I teach English at a community college, which means I teach composition.  I tell my students that, if they want to write persuasively, they need to understand and address the concerns of people who do not agree with them yet–both the opposition and the indifferent.  In recent debates on gun laws, however, I’ve begun to recognize that the concerns of people who like semi-automatic weapons are not worth addressing.  Screw ‘em.  Ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

After last year’s massacre in Las Vegas, the general public learned about bump stocks (used by the shooter) and cranks, devices that both law-abiding citizens and mass murderers can buy legally.  These devices, attached to semi-automatic weapons, can make them fire at a fully automatic rate.  Since it is already illegal to sell fully automatic weapons or to alter the mechanism of semi-automatic weapons to make them automatic, a legislative fix to this automaticizing loophole should have been easy.  But the Republicans who control Congress did nothing.  Though their NRA masters officially stated they would not oppose such a fix, congressional cowards feared the electoral wrath of the most vociferous gun nut crazies who would tantrum at anybody touching their toys.  (Yeah, I really don’t care what they think any more.  As I said above, screw ‘em.)  That dereliction was, of course, perfectly fine with the NRA and the gun manufacturers, for whom public safety does not really matter.  Heck, if the law permitted, they’d be happy to make money offering the general public tactical nukes–purely for sporting purposes, of course.

The most minor, sensible, and popular amendment to gun laws–an amendment entirely consistent with the spirit of existing laws–was more than conservative politicians could bear.  Clearly, their concerns are not worth addressing.  On this issue, we cannot trust them.

Ban sales and transfers of ownership of all semi-automatic weapons.  When people tell me they are fun to shoot, I believe them; when people tell me they are for self-defense or hunting, I do not believe them.  Mass killers use them because they are good for shooting, in a short amount of time, large numbers of people.  To tolerate that capacity is barbaric.

Don’t compromise this time.  Last time Congress banned them, the ban had a ten-year limit, so a later Congress passively let it lapse by not voting one way or the other on renewal.  This time, make the ban permanent.  That way, if anybody wants to make them legal again, legislators beholden to the gun lobby would have to affirmatively put themselves on record as opposing public safety.

Semi-automatics are the weapon of choice for mass killers.  Anybody who opposes banning semi-automatics is, wittingly or not, siding with mass killers.  Screw them.


My congressman, Darin LaHood (R, 18-IL), offered this week his “thoughts and prayers” for the people shot, wounded, killed, frightened, threatened, angered, and traumatized at the recent school shooting in Florida.  My first reaction was, “What a clueless idiot.”  But that may be uncharitable.  So I’d like to explore possible meanings in his use of that phrase.

  1. He may be sincere.

On Facebook, he reminds us that he has three children.  In a loop of empathy, he can see the pain in the grieving parents and imagine the pain he’d feel himself at the sudden loss of one of his own children, and so the horror of that imagining helps him feel and grieve along with the families in Florida.  That impulse is one any of us might feel, a reaching out to tell a suffering fellow human, “You are not alone.”

It’s a gesture we can all make when we feel helpless to do anything else.  In the face of irretrievable loss (a dead child), sometimes that’s all we can do.

LaHood is not a rich prose stylist.  He calls up a cliché because such language is at hand to gesture toward a feeling deeper than he can express.

  1. He may be miming sympathy.

As a public figure, Rep. LaHood feels a responsibility to respond to significant events.  There is an accepted ritual language for moments like this, and he deploys it here in the conventional way.  The ceremony of public grief is thus observed.  Whether the outward gesture corresponds with any inward mental state matters less than its prompt and exact performance.  He has enacted his institutional function.

The words and gestures, as they do for any ritual, have a conventional significance.  If others interpret them in some other contexts outside of that convention, that is their business.  Heterodox interpretations should not matter to those who wish to live within the convention.

