300 Words

I write letters to the editor of my local newspaper. The newspaper arbitrarily limits letters to 300 words, and the newspaper web site strictly enforces the word-limit. At first I was annoyed, but annoyance turned to satisfaction when my letters became more concise and more effective.

Some of these letters do not reach a newspaper, but all follow the 300 word limit.

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(taxbill2) Process of Legislating

This essay was posted on 12/5/17.

Grammatical integrity and exact meaning are important in legislation. Take the case in Maine legislation when an arguably missing comma created consternation in a legal suit over overtime pay. That is why legislators and their staffs should read and review bills before voting.

The amending process should result in a clean, unambiguous bill that can be inserted into appropriate sections of the law. Creating a bill that avoids legal problems as much as possible takes time, attention to detail, and adherence to a proven process.

The Tax Reform Bill passed by the Senate doesn’t have the care and attention to detail expected of such important legislation. Instead, party leaders got the needed votes by making deals with skeptics. Promised amendments were jotted carelessly in the margins of the bill as deals were settled. Committee meetings were streamlined, and careful annotations were limited to handwritten notes. It will be a small miracle if the typed bill actually matches the intensions voiced in Friday’s deal making. Democrat Claire McCaskill asked for a recess to read the bill. GOP leaders refused, and the vote proceeded.

Grammatical errors will happen, but the tax bill has a much bigger problem. In their haste to pass a bill, the GOP departed from regular legislative procedures and introduced a high probability for errors. They almost ensured that something would be lost in the final translation from handwritten scribbles to the final, typed text, and the intent and meaning of the final bill would always be questioned. Legislators who could have stopped this travesty have forfeited their privilege to serve.

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(wealth) Problem of Concentrated Wealth

This essay was posted on 11/27/17.

Why does the United States, the world’s richest nation, have a high murder rate, a high obesity rate, a high infant morality rate, a high mental illness rate, a high level of prison incarceration, high stress levels, a lower life expectancy, etc?

Social epidemiologist and writer Richard Wilkinson provides an answer in his TED talk. He shows with statistical correlations of data from about 20 countries that national wealth is not a factor. Nor are GDP, population, and level of government in social programs. The one consistent factor is wealth inequality. There is a very high correlation between the level of wealth inequality and the level of societal problems. Nations with higher inequality have more societal problems, and nations with a more equal distribution of wealth have less societal problems. The US, with a very high concentration of wealth, has more societal problems than most nations.

The Republican Tax Reform Bill provides huge tax cuts to the top 1%, so the bill will lead to more wealth concentration, not less. Wilkinson’s research suggests that the Tax Reform Bill will lead to more societal problems and more social instability, not less.

Wilkinson made an important observation. He said that the path to more evenly distributed wealth is less important than just getting there. Japan and Denmark are two countries with more equal wealth distribution and low levels of societal problems. Denmark is more socialized than Japan, but Japan has a flatter income distribution. My conclusion: If you want a stable society, you have to pay for it. If you don’t want government intrusion, then you need to pay your workers a lot more.

Killing the Tax Reform Bill won’t fix our societal problems, but it is a necessary step in the right direction.

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(taxbill) Tax Bill and the Republican Party

This essay was posted on 11/21/17.

Republicans claim that the tax reform bill is needed to spur growth in the economy and help the middle class. Unfortunately, the bill does neither.

There are some things in the tax bill that Republicans do not hide. The bill removes the alternative minimum tax provision. The bill eliminates the estate tax. The bill provides a lower rate for business income. And the bill cuts the corporate tax rate. These cuts do two things. They provide a big pot of gold to the top 1%, and they add $trillions to the national debt over time.

The Republicans try to solve the debt problem four ways. They don’t provide middleclass real tax cuts, they make deep cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, they eliminate Obamacare mandates, and they pretend they have a good bill.

Republicans pretend there is a middle-class tax cut, but analysts show far less relief for the middle class. Any small tax saving won’t offset the increased healthcare costs created by Government reductions in Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare.

Republicans claim that the tax bill doesn’t cut Medicaid and Medicare, but the related budget resolution does. Republicans also have the ‘paygo’ policy in which they must make expenditure cuts in lieu of adding to the national debt. Republican attempts at hiding the tie-in between the expense cuts and the tax cuts are failing.

The big question Republican legislators need to answer: If the tax cuts spur the economy so much, why do they need to make the healthcare cuts? Republicans know that the big tax cuts to the 1% won’t spur the economy, and admitting so would ruin the GOP mythology. My conclusion: Republicans in Congress owe allegiance to the 1% and not to us.

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(koreadeal) Dealing with North Korea

This essay was posted on 11/13/17.

Donald Trump wants North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear arsenal or face the wrath of the US. It won’t happen, and it’s not just testosterone.

Bill Clinton can assume part of the blame, because he promised North Korea two nuclear plants for generating electric power if North Korea stopped its nuclear program. Clinton didn’t have the political clout to pull off his part, and Kim Jong-il resumed his nuclear program. But Bill is off the hook.

George Bush talked Muammar Qaddafi out of his nuclear program in 2003, and the US under Barack Obama bombed Libya in 2011 to protect civilians. Because of this, Kim Jong-un doesn’t trust the US. But Bush and Obama are off the hook.

Donald Trump should take the brunt of the blame. Trump threatens to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal unless Iran makes more concessions even as Iran is complying with the deal, according to official observers. Trump’s track record with the Iran deal gives Kim Jong-un every reason to mistrust Trump over any deal with North Korea. But Trump’s misdeals are not the greatest problem.

The root problem lies in the incredibly large number of nuclear bombs in the hands of just two nations, the US and Russia. The two countries have a combined total of about 3900 operational nuclear bombs, representing 90% of the world supply and enough to obliterate the world 39 times. Compounding the problem is Trump’s incredibly low 22% worldwide confidence level. If a nation with so much power and so little respect threatened you, what would you do?

If Trump continues on this course of action with North Korea, we may need to wait a long time before they disarm.

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(trumpdoj) Donald Trump and the DOJ

This essay was posted on 11/6/17.

