North Carolina And Ohio: Worlds Apart

January 14th, 2022 by Tom Lynch

Law requires all the states to redraw their state and congressional districts in the year following the decennial census of the country. Once they do that their legislatures approve the new maps, and the maps become enacted law. Then the lawsuits begin.

Yesterday, I wrote about a State Court Panel of the North Carolina Superior Court’s decision, rendered on Tuesday of this week, to uphold that state’s recently enacted election redistricting maps, maps the Court strongly affirmed were examples of extreme partisan gerrymandering in every respect in every district. Why? Because the Court said history had shown that’s the way the legislature and the state’s electorate wanted it regardless of which Party was in power.

It’s about 480 miles from Raleigh, capitol of North Carolina, to Columbus, capitol of Ohio. But from yesterday’s ruling on the same subject by the Ohio Supreme Court, you’d think they were on separate planets.

The three signers of the North Carolina decision are Republicans, and in the Ohio Supreme Court there is also a Republican majority. But on a 4-3 vote, with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, siding with the three Democratic Justices, the Court invalidated the GOP’s recently-drawn legislative maps.

The Ohio Constitution requires mapmakers to attempt to match the statewide voting preferences of voters over the past decade. That amounts to 54% for Republican candidates and 46% for Democratic candidates. According to the decision, “The commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages.” The Court ruled that did not happen. What did happen was extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Until November 2015, Article XI of Ohio’s constitution specifically allowed, and the Court upheld, partisan gerrymandering. However, in that year Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the constitution repealing Article XI and replacing it with a new version, which established a new process for creating General Assembly districts. The amendment provided for the creation of a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, composed of elected officials, such as the Governor and other legislative leaders. The Ohio Redistricting Commission that drew up the new maps under dispute consisted of five Republicans and two Democrats.

The Ohio commission is responsible for redistricting the boundaries of the 99 districts of the House of Representatives and the 33 Senate districts in the year immediately following the release of the federal decennial census. This is the same procedure followed in North Carolina and in every other state. However, Section 6 of Ohio’s new Article XI mandates: “No general assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party.” Further, “The statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last ten years, favor each political party shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio.”

And that’s not all. The Court’s majority, interpreting the state’s constitution, wrote, “To adopt a plan under Section 1(C) (of Article XI), at least two members of each of the two largest political parties represented in the General Assembly must be in the majority voting for the plan.” Wow! The Ohio Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state’s constitution is requiring Republicans and Democrats to work together to establish state voting districts. With respect to gerrymandering, the Court has handcuffed the partisan Commission.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision is 146 pages (Thank you very much; North Carolina’s was 260.). The beginning of it gives a highly readable history of the drawing up of the maps. Anyone interested in an application of the quote about laws and  sausages misattributed* to Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck should read pages 6 through 21. Enough said.

Because 2 February 2022 is the deadline in Ohio for candidates for legislative offices to submit petitions and declarations of candidacy, the Court ordered the Commission to meet, draw up, and submit new redistricting maps to the Court within ten days of its decision.

In yesterday’s column I wrote about North Carolina’s two decade charade in which the Party out of power repeatedly calls for an Independent Commission to formulate map redistricting, rather than elected officials. That is, until they come to power, when it suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea. In Chief Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion she begins by saying she agrees with everything in the Court’s decision and order. But then she goes into depth about how Ohio’s voters might want to amend the Constitution again in order to create such an Independent Commission in an attempt to stop all the partisanship, or at least slow it down. She analyzes Arizona’s decision to do just that. In my next column, I’ll examine the Arizona change and report on its results thus far.

But for the moment, ask yourself this: Are we one country, or are we fifty countries? Are the shenanigans that go on every ten years in every state capitol what we really want for America? Or, do we want one, unified system that insures all elections, at least at the federal level, are governed by the same rules?

I’d love to know how America’s voters, not America’s legislators, would answer those questions.

*The true author is now  believed to have been American poet John Godfrey Saxe, who said it in 1869, 25 years before Bismarck. Saxe’s exact quote is, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

 

 

 

North Carolina Shows The Difficulty Of Passing Voting Rights Legislation

January 13th, 2022 by Tom Lynch

Is extreme partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional? That’s the question a three-judge State Court panel of the North Carolina Superior Court answered this week with a firm “NO.” And they took 260 pages to do it. I know, because I read every one of them so you wouldn’t have to.

As I write this, two voting rights bills are ricocheting around congress looking for homes. They are the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) and the Freedom To Vote Act.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states with a history of voting rights abuses to get Department of Justice approval for changes they wished to make to their voting rules. The Court said Congress should come up with a new formula for doing that, and that is what the VRAA tries to do. The VRAA:

  • Modernizes the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s formula determining which states and localities have a pattern of discrimination;
  • Ensures last-minute voting changes do not adversely affect voters by requiring officials to publicly announce all voting changes at least 180 days before an election; and
  • Expands the government’s authority to send federal observers to any jurisdiction where there may be a substantial risk of discrimination at the polls on Election Day or during an early voting period.

The other bill, the Freedom To Vote Act, is specifically aimed at combating voter suppression and voter subversion. One of its provisions would ban partisan gerrymandering. Which gets us back to North Carolina.

