Ohio Issue 2: the Drug Price Standards Initiative

The war over prescription drug prices has come to Ohio in the form of the Drug Price Standards Initiative, which will be on the ballot as Issue 2.  Depending on who you believe, it will be either “saving Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars … while improving healthcare”  or  “a prescription for disaster”.   In any case, it promises to be the most expensive Ohio initiative ever, not because of its substance, which is not all that consequential, but because of its symbolic significance in the national political fight.

The pharmaceutical industry’s take on this is summed up in the warning included in the SEC 10-K report file by Depomed Pharmaceuticals, under ITEM 1A.  RISK FACTORS:

Although [California] Proposition 61 was rejected, these and other cost containment or price control measures, if adopted at the federal or state level, could significantly decrease the price that we receive for our products and any product that we may develop or acquire, which would harm our business, financial condition and results of operations.

Thus, to the industry, this is not just about what happens in Ohio.  Passing this initiative would signal to the country that the people are finally ready to act to stem the rising cost of prescription drugs.  The industry is not about to let that happen anywhere.

Michael Weinstein 1

Michael Weinstein

The organization behind this initiative is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), led by longtime AIDS activist Michael Weinstein. This foundation, based in Los Angeles but which has facilities in Columbus and Cleveland, financed the gathering of signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot. Employees of this foundation are identified in the initiative as people with standing to defend it against any legal challenges.

This initiative is almost identical to the 2016 California Proposition 61. After a campaign in which $19 million was spent in support and $109 million in opposition to the measure, it failed, 53% to 47%.  Why AHF thinks they will fare any better in Ohio is beyond me.  However, perhaps that is not the point.

Health care financing in America is a mess.  The system is absurdly complex, beyond the comprehension of a layman like myself.  With all the secret deals, it is almost impossible to find out what is really going on.  Those in power like it that way. Each convolution creates another opportunity for someone to extract more money from the public, and the pharmaceutical industry seems to be at the head of pack.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Turing Pharmaceuticals, under the leadership of former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli.  They obtained the license for a life saving drug, Daraprim, and promptly raised the price of from $13.50 to $750 per pill.  This is angered everyone.  However, it was entirely legal.  Sckreli realized that although prescription drug prices are rising faster than any other part of health care, the drug industry is actually showing restraint.  He simply acted to maximize his company’s profits.  Most drug industry leaders realize that if they were to fully flex their muscles like this that America would rise up and take away their power.

There is one point that everyone seems to agree on.  Even Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue leads their ad with “Ohioans need access to affordable medications.”  The question is what to do about it.

Weinstein’s answer, with the Drug Price Standards Initiative, is to disrupt the status quo.  Thus, Our Revolution, “the next step for Bernie Sander’s movement”, fully supports it.  Against it are PhRMA, any establishment politicians dependent on donations from PhRMA, and most establishment medical associations.

Meet Michael Weinstein

Meet Michael Weinstein

The ads, both for and against, feature the kind of personal attacks that clutter the political landscape these days.  In the mail, I received a flyer supporting Issue 2.   It displayed a large picture Craig Landau, head of Purdue Pharma, “the nation’s #1 opioid drug pusher”; since he is opposing issue 2, we must be for it.   On the other side, those opposed to Issue 2 have an website Meet Micheal Weinstein devoted to exposing the man behind the initiative.  As far as I can tell, they stick to the truth.  However, the worst they can do is label him a “California Healthcare CEO” of an organization which makes “nearly 80% of [its] revenue selling prescription drugs” and “has a documented history of frequently engaging in litigation to advance its interests.”  Evidently, thoughtful, nuanced discussion does not make effective advertising.

You might have noticed that i haven’t yet mentioned what the initiative actually does. It has two main provisions:

  • “Require the State of Ohio … to not pay more for prescription drugs than the price paid by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.”  This mandate would only apply where the state of Ohio was the ultimate payer.  Private insurance plans would not be directly affected.
  • Give the petitioners standing to defend the law against any court challenges, and require the state to cover “reasonable legal expenses”.  If the court rules Issue 2 unenforceable, the petitioners would have to pay the state $10,000.

This second provision assures that the issue would be vigorously defended in court even if the state Attorney General chose not to do so.  Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue claims this is “an unprecedented provision granting [the promoters] the right to intervene at taxpayer expense in any legal challenges that may be filed against the measure.”  Ballotpedia analyzed the claim and concluded, “That is correct.

In a teleconference on Oct. 5, Dennis Willard, head of the Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, said that this provision was moot because Attorney General Mike Dewine has promised to defend the issue if it passes.  I have not been able to confirm that Dewine has actually said this.  In any case, this is a sidelight, a diversion from the main point.

