Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Like old times

If a web log is a “blog” and a video log is a “vlog”, what do you call a trek log?

A “trog”?

A “klog”?

Let’s go with klog.

Here’s my klog of a trek I took, from Loděnice (about 15 km west of Prague) south through the Český kras (a wooded area), past Karlštejn castle, to the village of Zadní Třebaň.

When I lived in Plzeň in 1991-92, I discovered that the country has a network of walking trails throughout the rural areas, with accompanying maps. As Plzeň is a rail hub with lines heading out in (I think) six directions, it was easy to find a route where you went out by one train line, walked 10 or 20 miles, then came back by another.

I’d been eyeing this route since I’d bought the relevant map back in early September. The weather lately has been gorgeous, and I didn’t have any scheduled obligations today, so I took the opportunity.

The journey started at Smíchov nádraží (the railway station in the Smíchov neighborhood southwest of downtown Prague).

After a delay due to some sort of track problem, I was at Loděnice about 15 minutes after I expected to be.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Welcome to the cafe

One of the benefits of living outside the country for a time is the opportunity to see your native land through others' eyes (to some extent). Just like a fish doesn't know it's in water, certain things about our day-to-day environment elude us simply because they are so familiar.

Other times, the "Aha" comes from seeing other people's misperceptions about where you're from.

This week’s example is Czech architect David Vávra in an interview with the newspaper Lidové noviny. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reconciling the need to make a city livable for modern life while preserving the historic character that people value.

A related issue is the Marian column that used to stand on Old Town Square, one of the tourist highlights of the city.
The Marian column on Old Town Square, from here
Just to the left of the column is the church of St. Nicholas, designed by Dientzenhofer (see below).
All the way at the left is the "new" wing of the city hall of Old Town, later destroyed in the Prague uprising against the Nazis in May, 1945.
 
Many Czech towns have these monuments from the Baroque era, signs of devotion to the Virgin Mary, also called “plague columns,” as they might be put up in thanks for the ending of a plague.

A significant part of Habsburg rule had been forcible recatholicization of Czech society after 200 years of uneasy religious pluralism. Some Czechs thus identified the columns with oppression suffered by their people under the Habsburg yoke.

In 1918, shortly after the creation of Czechoslovakia out of part of the ruins of the Habsburg empire, a crowd of Czechs took down the column in Old Town Square in a burst of what they perceived as patriotism.
A crowd gathers around the fallen column, in the background the newly empty base.
From here
Now some people are advocating for the column to be rebuilt, arguing for its value both as a piece of public art and as part of the historical fabric of the square. Others oppose the column’s restoration, continuing to identify it with religious oppression.

In the discussion with Vávra, the interviewer makes the connection between the issue of Prague’s Marian column and the current controversy in the U.S. over Confederate statues.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Don't smoke!

The Czech Republic has been reluctant to tackle smoking. When we lived here seven years ago there was an add on a bus-stop bench I was at with some frequency that said, “Europe is giving up smoking; Czechia isn’t?”

And they had a point.

Then-president Václav Klaus was not a big fan of higher taxes on cigarettes or of rules about where smoking might be legal. For him it was an issue of freedom and rights, rather overlooking the rights of a nonsmoker to get a job in a restaurant without sacrificing her pulmonary health.

Since then, they’ve made some progress. Smoking in bars and restaurants has now been banned, which has prompted a huge boom in sidewalk seating outside bars and restaurants since the last time we were here.

A couple weeks ago I even saw an entire outdoor seating area with several customers, and none of them smoking! It was as if people just liked eating outside with the pleasant background of a lively street.

Then about a week ago, an image behind the counter at a neighborhood grocery store caught my eye. I looked more closely, and realized it was on a pack of cigarettes, meant to be disturbing and dissuade you from smoking.

A few days later I saw some packs at a grocery store and had the presence of mind to shoot them with my phone. Some of the pictures came out blurry, but I got a couple of OK ones.

Here’s a picture of a rather unwell woman, with a text explaining that, “Smoking damages your lungs.”

This next one’s somewhat out of focus but you can still more or less tell what happened as a result of the unfortunate fact that, “Smoking clogs your arteries.”

Monday, October 9, 2017

Getting in the zone

Last night my friend Ewan invited me to join him and his son at Zvizdal, a multi-media performance about a village in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. Or more specifically, it’s about the one remaining couple in the village, who are in their 80’s.

The story starts in a surprisingly humorous tone. The screen is blank, except for the English and Czech subtitles translating the Ukrainian conversation—as one of the filmmakers goes from office to office trying to get a permit to enter the exclusion zone. She’s told to go down the hall, 2nd door on the left, then you hear her walking and the screen says, “Down the hall”; a door opens, and the screen says, “2nd door on the left.”

In addition to the runaround of everyone telling her to go somewhere different, there’s one official who admits he doesn’t know whether the permit she’s looking for is within their work or not.

Someone else explains, “There’s nothing there. Well, there is that one couple, but the only way to talk to them is in person. There’s no phone.”

But obviously she eventually gets some sort of permission to proceed, and we are now looking out through a dash-cam as a guard opens a gate and we proceed into the exclusion zone.

After the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, the Soviet government created two exclusion zones. The zone have a few old people living in them, people who felt out of place after being evacuated to Kiev or other cities, and so preferred to return. If they were old enough, they were allowed back in, or they snuck in.

The outer zone is where the buses bring the folks out for some disaster tourism, as I experienced with my colleague Amy Forster Rothbart and our students in January, 2013. (Amy's husband Mike Forster Rothbart is a photographer who's done extensive work in the zone.)

On the standard tour you look at exhibits in the museum, see the firemen's memorial, and visit a former nursery school with dust lying thick on the beds and on the children’s books scattered across the floor (and a beer bottle placed on top of a bank of children’s cubbies, with a label showing it couldn’t have been there more than a year).

The inner zone has the plant itself, where you come within 400 meters of the “sarcophagus” that was built over the destroyed reactor, to prevent any further release of radiation. There’s the plant, and the workers there who maintain it, and the workers’ canteen (where the tourists also have lunch), and the former city of Pripyat, home in 1986 to 50,000 plant workers and their families, abandoned today and unknown to most of the world except for those who play Call of Duty.

Mike explains that there are actually a small but significant number of people still living in the zone, as described here. But the impression I got from last night's movie was that there was pretty much nothing there.

Except for one old couple on a farmstead in what was the village of Zvizdal.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Fan mail

In my previous post on l'affaire Blaive, I mentioned that there are people who will actively support a dictatorship, for a range of reasons. One of those reasons is that they are more or less in agreement with what the regime is trying to do.

One such is a letter written to Britské listy in response to an interview that Jan Čulík, the site's main editor, had conducted with Dr. Blaive.

Looking at the events of 1989 from the West, we had a narrative of a populace that was oppressed by a hated government. Anna Kouzlová's letter suggests that this narrative is much too simple.

I can see two main possibilities:
  1. She's misremembering her own feelings about the regime - she was unhappy with it at the time, but her experiences with the post-1989 world have made communism look good to her in hindsight.
  2. While the communists were still in charge, she was in fact fine with the system, liked it better than what has come afterward, and better than what came before (she says she's "well past 70," so she was born around 1940, so her earliest memories are likely the Nazi occupation, and then the brief period of more-or-less democratic rule between liberation from the Nazis in May, 1945 and the communists' seizure of power in February, 1948; she has no direct memory of the interwar Czechoslovak Republic, but had - as we all do - stories from her parents, who would have spent their childhood and young adulthood in the interwar Republic.
Either way, her letter can help inform our understanding of the spectrum of views that exist today, 28 years after the end of communist rule.

Mr. Čulík, I clicked on Britské listy for the first time in a long time, to see if you three idiots had found your way to common sense, and I watched your video.

I must say that that woman has her head screwed on right and is objective, even if you tried really hard to point her in the direction of expressing tendentious nonsense like you are in the habit of doing.

We regular people didn’t feel this nonsense, and anyway, why are you surprised that people chose a regime without servants and beggars? We had employment security, at work nobody treated us like slaves, something that we got a strong feeling of after the “glorious revolution” subsidized by the West!!

Mr. Čulík, I’m well past 70 and I can compare and unlike you I have life experience and still have my common sense.

As an eight-year-old girl I had to go with my mother to slog away in a farmer’s field. There were nine of us children, and in order for the farmer to plough our field we had to do quite a bit of serious labor!

Today’s brainwashed youth who moan so much about how their parents had their farm fields expropriated, I’d like to know if they would have toiled in those fields. It wouldn’t have been them—for that they had us poor people.

What do you idiots today have to say about how things were under Papa Masaryk,* how much poverty there was and shooting at workers, how ordinary people were dealt with. I heard those facts every day from my grandma and grandpa; today the truth is silenced and twisted. Supposedly it was a democracy, and we’ve got the same kind of democracy today—democracy for thieves and scoundrels, a decent person doesn’t have any rights. I experienced on my own back how today’s “demokratúra”** works, so some little fool somewhere babbling on about democracy and freedom just shows how messed up his head is.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

It's really not a game

I’m trying to wrap up this series on the issues raised by the French historian Muriel Blaive, so that I can get into other stuff, like Tomio Okamura throwing the word “traitor” at Czech representatives in the EU parliament who voted for refugee quotas, and those representatives then getting death threats. Or the last-gasp campaign of TOP 09 (the electoral sensation of the 2010 campaign), on the reasonable slogan that “The EU needs to be changed. But with us, not without us.”

But I do have some threads to try to tie off.

I introduced the basic argument, then looked at the implications in terms of current politics, before providing an analysis of the dynamics of totalitarianism through the simplifying lens of game theory.

And the big simplification in that last piece was the clean distinction between a “bad” government and a population full of “good” people being oppressed by their bad government.

As I argued in the first of my posts on this, I think Blaive seriously misses the boat in trivializing the communist dictatorship when she quibbles over the word “totalitarian.” But she also asks a real and important question, about the extent to which Czechs were purely victims in World War II, and by implication the extent to which they were purely victims under communism.

To be clear, Czechs were victims of Nazi aggression in World War II, and the communist leaders conveyed to President Beneš in February 1948 that if he didn’t approve the takeover of the government by the communists, there were Soviet forces ready to back the communists, so in a meaningful sense they were victims of an imposed government in the case of communism as well. But Blaive is right that a narrative of pure victimhood is too simple.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Overestimating ourselves

Atul Gawande has a piece in The New Yorker about people who are skeptical of Medicaid but support Medicare.

"I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don't work. They're lazy," he quotes one woman. Medicare is different.
“We all pay in for that,” she pointed out, “and we all benefit.” That made all the difference in the world. From the moment we earn an income, we all contribute to Medicare, and, in return, when we reach sixty-five we can all count on it, regardless of our circumstances. There is genuine reciprocity. You don’t know whether you’ll need more health care than you pay for or less. Her husband thus far has needed much less than he’s paid for. Others need more. But we all get the same deal, and, she felt, that’s what makes it O.K.
She's partly right.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Czech Idol, politics edition

With the wave of ethno-nationalism sweeping many countries, there are a lot of places where you could ask, “Who is this country’s Donald Trump?”

The Czech Republic is fortunate in having many candidates.

There’s the Czech president himself, one of the earliest people on the international scene to support Trump’s candidacy. He seems to share the US president’s deeply held belief that women are to be judged primarily on a man’s impression of her physical attributes, with attractive women being as naked as possible, and unattractive women being kept well covered. And he loves playing to Islamophobia and xenophobia. Like Trump, he sometimes seems more comfortable with Putin than with leaders of other EU countries.

We can’t count out Andrej Babiš, the man who seems likely to emerge from the October elections as prime minister. Like Trump, he only recently moved from business to politics, positioning himself as an outsider who will shake things up and clean up corruption, while quickly getting entangled in corruption of his own. Unfortunately for his candidacy as the local Trump, he seems to actually be successful in business, with no bankruptcies to his name—a nearly disqualifying omission.

The outgoing prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, can stake some small claim: in the face of his party’s declining popularity he made a last-minute play to local anti-Muslim sentiment. But other than that he’s more or less typical of the center-left Social Democratic party he belongs to, so in terms of broad policy positions he’s got none of Trump’s predilection for soaking the poor while comforting the rich. And as for his xenophobia, not only is it Johnny-come-lately, you can kinda tell his heart’s not in it.

I’m starting to think the complete package might be Tomio Okamura.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Two small memorials

On Sunday we went geocaching with two other English-speaking families connected with the Prague Community of Unitarians. Towards the end of our stroll through Divoká Šárka park we passed this crucifix at a crossing of two paths.



The Czech countryside is sprinkled with little roadside shrines. The ones I remember seeing most often on my walks are about the height of an adult, a square masonry column topped by a tiny chapel, a little bigger than a human head. A place for a short prayer or moment of devotion, perhaps as you pass by on your way to or from working in the fields.

Sometimes the shrines are small crucifixes, maybe one-half life-size or smaller. I don’t remember frequently seeing them as large as this one.

Yesterday I noticed this monument on my way from my office to the bus stop coming home.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

It's not a game

I’ve written a couple of times about the controversy surrounding the work of the French historian Muriel Blaive, an advisor to the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) who has recently publicized findings that, she says, call into question whether the communist regime was truly totalitarian.

The core of her argument seems to be that when you look in the files of the secret police, you find far more cooperation with the government than resistance, and I wanted to look at the question of resistance to dictatorship through the lens of game theory.

For simplicity, assume you have a nice, clean division between an evil, totalitarian regime and a populace made up of good people who are the regime’s unwilling subjects.

If on bold soul refuses to comply and speaks out, he or she is easily dealt with. Arrested, killed, tortured, whatever—it is, after all, an evil, totalitarian regime unconstrained by a sense of justice.

On the other hand, if the entire populace rose as one and at 9:00 one morning simply withheld compliance, there’d be nothing the regime could do. You can’t arrest everyone. If the entire public decides, “We’re done with this,” then it’s over.

And presumably it doesn’t even take everyone acting at once. Is it 50%? 25%? There’s some critical value for the portion of the populace that needs to rise as one in order to sweep away a totalitarian regime. Above that, you’re golden. Below that, you’re in jail, or dead.

And that leads to the coordination problem. Standing up is scary, but you’re willing to do it if enough other people are as well. “I will if you will.” But how do I know you will?

Planning for it is difficult, because if the regime catches you talking about resistance, that’s almost as bad as being caught actually resisting.

And even if you could plan, how do you commit?

“I will if you will.”

“I will.”

“Good. I will too.”

“Will you really?”

“Yes. Trust me. Will you really?”

You’re taking an awfully big risk with that trust.

And it’s not just with one other person, or a handful of people, but with thousands, tens of thousands, almost all of them perfect strangers to you.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The point of an argument

In an earlier post I discussed the work of the French historian Muriel Blaive, who splits her time between Prague and Vienna and who is an advisor to the director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, or ÚSTR. Blaive is giving interviews about research she’s done in the archives which revealed more cooperation with the former communist government than resistance to it.

