Thursday, January 12, 2017

In The Dead Of The Night

Via the Washington Post:

The Senate voted 51 to 48 early Thursday morning to approve a budget resolution instructing House and Senate committees to begin work on legislation to repeal major portions of the Affordable Care Act. The House is expected to take up the legislation Friday.

Senate Democrats made a late-night show of resistance against gutting the Affordable Care Act by forcing Republicans to take politically charged votes against protecting Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care programs. The measure narrowly passed without the support of any Democrats.

The hours-long act of protest culminated in the early hours of Thursday when Democrats made a dramatic display of rising to speak out against the repeal measure as they cast their votes. The Democrats continued to record their opposition over their objections of Senate Republicans.

“Because there is no replace, I vote no,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) as she delivered her vote.

Here’s the nightmare scenario I see playing out: The Republicans whoop through a repeal of Obamacare much to the delight of their constituents who have railed against “socialism” for the last eight years.  Then they can’t figure out how to replace it because, well, the only way to do that is to put in place what they took out and just call it something else.  Fine.  But in the meantime you will have several million people who once had insurance going without and then people start to get sick without it or have no way to pay for the medical care they need and then the bills — and the bodies — start to pile up.

But hey, they got a cool hat that says Make America Great Again.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sunday Reading

The Big Hack — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, once remarked while on a trip to Berlin in the early days of the Cold War, “The trouble with free elections is that you never know how they will turn out.”

On the morning of November 9th, Molotov’s grandson, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the Russian Duma’s foreign-affairs committee, announced to the parliament, “Three minutes ago, Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in the American Presidential elections. And just this second Donald Trump began his speech as President-elect.” The Duma members cheered and applauded.

In the days to come, there were more declarations of acid satisfaction among the Russian élite. Dmitri Kiselyov, the host of “News of the Week,” a popular current-affairs show on state-controlled television, gloated over Trump’s victory and Barack Obama’s inability to prevent it. Obama, he said, was a “eunuch.” Trump was an “alpha male”—and one who showed mercy to his vanquished rival. “Trump could have put the blonde in prison, as he’d threatened in the televised debates,” Kiselyov said on his show. “On the other hand, it’s nothing new. Trump has left blond women satisfied all his life.” Kiselyov further praised Trump because the concepts of democracy and human rights “are not in his lexicon.” In India, Turkey, Europe, and now the United States, he declared, “the liberal idea is in ruins.”

Vladimir Putin did not showboat, but he, too, made his satisfaction plain. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told reporters that the similarity between Trump and Putin’s “conceptual approach to foreign policy” was “phenomenal.” Trump’s victory was the basis for Russia’s “moderate optimism”; now both sides could discuss how “to clear out the Augean stables in our bilateral relations.”

All of this is all the more alarming to recall now, in the light of the latest news: according to U.S. intelligence reports, Putin “ordered an influence campaign” to undermine Clinton and work with “a clear preference” to enhance Trump’s prospects. A classified version of this intelligence has now been delivered to both the President and the President-elect. Briefed in New York on Friday by the heads of the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A., Trump, who earlier in the day called the focus on Russian hacking “a political witch hunt,” finally allowed, if obliquely, that the Russians—and not the Chinese, not “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds”—might have hacked the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. A declassified report concluded that Putin ordered a campaign of covert operations, from defamatory “fake news” articles about Clinton to the hack itself. Even as Trump seemed to shift his view of the source of the D.N.C. hack, he did not concede that the operation had helped his campaign. The declassified report, however, said that the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A. had uniformly “high confidence” that Putin ordered the operation in order to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The N.S.A. had only “moderate confidence” on some details, while the C.I.A. and F.B.I. had “high confidence.” The differences, while vague, seem to be over the degree of Putin’s personal role. The declassified version of the report was unrevealing about how the agencies had come to their conclusions or collected their information.

One should continue to demand even more information from the U.S. government, and one can readily concede that Trump won his Electoral College victory for a variety of reasons, including the disaffection of the white working class in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; the F.B.I. director’s two letters, late in the campaign, about Clinton’s e-mail server; and Clinton’s deficiencies and tactical errors as a candidate.

And yet how is it possible, if these intelligence reports are true, to count the 2016 Presidential election as unsullied? We are two weeks away from Trump’s Inauguration, and American intelligence agencies, flawed as they are, have declared, publicly and clearly, that they have convincing evidence that Russia, at its President’s direction, interfered in a Presidential election. Congress clearly has a job to do, but it is not alone. No matter how much it may offend Trump’s ego or his sense of self-possession, it will be his responsibility, his duty as President, to order the agencies at his command to dig even deeper, to provide as full a reckoning as possible. Will he resist Congress on this issue? Is he capable of questioning, in a sense, his own election? If he decides to refuse this duty, to just “move on,” as he likes to say, one will have to ask why.

