GOP’s ‘Trumpcare’ CBO meltdown

The CBO’s assessment of the GOP’s Trumpcare is not what they wanted. [Photo by 401kcalculator.org, Creative Commons]

By Tom Regan

The Congressional Budget Office is a bit like a theatre critic. For the people the most affected by what its officials write, it’s only as good as last its review. If it gives a good review, those officials are loved and praised for being perceptive geniuses. But give a bad review and they’re idiots, always wrong, and don’t know what they’re talking about.

Currently, the Republicans are in full “the CBO is a joke” mode because the assessment of Trumpcare released by the office Tuesday is bad, bad news for the long-term health of the bill. The findings that 24 million additional Americans will be uninsured by 2026 (which is two million lower than the White House’s own estimates according to some reports), that poor Americans are the group most affected and that seniors will pay five times as much for their insurance as they currently pay landed like a grenade.

As a result, the main GOP supporters of the new health care plan started a stylized dance around the assessment in a desperate attempt to discredit it. It’s completely disingenuous, of course, because in 2009 when the previous administration introduced the Affordable Care Act, it was the GOP howling in favor of the CBO’s estimates which at the time helped kill the idea of the single payer option.

Yet for all the negative mud slung at the CBO, it isn’t going to help the bill in the Senate where even Republican members of that chamber showed their dismay at the numbers of uninsured predicted in the assessment. Many of these senators were already skeptical about the chances for Trumpcare, especially those senators in states that had signed on to the Medicare expansion and had subsequently seen dramatic increases in of the number of citizens receiving health care. The additional news that seniors would ultimately see their health care costs rise was another body blow because if there is one block of people who can be counted on to vote, it’s seniors – a fact that all politicians, Republicans in particular, know.

The pro-Trumpcare forces led by House Speaker Paul Ryan are not getting much help from the president who, as he does in most cases, tells whatever group of people he happens to be with whatever they want to hear. There is a report this morning, however, that Trump is willing to move the rollback of Medicare and other changes to the insurance marketplace to 2018 from 2020 to appease hardcore conservative members who just want to totally blowup the Affordable Care Act, and are not happy with the bill as it now stands.

This would practically guarantee failure in the Senate because of the reasons stated above. One needs to ask then if this just becoming an exercise in ‘not my problem.’ It raises the possibility that the GOP is aware that Trumpcare may never pass and elements of the party are looking to blame other parts of the party for its collapse because they can’t blame the Democrats any more for anything.

This would produce widespread panic as failure on such a significant piece of legislation would send the Republicans into a tailspin and make plans for items like tax reform or infrastructure spending that much harder. It would also show people that while the GOP can sing in harmony when in opposition, once in government they cannot overcome the divisions in their own party. Add to that the impending investigation into the Trump administration’s connections with Russia and the exposure of Trump as an unstable, jealous provocateur over his unproven accusations of being wiretapped by Obama, and you’ve got a mess of gigantic proportions not even a year into Trump’s presidency.

Democrats need to be careful how they respond to all this. My advice is for the moment reach for the popcorn, sit back and watch it all unfold in front of them.

Listening to the opposition… Carefully

It’s hard, but necessary, to hear what the other side is saying. [“The argument” by Kurt Bauschardt, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

One of my oldest friends in the world has become what I would consider a far-right conservative. His opinions on Muslims, liberals, the “left loonies” as he calls them, frequently infuriate me. He’s a big fan of posting links on Facebook from sites that I consider “fake news” that often feature stories that are wildly inaccurate or use grossly out-of-date photos or videos to create negative impression of more recent events. He’s been “unfriended” by many people he has known for a long time who no longer find his views palatable.

But that will never ever happen with me. As much as I sometimes find his views beyond the pale, he has every right in the world to hold them and even publicize them. And he’s not the only one. I have no intention of ever deleting or unfriending individuals whose views I find repugnant. It is vitally important that I know what others think and that I use every opportunity to engage them in debate and try to correct a misstatement or an incorrect fact. It doesn’t always work. There’s lots of proof that it’s hard to get people to change their views. But that’s okay. Now and then they raise valid points that I would totally miss if I had blocked them out.

