Sunday, May 28, 2017

Nostalgie de la boue: Donald Trump, Harry S. Truman, and the curious case of the eight-ulcer music critic

“Nostalgie de la boue” is one of those oddball idioms whose precise definition can distract an otherwise unoccupied mind longer than an aimless wallow through Facebook.

It translates from the French as “nostalgia for the mud,” and usually refers, according to Webster, to an “attraction to what is crude, depraved or degrading.” Or according to  the author Thomas Wolfe as…well, it’s a long story.

Regardless of the lexicographer you choose to swing with, the phrase is clearly applicable to Donald Trump. 


-Donald grabbing the genitalia of strange, or perhaps not-so-strange women. 

-Donald Trump engaging in various forms of pissing contests, whether those take the shape of arguing about the length of his fingers as they relate to another organ, or, as alleged, relating to some depraved behavior with hookers in a Moscow hotel room. 

-Or Donald Trump wallowing in deep swamps of self-pity, as when he declares himself to be the victim of a witch hunt, and further declares himself to be the most “unfairly” hounded president in history.

If you are fed up with the almost daily splatter of mud, flop sweat, and tears from this presidency, you might want to refer back to an incident that, by comparison, seems a bit quaint. However, it was marked by language that was shocking at the time, but richer in vocabulary and imagery than our current President seems competent of ever evoking.

I’m referring to an angry letter to a music critic, written in 1950 by then-President Harry S. Truman.

Truman, with the perspective of more than three generations, was a pretty good president from a family of more or less mediocre amateur musicians, including himself. 

Truman was an unremarkable pianist. His daughter, Margaret, was an unremarkable singer. Given some orchestral backup, the likely assistance of a recording studio engineer, and a good night, she could whip out a soprano rendition that would neither have you standing in the aisles of La Scala crying bravo, nor cringing as if you’d just heard a long piece of chalk screeching across a blackboard. She was no Maria Callas, but neither was she a Florence Foster Jenkins. Here is an example of Margaret Truman giving it her all:

In December of 1950, Margaret Truman had neither a good night nor a recording engineer to repair the damage. A live concert performance had been arranged for her in Constitution Hall, and the Washington Post sent along a music critic, Paul Hume, who evidently didn’t much like what he heard. He wrote:
Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality  (she) cannot sing very well  is flat a good deal of the time, more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years  has not improved in the years we have heard her  (and) still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.
That, President Truman concluded. was…well, in the language of Donald Trump it would be “really unfair, the most unfair concert review in history.” But we are talking about a president who possessed a far richer talent for expository writing. He was able to craft an elaborately colorful insult from his resentment — an insult employing less whining and a far greater degree of linguistic precision than Donald Trump will ever be capable of producing. 

So Truman penned a letter to Hume that said
Mr. Hume: 
I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” 
It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. 
Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! 
Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry. 
Truman was referring in the last paragraph to Westbrook Pegler, a syndicated newspaper columnist who was the Bill O’Reilly of his day, but that’s another story. The upshot of this story was that Hume published the letter.  Following that, the nation for some time was scandalized — scandalized! — by this presidential indiscretion. 

I am old enough — although I was a child at the time — to remember my own parents, both of them Truman Democrats, discussing the letter in a state of near-shock. How could such terrible language come from the President of the United States?

These days we could acutely wish for such language. The daily barrage of whining befitting a wounded guttersnipe (look up the word, Donald, if you can concentrate on a dictionary long enough) will be one of the enduing trademarks of Donald Trump. He longs for the mud and the gutter. Unfortunately, he is dragging the United States down into it with him. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

No, Mr. Oliver, you can’t attempt to incite lynch violence and murder, and then get off with an apology

Karl Oliver, an odious little creep who got elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in part with the generous backing of the Koch Brothers, as well as the bankers (including Wells Fargo), realtors, home builders, a local power company, and even the chicken farmers of Mississippi, got himself into deep manure recently. 

He stepped into it by advocating lynching for those who want to remove civil war monuments to slave-holding heroes of the Confederacy in neighboring Louisiana.

The resulting outrage got Oliver, who is a former county coroner, lots of national attention. Little wonder. In calling for lynching he was essentially calling upon his friends and neighbors to form a lawless mob and murder people. Well, perhaps even more than murder. The American Way of Lynching can involve slow strangulation while hanging from a tree, or burning at the stake, or dismemberment — and more.

