Sunday, April 16, 2017

Remembering Fred Borsch


I was saddened to read of the passing of Fred Borsch, whose mark left on the world is beautifully described in this LA Times obituary. I loved the story of him bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury into one of LA's sketchiest neighborhoods to give him a new perspective. I was acquainted with Rev. Borsch at Princeton, where he was the Dean of the Chapel when I studied there in the early 1980s, and his son Ben was a classmate. He was a kind, gentle-spoken man who did indeed ask people to call him Fred. If you picture someone like Father Mulcahy on the old MASH TV series, you wouldn't be far off. But I think he made a mark wherever he went. I will always be grateful that, under the sponsorship of the Borsch's Office of the Chapel, a space in the basement of Murray-Dodge Hall was set up to create a café, where tea and fresh baked goods and occasional live music were on offer, but more importantly, an alternative social space for people who for various reasons didn't entirely fit into Princeton's regular social scene. That doesn't sound like any big thing today, but it's hard to project ourselves back to a time before there was any Starbucks, before there was a ubiquitous Internet, and before Princeton had a Gay and Lesbian Center (actually before Princeton even had a real student center at all). Back then, that café was a haven for, among others, a whole circle of students tiptoeing to terms with their homosexuality. It was quietly subversive and essential. And looking back, I think that Borsch probably understood that even better than I did at the time.

Flash forward 20 years to 2001, and I just missed meeting Borsch again, although I discovered his handprints when I moved to Echo Park, a now trendy but then rather edgy barrio near downtown Los Angeles. As an Angeleno, I had been well aware of the construction in the 1990s of the controversial Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, a dramatic modernist architectural landmark. But it wasn't until I moved to Echo Park that I became aware of the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul, also constructed in the 1990s, a modest set of buildings that wouldn't draw particular attention to drivers-by let alone international tourists. I think the Catholic and the Episcopal churches both have strong traditions of "high church" majesty as well as social justice. But I find it emblematic that while then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Mahoney was building his grand edifice on the hill downtown, Archbishop Borsch was rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting to work in the barrio. I've been to services in both places, and there's no question which one feels more warm and welcoming to me.

The world is a notably better place for Fred Borsch having been in it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Is Not Fake News, The President Really Did This, And It's Outrageous

This is NOT fake news, it really happened, and it is appalling. The President has signed several acts into law. One of them, recognizing that immigrant citizens more often vote for the opposition party, makes it much more difficult to become naturalized. Another, aimed at the potential danger posed by immigrants, gives the President sweeping power to incarcerate or deport any non-citizen that the President deems "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". The last and most alarming one curtails the rights of American citizens by prohibiting assembly "of the people with any intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States" and making it a crime to "write, print, utter, or publish" any "false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States". That last law, which makes criticizing the government a crime punishable by fines and jail time, was written to be used against the press, which the President has declared to be the "enemy of the American people".

This is not fake news, it is real. Real history. The president who signed these laws was John Adams, and this actually happened in 1798. But the parallels to today are both frightening and instructive. The Federalists (the conservative party of their day, lead by Hamilton) were in control of Congress, and the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Jefferson and later Jackson) were on the outs. Adams was despised by Jefferson's party, and had an uneasy relationship with his own party from whom he was independent and considered a bit unpredictable. Newspapers were highly politicized, with right-wing news and left-wing news furiously putting their spin on events, and there was a fair amount of "fake news" flying around. Politicians considered newspapers to be patriots or traitors, depending on which politician and which newspaper. The Federalists were pushing for war with France, seeing the French Revolution as a sheer terror, while the Democratic-Republicans saw the French Revolution as the people rightfully rising up to overthrow a tyrannical aristocracy and monarchy. There was a great fear of immigrants from France in America, and the influence they could have on our own young country. It was in this context that the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts came into being. Under the Sedition Act, a number of prominent left-wing publishers and even one Congressman were fined and jailed. (Alas, the notion of going to court to challenge the constitutionality of a law hadn't yet been invented.)

The Sedition Act had a sunset clause and was allowed to expire in 1800. However, in the fever pitch of World War I, another Sedition Act was made law in 1918, making it a crime to use any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the US Government, its flag, or its armed forces. The act was used against a number of party leaders and labor leaders before it was repealed in 1920. One piece of the 1798 legislation, the Alien Enemies Act, still remains on the books today. This was used as the basis of authority for the notorious Executive Order 9066 in 1942, ordering the internment of Japanese-American citizens. (That happened 75 years ago today.)

The original Alien and Sedition Acts and their subsequent reincarnations are generally considered shameful black marks in our history, overreactions to fear. It should be clear to any good student of history that we are on this same path yet again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Keeping Terrorism In Perspective


It is our human nature to be poor judges of relative risk. Something in our instinct gives way too much signficance to rare extraordinary events. We have all met people who are afraid of air travel, terrified at the prospect of a plane crash. This is a sympathetic but completely irrational fear. The odds of dying in a plane crash are vanishingly small. In 2013, 3 billion passengers flew in planes and 210 people died in plane crashes. Fewer people die in plane crashes than are struck by lightning. In contrast, over a million people died in motor vehicle accidents. And ironically, nearly all of those afraid of flying don't think twice about getting into a car. It is a quirk of our brains that our "gut reaction" to the relative danger of flying versus driving is wildly out of proportion. The same is true for our gut reaction to terrorism. Since 9/11, terrorism has claimed the lives of an average of 18 Americans per year. While each and every death is regretable, when making public policy, it is imperative to keep things in proper perspective. Death by terrorist attack is significantly less likely than being killed by lightning strike, and as has been wryly observed, more Americans are killed by toddlers with firearms than are killed by terrorists. While we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously, we also need to avoid the trap of being overtaken by fear. Indeed, stoking our fear is the goal of terrorists, and ultimately their most powerful weapon. If the terrorists inspire us to incur undue costs, burdens, and limitations, then they will have won.


I am not advocating that we abandon counterterrorism measures altogether. But I do advocate two things: First, let's take a deep breath and keep terrorism in perspective, and second, when we do address terrorism, let us assess the effectiveness and the cost/benefit of the measures we take. For keeping proper perspective, we should keep in front of us the relative risk of what we are addressing. Consider: 18 Americans die per year on average due to terrorism, while 990 Americans were shot by police officers in 2015. About 1100 Americans die from extreme heat or cold each year, over 11,000 Americans were killed by firearms (not counting suicides, which add about twice as many more), 147,000 Americans died of chronic lower respiratory disease (mostly tobacco-related), an estimated 250,000 Americans died from medical errors, and over 600,000 Americans died of heart disease. While mortality is not the only dimension that should be considered, these proportions are worth keeping in mind when we make policy decisions about how much money our nation should spend addressing each problem.

We need to be asking questions such as "is it worthwhile to spend $1.2 billion per year to operate body scanners at airports?" A 2011 assessment of risks, benefits, and costs of homeland security measures published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs argued that "a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways." What's worse, they note that some counterterrorism measures may actually claim more lives than they save: "Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year." Fifteen years after 9/11, we need to take a hard look at risks, costs, and benefits.

When we do decide to invest in counterterrorism measures, it is important that we look to the data to guide rational decisions about which measures to take. At the moment, focus on radical Islam is sucking up all the oxygen in the room. But is that even the right focus? In the 15 years since 9/11, America has suffered 277 killings from 120 extremist events. The majority of those deaths (158 / 57%) and events (89 / 74%) were perpetrated not by Islamist extremists, but by far right extremists, like the Charleston church massacre, the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, and the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting. Why doesn't the White House give us a list of those events? Even if we think that jihadist terrorism deserves special importance, why scapegoat immigrants? If we look at all of those who committed domestic jihadist terrorist acts since 9/11, the vast majority (84%) were US citizens or permanent residents, with the majority of them being native born citizens. And if you look at those who actually committed deadly attacks, they were entirely US citizens or permanent residents, not a single refugee among them. Even if you look to the countries where these terrorists' parents came from, you don't find the "usual suspects". As has been widely noted, not a single deadly attacker since 9/11 has come (or even had their parents come) from any of the seven countries targeted by the recent executive order. Looking at the data, it's hard not to conclude that the executive order is utterly misguided pandering to fear. What's worse is that the scapegoating of immigrant communities will actually hinder our ability to prevent attacks in the future. The most successful prevention of jihadist attacks has proceeded from intelligence provided by informants in ethnic communities who share the language and the culture and are in the best position to provide valuable information. If we continue on a path of baseless demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, we will alienate the trust and good will of the people we need most to help keep us safe.

As a school boy I first learned the famous FDR saying "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", but it is only in the past year that I have truly come to appreciate what he meant. Our nation is at a crucial juncture where we must decide whether we will be a nation of facts or a nation of fear. Our finest leaders have always been the ones who have appealed to our highest ideals, not those who appeal to our basest instincts. Osama bin Laden's goal with the 9/11 attacks was to inspire such fear in the American people that we would bankrupt ourselves in expensive and productivity-choking extraordinary measures, and that fear would drive us to surrender our freedoms for "security", and to abandon our prosperity by retreating behind walls. After 15 years and bin Laden's death, for the first time I worry that he may yet succeed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Action Report: Stop Trump's #SwampCabinet Rally

Over 200 people turned out at noon today for a "Stop the #SwampCabinet" rally in front of Senator Feinstein's West LA office. It was encouraging to see such a good turnout in the middle of a weekday. The crowd and its signs were very visible on the busy corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica Blvd, and many cars honked their horns in support as they passed. News cameras were there and they interviewed a few people. The theme of the rally was opposition to Trump's cabinet nominees, an unprecedented parade of unqualified, extreme, conflict-of-interest ridden, big-money donor, all-white, mostly-male billionaires. This is not draining the swamp, as Trump promised, nor championing the working people. In addition to the prevalent official "Stop Trump's #SwampCabinet" signs, there were a great array of handmade signs for the occasion, as well as a Trump piñata. (Among my favorite signs: "Betsy DeVos is more dangerous for our children than grizzly bears" and "I (heart) facts".) The organizers collected signatures, as well as letters to the senator that many had brought, and were going to bring them to a 1pm meeting with the Senator's staff. While we were at the rally, we got the word that Senator Feinstein had requested a one week delay in the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, which was scheduled for today. In her remarks requesting the postponement, she talked about the impression that the Women's March had made on her. Let's keep that feeling up, and give her the courage to vote NO to this #SwampCabinet! (See photos from the rally.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

ACA: The Dog Caught The Car

Like a dog chasing a car, the GOP has been barking about repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or "ObamaCare") for years, but now that the dog has caught the car, the Republicans have no idea what to do. They don't know how to repeal the ACA, and moreover, they don't even really know why they want to repeal the ACA. Do they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? Or do they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to have lifetime caps? ("Sorry you need that life-saving medicine, but you've hit a lifetime cap so we're not going to pay for it anymore.") Maybe it's the part about allowing parents to cover their children up to age 26 that they want to eliminate? Or maybe they want to go back to the Medicare "donut hole", so that seniors might be on the hook for thousands of dollars in medication costs? Do they hate that more than 20 million people who previously couldn't obtain insurance now have coverage? Or that states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars in uncompensated care because fewer uninsured people are using emergency rooms as last resorts? Maybe they don't like the primary care coverage, which helps reduce costs in the long run? Or maybe they don't like the mental health and substance abuse treatment coverage, that allows people to get into rehab programs rather than just showing up at the hospital when they overdose. (And note to the smug morally superior folks who might think substance abuse is a problem for "those other people": google "opioid epidemic".) Pretty much every feature of ObamaCare is popular when people are surveyed about it. When it comes down to it, the only thing people truly hate about ObamaCare is the name. Here's a pro tip for members of Congress: Americans don't really hate ObamaCare, what they really hate is disruption in their health care. If over 20 million people lose their insurance because the ACA is repealed, and if millions more lose benefits they currently have from the ACA, those people are going to blame this Congress. You break it, you own it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Highlights of President Trump's Inaugural Address (Annotated)


  • "The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world" (by my Treasury nominee)
  • "Americans want great schools for their children" (but my Sec Education nominee will dismantle them)
  • "Every decision ... will be made to benefit American workers and American families" (as my Sec Labor nominee takes away worker protections)
  • "there is no room for prejudice" (so my Attorney General will make sure that minorities access to vote is unprotected)
  • "We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world" (well Russia anyway; China, Europe, and others not so much)
  • "Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength" (because tariffs worked out so well in the 1930s)
  • "our government is controlled by the people" (by a minority of people in carefully gerrymandered districts)
  • "And now we are looking only to the future" (but willfully ignoring the environmental cataclism predicted by our scientists)
  • "Every decision on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and families" (but my Sec State will focus on benefit to Exxon)
  • "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow" (like coal, Arctic oil)
  • "there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land" (so my 1st act: raise mortgage costs for struggling families)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Action Report: Congressman Schiff Forum on ACA

Congressman Adam Schiff (CA-28) held a forum on the Affordable Care Act at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. The auditorium held a couple hundred people, but it was packed and they had to use an overflow room. Schiff headed a panel that also included leaders from Healthcare Access California, Planned Parenthood, and the LGBT Center. Several people shared their stories of how the ACA has benefitted them. Many moving stories about the barbaric pre-ACA days of pre-existing conditions and lifetime limits. One person talked about losing their job and their coverage at age 60, just a few years shy of Medicare eligibility, and trying to find coverage on the independent market before ACA. "When you're 60 years old, you are a pre-existing condition." The forum included time for audience questions. One of the interesting questions asked was what can people in "blue" states do? Schiff said that we should reach out to our friends and family in other states, and we should support organizations with national reach. He reminded that not only do we need citizens to lobby GOP members of Congress, but it is important to strengthen and encourage Democratic senators from states that aren't quite as deep blue as ours. Someone else asked if Schiff would give up his own health insurance if the ACA was repealed. He answered that he would lose his coverage like everyone else on an ACA plan, because he buys his insurance through the Covered California ACA exchange. Another person asked if they should be worried about Medicare. Schiff replied that the ACA had taken several steps to strengthen Medicare, both in terms of benefits (e.g., closing the prescription coverage "donut hole") and in making the program more fiscally sound by effectively slowing the growth of costs. He also noted that repeal of the ACA would add significant costs to the federal budget, and normally the Republicans have always insisted on having the CBO score the "budgetary impact" of every piece of legislation, but they passed a rule to exempt ACA repeal from CBO fiscal impact analysis. They want to sweep the costs of repeal under the rug. (See photos from the forum.)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Action Report: Our First Stand Rally

It was energizing this afternoon to join a large crowd who rallied at the LA County / USC Medical Center for #OurFirstStand to save our healthcare. The rally was well-organized and had a number of good speakers on the theme. Dan Castillo, CEO of the LAC+USC Medical Center, observed that thanks to ACA, the number of uninsured patients coming into their system has dropped from 16% to 2-4%. Mitch Katz, director of LA County Healthcare said that 1.2 million LA County residents had gained coverage under the ACA, while SEIU Local 721 leader Bob Schoonover noted that 63,000 jobs had been created. (It was good to see the "boss" and the union leader speaking side by side on this issue.) Dr. Ronald Brown, the chief resident of psychiatry, spoke about how helpful the ACA's provisions for mental health and substance abuse care have been in helping people with those issues get effective solutions, who in the past would be repeat clients at the emergency room for their symptoms but never getting their root cause problems solved. A couple of individuals spoke about how the ACA has been a lifesaver for them. One was a self-employed insurance broker who had a major medical issue, the other was a daycare provider with a chronic thyroid "pre-existing condition". These woman ran small businesses, the sort where most of our economic growth comes from, and the sort that helping should be a bipartisan issue. They spoke about how the ACA helped keep them on their feet, able to work and to keep their families together, against forces that before the ACA would have been crushing. (See photos from rally.)