Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trumpcare Obscenity

Last week occurred one of the most shameful episodes in US politics. Even more troubling than the precipitous firing of an FBI director in the midst of an investigation of people close to the president.

For seven years, Republicans have fumed and ranted over Obamacare, campaigning endlessly with the promise of repealing the groundbreaking health care law. The House of Representatives held some 60 meaningless votes to do just that (meaningless, since they knew that none of those attempts at repeal could survive a veto by President Obama).

Then, with a Republican president (so-called*) finally installed in the White House, GOP lawmakers had their chance. And they blew it. 

First of all, the GOP didn’t have a coherent plan of its own ready to go, even after seven years. At least not one they all agreed on. It’s understandable, of course. They were taken by surprise in November. No one expected Trump to win, and consequently no one expected the Republicans to be forced out of their comfortable role of the opposition party. They didn’t expect to have to step up and actually govern.

Secondly, the plan Paul Ryan, the GOP leader in the House, did slap together after Trump’s surprise win was rushed toward a vote only a month after Trump took office (and just over two weeks after the plan was unveiled). The aim was to pass the bill on the seventh anniversary of Obamacare’s launch. It was a schedule dictated by optics and symbolism, but it meant the plan was only half-baked.

(And compare this to the torturous process of passing Obamacare, which took a full year, dozens of public hearings and much political wrangling. It was a process that conservatives never tire of characterizing as “ramming” a rushed law down the throats of the American people. A year, compared to two weeks.)

Thirdly, the Trumpcare plan was instantly unpopular. A poll showed only 17% of Americans supported it. And for good reason. According the analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP’s “reform” would force some 24 million Americans off insurance. The White House’s own estimates pointed to even higher numbers of people losing their coverage.

No wonder not even House Republicans could agree on the Trumpcare plan, leaving severe doubts that it would pass, even in a House made up of a 44-seat majority of Republicans. Trump tried to force the issue by instructing a now-doubtful Paul Ryan to proceed with the vote regardless. In the end, Trump had to back down and seemingly stopped caring about the bill.

Win one for the Democrats! No vote was taken. The bill died. Except, Trump and the GOP couldn’t bear the publicity that came with the lost. And, needless to say, the bill hadn’t really died. It was only in a coma, an induced coma.

I suspect that Trumpcare was brought out of this coma because Trump started to chafe under the perception, happily foisted by the media, that things weren’t going well for him. The operation of his White House continued to be a farce, and his first 100 days had passed without any significant legislative accomplishments.

Sure, he has signed lots of documents, executive orders, some of which have real effects (for example, allowing the completion of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to proceed), while many of which just stated Trump’s intention of doing something (like repealing Obamacare or building a border wall) but didn't result in any real-world actions by themselves. And sure, he got a conservative added to the Supreme Court after the Republicans had kept the seat open for a full year.

But in terms of actual laws that move forward on some key campaign promises, such as actually building a border wall, the symbolic first 100 days surely had to be a big disappointment for Trump supporters -- if they were honest about it.

To make matters worse, the recent budget passed by the GOP-dominated house lacked many clear-cut victories for Trump, and yet was filled with concessions to Democrats, over which the Dems couldn’t help publicly gloating.

The Democratic gloating was so bad that Trump and the Republicans -- snowflakes that they are -- complained bitterly that the Democrats were “spiking the ball”. And this from the man who celebrated his narrow win in November with an endless series of victory rallies where he did nothing but gloat. What is good for the GOP goose is, apparently, not good for the Democratic gander.

So, perhaps to soothe Trump’s feelings over his lackluster first 100 days and the humiliation of his failed budget, the GOP took another stab at killing Obamacare.

By injecting some amendments to the comatose Trumpcare bill, Paul Ryan and company were able to win over the ultra-conservative “Freedom Caucus” of Republicans who had formed the biggest obstacle to the bill’s first incarnation.

It seems the Freedom Caucus’ biggest objection had been the fact that Trumpcare didn’t remove Obamacare’s requirement to cover certain “essential health benefits”. This has often been a talking point in conservative media, which argues, for example, that middle-age men, in no danger of getting pregnant themselves, shouldn’t have to pay the additional cost for maternity-care coverage. 

