Tuesday, January 31, 2017

President Trump’s First Week

It’s risky to make conclusions about how a President’s term will work out from only one week. But we can see some outlines of his style and policies from Trump’s first few days as President. Congressional legislation takes time, because laws must be written carefully, with great attention to detail and to all contingencies. In a first week, all a President can do is set a tone by broad gestures.

Rule by Decree:

Trump filled his first week with Presidential decrees, called executive orders, which mainly begin to implement his big campaign promises. Immigration was his first focus: begin building the Wall, hire thousands more border control agents to deport undocumented immigrants, and punish communities which resist deportations by acting as “sanctuary cities”. These orders are just a beginning: it will take Congressional action to actually build the Wall, which requires appropriation of tens of billions of dollars.

Trump appears to believe he can change American policy by himself. He said, “We do not need new laws,” in order to put these immigration changes into effect. That may not be true, but he could slap high tariffs on goods from Mexico, as he has threatened to do to pay for the Wall. What he can’t do is control the consequences of unilateral action by companies impacted negatively, by consumers paying higher prices, or by other countries who retaliate.

Trump’s sudden decree banning entry to all refugees and all citizens of seven Muslim countries caused chaos at airports, even as he claimed there were no problems. White House spokespeople said that all departments had been properly informed, but that was also not true. These orders have already been stayed by federal judges, promising lengthy court battles over immigration. And Trump’s executive order has already been changed. As originally stated, it applied to green card holders from the seven Muslim countries, thus barring many college students. On Sunday, chief of staff Reince Priebus said the order did not apply to green card holders.

Rule by decree has caused confusion.

Ignore Republican Orthodoxy:

Free trade is high on the list of traditional Republican commandments. NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President George H. W. Bush. Republicans in Congress, not Democrats, were the main support of NAFTA. Republicans also supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, until candidate Trump began to criticize it. In one of his first acts as President, Trump rejected the TPP.

In many ways, he has signaled that although conservative, he is not a traditional Republican, especially on trade. His push for a border tax on imports conflicts with free-trade Republicans in Congress, such as Paul Ryan. His nominee for the Interior Department, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, opposes giving vast federal lands to the states and has voted against Republican bills to support that. On the other hand, most of Trump’s cabinet choices are traditional Republican business leaders.

Keep The Public In The Dark:

One of Trump’s first acts was to prevent anyone in the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agencies which deal with climate change to talk to the media or inform the public about what they are doing. All mention of climate change was removed from the websites controlled by the White House and State Department. These actions might be what normally happens as administrations change or they might be the beginning of a federal war on science that Trump doesn’t like.

Truth is Optional:
Trump’s first week was filled with Presidential lies, or what his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts”. He insisted that he had really won the most legal votes in November, because millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton. Republicans all over the country disputed this idea. Because there is no evidence for this claim, he ordered a major investigation of the election to try to find some. Trump was annoyed that the crowds at his inaugural were smaller than Obama’s, and so simply said they were larger.

Trump’s response to journalists who point out that he is not telling the truth is that they are the liars, which he has been saying for months.

Nobody but Trump really cares about how many people watched his inauguration. But he cares so much that he ordered the director of the National Park Service the next morning to find photos which proved his crowds were larger than they were.

His claim about massive voter fraud goes to the heart of American democracy. This is far beyond the common political practice of “spinning”, shading the truth for one’s own benefit. He is telling everyone lies: the CIA, other Republicans, the whole world. If Trump will tell big lies for four years, he risks making not just himself, but our country untrustworthy across the world. If he diverts his efforts and government resources to his personal battle with the truth, real issues will get less attention.

Donald Trump goes his own way for his own reasons. His first week shows he will act as President much like he acted as candidate: pursuing his own agenda, which doesn’t fit neatly into left-right categories, but which puts him at the center of everything. Trump’s impulsiveness and lack of concern for detail will continue to cause confusion. When the media report on his policy reversals or outright lies, they will be attacked as the enemy.

