Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Day We Found the Smoking Gun

Today, the President's son released a thread of emails between himself and a Russian associate which solicit a meeting between an emissary and three top members of the campaign.  The email explicitly proposes an arrangement to provide information sourced by the Russian Government in order to assist the campaign.  The email thread, a first-hand source, was sent between June 3rd and 8th.

A lot of people will look at this in isolation and work to explain it away.  And some who are clever enough might even succeed.  None of that actually matters one bit.  What happened on the day, what was gathered in that meeting or as a result of it, none of it matters.

Because this is now the predicate through which we view everything that followed.  Remember this phrase: "knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump."

  • On June 14th, the DNC announced they had been hacked by the Russians
  • On July 7th Carter Page takes a campaign-authorized trip to Moscow, knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • On July 18th, Jeff Sessions meets with Sergei Kislyak at the RNC knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump, and the Trump campaign subsequently softened language on America's support of Ukraine against Russian aggression
  • On July 23rd, the campaign watched WikiLeaks dump 22,000 hacked emails from the DNC, knowing that the Russian Government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • On July 24th, Paul Manafort said on television that the suggestion of connections between the campaign and Russia was "absurd," knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • Also on July 24th, Donald Trump Jr issued a similar denial on another program, saying "it's disgusting; it's phony... I can't think of bigger lies," knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • On July 27th, Donald Trump himself issued a similar denial on television.  
  • On September 7, Republican Operative Peter Smith wrote a document recruiting others to help obtain Clinton emails he believed were hacked by Russians, implying in conversations and emails that he was working with the Trump campaign.
  • On September 8, Jeff Sessions meets again with Sergei Kislyak in his Senate offices, knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • On September 26 and October 19, Donald Trump stated during two presidential debates that he doubted Russia hacked the DNC, knowing that the Russian government was working to support the election of Donald Trump.
  • Early December, Flynn and Kushner meet with Kislyak in Trump Tower, knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump, and asked to set up a back-channel of communications, possibly directly from the Russian embassy in Washington DC.
  • December, Kushner met with Sergei Gorkov, chairman of Russia's (sanctioned by the US) Vneshecombank (VEB), knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump.
  • Around January 11, Trump emissary and brother of Betsy DeVos met with Putin emissary secretly in the Seychelles, knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump.
  • On January 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House counsel that Mike Flynn could be subject to blackmail by Russians, due to his undisclosed conversations.  The White House failed to take action for 18 days afterward, knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump.
  • In February, Trump aides sought to unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia, knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump. 
  • On May 9th, Trump fires James Comey, stating later it was "this Russia thing" and a "phony story," knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump.
  • On May 10th, Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, where he bragged that he fired "nut job" James Comey, and said he "faced great pressure because of Russia" while extemporaneously providing extremely sensitive HUMINT regarding ISIS in Syria, knowing the Russian government had worked to support the election victory of Donald Trump.
As you can see, this new lens absolutely and irrevocably changes the significance of these already shady events.  In isolation, the email is not a smoking gun, but it is a bloody fingerprint that ties the rest of the crime scene neatly together.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Untargeted: Why We're Wrong About Everyone

As part of an ongoing series exploring privilege and my journey to shedding it, I offer this first installment, a baseline if you will for taking a step toward understanding. Ironically, I see this first step as acknowledging that it's impossible.  And, oddly, how that's a very good thing. 

Of course, all this is merely a wandering exploration of my own understanding.  Renowned sociologists will probably pick me apart.  But that's okay.  

Humans are the strangest of creatures.  We are studies in contradiction.  We draw much of our identity from the groups we inhabit: cultural, professional, societal, and familial, among others.  And, as members of a group, if part of its collective identity is attacked, we cleave to it more strongly to protect our own.  Even "anti-groups" like the Punk Rock movement drew and aligned their identity to the collective.  Having an "us" is the ultimate survival mechanism.  

