A Chilling Question

I’ve been mulling over a question posed by Garrett Epps in a New York Times column awhile back.

There were actually a number of questions raised by his column–can we really return to the political/cultural environment we occupied before the election of Trump? Could a Democratic president ever trust Mitch McConnell, et al, sufficiently to negotiate with them in good faith? Can voters learn to trust their government again? Have Americans believed a lie all these years? Have we bought into the “we are exceptional” rhetoric and absorbed a highly selective history in which–despite some unfortunate mistakes we needn’t dwell on– we were the good guys?

Epps starts by referencing a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorn in which “Goodman Brown” is visited by Satan, who opens his eyes to the sinfulness of Brown’s pious neighbors:

how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral …

Brown is never sure whether what he has seen was a dream, or whether “the placid and pious life of his neighbors is merely a pretense.”

Epps proceeds to draw a parallel, suggesting that the admirable democratic norms we thought Americans live by have really just been a “shell game for suckers.”

As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies….

These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

Epps accepts that Trump is more likely than not to be defeated in 2020, and that in any event, he’ll leave office at some point. But then comes the chilling question–a question to which I still don’t have anything near a satisfactory answer.

What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?…Can we go back to the world before Trump—and before Brett Kavanaugh and Mitch McConnell, before Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani, before an invasion of a secure facility at the Capitol, before babies were torn from their mothers and caged, before racist rhetoric from the White House and massacres at a synagogue and an El Paso Walmart—to a world of political cooperation, respect for norms, and nonpolitical courts?

How?

 

 

 

Medicare For All? Or For All Who Want It?

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have made “Medicare for All” a centerpiece of their campaigns. Pete Buttigieg has offered “Medicare for All Who Want It.” Both proposals have generated criticism, and in my opinion, most criticism of both is misplaced, because the discussion fails to distinguish between two very separate issues: 1) what would a sensible system look like, and 2) how do we get there?

I was prompted to revisit the issue because my cousin–the cardiologist I often cite on this blog–has done his own analysis of the current state of healthcare in this country, and concluded that a single-payer system is both preferable and inevitable. (Those who want to get “into the weeds” of that analysis should follow the link.)

In my most recent book, I also make the case for single-payer–and point out that a fully-implemented single-payer system would be much less costly than our current patchwork, dysfunctional approach. Virtually every economist who has analyzed the situation agrees. That doesn’t necessarily mean that taxes wouldn’t go up, but any increase would be more than offset by savings on premiums, co-pays and other costs currently borne by individuals and employers.

At any rate–I’m in full agreement that a single-payer system is needed. I depart from the “vote for me and I’ll change the system” approach being taken by Warren and Sanders because there is an enormous mountain to climb between where we are and where we need to be, and the suggestion that all we have to do to get a single-payer system is elect a Democratic president (or perhaps a Democratic president and Senate) is ludicrous.

It isn’t simply that politically powerful insurance and pharmaceutical  companies would throw everything they have into that debate. Voters rebel when they are told they will be forced into a new system, no matter how demonstrably better off they would be. Just getting the Affordable Care Act through Congress took enormous political capital, and that was after numerous (unfortunate but necessary) concessions.

In a recent column for the New York Times, political scientist Jacob Hatcher writes that we shouldn’t lose sight of what Ms. Warren is trying to do.

She’s making an evidence-based case for shifting the debate away from the perilous place it’s now in. Rather than “Will taxes go up?” or “Will private insurance be eliminated?” she wants us to ask a more basic question: How can we move from a broken system — a system that bankrupts even families who have insurance and produces subpar health outcomes despite exorbitant prices — to one that covers everyone, restrains prices and improves results?

I actually don’t see Warren asking (or answering) that very important question–she seems to be making the case for an immediate change that would eliminate all private insurers, and if my impression is correct, it is a politically fraught case.

Nevertheless, “how” is the most important question. As Hacker writes,

Getting to affordable universal care has always been a problem of politics, not economics. Given that the United States spends much more for much less complete coverage than any other rich democracy, it’s easy to come up with a health care design that’s much better than what we have. The problem is figuring out how to overcome three big political hurdles: financing a new system, reducing disruptions as you displace the old system and overcoming the backlash from those the old system makes rich.