There is a real danger among liberals and progressives to exist in an echo chamber where they only hear views that mirror their own. (I suppose it’s no different for conservatives or far-right alt-Reich proponents. But I’m not worried about them.) Although it’s far from the only reason that Donald Trump won the last election, the tendency of those on the left to totally discount any view that even carries a hint of conservatism definitely played a role in his victory. In the midst of the noise from alt-Reich party boys, the unhinged ranting of Alex Jones at Infowars, the poorly constructed lies of Breitbart, and the fake news being pumped out via Russia-supported fly-by-night websites, there were conservatives who were saying they were going to vote for Trump because they felt they had no other option, often despite the fact they weren’t all that crazy about him. But we in the left largely missed what they were saying because we had just closed their minds to anything that any scent of Trump support. That was a mistake.

But don’t want to get me wrong here. I’m not saying that liberals need to flail themselves over a missed opportunity. Nor that we must give weight to every lunatic far-right screed. Nor do I buy the warmed-over, pablum-like rhetoric about the coasts being “out of touch” with the “real America” of the flyover states in the middle. The coasts are just as much “real America” as any Midwestern spread of farmland. I reject the notion that because we value diversity, openness, education, science, democracy and a positive role for government that we are less American than anybody else. That’s just horse manure.

What I am advocating is that if those on the left value the things listed in the previous paragraph, we will have a better idea of how to defend those values if we listen to what the other side is saying. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to hear the great Molly Ivins speak at a conference. After she gave her talk she opened the floor to questions and one of the first ones was what advice she would give to those on the left about how to combat the ideas of the right. Her advice was to “read across the grain”, not to just read those things whose viewpoint you agreed with, but to look for the logic, or the lack thereof, in opposing viewpoints.

Because in the end there is no way that everyone in this country is going to be singing the same song or hold hands with each other in perfect harmony and unity. It’s a bit of a creepy idea and not very American. We can certainly strive for better understanding of each other and look for areas of agreement. Nevertheless, it’s important that those of us who hold progressive values fight for the things we believe in because it’s a battle that will never end. But knowing what the other side is thinking will help us craft successful outcomes that otherwise might elude us through our own ignorance.

Trump’s twitter sleight-of-hand

By Tom Regan

[Photo by Rippie: Contra Censura!, Creative Commons]

By now everyone in the free – and not so free – world knows about Donald Trump’s tweets this past weekend that basically accused former President Barack Obama of being a felon. Trump’s accusation that Obama illegally wiretapped his phone and Trump Tower in New York has been dismissed by every knowledgeable authority in existence, but just like his allegation that three million people voted illegally in the November election, Trump says he plans to have the whole thing investigated.

It is yet another tweet from our thin-skinned, angry president with the short attention span that had opponents in an uproar and his supporters scratching their heads wondering just what he was trying to do.

But whatever he was trying to do, it worked.

Whether intentionally or because he can’t control his temper or ego, Donald Trump’s tweets have a habit of throwing the media and the public off the scent of the real story. The current real story concerns Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. The fact that Sessions lied to Congress about meeting Russians during the campaign is, as one pundit put it, “a big deal.” Sessions is the top cop in the country, and recusing himself from any further investigations involving the Trump campaign and its alleged connections to Russian attempts to sabotage the election is just window dressing. It’s the least thing he could do.

Yet Sessions’ predicament was more or less forgotten by midday on Saturday as the media, stunned once again by an early morning twitter storm from the president, was off on another wild goose chase, deploying its resources to hunt down yet another seemingly disjointed ranting from Mar-el-Lago.

Joe Scarborough first suggested (on MSNBC’s Morning Joe) a pattern to this behavior. Trump inevitably launches these tweet broadsides either late Friday night or early Saturday morning. When you look back at the tweets that have sent the media scurrying to either verify or debunk them, it’s always come after a really bad week and a need for Trump to change the story.

Whether it was his reaction to the size of his inaugural crowd versus that of the much larger Obama inaugural crowd, his accusation about the millions of illegal voters, or in this the charges leveled against his predecessor, Trump’s objective is to use the traditionally quiet news hole on Saturday mornings to blow up the media landscape. As a result, the Sunday morning talk shows to which he is so addicted are forced to discuss the fallout from his weekend twitter rantings rather than the mistakes and errors of his administration that have taken place during the previous week.

There is some debate over why he tweets so intensively at this particular time of the week. Some speculate it’s because his daughter and son-in-law, both Orthodox Jews, are observing Shabbat and are not around to temper his twitter tantrums. Perhaps. But adopting this viewpoint plays into the myth that Trump is incompetent and can’t be left alone for five minutes. It was this line of thinking that led his opponents in the Republican primaries to underestimate him, and then led Hillary Clinton and much of the media to do the same in the general election.

