Tag Archives: politics

The Travel Ban

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump made a point of excoriating Muslims. In December 2015 he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” This Muslim ban was talked up throughout his campaign and even after his election but before the inauguration.

It is not surprising then that he acted on the proposition. His initial action was a blanket ban on all travelers from seven middle eastern countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. The ban was initially without exception, even for those who already had valid visas or green cards. The justification of the ban is based on protecting our citizens from terrorists. It is important to note that not a single terrorist attack has occurred in the United States by a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. Not one.

The travel ban did not include several countries in the middle east whose citizens have committed terrorist acts, including the deadliest attack on American soil, the hijacking of planes and their subsequent suicidal attacks on the twin towers in New York and the pentagon in Washington, DC. These hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, none of which are on the travel ban list.

The ultimate question is will this action really make us safer? As noted the travel ban was not on all Muslims, but on all citizens from a select group of predominantly Muslim countries, so strictly speaking it was not a Muslim ban. In politics however, perception is reality. Trump spoke of a Muslim ban but banned everyone from Muslim countries. This will be perceived by many as the Muslim ban that he flogged repeatedly.

There are close to 2 billion followers of Islam worldwide and most of them are neither in the middle east or have anything to do with terrorism, yet. The Muslims in the banned countries represent only 12 percent of all Muslims, yet all Muslims have been insulted by this action. It is easy to see how this could be used as a recruitment tool for groups such as ISIS and Al Queda. Will the ban make us less safe?

What we get with this travel ban is a further polarization of attitudes of our citizens, a questionable change in the likelihood of terrorism on our soil and an image to the international community that grows darker by the day.

The United States has been a beacon of hope and promise for the disenfranchised around the world. After all, we are in the main an immigrant nation. Our success as the world leader depends to some degree on perceptions of us as a free and open society.

Trump(doesn’t)care

Generally the citizens of red states take in more from the feds than they pay out in taxes. Conversely blue states pay out more than they take in. There are exceptions, red Kansas pays out more than it takes in and blue New Mexico takes in more than it pays out.

Both Trump and the Republicans in congress have repeatedly stressed their plan to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare.) Will it be replaced? If So what will replace it? House majority leader Kevin McCarthy said “”Nothing’s been decided yet but I would move through and repeal and then go to work on replacing.” There are several competing ideas floating around, all of which will mean less support for healthcare.

The medicaid expansion is certain to go, eliminating healthcare support for about 14 million people nation wide. Most republican plans drive people with pre-existing conditions into very expensive high risk pools, essentially eliminating insurance for those with lower incomes. Most republican plans will return to annual and/or lifetime limits – exceed your limit and you no longer have insurance at any cost.

People will continue to get sick, insurance or not. In fact without the preventive care measures built into Obamacare, they likely will get more sick. Without reasonable healthcare protections, they won’t be able to afford to go to a clinic for treatment of a cold. They will wait until on death’s bed with pneumonia before they go to the hospital for treatment but can’t pay with dollars they don’t have.

So our population will suffer more serious health care emergencies, increased medical bankruptcies will lower payments to hospitals and staff, and smaller rural hospitals which operate on narrower margins will close their doors, further decreasing access to health care for much of the state’s working poor.

And it won’t stop with just healthcare. Expect cuts to any number of federal programs including food stamps, housing subsidies, subsidies for transportation, etc.

Here in Arkansas we are one of the net takers receiving more in federal dollars than we pay in taxes. Over 684,000 votes were cast for Trump. Around a half a million voters and their children will lose some or all of their healthcare support. Another half a million more could lose some or all of their nutritional support (foodstamps, WIC) including children. What do you think a Venn diagram of Trump voters and beneficiaries of federal largess would look like? Considerable overlap?

The real irony in all this is that the republicans’ lust for smaller government will negatively impact their voter base in the red states. The more prosperous blue states will have their treasuries buoyed by the reduction in federal tax payments. They can use that money to provide for the health and welfare of their citizens. The less prosperous red states will be allowed to continue on a downward spiral with lower wages, poorer health and an every person for themselves paradise. Be careful what you wish (vote) for.

