Where is All This Going?

This is a scary time in the United States as the population struggles with a global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis while the president exacerbates both by promoting policies for an alternate reality. 

Some suggest we are “sleepwalking toward economic catastrophe” (Vox, July 20), approaching a fiscal cliff of serious devastation as pandemic unemployment insurance payments and rent and mortgage forgiveness are ending. 

I’m going to say we can still make a few maneuvers to avoid that cliff. Here are some predictions on how these and other crises will play out over the next year. 

Sept. 29, 2020—Joe Biden emerges from his basement for the first presidential debate at the University of Notre Dame sans sports jacket and reveals that he’s been pumping iron all summer. “What are we doin’ here?” he asks in his opening remarks. “Nobody wants to hear us yakking about policy. Let’s settle this mano a mano. Donald J. Trump, I challenge you to an arm wrestling contest.” Trump accepts. After a TV commercial the match takes place, but the man Biden arm wrestles appears to be Congressional Representative and former college wrestling champion Jim Jordan in orange facial makeup and a clown wig. After deadlocking for 30 seconds, Biden slams Trump/Jordan’s arm to the desk and celebrates his win by shredding a “Make America Great Again” hat with his teeth.

Nov. 5, 2020—Following his overwhelming electoral win, president-elect Joe Biden admits that the coronavirus pandemic was a hoax, concocted by Democrats to defeat Donald Trump. Thousands of the coronavirus “dead” come out of isolation to rejoin their families. The formerly late John Prine charts his first No. 1 single, written during his isolation, offering his humorous yet melancholy social commentary on his near-death experience.

Dec. 25, 2020—Google releases a new app that enables people to change their skin color and accompanying physical characteristics at will to optimize performance in job interviews, dance contests, college admission tests and other endeavors. The Black Lives Matter movement puts all actions on hold while it assesses the app.

Dec. 29, 2020—In Week 16 of the NFL season, the Buffalo Bills defeat the New England Patriots for the second time this fall, 35-14, to retain their perfect 15-0 record. The team’s bid to become only the third undefeated team in NFL history ends that same day, as Covid roster decimation peaks. All remaining games—including Super Bowl LV—are cancelled. 

Jan. 19, 2021—Donald Trump and his family are escorted from the White House by armed members of the U.S. Military after concluding his exit negotiations granting him immunity from prosecution for all crimes he has committed. Iconic video shows Trump riding up the escalator at Trump Tower, perfectly bookending oft-shown video of him riding down the escalator to announce his run for the presidency. 

Jan. 20, 2021—Immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Ruth Bader Ginsburg announces that she died Dec. 21, 2019. Following her announcement, she high fives Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, proclaiming, “Dude! We out-McConnelled McConnell!” 

May 6, 2021—Troubling news from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka moved after months of being refused admission to every club, party and restaurant in the New York Metropolitan area. Kushner is fired from his job as manger of the Subway Restaurant on East 15th Street over accusations of engaging in child pornography. Kushner’s defense: “That was the other Jared.” 

July 4, 2021—Donald J. Trump shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. His lawyers claim immunity from prosecution, but a trial ensues and the former president is sentenced to life in prison. His sentence includes an unusual stipulation that a 24X7 webcam is required to be operational at all times in Trump’s cell. Without makeup and tailored clothing, the camera reveals that Trump’s skin is an ashen grayish-pink, his scalp balding with patchy clumps of thinning white hair and his belly voluminous. He looks old and defeated. 24X7.

Photos at the top of the page, left to right:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, public domain

John Prine, public domain

Joe Biden, public domain

Donald Trump, public domain

Duke_Williams photo by Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37284151

Jared Fogle photo by IlliniGradResearch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7469782

So Congress Broke the Law When It Took Down My Healthcare Insurer

One of the few times in the last two decades when my monthly health insurance payments decreased from year to year was in 2015, when a new kind of health insurer appeared on the Rochester, N.Y. scene. Health Republic was a cooperative health insurance company, reportedly formed by a bunch of freelancers like me who were tired of seeing their health insurance premiums rise by double digits every year. Recognizing an opportunity created under Obamacare, these New York City-based entrepreneurs put their money where their mouth was. 

