Pork Barreling and Horse Trading with Ryan’s Healthcare Disaster

New Orleans  They might have the votes, and they might not have the votes to get this mess of a healthcare abomination out of hardcore ideologue and Speaker Paul Ryan’s House, but all signs point to a squeaker that will smell like it crawled out of a dumpster by the time it gets to the Senate.

We already know that the President and his people will say virtually anything without regard to fact or fantasy, and they seem to be using that proclivity in hyper-fashion with recalcitrant House of Representative moderates, saying that the Senate will fix and modify the mess. Most folks on the used car lot that Congress has become would walk away from that lemon.

For the suicidal, largely anonymous so-called Freedom Caucus, they have bent over backwards to take something terrible and make it even more horrid. They want work mandates for Medicaid despite all evidence that establishes that not only are these ineffective, punitive, and needless, but that people need healthcare to get well, so that they can work. Ok, here you go! Some of them want funding of some programs to stop immediately rather than in 2018, so, hey, let’s accelerate the death spiral for another vote or two. Anything goes these days.

And, talk about pork barreling and horse trading for votes in this district or that, and any principles go out the window. Congressman from upstate New York want to push the share of the Medicaid bill from the county coffers to the state for a billion or more, no problem, if these couple of Congressman are Republican and the Governor of New York is a Democrat. Heck, make him pay up. Some coal miners with black lung realizing that they could be hammered by cutbacks in Medicaid that are keeping them alive, no problem, write in an exception for coal miners with black lung.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Even if something emerges, it is going to be jerry-rigged like a Rube Goldberg contraption. They are already asking the American people to pretend this will be some kind of viable health plan, and now they are going to ask us to pretend it will actually work.

No one likes this thing. Republican and Democratic governors are aghast. Doctors, hospitals and the elderly associations are up in arms.

This is clearly no longer an exercise in healthcare policy. This is all about big league politics now. They need to prove on the first bill coming out of the Trump barn that they can win. No matter what or how bad the smell.

Whatever happens in this first vote, no one can believe anymore that this is going to end well.

***

Please enjoy Big Boys  from the late great Chuck Berry.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band Santiago.

Thanks to KABF.

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The “Janes,” Heather Booth, and Underground Abortions

New Orleans    I’ve known Heather Booth for a long time, probably forty years, as a respected colleague within the allied trades of our work. I first knew her as the director and one of the founders of the Midwest Academy, which was, and still is, a Chicago-based training center for organizers. Later in Washington she managed voter registration and engagement programs and was an excellent partner on our joint efforts, and continued to be a voice and advisor with considered and valued opinions. Prior to meeting her, I admired the fact that she had spent time as an organizer in the South during the civil rights movement.

In many ways I now feel I only knew the half of it as I read a snippet of the oral history of the “Janes” in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine and Heather’s history in founding this pivotal service for women in the fraught times before the Roe decision made the right-to-choose a foundational principle of our time and legalized women’s access to abortion, which is threatened so acutely now. My admiration for her work now knows no bounds.

The story is straightforward though, despite the courage and conviction it evidenced. Heather tells of being a college student in 1965 at the University of Chicago. A friend’s sister found herself pregnant, desperate, and without options. When her friend asked her for help, she reached out for the Medical Committee for Human Rights who then in turn put her in touch with a Dr. T.RM. Howard, and her sister’s friend’s problem was solved. Next thing she knew “word must have spread.” One called and then another, and Heather realized this was a real situation crying for a solution. She arranged a system with Dr. Howard. She was living in a dormitory and all of this was illegal then, so she would tell people to “ask for Jane.” And, so it continued for another three years until 1968. Heather threw out a rope looking for help when she attended various political meetings asking if any women wanted to help provide counseling for other women, and thereby recruited a team of “new” Janes to take her place.

This went through a number of iterations with various folks handling women looking for help and forced to follow the surreptitious route necessary to receive it successfully. People would donate their homes for the procedures. Women would meet other women off-site, make them comfortable, and bring them into the homes. These were feisty sisters, more formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation or Janes, as everyone called them. Doctors would refer people to them and the Janes would call the doctor and say, hey, this is Jane, help us, but few did. Eventually, they were raided in one of the homes and seven were arrested. No one was willing to testify against them. Eventually the Supreme Court decision in 1973 made the matter moot and the Janes shut down, but by that time they had facilitated about 11,000 abortions.

I’m proud of Heather, but there may need to be many more Heathers who are willing to become Janes and fire up this underground railroad to provide this service and meet this life changing need, so this story is one worth learning and learning well.

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Gorsuch, Like Mother, Like Son?

The chemical plant responsible for the Love Canal problem is the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, in this aerial view, which dumped toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood from 1940 until 1950 and which was investigated and exposed in 1980.

New Orleans   All heck seemed to be breaking loose in Washington. The FBI says they were investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and that there is no evidence that the Trump claim that Obama tapped his phones is true. In another hearing room, Neil Gorsuch, was being queried about a job as a Supreme Court Justice, and claiming he was “above politics.”

More disturbing to me in some ways was reading a piece in High Country News reprising his mother’s controversial stint and resignation as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Ronald Reagan. Her mission at the EPA was search-and-destroy, much like that of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who has sued the agency more than a dozen times and is now the newly confirmed department secretary. Both of them have beaten the drums on department overreach and the need to cut the budget and the staff and push more regulation – or lack of it – back to the states. Pruitt reportedly has already had to learn to be careful what he asked for and scurried, unsuccessfully, over to the White House to see if he could limit the budget reduction at the EPA to only a billion bucks, down to $7 billion. The White House instead responded by taking the EPA number down to $5.7 billion.

Anne Gorsuch Burford had been a firebrand Republican Colorado state senator before being raised up to a post in Washington to try and dismantle the EPA. Reading the article it all floods back in the memory of the hard times of the 1980s under Reagan. Gorsuch Burford was the administrator of the Superfund program, created by the EPA and Congress in the wake of the Love Canal, which, as many remember, was built to devastating effect on top of toxic wastes. Gorsuch Burford’s administrative under reach was her undoing. As High Country News reported:

“At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana…Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up underground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for underground waste. Accusations of mismanagement let to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shedding documents related to Superfund probes…Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigation. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge.”

Neil Gorsuch has been reported as upset and confused by his mother’s resignation as a teen, and arguing for her to stand and fight. Judge Gorsuch has also been noted for his decisions pushing against the so-called “administrative state,” where agencies have acted to interpret Congressional actions in accord with their regulatory authority, as well as his closeness to corporations and their interests.

None of these judicial nominees do much besides dancing at hearings of the Judiciary Committee, and certainly the anger of child is not the same as the maturity of an adult, but nonetheless it’s unsettling still because the child is still father to the man, and there are too many payback coincidences in Judge Gorsuch’s current views that seem to flow directly from those seminal experiences in the 1980s. He may have learned how to get along better than his mother, but the views seem a little too close for comfort to me.

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A Worrying Cycle of Housing Exploitation

New Orleans   I can’t exactly prove this yet, but the pattern is pretty gross already, and if I were a bettor, I would lay odds on the outcome. This is about housing and how things slide downhill when no one is watching and no one really cares. This sad story starts with the foreclosure crisis triggered by sloppy, scandalous, and speculative banking practices and may end in even more exploitation when some of these same houses end up almost a decade later deteriorating neighborhoods and in even more exploitative contract for deed “sales” in the credit desert for lower income communities still lingering in the wake of the Great Recession.

Ok, everyone knows that millions of homes ended up in foreclosure when the residential real estate market crashed in 2007-2008. Banks were over-leveraged in securitized loans heavily populated with mortgages that unsupervised brokers had patched together, often in a mixture of fact, fantasy, and falsehood. The government bailed out banks to the tune hundreds of billions, including taking over quasi-public FNMA and other government insurers of these mortgages. The homeowner, trying to hang on, got precious little help because the government allowed banks to administer the modification and forbearance programs, giving financial institutions little incentive to write down the mortgages to post-recession market prices which would have allowed some buyers to hang on, but would have weakened the balance sheets of the banks.

Although there is still outrage that none of the top dog bankers were really held accountable, the Justice Department and other agencies and some states have won multi-billion dollar settlements from the banks for their irresponsibility. Most of the settlements required them to pay fines to the government, but also required them to modify mortgages more extensively. Critics of the settlement terms always raised the fact that allowing the banks to use some of their penalty money to write down mortgages, essentially was giving them permission to move money from one pocket of their pants to another, which counts as a reward, rather than a punishment.

It is now clearer in reporting done by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that another big loophole, especially for big Wall Street financial titans like Goldman Sachs, allows them to satisfy the terms of the settlements by purchasing foreclosed properties from FNMA and flipping them for a profit. Goldman successfully scooped up two-thirds of a recent FNMA auction which translated into 8000 homes with unpaid balances of $1.4 billion costing Goldman $5.7 billion. The settlement requires they provide $1.8 billion in relief so by their reckoning this transaction could get them close.

Overall the Journal reports that Goldman has acquired 26,000 homes from Fannie and more from Freddie, private sellers and others. Rather than modify or repair, many end up in another foreclosure and are sold off in bulk as well through a subsidiary, MTGLQ Investors LP. I would bet a bunch of this inventory is also being off loaded to other bottom fishers, hedge funds, and shady operators to then be recycled through predatory contract for deed and rent-to-own arrangements at high interest and no equity to continue the vicious cycle of exploitation and neighborhood destruction. The surest bet is that none of these financial institutions are offering standard mortgage loans in these low-and-moderate income communities given the higher credit scores and other lower loan levels required.

I’d like to be proven wrong, but this is where the trail is leading, and none of the paths are pretty.

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Security and Whistleblowing with Signal and Moxie Marlinspike

Signal

New Orleans   Not long ago in the Edinburgh office of ACORN, I got a crash course in some simple things about basic email and text protection from spying and other weirdness thanks to one of our leader/organizers, Jon Black, who has done a deep dive on some of this stuff, so now that everyone is looking over our shoulders, maybe it’s time to share some tips.

I had fooled Black and masked my basic techno-peasantness because I knew about the legendary Moxie Marlinspike who is seen by many as the world’s expert on encryption. Of course I only really knew about Marlinspike because I had read a number of articles by him, thought the name was fantastic, and liked the fact that he was not your standard issue Silicon Valley greed grubber. Jon has actually read all of the terms and conditions so he was able to explain to me exactly why Moxie’s Signal was better than WhatsApp, which Marlinspike also developed and is now owned by Facebook. There was an important difference involving setting specific controls on WhatsApp for the user to be notified if someone was creeping up on their account, which are automatic for Signal. At least I think that’s what he told me.

But, anyway, Signal is actually owned and run by Marlinspike, so that should just be enough. Importantly, when WikiLeaks dropped the dime on the CIA at first I shouted out for Jon that they had managed to break through the encryption at Signal, but that was wrong. I heard the Moxie-man on the radio and he made it very clear, and it’s been confirmed elsewhere since, that they cracked the smartphones, not the apps. Of course one thing is still important to remember. To really encrypt your phone calls, video calls, and texts on Signal, the other party also needs to be on Signal. It’s an easy switch, and I’d recommend it as a “why not be safe rather than sorry” move.

Another recommendation for moving in this direction were some tips I saw recently in the magazine, “Wired,” for being a leaker or whistleblower and hoping to protect your anonymity. When it came to doing so with a phone they made the following suggestions, which many would have known form any close viewing of the great HBO series, “The Wire:”

“Buy a burner – a cheap, prepaid Android phone – with cash from a nonchain store in an area you’ve never been to before. Don’t carry your regular phone and the burner at the same time, and never turn on the burner at home or work. Create a Gmail and Google Play account from the burner, then install the encrypted calling and texting app Signal. When you’re done, destroy the burner and ditch its corpse far from home.”

They never say the words GPS, cell tower triangulation, or Stringer Bell, but almost all of these cautions underscore the fact that when you’re rolling with your phone – especially if it’s switched on – anyone and everyone can track you anywhere and anytime. Regardless, I would call those instructions a huge product endorsement for Signal as top of the line, best in class now especially for the price. Heck, it’s free, so you get more security for nothing. What’s to lose?

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Book Banning and the Fight to Stop It

Montreal    Representative Kim Hendren had an idea and in the Age of Trump no one probably told him to just take a deep breath or think twice, so he probably thought it was a dandy idea to introduce a bill in the Arkansas legislature to ban Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States and pretty much anything that Zinn had ever written, believing all of the late Boston University historian’s work was a threat to the country itself. He’s probably right in a weird way. Zinn’s history definitely tells stories of people and events left out of most books, yet still a vital fabric of the American experience regardless of the efforts of Rep. Hendren and others to whitewash the past to fit their own ideologies.

Hendren clearly didn’t realize that when it comes to book banning that he was kicking the hornets’ nest, but talking to Deborah Menkart, the executive director of Teaching for Change and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project, it was clear to me that he has met his match, no matter what happens to his little hater bill. Menkart and the Zinn Education Project responded to news of the bill by offering to make available copies of Zinn’s book and related teaching materials without cost to any Arkansas teacher or librarian that was interested. In the first blush they were overwhelmed with requests within days for 300 books, virtually depleting their entire stock. In the subsequent weeks the requests for copies has now crossed 700 volumes by the time I was interviewing her on Wade’s World. Thanks to Hendren the book has now gained a wider audience, something he clearly did not realize was going to happen.

Teaching for Change is no neophyte when it comes to insuring that the whole story gets told. They have been in business for twenty-five years and provide tools for teachers and students that are going to be even more valuable in this time when the US Department of Education is facing a leadership crisis at the top of their structure trying to go to war against public schools altogether. Menkart detailed a program that makes deep contributions in Latin American studies and a special project in Mississippi that has focused on allowing people in McComb in the southern part of that state to relearn the important role that courageous neighbors and community residents played, working largely with SNCC organizers, during the civil rights movement. Menkart’s points were telling. Fast forward three or four decades and the story becomes Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Martin Luther King, and a few others rather than the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of small, but earth shattering, roles played by regular people saying “Yes” and saying “No,” in ways that were different and profound.

More than Howard Zinn’s book, the real fear that Representative Hendren and so many hundreds of legislators around the country have now is that they might have unleashed a level of people power that they can no longer contain. And, supporting Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project may be part of way loosens the bounds and allows for harder questions and a new way of thinking.

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