Distracting oneself from the present by thinking about the past

Novelist and blogger John Green muses about out how far back "back" goes in a vlog post that manages to inspire a fair mount of awe in just 3 minutes and 42 seconds:

Link: https://youtu.be/qxfD1DhqBiA

The time spans he mentions are immense, and yet in the grand scheme of things they aren't very much at all. From the first occupation of the Chauvet cave until today is less than six one-hundredths of one percent of the time since the end of the Mesozoic, the Age of the Dinosaurs. And from the end of the Mesozoic until today is less than 1.5 percent of the lifetime of the Earth. (Feel free to check my arithmetic.)

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It could have been worse

If you're in a funk about today's inauguration, just remember that it could have been worse.

No, I don't mean Hillary Clinton would have been worse. For all her faults, she would be nowhere near as bad as Trump. That's why pretty much the entire Republican foreign policy and national security establishment backed her -- not because they liked her or agree with her on a lot, but because (as conservative writer P.J. O'Rourke memorably put in on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me last year, "I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises. It's the second-worst thing that can happen to this country, but she's way behind in second place. She's wrong about absolutely everything, but she's wrong within normal parameters."

I beg to differ with P.J. There were third-party candidates who were worse than Hillary. (Which ones. Pretty much all of them for differing reasons, though ignorance was a common fault.)

Anyway, back in September the folks at the Glove & Boots YouTube channel assembled a debate among a set of presidential candidates who were even worse. Watching this might cheer you up:

Link: https://youtu.be/-yOcRIt4JdA

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Last words from Obama's anger translator

One of the best bits on the Key & Peele show had Jordan Peele playing Barack Obama with Keegan-Michael Key as his "anger translator" Luther. It became so popular that Luther appeared with the real President Obama in the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Alas, Key & Peele is no longer on the air, but Key and Peele came back to allow Luther to express the president's feelings on leaving office. Here it is courtesy of The Daily Show:

Link: https://youtu.be/QFmLReorTSY

(The unbleeped version is here.)

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Medicaid helps children even years later

Pediatrician Aaron Carroll summarizes recent research showing the Medicaid benefits for children end up saving the federal government money. How is that possible? Because children who had health insurance through Medicare grow up healthier and are less likely to be on welfare as adults.

Link: https://youtu.be/m893crJWCkA

This is in keeping with an earlier video Carroll did on the same subject.

Medicaid is a joint state-federal program so the eligibility rules and benefits vary from state to state. The Affordable Care Act was intended to expand eligibility nationwide while covering almost all the costs. States would ultimately pay up to 10 percent of the expansion costs, but that would be offset by savings in subsidies to public hospitals. Unfortunately a number of states refused to agree to the expansion -- even though they'd come out ahead -- because of political opposition to Obamacare.

Incidentally, it's worth recalling that while Medicaid is normally thought of as health insurance for the poor, the majority of people who use the benefits aren't working-age adults but children and especially the very elderly in nursing homes. Medicare doesn't cover extended nursing home care and most people don't have long-term care insurance (it's not cheap), so once someone's wealth has been wiped out by medical bills, Medicaid is the only thing that pays for nursing home care.

For more about Medicaid see these posts and for more about Obamacare see these.

It's also worth recalling why Republicans have been so opposed to improving health insurance.

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Review: The Big Short (2015 movie)

The Big Short begins with an on-screen quotation: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” Perhaps appropriately for a film largely about mistakes and fraud, it falsely attributes the line to Mark Twain.

As with Spotlight, this film dramatizes real events, with an excellent cast, many of whom based their performances on the real people they’re portraying (though the character names are changed). It also breaks the fourth wall like Deadpool, not to mention matching it in foul language.

It’s frequently very funny as well, despite the fact that the subject matter is the development of the financial crisis that peaked in 2008 and brought about the Great Recession that would almost certainly have led to an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression had not the Federal Reserve and the Bush and Obama administrations not intervened as forcefully as they did.

The detonator was something called a mortgage backed security (MBS), a type of bond that let investors buy part of a pool of home mortgages. Since people tend to pay their mortgages because they don’t want to lose their homes, and even when they don’t lenders presumably can foreclose and sell the house to recover the principal, mortgage lending is considered a pretty safe investment. A collection of mortgages ought to be even safer, since any individual bad mortgage would be a tiny fraction of the whole pool. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in itself.

But as mortgage backed securities grew more popular with investors, the Wall Street firms issuing them ran short of quality mortgages needed to construct the pools and started buying up any and all mortgages they could find.

This meant that lenders could make a quick profit by selling mortgages to Wall Street as fast as they could make the loans, as opposed to waiting years for the borrowers to repay them. In fact, since they were making money up front, it made no difference to the lenders whether the loans got repaid at all. To meet the demand they cheerfully lent to subprime borrowers, people with bad credit and low income, and to attract them the lenders structured mortgages with tiny teaser interest rates in effect for the first year or so, making for very low payments almost anybody could afford. They often didn’t bother to explain to borrowers that before too long they would suddenly owe monthly payments three or four times as big. The Wall Street firms buying and packaging the mortgages into MBSes overlooked their low quality as well, and they effectively bribed the rating agencies to lie about their safety. They also embraced obscure terminology to make things harder for investors to understand.