The main question is whether this initiative would lead to a substantial savings.

The Veterans Administration (VA) pays 20% to 24% less than other agencies for prescription drugs.  If the state of Ohio would pay that same price, it would save around $400 million each year.  This is simple math.

However, the American health care finance system is anything but simple.   In particular, drug prices are negotiated, and these agreements often prohibit public disclosure.  Although the VA publishes a 17,000 line spreadsheet of pharmaceutical prices, the prices that the VA actually pays are not generally available to the public.  Thus, the central mandate of Issue 2 might not be strictly enforceable.  Nevertheless, the savings would still be substantial even if Ohio was only to achieve the published price.

Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue make the following assertions:

Issue 2 won’t fix the problem. In fact, it’ll make things worse. It could lead to: •

    • logoHigher Drug Costs

    • Reduced Access to Medicines
    • More Red Tape & Bureaucracy
    • Negative Impact on Veterans

Michael Weinstein has discounted these possibilities, saying that “such dire scenarios will only come to pass if pharma chooses to hurt the public rather than accepting lower profit margins for drugs on some insurance plans”.

How likely is it that the drug companies, after spending over $100 million to defeat the measure in California and some similarly gargantuan amount in Ohio, would placidly accept lower profit margins?  Investors evaluate the performance of executives based on their ability to increase profits; those executives who accept lower profits will be replaced. If Ohio attempts to derail their gravy train, big PhRMA will make damned sure that nobody else wants to follow its example.

Issue 2, by itself, does not change the power relationship that Martin Shkreli so callously exploited.  These prices still have to be negotiated, and big Pharma, on the other side of the table, has no interest in making this initiative a success.  Since the VA price would become the price for the state as well, some drug companies might choose to raise VA prices.  This would have a “negative impact on veterans.” Alternatively, drug companies could refuse to sell to the state at the low VA price, making some drugs unavailable through those agencies.  This would “reduce access to medicines.” Another threat is that the drug companies could simply make up the lost revenue by raising prices for private payers in Ohio, leading to “higher drug costs.”

Thus, each of the “could lead to” assertions by the Issue 2 opponents could turn out to be true. Of course, these result not directly from Issue 2 but from the actions of the drug companies, actions that the drug companies can take whether or not Issue 2 passes.

The California Legislative Analyst provided an analysis of Proposition 61 concluding:

If adopted, the measure could generate annual state savings.  However, the amount of any savings is highly uncertain as it would depend on (1) how the measure’s implementation challenges are addressed and (2) the uncertain market responses of drug manufacturers to the measure.  As a result, the fiscal impact of this measure on the state is unknown.

I have not found a similar state analysis of Ohio Issue 2, but it would come to the same conclusion.

Health care financing in America is a mess.  After November, it will still be a mess, whether or not Issue 2 passes.  Whether Issue 2 passes or not, another similar initiative will appear in the near future in a different state.  It is a national problem.  It cannot be solved at the state level.

I will vote in support of Issue 2 even though I do not expect passing it to result in substantial savings.  I support the long term goal of fixing health care financing in this country.  Defeating big PhRMA would be a giant leap toward that goal, not because of the content of this initiative, but because it would change the political landscape.  Even if it fails, having Issue 2 on the ballot raises awareness of the problem:  something must be done about the rising cost of prescription drug prices.

And, or course,  it’s possible we could win.

 

 

 

 

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Russ Hurley for Congress in 2018 (Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District)

Ohio's_2nd

The voters of Cincinnati have been carefully divided up into two congressional districts, both of which are reliably Republican.  The gerrymandering is particularly obvious in the 2nd district, which reaches to Pike County, roughly 100 miles away from the carefully carved appendage slicing through Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Currently, this district is represented by Brad Wenstrup, a tea partier who beat the incumbent Republican in the 2012 primary.  Unlike many tea party types, Wenstrup is no lightweight.  A former pediatrician, he is intelligent and articulate.  He runs a very professional congressional office.  His campaign already has a half a million dollars on hand. Given all of the advantages of incumbency and the demographics of the district, whoever runs as his opponent is sure to be a long shot.

In order to win in this district, the Democrats need to step outside their usual box and give the voters something to be excited about in an off-year election.   In my opinion, there is one issue that can generate that excitement: the legalization of marijuana.