However, flip that scenario and assume that I, as a member of a group, am DEFINED by the group, and I will, almost reflexively, reject that assumption.  "You don't know me!" I'll say.  And it's true.  Although I'm a (proud) veteran, assuming that I hold certain attitudes or beliefs based on that one fact will provoke a reaction.  Nobody likes to be pigeon-holed.  

Rashida Jones
My statistics teacher taught me something that always stuck with me.  He said "all models are wrong; some are useful."  As a tool for achieving insight, models are incredibly valuable when looking at large groups.  But modelers know that their product is "precisely wrong."  We know that our population lies within +/- 3% of whatever we are stating.  But nobody is an "exact fit."  Now, as I constantly work to unravel my preconceived filters and biases, I realize that this rule is true in a hundred different ways at the same time.  None of us are exactly anything, but simultaneously ALMOST dozens of things.  Which of them is in the proverbial driver's seat at any given time is subject to change, and often a product of our environment.  

So, no matter how much we study, no matter how much we learn, we'll never be right about anyone.  Some see this as a reason to throw their hands up.  But I think it's the basis for a really profound understanding.  We are many things. We are OF many things.  We draw on those histories and traditions as a source of strength (and, sometimes shame).  But, even though I am all of those, in the end, I am uniquely ME, an individual that draws from the collective, but is not defined by it.  And, my friend, so are you.  

So the next time you catch yourself asking "how could a (woman/person of color/LGBTQ person) support her or him or THAT?" check your filters.  And so will I.  It's a start. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Top Down: Why Democrats Aren't Winning

In the aftermath of the latest of this year's string of special elections, the Monday-morning-quarterbacking is, predictably, rolling off every opinionator's tongue.  And it's all over the place.

Why are Democrat candidates losing?  Is it money?  Is it energy?  Are they too liberal?  Too "not-liberal"?  Is it Nancy Pelosi?

In this writer's opinion: None of the Above.

Before I offer my position, let me start with a few questions.

  • What legislative district do you live in?
  • What is a Precinct Committeeperson?
  • Name one person in your legislative district's party leadership
  • When was the last time you had a discussion with someone from the party in your neighborhood?
If you don't know the answers to any of these questions, then (1) you're in good company, and (2) you are a test case to help me explain exactly why we keep losing.  That is: the party foundation is the local legislative district.  And, based on what I've seen and heard, that foundation is pretty shaky.

Every state legislator comes from a legislative district.  The electoral map of the entire country is built on these blocks.  Each legislative district is made up of precincts.  And for every 100 Democrat registered voters in a precinct, the district is assigned one Precinct Committee (PC) slot.  Together, these PC slots are filled (theoretically) with engaged people who are charged with connecting with their neighbors.  They know people directly and personally.  They provide the critical communication link between the people, the LD, and therefore the county, state, and national party.  Pretty important, right?  Right!!

I mean, think about it.  Think about all the questions and theories the pundits are offering.  Why didn't this district turn out?  Why didn't candidate X resonate?  Want the answer?  Ask a PC!  

Too many of those PC slots are sitting vacant.  People don't know about them.  People don't understand them.  People think the Party starts in Washington DC and magically trickles down.  It doesn't.  That's not how it works at all.  It's built from the bottom up.  Without the foundation, the house won't stand.  

If you don't know the answers to the questions above, odds are your LD is not running as well as it could.  But don't take my word for it, check for yourself.  Look up your legislative district (you can google it) and find out how to reach them.  The more you know, the more you realize that all politics truly is local.  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Broken: What James Comey taught us about us

If you watch television, any television, pretty much the only thing that has happened this week appears to be the congressional testimony of ex-FBI Director James Comey.  Depending on your political leanings, it was either a scathing indictment or a tempest in a teacup.  But as I watched the testimony and the coverage, I came away with another conclusion.  We. Are. Broken.