Trump is no dummy. Yes, he’s thin-skinned, has an ego the size of Jupiter, doesn’t like being the butt of comedians’ jokes and probably has very little idea about what it really takes to be the president of the United States. But he plays the media like he is a concert violinist. Years spent in the chaotic and cutthroat New York media market have made him a Jedi media master: “This is not the story you been looking for… There’s nothing to see here move along.”

Yet you can’t blame the media entirely for responding in this way. Journalists are supposed to follow the news of the moment, and when the leader of the free world regularly launches tweets like cruise missiles, it’s hard to ignore them.

And don’t expect it to stop anytime soon. Based on the track record of the first 45 days of this administration, there are going to be a lot of busy Saturday mornings.

It’s always the cover-up

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech hosted by Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. {Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons]

By Tom Regan

Many years ago, when I was in Grade Two at St. Dunstan’s Catholic Elementary School in Fredericton New Brunswick, I got into trouble with the nuns who ran the school. There was a fight in the school yard and I had seen it. The nuns wanted me to spill the beans on who was involved. I told them I hadn’t seen anything. They didn’t believe me and for the once and only time in my entire school career, I got the strap.

In the end, it wasn’t the fight in the school yard that got me. It was the cover-up.

It was a lesson I took to heart. Sort of. I’d like to pretend that from that point on in my life, I never engaged in another cover-up of any kind. But that would be a…cover-up. We humans, as a species, seem to think that if we refuse to acknowledge a situation, it will never come back to bite us. Telling the truth would always be the best answer. Yes, there would be repercussions, but not as many as there are once your cover-up gets exposed.

If there is one occupation that seems to suffer the most from the compulsive need to engage in cover-ups, it’s politicians. There are, of course, too many instances of this to name them all, so let us focus on two recent examples from the Trump administration in the United States.

Example one is the former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. First, he said he didn’t meet or talk with Russians about potential sanctions the then-Obama administration was about to level against Russia because of its meddling in the American election. Then the Washington Post discovered he had indeed had such discussions. This being the Trump administration, he might have gotten away with lying to the media and Congress – the Trump minions care little about them – but he made the mistake of lying to poor Vice-President Mike Pence, and that was a bridge too far. The cover-up got him in the end, and now Donald Trump has a National Security Advisor who is much less of a patsy and doesn’t like Russia very much.

Now we have the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He too told Congress he didn’t talk to any Russians and whoops! Now we know he did, thanks once again to the “failing” Washington Post (Sad). When the Attorney General, the “top cop” in the land misleads Congress and the public about a matter that is very much at the forefront of this administration’s troubles du jour, this is not a good thing. As I write this, it has just flashed across my screen that Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into any possible connections between the Trump administration, the Russians, and hanky-panky that took place during the 2016 presidential election. But this may only be the beginning of his troubles, as he might also find himself the subject of an investigation for lying to Congress.

Apparently, Attorney General Sessions did not get the memo about cover-ups being a bad idea.

There is a drip, drip, drip feeling here that is hard to ignore. As Chris Cillizza of the Post noted, where there is smoke, and smoke and smoke and smoke, there is likely to be fire. One is hard press not to wonder just how much of a cover-up is going on here, and just how many more Russians we are going to find hiding in the Trump administration’s corridors of power.

Technology real job-killer in US

by Tom Regan

As technology, like solar, continues to improve, employment in fossil fuel industries will become less viable. There will be many new jobs in these new technologically advanced industries, but only for those with the education and skills needed to develop, manufacture operate or repair their products. (Photo by Eneco, Creative Commons)

It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it’s a living. The money is good. It can be a bit boring sometimes however – you tend to do the same thing every day. But you’ve been doing it for a long time. And now that you’re in your late 40s, maybe early 50s, you can see yourself just riding this job into retirement.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a very good chance that within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, you’re going to lose your job. But what takes your job away won’t be that your company switched production to China or Mexico, it will be technology. Maybe something as simple as a piece of software, or as complex as a robot – regardless it will allow your employer to lower costs and improve productivity. And you’ll be out in the street.


Pres. Donald Trump loves to complain that China and Mexico have been stealing jobs from American workers and that he plans to bring those jobs back. And you can see why this campaign promise resonated with so many people – there are five million fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States now than there were in 2010. Bringing those jobs back is nice idea but it’s totally pie-in-the-sky and not doable. Because the truth is that even if you brought those manufacturing jobs back they would probably be taken by a machine and not a human.

