Don’t Worry—The Republican Tax Plan Is Going to Suck

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Oh, great: a bunch of rich assholes in suits are going to decide what to do with our taxes. (Photo Credit: Mike Thieler/UPI)

Death and taxes. As the saying goes, they’re the two inescapable facts of life on this Earth. And maybe glitter, too. I’ve heard it said glitter is the herpes of the arts and crafts world, and having been the victim of glitter’s stickiness in the past, I appreciate the analogy. There’s so much you could say about death and its inevitability, more than could fit in one post and not exactly the kind of topic I’d cover in a blog about current events and politics anyway. There’s less you could say about glitter. It’s shiny—yay? Taxation in the United States, meanwhile, is an issue off which we can reasonably bite and chew. Taxes, be they local, state, or federal, are almost always relevant in some way to our daily lives, but currently exceedingly so in light of a recent resolution narrowly passed by the House of Representatives that paves the way for a Republican-led Congress to try to jam a tax reform bill through the legislature. After the GOP’s failure to get an ill-crafted replacement of the Affordable Care Act through both the House and Senate, the pressure is on Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the party’s leaders to devise something that will find success and uphold a pledge of both theirs and President Donald Trump’s to lower taxes.

Back at the end of September, Trump and the “Big Six”—House Ways and Means chair Kevin Brady, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Senate Finance chair Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Paul Ryan—unveiled a rough cut of what a Republican tax reform bill would look like. David Floyd, writing about the “Trump tax reform plan” under the Investopedia.com banner, offers a fairly good primer on what the forthcoming bill might look like. Among the salient points of agreement among the Big Six and made evident to reporting media:

For personal taxes

  • Three brackets: In what may seem as somewhat of a welcome change given the U.S. tax code is often derided as too complex and ridden with loopholes, a GOP tax bill is expected to reduce the number of tax brackets applicable to personal filers from seven brackets to just three: 12%, 25%, and 35%. Perhaps the most notable change herein would be the reduction of the top bracket from 39.6%, because, as with charges levied against the Republican plan for “repeal and replace,” the intimation is that the primary intent of this legislation is to give the wealthiest Americans a tax cut. Well, this aspect sure doesn’t help.
  • Higher standard deductions: From the looks of things, much higher. For current 2017 tax law, the standard deduction for single filers is $6,350, and $12,700 for married filing jointly. Under the proposed reform, the Single standard deduction would rise to $12,000 and the MFJ deduction would shoot up to $24,000. As for the Head of Household deduction, um, what Head of Household deduction? Seriously, though, the GOP tax plan doesn’t mention anything about it, which could presage an elimination of this option. Sorry, single parents—this is Trump’s family-oriented America now.
  • No additional standard deduction: A forthcoming reform bill is likely to eliminate the additional standard deduction (currently at $1,550) for single filers who are either 65+ years of age or blind. Sorry, old and blind people—this is Trump’s America now. The disabled and elderly don’t get priority.
  • No personal exemption: That apparent good news about your standard deduction? It stands to be tempered by the likelihood that the personal exemption will evaporate. That’s $4,050 which would suddenly become unavailable. Harsh, bruh.
  • Elimination of itemized deductions: Not all itemized deductions, but a number of them, particularly that applicable to deducting state and local taxes. Which would disproportionately affect filers in “blue” states, but that’s just a coincidence, right? Already, the dramatic increase for the standard deduction would be anticipated to reduce the number of couples/individuals making use of itemized deductions, which would only be useful if these individual deductions surpass the given standard deduction. Eliminating the so-called SALT deduction would, in all probability, further increase that trend.
  • Increasing the child tax credit: Increasing the child tax credit—what’s bad about that? Well, not much, from what I can tell, but this is probably a concession designed to make the legislation more palatable from a political standpoint. This is to say that the main reason this bill is being proposed by Republican leadership is most likely not related to concern for the average parent and his or her child/children.
  • Cutting the AMT and estate tax: Yeah, this is straight-up, good-for-the-wealthy-type shit right here, especially concerning the latter, which affects less than 1% of American estates and only those worth more than $5.5 million. The Trump Family, in particular, would benefit handsomely from a repeal of the estate tax. Yup, no conflicts of interest here—move it along, people. Nothing to see here.

For business taxes

  • Cutting the top corporate tax rate to 20%: Corporations, so onerously plagued by taxes that a number of them find ways to pay little to nothing in this regard, will apparently have this burden further reduced by the Trump/Big Six tax plan. Here’s the thing about this tax cut: the cost. Taxes collected are tax revenues, and with a drop in the highest corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, the estimated cost to the United States is some $2 trillion over a decade. Trillion. With a T. It’s doubtful the brain trust behind the forthcoming bill will be able to find a plug that large to fill the void.
  • Establishing a top “pass-through” rate of 25%. With pass-through entities, such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations, owners pay based on personal tax rates. As with the intended shift on the top corporate tax rate, the reduction in the top rate for pass-through entities would be substantial, down from the aforementioned 39.6% highest bracket threshold. Under the guise of this bill, this reduction is meant to give a break to America’s small businesses. Not only would a majority of small business owners not benefit anyway under the proposed plan, making this—surprise!—a boon predominantly for wealthier business owners, but defining what organizations/what type of work qualifies for classification in this way was already cumbersome. Meaning the IRS, already besieged by cuts over the past few years, will likely have that much more trouble sifting through returns if this bill comes to pass. It’s OK, though—your refund will get to you eventually. We hope.
  • Establishing a “territorial system” for foreign-based revenues: This applies to multinational corporations, and would allow these businesses to be subject to taxation based on where the money was made, rather than be subject to U.S. taxation, including a 35% tax on overseas profits for American corporations when they bring them back home. This might actually be a good element of the reform, as a large consensus seems to favor this treatment for multinationals, arguing that it will improve the American corporate tax system and could potentially make U.S. firms more competitive with their foreign counterparts. As they say, though, the Devil is in the details, and thus far, the details have been decidedly murky. What would a minimum foreign tax to discourage revenue shifting look like, exactly? For a supposed low, one-time tax rate to bring existing foreign revenues ashore, what is the proposed rate? If multinational corporations don’t want to shift them to the United States, do they even have to pay the tax at all? I’m asking you, the reader, because I’m not sure the Republican brass in charge of crafting this legislation have really thought through all the implications.

I say the details have been murky on the territorial system, but as with the various awful iterations of the GOP health care bill that did not get passed, there is a lot that is unclear about this tax plan concocted by the Trump administration and Co. What income ranges will get assigned to which of the three proposed tax brackets? Will the deduction from 39.6% to 35% actually survive the drafting process given obvious tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are unpopular with most of the population? What itemized deductions actually stand to be preserved by the Republican tax reform bill? How will abuses of the reduced top pass-through rate be curbed? And how exactly are we going to pay for these tax cuts? How exactly are we going to pay for these tax cuts? No, really—how the f**k are we going to pay for these tax cuts? I’m asking this three times because it’s important, and because a shortfall in tax revenue is to be expected relative to current rates, will this mean cuts in other areas to offset these losses? Also like with the health care bill voting process, it is doubtful that GOP lawmakers will have the time and wherewithal to read and comprehend what they’re potentially voting on—or much less be asked to. Keeping in mind the Republican Party’s penchant for legislative chicanery and desire for a victory regardless of the eventual fallout, anything less than full speed ahead is considered a liability for those who bleed Republican red. By this token, Trump and the Big Six probably hope their Republican Party underlings are as in the dark about this bill as we are.

As much as we don’t know about the fine details, however, and as accelerated a timeline under which the Republicans in Congress will aim to operate to keep as many people as unaware as possible, the broad strokes are enough to tell that the forthcoming tax reform legislation, like the deficient health care bills that preceded it, is something about which calling and writing one’s elected representatives merits the effort. Because this is legislation which is primarily designed to benefit wealthy business owners and other wealthy individuals—let’s not sugarcoat the matter. But don’t just take my word for it. John Komlos, professor emeritus of economics and economic history at the University of Munich, states outright that the GOP tax cuts would make the rich even richer. In an opinion piece appearing in PBS’s economic segment, “Making Sen$e,” Komlos argues that any theoretical gains to be enjoyed by members of the middle class from these revisions and cuts are easily outpaced by the windfalls to be realized by the most well-to-do. The professor explains:

Take a median household of two earners with an income of $59,000. The best estimate is that their after-tax income will increase by 1.2% or by $704. To be sure, that is nothing to scoff at. It is twice as much as their income gains during the previous 17 years but it is hardly enough to be a game changer for them. Their likelihood of affording college for their kids will not increase, for example. Their consumption will be not increase the economy’s aggregate demand appreciably either.

In contrast, the super-rich will become amazingly even richer. If the GOP had its way, the top tax rate would decline from 39.6 percent to 35 percent for a married couple earning more than $470,000. Take a typical CEO of a major corporation who earns, say $20 million. With a typical effective tax bill of 25.6 percent for someone in that position, their take home pay currently would be around $14.8 million. Under the new plan, the tax bill would decline by 4.6 percent, or roughly $900,000. However, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the gain would be even more — roughly $1.2 million.

Either way, in this scenario the windfall would leave the CEO with disposable income of around $16 million. This would certainly be enough to buy some political influence. So, the tax cuts feed a vicious circle that lead from the windfall to political power and the ability to influence the public’s worldview and thereby gain further profits and additional power both political and economic.

Prof. Komlos sees the Trump tax plan as another version of Reaganomics and to be rightly derided as “voodoo economics.” As it has been a linchpin of conservative economic theory for some time, the central mechanism here is trickle-down theory, and experience has shown it doesn’t quite work as specified. From the Reagan tax cuts, we got a “$2 trillion increase in the government deficit and the hollowing out of the middle class,” earning us respectable but only incremental growth. The majority of growth experienced under George W. Bush prior to the Great Recession benefited the top 1%, and the deficit ballooned yet again. All this is an erosion of the middle class and its power, while income and wealth inequality widen, with the growing chasm threatening to swallow the bottom 99% whole. As for the idea the drop in corporate tax rates will stimulate growth, Komlos argues that what is limiting additional investments by American businesses is not burdensome taxation, but lack of demand for the product. No amount of lining the pockets of the wealthy can magically spur demand from the public.

John Komlos’s closing remarks strike an ominous tone, even if they leave the door open for something better:

At its core, the tax plan was made by the 1 percent for the 1 percent. Apparently greed has no limits. Make no mistake about it: this is nothing less than class warfare. And as Warren Buffett, the second richest man in America, so astutely recognized, “my class has won.” We were fooled by Reaganomics. We were fooled by George W. Bush tax cuts. Will the 1 percent fool us again? Or will Abraham Lincoln be proved was right, when he said that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

The hope, of course, is that the American people will realize how lopsided this bill is and will demand something fairer, not just in terms of the alignment of specific income brackets with specific percentages, but in terms of the distribution of wealth and power across the American economic spectrum. The major reservation, however, is that some distraction like terrorism or Hillary Clinton or the difficulties of daily life will come along to make too many of us ready to forfeit our bargaining power. History has repeated itself with the Republican presidents leading up to Barack Obama. It can easily repeat itself after the fact, change and hope aside.


Speaking of distractions, as is so often the case with Donald Trump, he and his Republican cronies have utilized their brand of misdirection to try to minimize public attention to how terrible their tax plan will be. At about the same time we were hearing that the resolution narrowly passed which would allow Republicans to fast-track tax reform legislation through Congress, our attention was diverted to concerns about the release of the JFK assassination files, of all things, as well as Trump’s blathering about Hillary Clinton and sales of uranium to Russia. These may very well be worth the scrutiny, mind you, but the timing of their release/publicizing functions to obscure the fact that wealthy people masquerading as authentic representatives of the American people are intent on catering to their wealthiest benefactors first, leaving the scraps for the rest of us. The intersection of Trump administration proceedings, Republican legislative machinations, and the rantings and ravings of a spoiled brat who was elected to be—but does not act like—the President creates a shell game by which all options are vaguely appealing, but the contents of one have the unique power to do quantifiable damage to our country and the balance of power within it. In this case, it’s the GOP-led Congress’s shell that covers their mad dash of an attempt to give the wealthiest Americans an unnecessary tax break, and to get a bill passed before we’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in 2018. This means that, following any elections individual states, counties, and municipalities may have this November, the timeline for voicing opposition to any proposed legislation will be slim.

Thus, even while indictments are being issued by Robert Mueller in the investigation into Donald Trump and his potential ties to Russia, the details of this whole Republican tax shebang will be critical to pursue in the coming days, weeks, and months. Particularly so we can find out what the hell, if anything, is being done to our 401(k) plans and their associated limits. The Republican tax plan is going to suck. It’s up to us to find out just how bad it will suck and which representatives/senators to contact and pressure in the hopes it won’t be passed.

Lies, Misdirection, and Pacing: Media Manipulation from Trump and the GOP

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“No, Donald, I don’t think the American people have any idea just how bad we’re trying to f**k them.” (Photo Credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Months ago, before the election, I saw that Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, was trending on social media. As I’m sure you can speak to this phenomenon, the first thing I thought when reading his name was this: “Oh, shit—he didn’t die, did he?” As it turns out, no, it was not his death being reported, nor even false rumors of his death, but news of him switching his allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. At first glance, this seemed like an immediate and egregious betrayal of principles. How could someone switch from one extreme to the other like that? Et tu, Scott? As a supporter of neither Clinton nor Trump, however, and as someone who doesn’t read Dilbert religiously but has enjoyed it on occasion, I figured I would give Adams the benefit of the doubt. Adams explained his reversal of support in an open letter on his blog back in September. He had a number of different reasons for flipping his endorsement, which I would argue varied in their merit. At any rate, here they are, in summation:

1. “Things I Don’t Know”: Scott Adams begins by saying he doesn’t know much about politics, including how to defeat ISIS, how to negotiate trade policies, and what tax policy would be most effective, and on the subject of abortion, he feels men should “follow the lead of women on that topic.” In this respect, he doesn’t know enough to make a decision—and argues that neither do you. To this end, he can’t claim either would make the better president, and thus, based solely on matters of domestic and foreign policy, Adams is effectively neutral on who is, was, or will be the better choice for President of the United States.

