Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Three Stooges meet healthcare reform

The collapse of the Trump/Ryan attempt to destroy Obamacare was one of Washington's more fascinating train crashes. What's wondrous is not that some things went wrong, but that pretty much everything went wrong in completely predictable ways, and that multiple parties, all Republican, were involved in the takedown. If you could have planned the destruction of the replacement legislation, the ACHA, you would have planned for things to play out exactly as they did.

They played out like a Three Stooges movie, with the Stooges played by Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and, collectively, the Freedom Caucus. And the process is such a mess that it's not even clear whether Ryan or Trump is Moe in this scenario.

Let's look at the destructive power of the Republican Stooges:

Paul Ryan

Ryan was the key architect of the ACHA, and my god, what a mess. For years, the Republicans have insisted Obamacare was a disaster but have refused to present an alternative, and now we see why. ACHA had no real philosophy of healthcare, instead focussing entirely on giving billionaires tax cuts and cutting services for the poor.

At the same time, the bill kept a lot of the most popular parts of the ACA, because Republicans were terrified that taking all the benefits of Obamacare away at once would lead to election losses.

The result was strange, because after 7 years of  Republicans saying they would get rid of Obamacare, Ryan's bill really didn't. Instead, it kept many of the key ingredients but made them all worse. Ryan's bill was set to take insurance away from every single person who had gained it under ACA while only having a minor effect on the deficit.

The bill had been created in secret and Ryan attempted to rush it through before people could figure out what was in it. He failed. He seems to have written the bill with little input from anyone - not healthcare experts, not other factions of his own party, and certainly not Democrats - and he wound up with a bill that even he probably didn't like that much.

When the criticisms started to rush in, Ryan decided to make the bill even worse in hopes of pulling in recalcitrant conservatives even at the risk of losing recalcitrant moderates. He piled failure on top of failure like a master Jenga player.

It turned out that the only quiver in Ryan's arrow is the one that lessens the taxes of billionaires. That was the only part of his bill that looked like it would work the way it was supposed to. While Ryan has managed to cultivate a reputation as a smart policy wonk, the ACHA is wildly supportive of Paul Krugman's portrayal of Ryan as a fake and a habitual liar.

The Freedom Caucus

For Obama's entire time in office, the GOP was the "party of no." The Tea Party wing represented by the Freedom Caucus functioned as party of no within a party of no. Essentially anti-government anarchists, the Caucus simply doesn't want government to work, and believes that compromise is the ultimate evil.

For them, Ryan's bill, as awful as it was, wasn't nearly awful enough. While many Republicans just cynically used Obamacare hatred to fuel voter disenchantment, the FC contains the true believers whose passionate hatred for all government programs is unfeigned and wildly destructive.

For many in the FC the only acceptable option was to roll back Obamacare in its entirety. Crippling it or even fatally wounding it was not enough; it had to be a clean head shot or nothing.

Basically,  the party of no's inner party of no proved incapable of saying yes.

To some extent, this could be politics. The FC is full of people from hardcore conservative districts where there is a constant threat of challenges from the right funded by rich extremists. So making stupid decisions that play to the base make electoral sense. And after 7 years of saying Obamacare was the Hitler of American politics, they had painted themselves into a bit of a corner.

Still, insisting on everything or nothing in politics is the best possible way to get nothing. And the FC got nothing of what they wanted, with little chance to get it any time in the near future.

But from what I've read, the FC sees this not as a disaster but as proof of their power. Which means they are likely to stick to their path of purity politics during every subsequent legislative fight. And that could mean that the Republicans basically get nothing done for their entire time in power (fingers crossed).

Donald Trump

Everything his opponents predicted about Trump was on display during the ACHA clusterfuck. After promising an amazing healthcare bill with better coverage and lower premiums for all, he simply turned over the creation of a new healthcare system to Paul Ryan, who had no interest in any of those promises. Trump didn't understand the bill, and in lobbying for it he apparently didn't even try to make a case for any of its policies (because, of course, he didn't understand them). All Trump could do was try to charm and threaten Republicans (he didn't even bother reaching out to Democrats, which didn't stop him from complaining that none of them was willing to vote for ACHA). It turned out that he was not charming or threatening enough to get a majority to vote for a turd.

When support for the bill proved hard to come by, Trump was completely flummoxed, finally tossing out an ultimatum that failed dismally.

It's unlikely that Trump even really cared about the ACA. For him, Obamacare hatred was a campaign weapon, and he no more wanted to end a working healthcare system than he wanted to jail Hillary Clinton. All he really wanted to do was cater to the base and rack up a win. It didn't happen.

