The Fall Guy

The tragic finale to the West’s 20-year quixotic attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan comes complete with a fall guy: Joe Biden. His three forerunners, Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, all effectively passed the buck to him; Trump even set a devious trap by agreeing to an unsound military pullout with the Taliban that would occur either during his second term or on his successor’s watch. Some Republican critics actually blame President Biden for losing the war, with the farcical claim that a force of merely 3,500 soldiers could have maintained the status quo. But after two decades of dealing with largely corrupt government officials and an often-indifferent population, we knew that Afghanistan’s society could not support a modern state on its own.  Having once driven the Taliban from power by force, we would be foolish to expect them to wave goodbye to our personnel and allies at the airport.  And had the evacuation begun earlier, the Administration would’ve been blamed for the collapse of the Afghan military.  In the short run, Biden’s approval ratings have sunk, accompanied by calls from political nemeses (who apparently saw little wrong with their party’s leader inciting a violent raid on the Capitol) for his resignation, impeachment or removal from office with the 25th Amendment of our constitution.  Perhaps because he was never committed to running for reelection at 81 years of age, Biden was prepared to take the heat for ending a doomed war, and his historical legacy should reflect that.

Lamenting the 2016 Elections

All along I had that sinking feeling about the 2016 elections, although my rational side was drawn to sophisticated analytics that put Hillary Clinton’s probability of winning the United States presidency as high as greater than 99%; the Democrats’ chances of gaining control of the Senate looked nearly as good. Well, garbage in, garbage out, as they say. Even if the national polling was acceptable by showing Hillary consistently ahead — she did lead in the popular vote, after all — the state-by-state data was clearly flawed. Donald Trump took most of the battleground states and then some, embarassing pundits who tended to believe that Latinos rather than blue-collar whites were underrepresented in the polls.

So the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential contests but only won the Electoral College, and hence the election itself, in four of them. The Republicans sure seem lucky. But this at least allows me and like-minded Americans to inform the rest of the world that most of us voted for Clinton. For I can think of few people more dangerously ill-suited to this most-powerful and prestigious office than the Donald. Often ignorant yet never in doubt, boorish, petulant, misogynistic, racist, and, to me, on the wrong side of history on issue after issue, he appears capable of untold mayhem in partnership with the current Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. To hope, against all the evidence, that he with his cohort of mean has-beens and crackpots will betray his wrathful base of supporters and govern as a pragmatic moderate is whistling past the graveyard. I am filled with dread.

When this era is chronicled by historians of the future, I doubt that much of the recent liberal and conservative intellectualizing will survive. If the country was so gripped by anti-establishment sentiment, then why did every conservative establishment Republican senator win reelection? If working-class white males were enraged because they had been the victims of globalization, how come their black and Latino brethren were not? Were Trump’s followers truly convinced that he would “drain the swamp” of corporate corruption in Washington when he never released his tax returns to the public (since he has evidently gamed the system to his own enrichment for years)?  Was Hillary, with all of her achievements and qualifications, such a flawed candidate when so many of the accusations against her were the product of obvious political witch-hunts and easily debunked conspiracy theories?

Anti-Trump Demonstration in Washington Square, New York

No, I believe that Trump — with his inept campaign and all of his gaffes — would have soundly beaten Bernie Sanders and probably Joe Biden too, because he alone was ruthless in tapping the white resentment that has simmered during Barack Obama’s two terms as president. It is hardly a coincidence that each of this demagogue’s favorite targets has an alien face on it: illegal immigration (Latin-American); terrorism and refugees (Arab and South Asian); free trade (East Asian). On Tuesday, to the motto of “we’re taking our country back,” white, small-town, nativist America got its revenge on multiracial, urban, cosmopolitan America, as the demographic and cultural change personified by our first African-American president found its perfect nemesis. The hopeful enthusiasm that propelled Obama to the White House is vanquished by the spiteful energy of Trumpism. And Hillary seemed to inherit all of the hatred toward Obama but little of the love. Our nation has become increasingly tribal like the South, where the vast majority of whites are Republicans and most minorities are Democrats.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that so many mainstream Republican voters, including educated white women, voted for Trump as if he were no different than John McCain and Mitt Romney. Just eight years after the disastrous end to the last Bush administration, how can one not conclude that white people are always willing to give the Republican Party another chance to destroy the country?

