Friday, June 30, 2017

McConnell's Monster

Like a movie monster that keeps rising from the dead long after you think it has been dispatched, the American Health Care Act, and the Senate's sequel, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, simply refuse to die.  And also like movie monsters, if they are released from the laboratory into the world, they will main and kill thousands of innocent people.  The numbers change from week to week, but the latest CBO estimates are that 22 million people will lose health coverage under the latest Senate proposal, 32 million under the President's latest repeal-then-replace proposal.  Many of those people will fail to get necessary medical care and, as a result, some of them will die.  These are the facts, accepted by both sides.

Given this gruesome truth, one has to wonder why the Republicans are so hell-bent on getting this monstrous legislation passed.  Polls show that fewer than 10 percent of Americans support the AHCA/BCRA.  In a rational, democratic country, that would be the end of it.  No legislation could possibly survive that kind of unpopularity.  Alas, we do not live in a rational democratic country.  We live in an oligarchy, increasingly controlled behind the scenes by a small wealthy elite who wield enough power to get what they want despite the will of the people.  And what they want is tax cuts.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are really what the AHCA/BCRA are all about.  When the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) a.k.a. Obamacare was passed, it came with tax increases to help pay for subsidies which allow less wealthy people to afford insurance.  In particular, the ACA raised taxes on long term capital gains from 15 to 23.8%, and raised taxes on income above $400,000 per year from 35% to 39.6%.  This new tax burden fell almost exclusively on the rich, and the rich didn't like it.  So they started to write checks to Republican politicians who promised to repeal Obamacare.

And then something unexpected happened: Donald Trump won the presidency, and suddenly the Republicans actually had the power to do what they had promised to do, which meant that they had to face an inconvenient truth: Obamacare was actually a pretty good piece of legislation (and, it should be noted, it was originally a Republican idea).  It could certainly be improved, but compared to what it replaced it works quite well.  It's easy to forget that before Obamacare came along, if you had to buy an individual health insurance plan you were pretty much screwed.  Oh, the insurance companies would happily take your money if you were healthy, but as soon as you got sick they would drop you like a hot rock.  If they didn't drop you outright, they would raise your rates to the point where you could no longer afford the coverage.  One way or another, getting sick in the U.S. before 2013 without access to group rates was a one-way ticket to bankruptcy.  Without government mandates -- on both sides of the transaction -- individual health insurance is a scam.

So now the Republicans are in a serious bind.  They promised their rich donors that they would repeal the Obamacare tax hikes, but there is no way to do that without pulling the health-care rug out from under tens of millions of ordinary Americans.  That is why Mitch McConnell negotiated the BCRA in secret and tried to ram it through the Senate in less than a week: he was hoping he could get this done before anybody noticed the he is unleashing a monster.

The AHCA/BCRA is a metaphorical monster, but it is going to cause real non-metaphorical pain and suffering.  It will actually kill real people.  And it's going to do that so that rich people can be richer.  If you're not OK with that then the next time a Republican tells you that Obamacare is a disaster, ask yourself: are they saying this because it's true, or because they have been given marching order by someone whose pockets are deeper than their sense of moral and civic duty?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

There's something very odd about the USS Fitzgerald incident

For a US Navy warship to allow itself to be very nearly destroyed by a civilian cargo ship virtually requires an epic career-ending screwup.  The exact nature of that screwup has yet to be determined, and the Navy is understandably staying very tight-lipped about it.  But they have said one thing on the record which is almost certainly false: that the collision happened at 2:30 AM local time:

[UPDATE 8/26]: The Navy has finally corrected the record.

But in fact the collision almost certainly took place an hour earlier, at 1:30AM, and as far as I can tell the Navy has not corrected the record.  In fact, on the 19th they doubled-down and insisted that the collision happened at 2:30.

How do we know that the collision happened at 1:30?  Because thanks to modern tracking technology we know exactly where the ACX Crystal was and when.

Here's the route around the time of the collision in more detail:

We don't know where the Fitzgerald was because military ships are not tracked in the same way that cargo ships are (for obvious reasons).  But we can tell from the track of the ACX Crystal and the photos of the damage exactly what happened.  The Crystal was en route from Nagoya to Tokyo.  Shortly before the crash she made a slight turn to port in order to navigate the straight between Toshima and Oshima islands.  Then at 1:30 she made a very sharp turn to the right.  This was (almost certainly) a result of the collision.  How do we know?  Because the Crystal was traveling at 17 knots at the time, and she could not possibly have made a turn that sharp on her own while traveling that fast.

Here's a photo of the Crystal's bow after the collision:

and the Fitzgerald:

So they must have collided like this:

The Crystal's port bow hit the Fitzgerald's starboard side abeam her bridge.  This would account for the sudden change in course: the Fitzgerald pushed the Crystal to starboard.

