Thursday, December 21, 2017

If You Really Mean It

One idea behind the reduction of the corporate tax rate to 21% and the 20% deduction for income earned through “pass-through” businesses (like sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations) is that businesses will use the extra money to add jobs and pay better wages. This argument is countered with the assertion that they probably won’t.

Your humble servant will leave off predicting the future for now, and simply make the observation that there is no logical necessity between business tax cuts and enhancing the position of the employee class. Moreover, it should be plain to any onlooker of average wit that the connection between selfish economic interests and the consequent benefit to the economy as a whole has been overstated.

There are ways of ensuring that we get the outcomes that we want, but it requires the insertion of machinery into the social edifice. Some decry such efforts with emanations of stupidity like “picking winners and losers,” as if any system was immune from doing so. The system we implant will indeed pick winners and losers, but, with any luck, it will pick the winners we believe ought to be victorious.

Now the ostensible goal of the aforementioned tax cuts is to create more and better employment. Only a thoroughgoing nihilist will object to the goal, which is why the defenders of the plan will try to cast the debate as being over the desirability of that outcome. On that score, the future that is soon to become history will be instructive. 

We are letting plutocrats and companies keep more of their money in the hope that they will dispose of same for socially beneficial purposes. Given that this is so, it becomes irresistible to wonder whether it might be prudent to make such beneficial disposition mandatory rather than optional. Rather than legislating tax cuts in the hope that that businesses will hire more people or raise wages, shouldn’t we be making tax cuts contingent upon such activities? For example, we could tie a company’s tax rate to the ratio between the amounts it pays in compensation to its CEO and its lowest paid employee; the wider the disparity, the greater the tax would be. 

Is there a sincere desire to improve the lot of everyone through tax cuts? The reaction to a proposal to make tax cuts contingent on that basis would be a test of guile.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Jerusalem and the One-State Solution

The results of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel have included a clash between Palestinian protestors and Israeli troops, with two Palestinian deaths [1]; a statement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying that the United States is no longer qualified to sponsor the Israeli-Palestinian peace process [2]; and a rebuke from 14 members of the United Nations Security Council. [3]

Now the Israelis have been treating Jerusalem as their capital for some time now. It is where their Knesset and Supreme Court sit. [4] Up until now, everyone else has been pretending that it’s not really their capital due to historical considerations.

“When the United Nations voted to divide British Mandatory Palestine in 1948, it intended two states to emerge: Israel and an Arab-Palestinian state. Jerusalem – with its mixed, Jewish-Arab population and an essential place in the history and belief systems of Christians, Muslims and Jews the world over – was not to belong to either state. Rather, the UN proposed that the city be administered by an international regime, until the time when Israelis and Palestinians could agree on an equitable and permanent arrangement for sharing it.” [5] That was the idea, anyway. Alas, the Israelis and the Palestinians haven’t been able to agree on much of anything.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Palestinians want Jerusalem to be the capital of their own country, once one emerges. Former “Palestinian Authority minister Ziad AbuZayyad” has “explained…that ‘without Jerusalem as its capital, there won’t be a Palestinian state and there won’t be a two-state solution.’” And Palestinian negotiator and spokesperson Saeb Erekat has made it clear that “’there will be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem and its capital.’”

And there we have presented before us the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: the Palestinian irresistible force keeps running into the Israeli immovable object, and nothing ever gets resolved. The more you talk to both sides, the more you come away with the feeling that they both want everything. So, the only solution is to give it to them.

A nation that allows freedom of religion for all, with equal protection and due process for all, shouldn’t sound like such a radical idea. But somehow all sorts of apple carts tip over when you bring it up in connection with the Israel-Palestine controversy. Instead, the operating paradigm is what is called a “two-state solution,” the borders of which cannot be agreed on, with the representatives of both states demanding the same city for their capital; and no serious progress is ever made. So unless we’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, in accordance with the proverb, we are going to have to try something different: a one-state solution.

Under this plan the idea of dividing up historic Palestine would be abandoned. All of Israel and the occupied territories would be recognized as belonging to the single nation, and everyone living within its borders, Israelis or Palestinians, or members of any other group, would be citizens with equal rights and the right to vote. Naturally, there would be complete freedom of religion. Then Jerusalem could be the capital, and no one would complain. 

It really seems like such an obvious idea that one wonders what would be the arguments against it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Yes He Can, No He Can't: the President and Obstruction of Justice

Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, has opined that it is impossible for the President of the United States to obstruct justice. [1] Superficially considered, and depending on what one means by “obstruction of justice,” that idea isn’t as far out as it may sound.

