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Category: Social Commentary

Pointing Immigration in the Right Direction

Pointing Immigration in the Right Direction

My service as a U.S. consular officer in the late 1980s and early1990s quickly debased me of any previous open-borders ideas I might have had prior to that time. While serving as vice consul for the geographically largest consular district in the world, covering most of the South Pacific and part of the North Pacific, I came to realize how poorly our immigration system served the country. Our two-officer office – me and the consul, my immediate boss – processed some 21,000 non-immigrant visas (NIVs) and about 6,000 immigrant visas (IVs) annually. I personally handled about two-thirds of the NIV applications and about a third of the IV applications. To say that some of those IV interviews verged on the scary would be an understatement, and made me wonder about the quality of people we were admitting for permanent residence in the U.S.

What occurred to me then was that the U.S. badly needed to implement a points-based immigration system similar to what already was long in place in Canada as well as in Australia and New Zealand, and has since even been adapted by the UK. Not that it would supplant this country’s family-based immigration system, but rather would supplement it, while revising the family-based system of preferences. While other countries were getting the cream of the crop of immigrants, we were limited basically to what came over the transom with our chain-migration policies, and that was not always beneficial to the U.S.

During my tenure as vice-consul in Fiji, yet another seemingly hair-brained idea was introduced, the so-called Diversity Visa Program (DVP), better known as the visa lottery program. A brain child of Congress, it allowed people from many countries deemed to be “under-represented” among U.S. immigrants to compete in a lottery to obtain the right to apply for permanent residence status. Besides debasing the whole concept of U.S. residency, this scheme essentially opened up a new category of immigrant visas to anyone who could fill out a postcard or pay someone to do it for them, as if we didn’t already have enough immigrants coming to the U.S., many with no discernible skills.

Over the intervening quarter century I have seen limited progress in immigration reform, combined with some steps in the wrong direction, acerbated by an ill-informed and prejudiced public and media debate over immigration. With this past week’s introduction of the so-called RAISE Act (RAISE – not Reyes – standing for Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment), I am for the first time in more than 25 years seeing reforms introduced that actually seem to make some sense. And of course the naysayers immediately came out in force, spouting the same sorts of nonsense that have kept our immigration system stuck under a law that dates back some 65 years, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, as amended and modified by some less overriding intervening laws.

To begin to understand the forces arrayed against any real reform of our outmoded and ineffectual immigration policy, one needs to understand two truisms about what the major political parties hope to gain from immigration: The Democrats want cheap votes, and the Republicans want cheap labor. These two impulses are the biggest factors keeping things pretty much where they are, if not pushing them further in the wrong direction. And it is these same factors that are the biggest enemies of the American people at large and which help keep our economy in a low-growth mode in which real wages remain stagnant while the costs of the welfare state continue to grow.

It’s also important to understand that the U.S. is not a laggard when it comes to immigration. While it may no longer be strictly true that we admit more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined, it is true that we admit, by far, the largest number of legal immigrants each year – more than a million people – and that number does exceed the total number of immigrants admitted by all the other largest immigrant-welcoming countries of the world combined. At present, close to 45 million immigrants (both legal and illegal) live in the U.S. There are some 85 million people, or about 27 percent of the total population, who are immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrants.

There are a lot of myths and stereotypes about immigration and these help perpetuate our current system. One of those myths is that immigrants strengthen the economy and do better than native-born Americans. While this was once true, it has not been true in more than a quarter century, and since then, in general terms, immigrants tend to fare worse than the overall population. This fact is buttressed by the numbers that show that immigrants to the U.S. are far more likely to wind up in poverty than the native-born population. Here are some disturbing figures from the Center for Immigration Studies:

Despite similar rates of work, because a larger share of adult immigrants arrive with little education, immigrants are significantly more likely to work low-wage jobs, live in poverty, lack health insurance, use welfare, and have lower rates of home ownership.

  • In 2014, 21 percent of immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under 18) lived in poverty, compared to 13 percent of natives and their children. Immigrants and their children account for about one-fourth of all persons in poverty.
  • Almost one in three children (under age 18) in poverty have immigrant fathers.
  • In 2014, 18 percent of immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under 18) lacked health insurance, compared to 9 percent of natives and their children.
  • In 2014, 42 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one welfare program (primarily food assistance and Medicaid), compared to 27 percent for natives. Both figures represent an undercount. If adjusted for undercount based on other Census Bureau data, the rate would be 57 percent for immigrants and 34 percent for natives.
  • In 2014, 12 percent of immigrant households were overcrowded, using a common definition of such households. This compares to 2 percent of native households.
  • Of immigrant households, 51 percent are owner-occupied, compared to 65 percent of native households.
  • The lower socio-economic status of immigrants is not due to their being mostly recent arrivals. The average immigrant in 2014 had lived in the United States for almost 21 years.”