2. “Confiscation of Property”: Given his neutrality on large-scale issues, where Adams does seem to possess a particular ax to grind is the estate tax. Scott Adams hates the estate tax, and he particularly disagreed with Clinton’s stance on it as well as her representation of the issue, which he characterized as worse than Trump’s because, rather than offering no details, as he claims, it intentionally tried to mislead people based on outmoded or manipulated data. Essentially, Adams argues, the estate tax is a “confiscation” tax because it taxes payers on income that already has been taxed. He explains further:

You can argue whether an estate tax is fair or unfair, but fairness is an argument for idiots and children. Fairness isn’t an objective quality of the universe. I oppose the estate tax because I was born to modest means and worked 7-days a week for most of my life to be in my current position. (I’m working today, Sunday, as per usual.) And I don’t want to give 75% of my earnings to the government. (Would you?)

3. “Party or Wake”: #3 and #4 in Scott Adams’ list, if you ask me, are his weakest reasons, as they seem highly capricious. With Number Three, he opines that he’d rather ride the Trump Train and plan for a party; in other words; he wants to be “invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.” Adams admits straight-up this is not his biggest reason, but regardless, even in jest, it assumes a pre-determined outcome, when prior to the election, the final result seemed like a toss-up at best.

4. “Clinton’s Health”: I’ll let Adams explain himself here:

To my untrained eyes and ears, Hillary Clinton doesn’t look sufficiently healthy – mentally or otherwise – to be leading the country. If you disagree, take a look at the now-famous “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” video clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton seems to be in bad shape too, and Hillary wouldn’t be much use to the country if she is taking care of a dying husband on the side.

OK, I’m just going to call it out here—this is a stupid argument. If Hillary Clinton, like any number of establishment Democrats, is deluded and out of touch with voters on important issues, this is not a sign of mental illness, and it’s vaguely insulting to the millions of Americans who do suffer from mental illness, at that. It’s like with amateur psychoanalysis of Donald Trump in the early days of his presidency. Forget his being emotionally or mentally ill-equipped to handle the job of President. Forget any diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” or referring to him as “unhinged.” The major issues with Trump is that he is deficient in policy knowledge, he is severely ethically compromised, and he is—and these are technical terms—an idiot and a jerk. He shouldn’t have been a legitimate presidential candidate, but he was elected, and here we are. But yes, he has the capacity to lead, even if we don’t like his executive orders, and what’s more, he has the likes of Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King to advise him. Unfortunately.

5. “Pacing and Leading”: Back to the better arguments for switching sides, IMHO. Scott Adams explains in great detail why he thinks Donald Trump isn’t nearly as dangerous as so many of his critics, including myself, feel he is:

Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks scary. If you understand pacing and leading, you might see him as the safest candidate who has ever gotten this close to the presidency. That’s how I see him.

Adams’ notion is buoyed by the notion that Trump’s stance on Vladimir Putin is one of intended closeness, while Clinton’s approach to Putin was/is one of “insult[ing] Putin into doing what we want.” The latter, in his view, is patently more dangerous. Ol’ Vladdy aside, Scott Adams’ point is that Trump doesn’t really believe all the crazy things he says, but says them to set a tone and to make the actual policies he intends to effect seem more palatable by comparison. Let’s just assume Adams is correct in this respect, because his final bit of reasoning is highly related to this one which precedes it.

6. “Persuasion”: Even if his logic seems flawed, especially noting his earlier admission that he doesn’t know much about politics, Adams has a logic regarding the power of persuasion, and why Donald Trump’s identity as a “trained persuader” makes him superior to Clinton on this dimension. From the man himself:

Economies are driven by psychology. If you expect things to go well tomorrow, you invest today, which causes things to go well tomorrow, as long as others are doing the same. The best kind of president for managing the psychology of citizens – and therefore the economy – is a trained persuader. You can call that persuader a con man, a snake oil salesman, a carnival barker, or full of shit. It’s all persuasion. And Trump simply does it better than I have ever seen anyone do it.

The battle with ISIS is also a persuasion problem. The entire purpose of military action against ISIS is to persuade them to stop, not to kill every single one of them. We need military-grade persuasion to get at the root of the problem. Trump understands persuasion, so he is likely to put more emphasis in that area.

Most of the job of president is persuasion. Presidents don’t need to understand policy minutia. They need to listen to experts and then help sell the best expert solutions to the public. Trump sells better than anyone you have ever seen, even if you haven’t personally bought into him yet. You can’t deny his persuasion talents that have gotten him this far.

Again, I say his logic may be flawed. Economics based purely on confidence, I would submit, risks producing a bubble that will collapse when the realization comes that the economy doesn’t rest on sound fundamentals. As for ISIS, you can try persuading them to stop all you want, but for an organization that views its conflict as a prophesied war between good and evil, the time and avenue for persuasion may be all but closed, if it were ever open in the first place. All this notwithstanding, confidence and persuasion can have a positive effect on upward mobility, economic or otherwise, and as Adams would stress, Trump is not really as extreme or fascistic as he comes across. Clearly, if nothing else, Donald Trump convinced enough voters that he was the better choice, or that Hillary Clinton was a poorer one. Accordingly, if Scott Adams seems to be making these comments from his position way out in left field, nearly 63 million other Trump voters suggests his views were, to a large extent, shared by those casting their ballot in November.


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“Hey, April, you’re black…do you know Frederick Douglass?” (Image Source: MSNBC)

Why do I bring up an almost-five-month-old blog post by the creator of Dilbert about his endorsement of Donald Trump? Because I can—that’s why! OK—you’re looking for something more substantial than that. Scott Adams’ observations, especially the discussion of pacing and leading, are relevant to the larger discussion of President Trump’s leadership style and the evolution of his administration’s policymaking. One apparent strategy used by Trump and American politicians in general is leading with an extreme proposal to facilitate the acceptance of a slightly-less-extreme version of that proposal. It’s along the lines of what car dealerships and their sales representatives do, as detailed by Ben DeMeter in this post about common sales techniques on Investopedia. Referring to this method as the “discounted markup” technique, DeMeter explains it with the following:

Many times, a store will dramatically mark up the price of its merchandise just so it can offer a convincing discount when it comes time to make a sale. This occurs most commonly at car dealerships, where the sticker price on some vehicles can be more than $2,000 above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). This way, the dealership can allow customers to talk down the price of the car to the MSRP so that they think they’re getting a good deal when really they’re just paying exactly what the dealership had hoped for all along.

Let’s extend this metaphor to Donald Trump, viewed through the lens of the media’s attempts to reckon with the three-ring circus that is his White House. Jason Linkins, editor of Huffington Post’s “Eat the Press,” a feature section devoted to commentary and criticism about politics, the media, and culture, and co-host of HuffPost Politics’ podcast “So, That Happened,” recently penned an essay on the virtues of discretion, patience and refraining from overreacting for members of the media in the Trump era. The specific genesis for this article comes after a recent Associated Press report that it had obtained a memo suggesting the Department of Homeland Security was considering using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants across several states in deportation raids. The White House, of course, denied it, which you’d imagine they’d do even if it were true, but in this instance, as with other cited rush-to-judgment breaking news stories, Linkins points to a skittishness of the mainstream media, or as he terms it, a “primed for freakout” condition. By failing to recognize this phenomenon, members of the press not only give the White House ammunition and undermine their own credibility, but they risk the overall inability of their audience and of themselves to recognize bad policy when they see it. Here’s Linkins’ description of the situation:

The AP reported it attempted to get clarification from the White House several times before it went to press, affording the administration the opportunity to disown the policy entirely. That means the White House could have nipped this story in the bud, but opted not to. What does the White House gain from that? Well, additional ammunition to make the case that the media is being unfair, for a start. But even if this is what’s happening — and the White House says it’s definitely not — this game is not new. It’s basic as hell, and used in American politics all the time. Why does anyone propose a six-week abortion ban? To make it more palatable to pass a 20-week abortion ban.

Considering an extreme policy to make political room for a slightly less-extreme policy isn’t some crazy-new innovation that Trump and his cabal of super-geniuses came up with, nor is it something they’ve imported from the Kremlin. As much as it might feel right to believe that, the assumption that you are forever tunneling through a Twilight Zone is going to lead you to paint everything with a paranoid brush and make you more likely to equate the truly extreme ideas of Trump’s White House with every other trivial action the administration undertakes. All things cannot be equally momentous or pernicious. If you can’t make that differentiation, you’ll harm your readership ― training them to either panic at the drop of a hat, or to disregard the dire import of bad policy.

Politics as usual. Pacing and leading. “Discounted markup.” Whatever you call it, the idea is familiar: start incredibly high, move down to a more agreeable position, make the consumers think they got away with something, laugh to yourself when they leave because you really came out ahead in that you wanted to propose that less-extreme position in the first place. It’s sales and persuasion at its most elemental, and yet, it’s effective across contexts. The media may view itself as morally superior or highly informed and intelligent, but with tactics like these that play on our human emotions of dread and outrage, any of us are susceptible to the their trickery.

When not baiting and switching, if you will, President Trump and a largely sympathetic Republican Congress (“sympathetic” as in “sympathetic nervous system”; many Republican lawmakers seem devoid of sympathy and other genuine feelings) evidently like to engage in a bit of sleight-of-hand in terms of putting forth policy. Even if this is an unconscious force, though, the effect is very real. Donald Trump recently had a press conference announcing his pick of lawyer, dean of Florida International University School of Law, and former member of the National Labor Relations Board Alexander Acosta to replace Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary for Labor after the fast-food company CEO withdrew his name from consideration. You, um, may have heard about it. The press conference, in short, was baffling to those in attendance, as it was for much of the international community. Tessa Stuart details the shock value of the event with a recap entitled “18 WTF Moments from Trump’s Unhinged Press Conference.” (Here we go again with calling Donald Trump “unhinged.”) As Stuart explains, the press conference, at least in name, was meant to announce Acosta as the replacement risk, but quickly went off topic and off the rails as Pres. Trump went off-script, largely to attack the media, ever-embattled since the beginning of Trump’s tenure. Some of the moments of the press conference which produced a pronounced sense of wonderment from the onlookers:

  • Trump saying that the leaks leading to Michael Flynn’s resignation were real, but that “the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” These two concepts should be mutually exclusive, and yet, this is Donald Trump.
  • Trump insisting the travel ban had a “smooth rollout,” despite it being very un-smooth and struck down by multiple courts of law.
  • Trump making it clear he’s a nice person, and that he gets good ratings—as if the latter proves the former.
  • Trump offering up this gem: “We’re becoming a drug-infested nation. Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy cars.” Clearly, I’ve been spending my money in the wrong places.
  • Trump trying to state that his electoral victory was the biggest since Ronald Reagan, though it wasn’t. Wait, he meant for Republicans. Um, nope—still not the biggest.
  • Trump bashing Hillary Clinton. You know, despite already winning the election over her more than three months ago. I guess it never gets old, huh?
  • Trump extolling the virtues of the First Lady, in that Melania feels “very, very strongly about women’s issues.” Like, um, lighter hair?
  • Trump berating Jewish reporter Jake Turx after a question about how to handle the rise in anti-Semitism in this country, and explaining that he is the least anti-Semitic and least racist person you will ever see in your life. On a related note, I have the power to fly and can move small objects with my mind. I mean, while we’re making outrageous claims and all.
  • Trump asking April Ryan, an African-American White House reporter, to set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus. Because all black people are “tight” like that. And they all look alike. Because Trump.

The sum of this garbage is troubling for those of us with developed consciences, and besides, acting as if President Trump’s behavior is normal is a self-defeating principle. It becomes yet worse when we consider Trump’s Tweets the day after, particularly the one that reads as follows:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

Needless to say, this is a dangerous position to take, and I’m not even necessarily talking about for Trump himself. To label certain news organizations as fake because they represent him in a critical light, and to paint the press as an adversary of the average American, is disturbing because it invites an escalation of the concept of the state of affairs in U.S. politics and culture beyond a mere “divide,” and into the realm of all-out “war.” For those who agree with Donald Trump’s sentiments, the very future of the country depends on their resistance to what they see as bastions of liberal fascism. “We” must resist. “They” must falter. This is an ideological conflict with huge implications for the United States of America, one with the makings of a civil war, not fought with bayonets, bullets and cannon fire, but with hashtags, live streams, and memes. Furthermore, like the American Civil War of our history books, the aftershocks of this seismic event stand to be felt for generations after. The resentment. The hate.


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Hey, remember Trump University? Remember how it has defrauded and swindled scores of people who invested in it based on Trump’s name and image? How come we’ve stopped talking about what a complete scam it is? (Image Credit: Trump University)

Pretty bad, huh? Wait—we’re still not done. Really. While we may poke fun at Trump’s outlandish statements and while labeling the press the enemy of the American people is a serious charge with potentially destructive consequences, to add another layer to this shit sandwich we’re being forced to digest, let’s also consider that the President’s wackiness may act as a smokescreen for other likely deleterious moves by members of his adopted party. While the lot of us were consumed with his antics at the Acosta announcement press conference, Trump’s GOP mates were at work unveiling a broad blueprint for a possible replacement to the Affordable Care Act, and it’s pretty terrible, if you ask me and other critics. Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan, reporting for The New York Times, provide a synopsis of what this schematic entails—and what it does not. As Pear and Kaplan put forth, the yet-nameless theoretical successor to the ACA does not account for how many people may lose coverage that now have it under ObamaCare, nor does it explain how it all would be paid for. Details, shmetails, amirite?

As for what we know, for starters, Medicaid payments to the states as a function of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would stand to be greatly reduced, in all likelihood putting a strain on state budgets and putting Americans at risk of losing coverage. Subsidies under the current law designed to help those with needs based on income would be supplanted by a fixed tax credit scheme which negates benefits based on income, instead increasing them with age. The new plan would eliminate tax penalties on those who fail to secure health coverage, and would also get rid of taxes and fees on the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, benefitting big corporations and reducing the funding pool for entitlement program benefits. Plus, there’s still nothing about preventing insurers from dropping people based on pre-existing conditions, an important and popular aspect of the Affordable Care Act. Figuratively and literally speaking, this all is, in a word, sketchy, such that average Americans—both Republican and Democrat, Trump supporters and not—stand to be hurt by a repeal. No wonder they went about this reveal relatively quietly.

There’s a word for this technique: misdirection. It’s commonly used in football, especially on trick plays. The defense keys in on the man with the ball—except he just tossed it to the wide receiver running in the backfield the opposite way! In case my analogy is unclear, Trump is the man with the ball, Republican lawmakers are the receiver who actually has the ball, and the ball is not actually a ball, but rather a deeply and intentionally flawed replacement for the ACA. Keeping with this theme, a “touchdown” is the Republican Party paying huge dividends to Big Pharma and other related industries who don’t need them, and shafting the little guy in the process. Um, yay, GO TEAM?

Conceiving of this tactic in a slightly different way, Donald Trump’s role is that of the distraction. He is free to tell obvious lies, boast about himself and his brand, and look tough as Commander-in-Chief—all while Paul Ryan and Republicans in Congress threaten to pull the proverbial rug out from under us. In a piece for ELLE Magazine, Rachel Sklar muses on this very subject, invoking the time Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway, the cast addressed him after the show, and Trump had a hissy-fit on Twitter saying those performers were being so gosh-darn mean to him. Amid this political kerfuffle which Pres. Trump himself to a considerable extent engineered, meanwhile, major shit was going on which suddenly became less visible and none the less important. Jeff “Black People Don’t Really Like to Vote, Do They?” Sessions was nominated as Attorney General. Michael “Islam Is the Devil” Flynn was appointed to be Trump’s National Security Advisor. And last but not least, the Trump Organization settled a fraud case against Trump University to the tune of $25 million. These were no small potatoes, and particular with respect to the settlement, raised serious concerns about Trump’s credibility and ethics. What a lot of people heard, however, was just the blather about Hamilton being overrated (it isn’t) and the cast being nasty to Mike Pence (they weren’t). Flash forward to today, and Sessions, despite serious concerns from Democrats about his judicial record, has been confirmed, Flynn, in light of serious concerns with his and the administration’s ties to Russia, has resigned, and talk of Trump University has been all but shelved. Are you upset yet? If not, you should be.

Lies. Misdirection. Pacing. All of this makes for a morass of manipulation on the part of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, a reality made ten times more troubling by the White House’s attempts to demonize and delegitimize the press. If it seems like one big game, the real and potentially devastating fallout from what is decided but ultimately obscured by these sales techniques should convey the sense the sum of these things should not be taken as fun and light-hearted. So, what’s the takeaway from these thoughts, other than perhaps the newfound notion that the creator of Dilbert seems like kind of a dick?

Well, let me tell you what I take away from them. First, much as the media should do their part not to rush to judgment or rush to print in the interest of journalistic integrity, we should likewise do our part to examine what we see and hear is credible, and to correct the record when we know it to be demonstrably false. You know, lest we end up like Trump claiming to be the best thing since sliced Ronald Reagan, electorally speaking. Second, we should give Trump’s antics the attention they merit as a warning of his dictatorial aspirations, but not get lost in the GOP’s shell game of disastrous policymaking. Republican lawmakers should be held accountable, and as reports are growing of Republicans ducking their constituents at scheduled town halls and other forums, the demand that they not be let of the hook becomes that more serious accordingly. Lastly, and perhaps I am in the minority in thinking this way, but stop giving Trump and the Republicans so much g-d credit. As Jason Linkins and others suggest, their parlor tricks are nothing new, and are more evocative of snake oil salesmen than masters of the media. Anyone can lie, cheat, and steal their way through life—apparently right into the Oval Office, at that. They should be admonished for this, not commended.

From what I’ve seen, confidence in Donald Trump’s brand of leadership and his ability to elevate the position of working-class America is yet quite high. But don’t be deceived or distracted. Trump and the Republican lawmakers who aid and abet his hijinks are out to f**k you over at the behest and to the benefit of the industries and wealthy individuals who help fill their coffers, and if you still don’t believe it, then I’ve got some lovely beachfront property in Nebraska with your name on it.

CNN Held a Debate about Health Care—Sure, Why Not?

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I mean, with a promo like this, who *wouldn’t* want to tune in? (Source: CNN)

After a Democratic Party primary season which saw nine debates and 13 candidate forums held, and a Republican Party campaign season which saw 12 debates and nine forums held, many Americans may be justifiably and understandably “debated out.” Half-truths and outright lies. Pandering to prospective voters along demographic lines. Constant interruptions. The rambling attempts to answer questions from the person of Dr. Ben Carson. For these reasons and more, it is no wonder people may not only become disengaged from political discourse in the weeks and months following any presidential election and into the inauguration, but may actively distance themselves from anything of a political nature. Especially if you find yourself on the liberal end of the political spectrum, the executive actions taken by President Trump and the partisan rancor which has marked the confirmation process for a number of his Cabinet nominees has made tuning in to the news these days almost somewhat of an act of masochism. Either that or you want to take out your frustrations on the nearest object. In the latter case, make sure the consistency of said object is closer to that of a pillow than, say, a brick wall.

While the nature of politics today and President Trump’s victory have helped alienate scores of Americans, others have taken recent events as a call to action and a reason to stay informed and involved. Though the workings of Congress may remain arcane to many of us, a notion buttressed by the crushing boredom of House and Senate proceedings, through News Feeds and trending topics on social media, as well as dedicated accounts whereby average citizens can interact with their elected representatives, political figures have never been more accessible than they are today. Why, I interact every day with President Trump via Twitter! OK, so maybe it’s a bit one-sided, and it consists of me Tweeting to his preferred account each time that he lost the popular vote, according to the most recent count, by 2,868,519 votes—but hey, I get to speak to him directly! (He seems very concerned with the results of the popular vote, so I figured he should be apprised of the status of the count, you know, just in case anything were to change.) It’s an exciting time in American history to be so close to those with our best interests in mind!

It is with this dichotomy that I offer the news, in the event you were unaware, that CNN aired a televised debate on the subject of health care recently, with periodic updates on social media featuring snippets of the proceedings. Wait—you’re saying—this is February 2017. We just had an election, and the 2018 mid-terms aren’t until November of next year. Why are we having a debate at this very early point in the campaign? Well, for starters, both of the participants are, in fact, running for re-election in 2018, and as a matter of fact, made it pretty darn far in the presidential race before conceding to the eventual party nominees. Besides this possible means to an end, though, the topic of conversation is an important one for Americans across income level, age level and other identifying characteristics. The subject of health care in the United States is a pressing one for individuals and businesses alike, and yet more so in the wake of the GOP’s announced plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Based on what our leaders and policymakers decide in the near future, large swaths of the population stand to be impacted one way or another, and noting the costs involved, generations to come may likewise be affected by the actions of the present. So, yeah, while we’re a way’s away from November 2018, it makes sense to have a debate now when so much is at stake.

Have I sufficiently set the scene? Even if I haven’t, let us press onward, for we have much to discuss, grasshopper.

UNITED STATES OF JOE RECAPS THE CNN HEALTH CARE DEBATE

THE PARTICIPANTS

For a weeknight debate in the campaign off-season, CNN and the powers-that-be for each “side” of the affair could have trotted out your run-of-the-mill, rank-and-file members of Congress. As it turned out, though, this debate brought the heat in the form of two heavyweight contenders in the political scene. Your, ahem, “fighters” in this bout:

In the red corner, the U.S. Senator everyone loves to hate, the Tea Partier from Texas, the Canadian-born, half-Cuban aficionado of the government shutdown, ladies and gentlemen—give it up for Rafael “The Zodiac Killer” Cruz!

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Photo Source: Nati Harnik/AP

Annnnnd in the blue corner, he’s an independent senator but he caucuses with the Democrats, he lives in Vermont but he’s Brooklyn through and through, he’s a fan of democratic socialism and he’s not afraid to show it—”let me be clear” who I am talking about: the one, the only, Bernard “It’s Not about Me, It’s About Our Revolution” Sanders!

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Photo Source: John Locher/AP

THE ROUNDS

Round One: The Opening Statements

Bernie Sanders was first to go in the opening segment, and per the boxing metaphor, he came out swinging. According to Sanders, the Republicans’ intended repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean 20 million Americans finally able to have health insurance would lose it, the 10 million seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs would see their costs go up by an average of $2,000, and people with serious diseases/illnesses could be refused insurance for having pre-existing conditions. In making these arguments, Bernie acknowledged the ACA isn’t perfect, but indicated a majority of Americans want better than a repeal without an improved replacement. Then, he dusted off his old line from the campaign trail: that the United States is the only major country on Earth not to offer health care as a fundamental right. It doesn’t make it any less true, of course, but ahem, we’ve heard this before.

Ted Cruz, when he was on for his two minutes, talked about how his colleague in the Senate and the Democrats want government to control health care, and therefore want to wrest control away from you and your family. Cruz then proceeded to engage in the GOP’s new favorite tradition—dragging the legacy of Barack Obama—specifically by alleging Obama made promises about Americans being able to keep their own plans and that families’ premiums wouldn’t rise, and didn’t keep them, and capped these arguments off by saying the election was a referendum on ObamaCare. Actually,  it seemed like the election was a referendum on establishment politics in general and/or Barack Obama and “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, but sure, go nuts with that story, Ted.

Round Two: So When Exactly Do We Repeal, Again?

To start off the actual debate portion of the debate, Jake “Please Don’t Put Me on with Kellyanne Conway Again” Tapper, co-moderator of CNN’s prime-time event alongside Dana “Admit It, You’re Glad I’m Not Don Lemon, Aren’t You?” Bash, engaged Ted Cruz about a timeline for a repeal of ObamaCare. After all, Paul Ryan had said a full repeal would get done by the end of 2017, but President Trump recently suggested a repeal and replacement might not come to pass until 2018. So, wouldn’t anything less than a substantive change by the end of this year be tantamount to a broken promise? Cruz was quick to reject this assertion, though, returning to his line about recent elections between a referendum on ObamaCare, saying “the people” wanted lower deductibles and premiums and more choices, not less, when it comes to their health care providers. Don’t we all, Ted. Don’t we all. Cruz closed his thoughts on this particular question by saying we need “common-sense” reform on health care and health insurance in America (“common-sense Republican reform”—bit of an oxymoron, no?), and attacked Democrats for resisting all changes to the Affordable Care Act. It’s not necessarily true, mind you, but it plays well in sound bites and video clips.

Given the opportunity to respond, Bernie Sanders replied by saying the Republicans don’t have a credible substitute for the ACA, and accordingly, are in a state of “panic.” He was all, like, oh, you want a choice under the GOP’s plan? How about if you have cancer, then you either have affordable health care, or if you are refused coverage because you have a “pre-existing condition,” you—wait for it—die? What kind of a choice is that? OK, so he didn’t say it exactly like that per se, but he may as well have. As Sanders views things, it is the nature of private insurance that drives these no-win situations for the consumer, and in a rebuttal to the notion ObamaCare has driven up premiums, remarked that it was under the Bush administration that rates really began to soar. So chew on that for a while, you whipper-snapper!

In a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Ted Cruz pointed out that insurance companies’ profits increased during Obama’s tenure, which doesn’t really prove anything, but the correlation is there. Bernie made a counter-offer that we should just bypass the insurance companies altogether and institute a Medicare-for-all system. Cruz then pivoted to a verbal assault on Big Pharma and the cost of prescription drugs, which Sanders admittedly got baited into joining because he loves him some Big Pharma bashing. Sheesh—one question in, and this thing was already threatening to go off the rails.

Round Three: Ponder This

Round Three marked the introduction of audience member questions into the fray. The first of these came from a woman named Neosho Ponder, someone diagnosed with breast cancer and currently undergoing treatment because of ObamaCare. She wanted to know of Ted Cruz: if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what guarantee will I have that I’ll be able to afford health insurance given my “pre-existing condition” of cancer? To which Cruz essentially was all, like, um, well, we can pray for you? Bernie Sanders first asked for Jake Tapper to “cut him a switch.” Then he proceeded to lambaste his political rival for wanting to repeal every word of the ACA without maintaining the ability to protect those with pre-existing conditions from the machinations of the insurance industry. Cruz responded by saying what about the 6 million people who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare? (By the way, not really close to being accurate.) Dana Bash interceded to ask him when, exactly, he planned on answering Ponder’s question. And Ted Cruz was all, like, I already did a bunch of times. And Bash was all, like, seriously, though, what about those pre-existing conditions? And Cruz then offered to do everyone in attendance a magic trick to lighten the mood. No—you’re right—he didn’t, but it would’ve been just about as effective. Because he and the Republicans can’t promise Americans like Neosho Ponder will be able to find coverage, and in the spirit of illusions, would only excel at making affordable health insurance disappear.

Round Four: The, Er, Abnormal Pap Smear Round

No one involved in the actual debate had an abnormal pap smear, whether we’re talking about the participants or the moderators. That is, that we know of. I mean, Ted Cruz could secretly be a hermaphrodite or something. Not that I’m alleging he is one, by the way. Just saying you never know. No, that revelation came from audience member Melissa Borkowski, a nurse practitioner from Florida with a husband, four kids, and, oh, just a tiny little insignificant $13,000 deductible. Bernie Sanders was asked, um, what gives, old man? Sen. Sanders replied by saying, well, Pam, we shouldn’t be paying that much, and if this were France, Germany, Scandinavia or the U.K., you wouldn’t. She-He Cruz, meanwhile, contended we pay more because we get better and more frequent care. What happens when the government controls health care is that it rations that care. So there, Bernie. Then he stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands to his head.

Piggybacking off Borkowski’s question and her, well, candid medical information, Jake Tapper directed a follow-up at Bernie, asking him about a state like Florida that now has less insurance choices to offer through ObamaCare and through the public exchange. How do we manage affordability for the consumer while still offering a fair number of choices? First, responding to Melissa’s question and Ted Cruz’s comments, because he’ll answer your question when he’s good and ready, Mr. Tapper!, Bernie Sanders noted that when people can’t afford health insurance and proper health care, that is effectively a form of rationing as well. The solution, as Sanders sees it, is to, as an extension of a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, provide a public option in all 50 states and offer the kind of competition needed against the private sector. Ted Cruz, in his reply, brought a visual aid in the form of a map of this insurance coverage—or lack thereof—and criticized the public option as the government controlling your health care, also known as—gasp!—socialism. Besides, as much as Sen. Sanders might extol the public option, what about all those Canadians and Scandinavians who come to the United States for superior health care?

Quick to jump back in, Bernie refuted the notion that the government option was the government telling people what to do. After all, it’s an option, not a mandate. Regardless, you don’t see leaders of these countries that offer the public option, even the conservative ones, choosing to get rid of this avenue for insurance. Mr. Zodiac Killer, in response, threw out some horror stories about rationing and waiting periods for patients as a justification for why there shouldn’t be a public option or even a Medicare-for-all program. Bernie, however, wasn’t having any of it, and threw out not his own horror stories, but rather an estimate that tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t seek medical treatment, or as Big Pharma would refer to it within the context of possible side effects for prescription drugs, there are tens of thousands of “fatal events.” Ooh—Bernie Sanders with the haymaker, right before the commercial break!

Round Five: Help Me, LaRonda!

Actually, it was LaRonda who needs the help, although, unfortunately for her, she probably was never going to a satisfactory answer from either debater. The question, first directed at Sen. Sanders, was posed by LaRonda Hunter, an owner of five Fantastic Sams hair salons who would like to expand and hire more employees, but this would put her over the 50-employee threshold, and under ObamaCare, she would need to start providing health insurance to her employees. So, how could she meet this regulatory requirement and grow her business without raising prices or lowering wages? (Side note: I have never heard of Fantastic Sams, but evidently, they have locations all over the damn place. They also evidently don’t like using apostrophes. I mean, it should be “Fantastic Sam’s,” right? Unless the founder has the last name Sams? Either way, their distinction of being “fantastic” seems suspect.) And Bernie was all, like, well, Ronda. And Ms. Hunter replied, it’s LaRonda. And Sanders was all, like, dammit, you people have to stop changing your names on me! As to your question, though, um, you don’t? That is, if you have that many employees, they should be getting health insurance. Sen. Ted Cruz, given the floor, took the opportunity to portray ObamaCare as the nemesis of small business, and identified two piteous classes of people created by the Affordable Care Act. The first is the 29ers, those forced to work part-time jobs because ObamaCare kicks in at 30 hours a week. The other is the 49ers, who suffer the plight of being a terrible football franchise. Kidding—sort of! The 49ers, in Cruz’s context, are people like LaRonda Hunter that stop short of hiring 50 employees or else be subject to needing to meet the insurance requirement under the ACA. So, thanks, Democrats, thanks, Barack Obama—this is the Hell you’ve wrought in the United States of America.

Bernie Sanders, of course, was not about to take this line of thinking from Sen. Cruz lying down. On the contrary, he made a few key points. First, he acknowledged that premiums are way too high, but again, they’ve been on the incline since the days of Dubya. Second, Sanders explained that there are actually fewer part-time workers now than there were before the passage of the ACA. Third, and reiterating his point from earlier, from the campaign trail, and from much of his adult life, the U.S. should enact a Medicare-for-all program—that is, unless Ted Cruz and the Republicans don’t kill it off first. Ooh—a body blow from the people’s champ! Cruz hadn’t lost his fighting spirit either, however. He asked his competitor, you know, Bernie, President Obama said premiums would go down. Wasn’t he a liar-liar-pants-on-fire? Ouch—a right hook from the challenger of his own!

The older fighter, though, proved he can still take a punch. Bernie conceded it turned out that Obama’s promise turned out not to be true, though he probably thought it was true at the time. (Second side note: if we’re calling Barack Obama a liar on this front, what does that make Donald Trump, who has already unrepentantly broken scores of campaign promises in less than a month on the job? Oh, that’s right—that would make Trump a “fraud.”) At any rate, the only way a scenario like LaRonda Hunter’s would work, he reasoned, is if we cut through the administration and bureaucracy and guarantee health care for all. Cruz, perhaps surprisingly, agreed. There’s too much paperwork. It’s all the government’s fault. Sanders replied, wait a second, Mr. Looks Like the Lead Singer of Stryper—government is part of the reason, but so are insurance companies. Sen. Cruz, once more, agreed, saying they should agree on some sort of alternative. Sen. Sanders, putting his hand to his face and shaking his head back and forth, was all, like, I’ve already said it, like, five times—Medicare-for-all, single-payer. What, do you not believe health care is a right? And Ted Cruz was all, like, I like rights. Religious freedom, that’s a good one. The Second Amendment—I enjoy that one as well. Bernie Sanders was, at this point, growing tired of his rival’s rope-a-dope. The ensuing dialog went a little something like this, and I’m paraphrasing, obviously:

BERNIE: Do you believe health care is a right?

TED CRUZ: I believe access to health care is a right.

BERNIE: WHAT THE HELL GOOD IS “ACCESS” IF YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT? THERE’D BE 20 MILLION MORE PEOPLE WITHOUT INSURANCE IF NOT FOR OBAMACARE! AM I SPEAKING ANOTHER LANGUAGE HERE?

Damn, Bernie! Don’t hurt him! Ted Cruz, in this round, may just have been saved by the bell, er, commercial break.

Round Six: The “Congratulations on Your MS” Round

The next audience question from the debate came from the person of Carol Hardaway, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Because her state did not expand Medicaid coverage under the ACA (and what state is that? Hint: it rhymes with “Shmexas”!), she was forced to move to one that did in Maryland. So, if the Affordable Care Act is to be repealed, can she still have her coverage or a replacement that is at least on par with it? Ted Cruz, in his response, first said this—and I wish I was making this up:

Well, Carol, thank you for sharing your story. And congratulations on dealing with MS. It’s a terrible disease. And congratulations on your struggles dealing with it.

As I often do with these debates, I follow people’s comments on Twitter as they air live, and after this line from Cruz, the immediate response from most of the users was, “Wait—did this guy just f**king congratulate her on having MS?” Yes, he f**king did. This is the problem Ted Cruz faces when he has to express an actual human emotion: it often comes across as extremely awkward. When he was done applauding Ms. Hardaway for having a debilitating illness, Sen. Cruz then basically said, gee, I’m glad Medicaid is working for you, but it’s a terrible program and should be replaced with private insurance. Bernie Sanders, in rebuttal, once more conceded Medicaid, like the ACA, is not perfect, but for those governors who have refused federal funds on principle, he hopes they can sleep at night knowing some of their constituents probably died as a result of refusing the Medicaid expansion. Cruz fired back by saying Medicaid is rationed care. Sanders replied by saying that slashing funding for Medicaid is only making things worse, and what’s more, this fabled access to quality health care that the Republicans and others tout is lacking in urban and rural areas, begging the expansion of programs like the National Health Service Corps to help meet the needs of the primary care crisis.

Throughout all of this, meanwhile, Carol Hardaway’s question remained unanswered, such that Jake Tapper actually cut in to let her speak again when he noticed her shaking her head because Ted Cruz did not adequately address her concerns. Given the chance to respond, Sen. Cruz professed that there is “widespread agreement” on replacement plans, and cited three hallmarks of something that would theoretically fill the void of ObamaCare if it were repealed: 1) allowing Americans to purchase plans across state lines, 2) expanding health savings accounts (HSAs), and 3) making health insurance portable so it travels with you from job to job. He also cited his home state’s passage of tort reform laws to address lawsuit abuse and medical malpractice suits. Some notes on these “widely agreeable” solutions:

  • Across-state plans sound good in theory, but the primary obstacle, as this New York Times piece written by Margot Sanger-Katz details, is not regulatory, but financial and of insurer network difficulties. Insurers don’t like them, by and large, and besides, the states like to regulate these matters themselves. Not to mention it takes time to establish relationships between insurance companies and health care providers. In other words, it’s not that simple, Ted.
  • HSAs offer possible advantages in that plans with lower premiums but higher deductibles may cause people to be more cognizant of what they’re spending. However, a potential drawback is that consumers may not be willing to seek out more expensive procedures—even when they really need them. It’s a disturbing thought, but a reality of these types of accounts.
  • Portable health insurance is, in theory, a great idea. In practice, though, logistical difficulties often loom herein related to an inability to find comparable plans when changing insurers, or otherwise failure by the insured to adequately suss out whether a plan is truly beneficial to them. At any rate, the big picture issue would seem to be keeping insurance costs low regardless of insurer, and this seems to be at odds with how many health insurance giants operate. As quick as Sen. Cruz and others are to point to “big government,” the insurance industry bears as much, if not more, responsibility.
  • Ted Cruz touts his state’s commitment to tort reform as a success, but studies suggest that health care costs did not decrease as a result of Prop 12, which passed in Texas in 2003 and was advocated for by Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP members within the state. Often, malpractice suits and the costs of litigation are blamed for the rising cost of medical care, but it is the economics of the health care industry and errors which primarily drive the upward trend. Moreover, capping the possible damages for victims of malpractice risks denying them the monies they need, or otherwise shifting the burden to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. You know, the same programs Republicans are trying to gut. But, go ahead, Senator Cruz—pat yourself on the back.