I was totally sympathetic to their story—a story that would have glazed me over before I became a freelancer. I remember my boss at a small public relations firm complaining about the rising costs of health insurance in the 1980s. I never saw the numbers, never saw what they did to my salary and the company’s expense ledger. It meant nothing to me. 

That changed when I became a freelancer in 1996 and became responsible for my own healthcare insurance. At the time I thought I was fortunate to be in a city President Clinton had held up as a model of how healthcare should be done, and it seemed to work. In the year 2000, I was paying only $163.99 a month for health insurance coverage that required just $15 co-pays for doctor visits.  

But my healthcare heaven soon evaporated. After two decades of increases, many at double-digit percentages, my monthly healthcare bill last year was 2.24 times higher than in 2000, and for that I paid full price on nearly all of my doctor visits. 

Outpacing My Wage Increases

Over that time, my hourly rate increased by much less, just 1.42 percent. Only my property taxes came close to keeping pace with healthcare costs. They doubled. But that’s deceptive. The city services my taxes paid for held steady, while my healthcare insurance now covered mainly my catastrophic needs. An equivalent change from the city might have required me to clear the snow from the city road in front of my house for snowfalls of less than 12 inches. (Don’t get any ideas, Mayor Warren!)

Our savings with Health Republic in 2015 weren’t huge, dropping just $3.33 from $502.62 to $499.29. But when Health Republic was forced to close late in the year, we had to sign up with Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield for December at $602.32 per month, a $100+ increase. 

The reason Health Republic had to liquidate was that the Republican-led Congress refused to allocate the funding the company was owed, as prescribed under Obamacare. The law stated that participating health insurers would receive Federal funding to cover losses when premium payments fell short of medical expenses. (The companies were also required to pay some of any profits they gained to the government.) That law no longer stands, but in those early days, it helped ease health insurance companies into a fledgling market not knowing how many people would sign up. 

This past Monday, April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 that Congress broke the law when its payments to multiple insurers came up $12 billion short. On a court that’s packed with conservatives, many of whom appear to be sympathetic with Republican (and anti-Obamacare) causes, that’s a definitive judgment.  

The Damage Done

This unlawful act resulted in Health Republic and a handful of other newly formed healthcare cooperatives getting less than 13 cents on the dollar of their promised Federal funding, according to an article in The New York Times. Many were forced to cease operation, and they won’t be coming back. Careers were sidetracked, and consumers were harmed, including me, not just because we had to pay higher prices that December, but because we lost a potential source of lower cost healthcare insurance moving forward. 

That was depressing. And it’s a reminder that the current administration didn’t pioneer disregard for the law at the highest levels, nor is it the first to go unpunished for unlawful acts. 

Today, Health Republic can be found at this website, where the company has been reduced to a stark legalese description of its process for liquidation and repayment of creditors. At the time I’m posting this, one FAQ response reads, “It is not yet known how long the liquidation proceeding will last due to, among other things, lack of certainty regarding the timing and amount of potential recoveries by Health Republic from programs established by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.”

I’d like to think that the U.S. Supreme Court decision delivers the certainty that Health Republic has been seeking since 2015, but actually it doesn’t. Now the Mitch McConnell-led Senate must decide whether or not it will abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

Photo of the inside of the Supreme Court by Phil Roeder – Flickr: Supreme Court of the United States, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650356

Another Journey Begins at the Tabard

It was just a coincidence that we stayed in the Tabard Inn in Washington the night before the 2020 Women’s March. A Middle Ages hostelry by that same name in Southwark, London was a popular starting point for pilgrimages to Canterbury and was indeed the starting point for the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales

And as in Chaucer’s story, our weekend was organized around meeting with people who told us their tales—in this case, old friends and relatives. A Friday dinner with cousins in Gettysburg, a pre-march breakfast with another cousin, a post-march late lunch with friends from upstate New York and then drinks with other friends from Baltimore—closing it out Sunday meeting a nephew for brunch. If our friend Steve Miller had made it, we would have even had a Miller’s Tale. 

Sandwiched in between was the march, an upbeat gathering that mostly distracted us from the chilly, sometimes drizzly weather that day. I had an SLR camera around my neck, an iPhone in my pocket and a sign in my hand, juggling between documenter and participant—a common approach in this march. 

Here’s a taste of the Women’s March in Washington, Jan. 18, 2020.
OMG—it’s Tracey!

Our biggest surprise came right off the bat, while milling about prior to the march. I moved in to photograph an eye-catching sign, when the person holding it called my name. It was Tracey Stamatel, our friend from Glens Falls, who is married to Tom, one of my best friends from high school. We shared our astonishment at happenstance and agreed to meet for a late lunch. 

We carried pretty great signs designed by my wife, Claire, and people often stopped us to take a photo. You know, like we were celebrities. One side of my sign depicted the president as Ronald McDonald, standing under a sign designed to look like the familiar restaurant’s, but phrased, “Donald’s, more than 15,000 lies told.” It was especially popular when we stopped in front of a McDonald’s Restaurant along the route. 

That’s Claire with two of the signs she designed, in front of a McDonald’s.

Many signs, chants and drumbeats later, the progression emptied into Lafayette Square across the street from the White House, and the marchers transitioned back to tourists and residents. They (and we) posed for photos holding their signs with the White House as a backdrop, engaged with the more hard core protesters who camp out in the park, and listened to a group of eccentrically dressed singers belt out popular songs that were refreshed with anti-Trump lyrics.

I didn’t catch the name of this a cappella group in Washington’s Lafayette Square singing popular songs with lyrics altered to remind us that Donald Trump is still the president.

Some marchers continued on to the Trump International Hotel, where loud chants like, “Lock him up,” rose up occasionally. Here I saw the only aggressive anti-march actions I encountered. (A number of anti-abortion protesters appeared along the route, but either protested silently or with the sort of non-stop, mindless preaching that is easy to ignore.) Here at the Trump Hotel, an anti-protestor was video recording, and when I caught up with him, a woman was telling him not to use the interview he’d apparently done with a 15 year-old girl (her daughter?). He was loudly and gleefully calling her a “retard,” insisting that he had the right to use any footage he shot in a public place. He seemed to enjoy flaunting the boorish behavior our president often employs. A number of people came to the woman’s defense, and we moved on. 

Not long after that we abandoned the dwindling masses and took a cab to our afternoon lunch. The march we’d made didn’t feel as bold as the one in 2017, when so many came out so soon after the president’s inauguration. This year, the president was to be called out officially in an impeachment trial just a few days after the event. And come November, he’ll be tested again by a general election. With those dates inked on the calendar, the 2020 Women’s March felt more like what Chaucer might have called a prologue. 

Setting Our New Raccoon Trap

A few days ago I bought a raccoon trap at a farm-supply store in rural Ontario County, where I stood in the line for the cashier behind a man wearing a bright red Make America Great Again hat. 

I was a little surprised as I stepped into the line to suddenly and reflexively feel revulsion toward this otherwise anonymous man. 

It reminded me of the time I was at a Woman’s World Cup soccer game between Germany and Norway in Ottawa, Canada, and I felt a sudden chill when a group of Germans sitting near us sang in out unison about Deutschland. No doubt I was flashing back to World War II films about Hitler, but my involuntary response made me feel a little sheepish. German fans were simply chanting the name of their team, as every national did at the World Cup. I knew that, but my subconscious mind evidently didn’t. Hmm.

The involuntary MAGA hat response, on the other hand, was to something that’s  current, a sign that my Trump revulsion is now hard wired. And I suppose it is. I find nothing persuasive in the “don’t impeach” arguments, no sympathy for supporting a president who digs in his heels while openly flaunting his corruption.

I want to believe he’s digging his heels into sand. But he’s not. The people wearing the MAGA hats are his bedrock, the foundation upon which he stands and from which he pushes back against perceived threats, which often are simply facts and truth. 

Still my revulsion to the man in the MAGA hat is a projection. Maybe he was wearing this hat because his usual John Deere cap got ripped in the shredder. Maybe he’s just a guy who’s tired of our stiff and bureaucratic government and gets a kick out of seeing someone make them uncomfortable. Maybe he’s not really paying attention to the news at all. 

I can relate to that. But whatever his reason for wearing the hat, I hope he awakens to our circumstances soon, because something is shifting beneath our feet. We just don’t know yet whether it’s sand or bedrock. 

In any event, I’ve got a trap now, and I’m determined to catch that varmint.