Good advice from Penn Jillette

June 27, 2017

Say what you mean, even when talking to yourself.
==Penn Jillette, Ten Commandments for Atheists

The health hazard of being uninsured

June 26, 2017

Obamacare is a flawed system.   It gives for-profit insurance companies a captive market.   It fines people for not buying insurance that they can’t afford, or that does them no good because of the large co-pays.

It is more expensive than the obvious alternative, which is a single-payer system, otherwise known as Medicare for all.

But the Congressional Republicans reject the obvious alternative.  What they’ve come up with is worse.

This chart is based on estimates by health researchers as to how many people die each year as a result of lack of health insurance, plus estimated by the Congressional Budget Office of how many people will be uninsured under the House Republicans’ American Health Care Act versus the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act.

It’s a cumulative chart.  The estimated number of deaths are the same year by year.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

June 26, 2017

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

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A cloud inversion in the Grand Canyon

June 24, 2017

On rare days, cold air is trapped in the Grand Canyon under a layer of warm air which, in combination with moisture and condensation, create what’s called a full cloud inversion, which resembles something in between ocean waves and fast-moving clouds.   Beautiful!

Click on Colossal for still photos and background information.

Monopoly power on the feudal Internet

June 21, 2017

Maciej Ceglowski, a writer and software entrepreneur in San Francisco, spoke at a conference in Berlin last May about monopoly power on the Internet: –

There are five Internet companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.  Together they have a market capitalization just under 3 trillion dollars.

Bruce Schneier has called this arrangement the feudal Internet.  Part of this concentration is due to network effects, but a lot of it is driven by the problem of security.  If you want to work online with any measure of convenience and safety, you must choose a feudal lord who is big enough to protect you.

Maciej Ceglowski

These five companies compete and coexist in complex ways.

Apple and Google have a duopoly in smartphone operating systems.  Android has 82% of the handset market, iOS has 18%.

Google and Facebook are on their way to a duopoly in online advertising.  Over half of the revenue in that lucrative ($70B+) industry goes to them, and the two companies between them are capturing all of the growth (16% a year).

Apple and Microsoft have a duopoly in desktop operating systems.  The balance is something like nine to one in favor of Windows, not counting the three or four people who use Linux on the desktop, all of whom are probably at this conference.

Three companies, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, dominate cloud computing. AWS has 57% adoption, Azure has 34%. Google has 15%.

Outside of China and Russia, Facebook and LinkedIn are the only social networks at scale.  LinkedIn has been able to survive by selling itself to Microsoft.

And outside of Russia and China, Google is the world’s search engine.

That is the state of the feudal Internet, leaving aside the court jester, Twitter, who plays an important but ancillary role as a kind of worldwide chat room.  [1]

There is a difference between the giant Silicon Valley companies and Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and the big Wall Street banks.   The Silicon Valley companies have created value.  The Wall Street banks, by and large, have destroyed wealth.

I depend on Google; I found Ceglowski’s talk through Google Search.   I use Apple products; I’m typing this post on my i-Mac.  I don’t use Facebook or Windows, but many of my friends do.  I try to avoid ordering books through Amazon, because I disapprove of the way Jeff Bezos treats Amazon employees and small book publishers, but I use subscribe to Amazon Prime.

I don’t deny the achievements of the founders of these companies, nor begrudge them wealth and honor.  But I do not think that they or their successors have the right to rule over me, and that’s what their monopoly power gives them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Voter registrations disappear in Georgia

June 19, 2017

Greg Palast

The intrepid Greg Palast, who has been reporting since before 2004 on vote-rigging and voter suppression in the USA, said that 10,000 newly-registered Korean-Americans and 40,000 newly-registered African-Americans have simply vanished from Georgia’s voter registration rolls.

The registrations were the result of drives conducted respectively by Georgia’s Asian-American Legal Advocacy Center and the New Georgia Project.

