Category Archives: Random Blogging

If Facts Matter….

I’m one of those people who has pretty much “checked out” of the day-to-day hysteria of the Presidential campaign. (I’m old, and there’s only so much I can take….). So I decided not to watch the first debate, reasoning–I think correctly–that my impressions would be irrelevant anyway.

What ultimately matters is the ensuing “conventional wisdom.”

The consensus from all the sources I’ve seen is that Hillary won pretty convincingly. I’m sure the twitter feeds of the white supremacists, and the Facebook feeds of the “deplorables” say otherwise, but reports from credible media, the prediction markets, and  TV news anchors have been pretty consistent.

One news segment was particularly telling. Frank Luntz is a longtime GOP “message mavin.” We have him to thank for the (mis)use of political language: “death tax” rather than estate tax, for example. He is also known for the focus groups he assembles; somehow, in these polarized times, he finds voters who are undecided, has them watch campaign events, and then questions them on their reactions.

The group he’d gathered for the debate was asked, on camera, who won. Five people said Trump; sixteen said Clinton. Luntz said the margin was the largest of any group he’d previously assembled.

For those of us who actually care about substance, there were a number of sites doing fact-checking. Anyone who wasn’t previously aware that Trump occasionally lies (but only when he’s talking) could scroll through the real-time corrections and compare the consistent challenges to Trump’s statements with the virtual absence of corrections to Clinton’s.

For us ordinary people who always, dutifully, did our homework, probably the most confounding element of the 90 minutes was Trump’s obvious lack of preparation–a lack that received a great deal of comment. The Orange One evidently couldn’t be bothered to study, to actually educate himself about the complexities of governance. He apparently believed he could “wing it.” Evidently, he believes Presidents can just “wing it,” too.

The real question, of course, won’t be answered until election day, and that is: how many Americans will base their votes on the best interests of the country, and how many will support an angry, delusional and demonstrably ignorant bigot who defends and deepens their resentment of a  world they find unfair and their conviction that those “others” are to blame?

 

A Different Drug War

A recent post at Daily Kos considered a different and less recognized “drug war.”

Let’s talk about the other drug war: The one being waged against the American consumer by the pharmaceutical companies who benefit from our tax dollars that fund basic scientific research and make up the difference in the tax relief they receive for their own research and development.

The post was prompted by the recent steep increase in the price of the Epi-Pen. Among other disclosures, it turns out that the company that manufactures the pen had moved its headquarters to the Netherlands in 2014, a move that allowed its tax rate to fall from 14 percent to its current 7 percent.

The fact that the company and its well-connected management are making out like bandits by stiffing those who need the devices is bad enough, but as the post points out, it isn’t even recovering its own costs of research and development.

The mechanical device in the EpiPen to deliver epinephrine was developed in the 1970s by a NASA engineer. It was designed for the rapid self-injection of antidotes to chemical warfare agents in battle, and in 1987 it was approved by the FDA for use with epinephrine. Epinephrine itself is a human hormone, first isolated by Japanese scientists in 1901. So the drug couldn’t be patented, although the device itself, the same one created by a government employee, was. The logical assumption, of course, is that a technology developed by a NASA engineer would be owned by all Americans. But it is not.

This is an excellent example of the Achilles heel of arguments advanced by drug companies defending exorbitant prices.

Big Pharma makes the case–correct as far as it goes–that the development of new therapies is expensive. Many promising avenues of research fail to pan out; testing and the regulatory process for vetting drugs is expensive and time consuming. If companies are to continue to sink money into the development of life-saving drugs, they need a financial incentive to do so–a promise that they will recoup their costs and make a reasonable profit.

What they don’t mention is that significant percentages of drug development costs are paid for by government grants–by the many millions of taxpayer dollars that support medical research. (They also don’t mention that, by some calculations, Big Pharma spends more on those interminable television ads than on research. Purple pill, anyone?)

It is especially galling that American consumers are charged more for drugs developed with substantial taxpayer support than consumers of those same drugs in other countries. It would be one thing if our tax dollars subsidized the cost of medications across the board, but it is really unconscionable that the same people whose taxes helped pay for the development of medications are also being charged more for those medications.

Lobbyists for the drug companies have managed to get laws passed that prohibit U.S. government agencies from negotiating drug prices as other countries do. At a bare minimum, those laws need to be repealed.

