Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Winners and Losers, according to DiA

Democracy in America looks at 2009's winners and losers. A couple highlights:

For most of this year, so-called "centrists" have gotten their way, whether it be Ben Nelson and Susan Collins on the stimulus bill, or Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman on health-care reform. For these individual senators this may seem like a good thing, but they have given centrism a bad name. Instead of espousing reasonable, moderate solutions to complicated problems (ala the Democratic Leadership Council of old), they have chased the illusion of compromise while often failing to provide a logical rationale for their stated objectives.
[snip]
Democrats say he has been maliciously libeled by a panicked right wing. Republicans say he is seeking radical left-wing changes under a bipartisan verneer. Both are right, to some extent. Mr Obama is not really a policy moderate; he campaigned, and has governed, from the centre-left of his party, not from its Blue Dog right flank. But he has, in fact, made symbolic and real outreaches to the right, only to get slapped in the face more than once. It is fair to say that he erred in believing that left-wing policy could be slipped through if it was lubricated with his signature comforting rhetoric. But he also simply underestimated the lies and smears that would be part of that pushback, "death panels" and all. Whatever happened, we have not come together around Barack Obama. He ends the year having changed policy more than politics.
[snip]
Barack Obama effectively defused the entire summer's worth of racial anxiety—paranoiac rumbling on one side and anxious hang-wringery on the other—with his joke to David Letterman: "I think it's important to realise that I was actually black before the election." He has yet to find the killer quip on health-care reform or climate change, but perhaps he has it in him.

2009 GOP, a haiku

Hey, Obama, you
really screwed up the country.
Bush? What about him?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Incendiary Intimates

In the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, I'm reminded again of Jeffrey Goldberg's excellent piece on airport security from The Atlantic. His conclusion: more emphasis on intelligence gathering, less on invasive searches at airports. Can we all just admit that most of these measures are symbolic only? And can I leave my shoes on when I walk through the metal detector now? Can I continue drinking my fat-free soy chai peppermint latte mochaccino inside security, if I bought it outside security? If a terrorist wants to bring something onto a plane, he (or she) can. TSA isn't doing body-cavity searches yet, are they?

Ezra Klein points out why everyone is calling for the head of Janet Napolitano and not the head of the TSA: thanks to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), there still is no head of the TSA.

"Ungovernable" (III)

Douthat flags a piece by Jay Cost that defends the filibuster. The basic thrust is that eliminating the filibuster will cause huge swings in policy as each party enacts "ideologically extreme" policies each time they take control of congress, and repeals the policies of the other party.

Now, parties may have become more polarized, but reading his piece makes it sound like every member of the Democratic caucus is Patrick Leahy or Bernie Sanders. There are very few "ideologically extreme" members of congress on either side. Like it or not, this is a center-right country. There are only small constituencies for extreme policy on the left or the right. Notice that during the health care debate, single-payer was raised as a policy option very infrequently, and usually by folks like Sanders or my Representative, Keith Ellison. Instead, even if there weren't a filibuster, the most "extreme" policy that would have resulted was a moderately strong public option. And I'm still not convinced there are 51 votes for a strong public option in the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, there isn't a conservative cry to repeal Medicare and Medicaid, which would be the deficit-hawk, small-government conservative position if it were intellectually honest. The spectre of "extreme" policy is largely a phantom.

Douthat writes:

We’ll get fiscal responsibility through a bipartisan compromise, engineered by centrists in both parties and capable of getting 65-70 votes, or else we won’t get it at all. We may need a better class of centrist to make such a compromise possible — but we probably don’t need to abolish the filibuster along the way.

Just how likely does he think this is? The current congress is so consumed with narcissism, parochialism and the all-encompassing pathological need for reelection that serious legislation seems like a pipe dream.

