Monday, August 31, 2009

So Let the Sideshow Begin

They even sold popcorn.This way to the big top.

I went to one of Representative Jay Inslee's town hall meetings over this past weekend. It was, as I expected, a circus part of the time. Both sides came with their minds made up, and while it didn't degenerate into both sides shouting at each other, there was a lot of shouting. There were several occasions where the anti-reform bill crowd burst into calls of "Liar!" Some of them shouted it, and some of them screamed it, but all of them had, apparently, decided that whenever Representative Inslee said something that they didn't appreciate, that he must be lying. Interestingly, really loud outbursts while someone was speaking to the Representative spurred the crowd into a collective "shush," that continued until the disturbance abated.

Of course, the anti-reform bill section of the audience was not a unified as Congressional critics of the plan would like us to believe. Their objections were all over the map, and this meant that some of them were mutually exclusive. To wit, what one critic called a potential unintended consequence of the plan, another critic termed an intentional hidden agenda, and so on. Of course, by the same token, the pro-reform bill crowd wasn't particularly unified either, and there were clearly a number of people who didn't feel the plans currently on the table went far enough.

In the end, Representative Inslee had some good information, but not very much of it (he only spoke for 15 minutes). The question-and-answer session that followed was, predictably, dominated by political talking points thinly disguised as questions. But there were some good ones that focused squarely on the topic at hand, and carried no ideological baggage. Maybe it's telling that I can only remember one of them, even though I'm pretty sure there were two or three. A young woman asked, if one were denied coverage for a given procedure, they could simply pay for it themselves out of pocket. (Apparently, in Canada and the U.K., you can't.) While she prefaced it with a story about her husband, she didn't slant the question one way or another.

Representative Jay Inslee.Representative Inslee answering a question.

The strangest part of the whole scene was the "March of Signs" (Hey, it's a good a name as any.), that started about 20 minutes before things actually got going. People would take their signs, and walk around the room holding them up, to the cheers or jeers of the crowd. It was one at a time at first, but then people started going two or three at a time, both sides jumbled together, and things became really raucous.

I made this myself!They may as well have simply read "Applause."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American political life is evolving into a culture of "no," for one simple reason. While people will become quite agitated and animated in their insistence that their representatives put a halt to any policy objective advanced by the other side, they do not bring that same level of energy to calls for a better solution from their own side, even if they claim to be fatally dissatisfied with the status quo.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Greg Nickels, Mayor of Seattle in on his way out, having come in third in a top-two primary election. A common criticism of the soon-to-be ex-mayor is that he ran Seattle City Hall too much like Chicago City Hall. This tell you one thing about a number of Mayor Nickels' critics - they've never lived in Chicago. Despite being a native of the Windy City myself, I don't consider myself an expert on the ins and outs of the city's political structure, but I do know what passes for a major scandal here in the Emerald City wouldn't even make the papers in Chicago. But I understand the logic. People here who considered Nickels corrupt saw a parallel in Chicago's infamous machine politics. And, not knowing any better, they were unable to tell the two apart.

The criticism that President Obama is a Socialist seems to work from the same principle - that is, that many (if not all) of the people who sincerely believe that the President is a Socialist have clearly never actually met one. Or, despite the rather close proximity of the Castro and Chavez regimes, understand how a socialist leader would operate. Again, not that I'm an expert on Socialism, but I have actually met a few living, breathing, card-carrying Socialists. I haven't spoken to one since the election, but I doubt they're exactly pleased with the current resident of the White House, any more than they were with his predecessor.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Okay, New Rule

Sometimes, you really have to wonder if politicians actually give a rip.

Once upon a time, the Governor of Massachusetts had the power to immediately appoint a new Senator to fill a vacant seat. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

But then, two things happened. Mitt Romney became Governor, and John Kerry ran for President. If Senator Kerry had won, he would have had to resign his seat. Massachusetts Democrats, fearing that the Republican Romney would appoint another Republican to the now-vacant Senate seat, changed the rules, so that a vacant Senate seat would be filled by a special election, to be held within 145 to 160 days after the seat becomes vacant.

But then, two more things happened. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, was elected to become Governor, and Senator Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps coming to terms with his own mortality, Kennedy realized that if he died, Senate Democrats would be down a vote - and that one vote might make all the difference. So rather than leave the Democratic caucus down a vote, potentially for several months, Kennedy is asking for the law to be changed back to the way it was.

I've got a better idea - just pass a law that says vacant seats shall be filled in whatever way is most politically beneficial to Democrats, and leave it at that. It's simpler and more honest.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On What Planet Do You Spend Most Of Your Time?

"Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."
Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass)
Despite the fact that Barney Frank gets on my nerves, I have to really hand it to him. His rebuttal of one of the "President Obama is a Nazi" fruitcakes at a town meeting was spectacular. He's going to take heat from Fox News and conservative activists for being "disrespectful," but since nothing other than cringing obsequiousness would be acceptable to them anyway, who the Hell cares?

