The Bastards Are At It Again

It’s been 51 days since Republican Senator John McCain cast the dramatic “No” vote that sunk the bill that would have sunk the Affordable Care Act. Most of us assumed that was the end of the story. Even Sen. McConnell, the evil Majority Leader, said it was time for the Republicans to “move on”.

But we were wrong. They’re making one more attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They have until September 30th, because the Senate rules say that’s the last day they can pass a bill with only 50 senators, plus the Vice President, voting “Yes”.

Sarah Kliff of Vox calls the latest bill, released by Sens. Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham on Wednesday, “the most radical” repeal effort yet:

Work on Cassidy-Graham began in the midst of the chaotic Obamacare repeal effort in July….

The senators are selling this idea as a compromise plan and say it is a way to return power to states, giving local governments more control over how they spend federal dollars….

But the plan does much more than that. The proposal would eliminate the health care law’s subsidies for private insurance and end the Medicaid expansion. States could allow for waivers that let insurers charge sick patients higher premiums and stop covering certain benefits required under the Affordable Care Act, like maternity care or prescription drugs. The health insurance marketplaces would no longer exist as they are envisioned to continue under other Republican proposals.

The federal government would convert some (but not all) of that spending into a lump-sum payment to states. States could choose to spend this money on providing insurance — or they could use it to fund high-risk pools, or do other activities to pay the bills of patients with high medical needs….

The plan hasn’t been scored by the Congressional Budget Office yet, but analysts who have studied Cassidy-Graham estimate it would cut deeply into federal funding for the health law programs, likely resulting in millions losing coverage.

Cassidy-Graham would arguably be more disruptive, not less, to the current health care system than the plans that came before it. It would let money currently spent on health insurance go toward other programs, providing no guarantee that the Affordable Care Act programs individuals rely on today would continue into the future.

Jonathan Cohn of the Huffington Post quotes Aviva Aron-Dine of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

“This bill is far more radical [than previous repeal bills] in that it envisions going back to the pre-ACA world, where the federal government wasn’t in the business of helping low-income adults or moderate-income people without employer coverage get health insurance at all… Compared to pre-ACA, there would be some extra state grant money floating around ― but it would have virtually no requirements attached to it at all and, since the funding wouldn’t adjust based on enrollment or costs, it would be hard for even well-intentioned states to use it to create an individual entitlement to coverage or help.”

Cohn continues:

Oh, and the bill would repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and do so right away ― destabilizing insurance markets and causing premiums to rise right away, according to official projections….

It’s difficult to say where this is all going. After all, the idea that repeal could get another look now, despite its unpopularity, in the form of a proposal that in some respects is more radical than its predecessors, is difficult to fathom. And yet here we are, fathoming it.

So it looks like we need to speak up again. Republican senators need to hear from their angry constituents again. Facebook and Twitter need to heat up again. Activists need to get arrested again, because this is a matter of life and death for many of our fellow citizens and nobody knows if three Republicans will still vote “No”. McCain, who provided the crucial third “No” in July, has changed his tune from day to day (he’s 81 and has a brain tumor). People are saying he might vote “Yes” this time because he and Sen. Graham are very good friends. 

In November 1932, the German government was in disarray. Hitler was demanding to be made chancellor. He had many supporters, but others feared he would immediately institute a murderous dictatorship if given the chance:

Yet it was entirely unclear who would succeed [Franz von Papen] as chancellor or whether a way out of the political crisis could be found. The only thing that was clear, [a German count named Harry Kessler] noted … was the absolute impenetrability and uncertainty of the situation: “Everything more or less depends on chance and the good or bad moods of four or five individuals”.

Hitler became chancellor two months later. 

A Smart, Informed Journalist Interviews Hillary Clinton

Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox, interviewed Hillary Clinton for 51 minutes this week. I thought she avoided answering one question. It was something like, how would you rate American voters in general? Aside from that, I was tremendously impressed. It is a tragedy that she lost.

A few topics discussed:

16:00  How the media handled the presidential campaign

17:45  Healthcare, including the important distinction between universal care, which should be our goal, and single-payer, which is only one way, and probably not the best way, to get universal care

26:30  American politics today

36:00  The 2016 election

42:00  How women voted

44:50   The effect of the Comey letter plus the Electoral College, voter suppression and dangers ahead.

 

Reading About Hitler Makes Me Think of Someone Else

I’m about halfway through Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by the German historian Volker Ullrich. It’s 1932 and Hitler is on the verge of becoming the German chancellor. I’ve learned a lot about Hitler’s rise to power. At the same time, I can’t stop noticing similarities between Hitler and our president.

