Archive for the ‘The Passing Scene’ Category

Is this true? Is it a problem?

October 25, 2022

According to this survey, one in seven adult American men and one in 10 adult American women have no close friend.  Is this something to worry about?

LINKS

The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges and Loss by Daniel A. Cox for the Survey Center on American Life.

Men are rapidly losing their close friends, poll finds by Brigid Kennedy for The Week.

The universe’s strangest substance

October 15, 2022

Water has many strange properties, including a high surface tension, an ability to dissolve more things than any other common liquid, and a solid state (ice) that floats.  These strange properties come from water’s simple structure.   Its atoms form a chevron shape with a slightly negatively charged oxygen and positive hydrogens.  This allows water to bind to and dissolve both negatively and positively charged molecules.

Meanwhile, the hydrogen of one water molecule is attracted to the oxygen of another.  Within a liquid these attractions briefly hold the molecules together, generating the high surface tension.  This network is frozen in place when the water is cooled, leaving large gaps. As a result, the sponge-like ice floats on the liquid. In contrast, other chemicals form tightly packed solid crystals that are more dense than the liquid and so sink.

Why is water so strange? by Dr Mark Lorch for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

Water: the weirdest liquid on the planet by Alok Jha for The Guardian.

Why is this?

October 12, 2022

The new American power structure

October 11, 2022

My friend Steve from Texas sent me a link to a good article calling attention to the connection between “woke-ism” and oligarchy.

I think the writer, David Samuels, is basically right in his contention, but there’s more to be said about it.  Here are highlights of his article, with my annotations and comments.  

America has transformed itself from a country in which most citizens proudly imagined themselves to be “middle class” into a bi-coastal oligarchy.

The hallmarks of this new republic’s politics are the sorts of pathologies that used to be associated with the countries to America’s south: a wildly unequal distribution of wealth, choking bureaucracy, paranoid mass politics, the weaponisation of the security apparatus, and the merger of monopoly capital and invasive state bureaucracies.

[snip]

At the top of the narrowing social pyramid is a tiny class of mega-billionaires who personally own and control a staggering percentage of the country’s wealth, resources, and power, and make their money from the globalised economy.

Then comes the professional class that services the billionaires, ranging from highly paid lawyers and investment bankers to chefs and fashion designers and real estate salesmen.

Below them is the servant class of bureaucrats, teachers and other lower-status employees whose salaries are paid by the state or non-governmental organisations and foundations, who funnel money back to their political patrons in the Democratic Party in the form of free campaign labour and contributions.

Finally, there are the working poor, many of whom formerly considered themselves “working class” or “middle class”, but who are now forced to rely on government programs and subsidies covering everything from rent, to school tuition, to health care, to food. 

The glue that holds this power vertical together is the Democratic Party, which now regularly outspends the Republican Party — an incoherent mix of Trumpists, Christians, and other socio-economic losers — by margins of three or four to one. 

In addition to being an oligarchy, the new American social pyramid is also a gerontocracy, in which both political power and wealth are wildly skewed in favour of people above the age of 60. Biden (79) and Nancy Pelosi (82) lead the Democrats, while Trump (76) and Mitch McConnell (80) lead the Republicans.

Where the average American over the age of 55 has a net worth of somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, the average American adult under the age of 35 is worth approximately $75,000, with the vast majority having no significant assets at all.

I don’t think most elderly Americans have millions in savings.  “Average” is calculated by dividing total wealth by the total number of people in the age groups.  That doesn’t account for inequality within the age groups.  “Average” is not typical.  Having said that, I think Samuels has a good point.

Understanding the new America as a decaying oligarchy run by old people is essential to understanding the increasingly bizarre mutations of Left and Right in American politics.

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Happy [Colombus][Indigenous Peoples] Day!

October 9, 2022

Scott Alexander Siskind  posted an imaginary conversation on his blog between Adraste, who celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Beroe, who celebrates Columbus Day.  Here are some highlights.

Adraste: …okay, surely we can both sketch out the form of the argument we’re about to have.  Genocide, political correctness, moral progress, trying to destroy cherished American traditions, etc, etc.  Would you like to just pretend we hit all of the usual beats, rather than actually doing it?

Beroe: Does “Columbus Day was originally intended as a woke holiday celebrating marginalized groups.  President Benjamin Harrison established it in 1892 after an anti-Italian pogrom in order to highlight the positive role of Italians in American history” count as one of the usual beats by this point?

Adraste: I would have to say that it does.

Beroe: What about “Indigenous People’s Day is offensive because indigenous peoples were frequently involved in slavery and genocide”?

Adraste: I’m not sure I’ve heard that particular argument before.

Beroe: But surely you can sketch it out.  Many indigenous peoples practiced forms of hereditary slavery, usually of war captives from other tribes.  Some of them tortured slaves pretty atrociously; others ceremonially killed them as a spectacular show of wealth.  There’s genetic and archaeological evidence of entire lost native tribes, most likely massacred by more warlike ones long before European contact.  Some historians think that the Aztecs may have ritually murdered between 0.1% and 1% of their empire’s population every year, although as always other historians disagree.  I refuse to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, because I think we need to question holidays dedicated to mass murderers even when they’re “traditional” or “help connect people to their history”.

[snip]

Adraste: Maybe?  I’m not sure I think about it in quite those terms.  To me it just feels like your objection is an annoying motivated fake argument that you’re coming up with to mock Indigenous People’s Day because you don’t want to celebrate it, rather than genuine concern that it’s offensive to the descendants of the Aztecs’ victims.  Or are you really worried that if we normalize the Aztecs’ misdeeds, then the youth might start sacrificing people with obsidian daggers on top of giant pyramids?

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The human towers of Catalonia

October 8, 2022

From Reuters:

Spain’s biggest human towers competition took place on Sunday, October 2, with some 11,000 spectators packing the bullring in the northeast city of Tarragona to watch the daring Catalan tradition.

Deeply rooted in Catalan culture, human towers, or ‘castells’, are built by ‘castellers’ standing on each other’s shoulders.  They compete in teams – ‘colles’ – whose aim is to construct the highest and most complicated tower.

The team from Vilafranca beat 40 other groups to take the top spot and scoop the 16,000 euro ($15,679) prize at the competition, which takes place every two years. It was the first competition after COVID-19 cancellations.

The youngest and most nimble team members – wearing protective helmets – scramble up the backs and shoulders of their teammates to the top. The highest towers on Oct. 2 were 10 levels high.

“Without kids, there would be no human towers,” sports psychologist Anna Jordand, 30, head of the children’s squad of the Ceballuts team, told Reuters. “They are the boys and girls who have to go up to the top, they have to coordinate the castells, and this is an essential part.”

The nail-biting competition saw some towers precariously wobble before crumbling, their members falling onto those below.  Organisers said 71 people had received medical attention, while 13 were taken to hospital.

Human towers were added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 as an “integral part of (Catalan) cultural identity” that provides members with “a sense of continuity, social cohesion and solidarity”.

“We train twice a week normally but… it’s a social activity that goes beyond making castells and training,” said computer programmer Juan Manuel Rodrigues, 39, who was been in his Tarragona team for 13 years.

The first castells competition in Tarragona bullring took place in 1932 and the competition has been held every other year since 1970.

I don’t think it would be possible to start anything like this in the United States, because of the high risk of injury, especially to small children.

But I would guess it is the danger, plus the need to push yourself to your physical limit, plus the dependence on the team, that makes this such an intense experience.  Children who went through this would have learned lessons that stayed with them through life.

It’s also a unifying experience.  Participants say social rank doesn’t matter in a castles team – only your skill and commitment.

The human towers competition answers William James’ call for a Moral Equivalent for War.  It is a competition that calls for commitment, discipline, loyalty and physical courage, but doesn’t ask you to be willing to kill or be killed.