  1. The words may be a sign to the NRA and the gun fetishists that they can continue to count on his support.

People who advocate reforming gun laws mock politicians who offer their “thoughts and prayers” in response to a massacre.  As an expression of helpless empathy, the phrase suggests those politicians can offer nothing in the face of such horrors but words of solidarity.  As someone hungry wants not sympathy, but food, and as someone drowning wants not words of encouragement, but a rope to grab, people horrified by violence want not ritual language, but change in the policies that make such horrors so likely to recur.

Expressions of grieving impotence from a legislator reassure the gun manufacturers and their clients that the gun markets will remain open.

  1. He may be intentionally insulting and provoking those who want to reform gun laws.

The hypocrisy of pretended impotence in “thoughts and prayers” is so obvious that surely he knows people will find it outrageous–an insult to the dead and grieving, an insult to democratic institutions by which citizens can shape their own society.  For gun fetishists who will grieve as for a severed limb at any diminishment of their capacity for violence, it can be thrilling to poke an outraged public in its collective eye–especially thrilling because they can righteously deny it.  The reformers are clearly the obsessives, seeing provocation in such mild condolence.  Bullying can be fun.


I’m pretty sure LaHood is doing the second and third.  The fourth–I feel it whether he means it or not.  As for the first, I am a parent myself, and I want to believe he feels at least that much, but I cannot know.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s devotion to Ayn Rand explains his hostility to family-sponsored immigration.  It’s not just racism–the fear that one Guatemalan, Somali, or Syrian with a green card brings the nation one dam crack closer to the brown America of their suburban nightmares.  No, it is not just a fear of a non-Nordic America, but also a positive desire for a Randian economic dystopia.

When my father’s parents arrived from Ireland in the early twentieth century, they came to places in the U.S. where they had family already.  My grandmother and her sister came to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where an aunt lived, and my grandfather came to Butte, Montana, where a couple of older brothers already worked in the copper mines.  Existing family connections eased the adjustment.  They arrived knowing somebody already, somebody who had already established a web of social connections, a web into which the newcomer could be introduced.  These connections could ease and quicken the transition to American life.  Those connections could be trusted to help the immigrant find a good job or place to live.  In the hand of a trusted guide in a territory already somewhat mapped, the risk of getting cheated was reduced, anxiety was lower, and the chance to thrive developed much more quickly.  My grandparents didn’t stay in Holyoke and Butte, but those are the places that, with family help, they began to adjust comfortably to American life.

Of course, the rules were different back then and, for Northern Europeans, anyway, looser.  But immigrants have, for centuries now, regularly come to places where they already have–in the wake of some bold ethnic pioneer–some family, community, or at least cultural connection–the Greek, Korean, Cuban, Filipino, or Ukrainian neighborhoods of our cities.  Many immigrants, therefore, first find themselves, not as entirely isolated individuals, but as members of a community.

Back to Paul Ryan’s love of Ayn Rand.  She hated the concept of community.  She insisted upon individual isolation as a moral imperative.  In her god-awful novel Atlas Shrugged, when she blows up the train, she makes a point of showing how everybody on it is in some way dependent on somebody else, and thus, they deserve no compassion; parasites, they deserve to die.  The ideal community she imagines toward the end of the book has no families or institutions, only isolated individuals.

That is the sort of U. S. that Ryan wants immigrants to arrive in.  (Actually, he’d like us all to live in that world, and he’s done his best to create it, but since so many of us love our families and communities, he can’t quite push us to a true Randian extreme.  Immigrants, however, are vulnerable.)  Economically, the immigrants should be absolutely free agents, with no ties to anything, certainly not to that heaviest anchor of all, a family.  An immigrant’s desire to work should launch fluidly onto a labor market with the perfect fluidity of grain offered on a commodity exchange (and with the same ignorance of the job market that an individual soybean brings to the exchange; you’ve got to take whatever offer comes your way first, or else you’ll starve).  Family or community might, of course, somewhat reduce the economic risks and asymmetries of information a new arrival might face, but that only shows the unmanly weakness of the old way of doing things, as opposed to the new chance-loving boldness of a Randian world.

