Sunday, February 14, 2016

Picking Scalia's Successor

Justice Scalia’s death over the weekend has kicked off a huge political fight over whether President Obama should (or has the right!) to name his successor. The argument against his doing so appears to be the idea that a President should not appoint a Supreme Court justice this close to an election where his name is not on the ballot. Better to let the “will of the people” be heard and allow the next President to make the pick. On the other hand, Obama has 11 months left in office, Supreme Court nominees move, on average, in about 75 days and even contentious appointees, such as Clarence Thomas were announced, vetted, and confirmed in less than 4 months. 

The Republican talking point about the unprecedented nature of having a President appoint a new Justice this close to an election is simply not true This is a very rare situation, and there is little precedent, but what does exist weighs against the GOP’s point of view. Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in February 1988, Justices Powell and Rehnquist got through in early 1972 (when Nixon was up for re-election, but without guarantee of winning), and Eisenhower put through three Justices as recess appointments in 1956. The only recent election year nominee who did not get through was Abe Fortas, who was also under criminal investigation at the time of LBJ’s attempt to elevate him to Chief Justice in 1968. 

What this is really about is the Republicans’ fear of losing their decades-long majority on the Court. And this is understandable. After all, the Court is the final arbiter of the most important Constitutional and statutory questions our country struggles with - from Bush v. Gore to Obamacare, same sex marriage to immigration policy, the modern Court has played a massive role in our country’s fortunes. From the 1930s well into the 1980s, the Court leaned left and even as Republican Presidents made the overwhelming majority of picks in modern times (the Democrats went from 1967 until 1994 without one), the dam did not fully break until the early 1990s and since then, a body of law has been erected on everything from arcane issues like employment mediation clauses and Tenth Amendment states rights to more familiar questions of voting rights and affirmative action that have benefited the conservative view of the law. Republicans will not willingly let that go. 

While replacing a jurist with one kind of legal philosophy with one who has a different one may seem novel, it was not always so. Thurgood Marshall, arguably one of the most liberal Justices of the 20th Century, was replaced by Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative Justices of any time. Hugo Black, a lion of the New Deal, was replaced by corporate lawyer Lewis Powell, and on and on. That is just the way the quirks and vagaries of death and retirement work. On Election Night 2000, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously bemoaned the fact she would have to stay on the Court when it appeared Gore was going to win because she would not allow her seat to be filled by a Democratic President, so the idea that the Court, or its members, is not “political” is nonsense.

The President is well within his rights to name a new Justice and nothing in the Constitution stops him from doing so. When he won re-election in 2012, it did not come with an expiration date on his ability to appoint judges to the federal bench. The shameful display of blind obstruction by Senator McConnell and Republicans running for President should be called out as such. If the Senate wants to take up the President’s nominee and vote him or her down, they have every right to do so, but to set a precedent that no nominee of an opposing party will be heard solely for political gain should not stand. 


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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Leave Bernie Alone (& Let The Media Do Its Job)

If you are a Democrat of a certain age, that is, if you grew up before social media consumed our lives and the 24-hour news cycle, you have to feel for Hillary Clinton. Valedictorian at Wellesley, law degree from Yale, campaign staffer for George McGovern, staff attorney for the Watergate Committee, child and women’s rights advocate, First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary was Tracy Flick before anyone knew who that was. She has been a trailblazer and a pioneer, someone who was speaking truth to power on topics that are now de rigueur long before it was popular to do so.

But a funny thing happened on the way to an expected addition to her already pages-long CV – that of the first woman to ever receive a major party’s nomination for President of the United States – a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont has electrified a party he did not belong to a year ago and is threatening to snuff out Mrs. Clinton’s long-held dream of being the first woman President.

If you believe the media, there is no shortage of blame to go around, starting with (naturally) the candidate herself, but trickling down to her surrogates, campaign staff, message, questions about her honesty and trustworthiness, and on and on. That the media treats her differently is something they no longer deny and kvelling about “Hillary Fatigue” was openly spoken about in November … of 2014!

And it seems that the harder Clinton and her team push to “vet’ Senator Sanders, whether it is questioning how he will convince Congress to pass his agenda or what he knows (and does not know) about foreign policy, the more the media blanches at her tactics and the firmer his support among his true believers becomes. This is unsurprising both because of the aforementioned bias the media has for her and the fact that like Donald Trump, Sanders’s supporters are hard core – no amount of logic will get them to change their minds.

So what should Clinton do? Walk away. Cease and desist from going after Bernie Sanders - attacking the underdog, the authentic hippie from Vermont who wants nothing more than a socialist paradise is a losing argument because his supporters will not listen and the media will make you look bad for doing it. Flush all your opposition research down the toilet and focus solely on your own message. You have an amazing story to tell about what you have done and intend to do to help the American people fulfill their hopes and dreams. You served as our nation’s top diplomat for four years, traveling the globe to meet, build bonds and negotiate with almost every world leader. You served in the U.S. Senate for eight years and forged bipartisan agreement on key issues. You have survived every sling and arrow shot your way for 25 years, you do not have to apologize for who you are and what you have done.

