Monday, September 28, 2009

William Safire

I will miss William Safire.

The "On Language" column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, of course, will never be the same — if the Times keeps it. Who can replace Safire? Certainly not any of the lightweights who caught the column while Bill was "on vacation." The secret of "On Language" was that it continued to be Safire's editorial page column, but with greater subtlety.

I felt our national dialogue suffered when William F. Buckley died — and, while I didn't mention it last week, I thought it was sad to lose Irving Kristol. (His son, William Kristol, should have been a disappointment to Irving — but who knows? Jewish fathers are not all that different from Jewish mothers.)

Anyway, conservative America is being whittled down to the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin — or, more to the point, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. It's a damned shame. Without an intellectual right, there's nobody for the intellectual left to talk to — not that anybody is listening.

Okay, I'm listening.

Bye, Bill.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Afghanistan, again...

Well, I sure was wrong about Hillary!

My mistakes include a couple of retrospectively dumb assumptions: first, that a reasonably intelligent person who remembers Vietnam would not want to repeat it; and, second, that since Hillary's chance of ever being President is down in the low single digits now, she no longer feels obliged to be so goddamned butch.

Silly me. It's not as if I never heard of cognitive dissonance theory — it's just that I wanted to think better of her than she deserves. Look back at my pre-election posts, and you can explain it with cognitive dissonance theory.

So, now, the rational elements of the Democratic party find themselves wondering if lining up behind a majority of their constituents and doing the right thing in Afghanistan remains rational if it means lining up behind Joe Biden. Joe Biden is not nearly as butch as Hillary. Joe Biden, unlike his boss, is not terribly adept at working the press. Joe Biden is just... he's just right.


Meanwhile, here on Long Island — and, to be sure, everywhere else in the United States — our public schools and suburban neighborhoods are being flooded with cheap, high quality heroin. For some odd reason or another, nobody in the mainstream press seems to be relating that to the vast increase in opium production in Afghanistan in recent years. Maybe I'm wrong, but it just kind of seems like the two might be related.

Some who are familiar with my solution to both the Afghanistan problem and the heroine problem — going directly to the warlords and outbidding all competitors for the raw opium — seem to think it's just my characteristic cynicism in action. Okay, I am characteristically cynical — but this idea can work.

So, over the weekend, I'll send out another batch of fax messages to various Persons in Power, for all the good that will do. Mostly, though, I'll hope that somebody that somebody in power actually might listen to came up with the same idea — and that somebody in power actually listens.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Unnecessary Roughness

Governor David Paterson is pissed. Who can blame him?

Okay, he's not especially popular at the moment. He never was. Trying to act responsibly — shutting down underutilized hospitals and nursing homes — was a major political mistake, and the attack ads from 1199 did a lot of damage. Add to that the fact that he was stuck with a totally unfair share of the blame for New York's sleazy and dysfunctional legislative branch, and that he's not exactly a dynamo of charisma, and it was bound to look bad for him.

So it is not surprising that Obama's political staff decided it would be better if he didn't run for governor next time around. Personally, I don't think Giuliani is much of a threat anymore — he kind of has "loser" tattooed on his forehead — but it wouldn't hurt at all to have a stronger Democratic candidate like Andrew Cuomo.

Okay, so the national party sends an emissary to urge Paterson to withdraw. Fine. The problem is in how it was done.

First, it was just plain bad manners not to invite the governor of New York to Obama's speech to Wall Street last week. Second, it was worse that, simultaneously, the President's chief political adviser, Patrick Gaspard, was telling Paterson to pull out of the race. Third, it should not have been Gaspard, the man behind those 1199 attack ads.

Then it gets worse: practically the complete text of the "confidential" conference is leaked to the press, almost immediately, by an "unnamed source" whose name probably is Patrick Gaspard. Obama not only yanked Paterson's legs out from under him, but he pissed on him when he was down. I truly hope the idiots still drooling over our "idealistic young president" are paying attention, but I'm pretty sure they're not.

Paterson could have been persuaded to withdraw gracefully. They could have offered him some ceremonial role at HUD, or made him ambassador to Anguilla, or something. They didn't.

However lacking David Paterson's skills as a chief executive may be, everybody in Albany agrees on one thing about him — he's a nice guy.

He deserved better.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obamacare: Devils in the Details

Many have proclaimed the President's health care address to the joint session of Congress a success. Okay, nobody expected him to convince the average FOX listener. Unfortunately, he hasn't exactly convinced me either.

I read the speech several times, and I kept getting hung up on one very basic promise: "it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a preexisting condition." Okay, how can you argue with that? That's one of the biggest problems, right?

Here's what I didn't hear: will insurers be entitled to charge a higher rate to people with preexisting conditions? How about higher rates for people who smoke, or who are obese, or who, say, race motorcycles? I didn't hear anything about rate structures based on experience ratings.

Without experience ratings – projections of the costs the insurance company may incur by taking on particular individuals or groups – there is no logical way to set rates. If individuals with known health problems cannot be charged more than the healthy, then everybody in the group must be charged more.

Here's an example from the current, employer based system: a small business buys health coverage for its 250 workers. One of those workers unexpectedly develops a serious illness, incurring medical costs of $500,000. Since it is a group policy, those costs average out to $2,000 per enrollee. The insurer will get it money back – the group rate will go up, substantially. The increase may be amortized over several years, but still it will be substantial.

Anxious to control health costs, businesses already discriminate against potential employees with known health problems, who are obese, or who appear to be smokers. The practice will not appear in the personnel office's policy manual, but it still will be quietly enforced. Although that may "help," there still will be surprises – and under the proposed health care reforms, a business that encounters such unanticipated health costs may find it cheaper to pay into the proposed public insurance fund rather than continue to buy its own coverage. Granted, this is preferable to dropping coverage and paying nothing, but it is far from optimal.

