June 2013

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Fumbling health care

Having fought so hard and risked so much, President Obama has a powerful moral obligation to get this right. In an administration which hasn't solved simpler problems like how to ameliorate mortgage fraud or compensate devastated ex-homeowners, health care reform is more on the level of a moon mission in terms of complexity.

The sad thing about all this is that single payer would have been the simple and right solution, but was politically unavailable because the conservatives have captured the American vocabulary these past seventy years and associate single payer with socialism. This despite the fact that Medicare is successful single payer for older people.

I almost was forced to leave New York some years back when I couldn't find affordable health insurance. I finally found coverage through a New York theater nonprofit. I learned this week that this coverage may go away as an unintended side effect of the Affordable Care Act.

This coverage, like that I obtained in the 1980's through the National Federation of Independent Businesses (ironically the lead plaintiff trying to destroy the Act in the case decided by the Supreme Court) aggregates unrelated people and entities to create a large, relatively affordable group. (I pay $780 per month for my single coverage and, what with deductibles, unexpected irrational rules and general fuck ups, am constantly being billed thousands of dollars for medical services anyway.) The Affordable Care Act requires that the employer partly pay for my coverage; the nonprofit and NFIB give you access, and you pay 100% yourself. So my plan will likely vanish when the administrator realizes she will have to pay a $2000 per person penalty for making no contribution to our coverage. Will I be able to find equal, affordable coverage through the exchange? Nobody knows.

Another bad side effect of the Act, which wouldn't exist under single payer: it is literally disincenting small businesses from growing. If you have fewer than fifty people, you now have a reason to stay that size, because when you break fifty you are subject to a lot of regulation and some potential penalties you didn't face before.

I blame the conservatives, who set the terms of the debate so that the only way to get coverage to more Americans was to meddle with the market, instead of recognizing, as most Western countries do, that health care, like defense, is a valid function of government.

Military rape

The Air Force colonel in charge of rape prevention drunkenly assaulted a woman in a parking lot. This shit has to stop; it is a crime and a mistake to tolerate a culture of rape in the military. Any hierarchy, any organization, can be reformed in a single generation, through the exercise of leadership, clear communication about the things no longer tolerable, and some hefty prison sentences for crime. There is no excuse for the bloody mindedness which permits organizations like the NYPD, the Fire Department and the Air Force to stay criminal decade afer decade.

The IRS and the Tea Party

There have been some disappointments and sad moments in the two Obama administrations, but the most symbolic yet was the President's loud criticism of the IRS for the admittedly indefensible selective auditing of Tea Party 501(c)(4)'s. When I was fresh out of law school, I attended a closing at which a lawyer blamed his young associate for some papers not being ready, and even then I saw how weak that was: he reports to you, you supervise him, the buck stops on your desk. Harry Truman had a theory of responsibility few presidents since have shared. How could this happen in your administration and why wasn't anyone watching?

The whole thing seems exceptionally puerile because of the tininess of the entities targeted, like going after the krill while the whales, huge Republican and Democrat 501(c)(4)'s, play unwatched above. It is one of the biggest boondoggles in American history, and the hugest symptom of our developing oligarchy, that these entities funnel millions of dollars anonymously to political campaigns while paying no taxes, on the theory they are serving the public good. That doesn't sound like something we would invent in the America I knew.

The Associated Press

On a similar note, the disclosure that the Justice Department seized months of records of telephones used by Associated Press reporters and editors is very disturbing. In the new world of surveillance, the whole idea of warrants is becoming quaint, as the authorities use simple subpoenas and letters to compel the phone companies and email services to disclose information. The Obama administration, more than any of its predecessors, has gone after journalists, just one more thing I would never have thought to associate with a liberal Democratic administration. What is happening, why is it happening, who is minding the store?

Preventive double mastectomies

A significant incidence of the dysfunctional nature of our health care system is the widespread prescription and use of tests of doubtful utility, which frequently lead to unnecessary procedures. Two examples: there was a fad years ago for whole body scans; one man whose scan detected anomalies had himself opened up in an expensive, painful and possibly dangerous surgery, to discover that what had been visualized was harmless internal scarring from a childhood condition. More recently, there has been a fad for genetic testing which tells you if you are a bit more predisposed than other people to get cancer, and some healthy women (Angelina Jolie just made the announcement) are having preventive double mastectomies to avoid a cancer they might never have gotten anyway (or they may get some other cancer instead). This seems to me to be self mutilation, not far afield from those mentally ill people who want to have healthy arms or legs amputated. Aside from the morality and psychology, the practical impact of all this testing and surgery is that I can barely afford the premium for my health insurance, and millions of Americans still can't afford any at all, because we are all paying for everyone's unnecessary testing and surgery, among other things.