The operative constitutional provision is Section 3 of Article II, which in pertinent part provides that the president is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed…,” [2] making him the top law enforcement officer of the United States. But he’s more than just your local chief of police writ large. He is, all by himself, a co-equal branch of government, along with Congress and the Supreme Court. So he is not only in charge of enforcing the laws of the United States, he is in charge of how he goes about it. He has no supervisor.

Now let’s suppose he has a discussion with the FBI director, let’s call him “James Comey,” wherein he tells Mr. Comey to be lenient in his investigation of a criminal suspect, whom we will refer to as “then-national security adviser Michael Flynn.” Your humble servant will concede mystification on how one goes about being lenient in an investigation, but we will assume that the president’s request made sense. Investigating crime is part of executing the laws, exactly the sort of thing the president is in charge of. And since he is in charge of it, he gets to decide how to do it, even if his instructions will leave native English speakers scratching their heads.

But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the president to commit the crime of obstruction of justice. Yes, the president may direct criminal investigations when he’s not busy insulting the North Korean dictator on Twitter, but he may not violate the criminal statutes of the United States.

For example, the president may not intimidate someone in order to keep him from telling a federal judge about a crime, a course of action whereby he could win for himself up to 20 years in prison. (18 U.S. Code, §1512(b)(3)) [3] The president may not destroy documents so that they won’t be available in official proceedings (18 U.S. Code §1512(c)(1)), another 20 year offense. And there are many such things that a president may not do.

So when the president’s lawyer says that a president cannot commit obstruction of justice, it is easy to see what he means. But it is also clear that he didn’t think his position through very carefully.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turning Loose the Bridge Trolls: Closing the Open Internet

It looks as though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to do what it has been expected to do ever since Ajit Pai became its chairman: it is going to end net neutrality. [1]

For those who need a refresher, internet service providers (ISPs) are currently not permitted to discriminate against content on the internet. They may not, for example, allow their customers to access only the websites of certain companies; or, more realistically, they may not bring content from their favorite companies (the ones that pay a certain fee, for example) to their customers in a more efficient manner than they do for their favorite companies’ competitors.

The way it would look if they were permitted to engage in such conduct is that the sites of the favored companies would load right away, while the sites of other companies would take a minute or so to appear fully on customer screens. The frustration to the consumer caused by trying to access the sites of the disfavored companies would be a competitive advantage for the companies with favored sites, a competitive advantage likely obtained only through the payment of a fee, rather than, say, product quality.

Mr. Pai, it seems, is fine with such goings on, or, at least, he thinks they are none of the FCC’s business. FCC officials are taking the position that “the blocking and slowing of some content could be seen as anticompetitive,” and that such practices will henceforth be “be policed by the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department.”

One is left to wonder why Mr. Pai is so anxious to rid the world of net neutrality rules, if other existing law will effectively keep them in place. What is the advantage of abolishing net neutrality rules if net neutrality will remain the law of the land?

A similarly puzzling statement has issued forth from Comcast, one of the nation’s largest ISPs. It says that it will “not slow websites that contain legally permitted material.” In other words, they’re going to impose net neutrality on themselves. But if that is the case, why has the company been lobbying so hard to get rid of net neutrality rules? Why fight against a law that you don’t want to break?

One suspects that, barring a miraculous congressional interference in the public interest, we are about to have an internet that, in some locations at least, works with amazing speed when accessing sites owned by dues-paying companies, and notably slower, if at all, when trying to reach the sites of small start-ups. Some companies might even purchase for themselves exclusive rights with certain ISPs.

We’ll learn to accept it with the same cynicism that we bring to all of the diminishing returns that characterize our increasingly plutocratic government. But maybe there is something even more pernicious afoot.

What the free internet has accomplished like nothing else ever has is the democratization of information. It used to be the case that news and information was the jurisdiction of limited corporate sources. Nowadays all sorts of views can be represented. True, this has caused pseudo news to proliferate, but the remedy for that is increased discernment rather than institutional censorship. Shutting down the free internet, abolishing net neutrality, threatens to effectively silence independent opinion and information sources.

Admittedly, your humble servant has a personal stake in that outcome, but he is hardly the only one concerned. And there is no guarantee that the effective censorship will be limited to fringe writers, publications, and blogs. Should any ISP be taken over by an ideological interest, the result could be an entire region restricted to a single political voice on the internet. There will be a retort that such an eventuality is not likely, but does that excuse a regulatory scheme that makes it possible? 

