Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (Tyndale Momentum, 2017)
Back in March, I wrote a bit about the story of former KGB spy Jack Barsky. (See The Spy Who Stayed.) At the time I was eagerly awaiting his soon-to-be-published book. Rather than wait for the library to get a copy (which it now has)—and also to support the first book of a "friend of a friend"—I purchased the Kindle version to take with me on our recent cruise. I know, I haven't written about that yet, but it will come. Believe me, the irony of reading the story of a KGB spy while in Cuban waters was not lost on me.
Deep Undercover is well worth reading. It's 352 pages but reads very quickly. It is competently, though not excellently written. I hate to admit it, but I've been sorely disappointed by the quality of writing coming out of many Christian publishing houses; I'm happy to say that Barsky and Tyndale have done far better than average on that score. Besides, the imperfections give me more of an impression that I'm hearing the voice of Barsky, not of some ghostwriter. After all, chemistry, espionage, and information technology don't teach you all the nuances of storytelling.
The story itself is riveting. First, because it is true. This is the real story of a brilliant young East German, born just three years before I was, who was recruited as a KGB spy, infiltrated American society, and ended up sending his daughter to the small, Christian school in upstate New York where my life-long friend had been principal for decades. I wanted to know how he got from Point A to Point B.
Because we are nearly the same age, it was especially interesting to see the contrasts between Barsky's childhood and my own, and to know, more or less, what was happening to and around me during the times he describes. There's a reason the Communists thought of Americans as lazy, undisciplined, and soft. It's a pity that self-discipline is so much harder to acquire when we're not under duress.
It's also sobering to realize how vulnerable the United States is to infiltration and attack. With money, skill, discipline, and smart young people who believe they are fighting for a great cause, it's apparently pretty easy to take on a country primarily committed to liberty and what it considers humanitarian virtues—especially if its people are also soft, materialistic, and somewhat lazy. The KGB had all of that—and, I may point out, so does ISIS, among other scary entities. Barsky's activities were pre-9/11, but I'm far from convinced that infiltration and more dangerous nefarious activities would be that much more difficult now.
Be that as it may, it was their failure to understand American culture that undid most of the Soviet Union's efforts in America—just as America has been undone by our cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam and in the Middle East. Barsky found an America that did not fit what he had been told all his life.
It didn’t take long for me to see a wide gap between the Communist saga of the exploited worker in a capitalist society and the reality as I experienced it. For some reason, insurance companies were always near the top of the list of capitalist villains in Communist propaganda. But I never felt I was being exploited. Instead, I was quite comfortable in my job, everyone treated me well, and the paternalistic culture of the traditional mutual insurance company was very appealing to my statist roots. The chinks in my ideological armor began to grow into wide-open cracks.
I'm no pacifist, and acknowledge the need for governments to use all legal and ethical means to protect their people. Just being nice won't do. "Be wise as serpents" was uttered in the same breath as "[Be] harmless as doves." Nevertheless, as far as what ordinary Americans can do, I really think kindness is our best defense. Barsky didn't abandon his mission for political or philosophical reasons. And while I'm not denying the importance of his religious conversion, that came much later. Barsky's heart was turned by the ordinary people he met while living an apparently ordinary American life, and it was the innocent vulnerability of his little daughter that broke through both his harsh upbringing and his hard-hearted training.
So if you fear your next-door neighbor might be a Russian agent, or a potential ISIS terrorist, be smart. Don't give him your housekeys. But genuine kindness might change someone's path for the better—even if he's just an ordinary American neighbor.
I didn't pick out many quotes from Deep Undercover, but here are a few random ones that caught my eye. (The bold emphasis is mine.)
Every evening, without fail, I spent an additional half hour listening to words on a phonetics tape and repeating them— listening and repeating, listening and repeating—ad nauseam. When it comes to basic life skills, repetition is the midwife of excellence.
The Moscow Metro is an example of the greatness that can be achieved if a dictator spares no expense to build a monument to himself.
“This is the final step in your preparation. We think that three months in Canada would be an excellent opportunity for you to practice your English and familiarize yourself with the culture and the way of life over there. After all, Canada is a lot like the US, only colder and with fewer people.”
While walking between classes one day in early 1982, I saw a bulletin board notice for a current affairs group meeting, and I signed up immediately.
Led by history professor Selma Berrol, the group of about twenty students met on Wednesdays at lunchtime to discuss current world affairs and American politics. For purposes of these discussions, I positioned myself on the left of the political spectrum, with some sympathy for the Western European brand of socialism, but firmly anti-Communist.
Over the next couple of years, this group provided great insight for my reports to the Center about the mood of the country—particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet reignited tensions between the US and the Soviet Union that had largely diminished during the period of détente in the 1970s. There was widespread concern in our group that Reagan might push the world to the brink of nuclear war with his aggressive approach to international diplomacy.
Only one person in the group, a guy named Fred, sided with Reagan. Fred was ultraconservative, and the rest of us would chuckle or roll our eyes when he started on one of his rants. “I’m telling you, the Russians are deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. We need to show them that we are serious. Historically, appeasement has never worked, and it will not work today. And if the Russians try to keep up with us in this race, they will simply go bankrupt.”
In his own way, Fred actually expressed historical truth before it became evident.
It is my personal belief that the Russians’ irrational fear of President Reagan contributed significantly to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union—an event that was not yet foreseeable in 1984.
