Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Real VA Scandal

The Republican half of Congress wants government to fail.

So they do everything they can to make it fail. To make the systems break down, to make Americans angry at their government, the government Republicans hate, the government Republicans now control through filibuster and obstruction.

In February Republicans did everything they could to block a major funding bill to help the VA deal with the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghan wars. And block it they did.

Call it a hostage situation. Republicans want to remove democratic government and replace it with a corporate structure run by their clients for making money.

Republicans are delighted with the VA scandal, because they set it in motion.

They started a war eleven years ago. Wars create veterans. Wars cause many thousands of amputations and other traumatic injuries which need to be treated. But Republicans in Congress didn’t want to pay for that part of the war, the aftermath.

They like veterans for parades but don’t like to pay for their healthcare.

When you defund veterans programs just when they’re needed most you are either cynical, unpatriotic or stupid. Take your pick.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Have Insurers Been Silent on Climate Change?

I began asking this question among economists, opinion shapers and policy people. Then I read the article in the Guardian, about how Lloyds is finally beginning to charge for climate change risk. Then, just this week, Farmers Insurance began filing lawsuits, not against the fossil fuel companies triggering climate change, but against the communities who failed to plan for the harm climate change will wreak on properties insured by Farmers. Why did it take so long for the insurance industry to wake up?

Maybe they were distracted. Maybe they had (in Dick Cheney's famous phrase) "other priorities." Are insurers still in the business of protecting against risks? Is that just a sideline, a way of raising investment capital?

I would suggest that insurance companies stopped being insurance companies at least a decade ago. They evolved into financial companies whose main duty is getting maximum returns on Wall Street…and these days that means sizable investments in the very profitable peak-oil fossil fuels business. Damn the risks. Profits tend to speak louder than risks at shareholder meetings.

Last month* I put these questions to a small group of people whose job it is to think forwardly. One reply from (a national columnist’s intern) suggested I need to learn more about how business works. The rest was silence. It is important to consider which division of massive financial companies dominates the thinking.

There was another time, in 2006 and 2007, when huge profits dulled the financial sector’s awareness of significant dangers. We ended up paying for their stupidity. Which means they are probably still stupid.

* "When you think of the vast liabilities of violent weather and rising ocean levels, insurers should be mounting a narrative to overturn the fossil fuel industry's campaign.

One reason occurs to me why they’re not. Perhaps insurance companies are overinvested in fossil fuel stocks. The returns on these stocks are huge because of the subsidies and because of peak oil, but they cannot possibly outweigh the potential for disaster.

Can the issue be raised that insurers are investing in industries that are causing these disasters? The causal link would be difficult legally, but less so as a narrative, letting the public change its mind.

Maybe it’s time for people to start writing to insurance companies. Ask an actuary if climate change will pose risks to their insured and to their companies. These issues have enormous economic consequences. The losses may be even larger than profits can cover."

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Outrage Over the VA

Reading about the spreading outrage over the VA systems failures and the coverup of said failures ought to make us think.

It sounds a lot like the school systems where test cheating was going on. Wrong, yes. But might it also be a logical response to impossible standards, huge demands and reduced budgets? The VA and our vets have both been victimized by the budget cutting mania. So have all parts of the public sphere, schools, roads, regulatory bodies like the IRS and FDA and SEC and EPA, all have been put on a crash diet. But their jobs have gotten bigger.

It's illogical to raise standards and reduce budgets at the same time, but this kind of magical thinking is far too common these days. It's part of our national love affair with businessthink. It's always about getting more for less, an impractical idea to begin with. Running engines without oil isn’t good for those engines, but it saves money in the short run. There are consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised when it ends in catastrophe..

We had an unfunded, off-budget, poorly audited, unnecessary war, waged with insufficient manpower and poor planning. It sent men and women with insufficient body armor and inadequate equipment into a catastrophe that should have been foreseen and might have been avoided. (The pre-planning was more about the oil than about the people.) The whole disaster was then covered up, the consequences ignored and denied, the human damage hidden and the liabilities passed on to the taxpayer or onto the veterans who were permanently harmed, and onto the next president. The costs were not fully disclosed until Bush had left office, and then the payment of those costs was blocked by the Republican side of Congress who had helped him launch the war.

