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GOP to Nation: Harry Reid is picking on us

It's been a while since I've had a “good news” post, so I'm paying a debt here. It truly does look like a bit of panic is setting in amongst the Republicans with regard to their prospects of taking over the U.S. Senate.

I don't think I've written about the upcoming election before, so I can't say I told you so (and anyway, they may win after all), but I've always had faith that the Republicans would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this year. The nutcases are still in charge, and you can't gerrymander a Senate seat, so only the truly crazy states (looking at you, Deep South) are safe, and this year even those aren't (the Dems have a shot at Georgia).

The latest sign of uncertainty from the dark side is an apparent shift in campaign focus away from Obamacare (which is becoming quite popular among people who now have insurance and may, delicious irony, play a role in ridding the nation of Mitch McConnell) toward, of all people, the mild manneredHarry Reid:

The Associated Press reports that GOP Senate candidates are “adjusting their plans” to tie Democratic Senate incumbents to Harry Reid, arguing that he has abused his power and is no longer fit to remain Senate Majority Leader.

I don't think “He's picking on us”, has ever been a winning campaign slogan, especially coming from the modern Republican party. It bespeaks a certain desperation, but it does appear to be the new meme. Give Republicans credit, as soon as they settle on a line of attack, everyone joins in, beginning at the top with Reince Preibus, who is attacking Harry for misusing his taxpayer funded twitter account by using it in precisely the same way Republicans use theirs. I don't pretend to be an expert on twitter, but I'm having trouble figuring how Reid is misusing taxpayer money on twitter. Aren't twitter accounts free?

Anyway, this is all good news. When your opposition starts preaching to the extreme right side of the choir, you can't help but feel good about it.

A Day for the rational

The godless of Rhode Island have won a small victory:

Rhode Island’s governor has declared May 1 a “Day of Reason” to [recognize the state’s nonbelievers.

The Humanists of Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island requested the proclamation, which the Friendly Atheist blog said is virtually identical to others signed by the mayors of Charlotte, N.C., and State College, Pa., and some members of Congress last year.

Providence, R.I., was named along with neighboring New Bedford, Mass., as the least Bible-minded metro area in the U.S. for the past two years, according to the second annual American Bible Society survey.

First, congratulations to Providence and New Bedford, and a tip of the hat to Roger Williams, whose unintentional legacy lives on. It's nice to know that somewhere in this great nation we pay tribute to reason once a year. Unfortunately, that leaves 364 days where it goes forgotten.

For every silver lining, however, there is a cloud, for fearless Lincoln Chafee hedged his bets:

Chafee also issued a proclamation designating May 1 as a Day of Prayer.

So May 1st in Rhode Island celebrates both reason and irrationality. What a great country we live in.

There are taxes, and then there are taxes

David Atkins points out that the effective tax rate in the U.S. is the third lowest in the developed world. He is taking issue with the right wingers who are constantly bemoaning our high taxes, and, in that sense, his rebuttal is spot on. But in a larger sense, I think the jury is still out, as it really depends on how you define taxes.

I'd argue that you have to add in tax equivalents; everything from ATM fees to debit card charges to drug prices inflated by absurd patent protections. Any payment necessitated by positive government action or, in many cases, government inaction, that allows a private actor to impose an economic rent on the country at large should be considered a tax, regardless of the pocket in which it lands. Debit card charges are a good example; each time a debit card is used a bank imposes a charge easily 100 times higher than its processing cost. That is a tax on merchant and consumer alike. The fed sets the rate that can be charged, and the charge it imposed, which just received the backing of a very corporate friendly circuit court, was very bank friendly. That is the functional equivalent of a tax. I count government inaction as well, though I'm sure many would disagree. The folks scraping money out of the economy by doing nothing other than gaming the stock market are imposing a rent on the rest of us that could easily be prevented if the government stepped up to the plate and did its job.

Where would the U.S. be if the costs of all those tax equivalents were computed and added to the mix? My guess is that we would rise significantly in the rankings. Our drug costs alone, the product, as Dean Baker has endlessly pointed out, of economic rents, would have to move us up several notches. Maybe not to number one, but my guess is that the citizens of number one (Denmark) get way more bang for their overall tax buck (including any economic rents they are forced to pay) than do we. That, of course, is the larger point. Generally speaking, we get something in return for the money we pay to the government , but we get nothing in return for the tribute we pay to the banks and other actors that benefit from the tax equivalents we are forced to pay.