By doing so, you will put your best, and most optimistic foot forward. Leave it to the media to do what it is paid to do – vet the candidate. Let the media pour over Sanders’s record in Congress, question him about his lack of foreign policy experience (not to mention advisors), ask him to explain how he will get Congress to work with him, who he would select for key roles, whether he supported a primary challenger to President Obama in 2012, why it is that he just became a Democrat, and all the other completely reasonable questions they have not (to date) bothered to delve as deeply into as whether you tipped properly at a Chipotle restaurant. To be sure, it is a leap of faith. In 1992, James Carville famously said that “speed kills” – the Clinton campaign’s rapid response steamrolled President George H.W. Bush’s slow moving operation and ushered in the modern political campaign apparatus that now dominates our Presidential races, but that playbook is no longer working.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The State of the Race For President



With one caucus and one primary under their collective belts, the Democrats and Republicans head west and south to Nevada and South Carolina before a spate of contests on March 1st dubbed the “SEC Primary.” So, where are we in the race to succeed President Obama?

 

The Democrats: What was already a small field is now down to two competitors – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton eked out a win in Iowa while Sanders romped in New Hampshire. While the delegate count from those two contests is close, Clinton also has more than 300 committed “super delegates” in her corner, while Sanders has fewer than ten. The conventional wisdom is that Clinton is failing to connect with the voters in the way Sanders is, and in particular, with young voters, who went for Sanders by massive margins in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Moreover, Sanders has mobilized a huge small donor fundraising effort that will allow him to match (if not exceed) Clinton’s advertising and other campaign outreach.

 

Analysis: Sanders’s popularity in two states with very liberal, almost exclusively white populations will be tested starting with Nevada and South Carolina and then, far more substantially throughout the Sun and Rust Belts. He has the benefit of making arguments for policies that promise things people like but have absolutely no chance of ever being enacted, while she is left with the pragmatic/practical argument of incremental change. In other words, he wants you to have your dessert before dinner, and she is telling you to eat your vegetables. In the debates, he is clearly out of his depth on foreign policy but the media has done little vetting of his policy positions, voting record, or anything else that ordinarily attends the coverage of a major party candidate for President – let’s hope that changes. In the meantime, Hillary would be best served by avoiding attacking him, the media clearly does not like it and it is not her best look. Better to focus on her lengthy record of achievement and advocacy and let that speak for itself. She is battling Sanders, Republicans, and the media, so she is best served by focusing on a positive message about herself because she is held, as none other than Mark Halperin has admitted, to a different standard than other candidates.

 

The Likely Outcome: Clinton rallies slowly in Nevada and South Carolina before winning decisive victories on March 1st and 15th that may not secure the nomination, but will make the math inevitable.

 

The Wild Card: Pent up frustration over Obama’s inability to pass progressive legislation (e.g., single payer health care), the media’s not-so-veiled loathing of Clinton, and a massive surge of young voters create a tsunami wave that crushes her and delivers the Democratic nomination to a 74 year old socialist who was not even a registered member of the party a year ago.

 

The Republicans: Allow me to pause and chuckle at the idea that when this cycle started the media claimed the Republicans boasted the “deepest field” in their history. The current front runner is a reality TV star and the guy running right behind him is the most hated man in Congress. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush has spent $100 million to finish sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire and former “it” candidates Scott Walker and Chris Christie barely registered before bowing out.

 

Anyway, with that off my chest, we are down to five contenders – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. History tells us that in the modern era, the Republicans have picked the winner of either Iowa or New Hampshire, which would reduce the options to Trump or Cruz, but perhaps this year is the exception that proves the rule.

 

Analysis: The outsider/batshit crazy wing of the Republican Party commanded a majority of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire (if you dump in the Fiorina and Carson crumbs), so the only hope for someone other than Trump or Cruz would be to get in a three way race (worst threesome ever?) where those two would split the “anti-establishment” vote and the rest of the party coalesced around this third person. The only problem? Well, two actually: first, there is no guarantee that such a coalescing would occur. Trump’s protectionist message may sell very well in Ohio or Michigan, so even if Kasich was left standing as the alternative to him and Cruz, there is no guarantee he would win that vote; second, if the Kasich/Bush/Rubio clustering continues, they may all stay in the race, leaving Trump or Cruz to rack up wins by collecting somewhere between 25-35 percent of the vote in each state.

 

The Likely Outcome: Again, history shows that even with all this uncertainty, the likelihood is that a winner will emerge and right now, that guy looks to be Donald J. Trump. That a political novice showed a better fingertip feel for the electorate than competitors with decades more experience and millions in consultants as well as the entire political journalist class is pretty remarkable. Cruz could try to monopolize the evangelical vote and win a narrow majority of delegates, but if the race is down to him and Trump, I suspect the powers that be will hold their nose and go with the businessman who does deals, not the kamikaze pilot who everyone hates.

 

The Wild Card: Trump melts down, Bush, Rubio or Kasich emerge as a consensus “establishment” pick and the party happily steps over Cruz’s political carcass as the GOP eyes a return to the White House in a race against a 74 year old socialist from Vermont.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review - F*ck Feelings

Despite its provocative title, F*ck Feelings is a common sense, if somewhat contrarian self-help book written by Dr. Michael Bennett and his daughter Sarah (pseudonyms, we are told, and about which more later).

