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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Can BUDGETS be IMMORAL?


Donald Trump has finally made some Republicans sit up and take notice!  Here are a few of his latest antics:
·       Executive Orders to temporarily ban immigration from 7 Mid-eastern countries were rejected twice in Courts.  At supporter rallies, railed against the court rulings, seemingly unaware of potential that his utterances could be used against him in higher courts.
·       On Twitter, accused former President Obama of a felony – that he ordered “wire-tapping” at Trump Tower in NYC during 2016 campaign. Directors of both NSA and the FBI asserted that no President under current law and structures could order such an illegal act, nor do they have evidence to back up Trump’s claims. 
·       Issued an outline of his first budget to Congress in which he supports egregious budget cuts to all manner of programs, agencies and departments without documentation of need or cause to do so.
“... to offset increases in defense spending, the President is proposing $54 billion in cuts to large parts of the federal government and popular programs big and small.  Trump’s budget would cut off funding entirely for several agencies, including arts, public broadcasting and development groups, with steep cuts to agencies like the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency.  Virtually every agency will see some sort of cut, with only Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs getting a boost.” (CNN)
This Budget reveals a lack of understanding of the role of government in maintaining the security, protection and well-being of members of this society, and it exudes a lack of morality in terms of caring about the welfare of people.    The cuts appear to be nothing more than blatant attempts to meet the terms of an ideology, fulfill some campaign promises, find funds to transfer to the wealthy and to the military build-up, and to end liberal programs once and for all.
Let me concentrate my remarks today (with the indispensable help of articles from CNN, Bloomberg News and USA Today) on that so-called ‘budget’ that Trump has devised with Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and presumably, with input from senior WH advisor Steve Bannon. For the sake of brevity, let us look at it through the lens of one broad category of concern.
MORALITY
Morality has to do with principles, behavior and conduct. There is a basic ethical consideration in every budget produced by the White House or ultimately by the Congress: meeting standards of wrong and right along with the responsibility that officials (and governments) have for the welfare of other human beings, especially those who are vulnerable to certain matters beyond their control, like aging, disease, birth defects, mental capacity, inherited genes, or acquired/imposed challenges that may affect full participation in human endeavors.  Mutual responsibility for the welfare of others is at the core of major religions, philosophies and humanistic ideologies.  It is also fundamental to the ordering of our society and to the transcendence of our humanity.
 In other words, we cannot transcend our flawed human nature and confines unless we reach beyond ourselves to other human beings, making their lives interdependent with our own.  In Christianity, it is expressed in terms of a Golden Rule and the Spirit of a loving God.  In humanitarian ideology or philosophy, it may be sometimes understood as a ‘social contract.’ Whatever its origin, or conceptual development, it is fundamental to our society’s well-being as expressed in the Preamble to our Constitution.  As I have said in other posts: morality is not only about individual behavior, it is also the moral duty and responsibility of every government to advance the welfare of all its people. 
In this Trumped-up budget for 2018, we find both a morality dis-connect and a communal immorality: that is, both non-involvement with the moral obligations of a budget, and actual provisions (behaviors) within the budget whose outcome would be a violation of responsibility for certain people with special needs that can only be addressed in the context of the commonwealth (the whole nation). 
But, the ideology of capitalists and conservative Republicans, especially the Alt Right, contains some contrary elements or principles often expressed as two sides of one coin:
1) that every individual is responsible for their own well-being and their own success and their own destiny. Examples: if one is uneducated, has a lousy job, lives in poverty or can’t cope with life – that is their fault, and does not obligate others to ‘rescue’ them from their self-inflicted problems. And,
2) those who have success, education, wealth and a special status should not be obligated by government to provide their tax money for the rescue and entitling of other less responsible citizens. Instead, they believe government should reward them with special privileges, special access and special “breaks.”
So, let us look at the Trump Budget in light of this one matter of morality: the mutual contractual responsibility for the welfare of other citizens and human beings.
The Disconnect:
In most of the provisions of this Budget, it appears that there is simply no connection to this moral realm.  There are devastating cuts to affordable health care, to Meals on Wheels and community service programs for Seniors (like Nancy Reagan's favorite - Foster Grandparents), Planned Parenthood, the WIC program for low-income women and children, along with the gutting of the EPA.  To that add nearly a 20% cut - $5.8 billion dollars -  to National Institutes of Health (including research)!
Most items in the budget are considered in terms that exclude the human dimensions of need, vulnerability, and concern for human welfare.  Some excuses are offered but studies, statistics, human stories, or in-depth analysis are all lacking.  Cuts are made in terms exclusively related to deficit, duplication, inefficiency, and privatization.  Once in a while, waste or over-spending is thrown in, but nowhere is there discussion of human need or vulnerability; protection or safety.  The general welfare of our nation’s citizens seems to show up only in terms of military build-up and Homeland security, plus some attention to law and order. 
About security, there is no reference at all to the insecurity that is caused by a government and its leaders who ignore perhaps the most harmful threat to our ultimate security, and our very existence: the environment.  A moral imperative would tend to say that even if one does not believe the scientific evidence of environmental threat, there are blatant natural signs that our welfare may be at risk: species are dying, weather is changing dramatically at record levels; air, water and earth are at dangerous levels of pollution, smog is a killer, chemical waste and chemical particles left behind by industries are being found in our earth, air and water; ice caps are melting and oceans rising in depth each year, with flooding already recorded at high levels in coastal areas. 