Easter Sermon, giving the ghost his due

This is Easter weekend, and it seems fitting that I should abandon politics and turn my hand to religion. Regular readers know that I have an advanced degree in theology, having studied religion for eight years at Our Lady of Sorrows Grammar School (not making that up) on aptly named Grace Street (not making that up either) in Hartford. In the interest of spreading the word of god, I will, in this post, endeavor to educate my readers on some fine points of theology.

I was inspired to write about this topic while listening to Van Morrison's album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher yesterday. In the song in which the album title appear (*In the Garden*) he mentions the “father, son and the Holy Ghost” (I am leaving that term capitalized, as my Ipad's autocorrect did it for me. The pope must have some folks in the IOS development team). Anyway, it occurred to me that it is time someone paid tribute to the Holy Ghost, and I intend to do so here. Or at least try. I have not deigned to consult Google in writing about the ghost. This post relies strictly on the knowledge acquired while getting my degree. Where that is insufficient, I will make stuff up.

For you hell bound heathens, I must first explain the Holy Trinity.

There are in fact three Gods in One. We must all believe this, though it makes absolutely no sense. But having jumped that hurdle, let us go on.

God number one, first among equals if the truth be known, is God the Father. He is a contemporary of Zeus, but far more narrow minded and intolerant than his lightning wielding rival (allowing no other gods but himself and his two alter egos), though nowhere near as randy. While Zeus was constantly on the prowl, we know of only one human virgin that God the Father impregnated, that being Mary, who gave birth to:

Jesus, the Son, who existed since the beginning of time, but goes unmentioned in the Old Testament, despite what Christians may say. He came down to earth, exited Mary's womb, and became human to die for our sins. It is not clear exactly how this works or why an all wise and loving god would find this necessary. Be that as it may, somehow God the Father felt the need to have his Son tortured and suffer the pain of death for our sins, which somehow made things alright (at least for baptized Catholics), though why this “sacrifice” was such a big deal is not even clear. His messy death may have been a record breaker, but it was hardly the worst death ever suffered here on earth (he had company the day he died, for Christ's sake, and lets not even talk about the folks the Church put to far more grisly deaths) and, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out, if the story is true, he “had the choice when to live, when to die, and then become a God again” which puts him one up on every human who ever lived. I remember that while getting my degree at Our Lady of Sorrows, this quibble entered my mind, but I never raised it with Sister, as I had learned early on that one should not get Sister confused.

So now we arrive at the Holy Ghost. He goes unmentioned in the Old Testament, and is perhaps alluded to in the New. This would be at the time of the event referred to as the Pentecost, when the apostles were huddled together in a room, frightened to death that they were going to meet the same fate as Jesus, when they were suddenly inspired. Well, okay, I did go to Google, and here's the ghost himself making his appearance:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

There he is and there he goes. Basically, he did for the apostles what Rosetta Stone software does for the rest of us; he had them speaking foreign languages in no time at all. Well, that's not quite fair to the ghost, because he had them speaking multiple languages simultaneously. That is a good trick. Not even Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins could deny that.

But really, that's pretty much it as far as the Holy Ghost is concerned. No one thinks about him much. Truth to tell, it's not even clear he's a he, though of course, he's certainly not a she. When he's not pictured as a tongue of flame, he's a dove, don't ask me why. He's most like an infusion; a deific tea bag if you will. When he shows up, he infuses your soul with faith; changing the weak water of your soul into the pungent Earl Grey of unquestioning faith. But pity the ghost. No one really warms up to him like they do to Jesus, or fears him like they fear Jesus's old man. No one prays to him. They even pray to Mary, who, strictly speaking, is not even a god, being the wrong sex and all. But nonetheless, he or it is there by your side, ready to fill you with faith if only you would open your heart and mind. My own theory is that the Holy Ghost (Apple did the caps again) got tossed into the mix because theres something distinctly un-mystical about the Holy Duopoly. Consider, would anyone remember Wynken and Blynken, if Nod didn't complete the picture? Good things come in threes (would Goldilocks and the two bears have made the grade?), and the ghost's job is to bring up the numbers. Still, one thing you can say for him or it, the ghost has been mostly harmless. No one kills in his name, starts wars, or oppresses women (see, I needed three examples or it wouldn't have worked). That may not sound like much at first, but it puts him head and shoulders above his competition.

