Messers. Trump and Pruitt – it is the Environmental Protection Agency

Almost one year ago, the President of the United States announced a plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord making the US a very isolated country on the world stage. That announcement both betrays and galvanizes further the significant efforts and science behind America’s push toward renewable energy and conservation.

Yet, that is only part of the attack by this administration on our home planet. Under the tutelage of Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency, has decided to have an all out war on science and the environment. The orchestrated removal of climate change science data accessible by the EPA website and the repositioning, demotion or firing of some scientists, is indicative of a parent wanting to mask the fact they do drugs from their kids.

Pruitt has also tried successfully and unsuccessfully to let companies pollute waterways and the environment with fewer repercussions. The fact we have a global water shortage is irrelevant. He has also championed the ability for industry to question the EPA’s data. That may sound good, but industry has challenged data for years and, as a country, we do not adhere to the Precautionary Principle.

This principle states that if it is believed an industry is polluting the environment, then they must prove they are not before going further. In the US, industry has to be proven they wronged people many years after the fact. The reason Erin Brockovich is so famous is it is rare to win against industry. The sad part is people have died or been made ill by then. The Pruitt change is to let industry cherry pick data more easily. I should note the flame retardant industry used a study that had nothing to do with that issue to show the retardants were safe – it was proven they cause cancer in firefighters, toddlers and mothers.

Last week, a new report came out that noted the Outer Banks of North Carolina will be the hardest hit region by rising tides by the end of the century. Yet, the report eliminated any reference to man’s influence of climate change. It should be noted a few years earlier, the NC General Assembly refused to accept a similar finding, but paid for a report that used the past 100 years sea level increase as a guide for the future showing an increase of 8 inches versus 39 inches per the scientists. Apparently, that report has been proven faulty.

Finally, a report by the United Nations has estimated the failure to address climate change will cost the world $100 trillion in US dollars. Some have cried foul over this number, but I would add a study sanctioned by the world’s largest pension scheme (plan) investors in 2010 estimated the cost of repairing climate change problems in the $10 trillion to $20 trillion range. The key word in both is trillion.

We should recognize these numbers are guesses backed by science and some rationale. I would quibble less if the numbers are toward either end and focus on the observation that doing nothing will cost money and a lot of it. Hurricanes are more severe now when they hit shore from elevated sea levels. The costs to fix the damage run in the tens to hundreds of billions range. When you multiple just the hurricanes by these cost fixes, then one can see how the numbers can rise.

If that does not scare, there is a new term that should called “sunny day flooding.” These are days when high tides flood the streets of coastal cities when no storm is present. These days are increasing significantly in places like Miami, Hampton Roads, Charleston, New Orleans, etc. In the next fifteen to twenty years, some of these cities may have fewer non-flooding days than flooding ones.

So, Messers. Trump and Pruitt, you can choose to play ostrich all you want, but the people that care about our home need to move forward. It would be nice if you were an enabler rather than a blocker.

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Context is important with news

Context is key to understanding. It enables one to understand why a change or news item is important and when people are masking over a problem or blowing smoke.

Here are a few examples of why context matters:

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook testified to Congress of his concerns of privacy of data. He may say he is concerned, but his business model is to sell access to your data to marketers. Unless that model changes, our data will be exposed. Facebook was told to address these privacy issues five years ago and failed to act. It may be a new company, but it has learned to feign concern like an old one.

Football helmets are very high tech these days to soften the impact of blows to the head during this violent game. Yet, no matter how much cushion is offered, the problem is they cannot stop the fact the brain rattles around inside the head when it is struck. Unless football outlaws head hits, the game may have to require players to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential damage before they play and youth tackle football may be banned.

The changes needed in governments are obvious to many, including the legislators. But, they won’t happen. Why? Change will not occur if the people who need to make it are too aligned with what needs to be changed. Politicians are too enamored with keeping their job to actually do their job. Money matters too much in these equations.

Let me close with a final example. There is a difference between someone who does the right thing 19 times out of 20, but screws up one time versus someone where the opposite is more true. The one error for the first person may be similar to one of the second person, but they deserve a closer look. I have seen good people fired because managers ignored this kind of math. Context is key.

Thoughts for Thursday

Here are a few random thoughts on a rainy Thursday, with more rain to come in the days ahead.