The new amendments essentially allow individual states to opt out of this and other provisions of Obamacare, thereby placating the Freedom Caucus, which apparently won’t rest until every person dying without health insurance can die happy in the sweet knowledge that at least they died free. And not a burden to their fellow, freedom-loving, more prosperous Americans. Amen.

With this sweetener added for the Freedom Caucus, the bill passed, but by only four votes. No Democrats voted for it, which makes me wonder about those fashionably cynical folks who love to claim that there are absolutely no differences between the two parties.

This second try at passage was also rushed, this time apparently in order to hold the vote before the House left town for a “spring break” vacation. It’s often claimed these “recesses” are an important chance for the hard-working legislators to spend time in their home districts getting in touch with “the people” and hearing their concerns. Oh boy, do I ever hope they are actually doing that this time. I’m sure those brave enough to hold town hall meetings are getting an earful. We already know that Congressman Raúl Labrador,  a Freedom Caucus member from Idaho, got lambasted by the people in one such town hall after he foolishly claimed "Nobody dies because they don't have access to health care". Obviously, he inhabits a different world than the rest of us. 

So, the House Republicans wasted no time. Pushing the vote through so quickly had the added benefit of not having to hold hearings or giving the CBO time to score the new version. It's much easier to ignore how much worse the bill will be for poor people if you conveniently vote before you find out something unpleasant like that.

And in some sense, it doesn’t matter. Every House Republican can take solace in the fact that the Senate will radically change the law. In fact, some key senators have already said they will write their own bill from scratch, potentially making the horrible House plan marginally less horrible. Even then, it’s far from certain that a kinder, gentler Trumpcare will be able to pass the Senate.

I doubt the House Republicans even care. It seems the important thing was to pass something, anything, giving voters the impression the House had finally done something, not to mention giving so-called* President Trump the appearance of a win. And he grabbed onto that appearance of a win with all the desperation and gusto that he might normally reserve for some random woman’s genitals.

After the vote, the entire GOP caucus was bused over to the White House to celebrate in the Rose Garden like a jubilant fraternity at a keg party. In light of the travesty they had just committed, putting the future of millions of sick Americans in doubt, that display of heartless self-congratulation was simply obscene. There is no other word for it. 

* A "so-called" president in my mind, since Trump applied that label to a sitting federal judge who should be granted at least as much legitimacy for the office he holds as any president who loses the popular vote by some three million.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Language Learning, Or Not So Much

I can’t say I have a head for learning languages. Not by a long shot. That’s unfortunate, since I ended up in a situation where being a fully functioning member of society requires speaking a tongue that is not my own. And to my great shame I still haven’t got the hang of it.

To make matters worse in some sense, I’m surrounded by people who fluently speak at least two languages, sometimes three or even more. It's not at all unusual here. Finland is clearly a polyglot place, very much unlike where I was born.

As a kid growing up in the mountains of rural North Georgia, I probably encountered very few foreign words -- except perhaps, when I think about it, the word ”parfait”. That was the name of an ice-cream treat at the local Dairy Queen. Whether it was actually perfect, I can’t recall. Probably not bad.

In those days, I might have also occasionally run across some non-English words on T.V., though the only example I can be sure of was “Jawohl!” barked out now and then on “Hogan’s Heroes” the 60s situation comedy set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. And I'm sure I sometimes watched Lucille Ball being on the receiving of some choice words from Desi Arnaz in Spanish.

However, my first real exposure to languages other than English probably came in my maternal grandmother’s house, where I spent a decent amount of time as a kid. Grandma Davis had been a school teacher, and most likely had more books than most folks of her generation in my rural county.

One of those books -- in fact, the only one I really remember -- was a specialized dictionary, the Britannica World Language Dictionary, which provided translations of English words in six languages.

The book’s format was simple. On the left side of the page was a column of English words, listed alphabetically. Running from the right of each English word was its equivalent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish. At the time, I was puzzled by Yiddish. I’d never heard of such a language, though I could see it appeared somewhat similar to German.