Or, in the case of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, it involved stopping people on a rural road in a car at midnight, brutally beating one of them with a chain, then shooting them and burying them under an earthen dam — a charming Mississippi coda to a wave of church burnings and beatings that were taking place at the time.

FBI photograph of the bodies of three lynching victims, Mississippi 1964,
uncovered after having been buried in mud under a dam.

Once his advocacy of lynching blew up in his face, Oliver realized he was in very serious trouble and tried to wriggle out of it by issuing an  apology. You may, like me, find his apology insincere.

“I am very sorry,” he said, referring to his attempt to incite mob violence through lynching. “It is in no way ever an appropriate term. I deeply regret that I chose this word, and I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart. I freely admit my choice of words was horribly wrong, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”

Yeah, right. He referred to those who wish to take down monuments to a culture of slave holding “Nazi-ish.” He made the extra effort  to hit the cap key so that the word “LYNCHED!” would stand out. And if he wasn’t making an extra effort to advocate that people get “LYNCHED,” what was he advocating?

Not for a moment do the racists who put him into office think he meant it when he apologized. Nor, I think, did he. The journal Mississippi Today checked among Oliver's constituents in his home town of Winona and reported:
For some of Oliver’s constituents, his comments weren’t as much a surprise as a relief. In a picturesque storefront within view of Forrest’s front porch, but across the train tracks that bisect this small town, Kathryn Harrison, an older woman with a smart white bob, folds donated clothes and stacks them in a bin.
Like Forrest, she has known Oliver and his family for years. And his willingness to say what others won’t is one of the things she likes best about him. 
“He’s a true Southern gentleman and a Christian, and he’s speaking his convictions,” Harrison said. “And most everybody here, they wanted him elected because he would stand on his convictions.”
So obviously, what America needs is a good Christian lynch mob. 

And that’s Oliver’s conviction, too. It was supported — it bears repeating — by the Koch brothers, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, the Mississippi Home Builders Association, the Mississippi Poultry Association, the Mississippi Association of Realtors, the Mississippi Power Company, and the Mississippi Bankers Association whose members include Wells Fargo Bank, those wonderful folks who brought you the fake bank account scandal.

Thus, Karl Oliver has demonstrated not only the propensity for lynching still exists barely below the surface in Mississippi, but also that when a bank is rotten in one way, you can bet it's also rotten to the core.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Members of Congress actually do something right about outrageous drug prices. Maybe.

Perhaps this will wipe the smirk off drug gouger 
Martin Shkreli’s face. Or not.

If a bi-partisan amendment to a Congressional bill passes on the House floor, drug gouger Martin Shkreli will have less to smirk about.

The bill started out merely to reauthorize fees that the Food and Drug Administration charges to makers of pharmaceuticals and devices.

But then, Representatives Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, and Gus Billirakis, a Florida Republican, wrote an amendment to the bill, which would encourages drug manufacturers to compete against the gougers. The price gougers typically purchase a cheap drug whose patent has expired and then raise the price sky-high.

For example, Shkreli, the smirking poster boy for greed in the drug industry, obtained the manufacturing license for a drug called Daraprim and raised its price from about $23.50 per pill to $750 per pill.  The ability to purchase Daraprim, an anti-parasitic agent, can be a life-or-death matter for some patients.

And Shkreli’s not the only one. Among others high on the list of people not likely to be widely mourned if they were to get crushed by a wayward meteorite is Heather Bresch, who jacked up the price of the life-saving EpiPen by 700 percent. Needless to say, her bloodthirsty profiteering didn’t please mothers of allergic children likely to die of anaphylactic shock, an emergency condition that EpiPen treats. If you can afford it.

Schrader and Billirakis’ amendment, supported by lawmakers from both parties, encouraged manufacturers  to compete against drugs like Daraprim and EpiPen that are out of patent but made by only one supplier. The new competitors would get six months of exclusive rights to compete. The amendment additionally puts their product applications on a six months timeline for approval, and offers certain other benefits.

Theoretically, this ought to aid in the creation competition that will thwart the drug gougers. But only theoretically.

First, the trade publication Modern Healthcare is saying that “Some observers have questioned whether the legislation would have any effect.”

Further, the legislation with the attached amendment is a long way from getting passed. Despite the group of Congressmen finally acting in a bipartisan matter to benefit sick and vulnerable Americans, there’s no telling whether the entire House will go along. And second, even if the House passes the bill, there’s still the U.S. Senate to deal with.

