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.

Advertisements

Let’s fix the larger gun death problems

Mass shootings are very tragic and heart wrenching. Homicides are also tragic. Yet, the biggest gun problem and another tangible and avoidable problem make up between 60% and 70% of annual gun deaths in America. The lion’s share of gun deaths in America are suicides. Last year, over 23,000 of the 38,000 plus gun deaths were suicides. This ratio is not unusual and tracks pretty well year in and year out.

The other much smaller, but more avoidable gun death problem is accidental shootings. And, tragically the ones doing the shooting or getting killed are children who come across a weapon. To lose a child is the worst nightmare I could possibly imagine. But, to lose one because you did not put away your gun, is even more traumatic. The gun owner has to live with the guilt. While accidental shootings are about 2% of gun deaths, they seem to be ones we should be able to avoid irrespective of one’s fervor for the 2nd Amendment.

After each mass shooting, there is concern registered by kids and parents about not letting this happen again. The people for and against more gun control go into camps with some saying now is not the time, while the others asking when is the time. I must give a huge amount of credit to the Parkland kids and others around the country who are forcing action. But, outside of a little lip service in Washington, nothing tangible happens. They may regret inaction come November.

These past few months, the barest of minimum change was done, but there was the President of the United States speaking before the NRA convention last week. He was the one who taunted Congress representatives for not standing up to the NRA. These were obviously just words, which we should be used to by now. With this said, I do give kudos to Florida who acted a little more demonstrably than DC.

To prevent more suicides, background checks on all sales with elongated waiting periods are needed. Doctors must be permitted to ask patients if there is a gun in the house as the propensity for suicide is much higher than one without. All it takes is an impulse and it is over. We must add more psychologists and counselors to schools. The greater gun risk is a depressed student taking his or her life. And, we should expand Medicaid in the remaining 18 states along with its mental health benefits.

As for the accidental shootings, the majority of states require guns to be locked up at home, but why do not all states have such a requirement? I have shared this before, but I asked my father-in-law to lock up his weapon, as I did not want his grandkids around a loaded weapon. He did so. One idea that has merit is requiring a finger printed trigger, where only the owner can use the weapon.

Please note that none of the above speaks of taking weapons away. These steps would help reduce the number of suicides and accidental shootings. Even if the number is only 100, 500 or 1,000, those are lives saved. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

 

 

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.

 

Truth does matter

“We pay more taxes than anybody else in the world,” said President Trump on August 10, 2017 having said similar statements on more than a few occasions.

“You know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” said the President to Lester Holt on May 11, 2017 which he has said on multiple occasions.

The cut in the subsidies will only affect the “gift” to the insurance companies, said the President to his cabinet in October, 2017 when he defunded some ACA subsidies to the companies to repay them for subsidizing co-pays and deductibles for people making less than 2 1/2 times the poverty limit. He used variations of this theme on several occasions to defend his cuts to financial help to those in need.

The two common threads of these statements are they are all lies and were uttered consistently by Donald Trump. Yet, this should not be a shock to anyone as the man has a hard time telling the truth.

Per Politifacts, on 483 measured statements by the President, 69% of the time they were either mostly false, false or pants-on-fire false. In other words, more than 2 out of 3 statements he makes or tweets should not be considered as true.

In a fairly recent interview with The New York Times, the reporters measured the President averaged lying every 75 seconds. The Washington Post counted 1,950 false or misstated claims in his first 347 days. This is consistent with statements made by his five biographers who note Trump has a hard time with the truth.

But this is not news to most Americans per a Quinnipiac Survey. The survey said 62% of Americans do not think Trump is honest. And, in a University of Missouri Journalism survey, the President was listed in the bottom ten of trustworthy news sources, meaning the ten least trusted sources.

The truth matters. The Russia thing is real, whether it links directly to Trump or not, as intelligence officials say he is at minimum an unwitting participant in the meddling. In fact, General Barry McCaffrey, the most decorated retired four star general said this weekend that the President is a “serious threat to national security,” based on his adoring view of Putin.

On the taxes comment, we just reduced taxes with this lie laying groundwork. We are increasing our debt by $1.5 trillion to try to make a pretty good economy even better. On the health care subsidies, this lie covered for a change that will increase our debt by $10 billion meaning it impacts taxpayers as well as non-subsidized premium payers, not insurers.

