Simple and Wrong

Americans like to believe the world isn’t that complicated, perhaps out of fear that it really is frustratingly compacted, or anger that it is so damned complicated and that’s just not fair. It shouldn’t be that way. Donald Trump says it isn’t. People are so stupid. The simple answers are out there. He has them, but there’s nothing new there. That notion is embedded in our culture, in that song Simple Gifts – that Shaker song written and composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett. Of course no one knew of it until Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring – first performed in 1944, when things really were simple. There were the good guys and the bad guys. We were the good guys. The Nazis and Japs were the bad guys. We win. They lose. The world isn’t that complicated.

Copland later arranged the tune for voice and piano, which he later orchestrated, and by the middle of the fifties everyone knew the words – ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

That was comforting as the Cold War deepened and somehow we found ourselves in Korea, of all places. Think of it as an alternative national anthem, with an alternative national motto – not “In God We Trust” but “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

That angry motto works too. Bosses shout that to subordinates. Political consultants shout that to politicians. Teachers don’t shout that to their students, but perhaps high school and college aren’t real life. In real life everyone learns – say something is more complicated than it seems and get slapped down and shamed. That’s embedded in our culture. There was no way Hillary Clinton was going to win that election. She didn’t keep it simple. Donald Trump did.

This may have gotten out of hand. Thomas Nichols argues that in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University, and he used to teach international relations and Russian affairs at Dartmouth and Georgetown, and he has worked as a defense and security affairs staffer in the Senate, so his frustration is understandable. Cab drivers tell him they know as much about any of this stuff as he does, and that their opinions are as good as his – but his new book isn’t personal. He’s worried about the country. It’s not a gift to be simple. It could get us all killed, although his book is not about Donald Trump. His book is about America now unable to figure things out, because anyone can claim to be an expert, and does, angrily. Okay, maybe his book is about Donald Trump.

This book won’t be a bestseller – it’s no more than elitist snobbery – and there’s nothing new here.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” ~ H. L. Mencken

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” ~ Donald Trump, Monday, February 27, 2017

Everybody else knew, but there was this:

President Donald Trump noted with some exasperation Monday the complexity of the nation’s health laws, which he’s vowed to reform as part of a bid to scrap Obamacare.

“We have come up with a solution that’s really, really I think very good,” Trump said at a meeting of the nation’s governors at the White House.

“Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he added. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Meanwhile, down the street:

Trump was speaking as Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to work toward developing a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era law which they argue is too costly and complicated. Trump has not yet gotten behind a GOP replacement measure, however, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were hoping to convince Trump to support it during a meeting later Monday.

And back at the White House:

During a meeting with health insurers, Trump said a replacement plan would be unveiled soon.

“We have a plan that I think is going to be fantastic. It’s going to be released fairly soon,” Trump said Monday. “I think it’s going to be something special … I think you’re going to like what you hear.”

But he told the CEOs that if the plan doesn’t accomplish his goals, they’d face his ire.

“If things don’t work out I’m blaming you anyway,” he said.

Perhaps that was a joke. It probably wasn’t. He’s hitting the wall on this, and Jonathan Chait explains why:

Health-care reform is extremely complicated even under the best of circumstances. But when you combine the inherent complexities of the subject with the ideological rigidities of the conservative movement, the problem goes from hard to prohibitively impossible. Providing access to medical care to the tens of millions of Americans, who can’t afford it on their own, because they’re too poor or too sick, is arithmetically futile if you’re bound by a dogma that opposes redistribution from the rich and healthy to the poor and sick.

Some things cannot be done, and all you can do is squirm:

House Republicans have decided to resolve the contradiction between party dogma and the promise not to harm the public in favor of the former. A study prepared by the National Governors Association, and which leaked to the media Saturday evening, finds that the House Republicans leadership’s formative plan to replace Obamacare will deprive millions of people of their insurance. The Wall Street Journal reports that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, lacking the votes for a plan that would create massive humanitarian and economic damage to the health-care sector and millions of voters who would lose their access to care, want to just push the bill ahead anyway. Their purported calculation is that they can force wavering Republicans to go along with the bill for fear of betraying the noble cause of Obamacare repeal that has animated the base for years. “You’re a Republican, you’ve been running to repeal Obamacare, they put a repeal bill in front of you … Are you going to be the Republican senator who prevents Obamacare repeal from being sent to a Republican president who is willing to sign it?” said Doug Badger, a longtime Republican leadership health-policy adviser, tells the Journal.