I ended my previous piece (“The Twilight of G.O.P. Cynicism?” from May 14) with this: “Only if they get the drubbing at the polls they badly deserve will the Republicans begin to reinvent themselves as a legitimate national party.” A week before the election they appeared to face that reckoning. Now, with their unexpected control of the executive and both legislative branches of the federal government, they have learned that pandering to the basest sentiments of the white electorate is a reliable path to victory. White-male dominance of the U.S. is assured for the foreseeable future, probably with terrible consequences.

The Twilight of G.O.P. Cynicism?

Donald Trump When He Was Down and Out

Donald Trump When He Was Down and Out

About two years have passed since my last post, and I’ve got much updating to do. Remarkable trips (several that featured skiing) to Eastern, Central and Western Europe, the North American West, Central America and especially India come foremost to mind. All of this travel was interrupted for a period by radiation and hormone treatment for prostate cancer, which I remain somewhat reticent about.

But shame on me for using that as an excuse to lie low and, among my other sins of omission, neglecting to report on the demise of Health Republic of New York, the insurance co-operative I highlighted in May 2014 while praising the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). Federal and state regulators closed H.R.N.Y. down in late 2015 as swelling financial losses pointed to near-certain insolvency. In my good fortune, I was able to enroll more or less seamlessly in a comparable plan from Oscar last December.

One must wonder if the authorities really expected such start-up healthcare insurers to be anything but unprofitable for a long time. Whatever the case, hope of sustaining the troubled co-ops wilted quickly in an era when congressional Republicans have voted over and over again to eviscerate or even repeal Obamacare. While they appear to loathe the president’s signature legislation as much as Captain Ahab hated Moby Dick, most galling of all is their total failure to propose a viable alternative.

Yet this is just one instance of what I can only describe as vile political cynicism, which I believe has disgusted Americans across the political spectrum. Some other noteworthy examples include:

Allegedly responsible budget proposals pairing massive entitlement cuts with large hikes in military expenditures, crowned by tax reductions for the richest people and entities — which by most historical evidence would produce ever-greater deficits (along with more social despair);

Feeble denials of climate change, despite mounting proof, with statements ranging from the evasive (“I’m not a scientist”) to the ludicrous (humans cannot be responsible because “God’s still up there”);

Strict regulations governing abortion clinics purported to safeguard women’s health, but which in practice deny millions access to safe abortions by forcing many clinics’ closure;

Voter-identification laws billed as fraud prevention that disproportionately impact minorities and others liable to support Democratic candidates, when documented cases of voter fraud are quite scarce and voter turnout is shamefully poor.

I could go on and on with other illustrations, but the last one strikes me as uniquely obnoxious because of the decades of painful sacrifices made to secure voting rights for African Americans down South and elsewhere. It also undermines our moral authority to criticize the sham regimes of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, and other antagonists on the world stage.

Escalating Republican extremism and hypocrisy have turned me into a Democrat by default, one who couldn’t bring himself to back a G.O.P. candidate under almost any circumstances. It might come as a surprise to those who know me, but I have never considered myself a political person except in an abstract sense. Sure, I believe in liberal democracy because it seems a relatively benign ideology, less apt to promote misery than the rest. Capitalism, to the extent that it’s managed well enough to unleash human potential without too much degradation of nature and society, is fine by me.

Before emigrating from Canada in 1979 (to attend graduate school in California at the age of 22), I had never voted in a state-sanctioned election. Only after I became naturalized as a United States citizen more than 20 years later did I join the electorate here. My memories of specific political events during that period are vague, although I recall leaning toward a second presidential term for George (H.W.) Bush against Bill Clinton in 1992. But Bush 41’s nomination of the right-wing Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court always rubbed me the wrong way; in hindsight, it warned of greater perfidy to come.

Donald Trump Masks Destined to Become Halloween Best-Sellers

Donald Trump Masks Destined to Become Halloween Best-Sellers

Today we find ourselves in the midst of an election season unlike any other I have ever seen. Donald Trump, a vain, outspoken populist (more than a few would say offensive, racist and sexist) billionaire with no governing experience and disjointed policy stances has upended the party elite and now reigns as the presumed Republican presidential nominee. His likely opponent is Hillary Clinton, a moderate Democrat who has served as a U.S. secretary of state and senator from New York (not to mention first lady), with all the accumulated baggage and enmity such a long, prominent career might bring.

If Hillary was ever the inevitable candidate, the Donald was anything but. Lately, friends and relatives from other countries have taken to asking me how this could happen, including what pundits depict as a “civil war” within and an “unraveling” or “rupture” of the Republican Party.

The particular narrative I’ve embraced goes back to the great political realignment that began with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s under Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon’s opportunistic “Southern Strategy” then promoted the defection of segregationists to the Republican side, and gradually evolved into a national scheme to foster and exploit resentment in the white masses toward so-called liberal culture, racial- and ethnic-minority dependence on government aid, and so on. From the perspective of spending, gun-rights absolutists and evangelical Christians who oppose reproductive freedom and gay equality (to name a few groups) are pretty cheap to please.

But in the process the Republicans alienated most blacks and latinos, having also fashioned a voting bloc that turned out to be an awkward fit with their traditional patrons: big business and the wealthy, largely averse to regulation and taxation. Hence, the Democrats were left with a less-affluent but fairly stable and demographically sound coalition of minorities and progressive (often urban) whites.

The first major eruption of the Republican base in this period came with the rise of the Tea Party, which followed the bailout of our financial sector at the end of George (W.) Bush’s presidency and the start of Barack Obama’s. The movement’s implied position, that banks should neither be regulated nor rescued when they failed, sounds like a recipe for economic disaster. Nevertheless, the Tea Partiers’ rage was clearly leveled at self-proclaimed conservatives who blinked instead of letting destructive market forces do their work. They also had a problem with immigration, and a telltale fetish regarding the facts of President Obama’s birth and the legitimacy of his election.

While mainstream Republican chiefs were often tormented — If not ousted — by these rebels, together they enjoyed the electoral successes powered by a wrathful rank and file, particularly in the mid-term congressional balloting of 2010 and 2014. They also gained dominance of our state governments, despite losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential contests, and barely paying lip service to easing the distress of countless loyal supporters. What good has supply-side “Reaganomics” done the middle class since the 1980s?

There is a debate as to whether the blue-collar white males at the core of this upheaval have turned increasingly nativist because their economic stature has suffered under globalization, or rather as a bigoted reaction to the rising prominence of minorities, symbolized by the president himself. Let’s not ignore the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either, and those since. I suspect the answer is a combination of the above. Regardless, the G.O.P. these days is for all practical purposes anti-immigration.

This development is only one of the concessions the party leadership has made to placate its restive base. According to horror-genre lore, the vampire cannot enter your house unless he’s invited in. Well, by indulging “birthers” and others of that ilk, the Republicans opened the front door to Donald Trump. Yet even as they were wringing their hands over his primary victories, G.O.P. senators resolved to deny the eminently qualified Merrick Garland a vote to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Antonin Scalia. Few would deny that the Obama administration has faced an unprecedented level of obstructionism.

The angry followers of Candidate Trump respond to Republican cynicism differently than I do. They probably don’t mind tax cuts for the affluent, or care much about global warming, the rights of non-heterosexuals or voter disenfranchisement. On the other hand, after decades of growth during which the lion’s share of the benefits went to those atop the economic ladder, I doubt they rejoice when the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan urge privatizing social security and “voucherizing” Medicare. Trump, however, electrifies them with promises to construct a wall along our border with Mexico, prevent Muslims from entering the country, and put an end to unfair competition from China. With the run of establishment favorite Jeb Bush going down in flames after the South Carolina primary, the future of Republicans talking tough yet endorsing the latest trade agreement anyway is very uncertain.

The hyper-ambitious Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest rival, cultivated an outsider persona but appeared to me as simply the most radical version of the recent Republican style, the cynicism included. Even though Cruz primarily attracted the religious right in its crusade against the courts’ legalization of gay marriage, he nearly matched Trump in his zeal for deporting illegal immigrants and checking the Muslim menace. But when the brainy Cruz spouted disingenuous nonsense, like vowing to help small business by closing the federal Environment Protection Agency (more probably a pitch for campaign funds from the Koch Brothers), Trump’s ill-informed falsehoods rang honest by comparison.

Anger on the Left: My Favorite Bumper Sticker of the Election

Anger on the Left: My Favorite Bumper Sticker of the Election

(Bernie Sanders, I think, represents a more-legitimate if narrow channeling of national anger at evils such as growing income inequality, plus the threat to our society posed by fossil fuels, free trade and an insatiable banking industry. Beyond the electability issue, the proposals offered by this irate 74-year-old Jewish “democratic socialist” often match his Republican counterparts’ in their implausibility.