The State Court’s lengthy decision:

  • Summarized the procedural history. A key point is state voting maps are drawn up by the state legislature every ten years to reflect decennial census data. The Court takes the time to describe how the Party in power at that time always wants to stay in power (what a surprise) and historically has taken steps to do that. It describes how from 2000 to 2010, when Democrats were in power, Republicans offered legislation every year to create an independent commission to set the maps, rather than the legislature. All the bills failed. From 2010 to 2020, when Republicans held power (they still do), Democrats offered the same legislation every year to create the same independent commission. Amazingly, those bills failed, too. The State Court concluded the legislature demonstrated that drawing the maps would be a legislative function, i.e., political, rather than a judicial function.
  • Described how the currently enacted maps were drawn. The Republican controlled legislature established four rooms in the State House, each with encrypted computers where the maps would be created. The map drawing was transparent to both legislators and the public. The process took four months, after which the maps were debated and passed into law. Democrats made many challenges, all of which were defeated. The vote to approve the maps was strictly party-line.
  • Analyzed the extreme partisan gerrymandering claims brought by the plaintiffs. A series of experts, having designed a number of mathematical models, testified persuasively that every one of the 120 state voting districts and every one of the 14 congressional districts were intentionally created with extreme partisan gerrymandering. The Court devoted 158 pages of its decision to these claims, and in every case found for the plaintiffs. The Court said clearly that the plaintiffs were right. All the districts were the result of extreme partisan gerrymandering, which would guarantee Democrats would never win more than four of North Carolina’s 14  Congressional seats.
  • Denied the claims of Plaintiffs and ruled in favor of the Republican defendants. In describing North Carolina’s history of partisan gerrymandering, going all the way back to 1665 to do it, the three-judge panel (all Republicans) ruled that because the decennial  map drawing had been amply demonstrated to be a political process, rather than judicial, and even though the Court might believe the process to be “repugnant,” over decades the history had shown this was the way both parties wanted it, and, therefore, it reflected the will of the electorate. The court ruled extremely partisan maps are “permissible,” and that no one had been able to prove at what point they became impermissible.

Gerrymandering has been with us since 1812, when Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, drew the long and thin salamander-looking state senate district in Massachusetts. Both parties relish it, except when they’re not in power. Then, it’s “Let’s create an independent commission to do it the right way!”

Banning partisan gerrymandering is only one of the 24 provisions in the Freedom To Vote Act. But I think North Carolina has demonstrated it’s complicated. As are the other 23 provisions. If you peel the onion all the way down, it’s hard to pretend the current political battle isn’t a fight about states’ rights. Do we have a unified, federally designed system to insure free and fair elections in every state, or is it every state for itself? Is there any room for compromise on these bills?

This question has been with America since its founding. For example, on this date in 1833, President Andrew Jackson, the favorite president of that well-known historian Donald Trump, stared down his former Vice President John C. Calhoun over the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. The state had nullified a federal tariff that favored Northern manufacturing over Southern agriculture. Calhoun saw federal law supremacy as a serious threat to slavery. Consequently, he and his South Carolina neighbors were having none of this tariff thing, and they were preparing to go to war to resist. Jackson responded to South Carolina’s ire with a Proclamation to the people of South Carolina. Considered the greatest state paper of the era, Jackson promised to uphold the federal tariff and warned “disunion by armed force is treason.” In that instance, bloodshed was averted by a compromise offered by Henry Clay that provided for a reduced tariff and enabled Calhoun to save face.

Where’s Henry Clay when you need him?

The Past As Prologue

January 6th, 2022 by Tom Lynch

Today is a seminal day in American history. The one-year anniversary of a serious attempt by violent insurrectionists to stage a coup d’état in our nation’s Capitol. This is a day for remembering how close we came to losing our American soul. In the year since the attack, the attack has continued, albeit peacefully. I ask you to bear with me for a moment, for I am struck by the frightening similarities between what is happening in our nation today and what happened long ago in another country going through rough times. That country turned to a devil in disguise, a master manipulator who persuaded its citizens to follow him willingly straight through the gates of hell.

Then: 1918 – 1933

In November, 1918, high-school dropout and failed artist Adolph Hitler was recuperating in hospital from a Mustard Gas attack suffered the previous month on a battlefield of World War I. He’d been a Corporal in the German Army and had distinguished himself as a messenger, running between units to deliver orders and bring replies, sometimes under heavy fire.

While he was in hospital, the war ended and the warring armies signed the Treaty of Versailles, which levied tremendous reparations on Germany and caused rampant inflation that wiped out savings overnight. Hitler wrote later that at that moment he realized his purpose in life was “to save Germany.”

Before the war, Hitler had lived in Munich, the capital of Bavaria in southern Germany, and after recovering he returned there. He was hired by the police as a spy and told to infiltrate a small group called the German Workers’ Party. However, rather than spying on the group he fell in love with its nationalistic and anti-Semitic ideology. He joined the Party in 1919, and two years later became its leader.

With mentoring by the group’s co-founder Dietrich Eckart, Hitler became an unparalleled public speaker, addressing thousands in local beer halls. In 1921 he changed the name of the German Workers’ Party to the National German Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Nazi Party, and the Party’s members elected him leader in July of that year.