There’s a lot of recent research to back this up. A study by two Ball State professors showed that between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost to technology and not to trade. If that’s not bad enough, a report from McKinsey showed that 49% of worker activities can be replaced by technology. And that number is only going to grow, particularly in jobs that require repetitive tasks. Jobs, for instance, like in accounting, food preparation, or even some aspects of journalism, will be replaced by machines or robots that can do the job faster and allow increases in productivity.

So why is more attention not paid to this? There are probably two answers: 1) American businesses like to make money and cut costs. Their concerns are for their shareholders and not for their employees. If making more profit means replacing humans with machines, then so be it. They just don’t like to talk about it a lot; 2) it’s much easier for unemployed 50 year-old white guys to blame foreigners or outsiders than to blame technology. The steelworker in Pennsylvania has a much easier time blaming his lost job on a worker earning less in China, then struggling with the fact that technology made his job redundant.

Yet there is a way to combat this problem. It’s called education. For instance, in late 2016 there were over 300,000 manufacturing jobs available in the United States, numbers similar to what were available before the 2008 recession. There is, however, another important factor. Most of these jobs require what are known as “high skill sets” which means that they require a level of education that will enable any worker to operate technologically advanced machinery. To go back to our steelworker in Pennsylvania, chances are he or she is not interested in returning to school to learn a whole new skill set. It’s just much easier to complain about China and Mexico.

Meanwhile, most other Americans are ignoring the writing on the wall. A study by the Pew Research Center show that 80% of Americans think that their job will existed in its current form in 50 years. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.

It boils down to this. American jobs are being lost to technology, not to trade. The answer is education and improved skills but that requires much more investment in education. And based on who Pres. Trump just named as his Secretary of Education, the befuddled Betty DeVos, there is a serious question whether that will happen or not. Pres. Trump can rant all he wants about China and Mexico but that won’t stop American jobs from disappearing. And unless he faces the real issue, it’s only going to get worse.

The triumph of irrationality

For many years, economists, philosophers and pundits thought that people would always act in their own best interests – in other words, rationally.

The thought was that, when making a decision, people would look at options and information available and then choose the result that gave them the best results, or at least the ones they favored. And then in the mid-70s, two Israeli psychologists – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – turned that idea on its head.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. (Photo by Eirik Solheim, Creative Commons)

What the two men showed, through experiments that found their way into some of the most cited papers in the field of psychology AND economics, was that when faced with a decision in a period of uncertainty,  people often made irrational decisions. They did not necessary make the decision that was best for them, but would make a decision that was influenced by availability, confirmation bias, and what Kahneman and Tversky called “representativeness.” (As author Daniel Lewis described it in his recent book on the two men, The Undoing Project, “the similarity between whatever people were judging and some model they have in their mind of that thing.”)

Which brings us to the election of Donald Trump, and why celebrity and brand now matter more than substance.

On the surface, the choice between Democratic nominee Clinton and Trump was quite clear, particularly if you were a older white male making a ‘rational’ decision. Clinton had the experience, was strong on foreign policy, had the knowledge of how government works, and supported plans that largely were favorable to the group mentioned above- including the unemployed who had no healthcare without Obamacare. (Trade was the one main area that she could be attacked on rationally.)

But when compared to Trump in other areas – such as questionable ties to personal foundations, business conflicts of interest, ties to Wall Street – there was really little difference between the two candidates. Clinton had several other advantages, such as the possibility of becoming the first woman president and the support of the entire Democratic establishment after the end of the primaries.

So why did Trump win? Two reasons, one of them already well-known- the Wikileaks-Russian email leaks and the Russian fake news campaign designed to damage Clinton on on every level. It’s the second reason that I think tells us more about the future of where politics is headed in the US – the dawn of the celebrity presidency.

Now it might be argued that Ronald Reagan was the first celebrity president. But Reagan had been governor of a state larger than most countries in the world, the head of a union (the Screen Actors Guild), and active in Republican politics for many years. Trump had none of these attributes – he had only his celebrity. Period. True, he is wealthy but his history as a businessman is mixed with as many bankruptcies and product failures as successes.

Yet over the years, Trump had crafted the image of a winner, whether or not that was accurate. He had cultivated the media in New York with tales of his business and sexual prowess. And then the years as the host of a TV show that portrayed him as a dynamic business leader, not afraid to do what was needed, and to be heartless when it was called for, created a model in people’s minds that really wasn’t all that accurate, but that didn’t matter. The model was there.