And we will wonder, what’s next?

Steve Hochstadt
Boston MA
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 31, 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Marching Around the World

A group of local citizens took a bus all the way to Washington DC this weekend. They were a small piece of a worldwide marching movement on Saturday. Will more than a million women marching make a difference?

The day after the inauguration there were women’s marches in all 50 states, in countries around the world, on every continent, even in Antarctica. About three times as many people came out in Washington DC to protest Trump’s inauguration as had celebrated it the day before.

This worldwide demonstration began with one woman’s Facebook post. Rebecca Shook in Hawaii wondered if women could march in favor of women’s rights during the inauguration. She created an event page for the march, and within 24 hours 10,000 people confirmed their participation. Shook was joined by experienced organizers who named the event the Women’s March on Washington, honoring the continuing inspiration of the 1963 civil rights protest.

As the number of anticipated participants ballooned past 100,000, women across the country who could not manage a trip to Washington organized their own local marches. Over 400 Sister Marches took place in every state. There were more on the West Coast, because fewer people could get to DC: 45 in California, 20 in Oregon, 21 in Washington. No place in America was far from a march: there were 8 in Maine, 8 in Idaho, and 18 in Alaska. Over 1000 people gathered at the Old Capitol Plaza in Springfield.

Many protests were very local. The 80- and 90-year-olds at my mother-in-law’s retirement complex braved the Minneapolis cold to wave signs at passing cars.

The worldwide significance of this election was shown by the number of international marches, from Australia to Austria, Botswana to Zimbabwe, 15 in the UK and 20 in Mexico. More than half a million people in the US and another half million around the world gathered in this unprecedented worldwide signal of solidarity.

Right now far more Americans disapprove of Trump than like him. Not only did Clinton win far more votes than Trump, but Democratic Senate candidates won more votes than Republicans. Republican House candidates won 51% of the popular vote, but now have 55% of House members. Neither the Republican Party nor Trump won any “mandate” to remake the nation in their ideological image, but they have the votes to put into place a minority program.

It is possible that Trump will accomplish none of the dangerous, unconstitutional, and frankly stupid things he has threatened: build a wall against Mexico, start a trade war with China, persecute women who have abortions, deport millions of undocumented people, favor Putin’s Russia over NATO, penalize media for printing unflattering but truthful stories, eliminate regulations which keep our food, water and air healthy, repeal the extension of health insurance to millions of Americans. Conservative Republicans are nearly as worried as liberal Democrats about what policies Trump will promote.

Trump is dangerous in his ignorance about the world beyond his narrow circle of experience and in his disdain for reality when it seems to get in the way of his desires. His immediate response to unpleasant reality is to make up lies, as he and his press secretary did in claiming that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever. The new Republican Congress is dangerous in its clearly announced plans to let big business do whatever it wants, to funnel even more money to rich people, and to give away control over public resources to private corporations.

Marching is good, but not enough. Public displays of political passion certainly influence elected officials. The Republican majority in Congress can be moved by protest. That was obvious on the first day of the new Congress, when conservative Republicans tried to do away with the House Ethics Office. Protests by constituents quickly changed their minds, and they began their one-party government by repudiating themselves.

But the high emotions of the inaugural moment will fade, as we all get used to a new normal: Trump in the White House and Republicans running Congress. Pure opposition can only go so far.

Marches alone won’t stop them. Real political influence requires continued and widespread popular pressure in favor of positive action. Spreading truth and calling out lies, being vocal about protecting human rights, showing clearly how their policies will affect the least powerful among us, and promoting the idea that politics should support the many, not the few – that’s always been the job anyway.

If the incredible women’s marches are the opening of a historic movement, Trump will have a hard time maintaining his fantasies about his own greatness.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 24, 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Keep Republicans Away From Medicare

Tea Party demonstrators often carried signs that said “Keep Government Out of My Medicare!” They didn’t know much about health care. But finding out basic facts about how medical bills are paid is not easy. Try to figure out exactly how your own medical bills are paid.