Nowadays we hear a lot about regulations, about how we need to rid ourselves of them, as if regulations were bad things in themselves. But they are not. Some regulations are good and necessary. Rules maintaining an open internet are such regulations, and we should keep them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Repeal Appeal

And now for the latest on the Republican obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The mission was to come up with a tax plan. But the Republican controlled Senate has made sure that their version of the plan involves a repeal of a major part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). [1] The idea is to remove the ACA’s provision requiring most people to have health insurance, buying it for themselves if it is not supplied through their employment; the requirement known as the individual mandate.

The concept is simple. Remove the individual mandate, and the health insurers on the exchanges, no longer able to rely on the customer base created by the ACA, will be forced to raise premiums. That, in turn, will make the ACA less desirable from the consumer standpoint, precipitating the collapse of the system.

Now as your humble servant has explained elsewhere in these pages, the bizarre Republican obsession with the ACA derives from the fact that “the greatest fear of the Republican contingent regarding Obamacare is that it will eventually work. And it will be called ‘Obamacare,’ after a Democratic president.” [2] That the Democrats might have another success, like Social Security and Medicare, is simply unbearable to the Republican Party, and they are going to do everything they can to keep something like that from happening again. Hence, they seek to destroy the ACA, and repeal of the individual mandate will go a long way toward making that happen.

Of course, they are hoping that we won’t notice that they will have deliberately destroyed the operations of the ACA. They will say that the failure of the ACA was built into its very DNA, and they hope to convince us of same. In other words, they hope that we’re not paying attention. Doubtlessly, they will be successful to some degree.

But it is not the ACA that has a built in failure, but the very business model of private health insurance itself. The health insurance industry provides medical providers with artificially deep pockets, allowing the providers to charge more than would be feasible if they had to charge patients directly. If anything, the ACA delays the collapse of the system because it subsidizes it. 

None of this matters, however, since the Republican faction has thus far yielded no evidence that it plans to do any deep thinking on this subject. The goal is to stop the ACA before it becomes so successful that people won’t tolerate its repeal, and blame any damage done by the repeal effort on the ACA itself.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

We've Seen This Movie Before

The thinking is that “election night 2017 was a fantastic night for the Democratic Party,” [1] and it is hard to disagree. As Vox reports,

“First off, the party won convincing victories in the two marquee governor’s races. In Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) quieted pundits by defeating GOP operative Ed Gillespie. And in New Jersey, financier Phil Murphy defeated Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno to retake the governor’s mansion for Democrats.

But the good news for the party didn’t end there. In Virginia, Democrats also won sweeping victories downballot, particularly in the state’s House of Delegates — including in races that weren’t even on the radar of most electoral analysts. All sorts of Democrats picked up seats there, from conventional establishment times to a democratic socialist to the first openly transgender person to win a state legislative seat in the United States. The Republican brand was simply toxic.”

Well, perhaps, Vox is a tad elated, but no one can seriously claim that the Republicans had a good night. Hopes are high for an even better Democratic showing next year, perhaps retaking either or both houses of Congress.

That could happen. But if it does, those as old as your humble servant are ready for the disappointment to ensure. We’ve seen this movie before.

This time, many will think, this time we will finally get what we want out of government. But we never do get it. It’s as if the politicians in both parties didn’t actually give a rip about what the majority of Americans want. What we do about it is put the other party in power. We replace Democrats with Republicans, which we replace with Democrats, and so on.

It really should go without saying that we should remove money from politics, but there is something else we need to get rid of as well: political parties. Political parties are the creatures that compel our representatives to abandon the interests of their constituents in order to serve party interests. Members of Congress end up representing their political party rather than the states or districts they were elected to represent.

But how can we get rid of them? Don’t people have a constitutional right to associate with one another for political purposes?

Of course they do. But they do not have a right to government help in furthering what they perceive to be their mission. They don’t have a right to privileged ballot access, and they don’t have a right to have states run and fund their primaries for them. Even if we can’t forbid party members from associating with each other, we can certainly control how much they influence elections and legislatures. Here are some ideas:

1. Enact a law that party nominations will no longer give access to the ballot, instead requiring that every candidate for office obtain a certain number of nominating signatures on a petition;

2. Do not permit party affiliations to be mentioned on ballots;

3. Do not permit party funding of candidates or campaigns;

4. In legislatures, and in Congress, provide that any legislation moved and seconded by any member receive an up or down vote;

5. Make primaries open, indeed, make primaries for every office non-partisan, with the two candidates who receive the most votes run against each other in the general election, again without reference to party, and

6. Presidential elections could be handled in the same manner, with a nationwide primary held at the same time, but using electoral votes, the two top candidates, again, running against each other in the general election. 