While laws are in place that are supposed to limit immigrants’ access to welfare and other public assistance programs – the idea being that newcomers to the country are supposed to be able to support themselves, or have sponsors that will support them until they can support themselves – so many exceptions are made, so many jurisdictions overlook the rules, and so many benefits are obtained through the U.S.-citizen children of immigrants, that immigrants tend to use social welfare programs at rates in excess of the native population. The two charts that follow (also from the Center for Immigration Studies) clearly demonstrate the numbers. The first one compares legal immigrants with the native population while the second one compares illegal immigrants, who do even worse and aren’t even supposed to be here, with the native population.

Welfare Use Legal Immigrants

Welfare Use Illegal Immigrants

Another key element that is widely misunderstood, further evidenced by some of the silly things said in the days since the RAISE Act was unveiled, is the system of preferences under which our current immigration system operates. This system imposes strict numerical caps on different categories of immigrants from various countries, and creates serious distortions that those only peripherally familiar with the rules don’t understand. For instance, while there is no cap for the spouses or unmarried minor children or the parents of U.S. citizens, 21 years old and older, there are limits for just about every other category of immigrant.

The chart below shows the current (August 2017) preference limits for the various preference categories. It shows the dates when petitions would have had to be filed for intending immigrants in those categories, or preferences, to file their applications this month to be approved for immigrant visas. Depending on the country, these dates can vary significantly.

Preference Chart August 2017

For instance, for the first preference, the unmarried son or daughter, 21 years or older, of a U.S. citizen (native-born or, more commonly, naturalized), their petition would have had to be filed prior to 2011 in most countries of the world to file their applications for visas beginning this month. But if they are a citizen of the Philippines, the petition would have had to have been filed in 2007, or in 1996 if they are a citizen of Mexico. In other words, perhaps the beneficiaries were 22 or 25 or 27 when the petition was initially filed, but now they are anywhere from 10 to 21 years older. And these time periods don’t include processing times, which can be a year or more, once the application is filed.

If the applicant subsequently marries after the petition is filed, they drop to the F3 category and the preference dates of it.

For a second preference applicant in the F2A category – the spouse or unmarried minor child of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) – the wait has been a little more than a year worldwide. Not too bad. But for the unmarried son or daughter of an LPR who was over 21 when the petition was filed, the wait jumps to six years for most countries, 10 years for citizens of the Philippines, and 21 years for citizens of Mexico. If that unmarried minor child subsequently marries, they’re completely out of luck since there is no category for married children of LPRs.

As the chart shows, things get worse as one goes down the preference categories, until reaching F4, the preference category for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, when the wait can be as long as 22 years. Now that is a lot better than when I was a consular officer, when the wait for some countries was as long as 120 and 150 years, but it’s still a very long time. In practical terms, what these very long wait times do is encourage people in those categories to come on visitor visas to the U.S. and then overstay their visas, hoping to find some other mode to become legal.

In fact, more than half of those qualifying for immigrant status are already in the U.S. in some sort of temporary or illegal status, changing status when their preference comes up or simply remaining illegally if their preference never comes up, which distorts the entire system and enables those who are willing to jump the queue and break our laws to gain an advantage.

Seeing the effect these very long wait times have on people, it has been my contention since my consular days that the brother/sister category should be eliminated altogether. And that is one of the things the RAISE Act sensibly does, along with dispensing with the DVP, which never should have been introduced in the first place. I’d further argue, to cut out much of the incentive for overstaying, that changing status in the U.S. also should be strictly limited to those categories of immigrants for which no preference limits exist.

What is very difficult, if not impossible, under our current system of chain migration is to migrate independently to the U.S. – something that once was allowed and frequently done. There are many highly qualified potential migrants who would love to immigrate here, but who are blocked by our system of family preferences. So what happens with many of these people? They wind up migrating to another country, and our loss is Canada’s or Australia’s or New Zealand’s gain. The same applies to graduates of U.S. colleges and universities who study under student visas and then are forced to go back home after graduation. We’ve educated these people, and then don’t reap the benefit of that education, passing it on somewhere else. Again, these are exactly the kinds of people we should be seeking through our immigration system, and who will gain points under the RAISE Act.