Teapot RussMany Years ago, when I was smoking pot regularly, I assumed that when my generation came to power, marijuana would become legal.  Belatedly, this is starting to happen.  It has been legalized in a few states, and many more, including Ohio, have approved if for medical use.  However, the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I drug, putting it along side heroine and other highly addictive drugs.  It is time end this prohibition at its source, through national legislation.  A Quinnipiac poll says that most Americans (60% to 34%) agree “that the use of marijuana should be made legal in the U.S.”  This is a winning issue.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, there was one candidate for congress who put the marijuana issue front and center: Russ Hurley.  This is why I endorsed him then. Now, he has started an on-ine campaign for the 2018 primary and asked me to endorse him again.

King Court 2Since that primary, I have had the opportunity to meet Russ at his place of business: the King’s Court Master Barber & Shoe Shine Service.  I have not seen him address a crowd, but he strikes me as a down to earth guy who might appeal to the stereotypical Trump voter in a way that Wenstrup, with all his polished professionalism, might not.

I like candidates who let you know where they stand.  Hurley has done this, publishing his “top 10” issues.  Since this blog is about my point of view,  here is what I think of each or Hurley’s points:

  1.  Legalize industrial hemp and marijuana adding trillions of industrial $$$ into our economy. Saving 100s of billions on law enforcement. Eliminating the need for many prison cells across the nation. Close private for profit prisons and re-purpose them for indoor agricultural use making them more profitable for owners and providing even better jobs to the communities in which they reside.

One might question the wisdom of putting the marijuana issue first: we clearly have other important issues facing our nation.  However, the legalization of marijuana is what distinguished Hurley from the rest of the field in the previous primary, and it makes good sense to put this first.

Closing private, for profit prisons is a separate issue.  Even if we succeed in legalizing marijuana, the current Attorney General seems bent on incarcerating our way through the current opioid crisis, which will generate plenty of new prisoners.  America already jails a larger percentage of its population than any other developed nation.  This is horribly misguided.  Furthermore, we have a history of using prisoners for profit, and it is ugly.  We need to stop this now.

However, once we close the private prisons, we do not need to be directing the owners in how those facilities will be used.  Free market entrepreneurs excel at producing wealth from existing assets; they should not need our guidance.

2. Create a living wage increase commensurate  with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s and double military base pay.

The increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in our nation threatens the very foundation of our society.

I support increasing the minimum wage as one step in addressing this problem.  Seattle has set it at $15.00 an hour, which seems reasonable target to me.

As for military base pay, I do not know what is reasonable.  Currently, a Private (E1) with less than 2 years of experience earns $19,198.80, which is what someone earning $9.60 an hour would make working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year.  Clearly, the base pay should be increased if we are increasing the minimum wage.  Doubling it seems over the top.

The growth in CEO wages in the last few decades has been obscene; we cannot simply replicate this obscenity throughout our society.  “Commensurate with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s” might sound fair, but as near as I can tell, this would put the minimum wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 an hour.  This is ridiculous.  Hurley, using different sources, thinks it would be about $28 an hour.  Still ridiculous.

3.  Equal rights at work (equal pay) or home (marriage) and at the doctors  for all people (ALL MEANS ALL) in the USA.

In the bathroom too, although I think it’s fine that he didn’t mention that.

4. Create high speed rail and help update and improve inner city public transportation.  

We need major improvements in our transportation infrastructure.  However, it seems strange to emphasize high speed rail and inner city problems given the district that Hurley seeks to represent.

5. Return retirement age back to 65.

I oppose this.  We are living longer, healthier lives.  I think it reasonable to move the “official” retirement age up, as is happening now.   However, since I myself retired early, you may call me a hypocrite.

A more important improvement to Social Security concerns the earnings cap on the tax used to support it: this should be raised.

6.  Fix immigration with a true path to citizenship. provide better border security by creating more military bases across our border to keep terrorists out.

I support a quick path to legal status for people who are here.  This is much more urgent than the long term path to full citizenship.

Border security is problematic.  While it is plausible that some minuscule fraction of the people entering this country illegally are terrorists, this threat is magnified beyond all reasonable sense of proportion by our politicians.  Trump’s giant wall will not help much; nor will Hurley’s army bases.  This should not be on the high priority list.  We already waste more than enough money on security theater.

7. Strengthen and expand the A.C.A. until single pay comes for a vote.

Here, I think Hurley has exactly the right approach.

8. Eliminate corn subsidies for ethanol replacing corn with hemp, leading towards 100% renewable, cleaner, cheaper and closer to home energy sources.

I know Russ thinks hemp is more efficient than corn as a source for ethanol.  This might be true.  However, there are lots of ways to produce ethanol, and corn is clearly not the most efficient choice.  Thus, I agree that we should move away from corn subsidies.

I think the government has a role to play in subsidizing the production of ethanol from renewable sources.  I would prefer to support multiple options, rather than have the politicians choose their favorite.

