Saturday, May 06, 2017

Israeli Singer's Detroit-Area Concert Canceled After Threats

A popular Israeli singer's scheduled concert in the Detroit area was canceled after organizers received threats and could no longer guarantee her safety.

A case of anti-speech extremists blocking cultural exchange between Israeli artists and the American public?

Well, the singer was Noa, a well-known member of the Israeli peace camp who has been outspoken in support of two-states and Israeli-Arab coexistence. The concert venue was going to be a synagogue. And the threats came from the Jewish far-right.

Which is to say, it is a case of anti-speech extremists blocking cultural exchange between Israeli artists and the American public. Anyone who is appalled by threats forcing cancellation of events on college campuses should be equally appalled by these threats; anyone who opposes BDS should oppose it with equal fervor in this case.

(Noa has been victimized by similar efforts before -- a Canadian concert was left in limbo after JNF-Canada falsely accused her of being a BDS supporter. Ultimately, the Israeli embassy stepped in to sponsor the concert).

Friday, May 05, 2017

Remembering the I Before I Changed My Mind

Sometimes, I change my mind about things.

That's normal, indeed, healthy. We should change our minds, sometimes. When we get new information, or circumstances change, or we ponder an issue more deeply, we will sometimes conclude that our prior thoughts on a given matter were wrong, and new, different thoughts are better. That's how it should be.

For example, when I was a Junior in high school, I was truly, deeply opposed to affirmative action. I wrote an entire "persuasive essay" on the matter for an assignment. As a debater, I was good at persuasion, and I poured a lot into that essay.

By the time I was a first-year in college, I had changed my mind. I had read more and thought more, and concluded that my prior views were wrong. I've remained a strong supporter of affirmative action ever since.

But whenever I change my mind, I always try to remember the person I was before I changed my mind. That person, I remind myself, was not avaricious or cruel. He was not mean-spirited or willfully obtuse. Of course, one thing he was was wrong -- if  I thought he was right, I wouldn't have changed my mind. But he was (obviously) persuadable, since something did in fact end up persuading him. And so I try to remember what was motivating him -- what were his fears, his concerns, his worries, his ambitions, his interlocking beliefs? Even when I am now quite convinced that past-me was just plain wrong -- I'm confident that my new positon is right and my old position is incorrect -- I keep in mind that I didn't generally arrive at my wrong-prior-position through either pure malice or abject stupidity.

And so when I meet other people who believe things I used to believe, I try to presume -- absent evidence to the contrary -- they were like me. They have reasons for thinking what they do -- not necessarily good reasons, but reasons that need to be responded to. They have concerns motivating their rejection of alternatives -- not necessarily overriding concerns, but concerns that need to be addressed. A project of persuasion, if it is to be effective, should remember the "I" that had not yet been persuaded -- if only as a roadmap to get from A to B.

Of course, since I have not most likely changed my mind for the last time, I also remember that it's possible that current-me is wrong, and I should be open to the types of discourse and challenges which have historically helped move me from worse opinions to better ones. Things like being open to others' views, reading widely, and interpreting charitably all have served me well in my desire to think better thoughts than I used to, and so they are virtues I try to consistently live out.

But even from the vantage point of believing my current beliefs are correct (and of course that is what I think -- if I thought my current beliefs were wrong, I'd change them to something else), my mantra is to remember that others have the same capacity and deserve the same opportunity I did to change their minds and come to better conclusions than the ones they hold now. It's not exactly the most groundbreaking thought. But keeping it at the forefront of my mind has made me more empathic, more respectful, and more persuasive.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

My Healthcare Story

The House of Representatives, in a razor-thin 217-213 vote, has voted to repeal and replace Obamacare with the AHCA. The crucial amendment to get conservatives onboard was to allow states to eviscerate the protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.

I've mentioned before on this blog that I've suffered from kidney stones. Right now I'm in the process of doing some tests to figure out my risk factors and what, if anything, I should change in my diet or lifestyle to make them less likely (since, as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) was so quick to remind us, any health problems I have are evidence of nothing more than my own degraded character). That's how it should be: when I'm sick, the focus should be on getting me better. My health care should be a conversation between me and my doctor. My investment advisor shouldn't need to play a role.