Here's a short video (8 minutes) in which Barsky is asked about Russia's influence on the past election; what strikes me as most important is his take on the clear and present danger of cyber warfare.
It all depends on whose ox is being gored....
I first became aware of how much a U.S. president can do by executive order when Barack Obama made such lavish use of that power. Mr. Obama's supporters were quick to point out that he was hardly the first president to do so.
President Trump is doing the same, and the complaints are now on the other side.
Me? I don't want anyone's ox to be gored. The fact that one president's executive orders can be undone by the next president only shows why legislation ought to be done by ... the Legislature. You want change to happen, make it work through Congress. Is that too difficult? Maybe there's a reason—maybe it should be hard. If you're trying to accomplish something that half the country is against, maybe you need to rethink and rework and renegotiate.
There's a reason some religious denominations wait for full agreement before making major decisions. There's a reason a jury's verdict must be unanimous.
I'll grant that agreement on anything by everyone is impossible in a country as diverse and cantankerous as ours, but moving forward on important policies without the support of a healthy majority—and without provision for the protection of the minority—is death for a democracy.
"It's my ball now, and we'll play by my rules" isn't working very well, and it's making a lot of people unhappy.
Homegrown Hollywood: Searching for Family in All the Wrong Places showed up this morning in my Weekly Genealogist magazine. It's a short and sweet story of a woman's efforts to learn about the grandmother she never knew. I'm linking to it here because it epitomizes what our country so desperately needs.
A writer from Los Angeles travels to a small town in North Carolina and meets a distant cousin who might as well live on a different planet for all they have in common ... on the surface.
She welcomed us with a warm drawl and a tight hug. We sat on her couch as she told us stories and pulled out pictures. The longer we stayed, the happier I felt and something calmed inside of me.
The author wasn't the only one who'd had doubts about the cultural differences.
"Let me tell you, honey," she drawled in her thick accent. "I was nervous about meeting ya'll, but as soon as I saw you I thought, 'now there is blood kin.' And then everything was different."
The key to healing our fractured nation is real people. Not stereotypes, not Hollywood depictions, not news stories, but real, physical people who have families and serve dinners and smile at strangers.
She was right. Everything was different.
I had been trying to reach my grandma through gravestones and houses and hats I'd put on in a dusty old attic.
But where I'd actually found her was in people like Shelvie Jean.
Hope for healing lies outside our bubbles.
A blog with a name like Unbiased America is automatically suspect in my view, since if there is anything more fictional than the idea of an unbiased blog—or for that matter an unbiased respected news source—I don't know what it is. Nonetheless, their article How Free Is Your State? has elements of interest.
Liberty is a great deal of what America is all about, or at least what it once was all about, and I believe the value still resides deeply in our hearts. How we define the concept, however, is one of the sad fracture lines that now divide our country. I rarely give much credence to other people's rankings of the best country to live in, the most child-friendly nation, the best state to retire to, etc. because my criteria for those categories are usually quite different from the ones used in the rankings.
That's the beauty of this Unbiased America site: it's customizable. Their own rankings, below, include many factors I either don't care about or actually care in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, I can look at the states I know something about and find a good deal of agreement on the level of freedom. Note, my New Hampshire friends, that you rank #1. Florida's not too bad at #8.
But you're not stuck with the website's somewhat bizarre criteria. You can create your own customized version, picking which factors are considered, though you must choose from their selection and sometimes it's hard to tell what "freedom" means for a given criterion. I created my own, quick-and-dirty map, giving importance to things I care for, such as educational and food freedom (e.g. homeschooling and the right to buy raw milk), but not to things I consider more license than liberty, e.g. liberal gambling and marijuana laws. New Hampshire is still #1, but Florida has moved up to the Top 5.
Go ahead, try it for yourself. You're still captive to the biases of Unbiased America, but you can skew them in your favorite direction.
That's quite a margin he won by.
A Board of Selectmen is one of those mysterious New England customs, and the Wikipedia article doesn't exactly make things crystal clear. But the upshot is, Jon is now one third of the three-person executive that leads the town of Hillsboro, New Hampshire. (There is no mayor.)
Congratulations, Jon. May you never have to hold your head in your hands and groan, "I gave up ski patrol for this?"
A friend of mine taught Jack Barsky's daughter in preschool, and affirms that he is a very interesting man with quite a story.
Quite a story, indeed. I can't wait to try to persuade our library to stock his book when it comes out on March 21. Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America.
Barsky, once a bright, adventurous, young East German named Albert Dittrich, was trained by the KGB to fit into American society so well that he would be able to pass important secrets back to the Soviet Union. If the KGB's ambitions were unrealistic, Barsky's courage and spirt were not. He came into the country on a false Canadian passport, and with a few thousand dollars in his pocket, made his way to New York City and into American life.
Too well into American life, for the KGB's purposes.
Like many undercover agents before him, he began to realise that much of what he had been taught about the West - that it was an "evil" system on the brink of economic and social collapse - was a lie. ... "What eventually softened my attitude" was the "normal, nice people" he met in his daily life. ... "I was always waiting to eventually find the real evil people and I didn't even find them in the insurance company."
[That one's for you, David. He worked for Met Life.]
So he stayed. Not that it was either an easy decision or an easy process, and it cost him two marriages. But what a story! I can't wait to read it.