Here are the lessons I learned from this week.  And I wish more people would talk about them, because I believe they say a lot more about us than anybody on camera.

We have completely given up on transparency in government.
I'm stunned by the constant characterization of Comey's actions as "leaks."  The director of a "three letter" agency, a career public servant, released a complete and unabridged first-hand account, with full personal attribution of matters that he believed to be in the public interest.  When did we become so cynical that an act of transparency is viewed with suspicion?  We have the Freedom of Information Act, which FORCES government agencies to release information just like this.  And, when a judge enforces it, we celebrate it as a coup.  Even sympathetic coverage is using the "l-word".

What Comey did that was so stunning, that shook us to the point of suspicion, was to break ranks, to drop the "party line" and put disclosure of government activities ahead of, quite literally, his job.  It's sad to see that such a simple act would come as a surprise.

We are living in a sort of "truth inversion"
In weather terms, an inversion is when a layer of air is trapped beneath another layer, preventing natural circulation and pollutants from getting out.  In social terms, the truth has been trapped beneath a layer cynical and self-serving spin for so long that we no longer accept the truth, on its face, as good enough.  Instead we expect proof, beyond an unreasonable doubt, that the speaker isn't lying.

If our court system worked that way, no witness would ever be considered credible.  Yet, in today's politics, we can dismiss the word of a career law enforcement professional, placed in positions of the highest public trust again and again, simply on the basis that nobody can prove he isn't lying.  There is no longer an assumption of truthfulness, from government, from media sources, or any other speaker.  And that - if you think about it - puts our entire reality into subjective doubt.

We are almost pathologically protective of our reality bubble.
This is nothing new.  Many studies and scholarly papers have been written about the tendency of people to reject new information, even if it is better or more likely to lead to success, in favor of known, flawed information with which we are comfortable.  But we have turned this tendency, through social media and selective, tribal consumption of information into something fundamentally destructive.  We have managed to build massive, mutually exclusive information bubbles that are self-feeding, self-reinforcing, and becoming increasingly removed from objective reality (there is actually such a thing).

People supportive of the president came away dismissing Comey's testimony (and his motives).  People opposed to the president took everything he said as gospel truth.  It can't be both, yet both narratives are carrying equal weight in the aftermath.

The most disappointing conversations I've had lately have been with fellow liberals who are literally angry about the inclusion of "conservative" hosts "taking over" the liberal-leaning channel MSNBC.  We have been railing together against "fake news" for the better part of a year.  But all of a sudden, a network whose editorial and production values have been considered trustworthy by these friends is now suspect, solely because a person is sitting in front of a camera who may have a differing philosophy of government.  As if this sole fact makes a person less capable of informing the public.  We've got to stop this.

Comey's testimony may or may not, in your view, be game-changing.  But we need to pause and look critically at WHY we are coming to one conclusion or another.  We deserve a transparent, honest, and objective government and public officials.  But we will only get those things if we demand them.  And, frankly, we need to learn again how to recognize it when we see it. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Is it okay to make fun of Donald Trump?

This week, comedian Kathy Griffin raised a huge uproar with a photo prank that fell more than flat on its face.  And it got me to thinking: where's the line?  What's the right approach in this climate?

Without a doubt, political speech is the most broadly protected form of expression in America.  And satire has a unique way of making points that straight-laced commentary can struggle to achieve.    So, yes, it's "okay" to make fun of this or any president.

But is it effective?

Truthfully, this is a larger question than satire or comedy or even snark.  Since election day, the country has been ratcheted up like everyone has been crushing Monster drinks and caffeine pills.  Town halls are raucous and borderline hostile.  I'm as frustrated as anybody, and this is our right.  But, at the end of the day, messages are meant to be received.  And from where I'm sitting, nobody's listening.  In fact, social media blocking of angry constituents is just the latest wave in a concerted effort to ignore those demanding answers.

Is it time to change tactics?

If we are simply looking for catharsis, then nothing feels better than a good, full-blown, fist-shaking vent.  Doubly good if it's laced with some pithy sarcasm.  But if we are looking to be taken seriously and to effect serious change, perhaps it's time to set a different tone.

Conservative media and cynical Republican officials are looking for ANY excuse to discount what we have to say.  And they will take any incident, no matter how isolated, and paint us all with that same brush.  As resisters, we have an obligation to represent each other and the movement in a positive light.  Because only by holding the highest standards as individuals will we be able to lift up the rest of the movement and add our credibility to theirs.

We have serious issues to address.  Social justice, battling corruption, protecting and supporting minorities and marginalized groups, a healthy and educated population for the future.  These issues demand serious people, smart on the facts, making an unassailable case.  These issues demand a resistance movement that cannot be ignored.  As Thomas Jefferson said about the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, "to put the matter before the world, in terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent."

Keep resisting, my friends; command their assent!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The "Big Checkout" - How We Justify Disengagement

In modern American discourse, the word "Big" has become a pejorative.  "Big Pharma" "Big Banks" "Big Business" "Big Media" and let's not forget "Big Government".  America is the most affluent and powerful nation in human history; but is the down-side that everything is so bigly big that individuals feel hopelessly powerless?  And, if so, what do we do about it?

These big institutions are the culminations of decades of success, built brick by brick and year after year, on the principle that growth is always good and more is always better.  Bigness have given us more choice and more availability of practically anything we could want or need at any time, day or night.  And that's a good thing.  But...

"Bigness" creates a unique dynamic between the "big thing" and those under its influence, and it can be most easily observed in the world of cable TV providers.  Nobody really likes them.  Nobody's very satisfied with their costs, options, or service level.  Yet most of us remain customers, because there really is no comparable option or alternative.  Customers are trapped.  So, even though the cable companies continue to have huge customer bases (and profits), the relationship is not a cheerful one.  As a result, customers just hold their nose and disengage, always watching for some alternative.

Examples of this are literally everywhere around us.  In retail, the airlines, in media, and - yes - in politics.  And this ever-present passive-aggressive semi-surrender mindset of the average person in daily interactions, that are are needed but wholly unsatisfactory, is something that has polluted our attitudes toward political engagement in an extremely damaging way.

I view it as a cycle.  It's hard to figure out exactly where it starts, because it feeds on itself.
  • Politicians lie
  • People are cynical about politicians
  • People disregard what they are saying and doing
  • Politicians get to do things without the voters paying attention
  • Companies and interests get to influence politics without accountability
  • Things get worse for individuals, better for the interests
  • We don't have context to understand anymore, so we have to rely on the politicians to explain it
  • Politicians need to get re-elected
  • Repeat...
It's this cycle of dissatisfaction and codependency that repeats until we find ourselves completely detached from the process we actually own.  And just like the cable company, we hold our noses and disengage, always watching for some alternative.  We rant about it, but don't take any accountability.  We forget that governing doesn't just happen in an election year.  We've reduced our role in the democratic process to a single act on a single day.  And when we DO engage, we are either low information voters or we're just too disgusted to vote at all.  

There are only two ways to deal with an unspeakable mess: you can light it on fire and walk away (tempting), or put on a mask and grab a shovel (unpleasant and exhausting).  I get why a lot of people, frustrated by the unspeakable mess of "big government," would rather choose the first option. In fact, I think that really describes what this last election was about for many.  But, while it may have felt gratifying, it doesn't fix anything.  We've got to grab our shovels.  We've got to wade into the mess we helped create and clean it up.  And we've got to stick with it to keep it clean.  We can't merely leave it for once every four years.  

If you want to take on the "Bigs" of this world, you've got to start small.  Ask questions, talk to local officials, attend a city council meeting or a school board meeting, attend a party meeting in your local district.  Find out what the reality is on the ground right around you.  Then get your shovel.    If you're already engaged, then it's your job to show people that small things and small steps make a difference.  There are a lot more of us than there are of them.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

How Insurance Works

With the House's recent passage of the American Healthcare Act, drastically revising the provisions and protections of the Affordable Care Act, everybody, of all political persuasions is talking about health insurance.  The cost of it, subsidies, "high risk pools", and so on.  But what is insurance and how does it work?  How is health coverage different from other forms of insurance?  Let's take the politics out of it for a moment and just look at the mechanics.

On Risk:
Insurance - all insurance - is based on the principle of risk.  It is basically paying a smaller, known cost in exchange for the promise to offset the risk of an unexpected larger one.  Insurance companies employ specially trained math geeks, called Actuaries, to predict the level of risk their customers present and calculate the cost.  As long as a company correctly predicts that risk and prices accordingly, they can stay in business.

It's important to pause here.  If the risk of something is 100% certain (like a 100 year old man buying a life insurance policy), that doesn't work in an insurance model.  Insurance, above all, is basically betting that you won't need it for more than you pay in.  It's the peace of mind that a fixed predictable cost is better than getting hit with a big unexpected expense, but the company is betting that it won't come to that.

On Claims:
Insurance companies, using their actuaries, predict the likelihood and cost of people they insure filing claims under their policy.  Companies never expect to pay EVERYTHING on every policy for every policyholder all at once.  There's a fairly predictable volume.  Companies have to have the cash resources on hand to pay those claims as they come in.  But they also have to reserve cash in some form for a catastrophic event.  So, part of the money that comes in from premiums goes back out the door right away, and part of it goes to "loss reserving".  Think of 100-year storms or massive flu outbreaks.  You can't predict them specifically, but you know, eventually, you'll have to endure one.

On Pricing:
Here's where it gets interesting.  If you have a pretty good idea of the level of risk and the amount of claims you need to cover, then you've got the broad strokes of how much you need to charge.  If you wanted to, you could just take all of projected costs and divide them evenly across all customers.  But that would mean some people - the people with the lowest risk - would be paying more than their "fair share".

If you charge your best customers more than you have to, they're going to go somewhere else.  So, companies use "tiering" to break up rates into blocks, based on their risk profile.  For each individual person, the price is wrong, but as a group, the math works out.  The flip side is that there are some customers that will never pay enough in premium to cover their probable costs to the company, and tiered pricing has the double impact of keeping costs low to the "good" customers and financially encouraging "bad" customers to do business elsewhere.

This may sound a little heartless, but the quickest way for an insurance company to become financially unstable is to take on too many high-risk policies or to lose its low-risk customer base.  And a company that is financially unstable can't pay its claims anymore.  So, it's very important for companies to maintain a healthy and balanced total book of business.  If they don't, they can't keep their promises to the customers they have.  Each company  has to compete for those same precious low-risk customers, so price competitiveness is extremely important.

Cost-savings Tools:
Insurance companies have a few other means at their disposal to help balance the books.  The details are pretty complex, but they fit into three basic buckets:  controlling what's covered, controlling how much is coverable, and controlling who is covered.

  • What's covered:  most policies specify exactly the sorts of things they will pay out for.  We call these "named perils".  This makes it easier to predict the total likely claims.  Companies can also offer "cafeteria style" policies, where you just pick the coverages most important to you.
  • How much is covered:  There are two mechanisms here, caps and deductibles.  Caps limit the total amount paid out for a type of claim or over the life of the policy.  Deductibles, on the other hand, let policyholders take on some level of the risk in exchange for lower costs.  Deductibles are really useful for limiting the kinds of small claims that can nickel and dime a company to bankruptcy and are much harder to predict.
  • Who is covered:  Like I said earlier, selling a 100-year old man a life insurance policy is a sure loser.  The policyholder is never going to pay enough in premium to offset the benefit, and that means other policyholders will have to make up the difference.  
These tools are used carefully and continuously to ensure the health of the book of business is balanced and that there is enough coming in to cover the claims as promised.