Welcome to Paul Ryan’s and Ayn Rand’s America.  Those people you loved at home?  Forget them.  They’re not coming to join you.  We won’t let them follow you in.  Here, we model life on the first few weeks of a microeconomics class, before we have to acknowledge or have to account for complications beyond the simplest issues of supply and demand for labor.  You don’t get to call on anybody for help.  No one calls you.  You’re alone.  An immigrant like you doesn’t deserve love.

My congressman, Darin LaHood (IL-18), has chosen regularly to represent the interests of Wall Street against the interests of his own constituents.

For instance, just this past week, he voted along with almost all of his Republican colleagues to rescind a rule established last year by the Department of Labor that made it easier for small businesses to set up retirement-savings programs for their employees (H.J. 66).  Helping workers find an inexpensive way to put away some savings for retirement: who would be against that?  Wall Street firms who want to charge people more for setting up and administering their retirement accounts.

Rep. LaHood has, in fact, from the very beginning of his congressional career made no secret of his eagerness to serve powerful financial interests against the interests of his constituents.  Soon after he was elected (in a special election to fill the seat of resigned-in-disgrace Aaron Schock), one of his first op-eds in the Peoria Journal Star was an explanation of why he opposes the fiduciary rule for investment advisers.

The rule (as yet to be implemented, and delaying or blocking it is a Trump priority) is that investment advisers should place the financial interests of their clients ahead of their own.  That is, if the adviser or the adviser’s firm has a financial interest in pushing a particular investment, but that investment would not be so remunerative for a client as some others might be, the adviser will be required to suggest the client invest in one of those others.

People who go to an investment adviser, obviously, have decided they do not know enough about the wisest investment opportunities to make a well-informed decision for themselves.  They place themselves in the hands of someone better informed than they are themselves (as I place myself in the hands of my dentist, who knows a lot more about dentistry than I do).  And I’m willing to believe that most investment advisers have the well-being of their clients uppermost in their minds.

To assume that all do, however, would, of course, be a mistake.  My congressman, I’m disappointed to observe, is especially eager to come to the service of those who do not.

It is perfectly legal for an investment adviser to tell a client to invest in securities that the adviser’s firm has a stake in promoting–no matter the foreseeable prospects for that investment, in fact, even if the adviser knows it to be an inferior investment.

People’s comfort in retirement is at stake, yet this legalized fraud is still available to unscrupulous advisers–or advisers with troubled conscience who work for corrupt firms.

As I said, LaHood announced in April 2016 that he is opposed to the financial interests of his constituents and would rather serve the interests of Wall Street firms that want a free hand in fleecing the Congressman’s constituents.

In the continuing struggle to keep my eye on the policy ball rather than the pitcher’s ridiculous haircut:

U.S. Government agency websites, like the EPA website, provide lots of information about how the new administration is working on harming the country.  I’m not a professional journalist, so I have not courted contacts in government and cajoled leaks out of federal employees (or alternatively, caught bundles of documents they’ve flung at me in desperation).  But I can read information in plain sight.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency in charge of keeping our air and water pure by means of environmental regulations, has a website full of lots of useful information, but as of Inauguration Day, much activity there stops.  A blog there called “Our Planet, Our Home” has hosted short pieces by EPA employees about their research, clean-up projects, environmental justice activities, and other things they do as agency employees.  The highly positive, up-beat tone of these blog posts suggests they are run through some communications/PR people in the agency.  That positive tone, however, helps promote the mission of the agency.

The last post, however, is Jan. 18, two days before the Inauguration.  Before that, posts had been appearing in a fairly steady stream since April 2008 when the blog started, and there was no interruption in the flow till January 2017.  Somebody decided to end that positive tone promoting the agency’s mission.

The site has a page called Climate Change Newsroom, with links to press releases about climate change.  It has stories about research findings, regulation news, and grants studying or dealing with the results of climate change.  The flow of news releases stop in mid-January, just before the Inauguration.

Another page called Air Topics includes links to data about pollutants and to press releases about regulations, enforcement, and research.  Once again, the steady flow of press releases halts on January 19.  It’s important to notice the kind of information this page is no longer releasing.  The last one released, “EPA Proposes Action on Fairbanks, Alaska Air Quality Plan,” is about the persistence of fine particulate matter in the Fairbanks air in the winter when a lot of people are burning wood to heat their homes, but a seasonal inversion traps the dirty air in the city.  It’s a public health hazard, and the release is about the problem as well as what the EPA, the Alaska State EPA, and the City of Fairbanks will now be doing about it.  Just the day before, they announced, “Tauber Oil Company Settles Allegations of Selling Unregistered Fuel Additive in Violation of Clean Air Act.”  Catching violations of environmental law is another part of the agency’s mission, after all, and announcing this $700,000 penalty would, presumably, be a deterrent to other businesses tempted to cut corners.  And a few days before that, they released information about some good news from EPA-sponsored research: “EPA Report Shows Air Emissions of Toxic Chemicals from Industrial Facilities in Florida Down More Than Half Since 2005.”  Announcements of these actions, fines, and reports thump to a dead stop as President Trump takes office.

Presumably, press institutions pick up these press releases and then use them to report on the agency’s actions.  Not releasing such information means the public is less aware of what the agency is doing for it and, thus, less supportive of the agency when it is under attack (as it is right now, with the President’s proposal to drastically cut its budget).  Alternative explanations: people have quit, people have been fired, work has been ordered halted, enforcement has stopped, research has been cancelled or suppressed, or somebody just somehow forgot to post the data.  The explanation that seems most reasonable to me, however, is that, given the new administration’s hostility to the EPA, reducing its public profile is a way to make it vulnerable to the budget ax.

I am pleased to notice, however, that on a page called Chemicals and Toxics Topics, the news releases have continued.  And Water Topics also has kept posting, though the lead story there is a terse statement that President Trump has ordered the EPA to “to review and then rescind or revise” the Waters of the United States rule and that the new Administrator, Scott Pruitt intends to implement the order right away.  Why have these news releases continued while others have stopped?

Once again in my struggle to keep my eye on the policy ball rather than on the pitcher’s ridiculous haircut:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not been releasing information that, in the past, it regularly posted on its website.  Clicking around on OSHA’s website, it’s clear that something is happening.  The President hasn’t appointed a leader for the agency yet, and since Burger Meister Andrew Puzder withdrew his name for the Secretary of Labor job, the whole Department of Labor is headless.  But even without a confirmed leader, there seem to be changes.

As Paul Feldman at Fair Warning has noted, there the OSHA website had not updated any news releases regarding enforcement since the inauguration.  Up until Jan. 19, 2017, on the OSHA site, there is a steady stream of news releases regarding employers who had been found to endanger their employees as well as announcements of fines issued.  But then such news releases stop.

OSHA also keeps a running report of workplace fatalities, a list that has not been updated since Dec. 10, 2016.  That was, of course, more than a month before the new administration took over, so I don’t know how to explain that one.  According to the site, workplace deaths must be reported to OSHA within eight hours; so presumably, if anyone has died at work since Mikko Tammelin was “struck and killed by truck lid” at the Home Depot in Eden Prairie, Minnesota on Dec. 10, then OSHA has that information, but has not posted it.  Maybe these postings are made quarterly.  Maybe there is a long bureaucratic delay before a posting.  Maybe the person in charge of doing those postings left.  I don’t know–this is my first look at the site, so I don’t know its rhythms.  Maybe America has become an extraordinarily safe place to work in the last three months–I sincerely hope that’s the answer.