I remember being fascinated by the dictionary, seeing how you could say something in other languages. I recall in particular encountering the German words weiss and wein and thinking it was cool that by combining them you get “white wine”. As a child, I probably didn’t have any inappropriate thirst for weisswein. Maybe it was just the alliteration that appealed to me.

Maybe because of this early brush with the language, I always somehow felt a desire to learn German. For a long time, it was an unfulfilled desire. I suspect not many American high schools offer classes in German even now, but certainly not in the 70s in the rural Appalachian Mountains.

In any case, the only foreign language taught at my high school was French, which was a recommended subject for students planning to go on to college.

It was an exotic notion to study French, and I was excited to start the class. Even today I can recite (more or less) the first bit of dialogue of Français that we learned.

«Papa, mangeons dans un restaurant ce soir.» «Oui, Papa. Dinons en ville.» «Excellente idée, mais demandez à Maman d'abord.» «Ah, non. Ne parlez pas du restaurants ce soir.» «Pourquoi pas, Maman.» «Le dîner est sur la table.»

“Papa, let’s eat in a restaurant tonight.” “Yes, Papa, let’s eat in town.” “Excellent idea, but ask Mama first.” “Ah, don’t talk about restaurants tonight.” “Why not, Mama?” “Dinner is on the table.”

Unfortunately, after a while, despite a really fine French teacher, my attention span fizzed and my enthusiasm waned. I believe I studied a full three quarters, but ended up not doing so well with the French I took.

I’ve put my high-school French to use only rarely and to doubtful effect. The first time was probably in 1983 when my future wife and checked into a mostly empty campground near the coast of Normandy. Unsure where we could pitch our tent, I inquired of the campground’s matron with a “Où?” She understood well enough to answer -- with a Gallic shrug – by pointing around in different directions. I didn't improve much on that over the years. When we hiked in the Alps a few years ago, my French was no use at all and we had to depend on one of our sons to parle with fellow trekkers.

Anyway, that was French. When I went to the University of Georgia, I finally got my chance to study German. As with French, the first bit of German text we learned persisted in my memory:

„Hallo und guten Tag! Mein Name ist Bill Becker, und ich bin ein Amerikaner aus Chicago. Aber ich bin jetzt in Deutschland. Wo in Deutschland? In Marburg. Ich studiere hier. Was studiere ich? Deutsche: die Sprache und die Kultur.“

“Hello and good day. My name is Bill Becker, and I am an American from Chicago. But now I am in Germany. Where in Germany? In Marburg. I study here. What do I study? German: the language and the culture.”

I used to amuse my kids by reciting that. At least, I thought they were amused.

In the end, I took four quarters of German at UGA (compare this to my wife, who took the pitkä kurssi in German, that is, seven years). One of my teachers was an American with an appearance and vibe creepily similar to the Gestapo agent Toht from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You got the sense that he was drawn to the German language for the wrong reasons.

Another teacher, my favorite, was an East German with an iconic Teutonic name -- which I won’t reveal, since after googling him, I see he’s still teaching in the States. Let’s call him Otto. He was tall, with blond hair and sharp, angular features you find in the villainous German characters typecasted in almost every American war movie.

Since this was 1978, a decade before the Berlin Wall fell and his countrymen could easily travel abroad, I got the impression that Otto came from some privileged, highly placed East German family. He had a slightly imperious air about him. He would sometimes lecture us on the faults of capitalist, and once brought to class a handful of empty food packaging from McDonald’s -- visual aids to berate us with over the wastefulness of the American throw-away society (which, natürlich, was true).

Otto also had a second job teaching at a private school near Atlanta, some 80 miles (130 km) away, and he often complained of getting speeding tickets as he tried to shuttle between the two schools, apparently at Autobahn speeds.

He once taught us how to say, “Step on it, Goddammit” in Norwegian, which seemed slightly sinister to me. He was a character.

I’ve gotten a bit more mileage out of my German. In the past, I sometimes used it as a “secret language” with my wife if we wanted to keep the kids in the dark about what we were discussing. Otherwise, I’ve hardly ever used it with actual Germans, even though I once worked for a half-German company and made regular business trips to München.