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences

The mass murder in Orlando has brought the issue of gun control, or more correctly gun safety, to the fore. Liberals want to close the loophole on background checks for gun purchases. If you go to a gun dealer, a background check will be run to determine if you are qualified to own a gun. Even the broadest interpretation of the second amendment doesn’t allow for certain individuals to legally own a gun, just ask anyone convicted of a felony.

The loophole is of course private sales. Anyone who is not a gun dealer can legally sell deadly weapons to anyone else. Individuals are not required to perform a background check. As long as they don’t ask, then they don’t know if a person should be banned from owning a gun and the sale is legal.

And its not hard to get a gun through a private sale. Facebook is full of local buy/sell/swap pages where guns are routinely offered up. Hand guns, shot guns, even assault rifles are all available no questions asked.

This is because at the federal level conservatives think arming everybody is just dandy. They don’t want to close the loopholes in gun sales, and they certainly don’t want to limit the firepower available to the average citizen by banning the sale of so called assault rifles.

Ironically, the insistence on the freedom to own deadly weapons may serve to reduce our freedoms, essentially our privacy, in other ways. Right now Democrats in the Senate are filibustering for legislation which would deny guns to suspected terrorists – those on a no fly list. Although this may sound reasonable, keep in mind that this is an action taken on the suspicion of criminal activity, and anybody can be suspected.

Our insistence on guns for all, and our fear of terrorism is serving to make us less free, not more – An unintended consequence. An even greater risk to freedom is a conservative idea propounded by Newt Gingrich. Newt would like to bring back the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. The now disgraced committee was first created as a nazi hunting effort in the 1940s, but is best know for communist hunting in the 1950s.

The committee held hearings and questioned thousands of innocent citizens about their possible membership in the communist party. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party? Lists of people who were suspected of being communists were prepared and circulated. Black lists were created and circulated which often prevented people from getting or holding a job. Lives were destroyed on the basis of suspicions, not proven facts. The term “fellow traveler” came into widespread use during the reign of the committee. Not only were communists and those suspected of being members of the communist party hounded, but also their family, friends and even neighbors.

Simply substitute terrorist for communist and repeat the sordid past. Our steadfast refusal to take reasonable steps to increase gun safety in this country is having the unintended consequence of decreasing our privacy and ultimately our freedom.

Global Warming and Politics

Anthropogenic Global warming (AGW)and the resultant climate change is acknowledged by essentially every scientific body around the world. President Obama recognizes this and has instituted several policy initiatives.

These include but aren’t limited to a mandate to increase transportation efficiency to reduce the use of oil and oil derived fuels. The new Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) standard will rise to over 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

The EPA is completing rule making which will result in a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants. Obama also supports research and development of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal to replace the use of fossil fuels.

But Obama will leave office in 2017 and a new president will be in charge. What will be his or her policies towards global warming?

Democratic candidates are generally are more concerned about AGW and are more likely to enact policies that address the issue. Republican candidates, not so much.

Hillary Clinton, the hands down leader for the democratic party’s nomination, put AGW near the top of her priorities. She described it as “ “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” She also joined with Obama by saying that she would defend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Bernie Sanders, her challenger from the left for the democratic nomination is equally in favor of strong actions on AGW. At a speech in Burlington, the senator from Vermont said “Climate change is real. It is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. And let’s be clear — if we do not get our act together and have the united states lead the world in combating climate change, there will be more drought, more famine, more rising sea level, more floods, more ocean acidification, more extreme weather disturbances.”

The current leader in the crowded republican field, Jeb Bush, has expressed concern for climate change but thinks private industries innovations such as fracking to produce natural gas will solve the problem. Natural gas, essentially methane, does burn cleaner than oil and coal; however methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Right now billionaire Donald Trump is runner up to Bush in the republican sweepstakes but like the remainder of the crowd is only in the single digits for support. He is a AGW denier. His comments tend to the claim that occasional cold weather or snow storms prove that it is a hoax. He has said little on energy policy but we could expect little action on climate change in his administration.

Just the announced Republican candidates are too numerous to include comments from all but here are a couple more.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, claims that climate change is irrelevant – “there’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on.” Mike Huckabee – “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe [in 2010] actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.” This patent falsehood shows where he stands.

appian way

Civilization and Highways

Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.

roman-roads-map

roman-roads-map

Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.

inca trail

inca trail

More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.

Autobahn

Autobahn

Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.

In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.

Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.

It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard

“Whistling past the graveyard” is an old expression used to exemplify willful ignorance; more specifically, trying to remain cheerful in the presence of a known threat. It’s use here applies to those in denial about the risks of global warming and the concomitant changes in climate.

a natural whistler

a natural whistler

Denial ranges from simple willful ignorance up to and including malicious lying about both the current reality and future risks. The simplest denial is to not participate in society by not being informed about important issues which affect us all. Another level is those who try their best to find a justification for their denial. Websites abound for those folks. There are numerous sites designed to appear to be promoting free enterprise or unfettered capitalism but are actually front groups.

Those promoting active denial are essentially all guided by the fossil fuel industry. The Heartland Institute has created a school curriculum that employs numerous half truths to promote the notion that there is a real scientific controversy.

Frank Luntz has advised members of the Republican Party that denial should take the form of
pointing repeatedly to a lack of scientific certainty. In reality there is very little uncertainty and essentially no controversy. Denial ranges from sublime to the ridiculous, for example witness Senator Inhofe’s snowball show on the senate floor recently. He brought a snowball into the senate chamber to make that point that it was cold outside, hence global warming is a hoax.

The absolutely worst form of denial is that which comes through taxpayer funding. The Miami Herald recently reported that the Florida State “ DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports. This is according to “former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.”

Of course Governor Scott of Florida denies any such order. He was noncommittal when asked if the DEP plans for or even believes in global warming. He also refused to say whether he personally believes global warming is a problem.

In 2012, the Republican dominated legislature in North Carolina passed a law to the effect that state scientists could only use data from the year 1900 forward to project sea level rise and then only extrapolate out linearly. The scientists have been denied the use of the best data and computer modeling.

At the national level, the republican led House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a Defense Department funding bill: None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order…

“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored” Aldous Huxley

usca

Privatize Collegiate Athletics

In our society we reward those who entertain us with handsome incomes. The average player in the National Basketball Association earns an astounding 5.5 million dollars a year. The annual “income,” that is the value of a college scholarship for a player in this year’s final four is under 30,000 dollars a year. Does that mean that we don’t value collegiate entertainment as much as pro ball? Not in the least. The spoils go however to the schools, not the athletes.

Each team in the final four will earn close to 10 million dollars for their school, with part of that shared with their conference. Serious money for the winners, but even the losers earn close to 2 million dollars. So its a good thing, right? Not really.

Right now very few athletic programs support themselves, requiring considerable subsidies from students and taxpayers in the case of public institutions. Only 1in 8 teams in NCAA division I is a net profit center. When athletic programs are considered in aggregate, only a scant 3 percent reach the break even point. The percentage is even smaller if it exists at all when considering other college athletic associations such as NCAA Division II and III and NAIA.

This situation with athletes may change soon. The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees, not student athletes. Their rationale is that the considerable time commitment of the players and the fact that their scholarships are tied directly to their performance on the field makes them employees. NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr stated that athletes “fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of employees when one considers the common law definition of an employee.”

Schools, the NCAA and the public in general disagree, which is expected when you consider that paying the athletes their due would drive up considerably the cost of entertainment.

Injured Athlete

Injured Athlete

So we have a situation where athletes are grossly underpaid as entertainers, and students and taxpayers have to subsidize the costs for the entertainment. In a global economy can we afford to take money away from academic programs that produce an essential product – an educated workforce?

The only reasonable answer is to entirely sever athletic entertainment from academics. Privatize collegiate sports. Let private corporations lease the name and possibly facilities for teams. In a sense the movement has begun already. It is no longer the Orange Bowl, it is the FedEx Orange bowl.