What happened after that is that the Crystal returned to her previous course and continued on it for half an hour.  Then she slowed down, made a U-turn and returned to the collision site.  The most plausible theory that explains all this is that the Crystal was on autopilot, and there was either no one on the bridge, or whoever was there didn't actually know how to drive the ship.  The first theory seems most plausible to me.  The Crystal's crew has gone on record claiming that they saw the Fitzgerald coming and tried to warn her of the impending collision:

A U.S. warship struck by a container vessel in Japanese waters failed to respond to warning signals or take evasive action before a collision that killed seven of its crew, according to a report of the incident by the Philippine cargo ship's captain. 
In the first detailed account from one of those directly involved, the cargo ship's captain said the ACX Crystal had signaled with flashing lights after the Fitzgerald "suddenly" steamed on to a course to cross its path. 
"The container ship steered hard to starboard (right) to avoid the warship, but hit the Fitzgerald 10 minutes later at 1:30 a.m., according to a copy of Captain Ronald Advincula's report to Japanese ship owner Dainichi Investment Corporation that was seen by Reuters."

But this does not square with the facts.  The Crystal did not change course before the collision; if she had the collision surely would have been avoided.  The Crystal does not turn on a dime, but ten minutes is more than enough to change course far enough to avoid a collision.  Furthermore, if the crew knew of the impending collision, then they surely knew of the actual collision, in which case why would they wait half an hour before turning around or even slowing down?

The only theory consistent with the Crystal's trajectory is that there was no one on the Crystal's bridge at the time.  The crew was asleep.  They were awakened by the collision.  The Crystal is enormous, and there are only twenty people on the crew.  It is easy to see how, in the darkness, it could have taken them half an hour to figure out what the hell had just happened and decide what to do about it.  It is also easy to see why the Crystal's crew would lie about this.

What is not so easy to see is why the Navy continues to insist that the collision happened at 2:30 when all of the available facts and everyone else, including the Crystal's crew and the Japanese coast guard say that it happened an  hour earlier.  Getting it wrong initially could be a mistake, but failing to correct the record over a week later makes it look like a deliberate lie.  But why would the Navy lie about this?  It makes no sense.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Trumpcare and the TPP: Republicans have learned nothing from history

As long as I'm ranting about Republican hypocrisy, I feel I should say a word about the secretive and thoroughly undemocratic process being employed by them to pass the Trumpcare bill.  If history is any guide, this will come back to bite them badly.  But Republicans don't seem to learn from history.  (Neither do Democrats, actually, but they aren't the ones trying to take my health insurance away.)

I was at a fundraiser recently where a highly placed government official (ahem) was discussing why Hillary lost the election.  A major contributing factor, he (because most highly placed government officials are still men) said was her wiffly-waffly opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership.  This highly placed government official (OK, I'm going to start calling him Fred even though that's not his real name) said that the TPP was widely (and correctly IMHO) perceived among working-class Americans as a threat to their livelihoods, and that if she didn't come out with a full-throated repudiation of it she would lose their votes.  More prescient words have rarely been spoken in politics.

But this left Hillary in a jam because the TPP was Barack Obama's baby, so Obama told Hillary that if she opposed the TPP that she would lose his support.  Obama believed (and probably still believes) that the TPP was necessary in order to prevent China from basically taking over the world.  And he was right about that.  The problem with the TPP was not that it wasn't needed -- it was (and still is).  The problem with the TPP was the process by which it was negotiated.

In the management of human affairs, the process by which a conclusion is reached is as important -- sometimes more important -- than the conclusion itself.  People want to feel empowered even if (perhaps especially if) they are not.  That is the reason democracy works, not because it produces the best outcomes, but because it's the best way humans have come up with to get people to accept outcomes they don't like without resorting to violence.

The TPP failed in no small measure because it was negotiated in secret.  A bunch of American corporate leaders got together and negotiated a deal which, unsurprisingly, would have been very good for American corporations, under the tacit assumption that what's good for American corporations is good for the American people.  And maybe that's even true, but to argue over that is to badly miss the point which is that the secrecy surrounding the proceedings made ordinary people feel as if they did not have a seat at the table.

Now Mitch McConnell is making the exact same mistake with the TrumpCare bill, and for the exact same reason.  He knows that the bill will never survive the light of day, because the goal of the bill is not to improve health care, but to give tax breaks to the wealthy.  But people are starting to get wise to the trickle-down scam, so he can't actually admit that.

I don't know if the Senate will manage to get a bill passed in the next two weeks or not.  If they do, I don't know whether the House will manage to pass it, or if the Senate version will be insufficiently cruel to placate the House Freedom Caucus.  If all this manages to happen, I don't even know for sure if Trump will sign it because he's so mercurial that trying to predict anything he does is a fool's errand.

But I do know this: if the Republicans do manage to repeal Obamacare, that will be the end of them, not because the product will be bad (though it almost certainly will be) but because it was done in secret.  Americans don't like their government to operate in secrecy.  The secret negotiation of the TPP ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and I predict it will cost the Republicans control of Congress in 2018.

At least I hope so.  Because if we let the Republicans get away with this, we're fucked.

And the Oscar for Most Extreme Hypocrisy by a Republican goes to...

New Gingrich!  For saying that "the president “technically” can’t even obstruct justice" after leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for obstructing justice.  Congratulations, Mr. Gingrich!  Being the most hypocritical Republican is quite an achievement in this day and age.