Semper Supra, the new official Space Force song

October 1, 2022

Space Force unveils official song ‘Semper Supra’ by Svetlana Shkolnikova for Stars and Stripes.

The passing scene: Links & comments 9/13/2022

September 13, 2022

Asia’s Future takes shape in Vladivostok, the Russian Pacific by Pepe Escobar for The Cradle.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Putin in Vladivostok

Pepe Escobar, reporting last week on the Russia-hosted Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, says the world’s center of economic gravity is shifting to Asia, with China as leader and Russia and India as its main partners.

 I have my doubts that the Chinese-led new order will be as utopian as Escobar predicts, but the Chinese magnetic pole is a more powerful attractor than the U.S. pole.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China, now includes China, Russia, the Central Asian republics, India, Pakistan and Iran, while 11 more nations, including Turkey, seeking to join.  

The reason is not hard to see.  China promises benefits to its economic partners; the NATO alliance demands sacrifices.  As the old saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

The Specter of Germany Is Rising by Diana Johnstone for Consortium News.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Scholz meets Zelensky

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz advocates an expanded, militarized European Union with Germany as the dominant force.  

It would include all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, plus Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.  It would have a common foreign policy, consisting of a permanent Cold War against Russia, and make decisions by majority vote, not by consensus as now.

Germany dominates the smaller Eastern European countries economically.  The further east the European Union goes, the greater the influence of Germany, the less the influence of France and the stronger the possibility of a war policy being adopted over French objections.

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Why losing things isn’t a worry in Japan

September 3, 2022

An excavator is not a toy, but…

September 2, 2022

I wonder how long these guys (I’m assuming they’re all guys) had to practice to develop these fine motor skills.  I wonder what the practice consisted of and how much breakage there was in the process.

Also, the precision of the machinery itself is as impressive as the skill of the operator.

Our changing earth

August 28, 2022

Hat tip to Notes and Comment.

Jumping rope as an extreme sport

August 21, 2022

It’s time for something cheerful.

Hat tip to kottke.org and The Kid Should See This.

From the Guantanamo Bay souvenir shop

August 15, 2022

Be Here Now is a famous book on spirituality published in 1971, which is still in print.  I understand the staff at the Guantanamo Bay detention center also celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  How could you satirize this?  A hat tip to Naked Capitalism for the coffee cup image.

The sleeping dragon awakens

August 5, 2022

The Chinese government, in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, has scheduled military drills that effectively blockade the island.  The drills are in effect a blockade of the island a demonstration of China’s potential power to impose a blockade; some shipping is being allowed through.  No ship’s captain wants to enter an area where naval forces are firing live ammunition. 

China also cut off sales to Taiwan of construction-grade sand, essential for concrete, and stopped imports of fish and fruit products from Taiwan.

And it announced that the timetable for unification of Taiwan with the mainland will be speeded up.

The Chinese actions are a signal to the authorities on Taiwan that they are at the mercy of the Chinese government, and that China doesn’t have to invade with troops to exert its power.

What is the United States going to do about it?  President Biden said a U.S. naval task force, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, will remain in the area longer than planned, but what of it?  Does anybody think he would be reckless enough to order the  U.S. Navy to enter the area where the Chinese are conducting military exercises?

The status quo was acceptable to everyone.  The Chinese government claimed sovereignty over the island, and nobody directly denied it.  At the same time the Chinese on the island enjoyed self-government, without Beijing’s interference.  All that was required for this situation to continue was silence on the part of all concerned.

Now this has changed.  The government in Beijing might have tolerated home rule in Taiwan indefinitely.  It will never accept even the remote possibility of Taiwan becoming a base from which the United States or other foreign power could launch attacks on China, as the Japanese did during World War Two.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Chinese reaction was due to Pelosi’s statements alone.  It followed a number of statements and actions by U.S. officials and politicians that ramped up tensions.  Pelosi’s visit was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There was a time when the United States had such overwhelming military superiority that American leaders could say and do whatever they liked without concern about what leaders of other nations thought or would do.  That time is gone.

Bear in mind that while the U.S. military sought full spectrum dominance everywhere in everything, the Chinese military has been working on the one very specific problem of how to counter U.S. power in the China seas.  (And the Russian military has spent at least 15 years working on the one very specific problem of how to counter U.S. power in Eastern Europe).

President Theodore Roosevelt liked to quote the alleged African proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  The most dangerous thing that an individual person or a national leader can do is to make idle threats.  That’s what our leaders have fallen into the habit of doing.

LINKS

Endgame Taiwan: US Plans Further China Eyepoking with Planned Military Transit of the Taiwan Strait by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.  A good assessment of the overall situation, with important background information.

‘Taiwan lockdown’ drills stun secessionists, external forces as precision strike, area denial capabilities proved by the staff of Global Times.  A Chinese report on Chinese power.

Biden will keep aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, but postpones missile test by Christina Wilkie for MSNBC.

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How to gird up your loins

May 7, 2022
Source: The Art of Manliness: Men’s Interests and Lifestyle.

Kevin Kelly’s rules for life

May 1, 2022

On his 70th birthday, tech writer Kevin Kelly posted 103 rules for life.  That’s way too many to absorb.  But Jason Kottke picked out a good sample of them.

Cultivate 12 people who love you, because they are worth more than 12 million people who like you.

Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.

When you forgive others, they may not notice, but you will heal.  Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.

Efficiency is highly overrated.  Goofing off is highly underrated.  Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind.  The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.

If winning becomes too important in a game, change the rules to make it more fun. Changing rules can become the new game.

The best way to get a correct answer on the internet is to post an obviously wrong answer and wait for someone to correct you.

Don’t wait for the storm to pass; dance in the rain.

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.  Miraculous things can be accomplished if you give it ten years.  A long game will compound small gains to overcome even big mistakes.

A wise man said, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?’  At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?’ ”

To rapidly reveal the true character of a person you just met, move them onto an abysmally slow internet connection.  Observe.

Take note if you find yourself wondering “Where is my good knife? Or, where is my good pen?”  That means you have bad ones.  Get rid of those.

If you loan someone $20 and you never see them again because they are avoiding paying you back, that makes it worth $20.

Copying others is a good way to start.  Copying yourself is a disappointing way to end.

The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.

LINKS

103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known by Kevin Kelly on The Technium.

99 Additional Bits of Unsolicited Advice by Kevin Kelly on The Technium (from 2021)

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice by Kevin Kelly on The Technium (from 2020)

You don’t have to read them all at once, or expect to agree with all of them. 

Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity song

April 30, 2022

For background, click on Chris Hadfield kottke.org.

Ukraine war collateral damage and food prices

April 28, 2022

I’m stocking up on nonperishable food and other supplies in order to be prepared for scarcity this fall.

Both the fighting war and the sanctions war over Ukraine are disrupting world food supplies, and I think it can only get worse. Ukraine and Russia are important exporters of food, and also of diesel fuel, which is important in making fertilizer.

Food prices are already going up. Reasons for this include drought and floods in food-producing regions, disruption of supply chains due to the coronavirus pandemic and the power of monopoly agribusiness.

What this means is that there is no buffer to escape the disruption caused by war.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I have little to lose by being prepared. It is better to do too much than to learn the hard way I’ve done too little.

I also expect the war’s collateral damage to affect food prices, but there’s little I can do personally about that.

Russians will be affected by rising food and fuel prices, but both the USA and Russia have enough reserves and resources to avoid actual starvation.  The worst impact will be on poor small nations that depend in food imports. 

The price of wheat on world markets

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What in the world are these?

April 23, 2022

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Examples of sanity in a mad world

March 18, 2022

Sister Cities of Rochester responds to war in Ukraine by Peter Lovenheim for the Rochester (N.Y.) Beacon.

Russia and Wrath by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Oligarchs, sanctions and money laundering

March 10, 2022

As part of the undeclared war with Russia, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has frozen the assets of Roman Abramovich, owner of the famous Chelsea Football Club, and six other wealthy Russians who thought their wealth would be secure in the United Kingdom.

Britain has long been a safe haven for dirty money, and not just Russian dirty money.  That’s because, on the one hand, the origin of money can be concealed through shell companies and offshore tax havens, and, on the other, they feel their money is safe.    

Real estate prices in London, and also in New York, Miami and other cities, are being bid up by foreign oligarchs.  This is of great benefit to bankers and real estate investors, but not necessarily to the general public.  So Johnson’s action is a good thing—right?

Economic sanctions have almost never achieved their goals.

The League of Nations, created after World War One, hoped to stop military aggression by sanctioning aggressors.  This failed in its first test, the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935.  The United States, more than any other country, has used economic sanctions as a weapon.  But decades of economic sanctions did not bring about regime change in Iran or Cuba and probably will not change Venezuela.

The result of Johnson’s actions will likely drive other Russian oligarchs to take their wealth back to Russia, which would be to the benefit of Putin’s government.

Arbitrary economic sanctions against individuals are contrary to the rule of law.

Tax havens are a serious problem.  But if a chief of state, based on his own personal judgment, confiscates the wealth of a few individuals or blocks their access to their wealth, he does not solve the problem of tax havens.  He merely makes his own country a more risky place to invest.

The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution says nobody should be deprived of “life, liberty or property” without due process of law.  Nobody should have their wealth seized unless it can be proven in a court of law that they have violated some pre-existing law or regulation.

Impartial laws and regulations are needed.

We need laws that prevent oligarchs, dictators and crime lords from hiding their wealth and the sources of their wealth.  We need for these laws to be enforced without fear or favor.  Nobody should be above the law and nobody should be below the law’s protection.

Fun fact: Among those who have hidden their wealth in offshore tax havens are Vladimir Putin (through cronies) and Volodymyr Zelensky.

LINKS

Revealed: the $2bn offshore trail that leads to Vladimir Putin by Luke Harding for The Guardian.  [4/3/2016]

Pandora Papers: Russia dismisses leaks implicating Putin by Al Jazeera. [10/4/2021]

Pandora Papers: Ukraine leader seeks to justify offshore accounts by Al Jazeera. [10/4/2021]

Boris Johnson claims the UK is rooting out dirty Russian money | That’s ridiculous by Oliver Bullough for The Guardian.  [2/25/2022]

The oligarch’s guide to getting around the UK’s economic crime bill by Oliver Bullough for The Guardian. [3/9/2022]

Roman Abramovich Sanctioned by U.K. Govt., Assets Frozen by Alex Ritman for The Hollywood Reporter. [3/10/2022]

UK freezes assets of Abramovich, six other Russian oligarchs by Al Jazeera. [3/10/2022]

The American sanctions on Russia’s economy, explained by Ben Walsh for Vox. [3/9/2022]  What sanctions supposedly will do.

How the West undermines its own sanctions by Casey Michel for The Atlantic.  [3/9/2022]. It’s complicated.

War in Ukraine: Links & comments 2022/3/7

March 7, 2022

The American Empire self-destructs by MIchael Hudson.

The economist MIchael Hudson thinks Russia will benefit from the coming economic war..

What it will do is to force Russia to become more Wself-sufficient than it already is and to detach itself from the U.S.-dominated world financial system, and also to make neutral countries more wary.

Any country who gets on the bad side of the United States is subject to having its national assets confiscated, to the degree that they are in banks in the United States, the United Kingdom or other countries subject to U.S. influence.

This happened to Iran, to Venezuela and many other countries, and now it is happening to Russia.  The U.K. also is confiscating savings and investments owned by Russian individuals.

