Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tribalism as a reflex

I've been following the Trayvon Martin case since it went national. I don't see it as primarily a racial issue, though it definitely has racial tones in it, and I can easily see why blacks are roused to demonstrate. Anyone could be roused, but the case is going to have particular resonance for people who feel targeted for suspicion.

The Beginning
If I remember correctly, the national coverage started on Monday, March 19. By Friday, it was the biggest national story. Demonstrations had been organized. Al Sharpton was down in Florida. Obama, Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney all commented on the case. In general, they each said it was a tragedy that should be investigated thoroughly. For the life of me, I can't see anything wrong or offensive or even partisan in such a sentiment. It seems logical to me--someone dead by gunshot, therefore a need to investigate how and why and to determine if there was a crime.

Getting Nasty
How did we go from that logical sentiment to the conservative media circling the wagons? I can try to trace all the steps: Gingrich criticizing Obama for noting that Trayvon and he were could have been family (read: were the same race without saying 'race' or 'black'); the stupid hoodie comments by Geraldo Rivera. But then the reaction on the outer right seemed to go crazy. (Note: I'm not even going to touch the comments on various blogs because people are always trying to outdo one another in outrageous statements.)

Some conservative blogs, including some within the conservative mainstream, started trying to portray Trayvon as a thug, which is hard to do when he'd never been arrested. In lieu of an arrest record, they used his posed gangsta photos, his suspensions from school, and the braggadocio on his twitter account.

In the meantime, CNN was reporting all the developments regardless of whether they tended to support Zimmerman or the Martin family. They reported the statement from the unnamed neighbor who saw Trayvon over Zimmerman on the grass. They reported about the demonstrations, they displayed the video of Zimmerman in the police station and the picture of Trayvon with the gangsta-style gold tooth ornament. The only information they didn't pass on were the hacked emails (many of which weren't authentic) and the tweets.

It's not clear to me why part of the conservative media went so negative on Trayvon Martin. It was known that he was unarmed, so why is it important to show Trayvon was a thug?

When You Don't Know Why
I don't have a logical answer to this, so I have to reach for an emotional reason. This story got a lot of traction, and it fits many points that Democrats/liberals/progressives make: there is racial profiling that hurts blacks, even resulting in death; police don't fully investigate the deaths of young black males; black males are presumed to be guilty of something; assailants, even when known, can get away scot-free with killing a young black male. A new concern is that Florida's Stand-Your-Ground law will result in even more deaths of young blacks that aren't investigated or prosecuted.

The story works so well for Democratic/liberal/progressive narrative that conservatives are left grasping at anything they can to lessen the impact of the story. Not all conservatives have felt this need. Many are treating this as largely a legal and police procedural matter where the state investigators and the courts will have to determine if Zimmerman was justified or not. These sane conservatives haven't felt the need to defeat the story.

The others, however, tried to shred the story, criticizing the media (of course, a favorite target), black spokesmen, Obama, Hispanic organizations (for not tribally supporting Zimmerman), the special investigator, and most cravenly, the dead boy.

Why is it so important to defeat the story rather than letting it play out? Is all news a zero-sum game, where the points your opponents can make should be blocked whenever possible, no matter how?

For some partisans, this is undoubtedly true. But why can't some, who have more responsibility because of their roles on news sites, let go of the competition and let the Democrats win those points? Instead, in their unwavering, single-minded tribalism, they try to smear whomever they can, and just end looking like the foul sewer floaters that they have become.

Battle lines
 Photo credit:
Disclosure: I lived in New York at the time of the Tawana Brawley case. I haven't forgiven Sharpton, and there is no way I can be fair or neutral about him.

Updates. There are too many to mention. Click on the label "Trayvon Martin" to see more.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Voting for a Mormon

It looks like American citizens will get to choose between a Mormon and a Muslim, radical liberation Christian this fall. I'm predicting that the religion of the candidates will make a difference to a paltry number of voters.

We won't see a decline in voting among Bible Belt Christians. I seriously doubt that there are many evangelicals who "just can't pull the lever for a Mormon." Some have already voted for him in the primaries. If they didn't vote for him, they probably voted for a Catholic (Santorum or Gingrich) and won't have any trouble voting for a Mormon when Obama is the alternative. Those few who are concerned about voting for a Mormon will likely get the OK from their pastors. Perhaps they'll also reflect on why it's now acceptable to vote for a Mormon despite all the suspicion that their churches regularly cast on the Mormon religion.

The whole Mormon issue was corruptly exploited by just a few campaigns and preachers during the early part of the primaries. Now that the primary season is winding down, I'm not seeing the issue stirred up on comment pages anymore. I can read the Washington Wire without being reminded how the founding myth of the Mormons is a crazy lie thought up by Joseph Smith (which I already knew, thank you) or how Romney wears magic underwear. I no longer need to remind myself how infinitesimally small the slice of voters influenced by such stupid, prejudicial statements is.