In the following two years the Nazi Party grew as Germans responded to Hitler’s rants about how the Treaty of Versailles had emasculated the country, bringing shame and humiliation that had to be avenged. In Hitler’s mind the Weimar Republic had failed its duty to its citizens and had to be replaced. So, on 8 November 1923, Hitler and hundreds of Nazi Party members surrounded the Bürgerbräukeller, one of the biggest beer halls in Munich, where Gustav von Kahr, state commissioner of Bavaria, was speaking. Hitler burst in, fired a shot into the ceiling, commandeered the podium, and declared a “national revolution.” Thus, the Beer Hall Putsch began.

The rest of the night went downhill for Hitler. He had wanted to lead a march on Berlin, as Benito Mussolini had done a year earlier in Rome. This was not to be. His followers tried to take over government buildings, but were foiled by the police. Early the next morning, Hitler and World War I General Erich Ludendorff, whom Hitler had persuaded to join the Nazi Party and help in the Putsch, led 3,000 of their followers to the city center in an attempt to salvage the coup. They were met by state police. Shots were fired. Four police officers were killed, along with 16 Nazis, whom Hitler would later describe as martyrs and entomb in two “temples of honor” in downtown Munich. Two days later, Hitler was captured. He was tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to five years in Landsberg prison. He served one year and was pardoned on 20 December 1924. During that one year, he wrote the first volume of “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), dictating the work to his fellow prisoner and sycophant Rudolph Hess.

Hitler had done a lot of serious thinking in prison and realized a violent takeover of Germany would be tremendously difficult. He concluded that the way to power was through legal means, but that the legal and political means had to be manipulated by the Nazis for the effort to succeed. The way to rule Germany was to win elections. The Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s subsequent trial, during which his defense speeches were printed in all the newspapers, grew the Nazi Party exponentially and brought him and the Party to national prominence.

In 1933, nine years after walking out of Landsberg prison a free man, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

Now: 2021 – 2022 and beyond

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Insurrection of 6 January 2021, America’s version of the Beer Hall Putsch.

Last month, in a long essay in The Atlantic, Barton Gellman persuasively and scarily argued that 6 January was a dress rehearsal.

He began his essay this way:

Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect. The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.

Gellman is no “Chicken Little.” He has a distinguished and long career. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy for documentary filmmaking, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. When Gelmann writes, smart people read.

As he lays out what is happening in America right now, one cannot help but think how eerily similar the Republican Party’s current actions are to Hitler’s battle plan for taking over Germany. Hitler realized violence would not result in victory. Winning elections and manipulating the election process would allow him to rise to total power, and the rest of the world would welcome him as the new leader of the German people, achieving that distinction by apparently (but not really) fair means.

Will someone please tell me how that differs from today’s Republican legislators, who, understanding that another violent insurrection would not achieve their aims, cottoned on to the idea that changing the election rules in 19 states would set themselves up to win the 2022 mid-terms, the 2024 presidential election, and elections into the future, thereby “legally” allowing a minority to rule a majority in what purports to be a democracy?

As Gelmann writes,

As we near the anniversary of January 6, investigators are still unearthing the roots of the insurrection that sacked the Capitol and sent members of Congress fleeing for their lives. What we know already, and could not have known then, is that the chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.

Right now, many Republican Party wannabe leaders make the pilgrimage to Mar-A-Lago to genuflect at the knee of Donald Trump. Amazingly, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll finds 58% of Republican voters still believe the Big Lie, despite a plethora of audits and investigations, many led by Republican election officials, finding exactly the opposite. These voters continue to believe with biblical certainty that Joe Biden is an illegitimate occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. How can this be?

Today, the very few GOP dissenters to the Lie are being cast out into political oblivion. “2 down, 8 to go!” Trump gloated at the retirement announcement of Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his second impeachment.

After the Insurrection of a year ago, I, like so many others, believed the insurrectionists were on the far right fringe, out of work unhappy folks angry at the world. Life’s dissatisfied customers. But in the year since we have learned that this is not the case. Most insurrectionists were not members of any far right groups like the Proud Boys or OathKeepers. No, they were the guys next door. Managers, even CEOs of middle of America companies. When this came to light, for the first time I began to think as Gelmann thinks. Now, I’m wondering if there is any way to change what appears to be an inevitable arc of history.

There are currently two voting rights bills languishing in the U.S. Senate, the For the People Act of 2021 and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.  In order to pass either of these bills requires a carveout to the filibuster, which would allow a simple majority to determine the vote. West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin calls this “a heavy lift.” He, one senator out of a hundred, will not allow this. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t have such qualms when he engineered exactly the same kind of carveout to insure Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court would be confirmed by simple majority. He did, and they were.

Today, 6 January 2022, there will be events and reports all over the country marking the occasion. You won’t see Republican legislators in any of the videos or photos. They maintain it’s just a distraction from the important work of governing, that is, obstructing anything and everything the Biden administration is trying to do.

Their plan is infuriating. And it’s working with a little help from the Coal guy on the Houseboat. Manchin seems to enjoy the spotlight, a one man wrecking ball of American democracy.

Can America Fix Its Public Health System?

January 5th, 2022 by Tom Lynch

Despite the cost of health care in America being nearly twice the average of the other 37 countries within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we achieve poorer health care outcomes than the average and our life expectancy of 78.9 years is 2.1 years below the OECD average of 81.* The OECD chart below is quite instructive. It shows the nation’s relatively poor health performance, but what I find interesting is the last line: We self-rate our health better, much better, than the OECD average. Friends, we have swallowed the Kool Aid.