Just recently, a report from a large group of scientists has made it dramatically clear that many diseases are being spawned or aggravated by the chemicals and pollutants we allow to muck-up our environment: heart disease, asthma, lung cancer and several other cancers, as well as auto-immune diseases such as Parkinson’s are being linked to such pollutants.  At the very least, our government should be pro-active in researching and addressing these threats even if climate change science is not accepted by them!   
We are, as a nation, in dire need of strong moral leadership in this area of life or death for our people and our planet, and what do we get from the Trump administration but a long list of cuts for environmental and research items, including a 34% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s total budget.  Let me also mention a few environment-related programs and agencies whose cuts you may not have noticed in Trump’s proposed budget:
  • Chemical Safety Board (-$11 million) – investigates chemical accidents and makes recommendations to industries and labor groups, OSHA and EPA to prevent future accidents
  • Clean Power Plan (EPA) – creates national standards for carbon pollution plants and helps states develop and deploy clean energy alternatives
  • International Climate Change Programs(EPA) – promotes clean and efficient energy technologies and shares scientific climate research with multilateral initiatives and treaties
  • Climate Change Research and partnership programs(EPA) – researches and reports on climate change impact on the US
  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (-$40 million) – task force focused on pollution clean-ups, invasive species reduction and wildlife protection
  • Chesapeake Bay Program (-$14 million) – oversees restoration of Chesapeake Bay and its watershed
  • Energy Star Program (EPA) – certifies and recognizes buildings and consumer products that meet specific energy-specific criteria
  • Targeted Air Shed grants (EPA)– assists state and local pollution control agencies to develop plans and projects to reduce air pollution in highly polluted areas
  • Endocrine Disrupter Screening Program (EPA)—screens pesticides, chemicals and other contaminants for potential effect upon estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone systems
  • OCO-3 Earth Science Mission – a NASA mission to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on earth via the International Space Station
  • Global Climate Change Initiative (-$1.3 billion) – USAID provides financial assistance for global climate change initiatives in developing countries
  • U.N. Green Climate Fund (-$250 million) – State Dept. provides funds to help developing countries mitigate and tackle the effects of climate change
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency (-$382 million) –Energy Dept.  provides funding and support to short-term energy research projects aimed at improving the economy, environment and security
  • Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Program – Energy Dept. provides loans to support use of new energy technology
  • Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program – Energy Dept. provides loans to automotive and component manufacturers for facilities and engineering that support advanced technology vehicles
REMEMBER: this doesn’t even count the myriad of programs that would be lost in cuts involving the EPA!  Nor does it list other Departmental programs that will be cut such as the Low- Income Home Energy Assistance Program under HHS or the Water and Waste Water loan program -($498 million) under Department of Agriculture.  
Let me say here that I am not against cutting out duplicative and wasteful programs, but that needs to be done in a much more effective way through data collection, surveys, evaluations and personal interviews with recipients of services.  It might even involve congressional committee investigations and hearings if those committees had any credibility or bi-partisan cooperation among members.  Or how about this: why not have the CBO, and/or a bi-partisan Commission of Evaluators score programs on an on-going basis, instead of making decisions based on ideological mumbo-jumbo and political scores that are often settled by spiteful representatives. 
Let’s be clear about this budget.  It is a revealing outline of who Trump is, what he believes, and most of all what he wants to do about “deconstructing administration” per his chief advisor, Steve Bannon.  This is economic nationalism writ large; this is support for the 1% and their values; this is meant to undermine the liberal press, the liberal culture, the liberal electorate, and as many liberal programs as is possible. 
It is destructive all right, as many of the tenets of democracy are going to disappear under its manipulation.  The progressive gains of the last century are on the chopping block; and so are the ethical underpinnings that inspired those advances.  Remember, Trump was not elected because of governing skills. He was elected to drain the establishment swamp of unresponsive, liberal-minded politicians and office-holders, to overturn entrenched programs, treaties and agreements, to restore American manufacturing and jobs while also deregulating all areas that affect the conduct of American Business.  He was hired to make America Great Again.  Ignoring people’s needs, challenges and problems, as well as their opinions, is not the way to greatness.
Now let us turn to a listing of what I consider the immoral abandoning of the General Welfare of vulnerable citizens.  Again, to maintain a limit on the length of this post, I must be brief and target only some of the many examples of the Trump approach to the “safety net” and the well-being of our citizens and of our society.  In brief, he doesn’t much care what happens as long as he defends the rich from having to share their wealth with the less fortunate members of our commonwealth (notice if you will the two words that combine to make that word – ‘common’ and ‘wealth’ – it should give us pause as to the import and meaning of the social contract).
Trump’s budget proposes elimination (100% budget cut) of 19 independent agencies and 61 other programs. thus ending their existence.  Among the agencies getting the AX:
1)    Regional agencies to develop economic opportunities, infrastructure and workforce in certain vulnerable areas: Appalachian Regional Commission (-$119 million) with emphasis on coal-dependent communities; Delta Regional Authority (-$45 million) and Northern Border Regional Commission (-$7 million) near Canadian border in ME, NH, VT and NY
2)     United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (-$4 million) –coordinates with federal agencies to prevent and end homelessness
3)     Legal Services Corporation (-$366 million)—funds organizations that provide legal aid to low-income citizens
4)     Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (-$175 million)—assists organizations aimed at revitalizing rural, urban, and suburb
5)     Corporation for National and Community Service (-$771 million) – funds thousands of volunteer organizations nationwide and runs AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps Programs (including Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP) and the Social Innovation Fund.