I predict this scourge won't return in the fall, at least not more than a few scattered comments. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but I don't think many Democratic partisans will be using this tactic to pry a few conservatives off the Romney (station) wagon. I'll be sure to report back if I'm wrong.

Mormon Homeschool: Make your own golden plates... (seriously)

Extra: While I'm saying offensive things about the origins of the Mormon religion, I also want to express my doubts about the literal existence of Abraham and Moses; that the Koran contains all the sayings of Mohammad; that Jesus was resurrected; that souls can be reincarnated; and that souls persist after the death of the body. I'm sceptical of all these tenets and a great many more. However, religion is very often a boon to the believers, and I wish them well. (But please, don't try to convince me--I'm so well inoculated against religious myth that the stories don't stand a chance.)

Here are some of the anti-Mormon comments I collected a few months ago:
"Q. How Many Wives did Romney’s Grandfather had? A. 5
Q. How Many Wives did Romney’s Great-Grandfather had? A. 12
Such great traditions! Even hard core islamists cannot beat that one."
"Mormans do have a crazy religion and Romneys faith is supposed to be questioned. I don’t want to hear about the crazy stories of Joseph Smith and his ilk. I asked a devout Christian what he thinks about the Mormon faith, and all he did was laugh. No Thank You"
"Is God really just a human being living on a planet that orbits the star called Kolob? Did the Angel Moroni really visit the lifelong criminal Joseph Smith in his tent and designate him as the latest prophet for Christianity? Uh, no."
"I cannot vote a person to the Presidency who follows the teachings of Joseph Smith. Romney and Huntsman are off my list..."  -- All from one comment page in WSJ, 12/14/11

Monday, March 26, 2012

Short: Editorial spin

You don't have to make up magnificent lies and conspiracy theories to be a biased commenter. In fact, a bit of subtlety can make the spin more believable. Here is the Wall Street Journal, writing about the extension of the payroll tax holiday:
"...then Messrs. Boehner and McConnell were gulled into going behind closed doors with the President, who dragged out negotiations and later emerged to sandbag them with his blame-the-GOP and soak-the-rich re-election strategy. Any difference between the parties on taxes and spending has been blurred in the interim."
Obama sounds like a political Svengali, gulling less wily, less experienced politicians into compromising positions. How evil of Obama, we are led to think.

If you bother to question the WSJ's version, you might wonder how two politicians experienced enough to rise to the offices of House Speaker and Senate Minority Leader could be lured into negotiations and then sandbagged. Could it be that they entered the negotiations with a terrible weak position? Why, yes indeed, that's a possibility. Maybe they also overplayed their hand, and their bluff was called, and they lost their shirts.

A Speaker of the House and a Minority Leader of the Senate should know their way around a political negotiation. So should the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Try this spin on someone else.

  Photo credit:

Short: What if, 2008

Imagine an alternative history where the matchup between Obama and Romney doesn't happen in 2012, but in 2008. The differences are amusing:
"When it comes to Mitt Romney, if the NY Times and the rest of the MSM dislikes him he must be doing something right.. . . He’s spent a great deal of his own money on his campaign, so nobody can accuse him of owing anything to anyone. You also have to admit that he has a certain presidential look about him that Americans respond to in the voting booth. He’s taking some flak for changing positions on some issues, but at least he hasn’t gone around sticking his finger in the eyes of the very people he’s trying to win over in the primary." -- The Lonely Conservative (emphasis added)
I don't think any Republican presidential candidate was going to win in 2008, not with economic turmoil. But even back in 2007, it was clear to at least one numerical analyst that Romney wouldn't win against Obama:

Electoral College Projection:  Obama 400, Romney 138

Short: Getting to small government

This piece from RedState was the most convincing argument for shrinking government that I've read. It eschews the name-calling, which helps make it readable. It doesn't dwell on resentment and ancient wrongs, but still manages to provide context for how government got as big as it is.

Though I don't share the view that government should be as small as this column advocates, I felt like I was walking in their shoes for the first time. It was a level-headed, compelling read.

The main point is that government growth is on auto-pilot due to the entitlements. To prevent entitlement spending from crowding the rest of the economy, it has to be reformed aggressively. That's a simple, coherent argument with a lot of merit. It neglects an important corollary: the possibly distressing effects for those who are dependent on those entitlements.Nevertheless, an interesting read that I recommend.

Photo credit:

Short: Midwestern good sense and our deficit

I'm not the only one who likes to look at how we got to where we are. This sensible, very short and humble editorial looks at the Bush tax cuts. With one timely quote and one poignant contrast, the author captures a moment when we made a big mistake. Take a minute to read it.

Update 9/23/14. The original link was busted. In case that happens again. I'll quote from the editorial.

