Friday, December 15, 2017

Still the Party of Big Business and Big Money

Back in a March posting, I wrote that if we were given the exercise of trying to describe the Republican Party in only one sentence, this would be my response:
The raison d’être of the Republican Party is to look out for the interests of big business and big money.
I also called them the Party of Cruel and labelled them as sociopaths.  Even as an admitted liberal partisan, I try to step back and look to see whether my rhetoric is hitting home or is simply over the top. The argument can be made by some that the two major parties both want the same things to serve us all but just want to accomplish them in different ways.
But with the Republican tax cut bills that have recently passed the House and Senate, this naïve argument is being blown up to smithereens!
Of course, tax cuts favoring the wealthy have been part of the Republican playbook going back to Ronald Reagan. The claim has always been that this giveaway to the wealthy results in a 'trickle down' effect that benefits those who are lower in the economic food chain. But this promised trickle down effect has always been proven to be an illusion. The rich keep their gains and the government suffers a shortfall in tax receipts. Then to address the resulting deficits, Republicans then demand cuts in social programs such as food stamps, Social Security, and Medicare. Rinse, repeat.
With this present version, they are at it again. To justify a proposal to cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, we are told by President Trump and others that the resulting corporate tax savings will result in more hiring and an average wage boost of $4,000.
If you’re going to tell a lie, tell the big lie! Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. In the past, they have always taken the money and used it for stock buybacks and/or increasing the dividends they pay out to their stockholders. This is good for the corporations and their wealthy investors, but does nothing for the average worker.
In addition, the different bills propose to either significantly cut or eliminate all estate taxes which benefits only the very richest families in America – like not coincidentally, the Trumps. But Republicans love their rich people and don’t seem to care about anybody else.  For example, we have this tone deaf quote from Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
"I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies."
But what makes this round of tax cuts especially egregious is that tax increases on the middle and lower classes are being proposed to help finance this giveaway to corporations and the wealthy! Even so, this is still being peddled as a middle class tax cut – another example of the big lie! The details behind how the House and Senate bills were put together are a bit too involved to include here. But the interested reader can check this link to learn more.
And just as bad, mainstream economists who have crunched the numbers are forecasting an additional $1 trillion will be added to the US national debt over the next 10 years!
All of this is from a party of proclaimed deficit hawks. For example, some of the more extreme members of Congress would not even agree to relief funds for Hurricane Sandy unless an offsetting budget cut was found elsewhere. A more recent example is the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which is still awaiting funding because according to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch "we don't have any money anymore."
As to the real reason for the proposed tax cuts, some Republicans unafraid of being voted out by people who don’t know any better have actually admitted that this is all about a payback to their donors.
And with confidence that the tax cut bill will soon pass, there is already talk about cutting welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid spending. Told you so!
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that congressional Republicans will aim next year to reduce spending on both federal health care and anti-poverty programs, citing the need to reduce America's deficit. 
“We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” 
This takes incredible balls. Think about it! Ryan and his fellow Republicans want to give corporations and the wealthy a huge tax cut which will explode the deficit on the backs of the middle and lower classes. And then he wants to cut programs that benefit these middle and lower class people to try and address this same deficit he just created!  For those who are still unconvinced that tax cuts do little more than explode deficits, Kansas served as a “real live experiment” in conservative governance where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback got to cut taxes to his heart’s content just to prove the validity of his right-wing ideology.  The result was little or no growth along with a huge shortfall in tax receipts to the point where Kansas was no longer able to properly fund their public education system. Unlike the federal government, state governments cannot resort to deficit financing so the Republican legislature had no choice but to raise taxes by overriding a veto by Brownback.,
The tax cut legislation still hasn’t made it to the finish line at the President’s desk for signing into law. The House and Senate versions that were passed have some significant differences that are being reconciled so a single bill can be passed again by the House and Senate to be signed into law by the president.
One thing for sure is that the revote in the Senate will again be extremely close. The result may be influenced by the special Senate election on December 12 in Alabama won by Democrat Doug Jones. As is well known, the Republican candidate was Roy Moore, a blatant bigot who has been accused of molesting a number of teenage girls, including a 14 year old while he was in his 30s. While some supporters claim to be unsure of the charges, others who say they believe the charges still supported Moore because his vote in Congress is more important than worrying about sending an accused pedophile to Congress. That’s sociopathic if you ask me!
Recent events have only accelerated Republican efforts to frantically pass this bill. First, with the surprise election win by Jones, the Senate wants to vote on this bill before he is sworn in which would decrease the Republican razor-thin majority there. Secondly, as more details of the tax cut bill are revealed, it is becoming ever more unpopular with the American public, the most recent polls showing only about a 29% approval rating. Earlier this year when Congress was voting on a repeal of Obamacare, many Republicans received a rude reception from angry constituents back home afraid of losing their health insurance. Well, those protests are back! And helping to drive these same protesters is a sneaky provision in the bill to eliminate the individual mandate in Obamacare to recover some of the money given out as part of the tax cuts. Without this requirement for everybody to have health insurance, the stability of the insurance exchanges could be extremely compromised which could have some big effects which may possibly turn out to be a deal breaker for some moderate Republicans.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that repealing the mandate would result in 13 million fewer people being covered by health insurance and would cause insurance companies to raise premiums by 10 percent a year.
You don’t have to believe a liberal like me to see that the Republican Party has become morally bankrupt. Just check out this growing list of Republican politicians and pundits who have either turned on their party and/or President Trump.  
I will close with this recent sample of some of the vitriol coming from many conservative commentators, The G.O.P. is Rotting by David Brooks.
Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.
The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