If we reach the age of 65 when Medicare becomes available, life expectancy improves to 84.5 years, but that puts us still below the OECD average of 84.9 and 13th from the bottom of the pack. By way of further comparison, the Brits, whose National Health System we so cavalierly denigrate, outlive us by 2.5 years; Canadiens, by 3.2 years. They must be doing something right, and they do it for significantly less money.

One often overlooked and, for the most part, unexamined reason for our high health care costs and sub-par outcomes can be found in our woebegone Public Health System. Of all the gaping holes COVID-19 has exposed in the nation’s approach to health care and emergency preparedness, our Public Health System, fragmented, uncoordinated, underfunded, but critically important, is the deepest.

COVID has turned the health care world upside down, especially in regards to health care funding. CMS reports U.S. health care spending grew 9.7 percent in 2020, reaching $4.1 trillion or $12,530 per person. As a share of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, health spending accounted for 19.7%, up from 16.8% the year prior.

Less than 3% of that $4.1 trillion went to our Public Health System. Moreover, Trust for America’s Health, a non-partisan organization that tracks health issues, reports public health spending as a proportion of total health spending has been decreasing since 2000 and falling in inflation-adjusted terms since the Great Recession. Health departments across the country are battling 21st-century health care wars with mid-20th-century weapons.

Our Public Health System is supposed to address everything having to do with health, from diseases like COVID-19 to tornados, hurricanes, wild fires, floods, rat infestations, and the like. It lives at the local level, from states, to counties, to cities and towns. My little Berkshire town of Becket, Massachusetts, population of 1,931, has a functioning Health Department.

The CDC, through grants to the states and large cities is the primary funder of federal public health. The system and funding for it worked pretty well until, in 2001, terrorists brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11, killing 2,996 of our fellow citizens. Suddenly, money that had been earmarked for public health was syphoned off for the War on Terror. In attempting to right the ship, Section 4002 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) established the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Also known as the Prevention Fund or PPHF, it is the nation’s first mandatory funding stream dedicated to improving our nation’s public health system. By law, the Prevention Fund must be used “to provide for expanded and sustained national investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth in private and public health care costs.” The law mandated funding: $18.75 billion between fiscal years 2010 and 2022 and then $2 billion annually thereafter.

The Fund’s intentional mandatory design was meant to ensure consistent, predictable, and expanded resources for prevention and public health that are not always politically viable in the annual appropriations process, where public health and prevention programs compete against other priorities.

The Fund’s statute is broad and authorizes use of funds for a number of activities and grant programs:

The Secretary shall transfer amounts in the Fund to accounts within the Department of Health and Human Services to increase funding, over the fiscal year 2008 level, for programs authorized by the Public Health Service Act [42 U.S.C. 201 et seq.], for prevention, wellness, and public health activities including prevention research, health screenings, and initiatives, such as the Community Transformation grant program, the Education and Outreach Campaign Regarding Preventive Benefits, and immunization programs.

But nowhere in the statute does it say that the President or Congress cannot redirect the Fund’s money for some other purpose. And that is what has happened.

Redirecting the Fund’s cash for some other purpose would not be, per se, a bad thing as long as the new purpose advanced public health. However, political expediency, partisan grandstanding, the republican-led 63 attempts to repeal the ACA, the law that established and governs the Fund, have done damage. For example, in February 2012, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation to cut the Fund by $6.25 billion over 9 years (FY2013 to FY2021) to correct the Medicare sustainable growth rate and prevent cuts to physician services in the Medicare program (known as the “doc fix”). To believe these measures actually advanced our Public Health System is to believe pigs really can fly.

A less controversial move that still violated the Fund’s legislative intent happened in FY2013, when Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives, refused to appropriate funding for ACA enrollment activities. In response, the Obama administration used the Fund’s money to do that.

As congressional partisanship deepened in the following years, Republicans began to question the Fund as government overreach, calling it the “Obama slush fund.” In 2017, the Republican-led House passed the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have cut the Fund by $1 billion. It was defeated in the Senate, but it exemplifies the rancor in the Halls of Congress.

A government’s first duty is to protect the safety of its citizens. The arrival of COVID-19, laying bare our still woeful Public Health System, showed us we were unprepared to address that sacred duty, and more than 800,000 of us have died to prove the point.

We could have done so much better.

 

* These are 2019 numbers, the latest year the OECD is reporting as of this writing. According to the CDC, U.S. life expectancy dropped to 77 years in 2020, which is partly due to 385,441 deaths due to COVID-19 in 2020. We can expect a continued drop in life expectancy being reported for 2021, as COVID deaths in that year totaled 435,755.

 

 

The Evolution Of Communication: The Sharpest Of Two-Edged Swords

December 28th, 2021 by Tom Lynch

Information is power, and maintaining an empire requires power. Consequently, knowing what is happening as quickly as possible becomes critical for the stability of an empire and its leaders. For information, knowledge of what is happening, to be passed from one person to another requires an established and systematic form of communication.