Douthat is right to point to the stimulus and HCR as big accomplishments for the Democratic congress. But he doesn't look deep enough. The stimulus was a deeply flawed bill. The need to get enough small-minded members of congress to sign on turned a good idea into a bill that was smaller than needed and loaded down with pork and tax cuts instead of the infrastructure spending that the country badly needs. (Living until recently in Chicago, where you can see bridges and underpasses crumbling before your eyes, and now in Minneapolis, where, well, this happened, I believe strongly in the need for the US to look to rebuilding its infrastructure.)

The need to get Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to sign onto HCR didn't make it a better bill. It took out a public option that would have saved billions for the government and the public. It threw a random chunk of funding at Nebraska for Medicaid as a blatant payoff for Nelson's vote. How is this making better policy?

And at the end of the day, there's the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room. The GOP is not interested in governing. They are interested in obstructing the president's agenda so as to win elections in 2010. That is not good for the country, no matter who is in charge. And the filibuster is enabling that strategy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bear down...

...Chicago... Bears?

What a game. I'm still trying to recover. My voice is hoarse from cheering good plays and my hand hurts from pounding the table on bad ones.

If this was the Cutler we got all year, I could live with it. He wasn't perfect, but he was better than most QBs the Bears have had in the past 20 years. The offensive line played much better than I would have expected against Jared Allen and the Vikings D-Line. Even with Pat Williams out, that was a very good performance.

Devin Aromashadu. That's all.

Sullivan's Person of the Year (II)

You wouldn't know it by watching CNN, but Iran erupted into protests as the mourning period for moderate Ayatollah Montazeri coincided with an important holiday in Shi'ite Islam. As always, The Dish is the place to be for updates on the protests. Of particular importance is the apparent assassination of Reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi's nephew, Ali Mousavi. Sullivan and his readers have plenty on the importance of this.

In related news, The Times of London picked Neda Agha-Soltan as their person of the year. Makes for a better story than Bernanke, for sure.

And I've said it before, but it is incredible to witness history unfolding in real-time in Iran. This is what a revolution looks like in the 21st century.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Trust me, I'm a doctor.

Sen. Ton Coburn, MD explains his vote against HCR on RealClearPolitics. My favorite excerpt (emphasis mine):

If this bill becomes law, future generations will rue this day and I will do everything in my power to work toward its repeal. This bill will ration care, cut Medicare, increase premiums, fund abortion and bury our children in debt.

[snip]

Our health care system needs to be reformed not because government's role has been too small but because it has been too big. Since the 1940's, government's role in health care has been expanded to the point that it controls 60 percent of our health care economy, according the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. If more government were the answer, health care would have been reformed long ago.

The cognitive dissonance must be staggeringly painful.

Never mind the rest of his argument, which consists of outright lies. The Hyde Amendment already keeps one from using Federal money on abortions, the CBO says premiums will go down for the vast majority of Americans and also says the bill is going to reduce the deficit in the short and long term. Health care is already rationed in Medicare, as well as by cost. Not to mention, the cuts in Medicare are far smaller than those proposed by the GOP nominee for President a little over a year ago.

I can't take any Republican seriously when they talk about the deficit. First, because this bill is deficit neutral. And second, because of this chart.

He plays the "I'm a doctor" card a few times in this piece. Never mind that the AMA has endorsed the current bill.

How is one supposed to have a constructive debate against this sort of opposition?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Who is Obama the President?

Douthat examines:

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

I think Douthat's analysis is pretty dead-on. Obama's liberal instincts for change and social justice are tempered by his deep pragmatism. Evidence of this is not just found in his governance, but in his writing and campaigning. Reading The Audacity of Hope, you get the feeling that his positions aren't seated in any lock-step ideology, but were developed over time, as he explored the intricacies of the issue and applied his education and life experience.

Reading The Audacity to Win, you get a feel for how he balances his desire to be a different kind of politician with his desire to get results. He was reluctant to run negative ads, but he attacked when he had to. He wanted to win, and sometimes that meant slipping back to the old attacks. Through it all, he truly believed in his ability to change America for the better. But he was firmly grounded in reality, rhetoric notwithstanding, and he knew the limitations placed on him.

