The Writer

Frank J. Yacenda, a life-long writer, has been a journalist, editor, publisher, a science writer, a diplomat, and a public relations practitioner. See more about him here.

Let Me Be Your Editor

Frank J. Yacenda is a broadly experienced writer and editor who will help you conceive, perfect, produce, and promote your fiction or non-fiction writing project. See more here.

Check Out My New Book

Buying America the Right Way tells overseas real estate investors -- and U.S. ones, too -- what they need to know to get it right when buying in America. See it here.

Month: June 2017

The Biggest Shell Game in the World

The Biggest Shell Game in the World

Healthcare has been all in the news these days with the U.S. Senate considering its version of whatever is to replace Obamacare. So it seems fitting to take a look at the intractable morass that is the American healthcare system. Which, as I see it, is better seen as the biggest shell game in the world, and as long as it is, resolving the issues surrounding it are likely to remain intractable.

You probably know what a shell game is. That’s the scam that sometimes crops up on city streets where the scammer, also known as a tosser, places a small ball or pea under one of three shells or cups, and then moves the shells or cups around on the table. The marks – people betting they can beat the tosser – have to guess which shell or cup contains the ball or pea. But of course the game is rigged, often with the ball or pea surreptitiously removed from the table altogether, so the marks lose their money. And that, of course, is the scammer’s objective. They’re not in the game for their health.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on our healthcare system, but I’ve engaged with it enough and watched some of its inner machinations over the years to see how it resembles a classic shell game. You’ve probably seen it, too. How about those band aids that show up on the hospital bill for $8 (or whatever the current going rate is – a hospital in New Jersey charged a patient $8,200 for a band aid on a cut finger, plus $800 for a tetanus shot and a few other basic things). Or those $15 Tylenols, which can add into the hundreds of dollars during a typical hospital stay? And what about those nameless “specialists” who rush up to patients as they’re heading into the operating room so they touch the patient’s arm, crack a joke or two, and then send a sizable bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars for their “services.” And then there are those “itemized” hospital bills that can run pages long. Ever try checking one of those for “errors”?

I’ve done some research, too. For instance, the average cost of an MRI in the U.S. is $2,611. But price around to various hospitals and health centers, and you’ll find costs ranging from about $1,000 up to twice the national average (that’s what I found). Doing some number crunching, I determined the actual cost, depending on the rate of utilization and maintenance costs for any given installation, should be in the $250 – $500 range, which is close to what an MRI costs in Canada when paid for privately or with private insurance. The national average cost of a CT scan is $1,200, but the actual cost can range from $250 to $4,600. And during the discussion going on in the past week, I heard one person say they actually paid $9,000 for a CT scan. And that was after pricing around and driving something like 60 or 80 miles to get to it. What a deal!

The shell game doesn’t end there. A three-day hospital stay costs, on average, $30,000, and the average emergency-room visit runs $1,233. But I personally know of a case where someone was billed $6,300 for a four-hour visit where she spent most of that time sitting in a room by herself with a monitor draped around her neck. And that was 10 years ago. Yet, there are community health centers where one can be seen and treated for $20, or less. I’ve even had minor surgery at one of these centers, performed by a doctor, for $20. I can’t imagine what the same procedure would have cost had I gone to a hospital or private clinic.

Costs can also vary enormously, depending on whether one has insurance, the kind and terms of the insurance, is on Medicaid, pays cash, pays on time, or doesn’t pay at all. All these factors, which go to the heart of how our healthcare system is run and costs are assigned, guarantee these results. And the problems go beyond healthcare, reaching down into our educational system, where the outrageous costs of medical school cause medical students to run up enormous student-loan debt, often of a quarter of a million dollars and more. While eventually many of these medical graduates will earn significant salaries, the salaries for recent graduates and residents are a far cry from generous, falling in the range of $51,000 to $66,000 per year, before taxes, for an 80-hour work week. Taking that $51,000 figure, a new doctor working 48 weeks a year is averaging $13.28 an hour, less than many retail employees.