When the two organizations complained, they were raided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.   In the end, no charges were filed, but the raids themselves were disruptive and intimidating.

Voter registration in Georgia is the responsibility of Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican,   She is a candidate for Congress in Georgia’s 6th District, running against Democrat Jon Ossoff.   Voting is tomorrow.

It’s entirely possible that she could win with a margin of victory smaller than the number of purged voters in the district.

LINK

Will new Jim Crow scam tip Georgia’s Ossoff-Handel race? by Greg Palast.

Neoliberalism and the Grenfell Tower disaster

June 19, 2017

If British reports are to be believed, the Grenfell Tower inferno in central London might have been averted for a cost of a mere $6,000 — or a little more than $100 for each of the 58 unfortunates who, on the best estimate available this weekend, perished in the disaster.

According to the London Daily Mail, when the tower was recently renovated, builders opted for a cladding material so inappropriate that it is rated “flammable” in Germany and its use in tall buildings in even lightly regulated America is banned.  The attraction was a saving of a mere 10 percent.  On the Mail’s numbers, that added up to a total saving compared to a safe material of £5,000 — equal to a little more than $6,000.

Such is the dystopia that deregulation, British-style, has wrought — a dystopia whose excesses are now finally coming to be widely recognized by voters and elected leaders alike.

Source: Eamonn Fingleton

This is neoliberalism in action.   First you privatize a public service, as was done with public housing in Great Britain, because for-profit corporations are supposed to be intrinsically better able to make decisions than public bodies.  Then you make decisions based on assumptions about profit-and-loss, because this is supposed to be objective and rational.

Also, you judge the worth of a human life based on that person’s financial net worth.

Thankfully, not everybody makes decisions on this basis.  The brave firefighters who saved Grenfell Tower residents were motivated by a sense of duty, not a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet firefighters, too, in the UK as well as the USA, are being weighed in the neoliberal balance and found wanting.

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Toni Morrison on her father

June 18, 2017

          Novelist Toni Morrison was asked why she had become a great writer, what books she had read, what method she had used to structure her practice.  She laughed and said, “Oh, no, that is not why I am a great writer.  I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into a room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up.”
                         ==Donald Miller, quoted in The Sun

The genius of Hayao Miyazaki

June 17, 2017

I love the movies of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli.   These videos give an idea of his genius as an animator.  But you would have to see the movies to appreciate his genius as a storyteller.

I read that he is coming out of retirement—or that his previous “retirement” announcement was misunderstood.  This is good news.

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The real question about U.S. election hacking

June 16, 2017

The important question about computer hacking of the American voting system is not:

  • Is there evidence that Russian computer hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election?

The important question is:

  • Can the American voting system be hacked?

Because if the American voter registration rolls or vote counting systems are vulnerable to outside interference, sooner or later somebody is going to interfere.

It may be Russian agents.  It may be agents of some other foreign country.   It may be unscrupulous American political operatives or special interests.  But somebody will do it.

POLITICO magazine recently reported that last August, Logan Lamb, a 29-year-old cybersecurity specialist, accidentally gained access to the voting records and systems for the whole state of Georgia.   He reported the problem to the proper authorities, but was brushed off.

Bloomberg News reported that investigators said that, prior to the 2016 election, Russians gained access to voter databases and software systems in 39 states, including software designed to be used by poll watchers and, in one state, a campaign finance data base.

There is no evidence that 2016 election results were actually changed, according to Bloomberg.  Whatever happened may have been a training exercise for a future operation.

Vladimir Putin, in his interviews with Oliver Stone for a soon-to-be-released movie, accused the United States of interfering in Russian elections.  Putin denied allegations of Russian hacking, but, when asked whether there is a secret U.S.-Russian cyber war, he said that for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction, which sounds like a semi-admission.

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Did Senate Dems trade ACA for Russia sanctions?

June 15, 2017

Senate Democrats reportedly made a deal to allow Republicans to gut Obamacare in return for their support of tougher sanctions against Russia.