Which is why people were so willing to overlook his racist, misogynist, bigoted (and perverted) comments made during the campaign. (This is truest of Christian evangelicals. In reality, Trump is the total opposite of what they said they wanted for years: he rarely if ever attended church, was married three times, had cheated on two wives and was not involved in promoting their agenda in any real concrete way. But in their desperation to defeat the Democrats, they created a model of Trump in their minds that represented all the things he was not.)

They wanted the model that seemed to them the closest to what they saw as a dynamic leader, not the one that was probably the rational choice for their very real problems. The question of who would be the best person to govern the country was not considered as a key factor. The Trump model was one they knew well, and when push came to shove, the one enough people voted for to let him win the electoral college.

As Lewis also put it in 2011 Vanity Fair article, “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.”

Stereotypes and vivid descriptions. And that, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump

The other day, a friend commented that Kim Kardashian could probably be elected president. It wasn’t funny. She’s already known by millions of people who follow her every whim and fancy. Her sex tape background only gives her more coin of the realm in a world dominated by Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram. Working your way up through the party structure is no longer the way to succeed.

Get on TV and social media. Experience in government or international affairs is no longer needed. Instead, be outrageous. Be well-known. Start to create that model in people’s minds you want them to see. And who knows, people might irrationally vote for you one day too.

 

Trump admits it was Russians who hacked DNC

Trump - Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

He knew. He probably always knew. But he never wanted to admit that. If senior US intelligence leaders had not presented him with such overwhelming evidence of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Pres. elect Donald Trump would most likely continue to say that it was all “rubbish” and an attempt to “delegitimize” him.

Yet at his press conference/campaign rally held on Tuesday in the glittering lobby of Trump Tower in New York, The Donald was finally forced to admit that yes, the Russians had hacked the Democrats. He was, however, only willing to go so far. That’s because he knew the next step would be admitting that the Russians had done this hacking in order to help him win the presidency. And for Donald Trump, that truth is a bridge too far.

The tone of denial and ridicule that Mr. Trump had previously used when dealing with the question of a possible Russian hacking attack, he now reserved for the question about whether or not his aides had actually met with the Russians to possibly discuss the attacks on the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. What Mr. Trump does not seem to realize yet is that the truth will out, in one way or another. He would be wise to deal with the Russian involvement in a straightforward way or else it he will be forced to deal with it through comments made by unattributed sources or leaked reports of a questionable nature of the kind that we saw dominate the media on Monday and Tuesday.

But that may not be possible for Trump. It’s not how he sees the world. For Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election is not about being given a chance to govern but about WINNING! That’s why it was so hard for him to admit that the Russians had hacked the Democrats. Trump did not see the Russian maneuver as an attack on American sovereignty or attempt to disrupt democracy, he saw it as a way to help him WIN.

This attitude that winning is what the 2016 election was all about was obvious in Tuesday’s press conference. Trump sees his electoral college victory not as that above-mentioned opportunity to govern but as a final declaration: he won! Anything that questions that victory, or questions the decisions that he will make over the next four years are illegitimate in his view. This is why he was so dismissive of the media. During the 2016 campaign, he had largely play the media for suckers. Now that he has triumphed, however, they are no longer needed. Now they are just annoying. And their tough questions were just ignored or ridiculed.

Although he will not be president for another week, Donald Trump telegraphed in his press conference that his presidency he will be more in the vein of Turkey’s Erdogan or Venezuela’s late ruler Chavez, rather than in the style of previous Republican and Democratic presidents.

Perhaps he will change. Perhaps Pres. Obama’s comments that, once a person assumes the presidency it changes them, will come true. That they become more serious and focused on governing. Maybe Trump will learn to be less combative with the media, and understand that it is the job of the media in a democracy to constantly question those in a position of power. That it’s not personal. That it is part of the job. Perhaps he will learn that opponents in the political sphere – Democrat OR Republican – are not “losers”, but people who care deeply about this country and will fight hard to keep it on an even keel. Perhaps he will learn, as my mother used to say, you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar and that working with people is a better strategy than ridiculing them.

Then again. He may learn nothing. He may remain an ill-tempered, egotistical, small-minded cretin who still sees important issues not as ways to improve the country but as ways that he can WIN! Only time will tell. And what it is telling us so far is not very promising.