Monday, March 27, 2017

The Art of No Deal

The AHCA, the health care monstrosity that Paul Ryan wrote and Donald Trump tried to sell to the House of Representatives, is dead. There are some delicious ironies here, but first some thanks are in order. Thank you to all of the activists who showed up at Republican town halls, and showed moderate Republicans that they risked their seats if they supported this. Thank you to everyone who wrote, called, or emailed your Representative with the same message. And thank you to the Democrats for staying united in opposition to this terrible legislation. A lot of hard work went into defeating this and saving the ACA, and it is appreciated. Next up is another round of equally hard work to defeat the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. We must draw strength from this victory, and bring it to the next fight, but we must also understand that this next battle can not be won in the same way.

It is worth looking at the dynamics of the House of Representatives that made this victory possible. Yes, the moderates let their misgivings be known, and those misgivings only grew as the bill got amended in an attempt to appease the Freedom Caucus. Irony number one here is that the only way Trump can get the House to pass a health care bill is to craft something that all of the Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans can support. Why then did Ryan try to save this bill by tacking to the right and not the left? That is irony number two. The death of the AHCA was brought about by years of Republican gerrymandering.

The Republicans have worked long and hard to create as many safe seats as possible for Republican candidates. These are convoluted districts that look ridiculous on a map, but have all but assured a Republican majority in the House for the foreseeable future. Swing voters, who might support either a moderate Republican or a Democrat, are not welcome here. As a result, these districts don’t just reliably elect Republicans, they reliably elect Republican extremists. These districts are won not in the general election but in the Republican primary, and moderates fair poorly. In other words, they elect the Freedom Caucus. This brand of Republican is an absolutist. They believe that compromise is weakness, meaning, as we saw this week, that they are completely unable to govern. They were not interested in the replace part of repeal and replace, seeking only to eliminate Obamacare, and not replace it with anything.

We won this battle by bolstering the moderate wing of the Republican Party, giving them cover to stand up against the extremists. We won also by giving the Democrats the strength to stay united. But it was and is the dynamic created by gerrymandering that made this a viable strategy in the face of a Republican majority. It is a dynamic we will be able to use again to our advantage, but it won’t work in the Senate. There we must give the Democrats the strength to stay united in opposition to Gorsuch, but it would be best if we could also find some moderate Republicans to cross the aisle and stand with us. It will be harder to find stories to tell of how this will affect us personally, but the special education community might be a good starting point. We came to accept many extreme positions as normal when Antonin Scalia served on the Supreme Court, so we will now also be battling against legal precedents that never should have been established. I believe we can win again, but the fight will be different. The goal here is to persuade a majority of Senators that supporting Gorsuch will endanger their chances of getting reelected. That means we need to get the voters to tell pollsters they oppose this nomination. It won’t be enough to say that Gorsuch and Trump would be stealing the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland, although that is true. Instead, we must make the case that Gorsuch would hurt people like them. I believe that we can do this, and I look forward to the fight.

Tonight’s song is a new discovery for me, but it works in its own way:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Giving Us the Business

During last year’s campaign, one argument that was made for Trump was that his business experience would make him an effective manager of the country. In response, it was pointed out that he had filed for bankruptcy four or six times. But while we were debating his business acumen, we should have been discussing his approach to making money instead. The release this week of his budget proposal shows why this matters.

It is helpful to consider how a billionaire makes his money. Warren Buffet shows us one possible model. Buffet nurtures and tends to his fortune. He seeks to identify hidden value in the companies he acquires, and then he makes the best moves he can and waits for the results. He is patient, and he never gets involved in a business that he has doubts about. Buffet thinks in the long term. Donald Trump is the complete opposite of this. Trump is a money junkie, always seeking the quick high. He puts money into projects that have the potential to provide a quick payoff, and he doesn’t mind risk. His plan is based on the idea that he can monetize the failures in the form of tax write-offs, and his home runs can payoff enough to outweigh the strikeouts. This is a short term approach, with no patience for anything that does not pay off quickly, and the budget reflects this kind of thinking.

Where Warren Buffet might see investing in cultural programs as a way to produce a better educated and more well rounded workforce that would benefit the country over several generations, Trump sees money flowing out of federal coffers for no immediate gain. Likewise, Trump sees any money spent on programs for the poor as wasteful. He can not understand that these programs can boost consumer spending, eventually producing demand and then jobs. Military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, on the other hand, produce immediate tangible benefits for wealthy people like him, and this is what Trump understands. The long term problems caused by income inequality are why Warren Buffet has spoken out in favor of an increased minimum wage, but Trump sees them as something he can personally dodge while continuing to monetize the here and now.

Trump also sees business as a battleground. Collaborative efforts for mutual benefit do not make sense to him. Instead, he views his gain as always somebody else’s loss, and he does not know how to be concerned about this. So scientific research and other government collaborations with the private sector get the axe; they are on their own. Companies, in his view, should be able to take the risks on their own, and he wants to clear the way for the winners to sort themselves from the losers without any government influence. This idea is also behind his zeal to deregulate.