I also appreciate the fact that Frank was unafraid to call the commenter out on the fact that she'd come to the meeting with her mind made up - and therefore was using her "question" to be insulting to both the President and the Representative, rather than as a request for information.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Goodspeak Only, Please

After John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods, ignited an outcry by proposing ideas for reforming health insurance that (unsurprisingly) didn't exactly appeal to Whole Foods' primary customer base, a lively debate has been raging. Part of this debate trumpets the idea that CEOs should keep their non-populist opinions to themselves.

"Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an “interest group” while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in."
Matthew Yglesias
This may very well be true. But, from where I stand, I think that one could just as easily imagine a world in which CEOs didn't bother to play the role of freelance political pundit because we didn't give their opinions any more weight than any other random person we didn't know and presumably, didn't know very much about us. This, it seems to me, would be an even better world to live in.

In the end, this is my main disagreement with many self-styled liberals and progressives - their opinion that the common person is simply incapable (rather than unmotivated or unincentivized) to act in what they understand their own best interests to be. CEOs like Buffet, Gates, Welch and Mackey need to be muzzled by activist citizens because the non-activist citizens just can't be expected to take the opinions of such luminaries with a grain of salt, or understand that their proclamations may be self-serving, rather than recipes for sweeping social improvement. This assumption of constituent passivity among the greater masses leads to the quite logical conclusion that the world needs to be made safe for passivity - which, in turn, provides an incentive for that same passivity - after all, understanding exactly why what's good for Jack Welch may not be good for me takes time and effort than I could otherwise spend doing other, more desirable activities. So if people who, if I listened to them, might lead me astray are made to shut up, I don't have to put the time into evaluating the wisdom (or applicability) of their statements vis-a-vis my own position. Knowing that everyone who is allowed to speak is on my side, all I have to do to lead a happy, healthy life is listen and obey, rather than do the intellectual heavy lifting that critical thinking demands.

That's double-plus good all around.

A Brave Spirit

The Aug. 13 New York Times carried a report of the university press' surrender, which quoted its director, John Donatich, as saying that in general he has "never blinked" in the face of controversy, but "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question."
Christopher Hitchens "Yale Surrenders"
While I wholeheartedly agree with Hitchen's lambasting of Yale University Press' surrender, I feel that he missed an opportunity. Rather than saving his attack on the very idea anyone taking "the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants" upon themselves for the end of his piece, it should have been the whole piece, with the actions of YUP as a footnote, rather than the centerpiece.

It's become commonplace among terrorists and criminals to shift the blame for the actions to others, absolutely denying any responsibility or agency. We see it all the time in the movies, and hear/read about it in the news in real life.
"Is it going to be one or two body bags?" Shenkman asked the 21-year police veteran. "It's going to be your decision."
SWAT team describes Conn. standoff
Perhaps distressingly, law enforcement has responded to this by, to a degree, placing responsibility for their own actions in the hand of the criminals they confront.
Although [Police Chief William] Bratton has adamantly maintained that Pena was responsible for his and his daughter’s deaths, he said the realization that it was a police officer who actually shot the girl was hard to take.
War of words escalates in deadly L.A. shooting
Part of the problem is the blurring of the concepts of responsibility and blame, and part of the problem is a general social inability to accept that sometimes, the right thing to do really, really sucks. So my issue with Bratton's statement isn't that the police officers should accept any guilt for Suzie Peña's death, but that police agencies shouldn't feel the need to describe their actions as the responsibility of another person. José Peña was shooting at officers - the sensible thing to do was to shoot back - the presence of a toddler as a human shield doesn't, ultimately, change that calculus.

What we're seeing from John Donatich's statement is this concept being taken a step further, to the idea that doing something that someone might respond badly to is to be guilty of whatever unfolds. The danger in this is not simply that we become a nation of cravens, seeking appeasement at every turn, and beating ourselves up when our efforts don't control the situation in the way we think they should. It's important to remember that the de-facto application of the law responds to the way in which we do things. In effect, if we let this go on long enough, we run the risk of making being insufficiently deferential to the sensitivities of madmen and criminals a affirmative defense, in the court of public opinion, as if it were a form of duress. You can say that the court of public opinion has very little legal standing, and you'd be right. But if American history has taught us anything, it's that while the letter of the law may not be subject to popular approval, the spirit of the law often is.

And if we ever let even the spirit of the law come to agree with Donatich, we're all going to feel very constrained.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It All Makes Sense Now

I'd been avoiding thinking about the Health Insurance Reform debate and the Town Hall meetings that came with it, mainly out of a sense that it was yet another Tempest in a Teapot, and that those commentators who said that it was really about other issues (such as the fate of working-class Whites once they became a minority) were right.