Monday, September 25, 2017

Will We Ever All Agree on Climate Change?

It was only a few weeks after Al Gore's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power debuted at theaters around the country. Since I admired his previous Oscar winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.  I was interested to see what new things Gore had to say about climate change.
But a check of theaters in the Greater Pittsburgh area only showed one theater offering the movie and that theater only offering one showing per day. I, along with about a dozen other people watched the film that day.
Indeed, I thought the movie to be worthwhile. Instead of his original movie that predicted the results of climate change, this one graphically showed many of the results of climate change around the world. But what was sad to me was that so few people apparently cared enough about climate change to want to see this movie. With all of the crazy goings on in American politics, climate change just wasn’t on anybody’s radar anymore.
But then came the start of the 2017 hurricane season and the horrific damage it caused to places like Houston, parts of Florida, and most recently, Puerto Rico. Climate scientists have warned that the oceans are warming which would result in more powerful storms. And they came in the form of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria with possibly more to come.
Past experiences cannot prepare us for storms that have been called unprecedented. Even deniers had to question whether climate change was indeed contributing to the severity of these storms.
Harvey was declared to be a '500 year storm' which meant that in a particular year, a storm like this should have a 1 in 500 chance of happening. But Houston has now had three 500 year storms in three years.
Theoretically, the odds of a 1-in-500 event occurring three straight times are one in 125 million. 
The inescapable conclusion is that the frequency and strength of these storms are clearly not random occurrences. Something must be affecting the climate for all of this to be happening!
But in spite of it all, the climate change deniers still persist. There is a famous quote by the author, Upton Sinclair:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
There is nobody this quote applies to more than the fossil fuel industry and the politicians they finance. The most notable one in Congress is Sen. Jim Inhofe who is noted for the snowball he brought to the Senate floor as his lame attempt to disprove climate change. But the entire Trump Administration is on board too. And to show how crazy partisan this issue has become, Rush Limbaugh offered these cynical words on the forecasted Florida storms.
There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it...fear and panic help sell batteries, bottled water, and TV advertising.
He evacuated his Palm Beach mansion soon afterward.

So given all of this partisan rancor, will we ever all agree on climate change someday? Surely there will always be some dead-enders who will never give in. But there are some unmistakable trends that will continue to marginalize these holdouts.
First, Hurricane Harvey is bringing up inevitable question of climate change. It is easy to dismiss questions on climate change arguing as an ideologue. But when death and destruction literally come to people’s front doors, these questions can no longer be ignored. And while the storms affecting America were indeed terrible, the suffering in other parts of the world was even more catastrophic resulting in the deaths of many thousands from droughts and typhoons which makes the American climate change deniers look even more pathetic.
Secondly, as an admission that climate change is making these superstorms the new normal, more and more people will sensibly be moving away from the coasts like what has already happened as a result of Hurricane Sandy. To help this along, governments will have to buy lands from these coastal dwellers in addition to modifying the crazy parts of our national flood insurance program that encourage rebuilding in known floodplains.
And finally, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are becoming more and more price competitive with fossil fuels. Our only hope to mitigate the worst of climate change is to convert from fossil fuels to renewables as quickly as possible. The manufacturing of solar panels has exploded in recent years as costs have dramatically fallen. Unfortunately, in this industry like so many others, the Chinese are eating our lunch.
While President Trump has announced America’s intention to withdraw from The Paris Climate Accord, many cities, states and companies have indicated their intentions to ignore Trump and will proceed to comply with the agreed to guidelines – as they should!
So while some of us can continue to be in denial over climate​ change, Mother Nature always gets the last word. We ignore her stern warnings at our peril!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

What Can America Do About the Opioid Crisis?

The number of deaths due to the opioid crisis in America are rising faster than ever.
Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times. 
The death count is the latest consequence of an escalating public health crisis: opioid addiction, now made more deadly by an influx of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and similar drugs. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
Ohio, which many believe to be the epicenter of the crisis has a number of true horror stories like this.
In 2016, Summit County had 312 drug deaths, according to Gary Guenther, the county medical examiner’s chief investigator — a 46 percent increase from 2015 and more than triple the 99 cases that went through the medical examiner’s office just two years before.  
There were so many last year, Mr. Guenther said, that on three separate occasions the county had to request refrigerated trailers to store the bodies because they’d run out of space in the morgue.It’s not unique to Akron. Coroners’ offices throughout the state are being overwhelmed.
These estimated deaths for 2016 alone exceed the total number of American deaths from the entire Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
And unlike previous drug epidemics that affected poor residents of big cities, the carnage has spread to both suburban and rural America, affecting both the rich and poor.
It is fair to say that the magnitude of this crisis has been underreported in favor of other stories like those about the daily exploits of the Tweeter-in-Chief. That’s shameful.
For us to try to come up with solutions to this crisis, we need to have an understanding of how we arrived at this desperate time in our history.
I believe the definitive book on this subject is Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic which I highly recommend to the reader who wants to learn more about this issue. Most interesting is the story the author conveys about a cottage industry based in Xalisco, Mexico which grew to serve many small to mid-sized American cities by selling heroin employing a business model similar to pizza delivery!
But in the meantime, here is an abridged history of how​ this all came about:
A number of years ago back in the 90s, strong opioids were seldom prescribed – even for those with acute pain due to the fear of addiction.
Then the pendulum swung violently the other way when Purdue Pharma started an advertising campaign to convince doctors that their new product, OxyContin was suitable to prescribe for any general pain complaints a patient might have. And best of all, they said the worries about addiction were greatly exaggerated. If you’re going to tell a lie, tell the big lie! Purdue knew these pills were addictive but lied about it. In May 2007 the company pleaded guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and agreed to pay $600 million in fines.  Its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer also pleaded guilty as individuals.
Doctors with a newfound religion to dutifully treat pain prescribed 'Oxys' to just about anybody who complained about pain. Many became hooked. Others took advantage of the plentiful pills stored in medicine cabinets everywhere to get high. Some doctors started what were known as ‘pill mills’ which served wholesale numbers of patients complaining of pain in order to get a prescription. The opioid epidemic was on!
Then the Law of Unintended Consequences took over. With all of these people addicted to prescription painkillers, the powers that be tried to solve this problem in the only way they knew how – make it much harder and more expensive to get these pills. But just making something illegal doesn’t make the problem go away. Instead, these addicts discovered that a closely related drug, heroin was freely available and relatively cheap. So instead of being hooked on prescription drugs whose content was strictly regulated, users were turning to street heroin with questionable strength and ingredients.
One of those ingredients that crept into the heroin supply was fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is many times more powerful than heroin. This has led to a huge spike in overdose deaths in the last year or two.
Now more desperate, public officials are pledging more money to fight this crisis. But just throwing money at the problem doesn’t solve anything. And the so-called War on Drugs which relies on law enforcement as the solution has done little more than give America the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Based on recent experiences to fight all of this addiction or at least mitigate the harm, it appears that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that while there is no panacea, there are some promising solutions to at least make some headway to help dig us out of the hole we are in. The bad news is that these solutions are being held back due to ingrained attitudes and prejudices along with (surprise) a lack of money to pay for it all.
Of immediate help is a drug called naloxone, aka Narcan that a policeman, firefighter, or paramedic can use to save the life of someone who has overdosed on heroin. Unfortunately, if the overdose is due to the much more powerful fentanyl, the lifesaving drug may be overmatched. And as an example of the above mentioned ingrained attitudes is an Ohio sheriff who incredibly, refuses to have his deputies carry Narcan.
Most promising is what is known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). In conjunction with therapy, a substitute opioid is administered that relieves the withdrawal symptoms but without the addict getting high. This allows the addict to function normally and perhaps even work until someday, hopefully kicking the addiction.
The most well known drug is methadone which has been around since the 1940s. Although it is effective, it must be administered daily at a certified distribution center which often, nobody wants near where they live.
A better alternative is Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) which has a great advantage in being able to be prescribed and then picked up at the pharmacy. However, Suboxone can be difficult to obtain because it can only be had from a limited number of federally certified doctors who in turn are limited by law to how many patients each can treat. It is ironic that while the addiction treatment is so controlled, OxyContin, the source of much of the addiction has no such controls.
Unfortunately, there is still stubborn cultural resistance to MAT because some still erroneously see it as nothing more than substituting one addictive opioid for another.
To ultimately make headway against the opioid crisis we have to reduce the demand that is driving everything.
To help prevent more accidental addiction as a result of legitimate pain treatment, comprehensive plans for treating the pain need to be used instead of just bringing out the prescription pad to prescribe an opioid. In addition, there is ample anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana may be able to more safely take the place of prescription opioids in many instances.
More importantly, we need to find out why so many Americans feel a need to get high. Many blue collar workers devastated by the loss of jobs and whole industries have suffered "deaths of despair." But why are so many more affluent Americans also falling into the trap of addiction? Is something missing in their lives too? Maybe we need to acknowledge that this opioid crisis in America may not be the disease but is in fact a symptom of underlying social and economic problems that make America not such a happy place to live in for all too many. How else do we explain why America leads the world in drug overdose deaths - by a lot.
There is this observation on Page 330 of Dreamland that all too many Americans may well be suffering due to increasing isolation from one other.
The most selfish drug fed on atomized communities. Isolation was now as endemic to wealthy suburbs as to the Rust Belt, and had been building for years. It was true about much of a country where the streets were barren on summer evenings and kids no longer played Kick the Can as parents watched from porches. That dreamland had been lost and replaced, all too often, finally, by empty streets of bigger, nicer houses hiding addiction that each family kept secret. 
…the antidote to heroin wasn’t so much naloxone; it was community. 
Nobody can do it on their own. But no drug dealer, nor drug cartel, can stand against families, schools, churches, and communities united together.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Party of Cruel

In our previous episode, Those Republican Sociopaths, Speaker Ryan had a terrible dilemma to deal with if he was going to pass his beloved Repeal and Replace Obamacare Bill. On one flank were moderate Republicans (apparently, they do still exist!) who were feeling guilty that the bill might be too cruel with the possibility of 24 million Americans losing health insurance in the next decade. On the other flank were the hard-right Freedom Caucus members who in their hate of all things government, in effect complained that the bill wasn’t cruel enough! Not seeing a way to satisfy both the moderates and Freedom Caucus members at the same time, Ryan pulled the bill rather than lose a floor vote.
Afterwards, Ryan himself conceded that Obamacare would be the law of the land for the foreseeable future. And President Trump said he wanted to move on to putting together a budget.
But that didn’t last for long. Trump, approaching his 100th day in office was desperate for something in the ‘Win’ column. In addition, the large tax cut that was part of this repeal bill would serve as a stepping stone to further tax cuts in an upcoming budget bill. Although Trump was not likely familiar with all of the bill’s details, needing a win, he pressured Ryan to renegotiate a new bill that would satisfy enough House Republicans to pass it.
The hard-right didn’t want the guarantee of insurance for those with pre-existing conditions from Obamacare to remain. But the moderates would never agree to this. So the compromise was to leave the pre-existing conditions requirement in – but in a concession to the hard-right, the bill would give individual states the ability to opt out if they choose – just like many of the Republican led states opted out of the Medicaid expansion for Obamacare.
The bill passed in the House by the narrowest of margins. The large tax cut that would be given to the wealthy who helped to finance Obamacare was preserved. The money to pay for this tax cut came in the form of a massive cut to Medicaid, a program that benefits the poor, disabled, and elderly to try and keep the bill revenue neutral. The onerous details of this bill are too numerous to mention. The interested reader can check out this link, The Trumpcare Disaster.
So what does a Republican who passes a cruel bill like this which may cause as many as 24 million people to lose their health insurance do? Celebrate, of course!  
As a practical matter, this bill has almost no chance to become a law in its present form. With many of the parts of the House bill being so toxic, the Senate will likely start from scratch to put together a bill of their own – while trying to satisfy their own hard-right members, namely Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee. And if the Senate somehow passes a bill, the Senate and House would then have to agree on a common bill that removes their differences before it can go to the president to sign. Good luck with that!!
Even if this Repeal and Replace bill never becomes a law, there will be some serious repercussions to the American political landscape.
Many Republican House members who were brave enough to hold town hall meetings back home have encountered bitter dissent from attendees who were scared to death of losing their health insurance. When the Democrats passed Obamacare, that dissent resulted in a 2010 wave election victory by the Republicans. The Democrats believe they can return the favor in the 2018 mid-term elections.
But even if Obamacare doesn’t get repealed, the chaos caused by all of the repeal activity has caused a great deal of uncertainty in the healthcare insurance marketplace which may cause more insurers to bail out of Obamacare, perhaps making the Republican predictions of its doom into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But let’s try to end this all on a hopeful note. If Obamacare is flawed and the Republicans have no viable option to replace it, we must be reminded how President Trump famously complemented Australia as having "better health care than we do." Of course, the delicious irony (apparently lost on Trump) is that Australia like most of the rest of the industrialized world has universal government-funded health insurance, also known as single-payer insurance which by the way, includes Medicare here in America.
So although Trump is apparently a closet single-payer health insurance supporter, most Republicans are strongly against it on ideological grounds. For them, given a choice between the cruel bill passed by the House and universal coverage for all Americans, cruel apparently wins. But with the passage of this House bill, even if it never becomes a law, many Americans who voted for Trump based on his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare have gotten a strong jolt of reality.
I will conclude with this quote from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia where President Trump won in a landslide:
“I said, ‘Mr. President, 172,000 West Virginians got insurance for the first time,’” Manchin said. "They’ve got something they never had before. They don’t know how they got it, they don’t know who gave it to them, they don’t know the Democrats, nothing about, ‘It’s Obamacare.’ They don’t know any of that. All they know is they’ve got it.” 
“And you know what? They voted for you, Mr. President,” he said. “They’re going to know who took it away from them.”