Of course, Trump being Trump, he is now playing off this disastrous defeat as no big deal. Trump's inability to admit mistakes means he can never learn from them, so expect him to continue to ignore experts and allow hacks like Ryan to create legislation he doesn't understand or care about.

Why It Happened

For eight years Republicans have been dreaming of what they would achieve when they finally were back in power. So how did their first major push to reshape government end so disastrously?

One big issue was that Obamacare was based on the Republican plan known as Romneycare, forcing Republicans to run against what was basically the Republican healthcare solution. It wasn't the bill they hated but Barack Obama himself. This left them with no place to go; they would have been better off had Obama created a single-payer system that could have been countered with Romneycare.

With the only sensible Republican plan co-opted by Democrats, Ryan created pure nonsense and hoped hatred of Obamacare was so strong that no one would care what disaster they replaced it with.

Part of Ryan's own explanation is that Republicans don't know how to govern. He explained that for ten years all Republicans had to do was be against things, and they've only had three months to learn how to be a governing party.

This sums up everything that's wrong with the modern Republican approach to government; they believe you only govern when you are in charge. In reality, governing is something you can do from either side of the aisle. You can introduce legislation, you can engage in bipartisan dealmaking, you can win people over to your side and let them win you over to theirs. The GOP's decision to forgo governing  in favor of continuously attacking  Obama has allowed their government skills to atrophy. Many of them don't even seem to understand how government works.

If Trump really wants to govern, his best shot would be to move a little to the left, ignoring the Freedom Caucus in favor of winning over moderate Democrats in pursuit of actually fulfilling campaign promises like improving healthcare and increasing employment opportunities. If the Freedom Caucus wants to further their agenda, then they would need to stop insisting on all or nothing when they simply don't have the power to get that all. If Ryan wants to be effective, he needs to stop pretending to take policy matters seriously and actually take them seriously.

I don't see much indication that any of that is going to happen. The Three Stooges of the GOP will continue to poke eyes and slap faces and create nothing but mayhem. And just like the real Three Stooges, it's only funny sometimes.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Radical claim: It's wrong to make sweeping claims about any subgroup

I'm going to list some statements, and for each one, I want you to consider whether you find that statement acceptable.

Muslims are terrorists. I hate Muslims.
Women talk about their feelings too much. I hate women.
Gay men are too effeminate. I hate gay men.
Jews own all the media companies and the banks. I hate Jews.
Men are always raping women. I hate men.
Russians are drunken assholes. I hate Russians.
Christians are sanctimonious assholes. I hate Christians.
Black people are criminals. I hate black people.
White people don't give a shit about the problems of the oppressed. I hate white people.
Asians are nerdy superior assholes who all play violin. I hate Asians.
Mexicans are drug smugglers. I hate Mexicans.

For a lot of people, some of these statements are outrageous. and others are perfectly acceptable. Personally, I feel the basic expressive form of "this subgroup does this thing, therefore I hate people of this subgroup" is inherently bad. But among a lot of my friends, two of these statements are perfectly okay. It's okay to say you hate men or white people. All the other statements are horrific, but those two are fine. And I think that is problematic.

Now, if you're one of those people who thinks those statements are fine, you're probably thinking, right now, oh look, white male fragility. This privileged asshole wants people to cry for his fucking oppression.

This is the risk of talking about an issue that affects you personally. If I talk about how it's terrible that people claim Islam is an inherently evil religion that encourages violence in a way other religions don't, and say that's bullshit, no one will say, "oh, you're just saying that because you're Muslim." Because I'm not.  If I say white people shouldn't wear blackface, no one will say, "oh you're just saying that because you're black." Because I'm not. But the moment I say anything suggesting white men shouldn't necessarily be grossly stereotyped and trashed, I am a #notallmen-hashtagging asshole.

There's no real way out of that. If people want to dismiss your arguments by attacking your motives, well, that's what people do. If I claim that for me this is, like a lot of what I am concerned about, a matter of logic, reason, and civility, well, I can go fuck myself, because clearly, I'm just one of them.

I will say this, though. I am not hurt when someone says, "white men suck." First off, it's absurdly hyperbolic, because everyone I've ever heard say this has white male friends. Secondly, it can't do me any harm. The attitude will not cause me any problems in my life. I'm not crying about it.

You can believe me or not, but my objections to saying all white men suck are akin to my objections to saying all Muslims are terrorists. Both are damaging to civil discourse and reasoned discussion. Both cause harm to the fragile fabric of civilization.