9. Fund adult and child education building new schools.

We need to spend more on education.   However, I don’t think providing buildings is the best way to involve the federal government in this.  So here, I agree with the goal, but perhaps not the specifics of the proposal.

10. Expand wind and solar power, updating our power grid to eliminate the 30% lost energy every day.

Improving our electric grid is a major priority.  Efficiency and flexibility are needed to make use of these newer, less predictable, power sources.

We also need to protect it from cyber attack.  I think there are vulnerabilities here that the government could help address.

Thus, my judgment on Russ’s top 10 issues is mixed: I am enthusiastic about some of them, other I find  are too strident.   In my opinion, there are also a few things missing from this list:

  • Paying for it all.  Politicians talk only of benefits, never of costs.  Several of the objectives that Russ lays out cannot be reached without allocating the necessary financial resources.  This money has to come from some place.  There are several options available: borrowing the money, reducing the amount spent on defense, or taxing people who have money.  If Hurley is going to be specific on these priorities, he needs to be prepared to talk about how they are going to be funded.
  • Simplifying the tax system.  As long as our system is so complex and littered with so many loopholes, arriving at a fair method of taxation is impossible.
  • Providing good government, compromising when necessary to move us closer to our long term goals.  In normal times, this would not even be worth mentioning.  However, today there are politicians who take pride in their obstinance. As a result, our politics has become toxic and dysfunctional.  Our constitution was founded on compromise.  We need representatives in congress committed to making our democracy work.

Hurley

So often, campaigns are based on platitudes so broad and bland that it is impossible to have anything constructive to say about them.  Russ Hurley has stated positions that are clear and specific enough that I can have an opinion.  I appreciate this.  That my opinion differs from his in several points does not upset me; since I think for myself, it is inevitable.  I can endorse a candidate who is ready to lead us in what I perceive as the right direction, and is able to analyze problems, and evaluate proposed solutions. What I am concerned with is that he is pointing in the right direction and is able to think things through.

This brings me back to issue number 2, concerning the minimum wage.  What Hurley proposes might sound fair, but I don’t think he has thought this through at all.  Hurley’s position is so far over the top, so impractical, that I question whether  he can be taken seriously as a candidate.  I cannot endorse such lame thinking.

In 2016, I moved from one part of Cincinnati to another, crossing that carefully gerrymandered line.  So I longer vote in the 2nd congressional district.  However, if I had the opportunity, I would seriously consider voting for Hurley, despite my misgivings.

Did I mention that he supports the legalization of marijuana?

 

 

A Prophecy

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.”
Jeremiah 2:7, 2:9

In ancient times, when God’s chosen people were making a mess of things, which they did  fairly often, God sent them warnings via the prophets.  This was revealed truth, not to be questioned, but to be obeyed.  However, the people usually did not obey.  After all, these prophets seemed crazy, and they demanded way too much sacrifice.  Consequently, the people suffered what  they would come to understand as God’s wrath.

Today, we no longer need to rely solely on revealed truth.  Using our natural talents and our ability to pass detailed knowledge from generation to generation, we have developed a method for understanding the world around us based on careful, systematic observation.  This understanding has deepened over the years through continually building on what came before, by repeatedly questioning the received wisdom, testing it, verifying some ideas, refining others, and discarding those that did not correspond to the world as it actually is.  Thus, in the place of revealed truth, we have theories that can be verified or disproven by observing the results of reproducible experiments.   In ancient times, people understood the world to be controlled by God: disobey and you will be punished.  Our scientific understanding is founded on cause and effect: touch a hot stove and you will get burnt.

This approach to human understanding has proven extremely effective.  It has enabled us to transform large areas of the planet to suit our needs and build cities that reach to the sky.  Our modern technological civilization stretches around the globe.

Today, scientists observe that the planet, on the whole, is getting warmer.  This was predicted decades ago by people whose ideas used to seem rather far fetched.  Now, these assertions have been verified by careful examination of what has actually happened since the predictions were first made.  The idea is simple and profound.  Our civilization has become so ubiquitous that our collective waste is effecting the climate of the entire planet.  Glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, and storms are becoming more destructive.

There are times when the gentle correction of a modern Quaker simply will not suffice, times that call for the fierce intensity of the prophets.  You don’t have to believe in the wrathful God of the Old Testament for the message revealed through Jeremiah to reverberate in the depths of your soul.   And so I repeat his prophecy:

If we continue to trash the planet, there will be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and our children’s children will suffer what the ancient Hebrews understood to be the wrath of God.

