The Thinker

Republicans fall into their own health care trap

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s laughably named American Health Care Act bill went down in defeat yesterday. It was abruptly withdrawn before yet another planned vote Friday afternoon. Millions of Americans, particularly those who stood to lose under the law, breathed a sigh of relief. I was not surprised by its defeat. It was inevitable.

Without complete Republican control of government, it was an impossible needle to thread. Republicans don’t have total control in the Senate, although they do have a majority of its members. Thus the only way to “kill” Obamacare was to gravely wound it. It would have to be done using the Senate’s budget reconciliation process, which would leave in place the structure of the Affordable Care Act so as to avoid a filibuster. Consequently a House bill (where all financial legislation must emerge) must have met the constraints of this Senate rule to have a chance of passage. In essence that was what killed it.

House Democrats would not vote for it, which left Ryan to persuade all but twenty-two Republicans to vote for something that would meet the Senate’s budget reconciliation criteria. For members of the Freedom Caucus in the House then a vote for the bill would amount to a tacit endorsement of the ACA, the exact thing they ran against to win their seats. Attempts to make the bill more punitive were not enough because the ACA’s basic structure would still be in place. It was doomed.

Why it was doomed though is interesting and part of a larger story about the challenges of governing and points to a fatal flaw in the Republicans’ governing structure. It was doomed because the Republican Party, like all parties, is full of factions. These factions could not come together and find consensus. It was the same problem that drove former Speaker John Boehner into an early retirement. It’s okay to be true to your principles as long as you know doing so won’t affect anything. Republicans could to this during the Obama Administration, passing more than fifty votes to wholly repeal the ACA. These were acts of symbolism and statement, not actual legislating. When you control Congress but you still can’t move legislation for the same reasons, these principled but unmoving factions become self-defeating.

If they compromised, the Freedom Caucus effectively continued the health care legislation they so revile, albeit in a crippled form. Yet by not compromising they undermine their own cause. It’s like being in a battle and wounding your opponent instead of killing him. In their eyes, the only option is to kill. They ran not on a “no Obama” platform but a “never Obama” platform. This left them no place to go toward, at least not without embracing hypocrisy.

Much has been written about the polarization of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Right now with Republicans controlling Congress this polarization affects the whole Republican agenda. The only legislation that can go forward will be bills that have general Republican consensus and can survive Senate filibusters or can be narrowly written to pass the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Republicans are going to find more success in these areas like tax cuts. Where factions inside a party don’t agree and won’t compromise, progress is impossible.

What fascinated me was how big the explosion was yesterday. It tarred the whole Republican brand. It showed that Trump’s claims of being a master negotiator were simply bluster. He could not deliver on this promise that he said would be easy. It proved that Paul Ryan couldn’t govern using the normal legislative process. His only hope was to draft something in secret and try to rush it through the House. It was a very long pass indeed. Given a lack of an offensive coordinator it’s no surprise that he didn’t have a player in the far end of the field to catch the ball.

The Affordable Care Act, as imperfect as it was, was at least a process of a lot of open discussion and back and forth negotiating. Republicans were offered a seat at the table but refused to sit down, leaving it to Democrats to write the bill. Even that turned out to be long and tortuous and resulted in many of the flaws that affect the ACA today, principally the lack of a public option. But at least Democrats were able to get the ball somewhat down the field. In doing so Americans got a taste of what affordable health insurance was like. The nearly visceral reaction to Ryan’s bill, approved by only 17% of Americans based on a recent Quinnipiac poll, demonstrates that what was proposed was deeply reviled.

Withdrawing the bill was a bad option but the best available. Had it gone to a vote a whole lot more House and Senate seats would be in jeopardy in 2018. As it is though it left a bad taste in Americans’ mouths. It demonstrated that Republicans largely have forgotten how to govern and this is a problem they own by empowering the far right to gain the majority. Trump was elected based on his so-called “talent” to get things done. Expect few things to change in government in the years ahead and that due to this disillusionment and being in charge that Republicans will be paying a heavy price.

 
The Thinker

London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

 
The Thinker

London, Part 2 (Ancient London)

Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.

Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.

Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.

 

Roman wall in London

Roman wall in London

Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.

For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.

It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.

St. Brides, arguably London's oldest church

St. Brides, arguably London’s oldest church

Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.

Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.

