Friday, April 30, 2021

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Four: And Another Thing

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Four: And Another Thing

We're going to take a break now for something I keep meaning to make more common but never seem too. We call it And Another Thing, where we step aside from politics and social commentary to look at some science thing that I think is cool.

This time we start with the first picture to the right. It's a recently enhanced photo made from an original plate taken in May 1919 in Sobral, Brazil. It is, as I expect you guessed, of a solar eclipse.

It has some added color so that nice solar prominence can be easily seen. The original, of course was in black and white. But that's not the interesting part.

The second photo zooms into the lower right corner of the picture. Notice the two bright spots circled in red.

What's so special about these spots? Well, as I'm sure you knew, they are stars. What's important is that they shouldn't be there. Or more exactly, they shouldn't be where they are.

Which brings us to Albert Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. Relativity has the reputation of being extremely difficult to understand and indeed the mathematics involved in having a deep understanding of the theory are quite advanced and well beyond certainly my comprehension. But the concepts of the theory can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person. You may have to focus a bit, but you can understand it.

The basic concept to understand is that Einstein realized that we do not exist in a universe of three dimensions of space and a separate one of time, but a universe of four-dimensional spacetime. That space and time are interwoven, that each affects the other, and neither is absolute but can be distorted or warped - specifically, warped by the presence of mass.

His original Theory of Relativity, which later became the Special Theory of Relativity, described the effects of that insight in what are called non-accelerated frames of reference. That is, with objects moving in a straight line at a constant speed; more technically, objects moving at a constant velocity, so their acceleration is zero. Thus, a non-accelerated frame of reference

It became the Special Theory of Relativity because Einstein later expanded it to include accelerated frames of reference, where objects are changing their speed or direction of motion or both. That was the General Theory of Relativity - which served as Einstein's theory of gravity.

Newton described gravity as an attractive force between two objects, with the strength dependent on their masses and how far apart they are. Einstein, however, described gravity as the result of the warping of spacetime by mass. So anything traveling close enough to a massive enough object would have its path bent by the warping of spacetime. That means anything - even light.

Okay. The eclipse of 1919 was an excellent opportunity to test Einstein's idea. During an eclipse, astronomers can observe stars appearing close to the Sun, which otherwise would be lost in the glare. By comparing their positions with observations of those same stars at times when they are visible in the night sky, the amount by which their light has been deflected by the Sun can be measured.

Two expeditions went out, one to Sobral and one to the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa. There are great dramatic stories of the scientific struggles and frustrations involved, including the Principe expedition waking up to thunderstorms and getting only occasional glimpses of the Sun in breaks in the clouds and multiple plates in Sobral being ruined because it was hot enough to warp the lenses in the camera. But they managed to get enough plates to get results.

Now, Newton also predicted that light would have its path be deflected by gravity - but Einstein predicted more than twice the effect. Newton's theory predicted a deflection of 0.8 arc-seconds. Einstein predicted 1.8. An arc-second is 1/60 of an arc-minute, which is 1/60 of a degree, which is 1/360 of a complete circle. So yeah, an arc-second is small, but the size is unimportant, it's how closely prediction matches actual measurements.

The stars in this photo are deflected by just under 2 arc-seconds. The ones from Principe were measured at 1.6 arc-seconds. One a little above Einstein's predictions, one a little below, but both in line with it and far removed from Newton's.
These results, that is, were the first observational proofs of the General Theory of Relativity.

They made Einstein a figure known worldwide and other predictions of his theory, such as black holes, have been subjects of both scientific study and sci-fi ever since.

Which brings me to the third image. Almost exactly 100 years later, in April 2019, a worldwide collaboration of scientists produced this, the first ever image of, the first direct observational evidence of, a black hole.

With a mass roughly equal to 6.5 million of our Suns, this supermassive black hole is located in the galaxy M87, some 55 million light years away from Earth. By the way, M87 just means Messier 87, or number 87 in the Messier catalog of deep-sky objects.

Recall you can't see the black hole itself; the gravitational strength of a black hole is so great that anything passing the event horizon, even light, can't escape. Which is why it's called a black hole. As matter is drawn into the black hole, it swirls around, spiraling in, becoming extremely hot and becoming what scientists call luminous, giving off electromagnetic energy such as radio waves and X-rays. That's what you're seeing here.