 

False Equivalence, Delusion-Grade

Tomorrow night is the first Presidential debate, so this seems like a good time to get something off my chest.

I’m fed up with assertions that the candidates are equally flawed, that either would be a “disaster”–as if there is anything remotely comparable between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And I don’t think I’m the only one who finds those assertions dishonest and self-serving.

I understand the propaganda when it comes from people who don’t want to admit, even to themselves, that their support of Donald Trump is rooted in his–and their–bigotries. I don’t understand it coming from people who actually understand that we are hiring a chief executive for an incredibly demanding job, and who disclaim support for Trump, but then say they will vote for a third party or not at all–both actions an effective, if indirect, vote for him.

I participate in a listserv focused on Law and Courts. It’s a conversation between political scientists and law professors whose academic research centers on legal and constitutional issues and the ways that judges approach and resolve those issues. A recent thread about impeachment law included a post from a (male) scholar who expressed his distaste for both candidates in a fashion that suggested such a near equivalency; that post generated a response that is worth sharing in its entirety.

I categorically reject the idea that one could put Hillary Clinton in the same category as Donald Trump vis-a-vis “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Absurd. Clinton has been in public service for more 40+ years and, by and large, has abided by the rule of law governing the offices she was in, the roles she inhabited, and the causes she advocated for. Did she do some stupid, wrong and probably illegal things during some of that time? Yes, she did. Was it above and beyond what similarly situated men have done? Men whom we laud as tireless public servants? No, she did not.

Not only that, she has endured a relentless 25 year campaign to undermine, demean and thoroughly discredit her. I defy any male politician in public service as long as Hillary Clinton to come away from such a microscope with nothing more damning than the email nonsense.

We can and should be vigilant about the rule of law and the abuse of political power. But the double standard on display right now is among the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was not a particularly vehement supporter of Hillary Clinton when this campaign started but I bloody well am now.

Sorry. But I just can’t take it anymore.

Like the writer of this post–with which I agree 100%–I was not a particular fan of Hillary Clinton at the beginning of this campaign. My attitude was not based upon her performance in the various offices she’s held, which was in each case highly competent; my reluctance to support her was based upon a concern that she was not–and is not–a gifted candidate.

Not unlike George H.W. Bush (the competent Bush), Clinton’s interest is clearly in governing, and she is uncomfortable “selling herself” on the campaign trail. In her case, the 25-year campaign referenced above has made her defensive and scripted. Understandable but unfortunate behaviors on the campaign trail.

Like the writer of this post, however, I’ve been “radicalized” by the double standard applied to Clinton, the raw misogyny, and the obvious delight in criticizing her every move by our so-called “liberal” media. (Since when is working through walking pneumonia without whining about it a “lack of transparency”?)

There is no equivalency between Trump and Clinton. None.

If you needed an operation, and your choice was between a respected surgeon who had saved numerous lives during a long career during which he had also made a few bad calls, and a local B-list actor with delusions of grandeur who had never performed an operation,  who displayed monumental ignorance of medicine generally and human anatomy specifically, I don’t think your choice would be difficult.

There’s false equivalency, and then there’s monumental intellectual dishonesty.

Think about that as you watch the debate.

“The Cyber is So Big..”

Ed Brayton recently compared Donald Trump to that student who tries to give a book report without having read the book. His evidence? A Politico report on yet another episode of Trump’s “stream of consciousness” babbling, this time in what was intended to be a carefully orchestrated town hall in Virginia Beach, with a friendly moderator chosen to lob softballs:

A few minutes later, Flynn asked Trump a question about cybersecurity challenges.

Trump’s response?

“You know, cyber is becoming so big today. It’s becoming something that a number of years ago, a short number of years ago, wasn’t even a word.”…

“Now the cyber is so big. You know you look at what they’re doing with the Internet and how they’re taking, recruiting people through the Internet. And part of it is the psychology, because so many people think they’re winning. And you know there’s a whole big thing.

“Even today’s psychology, where CNN came out with a big poll — their big poll came out today that Trump is winning. It’s good psychology. It’s good psychology.”

I defy anyone to interpret that word salad. Trump makes Sarah Palin look coherent.