But the advent of the GOP vote has, of course, made me worry about whether kidney stones qualify as a "preexisting condition." After all, I'm not going to stay at Berkeley forever. So what would happen to me if I need to switch insurance or -- worse yet -- lose it altogether?

Kidney stones aren't the most expensive condition one can have, but they're not nothing either. Since they onset completely unexpectedly, they can send you to the emergency room at the drop of a hat. And they sometimes require surgery to remove (as mine did -- more on that below). My best guess is that it's unlikely that I'd be denied coverage altogether because of my past history, but it's possible that a new plan would exclude coverage for any future stone-related problems. Which sucks, because kidney stones are scary enough without having to worry about how to pay to treat them.

One argument one occasionally hears about foisting more costs onto sick patients is that it gives us additional "skin in the game" that inspires us to make better and more cost-effective choices. So I figured I'd offer a story on that front, because I don't think that makes any sense at all.

As I said, I recently had surgery to remove my kidney stone. But I almost didn't. Kidney stones are strange in that they can lie dormant for awhile -- lulling you into a false sense of security -- before roaring back to life and causing agonizing pain. This is particularly nettlesome because, especially with a smaller stone, it's possible to pass them without realizing it. So if you go through several months with no pain, is it because the stone has passed or is it just playing possum?

My stone was about 4 millimeters, which is on the small side. My urologist told me that a 4 mm stone will pass on its own about 70% of the time. I had been having attacks of pain about once every 1.5 - 2 months since the fall, and it did not seem to be passing on its own. So after the latest bout of pain in January, we scheduled me for surgery in March -- with the caveat that if it passed before then, we'd cancel the surgery.

The weeks pass, and I'm feeling fine. I didn't notice it pass. But again, I knew sometimes they pass without you noticing. Certain elements of how the stone had been progressing in prior bouts of pain made it plausible that the last bout really was the last bout. We did an X-Ray to see if we could pinpoint the stone inside me, but it was inconclusive. My urologist pointed to a vague spot and said maybe that's the stone ... but maybe it's nothing. X-Rays aren't actually all that good at picking up kidney stones. And unfortunately, there wasn't any safe way to know for sure if the stone was still inside me other than simply doing the surgery.

As we approached the day of the surgery, I asked my doctor if he thought we should go through with it. It was not implausible that the stone had already passed, after all. Moreover, I'd never had real surgery before, and was a bit nervous. The procedure entailed full anesthesia, followed by threading a scope up my urethra, into my ureter, and blasting apart the stone with lasers. They'd leave a stent inside me to handle residual bleeding, and that would be removed in about a week. Objectively, it's not so bad -- but you can imagine "having a tube stuck up my dick" isn't exactly on my bucket list, either. And how silly would I feel if I had the surgery and it turned out there was no stone at all!

The doctor listened to me. And he said that it was, indeed, possible that the stone had already passed. We could simply wait another couple of months and see what develops. The problem with that was (a) he still thought it was more likely than not that the stone had not, in fact, passed and (b) there's no guarantee that if I had another attack, they'd be able to schedule me for surgery promptly. Ultimately, his recommendation was to go through with the surgery as planned.

So I did. And when I woke up, I was told that yes, the stone was inside me, and they had successfully removed it. Moreover, he told me that the stone would have never passed on its own. My ureter was significantly enflamed and swollen around where the stone had nestled; it had gotten so narrow that it was physically impossible for the stone to go any further (I gather things were so tight in there that it had also made it no easy thing for the surgeon to even reach the stone with his laser. Good job, surgeon!).

All of this is run-up to the following: My kidney stone surgery cost me, with insurance, a little less than $1,000. That's not chump change. But without insurance, it would have cost closer to $10,000. That's more than a third of the annual salary of your average Berkeley grad student. Had I been paying that money out of pocket, I almost certainly would have ignored my doctor's advice and delayed the surgery. Which, as we now know, would have been the wrong decision. How wrong? I'm not sure -- I thankfully do not now need to know exactly how dangerous a badly enflamed, swollen, and rapidly narrowing ureter might have been.

In short, the only thing having (more) "skin in the game" would have done for me is caused me to have made the wrong medical decision. Because I'm not a doctor. I have no medical expertise. I'm not in a position to make smarter medical decisions just because I have to pay more for them. The most likely result of my having to pay a ton of money for medical expenses is me making bad medical choices. Thankfully, because I had insurance I made my choice for the right reasons -- the sound, professional advice of my specialist doctor who actually knows how kidneys work. And thank goodness for that.

In any event, now I've had kidney stones and kidney stone surgery, which means I may well be in "pre-existing condition" land (albeit far less so than, say, a cancer survivor). Which means that in the GOP world, it's quite plausible that if I leave Berkeley (which I no doubt will) and have to change insurers, I may no longer be covered for at least this particular medical problem. If my kidney stones come back, I won't be able to concentrate on, say, getting emergency pain relief or whether I need another surgery.

My friend Josh Blackman says there is a "contradiction" around the discourse re: pre-existing conditions: nobody wants to exclude them, until people learn that including them increases costs. Which, Blackman says, of course they do -- there's no such thing as a free lunch. I'd note that there's an ambiguity here: requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions doesn't necessarily increase costs so much as it redistributes them -- at least in a system where one can't opt-out of the medical system altogether (and here I'm talking less about a mandate and more about guaranteed access to emergency care. Unless we switch to a system whereby uninsured people are left to die in the streets, we're still "paying" for their healthcare). Persons who are relatively healthy pay a little more so that persons who are very sick pay a lot less, but the overall cost doesn't change (a simplification, of course, but it will do).

As it happens, even with this particular pre-existing condition I don't know whether I-as-an-individual am a net gainer or loser in the protect-preexisting-conditions world (other than kidney stones, I'm a relatively young and healthy man). But either way, I'm absolutely willing to pay my share so that I and others like me -- or not so like me -- can have the healthcare that they need. It strikes me as beyond petty for me to resent the possibility that others might "use" the benefits of health insurance more than I do. I should be so lucky! The best thing that could happen to me is for me to never again have reason to access the benefits of my health insurance other than routine checkups and peace of mind. But if I happen not to be so lucky, then I'll be grateful that I'll get the care that I need to survive and thrive.

There are many, many people for whom the AHCA will impact far more severely than me -- from cancer survivors to persons needing organ donations to victims of sexual assault. These people will see their lives made much worse if the AHCA passes.

But there are a lot more Americans for whom the AHCA "only" will make our lives a little worse. A little scarier. A little more insecure. A little more unknown. A little less protected.

I had hoped we could beat the AHCA in the House. But House Republicans were determined to pass a bill they didn't fully understand, whose provisions  had not been scored by the CBO, and from whose dictates they exempted themselves. We have 18 months to make them pay for their hubris.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Crush the AHCA, then Hammer Republicans with it Anyway

There's some chatter that Democrats actually hope that House Republicans manage to pass the AHCA (aka, Obamacare repeal), on the grounds that (a) it will fail the Senate anyway and (b) it will make for a great cudgel to use against Republicans in the midterms (in fairness, I haven't seen anyone actually make this argument themselves so much as vague speculation imputing to unnamed House Dems). Objections to this strategy have generally focused on the "I hope Trump wins because he'll be so easy to beat" failure of risk assessment. And I don't disagree with that. But I also think this outlook is unduly constrained in how it assesses political strategy. So allow me to make the following counterproposal:

Crush the AHCA, then hammer Republicans with it anyway.

The "logic" behind letting the AHCA pass the House is that it lends itself to great attack ads against vulnerable Republicans come 2018. But the average American isn't paying attention to whether a bill actually comes up for a vote. They simply are hearing about a Republican healthcare plan which they hate. There's no significant obstacle to tying Republicans to that plan even if it never comes to a vote, let alone never passes. Write up a bunch of ads about how Republicans want to eliminate the protections for persons with preexisting conditions or remove essential-coverage provisions for pregnant women, and let them loose. An actual GOP vote on the bill is neither necessary nor, I think, will it prove particularly relevant.

The 2018 midterms are not going to depend on which bills pass which houses of Congress, or even how any particular candidate votes (or manages to avoid voting). It's going to depend on how Americans view the incumbent party in general on key issues like healthcare. Solidify in the public mind that the AHCA represents what Republicans think about healthcare, then beat them with it like they tried to steal something (say, something like millions of Americans' healthcare).

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Who Knew One's Obligations as a Public Servant Would Sometimes Cause Discomfort?

South Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the longest serving member of Florida's congressional delegation, has announced her retirement. Her departure presents a major Democratic pickup opportunity in a district that his shifted hard to the left in recent years (Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there by a punishing 20 point margin).

It's not that I begrudge her retirement. I can't imagine now is a fun time to be a Republican Congresswomen, particularly for some like Ros-Lehtinen who is, if not moderate, then at least idiosyncratic. Carrying water for Donald Trump doesn't seem appealing, but neither does full-throated opposition to her own party's chief standard bearer. It's the same reason Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced his retirement:
Like everyone else, [Chaffetz] assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election and provide him with endless fodder for high-profile investigations from his perch as chairman of the Oversight Committee. He'd be on the front page all the time, doing CNN hits, and just generally gaining lots of name recognition for the next step in his career. President Chaffetz? It could happen!
Then Trump won. Suddenly the Oversight Committee was all but shut down. There would be no investigations. In fact, it was even worse than that. There was a real possibility that Trump would do something so outrageous that Chaffetz would have no choice but to hold hearings. Then he'd really be in trouble. He'd be caught between loyalty to party and the need to avoid looking like a total shill. It's a lose-lose proposition.
Not that I think Ros-Lehtinen harbored presidential ambitions, but you get the idea. Being in Congress just isn't fun anymore for any Republican who -- whether by position or by principle -- finds themselves uneasy by Trump and his antics.

At the same time, there is something rather pathetic about this. Oh, it's uncomfortable to be in a position where one could be expected to operate as a check against your own party's President when he behaves recklessly or promotes outrageous policies? We can't have that now can we! Best retire and kick the can to someone else. Nobody could reasonably expect that those multiple decades of seniority and public service actually be put to use to protect the damn country!

Whatever, I'm cranky. The point is that it doesn't seem like Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is interested in doing her job anymore to the extent that her job would entail policing the Trump administration and thus antagonizing fellow Republicans. So it's probably better, all in all, that Florida voters get the chance to put into office someone who will step up to the plate.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The New Orleans DA Office is Out of Control

The other day, I read an article about an (apparently long-standing, but about to be discontinued) practice by the New Orleans District Attorneys office of sending out fake "subpoena" notifications to potential witnesses. The notice says "A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE,” but this is simply a falsehood. And it comes without any judicial or official sanction. Basically, it's a fraud. It's designed to mislead potential witnesses into believing they must talk to the DA's office, when they in fact do not have to.

So that's bad. But then today I read another article about a prosecution team that has been repeatedly charging its counterpart public defenders with trumped-up criminal allegations (none of them have stuck). Everything from contempt to impersonating a prosecutor to kidnapping(!). Some of the names sounded familiar, and, lo and behold, its the same office! The same DA team that's sending out fake subpoenas to witnesses is also leveling bogus criminal charges against public defenders. It's beyond parody.

This DA and his team seem completely out of control. Any one of these behaviors, on their own, would be shocking in its abuse of prosecutorial power. Together, it represents a pattern of thuggish intimidation that stands way outside of what should be acceptable in a system ruled by law.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The End of Grading Conservatives on a Curve

The controversy over noted climate change denialist Bret Stephens' hiring by the New York Times appears to have taken the Grey Lady by surprise. They've quickly fallen into a stock set of responses regarding the need to hear "alternative points of view" and the importance of providing a range of conservative voices to match the liberals on their editorial page. Under this framework, persons protesting Stephens' appointment are symbolic of liberal intolerance; the inability to even stand in the same (virtual) room as persons who don't agree with them on every issue.

I do think we are seeing the end of a sort of liberal tolerance here. But it's not the tolerance that the NYT editorial board has in mind. It's the end of an era where liberals tolerate grading conservatives on a curve.

For the last several decades -- really as long as I've been politically aware -- liberals have been required to simply accept mediocrity out of conservatives. Mediocrity in science -- as when Stephens spitballs at widely accepted data, not for scientific reasons, but simply because it doesn't match his politics. Mediocrity in argument -- as when a prominent writer at one of the top "intellectual" conservative outlets excreted Liberal Fascism and then had the gall to promote it as "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made  in such detail or with such care." Mediocrity in temperament -- as when conservative temper tantrums are accepted as simply a fact of political life; the responsibility of Democrats to dissipate by playing better babysitter.

There's no sin in mediocrity, of course. The problem is that it's coupled with a pervasive sense of entitlement. This mediocrity is supposed to earn them respected academic posts, earn them prominent editorial positions, earn them airtime on prestigious networks, earn them attention and thorough consideration. The problem isn't that liberals are asked to engage with good conservative arguments -- they should (although they in fact rarely are). The problem is that liberals are supposed to just close their eyes and agree for the sake of the camera that a terrible conservative argument is a good one; a thoughtful one; a demands-deep-consideration-and-serious-inquiry one. It's the political equivalent of social promotion. It's participation badges for Boomers and Gen-Xers.

And if you challenge that entitlement? Well, suddenly the right finds its post-modern streak. Can we really can know what a "good" argument is? Who's to say what is or isn't "true"? It's no accident that the straw that seemed to break the camel's back was Kellyanne Conway's blithe assertion that the White House was simply providing "alternative facts", and that a fair and just media shouldn't adjudicate the matter. It represented the explicit articulation from the right that merit no longer mattered -- and liberals were obligated to accept it as the apogee of liberality. "Reality has a well-known liberal bias" indeed.

We're finally seeing a revolt. A world where one of the two major parties can simply claim an exemption from standards of argument and deliberation is what gave us a birther as president. It's not about intolerance towards different opinions. Those objecting to Stephens have been rather clear that they don't object to alternative opinions, but they absolutely object to alternative facts. An alternative opinion may be good or bad -- it depends on how well-reasoned and supported it is, the degree to which it engages with the best possible arguments on the other side, and other such considerations. Good alternative opinions are a great virtue in political society. An alternative fact -- when it comes from a politician or writer -- should never be thought of as anything more than being bad at your job. If enforcing that standard lands harder on contemporary conservatives, that should be a sign of their weakness, not of the injustice of meritocracy.

The New York Times is not an open-mic night. Being employed there -- whether as a journalist or as an opinion-writer -- should be a mark of outstanding talent. Their editorial team should consist of those rare souls -- of any political persuasion -- who can make solid, lucid, provocative, compelling, well-warranted arguments in an accessible form. We can obviously argue amongst ourselves about which NYT columnists do or don't meet that criteria. But what's distinctive about Stephens is that his place at the Times is explicitly justified and defended on the grounds that his mediocrity of scientific thought is actually the virtue of political disagreement. That degrades science and, in a better world, would degrade conservatism as well.

To be crystal clear -- no governmental or quasi-administrative entity (like a university) should ever ban any speech (good, mediocre, bad, controversial, racist, or otherwise). Those on the left (and they tend to be more left than liberal) who support censorship, disruption, or violent retaliation against persons for their speech deserve naught but scorn. And beyond legal entitlements, liberals should be exposed to and consider good conservative arguments, and vice versa. I've learned a ton from reading, e.g., Clarence Thomas and Robert Nozick; among my earliest blog sources were the right-leaning Volokh Conspiracy and Daniel Drezner. I'd be worse off if I wasn't exposed to them, because they are all outstanding thinkers even when I disagree with them. Anyone who can't conceive of an ideological adversary who is nonetheless capable of making great "alternative" arguments isn't thinking hard enough.

But the reaction to Stephens and his ilk isn't about juridical rights or some sort of blind antipathy to foreign points of view. It's a much more simple and straightforward matter of deliberative virtue. The only persons suggesting that the attack on Stephens represents an attack on all conservatives are those who think denial of basic scientific consensus is inherent to contemporary conservatism. It's their culture! How dare you impose your "truth" on the Other? Again, who is patronizing who here?

Enough is enough. Conservatives are not infants and it is no mark of respect to treat them such. They are perfectly capable of elevating their game. Maybe it will sting for a while. But both the right and the left, and America, will be better for it.

UPDATE: Just to gather up some sources to confirm my sense that this is a trend:
New Yorker fact checker Sean Lavery on how he'd handle Bret Stephens: "By all means publish Bret Stephens. But edit and factcheck him too. If his argument can't pass muster or the piece can't be fixed: goodbye!"

Jon Chait on how conservatives are shocked and angry that the media is finally accurately reporting that the Republican proposal for regressive tax cuts which primarily benefit the rich is a regressive tax cut which primarily benefits the rich.

Philosophy professor Jonathan Stokes on no longer letting people conflate the right to express an opinion with the right to have it taken seriously.

And finally, Matt Yglesias on Sebastian Gorka reportedly leaving the White House: