Fish Rot From The Head

Americans who follow politics know that even critics of party A and Congressman B  are likely to defend their own Congressperson. (Sort of like the critics of public education who defend their own school–it’s always those others that are failing. Back in the day in Indianapolis, Republicans who detested Democrats nevertheless repeatedly voted for Andy Jacobs, Jr.)

In this blog, I tend to focus on national politics. That focus may implicitly suggest that the faults and foibles of the people we send to Washington or empower to govern the state are somehow different- from–and worse than–those of the political folks closer to home.

As the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Here in Indiana, I was recently made aware of a court case in Adams County, in which the Court invalidated an election for Union Township Trustee. The court found that Alice Weil, the Republican who won that election, was ineligible for public office due to the fact that she had previously been adjudicated a habitual offender. The court found that the Democratic candidate had  garnered the most votes awarded to eligible candidates; that person now holds the position.

The case generated little or no media coverage, and I think that’s very unfortunate, because it is yet another illustration of the way corruption at the top inevitably permeates an organization. Fish rot from the head, but the rot travels quickly to the rest of the body, and the wholesale deterioration of the GOP is a current, prime example.

It isn’t as if this candidate had fooled local party elders, ala George Santos.The Third District GOP Chair knew his candidate was ineligible–he was heard telling someone he’d have to “swap her out” if it was discovered.

Had the Third District Democrats not chosen to sue, Union Township would now have a convicted criminal as its Township Trustee. But the lawsuit cost the district Democrats six thousand dollars, which it is scrambling to cover. (The court declined to award costs–if there’s a generous reader out there, throw them some dollars!)

Third District residents (not just Democrats) have really suffered enough–their Congresscritter is Jim Banks, who now wants to be one of Indiana’s Senators.

In Washington, Banks was one of the founders of the (grotesquely misnamed) Freedom Caucus–the legislative caucus that includes such sterling defenders of the rule of law as Matt Gaetz, and deep thinkers like Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert. Banks recently told  a radio host that he wants to find a way to stop “young ladies” from hopping in a car” to get abortion care outside Indiana.

Hoosiers outside the Third District who may be unacquainted with Banks’ interesting approach to “freedom” were recently introduced to his Senate campaign through its attack on prior Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is rumored to be considering a run for that same Senate spot. The attack paints Daniels as “too liberal” for Hoosiers.

Please retrieve your jaw from the floor. Granted, Mitch Daniels was not one of the committed culture warriors so beloved by today’s GOP, but calling him liberal is…well, let’s just say it’s quite a stretch.

Banks is a “conservative” in the mold of Ron DeSantis. Think racist, homophobic and “anti-woke,” anti-immigrant, anti-choice, pro-privatization of education…on and on. (I put conservative in quotes, because calling  the radical, theocratic wing of today’s GOP “conservative” is deeply unfair to genuine conservatives.)

Interestingly, people in the Third District tell me that Banks used to be a “traditional Republican”–that once he was in Congress, he “lost his mind” and became steadily more radical and unreasonable. Assuming the accuracy of that description, it mirrors reports of other Republicans who have succumbed to the temptations of power and self-aggrandizement during the past several years.

When the people at the helm of a political party embrace lies Big and little, when the man to whom they pledge their loyalty is a grifter and a con artist, when the party abandons even the pretense of policy positions in favor of “hate your neighbor” culture war/identity politics–is it any wonder that the obedient “troops” follow suit?

Then there’s the saddest lesson of all: When there is no longer local media capable of rooting out local corruption, it doesn’t take long for the rot to travel downward.



What Is WRONG With These People??

I know, I know. I’ve been uttering that same, unanswerable question for a number of years now. And actually, the question isn’t “unanswerable” –it just requires a long list of answers, because there’s a lot wrong with them.

