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Tag: politics

Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, since I’m not, really, but there are some things that just need to be said about how things clearly are headed in this technological world we inhabit.

News of interactive appliances, self-driving cars, bots and algorithms that determine what gets fed to us over the Internet has gotten to be pretty much old hat. Those things would be enough to give us pause, but no, nothing is about to stop there, it seems.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear our washing machine or refrigerator turning us in for some transgression, or feeding our habits to an advertising program that will just try to sell us more stuff we probably don’t need. And if I can’t open the door of the fridge to see how much milk or eggs or cream cheese is left, someone really needs to put me out of my misery, and soon. But things have already reached that stage.

There is a way of looking at things that seems to have gotten lost in the quest to come up with the next technological advance. It’s pretty simple, really: Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it. That’s where we’re at, maybe already well past it, and the lesson seems to be lost on those who are planning our “brave” new world of technological wonders. It’s time to stop the madness, though I’m not encouraged by what I see and hear about almost on a daily basis now.

Take cars, for example. Now there’s a subject. Some of us actually don’t want our car making decisions for us. Cars that stop on their own, keep us from wandering into the next lane, open and close their own doors, and which park themselves already go further than some of us, those who were taught to drive properly and enjoy being in charge of the process of guiding a machine down the road, want. Now we’re looking at cars, and even trucks, that drive themselves. They’re already out there, sharing the roads with us. But apparently that is not enough for those who think up these things. The next step – I am not making this up – are cars that will carry on a conversation with us while they drive us around.

Am I some sort of raving radical when I say I don’t really want to have a conversation with my car? I don’t even like riding in taxis since I’d rather not converse with the driver. How much less will I want to speak with a machine? Just guessing here, but I’d say a lot. A really lot. A lot a lot. What could my car even have to say that would interest me? At least with cab drivers I can learn about other cultures and the kinds of things that brought them here. I really don’t need to hear from my car how things were in Korea or Mexico or Canada or wherever before they came here, or how they’re running hot and they just don’t feel up to par these days. And suppose their hearing or grasp of the language isn’t so good? One can only imagine the misunderstandings that might ensue.

Now we’re hearing about pills that send out little signals so that our doctors can spy on us and see whether we’re taking the bloody things as they’ve instructed. I can’t get my doctors on the phone or even send them an email, but now they’re going to be listening in on what’s going on inside my stomach? Sorry, I don’t think so. The manufacturers of these spybot pills say they’re perfectly safe. Well, I’m less concerned about that then I am about what other purposes they might be put to, like programming our refrigerators not to let us touch the bacon or the ice cream that dwells within them. Or someone hacking into those interactive pills to find out more about us, things our insurance company or Russian scammers might want to know.

We’ve become so hungry to consume that having packages delivered to our doorstep isn’t enough anymore. Now Amazon is offering “in home” delivery – literally, their delivery people will come inside our home to drop off our latest gizmo. But do I want strangers coming into my home? Hell, no. It’s bad enough they know where I live. I certainly don’t want them crossing the threshold and coming inside. And I don’t care if some hidden camera or Alexa, Amazon’s other way of getting into our house and life – and two more things I don’t want in my home — is there to observe them.

Increasingly bots and algorithms determine what we read, what ads are fed us, what vids pop up on our computer screens. Google thinks its algorithms are so smart they can tell where we are and feed us local ads. Ha, Google. FYI, I don’t live in Chicago, nowhere within a thousand miles of it, even if my ISP is located there, so you can stop sending me all those ads for vendors in the Windy City. We’re still a long way from when these things will be fool-proof, if ever, but meanwhile they’ve been unleashed on us. For instance, now we read that with the YouTube Kids application – Google owns YouTube, too, if you didn’t know – the algorithms are feeding the little darlings cartoons in which the characters drink bleach, appear as gore-covered zombies, or get it on with other characters. With parents increasingly substituting screens for actual parenting, who couldn’t see this coming? Nothing like a bot to handle the babysitting, right?

When I was a kid, my dad would take me outside on cold nights to look through a telescope at the moon and the planets. I wonder how many parents and kids do that today, and I’d be willing to wager that the only way most kids today see celestial bodies, if at all, is on a screen.

More and more we’re seeing machines and electronics and robots taking over ever-more things that used to be the province of people, of actual human beings, to do. We’re told that many manufacturing jobs will never come back because technology and robots have replaced the workers that used to be in them. And while the machines, for all their faults, get smarter and smarter, it seems people are getting dumber and dumber, with no end in sight for either trend.

There has been a question on my mind for a very long time, long before the popular future vision began to become a reality. And that is, if machines and technology can do all this stuff, what will people do? Or more precisely, what will people do to earn a living to pay for all these luxuries, all these gadgets, all these robots and technological advances? The vision of the future was a place where people could live lives of total leisure, never having to lift a finger. It seems that’s what the people developing these technologies have in mind, but is anyone thinking about the economics and the politics of it all?

I can just imagine sitting at home drinking mint juleps, prepared by Alexa, and watching on a screen as my self-driving car heads out on a scenic road that I get to enjoy vicariously from my living room. Drones are dropping off packages I’ve ordered online and bots carry them inside, while my robot vacuum cleaner does the den and my refrigerator orders up restocks of the bananas and hot dogs. My imaginary kids are playing video games and learning about life from cartoons, and all the while ads and click-bait stories about celebrities pop up on screens all over the house.

If that’s my life, who is paying for it? I can easily see a society – we’re almost there now — where a permanent underclass is forced to support the more privileged among us. Proles who support members of the Inner and Outer Party (thank you, George Orwell, for painting such a vivid picture of this notional future in the perhaps prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in the title maybe just four decades early).

At one time we used to worry about big corporations taking on too much power and controlling our lives too much. Yet, these new corporations of technology have become bigger, more powerful, and with more influence on our lives than any ITT, GM, IBM, or AT&T of the past. Somehow we’ve come to see the Googles and Apples and Microsofts of the world as benign, looking after our well being and making our lives better and easier, and not as the profit-making, market-share-grabbing machines that they are. Maybe a comparison could be drawn with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation of 1987’s RoboCop film.

I also have to wonder what politics all this will lead to, with the political order mirroring and supporting the economic one. Already we’ve become polarized and divided almost as never before, and I can only see this trend growing as our societal dialogue becomes increasingly fractured, splintered, and Balkanized, with each individual picking and choosing what version of reality he or she prefers. And with the decline of the national dialogue and the dumbing-down of the population, it will become easier and easier for Big Brother (who also comes to us from Nineteen Eighty-Four) to simply manipulate and control a society whose creature comforts and diet of electronic pap fed them will take precedence over more traditional political values, like dissent and the freedoms of speech and association.

Already otherwise intelligent people appear to have a hard time writing anything that exceeds 140 (or 280, for the truly verbose) characters, and what at one time would be intelligent correspondence and debate has been reduced to gibberish, repetition, and name-slinging. A large proportion of the population sees the world through the medium of a phone, and the quality of their communication reflects this.

I’m not going to claim that technology is inherently bad – after all, I’m writing this on a laptop computer, and the thought of doing so on a typewriter is a chilling one – but we need to think about how far things can be carried before the beneficial becomes detrimental. Like I said near the outset, just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

It’s time to stop the madness.

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.

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.

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.

 

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