Those of us who are inclined to think it's too difficult to become an American citizen will do well to pay attention to Barsky's insistence that it was only the difficulty of obtaining an American passport that kept him from doing real damage as a spy.
"The idea was for me to get genuine American documentation and move to Europe, say to a German-speaking country, where the Russians were going to set me up with a flourishing business. And they knew how to do that.
"And so I would become quite wealthy and then go back to the United States without having to explain where the money came from. At that point, I would have been in a situation to socialise with [political decision makers]."
And here's the trailer for the CBS 60 Minutes report about him.
In July of 2015, the Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, wrote a response to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. On a recent file-cleaning expedition, I came upon my copy of his wise words again, and was struck by how much this attitude is needed right now, as we face still more opportunities to respond humanely across deep divides.
Bishop Brewer's words are specifically for and about Christians, but there's much here that could be of benefit to anyone. Since he has graciously allowed me to publish his letter in its entirety, I'll spare you my usual cut-and-paste quotations. Context is important.
Early in Israel’s history, the people prayed for a King. They said that they did not want to be ruled merely by judges, but they wanted a king like other nations. Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the people that to have a king would only bring about additional difficulties and sorrows, but they pleaded with God and eventually God relented and gave them a king.
The prophet Samuel anointed Saul with great affection, praying for him and calling him “the desire of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:20). He anointed him king over Israel, all the while warning Israel that they had rejected the will of God.
I believe that the anointing of Saul as king over Israel and the legalization of same-sex marriage are analogous. While God’s intention has always been that marriage is between one man and one woman, people in our nation have, for decades, pleaded for gay people to be able to legally marry, and now, through an act of judicial activism, it is the law of the land. Some are elated. Some are weeping. Some are angry. The Church is divided over these matters, and we as a nation do not know the long-term impact of these decisions.
How are we Christians to respond?
1) For some Christians who are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, the legalization of same-sex marriage is an answer to their prayers. For other Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a sign of moral decay. However, the demonization of those who support same-sex marriage by those who do not, and the demonization of those who oppose same-sex marriage by those who do [not] must not be present within the Body of Christ. Such antagonism is an affront to the Gospel and a great sin. That is not to say the matter is inconsequential. The divide between these two positions is a serious one and not to be taken lightly. But it is our faith in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, who died for us and rose from the dead that unites us, and nothing other than this. Christians must choose to continue to work together across this great divide. It will not be easy, but it is our God-given task. Splitting into tribes of those “for” and “against” within our churches will bear no good fruit, and will only display to the world our lack of faith in Jesus Christ, who prayed that we might be one.
2) I fear that some backlash against LGBT people by those who oppose same-sex marriage could be one of the outcomes. Incidents of angry retaliation could be in the offing. May this not be named among Christians! If incidents of violence break out, Christians must be the first to rise up and publicly condemn them. If we do not love those with whom we disagree, then our witness for Christ is null and void.
Such a public witness of love means we must beg God to root out of us any anger and resentment we may be feeling because of this change in our laws. Forgiveness, love and mercy are our righteousness: and they are gifts from our God who makes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust. If we do not triumph in love, we triumph in nothing.
3) There also are some legitimate fears that the legalization of same-sex marriage will further marginalize those who oppose it and bring about a tacit acceptance of persecution of these Christians. Again, our call is to forgiveness, love and mercy.
4) Traditional Christians should continue to make the Biblical case for heterosexual, lifelong marriage both in our churches and in the public square. This is where I stand. While same-sex couples now enjoy the freedom to choose legal marriage, many will not. Those who do not marry will join the trend of many straight couples that are indifferent to marriage at best, even if they are raising children. The fact is that the practice of marriage (much less lifelong marriage) in comparison to previous generations continues to plummet. In our culture, it is not so much that same-sex marriage has triumphed, as it is that the case for marriage for anyone is failing. This is where the church must speak clearly.
5) As a church, we must choose to care for children, regardless of who their parents might be. Children should not be treated prejudicially because of who their parents are. They did not choose their parents, and our churches have an opportunity, even a divine calling, to invite these children into the Christian faith and enfold them (and their parents) in bonds of love that will bring many to Jesus. Again, the testimony of our faith is evidenced in our call to love by word and by deed, nothing else.
6) Importantly, Justice Kennedy’s opinion in this ruling places a profound connection between marriage and “dignity,” which leaves single people all the more marginalized. Many of our churches already, in their preference for married couples, place single people in a kind of “less than” separate class. Such a classification is entirely unbiblical. The goal for our churches is a missionary community, not a club for the already married. Both Jesus and Paul were single, with Paul exhorting his preference for the single life. While clearly upholding marriage, we need to find ways to see marital status as secondary to sacrificial discipleship.
We are in the midst of an enormous cultural sea change and we do not know the outcome. What I do know is that it is my responsibility to care deeply, love without prejudice, speak the truth as I understand it with boldness and compassion, and pray fervently. I ask that you join me.
Let's "think on these things" when events go against us on issues of profound importance, and equally when we find ourselves on the favored side. Above all, let's remember Bishop Brewer's wisdom as we interact with our fellow Americans—our fellow human beings—when each thinks the other is standing on the wrong side of an apparently impassable gulf.
I've held off updating my prayer request for The Gambia, waiting for events to settle down a bit, but it seems that I can truly report good news: Former President (dictator) Yahya Jammeh has been persuaded to step down peacefully and make room for newly-elected President Adama Barrow. He appears to have run off with about $12 million of the country's funds, and the questions of his crimes against humanity are left unresolved, but at least The Gambia has been given a chance at freedom and democracy. That's great news!