While the House, the Senate, the Administration, the Congressional Budget Office, and commentators on all sides of the current healthcare debate parse the finer points of the various bills and proposals on the table, the bigger issues seem to be lost in the cacophony. I can’t help but think that the special interests, the insurance companies and industry lobbyists, are given more consideration than the lowly patient. And whenever one hears the word “comprehensive,” it’s time to run for the exits since the fix is almost certainly in.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all concerns the near-complete divorce of healthcare costs from market forces. Healthcare providers, whether hospitals, private doctors, diagnostic labs, or clinics, are essentially businesses and, in aggregate, they form an enormous industry. In what other business or industry are costs not known, not set out in formal tariffs or schedules, and not subject to public scrutiny? Even airlines, for all their multitudinous fares and conditions, are forced to lay out their tariffs, and before customers buy tickets they know exactly how much they will cost.

While government regulates – to various degrees of effectiveness – the nature and quality of healthcare and medical practice, it does little to promote market forces. It is my contention that any healthcare provider should be required to post the rates or costs for any given procedure, action, or item. Even if there are different tariffs for different methods of payment, the consumer will at least have something to go on in deciding how and where to spend his or her healthcare dollar. And this will inevitably lead to price competition between providers and a brake on upwardly spiraling costs.

This divorce of healthcare costs from market forces also stems from how many Americans obtain their insurance, which is paid for or subsidized by their employers. There is no incentive for many Americans to price around (even if they could, given the price morass) and obtain the best bang for their buck. “Oh, the insurance will cover it,” is often the refrain. Now some insurance policies and plans do enforce certain limits on what providers within the plan can charge or be reimbursed for, and that helps control costs to some degree, but there is often a downside to the insured.

One downside is a limitation of choice, but the other side is the cost of administering these various insurance plans, approvals, billing, and so forth. In the U.S., 25% of healthcare spending goes to administrative costs. A full quarter of what we spend on healthcare. In our neighbor to the north, Canada, the administrative burden is half that – 12% – and most other countries have far lower administrative burdens than ours. Perhaps the only country that comes close to our burden is The Netherlands, with a 20% administrative burden.

While the U.S. often is criticized for lack of public support for healthcare, in fact our governments, federal, state, and local, spend more on healthcare than that spent by the governments of most other OECD countries. Overall per capita spending on healthcare puts the U.S. at the top of a list of 13 high-income countries – more than $9,000 per year, nearly three times the OECD average and more than double the next biggest spender, France – it is also near the top of the list of countries in public per capita spending on healthcare. Only Norway and The Netherlands spend more public funds on healthcare than the U.S., while Switzerland and Sweden rank just below the U.S. In fact, per capita public spending on healthcare in the U.S. is a third higher than in Canada.

What this indicates is that the U.S. does – and doesn’t – have a spending problem when it comes to healthcare. We’re certainly spending much more than what other countries are spending on healthcare overall, and even our public spending on healthcare exceeds what most other countries spend. But we’re not getting the results of some other countries in terms of total coverage of the population. And while it’s true that U.S. health results, measured in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, and some other indicators, are below those of other countries even with our high outlays, there are mitigating factors influencing those results that are not as present in other countries.

By most standards, the quality of care in the U.S. is good, even excellent. And compared with other countries – including, again, our neighbor to the north – waiting times to see doctors, referrals to specialists, and to receive diagnostics and operations are significantly lower overall, though these can vary significantly from one area or region to another. While gaining access to the healthcare system can pose a challenge to many Americans, once that access is gained things tend to work pretty well, and better than in some countries with so-called universal coverage.

So where do we go from here? Okay, I have some ideas. These are my proposals, and while I can’t cite empirical data supporting their efficacy, I think they merit serious consideration and may allow us to gain control over this nationwide shell game:

● Introducing market forces by requiring all healthcare providers to develop, publicly post, and operate under specific costs and tariffs;

● Instituting public oversight of costs and charges of healthcare providers, including hospitals, clinics, private practitioners, and diagnostic labs, and allowing private suits and administrative processes challenging unreasonable or unsupportable costs;

● Encouraging individual initiative by expanding health savings plans where people can set aside a portion of their income to be applied to healthcare costs, and allowing them to roll over funds not expended from year-to-year;

● Encouraging employers to offer their employees allowances which employees can use to shop around and acquire their own insurance plans (often at lower cost than group policies), and further allowing tax deductions to cover insurance premiums and other healthcare costs;

● Allowing insurers to offer a variety of plans covering a range of services, and not requiring services that a given insured determines he or she is unlikely to need, such as mental health services or pregnancy coverage;

● Not restricting insurers to certain states but allowing them to operate across state lines;

● Taking steps to reduce the administrative burden and associated costs;

● Directing greater public funding toward community health centers and using these centers to provide health care, on sliding cost scales, especially to lower income and uninsured parties;

● Encouraging formation of healthcare cooperatives, both private and public, and allowing both insured and uninsured people to join them;

● Developing public policies and pressure to reduce the cost of medical education;

● Allowing write-offs of most or all debt or costs incurred by medical students in return for a certain period of service, at reduced salary levels, in rural and other under-served areas (as is done in some countries);

● Developing policies increasing the numbers of medical, nursing, and allied health students to address national shortages in these fields, applying the law of supply and demand to reduce costs and improve access;

● Applying both public and private initiatives to controlling the cost of pharmaceuticals;

● Instituting reasonable limits on medical malpractice claims to help contain the cost of malpractice insurance.

Again, I don’t claim to be an expert on healthcare, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I think these steps could go far toward expanding access to healthcare, controlling costs, and getting the runaway train of American healthcare back under control, without further straining public budgets. And it’s time we put a stop to the shell game inherent to the American healthcare system.

I welcome comments, criticisms, and other suggestions to what is said and proposed here. And please share this posting with your social networks and others who might have interest in the topic.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here, and if you like it please comment and share it.

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

Shouting Past Each Other

Shouting Past Each Other

For several years now, I have been in the habit of listening to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon. My rationale for this is that I want to hear both sides of various current arguments and issues. Not being an adherent to either political persuasion – I consider myself both a libertarian and independent – I find lots of cause for annoyance across the political spectrum, though in truth I find lots more grounds for annoyance originating from the left than from the right. It has been this way for some time, but the trend seems to be accelerating lately.

What has increasingly occurred to me is that there not only seem to be at least two entirely different conversations going on, with some sub-sets within each, but those conversations are based on entirely different sets of facts and, without doubt, vastly different world views. And as this trend continues and deepens, the conversations – again, especially on the liberal side – seem to be degrading into shouting matches.

I’ve always believed that we all can disagree, but that disagreement is based on the same sets of facts. Now, listening in to these two camps, one increasingly begins to wonder if there are even such things as facts any more, and what facts there might be seem to be mutable, with each side holding and citing two almost completely different sets of them. And that’s ostensibly on the news and news analysis side of things. In the realm of entertainment, the divisions appear to be even greater, and sub-sets of divisions, between the coasts and what is called fly-over country, between white and black, between younger and older, between cities and rural areas, and even schisms between and among residents of the same cities and the same states become ever more evident.

While I listen to these things daily, becoming somewhat inured to them, someone coasting in from out there somewhere and catching these battling views for the first time might be justified to conclude that we are going through a kind of societal crack up.

Without a basis in common facts, the arguments become self-justifying. Each side builds its logic like competing jenga towers teetering atop bases of illusory blocks, seemingly ignoring the laws of physics and the pull of reality. When things become too difficult to justify based on factuality, the next step is simply to raise the volume. Speech rises to shouting and shouting to screaming, as if decibels are a stand-in for rationality. See me, the shouters seem to say, I can yell louder than you so I must be right and you must be wrong.