[Having had experience as the Project Director of two of these programs (both the largest of their kind in the nation), I know first-hand the double-barreled benefit these programs have on volunteers and their protégés and a third beneficiary is the community.  These programs produce millions of dollars in volunteer hours, saving meaningful amounts in program and administrative costs].
The overriding reason given for most of these cuts is that they are duplicative or inefficient, but the underlying reason might be the old saw that communities and private funding should be funding these community development programs if they are needed.  This overlooks the fact that these programs would not be in existence at all if left to local funding either public or private. They are regional and nationwide in terms of their effect, and need to be such to make meaningful impact on widespread needs and problems. Such malarkey also overlooks the proven positive outcomes they have had over their years of existence.
Trump's budget comes down finally to the need to fund other programs with the money saved from discretionary programs.  And what are those must-fund programs – military readiness and national security. In other words, Trump and his administration, backed up by a willing Congress, will steal the money that has funded community development agencies and programs (along with the money saved from cutting whole departments by hefty percentages). 
Take one last look, and picture the millions upon millions of low-income and middle- income people and families who are going to suffer from these losses if this budget passes Congress. I worked for a while in a community action agency in a central New York city and I know first-hand that these programs are often a life-line to which some must cling very tightly.  Here are just a few of the 61 programs being proposed for 100% cuts. 
  • Community development block grants (-$715 million) – funds programs that assist low-income people with housing issues, including elimination of urban blight  
  • Weatherization Assistance Program (-$121 million) – provides grants to local governments to improve weatherization and energy efficiency of homes of low-income residents
  •  Low-income Home Energy Assistance program (-$3.4 billion) – aids low-income families to help pay for home energy bills and some energy-related maintenance
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers (-$1.2 billion) – provide before-and-after-school programs for children, particularly in high-poverty areas
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (-$732 million) – provides needs-based grants up to $4,000 to low-income graduates for postsecondary education
  •  Teacher Quality Partnership (-$43 million) – funds initiatives aimed at improving the quality of new teachers through improved development and recruiting methods
  • HOME investment Partnerships Program – provides block grants to state and local governments to create affordable housing solutions for low-income households
  • Choice Neighborhoods – funds programs to replace distressed public housing and promotes investment for neighborhood improvement
  • Self-Help Ownership Opportunity Program – funds non=profit organizations that build new housing for low-income families with volunteer labor
  • Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing (-$35 million) – works with non-profit groups to fund community development and affordable housing for low-income families
  • Minority Business Development Agency (-$32 million) – promotes growth of minority-owned businesses through advocacy, policy, research and access to capital and contracts
  • Rural Business and Cooperative Service’s discretionary programs – financial assistance provided for economic development in rural communities
  • Senior Community Service Employment Program (-$434 million) – work-based training program for older Americans, including low-income unemployed seniors
  • Community Services Block Grant (-$715 million) – funds projects aimed at reducing poverty in communities, focused on education, nutrition, employment and housing
  • Essential Air Service (-$175 million) – subsidizes airlines for regular flights to and from small and mid-size airports (mostly in rural areas)
  • PRIME Technical Assistance Grants – training and technical assistance for disadvantaged entrepreneurs
  • Economic Development Administration (-$220 million) – programs focused exclusively on economic development
  • Community Development Financial Institutions grants (-$210 million) – Trump’s budget says that the 23-year-old program to support community banks and credit unions is obsolete
The sad part about this is that we have just begun to scratch the surface here.  The Obamacare repeal alone adds other programs to this annihilation: navigator agencies will lose funding; consumer advocacy will take a total hit as there will no longer be an appeals group under TrumpCare as there once was under Obamacare.  There will be no more panels that can help guide changes in Medicare and Medicaid, for example, and certainly no more citizen advocacy panels to advocate for the rights and needs of ordinary citizens in the field of health care.
As I conclude today, it is with a sense that no matter where we look in the Trump budget, we will find a lack of moral courage, fortitude and openness that is necessary in tackling community development, breaking the stranglehold of poverty and the unfairness of the loss of so many opportunities for enhancing the lives of so many of our urban and rural citizens.  Those living in or near poverty levels are in for a series of inordinate shocks as the cuts begin to filter down to the local city, town and rural living areas. 
As programs and agencies shut their doors with signs that say “CLOSED” and “LOST FUNDING” and “SORRY – we got TRUMPED,” let us not forget that this is a moral issue, because it comes down to how people are being treated – as pawns, as rubes, as non-entities and as numbers; even as animals.  Cutting budgets in a hurried, uninformed, undisciplined and unprincipled way is an immoral act because it shows complete indifference to the fate and the well-being of real people; people who will suffer real-life consequences because of budget cuts that mainly take money out of the hands of poor and low-income people and stuff it into the coffers of the very rich with tax cuts, special subsidies, government contracts, and just plain pork-barrel entitlements for them, but not for others of ‘lesser worth.’ 
I have said it before, and it must be said again: Mr. Trump and his gang of administrative ‘de-constructors’ are nothing more than unprincipled fascist-like imitators who will wreak havoc upon our long-term security by means of their unprincipled budget.  2018 is coming and betrayed seniors, rural folks, labor unionists, students, minorities and women, as well as people with disabilities better get ready. We cannot become complacent. We must keep resistance and protest alive before this immoral and detached crowd cut off our democratic infrastructure along with government assistance for the least vulnerable; and for others who seek opportunities just to maintain their lives and the lives of their families.  This is an immoral budget and our judgment upon its perpetrators must be as harsh as we can make it!  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BACK to BASICS?


ARE WE OBSESSIVELY ATTENDING TO BUSINESS, WEALTH, PROFIT,  SUCCESS, and  the  ELITE of less than 1%
Yes, we are, and we haven’t even begun to realize that the values, modes of operation, policies and procedures of business and “economic nationalism” have essentially taken over our democracy. 
 With the Electoral College victory, Donald J. Trump has become the illustration of our status.  He epitomizes not only control of government by the Elite but he epitomizes a working class capitulation to the richest 1% in our nation.  The disaffected class has voted to end our form of government, and it has taken only 40-some days to become actualized; the process of making actual that which was conceptual.  The 1% have been rubber-stamped as the rulers and democracy is the victim of their rule.  The ‘swamp’ has been drained for sure – with several of its creatures spewing right into the Trump administration where they have already enhanced the processes that have been eating away at our politics for years, but now have an electoral mandate to devour us alive. Some examples:  
1.    The clearing out of independent professionals from government; particularly from Departments of Justice and  State.

2.    The clearing out of all ‘pesky’ regulations and regulation-making that restrict business practices and thus diminish the profit-making of businesses that have become terribly “creative;” most recent example: a promised Executive Order scraping CAFE standards for cars and automobiles established by the Obama administration.

3.    The destruction of federal governing structures by a hiring freeze that forbids the hiring of anyone for jobs that come open.  Plus, we have the placement of department heads who actually will conduct the dissolution of their departments: EPA, Education, Commerce, and possibly Labor, State and HUD.

4.    The contracting-out of large programs to private contractors so that there is a constant stream of taxpayer money going to business enterprises.  But that’s not all because the use of more contracts will help to hallow-out government services into private profit-making enterprises, such as schools, prisons and certain functions that provide services to, or on behalf of, the military.

5.    More visible perhaps is the devolving of certain programs and ‘entitlements’ into State hands where they will never be the same because administrative costs will diminish services and benefits.  Think: Medicaid and Food Stamps (there will be many more, of course). 

6.    We don’t often think of personal bank accounts as being devolvement to the states, but that is the partial result since states often set laws and regulations for banks and other financial operatives (like insurance companies and financial entities, and incorporation itself).

Consider for the moment, the intended personal bank accounts having to do with Social Security and Individual Health Care accounts (if Trump-care legislation actually replaces the ACA).  What does this portend but the capture of tens of billions of personal funds that will be subject to fees and restrictions and regulations designed to filch as much from these funds as possible into bank and financial entity coffers.  The plans for all this are not to benefit the middle-class, but to benefit the Elite.  Everything done with the blessing and collusion of the federal government now infiltrated, captured and owned by the Elite themselves!

Perhaps we need to move away from our obsession with capitalistic myths (where manufacturers are protected and subsidized no matter how they behave, who they are, or what shabby products or services they produce), and enter a new era of national and community service. 

