Hello world!

I see the funny — and not so funny — side of current events and politics. This blog records my observations and opinions. I welcome comments if they are well-reasoned and informative. And of course, by all means point out an error if you see one.

Nothing is out of bounds. I don’t subscribe to any political party, finding all to be consistently amusing when they aren’t doing actual damage. My motto in this endeavor comes from my favorite author, Douglas Adams. “Don’t Panic.”

And so we begin …


ObamaCare: a Republican Shibboleth

Say the word ObamaCare to most Republicans and all they really hear is the initial five letters, i.e. our ex-President’s name.

In the minds of these Republicans – such as they are – ObamaCare is a stand-in for President Obama himself. Their visceral, and sometimes racial, animus to Obama was entirely transferred to this legislation. It was his signature achievement and came to represent everything about him. You can’t separate the two. Repealing ObamaCare came to be thought of as handing an ultimate defeat to their despised foe. This is true even with the fig leaf of replacing it with “something better”, but with scant thought about what that might be, as events have amply demonstrated.

But with Obama comfortably retired to a life of leisure, and facing the realities of a health care system incessantly described as “one-sixth of our entire economy”, the Republicans flinched. The uncomfortable fact, still not yet acknowledged by Republicans, is that ObamaCare resembles democracy in being “the worst institution, but better than any other that we can devise and enact.” Oh yes, the socialist nirvana of a wholly government program like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All is alluring to progressives, but don’t hold your breath. We are not yet Sweden and in my opinion never will be, thank God.

Too many people now depend upon some of ObamaCare’s popular provisions to even contemplate risking their loss. It was the genius of the Obama administration to ensure that enough people were hooked on their nostrum to make it effectively comparable to Social Security as a third rail of politics. To this end they tied what was promoted as a public/private health insurance system for those not covered at work to a massive expansion of Medicaid. The original purpose of Medicaid was as a social health care program for some but not all individuals with limited resources. Just as FDR never intended Social Security to be a full backstop against income insecurity among the elderly, Medicaid had a targeted focus on those most in need. Now this was transmuted into a general welfare program extending well above the poverty level and with few meaningful restrictions. Once states accepted this lure, and most did, even many under Republican control, how could they possibly explain relinquishing this largess for an uncertain alternative?

Of course, it isn’t over yet. I expect that attention will now go toward the compromise being worked out by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R, TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA). If it emerges as a real piece of legislation, it won’t be able to carry the label “repeal of ObamaCare”, so will the Republican majorities in either House of Congress pass it? Frankly, I am skeptical. You might ask whether the President would then sign it, but I can make a confident prediction here. He will. And it really doesn’t matter much what its provisions entail. Trump is hardly an ideologue – that requires actually having some ideas – and he sorely needs a legislative victory. These have been few and far between so far and the future of the rest of his agenda seems bleak without this win under his belt.

The Border Wall Mystery

With respect to the proposed wall on our southern border, I think I have it right that Democrats oppose it — vehemently — and Republicans, by and large, favor it. I understand the Republican position. They seem convinced that it will help solve our illegal immigration problem. But barring building a Berlin-type barrier with electrified fences, mines and machine guns, I frankly doubt this. A complete wall built according to current proposals will likely have some effect, but people will find a way across our border if the economic incentive is sufficient.

However I am a bit puzzled by the Democratic opposition. I searched the internet and none of their spokesmen make a clear and unambiguous statement about this. I would have thought that wasting all that money that could be put to better use would be an obvious reason, but they never seem willing to put it quite that baldly. Still, I assume that this is basically their position — and mine, too.

But here’s the problem. Both of the top Democratic leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, have stated in clear terms that, if funding the wall is included in a bill to raise the debt ceiling, Democrats will vote to block it. This situation will likely arise in December. They are fully aware that Democratic votes plus those of the extreme right in the Republican caucus will prevail. In other words, they are willing to sabotage the nation’s credit, drop a bomb on our economy, and risk significantly increased interest rates rather than wasting some money on the wall. On its face that doesn’t make economic sense. In fact, it defies logic unless there is something more at stake than wasting a few billions. So, what exactly is the real issue? And is it really worth that much?

Knowing Democrats, my theory is that this isn’t a money issue at all, or at least not in its essence. There is something about building a barrier on our border that strikes at the very core of progressive ideology. To many Democrats, it’s a bit like tearing down the Statue of Liberty, perhaps combined with making English our national language. The wall has become a symbol of exclusionary philosophy that is anathema to old-style Democrats. So perhaps they would indeed risk an economic catastrophe rather than conceding this point.

Of course, this is just a theory. But if it is true, then Democrats are about as nutty as Republicans, which is a standard that is rather hard to meet.

An Insightful Analogy

On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN last Sunday, a guest introduced a clever analogy to describe what is going on in Washington since Trump took over. He likened the situation to a group of pirates who have captured a massive treasure ship operated by one of the great maritime powers. There are far too few of them to operative such a large vessel, and they are somewhat unfamiliar with its sails and rigging. As a result they dragoon the ship’s crew to assist. Not unexpectedly, these captives are not exactly enthusiastic, and as a result the ship stays close to its original course and speed even though the pirate captain wants to divert to his home base. So he rages at his cohort in a vain attempt to achieve better control. His crew is understandably upset as they expected easy going and great rewards from this marvelous prize. So they squabble among themselves about the best way to “right the ship”. Being pirates, used to enforcing their will by force of arms, the internecine strife quickly turns bloody.

The consequences of such a situation are very unpredictable. The original crew might take advantage of the internal disagreements of their captors and seize control again. Or perhaps the ship, under uncertain and disputed management, might run aground and result in disaster for all concerned. It’s even possible that the pirates might get their act together, perhaps by making a deal with the original crew, and finally achieve their objectives. And lurking in the background is the possibility that privateers commissioned by enemies of the flag under which the treasure ship sailed might meddle with the outcome.

You probably can see the parallels with the political situation facing the fledgling Trump administration. At this point I wouldn’t choose any of the listed outcomes as most probable, though my hope is that the first prevails.

Is competence really optional?

Suppose you need some small home repairs or to have your nice new home entertainment system installed. You could try to do it yourself, but often it is best to find an expert. He or she would have relevant experience and would know how to best do the job. This is almost always faster and it often avoids expensive mistakes. Doesn’t that make sense? The same principle applies if you have a medical problem, some important financial transaction, or a legal issue. It is true that consulting an expert costs money but generally it is well spent, assuming you do your homework in choosing the right person. And when picking someone to treat your kid’s broken leg, I hope and assume that you restrict your search to credentialed medical professionals and don’t consider having your gardener take his best shot.

This may seem obvious, but evidently it isn’t for Donald Trump. Although I can’t believe that he hires auto mechanics to design his golf courses or shoe salesmen to run his hotels, when it comes to the business of government the only relevant criterion seems to be personal loyalty.

He just selected a hedge fund manager to be the White House Communications Director. His choice to head the HUD office for the region that covers New York and New Jersey is a party planner. The best person he could find to be the Chief Scientist of the Agriculture Department has degrees in political science and public administration. While obviously not exactly a dummy, he is a decidedly square peg in a round hole. And then there are all those close Trump relatives managing White House affairs. They seem to be talented and successful individuals, and they are probably kind to children and small animals. But running our government isn’t an amateur exercise, or it wasn’t until last January 20th. I am fairly confident that we will outlast this experiment in incompetence, but it is likely to be rocky ride.

A 21st Century Modest Proposal

One of the most consequential activities we pursue from the standpoint of health and safety is automobile driving. As a result, the government has passed numerous regulations that require safety features, from seat belts to intricate electronic control systems. These are not optional. The auto manufacturers must implement them, and they must do so in a manner that meets rigorous test standards. In many cases, drivers must use them. Disabling airbags, except under special conditions, is illegal. And in many jurisdictions, driving without attaching your seat belt can result in a stiff fine. You can’t choose a cheaper car that isn’t as safe because Big Brother says so. And if you are a highly skilled, youthful driver you can’t substitute your skill set for the mandated technology because … well, just because. There can be little doubt that all of this improves driving safety and has contributed to saving many lives, although it obviously adds a substantial amount to the cost of ownership.

Obamacare applies this logic to health insurance. It requires a full spectrum of care provisions that are very comprehensive and very protective. These are not optional, whether you want them or not and even when they don’t apply to your personal circumstances. So, men must pay for maternity benefits and everyone must pay for drug abuse counseling. The logic behind this is that bundling full services in this manner makes them affordable for those in real need. If you can’t afford such comprehensive protection, the government chips in with subsidies.

Don’t you think that it would be consistent, returning to the automobile case, for the government to use safety testing data to qualify car models for sale in the U.S.? Perhaps the top five models on the test scores each year would qualify. Actual qualifiers might change from year to year, but historically it is obvious that some brands would dominate the list. I suspect that over time all of us would be driving a Volvo sedan or something like that.

Consider this. We are spending enormous amounts to make automobile driving safer but nevertheless as many as 40,000 people died on our roads in 2016 and an estimated 4.6 million more were seriously injured, according to the National Safety Council. If you include all costs from this carnage, the NSC estimates that $432B was lost as a result. So, wouldn’t yet more federal regulation be warranted? Isn’t this almost comparable to the need that spawned Obamacare? So why shouldn’t its model be employed once again?

Where would this take us? Convertibles, for example, are so unlikely to qualify that no sensible manufacturer would try to make them for the U.S. market. If you don’t like or need a four-door sedan, well that’s just too bad. Many more currently optional safety features would become mandatory: lane assist, braking assist, 360 degree proximity detection, sonar-assisted separation control, drunk driver interlock, and so on. These would make cars much more expensive of course, but who can place a value on the lives saved? If you can’t afford this, then probably government subsidies will be needed, paid for by taxes on the usual suspects. I have little doubt that this would save many lives. So, not doing it, as they now say about repealing Obamacare, is tantamount to condoning mass murder.

I think you get the idea. Why stop at health insurance with this concept. And for that matter, why stop at automobiles? How about food too? Obesity is a terrible health scourge and it is getting worse in the U.S. every year. Shouldn’t we get those unhealthy foods off the market and apply stringent standards for what can be sold? It is true, I think, that this might be a bridge too far and might fall prey to the flaw that eventually killed the noble Volstead Amendment. It is very hard to prevent people from finding fatty, salt-ridden foods, and many avaricious criminals would be happy to serve this taste for the forbidden. Still, we could probably make it fairly difficult and expensive to achieve morbid obesity. Surely that would discourage some, and every life is valuable.

We could make life so much safer if we only follow this concept to its logical conclusion. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

The New Guns of August

The renowned historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a masterful history that described the events of August 1914 that led inexorably to World War I. This contains many parallels with today’s growing confrontation with North Korea. In her telling, what stood out was how inadvertently it played out over a century ago. Each party had goals and imperatives but none of the adversaries seemed to understand or account for those of their opponents. Moreover, the key figures making decisions were none too bright. Does this strike any bells?

It is often said that we have no good options. Indeed, many argue that the safest alternative is simply to accept a de facto nuclear power in North Korea, even one with a proven ICBM capability. We have done so with other countries. But there is a distinguishing characteristic of the North Korean regime that represents an unprecedented threat. Our best analysts believe that Kim Jong-un has concluded that his most effective nuclear strategy is to strike first with all available weapons in the event that his regime is at existential risk. When combined with his proven paranoid impulses, this establishes a ticking time bomb for major conflict in the region.

Those recommending a diplomatic resolution permit their hopes to blind them to the lessons of history. Diplomacy has a key role in this but only after our adversary has truly accepted it as the best course, not as a convenient diversion as in the past. This does not mean that there is nothing left but military confrontation. That is a false dichotomy, although a kind of warfare that falls short of direct conflict by major military forces may be required.

I can conceive of a promising though dangerous alternative, but one that involves activities for which we have shown little aptitude to date. It is based upon the hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is not a lunatic as some portray and that his sole and overriding imperative is to maintain his position of power. In this view, his unrelenting march toward nuclear power status derives from the belief that failure to follow through on comparable intentions was what led to the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and Gaddafi’s in Libya.

First and foremost, we must establish explicit, non-negotiable demands and make them abundantly clear. There must be no tweets and no mixed messages from disparate administration factions. Forcing Kim Jong-un to completely relinquish his most treasured protection is a bridge too far. We should only seek precisely two results. All nuclear testing and all long-range missile testing must end. This can be easily monitored. It will freeze his program in place, since live testing is the only method of establishing an operational and reliable weapon. He could retain his conventional power as an adequate defense.

We must have something worthwhile to offer in return for this concession. This could be the acceptance of a compliant North Korea into the global community of nations. This means the removal of sanctions, normalized trade, membership in community organizations, and so on. But this should be done slowly and in stages so that there remain benefits to be attained for a long period of time. And a violation on their part should instantly remove and reverse all benefits. Since the United States will have by itself achieved this resolution, we would retain sole authority to identify such a violation.

This kind of clearly defined carrot and stick approach was not employed with either Saddam or Gaddafi and it isn’t being used with Assad in Syria. I think this is mainly due to our blind sense of self-righteousness, combined with a crippling lack of realpolitik.

To achieve compliance, I propose that we initiate a major covert effort that incrementally applies painful pressure while never threatening to bring down Kim Jong-un’s regime. The word covert is key. We mustn’t announce this policy nor boast of its successes, political ramifications notwithstanding. Instead we should constantly employ world forums to reiterate our goals for the region. Primarily economic in nature, this effort can and should involve the kind of forceful acts that ISIS successfully employs. The key is always having plausible deniability while leaving the North Koreans no doubt whatsoever that we are directing these efforts. When accused by the North Koreans or their supporters, Russia and China, we should blandly deny all and refuse to discuss the matter. Great care is essential so that no single act would be enough to goad them into violent reaction, but the pressure should be painful, unrelenting and constantly increasing.

This can include all of the methods of non-conventional warfare. There would be no limiting rules of engagement whatsoever except one. There can be no use of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever else would work and cause pain should be on the table. It must be carefully targeted at the regime itself, not the North Korean people at large, though we should not be squeamish about inevitable collateral damage. No warfare spares the innocent, though we certainly shouldn’t use them as pawns in our struggle. And make no mistake, this is a kind of war.

Economic measures will require cooperation by the international banking system. From past experience we cannot expect voluntary help. It must be coerced and we have the tools to do this if we are willing to risk offending some trading partners and enduring some costs ourselves. This effort must also be covert. If we meet resistance it should be made clear that there can be no economic neutrals in this conflict.

Any open counter-response must be immediately and overtly countered with something comparable and proportionate. This should appear to be automatic and preplanned so that our adversary would have no expectation that their acts would serve to reduce the pressure. For example, if they sink a South Korean vessel, as they have done before, we should promptly sink a comparable one of theirs. There would be no talk, no bluster, no warning, and also no escalation, just essentially a robotic counteraction.

A necessary correlative is that we should tone down our current provocative military posture in the region. There should be no more joint military exercises with the South Koreans, no further expansion of our THAAD systems, and definitely no deployment of naval forces to the region. There must never appear to be a connection between actions on the ground and our covert campaign of pressure.

We should expect a counter campaign of some sort from the North Koreans. They have a proven capability for non-conventional warfare, especially in the cyber realm. We won’t go undamaged. But our capability is far greater and more lethal, assuming we have the steel in our backbone to use it. Any counterattack should provoke an escalation of our campaign. Fortunately, in a sense, we can freely publicize their attacks so that public support for a strong response should be high. As a result, we may consider pulling back the curtain just a bit on our ongoing efforts.

We must never unilaterally offer to negotiate or even to talk with the North Koreans, but we should be willing to respond quickly and positively to any such offer on their part that involves no preconditions. However, offers like this from their interlocutors in China should be ignored. China is not our friend in this conflict and we shouldn’t vainly hope otherwise. Meanwhile, such talks that do arise should have absolutely no effect on our covert campaign until they bear concrete results that meet our goals. The rule is no concessions to achieve compliance.

So, that summarizes my idea. It involves significant risk, but I believe that so do all currently discussed alternatives. And, in my opinion, permitting the nuclear program in North Korea to fully ripen is virtually certain to lead to nuclear war. It would be simpler to kick the can down the road, hoping that events will overtake the need for action. If we do this, history won’t treat us well.

But let me expand upon what I said at the beginning. Doing this successfully requires calm precision, careful planning, ruthlessness and, above all, discipline. Not a single one of these requirements can be met under the erratic and incompetent Trump administration. Thus, this must wait for a more competent replacement. Whether we can afford this delay is an open question.

When are funding cuts real?

An old dispute in the political world keeps returning, and it is now back in spades in the Obamacare fight. When are funding cuts real?

Let’s take an analogy that might strike a bell personally. Suppose you are a highly valued employee and are accustomed to receiving a generous 10% salary increase year after year. Then suddenly your employer tells you that business conditions have worsened so that all you can expect for the foreseeable future is a cost of living increase. This year that will be about 2%. Did you just get a salary cut?

Can a loss of anticipated salary accompanied by an actual increase be seen as a real loss? Many people would think so. They might argue that without the change they would be richer, so obviously the change hurt them financially. Impartial observers might respond, “Wait a minute. Won’t you actually earn more even after the change? How can that be a cut?” In other words, is it reasonable to “bank an expectation”? Which viewpoint seems more valid to you? I am honestly torn on this question. I see some validity in both views.

Politicians argue this point vociferously whenever changes are proposed that reduce future spending on a government program. A concrete example from the Obamacare issue is what Republicans are proposing to do to the Medicaid program. Are they cutting it or not? Here is the actual projection by the Congressional Budget Office.

On this question, the award-winning Politifact site says that the Trump administration claim that Medicaid isn’t being cut is “mostly false”. However they are really addressing an important but peripheral issue rather than the funding itself. Their conclusion is based on eligibility changes. Their argument is that regardless of how much you spend, if you eliminate some prospective recipients, then it must be viewed as a cut. That is a reasonable position, but I am not so sure it is germane. How funds are distributed is quite distinct from how much is allocated. Each aspect can and should be assessed separately.