Further, you can count on the Trump administration to try throwing a monkey wrench into the works. Modern Healthcare also reports that Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price, a Trump appointee, now wants to “recalibrate” the fees that drug manufacturers pay for the FDA to examine and approve their medicines. That could lead to slowing down passage of the bill, and eliminating items like the Schrader-Billiarkis amendment.

You can almost be sure that the Shkrelis and Bresches of this world will fight to kill any bill that might keep them from stuffing their pocket with the money of the poor. And that might certainly include persuading Trump and Price to stomp on the bill, or its  competition-encouraging amendment. You know, competition is so….unAmerican.

All the same, we can hope.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Better than an insanity defense: the stupidity defense

From the New York Times:
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.
Mr. McMaster all but said that publicly from the briefing room lectern.
In other words, your honor, my client is so lazy, so intellectually thick, so uneducated, so damn downright stupid, he could not possibly have committed the crimes he's charged with. The defense rests.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog

Monday, May 15, 2017

A very short essay on the latest news about Trump and the Russians

The President has the legal right to declassify any top secret information he chooses to declassify.

That said, if you or I had given to the Russians the kind of information that Donald Trump is accused of having given to the Russians, we could be arrested and tried for treason, which is still a death penalty crime in this country.

Lock him up!

America's criminal-minded drug companies: here we go again.

Don't ask why. Just open your wallet
wide and swallow this.
Martin Shkreli, the grinning ripoff artist whose infamy in part came from raising the price of a take-it-or-die drug from under $14 to $750 a pill — and who was charged with securities fraud in another matter — is no longer merely  a smirking sleaze bag. 

He's now also a pharmaceutical industry role model. 

The latest to follow his ethical lead is Avanir Pharmaceuticals. Here are some excerpts from a recent article by Julie Appleby in the New York Times. The story concerns TV commercials for Avanir’s drug Nudextra, which treats uncontrolled laughing or crying.  (And you thought cancer was a scourge!) 

The phenomenon is called Pseudobulbar, or PBA.
PBA mostly affects those with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, a recent stroke or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because the definition of the condition is ambiguous, estimates of its prevalence vary. Doctors may find PBA common or uncommon, depending on their specialty. Avanir sets the number at two million Americans. 
The market has proved lucrative. Nuedexta’s sales rose to $218 million last year from about $37 million in 2012, according to EvaluatePharma, which tracks pharmaceutical pricing and markets. 
“I suspect this disease is being redefined to include overly emotional people” through advertising, said Adriane Fugh-Berman, a doctor who teaches at Georgetown University Medical Center and has investigated pharmaceutical marketing practices. The United States is one of two countries that allows advertising of prescription drugs.
Nuedexta has also attracted attention because it is expensive, more than $700 a month for a supply of twice-a-day pills. The drug is a combination of two low-cost ingredients — an over-the-counter cough medicine and a generic heart drug — that, purchased separately, would run roughly $20 a month, according to online cost estimators.
The Times article goes on to point out that the proportions of the two medications are different in Nudextra than the normal dosages of each drug. So even if you find out what the two ingredients are, do not play pharmacist at home. 

But then this note:
Nuedexta doesn’t cure PBA, but it must be taken for the rest of a patient’s life to help reduce episodes of laughing or crying. While it’s the only drug approved specifically for PBA by the Food and Drug Administration, doctors have successfully used several less expensive treatments, all antidepressants, to treat the condition. 
“The cost for mixing two old drugs together is unconscionable,” said Dr. Jerome Avorn, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the chief of the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Right. Get ‘em on it, and hook ‘em for life. And not only do people who may (or may not) have Pseudobulbar pay through the nose. So does everybody else, through higher insurance rates.

It’s enough to make you want to laugh — or cry — uncontrollably.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The power broker, the paper bag, the honest cabbie, and the Trumps — a true tale of corruption and ethics

Ethical Crook
Unethical Crook

Way back in 1957, a political boss named Carmine De Sapio made a grave mistake.

De Sapio was no run-of-the-mill power broker. As leader of a political machine called Tammany Hall, founded by the notorious “Boss Tweed” in the 19th Century, De Sapio controlled the Democratic Party when the Democratic Party controlled just about all the elected offices that mattered in New York State.

He had been credited, for example, with “handpicking” both the Governor of New York, a patrician heir to a railroad fortune named W. Averall Harriman, and the Mayor of New York, Robert Wagner  Jr., whose father before him had been a United States Senator.

Fear and toadyism in New York

“Time magazine put Mr. De Sapio on its cover as a national force to be feared and admired,” the New York Times recalled in his obituary. “And at fund-raising dinners, favor seekers would push past Governor Harriman and Mayor Wagner to shake hands with Mr. De Sapio, whom they viewed as the most powerful politician in the room.”

De Sapio came by his power as a would-be reformer. He took over Tammany Hall with promises to end its back room shady deals and its almost world-famous corruption. This “reform” was sometimes greeted with slightly more than a few degrees of skepticism. Tammany Hall was one hell of a huge ship to turn around. The very mention of its name conjured up visions of cigar-puffing men in smoky rooms, stuffing kicked-back cash into little tin boxes. 

It didn’t help his image that De Sapio, a sharp dresser if ever there was one, always wore a pair of dark sunglasses that somehow gave him a thuggish look. But this was not an affectation. It was an irony. De Sapio suffered from an eye condition that made him hyper-sensitive to light, even as he promised to shed light on political dealings.

A bagful of money

Now, on to that paper bag. One day in 1957, De Sapio seems to have absentmindedly left something in the back seat of the taxi that he was taking to the now-vanished Biltmore Hotel, where he had one of his several offices. 

That object was variously described  in the press as a paper bag and as an envelope. The taxi driver who discovered the object also discovered that it contained $11,200 in $100 bills. That’s quite a fat wad of cash to stuff into an envelope. So I’ll go with paper bag.

The cabbie who drove DeSapio was an honest working man. He not only turned over the paper bag to the police, complete with contents. He also identified the owner. He knew what De Sapio looked like from newspaper pictures, the driver said, and the man who left the bagful of bucks in the back seat was most certainly Carmine De Sapio. Not to mention that the alleged De Sapio got off in front of one of De Sapio’s offices.

Note well, please, that this was back in the day when men were men and a buck was still a buck. Run $11,200 through an online inflation calculator and you’ll discover that De Sapio’s 11.2 grand is more like $97,000 in 2017 money. So the dough was nothing to sneeze at, even for a guy who might have been handling buckets of it under the table. And do you know what De Sapio did?

The elegance of denial

De Sapio denied — yes, adamantly denied !— that the bagful of money was his, or that he had anything to do with it. He wouldn’t touch it, refused to take it, walked away from it, making his driver perhaps the luckiest cabbie in the history of New York. The driver was awarded the money. 

By now only God and the ghost of De Sapio know exactly how De Sapio ate the loss. Maybe it simply but tragically meant $12,500 less unreported income for him that year. Maybe the money was meant to pay off some political debt, and paying it back now had to involve finding political appointments and no-show jobs for an impressive number of creditors. Or maybe De Sapio had to hock his wife’s jewelry and empty out his bank account. 

We’ll never find out because, unlike the leaky Trump administration, De Sapio and the people around him could, when they wanted to, keep their lips zipped for eternity. (Sometimes he didn't want to. De Sapio evidently had a little side job informing for the FBI. But that's another story.)

I recall that De Sapio’s denial of the money in the taxi prompted  Murray Kempton, a columnist for the then-liberal New York Post, to comment with only a very vague soup├žon of satire, that whatever else you might have thought of the Tammany leader, this incident demonstrated that “De Sapio is a real gentleman.”

And so De Sapio was. He may have been something of a crook and conniver, an extorter, and a judicial nomination peddler. But at least he was a crook with class. He would pay dearly to avoid so much as the appearance of impropriety. Hs bearing, his modesty, and his willingness to eschew greed, even when a big bagful of what was perhaps his own money was at stake, mark him with indelible stamp of noblesse oblige.

Class vs. no class

Now, compare De Sapio to Donald and the rest of the Trumps.

Do the Trumps owe you money on your investment for a project — say a gambling casino — that Donald Trump has incompetently blown? You can kiss your money goodbye. The Trump modus operandi is simply to declare bankruptcy and leave investors (or in one case, duped Trump “University” students) holding the bag — a completely empty bag whenever Trump is involved.

Foreign emoluments in violation of the Constitution of the United States? Every time a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the Trumps pocket more bucks. He rents space out at a profit to the U.S. Government to contain the Secret Service agents who protect him. Even when he proposes a ban on visitors from Muslim countries, he exempts visitors from Muslim countries in which he owns hotels. Hey, that might be bad for his bottom line. And he has refused to divest himself of his holdings.