We’ve seen this in street demonstrations, where one almost comes to expect such behavior. We’ve seen it on cable TV, with panelists shouting at each other to the point no one, least of all the viewers, can make out what is being said. And now we see it in Congressional hearings, where raising one’s voice and speaking over the subject of one’s disdain appears to be a substitute for actually seeking answers to questions. We saw this during Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with Democrats like California’s Sen. Kamala Harris insistently speaking over Attorney General Jeff Sessions, her grandstanding meant to block out whatever Sessions might actually have to say and, ostensibly, to discredit him. And then Sessions is later heckled by the liberal media for becoming flustered and stymied by such obviously pre-planned tirades and Harris painted as some sort of victim because she’s a woman and black.

This dismissal of inconvenient facts seems to be a hallmark of the 21st Century in this country. If we come to realize that the Iraq War was a folly, we dismiss the fact that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats voted in support of it. If the IRS abuses its power in going after conservative groups, we look the other way and ignore it as if it never happened. If the Obama Administration failed to protect or attempt to rescue Americans under attack in Benghazi, we say there is no there there and don’t question why the Administration found it necessary to concoct and promulgate a lie about what actually happened. And if Hillary Clinton violated federal law and jeopardized the country’s security, we ignore it and her non-prosecution and justify voting for her anyway. And when facts turn out differently than we have been told they are, such as that there is no chance Donald Trump can ever be elected President, we throw a tantrum and question his legitimacy and hold his bloody head in our hands. How dare reality intrude on our manufactured view of how things should turn out?

Like I said, I find lots more to annoy me on the left than on the right, but the right is not without its own sets of facts and fictions. I think at this point there is little question but that Trump can be his own worst enemy, despite the efforts of many on the right to defend his every misstep, and even many of his supporters hope someone will take away his phone and throw it in the toilet. And while he gets no credit on the left for what he does right, there is little criticism from the right of what he does wrong. And let’s not forget that, despite years of bellyaching about the ills of Obamacare, the Republicans showed themselves utterly bereft of a viable alternative plan.

While I can understand the urge to overcompensate on the right to counter the venom spewing like a volcano from the left and the anti-Trump crowd, there is truth in what many of us were taught as children, which is that two wrongs do not a right make.

But my assertion remains, which is that we’re not arguing over the same facts and realities, but over completely different sets of facts, completely different realities. And therein lies much of the problem.

How did this state come to be? I think there are a number of factors in play, some of which are the result of changes in technology and how we communicate, and some of which go back much further and are rooted in the same sources that have led to the general alienation and disconnectedness we have come to take for granted in our society, and to the coarsening and degradation of dialogue.

In past decades, as recently as the 1990s but going back well before that, we had a basis for a common dialogue. Not that everyone agreed, which they didn’t, but at least there was a common set of facts we could and would debate over. We had three primary television networks, three primary sets of national news reporting, and, in effect, three focal points for a national audience. Locally, we might have had one or two or three newspapers which, while they might have diverged somewhat in viewpoint, made an effort to at least deal in common facts. And one could make one’s views known through a letter to the editor which had a decent chance of showing up on the editorial page.

All that has changed in the past 20 years. While the three TV networks prevail, there is now cable television with new sources and new, and often radically divergent, views on the news. There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter. And there are hundreds and thousands of online so-called news sites and blogs (full disclosure: including this one), where there is no prevailing view or even any prevailing agreement on the facts. Daily newspaper readership has dwindled to the point that it’s not clear how long newspapers will even remain viable. Our news sources have become fractured almost beyond description, as has our national dialogue. Anyone can spout any sort of nonsense one wants, any sort of venom, any set of facts, real or fabricated, and there is a place for it on the Internet. Try to express one’s views, like one could before with a letter to the editor or even in some online forums, and there is a high likelihood it will be lost in a flood of conflicting and often nutty comments, and diluted by multiple places to even post one’s views. What if one doesn’t use Twitter? One’s views might never see light. And have you read much on Twitter? The same 140-character vision of reality (whatever that might be) repeated 100 times.

