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Author: Norm

Retired sixty-something originally from England now a U.S. citizen living in Seattle. Married with a wife and two children. I love Seattle and consider it to have been a wonderful place to live and help raise my daughters. I worked in government my whole life. Whilst I see its flaws I also understand that government can be a strong force for good in democratic societies. My interests are current affairs and military history. I consider myself to be a centrist politically by any reasonable standard but probably left of centre in today's USA.
Red States seek to gut the Affordable Care Act and make Blue States more like them.

Red States seek to gut the Affordable Care Act and make Blue States more like them.

In this timely piece from the LA Times we learn about two working mothers, one in California and one in Texas, and their very different health care experiences thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid to low-income adults, or lack thereof, in their states. The California mum (Jenny) whose state enthusiastically embraced the ACA, has health coverage which kicked in last year when she was hospitalized from a severe infection. Texas on the other hand opted out of the Medicaid expansion and the Texan mum’s (Courtney) experience reflects that fact; without health coverage she’s not able to afford asthma inhalers nor dental treatment for a broken molar she received in a domestic dispute. Courtney’s been living on Orajel, she says.

In fact recent research has concluded that the Red States who refused Medicaid expansion suffered a higher mortality rate among near elderly low-income adults compared to states that expanded the program. The result is that the states who opted out likely sustained almost 16,000 avoidable deaths during the period studied. 

The fate of the ACA now rests in the hands of an ideologically extreme right-wing Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in California v Texas stemming from an effort by Texas and 17 other Red States joined now by the Trump administration to overturn the ACA. (The result will not be known until next year). It’s difficult not to see this as anything other than a continuation of an expanding war on Blue States who typically provide their citizens with more and better services. It’s bad enough that Texas and the others demonstrate such a studied unconcern for the health and well-being of their own residents, but it’s truly reprehensible that they’re driven to seriously damage that of low-income people in the rest of America. Apparently, Texas politicians will not rest until Jenny’s experience in California mirrors that of Courtney. Misery really does love company it seems.

And if Republicans win the November election, we can be assured that any chance of a meaningful replacement for the ACA in the event that SCOTUS throws it out will be just as dead as those 16,000 people who died prematurely. Nor should we forget that if the law falls, all who enjoy private health insurance will once again be subject to caps on their coverage, prohibitions on pre-existing conditions and the other means of victimization in the tool bags of the insurance companies. 

All of which is a strong reminder that the sooner we crush the GOP at the ballot box, the better it will be for our collective welfare.

The GOP Has Become a Malevolent Force in American Life

The GOP Has Become a Malevolent Force in American Life

Consider these words written in 2012 by non-partisan political scientists Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Eight years on things have got demonstrably worse. Republicans continue efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act both legislatively (in 2017, which failed) or in court as GOP states led by Texas pursue a lawsuit currently pending before the Supreme Court that may see the ACA overturned next spring. The consequences to millions of Americans would be devastating.
This in the face of a virulent pandemic with more millions of Americans losing their jobs and their health care who will likely need the ACA. In the current health crisis, the Republicans’ rush to open up the economy before infection rates have decreased or we have adequate testing and contact tracing capabilities promises to cause thousands of unnecessary deaths – particularly among the elderly.

Meanwhile the GOP’s stubborn and obtuse denial of climate change threatens the future of our children and grandchildren. The depressing litany of destructive policies the GOP has embraced over the years whether its unravelling environmental protections and workplace safety regulations, beating up on the poor in America, suppressing voting rights of minorities to name but a handful, do enormous harm to the American people. The reality is of a political party and conservative movement that rejects the worth and role of government to do good and runs it incompetently to prove its point, while doing everything possible to impede the other party from governing effectively.

In this the GOP is robustly supported by its perpetually angry base, and a right-wing media machine that pushes both to the extremes. Negative partisanship is bipartisan but at least most Democrats get their news from reliable mainstream media as opposed to Republicans who are far more likely to be misinformed thanks to conservative media even on something as critical as the coronavirus. The latest conservative conspiracy theory, for example, is that the COVID-19 death rate is vastly exaggerated, a dangerous illusion that promotes a lethal complacency.