Keeping track of one’s own health care spending is much too complex for the average American. My wife has a PhD and decades of handling our family’s medical expenses. She reads everything that the government and insurance companies and medical providers send us. She checks the figures against each other. She studies health care issues online. She believes she is just now getting the hang of Medicare.

I got a letter from my insurance company last month. “Dear Valued Policyholder”, I was told about this year’s changes in Medicare and how the insurance company was changing our policy.

On January 1, Medicare increased its deductibles across a range of services. For hospital stays under so-called Part A coverage, a variety of deductibles were increased 2.2%. For outpatient services, including doctor visits, medical supplies, home health, and preventive services, categorized as Part B, the deductible jumped 10%.

Nearly everyone on Medicare goes to see a doctor sometime during the year, so that increased Part B deductible affects nearly everyone, but it’s not very high. We now have to pay the first $183 in medical services and supplies one time this year, instead of $166, so each of us Medicare recipients will pay an extra $17. That bit of tinkering with cost means a lot. Spread out over the 54 million people on Medicare in the US, one out of every six Americans, that increase will save Medicare nearly one billion dollars.

Medicare is an insurance bargain. Payroll taxes paid over our working lives by employee and employer cover Part A until we die. That’s worth about $5000 per year for the average Medicare recipient.

Part B costs are partially covered by continuing Medicare premiums. Unless a family makes over $170,000 per year, annual premiums are about $1450. The average annual benefit is $5300. How is that possible over the long term? Medicare Part B, our ordinary use of doctors and medical services as outpatients, is mostly paid by the federal budget, our tax dollars at work, $192 billion in 2014. So federal budget decisions are of key importance in paying for our health care.

Medicare is a remarkably efficient system compared to private insurance. In 2014, Medicare spent $605 billion in benefits, and $9 billion in administrative expenses. That’s a very low proportion of spending on administration, much lower than private insurance companies.

Although exact numbers vary from source to source, a hospital stay averages about $2000 per day and the average stay is about 5 days. Someone my age can expect a 5-day hospital stay about every 6 years. That means at least a $10,000 expense, for which Medicare picks up everything over $1300.

An older friend of mine whose health is not good spent 3 months in hospital last year, which according to these averages, would total $180,000. Medicare would pay over 90% of that, leaving only about $11,000.

These numbers are crude averages. Every hospital stay is different. But they show how much difference Medicare makes in our lives.

Republicans say that changing the health care system and how we pay for our own health is the most important issue we face. On the campaign trail, they encouraged voters with ridiculous ideas, like keeping government out of Medicare. They go on and on about waste, but never can identify it. They boast that they can deliver more services at less cost. They categorically assert that Obamacare is a failure, without noting any of the unprecedented improvements it has made in our national health care system, notably covering millions of Americans who never had insurance.

Here’s what that means. Those without insurance were one-third as likely to spend a day in the hospital as those with Medicare or Medicaid. It’s not because Medicare patients needed more care. That difference means that insured people get the care they want and need, while the uninsured do not.

My insurance company sent me a second letter at the same time with a proposal. If I would join a network of hospitals and doctors that they have set up, they would waive my Part A deductible if needed. This network has no hospitals in my county, meaning I would have to change every doctor I use, and a trip to the hospital would mean driving miles past the fine hospital in my town.

Critics of Obamacare rant and rave about how people are forced by government to change doctors. It’s my insurance company and others like it who try to make deals so we use the doctors and hospitals they want.

Now my government wants to revamp a system which is crucial to the financial and medical health of all of us over 65. Despite years of complaining that Obamacare was a failure, Republicans have no plan to replace it, and some estimate it will take years to develop.