It is not being suggested here that these remedies will bring about Utopia. But it will help to save us from the groupthink that only money can buy. Of course, making it so that money is no longer able to buy such things, and providing for public financing of campaigns, will also be a necessary step.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Electric Vehicle Tax Credit vs. Unstable Government

In recent years, the Republican Party, as a body, has been trying to convince us that anthropogenic global warming is a fantasy cooked up by climate scientists who are part of some dark conspiracy; that, somehow, either the burning of fossil fuels doesn’t increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or that carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas. Thus it comes as no surprise that the new Republican tax proposal “repeals the tax credit currently allowed for taxpayers who own a ‘qualified plug-in electric-drive motor vehicle.’ Under current law, a taxpayer may claim a maximum credit of $7,500 for each qualified plug-in electric-drive motor vehicle placed in service.” But the Republican plan “would take that benefit away.” [1] One wonders if they will bother to try to assure us that the proposed change has nothing to do with the interests of the oil industry.

But let us leave questions of climate change aside for the time being, in the grim recognition that those who deny its anthropogenic origins are unlikely to be persuaded by such pedestrian sources as facts. Let us instead consider the impact of the tax credit’s removal on capitalists, a segment of the population which reputedly enjoys Republican favor.

For it has come to pass that ending the tax credit will adversely impact Tesla, Inc., which specializes in electric cars, in a serious way. The tax credit, as Fortune points out, “is a big incentive for automakers like Tesla and their customers to do business together. And the proposed cut couldn’t come at a worse time for Tesla stock—with the Tesla Model 3 prepared to start shipping in higher quantities, consumers will need to decide if they want one at a higher price, should their car arrive after the GOP tax plan passes through Congress (assuming it does indeed pass).” [2]

Sales of other cars from other companies, such as “the Nissan Leaf, and GM’s Chevy Bolt,” can also be expected to take a hit. This means that these companies will have to make major readjustments.

“Automakers have factored the amount of these tax credits into their pricing, and have been relying on the government program to make electric vehicles more affordable and competitive with gas-only cars. 

“To date, incentives like the electric vehicle tax credit been largely successful in spurring both development of and consumer interest in the new automotive technology. For example, GM recently announced that it will offer 20 all-electric vehicles by 2023.”

So what is the lesson to be learned? That nobody should rely on government policies, because the other party might come to power and steer the ship of state in the opposite direction? James Madison warned us of some of the disadvantages that can arise from an overly mutable government in Federalist No. 62:

“The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice…if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

“Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any manner affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.

“In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.” [3]

The electric vehicle tax credit made one set of business plans and investment strategies desirable. The repeal of the tax credit will make them less so. Is that how we really want to reward and punish the business community, by how well they predict future government action? And what impact will this have on future innovations? Moreover, the Trump administration came into office with the promise of revitalizing domestic manufacturing. How will deliberately harming American automakers accomplish that?

When you have two political parties pulling in opposite directions, each seeking to satisfy the desires of their business patrons, the result is going to be unstable government. And unstable government cannot be relied on, either domestically or internationally. 

We really need to get a handle on this. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Tweet in the Dark

Well, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., thought he would make a brilliant point by tweeting that he would take half of his daughter’s Halloween candy, and “give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.” [1] The tweet was accompanied by a picture of his daughter holding a bucket of Halloween candy, and the indicated typographical error.  

Now, ordinarily, paying attention to an event like this would be a complete waste of brain space. After all, Donald Trump, Jr. is not the president: his father is. We don’t really need to deal with the intellectual prowess of the junior Trump until such time as he is given discretionary power over the public welfare.

What’s more, it seems that we have more important things that pertain to this administration to worry about. North Korea comes to mind.

But this might turn out to be a teaching moment, and those are always good. The keen observer will note that the junior Trump has grossly mischaracterized socialism. That is true, but there is nothing unique about that. The social safety net is often mislabeled as a socialist enterprise.

But this time, at least one news source is actually pointing out the mislabeling, and, not only that, is explaining to the general public what socialism really is. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post explains, “Socialism is defined by the government controlling the means of production and the distribution of goods and services — not simply by high taxes and the rich sharing their wealth with the poor.”

As classically defined, socialism abolishes private ownership of the means of production. If you don’t see that happening, you’re not looking at socialism. Of course, nowadays all sorts of things get called socialism, almost to the point where the term has lost any fixed meaning. And the confusion of a social safety net with socialism is particularly pernicious. It causes people to believe that publicly ensuring that everyone has the means of life available to them will turn us into the Soviet Union. 