Our problems are complex and they are hard enough to solve when we deal with the truth. When our leader lies and others support his lies, solving problems become even harder. The truth matters. And, with respect to his many alleged affairs and sexual misconduct, I would bet on the women’s stories as being more true than his defense.

Trying to solve that gun death thing

I am hopeful, but not optimistic that tangible change will be enacted by Congress to reduce the risk of gun deaths in America. The kids who are protesting have already brought on some change with Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Kroger announcing changes on gun sales policy and other companies eliminating discounts offered NRA members.

If change occurs it will likely be the result of the retailers paving the way and dragging Congress along. What we may end up seeing is something like integrated background checks and an age 21 restriction on assault weapons. We may see some funding for more security in schools. While these changes would help,  they are not near enough to help reduce most gun deaths and respond to what the significant majority of Americans want per repeated surveys. Here are a few thoughts:

– Let’s start with data and ask the CDC to track gun death data, which has been forbidden by Congress since the late 1990s. Then, we can measure progress of various initiatives.

– Next, we can ask for background checks on all gun transactions which should be a given since most Americans favor this. Plus, if someone is credibly reported on by a reasonable number of concerned citizens and a potential problem is deemed possible, the police must be able to seize weapons while more indepth review is undertaken via a legal process.

– Next, we could have an elongated waiting period, again favored by most Americans. Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicide, with suicide being the top reason for gun death in most states. Waiting a few more days will hopefully reduce impulsive suicides and may flag something.

– Then, we can address the mental health aspects. We could start by changing the law passed by Congress last year adding mentally disabled Social Security recipients to the eligible gun rolls. We could stabilize the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act and encourage Medicaid expansion both which have mental health benefits. We could also add funding for more school counsellors and psychologists which many states pulled back on. This could go part and parcel with funding more security in schools.

– Finally, we could reduce accidental deaths with more required training and finger printed triggers, so kids won’t do damage with weapons they find.

Personally, I would ban all assault weapons and bump stocks, but that is a hard sell in America.  I would not arm teachers as the solution to school gun deaths is not introducing 700,000 weapons to campuses, which would increase risk and not solve a problem. Shooting at someone shooting back at you is not something many are up to, especially if outgunned and in a chaotic environment. Let’s add security staff and measures.

Whatever we do, we must holistically addresses all gun deaths. I did not touch on poverty, drug industry, entertainment violence and lack of civility that cause gun violence. But, we must invest in these areas. What do you think? Am I off base? Do you have other ideas?

Too many questions and not enough answers

While I should be upbeat about the 105th consecutive month of economic growth in the US, the still very high stock values in the market on an uptick since January 2009 and the historically low unemployment rate, I know that too many folks are not feeling the love from this growth. But, I want to set this issue aside for now and just ask some “why” questions as I am beyond frustrated with our failure to address too many issues.

Why can’t our so-called leaders address our never ending gun violence in the US? Yesterday’s tragedy will happen again, just like what was predicted following the last one a few weeks ago. Our so-called leaders are too busy trying to keep their job and need to do their job. It is more than a gun issue, but we need to do something about various causes. Our GOP friends like to say it is a mental health issue, but then try to repeal the ACA and not encourage the expansion of Medicaid. And, Congress permitted last year folks on Social Security disability for mental health reasons to be added back to eligible gun buying rolls.

However, it is a gun access issue as well and the majority of Americans support background checks on all sales and elongated waiting periods. I would do more, but these are “no-brainers.” Yet our spineless Congress and President will not act. Part of my thoughts and prayers are for our leaders to grow a backbone and do something. We need not worry about foreign terrorists as our domestic terrorists do just fine without them in killing innocent Americans.

Why do we fail to act on Russia interfering with our democracy? The leaders of our intelligence agencies testified under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee that not only did the Russians influence our 2016 election, they are continuing to sow seeds of discord driving Americans apart, and will influence the 2018 election. Yet, the President does not want to talk about it and did not extend the Congress approved sanctions on Russia two weeks ago. I would add that Congressman Nunes who is the head of the House Intelligence Committee and author of a memo that has been criticized by the FBI as inaccurate is refusing to call for a similar briefing under oath. It is surmised he is fearful of the same leaders disparaging the veracity of his memo. Is it not the job of the committee to get a briefing or should we just ask Sean Hannity to do it?