Putin’s resentment of Clinton was always manifest; it is almost as severe as Trump’s. Putin saw the Clinton Administration of the nineties as having taken advantage of Russian weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union, twenty-five years ago. He viewed Hillary Clinton as a foreign-policy hawk who wanted regime change from Baghdad to Kiev to Moscow. In 2011, Putin, who lives in fear of spontaneous uprisings, events like the Arab Spring and the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, accused Clinton of giving “a signal” to urge thousands of Russians to come out on the streets of Moscow to protest parliamentary-election “irregularities” and Putin’s intention to return once more to the Kremlin as President.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with Russian political experts, and all of them agreed that Putin was certainly pleased, at least initially, with Trump’s victory—and that satisfaction is reflected, too, on countless news and talk shows on television. These analysts added that Putin is undoubtedly cheered that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s appointment to head the State Department, was likely to leave behind American “sanctimony” about human rights and democracy and, following the pattern of his career at ExxonMobil, to concentrate on purely “transactional politics.” Some, however, wondered if Putin will remain enchanted with Trump once he encounters Trump’s inconsistencies, his alarming penchant for surprise pronouncements via Twitter.

Like many nationalist politicians in Europe, Trump has made plain his admiration for Putin, complimenting the Russian leader’s “great control over his country,” while at the same time failing to address the reality that Putin’s regime has instituted wholesale censorship of television, increased repressive measures on ordinary citizens, and unleashed his forces in Ukraine and Syria. (Putin, of course, discounts criticism of his policies as Western hypocrisy and points to everything from the invasion of Iraq, which he opposed, to the eastward expansion of NATO, which he sees as an aggressive act.)

Trump’s argument throughout the campaign, the reason for his compliments for Putin, he has said, is related to his stated desire to ease tensions between Russia and the United States and avoid the ultimate disaster, a nuclear confrontation. But what concerns many seasoned American analysts, politicians, and diplomats is that Trump is deluding himself about Putin’s intentions and refuses to see the nature of Russia’s nationalist, autocratic regime clearly. Trump has spoken critically of NATO and in support of European nationalist initiatives like Brexit to such a degree that, according to one Obama Administration official, “our allies are absolutely terrified and completely bewildered.”

Strobe Talbott, who was Bill Clinton’s closest adviser on Russia, told me recently that the hack of the D.N.C. and Putin’s other moves in Europe—including the annexation of Crimea, the Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine, and the financial support of nationalists like Marine Le Pen, of France—were part of a larger strategy intended to weaken the E.U. and NATO.

“I try to be careful about superlatives,” Talbott said, “but I cannot think, going back to the Soviet Union or since, that there’s been a Moscow-Kremlin-instigated gambit that was so spectacularly successful as what they have done with our democracy. All of those assets that they tried to use on us over the years were far less by comparison; this was like winning seventeen jackpots all at once.”

Not Gone Yet — David Dayen in The Nation on why Obamacare may be here to stay.

If you confine yourself to the Congressional Record, you would assume that Republicans methodically followed their game plan to dismantle Obamacare in the first week of the new session. The Senate passed the first phase of their repeal bill under a process called reconciliation, a budget procedure that requires only a simple majority in the Senate, without opportunity for filibuster. The Senate should wrap up in the coming weeks with a “vote-a-rama” (where Senators vote on all amendments consecutively for hours on end) and a final vote, and the finished product will move to the House, for likely passage days after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

But Republicans spent more time firming up the process of repeal than on the substance of the bill, which thus far includes no detail on what will be repealed or when, or what will eventually replace the current system. It’s like they practiced how to walk down the aisle over and over without knowing whether they will say “I do.”

This absence of detail has created a vacuum, filled with fear and infighting and jockeying for position. Hard-liners and moderates are consumed with the timeline for delay. But Tom Cotton became the first senator to publicly oppose repeal without a replacement, echoing the sentiments of others in private. Meanwhile, polling for “repeal and delay” is horrendous. And any replacement will have to contend with furious lobbying from insurers and major medical groups.

Furthermore, familiar politics are already tripping up the process. Republicans really want to eliminate Obamacare’s taxes on high-income households, insurance companies, and medical-device manufacturers; repeal should actually be seen as a tax-cut bill in the short-term. But Rand Paul’s concerns about the deficit led him to oppose the bill, and while he has failed to rally conservatives to his side thus far, money for a replacement will likely have to come from somewhere to appease the budget hawks. Separately, in a funhouse-mirror echo of the Stupak amendment, House Republicans want to include defunding of Planned Parenthood in the repeal, like the dry-run repeal bill did last year. But Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have threatened to fight such a measure, making Senate passage less likely. And that’s just the beginning of the knock-down, drag-out fights to come over every line of a replacement bill.

What this shows is that Obamacare really did alter the social contract in America. For all its faults—and they are considerable—Obamacare created an expectation of a definitive federal role in health-care markets. It’s untenable to simply return to a pre-2010 status quo; nobody outside of Iowa lunatic Steve King is calling for that. The public now expects that the government must provide assistance in making health-care markets work, in a way that they didn’t expect a decade ago. The public sees Obamacare as a benchmark, and any service below it will not be tolerated.

