25 February 2018

Makes no sense

It used to be that people might disagree about policy, or whether something was a serious crime as opposed to one that could be overlooked. As in, say, Watergate. But now we have this. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/trump-claims-dem-memo-shows-really-fraudulent-behavior-doesnt-elaborate

What Trump says here makes no sense at all in any kind of universe where logical discourse has any meaning or value.


Musica lætitiæ comes medicina dolorum.


Autocratic Paradigm

And the return to the dominance worldwide of the autocratic governance paradigm is further signaled by the move in China to abolish the two term limit so that Emperor Xi can remain in office indefinitely. This should surprise no one. Putin, of course, effectively did the same thing.

24 February 2018

Manafort and Trump

Farflung correspondents, 

It sure looks like Manafort is screwed. And the circumstances surrounding his becoming Trump campaign chair are looking more and more suspicious, given his past shady dealings with, and massive debt to, Russian oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska. So what's he thinking? Sure looks like he expects Trump to pardon him. But I'm not sure Trump will dare to do that. It would make it glaringly obvious that there's substance to the suspicions of Trump's criminal involvement. And a pardon wouldn't really work anyway. You can't pardon people to keep them from talking. Once Manafort were pardoned, he'd HAVE to talk, because he couldn't claim the 5th amendment, especially if the pardon were open ended, which it would almost have to be, or the prosecutors would just charge him with something else. There's clearly plenty there. Here's a question: can the president pardon someone from a Contempt Citation for refusal to testify? Never happened before; I'd argue that it would not fly, because it's not a crime but an abuse of process which the court has the power to enforce entirely on its own, without regard to executive power. Thoughts, legal types?

As one of the legal experts on the tube said the other day, when it comes to election law violations, conspiracy to accept anything of value, even "help," or "opposition research" or just potentially useful information, from a foreign entity or person with intent to use it to influence an election is a crime. There need not be a quo, the quid is enough. Pretty ambiguous standard, but in this case, there is actually pretty straightforward evidence against Don Jr., in the form of his e mails concerning the June meeting. And Manafort, don't forget was at that meeting. And the fact that the results of the Russian hacking started appearing right afterward, and people like Trump fixer Roger Stone publicly predicted exactly what would happen. How did he know? The fix was in, that's how. Mueller knows all of this, and more, you can be pretty sure of that.

One possible scenario: Manafort refuses to cooperate, is tried and convicted, while claiming the 5th to refuse to cooperate with investigators. THEN Trump pardons him. By then, it'll be after January 2019; all bets are off if the Democrats have regained control of the House and Senate, or even just the House, because Congressional investigations will become serious. And if convicted, whether or not pardoned, Manafort can be immunized from further prosecution and forced to testify.

13 February 2018

Violin Sonata

Farflung correspondents, 

Having been asked on rather short notice by another amateur classical musician, a violinist, to accompany her in Francesco Veracini (1690-1768)'s violin sonata in E minor (actually an arrangement of a trio sonata), I didn't want to say no. This is a major challenge for me, but I want to be able to do this kind of thing, so I've accepted. The piece isn't extremely difficult, but it's not exactly easy either. The performance, for anyone local in Portland with free time and inclination, will be Wed., Feb. 28 at 10 AM at the Community Music Workshop, 3350 SE Francis, between Holgate and Division. Wish me luck, I may need it. 



Musica lætitiæ comes medicina dolorum.


11 February 2018

Some ideas about Compassion as an essential value in the formulation of public policy

Posted to a friend who has some complicated and rather pessimistic views but votes Republican, as part of an ongoing debate about public policy and political philosophy. 

One of the things that has come to inform my worldview over the past several decades is my fairly intensive study of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Of course, as someone who believes in the American ideal of freedom of religion, I don't think that either policy or politics should be directly governed by, or even strongly influenced by, religious doctrine. However, much of the ethical basis of Western democracies deriving from the political philosophies beginning with Hobbes and running through the American political thinkers around the time of the Revolution certainly derives from what's usually referred to as Judeo-Christian ethics. I happen to think that the ethics that comes out of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition is a superior model from which to derive public policy goals. When I say this, I am not including in it doctrines that I have come to reject which include an overly literal interpretation of karma, or rebirth (which I have come to regard as mere wishful thinking), or an excessive preoccupation with the doctrine of emptiness, which relates more to personal enlightenment then to what I think of as the Enlightened Society. It is Enlightened Society which should be the ideal and goal of all public policy. In other words, if public policy is to mean anything it should be guided by overarching principles derived from philosophy which seek to maximize certain values that are deemed to be universal and in general of benefit to all. Whether considered Buddhist or not, the general ideas are, I believe, suitable for adoption as universal values.


In the West the overarching principles that are usually defined have more to do with individual behavior, an individual gain, then they do with communitarian values. I believe that as part of the evolution of global models of governance, we need to recognize that ethical principles derived from other cultural traditions may, and in fact do, yield a superior model for public policy.


Although I recognize the importance of individual liberty, which is important because in any realistic philosophy, it is only at the individual level that any sort of action as possible, so it is necessary to allow each individual to take those actions which he perceives to be in his own self-interest. This is congruent with Western thinking. And in general of course utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill recognized that there is a necessity for the "greatest good for the greatest number" to be a principle for any sort of government to effectively function in the interests of all of its people. I would argue, however, that some core values of what is ultimately important to human beings need to be recognized, and those values need to be derived from agreed principles. Buddhism stresses the importance of compassion, and I think that Western thinking fails to recognize just how central this is in any political philosophy which seeks to achieve Mill's utilitarian ideal.


Compassion is based on the recognition of equity. All people have an equal right to seek self-realization, happiness, well-being, whatever you wish to call it. And to that end, the fundamental sameness of humanity, regardless of measurable qualities such as intelligence, wealth, physical strength, and other qualities needs to be recognized and valued. And for that to be meaningful, the essential value of every human life needs to be accepted, and internalized. We need to place a value on every person having a meaningful life, and the means to achieve it. This is what compassion really is when considered on a public level. On a personal level, it is the ability to actually put oneself in another's shoes. To imagine what it's like to be that person. And this is a very useful exercise in achieving the kind of understanding that's necessary to fully integrate the importance of compassion. As a practical matter, what it means is that societies must organize themselves in such a way that the well-being of all people is taken into consideration, is given due value, and the society is so structured that the well-being of all citizens is ensured, to a reasonable degree of practicability. This does not mean that everyone has the same income, or lives in the same kind of housing, etc. But what it does mean is that there is value placed on and public resources expended on, the well-being of everyone.


So, if I were to propose an additional amendment to the Constitution to take its place alongside the Bill of Rights it would read something like this: "Government at all levels shall recognize, and through its policies seek to ensure, the well-being of all its citizens. Among the factors of such well-being are the reasonable maximization of individual freedom of action, while at the same time ensuring that all people are entitled to receive, at public expense where necessary, adequate food and shelter, adequate health care, adequate childcare services, high quality education at all levels contingent on the abilities of the individual and not on their ability to pay, and elder care." To my mind, these essential public goods are just as important as, for example, protecting civil order and providing for the common defense. When I say just as important, I mean that both are vital.


Of course, merely putting those words on paper and calling them the law of the land would not actually result in a viable system of actually putting them into effect. There would have to be a transformation of the guiding philosophy of governance, to one more like those practiced in the Nordic countries today, for example, where these values are considered to be the rightful place of government. In this sense, it is not government, per se, which intrudes into people's lives, it's dumb government. It's government that does not actually attempt to foster ethical values, but instead has its own internal interests, or the interests of elites that control the government, not for the common good, but for their own private and special good. When that happens to excessive extent, people come to view the government not as ensuring their well-being, but as actually actively interfering with it. In such circumstances, government, bit by bit, begins to lose legitimacy. Because ultimately the legitimacy of government is in fact derived from the consent of the governed, and the consent of the governed is contingent on a near universal belief that the government is actually acting in the people's interests, and not the interests of those who would seek to obtain advantage at the expense of others.


For society to accept the responsibility to ensure the basic well-being of all of its citizens does not mean that people would be disincentivized to work hard and gain more for themselves. Quite the contrary, in societies where something fairly close to this ideal has already come about, it is almost universally the case that having the basics of life ensured actually frees people to maximize their own well-being. For example, Americans are frequently trapped in a job because they depend on employer-provided health insurance (possibly the single worst system ever devised for providing a population with reasonable health insurance). Or they can't easily move and seek some other opportunity elsewhere, because they must stay in a situation where they can successfully arrange for care for a child or an elder parent. Allowing government, in expressing the collective will of the people, to ensure the fundamental well-being of all citizens, has been shown to actually free citizens to have greater latitude in determining the course of their own lives. As a result, time after time, surveys have shown people living in societies that have already adopted something close to these ideals are, on average, happier, healthier, longer-lived, and less stressed out, than Americans.


Moreover, experience is shown that the highly inefficient system of providing benefits primarily privately in the United States costs far more than practicable public systems. In Sweden and Finland, for example the average tax burden is in the range of 25 to 30% of income (and that is all taxes; Americans below the 95th percentile often pay much more than that in combined state and local as well as Federal taxes, including property taxes, which tend to be rather low in most other countries). Marginal tax rates, on the very wealthy are much higher than in the United States, as they were in the United States prior to about 1975, but most middle-class people actually pay less in total taxes as a percentage of their income than is the case here. Most Americans do not know that, and see something like the citation to a 70% top marginal tax rate in Sweden (it is actually now lower than that) and believe that the tax burden necessary to provide things like universal healthcare, maternity leave and childcare, employment and retirement security, and elder care, would be crushing, when, in fact, all of these things end up being paid for by society in one way or another regardless of its "system." Organizing them as necessary public goods is more efficient, and actually reduces the overall burden. Of course the Nordic countries have far lower tax burdens associated with military spending, and what you might call "porkbarrel", but if we are talking about reforming society, some rethinking of those kinds of costs to society would also come into play. As an aside, in that it is a whole subject unto itself, I think that a recognition of compassion in public policy on a global scale would call for some understanding that American foreign policy based on the projection of power and encirclement of the entire world outside the Western Hemisphere by an "empire of bases" has been an abysmal failure. It has cost the United States huge sums in treasure and lives, and achieved very little. I would cite the hignly insightful writings of Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich for some sense of what I mean by that.


It is certainly true that very wealthy individuals in most European countries pay higher overall taxes than Americans. But income inequality has been steadily growing in the United States since the mid-1970s, and I think there is an emerging consensus that it is time to start taxing the top 1-4% or so of the richest Americans substantially more, as part of a rational and actually values-based reform of taxation. (Something that has never happened systematically in our country heretofore). It is not true, however, that employers are taxed excessively, in, for example, Germany. You have only to look at Germany's positive trade balance to see that its corporations are not succumbing under the load of an excessive tax burden. (Germany has most of the essentials of the system I describe, while retaining more regulated private organizations to provide much of the services). The point is that rational tax systems and values-based public service systems are eminently affordable, and actually result in higher disposable incomes, after the costs for services whether or not paid for by taxes are deducted, for the majority of people. This is not merely an opinion, but a demonstrable, albeit somewhat complicated, fact. 


Enough for now, I thought to simply inject some ideas into a possible further conversation.



10 February 2018

A test for the success of any developed nation

I think a fair test of whether a country and its governance are successful and meeting the needs of its people is the following. It needs to get at least a qualified yes to all these questions.

1. Is it able to effectively function in the community of nations, so as to avoid unnecessary conflict with other nations? 
2. Is it able to fairly and equitably maintain domestic civil order? 
3. Does it provide a reasonably fair and equitable means of resolving civil disputes? 
4 . Does it afford the rights of reasonable privacy, freedom of religion, speech and association? 
5. Does it have a reasonable legal system to ensure honest, non-corrupt governance and commerce? 
6. Does it ensure universal public education at all levels? 
7. Does is ensure child and elder care (including retirement security) as entitlements of citizenship?
8. Does it ensure universal health care? 
9. Where conflict is unavoidable, does it adequately provide for defense of the nation?
10. Does it have an effective system of ensuring meaningful work for most of its people, and providing for minimal, decent housing and assistance to those who are unable to provide for themselves?

The US is teetering on the edge of failure as to No. 1, has some problems with Nos. 2 and 5, is solid on Nos. 4 and 9, only fair on 3 and 5, and as for 6, which it invented, it is failing, and it fails generally on 7 and 8. All in all, a failing grade. This is just not good enough and we MUST make it better. No country is perfect by these standards, but quite a few other developed nations do considerably better overall than our country, and we have plenty of resources to match and even do better than all of them. And we have NO EXCUSES for not doing so.


Musica lætitiæ comes medicina dolorum.


Call me crazy, but I posted this on Facebook today



I was so impressed by this book, and the case it makes that not only must universal public education, childcare, and health care by considered human rights, but that our obsession with "big government" is totally misguided, that I want to make an offer. The first FIVE people to message me with a truthful, affirmative answer to ONE QUESTION, and their name and address, will receive a free copy of the book. If you can easily afford the $8 for kindle or $11.55 on Amazon to buy the book, please just do that, you won't regret it. US addresses only.


Is it EITHER a hardship for you to buy this book or get it from a library; OR are you so convinced, after looking at its description that you disagree with it that you would certainly never read it if it weren't free, but you are willing to be open minded enough to read it if it is?

06 February 2018

This is how democracy dies ... as serious as a heart attack

Trump rather casually referred to Democrats who "refused" to give him a standing ovation at the SOTU as having committed "treason." This is not only incredibly ignorant, disgusting, and not funny, it's the very stuff of the collapse of a democracy. It has happened many times in the world before now, including, regionally and only partially, in our own country (especially in the South, post-reconstruction). And if we believe that democracy cannot die in our country, we are deluding ourselves. The ground around the dam is eroding away before our eyes. Everyone, soon, will have to choose sides. And I don't mean Republican or Democrat, because some Republicans will choose to join with the side which is their namesake, the side that seeks to PRESERVE the republic against the onslaught of DICTATORSHIP.

If you think this is wild-eyed exaggeration, seek out and read some of the things that were said after the initial failed coup in the 1990s by Hugo Chavez, or before Erdogan seized power. Or, Hitler analogies verboten or not, what German Center Rightists said in their right-wing media between 1929 and 1933 about how they would be able to "control" the Nazis. Mmm-hmmm. Right. I'm not saying Trump is a Nazi. But I am saying he and those who ally themselves with him have no real interest in or respect for the rule of law or democratic institutions, and will gladly adopt dictatorial powers if they come to think they can get away with it. Do you doubt it?

Here's a scenario that looks scarily likely to happen. Trump has been actively seeking to suppress the criminal investigation into him and his campaign for conspiracy to violate election laws by dealing with Russians seeking to aid his election. (No, it's not "opposition research." It's illegal to take aid from a foreign national in an election campaign)... and for obstruction of justice. Already it is apparent that there is substantial evidence against various members of his campaign including himself in both these areas, not to mention that the course of the investigation appears to have turned up substantial evidence that the Trump organization, and Trump himself, have violated various laws relating to international money laundering. So, Mueller is seeking to voluntarily interview Trump. Naturally. Yesterday, the NYT reported that Trump's lawyers plan to refuse this request. Mueller will almost certainly then, in due course, seek a grand jury subpena. Ask yourself this. What if Trump refuses? Maybe he appeals, but the Supreme Court will all but certainly place the courts' institutional perquisites above loyalty to Trump, and order him to comply. Then what if he doesn't comply? At that point, who will make him? And can you honestly say you don't think this might happen, and soon? If it does, I would argue, at that moment, our Constitution will have failed. Full stop. Our republic will have ceased to be an effective sovereign government. Nothing, other than the possibility that the Republicans in Congress will finally grow a spine and impeach this menace, will stand between where we will be an full-on dictatorship, because the rule of law will have utterly failed. We rely on the good faith compliance of the president with his oath of office, and this outright liar and crook cannot be trusted to do that. Perhaps you feel confident in this perfectly plausible scenario the Republicans in Congress will in fact impeach. OK, but I do not share that confidence. Not at all. 