One of the dumbest arguments I heard this week came from U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. He said that the RAISE Act would destroy his state’s economy by blocking lower-level employees who work in hotel and agricultural jobs. First of all, if those are the only kinds of jobs available in the Palmetto State, South Carolina has more serious problems than the RAISE Act would cause. Of course, that’s not true, and there are more jobs in South Carolina and across the land that can use more highly skilled people to fill them. Additionally, there already are programs, such as the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa, to address the demand for agricultural workers, not to mention a ready supply of illegal workers that Republicans like Sen. Graham seem all-to-eager to tolerate. Sen. Graham’s assertion actually reinforces the argument that our current immigration system funnels people into lower-level positions and helps depress wages across the board while forcing lower-skilled U.S. workers to compete with immigrants, legal and otherwise, for scarce jobs. It also fits neatly into the theory that Republicans support cheap labor.

Meanwhile, we’ve heard a chorus of objections from the Democrats, reinforcing the theory that nothing suits them better than easy, low-level immigration from which they hope to harvest cheap votes. Perhaps encapsulating some of the lame arguments on the left side of the house are that the RAISE Act invalidates the poem on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the world’s huddled masses – never a tenet of U.S. immigration policy or law – or that immigration would be limited to Anglophone countries, such as the UK or Australia, since knowledge of English would be one of the requirements for independent migration. As White House Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller ably pointed out, there are many English-speaking people around the world in just about every country, and all would be meet the language preference. Additionally, knowledge of English has long been a requisite for naturalization, and at one time in our more distant history was even a requirement to immigrate here.

In the past few days I’ve also heard some media people saying, well, they wouldn’t be here if the changes proposed in the RAISE Act were in place when their grandparents migrated here, and I fail to see the logic of this. First, they are here. Second, while they might be here, someone else, perhaps equally worthy, was excluded. And third, what might have been good for the country 100-some years ago isn’t necessarily good for the country today. Ironically, some of the people making the argument that we should keep our current system are the first ones to argue that the country is a different country today than it was in the past and it needs to change to keep up with the times.

The other argument that is raised is that the actual numbers of immigrants admitted would be cut from the current million-plus to about two-thirds that number, or roughly back to mid-1980s levels. This might be more in keeping with the ability of the country to absorb new immigrants, but in any case this number seems reasonable and can be adjusted over time. It is argued that the high level of immigration has kept the U.S. relatively competitive with European countries and other nations, but what is missing from that argument are the details that it is both younger immigrants and more highly skilled immigrants who can contribute to economic growth, rather than draw down on it. We need to regenerate a period when immigrants do better than the general population, as in the past, than worse than the general population, and the RAISE Act is a step in that direction.

Like any piece of proposed legislation, there should be debate and discussion, and probably some tweaks made, to the RAISE Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. But what I fear will happen will be bipartisan support to kill the proposed reforms, never letting the bill out of committee, in keeping with the divergent desires of the two parties that I stated above: The Dems will want to keep their cheap votes and the Republicans will want to keep their cheap labor, and the rest of us, and the country, will continue to suffer as a result.

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

Why I Don’t Care About the Russia Thing

Why I Don’t Care About the Russia Thing

Let me say it right up front: I don’t give a ruble (which is not very much) about the Russia thing. There, you’ve got the main point, right in the lead. Now let me explain why I don’t care about it.

First, let me say that I’m convinced that corruption has become so deep-seated in our political process that it’s become as American as apple pie and F-150 pickups. Same with incompetence. That’s as American as our so-called public education system and our inability to solve such problems as urban blight and poverty. It’s not that I’m happy with these things, since I’m not. But they are realities, just as the compass orientations of sunrises and sunsets and the phases of the moon are. It makes no more sense to rail against these overriding problems than it does to argue for new coordinates for the sun or a different schedule for the moon.

That might sound like a cop-out to you, and fair enough. In a way, it is. But that’s just touching the surface of things. It’s just setting the stage for the other things I have to say, the things I have to say about why I don’t care about the Russia thing. Did I tell you I don’t care about it? It’s true. I don’t.

