Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tabs, Quieting Down

The tabs, they are a-building once again. Though not so much compared to my most recent listings... maybe I am making progress on staying ahead of it all.

How to fund a Universal Basic Income without increasing taxes or inflation. From Truthout.

The McKibben effect: a case study in how radical environmentalism can work. Dave Roberts writing for Vox.

On American identity, the election, and family members who support Trump. Nicole Chung reflects on the burden of engaging with racism and educating white people, including some of her own family. On Longreads.

The end of walking. In Orwellian fashion, Americans have been stripped of their right to walk, challenging their humanity, freedom, and health. From Aeon.

To understand rising inequality, consider the janitors at two top companies, then and now. Kodak 35 years ago, Apple today. From the New York Times.

The socialist experiment in Jackson, Mississippi. From Oxford American.

Suburban sprawl stole your kids' sleep. Why does school start so early? Blame 1970s planning. From CityLab.

What if everything you knew about disciplining kids was wrong? Negative consequences, timeouts, and punishments just make bad behavior worse. But a new approach really works. From Mother Jones back in 2015.

The language of white supremacy. Narrow definitions of the term actually help continue the work of the architects of the post-Jim Crow racial hierarchy. By Vann Newkirk for the Atlantic. Realizing that the phrase means just what it says — that whiteness is supreme — has helped me a lot. I don't see how anyone can argue with the fact that our culture is built upon that false assumption. It is not identical to "white supremacist," which is a person who overtly subscribes to the belief in white supremacy. But you don't have to march around supporting it to benefit from it or to feel the effects of how it structures our society.

The puzzle of reparations in an extremely unequal society. By Matt Bruenig, writing for his new, Patreon-funded think tank, the People's Policy Project. Definitely give this one a look — it's something I had never thought of within the whole reparations-for-enslavement conversation. Looking forward to discussion of the problems Matt raises.

That's all for now. See, not so many!

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, 1986, 2012, 2017

I spent part of today looking through old posts on my blog, especially the It Came from the Basement tag. (I recommend it, even if I do say so myself.) I started from the oldest one, and came across this within an entry from 2014 about a 1986 issue of Time magazine:

The books section provides a review of A Handmaid's Tale that tells us, "As a cautionary tale, Atwood's novel lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. It warns against too much: heedless sex, excessive morality, chemical and nuclear pollution. All of these may be worthwhile targets, but such a future seems more complicated than dramatic." Wow, did that reviewer miss the point.
 And today it's even clearer that he missed the point.


Here are my thoughts on reading The Handmaid's Tale in the Age of Rick Santorum (2012). Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Fill in the Gaps

White people know nothing about black history in this country. My sample may be odd, because it’s based on years of watching Jeopardy, but I think it would hold up to more scientific scrutiny.

Jeopardy players should know more about just about everything than the average person, right? Yet when there’s a category or question about black people, their history or literature, the white players get it wrong or don’t even try to answer. (Music and sporting achievements by black people are a different story.)

The latest example was last week, during the $411,000, 12-game run of Austin Rogers. He knows a lot of stuff, but a fairly easy question about black Americana went right over his head. I don’t remember the wording exactly, but it was, in effect, “This song is considered the black national anthem.”

And as any black person would know, the answer is Lift Every Voice and Sing. One player, who was Asian, had obviously heard of it, but bobbled the wording of the title and was ruled incorrect. The other two players, Austin and a white woman, let the time elapse without ringing in.

I don’t remember the other instances I’ve seen over the years, but there are many. Whole categories left unanswered or answered wrong. One that I do recall is when Melissa Harris Perry was on Celebrity Jeopardy last year, and she was obviously irritated that Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) couldn’t come up with the name "NAACP" when his Daily Double gave this clue: “The late Julian Bond was its chairman from 1998 to 2010.”

Anyway. That’s background for two places white people can go to get some education, or at least pieces of media we can read or listen to about those places.

One is the Whitney Plantation, just outside New Orleans. It’s the only plantation museum that focuses on the enslaved people who lived, worked, and died there. It was written up in today’s Star Tribune Travel section, which I normally never read, but this piece by Kerri Westenberg of the Strib staff is an exception.

The other is the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located in Baltimore, which was the subject of a recent segment on This American Life. The commentator is a black woman from Baltimore, and her words are framed around what she thought of the museum as a child on school trips, what she thought later as a teenager, and how it seems to her now as an adult, and to her adult friend who has never seen it before. This museum is not the usual wax museum. That’s all I’ll say.

There are lots of other ways white Americans can learn about the history and culture of black Americans. All it takes is a bit of awareness that there’s something to learn and some basic curiosity about people who are not you. There's always more to know about everything, of course, but our gaps on this subject are revealing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Death Panels by Default

I am not a big fan of Newsweek writer and reporter Kurt Eichenwald‏, but he turns up in my Twitter feed now and then. Today he posted this about Trump’s attempted destruction of the Affordable Care Act, which I think is worth sharing at its full length:

Next in my "How Trump Just Destroyed You" series. My wife is a doctor. let's talk pre-ACA. Two stories.

A trucker is working in his yard and falls out of tree. Badly hurts his back. Goes to my wife. In the course of their appointment, he brags about his cheap insurance. Will require a lot of work. Has four appointments.

At the fifth, he is told his insurance ran out. His policy covered four appointments, which is why it is cheap. He needs surgery: not covered. Hospitalization: Not covered. Rehab: not covered. Can't even see my wife or any internist anymore because they can’t take insurance AND provide free care. Must now go to free clinic. They can’t help.

He ends up in emergency room. YOU pay for it. They patch him up, send him on his way. Problem not gone. Can't drive truck anymore with back problem. Sells home for surgery. Can't get rehab. Still can't drive. Goes on unemployment. YOU pay for it.

ACA kicks in, with minimum coverage standards. He signs up for policy. Can’t get rejected for preexisting condition. Gets full hospitalization etc. coverage. So gets treatment. Is now a trucker again. Was a rock-ribbed Republican. Now understands the lies they tell.

Second story: ACA didn't kick in soon enough. Had cheap policy. Got cancer. In the middle of his chemo treatment, hit the coverage cap. Ranted and raved. "Why am I paying for coverage if it doesn't cover me when I'm sick?" Welcome to GOP health care, pal. Chemo cut off. He dies while ACA is being debated because the cancer has spread throughout his body.

THIS is the real world. THESE are the death panels.
Unfortunately people in this country have a horrible combination of treating politics like it's about "my team," MASS ignorance and MASS arrogance. They think they are experts on insurance when Sean Hannity says something. And now they will die. Or lose everything. But hey! At least now they can go back to buying cheap insurance that lets them shell out $ for premiums year after year for fake coverage, thanks to Donald “I don’t understand anything” Trump.

Oh, and don’t think you can now rush onto a good policy when you need it. Sorry folks, because policies without minimum standards will divert stupid people in good health, the risk pool for preexisting condition folks will shift to high-risk, and premiums will explode. And the more people who try to rush back from cheap policies to real policies when they get sick, the higher the premiums will go. WAY past unaffordable. Because the insurers will be making their money collecting from stupid healthy people.

The private market is dead. Make America Die Again. And again, if these cheap policies are SO GREAT, then every member of Congress and the Trump admin should save taxpayers $ and be forced onto them. Yah, right. They want to live. They don't give a damn whether or not you do.
Whether Trump will be able to implement his “plan” or not (given lawsuits and possibly… Congress?), Eichenwald is clearly right about the types of things that used to happen before the ACA, and as much as I don’t like some of the ACA’s realities (the trend toward high deductibles, especially, and the idea of “skin in the game”) it’s clearly better than where we used to be, as shown in Eichenwald's two anecdotes.

Eichenwald's examples were echoed by a letter writer in today's Star Tribune, Michael Emerson of Eden Prairie:
Like many Americans, I lost my job in the fall of 2008. Our first option for family health care was a COBRA plan that cost $2,000 a month for a family of five. Or, we could find much cheaper health insurance on the open private market. That seemed quite promising. While these plans were cheap, they offered very minimal coverage. But one big problem. One of our children had taken a medication that precluded our eligibility for these plans. They were cherry-pickers. They only took individuals and families who had perfect risk profiles. That made the COBRA plan the only option that we had.

So that is what Trump is creating. A market for those who have no risk factors and a second and wildly unaffordable market for everyone else. Anyone between 50 and 65 will be slammed by this order.
The cruel fact is that Emerson could easily be paying $2,000 a month (or more) for an individual/family ACA silver plan in 2017 (that's almost what my family of three is paying now, as I've said before). But at least it covers what it should cover, has yearly and lifetime caps, and averts the scenarios described by Eichenwald, unlike Trump’s “plan.”

This stuff, as Trump finally realized after he became president, is complicated. Listen to people who understand it, like Andy Slavitt and Atul Gawande. Make it better, not worse. Figure it out.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Road Kill World

I used to subscribe to Adbusters magazine. I even kept the back issues... still may have them in a pile somewhere. But I realized at some point that I couldn't take it any more. Reading it left me feeling overwhelmed instead of energized to take on the world's many problems.

So I let it lapse, I'm not sure when.

This reminder of my subscriber days recently floated to the top when I was looking through a pile of stuff stashed in a closet, and it reminded me why I liked Adbusters:

It's a postcard they sent out in a thank you packet, or something like that. Maybe I sent for them, even. I remember there were several different cards, and I must have particularly liked this one, since it got kept while the others went.... somewhere.

I still think Adbusters is best taken in small quantities, but seeing this card again reminds me of their best efforts.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Plastic Facts

We make so much plastic, and most of it is pretty unnecessary, especially the packaging:

Note that this is just one year of the plastic produced in our world. What percent of that packaging plastic is needed in any sense, such as for food safety? I'd be willing to bet it's less than a quarter of it.

And then there's what happens to the plastic after its first use, using data on all the plastic produced from 1950 to today:

So 91 percent of the time, its first use is its only use. And almost 80 percent of it ends up in the ground or the environment... which includes the stuff floating in the ocean.

I wish we had a visualization of what a metric ton is. I imagine plastic is generally fairly light, so it would take a fair amount of it to equal a metric ton (2,200 pounds). Luckily, I did find this graphic on the internet:

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have the billion elephants or 80 million whales.

Source of the graphics with green backgrounds: Discover magazine, with data from "Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made," from Science Advances, 2017. The metric ton graphic is by Janet A. Beckley, University of Georgia, shown on this University of California site.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Slothful Day

It's a busy day today, so instead of thoughts, I have a photo of a sloth:

It's part of a large mural on the back of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, corner of Lake Street and 15th Avenue in South Minneapolis.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Guns, Immigrants, Path Dependency

It's been a while since I've mentioned economist Ed Lotterman's column in the Pioneer Press. Yes, he's still at it, and last Sunday he wrote something that affirmed one of my suspicions about meaningful change on guns in this country.

I want there to be just about no guns in private hands. That's my vision of the society I want to live in. But I have no idea how we can get there, given our current situation: no thoughts at all on how we could start, given there are over 300 million guns, most of them stockpiled by fewer than 3 percent of the population. Even if we could somehow get rid of the Second Amendment and stop future sales of guns and ammo, how would you deal with all the stuff that's out there?

Ed told me that I'm basically right to despair of a solution, and it's because of a phenomenon called path dependency, which "argues that while there may be many ways to solve some challenge, once you choose one alternative, you constrain future choices."

The example he gives is railroad track design. There's no reason that tracks are 56.5" wide, but once tracks were laid at that gauge, building to that standard became the best (easiest) choice. Our privately run health care system (so-called) is another example of path dependency. Privately owned broadcasters (vs. a government-dominated system like the BBC) are another.

He lists the many "choices" our country made along the way in terms of gun availability, which led us to our current predicament. And while he agrees we are, indeed, in an appalling predicament, he doesn't see a way out of it:

First of all, guns are a "consumer durable." They don't really wear out. You can require tire pressure sensors or rear-facing TV camera on all new cars and after a decade or so, most vehicles in use will have these features — because old cars wear out. Ban the manufacture and sale of gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds or of any firearm using them or with provisions for a bayonet, folding stock, or semiautomatic fire, and decades later there still will be tens of millions of such arms, all fully functional, held by the public.

Yes, you could emulate Australia and pass a law prohibiting ownership of such devices. But after decades of increasingly extreme rhetoric about U.S. government agents coming to take your guns, voluntary compliance would be very poor. Do you then start going door to door in Alabama or Idaho or even Pipestone County, Minn., searching the premises for taboo items? There are constitutional questions with that. And guns and ammunition are easy things to hide.

Radical right warnings that civil war would break out if there was any nation-wide attempt to confiscate certain firearms are overblown. However, the chances that there would be armed resistance and attempts at insurrection are very realistic.

Yes, ban the sale of ammunition or its components and eventually there will be nothing to fire from the banned guns. But the ban would have to apply to virtually all cartridges, because it is possible to salvage powder, primers and bullets from popular hunting calibers and reload the military wannabe ones. Moreover, the most rabid owners already have stocks of thousands of rounds. And 100-year-old cartridges generally fire just fine.
(I still think a major ammunition restriction would have the most effect over the least amount of time, if it could ever be done politically. It would cut down on access the most quickly, because workarounds like the ones Ed lists would be a lot harder to do than just buying more whenever you want.)

The good news, if there is any about path dependency, is that it applies to many other things, not just guns — such as immigration. There are 12 million undocumented people in this country, and the Right can't just wish them away, any more than I can wish away the guns. They also can't eject them without extremely disruptive, rule-of-law-undermining efforts (like the ones Trump implies he'll do), from racial profiling, a la Joe Arpaio, to "Operation Wetback"-type raids and the denial of due process:
...we have in place laws and we have signed treaties providing that illegal immigrants [sic] detained have at least minimal rights to a hearing or other status review before we expel them. That system is already overwhelmed. There is little voter support for appropriating vastly more money to fund its expansion. A recent federal immigration raid picking up 500 people made headlines. We would need 20,000 such raids to catch 10 million people...
He ends with this admonition:
Both gun violence and illegal immigration have taken on enormous symbolism involving great emotional weight for both ends of the political spectrum. This is a detriment to good decision-making.
We can agree on that, for sure.

Monday, October 9, 2017

An Acorn Cap

I’ve lived with a more-than-200-year-old red oak tree in my back yard for two decades. Every other year it drops a lot of acorns, so it’s not as though I never noticed them before.

But today I came across one of the caps, without its nut, and couldn’t stop looking at it.

What a transcendently beautiful object: the radial symmetry of the outside, with its tightly layered, shingle-like texture; the wooden bowl-like inside; the strong impression that it is made of wood, when just a few months ago it was green and soft.

Obviously, I don’t have the words for what I felt when I finally saw this acorn cap. They slipped away before I could get indoors to write anything down.

But it was nice to spend time thinking about this bit of our exquisite world, instead of the many instances of human-made destruction in our current era.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Purpose of Copays

I've railed in the past against health insurance deductibles (at least here and here). I'm not sure I've mentioned copays as much, because compared to thousands of dollars in deductibles, they haven't affected me as much, and when I first encountered them in the 1980s, they were (to me) truly minor amounts of money.

But Natalie Shure writes a perfect takedown of the premise behind copays, which I originally saw shared on Boing Boing. Copays are all about decreasing health care cost in one area, only to move it to another — usually publicly funded — area, such as emergency rooms. With, of course, overall worse outcomes for the patients, since they didn't get the timely care they needed that would have headed off the emergency room visit. Not mention the way copays and deductibles create new market opportunities for private insurance with "gap" coverage and financiers with Health Savings Accounts.

Shure explains how much of an outlier our country is, and the effect copays have:

While several countries with universal health care systems do charge copayments at the point of use, they don’t tolerate the amount of poverty that we do in the United States. No other wealthy country does. In a grotesquely unequal society, a copayment doesn’t create “better consumers” of care — it helps us scrimp by shoving the most powerless out of the system.

Once state Medicaid programs began charging copays in the 1970s, the new fees were associated with patients dropping out of health care plans. In some cases, there was a demonstrable impact on health: in 1975, California’s MediCal program reduced doctors’ visits with copays, only to have those savings offset by higher hospitalization rates.
I especially liked the introductory paragraph from the Boing Boing post:
The basis for the health-insurance copay is that the 99% need to be disincentivized from "abusing" their health-care and going to the doctor for frivolous ailments (if this was really a thing, we'd have sliding-scale copays that charged rich people astounding sums to see the doctor, to ensure that everyone's incentives were properly aligned).
I never thought of this point myself, but it's clearly correct: if copays are meant to deter frivolous use of coverage, then why don't the rich have to pay a lot more? They aren't deterred by $20 here or there.

The answer is obvious: Because copays are not about deterring rich people, they're about depriving the poor and middle class of so-called "Cadillac" coverage, which is reserved for the wealthy.


By the way, am I the only one who took forever to catch onto the definition of the jargon word "coinsurance" we are all now expected to understand when we purchase health insurance? 

I assumed it applied to people who had coverage from two sources, such as Medicare and a gap plan, or the VA and an employer. You know, where "co" means something shared between two similar types of payers (two health insurance plans). 

But noooo. It's just a made-up word that means “you personally pay the difference.” You, the patient, pay that “coinsurance” portion. It’s not insurance at all.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A History of Book Distribution Channels

In one of my alternate fantasy lives, I am running a bookstore. There's a reason why it's only a fantasy, of course, since I know nothing about how the business works.

Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo's, the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the U.S., recently published his thoughts on how books have been distributed over his 43 years in business. I learned a lot from it, and recommend a full read, but here are some of the key points.

Oh wait, first we need some background, which Blyly doesn't give in his piece because he assumes everyone knows this. There are three kinds of books: hardcover, mass-market paperback (the small, fat ones), and trade paperback (the almost-hard-cover-size, sometimes less fat ones). Anyone who reads s.f. probably has a sense that more books are coming out in trade paperback and fewer in mass market. I personally dislike mass market books because they're printed on crappy paper, with the text running too far into the center gutter for comfortable reading. Their spines get cracked, therefore, when you read them and if you try to keep the book (as is my habit), in a decade or two you'll find the pages not just yellowed, but falling out of the cheap glue binding.

Lately, a lot of high-quality s.f. writing has been published direct to trade format, with no hardcover edition at all. (Examples are Ann Leckie's Ancillary series and N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, both Hugo Award winners.) I find this frustrating, because I would prefer them in hardcover. But I assume they sell better in trade because they're cheaper, and it's a better quality book than if they were mass-market only.

Anyway, here's what I learned from Blyly's thoughts:

  • Historically and through the mid-20th century at least, hardcover publishers distributed their books directly to bookstores, which were usually part of department stores, rather than free-standing, independently owned retail outlets.
  • There were no mass-market paperbacks much before the 1930s when Penguin Books launched. It was quickly copied by other companies, including Pocket Books in 1939.
  • These mass-market paperbacks were sold through a completely separate distribution channel to newsstands, tobacco shops, drug stores, and dime stores, not to bookstores.
  • The mass-market channel was run by people called "rack jobbers" (I keep reading that as "jack robbers"), who were already in business supplying magazines. Their unique selling proposition was that they gave stores free metal racks from which to sell the books and magazines. By supplying the racks, they were trying to extract an exclusive relationship with each retail outlet.
  • The book buyers for bookstores had to understand their audience's interests, but the newsstand and tobacco shop owners didn't have to because the rack jobbers dictated what was delivered. 
  • Returning unsold books to the publishers was also handled by the rack jobbers, and that's where the "send the cover back but not the whole book" tradition came from. It made sense with out-of-date magazines, but they forced it onto the printers/publishers of paperbacks as well. There is no such tradition with hardcover publishers.
  • The rack jobbers were dominated by one publicly traded, national company until the 1950s. It controlled half of the market, while the other half was extremely distributed among one or more small companies in each major market. Most magazine and mass-market book sellers had racks from both the big company and from one of the local companies; they might get Time and Life from one and Newsweek and Look from the other, for instance.
  • Warehousing for all those books and magazines was a major part of the rack jobber business, of course. The big national company had warehouses everywhere, and by the 1950s some smart Wall Street jerk realized the company's buildings were worth more than the company itself, and so bought it and liquidated its assets for a huge profit. 
Blyly explains the effects of this move:
Suddenly, half the magazines and half the mass market paperbacks had no distribution. The [independent distributors] suddenly were in a stronger negotiating position, but could not double the size of their warehouses to take on all of the new potential business. So each I.D. decided which weak magazines to stop carrying so that they could add on much stronger titles.... (When almost half of the magazines in the country suddenly went out of business due to lack of distribution, it resulted in hard times for huge numbers of editors, writers, artists, and production people.)
I wonder if anyone has written a dissertation on that big moment of change?

He also includes a section on the effect of B. Dalton, which started as part of our local, innovative Dayton's department store chain (which was also the creator of Target). It sounds like B. Dalton was one of the first to sell both hardcovers and mass market paperbacks, and was responsible for breaking the power of the independent distributors through its monopsony power. All of this paved the way for the nationalization of big-box book sellers like Barnes & Noble and the late Borders chain.

In time the industry changed so that publishers consolidated production, making both a hardcover and softcover (whether trade or mass market format) version of most titles, usually with a six to 12-month time lag. The trade format has since become more popular with publishers because they can "charge at least double the price per book with only a slightly larger printing cost than for a mass market paperback." And now we are experiencing the trade-only moment, as I said at the beginning.

Don Blyly continues to believe in the smaller, cheaper mass-market format, and claims he can sell five times as many copies of a cheaper paperback than a more expensive, larger one. He says the salespeople tell him Uncle Hugo's must be the only bookstore where that's true. 

He doesn't believe them, and ends his article with a crack about "the home office in New York City" telling them that.

Friday, October 6, 2017

And Now for Something Completely Unimportant

This half-page ad ran in both the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune in the last day or so:

That's it — I didn't remove anything.

What is this ad for? At a glance, I see only the green and brown photo with its bearded professor guy and mid-century furniture and guess it's meant to promote a therapist with a big ad budget or maybe a furniture company, but I really have no idea.

After that first glance, I see the tiny, light headline (the wording of which makes perfect sense for a therapist, right?) and the AARP logo. Then I see the other logo, which I don't recognize, though I know the name Ameritrade, since they're an MPR sponsor.

So I guess it's an ad for financial consulting, as it says in the first sentence of body copy, but who the heck reads body copy on ads like this?

I wouldn't trust my financial future to someone whose ads are this incompetent. So that's my advice. Run away!