In short, Republican governance at every level is severely hazardous to our health and well being. In the present emergency, a GOP administration first weakened the federal government’s ability to combat a theoretical pandemic then thoroughly botched its response to a real one. And while a pragmatic Democratic House has tried gamely to bring some sanity to the government’s response to the economic and health calamities, it’s an uphill struggle against an ideologically driven, boneheaded GOP majority in the Senate. For example, an obvious need to support states with an infusion of federal funding as their economies tank and their revenues plummet is being blocked by a hatefully partisan GOP leadership that sees it as disproportionately (and erroneously) benefitting Democratic states.

When this catastrophe is finally over, Americans need to have a serious conversation on the future of our democracy in light of the bitter divisions that are unlikely to ameliorate even without the vile and divisive presence of either Trump or Senator “Moscow” Mitch McConnell. I don’t pretend to know the answer but I do know that we can never move forward as a country while this extreme polarization, without parallel in any other democratic nation, persists.

Trump’s character traits are really disturbing

Trump’s character traits are really disturbing

Near the end of a book I was reading recently was this description of a familiar political leader:

He was impervious to advice. He listened but did not absorb the opinions of others. If critics persisted (according to one of his senior staff members) ‘he would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation’. He brushed aside uncongenial facts so habitually that his staff began to filter out intelligence of the worst complexion. He displayed in all this not a shred of self-criticism. When things went wrong he blamed others’.

Characterizing his subject as sulky, vindictive, intolerant and irascible, the author goes on to cite his subject’s poor powers of leadership which were masked with a self-constructed myth of infallibility. Add a few more equally unpleasant traits such as bullying, endless lying and bullshitting, a complete absence of empathy and a demand for loyalty from others which goes unreturned and we have a fairly complete picture of Donald Trump, right? Indeed. But the the excerpt is from Why the Allies Won by historian Richard Overy, published in 1995, and the subject is Adolf Hitler.

Klessheim Palace (now a casino) to Mar-a-Lago (now a playground)

Now obviously Trump is no Hitler. For one thing, Hitler wrote a book, Mein Kampf. Trump, who has the attention span of a gnat and can’t even sit still long enough to read the President’s Daily Brief  (with potentially disastrous consequences) has likely never even read a book cover to cover much less written one (having a book ghost written for you doesn’t count). 

More significantly, there is no evidence that Trump harbors a megalomaniacal desire to conquer the world; in fact he has more of a penchant for retreating from commitments abroad and betraying allies – Kurds and Afghans so far, and probably our NATO allies too given half a chance. And whilst Trump is monstrously incompetent, narcissistic and vile (among other things), there is no evidence that he is an actual monster capable of acts of unspeakable evil. Fortunately for us, Trump is constrained by his own enormous limitations, principally his own monumental stupidity; for example, he is still unable to accept the deadliness of the coronavirus pandemic even after everything that’s happened.

There really isn’t much doubt about this and it has been amply demonstrated both publicly before our eyes and in myriad accounts from those who have had to deal with him. He has some smarts, of course, but they’re confined to a gift for relentless self-promotion combined with an uncanny ability to manipulate the media and to exploit the vulnerable by drawing out their very worst instincts.

Second his ambitions, thank the Lord, seem to be limited to getting re-elected and, as Max Boot writes, “..the rallies and the ratings“. His ineptitude protects us from his worst authoritarian instincts but also carries with it devastating consequences for the nation in the face of a deadly pandemic.

All the caveats aside, however, the similarities between the two men’s character traits are unmistakable. Trump’s demonstrated lack of empathy even for the people on whom he is depending for re-election echo Hitler’s studied unconcern for his people suffering privation and under constant bombing, or his soldiers later in the war sustaining one crushing defeat after another.

One more trait they share is a gross overestimation of their own abilities. Hitler thought he was a better general than his field marshals whilst Trump thought he could actually function as president of his nation. Both were wrong. For Germany it brought catastrophe but then a better future. Will America salvage something good also from our own ongoing catastrophe? The jury is still out on that one.

Grocery Store Heroes

Grocery Store Heroes

It’s not hard to be moved close to tears when we hear the myriad stories and see photos of our heroic doctors, nurses, medical technicians, EMTs and all of the hospital support staff who are risking their lives while striving to save ours in the midst of a pandemic that is lethal to so many. How on earth are we ever going to thank them or truly show our appreciation after all this is done? Their efforts and their sacrifices are simply beyond words.

There are others who have also carried on essential work at great personal risk to whom we owe our undying gratitude including public transit drivers, police officers, postal workers and others who have given a new meaning to the term “public service”.

But I would like to say a special word here for our grocery store workers who have served the public faithfully and well and without whom our situation would be dire indeed. They have done so despite often poor pay and the ever present risk of daily public contact that has resulted in an increasing death toll around the country.

For my family special thanks go to the hard working and devoted staff of Ballard Market (part of Town and Country Markets) where we mostly shop but also to PCC, Trader Joe’s, QFC (part of Kroger) and to our local Safeway. But to all the grocery store workers everywhere in the country: Thank you guys for sustaining all of us in this most difficult of times.

Credit the mainstream media – they’re doing a great job in the age of COVID-19

Credit the mainstream media – they’re doing a great job in the age of COVID-19

Over the years those of us who follow politics and policy from a more liberal perspective have certainly had our bones to pick with the mainstream media. We only have to recall the 2016 election and the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton’s email non-scandal whilst it simultaneously went through painful contortions to normalize the candidacy of the abnormal, not to mention utterly vile, Donald Trump to get our blood boiling. But as we face our greatest trial since World War II in the form of the COVID-19 coronavirus, we should recognize the bang-up job the mainstream media has done during this challenging time. 

In the face of a crescendo of nonsense, bullshit, lies and outright hostility both from the president and from his propaganda machine at Fox News, the American mainstream media have steadfastly delivered facts, truth and useful analyses on a daily basis from the moment it was clear that we faced the mortal threat of a pandemic. Certainly from January onward, the media was sounding the alarm by reporting on what was happening in China and on what was being said in response by public health professionals here.  Crucially, the media refused early on to be deflected by a clueless Trump and continued to press him and his administration on their actions, or lack of them, and to hold them accountable. Particular kudos, I believe, are owed to the brave souls of the White House press corps who face unprecedented vitriol from Trump who is quick to anger and lashes out with a vitriol and meanness we simply haven’t seen before in a president – and hope we never see again. Whether it’s Amiche Alcindor of PBS and others who commit the unpardonable sin of quoting Trump’s own words back to him or Jonathan Karl of ABC asking about a report published by his own government inconveniently highlighting equipment shortages in hospitals, Trump resorts to bullying and belittling the offending journalists who are simply trying to do their jobs.

Alcindor and Karl are professionals, of course, for whom this is all merely water off a duck’s back. But they are human too and it cannot be pleasant for even them to be treated this way before the world, and especially galling by someone they know is completely unfit to hold the office of president. And although divided along partisan lines the media has a good deal more credibility with the American electorate than does Trump.

So a tip of the hat to the journalists of the mainstream media. Keep up the great work guys!!

TRUMP’S HANDLING OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS BEEN TRULY ABYSMAL, POLLS NOTWITHSTANDING

TRUMP’S HANDLING OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS BEEN TRULY ABYSMAL, POLLS NOTWITHSTANDING

Some recent polls show Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is approved by 55-60% of Americans. That is simply insane. Here’s why.

A New York Times article succinctly summarized the administration’s early inaction and mistakes regarding the looming public health disaster:

A series of missteps and lost opportunities dogged the nation’s response.