Why does are debt problem not elicit more reaction from the public? My former GOP party seemingly no longer cares about the deficit and debt since we have a Republican President. We have made our massive debt problem worse with the last two major pieces of legislation, but it does not seem to matter to the public or these so-called leaders. Both parties are to blame, but taxpayers will be left holding the bag as we have further mortgaged our future to heat up a good economy. It makes no sense, unless you look at this through a donor’s lens, which is the real reason for the tax cuts.

Why do we allow EPA DIrector Scott Pruitt to lie so much about climate change without repercussion, echoing the lines of his boss? Like the debt, our so-called leaders are ignoring a growing problem. It would be nice if they helped, but Pruitt and Trump are being left at the kids’ table, while the grown-ups move forward. Fortunately, the cities, states, universities and companies are moving forward with renewable energy and conservation measures. The renewable cost is more comparable to fossil fuel cost and they do not leave a negative footprint. Plus, when the present value costs of environmental degradation, clean-up and risk are factored in, renewables are cheaper. We could do so more with federal leverage, but at least the President has galvanized other to act since he won’t.

These issues are four of several that need to be addressed, but are not. Our democracy and planet our under attack. These should not be partisan issues. I am independent former Republican voter and these are representative of the issues I am trying to increase awareness of. Ask your legislators what they plan to do about them. If they do not respond or respond to another question, find out who is running against them. A good thing created by this President is very qualified people will be running for more offices.These are real issues. Let’s work on addressing them.

 

 

Headwinds and Tailwinds to the Economy

Presidents get too much credit and blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but global market forces tend to control what happens. By headwinds, I mean the wind is against the economic growth, with tailwinds aiding economic growth.

In the US, we are under the third longest economic growth period in our measured history with 103 consecutive months of growth. We have also had seven consecutive years of 2 million plus jobs created. And, the stock market more than doubled under Obama and continues its rise under Trump. These are great numbers. But, before we pat ourselves on the back too much, not everyone has benefitted and wealth disparity among economic classes has been widening for the past thirty-five years.

Economists I have watched project the good news to continue for the year, but several have cautioned about the future and if we don’t address the inequity, we will have major problems on top of other concerns.

On the tailwinds ledger, the global economy continues to grow and the World Economic Forum projects a 3.9% increase for the year. In the US, the cut back on regulations, plus the reduction in new ones over the rates of the past, have given more confidence to businesses (more on this later). Plus, the reduction in corporate tax rates will help fuel some growth, provided these companies who are sitting on cash, choose to invest it in their people and business. And, with more money in many people’s pockets, this will add some fuel.

On the headwinds ledger, several economists have noted we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, leveraging our future with even more debt. Not only did we not address the expected increase in debt taking it from $20 trillion to $30 trillion in 2027, the tax law will increase it by $1.5 trillion. The interest cost thereon will take a greater bite out of our budget. But, other headwinds are of concern. Retrenching from global markets and trade agreements replacing them with binary ones, will be dilutive to growth. Not investing as much in science and innovation is a major concern to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics.

This will be heightened if we restrict immigration. What seems to get lost in the argument where some have become too cold-hearted in my view, is immigration is accretive to the US economy. Plus, the people immigrating tend to be more entrepreneurial and better educated, in many cases. These sh**hole countries that someone demeaned are sending us more educated people than reside here in the states, on average.

We should not fail to remember that “innovation is portable” so says David Smick, an economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jack Kemp, one of the smartest Congresspersons who considered a run for President. If we do not provide an inviting place, innovation may be hindered. I should note that Steve Jobs was born to Syrian immigrants to the US. What if they had been denied entry? Apple might not have ever come to fruition.

Finally, not all regulations are bad, so restricting regulations may cause headwinds down the road especially with more freedoms given to pollute the environment and take advantage of customers. This is a developers mindset. Remove obstacles to build, but leave the clean up for others. Unfortunately, we taxpayers are the others. We citizens, that must drink and breathe more polluted waters and air and realize the impact of climate change, are the others. As coal ash deposits have taught us, there is a cost to environmental degradation.

So, we need to be mindful of what we are facing. I have communicated with numerous Congresspersons, Senators and the President, that we are avoiding some elephants in the room – debt, climate change, water crisis and income inequity. In my view as an Independent voter, passing a tax law that increases the debt was extremely poor stewardship, as we cannot cut our way out of this problem. The math won’t work.