Gun Laws

I was going to write about Donald Trump. I was going to say — again — that he is a bully. And a clown. And that his so-called “tax plan” is as mindless as something a second grader might come up with. Donald Trump is a disgrace.

But you know what? An even bigger disgrace is the failure of politicians and lobbyists to do something honest about gun laws. We’ve had over 200 mass shootings this year. And the year isn’t over yet. We suffered another one in Oregon today.

I have no doubt the National Rifle Association — whose leadership, at least, qualify as terrorists — will tell us that we need to step up mental health programs to stop the mass shootings. But in other countries — in all other countries — mass shootings have led to tightened gun laws. And they have worked. The reaction by gutless politicians the NRA leaders is just so much window dressing.

They oppose sensible gun safety laws. No amount of deaths and murders and crazy shootings will change their minds. And these are laws that most Americans — the sensible majority of gun owners — support. Don’t let the NRA leaders tell you otherwise; they lie.

I don’t want to take guns away from people who are qualified to own guns. But let’s make it harder for unqualified people to get them. And let’s stop listening to the fanatical leadership of the NRA — I don’t believe they speak for a majority of the membership — and let’s stop electing politicians who lack the courage to confront an American tragedy.

And if you’re a voter: step up and start demanding new gun safety laws. It’s right. And it’s never too late.

Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Scott

So, Scott Walker has withdrawn his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Which begs the question: why in the world did Scott Walker ever think he could win the nomination?

Politicians, of course, have gigantic egos. There seems no other way they could possibly be politicians. In Scott Walker’s case, he listed to his ego and the sycophants around him who all wanted a piece of the action if Walker won. Which demonstrates that it’s not just politicians with huge egos. And no sense of reality.

Scott Walker is, at best, a minor figure on the American political landscape. He made something of a name for himself as a pubic employee union buster in Wisconsin. In the earliest stages of his campaign, he earned a niche in the polls — as if they are believable any longer — but voters soon found that the more he campaigned the less appealing he was.

Scott Walker was exposed as unqualified, uninteresting and eventually under-funded. There was simply no reason to consider him a serious candidate (remember his idea to build a wall between the US and Canada?). It turns out — surprise! — that he has neither the intellectual chops nor the personal appeal to attract anything beyond a fringe element.

And so, Scott Walker joins Rick Perry on the sidelines. Actually, Jim Gilmore is there, too, he just hasn’t realized it. And by the way, they won’t be alone long. Pretty soon, in fact, we can watch the debate featuring all the candidates who aren’t candidates any longer. I’m afraid, however, it still wouldn’t add up to anything but more GOP babble.

Drink Up

Who makes without argument the worst beers in the United States? Of course it’s Budweiser, the beer with the cool horses that tastes like horse pee. Really. Budweiser tastes less like beer than apple juice does. But just in case you don’t believe that, try Bud Light. Or Michelob. Or any one of a number of beers produced by Budweiser that are thoroughly indistinguishable in their awfulness. How is it possible to brew beer like this over such a long period? And, incredibly, to persuade some suckers to pay a premium price for it?

Beats me. But heres the deal: Budweiser is just part of a giant beer conglomerate named Anheuser-Busch InBev NV. And that entity wants to merge with SABMiller, another beer brewing behemoth, to create an really enormous conglomerate that would dominate the global beer market. They want this merger because they aren’t selling enough beer around the world even though together they account of about 65% of all beer sales.

Nope, their share has been dropping because drinkers are showing a growing preference for real beers, i.e., craft beers, locally produced brews, and because their tastes have been shifting to wines and some of the small batch whiskeys. In other words, things that actually have taste. Things that aren’t called Budweiser.

Now, I have to admit that some of the dozens of brands now part of AB InBev and SABMiller aren’t bad. They aren’t Budweisers, of course. But not one I’ve tasted holds a candle to Smuttynose or Elm City brews or lots of other craft brews I could stretch this column out by naming. If I’m dining out, why waste money or trash like Budweiser — or, to be truthful, Miller or Beck’s or Foster’s or Bass, etc. — when there are so many fine beers waiting? Or a nice cabernet? Or some Woodford Bourbon?

By the way, that proposed merger — which awaits a lot of government action — would allow those companies to fire more employees in the name of efficiency, raise the price on their beers and still find no compelling reason to increase the quality of what they already own. So, I haven’t been able to come up with any good reasons to support the merger. I’m hoping regulators will concur.

The good news, I guess, is that no matter what happens, Budweiser still sucks and I won’t be going anywhere near its over-priced terrible products.

A Health Care Scam

George Orwell is still with us, his “doublespeak” firmly ensconced at the headquarters of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield here in New Hampshire. Oh wait … let’s be honest about this. What we have from Anthem these days is unadorned, shameless bullshit.

This comes from a company that has mis-managed its customers for years, that has a terrible record of response to customers and which has been over-charging consumers for even longer. A fine corporate citizen, eh?
Here’s what they are up to now: they want to merge with Cigna, putting together two health care giants and eliminating much of their competition, now and potential. Their merger, if approved, will give consumers far fewer health care options and ensure that the prices for what they get will be much higher. There’s no good news there.

The American Medical Association (AMA) cautions that this merger will lead to “undue concentration” of services for consumers (that would be us, the patients). The President of the New Hampshire Medical Society says that without competition “there will be price gouging” as we go forward. Of course they are right. Most doctors care about patients. Anthem doesn’t give a shit.

if you doubt that, consider this “doublespeak” from an Anthem corporate lackey: “The complementary capabilities of Anthem and Cigna will enable us to continue to lead the transition to value-based care that will reduce costs while improving health outcomes. It will allow greater efficiency, thereby enhancing our ability to better manage cost-drivers that can impact affordability.”

Whew. That requires a translation since it means absolutely nothing except some bad writer’s idea of a press release. The merger will do nothing to help customers. It will pad the bottom line for the newly merged company, and it will ensure that your choices will be limited. Anthem says the merger will enable it to “lead the transition to value-based health care.” Mmmm, you mean they haven’t considered doing that before? By “greater efficiency,” it means they can fire some employees which will allow them to “better manage cost-drivers” which means charge more. For everything.

Write your congressman, speak up, friends. This merger is a disaster for most of us. Unless, that is, you are one of the exceptionally overpaid Anthem executives who won’t be fired after the merger and will get bonuses from all their extra money costumers will have to pay.

Have a nice day.

The Mentally Infirm Gather

In case you missed it, there was a rally in our nation’s capitol last week held by a group of several thousand people opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement. It’s doubtful a single one of them could actually explain the agreement with any sort of coherence, but that’s neither here nor there.

No, what was so absolutely wonderful about the gathering was the collection of speakers assembled to denounce the agreement: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, or what comedian Bill Maher accurately described as “a Woodstock of the mentally infirm.” On the other hand, it’s also a pretty good description of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates.

They are an astonishing bunch of dim bulbs (Scott Walker, Jim Gilmore, Rick Perry — oops, he’s gone), hopelessly encumbered (Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, etc.) and unelectable (everyone else). Jeb Bush has enough money to get the nomination but his lethargic, wheezing campaign suggests he couldn’t defeat Bernie Sanders.

And here’s an indication of why our electoral is totally broken. Rick Perry announced several days ago that’s he’s out of the race. But — his PAC announced that it will keep paying for ads promoting the campaign. So here’s what that says: we don’t need actual candidates to run for office any more, just PACs that pay for empty, meaningless ads. Welcome to our screwed up system of funding politics. Only a Republican could love it.

The Clown Car

Keeping up with the Republican presidential presidential candidates — the GOP clown car — would be fun if it didn’t hold such concerns for America’s future. The domination of Donald Trump, as appalling as it is, has tended to cover what a poor crop of candidates the GOP offers us. And it is such a treat to watch the party twitch and squirm to get around the Trump factor.

For Fox News, of course, it;s the greatest thing since white bread. Great for their ratings. and it’s downright hilarious to read the Wall Street Journal — Fox News for grown-ups — agonize over Trump. Each of their columnists takes turns telling us in aggrieved terms just how bad Trump is for the Republicans, and the newspaper’s editorial pages almost sink from the weight of their disgust for the Donald. Here’s the catch: once Trump abandons the party, we are left with a field of lightweights and irresponsible panderers.

What is it with the candidates and their fetish for linking President Obama in some way with Hitler? Mike Huckabee is the worst in that respect, but Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz and others have piled on. That is reprehensible. Jeb Bush, favorite of the party’s mainline conservatives (as differentiated from the Tea Party and like-minded extreme right-wingers) seems prone to verbal slip-ups and simplistic thinking. Ben Carson obviously lacks the experience and knowledge to be a serious candidate; he seems to be treading in ever-deeper water. Scott Walker has a face that looks as if he’s carrying a smelly piece of cheese in his pocket.

I could go on, but …. what the point? The presence of so many unqualified people speaks to the shallowness of today’s republican Party. And when you look at Republicans in Congress, there’s nothing better. The GOP there is expending its efforts to defeat the President’s nuclear agreement with Iran, striking an alliance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose dangerous, self-serving rants in the service of his party’s right-wing extremists are causing serious rifts in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

Congressional Republicans who oppose the agreement caution that there should be no negotiations with a leadership who have vowed to pursue their own interests. Of course, we’re not talking about Iran. We’re talking about a leadership cadre of Republicans in Congress who have vowed to pursue their own interests and not to negotiate the the White House. Shame on them.

Agreement with Iran

I know that when someone I know only slightly criticizes someone or something in my family, I get upset and angry. You probably do, too. So when the Prime Minister of Israel starts criticizing my President, I don’t like it. And when there’s a chorus joining him, here and abroad, I am suspicious of base motives.

In this case, of course, we’re talking about the nuclear agreement reached with Iran in the last 48 hours. The specifics of the agreement haven’t been released as of this writing, but that has not slowed much less stopped the flow of incessant criticism and worse coming from many of the usual suspects.

Foremost is Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who denounced the Iran deal in the hardest terms. He is certainly welcome to his views, but he speaks out of self interest only. And frankly, America’s self-interest is what concerns me. Mr. Netanyahu does not speak for Americans though he tries. He speaks for his country, and he speaks loudly. But what he says is hardly the course this country needs to follow.

Worse is the response of people like House Speaker John Boehner, who condemned the agreement without even bothering to read it. That follows the Republican course set six years ago in which the party’s legislative leaders vowed to oppose every single action taken by President Obama during his administration. Think the Republicans debate on Obamacare, narrow-minded and bull-headed opposition, in spite of overwhelming public acceptance. Nothing has changed, it seems. If it comes from the President, it must be defeated.

And wore than that is the response of the Republican presidential candidates. Consider Jeb Bush, who called the agreement “appeasement” in a shameful echo of Nazism. How disgusting. Ted Cruz, Scot Walker and Donald Trump and the rest of the heavyweights are only now chiming in with their thoughts. We can expect little of substance, just more campaign rhetoric. What a pity. This agreement is far-reaching and it deserves — requires — serious discussion. I doubt seriously we’l get anything resembling that from the Republican party. Watch for it.

Flying High

The Department of justice in looking alleged collusion in setting prices among the nation’s major airlines. Wow, who could have seen that coming — apart from anyone who has flown lately or examined online pricing or has read in their newspaper about airline executives discussing the subject?

This is merely the latest chapter in an on-going saga I have called for many years under this slogan: The airlines are not your friends. If you believe otherwise, you are either being foolish or haven’t used pubic transport since the days of stagecoaches. Which were, as it seems to go these days, a bit more comfortable than many flights in 2015.

So, let’s begin by saying that this is an investigation by federal prosecutors, and we don’t know if airline executives have colluded in an effort to limit seating and thereby raise fares. We just suspect they have because it’s right in line with the greedy, screw-the-customer approach most airlines have adopted as their revenues jump to unheard of levels in recent years. Ye, I know that’s harsh. But again, have you flown lately?

The number of fees tacked on to fares has dramatically increased since 2010, and fares have continued to rise, though not as much as in some years past, largely because all those extra fees are providing such a nice windfall for the airlines.

Anyhow, the Justice Department believes the airlines have been closely coordinating efforts to make it harder for passengers to find seats, which restrains competition snd leads to higher fares. This comes after that same Justice Department approved a series of mergers in the industry that created “super” airlines that have substantially eliminated competition. According to The New York Times, 80% of the nation’s air traffic is concentrated among four airlines: Delta, United, American and Southwest.

There were warnings at the time of the proposed mergers about this happening, but federal examiners tossed them aside. This new investigation is the result of that mistake. We’ve gone from over-regulation several decades ago to under-regulations today, and until we can find some middle ground, our airline industry is going to keep putting it to everyone except those able to afford to pay the highest possible amounts for their flights. For the rest of us … well, enjoy that bag of peanuts while you can.

Supreme Court Rules

This week has brought two major decisions from the United States Supreme Court: one reaffirming the validity of the nation’s health care program, Obamacare, and the endorsement of same-sex marriage throughout the nation. These verdicts, perhaps unexpected in some quarters, will likely rank among the most compelling and far-reaching decisions ever handed down by this country’s highest judiciary. Celebrations are indeed in order.

The Obamacare decision assures that the President’s signature action will endure. And millions of Americans will benefit from it, as many already are. Forget the mouthing from disgruntled Republicans, who have wasted this government’s time for more than half a decade trying fruitlessly and thoughtlessly to kill it. For many in the GOP, there is no concern — much less a plan — for helping Americans secure personal health care. Obamacare is here; and more than we may recognize, it is working. So may we now devote all out energies to improving it? [Not that that's going to happen with so many Republican presidential candidates shamelessly playing to the worst and basest elements in their party in an effort to win nomination.]

And then there is this morning’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage. At long last. Justice Kennedy’s gracefully written, soaring decision for the majority is an honest expression of the deepest and most basic value imbedded in our Constitution: all people should be treated equally. He acknowledged there are disagreements, and he does not seek to abolish debate. But he is quite clear that one group of people may not be denied rights given to others.

The dissents on the high court are fascinating and inevitable in a 5-4 verdict. Chief Justice Roberts writes with some feeling that the issue is not one connected to the Constitution. Justice Scalia writes with vitriol and questions whether or not American is any longer a democracy. Justice Thomas, trying to hard with his limited capabilities, goes all the way back to the Magna Carta to misunderstand history. Discounting the mindsets of Justices Scalia and Thomas, this seems more like a 5-2 verdict with 2 passes. [Those two justices seem determined if not destined to become little more than disgraceful footnotes when the long history of the Supreme Court is written.]

Whatever, same-sex marriage is now the law of this land. I join with millions of people to honor that, with the hope that everyone will observe it with the kind of dignity Justice Kennedy writes of (do read his decision – it is memorable).

Enter Harper Lee – Again

Summer is here, so we all ought to be getting into our summer reading lists. ‘Tis the season for enjoying the books you have either intended to read for the longest time (think Faulkner or Melville, for instance) or have set aside especially for this more relaxed time of the year (think notable “beach book” authors like Stephen King, John Grisham or Janet Evanovich).

Certainly the one book that many readers are eagerly awaiting will hit the stores on July 14. That is, of course, Harper Lee’s greatly anticipated second book “Go Set a Watchman,” the follow-up to her now-classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The new novel has stirred so much attention not merely for the worldwide affection lavished on “Mockingbird” — now 55 years old –but also because it represents the only other book we know she has written.
Everyone wants to know — will it as good as “Mockingbird?” The answer is almost certainly no, nor should anyone reasonably expect it to be at that exalted level. It was, after all, a book the author actually wrote before “Mockingbird” and which she laid aside for extensive revisions that became “Mockingbird.” She did not permit its publication for over half a century, and that has has raised the question in a few quarters that at her advanced age she only reluctantly agreed to release it now. We may never know for sure, but there seems little point in arguing it any further. “Watchman” will be here in several weeks and we will all have a few more answers about it. Reserve your copy now!

And no matter what readers think of it, “Watchman” is certainly revving up business for bookstores around the country. A huge potential bestseller brings lots of readers into stores, and those readers just as often hang around to buy a few more titles while they’re at it. That’s good news for the stores, for the authors and for readers as well.

As for me — well, my summer “to do” list is topped by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” a classic I’ve been meaning to read for decades now. The list also includes some strong nonfiction: A.N. Wilson’s new biography of Queen Victoria (turns out she wasn’t always 80 years old and a dour, stodgy monarch); historian Richard Beeman’s “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution ” (turns out most politicians have no clue as to how our Founding Fathers actually created that document); and “American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II” (turns out FDR was not merely clever but smart and lucky, too).

Hope your summer reading proves as interesting and as challenging.