Among them: a failure to take the pandemic seriously even as it engulfed China, a deeply flawed effort to provide broad testing for the virus that left the country blind to the extent of the crisis, and a dire shortage of masks and protective gear to protect doctors and nurses on the front lines, as well as ventilators to keep the critically ill alive.

‘This could have been stopped by implementing testing and surveillance much earlier — for example, when the first imported cases were identified,’ said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York.

This despite warnings by the intelligence community in early January of the seriousness of the spreading virus in China, not to mention numerous and urgent red flags raised on both the possibility of pandemic and our lack of preparedness to meet it. That lack of preparedness was caused primarily by the administration’s own self-inflicted wounds such as dismantling the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health and Security and Bio-Defense established under President Obama which would have been laser focused and vocal on the emerging crisis in Wuhan, had it still been around, and the idiotic unraveling of our network of public health liaison officials in China established and buttressed in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations which likely prevented the alarm being raised even earlier.

And then of course there’s the testing debacle which has made us a laughing stock for our incompetence and contributed materially to the fact that we now have more infections than any other country and are heading to a best case scenario of between 100,000 to 200,00 deaths from COVID-19.

But the greatest of Trump’s sins was the fact that thanks to his efforts to downplay the deadly threat posed by the virus we lost valuable time – two precious months of inertia and fumbles in fact – which combined with other missteps has ensured that while South Korea will be the exemplar of how to handle a pandemic, we will be at the other end of the scale, an example of what not to do.  And how many scores of thousands of preventable deaths we will we suffer as a result?

Through it all, Trump has bombarded the American public with a mountain of  lies and bullshit – a cascade that continues unabated, interspersed with blaming everyone and their mother for his disastrous handling of the pandemic whilst congratulating himself on a job well done. And now, somehow, he’s able to swing from saying on February 26th that we only have fifteen cases and that “..soon it will be down to close to zero..” to congratulating himself that there will only be 100,000 or 200,000 dead Americans when this thing is over.

I get that in times of crisis Americans tend to rally round the flag and the president. But history will not be kind to Donald Trump in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic no matter what he does from this point (in contrast to many of our state governors and local officials who stepped up to fill the void of absent federal leadership). And neither should we.

Finally, something to cheer about in US education

Finally, something to cheer about in US education

Americans are justly proud of their system of higher education. This is not surprising since it’s generally held in higher esteem than our K-12 schools whose performance, we are told constantly, lag those of peer countries. For instance, US institutions of higher learning in the United States generally dominate the top spots in most international rankings of universities. Something to cheer about, right?. Or is it?

The problem is that the metrics used by US News & World Report, the Times, the Shanghai Rankings et al to judge the quality of universities exclude the most fundamental one, namely, the quality of teaching, especially in subjects relating to Science, Technology Engineering and Math? The answer to how well they teach is arguably a better determinant of whether the world class reputation of US universities is deserved.

An international research team headed by Prashant Loyalka of the Stanford Graduate School of Education went in search of an answer, or a partial one anyway, insofar as it applies to computer science programmes from four countries which, together, produce 50% or more of the world’s computer science graduates annually. The results were presented in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. A summary by the lead researchers is here.

In brief, a statistically valid sample of final year undergraduate CS students in the US, China, India and Russia at a cross section of universities and colleges in each country, took a 2 hour standardized test developed by the Educational Testing Service, a non-profit testing and assessment organization. The test was designed to determine how well students understood computer science concepts and principles and was administered in the language of each student. In order that the US results were not skewed by international students attending its universities, the test was only administered to students who gave English as their sole or primary language.

The results were stunning to say the least. American students in regular college and university programmes far outperformed students from the other three countries also attending regular schools. In fact, these American students by and large performed on a par with Chinese, Indian and Russian students enrolled in elite schools. Meanwhile, the average American student enrolled in an elite CS programme in the US far outperformed students at Chinese, Indian and Russian elite schools. The difference in performance between students from the other three countries was statistically insignificant.