Of course, all this is in response to the announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.  However, like those Biblical warnings of old, this is not just about the behavior of far off kings and princes and presidents.  Each of us needs to examine our own actions, because simply by living in this society, we are complicit in the ongoing devastation.

So, let me conclude with a query taken from the Faith and Practice of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends:

Do you endeavor to live in harmony with nature, avoiding pollution and the destruction of our environment? What are you doing about your use of the world‘s irreplaceable resources?

 

 

Trump, Russia and The Threat to Democracy

Putin behind curtain

People are all excited about the investigation, now led by special council Robert Meuller.  Did the Trump campaign collude secretly with the enemy?  That would be high treason.  Frankly, I was extremely skeptical .  It seemed that this was nothing more than another political sideshow, but, as Douglas Blackmon reports: “This scandal has metastasized more quickly and destructively than I could possibly have forecast.”

There is nothing surprising about Russians doing what they could in the American election.  Both Russia and America have been meddling in the internal affairs of other nations for decades.  Sometimes, the United States, contrary to the lofty principles of our founding fathers, has helped overthrow popularly elected governments in favor of those willing to support our military or business interests.  Khrushchev claimed to have had a small but perhaps decisive effect on the election of Kennedy over Nixon in 1960.  In 1984, Russia tried in vain to help defeat Ronald Reagan, but he won in a landslide.  So, Russia meddling in our affairs is not new.  However, this time, as explained by Eugene Rumor in testimony before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,

The experience of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election should be judged an unqualified success for the Kremlin.

Since the turn of the millennium, Russia has morphed into a more and more authoritarian kleptocracy.  As in the Soviet days, it sees democracy as the enemy.  To combat this enemy, it has developed an impressive arsenal of political weapons, called “active measures”.  Some of these, such as assassination, are truly frightening. However, most target the public’s ability to determine what is true.  As historian Timothy Snyder says:

Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder

So if you want to rip the heart out of a democracy directly, if you want to go right at it and kill it, what you do is you go after facts.

Thus, the first line of defense against these active measures is good journalism.  Throughout the previous century, America had a vibrant core of reliable news sources dedicated to providing the public with a firm foundation for making informed decisions.   Of course, we also had the National Enquirer, but its wild fabrications were pretty harmless in the context of the whole information scene.

However, new technologies have disrupted the news business, fragmenting it and undermining its traditional business model.  Newspapers are reducing their staff or closing all together, and new sources of information are gaining prominence.  Some are excellent, but many publish wild distortions and outright lies.  With our  information infrastructure weakened, fake news is no longer so harmless.  Our society has become more susceptible to disinformation campaigns.

Clearly, the Russians aren’t the only ones engaged in such campaigns.  With its denial of climate change and thinly veiled bigotry, the “conservative entertainment-outrage complex” has been peddling misinformation, willful ignorance, and bizarre conspiracy theories for years.  Pundits have found it lucrative to provoke outrage with purposely misleading or blatantly false assertions.  The Republican Party, after discovering how well these techniques worked, got on board this plush, well-funded train and lurched ever more towards the reactionary right to appease the loudest voices in the crowd.

Having largely abandoned thoughtful and reasoned debate, the party found itself helpless in the face of a hostile takeover by a showman brandishing even more brazen bigotry, more outlandish conspiracy theories, and an almost complete detachment from reality.  Trump dominated the 2016 field in the primaries, effortlessly sloughing off all attacks.  The fact checkers declared “pants on fire”.  Big deal.  They were always making noise about something.  Trump’s proposals were unrealistic and impractical.  So what? Almost all of the Republican proposals were.  Trump could say something that qualified as “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but the party base didn’t care.  They were tired of all this “politically correct” pussyfooting around.  They wanted someone who would tell it like it is, and Trump delivered.  Thus, the Trump phenomenon sprouted out of ground that had been richly fertilized with fake news and manufactured outrage for many years.  Trump is a symptom, not the root cause, of the disease affecting our democracy.

We have the remedy to this disease in hand: multiple reliable sources of accurate information.  However, there is a core of Americans who have developed resistance to this remedy.

Donald Trump Tweet

@real@realDonaldTrump

Trump, recognizing the threat that good journalism poses to him and what he represents, lashes out at the press whenever he can.  In one case, he tweeted

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

In truth, it is pretty easy to see why he is so upset with the mainstream media.  A Harvard study has shown that the coverage Trump received in the first 100 days was much more negative than for other presidents.  Almost every day, the Washington Post calls out something that he said as demonstrably false, or at least inconsistent with what he said earlier.  Almost all of the newspapers in the country endorsed Hillary Clinton.  To someone who supported Trump in the election, it must all seem pretty one-sided.  However, these reliable news sources rejected Trump for a good reason: he is manifestly deceitful and unqualified.   How can you provide fair and balanced coverage of a man who lies so persistently?