President Barrow and the country are still in much need of prayer. On the financial side, the disappearance of most of the government's treasury may be mitigated by the release of European aid funds that had been frozen because of concerns about Mr. Jammeh's leadership. That's a good thing, because I wasn't sure a Kickstarter campaign could raise 12 million dollars for them—though it would have been interesting to try.
Our friend is back from her brief exile, helping the country's best math students get their disrupted educations back on track.
Are most Americans anti-immigration? Absolutely not.
Is President Trump anti-immigration? I don't think so. It's difficult to pin down what he actually believes about anything, but being concerned about uncontrolled immigration from unstable and/or dangerous countries does not mean one is opposed to immigration per se.
I found George Friedman's take on the subject enlightening, despite missing a few of my concerns. His example of our societal attitude towards Indian and Chinese immigrants is especially interesting.
Trump has pointed to two very different patterns. One is immigration to the U.S. by Muslims. The other is illegal Mexican immigration. Both resonated with Trump’s supporters. It is interesting to consider other immigration patterns that have not become an issue. One is immigration to the U.S. from India. The other is immigration from China and other parts of Asia. Both have been massive movements since about 1970, and both have had substantial social consequences.
It is the example of the Chinese and the Indians that blows up the theory that Americans have an overarching anti-immigrant sensibility that Trump is tapping into. It also raises serious doubts that Trump is anti-immigrant. I have searched and may have missed it, but I didn’t find that Trump made anti-Chinese or anti-Indian statements, as opposed to anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican statements. If it were classic anti-immigrant sentiment, the rage would be against Indian immigrants who have emerged as a powerful and wealthy ethnic group in a startlingly short time. But there is minimally detectable hostility toward them, which means that the immigration situation in the United States is far more complex than it seems.
The issue is not whether Trump and his followers are generally anti-immigrant. The question is why they are so hostile toward Muslims ... and to Mexicans. I wish the explanation were more complex, but it is actually quite simple in both cases.
The United States has been at war with Muslim groups since Sept. 11, 2001. ... When there is war, there is suspicion of the enemy. When there is suspicion of the enemy, there is fear that émigrés might be in the United States on false pretenses. ... After 15 years of war and many Americans dead, [post-9/11 fears have] congealed into a framework of distrust that may well go beyond the rational. ... Are all Muslims warriors against the United States? No. Do you know who is or isn’t? Also no. Wars, therefore, create fears. There is nothing new in the American fear of Muslims in the context of war.
The Mexican situation is different. ... [T]he driving issue is illegal Mexican immigration. There is a great deal of homage paid to the rule of law. Congress passed a law specifying the mechanics of legal migration. Some 5 million Mexicans broke the law. Whether this has harmed the U.S. economy or not, the indifference to enforcing the law by people who are normally most insistent on the rule of law has created a sense of hypocrisy.
The anger is not only directed at the Mexicans. It is part of the rage against those living in the bubble, who present themselves as humanitarians, but who will encounter the illegal aliens, if at all, as their servants. And rightly or wrongly, some suspect that open support for breaking the law is designed to bring cheap labor to support the lifestyles of the wealthy at the expense of the declining middle class. The fact that the well-to-do tend to be defenders of illegal aliens while also demanding the rule of law increases suspicions.
At first I took issue with this, for while true, it doesn't speak for the many of my friends who count themselves "defenders of illegal aliens" but are far from wealthy by American standards. But...
As we saw with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese, things that are obvious to those living decades later are not obvious at the time. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to be unable to empathize with the fear felt after Pearl Harbor. In our time, the failure to empathize comes from those who feel immune to illegal immigration or the 15-year war. It is part of the growing fragmentation of American society that different classes and regions should experience these things so differently, and that each side has so little understanding of the other.
My non-wealthy friends may not be among the rich, but it is true that they (like me) are largely immune to the effects of both illegal immigration and terrorism. We even benefit from illegal (slave) labor through lower prices.
(In my life, it's the actually the Indian and Chinese immigrants he mentions who have caused the problems—they are the ones whose competition directly affects the Information Technology industry—but I believe that legal, controlled immigration is healthy for a country. How could I be anti-immigrant when our own daughter is one?)
As long as illegal immigration is permitted, the foundations of American culture are at risk. It is not simply immigration, but the illegality that is frightening, because it not only can’t be controlled, but also the law is under attack by those who claim to uphold it. The fear that a person’s livelihood is being undermined and his cultural foundation is being overwhelmed creates deep fear of the intentions of the more powerful.
I want to quote a lot more, but I fear I'm pushing the edge of "fair use" for a review as it is. It's an article worth reading. I'll just make one more comment, on what Friedman calls "the refusal of the government at all levels to enforce the law."
I'm not a fan of "zero-tolerance" legal situations, which leave no room for discretion and grace. But massive discord between rules and enforcement breeds both disrespect for the law and tyranny. When a law is on the books, but not enforced, people become accustomed to violating it. This may look like freedom, but it opens the door to graft, blackmail, indifference to other laws, and some very nasty surprises.
When I was studying to pass my driver's test, there was a law on the books in Pennsylvania requiring that vehicles must slow down to 25 miles per hour when passing through any intersection. (For all I know, it's still on the books.) Obviously that was written a long time ago, and rather than the law being changed to fit reality, it simply stopped being enforced. If I hadn't been taking a driving course, I would never have known of its existence. However—and this is the kick—the police sometimes found it to be useful: If for some reason a miscreant wiggled out of whatever they wanted to charge him with, they could usually get him on the charge of passing through (often multiple) intersections at more than 25 mph. Do you see what this does? You may go for years, casually breaking the law, but suddenly one day, when they want to get you, they've got you.
Does having Donald Trump as President of the United States frighten me? Absolutely. He appears to be a loose cannon who might more effectively fight against the evils that assail us ... or he might turn his fire on all that is good in our country. Most likely, he will do both.
Am I panicking? Absolutely not. Frankly, I would probably be more afraid if it were Hillary Clinton in the White House, because she's a well-entrenched part of the system and would quickly settle into the job-as-usual. As happened with President Obama, Big Things Would Get Done.
I am not a fan of Big Things Getting Done when they are issues on which the country is deeply and closely divided.
Maybe with Republican control of both houses of Congress there might have been effective opposition to Mrs. Clinton, but I doubt this election could have produced that situation without also putting Mr. Trump in the White House. Even now, that control is tenuous.
I find a recent George Friedman essay to be somewhat comforting. Once again he points out the limited powers of the president, especially an unpopular one.
[The American presidency] is the most noted position in the world, imbued by observers with all the power inherent to the world’s most powerful country. Everyone is now trying to understand what Trump intends to do.
At the same time, the American president is among the weakest institutional leaders in Euro-American civilization. He can do some things unilaterally, particularly in foreign policy, but Congress can block them. He can do some things by executive order, but the Supreme Court can overrule them. He can pass certain programs that require cooperation from states, but the states can refuse to cooperate. At every step, as the founders intended, his ability to act unilaterally is severely limited.
[The defection of only three Republican senators would] make it impossible to pass any proposed legislation. As such, any Republican senator who can position himself as a potential defector will be able to negotiate for the president’s support on any number of issues. The president will either be forced to compromise or risk having the legislation defeated.
Senators are not free actors. They need to be re-elected. Their calculation on whether to oppose a Republican president will depend heavily (if not entirely) on whether the president will help or hurt them in their re-election bids. That depends on the president’s approval ratings, particularly in the senators’ home states.
Trump’s approval ratings are unlikely to fall below [the current] 37%, but to be effective, he can’t stay at that level. Republican senators will look at the president’s negative ratings in their states and calculate whether supporting his programs might lock 50% of voters against them. It is important to recall that constitutionally, a senator is supposed to serve the people of his state, not the president.
I confess I'm not completely comfortable with that much "power to the people"—largely because approval ratings give more power to the loudest and most obnoxious among us. But there it is. Speak up or be left out.
When it comes to paying out money, I know who "The Government" is. That's you, me, and all other taxpayers out there. Including those overseas who bear the burden of paying taxes to the Federal Government even if their money was earned totally outside of the United States. But that's another issue.
Even as our family watches carefully how our personal money is spent, so we try to be careful that the government's money is spent wisely.
Thus we were concerned when we received a bill from an insurance company we'd never heard of, for a health insurance plan we had not signed up for, assuring us that we owed $0.00 and the government had already paid the full premium of $1375.36 for the first month. I will spare you the details of all the hours Porter has spent on the phone trying to get this cleared up. How do you cancel a policy that can't be found in the system, but for which the government is paying out at the rate of over $16,500 per year? Finally, he wrote an e-mail to the Inspector General.
Mr. Inspector General Levinson,
I am not sure you are the correct person to send my issues to - but hope your office can point me in the right direction if you are not the appropriate channel.
I have two issues, one involving money paid out by the government incorrectly and one involving the difficulty in pursuing such questions via the healthcare.gov team and system.
First, I received a bill from "Florida Health Care Plans" for an ACA plan that I never signed up for, but rather was assigned to automatically by the ACA computers. No one at "Florida Health Care Plans" can tell me how this came to be. Further they say they cannot cancel the policy under the law as they can only do that if healthcare.gov sends them a notice to do so. Further they have no connecting key that can be used by the healthcare.gov team to show how this policy came into existence. When I called the ACA they could not find any trace of this policy with "Florida Health Care Plans." The only policy they show for me is the CORRECT policy I signed up for myself with "Florida Blue," an entirely different company despite the similarity of their names.
The bogus bill shows that the government will pay "Florida Health Care Plans" $1375.36 per month for each month in 2017. I will owe nothing. In other words my payments are to be zero each month. This is the rub. If a "policyholder" does not pay his premium his insurance is cancelled - and the payments from the government to the insurance company would at least stop. However, since I owe nothing each month on this policy there is no trigger to automatically stop payments! The government will be out over $16,000 by the end of the year paying on this bogus, useless policy.
Second issue. Healthcare.gov is not following the ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) standards. I understand that all federal computing systems are supposed to follow ITIL. When I was a consultant for IBM on the Fannie Mae account this was certainly the case. ITIL provides that all issues should be recorded and a ticket or issue number assigned to them. Further, this ticket number should be given to the person who reported the issue. In my case I should have been given a ticket number so I could reference it in future calls. I was told by the supervisor of supervisors (which was as high as I was permitted to go in my telephone inquiry with healthcare.gov) that no ticket numbers are ever generated, but rather I should wait for a call back from the "Advanced Resolution Center" in 5 to 7 days. I am very doubtful this will happen as in 2016 I got an incorrect "Corrected" 1095a and went through the same process without ever getting the issue resolved.