And Republicans are actively aiming low. While making public promises that nobody will lose their coverage from repeal, they have conceded that they cannot cover as many Americans as Obamacare with anything they would approve, preferring to use the term “universal access.” The one thing Republicans cannot overturn in reconciliation is the pre-existing condition exclusion, but they can allow insurers to price the stickiest applicants out of the market. This will necessarily create incentives to cherry-pick customers, and leave millions on the sidelines. The types of executive actions Trump could take for an “orderly resolution” of Obamacare all militate toward denying coverage by reducing mandatory insurance benefits and restricting rules on sign-ups.

This wasn’t really a problem in 2004 or 2006. George W. Bush didn’t have a standard to live up to on health care. He simply implemented versions of long-held Republican ideas like tort reform, health savings accounts, and state funding for high-risk pools—the exact same ideas being bandied about today, incidentally. They didn’t succeed in bringing down the uninsured rate or lowering costs. But it didn’t matter. There was no comparison point.

Now Obamacare has become that comparison point. For all the Republican talk of it being a failed experiment in government-run health care, it actually succeeded in institutionalizing a federal role for more than just children, the poor, and the elderly. This is why Bill Kristol famously wrote that memo in the 1990s urging Republicans to fight tooth and nail against Bill Clinton’s health-care reform, because it “would guarantee and likely make permanent an unprecedented federal intrusion into and disruption of the American economy.” Though Obamacare has never achieved the high approval ratings that would seemingly usher in such a guarantee, it did solidify the concept that federal intrusion is necessary. We’re not likely to go back.

Is Obamacare the perfect manifestation of that federal role? No. The subsidies are inadequate and the deductibles are too high, and the combination of consolidation in insurance markets and companies leaving the exchanges has removed the choice and competition thought to be the linchpin to bring down costs. Medicaid expansion has worked well where it has been taken up, but the exchanges are running on fumes. Nobody in the Democratic presidential primary argued for keeping the system the same; the choice was between minor or radical overhaul. Allowing customers to buy into Medicare, using all-payer rate setting to control provider costs, and federalizing Medicaid should be ideas returning to the table if and when Republican policies prove inadequate.

The debate over health care for the next decade will feature both sides trying to live up to a promise made with the American people in 2008. There are a panoply of ideas on how to extend insurance coverage to make it both affordable and useful. The party in power is scrambling to come up with ideas they can live with. The party out of power is fighting among themselves over which ideas will work best. But the biggest political risk lies in going backwards. That’s a new reality in health care that can be exploited.

Over and Out — Garrison Keillor punches out.

So he won. The nation takes a deep breath. Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president. We are so exhausted from thinking about this election, millions of people will take up leaf-raking and garage cleaning with intense pleasure. We liberal elitists are wrecks. The Trumpers had a whale of a good time, waving their signs, jeering at the media, beating up protesters, chanting “Lock her up” — we elitists just stood and clapped. Nobody chanted “Stronger Together.” It just doesn’t chant.

The Trumpers never expected their guy to actually win the thing, and that’s their problem now. They only wanted to whoop and yell, boo at the H-word, wear profane T-shirts, maybe grab a crotch or two, jump in the RV with a couple six-packs and go out and shoot some spotted owls. It was pleasure enough for them just to know that they were driving us wild with dismay — by “us,” I mean librarians, children’s authors, yoga practitioners, Unitarians, birdwatchers, people who make their own pasta, opera goers, the grammar police, people who keep books on their shelves, that bunch. The Trumpers exulted in knowing we were tearing our hair out. They had our number, like a bratty kid who knows exactly how to make you grit your teeth and froth at the mouth.

To all the patronizing b.s. we’ve read about Trump expressing the white working class’s displacement and loss of the American Dream, I say, “Feh!” — go put your head under cold water. Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity. America is still the land where the waitress’ kids can grow up to become physicists and novelists and pediatricians, but it helps a lot if the waitress and her husband encourage good habits and the ambition to use your God-given talents and the kids aren’t plugged into electronics day and night. Whooping it up for the candidate of cruelty and ignorance does less than nothing for your kids.

We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids and we Democrats can go for a long brisk walk and smell the roses.

I like Republicans. I used to spend Sunday afternoons with a bunch of them, drinking Scotch and soda and trying to care about NFL football. It was fun. I tried to think like them. (Life is what you make it. People are people. When the going gets tough, tough noogies.) But I came back to liberal elitism.

Don’t be cruel. Elvis said it and it’s true. We all experienced cruelty back in our playground days, boys who beat up on the timid, girls who made fun of the homely and naive, and most of us, to our shame, went along with it, afraid to defend the victims lest we become one of them. But by your 20s, you should be done with cruelty. Mr. Trump was the cruelest candidate since George Wallace. How he won on fear and bile is for political pathologists to study. The country is already tired of his noise, even his own voters. He is likely to become the most intensely disliked president since Hoover. His children will carry the burden of his name. He will never be happy in his own skin. But the damage he will do to our country — who knows? His supporters voted for change, and boy, are they going to get it.

Back to real life. I went up to my hometown the other day and ran into my gym teacher, Stan Nelson, looking good at 96. He commanded a landing craft at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and never said a word about it back then, just made us do chin-ups whether we wanted to or not. I saw my biology teacher Lyle Bradley, a Marine pilot in the Korean War, still going birdwatching in his 90s. I was not a good student then, but I am studying both of them now. They have seen it all and are still optimistic. The past year of politics has taught us absolutely nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. The future is scary. Let the uneducated have their day. I am now going to pay more attention to teachers.

Easy for a rich white straight man to say.  As for the rest of us…

Doonesbury — Flattery will get you somewhere.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Get Help

My family is dealing with the loss of a member of our immediate family due to depression.  I will not go into the details but please be aware of the fact that it is a disease like any other and it has to be treated as such.  Just as diabetes afflicts the pancreas, depression afflicts the brain and like any chronic illness it can be treated and managed.  If not, it can kill.

If you or someone you know has depression, seek help through your medical professional.  Talk to your family about it.  Don’t expect a miracle cure or just to “snap out of it.”  No one should have to suffer with a treatable illness due to shame or misunderstanding, and no family should have to deal with the aftermath.

Please.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Someone’s Going To Emergency

I wrote earlier about people who willingly vote against their own self-interest because of their fear of “something out there” such as affordable health care is going to ruin their lives.  Here’s a perfect example via Vox:

CORBIN, Kentucky — Kathy Oller is so committed to her job signing up fellow Kentuckians for Obamacare that last Halloween, she dressed up as a cat, set up a booth at a trick-or-treat event, and urged people to get on the rolls. She’s enrolled so many people in the past three years that she long ago lost count.

“Must be somewhere in the thousands,” she said to me one morning at a local buffet restaurant where she’d just finished an enrollment event with the staff.

The health care law has helped lots of people in Whitley County, where Oller works. The uninsured rate has fallen from 25 percent in 2013 to 10 percent today, according to data from the nonprofit Enroll America. Overall, Kentucky is now tied with West Virginia for the biggest increase in health coverage.

But Obamacare’s success in Whitley County and across Kentucky hasn’t translated into political support for the law. In fact, 82 percent of Whitley voters supported Donald Trump in the presidential election, even though he promised to repeal it.

Oller voted for Trump too.

“I found with Trump, he says a lot of stuff,” she said. “I just think all politicians promise you everything and then we’ll see. It’s like when you get married — ‘Oh, honey, I won’t do this, oh, honey, I won’t do that.’”

I spent last week in southeastern Kentucky talking to Obamacare enrollees, all of whom supported Trump in the election, trying to understand how the health care law factored into their decisions.

Many expressed frustration that Obamacare plans cost way too much, that premiums and deductibles had spiraled out of control. And part of their anger was wrapped up in the idea that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits — and those other people did not deserve the help.

There was a persistent belief that Trump would fix these problems and make Obamacare work better. I kept hearing informed voters, who had watched the election closely, say they did hear the promise of repeal but simply felt Trump couldn’t repeal a law that had done so much good for them. In fact, some of the people I talked to hope that one of the more divisive pieces of the law — Medicaid expansion — might become even more robust, offering more of the working poor a chance at the same coverage the very poor receive.

So these people who have been presented with irrefutable evidence that Trump lies about everything from the size of his hands to the size of his fortunes; who can’t keep a story straight sometimes within one sentence and who has promised them the moon and everything else are sure that he won’t follow through on his promise to repeal Obamacare and might even make it better while at the same time kicking the “welfare queens” to the curb.

It’s really hard to muster up any sympathy for these people.  Yes, of course it will be very tough on them when the Republicans knock them off their insurance and privatize Medicare so that they’re left holding the bag on everything from routine tests like mammograms to emergency care.  But they had a good thing going and they willingly voted for the guy who said he’ll take it away because he’s white and he’s not really gonna do it, right?

Here’s a lesson they teach you at the poker table: If you can’t spot the mark at the table, you’re the mark.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Paying The Price

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who will replace Harry Reid as Senate Minority Leader in January, is planning to stand athwart the nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) as the Secretary of HHS and make him answerable for his plans to privatize Medicare and repeal Obamacare.

“Between this nomination, an avowed Medicare opponent, and Republicans here in Washington threatening to privatize Medicare, it’s clear that Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year,” Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “Every senior in America should hear this loudly and clearly: Democrats will not let them win that fight.”

The ironic thing is, as Steve M notes, is that if Mr. Price is successful, the people who will suffer the most — those who will either be without insurance or can no longer afford it — will not blame their situation on Trump or the Republicans.  Just as the housing and foreclosure crisis of 2008 was not the fault of the banks who conned the unqualified buyers into junk mortgages but the buyers themselves, the Republicans who get the frantic calls from their constituents will blame it on either the Democrats or, more likely, on President Obama for making them think that healthcare was somehow a right and that everyone should have it regardless of their medical situation.  And they will believe it.

Good luck with that fight, Sen. Schumer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Short Takes

South Korean president offers to resign.

Charter plane crashes in Colombia with 81 aboard; there are survivors.

Suspect at Ohio State posted rant before attack.

Trump said to pick Obamacare opponent to run HHS.

North Dakota governor orders pipeline protestors to leave in advance of winter.