 
The Thinker

London, Part 1

Eleven years ago I made my first trip to Europe. Then it was France, but mostly Paris. Last week it was England, but mostly London. My ancestors came from England, at least those on my father’s side. My father lived 89 years and never saw his ancestral home. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see England. I think my late father would have found the visit as deeply satisfying as I did.

Ah to be in England, now that spring is here! Although it was technically still winter while we were there, spring was in the air. You could smell it in the flowering trees and see it on the flowers of the lawn at Windsor Castle. Yes, far further north it was much more temperate. While we were gone Mother Nature left another foot of snow at our home in western Massachusetts. England, known for endless dreary and often wet days, treated us pretty well. The sun was out most days, highs generally hit the high 50s (Fahrenheit) but the wind was often bracing, particularly on Saturday when a bus journey out of London took us to Stonehenge. There will be more on that later.

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but until you go someplace you never really quite know whether you will like what you find. London though turned out to be the city of my dreams. In retirement I moved much closer to nature, but in temperament I am more a cosmopolitan kind of guy. London is arguably the best, largest and most prosperous large city in the world. Its major downside is that most of us cannot afford to live there. With prices comparable to living in New York City, it’s not for the monetarily challenged. A decent apartment in one of the nicer parts of the city will run you £3000 or so a month, which works out to about $3700. On the plus side, if you can manage to pay the rent, you shouldn’t need a car. London’s Underground goes practically everywhere, and it does so briskly and efficiently.

Arguably the Underground is the city’s most impressive achievement. You rarely wait more than a minute for a train once you are on the platform. On the major lines you have options on both sides of the track with all trains going in the same direction. The Tube is massive, extremely clean and very well maintained with some lines, like the Piccadilly Line, two long escalator rides belong the primary line. Running almost as frequently as these underground trains are the many double decker buses crisscrossing the streets. This investment in transportation is beyond massive, but it pays for itself in the connections and possibilities it allows. If only the U.S.A. could get this enlightened it would probably be a lot more prosperous.

Overall London is a mixture of old and modern, but it rarely looks shabby. One of my favorite streets in Washington, D.C. when I lived near there was Connecticut Avenue. Yet it’s just one street. In London, most of the city looks like Connecticut Avenue: endless blocks of midrise housing, usually with businesses along the streets and mostly well maintained. Some streets, particularly close to the city center, are much more commercial: hotels, banks, theaters and just enormous amounts of restaurants, most reasonably priced. We never had a bad meal mainly because we had no reason to eat “English” food. But we did eat one dinner at an honest to God English pub, on a “mew”, sort of like an alleyway where the servants usually hung out. It was good dining if a bit peculiar (you ordered at the bar).

London is a great big melting pot, but more white than black and more Asian than Hispanic. I actually saw more people of color back in Washington, D.C. but like D.C. you can hear most languages spoken in London too. For the most part the people look good and seem healthy, thanks in part to their National Health Service. There are homeless in London, but they are actually hard to find. For the most part anyone who wants to work can find work and the wages are generally enough to live decently, even if you may have to commute quite a ways to find more affordable housing. It’s a city that glows and buzzes that is awesomely massive in size. Cranes are everywhere. Scaffolding contractors are everywhere too, helping to maintain the brick facades of buildings hundreds of years old. There are plenty of cars on the roads too, mostly belonging to those with deeper pockets. It’s unclear to me why anyone would want the hassle of a car in London. And yes, cars drive on the left side of the road there, which for me meant mentally checking myself before crossing streets because the dynamics of the flow were the opposite of what I expected.

Obviously this is the most recent incarnation of London. It retains sketchy neighborhoods, but overall it feels and is a safe place to live and work. The opportunities in the city are endless. Every major company has a presence here, but London is anchored by its banking sector in the City of London. Yes, there is a City of London, but it is just a tiny part of the London metropolitan area, which is broken up into many independent boroughs. In the real city you will see little but banks, insurance companies and tall, skinny men in black suits and white shirts doing important stuff that is hard to quantify but must pay very well indeed.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

The Thames River splits the city between its northern and southern sides. The northern side is considered tonier, but many of the prime attractions are on the south side. The Thames really moves, mostly due to tidal forces that push water inland then move it out hours later, creating strong currents. London Bridge is actually on its third iteration and this latest one fields nearly as many pedestrians as cars. Lots of bridges cross the Thames, but Tower Bridge near the old city and the infamous Tower of London is probably the one that you will mistake for London Bridge.

London is a mixture of new, old and ancient. Come along with me on our journey.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness posts suspended

Tomorrow the missus and me cross the pond to spend eight days in London, taking in shows and stuff. We’ll also tour both London and England for the first time, unless you count flying over it. Mostly we’ll be in London, but we’ll spend Saturday seeing Stonehenge, Oxford and Windsor castle, and then come home.

Frankly, I need a break. I’m hoping for at least a few days that the woes of the Trump Administration and our Republican congress will recede from my mind. I need to be somewhere where things operate somewhat normally, as opposed to the United States where the lunatics are running the asylum, or at least ineptly trying to do so.

I was late in doing my monthly review of Craigslist casual encounters posts this month. I was planning to catch up on it today until I looked at my February statistics. I got no less than 128 requests for these posts in February – lower than average – but February’s overall statistics are down as well, just 872 page views, part of a long term trend. While these post represented a healthy 15% of overall traffic, it also suggests that since readership in general is going down it may be due to search engines ranking my blog lower because of these posts.

So I’m going to stop, at least for a few months, and see if maybe traffic improves. While this may deter some of you Craigslist fans from visiting this blog (and I hope it doesn’t) it may bring in new visitors too. We’ll see. And in time maybe these posts will look fresh and funny again. A few years back mining the Craigslist casual encounters garbage once a month seemed an obvious thing to do as I was getting dozens of hits a day just on these posts. Maybe its time as a way to grab the eyes of web surfers has passed.

If you can’t get enough but don’t have the patience to surf through all the current postings, please browse my plentiful Craigslist tag archive.

 
The Thinker

Slowly boiling the frog

Yesterday House Speaker Paul Ryan finally released a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, i.e. Obamacare. The bill came out of the Capitol basement, literally, where it was under lock and key. Wonks are still sorting through the bill, which hasn’t been scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The plan is not to repeal Obamacare, but to effectively put it out in the desert and wait for it to die a natural death. The expectation is that if done this way Republicans won’t get blamed for its demise. Perhaps slowly and over time as subsidies are lessened, health insurance companies drop out and both revenue and cost containment parts of Obamacare go away no one will notice that Republicans actually killed it.

Meanwhile, it’s important to ram it through as quickly as possible before legislators have a chance to consider its implications, the big ones being the impact on their reelections. Reading the early tealeaves suggests this bill is more likely to die than survive. A majority of the Tea Party members are against it as they see it as a continuation of Obamacare. Meanwhile, at last count four Republican senators suggest that they will vote against it, meaning that if it gets to the Senate as a reconciliation bill (where a simple majority rules) the votes won’t be there to enact it. Curiously these senators are from states that chose to accept the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare. They are keenly aware that many of those voting for them have found they like their Obamacare Medicaid, even if they didn’t like it enough to vote for Hillary Clinton for president.

So like past similar attempts to take away benefits citizens have come to expect, the strategy seems to be to use smoke and mirrors to obscure what it really going on. The idea is to boil the frog slowly. You don’t want the frog to jump out so make sure to turn up the heat shortly after Election Day. So keep the Medicaid part of the ACA and kill it by stealth. Cap enrollment after three years. Also make it hard for those on Medicaid who find decent employment to reapply if their luck takes a turn for the worse. Then cap the amount of money states will get. Since there is nothing in the legislation to restrain costs other than the hope that Health Savings Accounts will make consumers shop around more, effectively states will end up covering fewer people, which means the ranks of the uninsured will grow again. This is exactly as God has intended, in the eyes of Republicans.

You can tell what Republicans really care about by what goes away almost instantly. To start, all those taxes on higher earners that effectively subsidized health insurance for those of more modest means. This has the effect of depleting the Medicare Trust Fund much sooner. This should not surprise anyone because if there is one thing Republicans always agree on is that people should carry their own weight, even when it’s impossible.

Just today Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) opined that the poors should stop spending money on $700 iPhones and use it for health insurance instead, even though $700 won’t even begin to pay the annual deductibles for the discount basic health insurance plans. Clueless Republicans like Chaffetz prefer to live in La La Land, you know where you will shop around for medical discounts even though when you usually need health care, it requires urgency. It’s hard to shop around for a discount emergency room when you are bleeding to death, unless you prefer to bleed to death while trying. This appears to be what Republicans really want. If you can’t afford insurance then naturally you shouldn’t get any.