The logical way would be for the professional teams to adopt collegiate athletics as farm teams. The NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. could finance sports just like professional baseball farm team programs.

Alternately it could be done ad hoc. Big entertainment teams would require big sponsors so how about the Haliburton Sooners and what else but the Walmart Razorbacks? Smaller venues could go much more cheaply so we could have the Whatta-burger Wonderboys of Arkansas Tech.

The Cargill Cornhuskers (Nebraska)? The Volkswagon Volunteers (Tennessee)? Lots of possibilities.

Affordable Care Act

Disincentivizing Work

The Republicans have a bright and shiny new word they’re using to bash the Democratic Party in general and Obamacare in particular — Disincentivize. As in Obamacare disincentivizes Americans to work.

This characteristically disingenuous attack on The Affordable Care Act (ACA) comes from a purposeful misinterpretation of a recent Congressional Budget Office report titled “The budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 and 2024.” About 30 pages out of 175 addressed the ACA.

The point the Republicans tried to exploit was a couple of lines that said “The ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”

See, ensuring access to healthcare takes away jobs! No, not really. What the report said is some people who previously had to keep a full-time job just to be insured may not need to. The ACA ensures that affordable insurance is available to individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions or income.

People who can now get insurance on the open market can decide to work less, or retire a little earlier than they would have. If a person retires early, this opens up a job for another worker — a far cry from taking away jobs.

Once it was clear that jobs weren’t being taken away, the Republicans switched to the disincentivise mantra. This is their argument: If a person doesn’t have to work to maintain access to expensive health insurance, then they won’t work. Access to affordable healthcare makes us lazy. Really, that’s what they think.

Republicans have traditionally resisted just about everything which contributes to the quality of life. People are lazy because they would like to be able to spend more time with their family? People are lazy because after working long and hard, and saving their money, would then like to retire a little earlier? People are lazy because they would rather not work two jobs if they didn’t have to? Really?

Americans already work the longest hours among workers in the industrialized world. That means we have less time to be with our families, less time to enjoy time with friends, less time to volunteer for our church or club. What is wrong with this picture?

You know what else disincentivizes people to work? Those things that contribute to the enjoyment of the American dream — the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Should we get rid of the mortgage deduction for home ownership and the dependent allowances on our income tax? Saving money disincentivizes work? Meanwhile, the Republican controlled House of Representatives will be taking the next two weeks off, on our dime. What’s that about disincentives to work?

Global Warming and Geopolitics

There is no doubt that humans are transforming the atmosphere. It is impossible to explain away the fact that burning fossil fuels and deforestation result in the considerable increase of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere. The planet is getting warmer and the oceans are becoming more acidic directly as a result of human activities. Further complications are shifting rainfall patterns, and more severe storms.

A secondary consequence of global warming is political instability. Some scientists have suggested that the “Arab spring”, the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East, was driven at least partially by food instability.

Arab Spring

Arab Spring

The cost of a loaf of bread rose steeply following a severe heat wave and drought in Russia in 2011. The political instability in the region has give radical groups such as Al Qaeda a wedge to further disrupt society and gain power.

Bangladesh, with a population of over one hundred-fifty million, depends on glacial melt in the Himalayas for fresh water much of the year. As glaciers recede, the slow metered flow of melt water changes from a somewhat constant flow to major rivers to alternating flooding torrents and droughts.

bangladesh

bangladesh

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that much of region is at or near sea level. The combination of droughts, floods, and salinity from sea level rise could cause famine, driving the predominately Muslim population into predominantly Hindu India. Ethnic conflict would be likely.

The newest country in the world, South Sudan, came about after years of civil war in Northern Africa. The region has been stressed by an extended drought. Sudan is currently constructing a pair of dams on the Nile. Nearby Ethiopia is also constructing a dam on the upper Nile,

nile

nile

which has greatly increased political tensions with Egypt downstream. Filling the lakes behind these dams could take years and severely reduce the flow in the Nile downstream. Again the strife in the region is driven in part by a long term climate change in the form of droughts.