Liberals may want him to be Dennis Kucinich, but Obama wants to do more than make symbolic gestures, he wants results. How many times have we heard "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" from the Obama team? It's not just a strange Voltaire fetish, it's how they believe they need to govern to get results.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, my few dear readers

Enjoy a new version of a classic on this holiday.

Wishful thinking?

keithellison: Don't Quit on #PO. Still very possible if we get loud now.

HCR passes in the Senate

...and there was much rejoicing.

I'm reminded of a quote from West Wing's Leo McGarry:

There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em: laws and sausages.
Amen.

We've seen way too much of the first, but if you want to see the other one, let Mike Rowe be your guide.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Warm and Fuzzy Feelings

We need more congressmen like Tom Perriello:

Perriello said there is a difference between being targeted and being vulnerable, and he said his support for health-care and energy reform are not as out of touch with his constituents as his opponents say. But even he seemed to acknowledge the challenge of winning next year as he described how he has sought to govern since taking office in January.

"My ultimate goal is not to get reelected," he said. "It's to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference. That's just a different litmus test than some of the powers that be are used to working with."

As I've said before, it would be nice for people to pay more attention to governing and less to reelection.

(HT: Yglesias)

Sullivan's Person of the Year

There's been a good bit of consternation about Time's choice of Ben Bernanke as Person of the Year. Yes, he acted decisively when things fell apart, but he didn't do anything to prevent the crisis in the first place. He's also currently unwilling to use fiscal policy to ease unemployment.

Sullivan offers his own Person of the Year: Neda Agha-Soltan. His tribute is well worth reading, and he's right to say that:

I never thought, on 9/11, that this blog, almost a decade later would end a post with the following words of solidarity and hope:

Allah O Akbar!


It is hard to believe how the meaning of the words, "God is great," has changed among those following the events in Iran. Words that a few years ago brought to mind images of suicide bombers and terrorism have been reclaimed as words of peace and hope. The events of 9/11 cast a shadow over the perception of Islam. Here's hoping that the events in Iran can cast some sunlight on it.

I can't Bear to watch (II)

More good news from the Chicago sports world...

ESPN.com headline: Kings rally from 35-point deficit to stun Bulls

Ugh.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pass the bill. (III)

Nate Silver:

It would be one thing if it was just little ol' me who Walker was arguing against. But instead his arguments fly in the face of the broad consensus established by health care economists (on the policy questions) and procedural and political experts (on the process and politics questions). One of the reasons I consider myself to be a progressive/liberal/whatever is because, more often than not, I've found progressives to be on the "right" side of the argument. They're more empirical, more "scientific", less dogmatic, less sophistic, less demagogic, less anti-intellectual -- not always by any means but at least some majority of the time. After tangling with the kill-billers, however, I'm beginning to have my doubts.

"Ungovernable" (II)

Arlen Specter joins the party:

Whatever the cause, things have gotten bad enough that Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said the Senate should be stripped of one of its illustrious institutional claims.

“This body prides itself on being the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Mr. Specter said. “That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here the past few days.”


In other news, Rep. Joe Sestak's primary challenge to Specter from the left has really turned Specter into a model Democrat. Just check out his twitter: he opposes expanding the war in Afghanistan, supports a strong public option, talks a lot about fair trade policies, is very loudly pro-choice, and has avoided any histrionics regarding his cloture vote on major Democratic legislation. On Afghanistan he's actually outflanking his liberal challenger on the left. (To be fair, Sestak is a retired Admiral, so it makes sense. It's still somewhat remarkable, though.)

Call me a cynic, but I think it's purely because (as he has shown in the past) his principles change when he faces any sort of challenge to his seat. Specter's only principle is to get reelected.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I can't Bear to watch

10/27 94 0/3

That was Jay Cutler's line today. Pitiful. His passer rating was a robust 7.9. For comparison, if every pass you throw falls incomplete, your rating is 39.