In the 14th century BCE, the Mongols created and perfected the Mongol Pony Express, whereby information could be communicated at the rate of 200 to 250 miles per day. Horses of the highest quality, three to four hundred of them at a time, were kept throughout the empire at a series of elegant outposts, called Yams. Because it was vitally important for the Emperor to know at all times what was happening in the vastness of his empire and to be assured that his orders were communicated at the fastest possible speed, no expense was spared to keep horses and riders in top shape. They were pampered by design. Riders rode at such high speeds, they were tied to their saddles to keep them from falling off.

The Pony Express, in one form or another, was the fastest method of communication for more than 3,000 years until Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and connected Washington, D.C., to Baltimore in 1843. From that time until now, communication has evolved at a faster and faster clip ― telegraph, telephone, train, airplane, radio, television ― social media.

Today, if a politician in San Francisco utters a sentence at 9:00 AM, we know about it in Boston at 9:01. The growth of technology, and the Pony Express was high tech in its day, has moved humanity forward in ways we don’t often consider.

  • In 1920, 35% of homes in America had telephones. Today, the “landline” is going the way of the Wooly Mammoth, and it’s hard to find anyone in the developed world without a smartphone.
  • Speaking of homes, in 1920 there were 17.6 million owned or rented housing units in the country, excluding homes on farms; in 2013, the number was 115 million.
  • In 1920, John Baird’s first demonstration of television to fifty scientists in central London was still six years away. Today, LG is building interactive televisions into a home’s front door.
  • In 1920, there were five radio stations in America; by 1930, ten years later, the number would be 618, and radio would be entering its Golden Era. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt propelled the medium along with his first Fireside Chat; in 1938, a brash young genius named Orson Wells terrified the nation with his War Of the Worlds broadcast.
  • In  1950, there were 98 commercial television stations in the U.S.; by 2017, the number had grown to 1,761.
  • Google was founded in 1998, Facebook in 2006, and Twitter in 2007. Billions now subscribe. Prior to this, Americans got their “instant” news from CNN, which came on air for the first time in 1980, Fox News in 1996. Today, these communications behemoths and many others, report “breaking news” every minute of the day.

Today, social media hits us like jackhammers ― All. The. Time.

Given this history, I suggest the worst thing possible for human communication is a super-abundance of it. It desensitizes us to anything meaningful coming out of the chaotic fog of the ether.

It allows the intellectually backward and morally bankrupt to scream lies over and over again to a people hungry to blame someone, anyone, for what they perceive as the injustice within their lives. It allows a reprehensible minority who clamor for fame and adulation to come across as actual leaders of an extremist movement to bring America back to the mirage they paint as the “good old days of the 1950s,” when bigotry and misogyny reigned and made America great. It allows for a servile portion of the electorate, life’s dissatisfied customers, to elevate and venerate a narcissistic, power-crazy (but very clever) lunatic to lead them to their warped version of the promised land. Their Siegfried, their Übermensch.

And while this happens, so many sit by and, by silence, perpetuate the shameful and disgusting behavior.

Right now there is a school of thought, about which we will write later, that believes January 6th was a rehearsal, a dry run. Most will smirk at the idea. This is America, and coups don’t happen here. It might be wise to think a bit longer and deeper about that.

And it might be wise for the folks leading the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers and QAnon, and all the other far right extremist groups to consider that, when they no longer proved useful to him, Adolph Hitler wiped out the Brownshirts in one night in 1934, executing all the leaders and forever destroying the group that had been most vital for his coming to power, the group that had been with him since 1923 and the Beer Hall Putsch, another dry run.

It’s not called The Night Of The Long Knives for nothing.

 

 

Happy Christmas Eve Day

December 24th, 2021 by Tom Lynch

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”

For some, my beautiful spouse included, Christmas Eve Day is the best day of the year, even better than Thanksgiving, which is my favorite. Karen revels in the revels of getting everything ready, so the next day, the biggie, will be fantastic for all.

For many reasons we are living in perilous times, but I suggest there are many more of Karen’s ilk than the in-our-face whackadoodles, whose ambition in life seems to be to become famous by screaming the most outrageous and untruthful things possible. They shout louder, but they are a minority, and a poor one at that.

So, this little letter is a paean for the unsung heroes among us who constantly go out of their way to make life better for those around them. They offer an admirable, aspirational and humbling example for the rest of us.

 

 

Getting From Here To There Politically

December 22nd, 2021 by Tom Lynch

Unless you’ve been living under a very big rock at the bottom of a very deep hole at the base of a very large crater on the planet Mars, you probably know there is a very wide chasm separating the Republican and Democratic Parties with respect to domestic policy.

The Democratic Party believes the middle and lower classes have had it tucked to them since the era of Ronald Reagan and the emergence and eventual marketplace triumph of trickle down politics. They point to more than 40 years of stagnant Real Wages, the constant and dispiriting race to keep up with the cost of living in which every step means falling farther behind, and the ever-widening and maddening gulf between the haves and the have nots, the one-percenters and everyone else. Party leadership and President Biden believe something has to be done and now is the time to do it. Ergo, the Build Back Better bill (BBB) currently ricocheting around the halls of Congress.

The Republican Party and its leadership disagree. In a nutshell, they say the whole thing costs too much and will bankrupt the country.