I wish I’d been taking notes all along, so I could be specific, but it’s hard not to be reminded of the president when reading about Hitler’s lies, exaggerations, insecurities, misconceptions, exorbitant promises and celebration of violence. There’s his successful use of the media, his ability to excite a crowd of admirers, his reliance on certain emotional catchphrases, his need for total loyalty, the way he pits his underlings against each other and, of course, his targeting of scapegoats to explain all of the world’s ills.

There is also the reaction of some contemporary observers to the possibility that a man like him might rule the nation. Paul von Hindenburg, a military commander in World War I, had been the German chancellor since 1925. He was 84 and ill when he agreed to seek the office again in 1932, partly because he was thought to be the only candidate who could beat Hitler. The left-wing Social Democrats didn’t even nominate a candidate. They threw their support to Hindenburg, even though Hindenburg was a right-winger, because they were so afraid of the alternative. From the Social Democratic Party’s newspaper:

Hitler in place of Hindenburg means chaos and panic in Germany and the whole of Europe, an extreme worsening of the economic crisis and of unemployment, and the most acute danger of bloodshed within our own people and abroad. Hitler in place of Hindenburg means the triumph of the reactionary part of the bourgeoisie over the progressive middle classes and the working class, the destruction of all civil liberties, of the press and of political, union and cultural organizations, increased exploitation and wage slavery.

The declaration ended with: “Defeat Hitler! Vote for Hindenburg!”

A journalist noted: 

What a bizarre country. Hindenburg as the pet of the pro-democracy camp. Years ago when I heard of his election … I threw up out of fear and horror. Today, in the face of the fascist threat, a democrat has to anxiously hope for Hindenburg’s re-election.

The Nazis attacked Hindenburg on the basis that leftists were supporting his candidacy (“Tell me who praises you and I’ll tell you who you are!”), as if the leftists truly admired Hindenburg and weren’t supporting him simply as the lesser of two evils. A leader of the Social Democrats responded: 

If there is one thing we admire about National Socialism, it’s the fact that it has succeeded, for the first time in German politics, in the complete mobilization of human stupidity.

That reminds me of the present moment too.

It’s Not the Reactionaries So Much as the Elites They Listen To

Twitter isn’t the best place for reasoned discussion, but depending on who you follow, it isn’t a vast, superficial wasteland either. One of the cool things it offers is the occasional tweetstorm that benefits from directness and immediacy.

Here, slightly edited, is what David Roberts, who writes about climate and energy for Vox, had to say in thirty or so tweets yesterday:

Ever since climate became a political issue in the US, one of the most ubiquitous topics of climate discussion has been “how can conservatives be persuaded to accept climate science and join in the productive search for solutions?” I have read, no joke, MILLIONS of words on that subject. Been following that conversation long enough to notice it has certain recurring features.

The weirdest aspect is that it almost always treats conservatives and their denial as a kind of feature of the landscape, like a mountain. It’s something that just IS, something other people have to maneuver around, or overcome, or otherwise deal with. It is not treated as a CHOICE, made by grown-ass adults who could choose differently, for which they are responsible.

Another (related) weird aspect is, it’s almost always treated as something that the right’s political opponents *caused*. Al Gore caused it. Strident rhetoric or “alarmism” caused it. Enviro aversion to nuclear power (or CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage], or geoengineering) caused it.

It’s always discussed as a result of something enviros or the left did–and something they could undo, if they just acted/talked right. “If environmentalists stopped doing [thing that personally annoys me], they’d be winning over the right” is a *ubiquitous* template.

But it’s bullshit. The question of what shapes conservative opinion is not some deep mystery about which your gut impulses carry any insight. It’s an intensely studied question in social science and has been, as least to a decent approximation, answered. I recommend this post, summarizing John Zaller’s book The Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion. To *very* briefly summarize: people don’t know anything; they don’t have strong opinions on political “issues”; they form opinions by following the cues of leaders in their various social tribes. We are social creatures; tribal ties (not “issues”) are primary.

So conservatives believe what conservatives believe. And they find out what conservatives believe from conservative elites.That means conservative politicians, celebs, and local leaders, but especially, in US conservatism circa 2017, *media figures*. Conservative media plays an *enormous* role in shaping conservative opinion and has dragged it steadily rightward.

So we can say with confidence that conservatives deny climate change because that’s what conservative political/media elites do. Elite cues are what matter. It follows that the *only* reliable way to get conservatives to stop denying climate change is for conservative political/media elites to stop. That’s it.

You might think that Al Gore should STFU, enviros should support nuclear, green journalists should avoid “doomism” and all the other things that VSPs [Very Serious Persons] are always scolding greens for. Fine. Think what you want. Scold away.