By the third quarter, Bears play-by-play guy Jeff Joniak sounded utterly defeated. Jeff Dickerson, ESPN1000's Bears beat reporter simply said "The Bears are an awful football team."

Thank generic deity for the Blackhawks, eh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pass the bill. (II)

Ezra Klein:

This is a good bill. Not a great bill, but a good bill. Imagine telling a Democrat in the days after the 2004 election that the 2006 election would end Republican control of Congress, the 2008 election would return a Democrat to the White House, and by the 2010 election, Democrats would have passed a bill extending health-care coverage to 94 percent of Americans, securing trillions of dollars in subsidies for low-income Americans (the bill's $900 billion cost is calculated over 10 years, but the subsidies continue indefinitely into the future), and imposing a raft of new regulations on private insurers. It is, without doubt or competition, the single largest social policy advance since the Great Society.


Krugman:

[I]t represents a rejection of the view that the solution for all problems is to cut some taxes and remove some regulations. In that sense, what’s happening now, for all the disappointment it represents for progressives, is a historic moment.


Yglesias:

But to repeat—despite flaws, I think this is an excellent piece of legislation. Among other things, it represents a return, after fifteen years, of the idea that congress should be trying to pass major legislation that tackles major national problems. And even beyond that, it restores an even longer-lost tradition of congress trying to pass major legislation on specifically progressive priorities.


Silver:

Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are probably willing to sign off on $900 billion in public subsidies so that poor and sick people can have better access to health care. Is there really no way we can make this work for us?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The junior senator from Minnesota

Al Franken spent his first few months in the Senate keeping a very low profile. That has ended.

On Monday, he took Sen. Thune (R-SD) to task over his disingenuous posturing over health care reform and taxes.

Then today, he cut Sen. Lieberman (I-Liebermanville) off, refusing to give consent for him to continue talking on the floor of the senate.

The gloves are off. This promises to be entertaining.

Pass the bill.

Howard Dean and the netroots left (the DailyKos crowd) are screaming bloody murder about the current incarnation of the health care reform bill. They say it's no longer worth voting for. My father sent me an email agreeing with that position, and I figured I would post my reply here, as it is a good look at my thoughts on the issue:

I have to disagree. Previous failures at reforming health care have not led to improvements over time. Each time reform fails, the next attempt is less ambitious. (Truman wanted single payer. After a few more failed attempts, this bill is all we can get. What would we get next time? History shows it would be worse.) Democrats will almost certainly lose seats in both the Senate and House in 2010. They probably won’t lose the majorities, but in the Senate, any loss is a huge blow. And remember, the house bill passed with just one vote to spare. Polls show the Democrats losing support if they pass HCR… but losing even worse if they don’t. Scrapping it now makes the 2010 midterms more likely to be a bloodbath for Dems, which will make reform even less likely.

This bill will provide health insurance for 30 million Americans that didn’t have it before. It is sprinkled with pilot programs for cost-cutting that can be ramped up if they work. It sets up exchanges to introduce actual competition between insurers, which didn’t exist before. It will give consumers standardized fact sheets, to more easily compare different plans and insurers. The hateable Joe Lieberman is working with the distinguished, respected, and very liberal Jay Rockefeller to improve the Medicare Commission to help keep Medicare spending down. It provides hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help low-income families afford health insurance.

There are disappointments. Annual limits have not been outlawed. There’s no real movement toward changing the incentive structure for providers, which is a huge part of why costs continue to go up. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic provide a great model for low-cost, high-quality health care. They pay their doctors salaries with incentives for results, not for the number of tests ordered. That model should be extended to more hospitals. Obviously a public option would be better to provide more competition and bring costs down further, but my thoughts on that have been put on my blog a couple times.