With all this fracturing of communication, there also is a tendency toward recycling. When I was trained as a journalist 30-some years ago, it was considered tacky, if not downright improper, for journalists to interview other journalists. It was expected that one would go out and find original sources for stories, or even commentary, and that one would at least make an effort at balancing one’s stories. Now journalists interview other journalists incessantly, with little or no effort at balance, and this incestuous relationship just builds on and furthers this tendency toward competing and non-overlapping conversations. So-and-so at the New York Times or the Washington Post reported this, so it must be correct, and I’ll base my reporting and blathering on those reports (which more often than not are based on anonymous sources readers or viewers or listeners have no means of vetting for themselves).

Going back further, we see how things like air conditioning in our homes and the rise of the automobile moved people indoors and off public transport, breeding the kind of alienation and social separation that has been with us and growing for many decades. Now we have people with their noses buried in their devices – it’s common to see even friends and lovers incommunicado with one another as they focus on their smart phones – and our interpersonal distance simply grows exponentially and, along with it, any sense of a common dialogue. The Culture of the Id seems to prevail over all.

While all this was going on, our dialogue also seems to have become coarsened. We no longer seem capable of conducting civil discussions with those with whom we disagree. Whether in Congress, or in the media, or in our personal interactions, it’s become acceptable to spout all sorts of untruths and distortions, to issue threats, and to cut off communication, simply because we might disagree. This seems to be mostly, if not exclusively, a tendency on the left, and I have had supposedly “liberal” friends going back half a century break off contact with me simply since I didn’t agree with everything that came out of their mouths or off their keyboards, no matter how logically flawed or factually incorrect it might be.

I like to see the bright side of things and a way out of dark places and times, but I confess I’m at a bit of a loss on this one. In some ways we appear to be on the verge of a Vietnam Era breakdown, and I guess the one bright side might be that our discourse has become so fragmented that even that kind of two-sided split may no longer be possible. But I think that is false optimism. We see battling demonstrations, people being gunned down for their perceived views, looting and lawlessness, widespread dissent across the political spectrum and, along with all these things, competing realities that make any common effort at resolution virtually impossible. Given current trends, I’m afraid I just see more of what we have, and that’s not positive.

I’ll probably continue to listen to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon, knowing that ultimately we all need to form our own judgments and, to the extent we can, protect ourselves from whatever the latest new cause either side might concoct that will come raining down on our heads.

I’d love to hear dissenting views and maybe some insights on ways forward. I’m open to having my mind changed, as challenging as that might be. But that’s how I see things from here.

 

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there and here.

Anniversaries of Justice and Injustice

Anniversaries of Justice and Injustice

Today is June 12 in this part of the world, and it is a day of major anniversaries, some of justice, some of injustice. All noteworthy in one way or another.

 

Pulse Remembrance Day

Most current, it is the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. To refresh any memories that need refreshing, 49 people were killed and another 58 people wounded by a Muslim fanatic gunman in the nightclub, largely frequented by gay patrons. It was an act of hate, the product of a twisted vision, undertaken by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard. Mateen, who himself was shot dead by Orlando police responding to emergency calls for help from the nightclub, pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS (ISIL), and claimed in a 911 call prior to the attack that it was provoked by the killing of ISIS leader Abu Waheeb by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike the previous month.

Mateen was born in the U.S., lived in Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast, and had a record of making threats against people’s lives, using racial slurs and expressing dislike of black people, Jews, Hispanics, and gays, and was accused of being physically abusive and “mentally unstable and mentally ill” by his first wife. There also is considerable evidence indicating Mateen himself was gay, and there were reports of him frequenting the Pulse nightclub on a number of occasions prior to his murderous attack.