All other chief executives in recent history have sold their financial holdings and put their money in a blind trust. But Trump? 

He turns his holdings over to his sons, and promises not to peek. As if he didn’t know what and where the Trump properties are. As if he didn’t know that not putting the screws to a nation where he owns hotels might fatten his greasy bottom line. As if Trump’s new tax “reforms” and his mockery of a healthcare replacement program would not benefit the Trump family richly, while depriving the poor and working people in this nation of  doctors and drugs when they are sick.

It’s not just the corruption,
it’s also the unmitigated greed

The terrible truth is, Trump and his den of nepots and cronies and crazies are not merely corrupt thieves. They are hopelessly greedy thieves, unfettered by even a faint whiff of propriety. It seems that nothing keeps them from reaching with both arms deep into the thick barrel of corruption and moral sludge that is their playground, to scoop up and stuff into their bulging pockets more, and more, and still more wealth for themselves.

We have not seen the end of it, and will not see the end of it until either the Trump administration is voted out of Washington, or they bumble into a nuclear war that wipes all of us off the face of the earth.

Can you imagine someone  trying to hand Donald Trump a big bagful of money, and Trump denying that it was his?

We know we have arrived at a horrible place in history when we get nostalgic for the corruption of Tammany Hall.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Your money or your life, part II: Take four of these a day, and swallow hard.

The hardest pill to swallow is what sick people,
health insurance customers, and taxpayers are getting
forced to pay for drug companies' greed.
Less than a year ago, I had a hissyfit in this space about the drug gougers Martin Shkreli and Heather Bresch, who charged outrageous prices and made outrageous profits by selling  life saving drugs at unconscionable markups.

Now comes news that Shkreli’s old company, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, is at it again. This time it involves a formerly dollar-a-pill, four-times-a-day, or $1,460-a-year drug called Syprine. It’s a drug that saves sufferers of a rare malady called Wilson Disease from death by liver failure. New cost? Why, it’s only up to a mere $300,000 a year, a more than twenty times increase.

What’s even more upsetting, according to an article by former New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, published in Bloomberg View, is that the heartlessly greedy bastards who run the company are not only refusing to lower their markup, but also bribed a nonprofit association that supposedly represent sick patients with Wilson Disease to back off.

The tiny Wilson Disease Association, with revenue just a hair over $90,000 in 2014, was suddenly paid $100,000. according to Nocera. Whereupon, Valeant began declaring that it is in “partnership” with the Wilson Disease Association. The association protested, but its so-called protest did not including giving back the hundred grand. In my book makes them bought, whatever benefit they claim the $100,000 brought them.

The purpose of the bribe, according to Nocera’s article?
 For $100,000, Valeant purchased the right to say that it was working hand in glove with the Wilson Disease Association. As for the “conditions” it agreed to, consider this: Every time it uses its assistance programs to cover part or all of a patient’s co-pay, it is generating revenue that would be lost if the patient could no longer obtain the drug. 
Yes, Valeant has an “assistance” program that helps people who otherwise couldn’t afford to take the once buck-a-pill drug. But despite this assistance, it’s not only patients who suffer. It’s also you, if you pay taxes, or carry medical insurance with drug coverage. 

Nocera explains:
No matter what the patients’ out-of-pocket costs are, insurance companies and Medicare are still paying Valeant millions of dollars for a drug that just 11 years ago cost $1 a tablet. Which means that we’re all paying for Syprine, either as taxpayers or as insurance customers.  
Finally, though it is not something most of us think about, the need to rely on a drug so exorbitantly expensive takes a tremendous toll on patients and their families. They are always conscious that their insurance needs are costly to co-workers, especially if they work for a company that is self-insured.  
Brennan [a relative of a patient who needs Syprine] told me that some of his relatives are reluctant to go to the doctor fearing they could lose their jobs if escalating insurance costs hurt their employers. “It is a terrible feeling,” he said.  
[Former Wilson Disease Association president] Graper’s son who has the disease works in a small office that recently changed insurance plans. Under the new plan, everyone in the office now has to pay a $4,000 deductible. “How do you think it feels,” she told me, “to know that everyone in your office is paying for your Syprine?” 

If you haven't already done so, go here and read the whole horrifying article.