GOP Existential Crisis: “Lazy Nostrums” or Something Else?

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump congressional address

Doug Mills/New York Times

In today’s New York Times, Corey Robin muses about what it means to Republican identity and goals now that they are in power and are finding that power hard to manage.  He seems to pace around the issue, however, rather than dive in and further unpack the catastrophe of incompetence and demagoguery that binds the party to its ideological base.  In short, he seems to suggest that Republicans have no force or focus if they don’t have a struggle.  This would define conservativism as a heroic identity without which it does not possess agency or the will to act.

Indeed, Robin suggests that American conservativism has “[softened] into lazy nostrums or hardened into rigid dogmas”.  I’ll give him that, but he wants to say this is so because when Republicans regained the “keys to the castle” they became “joyful” and as a result “no longer control or set the terms of political debate”.  Significantly, they no longer reach out — compromise and cajole — to expand their base.  The movement becomes inert.

In this analysis, it is the “no longer” part that I quibble with, otherwise I think Corey Robin is more or less on the mark.  I think Republicans did — and do — take their victory for granted; however, rather than being lazy about their nostrums and dogmas, they are smug about them.

I don’t think this is a new phenomenon manifesting itself as a result of Republican electoral success in 2016 or emerging from under the pall of Donald Trump.  On the contrary, this approach to “governing” — or at least to setting policy priorities and agendas — has been on a complacent march from the early 1980s; Reagan, Gingrich, that crowd.  Perhaps, as Robin suggests, conservativism once “progressed” as he tells us Friedrich Hayek said free markets progressed, that is  when they are “on the defensive.”  That makes sense to some extent, at least in the early years of conservative revolt against government and the state apparatus of public goods and services.  But the so-called defensive stance congealed into an offensive one and adopted strongly divisive strategies in its attack.  It has been a long time since conservativism was about building and sustaining growing coalitions.

Therefore, what we have now is more of a conservative event horizon than a lull in conservative dynamism.  They have gotten what they were striving for and now cannot pull back.  Health care reform is a perfect example of this displayed in practice.  It is one thing to say you will do X, Y, and Z when saying so will advance an ideological battle.  It is another thing altogether to enact those plans when those plans will have real consequences.

If you are a conservative, what are you going to do?  Your entire identity and the momentum behind it is built on a discourse that wins (at least with some) in the abstract, but creates problems in practice.  Back to health care reform, even if we ignore the bill proposed and withdrawn by the Republicans, we can see the problems this extreme right wing abstraction creates when put into practice by the very fact that it caused real divisions within in a party that is otherwise known to march pretty much in lockstep.

Back to health care reform…even if we ignore the bill proposed and withdrawn by the Republicans this month, we can see the problems this extreme right wing abstraction creates when it is put into practice.  Look no further than the very fact that it caused real divisions within a party that was otherwise known to march pretty much in lockstep.  It was an opportunity for Republicans to come together under one of their defining tropes — less government — and deliver on perhaps THE signature campaign promise since 2010, the repeal of Obamacare.  And they couldn’t do it.  The bungle that was their healthcare bill is really an afterthought in this analysis.  It’s irrelevant.  They cannot deliver.

So it isn’t just a problem of having the keys to the castle and not knowing what to do with that castle now that they have it, it is a problem of overselling the abstract and having to own that.  Over the years we have expected less and less concrete policy from conservatives — they had 7+ years to draft an alternative to Obamacare and look at what we got — and more and more rhetoric, increasingly detached from fact or reason.  Fantasy proselytizing is going to cause problems, as we see now.  For Republicans, it painted them into a corner.  You said you were going to do this, now do it.  But if you cannot, how do you escape?  How do you escape your rhetoric and retain your staunchly discursive identity?

Perhaps the biggest pitfall of winning for conservatives is now having to govern and produce results.  That requires a different stance from taking defensive positions against an opponent and, in this regard, Corey Robin is absolutely right.  But if being in power is the problem defining conservativism today, one should ask whether conservatives ever really expected to have to govern.  Now there you have an existential crisis.  Namely, what is the point of American conservativism today?

Healthcare Freeloader Control Act

I have an idea!  (And it is a good one.)  I call it — without having done anything more than come up with the half-baked (but good) idea — the Healthcare Freeloader Control Act.  Let me know what you think.

It works like this:

We give people the option to be free and not buy any health insurance if they choose not to.  They can opt out of health insurance altogether just as they can now, but if they opt out, they opt out for life.  Thereafter it is all pay-in-full in advance and cash only, unless they can find charity…to pay in full in advance and cash only.

Otherwise, if you’re a young inevitable and you get in a horrible car wreck and no one comes to haul off your broken body, society will put you out of your misery.  If you are old and sick and broke, we’ll wheel you out onto a burning barge and set you adrift on the ocean.  For everything else in between, we strongly recommend a course in first aid and WebMD.com.  In short, unless you are there to pick up the trash, your shadow never crosses the threshold of a hospital or medical clinic.  Ever.

Swell idea, right?  What do you think?

In a way, conservatives touting the freedom excuse for gutting the Affordable Care Act are arguing to sustain the opposite of my Freeloader Control Act and that hardly seems fair.  Republicans embrace the status quo which tolerates free riders, people who know they will get health care that they don’t make plans to cover.  Then they complain about it.  Pay attention to the repeal and replace rhetoric and this is clear.  Republican Anti-ACA arguments really don’t address the poor, they rant against the non-poor being forced to buy insurance and pay taxes to bolster our struggling and sparse healthcare system, especially care that covers those who cannot care for themselves.  They cite specific examples of people being forced to buy insurance for care they don’t want or won’t need.  And when they remove penalties connected to mandates, they in essence protect free loaders in the process.

Allowing Republicans to indulge in their selfish logic of independence and freedom does not obligate the rest of us to pick them up when they fail, does it?  If it does, why?  If they want to stand apart from the community of civilized society, let them.

Of course I am not serious, but perhaps only because the idea isn’t a practical one and not because I give a damn about people who game the system in order to break it.

When it Comes to Making America Great Again…Priorities Say a Lot

In an effort to make America great again, Trump wants to cut 90% of the EPA funding that goes to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that has succeeded in cleaning and protecting one of our most important ecological and economic assets. The cuts would total about $290 million.

Meanwhile, Trump, in just his first month in office, already spent over $30 million on personal Donald Trump Golfingtravel, mostly to Mar-a-Lago. If that pace keeps up, he will spend more on personal travel than we collectively spend to protect and restore the Great Lakes. These numbers, by the way, do not include the millions spent maintaining a second home (or is that the third?) in Manhattan.

Of course, this hypocrisy goes well beyond dollars and sense, this is Trump after all. Donald incessantly criticized President Barak Obama‘s travel — and his golf. However, Trump is on track to far surpass President Obama in both measures in just one year. Trump is on the golf course several times a week. No one is missing that hypocrisy, right? And what did the United States government pay for Barak Obama’s personal trips? $97 million…over all 8 years! (Trump $30 million in one month, Barak Obama $97 million over the course of 8 years…you see that, right?)

But I digress.

I’m guessing a lot of Trump voters would love to fly first class to Florida for golf on the weekends. But most can’t. And when setting priorities, wouldn’t you rather keep the Great Lakes clean than pay for Donald Trump’s weekend golf junkets to Florida anyway?

Then there are nickel-and-dime cuts for the Arts, Education, Energy, Justice, NASA, National Parks…all on the chopping block, too.

Take a look at what the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative does! It looks a hell of a lot better than a fat old man shanking his balls on a Florida golf course. It is better for you, too!

My First Take on the Republican American Health Care Act

(My apologies, but this is a copy of a Facebook post I published a short time ago.  It’s from the hip and I am sharing it as such.  I welcome comments, corrections, and debate.)

If you don’t like politics, you don’t have to read this post. However, below is a release from Paul Ryan and the GOP introducing their health care plan. This misleading BS cannot be left unchallenged. (Sandy, excuse the typos…I’m not editing it.)

Let’s take a look!

First, the claims that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, which is also known as Obamacare) is responsible for driving up health insurance premiums is at best a misleading claim. In fact, health insurance premiums have been increasing annually for decades. Indeed, the rise of overall costs slowed since 2010, not increased. The law did eliminate a class of insurance plans that were high deductible, low benefit plans. People were “forced” off of those and the plans left generally were more expensive. True. However, lower income people who were on those crappy plans often qualified for subsidies to help pay for the better plans which reduced the out-of-pocket increase they actually paid. Many, in net, paid less. This is true because people who could afford quality insurance or had it from an employer were not buying the crappy plans in the first place…unless they were young. And more about that in a moment.