I don’t mind insurance companies profiting if the end result is that people who couldn’t get insurance can get it now. Would I like a stronger bill? Of course. But in this political environment, I think you have to pass this bill and work on improving it over time. Scrapping it would most likely make future attempts even less ambitious.

Ezra Klein has a good argument for an individual mandate here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/draft_1.html

Other Sources/Reading material:
http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/20-questions-for-bill-killers.html
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/a_bailout_for_insurers.html
http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/why-progressives-are-batshit-crazy-to.html
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/blog/09/12/14/No-Illusions/

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Ungovernable"

That's the word Yglesias has used to describe America. Steny Hoyer has said similar things, as has Ezra Klein.

We have a serious problem in this country in that our government seems to be completely incapable of taking on the many important issues facing our country in a serious manner. We finally have a president who seems interested in tackling the problems we're facing, and he's stymied by a legislature that allows major and needed legislation to be held hostage by the egos of men like Joe Lieberman.

It's bad enough that most of the electorate doesn't know jack-shit about policy (and nobody in the media reports on policy, only on process), but that's why it's a republic, right? We elect people we trust to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, many of those we elect seem to be uninterested in doing the right thing, and more interested in winning reelection, getting on TV, and ensuring constant stroking of their... egos.

Our government is dysfunctional, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Plato wrote that:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, --nor the human race, as I believe, --and then only will this our State have a possibilityof life and behold the light of day.

I think we're about as far from that ideal as it gets right now.

EDIT: Paul Krugman has a different word for it: failed state.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Was the Galactic Empire good?

(Silliness alert.)

Yglesias linked to this defense of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars universe, and in the comments section, someone linked to this article in the Weekly Standard arguing much the same. Jokes about neocons being evil aside, the arguments are fairly compelling. I don't buy the argument that blowing up Alderaan was justified (in the expanded universe it's pretty clear that they were unarmed, as Leia says). But otherwise, much of what the Empire did was similar to Roman rule of provinces. I think the second author doesn't give enough credit to the idea of a loose confederation, which is probably the best idea, from a human (and alien) rights perspective. Anyway, it's always fun to see serious people talking about Star Wars.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My brain REALLY hurts.

John Boehner, noted economic mind and my erstwhile Congressman, offers his thoughts on how to lower unemployment.

Actually, that's not accurate. He offers his thoughts on Obama's plans (job-killing, big government, etc) and offers no alternatives of his own. The WaPo Op-Ed page is really showing off the intellectual firepower of the GOP. How is a president supposed to govern when the "loyal opposition" is so single-mindedly... mindless? Add to that the undemocratic (small d democratic) nature of the Senate, and the structural problems in our electoral system... it's no wonder Obama's grand plans are drowning in mediocrity.

Words of Wisdom from Nicolas Sarkozy

In a joint presser with Gordon Brown, Sarkozy was asked about the costs of addressing climate change, especially helping poorer countries financially. Sarkozy's response holds some food for thought for American politicians (emphasis mine):

“What is the alternative?” the French president asked. “Think about it. monsieur. What if the richest countries do nothing to help Africa to develop… What if there were no deal at Copenhagen? You think that will not cost our economies dearly? Between Europe and Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar are 12km wide. You think we can leave them in that poverty? You think that won’t cost a lot of money? I’ll tell you what costs money, monsieur: it’s doing nothing. What causes a crisis, is the failure to act.

America, in part due to GOP obstructionism, in part due to the parochialism of our congressional politics, and in part due to the structural obstacles posed by the Senate, is perfecting the art of "failing to act." And now we have several crises in this country.

Obama's Nobel Speech

I thought it was a great speech, exploring the intricacies and paradoxes of modern international relations. He acknowledged his role as a war president, and talked about when force might be necessary, even when striving for peace. He spoke of the desire to combat egregious violations of human rights, but spoke of the need to practice diplomacy as well as force of arms.