I discussed in that earlier post why that conclusion is potentially problematic in itself. But that raises the question of the larger meaning of her findings. In part, that relates to improving our understanding of how dictatorships work, whether we choose to call them “totalitarian” or merely criminal.

Marek Švehla suggests another factor that could be at play.

He first argues that Blaive’s work is missing the forest for the trees.
The absolute rulers didn’t need to negotiate with any of their subjects, and to the extent they did so, it was in insubstantial spheres of life in the Czechoslovak state, not in the principal matters. For that, we don’t need to pay for who knows how expensive research in a specially established institution.
For example, research into the question of why Czechs so easily came to terms with the normalization regime [the re-imposition of stricter controls on political views after the Warsaw Pact invasion of August, 1968] says a lot about us, but little about the system that ruled this country and punished the thought that things could be different. In short, a dictatorial or totalitarian (whichever you prefer) regime can’t be characterized on the basis of the privileged or satisfied members of society, but rather by those most oppressed. In other words, you can’t put on one side of the scale 10 judicial murders and on the other 10 million satisfied vacation-goers and pretend that the second of those is equally important information for the judgment—and condemnation or, perhaps, commendation—of the regime. (Marek Švehla, “How satisfied were the satisfied vactioners?” Respekt 37, 11 – 17 Sept., 2017, pp. 10-11)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Just how bad was it?

It’s taken for granted in American discourse that communist rule in Eastern Europe was bad.

It was a police state in which people were punished for criticizing the government, or sometimes even for not supporting it visibly enough.

A wide range of books and music were banned because the governments thought they were bad influences.

The “Iron Curtain” had to be made into a full-on militarized border, not to keep the capitalists out, but to keep the citizens of the Soviet-bloc countries in. Some risked their lives to get out, and some of those made it, while others ended up dead or in prison.

And while the state-run economies did manage to industrialize formerly agrarian societies, but they brought stagnation in places like the Czech lands that started the communist period relatively advanced, and they had trouble everywhere with innovation and the efficient use of labor and capital, so that by the 1980s there was an obvious gap between the Soviet bloc and the west in terms of technology and the material standard of living of the median citizen.

So to an American it’s hardly a controversial statement to say that the communist regime here was bad.

But the Czechs—or at least some of them—are having an interesting discussion about just how bad it was, and about the meanings of specific words used to describe it.

In 2007 the Czech government created the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR, Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů), focused on the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945 and the communist period of 1948 to 1989.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Challenges of marketing

The history of this part of the world can make for unintentional irony in marketing pitches.

This morning I was watching an interview on the subject of who should be in the Pantheon of the National Museum when it is finally reopened (hopefully sometime next year) after a long-overdue reconstruction.

Should it include Julius Fučík, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Fu%C4%8D%C3%ADk_(journalist), a journalist, member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and member of the Communist Party? He was placed in the Pantheon after the war (I’m not sure whether his placement was before or after the Communists took full power in 1948), then removed in 1991.

Should it include Emperor Franz Joseph (ruled 1848-1916) and his wife? They’d been placed there sometime during the Habsburg era, then removed in 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart and Czechoslovakia was created.

The interview veered onto the topic of how to handle the remains of the communist era that are sprinkled around everyday things, from decorations on building facades to names of streets.

The interviewer compared the Czech situation to Russia where, in his words, they’ve removed the greatest excesses of “socialist realism” but left a lot of things as they were. “Their attitude is, we lived through that history, we shouldn’t negate it.” But it leads to some absurd situations.
I was on the subway in Petersburg and I saw an ad for a bank: “Come take advantage of our amazing interest rate—20% on your deposits. Learn more at our branches. Investors and capitalists, come talk to us at our branch at 21 Dictatorship of the Proletariat Square.” (Rough transcription/paraphrase of part of the interview)
It reminded me of an ad I saw on the subway here in Prague in 2013. A bank was promoting its retirement account, and the text was clearly aiming at young people with perhaps a 40-year horizon until they’d be drawing on their retirement savings. The tenor of the ad was the same as retirement ads anywhere: Plan now (and save with us) so you can retire in comfort.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Who watches the watchers

As I wrote about in an earlier post about goings-on in Prague, the man who’s most likely to be prime minister after next month’s elections is also facing trial for having used fraudulent bookkeeping to get an EU subsidy to a farm/resort he owned.

Last week, parliament debated whether to strip Andrej Babiš and a colleague of parliamentary immunity so that they could stand trial. They voted pretty decisively to do that, but of course not everyone was happy with the whole situation.

Bohuslav Chalupa, a member of Babiš’s ANO party, said:
What happens once the court, say, proves or doesn’t prove Mr. Babiš’s guilt in this affair? What punishment will there be for those who falsely accused him, right before the elections, motivated by ANO’s high popularity? And I mean politically punished as well. Whether for instance the investigator will be dishonorably discharged from the Police of the Czech Republic?
As Respekt comments, Mr. Chalupa is presenting here his idea of independent policy investigation. (“Fokus agenda”, Respekt, Sep. 11 – 17, p. 22)

He’s also illustrating one of my “favorite” types of arguments, one that only works if you assume that you’re right about something else besides the thing you’re arguing. Only he’s not even doing that right.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

(Don't) spread the wealth

On Friday I went for my first stroll across Charles Bridge since we got here.

Sunday noon scene on Charles Bridge
It's one of the iconic experiences of Prague--a Gothic bridge lined with Baroque statues and marked off with watch towers at each end, fabulous architecture lining both sides of the river, and presiding above it all, Prague Castle and the Cathedral of St. Vitus.

It's a key link in the main tourist path: Wenceslaus Square, past the church of St. Gall to Old Town Square with the astrological clock, winding through the twists and turns of Charles St. from Little Square to Charles Bridge, across the bridge to the Lesser Quarter and its square, then up Neruda St. to the castle.
Looking through the portal of the tower on the Old Town end of the bridge
When I lived in Pilsen 26 years ago, I occasionally made it into Prague for an afternoon/evening, and that route was a staple of mine.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Advice for the apocalypse

http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/rur/synopsis-2/
I’m finally reading Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play which coined the word “robot,” from the old word “robota,” the labor that a serf owed his lord, the courvée).

The robots in the play aren’t exactly what we think of as machines—rather, they’re made out of some alternative sort of pseudo-living stuff.

But they’re conceived very much like machines. Their inventor wanted to recreate a human in every detail, but his nephew made a business out of it by leaving out everything that was considered unnecessary for work: no emotions, no interest in arts or culture, just a strong and skilled set of hands with a memory beyond the imaginings of the human mind.

The prologue gives the history and the “science” of the play, set in some indefinite future, several decades out from 1920 when Čapek was writing it.

Act I is 10 years later, and the robots are rising up. They’d been armed by humans to fight their wars for them, and now they’ve turned on their masters. On the island where the robots are made, the few men who run the factory are aware of the dire events in the wider world, but they’re trying to keep the information from Helena, the wife of Domin, who runs the factory.

She nonetheless senses something is going wrong, and she summons Alquist, the construction chief at R.U.R. He comes to her room somewhat embarrassed for his work clothes and hands covered with lime and brick dust from having been at work.

HELENA: Oh, tell me, is something going on?

ALQUIST: Nothing really. Just progress.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Babiš and the briar patch

I wrote in my initial report from here about the corruption case surrounding Andrej Babiš.

He’s one of the richest people in post-communist Europe and a member of parliament, and he was the minister of finance until her resigned under the pressure of some apparently incriminating evidence about involvement in corruption.

The police now say they have enough evidence to take him to trial, so they’ve asked the parliament to hand him over for trial by suspending his immunity as a member of that body.

It wasn’t clear whether parliament would go along, but in the end they did, by an overwhelming vote: 123 out of 134 present in favor of suspending Babiš’s immunity, with four against (and apparently 7 abstaining).

For Babiš’s colleague Jaroslav Faltýnek was handed over by a vote of 120 out of 133, with five against.

(The quotes and data here are from Lidové noviny.)

In the parliamentary debate, Babiš’s substantive defense seems to be that the money wasn’t misspent, but was all used for the intended purpose of developing The Stork’s Nest, rather than being stashed away somewhere in Panama. “If I wanted to commit subsidy fraud, there’d be nothing easier than setting up an offshore firm somewhere in Cyprus. Nobody would have traced it there.”

Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do things die?

We begin this episode with a light discussion of the proper terms to use when dogs die, but then progress through the more serious topic of the burkini (trust me, as it’s being discussed here, that is a more serious topic), which leads in turn to choice of allies and ultimately, how we know anything.

The Christian Democratic – People’s Party (KDU-ČSL) is a small party with a relatively committed base among religious Catholics (unfortunately for the party, that’s an elderly and shrinking population). After their disastrous results in the 2010 elections, they chose a new head, a young guy, a veterinarian, Václav Bělobrádek.

A fresh face.

The kind of guy who will scold a woman on Facebook for posting about her sadness that her dog died.

This part gets very tricky to explain, because Bělobrádek is obsessing about the choice among many different words for the end of life, and the punch is in the connotations that each one has for a Czech speaker, because the translations more or less overlap, but I’ll do my best to render his post into English with the appropriate flavor for an English speaker.

The woman described her dog’s passing with the verb “umřít,” which slovnik.seznam.cz translates as “die / exit / decease / pass away”. From those options, let’s go with “die,” and see what Bělobrádek—a veterinarian—had to say about the matter.
He didn’t die. Only people die. Animals perish, pass on, snuff it (in the case of animals, this doesn’t have a vulgar connotation), drop dead, extinguish, are killed, are cut down … Giving animals human characteristics and applying human terms to them (die, food, eat, take a poop) is modernist, leftist, and liberal, typical of bourgeois eco-ethno-bio scrawny folks with beads around their necks, earings in their noses, belly buttons, and eyebrows, with loose-hanging skirts and drinking tea from a bowl.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thinning the herd

This morning Kate and I went on errands, trying to wrap up some of the school supplies the boys need.

Waiting on the trolley platform with us was an older woman with a cane. When the train came she made her way to the second set of doors and started up the steep steps into the car.

Kate and I had boarded at the front door and were already on when the driver closed the door - on the woman with the cane. She was mostly in, but it seemed like maybe her leg and her cane were still sticking out.

Three or four people near her on the train immediately came to her help, prying the door open to get her the rest of the way in, freeing up the nearest seat, and helping her to it. There were a couple of scornful glances forward in the direction of the driver, but with a sense of "what the hell can you do about it."

The woman seemed to take it in stride, no outward sign of anger at the driver, and clear appreciation for the help from strangers. At first she even seemed to waive off the offer of a seat, but she did end up taking it.

I don't know that this is common, but I know it's not isolated.

Friday, September 1, 2017

This week in Prague

My family and I are spending my sabbatical in Prague for the 2017-18 academic year, as we did in 2010-11. I’ll be based for the year at Czech University of Life Sciences (in Czech, Česká zemědělská univerzita, or Czech Agricultural University).

Part of what I do when I’m here is sample from the local media to try to build a sense of what’s going on in the society. The picture that develops is, like any, incomplete and shaped not just by what I’m observing but by the biases I bring, as well as my substantial but imperfect background knowledge.

The Czech Republic, or Czechia, to use the term that the country has adopted as the official short form of its name in English, is in some sense an unimportant place: 10 million people speaking a language that few foreigners bother to learn, a country outside the “core” of the European Union, a place unfamiliar enough to Americans that after the Boston Marathon bombing, Fox News put up a map that showed the Czech Republic but labeled it “Chechnya”. (Well, that’s Fox News, so I guess that last point doesn’t prove much.)

And yet, like almost anything in the world, we can learn from it if we pay attention, and the contrasts with the U.S. can help us see our own society in a new light. The U.S. has been largely the master of its own fate for a couple of centuries; the Czech lands have been part of others’ imperia for most of the last five centuries. The U.S. has continued under the same written constitution since 1789; the Czech lands experienced seven different regimes just in the 20th century. In the 20th century U.S. culture outgrew its inferiority complex relative to Europe and became the world’s dominant cultural force, first with jazz, but then with movies, rock, rap, etc.; Czechs have a proud cultural heritage, but it’s more of a specialty taste than a mass phenomenon.

The title of this post is aspirational, expressing a hope that I will follow through on writing regularly about the political and economic scene around me. I will necessarily be writing from my own particular areas of concern, but I aim to catch the interest of an open-minded American reader.

Driving in from the airport, I noticed that the trees in the median of Europe Ave. were numbered: 23, 22, 21, … I asked the cab driver what they were for. “Just identification, maybe for gathering data. Maybe some company wants to sponsor them. Maybe it’s the EU.”

There is a high degree of euroskepticism here, and this off-hand remark by the cabby seemed part of that. Anything that has an aroma of senseless bureaucratic meddling is probably the fault of “Europe.”

This is an unavoidable topic in the run-up to October’s parliamentary elections. One of the larger parties here, ODS (Civil Democratic Party) has toyed with euroskepticism for years. Now they’re playing this interesting game of declaring themselves to be pro-EU while undercutting that by making demands about negotiating a permanent option for the Czech Republic to not join the euro currency that circulates in most of the EU countries. (Marek Švehla, “Useful idiots and Protectorate scribblers”, Respekt, 21-27 August, 2017, p. 11)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Convenient amnesia

In the wake of Charlottesville, and the spectacle of watching the id that resides in the White House condone Nazism, you've probably seen some justifications of leaving up statues, and some attempts to demonstrate that the Democrats are the real racists in this whole issue.

On the first count, there's the notion that if we take down the statues, we're erasing history. (Ignoring the history of the circumstances of how those statues were put up, and pretending that statues are the best way to remember history rather than, say, paying attention during history class.)

As for Dems being the real racists, there are memes like the one that I saw on Facebook because a friend had commented on it (not favorably, mind you). The meme pointed out that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed with overwhelming Republican support and little or no Democratic support, in contrast to Obamacare, which got overwhelming support from Democrats and not a single vote from Republicans.

Let's set aside the poster's view that it's a bad thing to pass a law that saves tens of thousands of lives a year, and avoids perhaps hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies.

Focus instead on the historical illiteracy of pretending that the Republican Party of the 1860s is anything like the Republican Party of 2017.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Manufacturing safe spaces

It's been fascinating (by which I mean "horrifying") watching the reaction to the revelation of Junior's meeting with the Russian lawyer, and his own release of the emails leading up to it.

Since way back during the campaign, Trump and his supporters have been resolute in denying any meaningful connection with the Russian government. Presumably they had a sense that cooperating with Russia in the campaign would be a bad thing (or would at least be viewed as a bad thing), or else why deny it?

Now we uncontested emails plainly documenting a connection, and the response ranges from Sebastian Gorka's blustery shouts of "fake news!" to numerous supporters repeating the same line about a "nothingburger."

But a commenter on Kos noticed an interesting pattern:
Leading up to the election the comments [at The Hill] were overwhelmingly crazy pro-Trump, then since the election most articles get comments that are anti-Trump by a large margin. The shift was so marked I had come to conclude that The Hill had been a big pre-election paid troll target. The comments last night looked like a reversion to the pre-election trend. Which makes me wonder if the paid troll army is being revved back up because the perception of danger to the cause has spiked with the Jr revelations.
And I got to thinking, Just what is the role of a paid troll army, or a set of bots flooding comment sections with chaff?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Predictably, a non-answer response

Apparently it's been just over a month since I last bothered contacting my representative's office.

My question then was quite specific: whether Mr. Faso had a position on James Comey's claim that Trump asked him for personal loyalty, rather than loyalty to the law.

Yesterday I got a "response" (as it says in the subject line of the email, "Response from Rep. Faso"), but not actually an answer - see the letter below.

Or maybe it's a "response" to another series of queries I made to his office about Trump having shared Israeli intelligence with Russia.

But it's not an answer to that, either.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rationality in government.

This post is a response to Jason Antrosio’s comment on my previous post, about the persistent conviction that success in business is an indicator that you’d be good at governing, too. He references Richard E. Hartwig’s book on the politics of transportation infrastructure in Colombia: “The author argues that the whole idea that you can find ‘efficiencies’ or ‘rationality’ in government such as in business is misguided. Because government encompasses everyone in the population (or should), it operates on a very different rationality than that of the consumer.”

You can talk about rationality and efficiency in government, but you have you to be careful what you mean by those terms.

I find it useful to think about two distinct types of efficiency:
  1. Are you pursuing the right goals?
  2. Whatever goals you’re pursuing, are you achieving your end at the least cost?
(And if you’re wondering about what quality you’re getting for your low cost, the level of quality can be included as part of the choice of goals in the first point.)

Idolaters of the market assume that markets achieve both types of efficiency through the wonders of competition.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

An old delusion

You've probably heard remarks to the effect that government should be run more like a business - or, similarly, that we need an accomplished business executive to step in and bring their experience at "getting things done," as opposed to those useless politicians who've never had a real job in their lives and who just care about getting re-elected, rather than doing what's right for the country.

At a facile level, you might hope that the election of Trump would dispel the notion that success in business is any sort of voucher for being effective at actually running government.

(Then again, there's a strong argument to be made that Trump is a successful showman, hardly a successful businessman, so his incompetence in the Oval Office shouldn't have any bearing on the potential efficacy of someone who's actually run a business profitably.)

But beyond the easy knocks on Trump, there are various reasons why the yearning for a successful businessman is misguided.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mix-n-match movie night

Over dinner, the boys and I got talking about Tintin, the series of comic books about the plucky Belgian "boy reporter" of indeterminate age who does a bang-up job fighting ne'er-do-wells.
from http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/subcultures/the-adventures-of-tintin
A mental misfire led me to refer to "when Clinton goes into the ..." instead of "when Tintin goes into the ...".

We immediately started trying to recast the Tintin books using figures from contemporary politics.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Party time!

I read a comment today arguing that we needed to get beyond the mindless "rah-rah us-against-them game" of the nonfunctional two-party system.

I half agree.

The Democratic Party has for decades been more sensitive to the needs of high finance than to the situation of the median American, and it has in that respect been a "kinder, gentler" version of the Republican Party. And there is certainly an element of people who identify with one party or the other lambasting a particular behavior when done by someone from the "other side," then turning around and excusing similar behavior from one of "their own."

Another comment today (don't remember where) observed that Trump has mobilized the progressive base like nothing before. And I remembered reading in 2009 about Rahm Emanuel chewing out and slapping down progressive activists, essentially asking/ordering a "stand down" by people who should have been, in theory, his allies.

The best defense of Emanuel's position (presumably sanctioned by Obama) was that the activists were going to gum up the works and interfere with the actual work of legislating. But at the same time, Obama's election was skillfully used by regressive forces to mobilize the Tea Party. So while Democratic activists' enthusiasm was being frustrated, Republicans' energy was being stoked.

Emanuel's decision was, at best, political malpractice, hurting his own cause by undercutting its support. More likely, the cause of progressive activists was not the same as the cause of Rahm Emanuel, who was more interested in doing things for the party's big donors.

So yes, the Democrats as a party are too beholden to some of the same interests that are served by the GOP.

At the same time, I don't have much patience with the claim that there's no meaningful difference between the parties.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The same old youth

Matt Bai had a piece yesterday about why older Democratic leaders should step aside and make room for young blood with fresh ideas.

The strongest part of the argument was the idea of accountability for failure. Since winning the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, the Democrats have steadily lost ground, not only at the national level but in state and local government as well.

Now we have Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, in position to nominate lots of federal judges (and probably a couple of more Supreme Court justices), and in control of almost enough states to call a national constitutional convention.

That's an "impressive" record, the kind that reasonably leads to the thought that maybe some new folks should be in charge.

Less impressive is his observation that the last Democrat to become president by election while older than 55 was Woodrow Wilson (Truman and Johnson were older when they won their first elections, but they had already become president by death of their predecessor). At the same time, "before George W. Bush, the last nonincumbent Republican under 55 to win the White House was Herbert Hoover."

Bai says this makes sense because "Democrats win when they embody modernization." But Michael Dukakis had turned 55 just 5 days before the election that he lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988, and he campaigned on his success at having run Massachusetts in an efficient, modern way. Al Gore was 52 when he lost (sort of) to George W. Bush in 2000, and he had been specifically in charge of modernizing government under Bill Clinton.

So youth and modernity hardly guarantee Democratic success.

But the biggest problem with Bai's article is contained in this paragraph:
Anyway, it’s not just that all these iconic Democrats are older; it’s that their vision for the party — with the possible exception of Biden, who’s pro-trade and pro-growth — is relentlessly backward-looking. They’re for government-run health care, expanding Social Security benefits (even for the wealthy) and free college for everyone. They’d pay for all of it with tax increases that magically cover the cost.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Factual truths, substantive lies

The Washington Post is trying to scare you away from supporting single-payer health insurance.

First, they claim that "it would raise government spending by $32 trillion over 10 years."

Second, they go for the old "government is inefficient canard:
The public piece of the American health-care system has not proven itself to be particularly cost-efficient. On a per capita basis, U.S. government health programs alone spend more than Canada, Australia, France and Britain each do on their entire health systems. That means the U.S. government spends more per American to cover a slice of the population than other governments spend per citizen to cover all of theirs.
My colleague Jason Antrosio got into the comments section and pointed out two of the three flaws with this pair of "arguments," if that's what they deserve to be called.

On the second point, the Post's statement is factually true, yet misleading enough to be a sort of lie in substance. As Jason observes, the populations covered by Medicare and Medicaid are more expensive than average (old people and people with lower incomes).

Monday, June 12, 2017

More wind-spitting (health insurance take whatever)

Today's call to John Faso's office was to confirm that he still hasn't found the spine to have an opinion about the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the bill Faso voted for, the trillion-dollar tax cut dressed up as a health-insurance bill.

And no, he doesn't have an opinion that he's willing to share.

It seems like there are three reasonable choices:
  1. Accept the CBO’s findings
  2. Put forward your own findings, with an equal level of transparency as to how you made your estimates
  3. Admit you really don’t care what effects the law will actually have.
If Faso’s not willing to say what effect he thinks the law will have on people’s ability to get health insurance, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that that’s absolutely unimportant to him.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Maybe a position on being a nation of laws?

Another week, another call to John Faso's office in D.C. (202 225-5614).

I asked if Mr. Faso had a position on yesterday's testimony by former FBI director Comey.

Not yet.

I asked if he had a position on Comey's allegation that Trump asked for loyalty to him personally.

Not yet.

I suggested that a request like that showed a complete lack of understanding of the concept that we are a nation of laws; people's loyalty should be to the law, not to a particular person.

I mentioned Paul Ryan's defense that Trump didn't know what he was doing because he's new at this, and pointed out that this defense is ludicrous, given that Trump allegedly cleared the room before asking for loyalty.

I suggested that if Mr. Faso doesn't see a problem with asking loyalty to a person rather than to the law, then he is fundamentally unqualified to be an elected representative in a democracy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

You're wrong, but I won't say what's right

I called Faso's office this morning to see if the congressman had a reaction to the CBO score of the AHCA.

The staffer thought there was something about it on the website, but he couldn't guide me to it. I clarified that I was calling about the CBO score that came out just yesterday.

"Oh. ... No, I don't have anything about that. Is there something you'd like to convey?"

"Yes. One of the reasons Mr. Faso gave for voting for the AHCA was that under Obamacare there are still 20 million people without coverage. But the CBO says that the AHCA will lead to 23 million fewer people having insurance than under Obamacare. If he's concerned about not enough people having coverage, why would he vote for that?"

"I'll pass along your concern. Is there anything else?"
"Yeah. When the CBO scored the first bill, the one that didn't get voted on, Mr. Faso said he didn't agree with the CBO's analysis. But does he have his own estimate of how many will lose coverage?"

"I don't know."

Doesn't trust his own president

Last week I was in touch with John Faso's office (NY-19) a few times, asking about Trump's sharing of highly secret intelligence with his Russian visitors to the oval office.

According to his staff, the congressman was resolute in not having an opinion.

I ended the last of those calls by telling the intern that if Mr. Faso is really interested in finding out what happened, he can vote for the discharge petition calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump's ties to Russia.

So a couple days ago I got an emailed letter from his office - about the Comey firing.

The full text is below. The "fun" takeaway is that in discussing the firing, Faso is still stuck on the White House talking points from May 10th. There seems to be no recognition that Trump himself invalidated that in his interview with Lester Holt.

It's understandable that Faso doesn't trust Trump's own account of his own actions. After all, the man has given little reason to believe that any particular thing he says is true.

It's also convenient for Faso not to believe Trump.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Summing up our current reality

The budget proposal released by the White House has a lot of problems, including double-counting $2 trillion that don't actually exist.

The $2 trillion is the increased revenues that they claim will come from all the super-duper economic growth unleashed by their tax cuts. This is fundamentally non-credible.

Tax cuts sometimes lead to increases in economic growth, particularly if you're starting from a very high tax level (we aren't). Or if you're seriously underperforming what it seems like you should be able to do (we're not - we're on a long-run trend of slowing growth, and past tax cuts have done nothing to stem that trend).

So that's why the $2 trillion doesn't exist.

The first place the White House proposes to use the non-existent money to finance the tax cut they claim will produce it.

But then it also wants to use the same money to pay for balancing the budget.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Can't figure out if betrayal of national security is wrong

Another day, another phone call with my Congressman's office.

"Yesterday morning I called about the president’s decision to take highly sensitive info derived from a foreign partner and share it with a hostile power. At the time, Mr. Faso didn’t have an opinion as to whether this was a good thing. Does he have one now?"

Pause, pause. "No."

"He's got no opinion on it?"

"I'm just an intern. I'm not aware of any statement of his on that. I would urge you to follow his web page. He released a statement on Director Comey's firing."

"Yes, I saw that. That's a week old. This is new. He really doesn't have an opinion on the betrayal of national security?"

"Not at this time."

Trump as a sociological construct

A commenter on Washington Monthly had an observation that struck home with me:
In short, it is my opinion that trying to understand the psychology of the Trump decision process is very incomplete. His decisions are made more by the sociology of his minions than by his own abilities, and they operate in order to cater to Trump's efforts to defend his weak ego.
For a while, I've been playing with the idea of society as a superorganism, where individual humans are the cells and social structures are what hold the whole thing together and coordinate the parts.

This commenter brings in a related idea, where the individual almost doesn't exist but is instead some sort of locus of the interactions of the people in the environment.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Does he know now?

I just sent this to Congressman Faso's office.

I called this morning to see if the Congressman thought it was a bad thing that the president shared with the Russians some intelligence derived from a foreign source that asked it not be shared.

The office said it was early in the morning and the congressman as yet had no opinion.

Now it looks as though it was specifically the Israeli intelligence service that provided the information in question.

And it turns out that in January the Israelis were warned by US intelligence not to share info with the White House or the NSC "until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted – Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians."

Has Mr. Faso had a chance yet to figure out whether Mr. Trump's action was OK?

I wouldn't think it was such a hard question.

If you're in NY-19 and feel moved to call, his DC number is (202) 225-5614. Or you can email through his website, faso.house.gov.

Faso not sure if blabbing secrets is OK

I just got off the phone with Faso's DC office.

The Congressman does not yet have a position on whether it's OK that Trump shared with the Russians some intelligence derived from an unnamed ally.

I asked if there was any line, anything Trump would do that would not be OK. Or could he actually, as he said in the campaign, shoot someone on 5th Avenue and that would be OK?

"The Congressman doesn't support everything the president does."

"Such as?"

"He didn't support the Muslim ban."

"Well, that's good." (And note, that she called it a Muslim ban, as it is, contradicting the administration's late-in-the-day contention that it's a "travel ban," not actually aimed at Muslims.)

She mentioned some other resolution with which I was unfamiliar.

I returned to the specific issue about the sharing of intelligence with a hostile country, and whether Faso was OK with that.

"It's early in the morning."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Down the Delaware

Delaware County, NY, immediately to my south, is Trump country. Clinton got 34% of the county's votes, to 61% for Trump. And Republican John Faso, who is also my House Member up here in Otsego County, won the open seat in NY-19 with 63% to 37% for Zephyr Teachout, the Democratic candidate.

The county is a bit on the poor side with lower per-capita income, median household income, and median family income than the U.S.
The poverty rate is slightly higher than the national average, at 15.3% to the national 14.7%.

The county is pretty white, at 92.6% of the population (same source as above).

It's also very rural, with 20% more land than Rhode Island but only 1/20th the people.

An important fact of life in Delaware is that most of the county is in the watershed of the upper Delaware River, which means it's part of the watershed for New York City's drinking water.

In the 1990's, the city faced a choice: meet new EPA standards for drinking water quality, or install a filtration system. The filtration would have been hugely expensive, and the city thought it could meet the EPA's standard more economically by reaching a deal with the counties upstate in the watershed.

The result was the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding. The basic idea is that the counties in the watershed would restrict land-disturbing economic activities, and the city would spend money promoting economic development that didn't impair the watershed's ability to provide clean water.

I won't get into whether the money the city spends is enough to make up for the economic restrictions, but as you can well imagine, there is a widespread perception in the watershed that they are little more than a resource colony of the pushy city that always gets its way.

All of which is to say, if you were looking for a place where somewhat poor rural whites are likely to feel taken advantage of by coastal elites, the statistical description of Delaware County suggests it would be a good place to look, and Trump's vote share there is consistent with one of the narratives about the Trump voter.

And that's why it's worth noting the resolution passed last night by the elected government of Delaware Country. The highlighting is mine. I just wanted to call your attention to the kind of statements being approved by the County Supervisors in an area that went strongly for Trump and for a Member of Congress who voted for Trumpcare.

The board is made up of 5 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 13 Republicans. And apparently they unanimously voted for this:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Trying to get his side of the story

On Saturday Joy Reid reached out to the offices of all 217 members of Congress who voted "yes" on the AHCA to see if they wanted to come on her show and discuss their vote. Not one agreed.

I thought I'd check it out with my representative, John Faso, in NY-19, who was a "yes" vote, so "NI called his office this morning.

"Good morning. Joy Reid from MSNBC says her producers reached out to each of the 217 Representatives who voted in favor of the AHCA. Quote: I offered each of them the lead spot on this show this morning, to the one-on-one with me, to explain why they voted for the bill. And not a single one agreed. End quote.

That sounds like Mr. Faso's office was contacted and decided not to accept the invitation."

I'm not sure. I don't handle media.

"Who should I contact about that?"

Are you with a media outlet?

"No, I'm a constituent who wants to understand what the Congressman's position is."

He then gave me the contact info for the office's media person, but added that "all explanations for the Congressman's votes are on the website."

"Yes, but when I spoke to the office on Friday I had the impression that they felt their position was misunderstood. I would have thought we would have taken this opportunity to reach a broader audience."

We signed off with standard pleasantries and I wrote the media director:

Friday, May 5, 2017

Consequences

My Congressman, John Faso, voted in favor of Trumpcare.

He issued a statement on Facebook that changes to the bill had addressed his concerns.

It's useful to know that his concerns don't include:
  • Millions of people losing the effective health insurance they've been getting from Medicaid.
  • Women being charged more for the privilege of being able to get pregnant and give birth.
  • Crippling the ability of schools to provide adequately for students in special education.
  • Weakening the financial viability of rural hospitals (like the one where my family gets our health care), because many of the patients they treat will no longer have a way of paying for their care.
Obviously the list could be considerably extended. Different things may come to mind first for you, but you get the point.

It makes you wonder what Faso was concerned about.

(I'm kidding. It's pretty obvious he was concerned about providing a hefty tax cut for upper-income households.)

Ben Wikler of MoveOn is suggesting people keep pressuring their GOP members of Congress even though the vote is past.

I'll be calling later this morning.

Previous episodes of the "Contact your Congressman" show:
Show your work
Asking the impossible
A simpler question
Faso by phone
Open letter on health insurance, round 3
Recess grading period
Open letter to Representative Faso on health insurance

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Show your work

Dear Congressman Faso,

I heard on the radio on Monday that you are OK with voting on some version of Trumpcare before it gets a score from the Congressional Budget Office, because you don’t believe the conclusions that office reached on the original version of the American Health Care Act.

Earlier that day I’d called your office to ask whether you would vote on the matter without a CBO score, and your staffer wasn’t aware of your position, so it was good to get that question answered eventually.

On the same phone call, I asked about your position on the current version of the bill, and the staffer said you hadn’t decided yet, because you were evaluating the bill in its entirety.

That’s commendable, but it makes an odd pairing with your stance on the CBO process.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Asking the impossible

Dear Conressman Faso,

On Sunday the president tweeted,
You can't compare anything to ObamaCare because ObamaCare is dead. Dems want billions to go to Insurance Companies to bail out donors....New healthcare plan is on its way. Will have much lower premiums & deductibles while at the same time taking care of pre-existing conditions!
Do you understand the purpose of those Cost-Sharing Reductions? They're not a bailout of insurance companies; they're payments to compensate them for taking on riskier-than-average clients without charging them more. In other words, they're a key component of how Obamacare achieves coverage of pre-existing conditions.

Do you understand that the Affordable Care Act is not dead so long as those CSR's are continued, as insurers have expressed their willingness to continue offering plans, contingent on being confident that the CSR's will remain in place? This is an entirely reasonable position - to expect insurers to act otherwise is to wish that they weren't profit-seeking companies.

(Of course, the other way for the ACA to die is for Congress to pass a law repealing it, but so far your caucus can't agree on a way to do that.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

A simpler question

Dear Mr. Faso,

I've been contacting your office pretty regularly about health insurance - one might say "pestering." Most recently, I called on Thursday and spoke to a pleasant staffer who said you didn't yet have a position on the AHCA as modified by the MacArthur amendment, and that you needed to study the bill in its entirety.

I thought I'd try again with a simpler question.

The president yesterday said that the GOP health-insurance bill: ""Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I mandate it. I said, 'Has to be,'" (see here).

If we look at what was in the AHCA + MacArthur amendment, we see that states can actually get an all-but-guaranteed waiver from the pre-existing conditions requirement, as long as they have a high-risk pool (their own, or via participation in a federal one).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Faso by phone

I just got off the phone with Faso's office.

He still doesn't have a position (or at least, not a position he's willing to inform his constituents about).

"There's talk of a vote tomorrow. Will he have a position by then?"

"Talk's talk. If you have information from the House leadership, please share it."

"Well, no, I'm not talking to Paul Ryan. But tell me this: will he vote on the bill if it comes up before the CBO has had a chance to score it?"

"We don't have an answer for that. He's examining the bill in its entirety."

"But this is a different question. It seem like it would be a bad idea to vote on something like this without having an outside analysis of it."

Still no answer as to whether he would vote on a bill that the CBO hadn't had a chance to score.

In the end, we parted less amicably than on other calls.

Sarcastically asking private citizens if they've got secret info from House leadership is not wonderful constituent relations.

(This is not my first go-round with Faso's office: see here, here, and here.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Open letter on health insurance, round 3

April 21, 2017

Dear Congressman Faso,

“The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really, really good, and a lot of people are liking it a lot.”

Those are the words of Donald Trump, and I'm wondering if you can help me interpret them.

Is he talking about the MacArthur Amendment to the AHCA?
Insurance Market Provisions 
The MacArthur Amendment would:
• Reinstate Essential Health Benefits as the federal standard
• Maintain the following provisions of the AHCA:
o Prohibition on denying coverage due to preexisting medical conditions
o Prohibition on discrimination based on gender
o Guaranteed issue of coverage to all applicants
o Guaranteed renewability of coverage
o Coverage of dependents on parents’ plan up to age 26
o Community Rating Rules, except for limited waivers
 It says, "Maintain the following provisions of the AHCA, but the things that follow are all part of the Affordable Care Act, aka, Obamacare. Is this a typo on Politico's part, or is Rep. MacArthur trying to imply that the original AHCA actually had all these things that, it turned out, people really liked about the ACA?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter caption contest

So this happened at the White House today:


And my first thought was,

Mr. Bunny! Blink twice if you need us to send the SWAT team!
 
What's your caption?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The long history of denial

I'm rereading Barbara Tuchman's The guns of August, one of the books that drew me into near-compulsive reading of history as a teenager. And a passage leapt out at me as all too relevant to the psychology of how we respond to the issue of climate change.

The book is an account of the first month of World War I, with Germany racing through Belgium and across northern France faster than the French could have imagined, yet not fast enough to accomplish the knockout blow the Germans needed if  they were going to be able to move a large part of their army east to face the Russians.

By early September the German advance had been halted, but the French were too weakened to push them back out of the country, and so they settled down to the years of stalemated  trench warfare.

Tuchman sets the stage by describing the military planning of the major combatants during the early years of the 20th century, including most famously the Schlieffen Plan of the German general staff.

Germany was correct in expecting the French to attack due east into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, that they had lost after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany would put just enough troops at that part of the front to slow down the French advance and keep it from advancing far into Germany, but the great bulk of the army would be further north and would come pouring through (neutral) Belgium into northern France, then turning south to seize Paris from the north and west. Having taken the capital, the German forces could continue eastward (in the direction of Germany), trapping the bulk of the French army between the defensive troops on the German frontier and the massive invasion force.