That presented a problem for the filmmakers. How do you explain the necessary details to the audience without making their eyes glaze over? I liked the way they solved this problem. When it becomes necessary to demystify what a subprime MBS is, the narrator announces, “Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain.” Cut to just that.

A handful of people realized that a crisis was in the making, and they’re the protagonists of the movie but not its heroes. They were mainly just looking to make a lot of money by betting against (“shorting”) the investments other people thought were safe. Only a couple of them think about the fact that a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt. If there’s a hero, it’s the character played by Steve Carell, who stands out even in this fine cast. He’s a morose, angry man made that way by personal tragedies and by his conscience and feelings of guilt. When he grasps the full scope of the problem he tries to make more people aware of what’s going on, and at a couple of points he speaks his mind loudly and publicly, and (as other characters turn to camera to tell us) he actually did that in real life.

Near the end Carell says, “I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.” He’s right.

Right-wind media in particular tried to blame it on borrowers for taking out loans they couldn’t repay, overlooking the fact that they were routinely misled by the lenders. With even less justification, others tried to blame an anti-redlining regulation requiring commercial banks to make loans in minority neighborhoods, even though that regulation had been in effect for decades without problems and explicitly prohibited the risky lending practices in question. Moreover, the regulation applied only to commercial banks, and the subprime mortgage problem was markedly worse among other types of mortgage lenders who were not subject to the regulation and were less regulated in general.

This is an excellent film I highly recommend.

Link: https://youtu.be/vgqG3ITMv1Q

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U.S. cracks down on robocalls, maybe

On Friday the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced a crackdown on two massive robocall operations as described on their website. Unfortunately the penalties sound less like a crackdown than a wrist-slap.

The two "ringleaders," Justin Ramsey and Mike Jones, along with their companies and business partners, settled with the FTC by signing legal agreements that forbid them from continuing to call numbers on the Do Not Call list, and they have also agreed to pay a combined penalty of over half a million dollars.

That strikes me as a pretty weak punishment given that it seems likely they'll still end up well ahead financially, having made millions upon millions of illegal calls over four years or more.

On the other hand, Ramsey, Jones, et al are still being sued by multiple state attorneys general, so maybe they'll end up paying more. It also reassures me that they must have lawyers to pay, and maybe that's what's really going to hit them hard.

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Mr D's good point about the Supreme Court

Brian Keith Dalton makes a good point here about nominees to the Supreme Court:

Link: https://youtu.be/Mvzf8nw9KQs

In brief, last year GOP leaders in Congress refused for the first time in American history even to consider the president's nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Their argument was that it was too close to the presidential election (even though the election was nearly a year in the future at that point) and the American people deserved to have a say on whom they wanted to name the next justice.

Well now, as Dalton notes, we know who the American people chose: the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, by a margin of 2.1 percent and well over 2.8 million votes. It's true she's not the incoming president because the wasn't the choice of the Electoral College. But Mitch McConnell et al didn't say the Electoral College should have a voice, they specifically said the American people.

Of course, Clinton can't make the nomination, but Trump could at least have the decency to name someone acceptable to Democrats. A good choice would be the judge Obama nominated, Merrick Garland, a moderate widely praised by Republicans and Democrats.

But watch Dalton's video. He says it much better and more entertainingly.

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How dangerous are refugees?

Two videos from back in September have renewed relevance because U.S. policy is about to change soon based on irrational fear. First Stephen Colbert addresses the fear in 3.5 minutes, then John Oliver goes into a little more detail in 10.5.

In brief, there are people who fear terrorists will sneak into the United States amongst Syrian refugees. But entering the U.S. as a refugee is hard and very time consuming, with tons of paperwork and winning approval (if it's granted at all) taking 18 to 24 months. Terrorists would much more likely come into the country on a tourist visa, which are far faster and easier to get, and there are scads more of them.

Link: https://youtu.be/0C-ryuPII08

Link: https://youtu.be/_kZsOISarzg

For what it's worth I previously posted something on the same subject 14 months ago here.

Following are links to some other posts on the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis.

Videos by Hank and John Green:


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Health insurance facts: What people get right and wrong

Most Americans know that we pay a lot for healthcare compared with other developed countries without necessarily better results, but there's still a lot of confusion, notably about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

That's based on a poll published January 9 that was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of National Public Radio. Today's NPR report about it can be found here. A detailed PDF document can be found here.

Only 49 percent of those surveyed were aware that the number of Americans without health insurance has reached a record low. It would be even lower if the remaining 19 states accepted Medicaid expansion.

This is a major achievement of the Affordable Care Act and more people ought to know about it. But 24 percent had it exactly backwards, mistakenly believing the number of uninsured has gone up. Of the rest, 11 percent thought there hadn't been much change, and 17 percent said they didn't know. At least we can say that more people got it right than wrong, so while it could have been better, but obviously it could also have been worse.

And to prove it, here's worse:

Survey participants were asked, "True or false: The ACA has limits on end-of-life care." The correct answer is of course "False." But despite the extensive debunking of the old ridiculous "death panel" lie, only 18 percent got the answer to this question right. Half said they didn't know. Even among Democrats half said they didn't know, and more than a quarter thought it was true. Good grief...

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