The Geneva Convention is an agreement between nations that requires signatories to treat captured soldiers and civilians halfway decently. The countries who signed on did not do so, for the most part, because they were moral people who wanted decency in war. The goal was, rather, to protect each nation's own people.

If the U.S. tortures Iranian POWs, they are de facto endorsing torturing POWs in general. It's a simple statement that it is okay to torture soldiers if they are captured. Which means if some Iranians start torturing U.S. soldiers, the U.S. can't say much about it. "Torture is wrong" is a powerful argument; "torture is wrong when you do it but fine when I do it" doesn't have the same ring.

Anytime someone uses the form, "this subgroup does this thing, therefore I hate people of this subgroup," they are endorsing this as an appropriate way to look at things. They are saying that they believe, thoroughly and completely, that it is acceptable to take the behaviors of some people in a subgroup, claim those behaviors represent the group as a whole, and then write off that entire group as in some way inferior or dangerous or subhuman.

They are saying that incivility and sweeping judgments are okay. They are agreeing to a certain set of rules, and they're only argument is, "it's okay when I do it, but not when you do it."

Of course, there is a simple argument as to why the rules are different when it comes to white men; it's because society's rules are different for white men. This is what is referred to as privilege, and it means that white people and male people have certain inherent advantages. And if society is going to treat white men better, what is wrong with evening things out just a tiny bit by treating them like odious, subhuman monsters. It doesn't do them any real harm, and it feels so good to trash a subgroup; no wonder it's so popular!

I don't say this is entirely unreasonable. I do think there's a difference between saying shit about Muslims and saying shit about white people. White people are not going to get jailed by our oppressive, white-run government. Men are not going to be prohibited from certain medical procedures because of angry Christians. Talk all the shit you want about the groups in power; their privilege will protect them from all of it.

But I still it's inadvisable. Both because, as I say, you are giving sanction to the idea that subgroups can be stereotyped and dismissed, and because you are creating enemies out of potential allies.

Recently someone I know on Facebook complained about people telling her she needed to give potential allies some slack. Why, she asked, should she be gentle to these privileged assholes? They should do what's right because it's the right thing to do, not because she is mollycoddling them. Or as is often said when white people claim to have done something to make the world a better place, "what do you want, a cookie?"

First off, only a small number of people who do anything are motivated entirely by altruism. The people who fight hardest for a cause are those who have a personal stake in it. Gay people fought hardest for marriage equality. Black people fought hardest for an end to Jim Crow laws. Women fight hardest for equal treatment in the workplace. This is natural and understandable. I think there's something admirable about those who fight for a cause because of moral conviction rather than because of personal interest, and honestly, I don't think there's anything monstrous about wanting credit for doing the right thing. Everyone wants a cookie now and again.

But I believe that most people do, in general, want to do the right thing, even if their reasons can be complex and self-interest is always in the equation. And a lot of people will be inclined to help you, are at least not actively act against you, if you are pleasant to them.

For example, let's say you're going into a dangerous country full of savage beasts with a group of people you don't know very well. Let's imagine that some of them are very experienced with savage beasts, some are carrying guns or swords, and some are bigger and stronger than you.

So, as you walk across the border into this dangerous country, you can say to your fellow travelers, "I just want you all to know that I think you're fucking pieces of shit, and if you let me die then you are monsters, and if you help me survive, well, I give you no credit, because that's what people should do for other people."

Or you can say, "you guys are terrific, I think it's great you're so prepared and I think by all working together we have a really good chance of making it through this crazy place. I want you to know I have your back and I know you have mine."

Even if you really hate most of these people, don't you think the second option is more advisable?

Yes, some of your companions will fight just as hard to keep you alive either way. Some people are good, and noble, and understand your anger and don't take it personally. But some would rather help their friends than their foes, so why not be their friends, at least for now?

I mean, if some of your companions are punching you in the head repeatedly, go ahead and kick them in the crotch. But don't just say, "hey, these people are punching me in the head so you're all fucking assholes, even those of you who are trying to stop the people from punching me in the head. You can all go fuck yourselves."

White men have a lot of privilege and a lot of power. That makes people with less privilege understandably angry and mistrustful. But it also means that there are white men who can help or hurt oppressed groups a lot if motivated to do so. It may not be fair, but that's the situation. You can rail against that situation, or you can use it to your advantage.

There are bad people and good people. They cannot be neatly divided by race or sex or wealth or sexual preference. You can hate them by category if you like, but I will always prefer to hate people individually rather than by group, because I have yet to find a subgroup that doesn't have awful people in it, and I have yet to find a subgroup that doesn't have good people in it.