Don’t fret too much. Obamacare isn’t dead yet but it’s already bleeding profusely from inattention. It is lying on the sidewalk and is having trouble staggering to its feet. So it’s dying a slow death, mostly due to lack of consensus on how to fix it. That’s because only the Democrats want to fix it. The Affordable Care Act was launched with the expectation that its flaws would be fixed by a future Congress working (here’s the funny part) in the best interest of the American people. What it really did was give uninsured people a taste of what it feels like to be insured. What they discovered is what the rest of us discovered: it’s great, except for the paying for it part, which is hard even with subsidies.

Real insurance is basically risk mitigation. I pay homeowner’s insurance but it’s likely I’ll never get back in benefits what I pay in premiums. If my house burns down though I won’t regret paying those premiums. Health insurance works similarly but not identically. It works better when everyone participates and it works best with intelligent government oversight. Effectively the young subsidize the old because they require fewer services. Take away the mandate to have insurance as the bill allows and the pool gets older and sicker. Unsurprisingly, rates go up.

Health insurance though also requires redistribution of wealth. So the young don’t entirely subsidize the old and the sick. Most require subsidies of their own to afford the insurance. The rich have the money so it’s logical that they should provide the subsidies. When the rich don’t subsidize the insurance pool anymore, it raises costs for all left in the insurance pool. Given the rules of supply and demand costs will go up and as they do fewer will be able to afford insurance at all.

There is no way to stick this Republican square peg of a bill into the round hole of health insurance because it does not recognize the way health care actually works. In fact it actively works to undercut it. All of this is fine with Republicans. Like block grants to states without accountability that shrinks every year, the goal is to make the existing system more dysfunctional every year with little oversight and no accountability.

The irony is that most Republicans really aren’t hostile to the idea of health insurance for everyone. They just refuse to have it based in part on the transfer of some wealth from the rich to the poor. If before the system collapses altogether we add a trillion dollars in new deficits, those deficits don’t matter. The money that does matter is the amounts in their bank accounts.

As for the rest of us, we’ll be bleeding on the sidewalk too.

 
The Thinker

Judgment Day? Dear God, please start at the White House

For being “retired”, life sure is keeping me busy, too busy to find much time to blog. The thing about being retired is that you can do anything you want. For me this means doing more of the stuff I love, which is teaching and consulting, both of which provide some income too. Blogging doesn’t bring in any money so it tends to sit on the back burner some weeks. For the last two weeks or so I’ve had little downtime.

I’ve not been at a loss for topics though, which is why I’ve decided to skip for now my monthly Craigslist casual encounters post (sorry, fans!). Mostly I’ve been thinking about evil and by extension evil people. There are so many sterling examples of late, particularly the people in the White House. My brother-in-law, one of the few right-wingers in my life, posted a picture of Trump and a bunch of his execs in the White House praying, or pretending to pray. His remark was something like: “Something you never saw in the last administration, ha ha! Isn’t it good to have real Christians in the White House?”

Trump and staff hypocritically "praying"

Trump and staff hypocritically “praying”

Yeah, right. I’m careful not to leave snarky comments with Rick, my brother in law. I have to live with him and he’s a good husband to my sister too. We can easily push each other’s buttons but choose not too and arguably I’m more publicly expressive of my opinions than he is of his.

Yet the photo really irked me. First of all, I sincerely doubt Trump has uttered a sincere prayer in his life, unless it was to plead to God to bring him more money. Second, for all of Obama’s haphazard churchgoing, Obama is something of a regular churchgoer compared to Trump. As best I can tell the only time Trump goes to church is to attend weddings, funerals and more recently political events. At a prayer breakfast in February he used the religious occasion to pray for poor ratings for The Apprentice, now that Arnold Schwarzenegger in playing the boss.

As for the rest of these White House “Christians”, Jesus would not recognize any of them as his followers. I won’t expound here about hypocritical Christians in general because I’ve done so many time, including this post. I … just … don’t … get … it. I don’t get how these “Christians” can believe they are Christian. I don’t believe Trump thinks he’s a Christian and I doubt he spends a millisecond thinking about God or concerning himself with the poor, except to pick their pockets.