They took a somewhat different stance when they were in power and, with no Democratic support, passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which many consider the quintessential example of trickle down economics in American history. Under this legislation the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that individuals and pass-through entities like partnerships and S corporations would receive about $1.125 trillion in net benefits (i.e. net tax cuts offset by reduced healthcare subsidies) over 10 years, while corporations would receive around $320 billion in benefits. The CBO estimated that implementing the Act would add an estimated $2.289 trillion to the national debt over ten years (emphasis added)( “CBO-Appendix B: The Effects of the 2017 Tax Act on CBO’s Economic and Budget Projections, page 129)

Republicans, said the CBO report was hogwash. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin went so far as to say the Act would pay for itself in ten years and lower the national debt.

Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out that way. Almost every major analysis correctly predicted revenues would fall and debt would increase. Analysis of first-year results released by the Congressional Research Service (the best research service you perhaps have never heard of) in May 2019 found:

  • “a relatively small (if any) first-year effect on the economy”
  • “a feedback effect of 0.3% of GDP or less,” such that the tax cut did not pay for itself
  • “pretax profits and economic depreciation (the price of capital) grew faster than wages,” meaning shareholders benefited more than workers
  • inflation-adjusted wage growth “is smaller than overall growth in labor compensation and indicates that ordinary workers had very little growth in wage rates”
  • “the evidence does not suggest a surge in investment from abroad in 2018” as proponents of the Act had asserted it would
  • “While evidence does indicate significant repurchases of shares, either from tax cuts or repatriated revenues, relatively little was directed to paying worker bonuses”

So, with that kind of batting average it seems a bit precious for Republicans to summarily dismiss the BBB bill and line up the firing squad to kill it. On the other hand, they proclaim agreement with the “goals” of the BBB, while offering no practical applications to achieve the desired results. Just goes to show that since the founding of the country parties in the minority, no matter who they are,  have demonstrated a terrific ability to denigrate what the majority proposes without any responsibility for proposing and implementing their own solutions.

But pity the poor Democrats within the Biden Administration. They’re having to fight the war on three fronts. First, there is the inevitable and total Republican opposition; then they have to appease the Progressive wing of their own party; and they have to do all this while at the same time dealing with a certain Senator from West Virginia. Let us not forget that this is the man who fathered the CEO of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., who, with Gordon Gekko enthusiasm, in 2016 raised the price of life saving EpiPens from $100 to $600 for a two-pack. Why? Because she could. I only mention this because of the old adage about the apple and the tree.

Given Senator Manchin’s knife-through-the-heart death blow to BBB this past Sunday on Fox News, one might be forgiven for thinking that if democrats keep bringing up the bill they’ll be fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity.

But, hold on a minute. I suggest the erstwhile coal magnate has gone a bridge too far and given the Democrats a magnificent opportunity. After his announcement, he was almost universally excoriated for it. Even the Coal Mining Union called him out on it. Obviously, this affected him, because the next day he seemed to back off a bit. Therefore, if the democratic muck-a-mucks are magnanimous and warm-hearted and forgive him publicly for this unfortunate error in judgement―sort of welcome him home as the Prodigal Son―he may be grateful enough to work with the President and, with a couple of face-saving tweaks, produce a bill all democrats can support, maybe even a few Republicans when they see the writing on the wall.

I’ve always thought the key to success is the ability to outlast the opposition. Elihu Root said it better. He was Secretary of State and Secretary of War in the Roosevelt Administrations, Theodore’s not Franklin’s. He said, “Men do not fail; they give up trying. Failure is a necessary step toward success.” Mr. Root also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912.

Democrats would do well to remember Root’s words.

What do you think?

WCRI: The Calm In The Storm

December 21st, 2021 by Tom Lynch

In these uncertain times, it’s nice to know there are still a few things you can count on. One of them is the upcoming Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s Annual Conference, its 38th. This year’s is scheduled for Boston on Thursday and Friday, 16 and 17 March. I say ‘scheduled for Boston,” because, well, one never knows, right? Omicron is raging right now. Almost makes me think you can catch it from someone three counties over.* If in early March Omicron persists, or some other variant of you know what barrels down the Massachusetts Turnpike, we might end up going remote again. But, as Alexander Pope so nicely put it, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

WCRI has scored a hit this year in having Dr. Robert Hartwig deliver the Keynote speech. Bob is one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, and his presentations can be exhausting. He delivers more data than there are cargo containers in the port of Los Angeles, and he does it in Gatling gun style. Hint: Load up on the caffeine, so you’ll have a chance to keep up with him. Although his presentation is titled, Impact of Disruptions Caused by COVID-19 on Workers’ Compensation, I’ll be interested in his thoughts on the drop in Real Wages over the last year, despite wage growth, and whether he views the spike in inflation as more permanent than temporary. Bob’s presentation will be worth the price of admission, and then some.

The rest of the first day is loaded with important, if wonky, data, such as Dr. Bogdan Savych’s presentation on the Impact of Consolidation of Care and Vertical Integration on Professional Prices. Might be a good idea to keep the coffee coming.

I’m particularly looking forward to the presentation on Vaccines, Variants, and Long-term Medical Effects of COVID-19, which is mid-morning, Friday. Frankly, I wish that had been laid on for Thursday, because, what with air reservations, Friday can sometimes be more sparsely attended than Thursday. Regardless, we should know a lot more about the variants by early March than we do now, so I would suggest this is an important presentation.

You can register for the conference here. If you’re in the workers’ compensation business, I urge you to do so.