Former Secretary of Labor and author Robert Reich tweeted:

“Trump doesn’t understand that in a democratic society bound by the rule of law, presidents cannot decide who is prosecuted or for what.”

Reich responded to a radio interview in which Donald Trump called for an investigation by the Department of Justice of Hillary Clinton over allegations of misconduct. Even though the DOJ is part of the Executive branch of government, there is a hypothetical wall that maintains operational independence between the DOJ and the White House.

I suggested to my wife that Trump either doesn’t understand basic American governance or he doesn’t respect it. She proposed that both ideas might be true.

We were asking the wrong question. Knowing why the DOJ should be independent is the more important inquiry. An independent DOJ would avoid the precise interference that Trump is doing. The President should not use the power of his office to override the rule of law. MSNBC journalist and lawyer Ari Melber suggests that Trump’s statements regarding DOJ investigations might be an obstruction of justice and be illegal.

The founding fathers were not always right, but George Washington correctly asserted that the President should not be King. We should continue to honor Washington’s position today.

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(triphome) Two Trips Home

This essay was posted on 10/30/17.

Some coincidences are just coincidences. Some are more.

A few years ago my wife and I were heading east on the Long Island Expressway on the way to the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and home to Maine. The exit North onto Interstate 678 is tricky. I ended up going south toward JFK International Airport instead. It took me a couple exits and about 15 minutes before I could turn around and head north.

Somewhere on Interstate 95 the road dips down under a bridge, and there is an exit and an onramp, and there was an accident that happened maybe 15 minutes earlier. I ceased being annoyed by the wrong turn that I had made.

Two years ago, we were in a Brooklyn hotel overnight before leaving for Maine. As I approached our car the next morning, I noticed the gas cap on the ground. Someone broke it while trying to jimmy my gas cap off. We reported the problem to the hotel clerk, and I managed to shove the cap together well enough to go home. Our start time was delayed about 20 minutes.

On Interstate 91 North of New Haven, the highway bends through low rolling hills of grass. There were two cars on the right and a car on the left. About a half dozen young adults were walking around waiting for help. The accident happened maybe 15 minutes earlier, maybe 20 minutes.

When you think the world is just chaotic cause and effect, sometimes little things happen that remind you there might be more to it.

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(taxreform) Donald Trump's Tax Reform

This essay was posted on 10/23/17.

Beware of Donald Trump’s gifts that he promises to deliver to the middle class. Trump’s tax plan clearly falls short, based on available information.

Trump’s promise of doubling the standard deduction has a huge catch to it. Trump is folding the personal exemption into the standard deduction, which is a clever way of saying that he is eliminating personal exemptions. An average middle-class family with three children would see their standard deduction and personal exemption deduction drop by $8,000, and their taxes would go up about $2,000. Trump’s promised child tax credits may offset his built-in child penalty, but there are no specifics. I am solid middle class, and Trump’s tax cut is not helping me.

Except for cuts in Medicare, I am lucky to be retired. I don’t pay into deferred compensation plans like a 401K. To pay for the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the estate tax, etc., the GOP is talking about cutting back the 401K tax exemption to about $2400. If an average family paid $10,000 in a deferred plan for retirement, their taxes would go up again by about $2,000. Trump has promised not to cut 401K’s. We’ll see.

Trump lies when he insists that he doesn’t benefit from his reform. He benefits from dumping the alternative minimum tax and the estate tax, and he benefits from allowing small business income to be taxed at a lower rate. All of Trump’s businesses are technically small businesses, but they make a lot of money.

Trump’s promises are worse than empty. His plan will cut taxes for the top 1%, and it will make the rest of us pay for it.

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(trumpdeal) Donald Trump and the Deal

This essay was posted on 10/16/17.

Robert Samuelson is wrong when he claims in an editorial on 10/13/17 that building Donald Trump’s wall is a fair deal for the DACA dreamers, but it’s not about the wall.

I am not a fan of Trump’s wall. It will not do the job unless it totally surrounds the entire US border and each airport. Every port of entry would need to be manned by a garrison of unimpeachable border agents who would inspect everything coming into the United States. Trump’s wall is a waste of money, but the deal isn’t really about the wall.

It is about Trump. The man cannot be trusted. Too many of his deals are like the failed Trump Ocean Resort project in Baja California that Trump aggressively marketed in 2006. He convinced 250 buyers to put down $32.5 million in deposits. The project failed without constructing even one building, and the investors lost their deposits.

The investors sued. They claimed that Trump fraudulently misrepresented himself as a developer. Trump settled without admitting any wrongdoing, and many investors lost their deposits.

If a deal develops that puts Trump’s wall up as a condition for a DACA bill, expect Trump to renege on DACA once the wall money is approved. Forgetting his obligations is and always has been Trump’s method of operation.

Trust is an important part of any successful deal making. Trump broke the trust of the Iranians as well as the other nations in the Iran deal, and there are repercussions from the mid-East all the way to North Korea. Trump is not the dealmaker he claims to be because he cannot be trusted.

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(trumpdrive) What Drives Donald Trump

This essay was posted on 10/9/17.

President Trump is a vindictive man by his own words. He has said many times, “When someone hits me, I will hit them back harder.” I didn’t appreciate those words until now.

Trump is trying to undo Barack Obama’s legacy one brick at a time. After Congress failed to unseat Obamacare, Trump is still trying. His latest move is to cut back on free contraceptives. There will be more. While the public has mixed feelings about Obamacare, it clearly wants available healthcare. Trump and the GOP ignore the political winds and continue to swipe at Obamacare.

Trump is trying to negotiate NAFTA out of existence even as the Republican-leaning Chamber of Commerce objects. If Trump succeeds, you may see Mexico and Canada bypass the US.

Trump backed the US out of the Paris accords, and he is killing Obama era regulations designed to limit carbon emissions. Many of the renewable energy projects will continue unabated, and China will be the biggest beneficiary of Trump’s intransigence. Nevertheless, he persists.

The Iran deal is noteworthy. Trump’s key cabinet members all say that Iran is in compliance. Undeterred, Trump is leaving sanctions against Iran in place, and he is planning more. Trumps efforts to sabotage the Iran deal could lead to a reignited Iran nuclear program.