In the long run, he wrote, this will force not only Russia and its allies, but any nation that doesn’t want to be under the thumb of the United States, to find an alternative financial system, which the Chinese will be glad to provide.  London will cease to be the money-laundering capital of the world.

He said it also will force Russia to invest its revenues from oil, gas and other export industries into building up the nation’s industrial strength, instead of going into the pockets of wealthy oligarchs.

History shows that given a choice between destruction and reform, ruling elites do not necessarily choose reform.

Efforts to decimate Russian economy may boomerang by Sylvan Lane for The Hill.

Economic warfare is mutual destruction.  The United States and its NATO allies are in a position greatly damage the Russian economy, despite the Russians’ decade of trying to build up their defenses against economic warfare.

But the United States and its NATO allies also will pay a price.  Russia is an important exporter of food and fossil fuels.  The first result of an embargo will be big increases in the cost of food, gasoline and natural gas.

Russia’s new foreign policy: the Putin doctrine by Prof. Sergei Karaganov, academic supervisor of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs in Moscow.

This is a voice of the Russian academic establishment.

Prof. Karaganov said Vladimir Putin’s policies are the result of a long-term plan to break up the present U.S.-dominated geopolitical order and replace it with one in which the Russian nation and culture are safe.  The war in Ukraine is part of this, but only party.

He said Western society is in the process of self-destruction—economically, politically and morally.  It also is eager to start a new Cold War with Russia.

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A beautiful duet on ice

March 6, 2022

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres skate to “The Sound of Silence” in the International Skating Union’s 2017 Team Competition in Tokyo.

Border collie herding ducklings

March 6, 2022

This collie dog is an example of how to live.  He is good at his job, he does it well and he obviously enjoys himself.  No doubt he goes to sleep each night with a sense of justified satisfaction.  

Joe Biden is trying to privatize Medicare

February 20, 2022

Branko Marcetic wrote a good article for Jacobin magazine about how President Biden is planning to privatize Medicare.

Over the past year, seniors around the country have been getting letters from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) informing them that they needn’t worry, but their doctor was now part of something called a direct contracting entity (DCE).

“Your Medicare Benefits have not changed,” the letters stress no less than twice. “NO ACTION NEEDED,” they blare.

If you take it from CMS, DCEs are simply a collection of different health care providers “who agree to work together to keep you healthy” — an innovative new payment model to keep health care costs down and raise the quality of care up. For its critics, the initiative is something far less benign.

“What direct contracting does is turn the public side of Medicare into a corporate goldmine,” says Diane Archer, president of Just Care USA.

Under traditional Medicare, when a beneficiary gets care from a doctor, a hospital or any other health care provider, the program reimburses that provider directly at a set rate.

Direct contracting adds a third party into the mix: Medicare makes a monthly payment to a DCE, which then decides what care a beneficiary will get, and uses that money to cover a specified part of their medical expenses — pocketing whatever they don’t spend as profit.

While making cost-saving efficiencies usually means cutting out the middleman, direct contracting adds one in.

In other words, as with health insurance, the less the physicians get paid, the higher the profit for the companies.

Critics like Physicians for a National Health Program warn that the program comes with the same kinds of pitfalls as Medicare Advantage, the program that for the first time carved out a role of private insurers in the public Medicare system, when it was passed as part of a Reagan-era deficit reduction bill forty years ago.

One is “upcoding,” the notorious practice where Medicare Advantage insurers make their patients appear less healthy than they really are, the better to drive up the payments they get from Medicare.

I say: “Keep your hands off my Medicare.”

LINK

Direct Contracting Entities: Wall Street Control of Traditional Medicare by Physicians for a National Health Program.

Joe Biden Is Quietly Pursuing the Creeping Privatization of Medicare by Branko Marcetic for Jacobin.

Warren Warns: Corporate Vultures Are Circling Medicare on Biden’s Watch by Jack Johnson for Common Dreams.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

The Dark History of Medicare Privatization by Barbara Caress for The American Prospect.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]