Having worked as a securities analyst for decades, I can attest that most Wall Street employees are not greedy oligarchs. The $18 trillion U.S. economy requires a large, sophisticated financial sector; in many respects ours is the envy of the world, but it must be regulated appropriately. At times Sanders sounds like he would prefer to demolish it than reform it. Further, recent analyses have revealed that segments of his mostly white constituency detest not just Hillary Clinton but President Obama too, and could well favor Trump come November.)

Lest I give the wrong impression, I would consider Donald Trump in the White House a grave peril to our country and the world — yet it’s difficult for me to fathom the American public rewarding a mountebank like him with the nation’s highest office. Still, we ought to be grateful that he exposed both the G.O.P. establishment’s cynicism and the bigoted extremism of the party base it cultivated, making it tough to backtrack.

There’s no doubt that additional power- and job-hungry politicos will jump on the Trump bandwagon, even after disparaging him repeatedly on the public record. But only if they get the drubbing at the polls they badly deserve will the Republicans begin to reinvent themselves as a legitimate national party.

Obama Cares!

In late March, I received a letter notifying me that United Healthcare had discontinued my existing Oxford health-insurance policy, whose contract year was set to end on August 31. Because of the Affordable Care Act – commonly known as Obamacare – I would have to choose from new Oxford products or other legally compliant plans offered on New York State’s health-insurance exchange. The A.C.A. made sole-proprietor and small-group policies for businesses owned by a married couple effectively obsolete.

Tempted as you might be to take this as yet another horror story of healthcare reform, please read on first.

No fan of Obamacare, my health-insurance broker advised me to keep my Oxford policy as long as possible and switch to an exchange plan at the end of the summer. (The termination of my current policy before the calendar year was over is a so-called qualifying event, permitting me to enroll outside of the customary period.) But I decided to register on the New York State of Health website right away and start researching what was on offer, aware of the imminent March 31 cutoff to sign up. Here is some of what I learned about the Health Republic New York EssentialCare Platinum Plan:

The monthly premium for me is $515.81 in 2014, compared to $520.64 (through August 31) for my Oxford Exclusive Metro Plan/Liberty Network, both of which are restricted to in-network providers;

The deductible is zero and the maximum of out-of-pocket expenses is $2,000, versus a $2,000 deductible and a $3,000 cap on out-of-pocket costs under the Oxford policy;

The copayments to visit a primary-care physician and a specialist are $15 and $35, respectively, compared to $25 and $50 for the Oxford plan;

The copay for a three-month supply of my costliest asthma medication – Advair Diskus (100/50) – is $90, and I could get it filled at the neighborhood Walgreens, versus the $275.55 I last paid OptumRx, United Healthcare’s captive pharmacy-benefit manager, to have it dispensed through the mail.

President Obama Sings the Affordable Care Act Into Law

President Obama Signs the Affordable Care Act Into Law

By the time I had contacted my most important doctors, and found that all of them accepted Health Republic insurance, it was early April and well past the enrollment deadline. I wanted to wring my broker’s neck for not advising me to switch at the earliest opportunity. But a fortuitous email from New York State of Health soon appeared in my inbox, alerting me that because I had begun my registration before March 31 I was entitled to select a policy on the exchange by as late as April 15. Without delay, I terminated the Oxford plan and joined Health Republic, effective May 1.

It is premature to review the new platinum policy, although my limited experience with it (several interactions with customer service and one prescription filled) has been satisfactory. But, on paper, the benefits of Obamacare to those like me who have lost sleep from health-insurance insecurity are great. I realize that some people have been inconvenienced and even disadvantaged by the A.C.A., yet strongly believe they are far outnumbered by those of us who have gained. To the disgruntled I say: try being a little more charitable. I do not begrudge the beneficiaries of Medicare because my late wife paid into the program throughout her career only to receive nothing back. But I do resent the Republican/conservative “messaging” to the effect that people who had trouble getting health insurance under the old regime somehow did not deserve it. And if the doomsayers are correct about Obamacare, why hasn’t it wreaked havoc in Massachusetts, which adopted a similar (indeed, seminal) program years ago?

Most of all, I salute President Obama, who evidently cared enough to spend precious political capital and stake his legacy on reforming a deeply unfair and dysfunctional healthcare system. The A.C.A. may be far from perfect, but for tens of millions of Americans it is a vast improvement over what we had to endure before.

Naming Names: For the Country’s Sake, Let’s Honor Our Largest (and Most Egotistical) Taxpayers

On my last visit to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet, I noticed that architect Philip Johnson’s 1964 New York State Theater had a new moniker: the David H. Koch Theater.  It turns out that David Koch – one of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) industrialist brothers tied to the Tea Party, climate-change denial and other conservative fancies – had agreed in 2008 to provide $100 million over 10 years for the renovation, maintenance and operation of this iconic venue.  (That’s the same amount he, his brother Charles and other super-PAC friendly folk reportedly pledged last week at their annual Indian Wells conference to send President Barack Obama packing in the next election.)