The loss of sea ice at the North Pole could also be a political game changer. Asian countries, principally china, are actively developing fleets of cargo ships designed to sail the polar regions, and will increase if not solidify their hegemony over international trade.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies recently commissioned a study by the National Research Council. The conclusion: climate change presents even more risk in an already unstable world. Not only is the pentagon studying the mitigation of global warming, they are also studying the relationship between climate, climate change, and political strife.

My Fifteen Minutes of Blame

My fifteen minutes of blame

Blame the Republican house, blame the Republican party, Blame the Republicans. Yesterday evening Steve Womack – Republican representative for the third congressional district came to Russellville, Arkansas for a townhall meeting. A small crowd of about thirty folks listened quietly for about a half an hour as he politic-ed. From the nature of his presentation it was obvious that he worried more about his right flank.

He explained how shutting down the government over Obamacare was a bad idea. Not because it would harm the public welfare, but rather because it was politically unwise – it would turn the public away from the party. He staked out the traditional republican position, railing against spending, the Affordable Care Act, and the senate position on immigration. This kind of republican is actually more dangerous than the buffoons of the tea party.

A couple challenges from his right, shutting down the government and deporting all 12 million undocumented people were deflected. The real fun came from his left. A local pastor who happened to be sitting next to me made an eloquent and sensible argument for passage of the senate immigration bill. She spoke of how two of her parishioners, brothers, risked their lives (and their mothers life savings) by riding on the tops of trains for three weeks to get to the United States for a job. She was taunted somewhat by the crowd about lazy Mexicans, even though she had previously said that they had traveled for three weeks and risked life and limb FOR A JOB. I suspect those brothers have a stronger work ethic than most of the people in the room.

Then I got a few bites at the apple. On one of his slides (there’s an anachronism) he included a bullet on health savings accounts. [ME] OK, consider a guy with a health savings account who gets really, really sick; cancer, heart attack, or stroke with extended hospital care. He runs up a tab that is twice his savings. Who picks up the remainder of his costs? Somebody needs to pay for the drugs and reimburse the nurses and aides and janitors who cared for him. Bankruptcy is about his only alternative. I’ll tell you who pays, we do through our insurance premiums! [HE] ummm. He gave no real answer, he just went off on how if you have this savings and you don’t use it for healthcare, then you have this nice little savings account to use for other purposes. The long and short of it: he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question.

Probably my favorite encounter of the evening is when I asked another simple question: [ME] I understand why we all have an obligation to our common national defense, why not a similar obligation to our common national health? [HE] uhhh. Then he gestured by holding his hands in the air as if he were trying to measure the relative weight of a couple of objects. [HE] The two aren’t the same, providing for the national defense is in the constitution! [ME] So is providing for the general welfare! Then he said something about having skin in the game, but provided no real answer. He tap danced around the subject for a while, only to make his case worse.

He said something which I still don’t understand about do I pay to get my teeth cleaned. Maybe he was leading to a discussion of preventive care. [HE] I’m proud that while mayor of Rogers, AR we built a taxpayer-funded Adult Wellness Center. A lot of people benefit because of the center, why one gentleman I talked to said that he paid over 2000 dollars a month for some medication but since he started coming regularly to the center, his costs for the medication have been cut in half!

My jaw-droppingly obvious answer: [ME] My point exactly. If we taxpayers act together we can save ourselves some money. If we provide preventive care for the poor we will save money overall. Ten cents a day spent on the front end for a generic blood pressure drug can save us hundreds of thousands dollars in the prevention of just one hear attack or stroke. And that is a big part of the Affordable Care Act! [HE] We’ll just have to agree to disagree! He made my point, what else could he say?

One final egotistical riff. Another participant there who knows me commented on something about caps on payments for physical rehab. He said “as Dr Allen said…” while gesturing towards me. Womack swung his gaze at me and his eyes got just a little bit bigger. I guess titles still impress some people. It was just a funny moment.