As with so much else about Trump, his priorities here represent values that have guided the Republican Party more and more since at least the rise of Reagan. What has changed is that Trump makes no pretense now that he has the presidency of caring who gets hurt. This is also true of the racism and xenophobia that were so helpful to his campaign. The venality that represents the dark side of big business is now on full display, without the pretense of a Paul Ryan, for example. Trump makes no effort to explain how this will supposedly be good for the people who oppose him, and his surrogates flounder when they try to do so. There are no sops in the Trump budget proposal to make him look like a nice guy. This is unbridled greed, and Trump doesn’t care who knows it. It is, in his view, what has made him a winner. The rest of us lose, but that is how Trump believes the game is played. What has changed is that now he has the power to tilt the rules in his favor, and the budget proposal is his opening move.

So far, this is a pretty dark post, so let me close by offering some hope. Trump does not yet understand that a government is not a business. There is no board of directors, supposedly independent but actually pliant. Instead, Trump’s initiatives must be approved by Senators who must be answerable to their states, and by Representatives who are answerable to an even smaller group of districts. We can already see how local actions have slowed the march of “repeal and replace”, and the same thing must happen here. We must understand the hidden value and long term benefit of the programs that are currently threatened, and we must bring these arguments to our Senators and Representatives repeatedly. We must let them know that we are watching. The greatest danger we face is exhaustion, but our great offsetting advantage is sheer numbers. There are plenty of us, so nobody has to be the hero and do everything, as long as each of us does what we can.

I have been featuring music fairly regularly, because I believe it can help us keep our spirits up. When I can add a bit of humor, I will certainly do so. Hence, tonight’s selection:

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Plan for the Democrats

The Republicans who now control the White House and both houses of Congress have a problem, and it is the job of progressives in particular, and the Democratic Party as well, if they will only accept the challenge, to make that problem worse for them. The Republican Party as now constituted is dedicated to the proposition that government can only do harm, and never do anything good. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, flies in the face of that proposition, which is why from the beginning the Republicans set out to sabotage the ACA once they understood that they could not stop it. It was also necessary to amplify every problem that occurred during the rollout of the ACA, to promote the idea that the ACA overall was bad. One defense the Democrats pursued was to challenge the Republicans by asking what their alternative was. Now we know: it is the monstrosity known as the American Health Care Act, which I prefer to call Ryancare. At this point, it is not Trumpcare, because Trump had no apparent hand in shaping it, but he has said that he will try to sell it.

In trying to “repeal and replace” the ACA, Republicans ran into sharp opposition from their own constituents at emotional town halls. It turns out that people are discovering, when faced with the prospect of losing the ACA, that they really like and need it. Oddly, Ryancare is also opposed by the most extreme members of the Republican Party, who object to the fact that it fails to completely repeal the ACA. So it would seem that progressives would have nothing to worry about, because the Republicans will not be able to find the votes to pass Ryancare. This assumption, however, fails to take into account the extraordinary sales skills of Donald Trump. This is a man who could sell sand in the Sahara Desert. The last time we underestimated him, he became president. The Democratic Party is being too complacent at the moment, and not listening to their own advice. It is not enough to defend the status quo, to insist that the ACA must remain in place. Despite the exaggerations and outright lies of the right wing, there are real problems with the ACA that created the opening for Trump’s victory in the first place. For many, lack of insurance has been replaced by insurance that people can not afford to use. So, in order to make sure that Ryancare fails, The Democrats need to offer up their own plan, just as they insisted the Republicans do. Let me offer my idea of what that plan should be, and how to sell it.

The purpose here is to offer up a plan that highlights the inadequacies of Ryancare and the harm it will do. We also need to undercut Trump’s efforts to get it passed. So we need a plan that really does deliver on a promise that Donald Trump made, that he would deliver a plan that would save money and deliver better care than the ACA. That plan is universal health care. I have talked before about how and why Democrats have failed to sell it to the American people, but I want to go into more detail now about how to win this battle. Hillary Clinton tried to get universal healthcare in 1993, but her instincts are always to find a consensus solution to any problem. There is no consensus solution here, because there is no way around the fact that you are destroying a vital part of the insurance industry, taking them out of the very lucrative health care business entirely. Done properly, universal health care also hurts the pharmaceutical industry, because you should insist that the government has the right to negotiate for the best prices. So you need to stand up to some powerful lobbies to pass universal health care. That is why the best time to do it is during a severe economic crisis. Barack Obama had that opportunity in 2009, but he too was intent on government by consensus, so we got the ACA instead. Last year, Bernie Sanders tried a different approach, insisting that universal health care was a right, a moral imperative. It is, but Hillary Clinton was able to get him bogged down in the details of how to pay for it. She made him lose the same battle she had lost thirteen years earlier, and also managed to make him look unprepared to govern while she was at it. I believe this was a major reason why Sanders lost the primaries. Ironically, the answer to how to sell universal healthcare was at Sanders’ fingertips the whole time, but he never effectively put the whole package together for the voters.