Congratulations to the excellent staff at WRCI, led superbly by Dr. John Ruser, for soldiering on during these trying times and for keeping their eyes squarely focused on the mission.

One more thing: Congratulations also for WCRI’s decision to forgo holiday cards this year. Instead, the Institute is donating the money that would take to the Greater Boston Food Bank, one of the largest in the country. The need has been great over the last two years and the Greater Boston Food Bank has saved many of my Massachusetts neighbors in the community from food deprivation. Job well done. Thank you.

* It’s a story for another time, but, in spite of my best efforts, I still do not understand the rationale, presuming there is any, behind the intransigence of the unvaccinated. For instance, yesterday in Boston, brand new Mayor Michelle Wu gave a presser on her decision to require proof of vaccination, beginning next week, for everyone entering public places in the city. That’s restaurants, gyms, bars, etc. This became difficult for her, because a fairly large crowd, carrying homemade signs (they must have known this was coming, somehow), squirreled their way into Boston City Hall’s great big lobby and did their level best to drown her out. Democracy around here is getting messy, but at least it was peaceful.

As I Was Saying…

December 20th, 2021 by Tom Lynch

Having taken a few days off―168 to be precise―your scribe has now returned to the writer’s desk to once more enter the fray.

No, I was not sidelined with a case of COVID. Nor did some momentous life experience throw a high hard one to the side of my head and put me on my backside. Family has been fine and health excellent (if you don’t count the shoulder that wants replacement after hitting about 950,000 overheads on the tennis court over the course of too many decades―simple arithmetic).

Being serious though, I’ve thought hard about why I fell victim to a 168-day writing famine, a real writer’s block, and I think it comes down to three things:

1. There is so much bloviation in the internet’s ether that one’s goal should be to subtract from it, rather than add to it. Technology now allows anyone and everyone to label themselves “expert” and throw their intergalactically significant thoughts up against the literary wall to see if any stick. Perhaps 5% are worthy of the effort, and that’s being generous. Ask yourselves how many pundit “opinions” land in your inbox every day. If you’re like me, it’s a lot. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be exhausting.

2. The “new normal” is not. It’s abnormal. For me, it’s like walking into an art museum and finding all the paintings just a little crooked. It’s woozy inducing. Like trying to plant cut flowers, to quote Daniel Boorstin, the late American historian and Librarian of Congress. And calling it the new “normal” is misleading, because “normal” suggests this is what life will be for all of us forever: The Norm. One hopes that, like every other plague in history, humanity will one day emerge into the bright sunshine of maskless and vaccinated good health, with COVID no longer the grim reaper. But that day is somewhere in the fog of the future.

3. The bitter, atavistic, and in many cases downright ignorant partisan wars erupting every day all over the media, social and otherwise, have changed the American landscape. They put in sharp relief the good and the bad of democracy’s fabric. The constant search for “gotcha” moments, the in-your-face bellicosity, the biblical attachment to lies regardless of truth no matter how well-proven, bring out the very worst in all too many people with cruelty as sharp as the edge of an ax. Vlad the Impaler could learn a thing or two from some of these folks who have all the intellectual honesty of a lap dance and whose minds are about as deep as a pool table’s side pocket.

For the last 168 days I’ve been the fly on the wall of the human condition. I’ve watched people as artificial and superficial as a casino lobby jockey for power and influence. While more than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID, self-interest has reigned and hobbled the best efforts of heroically dedicated people devoted to improving the lot of the rest of humanity, the rest of us. This has caused a kind of intellectual paralysis, like being thrown into a deep pit and finding it rough to climb out. Have you felt that way, too?

Three years ago this month. I told the story of how Frederick Banting’s team of himself, Charles Best and James Collip recovered and purified insulin from the fetal pancreases of cows and pigs in 1922, how they successfully tested it on humans, how Banting won the Nobel Prize the following year for his discovery, how the team sold the patent for the discovery to the University of Toronto for $3.00―a buck apiece―and how they and the University agreed to license the manufacturing rights to pharmaceutical companies royalty-free, because, in Banting’s words, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” The team and the university wanted to incentivize drug companies to improve on the Banting team’s discovery, so the University and Banting agreed to allow the companies to improve Banting’s formulation if they could and patent any new discoveries that arose. Their hope was that drug companies would share their vision of making it possible for Type-1 Diabetics to live high-quality lives and to keep insulin prices low to help them do it.

That was 100 years ago. Today, the Build Back Better bill, the one West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin killed yesterday, would have, among other things, let Medicare negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies for a very limited number of high-cost drugs and would have capped the monthly cost of insulin for many, but by no means all, diabetics at $35. That may still happen, but its odds of passing just went from perhaps to probably not. One wonders what Frederick Banting would think of all this.

At any rate, vacation’s over, and my tiny voice will do what it can to throw light into the dark that shrouds us all.

 

News You Might Have Missed

May 26th, 2021 by Tom Lynch

Immunity Passports and Herd Immunity

As time passes, we are learning more and more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. One of the things we are learning is how much we have yet to learn.

For example, a current and pervasive meme involves antibodies an infected person’s immune system makes to combat COVID-19.