At the Baltic port of Travemünde back in the early 80s, as my wife and I waited to get a flat tire repaired at a service station, a man said something to me which I naturally didn’t understand. In response, I said “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” (“I speak no German.“)

He corrected me: “Nein, du sprichst schlecht Deutsch.” (“No, you speak bad German.”) Genau!

So, that was German. When I briefly went back to university to study journalism in the late 80s, I decided to take another stab at language learning, apparently just for the hell of it. In this case, it was Spanish. And it was for one quarter only, so no hablo mucho Español. Obviously.

Even from that single course in Spanish, I came away with one little language artifact. My teacher was a Spaniard, as in from Spain across the ocean -- and this in a hemisphere of almost 420 million native Spanish speakers. Because of her, I learned the Old World Spanish pronunciation of the letter “c” (before “i” or “e”), that is, the Castilian pronouncement. For this reason, I think of Barcelona as “Barthelona”.  

I’m bizarrely proud of this, though that doesn't speak well for my solidarity with my fellow New Worlders in Latin America. As it is, we don’t talk with each other that much anyway.

I’d like to think that if I had remained living in the States, I would have actually learned Spanish. It is, after all, America’s de facto second language.

And then there’s Finnish, which I’ve been struggling to learn for, well, for decades, despite dozens of books and courses and living fulltime in the country where people speak it constantly. I have no excuse other than, as I said, I don’t have a head for languages.

That’s five languages I’ve studied, and still haven’t come close to mastering any of them, except for English – and I may be regressing with that one.

But I'm not stopping, it seems. I’ve now gotten hooked on the online language-learning apt, Duolingo.

I can't be sure how effective Duolingo really is as a learning tool. But its game-like format (with positive reinforcement through "rewards” and triumphant sound effects, and your progress marked by reaching different "levels" and other metrics) makes it a “fun” approach to language study. If nothing else, it’s a decent way to spend time, educational, you might say. And, similar to crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, it’s available for free.

It currently offers English-speakers the chance to learn some 20 languages, mostly European, but also Vietnamese and Swahili. Other courses are under development (“hatching” in Duolingo parlance), including Japanese, Hindi, and...Klingon! Unfortunately, not Finnish. Not yet. Obviously, that’s harder to implement than Klingon.

I started doing occasional Duolingo lessons in German and French three or four years ago, just to brush up on those two. When the long-awaited Russian course was added in late 2015, I begun that one, too. And just recently I started studying the language of another neighboring country, namely Swedish.

It’s true that “studying” these four languages simultaneously may not be wise, especially when I've got much more Finnish still to learn. But that’s the way I do it, generally one lesson of each language every day. The lessons are short, so it usually takes about half-an-hour to do all four. In other words, it doesn’t eat up much of my day.

Am I learning anything? Well, according to Duolingo’s algorithm, I am now 42% fluent in French – my wife often chokes on her café au lait when I boast about this fact.

In German, my fluency is 33% and in Swedish it’s already 27%, although I started it only six months ago. It’s such a damn easy language. So far, Duolingo hasn’t given me a fluency score for Russian (which is NOT an easy language), but that course still seems to be very much a work in progress. It wouldn’t be an impressive score anyway. It’s fair to say I am struggling with Russian. 

But considering my track record with languages, that should come as no surprise.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Helsinki Voted: The Also Rans

I didn’t manage to cover, as I originally planned to do, all the parties involved in the Helsinki city council election, at least not before election day itself, this past Sunday. 

So, for the sake of tying up loose threads, I’m going to briefly mention the seven plus parties that also ran. 

Liberaalipuolue, (The Liberal Party). This is another one of those very minor parties, and a new one. It was registered as a formal party only last year, after existing briefly as an unofficial protest group called the “Whiskey Party”. I’m guessing by its slogan Vapaus valita (“Freedom to Choose”), that it has a libertarian bent. It won no seats on the council. 

The Liberal Party. "Cheaper housing, freer Helsinki."