But there is no evidence, and no reason to think, that any of those changes would have any material effect on conservative climate denialism. Conservatives will change their tune on climate when the people they see on Fox & Breitbart change their tune. Until then, clever arguments and magic words (“national security!” “conserving God’s gift!”) are futile for everything except meeting think-piece word counts.

Conservative elites and media are to blame for conservative ignorance and obstruction on climate. Not greens, not Democrats, not Al Gore, not That Guy on Twitter. What they are doing is a monstrous crime that will directly result in enormous suffering. And they are grown-ass adults fully capable of understanding the consequences. They are responsible for their own actions and deserve to be called out for them.

Basically, conservative elites are to blame for climate paralysis and only conservative elites can change it. I don’t like it, but there it is. Step one for everyone ought to be telling the damn truth about it. Quit finding “clever,” “counterintuitive” ways to blame others, FFS. As Ornstein and Mann said (more broadly, but it applies here as well), “Republicans are the problem”.

Of course, in the case of global warming, Republicans are only part of the problem. The big problem is global warming itself, combined with how unlikely it is that we will stop it from getting worse. What scientists have predicted for decades is coming to pass. The world is getting hotter; the atmosphere has more moisture in it; the oceans are rising; the ice is receding; the permafrost is melting; storms and heat waves are intensifying. We are polluting the planet to a dangerous degree and it’s coming back to bite us, too quickly for us to stop it, yet too slowly to make everyone feel the urgency of the problem. 

Later, I saw that David Roberts presented his thoughts more formally in an article with a long title: “As Hurricanes and Wildfires Rage, US Climate Politics Enters the Realm of Farce: Climate Denial Is Less Credible, But More Powerful, Than Ever”.

But if you want to get really depressed, take a look at The Guardian‘s “This Is How Your World Could End”. If the author is correct, it’s not out of the question that the earth’s surface may become too hot for mammals. The good news is that many other living things would survive, including birds, who handle heat better than we do.

The Truth Still Matters

Will be going to North Dakota today to discuss tax reform and tax cuts. We are the highest taxed nation in the world – that will change.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017

But the truth still matters:

oecd tax burdens

The chart includes individual and corporate taxes, as well as local taxes, as reported by the 35-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

For some historical perspective, consider “When the Rich Said No to Getting Richer” by from David Leonhardt of The New York Times:

A half-century ago, a top automobile executive named George Romney — yes, Mitt’s father — turned down several big annual bonuses. He did so, he told his company’s board, because he believed that no executive should make more than $225,000 a year (which translates into almost $2 million today).

He worried that “the temptations of success” could distract people from more important matters, as he said to a biographer, T. George Harris. This belief seems to have stemmed from both Romney’s Mormon faith and a culture of financial restraint that was once commonplace in this country.

Romney didn’t try to make every dollar he could, or anywhere close to it. The same was true among many of his corporate peers. In the early 1960s, the typical chief executive at a large American company made only 20 times as much as the average worker, rather than the current 271-to-1 ratio. Today, some C.E.O.s make $2 million in a single month.

The old culture of restraint had multiple causes, but one of them was the tax code. When Romney was saying no to bonuses, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Even if he had accepted the bonuses, he would have kept only a sliver of them.

The high tax rates, in other words, didn’t affect only the post-tax incomes of the wealthy. The tax code also affected pretax incomes. As the economist Gabriel Zucman says, “It’s not worth it to try to earn $50 million in income when 90 cents out of an extra dollar goes to the I.R.S.”

The tax rates helped create a culture in which Americans found gargantuan incomes to be bizarre.

A few years after Romney turned down his bonuses from the American Motors Corporation, Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that lowered the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent. Under Ronald Reagan, it dropped to 50 percent and kept falling. Since 1987, the top rate has hovered between 30 percent and 40 percent.

For more than 30 years now, the United States has lived with a top tax rate less than half as high as in George Romney’s day. And during those same three-plus decades, the pay of affluent Americans has soared. That’s not a coincidence. Corporate executives and others now have much more reason to fight for every last dollar.

And fight they do (it’s called “class warfare”).

Meanwhile, the president* is unnecessarily threatening hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country by their parents and another extremely dangerous hurricane is on its way. This is further evidence that Republicans are evil and global temperatures are rising, but you already knew that.

Update:  John McCain, the Republican senator who talks a good game but can’t be relied on, has changed his mind about repealing the Affordable Care Act. He now says he’d vote Yes on what is “in may ways … the most radical” repeal bill yet. Further evidence for [see above]. 

2nd Update: McCain now says he would only vote for repeal if the legislation survived committee hearings and was subject to amendments proposed by both sides. That’s not what the 81-year old senator implied earlier today. This latest announcement is good news, because the repeal legislation is extremely unlikely to pass if it’s subject to “normal order” in the Senate instead of being rushed through. 

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.