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Warning from Public Citizen on the extent of the plutocracy

| March 30, 2014 | Reply

I received this mass emailing today from Public Citizen:

Warning from Public Citizen (from a mass emailing I just received). These numbers are stunning:

Here’s something rather alarming to consider. Forbes recently updated its list of billionaires. Each of the notorious Koch Brothers — Charles and David, the 6th and 7th richest men alive — are now estimated to be worth $40 billion. That’s up $6 billion each from just a year earlier, which was up $9 billion each from just a year before that.

I guess it really does take money to make money. If you have billions to begin with. But wait, there’s more. Total spending in the 2012 federal election — for the White House and every open seat in Congress — was $6.3 billion. It was the most expensive election ever. Yet the Koch Brothers could have easily covered that record-smashing tab all by themselves just with the amount their already vast wealth increased in a single year.

Let me say that again: The Koch Brothers alone could pretty much fund every candidate for federal office without even eating into their unimaginable fortunes. Then there’s casino magnate and funder of the far-right, Sheldon Adelson. And Karl Rove’s dark money Crossroads outfits. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, Comcast and all the other mega-corporations that “are people too.”

We face this basic choice: democracy or plutocracy.

I know where I come down, and where you do, too.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

Nobody is doing more than Public Citizen — that’s YOU — to defend democracy from billionaires and Big Business.

We ARE the front lines in the battle for the very heart and soul of this country.

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Veterans weigh in on whether Afghanistan and Iraq invasions were worthwhile

| March 30, 2014 | Reply

In a poll conducted by the Washington Post, veterans weighed in on their attitudes regarding the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These poll results are an embarrassment for those politicians who urged Americans to go to war.

Here’s the bottom line:

Despite their overwhelming pride and negligible regret, the veterans look back on the necessity of the conflicts with decidedly mixed feelings. Only 53 percent of them believe the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, and just 44 percent say the same for Iraq. Slightly more than a third — almost 900,000 vets — “strongly” believe the Iraq war was not worth it.

Those figures are moderately higher than the population as a whole, but they nonetheless reveal a fundamental nuance in attitudes among the all-volunteer military: Many among this generation of vets regard their service as a profession — almost half signed up intending to serve for at least 20 years — and they have divorced their individual missions from the worthiness of the overall wars.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, it was something we signed up to do,” said Kenneth Harmon, a retired Marine master sergeant who served for 23 years and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “It was our job. We got orders. We followed them.”

In other words, about half of the soldiers thought that each of these wars was not worth while. That is a stunning percentage for wars that took such a physical, emotional and financial toll on the United States. For instance:

More than 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have become partially or totally disabled from physical or psychological wounds are receiving lifelong financial support from the government, a figure that could grow substantially as new ailments are diagnosed and the VA processes a large claims backlog.

Further, anyone who knows anything about cognitive dissonance sees other huge problems with these results. Those who volunteer for even worthless endeavors will be inclined to say that those endeavors are worthwhile. Service in a fake war for “freedom” for which one has volunteered to sign up, leavse one’s family and is personally endangered falls into the “Effort justification paradigm”:

Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. Aronson & Mills had individuals undergo a severe or mild “initiation” in order to become a member of a group. In the severe-initiation condition, the individuals engaged in an embarrassing activity. The group they joined turned out to be very dull and boring. The individuals in the severe-initiation condition evaluated the group as more interesting than the individuals in the mild-initiation condition.

Those veterans taking the survey would also be subject to the confirmation bias, which is a form of cognitive dissonance:

Reaffirm already held beliefs: Congeniality bias (also referred to as Confirmation Bias) refers to how people read or access information that affirms their already established opinions, rather than referencing material that contradicts them.[21] For example, a person who is politically conservative might only read newspapers and watch news commentary that is from conservative news sources. This bias appears to be particularly apparent when faced with deeply held beliefs, i.e., when a person has ‘high commitment’ to their attitudes.

In short, when asked whether the war was worthwhile, many soldiers will seek to find reasons it was worthwhile.  Who wants to admit that they spent a huge part of their lives in a war that was a mistake? In light of all these reasons why veterans would be inclined to find that these wars were worthwhile even while they weren’t, almost half of them maintained that they were not worthwhile.

There is an even bigger problem with this survey. It is a form of sleight of hand. What the soldiers think about their service has no relation to whether their service furthered any stated national goal. Politicians were told that the soldiers were going to war to “protect America,” and to “protect our freedom.” Numerous other objectives were stated by American politicians. That was after we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which it didn’t. For the war in Afghanistan, we were told that we needed to destroy the base of Al Qaeda. Where is any evidence that any of these many objectives have been achieved? In the case of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda merely shifted to other countries, to the extent that Al Qaeda is a meaningful entity at all.

I would challenge the news media to develop a meaningful metric regarding the reasons that were stated for these wars at the beginning of each of these wars. Once we gather this evidence, we should provide it to our veterans and only then let them weigh in. My suspicion is that we didn’t accomplish any of the stated goals for either of these wars. Tell this information to the veterans first, and then ask them whether the wars were worthwhile. Warn them that this question is a MUCH different question than any of the following:

1. Did it make you feel good to wear a soldier’s uniform?
2. Did you want to believe that the war you fought in was worthwhile?
3. Did you develop a sense of camaraderie with your fellow soldiers during the war?
4. Did you have some dangerous/exciting experiences during the war?
5. Would you prefer to believe, aside from any evidence that these wars were worthwhile?

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The science of flirting

| March 29, 2014 | Reply

This Time Magazine offers tips for effective flirting by both men and women, along with lots of links. The bottom line is that proper flirting is “more effective than looking good.

Signaling availability and interest trumps attractiveness.”

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True war heroes

| March 29, 2014 | Reply

Many of us “Support the U.S. Troops” in the Middle East even though we have no idea what they are doing on a day to day basis. There is no significant news reporting from the areas where the soldiers do whatever they do, so many Americans fills this vacuum with hopeful imagination. I don’t. I assume the worst. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and there is no sunshine where the U.S. military is operating in the Middle East. At any time over the past ten years, you could read 100 consecutive days of most any local newspaper, and you wouldn’t know anything about the day to day conduct of members of the U.S. military. You would barely know that we were at war. There have been no meaningful photos and no stories to advise us of what is really going on, where our heavily armed military encounters civilians.

Nonetheless, in our ignorance, we declare ALL troops to be heroes, clapping for them at baseball games and other social events, having no idea what they are actually doing. Imagine honoring any other profession, not having any self-critical information with regard to that person’s activities. “Ladies and Gentlemen, let me hear a round of applause for Joe, who is a great musician,”imagine everyone in the room clapping, even though none of them had ever heard of Joe, and none of them have heard him play even one note.

Sometimes we do learn what a soldier has actually done, and sometimes it is a actually the story of a hero. Take the case of Hugh Thompson, who stepped up to do what was right, at his own risk:

Returning to the My Lai area at around 0900 after refueling, he noticed that the people he had marked were now dead. Out in a paddy field beside a dike 200 metres (660 ft) south of the village, he marked the location of a wounded young Vietnamese woman. Thompson and his crew watched from a low hover as Captain Ernest Medina (commanding officer of C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment) came up to the woman, prodded her with his foot, and then shot and killed her.

[More . . . ]

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Sarah Silverman talks to Jesus about abortion

| March 29, 2014 | Reply

According to Rolling Stone,

Sarah Silverman is not afraid to piss people off. Late last month, the comedian posted a video where she casually chats about abortion rights with Jesus over popcorn. It’s part of her ongoing effort to inform people across the country about Republican-led efforts to limit women’s access to abortion. She’s teamed up with Lady Parts Justice and had been playing fundraisers for the group all over the country.

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La Crosse, Wisconsin: the town that is willing to talk about death

| March 27, 2014 | Reply

Excellent story by NPR. It’s a long way from the Republican scare stories about “death panels”:

People in La Crosse, Wisconsin are used to talking about death. In fact, 96 percent of people who die in this small, Midwestern city have specific directions laid out for when they pass. That number is astounding. Nationwide, it’s more like 50 percent.

In today’s episode, we’ll take you to a place where dying has become acceptable dinner conversation for teenagers and senior citizens alike. A place that also happens to have the lowest healthcare spending of any region in the country.

This piece reminds me that one of the main problems with the United States is that we cannot have meaningful conversations. This is refreshingly different. And important: One-quarter of health care spending occurs in the last year of life.

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Letter from Bernie Sanders

| March 25, 2014 | Reply

Today I received this mass-emailing from Bernie Sanders. This is as detailed as it is passionate. Sanders sees things more clearly than most politicians, and is one of the few to show a willingness to speak frankly:

Thank you so much for the support that, over the years, you have given me. As Vermont’s senator and the longest serving Independent in American congressional history I am helping to lead the fight in Congress to protect the middle class and working families of our country against the greed and recklessness of Big Money interests. In that struggle you have been with me step by step, battle after battle – and I appreciate all that you have done.

In the midst of the most severe economic and political crisis in the modern history of our country, I am once again writing to ask for your political and financial support.

The unprecedented struggle that we’re engaged in now against the Billionaire Class is not just about preserving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or whether we create the millions of jobs our economy desperately needs. It’s not merely about whether we raise the minimum wage, make college affordable, protect women’s rights or take the bold initiatives we need to reverse climate change and save our planet. It’s not just about creating a health care system which guarantees health care to all as a right, or addressing the abysmally high rate of childhood poverty.

THE STRUGGLE THAT WE’RE ENGAGED IN RIGHT NOW IS MUCH MORE THAN ALL THAT. IT IS WHETHER WE CAN PREVENT THIS COUNTRY FROM MOVING TO AN OLIGARCHIC FORM OF SOCIETY IN WHICH VIRTUALLY ALL ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL POWER RESTS WITH A HANDFUL OF BILLIONAIRES.

I know that some of you think I am exaggerating when I say that. I’m not.

In my view, there are now three major political forces in this country. The Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Koch brothers led Billionaire Party. As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which regards corporations as people and allows the super-rich to spend as much as they want on elections, the Billionaire Party (aligned with the Republicans) is now the major political force in the country.

[More . . . . ]

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The failure of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)

| March 24, 2014 | Reply

What would it seem like if ONLY those who successfully completed a program were featured in the media? What would we think about a school where 85 out of 100 students flunked, but only the graduates showed up to say how good the program was? That is the starting point for Dr. Lance Dodes and Zachary Dodes’ article in Salon: “The pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous: There’s a better way to treat addiction.”

Rehab owns a special place in the American imagination. Our nation invented the “Cadillac” rehab, manifested in such widely celebrated brand names as Hazelden, Sierra Tucson, and the Betty Ford Center. . . . The fact that they are all extraordinarily expensive is almost beside the point: these rehabs are fighting the good fight, and they deserve every penny we’ve got. Unfortunately, nearly all these programs use an adaptation of the same AA approach that has been shown repeatedly to be highly ineffective. Where they deviate from traditional AA dogma is actually more alarming: many top rehab programs include extra features such as horseback riding, Reiki massage, and “adventure therapy” to help their clients exorcise the demons of addiction. . . . Why do we tolerate this industry? One reason may sound familiar: in rehab, one feels that one is doing something, taking on a life-changing intervention whose exorbitant expense ironically reinforces the impression that epochal changes must be just around the corner.

Who is studying the effectiveness of these programs? Not the programs themselves or, at least, they are not making their data open. That makes these authors suspicious:

Efforts by journalists to solicit data from rehabs have also been met with resistance, making an independent audit of their results almost impossible and leading to the inevitable conclusion that the rest of the programs either don’t study their own outcomes or refuse to publish what they find.

What is the solution? Rather than preach to addicts about a “Higher Power,” the authors suggest that they need something far more personally empowering: sophisticated self-awareness.”

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A personal perspective on Obamacare

| March 24, 2014 | 6 Replies

My family just signed up for an extremely expensive “Bronze” policy with Obamacare. It is shameful that there are only two companies “competing” for our dollars in St. Louis (it’s worse than shopping for a phone company). It’s shameful that none of the policies in the bronze or silver range include Barnes Hospital (St. Louis’ premium teaching hospital) in their network. It shameful that even though we are paying $1,000/month for a family of four, that the annual deductible is in the range of $4,300 for indiv and $8,600 for family, with annual out-of-pocket deductible for our family being $12,700. There is no real competition here, and I have yet to see the any reason to believe that the ACA will pressure providers to lower their costs. In America, we pay many times the amount for basic services (e.g., MRI scan) than people in other countries. Our economic side of our hospitals, including “non-profit” hospitals, are a joke, with their executives getting exorbitant salaries while they are on a shopping spree to buy up the local medical practices so that there is no meaningful competition, even your local doctors. I recognize that the ACA forces insurance companies to provide certain minimum coverages and that they can no longer cherry-pick patients based on pre-existing conditions, which was rampant and immoral. The ACA is certainly better than nothing.

The most shameful thing of all, however, is that even with the faults of Obamacare, the Republicans want to destroy the modest protection it offers many of us, and the substantial protection it offers low-income families. They propose to replace it with nothing at all. The Republican proposals I have seen would send all of us back to ravages of the dog-eat-dog for-profit health market where cherry-picked customers pay unregulated prices, where premiums have been skyrocketing for decades, where many folks are offered paltry coverage that they have no way of paying for, and where many people are deemed “uninsurable.” If politicians can only convince us to keep watching lots of sports events and movies, maybe we will never force them to enact meaningful reform.

We need single-payor coverage, like most other civilized countries. For more on the dreadful situation we currently have, check out Stephen Brill’s excellent article.

I’ll end with this somber reality from Brill’s article:

The health care industry seems to have the will and means to keep it that way. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and healthcare product industries, combined with the organizations representing doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, health services and HMO’s, have spent $5.36 billion since 1998 on lobbying in Washington. That dwarfs the $1.53 billion spent by the defense and aerospace industries and the $1.3 billion spent by oil and gas interests over the same period. That’s right: the health-care-industrial complex spends more than three times what the military-industrial complex spends in Washington.

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