The image was obtained using something called the Event Horizon Telescope, which linked together eight ground-based radio telescopes, effectively turning the Earth into one giant virtual radio telescope and creating a resolution sharp enough to focus on an orange on the surface of the Moon.

It also provided an extraordinary test of Einstein's theory of gravity and its underlying notions of space and time. One hundred years later and we are still getting observation evidence related to the General Theory of Relativity - and Einstein is still right.

As a footnote to this, what gave me a hook to raise this now, is that at he end of March of this year, 2021, the team that did the black hole picture followed it up with the final one here. Those visible swirls are in effect an image of the structure of the magnetic field in the event horizon of that black hole.

The image is enabling astrophysicists to analyze the nature and strength of that magnetic field and through that provide important insights into the still-mysterious nature of black holes. Because yes, they are still in a number of ways mysterious and even as more and more is learned there is a considerable amount still unknown about them.
And I think that is really cool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Three: Noted in Passing

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Three: Noted in Passing

Next, an occasional segment called Noted in Passing, where we touch on a couple of things we wanted to make sure got mentioned even if only quickly.

First up, the Ohio legislature is considering a GOPper-backed bill to change the name of an Ohio state park from Mosquito Lake State Park to Donald J. Trump State Park.

So basically changing the name from referencing one disease-carrying pest to another. Doesn't seem like much of a change to me.

It does remind me of the earlier efforts by GOPpers to have something named for Ronald Reagan in every single county in the US. But at least they had the decency to wait until he was dead.


And here we go again: Sen. Witless Romney is proposing legislation to deal with the - according to the right-wing - supposed looming financial crisis of Social Security and Medicare, a disaster that is forever imminent but never actually arrives.

This time it's to be bipartisan 12-member "Rescue Committees," one for each of the trust funds with a deadline of 180 days to draft legislation to "improve" each program while securing long-term funding, with any such legislation receiving "expedited consideration" in, that is, to be rushed through, Congress.

It's claimed that this is a "bipartisan" effort because three of the 12 co-sponsors in the Senate are Democrats. The three are Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Warner. Truly a varied group.

Oh, and we have long known the way to secure the long-term funding for SS and Medicare: remove the cap on income subject to the taxes, a change that would only affect those making over $143,000, that is, the richest 8% of Americans.
But wait, that's the rub: It would mean taxing the rich, so that's obviously off the table.


Elizabeth Warren
On a happier note, here's another sign that Israel is finally losing its stranglehold on US policy in the Middle East, as progressives and even liberals become more open to questioning the so-called "special relationship."

On April 19, Elizabeth Warren, while continuing to support military aid to Israel, proposed conditioning the aid on none of it being used in the occupied territories. Quoting her: "By continuing to provide military aid without restriction, we provide no incentive for Israel to adjust course."

Not a very radical proposal by any means - personally, I would simply end military support altogether - but it wasn't that long ago that even suggesting Israel had to "adjust course" was beyond the pale.


On an unhappy note, the Arkansas House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a resolution specifically allowing the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Federal courts - including in a case directly involving Arkansas - have repeatedly held that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional on the grounds that it is religious instruction, a fact to which the bill's main sponsor responded by saying she hoped the newly reactionary SCOTUS might feel differently.


Finally, while most Americans have weathered the pandemic financially, about 38 million say they are worse off now than before the outbreak began in the US.

Overall, 55% of Americans say their financial circumstances are about the same now as a year ago, and 30% even say their finances have improved, but 15% say they are worse off.

Not surprisingly, the problem is more pronounced at lower income levels and among non-whites. Some 29% of Americans living below the federal poverty line say their personal finances now are even worse that they obviously were a year ago, while 47% of Hispanics and just 39% of Black Americans say they have been able to put aside some money recently, compared to 57% of whites, and. Black and Hispanic Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to say they have come up short on bill payments.

Despite some recent degree of recovery, the United States still has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it had in February 2020, just before the pandemic struck.

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Two: Afghanistan

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page Two: Afghanistan

I'm just going to take a minute or two for this because I am absolutely sure you have heard about it, but just as absolutely it has to be mentioned.

President Joe Blahden has directed that all remaining US forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, ending America’s longest war 20 years after it started, in a decision supported even by veterans groups across the political landscape and from both Democrats and GOPpers in Congress.