F*ck Feelings’s central conceit is that life is hard and a struggle to be managed, not a problem to be solved. The authors cast a skeptical eye that therapy can provide complete answers, but rather, should offer its patients coping skills and techniques to address their underlying issues – be those dicey familial relationships, difficulties at work, broken hearts, or just plain old capital “A” assholes we all have to deal with in our everyday lives. The book moves at a steady clip through a variety of topics while illustrating challenges through scenarios described by patients. I found some of these too pat – the women dating guys who deal drugs or the parents whose children refuse to leave the roost; however, they were useful in acting as a jumping off point for the authors to, as they put it, hope for but cannot have, what we can legitimately expect, and how to use move forward knowing this information.

If most self-help gurus pitch people on a better tomorrow if they simply change their habits or meditate or convince themselves of their own badassery, learn how to love themselves, or unclutter their homes, Dr. Bennett and Ms. Bennett encourage you to trim your sails and accept that life will deal you many harsh blows, often for no good reason and that self-improvement is certainly a goal one should aspire to, even if the benefits are temporary while the underlying problems are permanent. This is sound advice and whether it requires tip toeing around a toxic co-worker or objectively analyzing the behavior of a friend when you are in need, sweeping aside the magical unicorn thinking in favor of making emotion-free decisions about your course of action is refreshing (in the former, avoid engaging if at all possible, in the latter, cutting bait if it is clear the person is not capable of being there for you).

And if this sounds limiting to some, I found it realistic. The authors honor the fact that some people simply struggle more than others and encourage readers to reward (and applaud) themselves for getting through days or weeks of depressive fog even it means simply showing up to life and doing the bare minimum to get through the day. For others who cannot reconcile with difficult parents, get spouses to take co-ownership of their marriages, or seem to get through to a jerky boss, the authors encourage realism – people will not change simply because you want them to and pointing out a boss’s failings is likely to lead to defensiveness, not support. In other words, instead of tilting at these windmills, F*ck Feelings encourages the tactical retreat and the power of keeping your mouth shut.

My one complaint has to do with authors’ use of pseudonyms. While I understand the interest in confidentiality, the inability to verify is troubling. Of course, one assumes Simon & Schuster vetted the authors Bennett before signing them to a contract, but still, the reader’s inability to make their own judgment is a small black mark on an otherwise enjoyable read.


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Friday, January 29, 2016

Shocking, Vulgar, and Indisuptably True

So said Tucker Carlson, who related a story about Donald Trump. Way back when, Tucker insulted Trump’s hair and Trump left a message for Carlson to the effect of “you may have better hair than me, but I get more pussy than you.” Shocking. Vulgar. Indisputably True (per Carlson).
 
While I agree with none of Carlson’s politics, his pithy summation of Trump’s ability to zero in on someone and level them with a withering insult is what has dispatched each and every one of his competitors during this election cycle. George W. Bush may have had a false cowboy’s swagger, but Trump is an unabashed, in your face, New York bully. Jeb Bush? Low Energy. Ted Cruz? Born in Canada. Hillary Clinton? No lectures about women from someone married to Bill Clinton. Fox News? You need me more than I need you. No one can question the results. Bush went from front-runner to after thought. Cruz has been on a downward trajectory ever since he started tangling with Trump. Bill Clinton’s favorability ratings have sunk and his presence on the campaign trail is very low key. Fox News was left scrambling when Trump pulled out of their most recent debate and was left with egg on its face.  
 
Trump’s criticisms are shocking to the political class and can be vulgar (I am not so sure about the indisputably true part), but in the same way Simon Cowell became a massive celebrity when American Idol first aired because he was rude and cutting in his insults (which usually contained a grain of truth), Trump zeroes in on a flaw and defines the person by it. He is unafraid of the blowback and, if anything, relishes it. He has taken the political playbook everyone is supposed to follow and ignored it. In the balance, he has given voice to a disaffected group in our country who only wish they could, to borrow from a dated 1970s cliché, tell their boss to take this job and shove it.
 
Love him or hate him, he unleashes his opinions without mercy and generates strong opinions. In Howard Stern’s 1997 movie Private Parts there is a scene between two executives at WNBC, the radio station Stern worked at in the mid-1980s. The two had commissioned a survey to understand Stern’s popularity and found that the people that hated Stern listened to the show twice as long as the people who loved him. The reason was the same for both groups - they wanted to hear what he would say next. Trump has mastered that same formula, and every thought piece that insults him, every media outlet that tries to mock him, and every rival who attempts to dethrone him, has no idea what to do about it.   

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Book Review - Dreamland

Americans really love drugs. If it can be quaffed, huffed, snorted, smoked, swallowed, inhaled, or injected, chances are we have figured out how to use it to get us high. We are, after all, the country that has extracted a buzz from bath salts, Redi Whip, Robitussin, lighter fluid, and aerosol cans before even rolling a single joint, measuring out a line of cocaine, or dropping one piece of LSD-soaked blotter paper on our tongues.

Today, the scourge of opiate addiction is in the spotlight and a clear line has been drawn between the overprescribing of prescription pain medications, heroin use, and a skyrocketing number of overdoses across the country. That story is told with great eloquence by Sam Quinones, whose recently published book Dreamland is an invaluable source for people who want to understand how this phenomenon happened. Quinones’s story is, in many ways, quintessentially American. A primary focus of the book is the Mexican town of Xalisco, Nayarit, home to hard scrabble farmers who show that most cherished of American traits – the entrepreneurial spirit - to devise a new method of delivering heroin to the U.S. that owed more to McDonald’s than the Mafia. From this remote part of Mexico, these men set up shop in small and mid-sized cities, avoided violent crime, paid salaried drivers to deliver their dope, and followed-up with their customers to ensure loyalty and satisfaction. That the drivers were expendable – if arrested, they rarely carried a meaningful amount of drugs and never had weapons, so they were simply deported, to be replaced before they made it home – did not use the product, and delivered like Domino’s Pizza, generated massive profits for these drug traffickers while, for a time, flying under the radar screen of law enforcement.

Meanwhile, a revolution in the way doctors interacted with and treated patients created a massive potential customer base for the Xalisco Boys. Based largely on a one paragraph letter in a medical journal published in 1980 that claimed a mere 1% addiction rate among patients prescribed pain killers and to a lesser extent the move toward managed care, which deemphasized doctors taking time to work with patients in favor of a more factory line approach, pain management shifted from a holistic approach of exercise, weight loss, and lifestyle changes to one dominated by the prescription pad. Where once doctors limited the use of Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin, they began doling out these highly addictive medications like candy. Oxy became a particularly pernicious choice because its effect mimicked heroin so closely. When patients could no longer afford the drug, the Xalisco black tar heroin slid in as a replacement. That the drug, cheap, reliable, and potent, was basically delivered to your door step removed much of the risk – of being arrested or victimized – that typically affects drug users.  

Mix it all together, and you get an epidemic that hit communities at all rungs of the income ladder while lurking largely in the shadows as more well-to-do families shunned publicizing their loved one’s struggles because of the stigma associated with heroin addiction. What was once a drug associated with dirty needles, seedy motels, and lost jazz legends had migrated into the suburban McMansions of upper middle class America.

Quinones does an excellent job tracing these two narratives as they inexorably converge to a single point. His chapters are brief, usually no more than a few pages, as he ping pongs between the sugarcane fields of Mexico to decimated cities like Portsmouth, Ohio, hard by the Kentucky border and a sort of “patient zero” of economic decline that morphed into a hub of pill mills (doctor’s offices where any ache or pain was treated with hard core opiates) that begat junkies who burgled and bartered for the black tar heroin that became a substitute for pharmaceutical opiates when the authorities shut down these rogue operations.

The human toll is devastating. As the dual tracks of prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction converge in cities across the country, the destruction of millions of families fall in their wake. Even as law enforcement gets wise to the Xalisco tactics, their victories are short-lived, if not pyrrhic. Cells are quickly reformed and even as dealers and drivers are shipped back to Mexico or locked away in prison, the wave of black tar continues largely unabated. Threaded through this catastrophe is the impact of deindustrialization in rural parts of Appalachia, where the unemployed seek out disability diagnoses to collect Medicaid which in turn allows them to receive the opiates they use or sell and, on the other side of the spectrum, the easy access to addictive pain pills provided to wealthy suburbanites who can easily afford their addiction even after they cross the line to heroin.

The book offers a few grace notes. There are the addicts who get treatment and kick their habit, the researchers, doctors, and government bureaucrats who try to raise the alarm on overprescribing, and the law enforcement officers doing what they can to fight this often invisible foe. In their stories you see the humanity beneath the darkness, the unheralded attempts to help that go on behind the scenes, and the small victories that can accumulate over time. Indeed, the clear shift in how opiate addiction is treated by law enforcement speaks volumes about how policy can change. Instead of the harsh penal consequences of three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences that defined the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, the focus is now on treating addiction, arming police officers with Narcan to revive those who overdose, and encouraging families to speak out when loved ones succumb to their inner demons. That so many lives have been destroyed  to get to that point is a story that Quinones tells beautifully.


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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Do Not Waste Your Vote On Bernie Sanders

I was born in 1970. I have no recollection of Watergate or Jerry Ford taking a tumble down the stairs as he alit from Air Force One. My earliest political memories are of Jimmy Carter hosting the Camp David summit and American hostages being held in Iran. But from before I was a teenager until I was old enough to (legally) drink, Republicans inhabited the White House. It was an awful time for Democrats - Dukakis in a tank and Mondale losing 49 states. As someone born smack dab in the middle of Nixon’s first term, a Democrat had been in the White House for a mere four years of my life until January 20, 1993.
 
I worked for Bill Clinton in 1992. I was in Little Rock on election night and the sheer euphoria of a Democrat finally winning back the White House is a feeling I still remember. But for Democrats born in 1975 or 1980 or beyond, their relationship to our party’s hold on the Presidency is far different. It is taken for granted that a Democrat can be President. If you are 35 years old, you probably have vague memories of George H.W. Bush, but otherwise, you have lived through four terms of Democratic Presidents with the utter failure of W in between.
 
In other words, you do not really appreciate what it was like to lose five of six Presidential elections or how hard Democrats had to work to elect a President in your lifetime. So maybe you do not think it is a bad decision to support Bernie Sanders because the causes he believes are ones you do too. You might also believe that a Sanders win would mean a tidal wave of progressive votes that would sweep massive Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress, thus resulting in passage of every pet policy you hold dear – Medicare for All, drastic cuts to the Department of Defense, a minimum wage increase, huge tax increases on the wealthy – and on and on.
 
But such a belief is pure fantasy. Putting aside the gerrymandered Congressional districts that make it all but impossible to flip the House (and thus, smothering any dream you might have of getting a President Sanders agenda through Congress) and the fact that Democrats would have to carry 14 Senate races to gain a filibuster-proof majority (another impossibility), two of the biggest landslide Republican victories in history occurred when Democrats nominated so-called “liberal” candidates – George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Each lost all but one state in the nation (and two other landslides, Reagan in 1980 and Bush 41 in 1988 were almost as bad).
 
Why hand Republicans a gift like a peacenik who will be portrayed as wanting to crush our economy under massive tax increases? Democrats have assiduously cultivated the so-called “Blue Wall” (18 states plus the District of Columbia) since 1992, winning what now equal 242 electoral votes in six straight elections. This formula is based on moderation, not revolution. The suburban soccer moms of Montgomery County (Pa.), bellwether voters of Macomb County (Mi.) and the once rock ribbed Republican enclave of Orange County (Ca.) that are now reliably Democratic are not looking to burn down the system and are not going to entrust the nuclear codes to a 74 year old socialist from Vermont.
 
And to older voters, you should know better. To me, this has the vague feeling of 2000, when just enough people voted for Ralph Nader thinking there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush to nudge the election in the latter’s favor (and do not just look at Florida and its contested vote. Check out New Hampshire, which Gore lost by 1.2% with Nader getting 3.7% of the vote. It’s the only time between 1992 and 2012 that the Democrats lost New Hampshire and would have given Gore the White House regardless of Florida).
 
Bernie may inhabit the fever dreams of ultra-lefties like the editorial board of The Nation, but the same true believers who thought the country would rally to George McGovern (he got 38% of the vote) are fooling themselves if they think Bernie Sanders has any chance of being elected President. Younger voters, who came of age under Obama can be excused for thinking that someone of Sanders’s political leanings could win a national election, but older voters should appreciate the risk of entrusting our party’s nomination to someone who is not even a Democrat and whose defeat would signal not just risks to things like the Affordable Care Act, but any chance of “flipping” the Supreme Court for decades to come. This election is far too important to throw away your vote on a gadfly from Vermont who has zero chance of ever being elected President.
 
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Friday, January 8, 2016

Obamacare Is Working ... Pass It On

Ever since Barack Obama made universal health insurance a defining feature of his first term in office, the Republican Party has engaged in a relentless campaign to destroy what we now refer to as “Obamacare.” During the bill’s movement through Congress, they threw up every legislative obstacle, ginned up protests and rowdy town halls, and attempted to sow fear with ominous warnings of death panels and government bureaucrats coming to pull the plug on granny. Once the law passed, immediate legal challenges cropped up attempting to stop implementation of the law, questioning its constitutionality, and otherwise gumming up the arteries of the legal system in a Hail Mary attempt to stop millions of people from gaining health insurance. Just this week, Congress held its 62nd vote to repeal Obamacare, finally getting its symbolic victory so that the President can stamp “VETO” when it lands in his inbox. 

It was an odd and discomfiting experience, what with the fact that the law was modeled on an idea originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation and promised to hand health insurers millions of new customers all while maintaining our inefficient, privately-run system for health care delivery in the country. Regardless, weeks and weeks of coverage were provided on everything from a glitchy website to supposed insurance death sprials to claims that the new law would destroy jobs. All reported breathlessly by a media more than happy to ape Republican talking points without ever digging into their veracity. Of course, none of these things occurred, not that you would have noticed because the media had already moved on without bothering to issue corrections. Chuck Todd demanded an apology from President Obama when healthcare.gov was not working, but never proferred a mea culpa of his own once the program was up and running smoothly, helping millions find health insurance.

Comes now an editorial in the Washington Post that examines the three-legged stool of measuring Obamacare’s success: enrollment, cost control, and employment. On all three scores, the Affordable Care Act has delivered – big time. 

Enrollment: Before the Affordable Care Act passed, an estimated 18.5 percent of the adult population in America under the age of 65 was without health insurance. In 2015, that number dropped to 10.5 percent, a reduction of about 45 percent. As the editorial notes, that percentage would be even lower if all 50 states, instead of just 30, had expanded Medicaid coverage under the ACA. It is worth noting that if all 50 states had expanded Medicaid, the roughly 9 percent of American adults under 65 without health insurance is in line with pre-ACA estimates provided by the Congressional Budget Office. 

Cost Control: Here we have two points to consider. The first is whether the ACA did anything to rein in insurance rates that used to go up considerably year-to-year; the second is what impact the Medicare cost control measures included in the ACA did to reduce costs in that program. On both counts, the ACA has succeeded. Prior to Obamacare’s passage, it was estimated that health care expenditure rates would increase by 5.5 percent in 2013 and 7 percent in 2018. In reality, expenditures only increased 3.6 percent in 2013 and are now only estimated to go up by 5.3 percent in 2018 – huge cost savings. Similarly, the rise in premium rates and medical costs since the passage of the ACA have been well below what they were in the decade prior to its passage and the actual costs are lower than what were estimated by the CBO when the law passed. 

On the Medicare front, the cost savings should make any green eyeshade deficit hawk swoon. In 2009, the CBO expected the government to spend $723 billion on Medicare in 2015. The actual amount? $634 billion - $90 billion less than predicted. Extrapolate those savings out over a decade and you have “saved” almost $1 trillion. Not too shabby. 

So, the Affordable Care Act has cut the number of uninsured by nearly half, cost less than predicted, and saved Medicare tens of billions of dollars. But what about jobs? Republicans kept telling us that Obamacare would be a jobs killer. Not so. The past two years have been gang busters for employment. The jobless rate is now at just 5% and the economy has created millions of new, mostly full-time jobs in the process. 

That the good news is largely unreported is unsurprising. Humdrum stories of government functioning as intended (and even a little better) are not nearly as interesting as whatever insult Donald Trump has lobbed at an opponent today, but to the people who have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act, I suspect this is, as Vice President Biden said, a big fucking deal.

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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book Review - Ghettoside

The statistics are as eye-popping as they are depressing: 158 black men out of every 100,000 between the ages of twenty and twenty-four is murdered in America, a rate somewhere between twenty and thirty times the national average. Although blacks make up just 13% of our country’s population, nearly 60% of adult males in a federal, state, or local correctional facility are black. At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and politicians of all stripes are focusing on the interaction between law enforcement and predominately black communities, far less attention is paid to the everyday incidences of black-on-black violence that drive these alarming numbers.

Into this void steps Jill Leovy, whose book Ghettoside tracks the work of Los Angeles Police Department detectives in one of the highest crime areas of that city. Leovy’s lens, like the city she chronicles, is wide and ranging, using the murder of a detective’s son who was murdered by gang members even though his own involvement in a rival crew was tangential at best as the central story point, but as she dips in and out of the lives of police officers, citizens, criminal defendants, and lawyers who are the protagonists and antagonists in what is a seemingly never-ending story of murder and mayhem, we get a much more nuanced view of how their lives and stories intersect.

Leovy makes a compelling argument that inner city violence is to a certain degree a reaction by people who do not believe the criminal justice system will provide the ends it purports to offer, resulting in a rebellion against it, a process of street justice that substitutes retaliation for prosecutors, courtrooms, and prison sentences while at the same time discouraging cooperation with the police. In a segregated area of despair, where jobs are hard to come by, schools are substandard, the peer pressure applied by young men who see little chance of surviving to see their twenty-first birthday, and the seeming indifference of those who are paid to protect and serve, perhaps this attitude is understandable, but this nihilistic world view cannot excuse a complete erosion of the social contract to the point where it is acceptable to resolve petty squabbles and beefs with gunfire and a generation of newborns, infants, and toddlers grow up without one or both of their parents, burdening older grandparents, aunts, uncles and the foster care system while their mothers and fathers are spending years in prison or are dead. 

Leovy gets the broad strokes right - showing what dedicated police detectives can do to achieve justice for victims of violent crime even though the victims are not all innocent, the challenges people in the community face when their options are helping the police or risking the wrath of retaliatory violence, and how the slow gears of justice can often impede its achievement. The book’s main character, a detective named John Skaggs, is a no non-sense guy who pours his heart and soul into his job, does not suffer fools gladly, and operates by a code of conduct that is admirable but often puts him in conflict with peers and supervisors. Leovy walks us through his process, in particular in solving the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a fellow LAPD detective, whose own story flits on the margins of what many in poorer communities experience. Tennelle’s father believes in living in the community he serves, but doing so places his youngest son at risk of the predations of the streets. While Bryant was hustling legitimate jobs, his buddies were dipping their toes in gang life and his association with them ended up costing him his life. Skaggs methodically goes through the evidence, laying snippets of information next to witness statements in an exquisitely patient manner, building his case until, in a scene Leovy frames beautifully, he gets a confession from the triggerman. 

But here, we see the limitations of justice. As any Law & Order fan knows, the arrest is only half the battle. Skaggs’s defendant opts for trial, stretching the ordeal out for almost two years, impacting the lives of an accomplice who flipped and witnesses who risked retaliation to provide key information, and requiring its  investment of hundreds of hours of time by the state in preparing and proving its case. And while Tennelle’s killer is brought to justice, Leovy points out that clearance rates for murders of black males in Los Angeles do not even approach fifty percent. Imagine that - knowing that if you commit a murder you have better than a coin flip’s chance of getting away with it and conversely, that if you are a victim, your family is left knowing there is less than a 50/50 chance you will receive justice. No wonder people take matters into their own hands. 