Perhaps the junior Trump is disdainful of a system that would compel him to share with others the wealth he has worked so hard to inherit. But if he seeks to educate his daughter, he should at least learn to call things by their proper names. Even if he declines to expand his mental horizons in this manner, perhaps the definition of socialism will now enter the public consciousness so that policies will not be determined, nor votes cast, based on an ongoing misapprehension. Let this be a small offering in the service of that goal.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

There Actually Is No Reason for the Manhattan Killings

Confronted with a mass killing, it seems, in a way, disrespectful to speak of anything else. We don’t want to cheapen the lives lost by airing what might appear to be proportionally petty political differences, or disrespect the pain of surviving family members by carrying on as if there are other events remotely as significant.

And, yet, regarding events of the kind that occurred in Manhattan yesterday there is little meaningful to say. A “man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring about a dozen others in what authorities said was an act of terrorism.” [1] He “was shot by police in the abdomen and arrested after he crashed the truck into a school bus and fled his vehicle,” according to authorities. He had come “to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010, and had a green card that allowed permanent legal residence.” [2]

Why? Why would somebody do such a thing? True, he shouted “God is great” in Arabic when he jumped out of his truck. And it seems that he left a note “claiming he carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic State militant group.” But those are just words that only superficially appear to carry meaning.

People talk about the greatness of God in houses of worship all over the country, all over the world, and don’t run down pedestrians and cyclists with trucks. As for the reference to the Islamic State, that conveys nothing cogent by itself, because the Islamic State isn’t a cogent presence in the world. It publishes videos showing the brutal execution of its hostages. [3] It destroys cultural heritage sites. [4] It “has carried out ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq.” [5] For it to go by the name of one of the world’s great religions is an egregious abuse of terms, for it is a nihilistic cult of death that is so extreme it was disowned by al-Qaeda.

Yet here is an individual, who will not be named here, who found himself attracted to that message of chaos. We struggle to ascertain a rationale, fearing that we might be confronted with the horror that there is none. But we are unavoidably confronted with the horror that there is nothing we can do about such things; we can’t outlaw rental trucks or bicycle paths. No, we are left with the bitter realization that human violence of this kind operates like a force of nature that we have yet to comprehend, that emerges suddenly without signs of imminence, and that we cannot prepare for in advance.

We will not find the answer to this in politics, for politics is only a kind of window dressing in this connection. No, this kind of behavior arises from the dark recesses of the human psyche. And we need to make a serious effort to determine what causes it.

In doing so, we must eschew the sciolism that would lead us to renounce either psychological or external causes in the fear that doing so will undermine a criminal justice system grounded in personal responsibility. Instead we must fearlessly, and, to the extent possible, scientifically come to grips with the internal and external motivations that yield these results. We need to find the way to address a sense of alienation so intense that it inspires a person to mow over his fellow humans with a truck.  

In a word, we need to find a way to stop things like this from happening. But it seems likely that we will have to overcome some cultural prejudices to accomplish it.   

Friday, October 27, 2017

Restore the Electoral College

It’s not often appreciated that the office of President of the United States actually has a job description. Most of it can be found in Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

“He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

“The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” [1]

Then there is Section 3 of the same Article:

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”

So the president is to, among other things, be the commander-in-chief of the military, decide on the granting of pardons for federal crimes, make treaties, make recommendations to Congress, and ensure that all federal laws are properly executed. A job like that calls for quite a skill set. It requires a certain level of facility in military matters, foreign policy, law, and law enforcement. How will we ever find qualified people?

Let’s suppose we’re starting the country today, and that we have to decide the best method of selecting an individual who will meet the requirements. Let us further imagine that someone proposes that we will select this person by means of a nationwide vote involving every citizen, above 18-years-old, who wishes to participate, who will make their decision based on what they see on television.

That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it?

Much has been said lately about the need to abolish the Electoral College, and let the popular vote prevail. That would probably be an improvement on our current method of electing presidents, where in all but two states, a candidate who receives only a plurality of votes, no matter how narrowly, gets all of the electoral votes from a given state. But what if, instead of abolishing the Electoral College, we restored it?

As originally conceived, the electors weren’t pledged to any one candidate. They would be selected in the manner chosen by their state legislatures, and meet in their respective states to cast their ballot. In other words, electors were originally conceived as actual electors, rather than rubber stamps for political parties.

This could still be done today. Under such a scheme, the popular vote would be for the electors; the people would choose those they believed to have the judgment best suited for the selection of a president. Between the election of the electors and the presidential election, the electors could interview any number of people for the position, and not just those who were running for office. In fact, if our nation became one day truly blessed and fortunate, running for the office of president would be considered a classless act.

Such a system would have some marked advantages. First of all, we would have the comfortable knowledge that we were operating the system in the manner in which it was designed. Secondly, the electors would be capable of making the penetrating investigation that really is necessary in the selection of a president. Thirdly, we would be spared the circus we witness every four years wherein people paradoxically demean themselves in order to attain higher office. 

Of course the Electoral College system was designed without political parties in mind, and would run much better without them. But getting rid of the parties is another subject for another time.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

We Have to Get Better at This: Tillerson's Gaffe and Our Ongoing Fecklessness in Iraq

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson thinks that it is time for the Iranian militias to leave Iraq. “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he said on Sunday. “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control of areas that had been overtaken by ISIS.” [1]

That sounds reasonable. There’s a problem though: the fighters are already home. They’re Iraqis!

Unsurprisingly, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took exception to Secretary Tillerson’s remarks. “Members of the militias are Iraqi patriots who ‘have sacrificed greatly to defend their country,’ Mr. Abadi’s statement said. ‘No side has the right to intervene in Iraq’s affairs or decide what Iraqis should do.’”

Of course, the prime minister is correct. The American secretary of state shouldn’t suggest that Iraqi citizens leave their own country.

Now there is the point to be made that perhaps the prime minister should improve his sense of humor. After all, it is obvious that Secretary Tillerson thought he was talking about Iranians. On the other hand, maybe the fact that our secretary of state didn’t bother to properly inform himself before making such a pronouncement makes him as nervous as it should make Americans. 
On Mr. Tillerson’s behalf, however, it should be pointed out that a “top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassam Suleimani, has advised the militias inside Iraq, prompting some Iraqi lawmakers to describe them as an arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.” That’s not the same thing as being Iranians, of course, and the secretary’s aides “later tried to clarify his remarks as only meaning that Iraq’s military needed a unified chain of command…,” manifesting awareness of the previous inaccuracy.

But we shouldn’t single out Secretary Tillerson. He is hardly the first of Americans in high places to misunderstand the situation in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis are Shi’a Muslims. [2] It borders on Iran, which is 90% to 95% Shi’a Muslim. [3] In 2003 the United States, for no reason, invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein [4], who had policies that favored Sunni Muslims, and now we’re concerned that Iran has too much influence with Iraq. This is a level of fecklessness that couldn’t be dreamed up by a fiction writer, and will provide no small amount of amusement for history students in the ensuing centuries.   

We have to think of a better way to select our national leadership.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Stunning Example of the Growing Republican Misanthropy

One argument for making sure that everyone is covered by health insurance in the United States has been that without such protection hospital emergency rooms end up treating the poor, effectively for free, thereby driving up prices for everyone else. This is because hospitals that take Medicare are required to screen and provide appropriate treatment for individuals who show up in their emergency departments, regardless of whether those individuals are covered by health insurance or have the ability to pay. [1] Hospitals covered by the law are permitted to transfer such individuals to other facilities only under restricted circumstances.

This is an unfunded mandate. [2] Hospitals get no money from the federal government to assist with compliance. “Hospitals and physicians shoulder the financial burden for the uninsured by incurring billions of dollars in bad debt or ‘uncompensated care’ each year.” [3] But medical providers might not be able to make up the difference with their insured patients as much as they would like due to controls on prices brought to bear by insurers. In any event, the cost is borne either by the medical providers, or by the insured population, or by both.

Now the argument that we need to have a more sensible plan to get healthcare to people who can’t afford it assumes that providing healthcare to everybody is a required goal for a decent and civilized society. But it seems that we are being treated to more and more misanthropic creativity from the Republican Party every day.

Last week Representative Diane Black, a Republican from Tennessee, was being interviewed by Chuck Todd on MSNBC regarding congressional progress on healthcare. [4] At one point during the interview she expressed the wish that that President Trump would eliminate both individual and employer mandates by executive order, as if that could lawfully be done, in order to obtain the presumed salutary effects of market forces. Chuck Todd responded by asking whether one can legitimately talk about a market with the situation being what it is in hospital emergency rooms providing uncompensated care. To that problem Ms. Black replied that she would like to get rid of the law requiring hospital emergency rooms to treat whoever shows up.

Yes, you read that correctly. Ms. Black would like to relieve hospitals of the burden of providing emergency treatment to all regardless of ability to pay. It’s as if making sure that everyone receives the emergency treatment that they need isn’t a priority for her at all. Presented with the problem that our current method of providing low-income people with medical care will keep her market idea from working, she literally proposed that we should, therefore, put a stop those with low income from obtaining medical services. A more sardonic display would be hard to find. 

Politics, with its clothes off, really is about control of resources within a society. We should expect nothing else. That’s a good thing to remember so we don’t inadvertently vote for someone who would harm us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

No Free Market Solutions to Healthcare

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate health committee, and Senator Patty Murray, the committee’s Democratic ranking member, have reached an accord between themselves, whereby the health insurance subsidies, the cost sharing reductions to be exact [1], will be funded for two years. [2] This is the funding that was revoked last week by the president, ostensibly to force Congress to come up with a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as “Obamacare,” but which has actually been an unauthorized expenditure due to the fact that Congress has failed to appropriate the money for it.

What remains to be seen is whether the rest of Congress will go along with the plan. Some Republicans have taken the position that the cost sharing reduction subsidies are “a bailout to insurers.” They surely are that, since it reimburses the health insurers for the lower deductibles and co-pays for lower income individuals and families that are required by the ACA. Without those subsidies, insurers will be forced to raise premiums higher than they would otherwise, and the ACA will not be able to operate as designed. Particularly hurt will be those with incomes too high to qualify for subsidies, and insurers might well be incentivized to withdraw from the exchanges.

Of course, forcing the ACA to implode is one strategy for getting rid of it, which has been the Holy Grail for Republicans for some time now. So critical a goal has this been for the Republicans that they have been willing to propose alternatives that would actually reduce the number of Americans covered by health insurance. President Trump, who during the campaign promised that his healthcare plan would cover everybody, at government expense if need be [3], has been caught up in the desperation, giving full-throated endorsement of the misanthropic Republican proposals.

The ideology made manifest in the objection to subsidizing insurers is the neo-liberal dogma that eschews government involvement in markets. But for whatever merit the dogma has for the selling of vacuum cleaners and tennis rackets, it is certainly misapplied to health insurance.

For one thing, the very existence of health insurance drives up the cost of medical care. Health insurers, in essence, provide deep pockets for health providers to charge against, allowing them to charge more than they would be able to charge individuals. Thus there are not the market restraints on healthcare providers that are present for other goods and services. Rising medical costs are met with rising health insurance premiums, the cost of which are largely borne by employers. Employers also have deeper pockets than individuals, and so the insurers are able to charge higher premiums than they would if they were restricted to selling to individual people and families. Meanwhile, the health insurers don’t have the market strength to sufficiently resist healthcare cost increases. But we can’t just rid ourselves of health insurance, because advancing medical technology will increase the cost of medical care by itself. So instead of sellers and buyers engaged in a dynamic that will bring them to an equilibrium price, we see a spiraling upward.

Now there are other factors involved in medical costs. The general health of the population, for example, will be a critical element. But it should be obvious that the notion that there is going to be some kind of “free-market” solution to healthcare is a delusion. Besides, even if a free-market was initially obtainable, there would still be those who could not afford medical care, which, in a decent society, would necessitate government assistance. Government then, as now, would provide a deep pocket for the medical providers to charge against, and the process would begin again.

The critics of the ACA are, therefore, correct, to a point, when they say that it increases healthcare costs, because it surely deepens the pockets against which the health providers can charge. But by making health insurance affordable to more people through subsidies, it sustains the health insurance industry against collapse longer than would otherwise be the case. That is because the health insurers, forced to raise their premiums higher and higher, will be able to sell their policies to fewer and fewer people, and even fewer and fewer employers.

So the Republican critics are right when they say that the cost sharing reduction subsidies are a bailout for insurers. What they are not acknowledging, or they are not telling us, is that without that bailout substantially fewer Americans would be able to have health insurance.

The answer, of course, is to create one health insurer that every medical provider would be required to deal with. That one health insurer would be the only available customer for the medical services industry. Obviously, this one insurer would have significant bargaining power as against the medical providers, and, barring an outlandish level of corruption (which could always be prosecuted), would have the ability to restrain medical cost increases. If we could get over our dystopian tendencies, we could even adjust premiums to the ability of people to pay, and thereby cover everyone (as Donald Trump promised during the campaign).

This is an idea that could garner a good deal of support as long as we don’t call it by its true name: single-payer. Nowadays when you say “single-payer,” dishonest (or ignorant) politicians scream “socialism.” But it is nothing of the sort. Socialism, notwithstanding its prodigious misuse as a term nowadays, is actually a specific thing: government ownership of the means of production. But single-payer doesn’t require a single doctor or nurse to be a government employee, and every hospital could become private (a circumstance not prevailing even now). Indeed, even the single health insurer, the single payer, could be set up as a quasi-governmental corporation. That would probably be the best way to do it, in fact, to make sure it operated according to proper actuarial standards rather than political whim. 

