Speaking of Speakers . . .

credit: sirajlive.com

So Boehner’s on his way out, and the media are talking about House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as if he were the semi-official heir apparent to the Speakership, our own Prince of Wales if you will.

I’m not laying any bets.

Out here in California we know McCarthy.  He comes from the very conservative district that includes Bakersfield — think ranchers and oil men.  His legislative record isn’t the kind that would make him any enemies, the two laws he’s managed to get passed in his five terms in Congress each did nothing more than put the name of a dead Republican on a government building.  He’s popular in the district among Republicans and there are a lot of them in that part of our deep blue state.

There are also a lot of Chicanos, and Mexicans, documented and un-.

Hispano-Americans in California don’t vote for Republicans.  Ex-Gov Pete Wilson made sure of that 20 years ago with his political assault on the immigrant community.  It’s why the GOP in the state that gave the country Nixon and Reagan is now only a little more relevant than the Whigs.

The Latino population in McCarthy’s district has nothing to do with his electoral base, but to his donor base they matter a lot.  Exploiting cheap immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, is one of the keys to profitability for Big Agriculture, and Kevin McCarthy is the congressman from Big Ag.  The interests of his district are strongly tied to effective comprehensive immigration reform, especially if it guarantees industrial farmers a stable low-cost pool of workers.  If McCarthy wants to keep getting re-elected, he needs to take care of his homies.

Now if you haven’t already sensed the  mood of the national GOP base around the question of immigration reform, just check out some video from a Donald Trump rally, the recent one in Dallas  is a good example.  They love the three-point plan — build a big wall, throw all the Mexicans over it, throw all their American kids over it with them.

This anti-immigrant core of the base are represented in Washington by the insurgent rump that just took John Boehner’s scalp.  A gang of little Louie Gohmerts aren’t going to look any more kindly on a Speaker with a center-right stance on immigration than they did on the one who wouldn’t take the government down to prevent women from getting low-cost basic and reproductive health care.

At some point, at least a couple of these bozos are going to realize who Kevin McCarthy represents.  And if that happens before the leadership vote, chances are they’ll be looking for someone a little more pure.

Just sayin’.

Extortion Can Be a Drug Crime Too

 Photo: Universal News & Sport (Europe)
Photo: Universal News & Sport (Europe)

Maybe you haven’t been following the news about this smug asshole since the start of the week.  If not, just Google “Martin Shkreli”, and you’ll learn all you need to know and more.

Here’s the short version of why we’re suddenly paying attention to him:

Shkreli is a former hedge funder who leveraged his ill-gotten gains in that industry to become founder and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which about a month ago acquired ownership of Daraprim  That’s a drug developed in the early 1940s that’s the treatment of choice for toxoplasmosis, a deadly parasite that attacks patients with weakened immune systems, like AIDS sufferers or cancer patients undergoing chemo.  It causes blindness, seizures and loss of cognitive faculties before killing about 80% of its victims.

The good news is that Daraprim works, has manageable side effects, and has been pretty affordable at $13.50 a dose with a typical run of treatment of about 100 doses.  A thousand bucks or so has been the difference between life and death for those infected.  That is, until Shkreli acquired monopoly control of the drug, and overnight jacked the price up to $750/dose,  a 5556% increase.

Responding to the resulting outpouring of rage and vitriol, Shkreli announced today that he’ll reduce the price of Daraprim, but hasn’t said by how much.  Apparently he needs a few weeks to study the matter.

I’m not optimistic.  In his earlier media encounters responding to the scandal, Shkreli came across like an evil boy genius from a Steven Seagal flick.  His defense boiled down to an argument that $1000 wasn’t enough to charge people to save their lives, lots of life-saving drugs are expensive, and he’s just being a good businessman trying to maximize profits in a free market.  He seemed genuinely amazed to learn that his exceptional business sense and “altruism” (yeah, his word) didn’t make him an object of widespread fawning admiration, but rather the epitome of a one-man death panel, in effect telling victims of toxoplasmosis without an extra $75,000 lying around that they should just fuck off and die.

From where I’m sitting, Shkreli seems to be doing for Big Pharma what the Donald has been doing for the Republican base, ripping off the mask to reveal the repulsive face of reality — ignorance, hatred and bigotry of the latter, insatiable greed and utter contempt for human pain and loss on the part of the legal drug cartels.  He’s not the only powerful sociopath in the industry, he’s just careless and narcissistic enough to expose himself.

In a way, he’s performing a valuable public service by putting Big Pharma’s rapacity on full public display, and prompting some talk on related issues like how the industry rigs the law to force American patients to pay about ten times more than prevailing prices in the rest of the world for the same drugs from the same manufacturers.  We might even get some discussion of how they’re using “free trade” agreements like Obama’s TPP to extend their control of drug availability and pricing into more of the world’s markets.

Perhaps prompted by  the media storm around Shkreli, Hllary Clinton has called out  what she referred to as “price gouging” in the drug market and proposed new regulations that would require health insurers to limit policyholders’ maximum out-of-pocket for prescriptions to $250 a year.

There’s a strong case to be made for government regulation of drug prices.  It works in the rest of the world’s developed economies to help hold down health care costs while leaving healthy profits in the industry’s pockets, and there’s something inherently distasteful in leaving corporations a free hand to extract maximum profits by exploiting the suffering of the sick, the elderly, and the helpless.

But that’s not what Hillary’s plan would do.  There’s no price control mechanism there,  it just shifts the burden from patient to insurer, leading to higher premiums and leaving Pharma to keep charging whatever the rigged market will bear.

And then there’s the political problem of bucking America’s masochistic love affair with market capitalism.  Price controls!  Heaven forfend!  Sounds like a socialist plot to interfere with the free functioning of the market’s invisible hand!

But here’s the thing — the free market in prescription drugs is already distorted by unwarranted government interference.  US law, pushed through by Bush II as part of Medicare Part D and enshrined in Obamacare, prevents the natural market influence of volume purchases to bring down prices, by forbidding Medicare administrators to negotiate for the best price possible when making bulk purchases of drugs.  And US law also artificially props up high prices by making it illegal for American patients to shop for the best prices on the world drug market.  These are both gross intrusions on the operation of the free market and guarantee the highest prices in the world for Americans who need life-saving drugs, or just relief from common ailments.

There’s no conservative ideological argument that justifies these government intrusions into the free market to benefit some of the richest corporations in the world.  And the resulting benefits to middle class and working American families make repealing them attractive to progressives.  In fact, Bernie Sanders has proposed eliminating them as part of his platform for more affordable health care.

There’s only one reason for any legislator to oppose these two reforms, and that would be because he’s getting part of the take from Big Pharma picking the pockets of the sick and the old.

Or because he’d be happier if the 99 percenters would just fuck off and die.


Marry or Kill? Planned Parenthood and Blackwater

Browsing my Facebook feed  this morning, I came across a comment from a friend whose judgment and opinions I generally respect.  In a discussion thread related to Planned Parenthood, she opined that maybe it would be a good idea if the non-profit agency were supported only by private donations, instead of relying on government funding.

This reveals a widespread fundamental misunderstanding as to how government money ends up going to PP.

Write 100 times on the chalkboard “THE FEDS DON’T DONATE MONEY TO PLANNED PARENTHOOD”.

PP gets reimbursed for contracted services delivered under a government program to fund health care for low-income Americans.  This is part of an overall strategy of paying private agencies and businesses to provide government services, with the aim of keeping government small and diverting taxpayer money into private hands, solidly Republican goals.  Most of this money doesn’t go to secular non-profits like PP, instead it ends up subsidizing religious organizations or feeding the bottom lines of for-profit enterprises.  Think Catholic Charities and Halliburton.

For our taxpayer dollars, we get cancer screenings, family planning  services, obstetric and gynecologic care from Planned Parenthood, as well as a full range of basic health care from other free and low-cost non-profit health clinics.  We get food and shelter for the hungry and homeless from religious and secular charities.

And we get abstinence-only sex non-education from fundamentalist family values groups, and homeless services conditioned on participation in religious instruction.

And we get showers for our military that are as likely to electrocute them as to get them clean, and fuel for military vehicles in war zones with a 1000% markup, and contracted torturers, and mercenary killers.

Saying private providers of public goods should be required to rely only on donations is like saying military and intelligence contractors should get off the teat and fund themselves with bake sales and telethons.

Come to think of it, that might not be a bad bargain.

Getting Meta with the Donald

It’s been a few decades since I last had to take a standardized test, so I don’t know if they still use those word-ratio questions that took something like this standard form —

auto  :  steering wheel  =  sailboat  :  ?

You’d select a word from the multiple choices that best completed the ratio, in the above example perhaps “tiller”.

A variant of the same word problem could be —

raven  :  ?  =  ?  :  writing desk

where the answer would be one word  that, inserted into each side of the equation, formed a consistent and logical word association.

If you haven’t seen viral footage from Donald Trump’s first attempt at a Town Hall with his supporters in New Hampshire, you can check it out here.  It was all over the news tonight, and after I’d seen it a couple of times the idea struck me that one of the meanings of that encounter could be simply expressed as a word ratio of the second type —

Asshole at Trump rally  :  ?  =  ?  :  Republican Party

Let me explain why the correct answer is “Trump”.

In varying proportions of glee and tut-tutting, the talking heads on the shows I watched were doing their best to hang this Islamophobe’s point of view on the Donald himself, and old soufflé-top didn’t do himself any favors by taking the “I’ll look into that” route when asked when we can get rid of all the Muslims.  After all, John McCain set the gold standard on responses to this type of question all the way back in ’08.

To my eye, the Donald was embarrassed as soon as he understood where this guy was going, first trying to get the crowd’s support to laugh it off before putting on his serious face and dodging the question.  I think he was genuinely surprised and thrown a little off balance by such a naked exposure of his base’s id.  When another question in the same vein popped up a little later, you could see him realize that the best part of valor would be to get the hell out of Dodge City.  And he did, cutting off the Q&A after only a few minutes.

My point is that for the first time in this campaign, the Donald found himself in a relationship with his base that mirrors what the Republican party has been going through with him —  shock, denial, apprehension, more denial — as they realize that this demon they’ve summoned is going to be their public face.  And tonight their out-of-control monster came face-to-face with the monster he’s loosed.

The Donald has made it respectable to bray lies, insults, and barely-veiled racist and misogynist appeals in the public square, to never take back or apologize.  His acolytes are following his example, but without enough of his sophistication to mask the malice and the implied threat of violence in their hate speech.

We’re all heading for interesting times.

Nuremberg in Dallas

Looking for my daily news fix, I caught the Trump rally in Dallas on the tube last night.  It wasn’t hard to find, in fact it was hard to avoid, as all the cable news channels seem to be in All-Trump-All-the-Time mode.

What I saw started out as boilerplate Trump — he’s the greatest winner and the smartest guy with the highest ratings and everyone else are chumps and losers, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when he swung into the immigration policy section of the uncensored stream of consciousness that passes for his stump speech, the mood changed from ugly and stupid to ugly and frightening.

It’s not that there’s anything new in the Donald’s appeal to paranoid nativism.  He memorably opened his candidacy with a crude attack on Mexican immigrants and so far immigration is the only policy area where he’s made specific proposals — build the classiest wall in the world along the southern border with a beautiful door where the good ones will be allowed in, mount a legal attack on the Constitution to eliminate citizenship as a birthright, deport every undocumented immigrant and every American citizen unlucky enough to be born to the wrong kind of parents.  What struck me watching and listening last night was the full-throated roars of approval from the audience, and the way consummate showman Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric to match the wave, to catch it and ride it as far as it could take him.

The lies and distortions, the coded and uncoded racism, the callouts to ignorance and fear, these normally raise in me feelings of anger and sorrow.  But last night I felt like a witness to one of those Nuremberg rallies we see in the old newsreels from the 1930s — the flamboyant speaker with studied skill at emotional manipulation through rhetorical flourish, the worshipful crowd responding enthusiastically to each confirmation of their darkest prejudices.  Substitute “Juden” for “Mexicans”, the message is the same — the Other is stealing your country, the solution is to just get rid of them all.

It’s not just the tribalist appeal, though that’s already creating dangerous consequences — attacks on harmless Latino-looking people in Trump’s name, violent responses to peaceful protestors at Trump rallies, at least one physical assault, caught on video, by a Trump bodyguard on a non-violent opponent.  More worrisome is Trump’s whole shtick of the strong man who answers to no one, the omnipotent fearless leader whose every word and whim will automatically have the force of law.  He acknowledges no constraint of law or custom on his will.  We’ve seen this movie before, we already know how badly it ends.

America is not Weimar, Trump isn’t Hitler, or even Mussolini.  It isn’t Trump that scares me, it’s the crowds that believe his message, that scream approval, that find ratification of their paranoia, their malice, their hunger for an iron fist to smite their enemies.  I saw them and heard them in Dallas last night, and they frighten me.

The racists, the Confederate deadenders, the religious fanatics, the know-nothings, these people believe America belongs to them, and they’ve found a leader, however feckless, to give political respectability to their hateful and violent fantasies.  Men with semi-automatic weapons are showing up in Ferguson, in Kentucky’s Rowan County, on the Bundy ranch, parading their armed strength to support their claim to be exclusive inheritors and guardians of their version of Americans’ rights and freedoms.  Camo is their brown shirt, and if Trump isn’t the guy who can make America theirs again, there are others waiting to pick up his mantle.

It’s huge and beautiful and it’ll happen so fast it’ll make your head spin.