I actually agree with Trump about the significance of fake news; I disagree with him about which news is fake.  And the phrase “enemy of the people” has a frightening pedigree, particularly as used by Stalin during the purges.  This is all a part of a calculated strategy, one pulled directly from the fascists in the 1920s and 30s, that Timothy Snyder describes it this way:

Step one: You lie yourself, all the time. Step two: You say it’s your opponents and the journalists who lie. Step three: Everyone looks around and says, “What is truth? There is no truth.”

And then, resistance is impossible, and the game is over.

Trump has praised Stalin’s heir, Putin, for the strength of his leadership and for his high approval rating.  Of course, Putin, like Stalin before him, assures the security of his regime and his high approval ratings by systematically suppressing dissent and controlling the press.

Trump seems envious of Putin’s power, unfettered by that pesky Constitution.  In his recent trip, Trump appeared much more at home with the Saudi monarch than with the leaders of European democracies.

During the campaign, I was continually mystified by Trump’s praise of Putin and by the presence of aids in his campaign with known ties to Russia. Trump even asked for the Russia’s help getting at Clinton’s emails n a nationally televised debate. (Though he wasn’t referring specifically to the emails at the DNC, I imagine he was pleased enough at what he got.)  How did the party of Reagan and Eisenhower ever get to the point that they acquiesce  to such as this?

Even so, I had trouble believing that there was actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, not because I believed Trump when he claimed there was none, but because it was so unnecessary.  The Trump campaign meshed naturally, publicly, with what the Russians were trying to do.   No behind-the-scenes coordination was needed.

robert-mueller

Robert Meuller

So, what will Meuller find when he looks into Russia’s meddling in our election?  Probably, he will confirm much that we already know.

 

Clearly, someone hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s server and leaked a boatload of emails to WikiLeaks.  The intelligence agencies claim to have established that this was done by Russians, apparently under the authority of Putin himself.  However, given the DNC’s rather cavalier in its approach to security, I’m not surprised someone broke in.

The Russians probably funneled money to the campaign of Donald Trump, perhaps also to Bernie Sanders, through some front organizations. They used dummy accounts to promote certain stories on the web that might otherwise have been ignored. They might have added a bit to the fake news, but there was so much of that I hardly see why they would have bothered.  In general, I expect the Russians amplified the havoc, but they certainly didn’t create it.

It might be that Trump or one of his functionaries was dumb enough to step over the line and do something that would justify prosecution in a court of law.  Certainly, people in the Trump entourage, i.e. Paul Manifort and Michael Flynn, had financial ties to some unsavory Russian characters.  It appears that Trump has attempted to interfere with the investigations, and there might be something in the cover up that was illegal.  You would think Trump would have learned enough from Nixon in the Watergate scandal to avoid this, but Trump occasionally shown himself to be phenomenally brash and ignorant.

In summary, Russia’s political tools are sophisticated and their motives are sinister.  We need to understand what they are up to and how to combat them.  But while we concern ourselves with the active measures of foreign governments,  we also need to pay attention to the attack on truth from within our own country.  This actually poses the bigger threat to our democracy.

And subscribe to a good newspaper.  We need them.

 

Supporting Muslims in America

hassan-shibly

Hassan Shibly

We all know this recent Muslim travel ban was just a shot over the bow.  Trump promised much worse during the campaign, and apparently he intends to deliver.  There has even been talk that we might soon have something resembling a Muslim registry. Some say, if it comes to that, they will register as Muslims.  Though I am sympathetic with this impulse, I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  I am not Muslim.  So, where can I sign now, to let my government know where I stand on religious freedom?

To find out, I visited the local mosque to attend a CAIR (Counsil on American-Islamic Relations) sponsored event: “Unapologetically Muslim and American”.   It featured Hassan Shibly,  Chief Executive Director of CAIR Florida, along with Karen Dabdoub, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter.

The message of the presentation was clear.  Islamophobia is rampant throughout the country.  Incidents range from bullying in school through discrimination in the workplace or in housing all the way to hate crimes.   The presenters advised Muslims to stand up for their rights, to refuse to hide or simply hope that the situation would resolve itself, and to involve CAIR as soon as possible before things escalate.  CAIR is there to help.

They also noted the support Muslims have received from the majority community in America. They described incidents of Muslims praying in airports, for example, protected by Jews and Christians standing silently by to prevent any disruption of their prayers.  They mentioned Madeline Albright, who says she is ready to sign up if that Muslim registry comes to exist.  They also reminded us of the history of immigrant groups coming to America, groups which faced bigotry but eventually gained acceptance, at least from most Americans.