The whole lot of these White House stoolies are running as fast as they can away from The Lord, by doing their damnedest to make the rich richer and the poor poorer (not to mention kill the planet) while trying desperately to humiliate the poor in the process. Include in this bunch my brother in law Rick, a faithful Catholic in the sense that he goes to Mass weekly, tithes his share but otherwise lives values wholly inconsistent with Christianity. Ironically, some of the most Christian people I know are atheists. In the unlikely event of the Rapture, I totally expect most of today’s “Christians” will be dumbstruck when their atheist neighbors ascend into heaven while the pit of hell opens up for them. It’s like Matthew 19:21 is excised from their Bibles, you know: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

Speaking of brothers in law, I have another one, well, not quite a brother in law, but the husband of a niece. We recently got into something of a civilized rant on Facebook. My niece was wondering if there were any really great men in the world. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. I said: drive a couple of hundred miles south to Plains, Georgia some Sunday and watch the 39th president, James Earl Carter, teach Sunday school. Or watch him, age 90-something, nailing boards into walls at one of the many Habitat for Humanity houses he and his organization help construct. Jimmy Carter gives me hope that there really are some true Christians in the world. After all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Carter Center has overseen more than a hundred elections, spreading democracy across the world.

But none of that mattered to my niece’s husband John. He has spent too much time watching Fox News. And somewhere in there he heard that Carter sent money to commies, Manuel Noriega of Nicaragua in this case, although we’re talking about the late 1970s. What a horrible man! Granted that history was not kind to his short presidency, but he did get a Nobel Prize from it and took unpopular but correct actions, such as agreeing to turn the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians. We kept the discourse pretty civil, largely due to his wife Sandy who was probably sending him IMs saying she wanted to stay on my good side. Alas, neither John nor brother in law Rick have anything good to say about Jimmy Carter, the most prominent example of a true Christian I can think of in today’s world. Jimmy Carter is by no means a saint, but he is a saintly man. He is holy in my mind, one of a handful of holy men in this world for who this honor should be obvious.

But not to John, not to Rick, and probably not to any of them people in the photo, except possibly the minister leading these hypocrites in prayer. Doubtless immediately after the photo op, the base applauded their “true Christians” while the subjects went back to deconstructing the administrative state, the professed aim of Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon which hopefully will include a new world war too.

I wish I could be a Christian just long enough to believe in Hell. With a few exceptions, I’m having a hard time thinking of a group of people more deserving to spend eternity there than the hypocrites in the photo. Fortunately, Jesus loves even dregs of humanity like them, even though their sacred mission seems to be to facilitate Satan by making more Americans poor, sick, hungry, anxious and scared.

Well, I’m not a Christian. Although I don’t believe in hell, here’s a toast wishing them a speedy entrance to it anyhow. The whole bunch of you in that photo can go to hell.

 
The Thinker

The Democratic Party at the crossroads

By all indications, Trump is on a roll, if being on a roll means heading speedily downhill, like his ratings. His dismal 38% approval rating is unprecedented. Presidents have gotten lower ratings (most famously George W. Bush near the end of his administration) but not this soon after taking office. Trump can compare himself to Jimmy Carter, who also started his term with more disapproving him than approving him, but in Trump’s case it’s by larger margins.

As I said in my last post, I’d hand Trump an anvil but he doesn’t need it. He’s got one already, thank you and against all reasonable political instincts (which he is largely bereft of) he thinks it’s a hot air balloon instead. Trump is famously doubling down and playing to his base, but his base is pretty much his approval rating. This does not bode well for Republicans in 2018 and his reelection prospects in 2020. More savvy Republicans are already looking for ways to hang on and cut their losses. When not avoiding town halls they are subtly distancing themselves from him, at least in less red districts. Some are suggesting that repealing Obamacare maybe isn’t such a great idea after all.

Midterms are typically an assessment of the president and favor the party out of power. By that standard Democrats should do well in 2018 and the more Trump doubles down the better they will do. Taking back the Senate is still unlikely because Democrats have more seats to defend, and in redder states. Taking back the House is likely even with the existing extreme gerrymandering.

If you are a Democrat, things should be looking up even though things seem pretty bleak at the moment. Only 23% of Americans self identify as Republicans, a record low. This means the Republican Party’s lock on government is largely due to gerrymandering, which means it is artificial. It’s no surprise then that Republican states are working hard to further disenfranchise voters they don’t want voting. Their efforts were largely successful in 2016 so we should be no means count them out.

Unsurprisingly Democrats are craving a return to power. They would be wise not to expect it to be handed to them through Republican ineptness. That Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, clearly the worst major candidate for president in modern times, suggests they should be introspective right now. Many of us Democrats are mystified by our loss last year. I certainly was. I was right on the general dynamics (Hillary won by nearly 3 million votes) but she lost anyhow because of our biased Electoral College system. She lost principally because she could not persuade enough moderates in swing states to vote for her. Her approval rates during the campaign were always underwater, as were Trump’s.

Exactly why weren’t more of the right kinds of voters persuaded to vote for her, in spite of Trump’s numerous faults? Hillary had baggage and his name was Bill. This more than anything likely had to do with her lack of success when it mattered. For it was Bill Clinton that fundamentally changed the Democratic Party. The party lost its soul with his election and it’s still trying to recover it.

Bill Clinton was in many ways our first “Republican” Democratic president. He got through legislation that no Democrat would have dreamed of introducing, let alone passing. Bill thought he was being smart and the truth is Bill was and is devilishly smart. He invented the “triangulate your way to success” strategy that worked great for keeping him in office. Using it, he got legislation through Congress that likely would not have happened at all had George H. W. Bush been reelected. Consider:

  • Bill got the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) written into law. Independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992 predicted it would result in the loss of much of our manufacturing base and it did, and much more. In the process Democrats lost a lot of its voters who previously saw Democrats as working in their interest. NAFTA created a “you’re on your own” message to American workers. Previously Democrats were zealously protecting the working class.
  • Bill worked with Republicans to reform welfare. Benefits were time limited but in general turned out to be less generous than the old AFDC program. In doing so he lost much of the party’s poor base as well, or at least made them less eager to vote for Democrats.
  • Bill worked to deregulate the banks and Wall Street and brought in a whole new “corporate” wing of the party. It kept him in power but it didn’t really broaden the tent. By bringing in Wall Street, others found they had nothing in common with the party anymore but could find common cause with Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. It was hard to tell the fat cat Democratic Party from the similar Republican one.

Each of these was a major accomplishment that Republicans could probably not have done on their own. But Republicans working with a Republican-friendly Democratic president made these things to happen. In doing so Clinton fundamentally changed the Democratic Party.

It is certainly true that Clinton did many things that progressives liked. While these were not insignificant (Family Medical Leave Act, record expansion of jobs, high homeownership rate in history, increasing Pell grants) they really paled compared to these other actions as for its effect on the party. Clinton also gets credit for events that were outside of his control. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was due to the tech revolution underway and the end of the Cold War. He did little to facilitate or shepherd the tech revolution. In any event, lots of jobs went overseas and many traditional Democrats did not feel the party represented them anymore.

Once in Congress, Hillary Clinton proved to be more like Bill than Bernie Sanders. She voted for two wars and took large amounts of money from wealthy Wall Street types. And she felt fine cashing in after leaving her Secretary of State position by giving speeches at inflated prices, often on Wall Street. No wonder then that so many thought she was not genuine. In any event there was little in her record that suggested she would really be a champion for the working class if elected. There was nothing in Trump’s record either, but his lack of a record was an asset. Clinton was a proven insider who had tuned out the working class. With Trump, at least you couldn’t say for sure he wasn’t.

With Trump’s foolishness comes opportunity for Democrats. Will Democrats figure it out this time? We’ll know soon, as the party will soon elect its next national chairman. We must win back these voters. If the next party chairman is another friend of Wall Street then gains will be fleeting at best for Democrats. In the eyes of many Americans, there is little difference between the two parties, as they will screw the working class either way.

However, if the Democratic Party returns to its roots and becomes a populist party again, it may recover its impressive historic strength. It looks like Rep. Keith Ellison will be the next DNC chair. This is a hopeful sign, because Keith seems to get this. If so the Democratic Party may be pulling away at last from the arguably disastrous Clinton years and back to representing the people that matter: the poor and working classes. We are the bulk of the country. Truly working in our interest and the party’s hold on power will be more predictable instead of ephemeral in the years ahead.

 
The Thinker

Four weeks in, a Trump update

At four weeks into the Trump Administration things are about as bleak as I expected them to be. And yet there are signs of hope. The Trump Administration so far has proven staggeringly inept. Moreover, the protests arising to his administration are passionate, largely organic and growing in intensity.

Trump’s stubbornness and dogged determination to prefer loyalists to insiders has had the predictable result of causing confusion and chaos, which amounts to little of his agenda getting worked on. You might say his ship of state is still in dry dock. A number of cabinet nominees have been approved. One was rejected, and one approved only due to an unprecedented vote in the Senate by his vice president. His administration is clearly divided given the crazy number of leaks coming out of the place. One of my guilty pleasures is reading the @RoguePOTUSStaff Twitter feed. Is this really one or more people inside the White House close to Trump? There is no way to know for sure but comparing the posts with events just some hours later, it has the whiff of being the real deal.

The more outrageous our president becomes, the more ineffectual and hated he becomes too. It’s proving to be his Achilles Heel. In some ways the best way to get rid of Trump is to let Trump be Trump. I’d hand him an anvil but he doesn’t seem to need one. This approach works provided he does not do something that seriously jeopardizes our national security while he is in office. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if he is or has, but it’s clear our intelligence agencies are leery about conveying too much to Trump, particularly their sources and methods. This reportedly has Trump irate and his CIA director proclaiming they are not doing this. Given that Trump said during the campaign that his campaign was in touch with the Russian government and that he approved of their hacking of the DNC, it’s completely reasonable to think he may be facilitating espionage, which is a crime BTW.

Just the other day six staffers were escorted out of the White House for failing to clear a background investigation. Trump would definitely fail one but none is required if you win the presidency. Meanwhile, Trump thinks that making war with the press is a good thing, when it simply makes the press dig in their heels more. It doesn’t take much press digging with leaks sprouting all over the place. These leaks paint a picture of an administration that is deeply dysfunctional and riven with political intrigue. Anyhow, to make himself feel better Trump scheduled a campaign event tonight in Florida. “Campaign event?” you might reasonably ask. Yes. He filed for the 2020 nomination the same day he was sworn in. I guess you can see where his priorities lie.

All this has congressional Republicans pretty miffed but for the moment they are largely sitting on their hands. They have been chomping at the bit to exercise power again but instead they are busy on other things, like endless hearings for nominated officials. That makes it hard to do things like repeal Obamacare. Meanwhile, protesters are busy making their feelings about the ACA and other things known to their legislators, going all Tea Party-ish, just in a leftward direction this time. Legislators are fleeing public events so they don’t have to deal with their anger. To the extent they meet with people it’s only with people they know are on their side. The ruckus though is enough to give some legislators pause, particularly many in the House who are forced to run for reelection every two years. Their tightly gerrymandered districts don’t look as safe anymore. Midterm elections usually favor the party out of power, although with so many Senate seats in Democratic hands up in 2018 the dynamics might not work out in the Senate. But clearly there is visceral anger on the left and for a change it’s pretty effective. It’s making some rethink the idea of repealing Obamacare, at least without a “replace” option that Republicans seem unable to create.

Still, it’s a period of high danger for the country. We have a new EPA administrator who wants to get rid of pollution laws and his agency and a new Secretary of Education who never attended a public school and who is so controversial she has to travel with U.S. marshals. And that’s just on the domestic side. No one can read the foreign policy tealeaves. Trump doesn’t want Israel to build more settlements but doesn’t want a two-state solution with Palestine. He’s been working the phone with China although he called them our biggest enemy. Oh wait, that’s the press. It’s so hard to keep up with it all. And most surprisingly, it’s apparently okay have ad hoc meetings on dealing with a North Korean missile test in his resort’s dining room at Mar-a-Lago.

Despite high profile appointments, a lot of these lofty goals will simply not be realized as long as Democrats retain forty-one seats in the Senate. That means the EPA and the Department of Education won’t be abolished, or really any other agency for that matter. These agencies can certainly be reorganized to be much less effective but they won’t be going away. Appropriation bills are the vulnerable spot since in the Senate they are not subject to filibuster. We can hope that the dynamics of dysfunction continue so that Republicans spend much of their energy fighting with each other instead of the country.

I doubt Trump will see out the end of his term. It seems likelier to me now than it did that if necessary Republicans in Congress will find ways to bring Trump down, particularly if it looks like he will be toxic to the party’s chances in 2018. There are plenty of paths to Trump’s impeachment and removal and doubtless more will surface. With only 39% of Americans approving of Trump, it may begin sooner than we think.

 
The Thinker

Two quick movie reviews

In this better late than never post, here are reviews of two movies I’ve seen lately, although lately means “some weeks ago”.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Fantastic beasts and where to find them should delight both those steeped in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world as well as the rest of us. Count me in the latter camp. Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, you will enjoy this finely crafted and inventive movie.

“Newt Scamander” (Rowling) published a book of the same name in 2001. It was short and not particularly noteworthy, more of an oddity for the obsessed Harry Potter fan. It discussed some obscure magical beasts unmentioned in other books. Fifteen years later Rowling turned it into a screenplay set in the bustling 1920s. Unsurprisingly, she proves adept writing screenplays. In the movie, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple and is hardly off the boat before some of his magical creatures stuffed in his suitcase begin wreaking mischief in the New World.

This causes considerable consternation because the wizards across the pond are much more buttoned down than their British peers. Thus begins a series of unfortunate events for Newt that quickly involves people he meets along the way. One woman he quickly encounters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has already encountered misfortune from MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) and has been demoted, only to encounter more when she tries to muzzle Sean’s escaping magical creatures. The applecart tips even further when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with an aspiring baker forced to work in a cannery and the muggle gets exposed to their wizardly world. Both Tina and Newt get the ultimate punishment (death) but of course events intervene that keep the execution from executing. These include the release of an Obscurus, a parasite that kills girls that don’t develop their magical talents.

There are many delights in this movie: a fine rendering of New York in the 1920s, understated but authentic-feeling characters, a rich magical ecosystem, a sweet but forbidden romance between wizard and muggle, and a whole new variant of wizardry practiced in the United States for Potter fans to delve into. There are also fine actors like Redmayne, Colin Farrell (playing Percival Graves) and Jon Voight (as a U.S. senator). What’s especially nice is how well the ensemble plays together, thanks to director David Yates. But it is mostly Rowling’s sharp vision of this earlier magical world that works so well. Without Voldemort, it has a lighter feel but it moves along at a happy but brisk pace, resulting in a highly engaging movie even for us muggles.

It’s thoroughly delightful and should push everyone’s buttons. So naturally it has no chance at the upcoming Academy Awards. Alas.

3.4 out of 4 points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Hidden figures

Speaking of the Academy Awards, Hidden Figures is one of the movies nominated for Best Picture, and deservedly so, unlike the overrated La La Land. But it probably won’t win because it takes place in Virginia and it features black women. So many stories like this never get turned into movies, so perhaps we should be grateful this one did. The bonus is that it is done so well.

In 1962, Virginia was still an officially segregated state, which makes the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson even more surprising. They were pivotal in the success of America’s space program but they had the double whammy of being both black and women. Working for NASA at Langley Air Force Base, each were well-educated black women hired by NASA to help the USA win the space race. The movie mostly focuses on Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), a brilliant mathematician thrown into the white male scientist world of NASA. To say the least, she is a fish out of water. While America is not quite ready for a manned suborbital flight, the Soviets have already put Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The pressure is on the nerds at Langley to figure out an engineering solution to put an American astronaut into space and, the harder question, figure out how to return the astronaut home safely. Here Katherine will prove pivotal.

To say the least it’s awkward for Katherine in this white male domain, and it’s awkward for us viewers to confront the segregation of the time too. It means Kate has to walk half a mile to use a restroom, because she must use one for coloreds only. The Space Task Group’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) seems blind to her obstacles that also includes discomfort from the men in the group. For example, they won’t let her drink coffee from their coffee pot. Meanwhile across campus in the colored building, Dorothy (Octavia Spenser) has all the duties of supervisor but neither the title nor its pay as she and her group of black women work at solving various mathematical problems for NASA at a huge discount compared to white women. Her white supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) seems inured to her issues. Mary (Janelle Monáe) meanwhile wants to get an engineering degree, but finds she can’t. A course she needs is taught only at a whites-only school. They can at least share a car ride together to Langley and commiserate. Katherine, a widow with two daughters at home, finds an attractive officer at Sunday services, who becomes important in her life and heart (Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali).

As someone who grew up during the space race, I do recall the heady feeling of those days. Competition between the Soviet Union and the USA brought out the best. It’s that need to succeed which allows Harrison to eventually put his own prejudices aside, as Kate becomes integral to the success of their mission. To say the least Kate is gifted, but all these women are. Dorothy has the good sense to learn their IBM mainframe, needed for rocket trajectory computations, and figures out how to program it using this language called FORTRAN. The white shirt guys can’t seem to figure it out and she wants to keep her team employed. Ironically, computer programming was considered women’s work back then, beneath men.

This movie has a combination of superb acting and a compelling story plus the thrill of watching some amazing women succeed despite the odds. If you missed the space race, this takes you into its heart. In 1962 the world was rapidly changing. All three women give terrific performances, as do Costner and Dunst. It took 55 years, but Hollywood finally gave these largely unknown black women their due. Of the Oscar nominees I have seen, this is my choice for Best Picture.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 

Switch to our mobile site