Ghettoside also gets the small details right - the petty bureaucratic turf battles emblematic of law enforcement, the trade offs made by people living in poor communities when it comes to navigating daily life, and the one-step-forward-two-steps-back challenge they experience when trying to escape a criminal past. This is a testament to Leovy’s dogged pursuit of a compelling story and her diligence is rewarded in vignettes sprinkled throughout her book - of grieving family members holding vigil at hospital bedsides, roll calls where lieutenants try to buck up flagging morale caused by budget squeezes, and the tricky calculus experienced when witnesses are debating about whether to assist in a criminal investigation. 

Indeed, the question of “snitching” is both a prominent feature and a roadblock Leovy touches on in considering the remarkably high rates of murder in these depressed communities. It is the classic chicken or the egg problem. Residents in poor neighborhoods are reluctant to cooperate with the police, who they do not think take solving shootings and murders seriously, which makes solving shootings and murders harder, which encourages more shootings and murders, which discourages cooperation for fear of retaliation for crimes that will not be solved. Who is responsible for this cycle starting and how it can be stopped is in a way much of what Ghettoside considers. While hard working detectives like Skaggs, Nate Kouri and Sal Marullo can be counted on to take their case loads seriously and outperform the clearance rate average, many of their colleagues are either too inexperienced or indifferent to perform at a high level. It is a sad commentary that the likelihood of an arrest should be predicated on something as arbitrary as who gets assigned the case, but Leovy makes that inference clear. 

On the other hand, “ghettoside” (a term used in the book, not my own) residents often know full well who committed a crime but say nothing, either because street justice is enacted, they fear being retaliated against, or they think the police will not follow through, leaving them exposed as snitches. Of course, it is difficult to fully adopt the community lament over poor policing when so much assistance is withheld and, if given, would make the task of arresting and convicting murderers so much easier. 

And even when the police get help, securing cooperation often requires relocation, regular monitoring and check ins with people who may be unreliable, scared, or unmoored from a stable life, adding a degree of difficulty in holding cases together that Leovy points out is not seen in other, less violent parts of the city. The time and effort it takes to nurse cooperating witnesses through months and years of grueling pressure when testifying against those who they grew up with, loved, or feared is daunting and is another reason securing convictions can often be so hard. 

It is no wonder the problems of the inner city seem so intractable. When so much effort has to be put forth to not even achieve a fifty percent clearance rate on murders and so much enmity has been generated between the police and these impoverished communities, the tales Leovy tells of cooperation and commitment are a silver lining to an otherwise depressing problem. The small success Skaggs’s star witness from the Tennelle trial experiences as she puts her prior life of prostitution behind her and the continued decline of the overall murder rate notwithstanding, the high crime areas Leovy highlights are still responsible for nearly half of all the murders committed in Los Angeles. The two men who ended up going to prison for life in Bryant Tennelle’s murder are not remorseful when Leovy visits them, pleading flimsy alibis that belie any responsibility or personal accountability for their horrific actions. 

Ultimately, Leovy’s observations challenge the reader to consider unorthodox solutions. For example, the passage of a federal law, the Second Chance Act of 2005, expanded access to Supplemental Security Income, thereby providing ex-offenders with mental health disabilities the opportunity to collect a steady check from the government. While some might cringe at the idea of this form of welfare, as Leovy notes, economic flexibility affords people options that change the risk/reward calculus of criminogenic behavior. Other factors, from gentrifying neighborhoods to how illicit drugs are sold have also led to some of the decline in murders Leovy tracks. Absent though, are Leovy’s own thoughts on how these problems should be addressed. Instead, she punts to policy makers, but her silence is disappointing, for having spent years immersed in this world, she surely has insights that might prove valuable. But this is a quibble at the margins. Ghettoside is a must read for anyone interested in a behind the scenes look at the constant battle going on in pockets of our society stubbornly caught up in a generations long cycle of violence.


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Friday, January 1, 2016

Book Review - The Wilderness

While flipping through McKay Coppins’s book The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House it is easy to close your eyes and envision what the GOP’s Presidential nominating contest could have looked like: a telegenic young Florida Senator who had championed immigration reform debating with an ardent libertarian who supports privacy rights over foreign wars, a bilingual elder statesman lobbying for education reform and big tent conservatism squaring off against an Indian-American Governor of a blood-red state, a silver-tongued double Ivy graduate and former Supreme Court clerk voicing the frustrations of an electorate fed up with the Washington establishment dueling with a former tech CEO who was once one of the leading female executives in the country. 

That debate, a relatively sober, yet sharp conversation about the future of our country, how our money is spent, where we deploy our troops, how we help those in need and what we do about those in our country illegally would have elevated the discourse in a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections, but sadly, it was not meant to be. A tsunami of bile and invective spewed from the mouth of an all-id billionaire named Donald Trump consumed every molecule of oxygen available for months on end, leaving the best laid plans of party leaders in ruins and a reality TV star at the head of an army of discontented voters clamoring for high walls to keep out Mexicans, a ban on Muslims entering the country, and a visceral disdain for anything that vaguely smelled of the dreaded “establishment.” 