Happy Good Friday

Where does the time go? It seems like only a year since last Good Friday.

I am a firm believer in tradition, so this year, like every year, I pause to consider the meaning of the day, and pass on some words of wisdom from some boys from England.

And despite what some might conclude from reading this blog, I really do try to look on the bright side of life. It can be hard to find, but it’s there. Just don’t go looking for it in church or in Washington.

THe Free Market at Work

I believe this is what the economist call rent seeking behavior:

Oklahoma residents who produce their own energy through solar panels or small wind turbines on their property will now be charged an additional fee, the result of a new bill passed by the state legislature and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin ®.

On Monday, S.B. 1456 passed the state House 83-5 after no debate. The measure creates a new class of customers: those who install distributed power generation systems like solar panels or small wind turbines on their property and sell the excess energy back to the grid. While those with systems already installed won’t be affected, the new class of customers will now be charged a monthly fee — a shift that happened quickly and caught many in the state off guard.

“We knew nothing about it and all of a sudden it’s attached to some other bill,” Ctaci Gary, owner of Sun City Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress. “It just appeared out of nowhere.”

Because the surcharge amount has not been determined, Gary is cautious about predicting the impact it will have on her business. She has already received multiple calls from people asking questions about the bill and wanting to have solar systems installed before the new fee takes effect. “We’re going to use it as a marketing tool,” Gary said. “People deserve to have an opportunity [to install their own solar panels] and not be charged.”

“It is unfortunate that some utilities that enthusiastically support wind power for their own use are promoting a regressive policy that will make it harder for their customers to use wind power on their own,” said Mike Bergey, president & CEO of Bergey Windpower in Norman, Oklahoma, in a statement. “Oklahoma offers tax credits for large wind turbines which are built elsewhere, but wants to penalize small wind which we manufacture here in the state? That makes no sense to me.”

The bill was staunchly opposed by renewable energy advocates, environmental groups and the conservative group TUSK, but had the support of Oklahoma’s major utilities. “Representatives of Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. and Public Service Co. of Oklahoma said the surcharge is needed to recover some of the infrastructure costs to send excess electricity safely from distributed generation back to the grid,” the Oklahoman reported.

via Thinkprogress

Of course, the rationale is pure bullshit. The objective is to tax every activity in which we might engage, with the proceeds of those taxes going to the Koch Brothers and their allies from ALEC. They own the governor and legislature of Oklahoma, which is apparently all right with the people of Oklahoma, so long as they keep blacks, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, Mexicans and women in their places; teach evolution in the schools; and keep the minimum wage down. The lock the oligarchs have on the major media only goes so far in explaining the stupid in this country, particularly in our southernmost reaches. Maybe there's something in the water.

Why would anyone think businessmen make good politicians

Down in Georgia the Republicans are having an intraparty hate fest. One candidate, a fellow named David Perdue, showed the world how little good a college education can do by attacking his opponent for not having a college education. In Georgia of all places, home of the dumb. But the purpose of this post is not to mock Mr. Perdue for being politically tone deaf.

Mr. Perdue is also claiming that he is the superior candidate by virtue of his business experience. A little closer to home, Paul Choiniere of the New London Day implies that Paul Formica, who was trounced by Joe Courtney in the 2012 election, may be preferable to our good friend Betsy Ritter in the 20th State Senate race because he can trumpet his business experience. He runs a fish market.

It is truly amazing how some memes never die, facts be damned. The claim that business experience, particularly business success, is a qualification for political office is oft repeated, despite the fact that when put to the proof, the pudding is usually not to anyone's liking.

Presidents with substantial business experience tend to rank near the bottom of the charts. Think Herbert Hoover, or either of the Bushes, though W disproves another observation: that success in business does not translate into success as a politician, but failure sometimes does. Think Harry Truman.