Meanwhile, Mateen’s second wife and widow, Noor Salman, is currently under arrest and awaiting trial next March for aiding and abetting her husband’s actions, going so far as to accompany him the night before while he purchased five containers of ammunition for use in the attack.

There have been significant commemorations of the Pulse attack in Orlando and elsewhere, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has proclaimed June 12 as Pulse Remembrance Day and ordered flags flown at half-staff in the state.

 

Tear Down This Wall”

It was also on this date, in 1987, that former President Ronald Reagan addressed those words to then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev during a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It took another two-plus years for the wall to open, and then to fall, but it was on this date 30 years ago today that Reagan issued the challenge to Gorbachev to bring down the barrier that split the German people and was an enduring symbol of Communist repression and injustice since its erection in 1961.

Less known about the call to tear down the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent end of East Germany and the reunification of Germany, is that other Western leaders, notably British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand, opposed unification, fearing that it would adversely affect the balance of power that had contained German ascendancy since the end of World War II.

 

The End of Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the U.S.

On June 12, 1967 – 50 years ago today – the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, ruled that anti-miscegenation laws that made interracial marriage illegal were unconstitutional. With that single decision, all remaining such laws, which still existed across the South and a couple of border states, were struck down.

The ironically named case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison, with the sentence suspended on the condition they leave the commonwealth, for violating Virginia’s law that prohibited such interracial marriage. The couple had been married in the District of Columbia, where there was no such prohibition, in 1958, but when they settled back in Virginia the police, acting on a tip, raided the couple’s home during the night, hoping to catch them having sex, also prohibited under Virginia law at the time.

In 1964, frustrated in not being able to visit their families in Virginia, the Lovings filed a legal action to challenge their ban from the state. The case worked its way through the Virginia court system, with each level upholding the law and the Lovings’ sentence, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. And on June 12, 1967, the court issued its landmark decision stating that laws such as Virginia’s violated both the due process and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

June 12 has become known as Loving Day, and the Loving case was cited as precedent a dozen times in the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodges in which the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not prohibit same-sex marriage.

 

The Beginning of Anne Frank’s Diary

It was on her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942 – 75 years ago today – that Anne Frank received the red, checkered autograph book she had picked out with her father the prior day as a birthday present. It was that book that became the first volume in her famous diary. She began writing in the book two days later, and she documented in it, in two subsequent volumes and on some loose pages, the two years and one month in which she, her sister, and her father and mother, along with the family of Anne’s father’s business partner, were kept concealed from the Gestapo and the Dutch police in the upper floors of an annex of her father’s Amsterdam factory.

The Frank and van Pels families were Jewish and subject to the Nazi sweep to exterminate the Jews. They remained secreted in the annex until being discovered and deported to Nazi concentration camps in August 1944. Anne died of typhus in 1945 at the age of 15 at the Bergen-Belsen camp, anywhere from weeks to months – the exact date of her death is unknown – before the camp was liberated by British troops. Her memory and words endure through her diary, which came to be known as The Diary of a Young Girl.

 

And in Brazil . . .

June 12 is Dia dos Namorados – Lovers Day – in Brazil, since it falls on the eve of the anniversary of the death of St. Anthony of Padua, known for blessing couples with happy and prosperous marriages. Since Valentine’s Day falls in February and is so close to Carnaval, it’s not celebrated in Brazil. Instead, Dia dos Namorados is the Brazilian equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

June 12, a momentous day indeed, this June 12 even more so.

 

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

Threading the Needle Badly

Threading the Needle Badly

Like many, if by no means all, Americans on June 8, I watched the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee on live television. My perception was that Comey’s testimony was deliberately crafted to be self-serving and to deflect criticism from himself to his former boss, President Donald Trump. It also was my perception that, in trying to thread the needle of truth, he did it clumsily. In the end, he indicted himself at least as much as he indicted the President.

