Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin was fired this week, after which he wrote a New York Times editorial in which he said the reason he was forced out was because he opposed the Trump Administration's plan to privatize health care services provided by the V.A.
One could observe that part of the reason he did this was to draw attention away from the fact that he is under fire for a controversial taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. That's been in the news for months now, though, and as far as graft among Trump cabinet officials goes, he's an amateur. I think it's pretty safe to say that, had he not opposed V.A. privatization, he'd still have his job regardless of how badly he betrayed the public trust.
Let it also be said that whatever it was Shulkin did, it pales compared to the betrayal of trust that the privatization of the V.A. would represent.
To be clear, the V.A. has its problems. My brother is a war veteran who depends on the V.A. for the entirely of his medical care. Between what he has told me about his experience and what I have read about the experiences of other veterans, and based on publicly available information about the performance of the V.A., it is clear that the system remains rife with inefficiency, incompetence and waste. While some V.A. facilities provide excellent care -- and while veterans and veterans groups overwhelmingly back the V.A. and have a favorable opinion of it -- too many veterans still face long wait times for medical care, assuming they can even cut through the red tape required to get medical care. Part of this is due to all-too-familiar government inefficiency. A lot of it is due to sixteen straight years of war creating a massive population of sick, wounded and disabled veterans taxing a system that was not prepared to deliver medical care on such a scale and with such complexity. It's also worth nothing that the V.A. is not unique when it comes to red tape, inefficiency and expense in medical care. We have a healthcare crisis as a nation that is not limited to caring for veterans.
For years politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have paid lip service to funding and reforming the V.A. healthcare system, and there is no shortage of ideas on how to address its problems. Many of the ideas -- indeed, some of the best ones -- do involve participation of the private sector. This is particularly useful in the case of illnesses, injuries and disabilities that are not specific to veterans. Things like wellness services, health maintenance and other routine medical care. Ideally, under any set of arrangements, the V.A. and its expertise in treating veterans will prioritize care for those suffering the complex consequences of military service, be they battlefield injuries, both physical and mental, and longterm care unique to those who fought and served in wartime duty. Its mission in this regard should not be compromise. At the same time, we as a nation owe our veterans comprehensive medical care, and a veteran in need of blood pressure medication, a prescription to treat a case of the flu or routine outpatient surgery should not have to go without or wait months for care. To the extent private medical services can be utilized to fulfill the V.A.'s mission, it absolutely should be.
I do not suspect, however, that the V.A. privatization scheme Trump and his fellow Republicans have in mind is so limited.
Most privatization schemes floated by Republicans are cash grabs for the donor class. Initiatives which serve the decades-long Republican agenda of rendering the government an ineffective appendage of private enterprise with the ultimate aim being to reduce or eliminate taxes on the wealthy, free the business community from regulations that interfere with its ability to make money and to subsidize the private sector with public funds. The examples of this, both aspirational and already occurring under Republican leadership, are legion. We've become so used to the dynamic that it hardly registers to most people anymore.
To the extent Republican plans to privatize the V.A. track this model -- and I would bet a great sum that they do -- they would represent a new level of irresponsibility. Indeed, the idea is obscene.
Obscene because the one thing upon which even the most arch-conservative Randian fanboys can agree is that it is the responsibility of government to wage war. It is most serious and the most morally and ethically-fraught endeavor a nation can undertake and it is one that must, necessarily, be taken by a nation as a whole. That goes for both the waging of war and the paying of war's consequences, be they economic or moral. The prospect of outsourcing the payment of those consequences to private business -- especially private businesses who have paid to influence the decision to do so and who engage in a rent-seeking, profit-grabbing manner, which is an utter certainty under this president -- is moral depravity.
Just as it is the nation's responsibility to wage war, it is the nation's obligation to care for those it sends to fight, kill, die and be damaged in those wars. The buck must stop in the public sector, not be shifted to the private sector. While there is a role for outsourcing medical care to private practitioners and hospitals, management, funding and, above all else, responsibility for the care of sick, wounded and disabled veterans remains a public obligation from which we can never walk away.
Fund and staff the V.A. and its hospitals and clinics, whatever the cost. Take responsibility for a generation -- now two generations -- of veterans who we, as a nation, have taken advantage of and who some wish to forget. Do not use the V.A. to further the Republican dream of marginalizing, scapegoating crippling and, eventually, eliminating government services for the public of which it is comprised and to which it is accountable.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.
Last night Conor Lamb, a political unknown not too long ago, beat a well-established Republican for a congressional seat in an overwhelmingly Republican Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump won by over 20 points in 2016.
No doubt inspired by Trump's 2016 margin, Lamb's opponent went out of his way to embrace Trump, inviting him, his son, his daughter and other Trump surrogates to the district during the campaign and saying on the stump that he was "Trump before Trump was Trump." Given how poorly that worked, Trump backlash obviously played a part.
It did not play the primary part, however. Lamb went out of his way to avoid talking about Trump for most of the cycle. He localized the race at every turn and steadfastly focused his campaign on pocketbook issues affecting workers and working people. He espoused a pro-labor message that resonated with the blue collar district. Last night, in his victory speech, he reemphasized unions and work and the role labor should continue to have in the political sphere. It was a message tailor made to appeal to the working class.
As I wrote in my five-part series last fall, this is what a Democratic candidate must do to win districts like PA-18 and my district, OH-12. Rather than track to the center in an effort to co-opt conservative economic positions, he or she must track to the left and make an appeal to working men and women, talking about the issues that affect them and promising to make their lot better.
This is the smart play because political polarization is much more complicated than it is usually portrayed. Many of the very same people who may respond to socially conservative or reactionary messages will respond to surprisingly liberal economic messages. The widespread applicability of such an approach is debatable -- Lamb holds positions on guns and military policy, among others, that will not play in Petaluma or Park Slope -- but as it's often said, all politics are local, and I am convinced that such an approach is the best bet for Democrats in traditionally conservative districts with a large working class population. It's certainly the tack Conor Lamb took.
That message is not a difficult one to articulate. As I wrote back in November, a candidate wishing to win a district like this one need only state some simple, relatable truths to which a majority of voters will always respond positively. Truths which focus on four broad issues and their underlying values, from which all substantive policy positions should flow:
Putting America to Work
The Dow Jones may climb and the unemployment numbers may be low, but working people know that the system is rigged, with productivity going up but people earning less and retirement becoming a fading dream for far too many. As real wages for real work are stagnant or declining, the benefits of our economy are being gobbled up by a smaller and smaller number of people who grow richer and richer by the day. It's unsustainable. It's unfair. It's bad for America.
We must make our economy work for everyone, not just for the rich. We should raise the minimum wage. We must ensure that workers are given sick leave, family leave and medical leave. We must prevent companies from misclassifying employees to rob them of benefits and protections they deserve. We must provide protections for workers whose livelihoods are threatened by outsourcing, deindustrialization and automation and, if such protections prove inefficient, we must help retrain workers for in-demand occupations, especially occupations in emerging industries in the advanced energy sector. We must create disincentives for businesses to eliminate jobs and incentivize them to put workers first.
America has always been at its best when the lives of its workers have been at their best. Making workers' lives better should be our top priority.
Years of tax cuts, service cuts and neglect have led to a degradation of our highways, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, waterworks, sewers, the energy grid, our schools and our hospitals. The very bones of America are cracking and calcifying and they require a heavy investment in order to bring them back to strength.
An infrastructure plan -- a real infrastructure plan that puts Americans to work, not some scam designed to put money in the pockets of developers, banks and middlemen -- is badly needed. Infrastructure projects should be dictated by need, not by their ability to turn a profit. They should support good jobs that provide fair wages and benefits while discouraging anti-labor practices. They should likewise be sustainable, acknowledging that once you build something you must likewise maintain it and that you must train and retain workers to do so.
Infrastructure should be understood as an investment, not a one-time expense. It is, quite literally, the foundation upon which America is built.
Keeping America Healthy
America is the only major country on Earth that allows health insurance executives, pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders to get rich while tens of millions of people suffer because they can't get basic health care. This is obscene and immoral. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need when they need it, regardless of their income.
This is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Every moment an American is worrying about the health of their family is a moment not spent making their lives and the lives of their families better. Every dollar spent on medical costs is a dollar not being spent on something else. Even those with health insurance already are paying costs beyond their premiums in terms of limited opportunities and the inability to change careers, start businesses or stay home to take care of their families because they fear losing employer-based coverage. Guaranteed health care for all Americans would eliminate a tremendous obstacle to their productivity, their innovation and their happiness.
By making health care a for-profit product available only to those with the ability to pay, we are in a self-inflicted health care crisis in this country. The only solution to it is the establishment of a single-payer national health care program. America should have done this decades ago. We can and should do it now.
Putting People Before Wall Street
Banks and corporations think that they run this country. They think it because our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have let them think it by taking their campaign funds and working hard to protect their interests at the expense of the American people. That they'd ever do this is unacceptable. That they doubled and tripled down on it after Wall Street and big business wrecked the world economy and caused the Great Recession from which many people are still trying to recover, is unconscionable.
In everything we do as a country, we must remember that we are a nation of people, not a nation of banks and corporations. Any policy we pursue, be it related to jobs, infrastructure, health care, taxes, the environment, trade, defense and everything else, should serve the interests of the people, not Wall Street. Ordinary Americans, not the wealthy. People who work, not people who get rich off the work of others.
Candidates who want to win tough districts like PA-18 and OH-12 will not merely run against Donald Trump, they will run for something. They will not follow the old, misguided conventional wisdom about "claiming the center. They will not shy away from policies that are economically liberal. They will, in fact, advance a populist economic agenda for which voters hunger. Finally, They will hammer home the themes and positions I mentioned above, over and over again.
Conor Lamb showed last night that this theoretical framework I talked about last year can work. Now it's time for other candidates to pick up that ball and run with it.
I really enjoyed "Jessica Jones" season 1. Season 2 came out on Thursday and I continue to enjoy it. Beyond the characters and the plots, though, I am fascinated by Jessica's bourbon and whiskey choices.
If you don't know the show, Jessica is a private eye with a lot of past trauma and she drinks . . . a lot. Like, to crazy excess, usually to forget stuff or deal with stress. She often has hangovers but rarely seems drunk, even after drinking an entire bottle in an evening. They don't mention it, but I suspect that since she has super powers she has super tolerance too. Either way, getting the headache but not the buzz seems like a pretty shitty deal for her.
Her brands are what interest me most. Jessica is a brown liquor woman, but she was all over the map with her whiskey choices and I can't watch an episode without noticing what she's drinking and wondering why she, or, rather, the producers, chose it.
In season one she had a different brand every episode. Sometimes multiple brands an episode. Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes bourbon, sometimes Canadian. She occasionally drank some fictitious brands from the prop department. The real products came from multiple distillers. In light of all of that I don't suspect that any of those bottles were there by virtue of product placement.
If it was product placement it was pretty crappy product placement for the distilleries involved. For example, in one episode she asks a convenience store clerk for "the cheapest you got." He sells her Wild Turkey 101, which is not the cheapest he or anyone else has. I doubt Wild Turkey would like to have 101 portrayed as rotgut if it was paying to have its bottle featured. In the next episode she's drinking Old Grandad and earlier drank Beam, Teacher's and freakin' Cutty, so she obviously does know where to get cheaper stuff. She's a detective!
For the first two episodes of season two, she drinks only Tin Cup. Because the exclusivity and because the bottle and its label are shown so prominently, I suspected that Tin Cup had paid for exclusive rights for the much more anticipated Season 2. But . . . nah. In episode three she's back to Four Roses yellow label. Again, though, if Tin Cup did pay for that placement, they may not care for how it was used. Jessica drinks it like water -- at one point she literally fills a 10 ounce water class with the stuff, straight up and chugs -- and at another point she has a nightmare where she's hooked up to a Tin Cup IV, the bourbon flowing straight into her veins. There's no such thing as bad publicity I guess, but I feel like a distiller wouldn't want to have its brand being used explicitly to show how much of a problem drinker a character is. "Drink Tin Cup: the preferred brand for functioning alcoholics everywhere!"
If it isn't product placement, I don't understand all of the switching. Sure, a whiskey enthusiast may get a different bottle every time, but Jessica isn't someone you'd call a whiskey enthusiast. She's a drunk. Or at least a wannabe drunk. I've known some drunks in my time. If they're like Jessica and they are (a) functional; and (b) at least make a passable living, so that they don't have to take whatever they can get, they tend to have brand loyalty. Or at least price point loyalty. Even if they do change up brands, they don't bounce from bourbon to scotch to rye the way she does.
Last season some sites like Buzzfeed kept track of what she was drinking. I am only three episodes into season 2 -- it's a treadmill show for me, so it's a one a day thing, not something I, uh, binge -- but I'm gonna continue to keep track myself. I'm more fascinated in this than I am in the shady forces Jessica Jones is fighting. She'll beat them in the end. I have no idea what's gonna happen with the next bottle.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.