Yep. And that brings me to an interesting paragraph in my cousin’s post. Dismissing the “public option” (which is what “Medicare for All Who Want It” really is), he writes,

Even now, given our current healthcare pricing, a medicare type program, operating with lower administrative costs, would be far cheaper than those offered by their private counterparts. This would allow employers to willingly relinquish expensive private plans in favor of the cheaper public option that would reduce the cost burden of extra employee benefits. This means that the public option would likely supplant the present private plans completely in short order. (Emphasis mine.)

Yes. That’s the point.

“Medicare for All Who Want It ‘ isn’t the answer to the “what” question. It’s the answer to the “how” question.

 

 

 

Hacker

 

Defending The Indefensible

The Independent, among other publications, reports that the United States has voted against a U.N. resolution condemning laws that punish same-sex couplings with death. The lede suggested that America’s vote was yet another example of the Trump Administration’s homophobia.

The US is one of just 13 countries to have voted against a United Nations resolution condemning the death penalty for having gay sex.

Although the vote passed, America joined countries such as China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in opposing the move.

The Human Rights Council resolution condemned the “imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations”.

 It attacked the use of execution against persons with “mental or intellectual disabilities, persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, and pregnant women.”

Although racism, homophobia, and misogyny are central to this administration, and are core elements of Trump’s appeal to his base, attributing this vote to those bigotries is misplaced.

Not that the absence of those motives is exculpatory. The real reason for the “no” vote was something equally indefensible: support for America’s continued use of the death penalty.

Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson, told The Independent: “The headlines, reporting and press releases on this issue are misleading. As our representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva said on Friday, the United States is disappointed to have to vote against this resolution. We had hoped for a balanced and inclusive resolution that would better reflect the positions of states that continue to apply the death penalty lawfully, as the United States does.

“The United States voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances and calling for its abolition.

I believe her–but to use language appropriate to criminal justice, that explanation doesn’t exonerate us. It just confirms our position as an outlier among civilized countries.

Forget the moral arguments, compelling as many of us find them.

Decades of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent to violent crime.  When I last researched the issue, in 2010, I found that states with the death penalty reported murder rates higher than the rates in states without it. Police agree. In multiple polls, police chiefs rank the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also consider it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complain that it diverts money from more effective crime control measures.

Then there are the fiscal issues.

In 2010, Indiana’s Legislative Services analyzed capital punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was over ten times the cost of a life-without-parole case.  In California, taxpayers pay 114,000,000 more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff also cost more.

Of course, we could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, that “remedy” raises another pesky problem with capital punishment—the fact that America’s courts convict innocent people, and do so a lot more frequently than we like to admit.  Between 1973 and my 2010 research, over 130 people had been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality,” they were people who had been wrongfully convicted.

It isn’t just death penalty cases that result in wrongful verdicts, of course; since the establishment of the Innocence Project, the substantial number of exonerations in all categories has testified to the persistent flaws in America’s criminal justice system.

Making “crimes” like blasphemy, adultery or gay sex punishable by death is worse than medieval. But so is continued imposition of the death penalty.

Old McDonald Had A Subsidy

Like many of you, I get all sorts of newsletters, from a variety of sources. A recent report about farm incomes, from this issue of Axios Markets, made me take a deep breath, because I’m old enough to remember the Republican Party that no longer exists.

That iteration of the GOP would have screamed bloody murder had a President imposed tariffs; defense of free trade was (forgive the pun) a party trademark. Those Republicans would have pointed to all the readily-available evidence of the negative effects of tariffs, including but not limited to the fact that they are paid for by consumers in the nation that levies them.

That GOP was also a champion of genuine capitalism, and an (admittedly selective)  opponent of corporate welfare.

That GOP did scream bloody murder when President Barack Obama “bailed out” American auto companies. Never mind that we were just coming off the “Great Recession,” or that thousands of American jobs were at stake, or that the funds were structured as loans, not giveaways. They continued to criticize the decision even after it was clear that the intervention had worked, and even after the companies completely repaid the loans.

But I haven’t heard a peep from any of today’s Republicans about the mounting subsidies to farmers–subsidies meant to compensate them for losses entirely caused by Trump’s tariffs. Those subsidies are now larger than the amounts lent to automakers.

Here’s the information from Axios Markets that set me off:

What’s happening: U.S. farmers have been suffering this year. Chapter 12 bankruptcies have risen 24% over the previous year and farm debt is projected to hit a record high $416 billion.

While farm income is expected to reach its highest total since 2014, 40% of that income will come from trade assistance, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

What we’re hearing: That’s “definitely not the normal,” Farm Bureau chief economist John Newton tells Axios. The $28 billion bailout package for farmers that President Trump signed earlier this year has “increased the percentage to a level we’ve not seen in a while.”