Following his bout with the virus in October, 2020, during which he was given an “antibody cocktail,” Donald Trump famously said, “Now you have a president who doesn’t have to hide in a basement like his opponent. You have a president who is immune. Which is a very important thing, frankly.” Although the disgraced former president also said he wasn’t sure how long his “immunity” would last, the cult-of-Trump within the American public heard his “now I’m immune” message loud and clear.

Even before Trump’s “I’m immune” message, six months before, actually, his White House Rasputin, Scott Atlas, from Stanford’s Hoover Institute, told Fox’s Tucker Carlson it was “good news that the virus spreads widely and without risk to the vast majority of people. That’s good news, because we have a better chance of developing population immunity.” He went on to say this “would allow people to develop their own antibodies, and eventually enough people would develop their own antibodies to block the network of contagion.”

Herd immunity from having had the disease is a belief that won’t die. Two months ago “Health Coach” Christian Elliot published a mega-viral blog post entitled Eighteen Reasons I Won’t Be Getting A Covid Vaccine. One of the reasons? “I already had Covid.”

Reputable journals, newspapers and website have published fact-based research debunking this “I’m immune because I had it” drivel. As far back as 24 April 2020, around the same time Scott Atlas was mythologizing with Tucker Carlson, The World Health Organization (WHO) tried to put the matter to rest when it published Immunity Passports in the context of COVID-19. From the beginning of the article:

Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could serve as the basis for an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.

For the article, the WHO reported on 17 studies investigating whether having had COVID-19 produces antibodies (it does) that prevent recurrence of the disease (unknown). Seventeen studies, and not one reporting having had COVID-19 prevents short or long term reinfection.

To make it even clearer, further on the WHO said:

As of 24 April 2020, no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans.

But none of this stopped Donald Trump from perpetuating the medical myth the following October after his recovery.

This Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole thinking just confirms once again there has never been a fact that Trumped a deeply held belief.

Fifty-three percent, eh?

The Gallup organization made news this week with its latest poll in which it reported 53% of Republicans believe Donald Trump was cheated out of the presidency. This has been confirmed over and over again in the six months since the election—an election Joe Biden won by more than seven-million votes. Makes it seem as if a big swath of the country thinks a fraudster sits in the Oval Office.

But does it really? Let’s look a little deeper.

For decades, Gallup has surveyed the party affiliation of Americans, that is, U.S. adults identifying with the Democratic Party or who said they are independents leaning toward the Democratic Party; and, U.S. adults identifying with the Republican Party or who said they are independents who lean toward the Republican Party. In recent years, the gap between the two, a Democratic advantage, has been between four and six percentage points. In the first quarter, 2021, that gap grew to nine percentage points.

In Gallup’s Q1 survey, 25% of U.S. adults identified as Republicans and 15% as Republican-leaning Independents, for a total of 40%. This compares with 30% identifying as Democrats and 19% as Democratic-leaning Independents, totaling 49%. Thus, the nine point gap.

Now, back to the 53% of Republicans who believe Trump was cheated. Fifty-three percent of 25% is 13.25%. Fifty-three percent of 40% is 21.2%. Presuming not every, single Republican-leaning Independent believes Biden stole the election, we can say somewhere between 13.25% and 21.2% of U.S. adults believe the stolen election Big Lie. I’m betting it’s closer to the bottom number.

And that, my friends, is Donald Trump’s true base.

Who needs an independent commission?

The last time a violent mob invaded Washington, D.C. was 24 August 1814 during the War of 1812 when the British set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Senate Chamber and the Library of Congress. They burned most everything to the ground. Only torrential rains stopped the blaze. President James Madison wasn’t at the White House when this occurred, but his wife Dolly was. She took command and rescued everything she could. After that, with American soldiers escorting her, she was able to make her escape.

Two-hundred-seven years later, on 6 January 2021, a weaponized and organized mob of our fellow citizens stormed the Capitol in a violent insurrection. Five people died and the mob trashed the place to the tune of $30 million, according to the Architect of the Capitol. President Donald Trump wasn’t in the Capitol when the mob arrived, but his Vice President Mike Pence was. With the mob chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” the Secret Service, like the soldiers who helped Dolly Madison, spirited Pence and his retinue out of the building to safety.

Thus far, 494 people have been arrested and charged for participating in the insurrection. They are from all parts of America and from all levels of society. Knowing the who, what, how, and why of this national obscenity seems to me to be a not too radical idea, the responsible thing to do. However, Republicans in Congress maintain that, because congressional committees are looking into the matter, an independent commission is unjustified and a waste of time and taxpayer money. They say the country needs to look forward, not back.

Being kind about this type of argument, I have to say it is full of what makes the grass grow green and tall. Perhaps the summit of Republican silliness was reached last night when Mitch McConnell, calling the whole thing a “purely political exercise,” told reporters that democrats, “would like to continue to debate things that occurred in the past,” as if investigating an assault on Democracy during which a violent mob was trying to find the Vice President of the United States in order to kill him was something akin to investigating how a new city parking lot strangely came to be on the corner of 6th and 7th. McConnell couldn’t even call the insurrection what it was; for him, it’s now just a “thing in the past.”

It is a tremendously sad commentary on our current society that the U.S. Senate, because of Republican opposition, will most likely not  approve an investigation by an independent commission into the 6 January insurrection. People, what have we come to?

History will not be kind to us in this moment. It will give us what we deserve.