1.    Begin to look at all jobs – paid, unpaid, volunteer, low-wage -  as service to our neighbors and our communities rather than measures of individual success, standing or worth/merit all based on profit motive 

a.    All jobs have value in that they contribute to the well-being of society and of fellow-human beings.

b.   All forms of community service are necessary to the   welfare of society.  Thus, all jobs should have equal standing because each plays an important role in the building of community, but in different ways

c.    Profit, manipulation and success are the over-riding values purveyed to this society by the captains of industry and the handlers of financial capital and attendant matters. 

d.    In the area of competition, we find both team-work and annihilation of opponents existing side by side. Unfortunately, team spirit and team work are often used in the pursuit of annihilation.  Fairness and justice are not necessarily operative priorities. Can we find a way to bolster team cooperation, fairness and concern for others with a concept of competition that can be less harmful to our humanness and humanity?  Hard to say.  Is there any concept of community service that can help to re-define competition and the overwhelming urge to win?    

2.    With service to community and nation at the forefront, the values to be cherished and passed on in all societal institutions and groups would be quite different, and perhaps include:

                                                 i.      A strong commitment to serve rather than to profit returning to consumer service and satisfaction as the major business of business; taking personal initiative and action to serve one’s community, to build bridges to others; along with

                                                 ii.      An equally strong commitment to equal opportunity and choice;

                                                 iii.     Moreover, a very strong commitment to consumer advocacy and protection is necessary.  There must be a stronger commitment to scientific research in terms of food, air & water safety, disease cures, etc.  Equally, there must be a prime emphasis on consumer advocacy in terms of councils, boards, policy-making groups, and political oversight.  We must go from a society that invariably favors industry and business explanations for product failures over the vivid and deleterious experiences of consumers, very often assigning ‘consumer error’ or shortcoming as the cause of whatever failure occurs.

BACK to certain BASICS
Are we fully attending to Human rights and Welfare?

1)   Family support is at the heart of the human family. 
·        Parent-like mentoring & child care should be made available to all
·        Must care for all members of human family, here and elsewhere
·        Discriminatory attack against one in the human family is attack against all just as it is within a small family
·        Healthcare coverage needs to be given as a right at birth 
2)   Children must be allowed to thrive; must be first priority
·        Pre-natal care must be available to all mothers
·        Parenting classes must be made available to all at certain facilities; in homes; mobile; or online; even at work stations
·        Children must not be allowed to be homeless
·        Must have basic opportunities available: 
o   Books, toys, playgrounds, play-mates
o   A broad and innovative attention to safety like sensors in cars and appliances that open doors and/or windows if child is trapped inside
o   Universal pre-kindergarten
o   Health screenings; including making gene testing available to prepare child & family for potential inherited difficulties or problems
o   Must provide environmental safety & protections, i.e. reduce harmful chemicals in ground; in homes; ensure clean earth, air & water
·        Must change approach to opportunities like education
o   Saw something recently on MSNBC that gets to a basic that I believe needs to be expanded.  A principal in a school district in the middle of the country has been making visits to the homes of her students.  This is an incredible initiative, and the visuals were stupendous as she gave special attention to each family member. 
3.    Personal attention to consumers of service must characterize all areas of our society and all members of the human family, just as is done for multiple members of our own families
o   Clergy have made home and work calls for many, many years.  Doctors used to make home visits as a general rule and now it is only done by a few.  Home services offered by some health professionals (like therapists and nurses) is a good start.
o   Can we envision a time when people will receive top priority in every important area of life?  When all executives, administrators, managers, will have as a part of their job description to contact and know their constituency?
What does it all mean?  Well, it means, above all, that if we don’t start getting back to basics, like family and community service values-- turning certain concepts of the business world out of the realm of government -- plus fighting to get Trump and his minions out of office, we will never see our Democracy again in its whole form.  The Business and Financial world, the corporate giants of Drugs, Insurance, HealthCare and Fossil Fuels have captured the three branches of our federal government, and most of the state legislatures are in their hands as well, along with State Governorships. 
My final thought today on this subject (although I expect to return to it soon):  take aim at the right target. 
We have for way too long thought that politics was the bane of our existence, and that government was the major problem of our lives.  That modicum of truth is now a purveyor of falsehood.  Government per se is no longer the prime target of complaint and grievance; playing politics is no longer the way to preserve our democracy, although we must guard its structures as best we can.
The prime target now is the richest 1% who have stolen our form of democracy, who have tromped on our values, who have stolen our hard-earned dollars, who continue to extract their government welfare from the Tax system, and who are on a crusade to take trillions more from our societal pocketbook for their own aggrandizement and the collapse of the middle-class.  

If we want to regain our democratic system, we have to start aiming at the right target:  the corporate denizens who have now gained almost complete control of our lives. In case you think I’ve gone over the edge on this, I suggest some books that point to the facts of this crisis of control.  (Three possibilities: “How Will Capitalism End?” by Streeck; “Why Nations FaiI” by Acemogle & Robinson; “The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too” by James Galbraith).

I leave you with several brief questions that are examples of this control.  The answer to all of them is the same:
 "Because the 1% Elite are blocking or preventing any change or solution that does not benefit them."