But I had been thinking about it this morning, and came to something of a Eureka! moment. Bear with me for a moment, while I lay this out. My question had become: If on the one hand, the Government Option was going to be too expensive to sustain, while on the other hand, government panels would consign older people to either euthanasia or lack of access to care to save money - where would the money go? Well-paid government employees?

So the objection is that if a government health-insurance option were in place, it would drive all other health insurers out of business, as they couldn't compete with the pricing and/or the level of service. Once the other insurers were out of the picture, government would raise taxes to pay for the plan, as people would have no other viable options. At the same time, plan officials would be looking for ways to save money by cutting services, through blocking procedures recommended by peoples' doctors, and/or by cutting people off from the program entirely, under the idea that it wasn't cost effective to treat them. But the money savings would have to somehow disappear (presumably into the pockets of government health-care policymakers), otherwise people would push to have their premiums (taxes) lowered.

That sounds awfully familiar. I've heard that criticism of organizations before.

And then came the realization. The issue isn't necessarily that want corporate health insurance rather than government health insurance. There seems to also be a fear that a government monopoly would be just as bad, if not worse, than a corporate one.

It Must Suck To Need The Crazy Ones

On This Week, Jake Tapper asked Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah), who was correct, Sarah Palin (former Republican governor of Alaska) or Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). For those of you who have been striving to stay far, far, far away from politics, Palin claimed in a Facebook post that provisions in the current health-insurance reform law that allow for senior citizens to obtain counseling on end-of-life care amount to "Death Panels," where government officials will decide when someone is too old to have money spent on their health care. Murkowski strenuously disagreed.

Hatch waffled - refusing to support either side. In effect, he refused to go on the record either saying that a) he believed that Democrats were attempting to sneak what some people have characterized as euthanasia for cost savings into the bill, or b) that Governor Palin (intentionally or not) is spreading factually incorrect information. I understand he refusal to go to the mat for a). After all, it's rare that a United States Senator is politically unsavvy enough to publicly support something that's already been shown to be objectively false. But his refusal to concede that Palin was wrong demonstrates the position that Hatch understands himself to be in - so hard up for votes that if he has to leave the door open for people to think that he believes what is widely understood to be a paranoid delusion, he'll do it.

That's more than a whiff of desperation - it's an overpowering reek.

Just Teasing

Commercials for products that are supposed to have one effect or the other often come with disclaimers, one of the most common ones being: "Results not typical," as you often see for weight-loss plans. Leaving aside for a moment the idea that the results may not be typical because of things that you don't know about the unknown spokespersons for these plans, this is a sensible thing to do. After all, to get the best results from many of these plans, you have to stick with them for a certain amount of time - those people who manage that are in a minority, so their results are not typical of the majority of the people who start, who end up giving up or cheating so often that they plan becomes worthless.

But I saw a commercial for cancer treatment centers today, and at the top of the screen was "No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results." Going beyond the idea that it seems to make little sense that one would pay for something that you should not expect to work as advertised, as far as I could tell, the "these results" the disclaimer referred to were simply that these people felt they'd be respected, treated well, and were still alive. If that's really too much to expect, I don't think I understand the point.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Job For Everyman

The political situation here in the United States is moving closer and closer to complete dysfunction. The hostility of the Republicans to President Clinton has taken on a life of its own, moving from party to party, directing itself at whomever is in office at the time. As both parties become more concerned with ideology as opposed to effective policy, back and forth swings seem destined to become more common. Right now, it's the Republican's turn. Many members of the party have come to the conclusion that they lost the White House not because people didn't understand how the policies of the party advanced them and their interests during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, but because those policies did not adhere closely enough to a conservative ideological standard. Many (but clearly not all) Democrats, having come to the conclusion that the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States is indicative of a shift to the Left, are likely going to be in the same boat in the foreseeable future.

As the system edges closer and closer to meltdown, what's needed is for the public to re-insert itself into the picture, through a greater level of "citizen activism," for want of a better term. Fifty years ago, getting the straight skinny on legislation coming out of Washington D.C. was hard. Now, it's child's play. Despite the heft of the current health-insurance reform bill moving through Congress, you can, actually, go and read it. Not, more than likely, that this would be of much help. But that, too, can be mitigated by an active citizenry. Elected officials are like anyone else with a job, they respond to things that put them at risk of unemployment. Voting out lawmakers who support bills their constituents can't make heads or tails of is likely a very good way to curb the practice.

In the end, this has to be important to the group of us, as the public. After all, we're the ones who are going to go down with the ship, if we let our "leaders" steer it into an iceberg.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Note To Self

If, by chance, I happen to get married in a foreign country, I'm going to hire an experienced local DJ from that country to plan the music for the reception, especially if instrumental versions of songs are the way to go. This way, I won't have guests who know the lyrics to the music wondering why breakup, cheating heart or heartbreak songs are being played at a wedding reception, and wondering if the music planner is just ignorant of the words to the songs, or knows something they don't.