So the sides line up:

Juliet Eilperin and Amy Goldstein report that many of the most orthodox members of Trump’s administration, including Mike Pence, who is close to Paul Ryan, side with this strategy. On the other hand, they report, numerous Trump advisers are concerned about the political fallout of blowing up the health-care system. These advisers include Jared Kushner, NEC [National Economic Council] director Gary Cohn, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

And the reason they fear that is that Trump did not just run on repeal. He ran for president making irreconcilable promises on health care. To win support from voters, he promised “terrific” insurance that would “take care of everybody.” But to remain acceptable to Republican elites, he avoided embracing any policies that would violate party dogma against tax increases. The actual details of his health-care plan were fuzzy and usually ignored, but to the extent they existed at all, they consisted mainly of warmed-over conservative platitudes that would mostly resemble the old, pre-Obamacare system and do little or nothing to cover the uninsurable.

So we have what Nichols would call a man of narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism:

Trump held together the contradiction by simply pretending the solution would reveal itself over time and would be extremely easy. Quite likely Trump believed this himself – as a committed nonreader, and a narcissistic devotee of his own negotiating prowess, he surely believed that he could broker a deal that would satisfy both the moral objective of universal coverage and the specific ideological hang-ups that had prevented his party from ever supporting a plan that would accomplish it in the past.

But it seems that the death of expertise does matter after all:

The only thing that held Trump’s position together was a refusal to engage with the substance of the issue, and a magical belief that it could all be waved away. At best, he will keep either his promise to the Republican elite or his promise to the electorate. At worst he will keep neither. His offhand comment that the issue is hard is a window into the mind of a man who realizes the jig is almost up.

The Wall Street Journal did report that repeal-and-delay is back:

Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.

Party leaders are poised to act on the strategy as early as this week, after it has become obvious they can’t craft a proposal that will carry an easy majority in either chamber. Lawmakers return to Washington Monday after a week of raucous town halls in their districts that amplified pressure on Republicans to forge ahead with their health-care plans.

Republican leaders pursuing the “now or never” approach see it as their best chance to break through irreconcilable demands by Republican centrists and conservatives over issues ranging from tax credits to the future of Medicaid.

Kevin Drum sees their special problem:

There you have it. It “has become obvious” they can’t craft a decent replacement plan now, so instead they’re going to try to convince everyone that they can craft a replacement plan later. This is obvious nonsense, but they’re just going to bull ahead and dare anyone to stop them.

This is extremely high-risk-high-reward. First of all, they might just lose. All it takes is three defections in the Senate. Second, they can’t repeal everything, and a partial repeal will send the individual insurance market into chaos. Third, President Trump has already gone on record opposing this strategy, and he’s not a guy who likes to publicly back down. And fourth, they’re leaving themselves open for the mother of all Democratic attacks. I don’t think Democrats are nearly as divided as the press would have us believe, but if Republicans go ahead with this plan  it will unite the party instantly. Politically, it would be a godsend for Democrats.

These guys didn’t know that health care could be so complicated either:

The desperation Republicans are showing here is remarkable. They are all but admitting that they flatly can’t pass a health care plan that’s worth the paper it’s printed on. This is not an auspicious start to their plan to show the country just how great things can be if they’d just put the GOP in charge once and for all.

And this isn’t going to work anyway:

The chairman of a group of House conservatives known for causing GOP leadership problems is already resisting Obamacare replacement proposals surfaced in leaked Republican draft legislation.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who heads the House Freedom Caucus, told CNN Monday he would vote against a bill that looked like the leaked draft, and that other conservatives had similar concerns about the proposals’ tax credits for individual insurance as well as its tax on the most generous employer-based plans.

“What is conservative about a new entitlement program and a new tax increase? And should that be the first thing that the President signs of significance that we sent to the new President?” Meadows said “A new Republican president signs a new entitlement and a new tax increase as his first major piece of legislation? I don’t know how you support that – do you?”

There’s only one way out of this. Talk and talk and talk, and let Obamacare continue as is – with a few minor adjustments to fix this and that, done with no one talking about those adjustments much at all – until everyone is tired of all the talk and moves on to other things. No one knew that health care could be so complicated, so don’t mess with it. Find something simple to rant about.

Donald Trump moved on to proposing something bold and simple:

President Trump will propose a federal budget that would significantly increase defense-related spending by $54 billion while cutting other federal agencies by the same amount, an administration official said.

The proposal represents a major increase in federal spending related to national security, while other priorities, especially foreign aid, would face massive reductions.

According to the White House, the defense budget would increase by 10 percent. Trump also will request $30 billion in supplementary military spending for fiscal 2017, an administration official said.

But without providing specifics, the administration said that most other discretionary spending programs would be cut to pay for it. Officials singled out foreign aid, one of the smallest parts of the federal budget, saying it would face “large reductions” in spending.

This was very, very simple:

In a statement at the White House on Monday morning, Trump said that his budget would put “America first” by focusing on defense, law enforcement and veterans using money previously spent abroad.

“We are going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” he said. “We can do so much more with the money we spend.”