Comey has a disarming “gee-whiz” way about him that causes him to come across as a good guy – a characteristic of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn that he and Trump, according to Comey’s testimony, agreed on – and his reputation has been one of a straight shooter. I can’t say much of his previous service, but that reputation has to be called into question after his actions and public statements during the past year, the June 8 testimony not dispelling those questions. It’s been said Comey is not a political animal, but it is hard not to see so much of what he’s done and said in the past months as anything other than political. Ironically, Comey has garnered criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, was fired by Trump and lambasted by Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and yet his apparent leanings toward the Dems are hard (to be generous) to ignore. Harder to ignore is his apparently muddled approach to things that demand clarity, not confusion.

That is all back story to yesterday’s testimony. Watching it unfold, I heard a lot of statements that either seemed to not say a great deal or which could be read, alternatively, as exonerating the President of wrong-doing, or not exonerating him, depending on one’s view and predisposition. But the general tedium came crashing down, along – literally – with my jaw when Comey related how he had written a supposedly “private” memo about a meeting with the President in the Oval Office, which he subsequently provided to a “friend” with the expectation this friend would leak the memo to the media. I could hardly believe that an FBI director would do such a thing, and that he would publicly admit, apparently with some pride, to having done it was even more shocking.

There are times recently, just listening to Comey, I have had to wonder whether he was, in the vernacular, “losing it.” Some of his statements have sounded borderline deranged, or at least very much like whinging. But when he made this statement before the Senate committee, I was absolutely flabbergasted. Perhaps he saw himself as playing up to what he perceives as his audience in the media, but in the process he was admitting to the very real possibility that he had violated federal law. Comey also, as was pointed out by legal expert Jonathan Turley earlier today, seriously undermined his credibility as a potential witness in the unlikely event that any criminal charges eventually are leveled against the President.

This onion is so big it’s hard to determine where to start peeling it. For argument’s sake, had Comey felt the President was in fact trying to influence the outcome or direction or even conduct of an FBI investigation, he had an affirmative obligation under 18 U.S. Code Section 4 to report it. Not to a friend, not to a professor at Columbia University (that’s who this friend is), not to the New York Times, but to the Justice Department. Failure to do is arguably a crime. Surely the head of the FBI should know this. Surely he should know that, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime, it represents an astounding lapse of judgment, a lapse further aggravated by going public with it under oath. Apparently Comey didn’t, and still doesn’t.

The next layer of this onion concerns how Comey went about this. Again under oath, he admitted to using a government laptop in a government vehicle to write a private memo, with the intent of leaking it, of an official meeting with the President. Comey insisted the memo contained no classified information, and that may well be true, but that is a peripheral issue. What Comey did as FBI director was in his official capacity as a U.S. Government employee – a rather highly placed one, one might add – and his notes and memos didn’t belong to him. They are the property of the U.S. Government and, by extension, of the American people. Whether these acts would qualify for prosecution is irrelevant. They were clearly improper and ill-advised, and they reflect more than poorly on someone in Comey’s position. Perhaps Comey was afraid of getting fired if he reported his suspicions about Trump through proper channels, but that is a flimsy excuse and indefensible. If the President was violating the law, that pales in comparison to fears for one’s job. What kind of personal cowardice was Comey acting from?

It’s little wonder that Comey, on March 20, said the FBI wouldn’t be going after government leaks to the media. No crime, no problem, as the old adage goes, but also perhaps another indication of Comey covering his own ass. It’s also little wonder that Comey, initially, declined to testify before the Senate committee and, after yesterday’s performance, maybe he shouldn’t have.