The vision - as in other countries - was of a quick war: conquer France in six weeks, deal with the Russians in some short period after that, and be done. But there was an inkling that things wouldn't be that tidy.

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Tsar Nicky" Syndrome

Somewhere way back in my days of reading Russian history, I came across a memorable characterization of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (I guess it's redundant to say it was memorable, because it must have been close to 30 years ago, and here I am, remembering it. Anyway ...)

He was, by this account, an admirable family man: a doting husband, a loving father.

Not necessarily bright - well, almost certainly not very bright - and poorly trained up for the task of ruling a massive empire where the governing ideology was that all authority and legitimacy was to flow down from him.

But a nice man.

True, he was in charge of an empire that supported the frivolity of a few on the backs of tens of millions, a government that sent people to Siberia for choosing the wrong words in their expression of concern for those tens of millions. And to save that government in the face of the 1905 revolution, he granted a constitution and a legislature then spent the next two years undercutting the efficacy of that legislature in order to continue ruling as the autocrat that he felt it was his responsibility to be. He thus closed off a promising avenue of peaceful evolution, contributing to the cataclysm that 12 years later would destroy him and his lovely family - and his country.

Still, in person he was apparently a nice man.

But the part of the characterization that really stuck was about his beliefs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Snark of the week award

A Canadian commenter on Daily Kos opines:
America showed up late for two world wars and seem to have decided no one gets to start one without you ever again.
 Golf clap.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Recess grading period

Dear Congressman Faso,

Thank you for your reply to my rather long letter of March 29th.

I note, however, that it is almost identical to the letter I was responding to, the one your office sent to another constituent of yours.

In other words, it’s your standard letter on health insurance, completely unresponsive to the points I made.

You acted according to the practices of your profession, which means that a letter only gets an individualized response if the letter writer is in a position to make a donation of five figures or more.

I understand that your office must receive a large volume of mail, making it impossible to answer each letter individually. Nonetheless, as a constituent I find this frustrating, and so I am responding to your response according to the practices of my profession. I have graded your letter and am sending you the mark-up as an enclosure [see below].

In light of the fact that your letter is an essentially unrevised resubmission, I have not gone into as much detail on this version as on the original.

Perhaps in the future when a constituent writes with concerns about health insurance, the “standard letter” that your office sends back will reflect the realities of how markets and health insurance interact.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Karl Seeley
Associate Professor and Department Chair
Department of Economics
Hartwick College

(next health insurance letter here)
Click to enlarge

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dystopian sci-fi as bad conscience

Some time when I was home on break from college, my parents and I watched a documentary about Stalin. What I recall most about it, more vividly than the few stray facts that have clung on for those roughly 30 years, was my shock at being shocked.

I was a history major in college, with a focus on eastern Europe. I knew the outlines of Stalinism and many of the salient horrible facts, like the relocations of entire ethnic groups, or the famine in Ukraine created by policy. So I went in already knowing that Stalinism was really bad.

And yet the documentary was able to shock me with the explanation that Stalin was really bad. It's as if my mind can't really hold onto horror, and so something about a horrific situation makes a fresh impression every time I encounter it, even if the facts are familiar. I don't know whether that's a general human trait or if it has something to do with my fortunate reality of never having been directly exposed to that awful side of humanity. Whichever, for decades now I've been aware of this tendency in myself.

And I have the same relationship to slavery.

It's not like the situation of Richard Cohen, who by his own description seems to have learned early in life that slavery was "a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks."

While it's tricky to be too sure of what one learned while still in single digits, I'm pretty sure my first impression of slavery was as a deeply unfair wrong in which pretty bad things happened to black people, for the benefit of white people. And as I got older, more graphic details got filled in.

And yet I still have the capacity to be shocked when I revisit the issue in detail, as I'm doing now, reading  The half has never been told, by Edward E. Baptist. I'm perfectly capable of going into the book knowing that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism, and nonetheless find myself reeling from the evidence that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism.

Baptist's thesis has two core parts.

First, he contests the notions that slavery was a static, backwards relic of feudal times, and that it was inherently less economically efficient than free labor and was therefore fated to wither away.

Baptist documents how slavery changed in the early 1800s as it expanded from the Old South to what was then the Southwest of the United States, in the lower watershed of the Mississippi. It started as a cruel, unjust, and inhumane institution, but in developing the cotton fields of the Southwest it shed what traces of humanity it had left and became worse.

And it turns out it was economically efficient (more on that below).

Saturday, April 1, 2017

More palatable delusions

At Real Clear Health, James C. Capretta has an article suggesting that the GOP should regroup and work with the Democrats on health-care reform.

He's pretty good in his analysis of why the proposed American Health Care Act failed ("repeal and delay" was a non-starter, and then they had to do too many contortions to fit a "repeal and sort-of replace" into the confines of a bill that could fit the requirements of "reconciliation").

And he starts off making sense on the way forward:
To produce such a plan [that might actually pass and can work], Republicans need to adjust their thinking. To begin with, the party should accept as a premise that everyone in the United States should be enrolled in health insurance that pays for major medical expenses. A plan that results in an increase of 15, 20, or 25 million uninsured Americans is not acceptable and would result in a political backlash.
But then the first sign of trouble:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Open letter to Representative Faso on health insurance

March 30, 2017

Dear Representative Faso,

A fellow constituent shared with me your letter to him on the subject of health insurance. It points to some serious misunderstandings on your part. I’ll get to the specifics of your letter, but I wanted to start with the general concept of “actuarial fairness.”

On the one hand, I don’t want to explain a concept you already know, and as someone who has dealt with public policy you may well be familiar with this one.

On the other hand, your earlier work as a lobbyist and a member of the state assembly may not have required you to learn about this particular term. And your support of the AHCA suggests you haven’t really thought through the implications of applying actuarial fairness in health insurance, so I’ll proceed with and explanation of that and then get to the particulars of your letter.

Actuarial fairness is the idea that people should be charged insurance premiums that are proportional to the costs they will probably impose on the system. If you’re selling 20-year life insurance, you have to charge more for an unhealthy 45-year-old than for a healthy 30-year-old. And you should charge slightly more for a healthy 45-year-old man than for an equally healthy 45-year-old woman. If you’re selling car insurance, you have to charge a higher premium for a 20-year-old man (some young men are excellent drivers, but the average person in that group is more reckless than others). And you have to charge more for people who have moving violations (their documented behavior shows them as individuals to be more reckless than the average driver).

In both of these forms of insurance, actuarial fairness isn’t a problem. We don’t require people to have life insurance, and it’s hard to see that there’s a social problem with people not having it, so we leave that to the market. We do require people to have car insurance if they’re going to drive, and driving is close to a necessity for many people. But it’s easy to separate out the part of someone’s high premium that’s due to who they are (charging more for a 20-year-old male) vs. the part that’s due to how they behave as an individual (a person with multiple moving violations). And that piece about “how you behave as an individual” is a large piece of the premium and useful to have in there as a deterrent to bad behavior, so we’re fine with actuarial fairness in car insurance as well.

In health insurance, however, it has very bad effects.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Which property matters

I finally picked up The half has never been told, by Edward E. Baptist, which I'd been meaning to read since it came out in 2014. The subtitle is, "Slavery and the making of American capitalism," and it's a strongly argued case that slavery was integral to the growth of the country's territory and economy.

That position is probably not a surprise to everyone, but as Baptist points out, there are ways in which we're still stuck in "the half that has ever been told" (p. xx, emphasis added), about how "American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor." (p. xx)

I'm only barely into chapter 2, but the book is repeatedly thought provoking, including the economic and legal history around "the Yazoo."