How did we get into the mess of having deficits of $1.5 trillion?
Norm Orenstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institutes, reminds people he and others said at the time that the cuts in capital gains taxes were going to be a huge drain on federal revenues... This was in and around 2000-2002. Says Orenstein: 'Guess what, it was a huge drain on federal revenues.' [Note: it should say 'Norm Ornstein.']
But we continued to cut taxes...
Here's the poignant contrast:
Another surprise: the report reminded people that Allen Greenspan was saying paying down all our debt would have negative economic implications, would hurt growth.
Who should we have followed--Ornstein or Greenspan? Oh, the regret!

Short pieces

I collect a lot of interesting links that I don't turn into blog posts for a variety of reasons. Often the link has an interesting hook, but I'm not exactly sure how it fits into a coherent discussion. Sometimes it's an absurd statement or idea and I'm stuck by the utter ridiculousness. But I don't want to write "look at those goofy people" all the time even though there's plenty of fodder.

The most interesting links have taught me something new. Those in particular I want to share. So I'll be doing more short pieces to see if it's worthwhile. I'll be pulling from my backlog first, so please excuse me and skip them if they feel dated.

Photo credit:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Manipulating emotional politics

All politics is about power, so it's no wonder if resentment at those who wield power is prevalent. One would think from the Tea Party, which is largely Republican, that the GOP had been out of power for a generation, not just partially out of power for six years starting in 2006.

Here is a list of my perceptions of this anger:
  • resentment at growing government
  • resentment at growing debt, which we know we'll have to pay for many years
  • resentment at people perceived as living off taxes while not making a contribution
  • resentment at people in government who haven't shared the pain of job losses, benefit losses, lower salaries, and no raises
  • resentment at people who characterize them as ignorant, stupid, racist, and backward
  • resentment that the system hasn't produced a better candidate, one who by rights should be winning the primaries
  • suspicion that the media and pollsters are covering up their numbers to make them lose heart
Is it at all surprising politicians who breathe resentment, who fashion huge firework displays of resentment, are in various electoral races?

It's also no wonder that this kind of candidate is generously funding by corrupt powers that want to avoid attention, stoke resentment, and offload a bigger tax bill.

Photo credit:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cutting to the bone

When it comes to spending, we have to decide what we want and whether we still want it when we find out how much we'll have to pay for it. That should hold true for government spending too.

Our government and other governments around the world have made a huge mistake decoupling these. They have been aided by willing lenders, or the sheer ability to print money and pushed by constituencies to spend, spend, spend without raising taxes.

Now, I have to remember that a lot of the good things in my life are due to government spending. My paycheck is partially funded by government spending. My kids went to town-funded schools. I drive on public roads. I receive public water and sewer services. I don't fear foreign invasion or plague or bandits because of protections provided by the government. I have to give credit: my government has provided a safe environment for me.

It's important for me to remember this, because when we start cutting government spending, I'm not going to want to cut things that I depend on for my basic safety. I can forego the new highways and high-speed rail but I want some public entity to make sure the bridges don't collapse.

That brings me to the Ryan budget. I've  read that he'll shrink the discretionary spending to 3.75% of GDP from the current level of 12%. This includes military spending, we know the GOP is loathe to cut. This doesn't leave much money for purposes like FEMA, national weather services, FDA, FBI, customs, etc.

It's been hard to figure out whether what the cuts are going to be. According to one analysis (p. 17), Medicaid, SCHIP (children's coverage) and health exchanges support will be cut in half over time. But Ryan's own numbers (p.90) show it dropping just 23% compared to Medicare. The budget outline is also very lean on what discretionary spending is going to cut. It has none of the honesty of Ron Paul's budget where he declares 30% cut to this department and 70% of that department.

So I have no sense that the Ryan budget would preserve the programs I depend on for my safety. That worries me enough, and my health doesn't even depend on Medicaid.

 Not enough funding? -- Collapsed bridge in China

Extra: A conservative analysis (possibly libertarian) of the Ryan budget.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Absurd Religious Follies

Literally LOL:
"Armed with brooms, mops and 'unholy water,' atheists with the Humanists of Florida gathered on Saturday to symbolically remove holy oil that Polk Under Prayer put down on Highway 98 near the Pasco-Polk county line last year..." -- FoxNews
Actually, it was just a Monty Python sketch. No, it wasn't. Yes, it was. No, it ...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Catholic Mistake

Although I'm an agnostic, I'm fairly supportive of religion. I appreciate the sense of a higher mission and the way it inspires so many people. So when I speak against a religious precept, it's with a heavy heart.

I love people, but I love all living things more. Life is the most precious gift in the world, but I don't limit my love to human life. My soul soars at the sight of a majestic tree and I chuckle at the odd shapes of lichens.