The GOP argues that 1/3 of counties in the United States have one insurance provider on the state exchanges and a third of doctors do not accept Obamacare. This is a problem TO FIX in the existing law, not a reason to dump it. However, for many of the people who face these limits, having some insurance versus no insurance is not a bad thing. (Ask one of the 20+ million Americans who got insurance through ACA about this.)

The GOP release continues to harp on the “disastrous” and “failing” health care law. Reduced costs and higher numbers of American insured hardly seems like a failure. Plus, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that ACA saves billions annually, a number that will strengthen as more Americans are healthier. The Kaiser Family Foundation is another solid source of stats and information about health care in the United States.

You see, healthy people are good for you whether you get sick or not because sick people — especially those without health insurance — are very, very expensive.

(As an aside, I noticed a laugher in this release. The GOP says something about this plan containing “reforms President Trump laid out.” Hahaha! What the hell were those reforms? When did he lay them out? Tweet. Tweet.)

Next: “Dismantle the Obamacare Taxes.” Did you know that these taxes were written in negotiations with lobbyists from the for-profit health care industry? They called them paybacks. Because Obamacare was going to increase patients — i.e., increase customers — the health care industry saw a windfall coming. Of course they didn’t volunteer to give up money, but they did see what was good for business and played along. If there was going to be health care reform, they were not going to be left out. Something like that. So the taxes the ACA introduced were not the product of an imperial presidency unilaterally picking on free enterprise.

Next: “Eliminate the individual and employer mandate penalties, which forced millions of workers, families, and job creators into expensive, inadequate Obamacare plans that they don’t want and cannot afford.” This could easily be called a lie, but let’s be generous. For some people, rates did increase and that has been addressed above.

One might complain that thirtysomethings being forced to either be insured or pay a penalty is an overreach, but it really is how insurance works. If thirtysomethings don’t really need insurance, they will wait until they are more likely to need it (when they age) to buy it. So the law pushes healthier, younger people into the insurance market to spread risk. If you don’t think this is a good idea, then you won’t like this part of the law. But it does have a long-term benefit for everyone, including today’s younger, healthier Americans.

Also implied here — but not specifically stated — is the ruse that Obamacare was a job killer. It did not turn out that way. In fact, it fits the economy rather well. Perhaps that’s why this release only nods at this complaint indirectly. Facts can be uncomfortable things.

Ok…next the release highlights all the positive things in Obamacare that the GOP says it will keep because people will be so angry if they are taken away. (How they’ll pay for it? They literally say they are working on that part.)

Next: “Empower families and individuals.” This is the Health Savings Account (HSA) gimmick. I mean…where do you start?…think about this, the GOP is going to double the amount you can save in a health savings account. Well, what if you couldn’t save even a quarter of the old limit?? “Hey, guess what Edith, we can now save $13,000 a year in our HSA!” Edith might remind Archie that they only make double that in a year…how will they save it all for medical bills? What problem would that solve if they could? Exactly how does that “empower” anyone who does not have money to pay for health care in the first place?

The truth is Americans had been “empowered” by this pay-it-alone approach for decades and many millions could not afford care and many thousands died each year because of it. That’s empowerment! That’s freedom.

But let’s move on because it looks like the GOP has a solution…

Next: “Help Americans access affordable, quality health care by providing a monthly tax credit.” Jesus! WTF…I am so tongue-tied I could spit! They offer a tax credit of something between $2000 and $4,000 a year. (The details here are being “worked out”.) On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. You get the credit and you go shopping. However…well, it isn’t likely to work. Certainly the for-profit insurance market will adjust to the newly found money and rates will adjust accordingly. Indeed, there is nothing in here that talks about cost controls…and I doubt you will ever see it from the GOP. The so-called “free market” and competition will keep costs down. Well, that hasn’t done much to control costs so far, has it? In fact, do you know what has helped control costs? Obamacare, damn it! And, unlike the GOP plan, it is paid for.

All right, that’s all that I have for you now. I’m going to download the bill next. It is only 123 pages of large double-spaced print so it shouldn’t be that bad…or have much to say. I am eager to find out.

Check back here for updates. And whatever you do…for Pete’s sake and mine, pay attention!

Reflecting on 20th Century Immigrants…

I am reading Grand Hotel Abyss, a history of the figures of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, a subject I studied years ago.  (A very fine book, by the way.)  And I have to pause.  On every page there seems to be yet another immigrant — most usually an intellectual fleeing fascist Europe in this case — who either starts up, manages, or works in some important American intellectual endeavor.  Most of the people mentioned in Grand Hotel Abyss are philosophers and academics, but the same has been true in the arts and sciences.  (I know there is a lot of overlap…I don’t see any of these categories as exclusive of one another.)