On High Risk Pools:
High risk customers are nothing new to insurance and not unique to healthcare.  People who have been convicted of a DUI, but still have a license to drive are a special risk.  People who live in coastal Florida are a whole lot more likely to have their rooftop ripped off than people living in Arizona or even 50 miles inland.  These bands of extreme risk are things that insurance companies would rather not deal with, but states usually require companies who want to do business to take on at least a portion of these customers as a condition of their license.  They usually also have to pay into a central pool of money, managed by the state, called reinsurance, to cover the general cost of exposure to all companies taking on these special risks.  In the worst cases, state-run agencies can be the last resort for coverage, because private companies simply can't make responsible choices in these scenarios without jeopardizing their ability to pay their mainstream customers' claims.

On Gimmicks:
A lot of lip service has been given to a few shiny objects that will supposedly make things better.  Two of them are "selling across state lines" and tort reform.  These could get a whole post of their own, but here is a short version of why they won't actually help.

Most insurers already operate in multiple states, many nation-wide.  They already balance profit and loss across their whole portfolio.  There is nothing that says a company has to isolate each risk pool and balance the books at a state level.  And, even if that was the case, it would only make a difference if the "other" state was a lot healthier than "your" state.  That doesn't really happen.  And then, the people picking up your share of the costs would be very unhappy.  So that's not a thing.

A "tort" is a liability lawsuit.  Lawyers don't sue people, they sue companies, because companies have a lot more money.  A judge could award a million dollar fine against me and it would do the plaintiff no good, because I simply don't have the money to pay it.  Lawyers sue companies.  Tort reform is about limiting the amount a company can be sued for.  That sounds great for companies, but if you're the plaintiff suing for damages, you probably don't want that to happen.  But this is why insurance companies put limits on their policies.  Those limits don't protect you, they protect the insurance companies from tort lawyers.  So, again, tort reform isn't going to make a meaningful difference in the cost of insurance.

Health Insurance, Specifically:
If you take a moment to consider my previous points, it quickly becomes obvious that health care is a special animal.  First of all, healthcare, unlike a car accident or a house fire, is something you WANT to happen.  It's not just a matter of predicting whether or not you will get sick or injured.  Routine care is both expected and necessary.  So, that challenges risk models right away.  Secondly, health crises, unlike a house fire, are normally long-term events, requiring progressively more expensive care as time goes on.  Third, lower income is a key predictable risk factor of poorer health.  There is a clear correlation between income and conditions and risk factors for chronic disease.  So the people who are least able to afford it are most likely to be a higher risk and require a higher premium.  And, fourth, those all-important low-risk customers that are the anchor of financial stability for any insurance company are the least likely to see the need to pay for coverage, making it very difficult to re-balance costs.

All of these factors make healthcare as an insurance model especially challenging.  It's also why the individual mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was so important.  The health of the whole portfolio is guaranteed by ensuring low-risk customers are built into the model.

Let's do the math:
Say the total cost of health care for Arizona is $10 Billion a year (I'm making this up).  With six million Arizonans, that's about $1,650 per person, per year in risk / cost.  Using tiering, 80% of your risk is in the top 20% of your pool.  Their "fair share" is $66,000.  That's 133% of the median Arizonan household income.  Hello bankruptcy!  Do we just write off coverage 20% of the population?  Or put them into high risk pools?  Either way, the money has to come from somewhere.  Hospitals and insurance companies will continue to incur the costs.  And you can be sure they will be passed back on to you, either in the form of premiums or, if through government subsidies, taxes.

But even in the lower risk tiers, at the lower income levels, the costs become prohibitive.  $2,500 a year may not feel like much to someone making $80-$100k in salary.  But to a person making minimum wage, that's 13% of their income.

As with anything, the devil is in the details.  And our personal health and that of our loved ones is an emotional strain as much as a financial one.  Still, these principles of insurance hold true, regardless.