I hope I don’t have to explain the Russia thing. Turn to almost any radio, TV, or print news or commentary, and you’ll hear or read probably more than you want to hear or read about the Russia thing. It’s almost impossible to ignore it, as much as you might want to. And depending on the slant of the medium to which you have turned, it’s either the worst thing since (pick one) Watergate/the Vietnam War/the Civil War/the beginning of recorded history, or it’s overblown and (in the words of former Obama-era Special Advisor for Green Jobs Van Jones) “a big nothing-burger” ( to be fair to Jones, if that’s called for, he later clarified his statement to mean that nothing will come of the Russia thing, not that it wasn’t significant, in his view).

Russian Rubles
Photo FreeImages.com/2happy

So now here’s where I come down on this. It’s not that I don’t think corruption and incompetence are inconsequential – lord knows we’ve been saddled with both for most of this new millennium, which has gotten us where we now find ourselves – but just that I think things need to be put into perspective. And there has to be some sort of fair apportionment of blame and punishment, if there is to be any at all. And at the moment, I don’t think there is any likelihood of either, whether perspective, or fair apportionment of blame and punishment.

As I’ve said in previous postings, it shouldn’t come as news to anyone that the Russians, and before them the Soviets, have been meddling, or at least trying to, in U.S. affairs for decades and decades. The earnestness with which it’s declared that there was Russian attempts to influence our elections is equivalent to Captain Renault, in Casablanca, declaring that he was “ . . . shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on here!” Oh, come on. Grow up, will you? At least Renault knew he was play- acting, which is more than can be said about our hysterical mainstream media and the Democratic side of the aisle.

There also is zero evidence that even one vote was changed or influenced by whatever Russia might have done, or not done. But there is tons of evidence that the internal corruption of the Democratic Party (not based in Moscow, last time I checked) had enormous influence on the outcome of delegate selection despite the results of many state primary elections in which Bernie Sanders came out the winner, or close behind, versus Hillary Clinton. Now one can reasonably argue that there is little chance Sanders could have bested a Trump, or almost anyone else the Republicans put up, but that isn’t the point. The point is the influence that Democratic National Committee corruption and incompetence had on the selection of H. Clinton as the Democratic candidate, or at least on the margin of delegates voting for her.

One can argue endlessly over whether it was the Kremlin that hacked and then released the tens of thousands of DNC emails – 44,053 emails and 12,761 attachments in the first tranche alone, released in July 2016 by Wikileaks – or an intermediary, or an independent third party. Wikileaks head Julian Assange, once a darling of the left, insists it wasn’t the Russian government, but he won’t divulge who the actual source was. Regardless, it was the substance of the emails leaked, more than who did the leaking, that, if anything, had an impact on how American voters viewed Hillary Clinton and the Dems. When I was a Foreign Service Officer and had a close call to make, the equation I’d put into play is how, whatever the decision was, it would look on the front page of the Washington Post. This apparently was not an equation that ever occurred to the top people of the DNC, like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Brazile, John Podesta, or many other top operatives within the DNC and the Clinton campaign. So instead of admitting to what they did, it’s easier to point the finger at the Russians and say it’s all their fault and, by some sort of illogical extension, Donald Trump’s fault, that things turned out as they did.

But things go beyond this, to one of my key issues about why I don’t care about the Russia thing. And that is the lack of impartial imposition of either justice or injustice, depending on how you see it. For her entire time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used a private email server to conduct official State Department business, a clear violation of law and regulation covering handling of classified material, as well as any official government communication. Again, drawing on my experience having been in positions of trust handling highly classified materials, and familiarity with the documents I had to sign acknowledging my acceptance of the stringent requirements for handling such sensitive materials, I have never for a moment doubted that, had I done what Hillary Clinton did, I would have been put in prison. Which is where she should be. But instead, the political powers that be shielded Clinton from prosecution, with none other than FBI Director James Comey inventing a whole new legal concept, called “intent,” to exonerate her from prosecution while at the same time confirming she had broken the law. Pretty good line of reasoning, and one I bet a lot of criminals wish they could call on in their own defenses.

Regardless, what Hillary did almost certainly harmed national security far more, and provided more help and succor to the dreaded Russians, than anything Trump might have done.

But wait, it goes beyond that. Comey, in public testimony, admitted he had demurred to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s suggestion that he refer to the Clinton investigation as “a matter” rather than as an investigation, and that isn’t called “collusion” on the part of Lynch and even Comey himself. But when President Trump asked Comey to conclude his investigation of Russian involvement in his campaign, after Comey on at least three occasions confirmed to Trump he was not the subject of the investigation, that is categorized as “collusion” and “obstruction of justice.”