Clearly, Trump wants to erase any historical significance that Barack Obama may have made. What would drive him to take these actions and overrule his party, his cabinet, our world allies, and suffer disapproval by two thirds of the American Public?

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 30, 2011, Obama made some jokes at Trump’s expence. Everyone laughed, except Donald Trump. Is Trump hitting back at Obama? Just saying.

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(trumpanthem) Donald Trump and the Anthem

This essay was posted on 10/2/17.

This is not about Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee in protest.

This is not about the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said, “If I were a king, I would not allow people to go about burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged. … Burning the flag is a form of expression.”

This is not about former President Barack Obama, who said, “I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation. But I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion."

This is about Donald Trump, who said,“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

Trump’s statement is not good law, and it is unbecoming to the office of the President. Accusing Trump of pandering to his base is an easy response. I have done the same before, but not anymore, because I don’t want to paint Trump’s base as a bunch of deplorables. The Trump supporters that I know are fine people. I just disagree with some of their choices. In the future I will stick to the subject of Trump.

I still wonder why a self-described very smart man would misstate the law so badly and misrepresent his office so egregiously just to make a point. Does Trump disrespect his audience that much?

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(falsechoice) The Problem with Graham-Cassidy

This essay was posted on 9/24/17.

All fifty state Medicaid directors opposed the latest Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare in a truly bipartisan message of disapproval. The directors rejected the Senate bill because it asked the states to continue their coverage and take on more responsibility with less money. The fifty state directors want to serve their constituents if they get adequate money and support to do the job, but the Graham-Cassidy bill falls short. What were Republicans thinking when they needlessly added such onerous Medicaid cuts to a bill meant only to replace Obamacare marketplaces?

The root cause of all the disapproval over the Republican replacement legislation is its emphasis on health insurance premium costs instead of addressing the real problem – the overall cost of healthcare, which is double what industrialized nations pay. The cruelest cost-cutting technique used by Republican lawmakers is penalizing high-risk patients with chronic illnesses. With an estimated 32 million fewer people covered by insurance as reported by the CBO, Republican plans do not serve the public, so they are unpopular with the electorate.

The GOP has an answer to the unpopularity. Fox News claims that the only choice is either the Graham-Cassidy bill or Bernie Sanders’ single payer bill. Maybe. Maybe not. Fox’s comparison is a false choice. The Graham-Cassidy bill is simply bad legislation, and the Sanders bill is far from being ready. It is clear that the public wants affordable healthcare. Republicans have a choice. Save the party or pass Graham-Cassidy.

Republicans have one chance to stave off the Sanders single-payer bill, and it is fixing Obamacare and making it work for everyone.

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(newfascism) Confronting Fascism

This essay was posted on 9/18/17.

The German Brownshirts were one of the first fascist hate-groups. They were a notorious paramilitary arm of the Nazi party who regularly beat up or bludgeoned political enemies, Jews, and other targets of Nazi propaganda. The Brownshirts were instruments of force and intimidation during the rise of Hitler in Germany.

The so-called alt-right composed of white supremacists, the KKK, and Nazis share enough common goals and behaviors that they represent the new fascism in the United States. Fascist ideas have percolated in America for a long time, but the new fascism is bolder and more empowered since Donald Trump started his campaign for the presidency when he made the patently false suggestion that Barack Obama’s citizenship might be invalid. The number of incidents of domestic terror, intimidating politicians, and hate crimes including murder has spiked at an alarming rate since the November election.

The Charlottesville riot, with its tragic outcome is a benchmark of how violent confrontations have entered the political scene. Most observers agree that the fascist groups were the instigators, but an anti-fascist group confronted the fascist extremists with the intent to injure them. After all the haggling over who was at fault, the main message was lost: The intimidation of force and violence is now an integral part of our politics.

The confrontation between conservatives and progressives in Boston on August 19 was very different from Charlottesville. The violence was limited to a few incidental skirmishes, primarily because about 40,000 mostly peaceful marchers vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed the ultraconservative marchers.

In the span of one week, we saw two completely different events. The lesson going forward: Use overwhelming numbers when confronting violent extremism.

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(2maines) The Mythology of Two Maines

This essay was posted on 9/11/17 and appeared in the Portland Press Herald on 9/14/17.

Charles Lawton’s editorial in the Portland Press Herald (9/5/2017) unsuccessfully tries to dispel the myth that there are two Maines p and appeared artly because the two-Maine claim is more about culture than economics. Northern Maine is rural, conservative and mostly Republican. Southern Maine is more urban, liberal, and mostly Democratic.

Maine is a microcosm for America and the two Americas. Rural America is more conservative and mostly Republican. Urban America is more liberal and mostly Democratic.

The problem in Maine and in America is the growing division between the urban side and the rural side. It is as if two separate countries (or states) are forming. The politicians aren’t helping. Democrats tend to ignore rural America and concentrate on urban America, which is more receptive to Democratic liberalism. Republicans use urban America as the scapegoat for all of the problems in America when they appeal to rural conservatives as if liberalism were a dirty word.

Our politicians would serve us better if they understood that rural America and urban America are just two distinct parts of one whole. Urban America needs rural America for food, recreation, raw materials, energy, manufacturing, and the caution of conservatism. Rural America needs urban America for banking, politics, centers of commerce, and the need for new ideas.

Congress must find solutions that help both parts of America. NAFTA is a great example. The Trump administration wants to fix the manufacturing side of NAFTA, but it will be at the expense of US farmers that now profit from NAFTA. US manufacturing needs fixing, but NAFTA is the wrong approach.

The first party that understands the merits of serving both sides of the same coin will become the next dominant party. Neither party seems to be on the right track.

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(harvey) Learning from Harvey

This essay was posted on 9/2/17.

Explosions occurred at the Arkema chemical plant located in Crosby, Texas because floods from hurricane Harvey caused a power outage, which stopped refrigerators and allowed organic peroxides to overheat, explode, and burn. Fortunately, the plant and the surrounding residential community were evacuated. The surrounding area will probably remain closed until all of the unrefrigerated containers of organic peroxides either explode or get neutralized.