NATO troops will also depart.

Despite the bipartisan support, there are still those urging that 20 years of war and $2 trillion in spending is not enough, that leaving has to be "conditions based" - in other words, the killing should continue until we win. The threat, they say, is civil war, as if that's not what Afghanistan has been experiencing all along.

Besides that obvious point, there is the argument that pulling out actually increases pressure on both the Taliban and the Afghan government to reach an agreement because neither can continue to hold the US hostage to political developments in the country - the government because it can no longer sit back and rely on the US to maintain it; the Taliban because it can no longer use the presence of foreign troops to build and hold popular support.

There is some wiggle room in the announcement, as the administration plans to leave “sufficient” forces in the region to conduct counterterrorism missions and keep a check on the Taliban, but how extensive those forces will be or where they will be stationed is unclear.

What's really odd, though, is that some are referring to it as a "surprise" announcement, even though the deadline is more than four months after the May 1 deadline agreed to by the Tweetie-pie administration last year.

I guess, like some of us sometimes, they just couldn't imagine it really ending.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page One: Some thoughts prompted by the Derek Chauvin conviction

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page One: Some thoughts prompted by the Derek Chauvin conviction

I was happy that Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd. I have to say that because of my overall feelings about the US criminal injustice system it feels rather creepy to say this, to say I was happy someone was convicted of murder, but I was.

I wasn't really surprised when it happened. First because the case appeared overwhelming and the fact that the usual "split-second decision" excuse was unavailable left the defense reduced to a string of "could be"s lacking any real basis coupled to the notion that some undetermined one of those "could be"s just happened by some truly remarkable coincidence to kill Floyd at the same time his neck was being crushed into the pavement. Second, because the jury came back so quickly, usually a bad sign for a defendant.

I was a little surprised that it was on all three counts - I more expected the jury to convict on two of the charges to give an impression, as juries often wish to do, of really working through the implications of all the testimony. But this jury obviously and I'd say correctly thought that unnecessary. The evidence was that overwhelming.

Which - leave it to me to find the downside - may become our societal means to ignore the broader meaning of the case. Precisely because the abuse was so blatant, precisely because the indifference to human life was so obvious, precisely because the evidence was so overwhelming, overwhelming to the point that even other cops testified against Chauvin, which is almost unheard of, precisely because of that, we can and I fear will dismiss it as an outlier, as not reflecting the day-to-day reality of how black Americans are treated by cops so very differently from how white Americans are.

Which is why the less shocking but for that very reason more important case is that of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, shot and killed by police in Chicago on March 29. It's important because it's a more common one, one where it is not completely cut and dried with no room for questions and so one where all the usual excuses are trotted out, all the usual justifications are cited.

Derek Chauvin

Based on body cam and surveillance video of the event, it appears Toledo had had a gun - notice the past tense - which he might still have had when he was confronted by the cop. At a command to "Show me your effing hands," he turns and raises his hands. They're empty. So either he had already ditched the gun or he tossed it as he turned. Doesn't matter. He gets shot. He later dies. And another unarmed black person gets buried.

To the police, this was an "armed confrontation" and prosecutors initially claimed a gun was in Toledo’s hand when he was shot. The body cam forced them to drop that particular line, but the assertions that the cop was "100% right" are already echoing and the "split-second decision" banners are already being waved.

And the result will likely be that the cop involved will face no charges and not even departmental discipline. Which makes Adam Toledo more revealing than George Floyd - because that is the usual result: In 98.3% of killings by police from 2013-2020, no charges of any kind were filed - and in those that were, only a quarter resulted in convictions.

Meanwhile black people are three times more likely than whites to be killed by cops - and those black victims are more likely to have been unarmed than the white ones, figures doubtless driven in significant part by the same racism that has black males perceived - especially by whites - as bigger and more menacing than whites of the same height and weight and black boys as older than they are. 13-year-old Adam Toledo was described in the initial police report as being between 18 and 25.

Reformers often call for "improved training" but as others have pointed out, that will not solve the problem of the racism driving much of the difference in treatment.

And yes, that's true - but training does impact that problem and it does relate to the overall question of police violence and brutality because not being black is not absolute protection against that. Just ask the water protectors from the Dakota Access Pipeline encampment or for that matter pretty much any '60s antiwar protester.

The fact we need to face is that the way we train police makes brutality more likely. And I'm not referring here to "we should teach them de-escalation techniques" or some such, not to what we should do, but to what we do do.
Adam Toledo

And the reality is, we are teaching police to be afraid. We are teaching them to be scared all the time. We are teaching them to think of every non-cop as a potential suspect and even a potential assailant. One notorious example is the so-called "21-foot rule" or "Tueller drill." Even though it was only intended as a training exercise, it is actively taught in some police academies and widely accepted informally among police forces. It is the idea that someone with a bladed weapon who is 21 feet away can attack and kill you before you as a cop can unholster your gun and get off a good shot. It has been debunked but still leaves police with the feeling that anyone within 21 feet of them is a potential threat.

But it's not just that rule, it's an overall pattern, and overall way of thinking, that gets instilled in cops that leaves them in a constant state of stress. And note I didn't say alertness, I said stress.

I've talked about this before, how in watching videos of shootings by police, I was struck by how often the cops sounded scared. I particularly remember the video of the killing of Philando Castile. The cop has the gun, it is pointed at Castile, who is sitting and obviously unarmed, but I clearly recall thinking that despite that, the cop sounded terrified - and that wasn't the only example.

All of which brings us to the killing of Daunte Wright by cop Kim Potter in a suburb of Minneapolis on April 11. This was the case where the cop shot him with her gun, supposedly thinking she was wielding a taser. And it demonstrated what I maintain are multiple things wrong with how we train police.

First off, the male cop who first approached the car had his gun out and demanded Wright get out of the car.

Wright says "For what?" and the cop answers "I'll explain to you when you get out of the car." Right off: Cops are taught they they have to be in control of the situation, to dominate the situation, at all times. Why couldn't he have said "You have an expired inspection sticker," which is supposedly the reason they pulled him over in the first place? Why couldn't he just answer the question instead of responding, in effect, "Be quiet and do what I tell you" and so raising the tension and giving Wright cause not to cooperate but to fear cooperation? Why? Because that's what cops are taught: to be in charge and accept nothing other than passive submission.

Daunte Wright

Wright starts to get out of his car but then tries to get back in. Potter runs up to join the other cop. The tension has already soared. Potter is heard shouting "I'll tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!" - and then a second later, "Holy shit, I shot him."

In the wake of this, the police chief said he believes Potter intended to use a Taser but mistakenly drew her gun, a claim widely ridiculed by civil right activists and the local community.

And on its face, it does seem absurd. A cop's gun is about a pound heavier than a taser, is a different color and an at least somewhat different feel.

So here's the question: Can I believe Potter told the truth? Can I believe that she shot Daunte Wright thinking she was tasering him? The answer is yes, I can. And again it relates to failures in how we train police.

Most police departments, including the one here, require that officers carry their guns on their dominant side and Tasers on the opposite side, which is supposed to lower the risk of confusing the two. But the instant I heard that, I said "that's wrong, that's ridiculous, that's the opposite of what it should be." Because under stress, in a high-stress, adrenaline-pumping situation, you are going to default to your dominant hand. Having your gun on you dominant side is going to increase the risk of cases such as that of Daunte Wright.

Betsy Brantner Smith of the National Police Association said it's called "slip and capture" and likened it to getting into a rental car, going to start it up, and reaching for how you start your own car before realize that's not where you are.

It's also called "muscle memory" and you know damn well you have experienced it. Hell, I have a car I've had for six months and I've finally stopped reaching for the gear shift in the wrong place. You've experienced it and you weren't even under stress.

What's more, this is certainly not the first time this has happened, of a cop shooting someone thinking they were firing a taser. There are documented cases of it. So can I believe that Kim Potter shot Daunte Wright believing at that moment that she was tasering him? Yes, I can. Because of the way she was trained. That, it shouldn't need to be said but probably is, does not excuse it. In the immortal words of Mr. Spock, "I understand. I do not approve."

And it also doesn't mean that racism was not a factor in the killing of Wright, if only because our society is such that it's difficult to completely ignore race in any interaction between blacks and whites.

So yes, it's true that we can't address police violence and brutality without addressing racism, particularly in our police forces but in our society as well. But it's also true that we can't address police violence and brutality without addressing how we are training them to think.

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5

This episode:

- Some thoughts prompted by the Derek Chauvin conviction

- Afghanistan

- Noted in Passing
- - And Another Thing

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page Three: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrage]

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page Three: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrage]

We end with our Outrage and this one is a bit different because it's not about an incident or a policy, but a topic, one I've been meaning to mention for a while.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on digital privacy and free speech reports that during the pandemic, a dangerous business has prospered: invading students’ privacy with proctoring software and apps.

The group says that in the last year, universities have been compelling students to download apps that collect their face images, driver’s license data, and network information. And it does beyond solely extensive ID requirements: Students who want to move forward with their education are sometimes forced to accept being video recorded in their own homes and having the footage reviewed for “suspicious” behavior.

But believe it or not, that's not the Outrage here.

Unsurprisingly, students and educators have been pushing back against these invasions of privacy. Last fall, Ian Linkletter, a remote learning specialist at the University of British Columbia, became one of them.

Linkletter looked at what the software actually did and compared it to what Proctorio, the company that sold the spy apps to the university, was telling people about it. He posted some of his criticisms on Twitter, and included links to Proctorio's publicly-available YouTube videos.

So Proctorio has sued him, claiming - and I had to admit I read this a couple of times to make sure they were really saying this - that by linking to publicly viewable YouTube videos, Linkletter had violated both Proctorio's copyright and a confidentiality agreement between the university and the company on the grounds that even though the videos were publicly available, they were confidential. Note well, Linkletter did not alter the videos, he didn't re-use them in any way, he didn't even copy them. He just linked to them. But according to Proctorio, that's enough.

The case is transparently absurd, but that's not the point. This is - and this is why I bring this up - a classic SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a suit not with the goal of winning a judgment but of silencing opposition by saddling an individual or small group with back-breaking legal costs, aiming to financially break them or force them to agree to shut up in exchange for the suit being dropped.

Fortunately for Linkletter, British Columbia has a sort of “anti-SLAPP” law, allowing a defendant to bring an early challenge to the lawsuit against them on the basis that their speech is on a topic of “public interest.” If the court accepts that, the suit is dismissed unless the plaintiff can meet a very high standard for it to continue. Dismissal could also result in the defendant getting their legal fees back.

Which is good, but hardly good enough. Getting your fees back is not guaranteed and in any event it requires being able to pay them in the first place. Linkletter, for example, has had to raise $50,000 to defend himself. For the corporation, "losing" can be written off as a cost of doing business, worth it to silence a critic. For the defendant, "winning" can be bankrupting, spiritually if not financially.

Stopping SLAPPs will take more than enabling recovery of costs after the fact. There must be actual penalties to these corporations, including being liable for personal damages, not just legal fees.

SLAPPs have been a weapon wielded by the strong against the weak for some time. They are still being used but we don't hear about a lot of them because the defendant often is required to never discuss the case as a condition of the suit being dropped.

Their purpose is to make the cost of objecting to corporate power too high. It's time we made the cost of silencing speech even higher.

For more on this, check out

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page Two: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Clowns]

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page Two: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Clowns]

Last time out, in discussing the killings in Atlanta and Boulder, I mentioned that an impediment to Congress doing anything is Joe "I'm a responsible gun owner" Manchin. What I didn't do is note just how much of a Clown he is on the issue.

The House of Representatives passed two gun control bills in March, one of which extends background checks to all gun sales and transfers. It actually contains carveouts for transfers between family members, responding to an immediate threat, or temporary transfer for hunting - but that's not a big enough loophole for Mr. Responsible Gun Owner. He wants private gun sales between people who know each other to also be exempt from background checks.

So in effect we had the gun show loophole, the on-line loophole, and now we can have the friend loophole. Can't buy a gun because you can't pass a background check? Just have somebody you know who can, go buy it for you and then sell it to you. Consider it a new version of "friends with benefits."

And consider Joe Manchin a Clown.


There have been a few people who got pretty much retired from the Clown Award because they were repeated winners to the point where it seemed unfair to other aspirants. Tucks Carlson was one such example.

Well, we now have someone who may well become the quickest retiree ever. Rep. Marjorie Taylor ColorOfNausea.

On March 31, this bonkers bozo ranted on a Facebook Live video in a way that even made some of the Q-Anonsense she spouts seem, well, vaguely coherent. Sorta. Maybe.