Vintage Russian Car
Photo FreeImages.com/Ivaylo Georgiev

Going still further, now we have this meeting last June involving Donald Trump, Jr., and the Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. Here is where things get unbelievably smelly, and there are growing indications, if not actual evidence, that this meeting, and the entire supposed scandal, were actually engineering by Democratic operatives in an effort to frame the President and his son. One can reasonably argue that Trump Jr. should not have taken on this meeting, but it is now known that Fusion GPS, a group that initially worked with anti-Trump Republican candidates before turning to assisting the Clinton camp, set up the meeting with Veselnitskaya. This same group was responsible for release of a whole rack of salacious, and false, accusations concerning Trump Sr., including the now discredited report that he had engaged Russian prostitutes in a golden shower incident in a Moscow hotel.

If that is not enough, we see Veselnikskaya posting statements supporting anti-Trump demonstrations in Chicago on her Facebook page, but even that isn’t the punch line. The real punch line is when we see that Veselnikskaya was permitted into the U.S., after her visa application was denied, on what is called humanitarian parole, granted by, once more, former-AG Loretta Lynch. She additionally remained in the U.S. even after her parole expired in January 2016. Again, drawing on my consular and diplomatic experience, granting of humanitarian parole is an extraordinary measure, usually reserved for children and others seeking family unification, for emergency medical treatment, or for urgent refugee protection, outside normal visa guidelines. I have never heard of it being granted in a case like this, and the political implications are too hard to ignore.

Now Fusion GPS head Glenn Simpson says he will plead the Fifth if forced to testify before Congress. Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Diane Feinstein have both said they want Simpson subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Just to pose the question, if Fusion GPS is blameless in all this, why would Simpson need to hide behind the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering the committee’s questions?

Russian Street Kids
Photo FreeImages.com/Chris Greene

It’s now known that Obama knew of Russian efforts at meddling in the electoral process going back as far as July. But he failed to take any action until after Trump’s election when he imposed sanctions on the Russians, in December. Why would the President ignore what has now become such a big issue? There can be only one plausible explanation, which is that he never expected Trump to win and he didn’t want to muddy the political waters with his knowledge. But once Trump was elected, then the knowledge became the basis for attempting to embarrass the President-elect and to bolster the Democratic campaign to question his legitimacy.

One other key issue has gotten short shrift, and that is the extent of leaks coming from within the intelligence community and elsewhere in the government, Many of these leakers are actually committing felonies, releasing classified information to the media, and even Comey himself copped to being a leaker during his Senate testimony in June. But to date no one has been charged or prosecuted for these offenses.

Finally, we get to the media (how could we not?) Ever since the results of November 8 came in, it’s been “all Trump, all the time” for the mainstream media. Normally I wouldn’t object to the media trying to get to the heart of things – after all, I used to be a journalist, too – but where have most if the media been through the onslaught of scandals that cascaded out almost non-stop during the Obama years? Ask most Americans, and I would wager few have even heard of, much less could describe, the Fast-and-Furious scandal, the IRS scandal, or (though a few more might) the VA scandal. Most would not be able to tell you what happened at Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, or why the Obama Administration (including Hillary Clinton and then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and the President himself) chose to tell the American people a lie about the cause of those events for weeks and weeks afterwards. And it has never been made clear, in most U.S. media, why or how Hillary Clinton broke federal law and put U.S. security in jeopardy by her careless, callous, and illegal use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. And I could go on beyond these most notable scandals – there are many others most Americans have never even heard about — but the point is made.

Now we’re inundated with this Russia thing, and we’re to believe that not only were laws broken and our election stolen, but that treason and high crimes and misdemeanors were committed by the President and members of his close team. To which I say, first, bullcrap, and second, so? Even if these accusations are true, for which there is no evidence, why the unfair prosecution (whether in the media or the judicial system) of Trump when so many egregious offenses committed by Clinton, Lynch, Comey, Rice, and others, including Barrack Obama, go virtually unmentioned?

Meanwhile, real issues facing the country, ranging from healthcare to tax reform, from what to do about ISIS to what to do about Afghanistan, and on and on and on, get shuffled away under this tidal wave of the Russia thing and the one-sided coverage of “all Trump, all the time.”

Like I said earlier, if justice, or lack thereof, is to apply to one party, then let it apply to all parties. Until it does, and there is no sign that it will, then, no, I don’t care about the Russia thing.

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

Dead White People

Dead White People

If we’re discussing dead white people, of course we’re discussing National Public Radio, the bastion of deceased Caucasians.