Couldn't happen? Don't kid yourself. Trump has his own little Pravda in the form of FoxNews to keep his base in line, which will give him an excuse and create the threat of civil unrest that will scare a lot of people into remaining silent. And take no solace in the thought that Trump has a support of only a minority. That has rarely, if ever, stopped authoritarian dictators from coming to power. In fact, in my view, the thing most likely to save us is the very fact that Trump and his cronies are more like mafia crooks than political ideologues, and they're pretty stupid, in addition to that. If Trump were smarter, and cared more about a policy agenda, he might well have done this already. And his defiance of the norms and institutions of our government has already demonstrated for anyone with eyes to see that we lack the necessary protections to ensure that dictatorship cannot easily come about in our country. 

Trump has, indeed, shown us just how easily the complete defiance of the rule of law and institution of dictatorship could be done. And if we do manage to escape that fate with him, we will be damn fools if we don't seize the opportunity to make reforms to make sure the next one isn't smarter and more able to do it than he is. Even something as simple as the ability of the Congress, on simple majority, to vote no confidence and force a new presidential election, would probably go a long way to accomplishing the necessary check. Maybe after Trump we will somehow be able to overcome the logjam that prevents any Constitutional amendment at present.  There can be no doubt any longer that it can be done here. If it doesn't happen while Trump is in office, we will have dodged the closest bullet in our history, and we'd better learn from our experience if we don't want the next time to be far worse. 




Aid for single side deafness, a personally important topic to me.

I have an upcoming appointment to investigate the possible option of having a cochlear implant to address my lifelong (or very early childhood-onset) single-side deafness. This quote from a symposium on the subject makes me think it's going to be unlikely that the otological surgeon and otolaryngologist will recommend it. 

If the deaf ear has been without hearing for more than 20 years, it is likely that the implant will not restore levels of understandable speech that could be achieved in patients with a shorter term of deafness. Insurance does cover these devices, but different insurance providers may have their own criteria for approval that may differ from our medical determination of your candidacy.

mn890: Do you place cochlear implants for single-sided deafness?

Erika_Woodson,_MD: Cochlear implants (CIs) in the setting of SSD with fairly normal hearing on the other side would be considered 'off label', meaning that it is not an indication that the FDA has approved. As a center, we do recommend a CI evaluation if there is significant hearing loss in the better ear, as those individuals may benefit greatly from implantation. There are some U.S. centers doing experimental trials for CIs in the setting of SSD.

Oh well, we'll see. My SSD is of the non-indicated type (60+ years duration, hearing in non-affected ear is near-normal). Maybe I can get my bone anchored hearing assist device tweaked instead, so it actually works well for me. Currently it doesn't. 


Musica lætitiæ comes medicina dolorum.


02 February 2018

Rolling Constitutional Crisis Upon Us

​ during the 2016 election​
were sufficient to push
 over to the loss column. But so were Russia/Trump campaign collusion, I'm pretty sure. Either one was sufficient with the other, but wouldn't have been alone.  At this time, the Russia/Trump thing is much more important,
​however, ​
because I truly believe we are now in "rolling Constitutional Crisis," where we are the losers of the first real Cyber War in World History and we have conspirators with a foreign government and traitors in charge of our government, systematically and intentionally undermining the rule of law and the institutions of democratic governance. Trump is more like Erdogan or Putin than he is like any other president in history, INCLUDING Nixon. And the fact that he is aligning himself with them, and NOT with our actual allies, is part of the reason I've never been more afraid for the future of our country than I am right this moment. 

Absolutely Right, but a little Rich coming from Comey


James Comey's tweet:  

All should appreciate the FBI speaking up. I wish more of our leaders would. But take heart: American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy.

Just so. But, there won't be too many named for Jim Comey, either, after his disgraceful double standard in 2016. Which all but certainly really did, all by itself, cost Clinton the election, even with the Russia conspiracy.