A retired ambassador said recently, the US strength is more than its military, it is its relationships with allies. What concerns me is we are devaluing our allied relationships. This is echoed by the European Union Chairman Dean Tusk. Tusk said the EU must be more united than ever before to deal with what he called Trump’s “capricious assertiveness”. My question is this how we want to be viewed by our friends?

Another retired ambassador to Israel said while he agreed with the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the US administration made two mistakes. It should have been announced in the context of moving toward a two state solution. In essence, the US placed little obligation on Israel for this move. Also, celebrating the opening on the anniversary of Israel is an insult to Palestinians. This date is not viewed favorably, so the celebration rubbed salt in a wound.

Assuming the role of ambassador for the disenfranchised in the US, a huge opportunity missed occurred during the rushed tax bill which hugely favored companies and the wealthy. I favored some relief on the corporate tax rate, but we went way too far and are negatively impacting our huge and growing debt. The additional opportunity missed I am referencing is not imposing a requirement on companies to provide raises. One way of doing this would have been a concurrent increase in the US minimum wage moving it from $7.25 to a living wage of above $10 per hour. Token one-time bonuses are actually the barest minimum of what could be done with an annual tax break – how about a raise instead? More income to people in need is accretive to the economy.

Finally, I have seen footage of conservative news sources highlighting Venezuela’s problems as an indictment of socialism. While I am a capitalist, I also recognize our country is a mixture of both. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and bankruptcy laws are all forms of socialism. We also have other restrictions to prevent unfettered capitalism. Venezuela’s problems are due to corruption and mismanagement that can be traced even back to the popular Chavez. His successor, Maduro, has shown a level of incompetence that is quite visible to all.

That is all for this Thursday. Please share your thoughts.

This zero-sum discourse needs to stop

What does zero-sum discourse mean? It means framing topics in terms of who wins and who loses. I fault politicians, pundits and reporters for this mindset. This mindset preceded the current White House incumbent, but he views most everything through a very short-term transactional lens. Did I win?

The dilemma in discussing who wins and loses on actions, speeches or tweets is it takes the focus away from the issues. Does this decision help or hurt the people, environment or region?

I heard a news discussion on whether the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal helps or hurts Trump’s image? That is the wrong question among many better questions. Does it make the US safer? Does it make the world safer? Are we harming our relationships with our allies? Are we making a fact based decision as other leaders are questioning the veracity of this decision? And, so on.

Whether it is healthcare, debt, taxes, environment, financial protection, etc., I do not care who wins or loses politically. When people care too much about winning or losing, I can tell you who gets screwed – it is the people they represent.

Americans want Congress to address healthcare, with the majority saying to fix Obamacare. Instead, the President and leaders in Congress have sabotaged it over the past three years making premiums even higher. They want to see it politically fail while screwing American people.

I am tired of the lack of collaboration. I am tired of the abuse of factual information. And, I am tired of this zero-sum discourse. To be frank, our leaders need to stop trying to keep their job and start doing their job.

That healthcare thing

In more than a few surveys, the majority of Americans have noted that healthcare is a key dinner table issue. In several surveys, shoring up and stabilizing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is preferred by a smaller, but still majority of Americans, than its repeal.

With a background of being a former benefits actuary, consultant and manager of benefits, here are a few facts and observations that I encourage you to research and verify.

– The ACA borrows from a Republican idea implemented by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts which was advocated by de facto Tea Party leader Senator Jim DeMint for the whole country. Some elements can be found in a healthcare idea of Senator Bob Dole when he ran for President in 1996. These are reasons Republicans had a hard time with other ideas to repeal and replace it.

– The ACA is designed to require employer and public plans to offer certain minimum level benefits. The non-employer benefits are delivered through healthcare exchanges of policies and the expansion of Medicaid for people near or in poverty (32 states and the District of Columbia elected to do this).

– The biggest benefits of the ACA are guaranteed issue and renewability of coverage and the premium subsidy for people with incomes up to 4 x poverty limit. If you or a child has a preexisting condition, guaranteed issue and renewability are huge benefits.