Itsenäisyyspuolue or IPU, (The Independence Party). Another small, fringe party, whose main program is Finland’s exiting the EU. It won no seats. 

The Independence Party. "Decision-making close, humanity the priority."

Perussuomalaiset, (The True Finns). This party has gained some international attention as one of those rising anti-immigrant, xenophobic, EU-skeptic right-wing parties, like France’s National Front or UKIP. It seems, however, that PS is rising no longer. 

In a US context, PS wouldn’t be seen as so completely right-wing, in the sense that it has no desire to touch Finland’s generous welfare system, a system which any right-thinking American conservatives would recoil at as being “socialist”. PS would probably argue that it’s safeguarding the social welfare system -- by keeping unwanted and undeserving immigrants from accessing it. It may not be a winning argument. 

In the Helsinki city council PS lost two of its previous eight seats. Its municipal support in the country overall dropped by 3.5%, making it this election’s biggest loser. 

True Finns. "Your vote worth it, because of True Finns"

Svenska folkpartiet i Finland, (Swedish People’s Party of Finland). This is the party that has traditionally advocated for the interests of Swedish speakers, Finland largest linguistic minority (about five percent of the country). Other than protecting the official status of the Swedish language in the public sphere, the party has a broadly liberal agenda that no doubt attracts the votes of some non-Swedish speakers. The party retained its five seats (eller, dess fim platser). 

The Swedish People's Party. "Near you in Helsinki."

Suomen Keskusta, (The Central Party of Finland). This is one of the three major parties nationwide, along with Kokoomus and the Social Democrats. It is basically an agrarian party, so naturally its support base is concentrated in the countryside. Urban Helsinki, no so much. The party lost one of the three seats it held in the last council.

Keskusta. "Caregivers in Helsinki."

Kansallinen Kokoomus, (The National Coalition Party). Finland’s pro-business party, which you might think makes it analogous to the American Republicans, or at least old fashioned “Country Club” Republicans. That is, it’s pro-business without the social conservativism and anti-government obsessions of modern-day Republicans. 

Kokoomus gained two seats in Sunday’s elections, strengthening its position as the council’s biggest party with 25 seats. 

Kokoomus. "The makers of Helsinki's future."

Vihreä liitto, (The Green League). The Greens, a well-established, yet relatively young party (30-years-old, this year), was the big winner in the election, increasing its support nationwide by almost 4%, the most of any party, and adding three seats in Helsinki, bringing it to 21. 

It is, naturally enough, a party dedicated to environmental and human-rights issues. 

The Greens. "Together a better Helsinki."

Otherwise in the election, the SDP lost 3 seats, holding its position as the third-biggest party, with 12 seats. Vasemmisto gained one seat, bringing it up to ten. The Feminist party won its first ever seat, as did the Pirate Party. 

The Christian Democrats kept its two seats, though one will now be filled by Keskusta politician Paavo Väyrynen, whom I was earlier shocked to see on the Christian Dems list. I have since learned that Väyrynen joined the CD list after Keskusta refused to allow him to run in his native Lapland. The move seemed to work out for him. 

Parties that won not even a single seat were the marginal leftist parties the Communist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Finland, which lost the one seat it did have. 

Some parties I’d never even heard of, such as the Suomen Eläinoikeuspuolue (Animal Rights Party) and Edistyksellistä Helsinkiä (Progressive Helsinki) also got no seats. 

I’m happy to say voter turnout in my neighborhood was 71.8%, better than the 61.6% for Helsinki overall. We are some politically engaged folks around here! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Not So Marginal Leftists

There are four parties in the Helsinki city council race that can be described as “leftist”. The two that I’ve talked about already I called “marginal”, as in totally insignificant. The remaining two are anything but. 

The biggest of these, the Social Democratic Party of Finland (“Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue”, or SDP) is one of the nation’s three bellwether parties. Of the four presidents who have been in office since I first came to Finland in 1982, three have been Social Democrats, including Finland’s first woman president Tarja Halonen. 