Why is it that this country of all the developed nations does not have single-payer universal health care that is far less costly than our current system?
Why is it that our government is by law prevented from making a deal on drug costs with domestic and foreign manufacturers?
Why is it that manufacturing gets more attention than the 1 in 5 children who are currently living in poverty?
Why is it that scientific evidence of climate change is being denigrated and start-up companies in alternative fuels are being under-funded?
Why is our public education system not producing the best and brightest students in the world?
Why do you have to keep repairing or replacing big ticket products that should be made to last twice as long as they do?
If carbon dioxide, petroleum by-products, arsenic, MSG, certain minerals, dyes, human waste, lethal chemicals, and many more substances are known to be harmful, how come they keep showing up in our food, air and water?
If the future use of drones, robots, 3D printing and nanotechnology (to name a few innovations) is projected to bring negative changes to the whole area of work, jobs, training, wages and levels of employment, why aren’t we addressing this pro-actively as a nation?
Finally, how come you can’t get your local conservative Republican congressperson to listen to and care about your needs, your opinions, your concerns?
We will not have true service of the People again by citizen representatives committed to their constituents until we break the stranglehold that the Elite 1% now exerts at every point in our governing system.
To achieve reform of government in terms of human family values and community service of the People, we must untangle government from capitalism’s lawyers, lobbyists, PACs, the buyers of elected officials, and the fake institutes and Think Tanks that sell us lies; from the organizations that abuse their non-political status, and from an election system that favors the wealthiest.   And, we must push for the regulation of every industry, every financial entity, every corporation, every manufacturer, every organization that exhibits manipulation or behaviors that violate those basic values.
 Corrupt officials from the private sector working hand-in-hand with corrupt politicians from the public sector does not make for a representative democracy.    


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

ACA REPLACEMENT with DEBASEMENT

In the midst of Trump's twittering of false charges against President Obama for “wire-tapping” Trump Towers, it almost seems that addressing something of import is somehow off-center. All the hype from our Pretend-President Trump has served his purpose to distract us from the main business-at-hand which is the repeal of the ACA or “Obamacare” and all that such action would portend for millions of people.   
According to Donald J. Trump, in his toned-down speech read to Congress on Tuesday, February 28th, “Obamacare” is crumbling from within and dying.  This is “bumper sticker” talk, and is not supported by details or by documentation.  The only charges he made that might have a scintilla of truth relate to the rising cost of some insurance plans and that some insurers have pulled out of certain areas.  However, the real truth behind those incidents has not been widely told.
These Radical Republicans will never tell you the full truth that THEY bear much of the blame for these two problems because of their votes on budget items related to the ACA legislation.  Too bad we are so willing to accept bumper-sticker mentality and distortions of truth instead of trying to dig out the real truth.
Since I’ve covered some of this story in the recent past, let me simply quote from my post of Nov. 3, 2016:
Republicans in Congress must share the blame for higher rates and loss of insurers.

Provisions in ACA known as the “three R’s” were placed in the ACA to protect insurance providers, designed to alleviate expected losses in the first two years of Obamacare operation.  Two of those provisions were to expire by the end of 2015, but while in existence, paid out substantial amounts to help cover the losses to initial providers.  The first “R” was a “reinsurance” provision that paid out federal funds of over $15 billion dollars in the first two years of exchange operations to insurers who attracted individual consumers who racked up particularly high medical bills.  The second “R” – “risk adjustment” – was intended to help small insurers by requiring insurers with low-cost patients to make payments to plans that insured higher cost customers. Small companies complained that bigger companies were favored in this, and that this second “R” was too unpredictable.
But it is the third provision – “Risk Corridors”-that ended up on the trash heap of a Republican Congress’s dedication to the dismemberment of Obamacare.  This action by Republican saboteur-legislators has surely contributed to the current situation of higher premiums and loss of providers in some exchanges.  They won’t admit it, and Donald Trump will never speak truth to you about it if he even knows what that is!

“Risk Corridors” was a provision intended to subsidize health plan providers whose total medical expenses for all their ACA customers exceeded a certain set amount.  With this “insurance for insurers,” many companies were willing to risk trying low premiums at first.  Providers could then submit claims seeking federal payments for expenses that overshot the allowed target.  Insurers submitted claims for $2.9 billion under this provision of the Law, but ended up getting only 12.6 cents for each dollar they had counted on because once Congress passed a spending restriction, there was just $400 million available to make good on some of those payments.  What exactly happened?
“in December of 2014, the Republican Congress voted to prohibit the Obama administration from spending any money on the program, decrying it as a bailout for the insurance companies.  Unlike all those symbolic ‘repeal Obamacare’ votes, Congress succeeded in blocking any further risk corridor payments. The end result: many of the new Obamacare co-op plans that went out-of-business blamed their collapse in part on the fact that they’d been counting on the full (corridor) payments to keep them solvent.” (Politico)
This is one large causal factor for why premium rates are going up and insurers are withdrawing for 2017.  “Across 36 states analyzed by the Council for Affordable Health Coverage, the average requested increase for 2017 is 19.2 percent.  But in some states like Arizona, Oklahoma and Tennessee, proposed average rate hikes exceed 50%: Texas is asking for a 60% premium hike.”