There may be a much bigger problem in Houston. Refineries and plants have released about 2 million pounds of harmful pollutants because of the hurricane. The harmful health effects of the released contamination might never be fully known.

There are concerns about the toxicity of the smoke coming from the fire. The plant owners claim that the smoke is not hazardous. Nevertheless 15 law enforcement officers stationed nearby complained of “headaches and dizziness.” The officers went to the hospital for observation and were released.

Another question needs answering. Why is the plant in an obvious flood plain and near a residential area also storing unstable, hazardous material? Storms with the same devastating effect as hurricane Harvey are becoming more frequent, so the likelihood that refineries and related plants pose a threat is high.

Reflecting on the problems exposed by hurricane Harvey will not bring back the 45+ fatalities or fix the damage, but it does point out two reasons why many job-killing regulations can make us safer.

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(afghanwin) Winning in Afghanistan

This essay was posted on 8/27/17.

After the Iraq war began in 2003, a friend and I discussed the problem of winning the war before leaving. During the discussion I suggested that we would not really know who wins until we leave, because winning involved leaving behind a viable country.

The US clearly did not win the Iraq war. We left behind an active insurgency that led to the occupation of a large part of Iraq by ISIS forces. The Iraqi forces are doing better now with US air support and with the help of US Special Forces units. The ISIS occupiers will be kicked out of Iraq. It is just a matter of time. Even so, victory can be claimed only if Iraq resolves its internal differences and becomes a functioning state.

National Security Advisor General McMaster says that winning in Afghanistan means that there are no terrorist groups and there is a sustainable nation. It would seem that an Afghanistan strategy would be designed to achieve that goal. The first Iraq strategy did not work, and the strategy fashioned in the Obama administration that focused on rebuilding the Iraqi Army did not work either. It is taking a common enemy – ISIS – to coalesce the Iraqi army into a fighting force.

An approach similar to the one used in Iraq could work in Afghanistan. The US forces should only play a support role and a training role. The heaviest fighting should be the responsibility of Afghanistan. In the end Afghanistan should be able to defend itself and maintain a stable economy.

As in Iraq, the success of this effort can only be measured when we leave.

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(statues) Removing Civil War Statues

This essay was posted on 8/19/17.

Americans have a new awareness of the Civil War, but the causes of war are still debated, and the merits or demerits of the participants -- notably Robert E. Lee – are still debated. But most of these debates have little to do with the removal of all those Civil War memorials.

Appomattox changed the Civil War. When General Grant paroled the Army of Virginia and did not prosecute General Lee, the war changed from a rebellion to a civil war over slavery. The history says everything. Before the war, slavery dominated the economy. One third of the southern families owned slaves. After the war slavery was abolished.

While slavery was gone, racial oppression remained. Racial oppression took many forms including sharecropping, segregation, lynching, and voter suppression. Racial oppression also moved north when African-Americans emigrated from the South. Oppression endured until the civil rights movement, and though the forms of oppression change, it endures even now.

Most of the Civil War monuments were erected in the twentieth century long after the Civil War was over and settled. The monuments symbolized something more onerous than ante-bellum slavery. They represented racial oppression and the unattained promises after the Civil War era.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh quietly removed Civil War statues from Baltimore to avoid the violence of Charlottesville, Virginia, but I believe the action had deeper meaning. The removal of the statues punctuates the end of a long era of racial oppression in America. Time will show us just how long this ending will take.

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(nkorea) Getting Tough on North Korea

This essay was posted on 8/12/17.

The Cuban missile crisis actually started in 1959 when the US arranged with Turkey the deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey. Russian officials were alarmed by the missile deployment so close to their borders, and the decision to deploy missiles in Cuba seems almost reasonable.

The Cuban missile crisis raised tensions between the two nuclear powers to the point that a major war seemed imminent until the players figured out how to talk to each other. Nuclear annihilation almost happened over missiles in Cuba vs. missiles in Turkey. The diplomats avoided nuclear war by agreeing to remove both sets of missiles, and the world settled into a long-running stalemate of a cold war.

The North Korea crisis has the same dispute as the Cuban missile crisis: North Koreans threaten us with missiles, and we threaten them.

If you look at Donald Trump’s bellicose tirades through the eyes of Kim Jong Un it should scare you. After 64 years, the Korean War is still not resolved, so Kim Jong Un still considers the US to be an invader not to be trusted. The behavior of North Korean leaders has been consistently adversarial toward the US, and any drastic change in policy by an American President could be interpreted as an act of war.

A negotiated way out of the crisis is the best choice, and a change of policy might actually help. We should look at Richard Nixon’s China trip as a model. If we can establish a trading relationship with North Korea, they would have less reason to be suspicious. While we are not there yet, a negotiated peace is preferable to a non-negotiated war.

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(leakedcalls) Donald Trump's Leaked Calls

This essay was posted on 8/5/17 and appeared in the Portland Press Herald on 8/9/17.

Conservatives often say that Donald Trump carries out his diplomacy with a blunt style. The Trump phone calls leaked to the press tell a different story, and it is a story that we should all hear.

When Trump discussed ‘The Wall’ with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto the conversation devolved into a stalemate over who would pay for it. After Nieto insisted that Mexico would not pay for the wall, Trump said “You cannot say that to the press.” Trump is more interested in looking tough for his base than in the economics of the wall.

Trump also had a contentious call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over an Obama agreement to accept 1250 refugees held by Australia. Trump tried to renege on the deal. “Boy that will make [me] look awfully bad,” Trump said. Again, Trump’s main goal was to look tough for his base.

Some people are not so amused by the phone call leaks. David Frum calls them a dangerous national security risk. In this case Frum is off base. Trump’s diplomatic style is so outrageously unique that those world leaders called by Trump must compare notes with each other on a regular basis. Trump’s actual phone calls are more of a national security risk than the leaks could ever pose.

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(skinnybill) Donald Trump's Skinny Repeal

This essay was posted on 7/31/17.