You’ve heard the euphemisms: “Encore presentation.” “The Best of . . . ” “We bring you a program that first aired on . . . ” Which, in normal-person non-spin parlance, all translate to “Re-run.”

Instead of renewing itself like most living media do, NPR continues to air the same programs not just for years, but for decades, often long past when the hosts of those programs are deceased. And even when the hosts are still alive and kicking, many programs play repeats over and over, ostensibly while the hosts are on extensive holidays or sick leave.

I’m listening to one such program with a deceased host right now, a re-run of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz from more than 25 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong. I like Marian McPartland. I used to listen to her programs back in the day. But Marian died in 2013, at 95, and the last show she produced was in September 2010. That seems an adequate amount of time for NPR to come up with a contemporary replacement.

Then there is Car Talk, AKA Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, AKA The Car Guys, with Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Car Talk in its day was the most popular NPR program, and even in re-runs, as The Best of Car Talk (hint-hint, re-run), it still ranks third in the line-up. I guess that is the network’s rationale for continuing to air it. But the last show was produced in 2012, and Tommy died in November 2014. Tune in today, in 2017, and you’ll hear questions about callers’ 1988 Cavaliers and 1982 Subarus and 1978 Datsuns (yes, I said Datsuns). In an age when self-driving cars roam the nation’s highways, you’d be excused for wondering whether any Car Talk callers own cars that don’t qualify as antique vehicles. That’s because some of the material aired dates back as much as 10 years prior to the show’s last four years of production. That goes back 19 years. I mean, even when it was current, this was a show that would send its weekly Puzzler feature on summer vacation each year.

To give it some kind of credit, NPR said last year it will stop airing The Best of Car Talk at the end of this coming September. I’m curious whether the network will come up with a new car show, or give us one more radio game show. Frankly, I won’t be surprised to hear it replaced as The Best of the Best of Car Talk.

Then there is that other NPR mainstay, A Prairie Home Companion. Now APHC certainly had its audience as originator and host Garrison Keillor regaled listeners with “News From Lake Wobegone” from the show’s inception in 1974 until his retirement in 2016. To do the math, that’s 42 years. But today, with mandolinist Chris Thile selected as replacement host by the cantankerous Keiller (for reasons that, despite Thile’s considerable musical talents, elude me), most of the same skits and standard joke advertisements I listened to while in grad school in the 1980s continue to be run on the program. Notably, the Lake Wobegone segments, which really were uniquely Keillor’s own, have been dropped, and along with them went a significant portion of APHC‘s audience. The program has become mostly a musical variety show, but never mind that. Almost every week the program is a re-run from “earlier in the season” – this week’s broadcast was one from last November. As was last week’s. And almost every one in recent months is a re-run, and even a re-run of a re-run. Listen in enough, if you can stand it, and soon you’ll be able to recite the lines by heart.

I have to wonder how much of NPR’s mostly liberal audiences are locked into that old-timey thing. Apparently enough of the network’s listeners are tolerant of these practices to keep on shelling out during twice-yearly local fund-raising drives. And the re-runs extend to shows that are ostensibly current daily mainstays. I don’t even try to keep count of how many times Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is stale air, re-runs of past programs while the host is who-knows-where. The same with many other programs, like Peter Sagal’s game show, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! Well, I can tell you, since too many times I’ve already heard the program. I mean, who gets that much leave? When I was a journalist I had to fight to get two weeks off in a year. Sometimes it seems the hosts of NPR programs are away more than they’re there. Must be nice work, if you can get it. But with such a little amount of turn-over, it doesn’t pay to wait for people to die to try to get in, because they’re still not going anywhere.

When I worked for the government it was said that the only way to get fired was if they held a mirror to your nose and you failed to fog it. Things are even worse than that at NPR.

NPR apparently can’t even come up with enough programs within the nation’s borders to air, so it turns to Canada for some of the music and even news discussion broadcasts the network runs, as well as the BBC for some news programming. To be clear, I have nothing against Canada and acknowledge that there is plenty of musical talent within our northern neighbor, but do we really have to hear about unknown musicians’ experiences growing up in Timmons and St. John and Thunder Bay, sprinkled with frequent misperceptions of the U.S.?