This is a fiasco but we shouldn’t be surprised by it any more than we ought to be surprised by an unrepaired bridge falling down or an unprepared student failing an unreasonably rigorous examination.

The VA is as full of flaws and insufficiencies as our infrastructure. Of course we blame the infrastructure. We should blame the jerks who shifted the necessary dollars into tax cuts to billionaires for the past fifteen years.

It is a religious dogma among Republicans that no problem exists unless it costs money. So if you ignore a problem it doesn’t exist. Ignore the VA’s need for funding and there’s no problem. Road repair spending is the problem, not the holes in the roads or the fallen bridges. Healthcare spending is the problem, not the poor health of Americans. Poverty programs are the problem, not poverty. Paying people a living wage is a problem, so cut their pay and there’s no problem. If poor people could just hide themselves we would have no poverty at all. If maimed veterans could suffer quietly in a dark room the consequences of this stupid war would stop embarrassing all of us, but more importantly it would stop costing taxpayers money, especially the wealthy taxpayers who complain to their Republican proxies. They are the ones we most need to take care of, aren't they?

After a war we should expect a rising cost in veterans’ care, but damned if Republicans will agree to pay for that care. Costs are the problem, not the lack of a leg or the serious unending repercussions of brain injuries caused when a soldier was blown up in an insufficiently armored vehicle. So they cut the costs; problem solved. That is the contradiction faced by many government departments. It’s not wasteful to give enormous tax cuts to billionaires so they can own a dozen luxury homes, but it is apparently wasteful to fund the VA sufficiently.

It’s false economy to calculate efficiencies with a bias against the people who do the work, but that is the new religion in this country. Whatever saves billionaires a dime is efficient. Whatever supplies necessary care or service or pay to someone at the other end of the income scale is automatically inefficient because it subtracts from the billionaire’s tax savings. Hell, most of those billionaires evade taxes already. We pay for them.

Americans are angry at the wrong people. It isn’t the first time.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

The Self-Reinforcing Conspiracy Theory

'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

This excellent piece from Ezra Klein's VOX got me thinking. What is it about Benghazi that has Republicans so obsessed? Does the time they've spent digging make them more certain there is something there? Did they begin digging with a certainty in their heads?

Fitting our conclusions to our preconceptions is bad philosophy. It’s illogical. It’s what made Galileo recant his discovery about the solar system. It’s stupid. But that is the guiding principle of modern Republican thought. Eisenhower, TR, Lincoln, every admired Republican in the party’s long history would be embarrassed. The leaders of the party should be ashamed of where it’s got to.

There seems to be a greater habit among Republicans to fit conclusions to preconceived ideas, to shape policy around an unproven belief system. To take one example, denying science while at the same time criticizing the public education system for the way our students are failing at science. (Bill Moyers takes a look at this tendency towards stupidity.)

Republicans seek government office, run for it, or buy it, and then they use it to make government stop working. Why? Is it because they believe government is automatically and a priori bad? Do they believe this so much they have to make it true? What does it mean when they spend their lives in government trying to make it fail? (New Yorker piece: the Republican War on Competence.)

Why do Republicans oppose everything Obama does, even when he proposes a health care reform their own Heritage Foundation devised? You reach the unavoidable conclusion that it’s because Obama is black. They cannot bear it that a black Democrat is so much more intelligent and capable than their hapless George W. Bush was. White superiority has become an unspoken but deep principle among Republicans. It’s their secret handshake. It too is a preconceived notion that doesn’t fit with reality.

Or is this a preconceived notion? Here are some statistics about it from Nate Silver's 538 blog. Unsurprisingly the racial bias is higher among white Republicans than white Dems, but not that much more. How much information is suppressed in these answers? Which group is more likely to hide its “inappropriate opinions” in a public forum? Which party is likelier to act on inappropriate opinions in concert with their like-minded friends?

Or is that just a conspiracy theory of mine?

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