Out of respect for all living things, I'm firmly against the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion, and especially on birth control:
Contraception is wrong because it's a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as "natural law." The natural law purpose of sex is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, intended to offer the possibility of new life while strengthening the bond of intimacy, respect, and love between husband and wife. . . God’s gift of the sex act, along with its pleasure and intimacy, must not be abused by deliberately frustrating its natural end—procreation.
For most of our lives, the procreative aspects of sex are superfluous or unwanted. I disagree with Catholic Church philosophy on this point. I place more emphasis on the scientific viewpoint than on odd conceptions of "Natural Law," which we break all the time with lighting, air conditioning, refrigeration, and the many benefits of modern medicine.

Another scientific point is that the world is already supporting a vast number of humans, and there definite benefits to limiting the surging growth. Countries with unrestrained growth due to religious and cultural teachings against birth control include Egypt, Haiti, and the Philippines. These can be horrendous places to live, especially if you're poor. I think the religious teaching against contraception are largely to blame.

Other lesser arguments are:
  •  Contraception allows people to be unfaithful.  (So I can't use it because cheaters might? Thanks a bunch.)
  • Loose sexual behavior will pervade society as a result. (True, but that is an individual choice.)
  • Men will view women as sex objects if there's birth control. (I believe this can happen with or without contraception, so it's a wash.)
Another argument that the Catholic Church makes:
... it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life.
Excuse me, but I don't accept that God is the sole entity that should determine whether or not I become pregnant. I'd like to have a huge role in that decision.

One of the most egregious arguments against contraception dates from 307A.D.:
... Some "complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife."
Spare me the pontificating about the sovereignty of God and how God will provide (if He wants). I want the responsibility for my children, and I want to raise them well. Just don't tell me how many to have. Don't tell me that if I don't want a child at this particular time, I should keep an aspirin between my knees. I'm not a monk or nun, and I want the modern conveniences, including contraception.

So, I believe, by all means, subtract the procreative aspects from the sex act. You're not hurting the world or yourself or God.

Every sperm is sacred: All male panel testifies about contraception.

Thanks to Viable Opposition for the link to Catholic doctrine.

Addendum 6/14/2012. I can't believe I didn't say this before. I have no doubt, that if God were still writing and/or editing the Bible, that the message on procreation wouldn't be "Be fruitful and multiply." Instead, it would be "You've done enough multiplying. Now leave plenty of space for the other creatures of this earth."

Addendum 9/7/2014. I finally wrote a full post on why there are 1) too many workers, and 2) too many people in the world. I declare that I'm for a birthrate below replacement rate. If your religion has a hard time with this, too bad. My view is based on logic that is probably bullet-proof.

The sprawl of the welfare state

I was reading a political blog and read this not-atypical comment:
"... a  few partisan leftists rolled their eyes at conservatives who think death panels are a feature of socialized medicine...
"All that said, the reason this stuff is so much more offensive on the right is because the nation has basically drifted leftward, in some respects rapidly, over the past several years. Who would have thought, even 15 years ago, that opposition to gay marriage would be basically fringe in the US? Or that we would reach a point where the viability of political candidates is largely, perhaps mostly, predicated on how well they avoid taking stuff away from key constituents? It is, practically, an increasingly liberal country and world." -- A plainblog commenter
I started to write a comment arguing against this viewpoint. It's easy to defeat the idea that avoiding "taking stuff away from key constituents" is only a problem for the left. I can point to some juicy benefits for the wealthy and medical corporations during the Bush administration to show that the GOP does constituent service the same as the Democrats, but do I really need to?

It's so easy to talk about marriage for same-sex partners as being mixed lefty and conservative, since marriage is a traditional, conservative sort of institution.

However, it was a lot harder to argue that the country hasn't drifted leftward over the past several years, or maybe I should say four decades. I wanted to make the argument that, in terms of social acceptance, there has been definite leftward shifts, but not on fiscal issues.

Yet when I tried to find examples of conservative ideals becoming more prevalent in society and government, I could think of only one example--the welfare reform of the 1990's. Most government policy has expanded government's role, responsibilities, and expenditures. But remember that not all government spending is "liberal" spending. Increased defense spending, which we've had, has more of a conservative constituency. Increased spending on Medicare had bipartisan support when it was voted on in Congress, so it's not exactly fair to label it "liberal" now. If the country is in a rightward shift now, as shown in the GOP/Tea Party gains in the 2010 election, it hasn't penetrated spending or policy yet.

For movement in a fiscal conservative direction, you may have to look to business. Many are pushing back on healthcare with co-pays and higher employee contributions. They're also offering 401K retirement plans instead of fixed pensions.

Whether you think the leftward direction is good or bad depends on your political viewpoint. I'm afraid (or glad) you'll have to make up your own mind about that.

Basically blue

Telegram to Mr. Gingrich

Mr Gingrich COMMA According to Intrade trading data COMMA you have one half of one percent chance of being the Republican nominee STOP That means you have a slightly better chance than Sarah Palin who clocks in at four tenths of one percent chance STOP Many people are rejoicing at this news STOP

SIGNED ModeratePoli

Non-telegram style: Gingrich - 0.5% chance. Palin - 0.4% chance. Woohoo!!!!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Budget warning: March report

The GOP  House is finding it hard to write a budget. The triggers weren't scary enough to force Dems and Repubs on the super committee to compromise, and they may not be scary enough to get a majority of the GOP representatives to agree either.