Anyway, she was reacting to the idea of a "vaccine passport," a document that would be carried to prove the bearer had been vaccinated against COVID as a means of for example being able to travel without restrictions or gain entry to a concert or some such event.

Now understand, there are legitimate questions that can be raised about them; privacy advocates, for one, have major reservations.

But those are sane objections and so are of no interest to Rep. ColorOfNausea. Instead, she said they are "like Biden's Mark of the Beast," thus labeling Joe Blahden as the antichrist of Revelation before ranting on that "It’s still fascism. Or communism. Whatever you want to call it, but it’s coming from private companies." And here's the good part, "I call it ‘corporate communism.'"

So it's fascism. Except it's communism. Or capitalism. Or corporate communism. I know! It's fascist corporate communism!

It's the mark of the Clown.


We end with a quickie:

Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, reacting to accounts of proposals from Democrats to raise taxes on the rich, said "Biden wants to allocate the tax responsibility in this country on a basis of class. That's a hell of a way to make tax policy."

Um, Senator? That's how it's supposed to be made: The richer you are, the more you pay. That's the whole idea of a graduated income tax. It was even the original idea some centuries ago behind property taxes, the idea being that the is a direct relationship between how rich you are and how much land you own.

Y'know, the original idea behind the Clown Award was that it was given for demonstrating meritorious stupidity. Senator John Kennedy brings it back to its roots.

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page One: A Longer Look at Healthcare

035 The Erickson Report for April 8 to 21, Page One: A Longer Look at Healthcare

We start with another instance of our occasional feature, A Longer Look, where we go into something in somewhat more detail than usual. In this case, it's A Longer Look at healthcare.

The experience of covid has generated warnings among health experts that we as a nation are no more prepared for the inevitable next pandemic than we were for this one. Those folks are usually thinking in terms of stockpiles of medications and other equipment and distribution mechanisms for them in times of need along with better tracking once some new virus crops up to contain any outbreak as much as possible.

But there's another issue, less often discussed but at least as important: The experience of Covid has laid bare the fact that the very nature of our health care system is broken and needs overhaul, need whole-scale restructuring. The failures, delays, wildly varying responses, erratic and fragmented treatment efforts, and gross inefficiencies that together cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives over the past year are a direct outcome of that fractured system, an outcome that has not revealed but rather has put an exclamation point to the fact that we do not have a health care system, with a goal of maximizing health, but a health care industry, with a goal of maximizing profit.

In the words of Bonnie Castillo, RN, executive director of the National Nurses United union, "The pandemic has highlighted in deadly detail what nurses have known for decades: Our current health care system is a colossal failure and leaves far too many of our patients to suffer and die unnecessarily.'

How bad was that failure? A new report released March 16 by Public Citizen argues that the nation's coronavirus response was hindered "at every turn," adding that "The reality is that our for-profit healthcare system put the U.S. at a dangerous disadvantage and hindered rapid response." That resulted, the report found, in millions of Covid-19 infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented - deaths, it must be noted, that disproportionately fell on communities of color, with people dying at 3-5 times the rates of whites, a direct result of the unequal access to care that is another effect of our corporate-dominated, profit-driven system.

The root of the problem is that our access to health care, available on a fee-for-service basis, is mediated through insurance. While Medicaid and Medicare and some other government programs do provide insurance, the way the majority of adults in the US get health insurance for themselves and their families is through their employer. That is, our access to health care is based on private, profit-seeking insurance tied to our employment. Suddenly have tens of millions unemployed - as during, for example, a COVID pandemic - and you just as suddenly have tens of millions uninsured, unable to pay for health care costs that can be crushing if you get even a little sick and difficult to cover even for routine care even if you don't. And that leads of large numbers of preventable deaths.

The Public Citizen white paper built off a study, released March 4, from FamilesUSA, which concluded that over 40% of US Covid-19 infections and about 1/3 of the deaths have been associated with lack of health insurance - so by February 1, it found, nearly 11 million COVID-19 infections and over 140,000 deaths were potentially connected to gaps in having health insurance.

And even having health insurance may not be enough. The number of underinsured Americans, those who have some sort of health insurance but effectively can't use it because the co-pays and deductibles are too high, leading to delayed or avoided care, that number is stunningly high: a quarter to nearly 30% of all adults.