Now we come to the white people part. For all its hectoring us about race relations in America and what a bunch of deplorable racists we are, NPR is an almost solidly white organization. Other than a smattering of music programs, I can only think of one nationally syndicated NPR thematic or entertainment program hosted by a black person, Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. And Washington got the nod to do the program after winning a competition, the Public Radio Talent Quest. There are so few blacks within NPR, even fewer on the air, maybe a tiny smattering on the news side of the house, NPR’s lily-white complexion often is the subject of self-deprecating jokes made on the network. Ha-ha. Very funny.

What’s even more galling is that we support NPR with tax dollars. The network’s slant is unabashedly liberal, ignoring and even insulting listeners who don’t adhere to that orientation but who still are required to shell out for it through their taxes, while the network continues to rest on past laurels, past achievements, past personalities. How many commercial networks would be able to get by routinely running programs from a quarter century past? And how many networks, or institutions of any sort, could justify the kind of racial homogeneity as NPR’s?

I don’t have any illusions that anything I have to say on the topic will make a fig of difference. Mostly I just need to vent on this stuff. As much as I’d like to think that if enough listeners were to rouse from their long sleep and say, wait, wait, we want something new from NPR, there might be the beginnings of change at the network, I’m not holding my breath. We’re probably in for more decades of encore performances, and more dead white people filling the public airwaves.

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

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Remembering Elie Wiesel

The news of Elie Wiesel’s death reached me on the car radio last July 2 as I was driving through Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta. The sun had come out after a very rainy Canada Day the previous day, but the news of Wiesel’s passing arrived as a shock that darkened even that bright Saturday. I had a most personal and moving encounter with the Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, author, teacher, and renowned advocate for the oppressed 17 years prior, and I knew I needed to write something of my memories of him. Unfortunately, circumstances were not conducive that day or in subsequent days as I made my way back to the U.S. and to Florida, and the months that followed proved far more tumultuous and challenging than I had imagined. But now, on the anniversary of his death, I feel it’s finally time I share my thoughts on this man who touched my life so profoundly.

In June of 1999 I was again posted to the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, returning there on TDY at my request from my then-permanent station in Brasilia. I couldn’t bear to read any more accounts of what the Serbs were doing to the Kosovar Albanians during their onslaught on the province of Kosovo – perhaps in part due to my own partially Albanian ancestry – and I asked to be sent on temporary duty back to Tirana, where I arrived in mid-May and was to remain through most of July.

It was during the first week of June 1999 that Elie Wiesel was sent as a personal representative of President Bill Clinton to visit the refugee camps housing the displaced Kosovar Albanians in Macedonia and Albania. The President wanted to get a first-hand read on what was going on, and what the state of the refugees was, and so he turned to the man who had spent so much of his adult life speaking out for the oppressed of the world. The man who himself had survived internship, at the age of 15, at two of Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Perhaps because I constituted a significant part of the embassy’s collective memory, having been posted to Tirana from 1995 to 1997, including during Albania’s own internal descent into temporary madness following collapse of the country’s massive pyramid schemes, I was assigned as control officer to Mr. Wiesel. What that meant was that I was to accompany the visitor wherever he went, look after his safety and well being, oversee the translators, drivers, and other personnel assisting in the mission, serve as liaison to the embassy and whatever relevant agencies to assure that his requests were met, answer his questions about the country and the situation to supplement what knowledge he was garnering on his own, and to generally provide whatever support the President’s envoy might need or want. It struck me then as a great honor to be selected to fill this role, and it still strikes me that way.

Interestingly, in his report to the President, Mr. Wiesel said he was “accompanied by three able US government officials” during his visits to the two countries, and in acknowledging the role played by the embassies and the U.S. government agencies that assisted with the visit, he said, “They went out of their way to be helpful. They bring honor to our country.”

In truth, I felt that it was he who brought honor to us through his visit and, more than anything, the serious, sensitive, and intense manner in which he approached his role and the kindness he showed to everyone he came in contact with.

June brings heat to Albania, and the tents housing the thousands of refugees who had fled their homes in Kosovo were hot in the June sun. Elie Wiesel never faltered for a moment as we went from camp to camp, interviewing dozens of people in each camp, conducting the interviews in the tents, working through a translator, and listening intently to the unrelenting accounts of personal horror and loss that poured out. I sat in on most of these interviews, and hour by hour and day by day the strain and the sadness grew.

We got out into the areas where the camps had been set up, and this provided me with the occasion of my first-ever helicopter ride, aboard a U.S. Navy Sea Stallion that carried our entourage west out of the capital to our first stop. The schedule we kept up would have been grueling all by itself, but Wiesel was unstopping in his quest to speak with as many of the refugees as he could, seemingly disregarding any jet lag he might have picked up coming from New York, even at the age of 70 at the time.