Some Repubs want to spare the Defense department and have the cuts come from the big entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security). Others fear voter backlash if they touch entitlements, so they want cuts to come per the debt ceiling deal, which gives plentiful ass-coverage. These automatic cuts would hit defense and non-defense discretionary spending. There many even be a few wildcard Repubs who want something else entirely, such as Ron Paul with his $1 trillion in cuts.

Extrapolating from the payroll tax cut extension, I think I'm ready to predict capitulation to the debt ceiling triggers. My guess is that's the preference of the same group that surrendered on the payroll tax.

But it would be more enjoyable if they can't compromise, and some competing visions of cuts get aired. It would be even better if the Dems offered some budgets, but they're too wary to do that. Dems with discipline are no fun at all!

Update 3/15/12. From a less muddled article, it appears that the GOP split is over how far below the agreed budget limit to go. And the Dems are complaining that a lack of agreement could lead to a shutdown showdown. According to last August agreement, that was not an option for 2012.

Reflections on unqualified candidates

I read a very interesting article (with video) about a high staffer from McCain's campaign. He was talking about the choice of Palin for McCain's Vice-President:
"When a result happens that puts someone who's not prepared to be president on the ticket, that's a bad result... Both parties have nominated people in the last decade who were not prepared to be anywhere near the Oval office." -- Steve Schmidt
First, we would have to define 'unqualified' in a non-partisan way. According to most of the opposition party, your candidate isn't qualified for the high office of the presidency. I'd also like to craft a definition that wouldn't rule out someone like Lincoln, who served only two years in government office and was a failed Senate candidate, but was known as a passionate speaker and advocate.

Actually, maybe it's better to debate whether a particular person is unqualified rather than try to create a definition that works in all cases, including the case of Lincoln.

Unqualified in '08
In the 2008 presidential elections, we had two candidates who had questionable credentials: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Neither had been in high public office for very long-- only 3.5 years for Obama and 1.5 years for Palin. Obama had never had executive experience or responsibility for managing a budget, while Palin did.

Obama, though clearly less qualified in terms of experience, was nominated (in part) because he had a better chance of winning than Hillary Clinton. Palin, also clearly less qualified in terms of experience, was nominated because she brought good speaking skills, excitement, and appeal to women and evangelical Christians.

Is it OK to nominate some who is unqualified because it gives your side a better chance to win, and you believe that your candidate, despite lacking some important qualifications, would do a better job than the opponent? Both the Democrats and the Republicans said 'yes' to that question in 2008.

Should We Risk It?
Sometimes you take that bet, you embrace that risk, in pursuit of a higher reward. Sometimes it's because that bet is the only one that might pay off, so you accept it knowing the problems. We, as a democratic people, are proudly unruly and somewhat disrespectful of rank and office. We will, no doubt, sometimes nominate and even elect the 'unqualified' person because we see some special characteristic that mitigates a lack of qualifications. Neither the opponents nor proponents will have an unbiased judgment about whether a candidate is unqualified, or whether failure ensued due to lack of qualifications. There is no way to scientifically test qualifications and discover what is necessary and what isn't.

So be ready to debate the candidate's qualifications, but know that being 'unqualified' isn't a veto on running or winning.

Extra: Biblical qualifications.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Contraception decision: War on religion?

Is the decision of the Obama administration on contraceptive insurance coverage a "war on religion?"
"The Catholic Church objects to being told to pay for something that it morally objects to. Why should the government make Catholic schools, hospitals and charities pay for abortion inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception? ... There is no reason it has to involve the Catholic Church other than pure spite." -- Washington Post commenter
I don't think it's "pure spite" or "war." Lots of people seem to want to ramp up the rhetoric, a problem not confined to one side of the dispute.

There are many non-spiteful reasons for wanting insurance plans to cover contraceptives. Here are a few: People like to control when they have children without foregoing their sex lives. To many, it doesn't make sense to carve out a special exception for birth control when many other medications/procedures are covered. Some women (a few) need hormones to control diseases like ovary cysts. None of these are spiteful or war-like reasons to cover contraceptives.

The decision about covering contraceptives pits two worthwhile goals against each other: 
  • The usefulness of contraceptives is similar to the usefulness of hypertension medicines, and perhaps should be treated in the same manner by insurers. 
  • Religious employers don't want to be forced to pay for medications that they have a long-standing doctrinal objections to. 
This is a difficult matter of deciding which of the conflicting interests is more important. It is not spite or war.

That the government and employers are involved is an artifact of our ridiculous health care insurance system where the employer pays. If we could transition to private/individual-funded choices, then we could pick our own insurance based on our own consciences.
That would be much better. Amen.