I pause and bring it up because we forget how much our society has relied on the good work of people new to our country.  Indeed, as my thoughts wandered I began to wonder where the United States would be today if war and unrest DID NOT send immigrants and refugees to our shores!  The Twentieth Century was a century of immigration.  It was also our best century.   Immigrants have done more than bring their talent to this country, including those we sometimes looked upon with suspicion or fear, they have defined it.

As I write this, Gershwin plays on my music streaming service.  Gershwin often is regarded as one of the greatest American composers, and rightly so.  He arrived in the United States with his family as they fled increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century.  And yet Gershwin is as American as baseball and apple pie because in many ways his story is the essence of the American story.

We all know this.  So what is the problem now?

(Warning:  Answering that question might lead to some uncomfortable conclusions…)

My Comments on a Trump CPAC Fact Check

I am cheating a little here and sharing my morning Facebook post from earlier today.  

The president of the United States needs to be held accountable for repeatedly — and apparently intentionally — misinforming the public. I would say the same standard to should apply to your representatives in congress and state, but let’s start at the top.  We literally live in a fact-free political era when some people think slandering an argument as “fake news” is an acceptable response to uncomfortable facts.

I won’t bring up yesterday’s press briefing stunt…

Trump Speaking at CPACBy attacking the courts and the media, the president is deliberately attacking two checks on his power…and apparently it is working. There are too many people who think he is right! He isn’t. (We’ll delve into some of that shortly.) Perhaps just as significantly, he is also undermining the dignity and responsibility of the office for which he does not seem to possess the maturity to manage.

The New York Times fact-checked Donald Trump’s CPAC speech.  Facts matter and there are even some points from the president with which I agree. (Gotta take ’em when you can find them.) Although I think the president and I would disagree on the tenor and substance of the arguments.

The trillions squandered in wars, for example, has been shameful, especially in a country looking for more ways to cut programs that serve its own citizens. CPAC is a strange audience for these complaints. At CPAC, such statements are embarrassingly hypocritical. Indeed, even today, the call to destroy “radical Islamic terrorism” is likely to add only more of the same. And, while perhaps indirectly so, plans to build more military infrastructure allocates resources to foreign endeavors. (Less than 1% of the federal budget — about $35 billion — goes to US foreign aid, by the way, and most of that goes to Israel and Egypt.)Countries Scaled to the Economic Aid the receive from the United States

The numbers concerning declines in tourism is interesting, but whatever those numbers are, the way the president presents them is backward. He seems to be implying that if we don’t get a handle on immigration, tourism will decline in the United States. Well, up until this year, immigration had no negative effect on tourism. Indeed, Frommers reports that the travel industry has noticed a “Trump Slump” in bookings for US travel that could cost the US economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Already travel from the Middle East, Mexico, Central America, and eastern Europe has declined significantly.

The Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare…well, just about everything you hear about this from the right is wrong. (Really.) Contrary to the president’s claim that fewer people are covered under Obamacare, more than 20 million more people have health coverage as a result of Obamacare. More is not less, not even 2017. Furthermore, for most people who had to change health care plans — and I say most, I know there are some of you out there where it is otherwise — they had to change plans because the plans they had did not meet coverage standards. Thus those people would have better, not worse, coverage. Typical examples would be high deductible, low coverage so-called “catastrophic” care plans.

The “crushing economy” is another interesting spin. By most measures, the economy is doing quite well, but also by most measures that economic strength doesn’t mean much to most Americans. The president’s solution is more supply-side economic policy that created this unbalanced economic distribution in the first place. There is a lot indifference to middle and working class in these plans.

The president’s cavalier drop 2 regulations for every new regulation order is thoughtless and absurd. It is an emotional — and political — response to objective conditions. That is hardly a smart way to govern. Initially it might work, however…there will always be the need to review regulations and that does not always happen as it should. But there is already a law in place — passed in 1980 — to address this. Enforcing that law would be a smarter approach. Plus, if you think about it, if you cull two regulations for every new one ad infinitum…eventually you’re stuck.  (And will have only two regulations…right?)

Lordy, I have rambled a bit. I didn’t want to write about the weather today — or maybe ever again! — so this will be it. A moment in Shane’s corner…

Shouldn’t we expect more truth and integrity from the person who has been elected to lead the country? Yes or no? What we have now is not acceptable.