Surely, when Coppins signed a contract with Little, Brown in June 2013 to examine how the Republican party would attempt to reclaim the White House in 2016, neither he nor they foresaw Trump’s rise. After all, the GOP was just 8 months removed from getting its clock cleaned in the 2012 election, 3 months past the issuance of a report by a a blue ribbon panel of party elders that concluded Republicans needed to do more to attract the votes of African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, and President Obama had seemingly vanquished Trump from public life with a withering takedown at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Against this backdrop, it certainly made sense for the writer to spend time with people like Bobby Jindal, who had noted that the GOP needed to stop being the “stupid” party, Paul Ryan, who emerged unscathed from the smoldering ruin of the Romney campaign, and Rand Paul, who TIME Magazine dubbed “the most interesting man in politics” in October 2014. 

Coppins’s research and effort is on display throughout his book, it just turned out to be largely beside the point. We get the deep dive into biographical minutiae like the exorcism Jindal participated in, Paul’s bizarre “Aqua Buddha” incident from college, the oppo research on Rubio that was never released (but that Coppins eagerly does), and Jeb Bush’s transformation from entitled rich boy to humbled public servant (eye roll). While the breadth of Coppins’s research is admirable (poor guy fished out Jindal’s Oxford thesis that supported a health care plan that looks suspiciously like Obamacare) his word choice suggests a penchant for playing favorites. Marco Rubio is described as having “unparalleled skill” as a communicator (debatable) while Paul Ryan is “genial” and “good natured.” Coppins seems particularly taken with the now House Speaker. He goes on for several chapters lauding Ryan’s  listening tour to learn about how ex-offenders and drug addicts access treatment in the community while giving a one paragraph blow off to the fact that the budgets and tax policies Ryan supported after this little policy jag bore no resemblance to the needs of these men and women. 

While it is understandable that some characters may be more compelling (or likable than others), I was more troubled by the absence of attribution throughout much of the book. The sourcing stems from Coppins’s interviews with the candidates or those around them reconstructed or summarized except where quotations are used; however, the book has no endnotes or footnotes and the sources are rarely identified by name, leaving the book with an impressionistic feel that permits thumb-on-the-scale descriptions by the author that poo poohs Ron Paul as a “kooky gadfly” but Jeb Bush as a sober elder statesman. It is this type of Acela Corridor thinking that created a blind spot in the media’s collective reporting on the GOP, dismissed Trump and refused to concede he had kneecapped Bush with a few strategic insults.  

Moreover, the book makes a few declarative statements that are at best misleading and at worst, flat wrong. A discussion of the government shutdown describes the fall-out as the government’s inability to pay its bills, which is not technically true; rather, it results in employees not being able to go to work. At another point, Coppins claims that Ryan was “a few hundred thousand swing state votes” from being elected Vice President. This is not only demonstrably false, but the predicate before it, of Ryan’s feeling self-conscious while visiting a church that helps those in need, is a perfect illustration of the attribution failure described above. Lastly, because the book had a delivery due date, it already feels outdated. Cruz, who has rocketed to second place to Trump and who none other than Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman has identified as the likely Republican nominee, is referred to as a “footnote” by Coppins and Governor Chris Christie, languishing in the polls when The Wilderness went to print, is now surging in New Hampshire. 

Ultimately, the main failing of Coppins’s book is the same one that has bedeviled the Republican party and the Beltway cognoscenti - their collective failure to anticipate Trump’s meteoric rise fueled by the deep antipathy many in the GOP feel toward their own leaders. To be sure, there were hints along the way that Coppins highlights - Cruz’s kamikaze government shutdown effort, Dave Brat’s out-of-nowhere takedown of Eric Cantor, even Trump’s appearance at an Iowa “cattle call” in early 2015 where he flatly stated the party could not nominate another member of the Bush family - but instead of focusing on these clues, much of the book lingers on also rans who never made an impact on the race. Bobby Jindal is portrayed as both a serious man of faith and one who blithely jettisoned his reputation for wonkishness when it was clear his message was not selling with the base. Rand Paul’s brand of libertarian tinged Republicanism is shaded in the Oedipal struggle he felt with his father, but ultimately, the “libertarian moment” that the pundit class keeps claiming is going to happen when a Paul family member runs for President never materialized. 

In this way, The Wilderness offers an interesting examination of a political party that does not actually exist while maintaining a blinkered view of what caused Trump’s rise. Indeed, but for a single chapter that probes into the darker recesses of right-wing thought and a couple of paragraphs at the end of the book that spotlight this phenomenon, The Wilderness is surprisingly light on what seems an axiomatic idea - that whatever humility Republicans felt after Obama’s re-election receded when the party suffered no political consequences for the 2013 government shutdown and gained seats in the 2014 Congressional elections. These results, coupled with the party’s massive gains at the state level during Obama’s time in the White House and the fall of both John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the top two Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, emboldened the right wing, not cowed it. While most GOP candidates for President were busy running the same establishment playbook, Trump upended the conventional wisdom and swooped into the chasm that exists between the most ardent Republican voters in the hinterlands and the party’s leadership in Washington. A book that told that story would have been a worthy addition to the nascent canon of 2016 reporting.

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