Shibly focused on relations with the government, especially US Customs and the FBI (“definitely not the Friendly Brotherhood of Islam”).

They spent quite a bit of time talking about what to expect on returning to this country from abroad.  Everyone is asked where they went and why they traveled.  Some will be pulled aside for secondary screening. Whereas this occurs for a typical American citizen about 1% percent of the time, Muslims were being pulled aside for this extra scrutiny about half the time, according to Shibly. Shibly’s advice was simple: as soon as they ask anything about your personal political or religious views, assert your rights.  As an American citizen, you have the right to ask for a lawyer to present during the questioning.  If you are a non-citizen,  with a green card for example, the prerogatives of the officials are less constrained, but you still have the right to call a lawyer.  Despite what the officials might say, you are likely to be detained just as long whether you call a lawyer or not, and without the protection of someone familiar with the intricacies of the law and normal procedures, you will be vulnerable.  Karen Dabdoub urged people to text the CAIR office when arriving, before getting off the plane, so that if CAIR does not hear from you within an hour or so, they can know to intervene with Customs to find out what has happened to you.  Thus, a Muslim entering the country can expect to be inconvenienced, but, with proper precautions and the help of CAIR, these inconveniences need not grow into anything more severe.  Nonetheless, foreign students are strongly encouraged to stay inside the country until their education is finished.

Shibly then went on to discuss the FBI, which he described as a government agency that is targeting Muslims, through entrapment and through intimidating people into becoming informants.

karen-dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub followed up with a hypothetical example of an person who thinks they have nothing to hide talking with the FBI.  The agent might ask a question, and then much later in conversation, ask the same question differently.  If there were inconsistencies in your answers, then they could charge you with lying to the FBI, a crime that can be punished with up to five years of jail time.  (Of course, it is perfectly legal for them to lie to you.) Now, they have something to hold over you, to intimidate you into becoming an informant.

Their advice was the same: ask for a lawyer to be present during questioning.  Whatever the motives of the people in power, the American government is constrained by the Constitution.  Muslims, like all Americans, need to assert their rights under this Constitution in order to maintain them.  If the government tries to intrude into your personal life in any way, don’t try to handle it yourself; call CAIR.  CAIR has a lawyer who will contact the FBI on your behalf.  Shibly recalled one incident where he felt the FBI had a legitimate reason to question his client, but in the others, he told the agent that he would advise his client to not answer any of his questions.  Usually, the FBI would then leave the person alone after that.

All this sounded pretty paranoid to me.  After, the event, I did a little research to find out whether the paranoia was justified.  Interestingly, I found a 2005 article where a freshman at the University of Buffalo named Hassan Shibly was detained at the border, apparently for no reason other than he was Muslim.  I suspect that experience had a role in shaping his career.

In a more comprehensive view, Human Rights Watch clearly supports their complaints:

In a lengthy examination of U.S. terrorism prosecutions, Human Rights Watch, working with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the FBI and the Justice Department have created a climate of fear in some Muslim communities through the use of surveillance and informants.

fbi-newburgh-four-james-c-007I found several accounts of the “Newburgh Four”, a group caught up in an FBI sting operation that Shibly had mentioned.  It appears sordid.  Yes, these guys, all black, all Muslim, all poor, did get caught up in a terrorist plot, but the plot was entirely concocted by the paid FBI informant.  Even the judge who sentenced the defendants was upset by the FBI’s conduct.

 Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

Unfortunately, one of the men caught up in the scheme was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic.   Shibly reported visiting him in jail, apparently out of his mind, on suicide watch in solitary confinement, cold, sad and hopeless.

It is hard to see how we are made any safer by such operations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. For example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, the local chief of police runs an outreach and informant program that is considered a model by authorities on counterterrorism.  Informally, it appears to employ the same principles of “community policing” that have proven successful in Cincinnati.  You engage the community, treat people fairly, and they help you succeed because they want to live in safety.  It works.  The police chief in Dearborn can cite examples where Muslims have turned in fellow Muslims.

The FBI might pay lip service to building this kind of trust with the Muslim community, and in fact some within the bureau appear to be making a sincere attempt to do that.  However,  based on what I have learned, from Human Rights Watch, from CAIR, and from reliable news sources, that ship has sailed, and the Trump administration is unlikely to ask it to change course.

Following the presentation by Shibly and Dabdoub, there was a question and answer session.  I got to ask my question.  I referenced Madeline Albright’s willingness to sign up if there is ever a Muslim registry.  “But I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  So where can I sign up now to let my government know where I stand?”