– The botched roll out of the online exchanges sits at the feet of President Obama. For this to be such an important issue, it deserved better planning. The online exchanges are doing much better now, but you don’t get a second chance for a first impression. And, this poor roll out was used as fodder to nay-say the program, even though the problems were fixed.

– The ACA has experienced higher premiums due to adverse selection (pent-up demand and more high risk than better risk customers), but it is frustrating that the Republican Senators and President have masked their role in making premiums even higher. Senator Marco Rubio led an effort to strip 89% of the funding to insurers for initial adverse selection a couple of years ago and President Trump stripped out funding for co-pays and deductibles for lower paid people last year. Both of these changes cause premiums to increase even more than they otherwise would have.

– The lack of expansion of Medicaid in 18 states means the ACA is still not fully implemented. Per The Commonwealth Fund, this implementation would help people, rural hospitals and state economies. GOP Presidential candidate John Kasich called Medicaid expansion a no-brainer when he did it in Ohio as Governor.

The ACA is not perfect, but it is working OK. It could work even better if it were stabilized and improved. Taking away the mandate will be harmful and cause premiums to go up even more. What troubles me in our zero-sum game of politics is we are foregoing improving an imperfect law, which we have done countless times before on major changes. The way I see it, Congress and the President own this law now. If it fails, people should look to them asking why did they let it happen. This impacts people.

I have mentioned before several changes to consider. National healthcare is not going to happen in our country as it is too political and the healthcare industrial complex is strong. Yet, I advocate expanding Medicare in a targeted way down to age 62 (or maybe 55). Unlike the more complex Medicaid, Medicare actually works pretty well and strips out the profit load embedded in insurance premiums. This will reduce exchange premiums and Medicare premiums, as it makes both audiences younger on average.

I think we need to reconstitute the adverse selection and co-pay subsidies to insurers. The federal government needs to repay insurers they stiffed and invite insurers who left back into the exchanges. I would also recommend the remaining states expand Medicaid and I would add back the mandate for coverage, even though this feature is unpopular. If there are areas where competition is not significant, select use of Medicare (or Medicaid) could be deployed in those counties.

There are other changes that should be considered, but we need to shore this thing up. Congress and Mr. President, the ball is in your court as well as the legislatures for those eighteen states.

 

Nixon’s Enemies List Redux under Trump

It was reported yesterday the President is asking Homeland Security to track bloggers, media etc. who have the ability to influence negatively thoughts toward his administration. This is akin to Richard Nixon’s enemies list which is due directly to his paranoia that people were out to get him. Ironically, it was Nixon’s zeal toward guarding against his paranoia that caused his downfall.

It should be noted that paranoia goes hand-in-hand with narcissism. Trump has an unhealthy dose of both, which is a key reason he wants sycophants all around him. As he has a hard time with criticism, he attacks all critics usually via personal attacks. Like Nixon, his paranoia, lying and denigration will bring him down.

Part and parcel with this are his continuing attacks on The Washington Post and other media because they dare speak the truth. It has gotten so bad, he is attacking Amazon because Jeff Bezos owns both, to the chagrin of the US Chamber of Commerce. The Post is also being defended by the editor of The New York Times who is calling  the President on the carpet.

Last time I checked, Trump is President of the United States. This is not a kingdom or dictatorship. It is a Republic. We have every right to tell the President and members of Congress that we disagree with them. We have every right to demand they stop lying and start doing their job.

If the President cannot handle the fire, then maybe he should get out of the kitchen.

Saturday is a good day for a march

Saturday is a big day for teens and young adults who will be showing what democracy looks like. A crowd larger than the inauguration attendees is expected to protest gun violence and advocate for change. Whether you agree with their position, which I support, you have to admire their resolve.

Change is difficult, especially when those who hold the playing cards are sponsored by an entity who does not want any. But, the majority of Americans want change, so we shall see what transpires. The legislators in Florida deserve credit for a first step. The ones in DC did as little as possible in the spending bill which included some lower hanging fruit.

With that said, one of pieces of fruit was something that should have been done all along and that is funding the CDC to measure gun deaths, which has not been done for twenty years. You cannot measure success of initiatives if you don’t measure anything.

Join me in applauding these kids for raising their voices. And, to use a favorite line uttered after gun massacres with a subtle change, “my thoughts and prayers are with the legislators as they look for that misplaced moral compass.”