A Cold War Joke and US Healthcare

December 23, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There was a joke Republicans liked to tell about Soviet Russia back during the Cold War. Republicans then, unlike Republicans now, were highly critical of the Russian government and its leaders. The joke was about an American visitor getting the official tour. He is taken to a factory, where he gets an interview with a worker. The worker proudly tells him how, working at this wonder job in in this state-owned factory, he has saved enough money over the years to be able to buy a car.

“And what are you saving for now?” the American asks.

“A pair of shoes.”
                           *                       *                        *                   *

I was talking to a friend last night. “Emma took a job at UPS,” she said. Emma is her daughter-in-law. “It’s back-breaking work, and she can only do it part time. And you know why she took the job? Because at UPS, even part-time workers get health coverage.” My friend added that her son, Emma’s husband, gets medical benefits that cover only him, not the family. They looked at the available insurance plans, and to get anything decent, it would cost them $1500 a month.

“So,” said my friend, “they’re saving as much as they can so that Emma can quit the UPS job and they can buy health insurance.”

                           *                       *                        *                   *

The Soviet worker didn’t know that in other countries, people don’t have to scrimp and save to buy a pair of shoes. He didn’t realize that his unscripted answer revealed deep flaws in the Soviet system.

My friend’s son and daughter-in-law know what healthcare is like in other countries — many Americans don’t. They know that their predicament reveals deep flaws in our healthcare system. They just can’t do anything about it.

Doctor? My Eye.

December 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice... Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” So begins Joseph Epstein’s WSJ op-ed of this weekend “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.”
Many on the left got upset. They disliked the tone. Smugness has long been a chronic, perhaps unavoidable, flaw among right-wing intellectuals, and Epstein is not as bad as most of them on that score. His opening descent down the ladder of formality of terms of address seems more friendly than condescending. The article is, after all, about what to call the First Lady, and he’s trying out several possibilities.  Even so, he seems to be trying to trigger the libs, and triggered they were.

Some people accused Epstein of sexism. You wouldn’t have done that if it were a man — that sort of thing. Counterfactuals like this are hard to prove, but the critics may be right. Epstein’s main argument against “Dr.” Biden is that this honorific should be reserved for medical doctors (“A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child.”) Jill Biden has no medical degrees. She as an Ed.D.

However, six years ago, Epstein wrote, “One teacher I do remember fondly was Dr. Branz, a German émigré who taught a course called Commercial Law. He must have been a refugee from Hitler, with a doctor of laws degree...” Yes, Dr. Branz, a law professor. I doubt that this juris doctor had ever moonlighted as an obstetrician.

The WSJ has no objections to using “Dr.” for non-physicians in the White House —  among others, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and of course non-M.D. Henry Kissinger, who insisted on on being called “Dr. Kissinger.” As far as I know, Epstein never gave Rice or Kissinger the same friendly advice he’s offering Jill Biden.                                                         
Why shouldn’t we use the same honorific for advanced degrees both medical and academic? Is it confusing? Or does calling our teachers “doctor” cheapen the value of medical doctors? Epstein implies that it’s both. Equating physicians and professors does not fit with a value system that accords teachers much less prestige than they might have in other cultures.

Once long ago, I taught English for one semester in a high school in a small town (pop. 3000) in Japan. My students addressed me as Jay-sensei, sensei being the Japanese word for teacher. I lived with a Japanese family. One day, I had some stomach problems. My family insisted that I go to the doctor — Kimura-sensei. Hmm, I thought, we call our teachers “doctor”; the Japanese call their doctors “teacher.” A commentary on their values?

Doctor originally referred to theologians,  explainers of doctrine — closer to teachers than to physicians. Dr. Webster explains:
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The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

The 14th century was the birth of the Renaissance, and lots of teaching and learning was afoot. By the century's end, the word doctor was being applied not just to a select few theologians, but also to qualified and/or accomplished academics and medical practitioners.he word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

I don’t know the history of sensei. Maybe in Japan, as we speak, some Epsteinian curmudgeon is complaining about all these physicians who insist on being called sensei even though they have never taught even one student how to interpret a multiple regression.

Trump's Defense Fund — Fleecing the Rubes

December 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

What Trump learned at Trump University was the value of fleecing the rubes. Most of the other victims of his salesmanship had been big-money people and institutions — banks and other supposedly wise investors. The $3000 that Trump U students lost — and some got ripped off for tens of thousands — is serious money for the individual but small potatoes for Trump.

He made it up in volume. The scam grossed at least $40 million.

Now he’s at it again. So far, his Election Defense Fund has raised over $200 million.

I can understand the Trump U victims. They thought that their money would buy them the secrets to real estate success. They would be repaid a hundred fold. But what do the Election Defense Fund contributors get?

First, and most obviously, they think that the money will get them four more years of Trump. This belief requires a prior belief that is axiomatic among Trump loyalists:  believe Trump, not the so-called experts.

From the start, the consensus among legal scholars was that Trump’s cases would not win. As one lawyer I heard on (I think) NPR said, “His chances are slim and none, and silm just left town.” But if Trump and his lawyers say that they have a ton of evidence of massive fraud, it must be true, and these other voices must be fake legal opinion.

It has now become clear that the experts were correct. Trump has lost one legal challenge after another. So much losing. But still the donations roll in.

For Trump, of course, everything is, to use the current term, “transactional.” The fine print on the Election Fund website says that for donations of less that $5000, nothing will go to the legal fight.  Instead, 25% will go to the Republican National Committee, and 75% to “Save America,” a Trump PAC. There are restrictions on what Trump can do with that money. For instance, the rules say that he can’t use it to pay off his campaign debts and certainly not his personal debts.

But, as Brendan Fischer, Federal Reform Program director at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "Although Trump cannot use campaign funds to pay himself or his family members excessive salaries, or to buy enough copies of Don Jr.'s book to land it on the bestseller list, he might try to use leadership PAC funds for such purposes.”

Remember, we’re talking about Donald Trump. If nobody can or will effectively enforce the rules, the rules don’t matter. Even if the rules are enforced, breaking them might have been worth it. After all, Trump U was fined $25 million, probably less than half of what it brought in. And in the end it wasn’t Trump who paid the judgment. It was some billionaire supporter. 

Even if Trump did use the money for whatever he wanted, including paying of personal debts, he probably wouldn't lose much support. For his followers, a donation is not transactional. The rewards it brings are intangible: it strengthens their identity as members of the group; and it reaffirms the value of that group. Those functions are especially important for those who perceive their group as being under attack. And Trump supporters, correctly or incorrectly (mostly incorrectly) see themselves as being discriminated against because of their race (White), their religion (Christian), and their views on gender roles (“traditional”). Trump embodies their ideas, and he perfectly and loudly expresses their resentments against those who are supposedly discriminating against them. You can’t put a price on that.

Trump Claimed Vote Fraud in 2016. What’s Different This Time?

December 4, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was having an e-mail conversation with a Christian conservative. He still believes Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud. I’m willing to accept the conclusion of all those judges (including some Republicans and at least one Trump appointee), governors, secretaries of state, and election officials.

But Trump still has a large core of believers who, despite Trump’s losing all those court cases, still believe his claims that the election was rigged. That seems new. If  if McCain or Romney, or on the Democratic side Hillary, had made similar claims that had similarly failed in court, would their supporters continued to believe them? Would they have made the kind of high-volume protests that we now hear? Probably not. But why, I asked. Why is 2020 different?

Usually, I find myself on the structural side of these questions and shy away from explanations based on individuals and  individual-level variables. But this time, it was my conservative correspondent who looked first at structural changes. (He is not a sociologist, not a political scientist, not an academic.) He wrote:

It's hard to compare this 2020 election with any before it, at least in my lifetime, with the preponderance of mail-in ballots.  It was shocking to me to see the vote counting stopped simultaneously in these key states.
For me, the big difference was the relation between Trump and his supporters. It wasn’t Trump himself. The similarities between Trump 2020 Trump 2016 are too obvious to ignore. In 2016,
    1. Trump lost the popular vote (about 3 million in 2016, 7 million this year).
    2. Trump claimed that the vote was rigged and that there was fraud.
    3. He appointed a commission to investigate and prove him right. The person he appointed to head the commission, like his lawyers this time around, was an ardent supporter, who echoed Trump’s claim of fraud even when other Republicans were silent on the matter.
    4. The commission could not find evidence of widespread voter fraud.
    5. Trump disbanded the commission but still that Clinton’s numbers were due to massive fraud.
    6. Trump continued to lie about the commission and the election.

Trump 2020 was perfectly predictable. He did the same thing when lost at the Emmy Awards — insisted that the voting was rigged. The important difference in 2020 is not the mail-in ballots. It’s the reaction of several Republican politicians and millions of Trump voters. Their continued belief is partly a simple matter of confirmation bias — recognizing only the evidence that confirms your idea, even when that evidence has been discredited, and finding reasons to reject disconfirming evidence. But given how extreme their reactions have been — death threats against election officials and their families — there has to be something else going on. But that’s a matter for another post.