There probably are some, but off hand I can't think of any politician I would characterize as great or even good whose primary pre-political experience was in business. People like to mock attorneys, but the fact is that we are trained to see all sides of a question and our job is to help people. That may be why so many of our best politicians were lawyers. (Think A. Lincoln, for starts) Businessmen are focused on making money and, particularly in our present economy, the more successful they are the more they got that way by screwing as many of their fellow men (and women) as they could. It is extremely unlikely that they would see their job as a politician as anything other than diverting money toward people like themselves-or, for that matter, directly to themselves. Since Congress is already quite good at keeping the feeding trough full for the .01, it's hard to see how business types could improve things.

Now, whether or not a guy who sells fish is likely to be an extreme example of that tendency is another question, but then, it's really hard to argue that selling fish gives one experience that translates into being a good politician.

The real problem here is the underlying assumption that there is no real art to being a politician. Choiniere, for instance, dismisses Betsy's “ability in the General Assembly to bring lawmakers together, find compromises and get legislation passed”, but that is the very art of politics. We are dismissive of politics as a profession, and as a result our politicians have steadily degraded in quality. There is little to nothing about running a business that gives a person the experience or the world view that makes for a good politician.

Fortunately, while we citizens, like the pundits, hold politicians in contempt, as a result of which they've become contemptible, we have not followed the pundits when it comes to believing that business experience is good training for politics. If we did, Donald Trump might be president right now, and, perish the thought, Linda McMahon would be a United States Senator.

That will be One billion Hail Marys and Two Billion Our Fathers

Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness:

Pope Francis said Friday he took personal responsibility for the ‘‘evil’’ of priests who raped and molested children, asking forgiveness from victims and saying the church must be even bolder in its efforts to protect the young. It was the first time a pope has taken personal responsibility for the sex crimes of his priests and begged forgiveness.

via Boston.com

Well, I'm afraid this only proves that those conservative Catholics are right: Francis is no Catholic. If he were, he'd know that you can't get forgiveness without a proper confession, and Francis hasn't even gone halfway on that score.

Every Catholic knows the rules, but for the benefit of you heathen that are doomed to rot in hell with the like of apostates like me, we'll review them.

I'm perhaps a little rusty on this, as it's been-lets see-about 48 years since my last confession, but I remember the drill well enough.

I'm not really sure how a Pope starts it off. For us peons it was always “Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been X days/weeks/months/years since my last confession”, which when you think about it, makes no sense, for why should someone be blessed for sinning? But let us pass over that.

So Francis should be saying something like “Bless me world, for the church has sinned, it has been 2000 years and we have never confessed before…”

Next, you have to detail your sins. All your sins, not just the ones you're acknowledging at the moment. Truth to tell, this was always a weak point for me when I went to confession. I mean, who really counts, and when you're a real little kid, who really sins? So I would throw in some “lied to my mothers” and such like attached to some arbitrary number (not too many, not too few-it had to sound plausible). I won't, by the way, get into what happened the time I slipped up and copped to “having impure thoughts”, which at the time consisted of thinking about boobies. Anyway, here's what Francis should be saying after the intro:

We have burned innocent people at the stake X times;

We have provoked Y “holy wars” resulting in the murder of Z innocent people;

We stood by and did nothing while Hitler killed the Jews 1 time, and stood by silently (when we weren't encouraging the killing) during lesser pogroms X times;

We harassed Galileo and other scientists Y times for daring to suggest that the Bible might not be scientifically accurate;

We kidnapped the children of Jews Z times;

[Your favorites here-the list is long]…and finally;

We have created a clerical system designed to attract sexual deviants to the priesthood and have actively sought to protect X deviant priests from exposure, despite our knowledge that they would continue to prey on the most powerless among our flock and have mainly been trying to protect our financial position since being found out and we actually have no real intent to do anything but engage in a PR exercise now.

Finally, and here's where the Pope really shows his ignorance, there's a little matter of the proper penance. This is the most important part, and you can't get cleansed of your sins without doing penance. For the kinds of sins Francis is (or should be) reciting, a few “Hail Marys” and a couple of “Our Fathers” just won't do. We really need to go back to the olden days, when the penances doled out to the faithful were a little more creative.

In keeping with Francis's PR moves, perhaps his penance should be that he should do as Jesus advised: “go and sell what you have, and give to the poor”.