So what has set me off this time? Lots of things, actually, beginning with Iowa legislators’ effort to punish people for being poor. (Calling John Calvin…)

Republicans in the Iowa House introduced legislation this month that would impose a slew of fresh restrictions on the kinds of food people can purchase using SNAP benefits,

If the bill passes, needy Iowans will no longer be able to use their SNAP benefits to purchase a long list of items:meat, nuts, and seeds; flour, butter, cooking oil, soup, canned fruits, and vegetables; frozen prepared foods, snack foods, herbs, spices– even salt and pepper.

The bill will end up affecting fewer people, though–the legislature also wants to set new asset limits; those limits would make it much harder for families to even qualify for SNAP. (While SNAP is a federal program, the states administer it.).

Apparently, only two Iowa organizations support this mean-spirited bill: a rightwing group called Iowans for Tax Relief, and the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project. That group is part of a national organization of “conservative think tanks and bill mills bankrolled by rich donors who think if you just make poor people hungry and sick enough, they’ll utilize their bootstraps.”

Note for social Darwinists: it you’re going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it helps to have boots.

The fact that the referenced opportunity-to-starve project is based in Florida brings me to another jaw-dropping bit of news: DeSantis’ most recent constitutional travesty.

Florida’s Republican governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis has made a name for himself by harassing Black voters, setting up a system to sue teachers for teaching race in ways that might offend Whites, singling out LGBTQ youth (while gagging teachers) and engaging in extreme gerrymandering to reduce the voting power of minorities.
Now he’s gone full-blown white supremacist, banning the College Board’s Advanced Placement for African American studies course from Florida’s schools.

The White House Press Secretary called the move “incomprehensible,” but I find it entirely comprehensible–DeSantis is continuing to pander to the racist base of the Republican Party in his methodical quest for the GOP’s Presidential nomination. I know what’s wrong with Ron DeSantis; what I want to know is: what’s wrong with the Republican base whose votes he is chasing?  (Okay, okay–I know what’s wrong with them, too.)

I’ve already reported on several of the Indiana legistature’s insanities, but Hoosiers do have company in the feverish race to become Mississippi. Eleven Red states have introduced bills to forbid transgender teens from accessing health care;  and several (including Indiana) are toying with measures to eliminate income taxes (funding teacher salaries and state services, paving streets and fixing bridges–those things are all socialism!) 

In North Dakota, Republicans have introduced a bill that would jail librarians for keeping books on their shelves that include images” depicting gender identity or sexual orientation,” and another bill would bar organizations in the state from using trans people’s pronouns.

A Wisconsin lawmaker wants to label single parenting “child abuse,” and Oklahoma  Sen. Ralph Shortey wants to ban “food or any product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses.”  (The article says there’s no word yet on whether he’s going to follow up with a ban on Soylent Green…)

Oklahoma also brought what has been called the “every sperm is sacred” bill, for the old Monty Python sketch, which, in the spirit of granting personhood at the moment of conception, would deem any waste of sperm (as in, for example, masturbation) “an action against an unborn child.” This month a local Delaware council approved a similar resolution. 

There is much, much more state-level insanity–and  I won’t even begin to list what Kevin McCarthy’s Keystone Kop majority has been up to (or perhaps “down to” is more appropriate) during the past week. Or what new revelations have emerged about George Santos–or whatever his real name is.

The available examples range from despicable to ludicrous–and most have absolutely nothing to do with actual governing. The one characteristic they all share is an autocratic belief that elected officials have the right to use their positions to impose their own beliefs on other Americans, including those who disagree–no matter how divorced from the desires of their constituents (or, for that matter, from reality) those beliefs may be.

It makes me wish that Marjorie Taylor Green had been right. If I had that space laser, I know just where I’d use it… 


Health Care One More Time

Republicans love to accuse government of waste and fraud while pointedly ignoring waste and fraud in the private sector. (I always think of that biblical phrase about ignoring the beam in one’s own eye...if you want to talk about fraud, Senator Scott….).