The Republicans have a 52 to 48 majority, so they have the power to force through their plan.   We the public don’t know what it is going to be, but, in order to be reconcilable with the House bill, it will include denying government health care benefits to millions of people in order to enable tax cuts for the very rich.

There are procedural tactics that the Democrats could use to delay action until public opposition has time to build, but they reportedly have agreed not to do this.

So the public loses a program that, despite its many flaws, has saved lives in return for the increased possibility of war with Russia.

Reports of a deal may be false or exaggerated and, if there is a deal, not all Democrats may be on board with it.

But it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic leadership in Congress is putting much more energy into investigation, so far fruitless, of Trump’s ties with Russia than into opposing the Republican political agenda.

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Republicans ready to kill Medicaid expansion

June 13, 2017

I hadn’t realized that more Americans are enrolled in Medicaid, the health-insurance program for low-income Americans, than in Social Security, Medicare or any other federal benefits program.

And the increase in the number of Americans with health insurance under Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act—is due more to the expansion of Medicaid than to signups of people under the health insurance exchanges.

But Senate and House Republicans have reportedly agreed on a plan to dial back the Medicaid expansion.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones reported that there are 68 million Medicaid enrollees, making it a bigger program than Social Security (61 million), Medicare (55 million), food stamps (44 million), unemployment insurance (6 million at the height of the recession), the earned income tax credit (26 million) and temporary aid to needy families (about 4 million).

Medicaid was created to provide health insurance for Americans earning poverty-level wages.   Under Obamacare, eligibility was increased to Americans earning 138 percent of a poverty wage.  This would be $16,394 for an adult, according to CNBC News.

The program is administered by state governments.   President Obama’s plan pays states nearly all the costs added by the expanded plan, and then a progressively lesser amount sliding down to 90 percent.  The Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot be compelled to accept the expanded plan, and 19 state governments, all with Republican governors, opted out.

CNBC reporter Dan Mangan reported that Medicaid has added 15 million enrollees since Obamacare went into effect, a figure which includes some people who would have been eligible under the old rules.   That’s nearly 4 million more than signed up for health insurance under the Obamacare exchanges.

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American optimism and deaths of despair

June 12, 2017

I always thought that optimism was a basic and unchanging part of the American national character.

My belief is shaken by the rise in “deaths of despair”—first among middle-aged (45-to 54) white Americans, more recently among prime working aged (25 to 44) Americans of all races.

“Deaths of despair” are suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease.  The rise is thought to be caused by the hopeless economic situation of many Americans and by the ready availability of addictive drugs.

But this can’t the whole story.   In earlier eras of American history, such as the 1890s, poverty was greater, inequality was more extreme and addictive drugs were more freely available than they are now.

Pioneer families struggling to survive in sod houses on the prairie, immigrants in ragged clothes getting off the boat on Ellis Island, let alone African-Americans and native Americans—they all were in more desperate situations than any American today.

The USA was in the midst of a depression, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  There was no social safety net.   It was possible to starve to death in New York City or any major city in the Western world.  If you couldn’t pay a doctor bill, you relied on charity or, more commonly, did without.

Opiates were sold legally.  Opium dens were found in every major city.  Heroin was a patented brand-name drug sold legally by the Bayer company.   Drunkenness was a serious social problem.

But this was an era of hope, not despair.  Workers formed labor unions and fought armed company police.   Farmers started organized the Populist movement.   Middle-class reformers started the Progressive movement.   They enacted reforms and social changes from which we Americans still benefit.

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The spread of deaths of despair in the USA

June 12, 2017

Americans in the prime years of life—aged 25 to 44—are dying at an increasing rate, and the increase is mainly due to “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses and alcohol-related disease.

I recently wrote a post about the Case-Deaton study, which shows a rise in “deaths of despair” among white Americans, especially those age 45 to 54, since 1999.

Now reporters for the Washington Post have done their own study which shows a rise in the death rate since 2010 among Americans of all races in the prime of life—age 25 to 44.

As in the Case-Deaton study, the increase is due to “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses and alcohol-related diseases.

Since 2010, death rates have risen

  • 16 percent for young white American adults.
  • 18 percent for young native American adults
  • 7 percent for young Hispanic American adults
  • 4 percent for young African-American adults
  • 3 percent for young Asian American adults.

Why is this happening?

The majority of Americans are doing badly economically.  Wages are stagnant.  Good jobs are scarce.  Many have educational, medical or other debts they never will be able to pay.

Except for the professional classes and the ultra-rich, few expect to do better economically than their parents, and few expect their children to do better than themselves.

In the past generation, some of us have been sold in the idea that medications, such as Prozac, are the solution to our psychological and personal problems.   A journalist named Robert Whitaker did a good job of documenting this in his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, and his book and website, Mad in America.

This new respectable drug culture made it easy for Purdue Pharmaceuticals to market Oxycontin, an addictive pain killing prescription drug, and widespread use of Oxycontin made it easy for illegal drug traffickers to sell heroin as a cheap substitute.  For some, drugs provided an easier escape from dead-end lives than individual initiative or political struggle.

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How the U.S. lags peer nations in health care 2

June 11, 2017

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I came across a 2015 study by The Commonwealth Fund that shows the Americans spend more on health care, use more medical technology and take more prescription drugs than citizens of most peer nations, but aren’t necessarily more healthy.

We’re not the worst in this respect, but we’re far from the best.

The charts above and below tell the story.   I doubt things have changed much since 2013.

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How the US lags peer nations in health care

June 10, 2017

Click to enlarge

Americans pay more for medical care than citizens of other advanced nations, and get less in return.  Our health outcomes are worse.   So far as I can tell, enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 hasn’t changed this.

Health care spending per person

United Kingdom, $4,003

France, $4,407

Canada, $4,607

Germany, $5,267

United States, $9,451

Percentage of population without medical insurance

United Kingdom, 0.0%

Canada, 0.0%

France, 0.1%

Germany, 0.2%

United States, 9.1%

What patients pay to see a doctor

United Kingdom, free

Canada, free

Germany, $5 – $11

France, $25, most of which is reimbursed later

United States, $30 to $200, depending on insurance

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What we don’t know about Russia election hack

June 8, 2017

Double click to enlarge

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that newspaper articles should be classified into truths, probabilities, possibilities and lies.

I think the investigation of connections of President Trump and his supporters to Russia has uncovered possibilities and some probabilities, but few if any truths.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I don’t want to overlook any probabilities or truths.

Scott Ritter, in an article in Truthout, points out that this leaked NSA document, published by The Intercept, uses a color code to differentiate truths, probabilities and possibilities.

The green lines point to things that the NSA analysts say are true, the yellow lines to things that the NSA analysts say they believe are probable and the grey lines to things they believe are possible.

In short, we the people are at the same point we were before.  We don’t have any certain knowledge.   Smart people make different judgments based on the same facts.  All the more reasons for Congress, the special prosecutor and the press to pursue their investigations.

LINK

Leaked NSA Report Short on Facts, Proves Little in ‘Russiagate’ by Scott Ritter for Truthdig

ISIS vs. Iran: which side should we be on?

June 7, 2017

The ISIS attack on Iran shows the alignment of alliances in the Middle East.

On one side, there are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and also Israel.

On the other, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

If the U.S. aim is to crush Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, why does the U.S. side with Saudi Arabia against Iran?

If you think Iran is the problem, ask yourself:

When was the last time that Iranian-backed terrorists attacked people in Europe or North America?

When was the last time that terrorists backed by Al Qaeda or ISIS attacked people in Israel?

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Second thoughts on the Russian hack leaks

June 7, 2017

Cooler heads point out unanswered questions about Reality Winner’s NSA leaks about Russian intelligence activities during the 2016 U.S. elections, but come to different conclusions.