While most in the so-called mainstream media have been quick to jump on Comey’s testimony as damning of Trump, it was at least as damning of Comey. In fact, it was Comey himself who testified that he told Trump at least three times that he was not the subject of an FBI investigation. Yet, in the same session, Comey admitted that he agreed with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to categorize the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of her official emails as “a matter” rather than as “an investigation.” While Comey said it made him “queasy” (as if we should care), he agreed to the request. Comey also made no official recommendation after Mr. Hillary “Bill” Clinton met with AG Lynch for half an hour in an aircraft on the tarmac in Phoenix while the FBI was looking into his wife’s actions. Obstruction of justice? Any more so than Trump saying he “hoped” the FBI would conclude its investigation of his campaign? Today Lynch is pushing back against Comey’s allegation, so we can assume it hit some nerve, perhaps a legal one, in the former AG.

Now let’s get real about all this. It really doesn’t matter whether Comey, or Trump, or Lynch, or either of the Clintons broke the law. It all comes down to politics, and the separate legal system that exists for people like that than for the rest of us. I am a former Foreign Service Officer and former intel analyst, and I have said all along that, had I done what Hillary Clinton did with her emails and email servers, I would be in prison. I have no doubt of that and, were I not prosecuted and imprisoned for such misdeeds as Hillary Clinton committed, there would be something radically wrong with the system. Well, guess what? There is something radically wrong with the system.

It was Comey who should be held personally responsible for putting his finger on the scale and letting Hillary off the hook. Even by his own extended public statement – itself unprecedented – last July, Clinton met every requirement for committing a felony offense under Section 793(f) of Title 18 of the federal penal code. Even with the most cursory look at what Hillary did, and the disregard with which she held either the law or the security of the American people, it would be obvious how she violated both the law and the high trust that was placed in her. And Comey made note of that. But then it was Comey who went on to invent a new legal concept (“intent,” something the actual statute does not require when gross negligence is involved, as it was) to let Clinton off the hook. He proceeded to extrapolate that made-up concept to postulate there were not sufficient grounds to mount a prosecution of then-candidate Clinton. Those of us who signed those agreements concerning handling of classified material at the State Dept. knew that was bogus, and the interests of the American people, ostensibly the basis for the statute, were tossed out to protect one privileged person.

I have to almost choke on the hypocrisy of those making such a big deal about possible Russian meddling in the U.S. election, something Comey dwelled on in his testimony before the Senate committee. If one ignores the fact that the Russians, and the Soviets before them, have always tried to meddle in our affairs, if one ignores the fact that the U.S. is guilty of far more meddling in other countries’ affairs – even to the point of overthrowing other countries’ governments – and if one ignores the more recent fact that the Obama Administration actively paid for and sent campaign advisers to Israel to work (unsuccessfully) against the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – all inconvenient facts studiously ignored by the mainstream media – there is little doubt that Hillary Clinton’s wanton negligence in handling highly classified information almost certainly did far more to jeopardize the security of the country than anything the Russians might have done during the campaign.

In fact, Hillary goes a long way toward proving the old adage that no good turn goes unpunished. While Comey single-handedly prevented her prosecution, that hasn’t stopped her from accusing Comey of tipping the scales leading to her defeat. She asks us to ignore the utterly crappy campaign she conducted, in her “blame-everyone-but-myself” crusade, while attacking Comey. While it’s sometimes true that being hated by both sides is an indication you’re doing something right, it can also indicate you’re going about things very wrongly. I would argue the latter applies in Comey’s case. Worse, I would argue that Comey was derelict in his duties as FBI director to pursue the law and justice and not involve himself in any extraneous issues.

Anyway, if anyone was expecting Comey to bring clarity to the current imbroglio engulfing Washington and on which the “all-Trump-all-the-time” media is fixated, they must surely be disappointed. We’re just at the beginning of this road, and Comey’s muddled testimony only confirmed and, if anything, assured that. Meanwhile, don’t count on anyone of note being brought to justice, and don’t count on much being done to fix the many things that need fixing in this country, now that Congress has yet another excuse to dither and delay.

 

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.