Gun brains

As a 58-year-old spectator of human folly, crime and misfortune (recognize Gibbon's definition of history?) I have become rather jaded, but occasionally a news story inspires more despair than the usual. One of these was the May 28 Times piece, "Gun Makers Saw No Role in Curbing Improper Sales". In depositions some years ago, the executives of various gun manufacturers made comments such as "I don't even know what a gun trafficker is" and "It isn't up to me to judge the legality of the sale".

I have been trying to highlight in the Spectacle for eighteen years the fact that the gun industry is permitted to operate without the supervision that applies to every other manufacturer of a product with public health implications. Oil and gas, construction materials, automobile manufacturers, and food companies all have some laws to follow, the firearms industry none.

The Second Amendment is just a cover, an excuse. Though in recent years the NRA has at last won some victories in court, its primary effectiveness has been as a lobby: politicians who vote for gun control know they will be aggressively opposed by a well funded candidate at the next election. So they don't. What we are seeing is not really a constitutional dispute, but a direct effect of oligarchy: billionaires ensuring that there is no government intervention in their activities.

The punch-line: the law-suits in which these depositions were given ended when Congress passed a law shielding gun manufacturers from liability. The depositions were sealed; the Times obtained them from a confidential source.

International criminal court

I was very much in favor of the creation of an international criminal court, as I believe that all problems must be solved at the level at which they occur. Racial hate crimes were a national problem in the U.S. and we couldn't count on juries in Mississippi and Alabama to convict, so federal civil rights laws were created. Similarly, Serbian juries won't convict Serbian war criminals.

Apparently, the International Criminal Court no longer will either. It has hopped the tracks by creating vague new theories of state irresponsibility, acquitting defendants who personally supervised troops committing massacres.

New York bike share

In the utopian future story in Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias,there are piles of bicycles on street corners; you take one, ride it wherever you want, and leave it in a similar pile. I loved the concept when I read the book sometime in the '90's.

Now New York is implementing a version of this, but of course you pay for the bike and free it from a locked stand. After using it you place it in a similar locked stand near your destination.

I am skeptical. First of all, New York is the hardest town on earth on systems which have a "Prisoner's Dilemma" or Kantian imperative element: any innovation which can be destroyed by "free riders", selfish or dishonest people will be. Second, I am concerned there will be network problems: what happens when you are late for work, and had to rent your bicycle an extra hour, because the stand at your destination was full and you couldn't return it? Finally, the creation of bike routes in New York was un-serious, just the painting of lines in traffic lanes into which cars continually veer. Bicyclists are struck and killed regularly in this city (19 of them in 2012), so the bike-share system, by encouraging people to use bikes as a "safe" form of public transportation, will just increase the death rate and incidentally, the costs of city litigation defense and settlement.

Great idea, terrible implementation.

British problem

Yes, I know there is a danger in generalization ("All generalizations are false," said my funny high school teacher). But its hard to figure out what's happening in the back to back cellphone hacking and sexual molestation scandals, both of which suggest there's a great big hole in the British national moral character.

Autonomous war robots

Various countries including the U.S. are developing these. The software, without a human operator, will be able to decide whom to shoot, based I suppose on algorithms such as "adults approaching from the northeast with metallic objects in their hands". It doesn't require that much common sense to foresee the senseless and unintended carnage that will result, as large children carrying glinting jars are gunned down.

Billionaire rules

A headline caught my eye about "billionaire exclusivity" and I expected a disquisition on what billionaires do to democracy. Instead, it described the rules Larry Ellison of Oracle made for a famous old yachting race, which required boats of such expensive design that most nations dropped out. This is an interesting metaphor for what billionaires do to democracy; living in cloistered environments of pure privilege, they are happily oblivious to appearances and impacts. The billionaire king of New York, Michael Bloomberg, believes his people need cheap bicycles to carry them to work, but have no use for libraries.