 Praying . . . that the contraceptives keep working. 

Update 3/14/12. The Obama administration isn't trying to end religion or shut down the Catholic Church. But it sure feels like some alliances of conservatives are trying to completely shut down Planned Parenthood. If the Catholic Church was trying to do this directly, people would be up in arms.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Healthcare and the tentacles of government

One problem with Obamacare is that it greatly increases the role of the federal government in healthcare. But it's not that government's role is currently small. With Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's healthcare, and federal employees, the government's role hasn't been small since the early 1960's.

Private Sector Sprawl
This mirrors the growth of health insurance coverage in the private sector. If anything, the private sector has been in the forefront of increasing healthcare expenditures, and the federal programs only bring those spending patterns to the poorer parts of society. Private health insurance instituted coverage for prescription drugs long before Medicare Part D, so it's no wonder seniors wanted it too.

So the federal government is hardly the major instigator of insurance coverage for contraception. However, it is a significant step when government mandates that insurance companies have to provide them with no copay. I understand the reasoning: contraceptives are preventative care, and ACA mandates that insurance companies cover preventative care 100%. They are certainly cost-effective compared to maternity costs.

However, I question whether the country is going in the right direction to mandate that ALL insurance cover ALL care deemed preventative. We might make better decisions and save money if we had skin in the game. On the other hand, we might save some money in the short run by making bad decisions, like delaying treatment or skipping an uncomfortable screening test that also cost us money (insult on top of injury).

How Many Mandates?
So I'm uncertain. Should we go the libertarian route and leave the responsibility to the individual, or do we go statist and trust a government board to dictate what standard care and standard coverage should be? I actually think that the doctors in government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control have done a good job, so I don't object on principle to the statist route.

Maybe it is best for medical experts to evaluate practices, their costs, and their efficacy and report which are best. I don't particularly care if the medical experts work for the government or for large healthcare groups like Kaiser or Mayo Clinic, or for large insurers. If they use good methods and find good savings in money and lives, I want to know and benefit. However, when it comes to legally mandating certain coverage, maybe it's better to go slow--don't require too much all at once. Choose to mandate the most effective preventative care, not the kitchen sink of preventative care. And also allow other experiments, like Whole Foods health account/catastrophic care insurance combination.

I hope ACA doesn't become a monster, with too many mandates and therefore hideously expensive. It doesn't have to be that way. Still, ACA was an important step to partially solve a huge problem in the US for those without employer-provided healthcare insurance. Just like Romneycare was a big step for Massachusetts, and it's now benefiting many, including people in my own family.

More Choice
In a time when our healthcare insurance market seems like feast or famine (employer-provided insurance or nothing affordable), ACA mandated something else. It opened a door. Now let's open some doors for other sorts of healthcare coverage too.

Preventative care: Catching the #1 cancer in women

Switzerland model, Singapore model with mandatory accounts.
CA mandates, CT mandates. Read them to see how much is mandated (a lot), and think about how you'd be glad it was mandated if you were in those shoes.
Read the sequel follow-up post.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The undead candidate. . . still

I've already declared that Newt is the dead candidate who doesn't know he's dead. He's still proving me right. He won the Georgia loyalty pageant, but his campaign actually said on Wednesday that he'd have to win Alabama and Mississippi to stay in the race. Ah, the sweet hope that a likely loss in Alabama would end this vanity campaign gone wrong.

Unfortunately, he reversed that by Friday, and now he declares that he's going all. the. way. to. Florida. That wipes the glee from my heart and the smile off my face.

Imagine Newt as the Energizer Bunny, just going and going. But instead of banging a drum, his mouth keeps on running and running with spewing lies and grandiosity.

Tell me that doesn't make you want to reach for a sledge hammer . . .

Update 3/26/12. Gingrich's campaign is so broke that he's charging $50 for photos taken with supporters. His aides take down the credit card info while you're in line. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sanctions hurt the poor here

Not in Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Libya...

In Texas. The Texas legislature wanted to put sanctions on Planned Parenthood, so they eliminated funding and took the double hit from the loss of federal grants for family planning too. Clinical sites are closing and fees are being instituted or raised.

Some poor women may shift some of their small but existent disposable cash to pay for contraception. But for others, having to travel further and raise the extra $60  for the 3- or 6-month supply of pills will prove impossible, and nature will take its course. By this time next year, Texas may or may not see the results of this policy in birth rates, maternity hospital fees, child health program sign-ups, and adoptions.

We don't know the outcome yet. But it didn't have to come to this. In the fight over Planned Parenthood, someone could have blinked. Texas could have backed down, or Planned Parenthood could have separated into two organization: one that handles abortions and another that handles everything else.

If PP had done that, it would have been a capitulation to anti-choice forces and an abandonment of part of its mission. Still, I hope they considered it. If both types of services remain available through separate, that's not a huge sacrifice to make. Instead, both Texas and PP decided to sacrifice free or subsidized care for poor women.

Well, it's probably wrong to say Texas or PP sacrificed. The government of Texas (elected officials and public employees) and PP (the governing board and employees), and the strident pro-lifers behind the "kill PP" movement, are most likely still covered for the contraceptives they need and want. The real sacrifice is borne by those poor women who are pushed back into the bygone days of no contraceptives with all those stresses and uncertainties. We, the decision makers, are safe.

How far is the clinic?

Sources: NYT, Reuters, local Amarillo station

Update 3/16/12. Texas is suing the federal government over the loss of federal funding for its programs. Texas paper, Baltimore paper.

Update 4/15/12. More details on Planned Parenthood closings in Texas.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those defiant Republicans

I keep hoping the GOP primary will be over, but the Republicans coming to the polls keep demolishing my hope.

A lot of this hope is based on my personality. I'm not a person who lives for adrenaline rushes--I prefer the comfy chair in my nice quiet and stable home. So, as much as I'd like to know which kook will be running against Obama, I'm doomed to wait anxiously. (And I've decided that each of them deserves the appellation 'kook.' I'll justify that if called upon to do so.)

I don't expect the Republicans or any political group, or even my own family, to follow my political whims, but I'm wondering what it means that GOP voters aren't paying fealty to the Romney campaign siege machine. The conservative blog I read no longer has comments about policy positions or even much combativeness. I think I see mostly lethargy and apathy there. The GOP base has given up hope on the not-Romneys without accepting that Romney deserves the nomination, perhaps because lately he's been demonstrating less economic vision. But more likely because his heavy hand and oh-so-innocent demeanor have worn thin.

The evangelicals are sticking with Santorum. They seem to be the only group with any enthusiasm left. But they are a smallish group (which I'm glad of, since I don't care for their theocratic leanings or intolerance of non-Christian and non-traditional ways). Perhaps this is the proof that the evangelicals don't own the Republican party. That means they're just a few steps away from the same level of disappointment that the rest of the GOP is feeling.

One of the funniest factoids is that perhaps 2 percentage points of Santorum's vote in Ohio came from Democrats playing dirty tricks in the GOP primary. I didn't hear that acknowledgment in Santorum's speech. It's an extra bit of weirdness in this campaign that Santorum has called on Democrats to execute an Operation Chaos on his own party. Is that a reflection of how desperate he is for votes, or of how much he dislikes Romney?

Personally, I used to feel sorry for Romney as he tried to woo the GOP. But not any more. I've tired of his earnest lines about cleaving to the conservative line with all his heart. A lot of people have, because his unfavorables have grown considerably. Perhaps we'll see a presidential election where Republicans don't rally around their choice. But will it be because they're defiant or because they're dispirited?

 Who Cares?

PS. My sweetie asked me if I thought the Republican party would split into an evangelical party and a business-friendly party. I don't see it happening. Their platforms would be similar enough that any split wouldn't last. I think they're doomed to cohabit the same party and get on each other's nerves for quite a while into the future.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Equivalence: God's judgment on you

I might have figured out the liberal equivalent to those religious people who claim that "X" is God's judgment on some sinner. Like 9/11 was God's retribution for tolerance of gays (Falwell).

Here is my nomination for liberal equivalent:
When a 43-year-old man dies of an apparent heart attack, you look for something extraordinary that might explain it. In Andrew Breitbart's case, you don't have to look far. . . judging by his work, hostility was no stranger to him.
To their credit, few readers let this columnist get away with this speculation, hedged though it was. It's ugly when conservatives do it, and it isn't any prettier when liberals do it. Can we just stop?

Being a Republican means never saying I'm sorry

This seems to be one of Newt's principles. I suppose Newt apologized for making the commercial with Nancy Pelosi, but not for:
  • Having an affair while persecuting Bill Clinton for having casual sex.
  • Following a political strategy that cost a number of Republican House seats.
  • His questionable ethics while Speaker.
  • His lobbying consulting work after quitting the House.
  • His lies about his lobbying consulting work.
According to Newt, Rush Limbaugh needn't apologize for calling a 30-year law student a slut and a prostitute, and demanding that she upload sex tapes for his and other taxpayers to enjoy.

The president shouldn't apologize for what the military does in any of those insignificant foreign countries, but should be accountable for situations beyond his control, such as gasoline costing over $2.50 a gallon.

I'm really tired of politicians demanding that other politician apologize for or repudiate this or that. Tell me why the other politician is wrong, but don't go into a long, moralizing harangue. And when someone does decide to apologize, don't go into a long, moralizing harangue about why he shouldn't.

We aren't 8 year olds forced by our parents to make apologies. We are supposed to be adults who are capable of deciding when to apologize and when not to. Let's try to treat one another like adults, and steer clear of the apology circus.

You're not the boss of me, so I'm not listening ...

Update 3/6/12. I just found a compendium of the 21 insults Limbaugh said about Sandra Fluke, the law student. Another indication that he's a shock-jock, not a political commentator.

What is Romney's real tax policy?

It's difficult to nail down Romney's new tax plan that includes 20% across the board tax rate cuts. Is he proposing to offset these cuts with changes to the deductions or not? Romney or his economic adviser have said at various times, like here, that there will be changes to deductions making the cuts revenue-neutral.

Romney himself isn't clear whether he supports the 20% tax rate reduction by itself without the changes in deductions. In this op-ed from March 1, he fails to mention deductions or whether the cuts will be revenue-neutral. He's also embraced "dynamic scoring" which uses the assumption that tax cuts will lead to permanent economic growth and permanent higher revenue... just like the Bush tax cuts. It isn't clear whether he's bought into the faith that "tax cuts will pay for themselves" or whether he wants to cut rates more than dollar-for-dollar offsets will allow.

His lack of clarity may gain him votes from the trickle-down faithful. Maybe he's planning a bait-and-switch after the primaries so he'll look more fiscally responsible for the general election. Or maybe no one will pin him down and he won't decide what his tax plan really is until he's president. Of course there's a tradition of presidents not showing their true colors until they're elected, but I was hoping this campaign would be different. Tough luck on that, I guess.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Contraception: Good works, bad people

Another rumination on pro-choice issues: Planned Parenthood has been besieged by conservatives all last year, but this might be a turn-around year for them. Susan J. Komen foundation announced that it was going to cut off grants to PP. Before Komen backtracked completely, it announced that it would still fund four locations because they were the only facilities in their areas for low-income women to receive breast cancer screenings.

This confirmed what I suspected: healthcare for the poor is spotty; PP is a major player for poor women; in some poor areas, PP is the only provider.

I wonder how many of the people who are working strenuously to defund (or preferably permanently close) PP have considered how poor women will get the healthcare that PP has provided. Are unsullied providers (with no connection to abortion) ready to step into breaches that would open if PP were closed or cut off from federal and state funding? The big question is: Can you actually separate contraceptive care from abortion?

I did a quick web search and found many independent women's health service providers. Roughly half stated that they provide abortion services, so scratch those. Many of the rest do referrals. Only one stated that it didn't provide abortion services. So it may be hard to find providers who are squeaky clean--no connection to abortion.

It's no surprise if it's hard to separate contraception services and abortion. Many people who use contraception want some sort of backup if the contraception fails. The failure rates aren't insignificant; they range from less than 1% to 20% depending on the contraceptive method. The backup is often abortion rather than continuing the unintended pregnancy. The provider who helped with the contraception will often want to help the woman with the unintended pregnancy, which means providing an abortion, referring her for an abortion, providing prenatal care, or making a referral for prenatal care. Few providers of contraception will want to throw up their hands and not help a woman whose contraception has failed.

So, the big answer: I don't think you can operationally separate contraception providers from abortion providers. People interested in providing contraceptive services don't usually stop there.

And what if they fail?

"I’m amazed, almost daily, at the fervor and zeal for which many conservatives, independents, and liberals espouse, nay advocate, for the murder of human beings to allow for the convenience of a mere vessel." --Wall Street Journal comment

More answers to the big question.
Indiana has trouble separating the services.
Washington Times article regurgitates pro-choice research.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Death of a partisan

A surprising event today: Andrew Breitbart died.

It's hard to figure what to say on this occasion. I didn't care for his political positions  and especially for his egregious tactics, but I agree with the tradition that it's unseemly to bash someone on their death. After all, some people respected and even loved him.

So, it is OK to say something like this?
This is a reminder that we are all mortal. Through his hard work and pointed commentary, Breitbart had influence on a national scale. He'll be mourned by his supporters, but I'm not among them. However, I don't believe and would never say that this is God's judgment on him. May he rest in peace and may his family find some solace.
I think that is as kind as I can be, but I welcome comments and criticism.

Died March 1, 2012

Paradoxical quote of the day

"I learned so much law listening to Orrin Hatch. We all remember his memorable performances on the Senate Judiciary Committee. I was particularly influenced by him in my 20s and 30s during the Reagan and Bush I eras. His efforts to save the nomination of Clarence Thomas were truly heroic. Thomas was a weak candidate to begin with and the Anita Hill allegations seemed to many to be more than enough to doom his nomination. But Hatch took it upon himself to resurrect Thomas, and Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court today as a result of the supreme efforts of Orrin Hatch. It takes a man with a very special gift to place a complete ignoramus on the U.S. Supreme Court." - Wall Street Journal comment

Courtroom of the Supreme Court

Background - Like other Republican senators, Orrin Hatch was been judged a RINO by Tea Partiers and faces Republicans challengers for his seat, which prompted this news item and attached comments. I have a soft spot for Orrin Hatch, who seems to me one of the most decent and respectful politicians.