Brayton said it best:

All politicians try to avoid answering a question directly and they will quickly pivot to their pre-rehearsed answers. But this is not that, not even close. This is someone who literally has no idea what he’s talking about so he just babbles for a while and then stops talking without having ever even come into the same vicinity as the subject that was asked about. It’s like there’s just random firing of synapses going on.

And the really bizarre thing is that this was a staged event for the Trump campaign. He knew all the questions in advance. He was being interview by one of his advisers. He had been given prewritten answers to the question. And he still had nothing but a stream of drivel to offer. Can you imagine trying to run his campaign? I’d have killed myself by now.

It has become increasingly clear that something is very wrong with Donald Trump–not simply his ignorance, or his lack of self-discipline, or his bigotry, or even his monumental (and unwarranted) self-esteem. This man appears to be profoundly mentally ill.

And millions of Americans will vote for him.

Color me terrified.

Calvin and ALICE

In 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country, in which I examined the religious roots of ostensibly secular policy preferences—things like climate change, foreign policy and economic systems. It was when researching that book that I came to appreciate the longstanding effect of Calvinism on American attitudes toward income inequality.

As I wrote in that book, the theological precept that arguably had the greatest effect on colonial economic activity was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which held that God had decided the ultimate fate of each person at the moment of creation. Predestination included the belief that the faithful discharge of one’s calling—the diligence with which a person worked– was evidence of the depth and sincerity of that person’s faith. Predestination, especially when coupled with the doctrine of original sin, convinced believers that the suffering of the poor must be intended by God as a spur to their repentance.

In other words, the poor were poor for a reason, and helping them escape poverty might actually thwart God’s will.

The belief that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective wasn’t universal, but it was widespread–and   that suspicion of poverty, that belief that poor people are somehow lacking in moral fiber or responsible for their own condition, has profoundly influenced American culture. Understanding that attitude about poverty is central to any effort to understand today’s arguments about income inequality.

Of course, there are cultural attitudes, and then there are facts.

The facts are that, aside from children, the elderly and the disabled, poverty in the United States is experienced primarily by those we call the working poor. Most poor people in the U.S. work forty or more hours a week; they simply don’t make enough money to live.

Let’s look at my own state of Indiana. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to the United Way, ALICE families are those with income above federal poverty levels, but below what it actually costs to live in their communities. In Indiana, 36% of all households live below the ALICE threshold. About 14% are below the poverty level.

To put that another way, there are 908,000 households in Indiana that cannot make ends meet. I want to emphasize: these are families and individuals with jobs, and most of them don’t qualify for social services or income supports.

The United Way’s ALICE report calculates the cost of living for each county, and takes differences in cost of living into account when it identifies ALICE families. In Marion County, where I live, a single individual living needs $18, 396 a year, or 9.20 an hour, to survive; a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler needs $51, 972, or 25.99 an hour.

In Indiana, 68% of jobs pay less than $20/hour, and three-quarters of those pay less than $15/hour.

If you are interested in learning more about ALICE families and their demographics, I encourage you to go to the website of the Indiana Association of United Ways and access the entire report. It’s an eye-opener.

Most of us, hearing those numbers, say to ourselves: if over a third of Indiana households can’t make ends meet, there must be programs to help them bridge the gap, right?

Wrong.

In fact, the number of households receiving government aid—what most of us call welfare—totaled about 9,000 families in 2014—and emergency payments from local welfare offices like the Township Trustees actually declined by 13%. Just to sum up: the total gap between sufficiency and actual income—that is, the amount of money that would be needed every year to bring all Hoosier households up to the ALICE threshold—was $34.2 billion in 2014. Those households earned $15.8 billion. They received $15.1 billion in combined charity and government assistance. That left a gap of $3.3 billion dollars. It would take 3.3 billion dollars of additional wages or government welfare or charitable support to bring Indiana families up to subsistence.

The numbers are staggering, but they only tell part of the story. The human costs of poverty and inequality to both individuals and society are immense, but we seem to accept those costs; certainly, Americans have not demonstrated the political will to address the issue. It’s easier to attribute poverty to those “lazy” people who refuse to pull themselves up by their (nonexistent) bootstraps than to identify and reform the systemic inequities that make it difficult or impossible for many hardworking people to achieve self-sufficiency.

It’s undoubtedly unfair of me, but I blame Calvin….