report from CBS Sunday Morning instead:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Are You Ready for Service? (1951)

Like most gay boys of my generation, I utterly despised the unremitting torment of P. E. classes, but this 1951 film recalls to mind certain delightful locker-room scenes.

Note to the young'uns:  at the time this film was made, the Korean War was in full swing, and so was the draft; hence the urgency of preparing the boys about to be snagged into the military.

More jock bods from a decade later, when President Kennedy was promoting his physical fitness program:

Gay artist Paul Cadmus used the locker room's erotic potential in a humorously suggestive drawing:

YMCA Locker Room II, Paul Cadmus, 1934;
click to enlarge.

Monday, March 13, 2017

CBO Report: 52 Million Uninsured by 2026

The Congressional Budget Office today released its estimate of the effects of the assoholic Republican healthcare plan: 14 million Americans would lose their health insurance in the coming year, leading to 52 million being uninsured by 2026, the Washington Post reports.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded to the report:

Ezra Klein in Vox, excerpt:
The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the GOP’s American Health Care Act is one of the most singularly devastating documents I’ve seen in American politics. For a thorough explanation of the findings, read Sarah Kliff’s explainer. But here is the one-sentence summary: Under the GOP’s bill, the more help you need, the less you get.

The AHCA would increase the uninsured population by about 24 million people — which is more people than live in New York state. But the raw numbers obscure the cruelty of the choices. The policy is particularly bad for the old, the sick, and the poor. It is particularly good for the rich, the young, and the healthy.

Here, in short, is what the AHCA does. The bill guts Medicaid, halves the value of Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and allows insurers to charge older Americans 500 percent more than they charge young Americans.

Then it takes the subsidies that are left and reworks them to be worth less to the poor and the old, takes the insurers that are left and lets them change their plans to cover fewer medical expenses for the sick, and rewrites the tax code to offer hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the rich. As Dylan Matthews writes, it is an act of class warfare by the rich against the poor.

The result isn’t just 24 million fewer people with insurance: Of those who remain insured, the pool is tilted toward younger, healthier people who need help less, because many of the older, poorer people who need the most help can no longer afford insurance. As German Lopez notes, a 64-year-old making $26,500 would see his premiums rise by 750 percent. 750 percent! And with that 64-year-old gone, premiums are a little bit lower, because the pool is a little bit younger.

Let’s break that down. According to the CBO, the lower premiums Ryan celebrates (which are, mind you, only 10 percent lower after 10 years — and that’s after rising initially) are largely the product of driving older people out of the market and letting insurers offer plans that cover fewer medical expenses and require more out-of-pocket spending. This is not “lower premiums” as most Americans understand the term. . . .

But this is not fine. It is not decent, it is not compassionate, and it is not what Republicans promised. It is a betrayal of Donald Trump’s vow to protect Medicaid from cuts and to pass a health care bill that covers everyone with insurance that has lower deductibles and better coverage. It is a betrayal of Ryan’s promise to give Americans more choices — as it is only when you can afford insurance that you truly have the choice of which plan to buy. It is a betrayal of the older, rural voters who put Republicans in office and who will pay the most for heath insurance under this proposal.
The editorial board of USA Today writes:
The House GOP measure would greatly curtail the financial incentives for individuals to buy insurance on state exchanges while all but eliminating the penalties for not doing so. It would also scale back on Medicaid, the principal form of insurance for those on the bottom rungs of the income ladder.

The result would be bleak, if not horrific. One out of every 14 Americans who now has insurance would lose it over the next decade. The government's red ink would be reduced by $337 billion in the same period, but that would come largely by cutting assistance to poorer people while offering a whopping tax cut for families making more than $250,000 a year.

Given the CBO "scoring" of their bill, House Republicans ought to start over on their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Better yet, they should look for ways to retain and repair the current law. Instead, their initial reaction was to to blame the messenger by bad-mouthing the CBO.

Rep. David Brat, R-Va., for example, claimed that “the CBO has scored everything wrong, forever.” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said "we disagree strenuously" and the CBO estimate is "just not believable."

Estimating the impact over time of any legislation is a Herculean task that does not always lend itself to perfect accuracy. But the CBO has long had a better track record than the Office of Management and Budget, which is under the control of the White House.

Republicans have traditionally been more supportive of the CBO, using it to counter more rosy estimates made by the Clinton and Obama administrations. What's more, when Republicans took control of both chamber of Congress in 2015, they dumped the longtime and well-respected director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, and replaced him with Keith Hall, a proponent of "dynamic" scoring methods that generally see GOP proposals in a more favorable light.

Attacking the CBO now will only strengthen the argument that President Trump and his backers on Capitol Hill live in a world of alternative facts and relative truths. A superior approach would be to come up with a way to actually improve the nation’s health care system.

FYI, last week CNN reported the salaries of the top executives in the health insurance industry:
Aetna (AET) CEO Mark Bertolini received $17.3 million in 2015, the most recent year for which compensation has been reported. Cigna CEO David Cordani made the same amount. UnitedHealth (UNH) CEO Stephen Hemsley had total compensation of $14.5 million, while Anthem (ANTM) CEO Joseph Swedish received $13.6 million. Humana CEO Bruce Broussard received $10.3 million.
This is so wrong.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Health Insurance Is Not a Product

An excerpt from a piece by Egberto Willies in Daily Kos:
One of the biggest problems with health insurance is that we allow Republicans to treat it as if it is a consumer product.

It is not.

Republicans love to talk about leaving health insurance to market forces. Their ideological blindness and callousness leads them to believe that what is good for a capitalist market is always right for the individuals it purports to serve. The reality is that we have made the capital markets our religion, as opposed to treating it as a tool that can make life better for us all.

A company does not sell a product that is not profitable. The fiduciary responsibility of a business in a capitalist market is to its shareholders, not the customer. The client is nothing more than a means to transfer wealth to the shareholder and the executives running the business.

A company cannot make a profit on an unaffordable product. Prices must rise or costs of manufacturing the product must go down, or the product will cease to exist. That’s what is happening to health insurance under Obamacare. Some insurance companies raised their prices, while some just abandoned the health insurance 'product.' Because proper regulations were finally in place, they could not make the product less expensive. In other words, Obamacare did not allow health insurance companies to sell their customers a crappy insurance policy.

Republicans argue that it is a lack of choice that allows these businesses to charge exorbitant premiums. They claim it is overregulation that causes health insurance companies to have to provide services people don't necessarily want. They say that disallowing interstate health insurance purchase reduces competition and competitive pricing.

There is some truth in those statements—but that’s only because as long as health insurance is seen as a product, that abridgment of market forces is detrimental to the company's bottom line, and also to insurance pricing for Americans. . . .

Here is the reality: We do not decide when we get sick. When we get sick, we cannot just shop around for the hospital and doctor that will provide the best price to treat a disease we do not yet know we have. Sickness does not know our socioeconomic condition, so having a ‘choice’ to purchase a plan we can afford means we get wealth-based health care.

Health insurance is not a product. Selling it that way is immoral, un-American, and downright evil.

What I Say: Your Head Trucker, who has endured a great deal of poverty in his life, and watched his loved ones suffer and die with precious little help from the free-market system, believes in a much-expanded and much-improved Medicare for All - by which I mean, a single-payer system, which could be funded and provided by various means, but which would automatically cover every resident of the United States from cradle to grave without limitations, exclusions, or premium payments. Ideally, it should be free at the point of access, though I could support a sliding scale for nominal co-payments, based on income.  Anything less is inexcusable and immoral in this, the richest nation on the face of the earth.

All medically necessary care and services, including preventive exams and treatments, physical therapy, mental health services, prescription drugs, and appliances, as well as hospital and residential care, would be provided under a nationally determined list of allowable benefits to patients. Doctors, clinics, and hospitals could be either government employees or private providers who agree to accept the standard compensation for services. Patients would not be involved in the billing process at all.

The whole program would be funded either out of general taxation, or with the help of a nominal withholding tax on wages. But everyone young and old would be fully covered at all times, regardless of whether they were employed or not.  Private insurers would be forbidden from competing with Medicare on any benefits covered by the national program.

The ultra-rich - like snooty rich-kid pig Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) - who can't bear to sit in ordinary waiting rooms with the commonality could use their gold-plated private doctors and hospitals, who could charge whatever the fat-cat market would bear - but they could not also receive any payments from Medicare.

Or maybe there's a better way than all that to cover everyone - I am no financier, but I do believe in the three principles upon which Britain's National Health Service was founded:

  • That it meet the needs of everyone
  • That it be free at the point of delivery
  • That it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay

I see that the total expenditure from all sources on healthcare in the United States in 2015 was $3.2 trillion.  (For comparison, the total annual payroll in the United States, including government employees, was $5.9 trillion in 2014; and total federal spending in 2015 was $3.7 trillion.)  That's a lot of money, but I'll wager at least half of it is wasted on insurance middlemen and their bulging profits, not to mention mindless paperwork and the utterly needless drug advertisements that flood the airwaves and Internet night and day. All other developed countries spend much less per capita on healthcare than the U.S. does, and get better outcomes, too:

Click to enlarge.
And then there is the combined $2.1 trillion net profits of American corporations the year 2015, which benefit immensely from our skilled, educated workforce, high-class infrastructure, and natural resources - your Head Trucker thinks that instead of paying fantastic salaries and bonuses to the execs, the big companies should be doing some substantial good for the general public.

Chart from Statista.com; click to enlarge.

USA Today reported that just 28 big firms, or 6 percent of the total, made fifty percent of those profits in 2015.

I don't know for sure the best way to finance universal coverage, but what I do know is that there is plenty of money circulating around this old world, and the big-money boys in their gold-plated towers can always find a way to finance every whim and extravagance and obscene profit they want, and the public be damned - so they can sure can sure as hell figure out a way to finance Medicare for All if they are made to, and if they don't - may God reward them as He did Dives.

It's instructive to check out this comparison of various national healthcare systems from Wikipedia, with links to many other sources of information. Also enlightening is this comparison of U.S. and Canadian healthcare systems.

Physicians for a National Health Program has a proposal for a single-payer system that seems well thought out to your Head Trucker.

Sunday Drive: This Little Light of Mine

The classic gospel song, as performed by the Plantation Singers of Charleston, South Carolina:

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