And I sincerely hope that in January all U. S. employers began to strictly and rigorously follow all workplace safety regulations, and there were suddenly no fines to be issued.  Or maybe winter is just regularly a safe time (looking at the archive of information releases for previous years, I don’t think that’s so).

Maybe there’s just a pause as the new administration is struggling to get itself organized.  I looked at the archive from January 2009.  There was no such pause in the press releases when the Obama administration took over from the Bush administration–just another day, apparently, in the press office at OSHA.  If disorganization is the explanation for the lack of information, then it is evidence of a particularly disorganized administration.  The disorganization would be, in fact, of a rather aggressive sort that immediately affects even the long-established day-to-day workings of the agencies rather than only the upper-tier administrative and policy people.

I would not at all discount aggressive incompetence and indifference as explanations.  But even so, let’s look at its consequences.

Government press releases offer, among other things, a public view into some of the workings of government.  If the agency suddenly stops releasing information about its regular functions, then it’s impossible for citizens to know whether the agency is doing its work.  So long as there has been a regular release of information about fines on unsafe workplaces, it’s clear that the agency is doing its work of investigation.  It’s doing its work of checking to see whether employers are following the rules and maintaining safe workplaces for employees.  If OSHA reduces its attention to workplace safety rules and simply lets employers cut corners, then the change would be obvious in that list of press releases.  Even if few of us look at it, the evidence is available.

If a government agency no longer makes that information public, it is not going to be clear that it is doing its job.  It can go slack on its mission.  If the agency reduces the rigor of its enforcement, that reduction may not be obvious outside the agency.  Light doesn’t shine; toadstools can grow.

A further consequence (and this insight is from Feldman’s article): since the nature of a press release is to publicize things in the news media, the absence of press releases will lead to a reduction in stories about fines for unsafe working conditions.  With fewer reminders in the news of the financial consequences of cutting corners, more corners may be cut.  Fines may well be paid, but bad publicity will be avoided.  Media pricks to the conscience keep the ethical spine straight.

It may be just a temporary lapse, and all at OSHA will be in smooth working order soon.  Cynic that I am, I doubt it.

From the Women’s March on Washington, my favorite sign (seen in a photo on the internet): “Ugh. Where do I even begin?”

I decided that I need to fight.  I don’t want my children to wonder some day why I did nothing.  I have some talent for writing, so I’m going to start doing it.

So much to write about.  Each day brings new shocks.  I’ll begin with Trump’s apparently modest first move against the Affordable Care Act.

President Trump (and you know, the validity of that phrase shows that we really do live in a world of “alternative facts”) has recently issued a fairly vague executive order asking government agencies, especially the IRS and Dept. of HHS to help people harmed by the Affordable Care Act.  One possible consequence of this order is that people may be given waivers from the requirement to buy health insurance.  That particular policy has not yet begun, and it hasn’t even been explicitly spelled out, but it is a very bad idea.  In fact, even hinting at it may have catastrophic results.

OK, let’s see what happens if such a policy is enacted and many people are given waivers.  There will be two malign results.

But first: how insurance works.  Before we get to health insurance, let’s do fire insurance.  I pay for fire insurance on my house.  Besides buying it because it’s required by the credit union that holds my mortgage, I buy it because I’m not an idiot.  I don’t want my house to burn down, and I don’t expect it to burn down, but I acknowledge that there’s always a chance, and if it were to happen, the loss would be immeasurable.  (I really like my house.)  But I’d get a payment from the insurer to pay off the remainder of my mortgage and help me and my family rebuild or buy a new place.  In the meantime, the money I pay the insurer goes into a pool to help out those families that do have the bad luck of home fires.  The money is not wasted.  It goes to people who need it, and if my family needs it, it will be there for us, too.  I hope we never need it, of course, but it would be foolish not to join into the insurance pool.  Since all the other home owners pay into it, too, it’s affordable.  If the only people paying into it were the ones standing on the sidewalk watching their roofs ablaze, it would be impossibly expensive.  To say, “My house isn’t burning; I don’t need insurance,” would be stupid.  These things can happen to any of us.  We’re all in this together.