That disconnect is particularly obvious when it comes to America’s incredibly wasteful insistence on private sector health care. Several years ago, I was on a university research team looking at certain aspects of Indiana’s health care environment. I no longer recall the outlines of our investigation, but I do still remember my shock at learning that–at that time–seventy percent of all American health care costs were being paid by some level of government.

It wasn’t just Medicare and Medicaid, or the CDC, or the numerous federal programs aimed at specific diseases. State and city governments support local hospitals for the indigent, and other local programs; more significantly, the millions of people in the U.S. who work for a government entity–universities, police and firefighters, schoolteachers, etc. etc.–have health insurance paid for by tax dollars.

What really blew my mind was the realization that the money government was already spending would be enough to cover almost all of the costs of a national health care system if we simply reduced the enormous amounts spent–wasted– on duplicative paperwork and insurance company marketing and overhead.

What made me think about that long-ago epiphany was an article from The Fulcrum sharing “shocking statistics” about American healthcare.

The first was the number of people on Medicaid. (Not Medicare–Medicaid.) Most of us think of publicly funded healthcare as something offered by Canada and countries in Europe, not the adamantly “private” U.S.

The shocking truth is that most of the U.S. population will soon be on some form of government-sponsored health insurance. Right now, 158 million Americans (nearly half of the nation’s 330 million population) are covered by a combination of Medicare, Medicaid and subsidized enrollment in the state and federal exchanges. Experts predict that percentage will climb.

Within that population is an even-more shocking statistic: According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), enrollment in Medicaid surpassed 90 million in 2022.

This program, traditionally linked to a small population of Americans in poverty, will serve more than 100 million people in fiscal year 2023 (or 1 in 3 insured Americans). Since 2020, Medicaid enrollment has jumped 30% thanks to expansion programs in several more states under the Affordable Care Act and Covid-19 public health emergency funding.

The article highlighted several problematic consequences of that staggering figure, especially the difficulty experienced by enrollees in finding primary care doctors.

The second statistic concerned individuals who aren’t on either Medicare or Medicaid.

Since 2000, medical costs have risen each year by 4.85%, significantly outpacing the 2.85% annual increase in GDP.

With healthcare premiums rising at a faster rate than revenue, businesses have made up the difference by transferring the financial burden to employees in the form of high-deductible health plans.

In 2022, despite below average healthcare inflation, U.S. employees paid a shocking 10.4% more in out-of-pocket healthcare expenses than the year before.

Already, medical costs are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcies in the United States. If a recession ensues as many economists predict, millions more workers and families will suffer economic hardships.

Number three? Forty-eight percent of those eligible for Medicare choose Medicare Advantage.

“Traditional” Medicare, enacted by Congress in 1965, continues to use a fee-for-service reimbursement model—one that pays doctors and hospitals based on the quantity (rather than quality) of medical services they provide.

In 1997, Congress created an alternative program called Medicare Advantage (MA). Unlike traditional Medicare, this option is “capitated.” That means the federal government pays healthcare providers an annual, up-front fee based on the age and health status of the enrollees.

Supporters of MA say that capitation incentivizes doctors to keep patients healthy without over-treating and over-testing them.

However, there are some downsides. Although seniors enrolled in MA enjoy more predictable annual costs and added benefits such as eyeglass coverage, they have fewer choices when selecting doctors and hospitals.

I found that last observation interesting, since most people who oppose national healthcare insist that Americans value choice more highly than cost. Apparently, we don’t.

The article concludes by reminding readers that healthcare inflation has exceeded GDP growth for half a century. The U.S. spends more than twice as much as the next most expensive nation for health care, and the last time I looked, American healthcare was ranked 37th. Meanwhile, employers and families are increasingly finding the costs out of reach.

These statistics just confirm that ideology can kill. (If you doubt that, look at the disproportionate number of Republicans who died of COVID because they refused to be vaccinated.)

Clinging to the belief that we aren’t already “socialized”–and very inefficiently– costs all of us a lot of money.



Homophobes’ New Focus

A  2022 Grinnell College Poll found that 74% of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be a guaranteed right .Only 13% disagreed (the remaining13% were uncertain.) Also last year, Gallup announced that approval of same-sex marriage had hit a new high.

Faced with numbers like that, what are Republican homophobes to do?

Not that they aren’t trying. Daily Kos recently reported that

Conservatives are working hard to ostracize and delegitimize marginalized folks and are attacking the LGBTQ+ community wherever they can, ranging from sports bans to health care barriers to criminalizing drag shows. 

Given current American attitudes toward more “run-of-the-mill” gay folks, trans children have been taking the brunt of the  GOP’s attacks. 

As the ACLU has recently reminded us, even before this year’s start of state legislative sessions, the organization had pinpointed  over 25 pre-filed bills that “would strip away young transgender people’s ability to access necessary and life-saving health care.” Over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced so far, and the majority target trans rights.

As the ACLU noted, the same politicians that don’t want women to control their own bodies also oppose allowing trans people to make decisions around their own gender identity and medical care.

I realize that Americans have had less time to become accustomed to–or even familiar with– the issues raised by transitioning. I can even understand the concerns around athletic performance and the possibility that trans women might have an unfair advantage, although medical science tells us those concerns are unwarranted.

It is much harder to understand the animus that leads GOP lawmakers to propose bills punishing supportive parents and doctors who provide medical care to transgender minors. It’s especially hard for me to understand why those legislators think they have a right to interfere in such profoundly personal matters.

South Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill they call “Help Not Harm;” it would ban physicians from prescribing hormonal therapy and from performing gender-affirming surgeries on minors (something I’m told doesn’t occur). Physicians who provide such care would be subject to review by a medical board, and potential loss of their licenses.

Utah lawmakers have introduced several anti-trans bills. One would prevent trans youth from updating their birth certificates until they turn 18. A far more harmful bill would–in addition to banning that non-occurring surgery for minors — would also bar the puberty blockers and hormonal therapies that are prescribed.

Nebraska Republicans have introduced “Sports and Spaces”– banning youth from participating in sports teams that don’t align with their sex as assigned at birth. The bill would also bar trans youth from using locker rooms that align with their gender identity.

More than a dozen states have introduced anti-trans health care legislation. Dailly Kos lists Virginia, Utah, Texas, Tennessee, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Kansas, and Kentucky–and a friend of mine who lobbies Indiana’s General Assembly on behalf of several medical associations tells me they expect a similar attempt in Indiana.

Evidently, it isn’t enough to pick on women and trans children. The GOP knows how terribly dangerous librarians are. As the linked article reports,

Over in North Dakota, Republicans are racing to ban even more books. As reported by the Associated Press, Mike Lefor, who serves as House Majority Leader, introduced HB 1205 seeking to ban books with “sexually explicit” content from all public libraries in the state. Not just keep them out of young adult sections. Not just exclude them from certain programming. Not just from school libraries. Ban them from public libraries, period.

And yes, that “sexually explicit” includes depictions of gender identity and sexual orientation. The measure proposes up to 30 days imprisonment for librarians who don’t remove such books from libraries if the bill becomes law. Folks could also face a $1,500 fine and a Class B misdemeanor. 

When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in Dobbs, it called into question an important principle of constitutional jurisprudence called substantive due process. That doctrine means that there are certain issues that government doesn’t get to decide. For over fifty years, the Court has recognized that “intimate personal decisions” not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights also must be protected against overreaching government– that the Bill of Rights requires respect for individual autonomy– that liberty means there are places in the lives of individuals where government doesn’t belong.

Only the individual involved can know who he or she or they really is. We can only hope that conflicted individuals are able to access the help of supportive parents and caring doctors–and even a librarian or two. 

Certainly not a state legislature.