Even more impressive is that freshmen American students generally entered their CS programmes with less math and science preparation than their peers in China and Russia and about the same as Indian students. All of which suggests that US undergraduate computer science programmes hold a strong qualitative edge and add substantial value compared to those of the other nations. Interestingly, the worst performers were China’s universities, often flagged as emerging power houses, since their students started their CS programmes better prepared in math and science than the others yet performed no better than Indian and Russian students and well short of Americans by the end.

This is very good news, at least for the parents of US students who are studying computer science since it suggests they are getting their money’s worth. The study also has labour market implications since it indicates that American CS graduates from regular undergraduate programmes only have direct competition from students in the other three countries who attended elite schools.

However, some caveats apply. This is just one STEM subject and more research is needed to examine whether American students receive the same high quality instruction in other programmes (one of the subjects of the team’s continuing research). But for now at least, if not three cheers then certainly one and a half are warranted.

Democrats’ Aim Should Be Universal Coverage – Improving the ACA is the Right Vehicle

Democrats’ Aim Should Be Universal Coverage – Improving the ACA is the Right Vehicle

I get why the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is obsessed with enacting Medicare-for-All as the vehicle to universal coverage. I do. There’s no question that if we got it right, it would be both far more equitable and cost-effective than the present chaotic patchwork of a “system” that we’re currently lumbered with. I was raised in England and I know what a blessing the National Health Service has been, warts and all, in providing first class health care to everyone and without driving any of anybody into bankruptcy.

I also understand only too well the frustration of forever being told that it simply can’t be done, that the odds are stacked against it. How do we know unless we try, right?

Nevertheless, reality must intrude. First, as we have already seen with the few states that have tried to add a public option to their ACA markets that the health care industry will wage total war on any suggestion of even a modest expansion of of a public health care option. And when I say the health industry, we’re talking the insurance companies, the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry and much of the medical profession, particularly specialists, surgeons and the hospitals each of whom gain the most from the present lack of price controls on any but Medicare patients, and who will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. Added to the health industry’s implacable opposition will be the Republican Party and the entire right-wing universe complete with relentless fear mongering and lies. And they will have a powerful issue that lends itself to demagoguery. Socialized medicine! Egads!! The fact that they’ve called the ACA, modest insurance reform at best, the same thing will of course be lost in the din.

Second, a total reform of the entire US health care system, one that dwarfs the enactment of the ACA, will require the support of most Americans, 180 million of whom currently have employer-provided health insurance which most of them believe is just fine, thank you very much. And Democrats would be asking them to give that up and see their taxes increase to boot – a hard sell even though insurance premiums will go away. All of this on the promise that expanding Medicare to include everybody, entirely rationale but something we’ve never tried before, would be better. And then there’s the seniors who are currently well satisfied with their Medicare and will be scared into believing (by you know who – see above) that somehow they will lose much of what they have if their health care is folded into a national scheme for the whole population.

In short it will not merely be an uphill struggle to enact Medicare-for-all but the policy equivalent of free climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and to believe otherwise is delusional.

But there are other ways to universal coverage. In fact there are many models among developed countries that have achieved and did so with a system that incorporates private insurance albeit heavily regulated. Switzerland is one, for example. Check this link to the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund for a thumbnail sketch of the Swiss system and that of other developed nations from whose systems we can draw lessons .

Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act. Like all compromises on huge and complex pieces of legislation, the ACA is manifestly imperfect and in need of substntial improvement, for example by vastly reducing out-of-pocket expenses and greatly expanding the income cut off to receive premium subsidies. Yet the law has significantly increased the number of people with health insurance whilst proving unexpectedly resilient in surviving GOP efforts to repeal it and the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken it. If Democrats win the White House and Congress in 2020, they have an opportunity to undo all the damage of the Trump era and to make the ACA a far bigger success in providing affordable health coverage to a vulnerable population.

As well, Democrats have other costly priorities to address such as climate change and relieving our kids of the huge debt burden of college loans, to name but two. A full throated battle for a single payer health system will suck all the political oxygen out of the air and leave us with little energy to seriously tackle those issues. And that would be a tragedy.