Please advise how to proceed with these two issues.
Or, I should say, he tried to write the Inspector General. But having sent this to their published e-mail address, he received it back with the following explanation:
Delivery has failed to these recipients or groups:
Your message couldn't be delivered to the recipient because you don't have permission to send to it.
Ask the recipient's email admin to add you to the accept list for the recipient.
For more information, see DSN 5.7.129 Errors in Exchange Online and Office 365.
So he respectfully requested to be added, using the e-mail address email@example.com—the sending address for the above rejection. The reply?
How much time would you spend trying to save the United States $16,500? How many bogus charges like this do you think are being made? How many of the people in whose name the government is being billed will put any effort into trying to correct a bill on which they owe nothing?
We're back again to another George Friedman essay, this time on Nationalism, Internationalism and New Politics. It's not new; it's been sitting in my "Drafts" folder for a while. But it's good. Some excerpts:
The world is experiencing a shift from the old liberal-conservative model to an internationalist-nationalist model. Nationalist challenges against the internationalist model have moved from the margins of the political system to the center, winning victories in the United States and the United Kingdom, and rising in strength in other countries.
What began as a lesson learned from World War II and a prudent response to containing the Soviet Union became a moral orthodoxy and a moral imperative. In many ways it buried political distinctions. All major parties were internationalists.
In 2008, the underside of interdependence showed its hand. Capitalism is prone to financial crises, and one occurred in 2008. In a nationalist environment with barriers between countries – from tariffs to currencies – a financial crisis in one country has the strong potential of being moderated in other countries. The crisis of 2008 tore through the world.
The 2008 crisis clearly revealed the core weakness of the interdependent system. But the very success of interdependence had been gnawing away at the system for decades. It is true that barring serious malfunction, intensified international integration can increase economic growth on the whole. But human beings cannot make a living off economic growth “on the whole.”
It was discovered that with interdependence and integration, individual nations had lost control over their destinies. An impersonal system that seemed to be uncontrolled determined the fate of nations and their populations. It also was discovered that the idea that nations were obsolete might be true for elites, who followed capital where it went, but being Greek was very different from being German, and being Chinese was very different from being American. The nation mattered because where you lived determined how you would experience life.
What followed was an attempt by the internationalist state to suppress what it saw as parochialism, and what those who had benefited least from internationalism saw as the fabric of life.
The battle is in the first stages, but it is a battle that was inevitable. The world is vast and humanity is an abstraction. My place in the world, my town, my culture and my nation are conceptually more manageable. The core principle of liberalism is the right to national self-determination. The instruments of internationalism ... ignore the nation and the right of citizens to govern their nation.
As in all things, the issue is not simple. Internationalism has been dramatically successful in enriching the world since World War II. Its problem is ... that only part of the population has enjoyed this wealth, and there are things more fundamental than wealth such as cultural identity and differences. Internationalism is tone-deaf or hostile to cultural identity, which is its weakness.
I've said it over and over again this past year: Good people don't necessarily make good presidents, and vice versa. Lo and behold, George Friedman said the same thing today, only he said it much better and gives plausible reasons for why that's true. Some tidbits:
The idea that policy optimization is at the core of the presidency is incorrect. The president is not the U.S.’ chief administrative officer. He is a leader and manager of the political process. His job is to be a symbol around which a democratic society draws the battle lines of who we are. He must express his vision as something aesthetic, not prosaic. The president cannot spare time from his real job to craft policies. Successful presidents know that and hide it. Trump doesn’t try to hide it.
No U.S. president has the ability to comprehend the vast array of policy issues that face him, nor can he grasp the depths of any single issue. Some presidents have tried. They generally did not do well.
Presidents who succeed have certain characteristics. They can lead. They provide the public with a sense that they understand what is needed and how to get it done, and that they care deeply about those who are hoping problems will be solved. They rarely take office with that ability, but rather gain it in the course of balancing things that cannot be balanced. In many cases, their ability to lead is best seen after they leave office.
Reagan was charged with being detached. Jimmy Carter was praised for his deep involvement in the details of governing. Carter was defeated after his first term. Reagan won two terms and has become an iconic figure. Some defend Reagan by claiming that he was far more involved in policymaking than it appeared. That may be true, but Reagan knew something Carter didn’t. Making policy is not a president’s central task, except in crisis. Presidents should be leaders who create a seductive image of what the country should be like and allow the love and hate of a country to focus on them – by allowing themselves to become a battleground that drives the country forward. Carter created an energy policy. He could not lead, seduce or accept his role as an icon. He missed the point of the presidency.
Trump’s supporters expect him to be extraordinary. His opponents believe he will be a disaster. From my point of view, he will be the 45th president of the United States, the 45th man whom some imbued with the powers of the messiah and others saw as the devil incarnate. I doubt he will be either. He will not spend his time making policies. He will be too busy doing what other presidents do: making calls pleading with obscure congressmen to let his bill out of committee, with very little to offer or threaten. He will bargain away many things to get a little of what he wants.
The whole article is worth reading, at least if you are as ignorant as I am about the political process.