For his largesse, David gets to keep his name on the theater for at least 50 years, after which his family has the right of first refusal for any renaming.  I can appreciate the commercial value to a major corporation putting its brand on a sports stadium, but he bought something more akin to immortality.

It’s well known that moderate billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are extremely charitable as well as civic-minded enough to welcome substantial taxation on their estates.  The so-called Buffett Rule even calls for a minimum federal tax rate of at least 30% on those earning $1 million and more per year.  However, others to their right on the political spectrum – and at the far end of the vanity scale — seem to want more than patriotic pride for their money, specifically by seeing their names emblazoned on large objects.  Please don’t get me started on Donald Trump.

Naturally, business schools at prestigious colleges are a favorite.  I earned my M.B.A. from New York University at the strictly utilitarian Graduate School of Business Administration (or G.B.A.) near the American Stock Exchange building behind Trinity Church.  Thanks to a $30 million gift, a year after my 1987 graduation, from a grateful alumnus who made it big in pet products and real estate, the renamed Leonard N. Stern School of Business moved to nifty new digs near Washington Square four years later.  Its facilities now include Tisch Hall, the Henry Kaufman Management Center, and the John A. Paulson Auditorium.  Had I attended a couple of decades later, I would have been a student in the Langone part-time M.B.A. program.

The Leonard N. Stern School of Business

In this respect, our local, state and federal governments have missed the proverbial boat.  The United States Navy commands 11 active aircraft carriers: the Enterprise, Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John C. Stennis, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush; under construction are the Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy.  Many things are named after the late Senator Strom Thurmond in his native South Carolina, including a reservoir lake, despite a lengthy political career undistinguished by notable legislation but widely remembered for pork and his lone 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  Why do we so honor dead and former presidents, military leaders and Southern segregationists (which Vinson, Stennis and Thurmond all were) instead of the great citizens who foot much of the bill?

I say, for the sake of the country and to cool their anti-government fervor, let’s recognize our largest (and most egotistical) taxpayers.  New York’s three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg solved the problem himself by going into politics; his name will almost certainly grace public property when the Bloomberg terminal is already Wall Street nostalgia.  Perhaps Mitt Romney will enjoy the same fate.  (Maybe this is why Donald Trump keeps flirting with a presidential run.)  But what about the rest?

Washington boasts a massive inventory of cool, expensive items on which to stencil a worthy name, among them intercontinental ballistic and cruise missiles, strategic bombers and drones.  What right-wing Texas oil baron wouldn’t want his handle on the warhead that atomized an Iranian uranium-enrichment facility, driving the price of crude up to unprecedented levels?  Yet private-equity tycoon Stephen Schwarzman might be more flattered by a chunk of the Library of Congress.  After all, the New York Public Library renamed its landmark edifice on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street a few years ago as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for his $100 million donation.  If only he would stop demagoguing the president’s plan to tax carried interest as ordinary income (at 35%) instead of long-term capital gains (at 15%) – which Schwarzman once equated with the Nazis’ 1939 invasion of Poland.

On the surface of it, Mark Zuckerberg’s potential bill of more than $1.5 billion from the Internal Revenue Service for exercising Facebook options would seem to warrant a tribute as great as, say, the Capitol.  However, the company’s deductions for option compensation could eliminate its own tax liabilities for years.  Still, that particular loophole isn’t Zuckerberg’s fault, and we’ve got to start somewhere if we’re going to get our house back in order.

Imagine a hop-on-hop-off, double-decker bus tour of the national capital that stopped at the Mark E. Zuckerberg Capitol building, the Warren E. Buffett White House (assuming the current occupant’s re-election, of course), the William H. Gates III National Archives, the Walton Family Pentagon building, and the Koch Brothers Washington Monument.  Even the most ardent anti-taxation oligarch couldn’t resist ego gratification of that magnitude.

There are other means to win over billionaires to the cause of government, and by that I don’t mean handing out mere awards.  No, I was actually thinking about restoring titles of nobility.  Knighthood always impressed me as an especially cost-effective way for the British monarchy to co-opt republicans and other possible troublemakers for the crown.

“Sir Donald” has a nice ring to it, wouldn’t he say?