We set up individual interviews as well as, as I recall, one or two group sessions, always in the big white refugee tents. For hours upon hours we heard women tell of watching their husbands and sons taken away and gunned down by the Serbs. We heard of parents separated from their children, of children watching their parents killed before theirs eyes, of the difficult and dangerous trek over the mountains and out of Kosovo to relative safety in Albania.

As Wiesel wrote in his report to President Clinton, “I listened to their tales of senseless cruelty and inhumanity which characterized Milosevic’s army and police; they have been reported in the international media. Still, it is different to hear it first-hand. One feels frustrated and powerless in their presence. And embarrassed. Pristina and Pec, Djakovica and Cecelija, Mitrovica and Glogovac, Kuraz and Izbica: eyewitnesses brought back harrowing detailed graphic reports from Kosovo’s killing fields. They go on and on. Forced expulsions, houses looted, villages burned, insults, threats, imprisonment, repeated rapes of young women, beatings of young men, separation of men and women, summary executions: everywhere, the process is the same. And the tormentors – who are they? Most of them are former neighbors.”

He heard again and again how it was former neighbors who were inflicting these cruelties, and I remember the interview Wiesel cites in his report: “ ‘A policeman came with his 5-year-old son,’ a man with an extraordinarily kind face told me. ‘He pointed at us and asked the boy to choose the prisoner to be beaten that morning.’ ”

When we took breaks, or when it was time to head back to Tirana at day’s end, we would watch the refugee children playing their games between the tents, as children will do.

“In this haunted world of Kosovo refugees, adults wept,” Wiesel writes in his report to the President. “Children did not. They sang. They played games. They laughed. And I no longer know what hurt us more: the children’s laughter or their parents’ tears.”

But what is not contained in those words is what we saw, again and again, which was children not just laughing and singing, but also pretending in their play to capture and execute one another, having picked up perhaps all too well what they had witnessed back home. I remember being at dinner in an open-air restaurant with embassy colleagues the evening of our camp visits and trying to describe what I had witnessed. But I was unable to get past the image of children forming guns with their fingers and using them to play-shoot their playmates in the back of the head, and breaking down at the table, not able to go on. The memory still haunts me and brings tears to my eyes even as I write these words.

It’s relevant to recall the details of Elie Wiesel’s life, being born into a town in Transylvania, a part of Romania that was transferred to Hungarian control for several years during World War II. And from there being hauled off with his family to the Nazi concentration camps as part of the Holocaust. Only Elie and two older sisters survived, their parents and younger sister killed in the camps, and the only reason Elie survived was by lying about his age, saying he was 18 and so able to work and prove useful to his captors. His life since then was marked with concern for the oppressed, and working to see that something like the Holocaust could never be repeated.

I think hearing the Kosovar refugees tell of the horrors that they were subjected to and witnessed brought back too many bad memories to Elie Wiesel. I could see it in his face, a look I can still see today, the effect all this was having on him. And in a low voice what he conveyed to me was his fear that this terror the refugees experienced was just going to carry on, was going to engender hatred and a desire for revenge, and the adults and the children playing their games were going to return to Kosovo with a desire to inflict on the Serbs what the Serbs had inflicted on them. It was this fear for the future that concerned him the most.

He writes in his report, “What I saw and heard there was often unbearable to the survivor that still lives in my memory. In fact, I never thought that I would hear such tales of cruelty again.”

His fear was that the victims would become the victimizers, seeking to wreak back onto the Serbs what their Serb neighbors had done to them. Toward the end of his report Wiesel expresses his concern for the future: “Their bitterness, indeed their hatred for [Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic] and his subordinates, will not fade away.”

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him “a messenger to mankind.” But at the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, it is Wiesel’s words that are carved in stone: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Other words spoken by Wiesel must give us pause for thought, though. Lamenting that his father had no grave at which he might grieve, he said, “”What can I tell him? That the world has learned? I am not so sure.”

In June 1999 and afterward, Elie Wiesel bore witness to the suffering and cruelty brought down on the Kosovar Albanians, and I think it added to his uncertainty that the world had changed since the Holocaust. But for me, a lowly embassy control officer, I will never forget his presence or his concern. In those couple of days, my life was truly touched by him.

Read Elie Wiesel’s full report to President Clinton here.

Photo by Remy Steinegger, World Economic Forum. Used with permission.

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

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.