At this point, in almost everything related to Trump, Russia and secret intelligence agencies, the only that we the public know for sure is that we don’t know the whole story.

LINKS

A few thoughts on the leaks by TTG for Sic Semper Tyrannis.

Hey, Intercept, Something Is Very Wrong With Reality Winner and the NSA Leak by Peter Van Buren for Hooper’s War.

Was Russia Probing U.S. Electoral Systems? by Philip Giraldi for The American Conservative.

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NSA reports Russia tried to hack voting system

June 6, 2017

A National Security Agency report, leaked to The Intercept, says that Russian military intelligence attempted to hack U.S. voter records shortly before the 2016 election.

The GRU reportedly was able to obtain passwords that enabled it to penetrate an electronic vote systems company.   The Intercept identified the company as VR Systems, which serves local election boards in eight states.  Using those passwords, the GRU attempted to penetrate at least 122 local governments.

The FBI has arrested a 25-year-old government contractor named Reality Leigh Winner on charges of giving the top-secret NSA documents to The Intercept.

Whether the Russian hackers succeeded and what, if anything, they did or tried to do to affect the election isn’t known.   And there is no indication that anybody in the Trump campaign was aware of any of this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why is the Hispanic death rate lower?

June 6, 2017

Click to enlarge

Compared to non-Hispanic whites and blacks, Hispanic Americans are survivors.

Why?

The Case-Deaton study and its new update showed that the death rate is rising among non-Hispanic white Americans while it is falling among citizens of every other important industrial nation.   Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute this to the rise “deaths of despair”—from alcohol, drugs and suicide.

The study showed something else that I think is equally interesting.  The death rate among Hispanic Americans has always been lower than among non-Hispanic whites, and it continues to fall, in line with trends in other industrial nations.

In the chart above, the bright red line is the death rate among non-Hispanic white Americans and the bright blue line is the death rate among Hispanic Americans.

The death rate among non-Hispanic American blacks is higher than among whites, but it is falling, not rising.

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Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia

June 5, 2017

As a boy and well into adulthood, I thought of heroin addiction as a product and problem of big city slums—a world completely alien to me.

My old friend Steve called my attention to a harrowing article in The New Yorker about heroin addiction in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, just across the river from western Maryland where the two of us grew up.

The Eastern Panhandle as I remember it

I am shocked, although I know I shouldn’t be, that heroin addiction could capture so many people with the same small-town white Protestant background as me.  But in fact rates of drug addiction are higher among non-Hispanic white people than among Hispanic or black people.

Like much of Appalachia, as well as the Rustbelt along the Great Lakes, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., lost its main manufacturing employer, the Interwoven textile mill, and nothing has ever taken its place.

Citizens of Martinsburg today are thinking of converting part of the old Interwoven plant into a drug rehabilitation center.

Margaret Talbot, the author of the New Yorker article, gives harrowing descriptions of how drug addition has become normalized.  She opens with a description of a mother and father suffering a drug overdose while attending a Little League game.

She reported on how marketing of painkillers such as Oxycontin enabled West Virginians to self-medicate for physical and psychic pain, and then how heroin was introduced as a cheaper substitute.  She went on to write:

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin.

Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose.

I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs.

“In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.”

There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.”

He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

Source: The New Yorker

As I see it, large numbers of Americans think that what gives meaning to life is economic success, or at least being able to pay your way and be a breadwinner for others.  When that meaning is no longer available, they feel worthless and fall into despair.

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The changing politics of climate change

June 2, 2017

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Memorial Day 2017

May 29, 2017

Memorial Day was originally a holiday to honor the Union dead in the Civil War.  They should not be forgotten.   The painting below illustrates the Battle of Gettysburg, with Union defenders on the left, Confederate attackers on the right.

A Memorial Day War Nerd: Gettysburg Was The Finest Fight Ever in the World by John Dolan, aka Gary Brecher, for The eXiled.