Monday, November 21, 2016

“Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare”

We all laughed when the Tea Partiers claimed that Obamacare would take away their Medicare, hence the hand-painted signs referenced in the title that were mounted on numerous scooters paid for by Medicare.  Little did they know that it was their imagined GOP saviors who would threaten it.

keep-government-out-of-medicare-11-21-16

The balloons had barely been popped at the Trump victory party when the Republicans announced through Speaker Paul Ryan that the first thing they’d do after repealing Obamacare was to radically alter Medicare from its current state to a privatized system of credits and vouchers.  They claim they will improve it and save the taxpayers billions of dollars.

Actually, their plan is to undo as much of the last eighty years of social welfare as they can in as short a time as possible because nothing works better than the free market, and if you really believe that, I can get you a scholarship to Trump University.

In reality, Medicare is working pretty damn well for a program that covers millions of people, and it is solvent for the foreseeable future.  But those niggling little facts are not enough to stop the GOP from trying to take it away.

Josh Marshall at TPM has been following this story closely and he says that if the Democrats can stop the destruction of Medicare, they will have accomplished two things.  First, preserving a program that works, and second, stopping the Trump/Ryan juggernaut of turning the country over to right-wing nostrums and bamboozlement.

There are numerous fronts where Democrats will need to resist Trump and the Republican Congress. But to be really effective anywhere they will need to chalk up wins somewhere because all political power is unitary. A president can’t suffer a deflating defeat in one area without it eroding his power in others. Victories operate in the same way. Power gained or lost in one sphere translates into every other.

Stopping Republicans on Medicare Phaseout will reduce their ability to push their damaging agenda on other fronts.

The final point should be the most obvious. Donald Trump won the presidency promising to defend the economic interests of ordinary people from the ‘crooked’ elite on Wall Street and in Washington. Whether or not he believes or believed that he has rapidly allied himself with the Paul Ryan privatizers who want to eviscerate the federal programs which are the bedrock of the American middle class. Social Security and Medicare are at the top of that list. If you look at the faces in the crowds at Trump’s most poisonous speeches I guarantee that you that very few of those people thought they were voting to lose their Medicare.

Getting rid of or gutting Medicare is incredibly unpopular. It can only be accomplished by a mixture of bamboozlement, scare tactics and unified party government which will allow the GOP to push the change through regardless of public opinion. Saving Medicare or giving everything in the effort to do so is a tailor-made way for Democrats to cut across the Trump-Clinton divide and undermine the idea that Trump or the GOP have the interests of the middle class or really anyone but libertarians and the extremely wealthy at heart.

Speaking as someone who will be signing up for Medicare within the next six to eight months, I have a vested interest in seeing that it doesn’t happen.  If we can stop their looting there, we can stop them in other places as well.  This is a fight worth having.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Not So Fast

Obamacare may outlast the Trump administration.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) warned Thursday that it could take years to fully repeal and replace Obamacare.

[…]

“Eventually, we’ll need 60 votes to complete the process of replacing Obamacare and repealing it because Obamacare was not passed by reconciliation it was passed by 60 votes. And it was cleaned up by reconciliation because Scott Brown won his election,” Alexander said. “Before the process is over, we’ll need a consensus to complete it, and I imagine this will take several years to completely make that sort of transition to make sure we do no harm, create a good health care system that everyone has access to and that we repeal the parts of Obamacare that need to be repealed.”

By that time they’ll have found other shiny objects to chase.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Short Takes

Senate Zika bill blocked by Planned Parenthood fight.

Trump denies any wrongdoing in donation to Bondi campaign.

ITT Tech shuts down after USDOE cuts off student loan support.

Gretchen Carlson gets $20 million and apology in Fox sexual harassment suit.

Giant pandas no longer on the endangered species list.

Tropical Update: Invest 92L isn’t moving yet.

The Tigers lost to the White Sox 2-0.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Short Takes

Death toll from Louisiana flooding reaches 10.

Convicted Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane resigns.

Aetna Insurance drops out of Obamacare.

July was the hottest month on record.

North Carolina wants the Supreme Court to put a hold on voter I.D. ruling.

R.I.P. John McLaughlin, 89, right-wing ex-priest Nixon apologist turned TV pundit.  Bye-bye.

Tropical Update: There’s a wave coming off Africa that could develop into something.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Short Takes

Report: ISIS loses control of Libyan stronghold.

Putin accuses Ukraine of plotting terror in Crimea.

Extent of bias in Baltimore police department stuns activists.

Zika cases rise in Miami as officials try to keep citizens calm.

What turned Rio’s diving pool green?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Trouble with Corey — Margaret Talbot at The New Yorker on hiring campaign insiders as network pundits.

This week, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, offered an upbeat assessment of one of the network’s newest additions, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, whom Zucker hired as an on-air political commentator in June. “I actually think he’s done a really nice job,” Zucker said in an interview with Variety. “He’s come under a much greater spotlight because of who he is, and the relationship he’s had with the media. As a result, people are going to be more critical.” It’s hard to know quite what to make of this. Bosses like to stand by their hiring decisions when they can—fair enough. But Lewandowski has manifestly not been doing a “really nice job” in his new role, unless his role is not so much to comment on the Trump campaign as to embody the pathologies of it.