My question got a round of spontaneous applause.  The answer was a little vague.  Go to the alerts on the CAIR website and write your Senators and Congressman about the issues that concern us all.

It looks like we will have lots of opportunities to do that.

Trump has expressed surprise that there was so much furor over his executive order.   After all, “We had 109 people out of hundreds of thousands of travelers and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.”  Of course, he seems to enjoy the drama of it all.

We should not expect Trump’s assault on the Constitution to begin with a massive charge, but with a limited action such as this one.  Regardless of the number affected, we need to guard against anything that “target[s] individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their country of origin and/or religion, without lawful justification.” (item 64, page 13)  .   If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must preserve them for everybody.

 

Russian Interference in the Election

hacked

People are all up in arms about Russians meddling in the American election.   Of course they meddled.  On the one hand, you have an incompetent boob who has business ties to Russian kleptocrats, who questions the value of NATO, who seems unconcerned with Russian adventures in the Ukraine and Syria, and who praises Putin for his leadership; on the other, you have Clinton.  Of course they did what they could.  They hacked the emails of both the the Democratic and Republican national committees and released through Wikileaks whatever they thought might hurt Clinton.

Big deal.  I know my email is not very secure, and, unless they took extraordinary precautions that I don’t know about, the DNC should have known that too.  After all, among all of the faux furor over Clinton’s supposed misdeeds, it was her lack of respect for email security that seems to have gotten the most traction.  It might be that lax email security nailed her in the end.

As far as I can tell, no one is accusing the Russians of doing anything more than influencing the American people through selective leaking of information.  Both Republicans and Democrats do that whenever they get the chance.  Even the FBI seems to have gotten involved.  If the Russians managed to tilt the election, which I doubt, it doesn’t scare me.

trump-lierWhat scares me is that we elected a man who lies so frequently that people ignore the constant noise from the fact checkers. America has entered a post-truth zone, where accepted scientific conclusions are questionable and where demonstrable facts are powerless against the truthiness of a con man who “tells it like it is.”

The problem isn’t the Russians.  The problem isn’t ISIS.  The problem isn’t just Trump, though he is pretty scary.  The problem is the imaginary conspiracies, the unacknowledged prejudices, the interminable Benghazi hearings, in short,  the abundance of misinformation that has guided the views of so many American voters.

The problem is us.  As long as we, the American people, allow ourselves to be so easily misled by what is demonstrably false, we will be defenseless against those who wish to manipulate us.  Our birthright, liberty and justice, will not be secure until we commit ourselves to Truth.

 

 

 

Trump and the Carrier Factory

trump-hardhat-2Trump made HUGE promises during the campaign.  Some were preposterous: “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.”  Some were blatantly unconstitutional: “… calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …”.  Some were merely beyond the normal constitutional power of the President:

Here’s what’s going to happen,  They’re going to call me and they are going to say ‘Mr. President, Carrier has decided to stay in Indiana’.  One hundred percent — that’s what is going to happen,  It’s not like we have an 80 percent chance of keeping them or a 95 percent. 100 percent.

Here is my prognostication: Mexico’s sovereignty will prevail; religious freedom will prevail; but the Carrier factory will stay in Indiana.

This is not just wild speculation on my part:

  1. Unlike most of the job that he has signed up for, this is Trump’s meat and potatoes.  He might be skipping the intelligence briefings, but, even on Thanksgiving Day, he is sinking his teeth into this deal.
  2. Trump has built his business by bullying contractors: refusing to pay them, driving up the legal expenses of those who dare sue him in court, and using his clout to punish those who deign to cross him in any way.  Now, this bully has the entire executive branch behind him, and he is not above stretching his constitutional powers to punish someone who crosses him.  Trump can make life very difficult for for the company if he chooses to, and not just with his twitter account.
  3. United Technologies, the company that owns the Carrier factory, has defense contracts worth over $23 billion dollars.  This gives Trump quite a bit of leverage.
  4. United Technologies is in business to make money.  There is little profit in standing up to a tyrant.  Businessmen around the world know you make money by cooperating with the powers that be.
  5. Even Bernie Sanders is on Trump’s side in this.

So, the Carrier factory will stay in Indiana.  Perhaps Trump and his Republicans will reward them with some protectionist trade barriers so they won’t have to compete with foreign manufacturers in the American market.  Perhaps this will start a trade war, followed by a global recession, like what happened in the 1920s and 30s (I forget.  Was that when America was great?).

So, on this one promise, Trump will deliver.  The workers in one factory will be happy.