This is what Australia thinks about Americans and Guns

This is what Australia thinks about Americans and Guns

Comedian Jim Jefferies riffs on Americans and how they love their guns, via Vox:

You have guns because you like guns! That’s why you go to gun conventions; that’s why you read gun magazines! None of you give a shit about home security. None of you go to home security conventions. None of you read Padlock Monthly. None of you have a Facebook picture of you behind a secure door.

The Battle of the Bulge was won by the tenacity and bravery of US soldiers in a hundred places that most Americans have never heard of.

The Battle of the Bulge was won by the tenacity and bravery of US soldiers in a hundred places that most Americans have never heard of.

Tuesday, December 16th marked the 70th anniversary of the greatest battle fought by soldiers of the United States army in the Northwest European Theatre in World War II following D-Day.

Despite the crushing defeat of the German armies in Normandy in August 1944 and the pursuit of the remnants to the very borders of the Reich, the Allied autumn advance had ground to a halt. Long supply lines which created a logistical nightmare, the still formidable fortifications of the Siegfried Line, the resilience of the German army, and foul fall conditions of rain, cold and mud combined to make further progress tediously slow and very costly.

Meanwhile Hitler, believing that a shattering counter-blow in the west could change Germany’s sagging fortunes, mustered a formidable reserve containing some of the best divisions in the German army and settled on the Ardennes, scene of a successful German breakthrough in 1940, as the location for such an offensive, and Antwerp to split the Allied armies in two, as the ultimate objective.

Although the offensive met with some initial success against a completely surprised and lightly held American front, determined defense by US troops slowed the enemy advance and bought time for the arrival of reinforcements to first halt the Germans and then drive them back. The battle lasted about a month and cost each side 100,000 casualties and 7-800 tanks and other armored vehicles. Heavy though these losses were to the Americans, they were disastrous for the Germans who had little strength left with which to oppose the final offensive into Germany.

My family and I visited parts of the Ardennes battlefield in the summer of 2013 including Bastogne, Belgium, where the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division made their epic and successful stand to deny the Germans this key road centre.

But we also visited a town called Stavelot further to the north that was the scene that cold December of a lesser known but equally important and epic battle waged by a single US infantry battalion (6-800 men) of the 30th Infantry Division.

Ambleve River, Stavelot, Belgium
Ambleve River, Stavelot, Belgium

A powerful kampfgruppe (or battlegroup) of the German 1st SS Panzer Division under ace panzer leader, Joachim Peiper, had penetrated deep into the American rear and threatened to reach the Meuse River, a potentially disastrous development. But in the constricted topography of the Ardennes, bridges over rivers and streams were critical to Peiper’s advance, and plucky bands of US engineers had seriously hindered the column by destroying several on his preferred routes to the Meuse.

Peiper seized the critical bridge over the Ambleve River at Stavelot, Belgium, against poorly led and disorganized American opposition. But after the bulk of his force continued west towards Stoumont along a single narrow road, the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry Regiment with attached companies of tanks and tank destroyers descended on Stavelot from the north and retook the town, thereby cutting Peiper off from the rest of 1st Panzer. Under fire, they also managed to blow the all-important Stavelot bridge.

There followed a fierce battle as the American troops fought furiously to simultaneously fend off efforts by the rest of the 1st SS Panzer Division to the south to force the Ambleve and retake the town, while resisting determined attacks from the west by elements of Peiper’s force sent back to restore his line of communication and supply.

But the Americans would not yield. Under attack by other American forces, what was left of Peiper’s kampfgruppe (800 out of an original force of 5800) eventually escaped on foot, abandoning all their vehicles and heavy weapons. The rest of the battered 1st SS Panzer Division ceded Stavelot to the indomitable men of the 1st Battalion, 117th. The spearhead of the 6th Panzer Army, designated by Hitler as his main effort, had been defeated.