The trouble with Lewandowski is not that he came out of a campaign or that he is clearly partisan. Both cable and broadcast networks have been hiring people answering to that description for years—Democrats like Paul Begala and David Axelrod, Republicans like Nicolle Wallace and Karl Rove—with the idea that, taken en masse, their perspectives add up to a kind of nonpartisan X-ray of American politics. Those old hands may be prone to repeating their parties’ talking points, but at least they have experience in the White House or in multiple campaigns, and they know they’re supposed to be offering some kind of insider’s insight into the process that may not always pay robotic obeisance to the candidate they worked for most recently. Most of the time, that campaign was long enough ago that they aren’t still being paid severance by it, as Lewandowski is. (To be fair, his CNN interlocutors say so every time he is introduced on air.)

Lewandowski, though, is a special case. CNN hired him just a few days after the Trump campaign fired him. As Trump’s adjutant, he had upheld an authoritarian attitude toward the press, banning the Washington Post, among other media outlets Trump doesn’t care for, from covering the candidate’s events. On his first CNN appearance, on June 25th, Lewandowski would neither confirm nor deny having signed a “non-disparagement” agreement of the kind other former Trump employees have. (In that interview, the CNN anchor Erin Burnett produced an example that read: “During the term of your service and at all times thereafter, you hereby promise and agree not to demean or disparage publicly the company, Mr. Trump, any Trump company, any family member, or any family member company.”) But, if he did, and if he were worried about being sued or just frozen out by Trump—not unreasonable worries, in his position—that would certainly make it unlikely he would say anything critical or even specific or surprising about his former boss.

Yet that was something his new CNN bosses could reasonably have expected: a few crisp anecdotes, a little texture, a sprinkling of behind-the-scenes flavor. Zucker said in the Variety interview that the network simply needed someone representing the G.O.P. nominee’s point of view: “It’s hard to find a lot of those. Our competitors tried to hire [Lewandowski], too.” But Lewandowski’s signal quality is a kind of unsmiling, nonironic loyalty that admits of no countermanding or even complicating detail; he’s like the ultimate faithful retainer, still fixedly serving his master as the mansion crumbles around him—Erich von Stroheim in “Sunset Boulevard.” He refers to Trump as “Mr. Trump” and speaks reverently about “the family,” meaning Trump’s family. When that interview with Burnett turned to how he felt about having been fired, Lewandowski said, “I’d go back and do it exactly the same way, only better. And if I did something to disappoint the family and I didn’t accomplish what they needed, then they do what they need to do, because the campaign is bigger than Corey Lewandowski.” He said he was “fully committed”—meaning fully committed to Trump. “In my private time with my family and my friends, I’m telling everybody that I know that Donald Trump is the only person who’s going to save the country for my children and, hopefully, their children someday.”

At one point, Burnett asked for a little glimpse into the process by which Trump was then picking a Vice-President. Campaign staff members are always coy about this, but there are ways of saying something moderately substantive about what the candidate’s priorities are, and, anyway, Lewandowski wasn’t working for the campaign anymore. This is what he said: “There’s been some speculation out there that people don’t want to be part of this. It’s absolutely the opposite. Every person that he has talked to, every person that he has had an interest in talking to, has reaffirmed with one-hundred-per-cent certainty that they would be absolutely welcome on the ticket.” Absolutely, one hundred per cent: you get the picture.

Lewandowski has not grown into his job since. It could still happen, I suppose. Once in a while, as Callum Borchers pointed out, in the Washington Post, Lewandowski will emit a brief display of empathy. Lewandowski’s CNN colleagues have been doing their best, and when the dogged Alisyn Camerota asked if he could understand why some people might look askance at Trump’s comments about Brexit and the falling value of the pound—namely, that they would be good for business at his golf resort in Scotland—Lewandowski said he could. “This qualifies as progress,” Borchers wrote. “He is at least capable of seeing a non-Trump point of view and granting an unfriendly premise.” Borchars continued,

For the most part, however, Lewandowski is bad television. He remains prone to spouting fiction and doesn’t stay on-topic, grinding segments to a halt as CNN hosts have to correct his misinformation or interject to steer the conversation back to the point.

Since then, some of Lewandowski’s more memorable moments have included a weird outburst with Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council and a designated liberal commentator who he’s often been paired with on air. When Quinn, gesturing, brushed his hand with hers in the midst of a heated exchange about Trump’s reaction to the Khan family, he snapped, “Don’t touch me!” And then he said it again.

This week, Lewandowski distinguished himself by reviving the birther canard—the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. One of the other panelists that night, Angela Rye, remarked, “Donald Trump has been attacking the President long before he began campaigning for this important office. He is the one who was the spokesperson of the birther movement” and “saying the President was an affirmative-action admittee of Harvard.”