But finally, none of it really counts unless your act of contrition is sincere. Time will tell on that score.

Say it aint so, Stephen

It is now official. Stephen Colbert will be taking over for David Letterman.

I realize this is a promotion of sorts, and that, being one who doesn't own a television, I have no standing to complain, but complain I will anyway, because lack of standing or not, as an American I have a right of free speech, even when speaking does not involve spending money.

To complete the full disclosure, I have never watched the Letterman show, except scattered bits and pieces I've seen on the web, so this screed is based purely on my impression, gained through osmosis, of the nature of late night network television in the post Johnny Carson era. (Yes, that's how long it's been since I watched late night television in real time. In this internet age I can timeshift Stewart and Colbert, and before that there was nothing worth losing sleep over. I only watched Carson when I was in college, which was eons ago. )

So, all that being said, I proceed:

Don't do it Stephen!

You are a brilliant comedian, but part of that brilliance flows from the relative freedom you have at Comedy Central. Will CBS allow you that freedom? Will you be able to continue to inhabit the right wing persona that you've used to advance your godless left wing philosophy (yes, I know you're a Catholic, but there's a lot of fare at the cafeteria you don't care to eat, so like it or not, you qualify as godless, or the functional equivalent thereof), which philosophy I share to a great extent. Will you have to play it straight during interviews? What a shame, as your current style is so much more effective in highlighting the strengths of your good guests and the weaknesses of the slimeballs (remember that great -and I think only – interview of Bill Kristol?) . Will you have to interview an endless parade of mind numbingly boring “celebrities”, instead of the truly interesting people you have on your present show? Can you still be the same Stephen Colbert who gave that great speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner? Or will you have to trim your sails to appeal to a wider audience. As that signpost in the Wizard of Oz proclaimed: “I'd turn back if I were you.”

Bring on the death panels

The release of Medicare cost information has been debated in the press for a few days. I don't pretend to be an expert, but like everyone else I was shocked by the amount of money some doctors are getting for drugs they are prescribing. Of course, they have their excuses, but it would appear that the law as presently structured gives doctors a perverse incentive to prescribe the most expensive drug available to treat any given condition, along with an incentive to over prescribe the drugs they do prescribe. The best and most concise explanation of the problem that I've seen is here at Mother Jones, penned by Kevin Drum. He uses Lucentis as an example. That's the drug that the top “earner” among the doctors made so much money prescribing. It is a very expensive drug, yet it is no more effective than another drug (Avastin), which is much much cheaper. So why would any doctor prescribe Lucentis? Because the doctors get paid what amounts to a 6% commission on each drug the prescribe.

The backstory here is that Medicare used to set the reimbursement rate for “physician-administered drugs” based on an average wholesale price set by manufacturers. This price was routinely gamed, so Congress switched to reimbursing doctors based on an average sales price formula that's supposed to reflect the actual price physicians pay for the drugs. Then they tacked on an extra 6 percent in order to compensate for storage, handling and other administrative costs.

I don't know if 6 percent is the right number, but the theory here is reasonable. If you have to carry an inventory of expensive drugs, you have to finance that inventory, and the financing cost depends on the value of the inventory. More expensive drugs cost more to finance.

However, this does motivate doctors to prescribe more expensive drugs, a practice that pharmaceutical companies are happy to encourage. I don't know how broadly this is an actual problem, but it certainly is in the case of Avastin vs. Lucentis, where the cost differential is upwards of 100x for two drugs that are equally effective. And the problem here is that Medicare is flatly forbidden from approving certain drugs but not others. As long as Lucentis works, Medicare has to pay for it. That's great news for Genentech, but not so great for the taxpayers footing the bill.

via Mother Jones

Drum suggests paying the doctors a reasonable flat fee for every prescription. That would certainly be helpful, but my own feeling is that we should bring on those death panels, which are, of course, merely intended to curtail unnecessary or ineffective procedures. If a two dollar drug works as well as a two hundred dollar drug, then Medicare should be able to mandate the use of the two dollar drug. Of course the right would scream bloody murder (at the same time as they are voting to end Medicare altogether) , but they always scream bloody murder, and it's time we stopped listening.