One year ago we were five days away from embarking on our Gambian Adventure. (Yes, I'm all too aware that I still have most of that trip to write about.) If our trip were this year instead, we would have had to cancel it.
The longtime leader lost a Dec. 1 election to opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow. Jammeh initially conceded, but later called for a new vote. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others have united in criticizing him.
Jammeh's party filed a petition to the country's Supreme Court against the election, and a key court ruling is expected Jan. 10.
What might follow the court ruling is anybody's guess. Civil war could erupt. Most Gambians are happy with the regime change, but not all. The Gambia's neighbors have not ruled out military intervention if necessary, and even diplomatic and/or economic sanctions could devastate the Gambia's shaky economy.
The uncertainty has already disrupted the educations of those who are the country's best hope for progress, and it could get much worse.
In recognition of the solidifying crisis, the United States on Saturday advised American citizens not to travel to Gambia "because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future."
The U.S. State Department also ordered relatives of diplomats and embassy staff to leave Gambia and warned all its citizens to depart now, saying those who choose to stay should "prepare for the possible deterioration of security."
Per these recommendations, the Gambia's Most Awesome Math Professor is away on what she hopes will be a short visit out of the country. But of course her home, her job, her beloved students, and our new Gambian friends are left behind.
Please pray that the transition will be smooth and the disruption short-lived. If all goes well, the new president should take office on January 19, and the Gambia will embark on a new, democratic path of reform. It will be a difficult road—the Gambia is desperately poor and lacking in resources—but a hopeful one.
Into the Atomic Age: A Plan of Action for Canada Now edited by Sholto Watt (Montreal Standard Publishing Company, 1946)
This, the fourth of my father's collection of early post-Hiroshima books (see here, here, and here), is as fascinating as the others, although the fascination has less to do with atomic energy and atomic bombs than with the immediate post-war culture.
The Greatest Generation was, in a word, terrified. For the scientists who developed the Bomb itself, the politicians attempting to address the consequences of its very existence, and those whose business was social and political commentary, these were "what hath Man wrought?" times, just over a century after Samuel F. B. Morse's famous telegraph transmission.
In 1946, The Standard, a Canadian national weekly newspaper, published a series of essays on the subject of atomic energy. The contributors were diverse, from military men to scientists to politicians to prominent men from a variety of fields, whether or not they bore any relation to atomic energy. (Contract bridge, anyone? Ely Culbertson was one of them.)
In the early years of my adulthood, I remember hearing people express great fear that we were headed towards a "one world government." They were suspicious of the United Nations, and viewed every international agreement through the lens of how it might affect our national sovereignty. I confess I gave them little respect, because I saw not a shred of evidence that anyone was interested in forming a unified world government.
But I was young. Even if I did grow up with "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, and spent time pondering the feasibility of building a fallout shelter in our backyard, I was blissfully ignorant of the politics of it all. Almost to a man, the writers of these essays were convinced that the only alternative to nuclear annihiliation was for all nations to give up their sovereign rights to an international government—either entirely, or "only" in the right to maintain armed forces and to wage war. The United Nations was brand-new in those days, and much hope was expressed that it would become the entity that would rule the world.
Fear makes people do crazy things, and put up with crazy things done by their leaders. It wouldn't surprise me if more freedoms have been lost through fear than through outright conquest. Fortunately for us, the one-world-government crazy idea never made it off the ground, though we've certainly lost plenty of freedom through fear—the Patriot Act and the bailout of companies "too big to fail," for example.
Be that as it may, here's a sampling of what people were thinking 70 years ago in response to what they perceived as the world's biggest threat. Text in bold is my own emphasis.
The picture of the next war thus becomes one of surprise, of sudden and unannounced aggression, of an “anonymous war,” in which the aggressor leaves no traces, mobilizes no armies, proclaims no hostilities.” A city might explode one night, another the next. In one night, a flight of rockets might demolish 20 cities and kill 40 million.
“This is the one-minute war of the future,” the scientists state. “This is the war that will be hanging over the heads of the nations of the world when all have possessed themselves of atomic explosive and sit in fear and trembling, wondering when their neighbor—or a country on the opposite side of the globe—may press the fateful key. … This picture is not projected a century or even half a century into the future; it is a possibility five years from now, a certainty in 15.”
To every man and woman it may be said with certainty that to secure a world authority is now part of the business of personal survival.
The more deeply one ponders the problems with which our world is confronted in the light … of the implications of the development of atomic energy, the harder it is to see a solution in anything short of some surrender of national sovereignty.
We are afraid that the understanding and sympathy that binds us together may not be as strong as the conflicts of national interest and the dark hates that threaten to separate us. Atomic energy in itself does not endanger us. It is the possible use of atomic energy by persons and nations motivated by hate that causes our fear.
The establishment of this world government must not have to wait until the same conditions of freedom are to be found in all three of the great powers. While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not consider that internal conditions there are of themselves a threat to world peace. (Albert Einstein)
That one is evidence, as if any more were needed, that intellectual brilliance and practical sense do not necessarily reside together.
The scientists give us five short years in which to save ourselves and the world…. Five years in which we must build out of the present infant United Nations organization a world government capable of outlawing wars and the causes of wars. Five years in a world in which, from the dawn of Christianity from which our own democracy stemmed, it took nearly 2,000 years for our democracy to develop. Five years in which to project ourselves 1,000 years in maturity, in understanding, in social development.
But not to worry. The public schools can fix the problem.
I am optimistic enough to think that, with success in the intermediate and short-term period, we have a margin of twenty years in which to work. The long-term programme, the twenty-year programme, is the establishment of world government under principles of law, justice and human freedom. Such a world government cannot be imposed by force. It cannot be successfully negotiated by the statesmen of the nations of the earth. The plain fact is that world government requires as its foundation a moral and psychological sense of world community, and that foundation does not exist. To impose or to negotiate world government under existing conditions of prejudice and hate would do nothing more than set the stage for world civil war. The minds and hearts of men are not yet prepared for a world of law, justice and mercy.
We in North America are not prepared. Too many men despise women. Too many women despise their servants. Too many white men despise black men. Too many Christians despise Jews. This lack of sympathy and respect extends not only across group lines, but also within the groups themselves.
I feel that with twenty years to spare, the moral and psychological foundation for world peace can be laid. The hope is not that hundreds of years of history, tradition and custom will automatically and suddenly change their direction. The hope lies in the fact that it takes only a period of about a dozen years to implant a basic culture in the minds of a man—the period of childhood between the age of two and the age of 14.
The following may sound absurd now, but I know for a fact that Kodak built a special bomb-proof facility in Rochester, New York so that they could continue to manufacture paper in the event of nuclear war.
Drastic changes in defence measures would be called for, including the abandonment of all large cities, the decentralization of communications and the placing of all important factories far underground.
Not everyone was all gloom-and-doom. Some were downright science fiction in their ambitions.
The world-shaking discovery of atomic power, the greatest since the discovery of fire, can have only one of two end-results: either the unparalleled shattering of our civilization through atomic blasts, or an unparalleled era of peaceful science and mass happiness.
We have now within our grasp the means for creating an abundant life for all peoples of the world. Even before the development of atomic energy this was true, but now that we have tapped this tremendous new source of power, perhaps within half a century all nations can be raised to the same economic level occupied by the most advanced nations today.
There has never before been a discovery equal to that of atomic energy. The greatest discoveries of the past have advanced the material aids to humanity but a few years, but the forward move in the development of atomic energy must be measured in centuries. It can open the door to an age of plenty without revolution or war. It can make equality of opportunity a reality in our day. It can give the backward areas a chance to reach equality with others.
Some were downright nuts.
Why go slowly shepherding great liners through the locks on either side of the Culebra Cut when you could readily use atomic energy to blast a sea-level canal from ocean to ocean? (You would, of course, have to arrange for the temporary evacuation of all the population of the canal zone, but that, in these days of mass transfers of population, is perhaps not impossible.)
How many people realize that we could alter the entire climate of the North Temperate zones by exploding a few dozen or at most a few hundred atomic bombs at an appropriate height above the polar regions?
As a result of the immense heat produced, the floating polar ice-sheet would be melted; and it would not be re-formed. It is a relic from the last Ice Age, and survives today because most of the heat of the sun is reflected from its surface.
If it were once melted, most of the sun’s heat during the polar summer would be absorbed by the water and raise the temperature of the Arctic Ocean. Ice would form again each winter, but it would not cover nearly so large an extent as now, and would be thick enough to be melted in the succeeding summer.
As a result, the climate of Scandinavia would become more like that of Southern England, and the climate of Southern England would become much like that of Portugal.
As usual with all grandiose projects, there are snags.
Thus with the northward movement of the warm temperate and cool temperate zones, the arid zone would move too; and the countries which had the prospect of being turned into the Sahara of the future might reasonably object!
Perhaps it would be best to begin in a small way, by melting a small chunk of the ice-sheet with the aim, say, of slightly ameliorating the climate of Nova Scotia and Labrador, and seeing what happened elsewhere, before attempting anything further.
And we think we have climate change problems now.
Some writers had a better grasp of political realities than others.
We should do well to take stock from time to time of our original purpose in establishing the UNO [United Nations]. What was that purpose? The commonest reply perhaps would be, “To preserve peace.” For many years statesmen have been in the habit of saying, “The greatest interest of our country is Peace.” They have said that usually with complete sincerity and in bad confusion of thought.
For it is not true.
Any nation which suffered invasion would fight if it could. That is to say, it would sacrifice peace for the purpose of defending its national independence. Which means that we do not put peace first; we put defence first: the right to existence, national survival. And no international organization can succeed if it ignores this truth that defence, security, the right to life, must in the purpose of men come before mere peace. We could have had peace by submission to Hitler and Hirohito; we refused it on those terms.
But that brings us to the question: “What is defence? What rights of nations must an international organization defend if its purpose is to be fulfilled? Russia declares that its rights of defence must include “friendly” governments in the whole of Eastern Europe. What precisely does “Friendly” mean? More than once Russia has described Switzerland as “unfriendly and semi-Fascist.” On one occasion Russia refused participation in an international conference on aviation because Switzerland was included. If each nation is to claim in the name of defence conformity with its own special views to the extent which Russia seems to claim that conformity, a workable international organization for collective security is going to be extremely difficult to establish.
Despite the book's small size, there's a lot more to Into the Atomic Age, from following a spelunker deep into a cave in search of a place to set up an underground factory, to the convincing argument that there is no effective way for international inspections to prevent a country that has nuclear energy from also being able to make nuclear bombs. I wish those who negotiated our treaty with Iran had read this book.