I’ve always imagined the demarit, as they are nicknamed, sit somewhere between capitalism and actual communism, with strongly pro-labor values, but with no intent of imposing on Finland anything like a dictatorship of the proletariat. 

No similar party of any note exists in the US, certainly not the Democrats. Of all America's household-name politicians, only Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders self-identifies as a Social Democrat, which makes him an outlier in American mainstream politics. Here, he’d be the mainstream. 

Until 2004, the SDP was the second biggest party in the Helsinki city council, behind business-friendly Kokoomus. Since then, it’s often come in third place behind the Greens. And so it was in the last election, in which the party won 15 seats (Kokoomus 23 and Greens 19).

This time around it’s fielding 127 candidates. 

The SDP list. "Anna ääni kaupungille!" ("Give a vote to the city!")

To the left of the SDP, but smaller, is the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto), which currently has nine seats in the 85-seat city council. 

The Left Alliance was founded only in 1990 (compared to 1899 for the SDP), and my impression is that it rose from the kind of messy splitting and merging of various leftist parties that leftist parties everywhere seem to be known for. Think of the old Monty Python joke in “The Life of Brian” – where the bitterest enemy of “the People’s Front of Judea” other than the Romans were, naturally, “the Judean People’s Front”, if not "the Popular Front of Judea".  

While a truly “leftist” party, the Left Alliance is not fringe by any means. Its 29-year-old leader, Li Andersson, has been prominently featured on all the public-affairs shows and televised political debates, something the small Communist parties can only dream of. 

The party currently accounts for about 6% of the national parliament, and for a while even occupied a cabinet seat in the government's famous “six-pack” grand coalition a few years back. Chances are that won’t happen again any time soon, but keeping its seats in the Helsinki city council is a much surer bet.

The 127 Vasemmisto candidates for the Helsinki city council. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Marginal Leftists

Not surprisingly for a European country, and you might say especially for one that was on the fringes of the Russian Revolution, leftist politics has a long and storied history in Finland.  

When under threat of arrest in Petrograd in 1917, it was to Finland that Lenin – apparently not a man of great personal courage -- had escaped, living some months underground in Hakaniemi, the traditionally “Red” part of Helsinki.  

In a Hakaniemi bar called Juttutupa, there is still today a table where Lenin and Finnish Bolshevik Otto-Ville Kuusinen used to sit, maybe having a drink or two, but no doubt mostly discussing Marxism and revolution and other such breezy topics. It’s called “The Revolution Table”.  

(On an American-related note, the leader of the Communist Party USA was for some forty years a man named Gus Hall, the son of Finnish immigrants to Minnesota.)  

So, it’s perhaps not shock that there is an assortment of leftist parties to choose from in Finland, though for the most part, their influence has been greatly diminished over the last few decades.  

Two of them could be charitably called “marginal”, at best.  

The Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue or SKP), won only 9 municipal council seats in the 2012 election – in the entire country. One of those was in Helsinki. In this election, they are fielding 53 candidates (including unaffiliated ones) for the Helsinki city council.  

The SKP list. "Helsinkimme ei ole myytävänä" ("Our Helsinki is not for sale")

The Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism (Kommunistinen Työäenpuolue – Rauhan ja Sosialismin puolesta) is even more marginal. In the last election, it didn’t win a single council seat nationwide, and got a total of only 704 votes -- also in the entire country. It has only seven candidates in the Helsinki race.  

The Communist Workers' Party -- For Peace and Socialism.

I don’t have the deep understanding of Marxism (or any for that matter) or patience to tease out what sets these two parties apart. Way too esoteric for me. I also can’t be bothered to contemplate how many angles can dance on the head of a pin.  

In any case, the SKP is described as a Marxist party, while the other one is described as a Marxist-Leninist party. With only 704 votes last year, the extra ingredient of Leninist doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.  

A side note: the term “Leninism” has popped recently in American political discourse, since Donald Trump’s “Senior Counselor”, Steven Bannon, has described himself as a “Leninist” -- in the sense that he wants to blow up the status quo, in particular the “administrative state”. 

Of course, as of this writing, it seems Bannon’s star is falling, so you might say he’s being marginalized.