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong:

More than 120 retired generals and admirals signed a letter Monday pushing back on the White House’s proposal to make major cuts to diplomacy and development.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, and retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander, are among the former three- and four-star generals who wrote that State Department funding is “critical to keeping America safe.” They sent the letter to congressional leaders, two Cabinet officials and the White House national security adviser.

President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal would increase military spending by about $54 billion dollars, with administration officials telling CNN they would cut funding elsewhere by a similar amount this year, in large part by targeting the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.

“The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way,” the generals wrote.

It seems that those with expertise do fight back:

Foreign aid makes up about 1% of the federal budget and is seen by most military and foreign policy experts as an excellent investment in US national security interests.

“We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola,” the generals wrote.

And there’s this:

President Trump’s first budget may eliminate special envoy positions at the State Department for combating anti-Semitism, according to a new report.

Trump’s plan may also cut the agency’s diplomatic staff dedicated to addressing climate change and conducting outreach to Muslim communities, Bloomberg said Monday.

Bloomberg said it confirmed the possibility with people familiar with the Trump’s administration’s plans for State.

That fits with the simple disguised Muslim ban, that got complicated with the courts asking questions about the details, and anti-Semitism doesn’t seem much of a concern to this administration, with another Jewish cemetery desecrated and a new nationwide wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and schools – and no comment from the White House. The White House wants more money for the military. That’s it. It’s quite simple. It’s an extra fifty-four billion dollars.

Fred Kaplan thinks this is absurd:

This is a staggering sum of money. Not since Ronald Reagan’s first year as president has the United States increased defense spending by 10 percent, and that was during a high point in the Cold War, when Soviet and American tanks faced off across the East and West German border, when both sides had massive air and naval forces, and when the nuclear arms race approached full gallop. (Even so, Reagan backed off to increases of around 3 percent in the subsequent years of his presidency.)

It’s not even clear how the military would spend such a hefty bonus. The wars we’re fighting now don’t require huge, expensive weapons systems. President Obama’s last budget, which the Pentagon is spending now, allotted $7.5 billion for the war against ISIS, $6.7 billion for cyber defenses, and $1.2 billion for counterterrorist drone operations. Double all that, and you’ve spent an extra $15.4 billion, less than one-third of Trump’s increase.

Once again, things are more complicated than they seem:

If Trump thinks we’re headed for a revival of major wars, with tank battles and air-combat duels and naval skirmishes, extra money will get him only so far. That same Obama budget earmarked $27 billion for warships, $45 billion for combat planes, $8 billion for missile defense, and $30 billion for maintaining and modernizing the nuclear arsenal. You can build new ships, planes, missiles, and submarines only so quickly – and how many more of those things does the nation need to meet the threats?

His premise is that the nation’s defenses are “depleted,” and he’s simply wrong. Obama’s final Defense Department budget was $583 billion. (This is the baseline for Trump’s $54 billion increase, which amounts to a 9.2 percent increase, close to the advertised 10 percent.) Add to this the $18 billion for the Energy Department’s nuclear program, and that makes a total “National Defense” budget (as the Office of Management and Budget calls it) of $608 billion. This is the largest U.S. military budget in the post–9/11 era. In fact, adjusting for inflation, it’s as large as any budget since the peak of Reagan’s era. If there were deficiencies in Obama’s war policies, they did not stem from a shortage of weapons or manpower.

In fact, it’s not a gift to be simple:

Many Republicans – including Trump – like to say that the nation has fewer planes and ships than at any time since the end of World War II or since some other signpost from the distant past. Assuming the numbers are accurate, they’re irrelevant. The firepower of a single aircraft carrier dwarfs the entire fleet of any nation from earlier eras. No generals or admirals would say they’d trade the force of today with that of any yesteryear.

One might argue that the military needs more weapons of specific types to meet rising threats of a certain sort. If so, then the question isn’t how much to spend but what to buy. Trump’s directive spells out no such details. Those will be filled in and hammered out later by the Office of Management and Budget, the comptrollers of the various departments, and the relevant committees in Congress. Meanwhile, simply throwing money at the Pentagon won’t necessarily solve the problems, especially if it means taking money away from other buildings in town.

Someone needs to intervene:

I hope this is what Secretary of Defense James Mattis tells his president. When Mattis was a four-star Marine general in charge of U.S. Central Command, he told a congressional committee, “If you cut the State Department’s budget, then you need to buy me more bullets.” In other words, defunding diplomacy makes war more likely. Trump might respond by invoking the Reagan-era slogan “peace through strength.” Mattis would agree, but he subscribes to a broader concept of strength that goes beyond merely military might. Certainly he wouldn’t turn down a bigger barrel of money for the Department of Defense, but he knows that it’s not the only measure of national security.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and disastrously wrong:

With just a few tweets and phone calls, Trump has done more damage to our security than if he’d cut tens of billions of dollars from defense. And currently there is no functioning State Department to conduct the day-to-day diplomacy that, Mattis knows, forms a crucial bulwark to bloodshed. Trump’s budget guideline is a declaration of his one-dimensional priorities…

It’s pointless now to sing that pleasant so very American old song, ’tis a gift to be simple. It isn’t. It’s a curse. It’s the American curse.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Simple and Wrong

  1. Rick says:

    I remember hearing that, during commercial breaks of “I Love Lucy” back in the early 1950s, New York’s water pressure dropped measurably with so many toilets being flushed at the same time, so the other day, when I guffawed on hearing Donald Trump say, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated!”, I wondered: If enough Democrats and Independents all laughed at the same time, might that cause a measurable earthquake?

    If a new president really doesn’t know something because he hasn’t been keeping up with the news, I guess it’s okay to learn on the job, but I have a feeling that even if Trump had been paying attention over all these years to the Obamacare issue, he would still have been confused today, and that’s partly because the “Repeal-and-Replace” Republicans, despite their famous wont to keep things much simpler than they really need to be, have not had the guts to reduce the problem of healthcare in America down to its true essentials.

    We need to go back and ask ourselves, what was the problem that needed solving?

    The answer depends on who you were to ask. Democrats wanted everybody to have affordable healthcare, even if that meant “Medicare-for-All”, while Republicans mostly just wanted healthcare to be cheaper, especially for themselves and their family and friends, and didn’t talk at all about the idea of “universal” care. In fact, they ignored it altogether, as if nobody really believed in it anyway.

    The Democrats drove healthcare reform in America back then, in much the same way that Republicans, especially under Trump, have been pushing immigration being a top-level political problem today, and what Democrats saw was too many poor and middle class people without jobs or health insurance (and also their children) showing up at hospital emergency rooms when they got sick or injured, and sometimes getting turned away once it was learned they were going to be unable to pay their bills.

    At least that was true until politicians grew guilty consciences, passing laws that prohibited hospitals from turning away those who couldn’t pay, at which point the costs of their treatment, such as it was, would be passed on to the patients who could, but that sent hospital bills and insurance premiums soaring. In other words, by default, those of us who had the money to pay our bills, were also paying the bills of those who couldn’t.

    Since the public was picking up the tab for the poor anyway, what was needed was a way for us to do it more efficiently, and with better outcomes, and probably at lower cost. The result, by an eyelash, was the ACA. Once it got going, most economists seemed to admit that it worked, with a few glitches here and there, but solvable ones.

    Or else, depending on if the Republicans ever got in power, we could always go back to the way we were doing it before.

    In fact, in a perfect conservative Republican world — although this would be one in which people feel no obligation to help anyone but themselves and their families; but that should go without saying — the hospitals would be told they are no longer under obligation to give away free healthcare, and should feel free to turn away anybody who can’t pay.

    And those who couldn’t pay (and that includes their offspring) would go untreated, and would stay sick, and eventually die. That would be “unfortunate” and “sad”, of course, but with all these burdensome sick hangers-on out of the picture, they would cease to be our problem, and this, one would think, would cause insurance premiums and hospital bills to drop.

    (Or would it? Or would the expenses of all that costly equipment, not to mention the salaries of medical personnel, just be spread across a smaller population of patients, which would mean higher medical costs for each patient, rather than lower? Whatever.)

    Economist Paul Krugman asks the question, “So why do Republicans hate Obamacare so much?”, and has his own theory:

    It’s not because they have better ideas; as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, they’re coming up empty-handed on the “replace” part of “repeal and replace.” It’s not, I’m sorry to say, because they are deeply committed to Americans’ right to buy the insurance policy of their choice.

    No, mainly they hate Obamacare for two reasons: It demonstrates that the government can make people’s lives better, and it’s paid for in large part with taxes on the wealthy.

    My own theory is, conservatives are, on principle, opposed to the idea of government making it easy for people to live, thinking that “giving people stuff” instead of making them work for it only makes them soft.

    How this principle — that of having to work for what you get — applies to their own kids, who generally get their health insurance from their rich parents, is a puzzle that rarely comes up in the discussion; nor does the question of why they believe in that principle, since it’s too hard for them to explain to people who don’t already share your prejudices.

    Regardless, it comes down to one of two choices — (1) some sort of universal healthcare, with its efficiencies and better outcomes for all, or (2) what we did before Obamacare, with some people slowly dying in cardboard boxes because they haven’t the money it takes to stay alive.

    So in a way, all those Republicans who’ve always thought that the healthcare question is not a complex one, have been right all along! It’s essentially a simple choice between Healthcare-for-Everybody, and Healthcare-for-The-Well-to-Do, along with some sort of slow and painful death for most everybody else.

    It’s really pretty much as simple as that! So what’s this big problem everybody’s been wrestling with all this time?


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