It is true that the private health insurers would go away. It is tempting to ask whether they would be genuinely missed by anyone, but we should not be so cavalier about an industry that employs a good number of people. We can, however, try something different and actually do something to help displaced employees. That said, it is to be acknowledged that the health insurance business, the way it is practiced, is unsustainable. The health insurers are going away anyway, because they will eventually price themselves out of business. The ACA, Obamacare, turns out to be a last ditch attempt to preserve the health insurance industry, but it remains to be seen how long it can delay the inevitable.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

An Execution Is Not a Death by Natural Causes: the Latest Attack on the Affordable Care Act

Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution says that no “Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law….” [1] To legitimately withdraw money from the U.S. Treasury, the Congress must authorize it by legislation.

A simple legislative direction to pay is not the same thing; “a direction to pay without a designation of the source of funds is not an appropriation” as required by the Constitution. [2] Similarly, “the designation of a source, without a specific direction to pay, is not an appropriation….Both are required.”

An appropriation can be “permanent” or “continuing,” in which case the funds will be “available indefinitely for their specified purpose; no further action by Congress is needed….A ‘current appropriation,’ by contrast, allows an agency to obligate funds only in the year or years for which they are appropriated.”

The Affordable Care Act involves two kinds of “subsidies.” The first is actually a tax credit. “Those taxpayers ‘whose household income for the taxable year equals or exceeds 100 percent but does not exceed 400 percent of an amount equal to the poverty line for a family of the size involved’ are entitled to tax credits to cover their health insurance premiums.” The premium tax credits are advanced to the insurers to reduce the premiums paid by the eligible individuals. There is a permanent or continuing appropriation to fund this program.

The second kind are “cost sharing reductions.” This provision requires insurers on the health insurance exchanges “to reduce deductibles, coinsurance, copayments, and similar charges for eligible insured individuals enrolled in their plans,” for which they are supposed to receive reimbursement from the Department of Health and Human Services. “To qualify for reduced cost sharing, an individual must enroll in a qualified health plan and have a household income that ‘exceeds 100 percent but does not exceed 400 percent of the poverty line for a family of the size involved,” and individuals with an income “between 100 and 250 percent of the poverty line qualify for an ‘additional reduction.’”

Amounts to reimburse insurers for cost sharing reductions, unlike the tax credits, do not derive from a continuing appropriation, but have to be re-appropriated periodically. Unsurprisingly, the Republican Congress has not seen fit to appropriate funds for cost sharing reductions. Reimbursements to insurers have continued nonetheless, but there is a very good, and probably unassailable argument that they are unauthorized, since there have been no corresponding appropriations. Indeed, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has so decided in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, though the impact of that decision has been delayed pending appeal.

The cost sharing reductions are what are affected by President Trump’s decision to halt subsidies. [3] He cannot legitimately refuse to pay over the amounts associated with the premium tax credit, since that is subject to a continuing appropriation. It is quite arguable that the president may not pay for cost sharing reductions even if he wants to do so because of the lack of appropriations, though he has not indicated that he regrets the situation. But the fact that there have been no appropriations made by the Republican Congress for cost sharing reductions should be emphasized so that it is understood that this latest attack on the Affordable Care Act is a joint Republican operation rather than a unilateral action taken by Mr. Trump.

Now even though there will be no more reimbursements for cost sharing reductions, insurance “companies still have to give the discounts to low-income customers. So if the government doesn’t reimburse the insurers, they’ll make up the money by charging higher premiums for coverage.” This “will most directly affect middle-class families who buy their own insurance without financial help from the government. Consumers who earn more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level — an individual with income of about $48,000 or a family of four that makes more than $98,400 — will likely see their costs for coverage rise next year by an average of about 20 percent nationwide,” as NPR points out. But since the premium tax credit will remain in place, people “with lower incomes will be unaffected….” The tax credits will ensure that “their out-of-pocket insurance costs remain stable.” When the premiums rise, the tax credits will “rise in tandem.”

The prospect of health insurers not getting reimbursed for cost sharing reductions might well cause some of them to abandon the exchanges. Government reimbursements were what made the Affordable Care Act palatable to the insurance companies to begin with. The Republican refusal to fund the cost sharing reductions should be seen for what it is: a deliberate effort to make the Affordable Care Act implode. If the effort is successful no one should be deceived into believing that the Affordable Care Act failed because of any defect in the legislation itself. Its failure will have been deliberately engineered by a political party that decided that a successful health plan, nicknamed for a president from the opposing party, was not in its partisan interests.