The “round” concluded with Sanders pointing out that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents by far—and in the process, casually dropping the notion his state, Vermont, has the second-lowest rate of insured in the nation—and Cruz defending the Lone Star State as a job producer and drastically more diverse than Vermont. Then Sanders said Cruz was ugly. Then Cruz said Sanders’ accent is stupid. If Jake Tapper didn’t intercede, the two senators might literally have gotten into a slap fight—forget my boxing analogy. Oh, it was so on now!

Round Seven: Womanhood—The Pre-existing Condition

On the debate pressed. Next to pose a query was Maria Shahid Rowe, a nursing student at the Medical University of North Carolina, pregnant with her second child, who wanted to know of Ted Cruz what any plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act would mean for pregnant women, who were at risk of being dropped before ObamaCare passed due to being considered to have a pre-existing condition, or for women in general for that matter, in that they could be charged higher premiums than men. Cruz went on for a while, eventually settling on the issue of mandated coverage for ObamaCare, such as the example of a 101-year-old being forced to have maternity coverage. Sanders was more succinct in his reply, and translating for his colleague in the Senate, explained the Republican Party could make no such guarantees. Cruz, in his follow-up, threw out a lot of stats about how young people, in particular, have been hurt by ObamaCare. They could be true. Then again, they could be misleading or just made up. Suffice it to say, though, that despite the myth-making of Republicans about the ACA, many millennials have actually been able to better afford health insurance as a result of subsidies, or have been protected against unexpected events such as getting laid off by virtue of the provision that allows them to stay on their parents’ plans until the age of 26. If nothing else, this muddies the proverbial waters on Ted Cruz’s “facts.” Man, does that guy love “facts.”

Dana Bash stepped in at this point to redirect the conversation a bit. First, she circled back to the notion of women over the age of 60, and asked Bernie Sanders whether or not he believed they should be paying for maternity coverage. Sanders acknowledged it was a problem, but something that could be looked at going forward, before stressing the idea that pregnancy should not be considered a pre-existing condition. Bash then turned to Ted Cruz, and inquired whether or not a replacement for the Affordable Care Act would maintain the provision that women do not have to pay out-of-pocket for birth control. Uh-oh, Ted—it’s a question with religious undertones! Sen. Cruz stuck to his playbook, assailing government mandates, and making some weird analogy about driving a Lamborghini. Sen. Sanders, in his answer, while questioning the merits of the fancy car metaphor (“I think it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about driving a fancy car with getting access to healthcare when you’re sick”) raised perhaps the most significant point: that the GOP has incentive to repeal the ACA to give the top 2% sizable tax breaks, much as they would abolish the estate tax. Then Cruz started talking about a flat tax, and once more, the debate threatened to go off the rails. Jake Tapper really couldn’t have called for a commercial break any sooner than he did.

Round Eight: Possible Side Effects of Listening to Ted Cruz Include Nausea and Suicidal Thoughts

With the final audience question of the night, Colorado resident Cole Gelrod, whose daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect and who can’t pay for her prescription drugs with his employer-provided insurance, but can do so under the auspices of ObamaCare and his state’s Medicaid expansion, asked Ted Cruz what the plan was to address the rising cost of prescription drugs and how to deal with insurance plans in which companies can choose not to cover life-saving drugs. Sen. Cruz basically said it’s the FDA’s fault, because these drugs are getting approved in other countries. Ted Cruz should just make his motto, “When in doubt, blame the government.” Bernie Sanders, while he agreed with his colleague to the extent that FDA-approved drugs should be affordable and available to Americans to re-import at cheaper rates, and vowed to re-introduce legislation to facilitate this function, also said we as a nation should be negotiating lower prices through Medicare. Cruz once again—wait for it—blamed the government. Sanders—wait for it—blamed pharmaceutical companies and corporate greed, and professed the belief that these corporations and exorbitant executive pay should be reined in. Sen. Cruz was all, like, well, I don’t think the government should dictating who gets paid what. This is America, not some socialist nation. Sen. Sanders was all, like, you know, places like Denmark, Finland and Sweden aren’t that bad. Even if they do put pickled herring in mustard sauce.

Dana Bash then broke out an air horn and pressed it loudly for several seconds before redirecting the two debaters to the subject of taxes, whereupon she asked Bernie, if he is opposed to taxes going up on the middle class, why should those individuals and families who go without some form of health insurance be subject to a tax penalty? Bernie was all, like, well, they shouldn’t. The rich should be paying more, but in the meantime, we have to try to get needed revenue for benefits somehow. Ted Cruz was then all, like, well, if you don’t like the tax penalty, why did you help write ObamaCare? Your health care plan is going to cost us trillions of dollars. And Bernie Sanders was all, like, yeah, well, your tax plan gives the top 1% most of the benefits, as does doing away with the estate tax. Now, if we were to enact the Sanders plan—

And that’s when CNN cut to commercial to fulfill its obligation to its corporate overlords. Buy more cars! And more prescription drugs! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?

Round Nine: Closing Statements

I’m going to breeze through this final section, because I’m sure by now you know where each of the debaters are headed. Sen. Bernie Sanders sees major problems in Congress being beholden to the wants of the insurance, medical equipment, and pharmaceutical industries, and the United States being the wealthiest nation in the world and lagging behind other developed nations with respect to health care. Sen. Ted Cruz sees ObamaCare as a failure as evidenced by high premiums and deductibles, canceled insurance policies, and lies, lies, lies! from Barack Obama, and wonders why we would give yet more power to government to mediate health care. That’s basically all you need to know from this exercise. Oh, and DON’T F**KING CONGRATULATE SOMEONE WITH MS! I’M TALKING TO YOU, TED CRUZ!


And the winner was? CNN? Listen—who you think “won” the debate probably depends on whose point of view most closely resembles your own. To that end, I’m not all that interested. I personally think Bernie Sanders made the more compelling arguments, but as a self-identifying progressive, I naturally would. Others watching or reading the transcript might believe Ted Cruz mopped the floor with the senator from Vermont, and furthermore, that Democrats are bringing down this country. Seemingly more and more these days, Americans, buoyed by the news they absorb through cable news channels and social media echo chambers, hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. Still, that so many people are engaged on these issues and others even after the election signals to me that Americans are understanding the importance of continued involvement with political news, if not the merits of volunteering in campaigns or running for public office themselves. Accordingly, I hope events of this sort are scheduled in the future. Maybe a debate on commercial banking regulation between Elizabeth Warren and Steve Mnuchin, or, say, a debate on education practices between Betsy DeVos, and—I don’t know—a freaking fifth-grader. Average Americans should have a way to be exposed to the major parties’ stances on a variety of issues in a highly accessible, comprehensible way.

It’s the dawning of a new age in U.S. politics. More power to the people, I say! And more debates! You know, provided they don’t involve Don Lemon.