Universal health care would give the American people cash to spend on other things, so it would provide a major boost to consumer spending. Money that now gets deducted from paychecks for premiums, or spent on copays and deductibles, would instead go directly into the economy, leading to a major boost in job creation. It would also make American companies more competitive, by reducing the cost of hiring, and freeing companies from the expense of providing retiree health benefits. To pay for it, we must first recognize that the current cost of the ACA and other government health programs would no longer be needed, so those funds would go here instead. On top of that, companies currently deduct $260 billion for employee health benefits. Add in increased revenue from all of those new jobs I mentioned. And then there is the kicker. Pair universal healthcare with a measure that costs the government nothing, and you suddenly need very little in the way of new taxes to pay for it all. That measure is an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $15, indexed to inflation. Right wingers like to make the disputed claim that increasing the minimum wage is a job killer, but pair it with the job creating aspects of universal healthcare and that problem disappears. Over time, the minimum wage increase promotes consumer spending, which also means more jobs, and more revenue to pay for healthcare. Bernie Sanders erred in failing to realize the powerful synergy between his two proposals. It even gets better. All those new jobs, plus increased pay for existing jobs, means a sharp reduction in the number of the working poor, meaning funds that had been spent on public assistance programs such as food stamps can be used to pay for universal healthcare instead. I am not an economist, but I think it is possible that this proposal could be sold as being revenue neutral. At the worst, it should be possible to claim convincingly that the only new taxes needed would be on the wealthy.

I am a realist. I understand that there is no chance that a Republican-controlled Congress would ever pass this. Even if they did, you can be sure that Donald Trump would veto the measure. But that is not the point. By offering up this proposal and selling it properly, the Democrats would guarantee the failure of Ryancare, and expose the callousness of the Republican Party for all to see. If anything, the fact that this proposal would not pass should help reluctant Democrats to rally around it, knowing that they would have to answer to their constituents in redder states only for an idea, but not a law that would be vilified in the right wing media. The minimum wage increase is a popular idea, and so is universal healthcare if the public can be made to accept that their taxes do not need to rise to pay for it. The Democrats need to show that they are better than the Republicans who could not come up with an alternative to the ACA for eight years, and this is how to do it.

OK, I admit the song this time is a stretch, but I couldn’t resist:

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Revolution of Storytellers

Donald Trump has been carrying out a campaign against the truth itself. It started when he announced that he was running for president, and it has only intensified since the inauguration. He seeks to make the American people doubt everything we are told, and to discredit our most trusted media sources. The antidote to this campaign is a campaign of our own, committed scrupulously to telling the truth ourselves. But that doesn’t mean fact checking everything, and rebutting as needed, although that is important. We have more important truths to tell, and it is starting to happen.

To understand why rebuttals are not enough, consider Trump’s claim that Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. It’s nonsense of course. The clearest proof that it never happened is the fact that we don’t know what was discussed in the newly revealed meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Sergey Kislyak. We also don’t know what other meetings may have taken place that have not yet been revealed. But what would happen if you confronted a Trump supporter with this appeal to logic? Couch it in the gentlest terms you can, but you are still calling anyone who believed Trump’s lie a fool and a dupe. You might even convince them that you are right, but they will not thank you for it. Likewise, we have Trump’s brag that he reduced the federal deficit in his first thirty days in office, while Obama dramatically increased it in his first thirty days. It does no good to ask a Trump supporter what actions of Trump’s can account for this, in a period when Trump spent as much taxpayer money on vacations in his first thirty days as Obama did in his first year. These facts are on our side, but they will not win us the argument.

Instead, we must tell personal truths. It is starting to happen. There was some great human interest reporting when the Moslem ban was announced, stories of how real people with real lives were devastated by this action. There are great videos of people standing up at town halls and talking about how the Affordable Care Act saved their lives, and there have been great stories on this in print as well. The words “Let me tell you a story” are the greatest weapon we have. This is how we can win hearts and minds. This is how we can bring people in instead of pushing them out. I told the story of my immigrant grandfather in a previous post. We all have such stories, although not for every issue. But together, we can find and tell the stories we need for any battle we will face.

It won’t always be as easy as it has been so far. Many people can tell stories of their immigrant heritage, and of their healthcare issues. But how do you fight threats to the environment? As I said, not all of us have a story for every issue, but together we can find these stories and make sure they get told. Environmental issues are usually abstract, but not to a family that can say what drinking the water in Flint Michigan has meant to them. The issue of abortion is one we usually lose, but we may know a mother or a grandmother who can talk about what it was like to have an abortion before they were legal, and can explain in personal terms why she took the risk. Many of us can talk about good and kind Moslem immigrants who have made a positive difference in our lives.

In telling our stories, we must be careful to just tell them, to avoid pushing them on people. Say what happened, but don’t give the moral of the story. Count on basic human decency, and assume your listener will find the moral for themselves. I know all of the horrible things Trump stood for in the campaign, and the fact that his supporters had to make their peace with the racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc., to vote for him. But if you assume your audience is deplorable, they will reward your expectations. Instead, what will hopefully happen is that they will want to tell you their story. When that happens, try to listen without judgment. It won’t always be easy, but success will mean a connection has been made. It will mean that someone new now cares if something Trump and his enablers do hurts you and yours. That is how you win a revolution.

Music is, of course, a powerful medium for telling stories. Paul Simon says it well: