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Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

Among the least persuasive writers on contemporary politics, for me, is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Mind you, I often agree with him, but only because I agreed with him before reading him.  If I go into a piece of his with a different perspective, nothing he says has an effect on me.

Now, if I were intellectually stubborn, the sort of person who rarely changes his mind, that would be a statement about me, not Coates.  In fact, I’m always changing my mind.  Nearly every day my views are shifting, sometimes only slightly, sometimes a lot.  When I go back and read what I wrote several years ago, my first instinct is to grab an editor’s pen.  Maybe I’m too susceptible to persuasion.

But not by Coates.  The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term.  There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed.  No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it.  He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential?  Why does he reach so many people?  What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me.  Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture.  This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports.  Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism.  A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm.  Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry.  And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.  How should we hear The Rite of Spring in the twenty-first century?  Colonial or pre-postcolonial?  Racist or deracializing?  These are meaningful questions, and thoughtful criticism can help us explore them more deeply, but neither evidence nor reasoning can resolve them.  If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.

Coates is an interpreter.  His latest piece in the Atlantic, The First White President, reads the election the way a film critic would read a film.  There are references to factual events, like quotes taken from the campaign trail, but they serve the same function that references to camera angles serve for a critic interpreting the latest from Darren Aronofsky.  In the end, Coates wants to convey his sense of what the election means, that it is a reflection of the deep racism that was, is and will continue to be the core truth of America.  If anything was different, it was that eight years of a black president ratcheted up the racism and allowed a sociopathic white extremist to prevail.  Post-election concern for the well-being of the white working class by white pundits is itself a further reflection of this truth, a turning away from the ugly reality of bigotry. This is a reading of the election as a cultural artifact.

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“We Made Certain they knew that”


I was always very candid with my patients. They want to know that you are working for them, not someone else. We made certain they knew that.” Tom Price, MD – Secretary of HHS

Republicans, the Trump administration, led by Graham and Cassidy are moving forward to defund and cripple the ACA bringing millions of people back to when states decided who could have a smidgen of healthcare and who could not. This comment by Dr. and Secretary of Health Tom Price in 2016 is priceless and is the opposite of what he said then. Both he and his fellow Republicans are deliberately misleading constituents and his patients about their intentions with the ACA. Tom Price is more concerned with the politics of the ACA rather than his constituents well being. Recently, commentator/comedian Jimmy Kimmel brought this to the forefront in his monologue about Senator Cassidy who was a guest on Jimmy’s show and made comments about the most recent Republican Healthcare bill.

The same as other recent healthcare bills by Republican, the Graham – Cassidy bill will return healthcare back to pre-2008 when states could deny able-bodied people healthcare, had limited funding, could allow denial of insurance based upon pre-existing conditions, eliminate premium subsidies, not subsidize out of pocket expenses, cap healthcare, etc. These are all the things Senators Graham and Cassidy claim will still be covered in their state block grant bill for healthcare. Except, there is no mandate by Washington forcing states to have the same as what is offered today. It is all a state rights gambit with some states being generous and many not being so generous.

Kimmel: “I don’t know what happened to Bill Cassidy, but when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health-care bill very clearly. These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle-class families and no lifetime caps. Guess what? The new bill does none of those things.”

Cassidy “just lied right to my face” according to Kimmel.

Graham: “He didn’t give (Cassidy) the courtesy of hearing his side of the story. He went on national TV and called this man — who has worked for the underprivileged and health care all of his life — a liar, (Graham referring to Cassidy), who practiced medicine before he entered politics. And I think that’s inappropriate.

I don’t like the idea of calling this good man a liar without ever talking to him first. That really says more about Mr. Kimmel then it does Dr. Cassidy,'”

The Cassidy-Graham bill would do away with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, subsidies for private insurance, eliminate the requirement that Americans have insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and reduce payments to insurers for out-of-pocket costs. In their place, it would offer states a block grant they could use to spend on health care as they saw fit. The block grant would be 17% less than what total federal spending would be in 2026 meaning states would struggle to cover the same number of people.

There is nothing to talk about with Mr. Cassidy or even Mr. Graham both of who are indignant at being called out by Kimmel.

There will be resources in your state; but, those resources may not be of the same value as under the ACA. The Graham – Cassidy plan will favor states which did not expand Medicaid or have not had higher premium/csr subsidies. It is obvious what Graham and Cassidy are doing. Punish states which expanded Medicaid and reward states which did not expand Medicaid. California would lose $27 billion in funding, New York would lose $18 billion in funding while Texas would be rewarded with $8 billion in funding.

In a letter to both Senators Graham and Schumer, this is what the America’s Health Insurance Plans (Modern Healthcare, September 20, 2017, Matthew Weinstock), the industry’s “main lobby group” had to say on the Graham-Cassidy legislation. The Graham – Cassidy healthcare plan fails to meet five crucial tests:

• stabilizing the insurance market;
• ensuring Medicaid reforms meet beneficiaries’ needs;
• guaranteed access to coverage for all Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions;
• time for the industry to prepare for any changes to existing law;
• and getting rid of health insurance and excise taxes.

The last item called out by the America Health Insurance Plans is the Cadillac tax, which was meant to tax excessive executive healthcare plans and also force “consumers to have more skin in the game” with higher co-pays and deductibles. People would then decide if they really needed to go to the doctor or not avoiding cosmetic or unneeded doctor visits. The attempt on the later is misguided as the commercial healthcare industry has a much larger impact on rising healthcare costs than consumer doctor visits. The emphasis needs to be on controlling the commercial healthcare industry and how healthcare serves are delivered to patients with better outcomes. Most of the burden of controlling healthcare costs has been shifted to the consumer through this tax by Congress and for-profit healthcare insurance companies.

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Carbon Gridlock Redux in Washington State

byPeter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Carbon Gridlock Redux in Washington State

A year ago—it already seems like another era—an initiative to set up a carbon tax in Washington State, I-732, was defeated by the voters.  The proposal was to use the money for tax reductions in accordance with the standard economic view that taxing “bads” rather than goods generates a double dividend.  I disagree with that (I think the deadweight loss case against taxes is weak), but I agree that carbon prices operate like a sales tax and are regressive, so it’s a good idea to return the money according to an egalitarian formula, preferably equal rebates per person.

But most of the political left sees it differently.  When they look at carbon pricing they see a big new revenue stream that can be used to fund all the things they have been unable to get in a period of conservative (or neoliberal) political dominance.  They want infrastructure, mass transit, community development projects and environmental restoration, and for them returning the money is unthinkable.  So the left in Washington State, including unions, social justice organizations and most of the environmental activist community, opposed 732, denouncing it as a corporate subterfuge.  A carbon tax is always going to face headwinds, but with the left as well as much of the right in opposition, it was doomed.

So here we are again, looking at another round of state carbon tax initiatives for 2018.  The group that organized the left campaign against 732, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, is drafting their version, which will surely funnel most of the money to the causes (and in some cases the organizations) of their constituents.  But, perhaps in a play to get a bigger voice in the process, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an umbrella group of 57 tribal governments in the region, has just announced it has begun drafting its own initiative, one that earmarks most of the money for environmental purposes, with a chunk dedicated to the tribes.  The prospect is for heated backroom meetings, where the leadership of various organizations push and pull to divvy up the potential carbon cash.  Whether the product of this process can survive at the polls is another question.

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Social justice activism in your own backyards?

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Another Year of Equity at Evergreen

The following email was forwarded to me and many other Evergreen faculty:

On [date deleted], students, staff and faculty of The Evergreen State College will hold a Re-Convocation Rally on Red Square to express and affirm their commitment to goals of equity, inclusion and success for all in pursuit of higher education. The rally is organized by Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity, a group that works in partnership with Evergreen students. Rally organizers stated that the “focus will be on healing from the events of last spring and celebrating our collective cultural wealth as the Evergreen community.” Evergreen community members and friends are invited to participate in an afternoon of speakers, music, dancing, discussion, and creative expression.

Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity said in a statement that “the Re-Convocation Rally will carry forward the community spirit and dedication to equity that motivates Evergreen. We believe that our success as members of a community is dependent not only on ourselves, but on the success of the most vulnerable. We acknowledge the particular strengths of and challenges faced by first-generation, Black and Brown, undocumented, Latinx, trans*, queer, veteran, and disabled students who have been traditionally underserved by higher education. We strive to center their voices as we move toward more equitable outcomes for all our students.”  (I deleted the date—PD)

Needless to say, I agree with nearly all the sentiments expressed here—until I come to the final sentence, which manages to pack, depending on how you count them, two-and-a-half to three untenable and politically destructive assumptions in just its first six words.

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Does Single Payer Pay for Itself?

by ProGrowthLiberal (originally published at Econospeak)

Does Single Payer Pay for Itself?

Was this the message of the title of the latest from Dean Baker:

The economies of a single system can be viewed as analogous to the Social Security system, which has administrative costs that are less than 1/20th as much as privatized systems in places like Chile and the United Kingdom. The analogous institution in the health-care sector is of course Medicare, which has administrative costs of less than 2 percent of benefits in the traditional fee-for-service portion of the program, roughly a tenth the cost for private insurers.

I will agree that the 20% gross margins received by the health insurance companies are obscene. This margin breaks down into a 14% operating expense to premium revenue ratio and a 6% operating margin. I would imagine competition could cut the former in half and the latter by a factor of two-thirds. I’m suggesting a 2% operating margin is reasonable as the reserve to premium revenue ratio is close to 25% for health insurance and an 8% cost of capital is more than reasonable. But Dean is arguing that we can live on a 1% gross margin, which seems to be very ambitious. OK- governments might be able to lower the cost of capital but nearly eliminating administrative costs sounds incredible. But what do I know – so I did a Google search and came across this interesting discussion:

The correct way to estimate administrative savings is to use actual data from real world experience with single-payer systems such as that in Canada or Scotland, rather than using projections of costs in Vermont’s non-single-payer plan. In our study published in the New England Journal of Medicine we found that the administrative costs of insurers and providers accounted for 16.7 percent of total health care expenditures in Canada, versus. 31.0 percent in the U.S. – a difference of 14.3 percent. In subsequent studies, we have found that U.S. hospital administrative costs have continued to rise, while Canada’s have not. Moreover, hospital administrative costs in Scotland’s single-payer system were virtually identical those in Canada.

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A Wake-Up Call for Students

Guest Author: Alan Collinge, StudentLoanJustice.Org,Both Alan and I have written various posts on the student loan crisis. Alan has been featured on Angry Bear Blog from time to time.

If you are in college and looking for something worthy to fight for today; as a student, you should consider the student loan issue. Student loans and how they are administered are the national injustice of our time reaching threatening proportions and impacting the livelihood of young adults going forward. While at first glance, the problem appears complicated, confusing, and overwhelming; it is actually quite simple and its debt genesis hearkens back to the creation of this country. This problem transcends partisan and cultural divides and could serve to bring together those on the left and right on campus.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others were in debt up to their eyeballs to British banks and merchants. They came to understand how a lending system could be used against the citizens. Of course it was not just the Founders who were being exploited, many early settlers were indebted to English banks as well. John Adams famously remarked;

“There are two ways to enslave and conquer a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt”

.

When the Founders created the Constitution, they made it a point to reflect on bankruptcy rights prominently. Few people realize that a uniform bankruptcy system is called for before the power to raise an army or a navy, ahead of the power to coin currency, and even ahead of the power to declare war in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Obviously, bankruptcy rights were very important to these men.

Free men are not forced into any type of behavior by the government that We The People established and ordained. The government is to serve the people – not to force them into servitude and obedience. The people are sovereign, as the people came before the government and the Constitution that gave rise to the government.

Adam Smith, the founder of free market economics provided the basis for western economic theory, was compelled to advocate for bankruptcy protection as a means to encourage entrepreneurship, risk taking, and also a means to compel good faith in a lending relationship.

When an individual or firm goes bankrupt, a legal process is instigated to discharge debts that cannot be repaid. In former times such debtors might have been put into a debtors’ prison and languished there for years. The process weighs assets against liabilities and allows the debts to be discharged at some fraction of their nominal value, leaving the debtor free of the burden, albeit subject to rules of financial behaviour and with a blemish on their credit record which can last for years.

Student loans violate longstanding economic principles and as such the beliefs of the Founders. Today, Congress has placed conditions on student loan bankruptcy so severe; that of 169,000 people with student loans who filed for bankruptcy in 2014, fewer than 20 received relief. When our legislators first restricted the right to student loan bankruptcy in the 70’s, some members warned that such a move had dire constitutional implications, but their concerns went unheeded. As one University of Connecticut expert Philip Schuhman testified to Congress:

” students should not be singled out for special and discriminatory treatment. I have the further very literal feeling that this is almost a denial of their right to equal protection of the law. Nor do I think any evidence has been presented that these people, these young people just beginning their years on the whole should be singled out for special, and as I view it, discriminatory treatment. I suggest to you that this may at least in spirit be a denial of their right to equal protection with the virtual pole star of our constitutional ambit.”

Today, student loans are the only type of loan in this country from which bankruptcy rights have been removed leading to consequences so severe as to result in a form of peonage. Despite peonage being made illegal after the civil war in 1867, it still flourished in the form of sharecropping with former slaves and poor farmers farming plots of land owned by others. Sharecroppers supposedly received a percentage of the profits from sale of grown crops. The sharecroppers were forced to take out relatively large loans just to get by and meet daily expenses, buy seed, rent land, and pay the interest rates imposed on them by landlords.

Also in the past African Americans could be accused of falsely owing money or trivial sums, given sham trials and quickly sold off by the courts into a privatized system of debt slavery to pay back debt. The peonage contracts contained enslaving terms and conditions, allowing the employer to trade, confine, whip and beat workers as long as the debt was deemed unpaid, which could practically last forever.

While not as severe as peonage, students in default are denied access to federal programs and unemployment benefits. Social Security and employment wages can be garnished leading to diminished lifetime earnings and poverty. All of these conditions have a severe impact upon the overall economy as younger workers do not achieve their full earning potential.

The student loan industry is willfully predatory and profitable for the banks who lobbied intensely for the removal of bankruptcy protections and work hard to keep their monetary advantage. As Mr. Potter would say; “The bank always get paid” and this comes no matter what the terms or conditions of the loan are.

(run75441) In my own discussion with a former University of Michigan lobbyist who was regaling me after I dared to make a statement to Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow about what her stance and actions were with regard to student loans. “There is IBR and Repaye which are programs allowing payment back on student loans based upon income.” These programs are mostly failing because of one rule requiring the yearly application to the program rather than an automatic re-up into the program. The re-up is required to report income a factor which is automatically done for Medicare via computer systems. The manual yearly application for the programs was bound to be a failure just by this alone.

It was not just the banks cashing in on the removal of consumer protections. In 2012, the federal government booked over $50 billion in profit on the lending system and this has increased in more recent years. What is disturbing is White House Budget data showing a profit being made on defaults. Think about this: where a credit card company is thrilled to get back a dime on the dollar for their defaulted accounts; the federal government is actually getting back more than a dollar in return. This is a defining hallmark of a predatory lending system and unfortunately for the students, the Department of Education sits on top of it all doing everything it can to perpetuate this situation. Department of Education lawyers fight tooth-and-nail behind the scenes to deny legitimate bankruptcy. This form of government enforced peonage spans many presidents and Congresses and both political parties going back to the seventies.

In 1998, when Congress made bankruptcy permanently unavailable for the overwhelming majority of borrowers, the nation owed roughly $100 Billion in student loans. Today that has exploded to $1.5 Trillion. By the end of this year, nearly one in four borrowers will have defaulted on their loans. People’s lives are being devastated. Families are being torn apart, particularly where cosigners are put on the hook for their kid’s exploded loans. People are fleeing the country, and some are even committing suicide as a result of their student loan debt.

If you think you don’t need to worry because there are forgiveness programs in place, you are wrong. With 57% already kicked out of them income based repayment programs are failing misrably. Assuming the programs are not ended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, I estimate only 10% will be successful and have their loans forgiven and still potentially taxed as income. The rest will be disqualified from the program and left owing far more than when they graduated.

Alan Collinge is the Founder of Student Loan Justice Org and author of “The Student Loan Scam” (Beacon Press).

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How to kill Social Security in 2 easy steps

How to kill Social Security in 2 easy steps
Here’s Kevin Drum advocating for step 1:

 the best way to address retirement security is to continue reforming 401(k) plans and to expand Social Security—but only for low-income workers. Middle-class workers are generally doing reasonably well, and certainly as well as they did in the past. We don’t need a massive and expensive expansion of Social Security for everyone, but we do need to make Social Security more generous for the bottom quarter or so of the population that’s doing poorly in both relative and absolute terms. This is something that every liberal ought to support, and hopefully this is the bandwagon that President Obama in now on.

Step 2:
Now that 3/4 of the population will be paying into a system to transfer their income to the bottom 1/4, you have instantly created a majority constituency that will benefit from killing the now-welfare program.
Why does Kevin Drum want to kill Social Security?

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New State Laws Passed in California

Election Tax Returns

In an effort to force our present president when running for re-election and future presidential candidates to release income tax returns, California passed SB249 Disclose Act. California became the first state to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on the state ballot.

Lawmakers sent Gov. Jerry Brown AB249 Friday requiring candidates to publicly share five years of returns.

This comes after President Trump’s refused to release his tax returns during the 2016 campaign. His actions sparked similar legislation in dozens of other states. The documents reveal income sources, tax exemptions, charitable donations and potential financial conflicts of interest.

Until Trump, every major presidential candidates has released their returns for decades.

Criminal Background Checks

In new legislation, California employers could not initially ask during the interview process if potential employees have a criminal history. AB1008 Employment Discrimination: Conviction History bill was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown. The California Assembly on Friday gave final approval to a bill that supporters say would mean more ex-felons could get jobs and stay out of trouble.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento says AB1008 would allow employers to ask about criminal histories later in the process. It requires businesses with five or more employees to inquire into and consider convictions only after the applicant has received a conditional job offer.

California joins nine other states with similar restrictions on asking about criminal history. There was no spoken opposition as the Assembly agreed with Senate restrictions on a 41-25 vote.

Campaign Advertising

California voters would know more about who’s paying for campaign advertising under AB249 just sent to Gov. Jerry Brown. AB 249 California Disclose Act requires ballot measure and independent expenditure committees to display the names of the top three donors.

AB249 also requires a clear disclosure of donors behind campaign committees having misleading names. The California Clean Money Campaign sponsoring the legislation said: “no other state disclosure laws reveals to voters more information about donors who increasingly hide behind a series of bland sounding political committees and groups to remove any identity of their contributions supporting candidates or new laws.”

Supporters say the bill will help voters make better decisions based on greater information.

Republicans say the bill should require labor unions to disclose individual members who contribute. Only the union would be listed under the bill and not its members.

The Assembly gave final approval on a 55-12 vote.

State Sanctuary Bill

California approved SB54 California Values Act, a “sanctuary state” bill Saturday that would limit how local and state police can interact with federal immigration agents. The bill is intended to provide more immigrant protections in the state which are already among the toughest in the nation.

It will now be considered by Gov. Jerry Brown, who announced his support after the top state Senate leader agreed to water down the bill and preserve authority for jail and prison officials to cooperate with immigration officers in many cases.

It looks like some states are doing something to counter big money, Republican values, and Trump.

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Trump Cutting Deals with Democrats

In Cutting Deals With Trump, Are Democrats Walking Into a Trap?

Over the weekend the mainstream press published a flurry of articles about Donald Trump, the pragmatic independent outsider who has no loyalty to any party and will work with anyone to Get Things Done. This excited reaction was in response to the president’s agreement to raise the debt ceiling and fund disaster relief with the help of Democrats. But that’s nothing compared to the delirium that broke out after he had dinner with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on Wednesday night and the Democrats announced that they had reached agreement to legalize the Dreamers without funding his Big Beautiful Wall.

That would be a big win for the good guys, to be sure. Of course, when it comes to Trump, trusting him on a handshake has rarely turned out to be a wise decision for anyone, so we’ll have to see. Heather Digby Parton

Dan, picked this up on Truthout and sent it to me. Guess I am not the only one who likes to check-out the horse’s mouth for the truth.

Everyday which goes by secures healthcare in the US even though Trump and Repubs have threatened the CSRs and had previously blocked the Risk Corridor Program causing premiums to increase, insurance companies to leave the exchanges, and Coops to go bankrupt. Their actions confuses people as they see premiums increase and believe it is because of the ACA. The increase is still compensated for by an increased subsidy to cover the premium increase. This part is not mentioned and people blame the ACA, which is the objective of Republicans and Trump. Even so and at particular cost risk is the individuals market with those making >400% FPL who are not covered by any subsidy.

A flurry of activity by Republicans could still endanger The ACA using Reconciliation requiring 51 votes. McCain is in on the Graham – Cassidy bill.

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