My Obligatory Rant About the Debt Ceiling

Okay–I’m sure that readers of this blog are well aware of the current threat by the usual suspects to hold the debt limit hostage in order to get concessions on spending from the administration and the Democrats in Congress.

I’m also sure that most of those readers understand what the debt limit actually is–unlike the intended targets of the crazies’ messaging.  America’s debt ceiling does not authorize spending–it authorizes government to borrow funds as necessary to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. (That’s why the GOP obediently voted to raise it during the Trump administration–even though the Trump tax cuts significantly increased the deficit and thus the amount to be borrowed.)

Here’s an analogy: you went shopping and maxed out your credit card. The bill from the credit card company comes due, and your spouse says “We aren’t paying it until you agree to [whatever].” You either accede to the whatever, or destroy your credit rating, find yourself unwelcome in the places you shop, and incur higher interest rates in the few places that still accept your business.

In 2011, when Republicans last played this game, the delay in raising the limit caused a  downgrade of U.S. Treasury debt, raising government borrowing costs by $18.9 billion over ten years.

If the GOP’s  current game of chicken succeeds–if America fails to pay the bills Congress has previously racked up–the country (and globe) would descend into recession, Social Security and Medicare payments would stop, federal workers, soldiers and defense contractors wouldn’t be paid… And you could kiss your tax refund goodby.

The U.S. is one of only two countries requiring a separate vote to raise the debt limit–most countries understand that a vote to spend X on program Y implicitly authorizes payment even if funds need to be borrowed. For many years, rational lawmakers in both parties routinely raised the limit.

Since “rational” no longer describes most GOP lawmakers, what should the administration do? I’ll let Paul Krugman answer that question.

Krugman  warns that “it’s not even clear that the Biden administration could surrender if it wanted to.”

The current crop of House Republicans makes the Tea Party, which (alas) used the debt limit to blackmail President Barack Obama, look reasonable. Today’s G.O.P. doesn’t even seem to have a coherent set of demands; a significant number of caucus members may well want a crisis, preferring to “watch the world burn” under a Democratic administration.

If surrender isn’t an option, what is?

Democrats could seek a “discharge petition” to force a vote on raising the debt limit despite opposition from G.O.P. leaders. This would both take time and require support from a handful of sane Republican House members. But it’s surely worth trying.

Second, it’s probably possible to use financial engineering to bypass the debt limit. The most famous proposal calls for minting a platinum coin with a face value of, say, $1 trillion, depositing that coin with the Federal Reserve and spending out of the bank account thus created. Believe it or not, this would almost certainly be legal.

Another option would involve raising money by issuing “premium bonds” when existing debts come due — bonds whose face value is the same as that of the bonds they replace, so that they don’t officially increase the debt, but offer high interest rates, so they sell for much more than their notional value.

Krugman also points to language in the 14th Amendment providing that “the validity of public debt shall not be questioned,” and suggests that language might be construed as authorizing the government to ignore the debt ceiling rather than defaulting on payments.

Which option should Democrats pursue? I’d say all of them. Above all, this is no time for officials to worry about seeming silly or undignified. The Biden administration is facing the threat of economic terrorism — that sounds extreme, but it’s basically what creating an artificial debt crisis amounts to. And it should do whatever it takes to face down that threat.

So–what now? The Treasury department is ramping up what it calls “extraordinary measures” to avoid default, but without a resolution, the country will stop being able to pay its bills sometime around June 5th.

Even if the administration was willing to “negotiate,”  Republicans cannot seem to agree on what it is they want. In yet another demonstration of their lack of discipline (and in many cases, sanity), several on the far Right are insisting on cuts to Social Security and Medicare, while others are focused on cutting the Defense budget. 

And what, you might ask, about the “moderate” members of the GOP? That’s easy: there aren’t any. Bret Stephens was right-– today’s GOP consists only of reptiles and invertebrates.

Stay tuned….