So there you have it.  The main reason Trump and his Alt Right Trumpets give for the supposed denouement of the ACA is mostly their fault.  It follows that you can’t trust anything the Trump people and the Alt Right say about ‘Obamacare’; nor can you trust anything they now propose as a “replacement” for the ACA because their legislation is nothing more than a concoction of ideologically-correct separate programs and policies that have no coherent mechanisms connecting them together to form a system of reform of our health care system. As they have demonstrated so vividly on other issues (such as immigration), they cannot make connections between policies and mechanisms that depend on each other.  They simply fail to understand the connections that are needed to make policies work, and to make complicated major legislation viable in the real world. As Trump reminded us recently: "Health care is very complicated."
 Forming a coherent system for insuring those who cannot afford to do so for themselves also seems beyond their abilities.  Tax credits involve a system that must operate almost separately from the tax refund system because the credits must be available when people are ready to purchase insurance. Those people who do not pay taxes will be unable to collect their credits unless a separate mechanism is worked out for that transaction. 

 In other words, this replacement for ACA subsidies has no methods to do what Obamacare has done all along: reform healthcare so that those who have had inadequate or no coverage at all, can be covered at a reasonable cost including readily available federal subsidies that assure enrollees of coverage unrestricted by spending caps, pre-existent conditions, or gender-related health needs.

To put it another way:  Obamacare has accomplished several of its main objectives; the disconnected plans for ’Trumped-up-care’ are not going to accomplish anything but the destruction of health care reform, and the destruction of health care insurance coverage for many of the 20 million people who could not afford such coverage before, and who will again be under-insured, or not insured at all.  They will be lucky even to afford ‘junk plans’ that will be worse than they were before Obamacare made them conform to more-than-adequate standards.
ONE MORE THING that Republicans are not going to tell you is that the insurance companies themselves erred in their initial estimates of “break-even points”, and thereby contributed to their own failures to turn enough profit from all the new ACA enrollees. Thus, several companies have now withdrawn from the exchanges because they can no longer afford to participate due to their miscalculations and to the lack of funding from those “corridor” payments.  Here is more of that story from my blog post of Nov. 3rd, 2016.

The larger premium increases are not a surprise. Despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary, there are several cogent reasons why the rise in rates is not surprising.   
a.       The insurers initially guessed wrong as to how much their new customers’ health care was going to cost in the long run.  After two and one-half years of operation and data-collection, it became quite clear that the ratio of premiums charged to costs paid out was in dire need of adjustment, especially in states where initial estimates were far off the mark, like Texas and North Carolina, and at least 10 others.  A POLITICO review of 2015 filings from nearly 100 health plans across a dozen geographically and politically diverse states found that less than a quarter of them hit the standard break-even point for insurers at which payouts are kept to about 85% of premiums taken in.  Many of those insurers lost “tens of millions of dollars on their Obamacare policies last year.”

b.       The “risk pool” is unbalanced.  As with most insurance, profit for the provider depends on having “shared risk.”  The one question influencing provider participation in Obamacare from the start has been the question of just 'who will sign up for Obamacare?' and, 'how sick will they be?'  In the language used by insurance companies, the “risk pool” of Obamacare customers has turned out to be “riskier” than they anticipated.  It is now clear: in several states, fewer people signed up than expected and many turned out to be sicker and thus more costly than anticipated. 
Before ACA, the insurers had several ways to balance their ‘risk pool.’  They used  filters like ‘pre-existing conditions,’ monthly or lifetime caps,’ and “benefit reductions” to avoid covering the people who would most likely have higher medical costs and thus be a drain on their profit margin.  Obamacare, thank goodness, made those tactics illegal.  (Unfortunately, Trumped-up Care does not make all of them illegal!)
Other factors have played into this imbalance of the risk pool all of which are “fixable”, but not by state high-risk pools which have no mechanism for supporting persons of low income:
·         fewer people got shut out of employer plans than anticipated and didn’t end up on Obamacare. 
·         young people (mostly healthy and representing small costs for health care) are allowed to remain on parent policies until age 26, unfortunately keeping many younger healthy potential customers for other plans out of the risk pool.
·          special enrollment periods have tended to produce signers-on looking for immediate care and running up larger medical bills quite quickly.
·          The tax penalty for not having health insurance may be too low and thus a viable means for younger people to avoid signing up because they believe paying the penalty is cheaper than paying premiums  
·          those states that supported ACA and set up their own exchanges were roughly twice as high in enrollment as those states that refused to promote enrollment.
·         For insurance markets to be sustainable under Obamacare, “experts estimate that 35 percent of customers should be between the ages of 18 and 34 but just 28% of customers fall into that group” under Obamacare. (POLITICO)
The final irony of this situation in which we find ourselves is that Republican ideas incorporated into the ACA early on are about to be repealed by Republicans!.  After all, certain provisions of Obamacare came from something called “Romney-care” in Massachusetts.  With the help of Politico, let’s see what similarities appeared in the Romney Plan that became a basic part of Obamacare.
  • State-based exchanges – Both laws create exchange authorities charged with operating health insurance marketplaces:  internet websites where residents may compare and purchase private insurance policies that meet minimum levels of coverage.
  • Guarantee issue -  meaning consumers cannot be denied coverage due to pre-existing health conditions.
  • Subsidies for lower-income households – While the amount of individual subsides vary, and the income levels for eligibility differ, both laws provide financial assistance to lower-income households so that health insurance is affordable.
  • The individual and business mandates – Both laws require individuals who can afford it to purchase insurance or face a financial penalty. The Massachusetts law required businesses with more than 10 employees to provide health benefits to their workers or pay a $295 per employee.  Under the ACA, businesses with 50 or more full-time employees must offer health insurance or pay a $2,000 per employee penalty.
There is more to this story of Republican involvement in ACA concepts in spite of denials like the following from today’s Washington TIMES:
“Republicans didn’t create Obamacare or all the problems that followed—from rising premiums to crumbling exchanges to bankrupt co-ops to lost plans and restricted networks,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “We didn’t create these problems, but we’re going to fix it.” 
In February 1974, Republican President Richard Nixon proposed, in essence, today’s Affordable Care Act. Under Nixon’s plan all but the smallest employers would provide insurance to their workers or pay a penalty, an expanded Medicaid-type program would insure the poor and subsidies would be provided to low-income individuals and small employers.
Thirty years later, Republican governor, Mitt Romney, made Nixon’s plan the law in Massachusetts. Private insurers couldn’t have been happier although many Democrats in the state had hoped for a public system.  When today’s Republicans rage against the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, it’s useful to recall this was their idea as well.
In 1989, Stuart M. Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation came up with a plan that would “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance.”  Insurance companies loved Butler’s plan so much it found its way into several bills introduced by Republican lawmakers in 1993. Among the supporters were Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). Both now oppose the mandate under the Affordable Care Act. Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House in 1995, was also a big proponent. (Fox News)
As notedabove, Romney’s heath care plan in Massachusetts included the same mandate to purchase private insurance. “We got the idea of an individual mandate from [Newt Gingrich] and [Newt] got it from the Heritage Foundation,” said Romney, who thought the mandate “essential for bringing  health care costs down for everyone and getting everyone the health insurance they need.”
Not only will today’s radical Right-wing Republicans not tell the truth about Obamacare’s positive impact, or the provisions that reflect their Party’s conceptual contributions to the ACA, they won’t even acknowledge that the GOP has a history of involvement in this issue. 
Bottom line:  you cannot trust the Trump puppets in Congress with anything of substance like a health care replacement Act.  They can’t handle the Truth and they surely can’t handle the rigors of putting together legislation that can come close to the carefully constructed Affordable Care Act.
  What’s worse is that they are not aiming to replace anything; certainly not looking to repair the ACA.  Their intent is to diminish and debase central government and all of its programs, except for a bloated Defense, a devotion to establishing religious beliefs and doctrines that advance their cause (over-turning Roe v. Wade; and restrictions on birth control); creating a Supreme Court that maintains Law and Order (to keep certain groups under strong controls, backed up by a privately run corrections system that punishes inmates in ways that do not pass the test of humane treatment). They are already moving on the destruction of diplomacy, foreign aid, immigrant welcome and support, and soon on “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  And the groundwork is already being laid for the elimination of federal standards for education, civil rights, environmental protection, and the workplace.
One can only wish that those who voted for and still support Trump’s form of authoritarian government, with its agents of doom, would be the first and only ones to reap its cruel and negative consequences.  Votes (and non-votes) do have consequences. Unfortunately, those consequences are broadly cast and widely felt. 
Update: One more thing Republicans won't tell you is that this whole 'repeal and replace' idea has some personal rancor behind it.  In fact, my Alt Right congresswoman happened to brush up against it in her recent TV interview.  The current ACA contains within it another mandate about which little is said, but it rankles within the very souls of those congresspersons who oppose Obamacare.  They wanted to be exempt from Obamacare, but starting Jan. 1st, 2014, were mandated to be covered by the plans that were available on the federal ACA exchange. However, in order to still receive the employer subsidy, they would be required to choose from just 57 gold-tiered plans rather than the 300 or so options available to most federal employees. So, not only did they have to give up several hundred health care plan options that had been available to them before ACA, they would also have to give up the outrageous percentage of employer subsidies on their premiums (for other than gold plans) that were being paid with taxpayer dollars-- an average of about 72%! 
 The repeal of Obamacare will wipe out the mandated ACA coverage for Congress  and the Trumped-up Replacement will not bring it back!  Nonetheless, YOU will be stuck paying 72-75% of their premiums again on any of those 300+ plans (many of them unavailable to YOU) - strange how that works out, don't you think?! (see https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43194.pdf for more details).