As a result of the Affordable Care Act, most particularly through expansion of Medicaid, about 20 million non-elderly Americans got insurance - but the combined total of uninsured and underinsured working-age adults remained stuck at about 45% of that working-age population, around 87 million people, because even as the number of uninsured dropped, the number of underinsured rose.

So we are now at the point where according to a poll by Gallup and West Health, released March 31, nearly one in five US adults, nearly 50 million people, say they could not afford quality healthcare if the need arose and the same number say that someone in their household has foregone care in the past year because of the cost, with more than a third of those in low-income households reporting having done that, a finding confirmed by a GoHealth survey from November which found that 1/3 of people below 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, are planning to reduce preventive care appointments and/or everyday household purchases in order to afford health insurance - all while more than 8 million Americans have started a crowdfunding campaign in a desperate and usually failing attempt to raise money to pay for medical care. That is after 10 years of the Affordable Care Act, the thing that was supposed to solve the problem of access to health care.

So if you want to say the ACA is better than what we had before, go ahead - so long as you remember that that's only by comparison and "better than we had" is a damn low bar to get over. It's not nearly good enough. Even though the US spends more on health care than any other OECD country - the OECD being the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it's essentially the industrialized nations of the world - life expectancy here has decreased in recent years. Not that it was good before: According to the WHO, the US ranks 40th among nations in that regard. And even as life expectancy has declined, costs for consumers have continue to rise. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, annual premiums for employer-sponsored family heath coverage rose 55% in the first eight years of the ACA.

And the ACA's utter failure to challenge or impact that employer-provided corporate insurance model, a model it left untouched, in fact endorsed as the subsidies on the exchanges amount to public financing of private profit, that failure meant that by its very nature the ACA could not deal with the pandemic's surge in required care. And people - lots of people - died as a result.

What's the alternative? What could have helped now and would help in the future? You already know the answer: Take the profit out of health care. And the biggest step we can take in that direction now is what's known as single-payer health coverage, popularly known these days as Medicare for All.

On March 17, Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Debbie Dingell introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021 with the support of 300 local, state, and national organizations - along with over half of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

It envisions a two-year transition to a Medicare for All system that would also expand what Medicare now offers to include dental, vision, reproductive health, mental health, long-term care, and other services with no out-of-pocket costs attached. No deductibles, no co-pays. No private insurance premiums. And fewer hassles finding a health care provider because there are no in- or out-of-network issues.

Polls consistently show a heavy majority of Americans, even nearly half of GOPpers, favor a single-payer system, with overall support running from the upper 50s to the upper 60s depending on exactly how it's described.

Despite that, the chances of this bill passing are actually slim, and we'll get to some reasons why later, but it's still a good thing first because it lays down a marker and provides leverage, leverage which Bernie Sanders is already using in the Senate to push for amendments to the next reconciliation bill that would reduce the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60 and revoke the ban on Medicare negotiating drug prices with manufacturers.

According to an analysis last April by the healthcare consulting firm Avalere, lowering the eligibility age to 60 could extend the program's coverage to as many as 23 million more people.

One important feature of a single-payer system is that it is both more efficient and simpler for consumers to navigate. There is a tremendous amount of administrative cost and waste in our current chaotic, profit-driven mess, with multiple insurance corporations negotiating with multiple providers using multiple sets of standards and levels of eligibility and multiple billing systems - all of which complications disappear with single payer.

That is a big part of the reason why studies have repeatedly shown that a single-payer system costs less than we pay now.

For example, in January of 2020, a team of analysts at three University of California campuses examined 22 studies on the projected cost impact of single-payer health insurance and found that every one of them, even one from the right-wing Mercatus Center, predicted that it would yield net savings over several years. The size of the savings varied with the assumptions made, including the exact nature of the program - but every one said it would mean providing comprehensive coverage to everyone while costing less.

And there were more to come. In February 2020, an analysis done at Yale and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Lancet found that a single-payer system could slash the nation’s health-care expenditures by 13 percent, or more than $450 billion, a year, while saving about 69,000 lives.

In December 2020, the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate of the cost of implementing a single-payer program. The CBO considered four different single-payer designs and found that such a system would save somewhere between $42 and $743 billion in 2030 alone.

The CBO option that most closely approximates current Medicare for All proposals shows savings of around $650 billion a year by 2030. Even adding long-term support and services to that still shows savings of $300 billion a year.