Individual policies, we expect, will fade away, replaced by groups formed to participate in the new insurance exchanges. Those groups, of course, also will be assigned experience ratings, and those ratings will help determine the rates they are able to negotiate with the insurance companies. The lowest rates will go to those which, one way or another, wind up with the healthiest enrollees in the lowest cost parts of the country. No longer able to cherrypick individual clients, the insurance companies will cherrypick groups.

Inevitably, some groups will be made up of lower income individuals and families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but entitled to government subsidies to make their insurance "affordable." Demographically, those groups will include more smokers; more of the obese; more who have, for years, neglected basic preventive health care. Making their insurance "affordable" will require substantial funding, and the insurance companies can be expected to drive hard bargains. To make "reform" revenue neutral, contributions to the public fund must necessarily go up.

I could go on, but I won't. In brief, the chief competition among insurance providers is not to provide the lowest rates and so garner the largest share of the market, but to enroll the healthiest clients, and so be responsible for the smallest possible payouts. As long as this "competition" exists, the sickest must pay more – unless government pays it for them – and overall health care costs will not go down.

There is only one answer to the problem of competitive experience ratings. There must be just one pool of enrollees, sharing the expenses of health care for all; just one insurer, responsible to all the people rather than a small group of shareholders, and capable of negotiating with health care providers out of strength.

Yes, I know, it's impossible to achieve, here in the steaming rectum of plutocracy – but, if that's true, we may as well give up now. Are you giving up? Am I?


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Original Message to the Schoolchildren

Yo, lil homies. Uh, I mean, greetings, children.

My advisers tell me we can't sing the Internationale to start the program this morning, but I still want to remind you that it really is the final conflict, and that the international working class will, one day, be the human race. You want to be part of the human race - don't you? Yes, I thought so.

So let's all make lovely red flags in art class today, and fly them high over our socialized public schools. When uncle Barack Hussein takes mommy and daddy's guns away, life will be lovely - we will breed all you little girls with your blond ringlets with big black studs, and produce a new race of Spanish speaking homosexuals of indeterminate race and gender. Won't that be fun? Don't worry boys, we haven't forgotten you - uncle Barack Hussein wants you all to marry each other, and I'll make sure you have all the Medicaid dollars you need to have those perverted welfare babies everybody knows are so cool. All you have to do is kill Grandma.

So work hard, kids, and go to liberal coastal colleges where we can finish your indoctrination. Mommy and Daddy are doodyheads, and uncle Rush is even a worse Nazi than me...


(The real hell of it is that they're attacking a centrist - and today's centrist (Obama) is about on a par with Wendell Wilkie. Well, we'll see what he has to say about health care tomorrow night.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Road to Obamastan

It certainly is a wonderful moment in history not to be Barack Obama. His approval rating is down to about 50%, and I wouldn't be surprised is a lot of those who still approve are sticking with him out of pure cognitive dissonance, having made significant emotional and public investments in him during the campaign. Trapped by conventional thinking, many of the news media seem to assume he's losing people from the center, and hence losing them to the right.

Maybe they're right, but I don't think so. There is a vast amount of anger on the left, and the decline in his numbers started well before the health care fiasco was fully formed. The peace movement, civil libertarians, the LGBT groups, and plenty of others on the left were sick of him well before he let Rahm & The Boys convince him that any health insurance legislation would be better than none – and that one that kept the contributions flowing from major health industry lobbies like AHIP and PhARMA would be best of all.

I despise what's become of American politics over the past thirty years, and I'm just too pissed even to vent my feelings right now. Instead, I'll head straight to the latest impending catastrophe: Afghanistan.

The generals are whining for more troops. The Afghani police and army are useless and corrupt, and the numerous militias are loyal to local leaders, not the central government. The Karzai government is even more corrupt than the police and the army, and its legitimacy rating is hovering somewhere around zero. The Taliban, also corrupt, looks honest by comparison.

If the US pulls out its troops, the right will accuse Obama of "knuckling under to terrorism." If the administration sends more troops, assuming they ever can be successfully withdrawn from Iraq, our NATO "allies" can be depended on to extract their troops as rapidly as ours go in. The current proposal for "winning" in Afghanistan is to "protect" Afghani villagers against the Taliban. Needless to say, there are far too many villages and there never can be nearly enough troops – especially since what the villagers want most is for everybody to go away and just leave them alone to grow their opium.

Isn't there anybody who has Obama's ear old enough to remember Vietnam? The notion of "protecting" villagers sounds a hell of a lot like the Vietnam "pacification" program – which was an abysmal failure, of course, and wouldn't work in Afghanistan either. Doesn't anybody around the president remember how debilitating the escalation of the Vietnam war was to the Johnson administration? Isn't it time to bring Hillary Clinton home from Africa or Latin America or Antarctica or wherever they have her now and get some advice from an adult?

The route out of Afghanistan is, in my opinion, fairly simple. In Afghanistan, what we call "corruption" is called "standard operating procedure." Let's forget about "democratization" and all its associated bullshit, and just bribe our way to peace. Provide the tribal leaders with Hummers, Viagra, and whatever else will keep them happy, and stop trying to "unify" a geographic region that never even remotely resembled a modern state, and is not likely to become one any time in the foreseeable future.

And the Taliban? Bribe them too. I'm sure we can offer them considerably more than Al Qaeda can – and it's bound to be a hell of a lot cheaper than fighting a war that can't be won.