What struck me was just how much of a thinking-man's speech it was. This is a man who has clearly thought through the options and consequences, and tries to do whatever seems to be the best answer. He isn't shackled to one theory of IR; as Drezner points out, he uses just about all of them in the speech. This is a refreshing change from the single-minded saber-rattling Neo-Conservatism of the Bush years, but it's not a wholesale disavowal of anything. Neo-Conservativism is, after all, a branching off of liberalism.

Or, as Jon Stewart put it "grrr, Obama forcing us to live in area between absolutes!"

This is a president who isn't afraid to use his brain. Despite this environment of anti-intellectualism on the right, that is unequivocally a good thing.

Peter Gammons is leaving ESPN

Gammons is moving over the MLB Network after a long career at ESPN. If you don't know Peter Gammons, he is a pioneer in sports journalism. But the thing that really sets him apart is how much he cares about the people he covers, not just as athletes and statistics, but regular people. The following excerpt from his Hall of Fame induction speech is the best illustration of the kind of journalist he is:

Throughout my career I have tried to be guided by one principle, that because I am human I have the right to like people. But because I am professional, I have no right to dislike any one. People ask me, as a New Englander, what was it like walking out there in the field when Aaron Boone hit a home run. To be honest, my first reaction was, I was ecstatic. I have known Aaron Boone since he was 13 years old and that's my privilege. My second reaction, I saw Tim Wakefield, head down, and I felt despondent. He's one man who did not deserve that. As I walked out on the field to try to get introduced, I turned to my producer, Charlie Moynihan, and said, "look around here, you know what? I just got paid to cover the greatest game ever played in the greatest sporting venue in the world. I think I'm the luckiest man on earth."

I don't think there are many other journalists in any field that garner as much respect and affection not only from their colleagues, but those they cover. On SportsCenter yesterday, Gammons did a quick report from the baseball Winter Meetings, then the SC anchors spent a few minutes thanking him and talking about how great it was to work with him for so many years. Buster Olney used the top of his daily blog on baseball in a tribute to Gammons and the effect he had on Olney's career.

And this is just when he moves to another network. Now to figure out how to get MLB network on my cable package...

EDIT: My brother points out Gammons' goodbye column. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My brain hurts.

Sarah Palin has decided to utilize the hallowed (*ahem*) Op-Ed page of WaPo to make her case against climate change. It reads like she took a bet on how many times she could fit the words "tax" and "radical environmentalists" into a single Op-Ed. I guess "science" is a radical idea in her little world.

(I try to stay away from Palin-bashing--Sullivan does more than enough to go around--but this was painful enough that I just had to post.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

He must be an organizer

Mike Tidwell (yes, he is an organizer) has some advice for you:

We all got into this mess together. And now, with treaty talks underway internationally and Congress stalled at home, we need to act accordingly. Don't spend an hour changing your light bulbs. Don't take a day to caulk your windows. Instead, pick up a phone, open a laptop, or travel to a U.S. Senate office near you and turn the tables: "What are the 10 green statutes you're working on to save the planet, Senator?"


Well worth reading. And heeding. It seems silly, but it really does work. And it feels good. If you really want to get their attention, pull out a pen and a piece of loose leaf (remember those? they're the Microsoft Word of the 19th century) and hand-write a letter, and send it to your senator or representative's office. And don't be afraid to pick up the phone and give them a call. The interns answering the phones are nice, they don't bite. (And if you know the name of the congressperson's environment person, you can sometimes get to talk to them by asking.) Make a difference, it only takes a minute.

(HT: Yglesias)

The consummate Politico piece

Laura Rozen, Politico's ostensible Foreign Policy guru, has a great example of Politico reporting today. Any foreign policy in the piece is merely incidental. It's all process. Part of the reason we have such an uninformed electorate is the media's insistence on reporting process and not policy. The obsession with the horse-race means the public hears all about Joe Lieberman's stance vis-a-vis the public option, but very little about the current structure of the public option and what it will accomplish.

The White House is certainly aware of this.