Let’s keep this government out of our Medicare.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 17, 2017

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trump’s Billionaire Cabinet

Donald Trump won election as our next President partly by appealing to Americans who are unhappy with the way the economy has left them behind, while benefitting only the wealthy.

Nearly all Americans told pollsters just before the election that they think the American economy is rigged in favor of the powerful. Almost 90% said the economy is rigged to benefit the rich generally, banks and bank executives in particular, and corporations.

Trump told these angry voters that they were right: middle-class Americans can't get ahead, because big political donors, big businesses and big bureaucrats are keeping wages down and hogging all the gains of the growing economy for themselves. Only he could fix this broken system. “The economy is rigged. The banking system is rigged. There’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours, and that’s why a lot of you haven’t had an effective wage increase in 20 years, folks. And we’re going to change it.”

Trump specifically pointed the finger at Wall St. He told an audience in Ottumwa, Iowa, “I know the people on Wall Street. I'm not going to let Wall Street get away with murder. Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us. I don’t care about the Wall Street guys. I’m not taking any of their money.” He stressed the unfairness of the tax system. “The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder. They're paying nothing, and it's ridiculous.”

Now that he has won election with those arguments, Trump has been assembling his team to run the government. His cabinet choices are not yet complete, and none of them have been confirmed by the Senate. But his selections so far give us some idea of what he plans to do.

Trump’s cabinet will be the richest group in American history, dominated by the very people he criticized on the campaign trail. For Secretary of Commerce, Trump is nominating Wilbur L. Ross Jr., a billionaire Wall St. speculator. He owned Sago Mine, a West Virginia coal mine where a dozen miners lost their lives in a 2006 explosion. His company settled a lawsuit for negligence in their deaths. A few months ago, Ross’s company paid a $2.3 million fine for charging his investors excess management fees.

Just under Ross, Trump is nominating Todd Ricketts as Deputy Commerce Secretary. His father founded the online broker Ameritrade. Ricketts is even richer than Ross, and is co-owner of the Chicago Cubs and CEO of Ending Spending, an organization “dedicated to educating and engaging American taxpayers about wasteful and excessive government spending,” according to its site.

As head of the Small Business Administration, Trump selected another billionaire, Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, and one of Trump’s biggest donors. The Treasury  Department will be headed by Steven Mnuchin, another big donor and a former Goldman Sachs executive, now CEO of a hedge fund. He is worth only about $665 million.   

Much further down the list of richest Americans, Trump’s Secretary of Labor will be Andrew F. Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, which owns fast-food outlets Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Puzder opposes increasing the minimum wage, because his restaurants would have to pay more to their workers, meaning less income for shareholders.

Another billionaire with input into Trump’s economic policies will be Carl Icahn, a Special Adviser on Regulatory Reform. Icahn began as a stockbroker and now is one of the richest Americans, buying and selling companies and a business partner with Trump.

Another cabinet secretary who is worth billions will be Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, whose family started the multilevel marketing company Amway. Amway has been successfully sued in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom for fraud, and has paid millions in fines.

Rex W. Tillerson will head Trump’s State Dept. He was president and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, and will get a severance package worth $180 million for leaving his job. Some other billionaires have been appointed by Trump to serve on his economic advisory committee or inaugural committee.

The Republican-dominated Senate appears to be rushing the process of confirming these nominations. They have scheduled six hearings for this Wednesday, apparently hoping to minimize media scrutiny. Several of Trump’s picks have not completed the usual vetting process, which includes tax returns and ethics clearances, which might be complicated for some of the billionaires with vast financial holdings. The head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., has said that the Senate has never before held hearings before his office completed its review.

We don’t know yet exactly what policies Trump will direct his cabinet to implement, or even if they all will be confirmed. This is what we do know: none of them have shown the slightest interest in the economic plight of the voters who backed Trump. They are precisely the people who have profited the most from the financial system that Trump said was rigged against most Americans.

Trump not only took plenty of money from the Wall St. Guys. Now he is hiring them to run the government.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 10, 2017