One significant finding was that administrative costs for Medicare - already just 2%, so low that during the debate on the ACA, the insurance industry whined that it was unfair competition - would be even lower under a single-payer system, about 1.5 to 1.8 percent.

And in a paper published January 5 of this year, a team from Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School and the University of California San Francisco looked at the relationship between universal healthcare and the use of medical services. They considered the claim that universal access to care would result in so many people using so much care that the system would be overwhelmed by user costs, swamping any administrative savings and making Medicare for All just to damn expensive - and they found the claim to be utterly false.

Between 1973 and 2020, various models projected utilization increases, that is, the increase in demand for medical services, up to more than 21% - but this team looked at the actual history of past coverage expansions in the US and 10 other affluent countries, and found that the changes in fact were modest and that nearly all previous predictions overestimated the impact.

According to the authors' review of the historical record, universal coverage would increase ambulatory visits by no more than 10% and hospital use by no more than 3%, with "modest administrative savings" offseting the costs of increases.

So what all this comes down to is that a single-payer system provides excellent health care, a wider range of services, is easier for consumers to navigate, costs less, and has the support of a majority of the population.

Which it is why it is so incredibly frustrating and disappointing, even depressing  - but I have to add not surprising - to note that the hierarchy of the Democratic Party, including Nancy Pelosi in the House, Chuck Schumer in the Senate, and Joe Blahden in the White House are all against it.

Pelosi is actively discouraging House Democrats from supporting Medicare for All; Schumer says Senate democrats will go with "what gets the most votes," which by definition in a divided Senate means either nothing or what's pleasing to the reactionaries in the body; and as for Bladen, he said in May 2020 that as president he would veto Medicare For All legislation.

In fairness, I'll note that he supports lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 - but in truth I'll add that happened only after it became obvious that healthcare was a significant enough issue in the campaign that he had to find a way to soften his outright rejection of Medicare for All.

Anyway, what this triumverate of political turpitude, this trio of twits, wants instead of a single-payer plan is some minor tweaking of the ACA, the very thing that has had 10 years to prove itself and has instead demonstrated it is not up to the task of either universal coverage, cost containment, or emergency response.

Their central idea is to create a government-backed “public option” health plan and expand Obamacare subsidies - subsidies which, again, amount to public financing of private profit.

And as for the public option, have we really forgotten that such a thing was supposed to be part of the original ACA? Is that truly the best the Democratic hierarchy can offer us? A promise to re-fight the battles of 10 years ago? With the promise that this would, in the words of Sen. Michael Bennet, a co-sponsor of a bill to enact Blahden's vision, "finish the work of Obamacare?" A plan that would leave intact, indeed embrace, the very fractured, fragmented, profit-driven, corporate-dominated healthcare network that has been such a disastrous failure, particularly over this last year?

Is that really the best they can offer?

And why? Why are they shying away from Medicare for All? Are they acting out of a timid fear of what the right-wing will say about the party's candidates in 2012? I know Nancy Pelosi is. Are they too tied to corporate interests? I know Chuck Schumer is. Are they thinking that Medicare for All is a slap in the face to their legacy? I know Joe Blahden is. Or are they just stubbornly unwilling to admit they got it wrong?

But why isn't really the point, first because all that is true of all of them and second because it doesn't make a damn bit of difference why. What matters is the lives and the health that will be lost as they repeat the blunders of 10 years ago.

Ten years ago, the Obama White House didn't start on the ACA with a demand for what should be done, expecting to have to negotiate back from there but winding up with the maximum that could get passed at the time. Instead, they started with a call for what they thought would pass, with the obvious and predictable result that they wound up with clearly less than that.

When during the bargaining over the ACA, I complained about that approach, I was told "Don't worry, we'll get this through and next year we'll come back and make is stronger." And I called it: I said "No you wont; you'll spend your time and energy trying to defend against losing what you've got."

As Yogi said, It's deja vu all over again as the Democratic leadership resuscitates proposals from a decade past and says with that and a couple of tweaks and jiggles, we will "finish the work of Obamacare." And they will happily clap each other on the back and talk of the great work they have wrought - while tens of millions continue to suffer its failures.

I suppose I could call it an outrage - but the truth is it feels much more like a tragedy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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