So let’s see.  The party that believes in capitalism and markets–the party that counsels poor folks to suck it up and avoid ” welfare dependency”–is perfectly fine with government dollars supplying 40% of farm income.

The party of free trade has no problem with disruptive tariffs that interrupted farmers’ existing markets (many of which are unlikely to come back once this episode is over–other countries grow soybeans) so that their “leader” could look like the “tough guy” he clearly isn’t, and they’re hunky-dory with using billions of taxpayer dollars to compensate the people their idiocy injured.

Chinese imports of U.S. agricultural products totaled $24 billion in 2017 and peaked at $29 billion in 2013, according to U.S. government data. Imports fell to $9 billion last year as a result of the trade war.

Trump insists that he’ll make a new deal under which China will buy “40 to 50 billion”  dollars of American farm products annually. As the Axios report notes, we’ve heard that song about an impending “great deal” before–and each time, Trump has had to pull back.  Peterson Institute senior fellow Jeffrey Schott has opined that, even  if a deal is signed, it’s unlikely that either side could deliver on its bloated promises to sharply increase US farm exports to China to $50 billion annually, “or anywhere near that total.”

Of course not.

Sentient Americans understand that virtually all of Trump’s pronouncements are untethered to reality–that they come straight from the fantasy universe he inhabits. What we don’t understand is where all those free-trade, fiscally-conservative, pro-market Republicans have gone.

I guess those policy preferences were less important than supporting a “leader” who promised them the continued dominance of straight white Christian males….

 

Promises, Promises….

I post a fair amount about political hypocrisy: “family values” Evangelicals who love Trump, “fiscal conservatives” who are okay with his massive deficits, etc.  But Tuesday’s local elections were a reminder that hypocrisy and cant aren’t just national phenomena.

Indiana was one of the states that held elections this year for municipal offices. In central Indiana, Democrats had some notable first-time victories, including the election of a mayor and at least three councilors in suburbs of Indianapolis that have been reliably red for as long as I can remember. (And I’m old.) But I want to focus on the more predictable results of the mayor’s race in Indianapolis proper—which, like all urban areas with populations of over 500,000 these days, is currently bright blue—where the incumbent, Joe Hogsett, won re-election by a nearly 50-point margin.

I didn’t attend Hogsett’s election-nght party, but friends who were there reported that the Mayor’s victory speech included some interesting (and appropriately snarky) comments.

In particular, after thanking his Republican opponent, Jim Merritt, a sitting State Senator, Hogsett “welcomed” his return to the Indiana Legislature,  where, he said, Senator Merritt would have the opportunity to champion so many of the issues he raised during his mayoral campaign: additional resources for Indianapolis public safety and improved infrastructure, support for LGBTQ rights, and greater support for Marion County’s African American community – things that Senator Merritt has not exactly championed (or  supported) during his 30 years in the legislature.

(To the extent we still have media watchdogs, I certainly hope they will keep a watchful eye on Senator Merritt’s efforts to legislate improvements on the issues he suddenly discovered were important during his mayoral campaign.)

Of course, Merritt isn’t the only candidate who should be held accountable. It will be equally interesting to see what Hogsett does with his impressive win, which can rightly be considered a mandate. He will also have an expanded majority—indeed, a 20-5 super-majority—on  Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

How will he use this expanded authority?

One of my more cynical friends predicts that—based on the Mayor’s extremely timid approach to governing thus far—Hogsett will take his 71% victory as a “mandate to continue doing not much of anything.”

Maybe. But hope springs eternal….

Our city, like so many others, faces a number of critical issues. Those issues will demand focused, thoughtful initiatives from the Mayor’s office: improving inadequate and decaying infrastructure; working with the State DOT to avoid further exacerbating the 50-year-old mistake of running an interstate highway through downtown residential districts; continuing to revitalize in-city neighborhoods while avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification; supporting the extension of public transportation; the continuing effort to improve public safety; and so many more.

The Mayor now has an electoral mandate and a supermajority on the Council. It will be interesting to see how he chooses to spend that political capital.

I’m hoping for signs of bolder leadership and vision in his second term, and I’ve made a wager with my cynical friend, whose prediction is that Mayor Hogsett will “boldly middle-manage the status quo” in ways that keep Indianapolis a reasonably well-functioning but ultimately undistinguished city.

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, all eyes now turn to Washington and 2020.