Health insurance–same thing.  Say all of us who enter the pool are healthy (as those of us who enter the fire insurance pool all have non-flaming houses when we enter), we’re each going to hope to remain healthy (Salud! to all of you!), but it’s pretty darn likely that somebody will at some point get pneumonia or a broken foot.  Somebody’s going to get pregnant.  Mental illness happens.  In fact, each of us is a lot more likely to need health care at some point than to live in a burning house.  Some of us may have small health care bills (a cut hand that needs some stitches), and some of us may need a kidney transplant.  Some will have a severe incident that can be treated, paid off, and brushed into the past (a burst appendix), and some will have long term or lifelong chronic conditions (diabetes).  These things could happen to any of us.  We’re all in this together.

OK, back to the threat of waivers.

1.)   Say a lot of healthy people ask for waivers on the requirement to buy health insurance–the young and stupid who assume they do not need insurance (“My house isn’t burning”)–and a Trumpist HHS Dept., following the boss’s clear wishes, is generous in granting waivers to all who ask.  Being younger, they are less likely (not exempt, mind you, just less likely) to need medical care.  The older, sicker, less stupid will still want to buy insurance (the ones who live in houses more likely to catch fire).  Fewer people will be paying into the fund, and the ones left will be the ones most likely to need it.  Insurers will, therefore, have less money in them to pay for illnesses and injuries to people in those funds.  As a result, insurers will have to raise rates, probably very high indeed, or else they will not be able to pay for the health care of the insured.  Insurance rates will climb disastrously high, and people who need insurance will not be able to afford it.

2.) Inevitably, people who get the waiver will sometimes become ill or injured–sometimes in ways that call for quite expensive treatment–and without insurance, they will not be able to pay for their care.  If hospitals and other medical providers are not paid for the care, those medical providers will have to get the money somewhere, and raising rates for their paying patients (generally the rest of us with insurance) will be the most probable way to recoup that revenue.  That means that medical inflation and insurance rates will zoom higher than ever, making insurance and medical care more expensive and less attainable for everyone.  The death spiral opponents of the Affordable Care Act warned about will become real rather than (as it has worked out till now) imaginary.

All that is merely possible right now, and the executive order does not necessarily indicate that an expansion of waivers will happen.  But the possibility, the opening toward it, the clear intention of the President may itself cause some of these problems even before such an ill-advised policy is implemented.

Insurers, like any business or institution, need to plan for next year.  If last year’s policy carries through this year on into next year, then it will be comparatively easy to make predictions of costs based on consistent trends.  However, if policy is disrupted, then it will not be so clear what next year will be like.  There’s a possibility that sane bureaucrats in HHS will be stingy in granting waivers; on the other hand, pressure from the top may make them cruelly generous toward all and sundry who wish to court financial disaster.

Unsure of how the Affordable Care Act will be administered next year, some insurers may begin to pull out.  Though they may be able to predict roughly how much they will have to pay out for medical expenses next year, not knowing what the administration will do next year, they will not be able to predict how much they will be taking in in premiums.  Unsure that there will, next year, be a predictable and viable group of contributors to the pool, insurers may decide they do not want to enter an uncertain market that may well bring them great losses.  Withdrawing from the market will reduce competition and, thus, raise prices.  Or insurers may stay in the market, but fearing the implementation of a broad waiver policy, they may raise their rates to cover the costs of a smaller pool of older and less healthy contributors.  This uncertainty about administration policy, therefore, may lead to the collapse of insurance market even without an explicitly worked out policy.

My point is that the President’s executive order, even so vaguely worded that we’re not sure what its results will be, is likely to cause harm to the nation’s medical and financial health.

Stand against Trump.  Contact your representatives and senators.  You or someone in your family may be one of the people Trump wants to kill.