Though she was bringing this up only to establish that Trump had long had it in for Obama, Lewandowski hijacked the conversation: “Did he ever release his transcripts or his admission to Harvard University? You raised the issue, so just yes or no. The answer is no.” After they had wrangled for a few more minutes, Lewandowski went full birther. “And the question was: Did he get in as a U.S. citizen, or was he brought into Harvard University as a citizen who wasn’t from this country?” he said.

Birtherism was the crucible and the template for Trump’s Presidential campaign. It foreshadowed so many of its hallmarks: dog-whistle racism, the brazen spreading of thoroughly disproven allegations, the just sayin’ tone in which Trump smears people. Advancing birtherism in the guise of political analysis is a firing offense. But then there have been so many already. Earlier this summer, Politico reported that the publisher HarperCollins was backing away from a $1.2 million offer to Lewandowski to write a book about his time on the campaign, “Let Trump Be Trump.” According to Politico, the publisher had decided that Lewandowski’s non-disclosure agreement would prevent him from producing anything valuable enough. Too bad CNN didn’t reach a similar conclusion.

Florida vs. Women and Zika — Nina Liss-Schultz in Mother Jones.

Last week, Florida authorities reported the first cases of local Zika transmission, which means that Zika-infected mosquitos are now in the continental United States. The cases prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn pregnant women against traveling to the part of Miami where the cases were found, the first advisory of its kind in the United States.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who’s been preparing for this situation for months, issued a similar message: “For women who live or work in the impacted area and are either pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, I urge you to contact your OB-GYN for guidance and to receive a Zika prevention kit.”

In June, after congressional squabbles blocked federal funding for Zika prevention and response, the Republican governor announced that he’d allocated more than $26 million in state funds, part of which would pay for CDC Zika prevention kits that consist of two kinds of mosquito repellent, tablets that kill mosquitos in water, and condoms. In late July, Scott said his office and the state Department of Health were coordinating door-to-door educational outreach in the areas of concern and working “with OB-GYNs and organizations that serve pregnant women in the impacted area to distribute Zika prevention kits to pregnant women.”

But it’s unclear whether those plans have become reality. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health wrote in an email to Mother Jones that prevention kits are available for pregnant women at OB-GYN offices, but did not specify how they were being distributed or where.

“We haven’t heard about any kits,” says Laura Goodhue, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida. Planned Parenthood hasn’t received any Zika kits from the Florida Department of Health, nor has it received any guidance from the department about how to serve pregnant women during a possible outbreak.

How ready is the state—where almost two-thirds of pregnancies are unintended and the state government has attempted to block state funding for reproductive health clinics—to take on Zika? 

Here’s the backstory: The virus, which has spread through many parts of Latin America as well as Puerto Rico, is mostly benign for adults and causes mild flu-like symptoms. But it can cause microcephaly in fetuses, a severe and debilitating birth defect, the presence of which has ignited concerns over a global public health crisis. In March, the CDC told pregnant women to avoid traveling to Zika-infected areas in Latin America. And authorities in the region, where abortion is severely restricted and contraception is often hard to come by, took the unprecedented step of asking women to hold off on having children for as long as two years.

Florida’s recent cases of Zika weren’t the state’s first. By late July, nearly 400 cases had been reported over a period of several months, including 55 involving pregnant women. But they were all travel related, meaning someone brought the virus back from a Zika-infected region outside the United States.

The confirmation that four cases of locally transmitted Zika had been reported in a neighborhood in Miami means that mosquitos carrying the virus are now in the area. The number of confirmed cases grew to 15 in a matter of days, prompting the CDC to issue its warning. Those cases are a big deal because scientists warn that infected mosquitos are necessary for the virus to really spread. (Scientists still say, however, that we should not expect a widespread Zika epidemic in the United States.)

A big part of the defense against infection for women in Florida appears to be the Zika prevention kits and OB-GYN outreach, but the Scott administration’s strategy is unclear. The Planned Parenthood affiliate operates three clinics in Miami-Dade County, which has the fourth-highest uninsured rate in the country, and another just over the border in Broward County. The women’s health care organization serves tens of thousands of people per year, many of whom are low-income and without insurance—and more likely to get pregnant by accident. As Laura Goodhue notes, they have not received a single kit.

A spokesperson for Today’s Women Medical Centers, which offers family planning, prenatal, and abortion services, also said her clinic has not heard from Gov. Scott’s office or the state Department of Health about what help to offer women facing Zika. They also do not have CDC Zika prevention kits.

Goodhue says Scott’s efforts to curtail reproductive health clinics in Florida has damaged his efforts for Zika prevention. Most recently, Scott signed a bill that would block state funding for many reproductive health clinics, including Planned Parenthood and Today’s Women Medical Centers. Planned Parenthood sued the state, and the law is not currently being enforced, but, Goodhue says, Scott “has placed barriers on affordable health care, birth control, and contraception.”

So far, the Florida Department of Health has confirmed one case of microcephaly in an infant whose mother contracted Zika while in Haiti. There are no cases of currently pregnant women with microcephaly diagnoses. But if there were, her options would be limited: the state restricts public insurance coverage for abortion, and prevents health insurance providers on the Obamacare exchange from covering abortion, with no exception for fetal anomaly. There is also a ban on abortion after 24 weeks.

Jeri Bustamante, a spokeswoman for Scott, wouldn’t comment on whether Scott’s efforts to block funding for reproductive health clinics might be undermining his fight against Zika, but she did point out that the Department of Health is now testing pregnant women for Zika at no cost, and that, for now, the virus is contained to a small neighborhood in Miami. “We want to emphasize it is just within one square mile,” she said.

How to Watch the Rio Olympics — David Sims at The Atlantic has a viewers guide.

Watching the Olympics is a multimedia experience that should be perfectly suited to the age of TV streaming. Want to catch a volleyball game without missing that day’s individual dressage? For the most part you can: Viewers are no longer shackled to time-delayed primetime broadcasts for the events they want to watch. Indeed, watching the 2016 Rio Games, which begin with the Opening Ceremony at 7:30 p.m. on Friday August 5, will be easier than ever thanks to NBC’s blanket approach to airing thousands of hours of events both on cable and online. Unfortunately, the best viewing experience will mostly entail a cable subscription, but there are a few other ways to watch in the U.S. without shelling out too many extra dollars.

NBC will broadcast the Olympics …

The network paid the dear price of $1.2 billion to secure broadcasting rights for the Rio Games. After the opening ceremony on Friday, the network will air prime-time Olympic coverage for the entire two weeks of the Games. Viewers can catch up on the day’s biggest highlights from 8 p.m. to midnight every day, presented by hosts including Bob Costas, Ryan Seacrest, Al Michaels, Rebecca Lowe, and Dan Patrick. The channel will also air live coverage for most of the day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until the Games end on August 21.

The main NBC broadcast will feature the biggest events: Swimming, gymnastics, diving, beach volleyball, and anything else the United States excels at, but it should dip into all of the most newsworthy events as they play out. Unlike the Summer Games of the recent past (which took place in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London), the games in Rio will be easier for American viewers to keep track of during the day, because the city’s time zone is only one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

… But other cable channels are airing events too

If NBC isn’t airing anything of interest, there are many other cable channels that are part of the NBCUniversal umbrella. NBC Sports will be the primary backup network, focusing on basketball and soccer. The Golf Channel will, unsurprisingly, be the home of golf, which is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. Bravo will feature tennis; CNBC has a number of events including volleyball, cycling, and wrestling; MSNBC counts rugby and water polo among its sports; Telemundo will broadcast hundreds of hours in Spanish; and USA will carry more basketball, along with beach volleyball, rowing, synchronized swimming, and more.

Cord-cutters might have a tricky time of it

Beyond that, the NBC Sports app and NBCOlympics.com will stream some 4,500 hours of events that don’t make it to TV, but you’ll need a cable login to view anything for more than 30 minutes. NBC has also been smart enough to respond to criticisms of its past Olympic coverage by further expanding the viewing options online. Still, in an era of binge-watchers and cord-cutters, the Olympics are the kind of live event that the network will try to milk for every possible dollar, younger viewers be damned.

NBC’s approach is emblematic of the new path major networks have to chart in an era where ratings are more diluted than ever. No longer can it rely on its regular prime-time hits to generate ad revenue—most of the younger generation is happy to wait for it to appear on Hulu or Netflix months later, ready for binge-watching. The Olympics have been viewed for years as a prestige event, a gaudy laurel for NBC that couldn’t possibly justify the immense cost needed to secure the broadcast rights, though that has begun to change.

But there are work-aroundsInternet-only viewers can subscribe to NBC’s cable channels through PlayStation Vue, which is available on PlayStations, Roku boxes, and Amazon Fire TV, for between $30 and $40 a month. Apple TV users can also get access to some of the channels—NBC, NBC Sports, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, and Bravo—through Sling TV, a $25-a-month TV streaming service available as an app.

What about 2020?

This year, NBC agreed to pay a staggering $7.75 billion for the rights to future Olympics through 2032. Back in 2010, the network was judged to have vastly overpaid for the Sochi Winter Games, losing hundreds of millions because of the steep price paid to broadcast them. But live events like the Olympics are increasingly the kind of coveted property that advertising executives know viewers will actually tune into, rather than relying on their DVRs so they can skip through the commercials.

The network had assumed it would lose $200 million on the 2012 London Games; it ended up breaking even, because of higher-than-expected ratings. The seemingly vast overpay for the Olympics through 2032 is a bet on the future of TV, where live events will be the main purpose of broadcasting. That’s why Comcast, the cable company that now owns NBCUniversal, is rolling out a new set-top box that will offer access to real-time high-definition Olympic streams as well as regular cable programming. The 2016 Games might be a risky proposition for the government of Brazil and the athletes attending, but they may well prove a safer bet than expected for NBC.

 Doonesbury — Shilling for Roger.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Short Takes

President Obama says Donald Trump is “unfit for duty.”

Hillary Clinton gains in national polling.

Miami Zika virus patient count up to fifteen.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton set to retire.

Tropical Update:  TS Earl forms in the Caribbean and heads west.

The Tigers extended their winning streak to seven by beating the White Sox 11-5.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

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