Edit:
Ezra Klein has some evidence to back up my assertions.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Twilight and Harry Potter explained

The Economist has a good article on the effect of New Media on the arts. They point out that niche movies and books have been helped, as have big bestsellers/blockbusters. The losers have been the mediocre films and books that fall somewhere in the middle. The part I found most interesting, however, was a theory of why blockbusters (even bad ones) do so well:

Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

Sounds to me like people should read more. If they enjoy crappy books, imagine if they were to read something good.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ditch the public option (II)

Ezra Klein has a good piece on the public option, and the politics thereof. I spent a couple months canvassing and organizing for health care reform and a public option with USPIRG. I can understand the frustration from liberals (sorry, progressives, but that's a rant discussion for another time) who worked so hard for a robust public option. Unfortunately, right now a really good public option is not politically viable. It just doesn't have the votes. It might have 51 votes, though I'm not even sure of that, but it certainly doesn't have 60.

In August, I attended a briefing on health care by one of the higher-ups at USPIRG. His basic point was that the public option is not the end in itself, but a vehicle to facilitate the other reforms that they want to see. A strong public option in addition to measures that bring down the cost of health care for everyone would be ideal, but if the reforms are mandated without a public option, they could live with it.

The reforms in the current bill aren't as far-reaching as they would be in an ideal world, and the public option has been thoroughly neutered. The public option has become a symbol to the left wing of the Democratic party, but that is its primary value. It might be better for Democrats from a political perspective to pass a bill with something called a public option in it. It would energize the currently lethargic Democratic base, certainly helping the Dems in 2010. But from a policy perspective, if losing the public option would allow Congress to improve key parts of the bill, like subsidies for low-income folks, changing the incentives for providers and comparative effectiveness research for Medicare payments, it will probably be a better bill in the end.

It's depressing to think that all those doors we knocked on didn't get us a public option, but the reality is that this may in fact be a better bill without it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brutally Honest

The Economist's editorial cartoon is pretty harsh this week.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tom Clancy Meets Real Life... Again

Eric Prince, former CEO of Blackwater (now known as Xe), was actually a CIA asset for several years while running the defense contractor:

For the past six years, he appears to have led an astonishing double life. Publicly, he has served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman. Privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies. Prince, according to sources with knowledge of his activities, has been working as a C.I.A. asset: in a word, as a spy.

This is pretty incredible stuff. The full profile linked above is well-worth reading.

(HT: Laura Rozen)

Afghanistan

Well, the big roll-out was last night, and it was pretty much what everyone expected. About 30,000 more troops, an increase in civilian aid workers, and a focus on protecting the population.

The interesting point is the fact that he announced that troops would start to leave within 18 months. This is clearly not just a complete withdrawal after 18 months, so what is it? I get the feeling that the President thinks this is the least worst strategy. If, after 18 months, things are in a position where withdrawal and handover is an option, great. If the surge accomplishes nothing in 18 months, it probably won't accomplish much in 18 years, so it's time to get out. The timetable also puts more pressure on the Afghan government to get their shit together. We won't be there forever, so something needs to be done to create a functioning government and security force.

On that note, this line made me fall out of my chair laughing:

"In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and - although it was marred by fraud - that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and Constitution."

The president played some real verbal twister to avoid using the word "legitimate" in regards to the Karzai government. Again, COIN strategy only works if you have a legitimate and trusted government. This one is neither. The President put some of the onus on the Afghan government and people to clean up their act in the speech, but I'm far from confident that it is enough.

Best case scenario, in my mind: In 18 months, the situation has gotten noticeably better. There's still certainly no shining beacon of democracy in Central Asia, but the situation has improved enough to declare victory and pull out. Let's hope that (or something better) happens.

At the end of the day, I'll probably grudgingly admit that this is the President's "least worst" option, and I'll join the ranks of Jim Fallows and Andrew Sullivan in sighing "Well, I hope he's right."