Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hillary, Mother Jones, The Girl in the River

This morning I am thinking about women. 

I have just read a New York Times piece in the Sunday Review by a woman who wants to love Hillary but finds herself ambivalent, which runs right next to a piece about Bernie Sanders, his deep but very narrow appeal. The reservations this erstwhile ardent Hillary advocate voices are inchoate. What she is really seems to be  saying is it's so much easier to love a purist than a compromiser, a knight errant driven by passion for righting wrongs, than a pragmatist who will not spit in the eye of the oppressor but will sit down with him and negotiate. 

She does remind us of Hillary's performance at the Benghazi hearings, where she sat, unruffled, through the smarmy, slimy, absurd rantings of the Republican jackasses across the floor from her and with withering clarity made fools out of each and every one of them.

Yesterday, after watching a public television program about the vile history of the destruction of miners' unions in West Virginia, I read about one of the giants of that struggle, Mary Jones, Mother Jones.  Mother Jones walked into mining towns in West Virginia which were built, owned and ruled by mining company owners and were nothing more than plantations where the slaves mined coal instead of picking cotton. She was engaging in a battle as quixotic as that faced by Bernie Sanders, trying to rally the down trodden against all the coordinated forces of money and power. 
 When the miners responded to the machine gun and rifle fire of the owner's private enforcers with shootings of their own, Mother Jones was arrested, tried, convicted, ultimately set free and she trudged off to fight more battles elsewhere in West Virginia and in  Colorado.  
By today's standards, she was no feminist: She believed women belonged in the home, raising children, but she believed to protect the home, women had to get out into the world and work for labor unions, harass strike breakers and "raise Hell." She thought suffrage beside the point, saying, "You don't need to vote to raise Hell."

And then there is the story about the documentary "A Girl in the River" about a Pakistani woman who defied her parents by marrying the man she loved, to which her father responded by abducting her, pointing a pistol at her head and pulling the trigger, stuffing her body in a bag and throwing her in a river. She, miraculously, survived and the father was charged with attempted murder, but in Pakistan, this was called an honor murder. Had he been a better shot and killed the daughter and had he been charged, he would have been set free as long as the rest of the family forgave him. 

He is still  proud of his deed, even though he did not succeed in murdering his daughter, he says the rest of community now respects him for restoring honor to his family and, furthermore, no other girl in their family will ever consider trying to marry for love, rather than marrying the man their father has chosen.

This story made me think of the woman who is at the center of the Europe which is currently receiving the flood of young, mostly Muslim men who are deserting  Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in search of a better world. Angela Merckel, the woman who is the President of Germany is exercising her power to welcome men fleeing the collapse of societies ruled by  intolerance,  13th century notions of "honor" and male dominance.  The same value system which brings chaos to the Middle East, that system of belief which places women at virtually the same level of existence as cattle or, at best, dependent children, which is defended by fathers with guns aimed at the heads of their daughters, which forgives and embraces murder when it is done to defend male pride, is no different in its cruelty and malevolence from that of the mine owners whose paternalism justified their enslavement of coal workers. 

Nobody should vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. 
I still prefer Bernie.

But who can deny that when you tally up the points, women do tend to be the drivers of positive change in the world?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Before Bernie: There was Mother Jones

Reading about Mother Jones, Mary Harris Jones, I am reminded of that Paul Simon line to the effect of when I think of what I was taught in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.  History was my favorite subject until college, but the "history" we read had not a word about Mother Jones or Jane Addams or the violent strikes in Colorado or the industrial police state in West Virginia coal mines in towns like Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, where coal mine owners kept workers literally under the gun, machine guns of hired private police, and where the workers owed their souls to the company store.

But now, owing to the wonders of the internet, I can read about Mother Jones and fall in love across time and space with a woman impressionable young men should be reading about, by whom they should judge the young ladies in their own lives.

If great conflict brings out great actions and great character then Mother Jones was destined for greatness from the start, in County Cork, Ireland, where the potato famine drove her family from Ireland to Toronto. 

In Toronto, she was sent to free public schools and, in fact was paid a small sum to stay in school, in an enlightened program Bernie Sanders would have to love. She became a teacher, but found her assigned school so depressing, she moved to the United States, where she married a union organizer in Memphis, had four children, only to see them all, husband and children, die from yellow fever. Moving to Chicago to establish a dress shop, she saw that literally go up in flames in the great Chicago fire. 

It was the natural world of disease and fire which devoured her early life, but it was the world created by men which inspired her to greatness. Leading a Children's Crusade against the abuses of American industrial might, pointing out that children were working rather than going to school, she tried to get photographs of children who worked the mills and mines, many of whom were missing fingers or limbs, published in newspapers who refused, for fear of offending their corporate advertisers.

She marched to Teddy Roosevelt's home in Oyster Bay, New York, where the Progressive President refused to see her, but she embarrassed enough Congressmen to motivate stronger child labor laws.

Oddly, while the people's champion, the man elected by "the people" refused to see her, John D. Rockefeller did not refuse and having spoken with her, he decided to investigate her charges about the conditions of his workers.

She had strong convictions about the importance of family:  She insisted men ought to be paid enough so their wives could stay home to raise the children. Women at work meant children unsupervised and that was the source of juvenile delinquency she said.  Today's feminists will not be wearing Mother Jones T shirts, but she also saw the potential of woman power, organizing mine worker's wives to intervene against strike breakers arriving on trains in West Virginia towns. 

The villainy of those coal towns and their corporate masters in southern West Virginia is mind boggling.  At least the Southern slave owner fed and clothed his slaves, but the West Virginian coal mine owners required their workers to live in company shacks, to pay exorbitant rent, to shop for their food, clothes and tools at the company store, at prices which put them into debt to the company and so the coal mine owners deftly managed to enslave the workers, who lived under spotlights from towers above their homes, manned by private police forces, armed with machine guns and rifles.

Into all that, walked Mother Jones, determined to organize the workers. She cultivated the role of "mother," wearing old fashioned clothes, calling the miners her "boys." You can well imagine why.  A woman alone, speaking with men. So she de-sexualized herself and played the role of "mother" and cleverly avoided that line of attack. 

She was jailed, sentenced to twenty years only to be freed and to strike again. 

She reportedly spoke in an enchanting Irish brogue, her voice getting deeper and more moving as she became more emotional through her addresses and she had a magnetism the most ardent Bernie adulators would appreciate, as she insisted the preachers at the churches the coal miners attended had it wrong. The reward was coming in Heaven, the preachers said, but Mother Jones told them their reward should be a bit of Heaven in the here and now on Earth. 

She opposed female suffrage. "You don't need the vote to raise Hell!" she said.  She opposed anything which might draw women away from the home, where she believed the primary role of women belonged.

Can you imagine her running for office today? She's pro labor, fundamentalist family, endorses the woman at home, but urges women to protest and organize, is for free public education. We don't know  where she stood on abortion. But you know who she would stand with on immigration. 

I never learned about Mary Harris Jones in my public school education. I can well imagine why.  Her story is too incendiary. Can you imagine children going home to their Southern Baptist parents in Montgomery County, Maryland telling them about what they learned about the evil capitalist coal miners and the fight against them led by an agnostic woman? Not going to get past the County School Board curriculum committee.

But thanks to Bill Gates and the United States Government we have the Internet and that has made all the difference. 

Mary Harris Jones for the $20 bill!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Kathryn Schulz: Dead Wrong about The Making of a Murderer

In the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz decries the makers of "Making of a Murderer" for conducting an investigation of the murder trial of Steven Avery with no rules guiding them other than the imperative for good ratings. She says that of a documentary 10 years in the making--as if the driving motivation for a project requiring that sort of tenacity could be self aggrandizement. 

She details the anger the show has generated, aimed primarily at the police of the Manitowoc,  Wisconsin where Avery lived because the series presented evidence they had planted the most damning evidence and framed Avery, motivated by the lawsuit Avery filed against them after they discovered he was innocent of an attempted rape but with held that evidence so Avery remained behind bars for 8 more years.

Schulz points to evidence that Avery's DNA was found on the RAV 4 belonging to the dead woman which she says "could not have been planted."  This was said to be a drop of perspiration with Avery's DNA.  Now, I am not a forensic molecular biologist, but I have enough science to ask the questions: 1. How can anyone tell what was found was perspiration? 2. Does perspiration, which, generally speaking has lots of fluid and electrolytes but no cells contain enough DNA to be reliably analyzed? 3. Why could police have not obtained sweat from Avery? 

Schulz is, of course, correct: the makers of the series were bound only by their own sense of justice and decency, but that strikes me as a pretty substantial boundary.

The real point of the series is made by Avery's remarkable, decent and exemplary lawyers, who say the point is we are all dealing with uncertainty in trials like this. They say we should not be any more certain of his innocence than we are certain of his guilt, but when in doubt, you do not convict in a murder trial.
Avery is likely beyond unsavory--as a 20 year old he doused a cat with gasoline and set it on fire.

What is not in doubt is the Manitowoc police brought suspicion upon themselves in so many ways as to make any conviction a travesty:
1. They manipulated the "discovery" of the victims RAV 4 on Avery's property by a woman who claims she was guided by God to the car.
2. They "found" the car key to the RAV-4 in Avery's bedroom after the room had been searched 4 times by both non Manitowoc police and by the county cops previously and the key conveniently had only Avery's DNA but not the DNA of the woman who owned it. Subsequently, photos of the murder victim holding a set of keys revealed the incriminating key was attached to other keys, as most people do, but only the single key is "found" by police. Even if Avery had murdered her and kept a single key, why would he have kept that piece of incriminating evidence? In fact, Avery had a car crusher on his junk yard not 100 yards from where the car was found, partially covered by tree branches like some bashful stripper, as if someone wanted to pretend to cover up but really wanted you to see underneath.
3. The prosecution presented a FBI test for EDTA in the blood which, if it were found, would have proved the blood was planted. No EDTA was found, but, as the defense expert testified that meant only the EDTA, if present, was below the limits of detection of the test. The testimony of the FBI agent was astonishingly suspicious, as he started blinking uncontrollably under cross examination and claimed that although 6 samples were submitted he tested only 3 but he still knew the 3 untested samples had no EDTA in them. 
4. The interrogation of Avery's "accomplice," his nephew Brendan revealed he was mentally incompetent.  He is led step by step to agree to the story the police outline for him and after confessing to the crime asks when he can go home to do his homework. He clearly does not understand he has just "confessed" to murder. The fact the police would even charge him in the face of the videos of his interrogation is among the most astonishing things about this series.

5. And lastly, am I the only one this bothers? No body!  Yes, we all know the magic of DNA, but really, burnt bits of bone which still have enough undamaged DNA to positively identify the missing woman? One of the big issues here is: Well, if it wasn't Avery, who would have done this?  After looking at those Manitowoc officers is it really conspiracy insanity to imagine the victim, Teresa, in a witness protection program somewhere?

Ms. Schulz misses the forest for the trees: It is true the film makers selected and edited to make their points, but some facts are plain and incontrovertible and there are enough of those to lead any reasonable person outside the state of Wisconsin to believe the local police were and likely still are corrupt and their case against Avery, even if he was the killer, was so dirty, it should never have gone to trial.

The Washington Post Spins Fantasy About Bernie

The Washington Post decries Bernie as just another politician spinning fantasy.
To wit, the editors of the Post believe to advocate a single payer system for medical insurance, or even the option for a government Medicare-for-anyone who wants it, is sheer fantasy in the America of 2016.  Sanders's argument:  "It works in Sweden and every other major industrialized country, why would it not work here?"  is met with the argument of American exceptionalism by the Post

The editors argue that Medicare for all would not save all that much money and would result in diminished earnings for doctors and hospitals. 
This, actually, is the real  fantasy. 

 I once tried to calculate what the administrative costs mean for the American health care system. It's a tough estimate,  because nobody really seems to know how many hangers on there are in the system, between the insurance agents who sell health insurance, the Human Resources people at every company,  who spend most of their time negotiating with health insurance companies for good prices, the teams of "billers" in every doctor's office whose job is to spend all day every day fighting claims through insurance companies, the clerks on the other end, in the insurance companies who are busy denying claims, the marketing people for the insurance companies, but a conservative estimate of all these people involved in the financial and commercial side of American medicine is likely between 5 and 10 million people. If the average salary of all those hangers on is $50,000 (an estimate, I am told is very conservative) then there is $500 billion dollars in "waste" in our current system--"waste" in the sense of money spent which does not go to treating patients but only to financing the system. If you divided this by the 500,000 physicians in the country that comes to about a million dollars per doctor, which would not represent a loss of income for most of them, for 99% of them. 
Of course, not all of that would go to physicians, but the point is, there is way more money going to the financial part of our health care system than goes to the providers of health care, which is why our spending on "healthcare" dwarfs that of any other "advanced" country.  We spend it on middlemen. They spend on the folks who actually provide the services.

Cutting out the middlemen  would mean displacement and unemployment for a lot of middelmen who currently are employed to do work which is superfluous and unnecessary to the real  mission of the enterprise of American health care, which is, as I understand it, to provide health care for patients as opposed to salaries for clerks and salespeople.

It would also mean that patients would likely be seen by physicians as opposed to nurse practitioners much more often, because the main reason nurse practitioners are seeing so many patients now is that it cost corporations and insurance companies about a quarter as much for a NP as for a MD.

The Post says Americans would never stand for the "rationing" of medical care which the Brits and the Canadians and the Swedes all tolerate without a peep of protest. Of course, as anyone who watches Prime Minister's Questions knows, the Brits do no tolerate inadequacies in their health care system. But in Britain, if you have a beef with your provider, you can take it to the House of Commons where you will get a more sympathetic hearing than you are likely to ever get from Blue Cross. The fact is, the private insurance companies have been rationing care for years in the United States.  We'll accept rationing from private commercial concerns but we go ballistic when it's the government saying no. 

This is the reality. What the Post endorses is the fantasy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Warren/Barney Frank Ticket

"A new presidential election is upon us. The first votes will be cast in Iowa in just eleven days. Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who want to run this country like some private club."
--Elizabeth Warren

I would be  delighted to have Hillary Clinton as my President. 
I would be even more delighted to have Bernie Sanders as my President, although I'd want Martin O'Malley to be Vice President because I don't know how many heart beats Bernie has left in him.
But that is not my fantasy team. 

Can you imagine Elizabeth Warren President and Barney Frank VEEP?
Just flipping on my computer every morning to the New York Times would be such joy.

Well, we can always dream.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


This morning, on CNN I watched a Brookings Institution talk by a Republican Congressman from Utah, Jason Chaffetz,  who made the stunning claim that President Obama had released 66,000 illegal immigrant felons, men who were convicted of felonies, who President Obama freed to go back to raping and murdering in unsuspecting American communities.  This was the Brookings Institution, so I expected one of the learned scholars in the audience would have challenged this number, if it were untrue, but nobody so much as peeped. Apparently, this is settled "fact."
Rep. Chaffetz (R-Utah)

Donald Trump tells the tale of a woman raped and murdered by an illegal alien, as if that one case is emblematic of the behavior of all illegal immigrants.

Another case of an illegal immigrant who shot a woman in San Francisco keeps popping up whenever you Google "66,000 illegal felons." The accused says it was an accident. But the visuals are all most people are going to register: Pretty white woman; ugly Hispanic felon.

I kept asking myself: "Why would President Obama" let loose all these rapists and murderers?  Are all these felons rapists and murderers? So I Googled it, and it didn't take long to get a profile of these fearsome, depraved "felons."

If  you  examine this chart, it turns out by far the most "felons" are people stopped for traffic violations or because the police officer judged an illegal as appearing "threatening" to public tranquility.  The number of rapists and murderers are down in the double and single digits. 

And, of course, as it turns out, President Obama heads the executive branch and it is the judicial branch, which defends its independence vigorously, which is releasing these immigrants, following laws enacted by the legislative  branch.

But, as we know, it is President Obama's fault, because, well, he is Barack Obama, the Other, born in Kenya, conceived on Mars, a secret Muslim who wishes the nation harm,  and he is at fault--the toxic water in Flint Michigan is his fault, too: He's been diverting all the good water from the lake to Kenya and that left Flint with only the toxic sludge from the Flint River.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Taking the Gamble on Bernie

Hillary, Paul Krugman make sense.  Look at history: Medicare, Social Security all started small and incrementally grew to be big, hugely successful government programs which we can now hardly imagine living without.

Dreaming of a revolution is so Kumbaya and it's so 1960's,  to drift off on a euphoric high, dreaming of what America could be like, if only it were not like it really is:  filled with Trump-ies roaring their approval for expelling Mexicans and banning Muslims. 

America is not just the upper West Side of Manhattan; it is also the upper Mid West, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. 

But it is also true that Ronald Reagan was a longshot, unelectable, too extreme. And when he swept in things really did change, for a decade, maybe two. He cut taxes for the rich, ran up huge deficits and belittled government, if not actually making it littler.  His insistence that government is the problem not the solution lives on today in the hearts and addled minds of 30-40% of America who now flock to Mr. Trump.

Of course, his Republican revolution swept away a perceived failed Democratic presidency; now we are talking about a Democratic revolution to replace a stalled Democratic presidency. 

But, if Hillary wins the nomination and then the  election, she can only hope for a Democratic Senate, but she would be faced, ultimately, with the same intractable Congress which thwarted and frustrated President Obama.  We might face, likely would face incremental change or no change, more gridlock. 

The question is this:  is a slow creep forward worth it?  

If Trump is elected, or Ted Cruz, we'd march several steps backward--abortion rights crushed, rich getting richer, Planned Parenthood vanquished, teen pregnancies through the roof, unions only a memory.  But this too will pass.

But if Bernie were elected, he could only be elected with a massive liberal turn out and as he has said so often, it does no good to vote for Bernie if you don't send him a Democratic Congress. We would find out, in numbers, just how many Americans really are liberal.   So the voters, if they choose Bernie, will have to vote in both Bernie and Congress. There can be no split tickets, no voting for Mitch McConnell and Bernie.  Then we could get a single payer, government option, real restraint on Wall Street, free state universities,  and a chance at real, substantive, lasting change. 

It's like those credit default swaps--if you lose, you don't lose all that much, but if you win, you change everything. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Colbert Goes All Palin: Follow the Taser

Just when I had all but forgotten Stephen Colbert, he springs forth doing his slam poetry, rap rendition of Sarah Palin's endorsement rap/slam/speech/harangue for the Donald.

The only image which can Trump the Colbert is that of the Donald squirming behind Ms. Palin, trying to not look like he is in complete agony, the thoughts racing across his face as clearly as they raced through his mind: She was hot, once (in a trashy sort of way.)  Now,  she's just a raving lunatic, and I'm on the same stage with this maniac. Where is the Secret Service when you need them?

Thank you, Stephen.
Oh, Hillary, you're looking better all the time.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bernie Looking for America

Okay, I admit it, I'm a sap for Simon and Garfunkel. 
But this has got to be the greatest political ad ever.
No words. It's one of those videos you see played before the candidate walks on the stage at a rally, but played as a political ad it is very effective: It says, okay, he's an old guy. But he's exciting people about the best things in America. It's completely positive.

In the world of this video, Donald Trump and the haters are irrelevant.  What matters is that kid carrying the calf.

It makes you dream. It makes you think: if we are ever going to see the upper 1/10 of 1% pay their share, if we are ever going to have a rebalancing away from a country of super rich owning the huge slice of the pie and everyone else in the small slice, it's going to take a revolution and as unlikely as it seems, it is just as unlikely some frumpy old guy would ever generate such excitement. Because it should not work is just the reason to believe it might just happen.

Cologne and The Graft vs. Host Reaction of Immigration

In transplant medicine, there is the curious response called "graft vs host" in which immune cells contained in  the donor organ actually attack the recipient, rather than the recipient's immune system attacking the donated organ as "foreign."

What Germany., France and, to a far lesser extent, America are dealing with is whether or not we face a "graft vs host" reaction. 

The events on New Year's Eve in Cologne suggested the transplants from Syria and Turkey have found themselves to be strangers in a strange land. Groping, even raping un-escorted women in Tahrir Square, in Cairo or in the market in   Saudi Arabia,  may be considered a social norm, but it is not acceptable behavior in Cologne.

In France, the Muslim population has never been accepted fully into French life, as the origins of these people were mainly North African, Algerian, and they were more or less isolated in the suburbs of Paris where rather than thriving, they festered.

Speaking on NPR about his new book about US immigration policies since the 19th century, Tom Jelton notes that until 1965 the United States favored white, primarily Protestant,  Northern Europeans over Asian, South American immigrants. So while the quota on people from China or El Salvador might have been 100 a year each, 50,000 a year were allowed from England, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia.  This kept the country white.

After World War II, some Americans felt badly about having turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, and attempts to change the quota system were launched in Congress and failed. Lyndon Johnson, in his early years in Congress voted to maintain this racial bias, but 12 years later, as President, in 1965, he pushed through a change. The change was actually fashioned by a conservative, who suggested the idea of keeping families united, so rather than having an advantage if you came from Sweden, you had an advantage if you were living in the country and you wanted to bring over your wife and family. 

Of course, the idea was if you had lots of Swedes already here, they would bring in their family members and the racial balance would remain stable. But it didn't work out that way because the Scots, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Germans and even the Irish living in America found their family members who wanted to come to America had already come over and those who remained in Europe were happy there and so it was the South Americans, Asians and Caribbean people who were here who were able to import family members.

Now, we are faced with folks of Middle Eastern descent in the upper Midwest who want to bring in their relatives, who are desperate to escape the cauldron that has become the Middle East. 

The Donald tells us this is a huge threat to America.

He is, of course, pandering to the worst demons of our soul, but we should, in quiet moments, reflect that even in the most hideous and repugnant lines of thought, there may be some ideas we need to examine.  It is true some second generation Middle Eastern kids have got on planes to go fight for Isis.  But we have not seen the sort of Tahrir Square episodes in American cities. 

In "The Serial" the Middle Eastern mother storms into a high school dance to drag away her adolescent son who she thinks is being contaminated by the free love of a high school prom, where girls are present who do not have a male family member to protect their virtue and where music is played and, horror, girls dance with boys.

We do have among us people who reject us, reject our values. But the Muslims are not the first who have done this: Orthodox Jews, and even Catholics have rejected prevailing American values about pre marital sex, contraception and the proper behavior of males and females.

What we have going for us in the United States is we accept the idea that you parents may have been born in Lebanon or Egypt, but if you dress like us, talk like us, go to our schools, play on our teams, you are as American as anyone else.

It's only Republicans who believe you do not qualify if you worship Allah rather than Jesus.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Voting for Bernie, Hoping for Hillary

Here's how rational Mad Dog is:  He is voting for Bernie in the NH primary but hoping Hillary wins the nomination.

Voting with the heart, but hoping with the head.

During last night's debate, one exchange solidified Mad Dog's shift in thinking Hillary would make the better President:  Bernie laid out the case for a single payer, Medicare for all--it would cost less overall; it would include the 29 million still not covered; it would simplify a byzantine system. It would be fair and fair is nothing our American health care system ever has offered. 

But Ms. Clinton responded with the straightforward realist's response: Even when we had both houses of Congress and the Presidency, we could not get the single payer option attached to the ACA. Not even as an option.  The votes simply were not there.  There simply were not then, are not now, will not be in the foreseeable future enough votes for Medicare for all. 

As Paul Krugman points out in today's NY Times, there are simply too many people with too much to lose in this fight. All those people with Cadillac policies through their work places are doing better than Medicare would do for them, and Medicare is a very good insurance, just not the best possible. So, it's not fair--you work for General Electric and all your prescriptions are covered; you work for General Aquatics and you have huge copay's. 

There is also the problem of transition. You've got millions of people who are providers who have borrowed for medical and nursing schools, invested in loans, taken the risks of signing office leases, equipment leases, who would fear going belly up financially if Medicare for all slammed in and cut compensation. All those doctors with huge student loans, all those doctors with 10 year leases on office space which puts them on the hook for millions of promised payments. The web of finance and borrowing which supports the current doctors, nurses, hospitals, offices, free standing clinics would wobble under the earthquake of such a revolution.

And that is the nub of it: Bernie really is talking about a revolution and Hillary is talking evolution. 

Even Medicare began small, and got added to incrementally, year after year, until most of the kinks were ironed out. 

Even if Bernie can win, would Mad Dog really want revolution, at this stage in life?

It's the old case of the thrill and seduction of someone who sets you dreaming and gets your heart pounding vs the quiet realization that once that night is over and you wake up in the morning, there is still real life to lead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Guns and the Paranoid Style of the American Psyche

"Power grows out of the barrel of a gun," said the Chinese revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung.  
"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed," said the revolutionary Americans who wrote the 2nd Amendment. 

Apparently, the importance of guns to a sense of power and a sense of security against those who may wish us harm is cross cultural.

With 300 million, imperishable guns at large in America today, one has to ask what the point is in trying to prevent more people from getting guns.

One might argue there is some benefit to reducing the number of guns just as there is benefit to reducing the number of nuclear weapons, if only to make these destructive elements less readily available to the nearest maniac, but neither premise has ever been proved. 

It strikes me as reasonable that restricting where guns can be hauled around makes some sense, if only to impede  the rash, impulsive decision for a man or woman who feels enraged or threatened to pull a gun and shoot.  Guns at a football stadium among a throng of drunken fans does not sound like a good idea and the power to restrict access to the stadium generally resides in private, commercial hands, who are worried about the bottom line, which would not be enhanced by a mow down at the next Patriots game. 

New Hampshire state Representatives have made fools of themselves by insisting guns be allowed in the state house.  It's important, apparently, for Representatives of the people to pack heat while they argue with each other about whether or not to make the Red Tail Hawk the state bird. Never can tell whether someone will get so worked up he will charge across the floor and attempt to behead someone who thinks that hawk is pernicious and should be the mascot of Planned Parenthood, but not the state. (Because, you know, the bird rips apart its prey, unlike other more decorous birds, who simply peck.)

Then again, New Hampshire Representative rarely pass up an opportunity to make fools of themselves.

In New Hampshire, last I looked a the law:
1. If you walk across someone's lawn uninvited, you are trespassing. But if you walk across that same lawn, carrying a rifle, you are not, because you are hunting, and that is specifically protected by state law. The homeowner, or the owner of the woods in the back of his house must post "No Hunting" signs.  
2. It is legal to fire a gun within 300 feet of any house in New Hampshire, if you desire, especially if you are trying to shoot a raccoon or a skunk, or perhaps a Red Tail Hawk.

3. It is legal in New Hampshire to shoot across any road to kill a deer or moose or skunk on the other side with 8 specific exceptions, including, Rte 95, Rte 93 and Rte 101. I forgot the five other roads.

Whatever the approach to gun violence, it will be at least partly ineffective--that we must accept.  Gun violence is a part of America and has been from the start.

Exactly what sorts of gun violence we will try to prevent, or can prevent, is the real discussion. We'll never prevent the lunatic who, using the element of surprise, shows up at a schoolyard or a shopping mall or movie theater and starts firing.  We might make it more difficult for him to kill lots of people by limiting his choice ordinance, and even die hard gun lovers would likely agree on limiting access to grenades, howitzers and atom bombs, but that particular form of carnage will continue no matter what we do.

Hand gun violence, which occurs on the street, usually in connection with robbery or adolescents who feel disrespected, or enraged fathers/ husbands will likely be beyond our control.

There are no simple solutions and background checks, limits on assault rifles will likely have minimal impact  on certain types of events (e.g., street corner shootings, spousal and domestic shootings) and liberals will continue to look clueless after each new incident, as they sputter in impotent rage.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Is Our Economy Rigged?

What We've Become
When Bernie Sanders shouts "The Economy is Rigged"  a full throated roar goes up from the crowd. I'm one of those roaring.
Because the Economy is "Rigged"

Why? Because many of us feel that a few have been unjustly and disproportionately rewarded, while the many have been unjustly denied the benefits of a rich economy.

This is called "income inequality," which, if you think about it, is the essence of capitalism and a non communist state.  But the rule is supposed to be, those who deserve more get more, while those who deserve less get less, or to put it as politicians put it, if you play by the rules, work hard, you'll get yours.  

All of this is, of course, so simplistic as to be dangerous. 

Reading about income inequality, there are 6 much discussed hypotheses for why incomes have diverged:
1. Globalization: which subsumes the notion Americans are being driven down by competition with slave wage 3rd world economies, China in particular
2. Skill based technology change: the unwashed, uneducated masses aren't worth much in today's computer driven economy
3. Superstar culture:  which structures all the big bucks going to the star quarterback while the linemen who make his success possible go unrewarded
4. Immigration of less educated workers: who take jobs from uneducated Americans
5. Changing institutions: loss of labor unions to demand a greater share of profits and take them from stock holders and CEO's
6. Policy changes: mostly taxing the rich at lower rates.

Apart from economists, who review big data, most of us have to understand these forces as we see them in our own lives. We have the "worm's eye view" not the eagle's eye view of a Paul Krugman or James Surowiecki.

From my own worm's eye view, I have three stories which appear to be revealing, at least to me:
1. The CEO story:  which essentially means to me the CEO's and their decisions I have seen up close are incompetent and inadequate and yet they get paid as if they were successful.
2. The hoi polloli story: in which the efforts and mindset of the workers at the lower end of the scale are simply inadequate and tend to perpetuate their "loser" status
3. The certificate story: in which the advantages of high levels of education are arbitrary and unrelated to the actual value of these workers--what one might call the "value gap" in economic reward which is built into our corporate, financial and governmental systems.

To describe each of these in detail would entail a marathon blog post, so I'll simply start with the last one, and I'll get to the other two in subsequent blogs. 

In medicine, to make higher levels of income, you need more and more "certification" i.e., you have to pass more and more exams, each of which is claimed to validate your claim that you have a higher level, usually a more specialized level of competence, and this entitles you to more money because you made the investment of the time and effort to become this more finely tuned producer. 

Medicine is set up this way, starting with your organic chemistry certificate and working through your MD.  If you eventually certify in opthalmology, you are ready to start saving eyesight in patients.
Or, you can also do the most profitable of all procedures: laser surgery to correct myopia, LASIK.  When you do that procedure, you do not need any of the stuff you learned over the prior 10 years; you need only to know only how to operate the computerized machine which does the LASIK surgery.

There are many specialties like this:  Gastroenterologists need to progress through the BA, the MD, the basic training in internal medicine before they can be "board certified" in gastroenterology, which allows them to learn colonoscopy, which they learn in about 6 months,( and which a high school graduate or a smart person with no high school could learn in 6 months,) and reap the huge benefits of a procedure which bills at $2500 a pop.

So, you have the Mount Sinai School of Medicine medical student who is called in by the Dean and asked why he turned down the internship at Harvard/Mass General and he says, "In 5 years, I want to be doing 6 colonoscopies from 7 AM until 1 PM and out of there, on the boat with my wife and kids. I don't need to slog through Harvard for that. I can train at Southern Florida community hospital, learn colonoscopy and be there."

What that medical student saw clearly was that all the talk about becoming the best physician you can be, learning as much as you can in the precious years of medical school and post graduate training was hogwash in his value system. He went into medicine to get rich and becoming a good doctor had nothing  to do with that goal. Colonoscopy gets you rich.

Commerce is not about morals. Commerce is about making the most money you can as quickly as possible.

The system supports this thinking.  The truth is, colonoscopies, LASIK surgery, most dermatology procedures can be done by the proverbial "highly trained chimpanzee" but those are where the money is. In medicine, you have to progress through irrelevant steps, earn your merit badges, pay your dues, until you finally can get to the more or less mindless skill which makes you rich.

Medicine has now got the "ROAD" to happiness--jobs which pay $500,000 to $1 million a year for work which is less demanding in terms of time and effort than family practice or primary care--Radiology, Opthalmology, Anesthesiology and Dermatology. 

It's a system which does not reward according to the rules of "talent" or "hard work" but which exploits the  capitalistic reward system on which our  American medical system is based on.

The rich, in this system are not the hardest working, most talented but the shrewdest exploiters. In that sense, it's a "rigged" system. It's also a system which ensures there will be only a few high earners at the top, because there are only so many slots for training programs in the "ROAD" specialties, which ensure the supply of these services remains tightly controlled.

If we had a true "free market" system, then anyone who could master the techniques of LASIK or colonoscopy could set up shop, with or without a MD, and the stranglehold of supply would be broken and you could get your procedures done for $150.  Milton Friedman would likely approve. I heard him interviewed years ago, and he asserted we don't need a FDA monitoring safety of medical products in a free market system. Poor products and poor actors will be sued out of existence.  

Of course, there would be some carnage before the bad actors got eliminated.

But there you have it: A rigged economy, rigged by "certification" and a process which requires irrelevant hurdle jumping by a lucky few, a tightly controlled supply of services,  and disproportionate reward for those who provide those services.