Just 12% of Americans support the latest version of the Obamacare replacement also known as Trumpcare. At this level probably half of Republicans don’t like the bill. Even so, Republicans plowed ahead with repeal and replace.

Republicans spent a lot of political capital on arguably one of the all-time least popular bills. Republicans wrote at least three bills without expert input, without public scrutiny, and without any real debate. The last bill, the ‘skinny repeal’ was written during lunch break on the day of the vote. Many Republicans who voted for it also hoped it would never become law. By their actions, Republicans have clearly demonstrated that they don’t like government’s role in healthcare.

In most cases, the government’s role is determined when a societal need or benefit is not supported well by the free market. Fire departments became a government responsibility when private fire departments became corrupt and abusive competing for insurance money. Public schools helped provide basic education to everyone. In the US, providing healthcare coverage to all citizens is taking longer.

The government’s healthcare role in Medicare and Medicaid grew because the free market could not support the elderly and the poor, and Obamacare tries to cover the people still left in the cold. The need for healthcare coverage should not be debatable. The failure of the free market should not be debatable. That is why actually removing the modest gains of Obamacare has become political suicide.

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(victimhood) Donald Trump's Emotional Appeal

This essay was posted on 7/21/17.

This essay is inspired by Imperium, a movie about conflicts between the FBI and white supremacists.

Donald Trump is having an atrociously difficult time passing healthcare repeal and replace legislation. His tax cuts are on the back burner. Jobs continue to leave the US for cheaper, foreign labor. Each day there are new revelations about secret meetings between Russia and Trump insiders. Still, the support of his base remains strong.

Trump’s strong emotional appeal still resonates with his base, and they remain loyal. Trump repeats his theme that American workers are victimized by money-hungry corporations, bad trade deals, so-called lying Democrats, etc. Trump does not need to deliver much relief to his base because just acknowledging their victimhood is good enough.

In the long-range, Trump will mostly deliver psychological relief, but not many benefits. His solutions are proving to be ineffective and unpopular. No matter. Trump measures his success only by his ability to hold onto his base.

The NAFTA trade deal is a good example. Trump’s mantra is “A renegotiated NAFTA will bring back jobs to America”. Trump is wrong about NAFTA. Eliminating NAFTA completely will bring back zero jobs, and we might even lose a few.

The real menace to American workers is not NAFTA. It is constant, irreversible, inexorable change going on all over the world. The US cannot reinvigorate its golden age by going back to the past. The US needs to apply its resilience and strength to make a new golden age out of the future.

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(kparker2) Kathleen Parker's Press Problem

This essay was posted on 7/13/17.

Kathleen Parker has been a consistent critic of Donald Trump throughout the campaign and during his Presidency until her most recent column in which she aided and abetted one of the worst of Trump’s offences.

Parker claims that:

“… [Trump] may be the president most disliked by the media since Richard Nixon.”

Parker clearly implies that the strong dislike of Trump motivates the press to be more negative when reporting on Trump. The press is more professional than that. Members of the press all have personal feelings, but most don’t let their public opinions get personal. Most reporters follow the tradition of Walter Cronkite reporting the news dispassionately while keeping their political views mostly to themselves.

Donald Trump takes his news personally, and his angry diatribes toward the news media are effective. The Press’s unpopularity is rooted in Trump’s constant refrain that mainstream media is filled with ‘fake news’. Trump has repeated the ‘fake news’ lie the requisite one-thousand times, so his followers believe it.

The job of the press is to be adversarial towards government officials, and officials should defend themselves. But Trump goes too far when he undermines the press with a calculated lie. He offends the Constitution he has sworn to protect.

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(robotethos) The Robot Problem

This essay was posted on 7/5/17.

This essay (and every other essay) about robotics should be preceded by this disclaimer:

"The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim." -- Edsger Dijkstra

Robotics and artificial intelligence are now so much a part of our lives that the possibility of robots acting in an unethical or dangerous way is being considered. The usual question looks like this:

“Is it acceptable for an A.V. (autonomous vehicle) to avoid a motorcycle by swerving into a wall, considering that the probability of survival is greater for the passenger of the A.V., than for the rider of the motorcycle? Should A.V.s take the ages of the passengers and pedestrians into account?”

I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics:

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

The question posed above is the wrong question. The question should be:

“Is it acceptable for an A.V. to be driving if it must decide between a passenger and someone outside the vehicle.”

We cannot expect that an A.V. will always be safe. There will be accidents, and training an A.V. to be safer will not be easy. For now, the Asimov ideal is more of a goal than a reality. For the first problem with robots, depend on the Dijkstra reality. A robot has absolutely no clue about the essential impact of its actions.

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(debthealth) The Republican Debt Problem

This essay was posted on 6/28/17.

The Republicans often justify healthcare cuts by complaining about the $20 trillion debt. Senator John Cornyn is a good example of a debt complainer. Somehow the $20 trillion debt seems to scare Republican members of Congress. Never mind that the GOP wants to raise defense spending and make massive tax cuts that will reenergize the growth of the National debt, Republicans are either lying to the American people or they don’t know what they are talking about or they really want to take America back to the days of buggy whips.

Republicans claim that the national debt is too high. The $20 trillion debt is a big number but not unmanageable. in today’s economic environment. If our economy were the size of Italy’s, the debt would be a problem, but our $20 trillion economy can cover the debt as long as Congress doesn’t make big tax cuts and manages spending growth carefully.

Republicans claim that government spending is out of control. Government spending has been held to around 20% of GDP since the 1960’s, a period of nearly 60 years. Government spending is not out of control, but it increases in response to a growing population, a growing economy, and inflationary pressures. Drastic cuts like those proposed by the GOP would fix a debt crisis that doesn’t exist.

The healthcare crisis that exists is getting healthcare to the 28 million uninsured Americans that Obamacare has not yet reached. Clearly the GOP healthcare plan that adds 22 million people to the uninsured roles does not solve this healthcare crisis.

It is time for the GOP to get past its hysteria over debt and start governing responsibly.

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(trumpcare2) Sneaking through Trumpcare

This essay was posted on 6/20/17.

Congressional Republicans are taking a new approach with the Senate version of the healthcare bill. They are keeping it a secret from the public, Democrats, and even many Republicans. Republican Senator Rand Paul is vocal about not seeing the bill, for example. Keeping such an important bill’s details from the public is a huge problem, but the reason why the healthcare bill is being kept under lock and key is far more important.

Criticizing a secret bill is next to impossible, so I will make the reasonable assumption that the outcomes of the Senate version are just as bad as the House version of the bill. The House bill is a bad bill without doubt. Only 17% of Americans support Trumpcare. Senator Angus King called Trumpcare: ‘ill-conceived, damaging, and down-right cruel.’

Republicans want to fund a massive tax cut by cutting government spending almost everywhere else including healthcare. The GOP bill cuts government spending by taking healthcare services away from too many Americans. The bill would take America to pre-Obamacare days and add over 20 million to the rolls of the uninsured.

The Republican strategy is to reduce healthcare insurance premiums by raising the rates on high-risk people including chronically ill patients and the elderly who have expressed their anger at town meetings across the country. Republicans don’t address the overall cost of healthcare, so participants should expect that healthcare costs will go through the roof raising deductibles and making insurance unaffordable to a larger audience.

If Republicans manage to pass a healthcare replacement, they will face an angry electorate in 2018 especially if they also manage to pass the massive tax cut aimed at the richest taxpayers, including Donald Trump.

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(altfact) Donald Trump and the Alt-Fact

This essay was posted on 6/13/17.

At a news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Donald Trump spoke truthfully when he denied asking then FBI Director James Comey to pledge allegiance to him. Trump added, “Who would ask to pledge allegiance under oath?” Still, Trump’s assertion is troubling when compared to Comey’s testimony.

Trump never asked for an oath of allegiance, according to Comey’s testimony in which Trump said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey was nonplussed by Trump’s remark and responded at first with awkward silence. Instead of asking for allegiance, Trump demanded and required loyalty, which attacked the independence that Comey relied on to make a thorough and unbiased investigation.

Trump’s press conference statement is an alt-fact -- a true statement about a fiction. While Trump’s statement is true, it is based on a conversation that did not happen. In contrast, Comey’s testimony has the sound of truth.

The second quote from Trump about pledging allegiance under oath is just as telling about Trump’s character. The obvious answer is: Donald Trump. During his campaign rallies he often asked the attendees – strangers – to raise their right hand and pledge their vote to Donald Trump. Trump’s rhetorical question just makes Comey’s testimony even more believable.

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(climate) Adapting to Climate Change

This essay was posted on 6/8/17.

In his book Sapiens Yuval Harari asks: Why did mankind choose farming over hunter gathering when hunter gatherers work less and generally have more satisfying lives? I believe that mankind faced a growing hunter-gatherer population and a shrinking prey animal population. Mankind had upset the natural balance, so they switched to farming.

The pattern of solving sustainability problems with clever solutions is mankind’s recipe for success. Unfortunately it is too successful. Now, mankind faces a growing population that is also affecting the natural balance. The oceans are getting hotter causing rising sea levels, the loss of seafood, increase in catastrophic coastal storms, and drought.

The problems are global. The concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is too high, but the problem is not just about fossil fuels. Drawdown , edited by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer lists other greenhouse gas contributors including: refrigerants, beef production, food waste, and farming techniques. We cannot solve this problem with each nation heading in a different direction.

The solutions to our future must be global and coordinated between nations. In the future, each nation must have equal voice, and decisions regarding the problem of restoring a natural balance must be collaborative. Otherwise we will fail. The concept of nationalism as the only driving force must be left behind in the twentieth century.

Eleven countries including the US and China have taken a leadership role in developing renewable energy , and the growth in greenhouse gases has leveled off even as the world economy grows. But much more needs to be done. The total solution includes political issues. The next real challenge will be to find a political framework that will truly sustain us.

President of France Emmanuel Macron said, “Let’s make the planet great again.” It is the only planet we have.

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(poverty) Donald Trump and Poverty

This essay was posted on 5/31/17.

I grew up in one of Maine’s small towns in the 50’s. Some say it was a golden age, but it wasn’t golden for all. There was no federal war on poverty. Poverty was a local problem for each town. My town had its poor families. One family lived in a shack across from a working farm. The yard was cluttered with an assortment of junk, and there was no grass.

I remember kids at school whose parents had very little. The kids had a constant layer of dust and grime splotched on their faces. I remember them less and less as I advanced through school. They had dropped out.

It seemed that each town had a family to tend to. I went to the town dump with my father. Now it's called a landfill. We disposed of an old, rusting push-mower. On the way to the dump there was an old farmhouse in disrepair. On the next trip to the dump I noticed our old lawnmower sitting next to the farmhouse.

Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty in 1964 when the percent of people under the poverty line was 19%. By 1972 the percent had fallen to about 11%. While the percent has risen and fallen over the years it has never reached pre-1964 levels.

President Trump is cutting anti-poverty programs to pay for his tax cuts and his military. The President’s budget calls for cuts in anti-poverty programs such as food stamps, nutrition assistance, earned income tax credit, student loans, and healthcare.

History shows that Johnson’s goal to eradicate poverty is still too difficult, but we should not go back to the day when taking care of the poor was too easy.

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(drawdown) Solutions to Global Warming

This essay was posted on 5/23/17.

If you are worried about global warming or if you just want to clean up the earth, then I encourage you to read Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken.

Drawdown lists 100 ways to reduce heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere either by reducing the creation of heat-trapping gases or by improving carbon sequestration, but there is more in this book. Many of the solutions have beneficial side effects and many are low-tech solutions that you can start implementing today.

The story of Yacouba Sawadogo is memorable. He is a farmer in Birkina Faso whose farm was engulfed by desert. Sawadogo employed a low-tech, traditional technique, and he stopped the desert. Sawadogo succeeded where modern technology failed.

I was surprised that renewable energy does not play a major role. Of the top five solutions as measured by the amount of carbon captured only one solution – wind turbines -- deals with renewable energy sources. Energy-related solutions rank second behind food-related solutions based on carbon removal from the atmosphere, and comprise only 23% of all removed carbon.

Drawdown points out many of the opportunities related to our management of food. Most of the food-related solutions also improve our lives. If we cut down on food waste, we will feed more people. If we eat less meat we will have longer, healthier lives. It seems that we will have better, tastier food as well.

It is easy to connect the environmental solutions in Drawdown to the good-eating solutions in The Third Plate by Dan Barber. The food-production techniques that make food taste better and be more nutritious also reduce green-house gases.

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(trumpcare) The High Cost of Trumpcare

This essay was posted on 5/14/17.

Employer-managed healthcare has not helped contain healthcare costs. Historical data from the Commonwealth Fund shows a steady growth in healthcare costs as a percent of GDP from 9% in 1980 to 17% in 2008, until the Obama administration kept healthcare costs steady at 17% of GDP. During this period there has also been a steady erosion of income and jobs, with some of the blame going to employer-managed healthcare.

The strategies that employers use to manage healthcare include cost-containment measures designed to improve company profits by controlling costs, according to the Center for American Progress. Some of the cost control measures include holding down salaries, reducing insurance coverage, laying off workers, and reducing long-term investments. These cost-control strategies usually hit employees in the pocketbook.

The designers of Trumpcare use employer-managed healthcare as a model, and the goal of Trumpcare is to control costs and make insurance premiums affordable. Trumpcare also makes dramatic cuts to Medicare. The results are: 24 million more uninsured, higher co-pays and higher deductibles. Expect that healthcare costs will rise under Trumpcare, and people will be spending more for less coverage.

Republicans will not win voters by focusing on insurance premium costs and on reducing Federal Government costs. Instead they need to reduce the 17% burden on GDP and reduce the $9500 annual healthcare burden on individuals.

The Senate has the impossible task to make Trumpcare coverage truly equivalent to Obamacare while still cutting Federal outlays. They should just holler uncle and talk to the Democrats about universal Medicare. They would insure everyone and save us all some money as well.

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(deadlock) The Deadlock in Congress

This essay was posted on 5/6/17.

Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins appeared on Meet the Press to talk about the deadlock in Congress and the inability to reach any compromises. They added some standard answers. Americans tend to find neighbors that support their views. Congress members don’t meet with each other enough outside the halls of Congress. I have heard these ideas before, and they do not begin to address the problem.

Deadlock maker 1: The urbanization of welfare. States tend to concentrate their welfare services into urban areas to take advantage of economies of scale and avoid duplicated costs. Unfortunately, this practice creates a dichotomy between rural areas with few welfare recipients and urban areas with relatively large numbers on welfare. Unscrupulous politicians complain about how the so-called lazy welfare cheats in our cities are stealing your tax money.

Deadlock maker 2: Loyalty tests. Parties that demand cookie-cutter politicians who vote only along the party line are putting the party above the constituents. This practice encourages deadlock and discourages creativity and meaningful dialog.

Deadlock maker 3: Gerrymandering. Access to better demographic information has turned gerrymandering into an effective abuse of power. A gerrymandered district practically guarantees a lifetime career for an incumbent. He or she can vote the party line with immunity.

Deadlock maker 4: Soft money. Effective oversight over campaign contributions is gone. Soft money gives a candidate an almost insurmountable advantage in an election. Many candidates are more concerned about their money sources than about their constituents.

King and Collins did not address the substantive reasons for a deadlocked Congress. Their respective parties do not seem interested in fixing the problem.

The basic rule of impasses still applies. One party can create an impasse, but it takes two parties to fix it.

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(elephants) The Price of Performing Elephants

This essay was posted on 4/29/17.

The cruel and inhumane treatment of circus animals is still allowed in the State of Maine. Lions, Tigers, and elephants performed at Kora Shrine Circus charity events in Maine. Nevertheless, the charity benefits do not offset the mistreatment of circus animals.

The mistreatment of performing wild animals in circuses is documented. They travel in cramped cages and are let out only to perform. The animals also receive harsh treatment to achieve total submission when learning unnatural moves and behaviors. It is not surprising when circus elephants exhibit classic anxiety behaviors, and large cats pace back and forth in small cages.

Elephants do better in the wild against predators and poachers than in the confinement of a circus. Elephants have life spans of about 20 years in captivity, but live for over 50 years in the wild. The natural place for elephants is in the wild, not in a circus.

The Maine Legislature should join over a dozen US cities and 17 countries and ban performing wild animals in circuses, and the major cities should lead the way if the Maine Legislature is slow to act.

Exploited wild animals pay too high a price for the entertainment benefit of the audience. There needs to be another way.

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(sapiens) Notes on Sapiens: a Brief History

This essay was posted on 4/18/17.

Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari tells the story of Homo Sapiens, us, from about 70.000 years ago until now from a historian’s perspective.

Harari describes three great revolutions that define us as a species; cognitive revolution, agricultural revolution, and scientific revolution.

There is irony in our scientific name, according to Harari. Sapiens means wise, and wisdom is too often lacking in our history. For example, the hunter-gatherers often wiped out dominant predators in their rise to the top of the food chain. I believe the switch to agriculture was the best alternative to starving after the prey had been depleted. Sapiens found a clever solution after unwise choices.

Harari points out that we are in an extended period of world peace in which a confrontation between major powers is implausible. If you lived through Aleppo or Sudan, you would not recognize this as a peaceful time, but in general, the world is not looking for the final battle, until now. Will the peace last? Harari is not so sure. With the rise of nationalism around the world, this period of peace is definitely threatened. Once again Sapiens confront wisdom.

Harari often demonstrates how our profound intellect can unbalance nature and thereby threaten its sustainability. The problems that we create are also the sources of our inspiration. We seem to be a species where disruption is our normal state. Based on our growing numbers, our disruptive nature has worked, so far.

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(cribbage2) The Crib's Advantage in Cribbage

This essay was posted on 4/11/17.

The first dealer in cribbage has a distinct advantage in the game of cribbage. The results of 400 card games show that the first dealer wins about 55% of the games. Why would the first dealer have such good odds?

The dealer has some scoring advantages. On average the dealer counts an extra hand in the game. The dealer gets the advantage of getting 2 points if the Jack is cut. The dealer gets the last point in the play and the first opportunity for a point in the play. The problem: Do these theoretical advantages make a difference?

To test out these theories, I moved the crib to the non-dealer by establishing the following rules.

After 30 games, the first dealer won just 50% of the games. The advantage of the crib moved to the non-dealer, but dealer retained enough of an advantage to make the game fair.

The transition to the new rules became easier when I followed this simple guideline: The crib goes to the non-dealer, so the crib-holder cuts the starter card and leads first in the play. And remember the player not holding the crib counts first.

After running the experiment for 30 games, we decided to go back the the more familiar game, but we made a small change; the player with the fewer wins gets the deal.

Also read Cribbage and the First Deal.

(gorsuch) A Case Against Judge Gorsuch

This essay was posted on 4/3/17.

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ruled in 2008 for the school district in a case involving the family of an autistic child. Recently the Supreme Court overturned Judge Gorsuch’s decision 8-0. At the confirmation hearings Democratic Senator Dick Durban questioned the merits of Gorsuch’s decision.

Gorsuch defended himself citing a 1996 ruling in a similar case in his district. The judge ruled that the school was only required to provide more than the minimum level of education. Gorsuch has applied the de minimis standard in two cases.

In the case that reached the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts cited a 1982 case involving a student with an extreme hearing loss. The 1982 Supreme Court ruled that the school should provide a level of education that enables an academically capable student to advance to the next grade.

In my opinion, the difference in the rulings involves the meaning of minimum standard. Gorsuch interprets the minimum standard literally. If the school makes a sincere effort, it meets the standard. Roberts and the Supreme Court interpret the meaning of minimum standard differently. The school effort should impact the student enough to allow advancement to the next grade. The difference in interpretations is significant.

Autism is an often-misunderstood condition. An autistic person has social and behavioral difficulties but can be highly skilled academically.

How would the Supreme Court rule in the autism case with Gorsuch on the Court? Would the decision be 9-0 in favor of the child or be 8-1 in favor of the child? If you see an 8-1 decision, you should have strong reservations about elevating Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

(ahcaprob) The Repeal and Replace Problem

This essay was posted on 3/27/17.

The GOP should thank their lucky stars that Trumpcare went down in flames at the hands of a broad, grassroots protest. If Trumpcare had passed, it would have left the poor and the elderly seeking refuge in emergency rooms because of inadequate healthcare coverage.

Free market healthcare couldn’t provide adequate services for the poor and the elderly, so Congress enacted Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Ever since, the GOP has been trying to dump those programs. The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare gave Paul Ryan and Donald Trump the opportunity to privatize Medicaid and Medicare as well. Or maybe that was the real goal behind repealing Obamacare.

Unfortunately for the GOP, privatizing Medicare and Medicaid is alienating voters. About 15 million people have improved their lives by signing up on the exchange or signing up for the Medicaid expansion. Instead of grateful voters, Republican members of Congress faced a lot of angry and fearful citizens at town hall meetings.

Republicans are not hearing their constituents. They don’t want to dump Obamacare because it fills a need. Americans just want to make Obamacare work better. Republicans should take the advice given to Senator Lindsey Graham at a town hall meeting. Get together with Democrats and just fix Obamacare. It’s not that hard. For starters, a full expansion of Medicaid would help to stabilize the exchanges. (read: The Merits of Medicaid Expansion, below)

(medicaidexp) The Merits of Medicaid Expansion

This essay was posted on 3/19/17.

Republicans continue to shoot themselves in the foot over Medicaid expansion because they don’t see what a good deal Medicaid expansion is to the US. Nineteen mostly Republican states rejected the ACA Medicaid expansion deal, and they are paying for it now. The popularity of Medicaid is one of the reasons the GOP replacement plan is having a hard time, especially in the red states that chose to buck their party and accept the Medicare expansion deal.

Medicaid is more than a popular benefit among low wage earners. It is also a good deal for all of us because Medicaid actually lowers the overall cost of healthcare as shown in the state-by-state comparison between Medicaid expansion states and non-expansion states.

Medicaid eligible users cannot afford health insurance, so they rely on the most expensive form of healthcare delivery, the emergency room. And they don’t pay. Medicaid replaces emergency room care with less expensive and more appropriate forms of urgent care. And Medicaid pays the bills.

The reduction in unpaid hospital services starts a chain of events that helps everyone. Hospitals can bill less because of reduced overheads created by more paying customers. Insurance companies can lower premiums because of reduced hospital billing. Healthcare exchanges become more stable in every healthcare system including corporate healthcare plans. And cheaper corporate plans mean more competitive product pricing, which translates into a healthier economy.

We can argue about the pluses and minuses of the ACA over the GOP replacement, but there should be bipartisan agreement that Medicaid expansion must be a part of the solution.

(firedept) Fire Departments and the ACA

This essay was posted on 3/13/17.

Government-funded fire departments didn’t exist prior to the Civil War. Privately held fire companies had the job of putting out fires before the Civil War. They didn’t work well in the free market, so governments started running fire departments.

Some of the problems with private fire companies are obvious. If there are no fires, then the company goes broke. When two companies respond to the same fire, there is a question of payment. Private fire companies didn’t work in the free market.

When people learned that a standing fire department added value to their community even if there were no fires, they funded them through tax revenues. The fire department concept has become an integral part of the American experience.

Healthcare is evolving in the modern world in a way that parallels the story of the fire department. Canadian born MSNBC correspondent Ali Velshi compares the US with the rest of the world saying, “… in all those countries that have single payer systems or universal health care, happiness about health care is actually substantially greater than it is in the United States.”

The major industrialized countries have moved away from free market healthcare as a way of establishing universal coverage. The free market approach to healthcare in the United States faces the paradox of providing some of the world’s best service to many, but failing to serve far too many.

We have a real choice: Implement the GOP plan and go back to a free market system that doesn’t work. Or fix the ACA exchanges by opening up Medicare to new patients for example. A review of the successes and the failures on the world stage tells us to build on the ACA and leverage a proactive, government solution.