Friday, October 26, 2012

Reason #262: Rightsizing

When the final presidential debate wrapped up on Monday night, early reactions were dominated by surprise; that in a debate intended to focus on foreign policy, both candidates had been quick to veer into economic issues in spite of the topic at hand.

One of the debate's big moments, in fact, wasn't related to foreign policy at all, but involved President Obama making the bold claim that at the end of 2012, despite current law, sequestration "will not happen". Also, of course, was the other big moment, wherein Obama related Mitt Romney's worries about the size of the military to our lack of "horses and bayonets".

I'd actually like to tie these two topics together a bit for you, but first, a little more back story.

In the final hours of last summer's debt ceiling crisis (which contributed in no small part to the start of this blog), Congress crapped out passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which created a litany of new conditions under which the Tea Party, in its infinite wisdom, would permit us to raise the debt ceiling and continue paying back money we'd already borrowed.

The bill created the so-called supercommittee, a bipartisan group of legislators charged with finding a billion dollars or so worth of spending cuts to offset the debt ceiling increase. When they failed miserably a few months later, that turned the necessary cuts over to a process called sequestration, which would automatically take huge chunks out of future spending across the board, both defense-related and domestic, at the end of 2012.

While the sequestration cuts are viewed fairly universally as quasi-disastrous, and capable of sending the US into another recession, Obama's original reaction to the failure of the supercommittee was to promise that he would veto any attempt to wriggle out of them; either Congress find new cuts themselves, or they have to live with the consequences.

Cut to a year later, and he's suddenly got faith in Congress' ability to get things done? Well, maybe, maybe not. I don't think Obama expects the election to hinge on the threat of sequestration (or any quadrisyllabic word, for that matter), and whether he wins the election or not, by the time the year ends and the cuts theoretically take place, there'll be nothing the voters can do to him about it. This is Congress' mess either way, so better to play the optimist on the eve of your reelection than the doomsayer.

But let's circle back around to Obama's other debate comment, the one about bayonets. The point he was making was that America's military superiority should be dependent upon demands and capabilities, not sheer size. We're used to operating on the same playing field as our enemies, but that hasn't been the case since the Cold War ended. Lacking bayonets doesn't make us weaker because bayonets are irrelevant to the modern world (I might argue that the same applies to aircraft carriers and submarines, but I digress).

What I will argue, though, is that this philosophy applies, or should be made to apply, to all federal spending. I would wager that a great deal of federal programs are as useless to today's economic landscape as bayonets are to today's battlefield, and while the very foundation of this blog is that federal spending is generally fine and dandy, if we're truly so committed to making serious cuts, well, that's a conversation we can have. And if the result is that jobs are lost and our economy shrinks, the Tea Party can add that to its résumé for the midterms.

But personally, I don't see sequestration as losing a limb; I see it as rightsizing.

Further Reading

A Glossary of Political Economy Terms - Sequestration

Sequestration Cuts Will Be Avoided By Congress As Obama Claimed, Senator Mark Warner Says

Wikipedia - Budget Control Act of 2011

Is America's navy shrinking too much?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reason #261: Sesame Street

The left has been banging this drum so hard for the last couple weeks that I'm almost loathe to get into it myself...almost. So let's take a closer look at Sesame Street.

More than forty years into its existence, and with numerous foreign-language versions featuring both dubbed and new material, Sesame Street is now the most widely-viewed children's television program on the planet. But the landscape has expanded dramatically in those forty years, and where it was once the "heavyweight champion" of its field, it is now only the fifteenth-highest-rated children's show. Despite the increased competition from both educational (Dora) and decidedly non-educational (Spongebob) shows, Sesame Street continues to have a mammoth effect on our culture, and more importantly, our early education--by the late nineties, it was estimated that a resounding 95% of American preschoolers had been exposed to the show in their first three years.

When it first premiered, Sesame Street was unique for several reasons--for starters, its production values (read: budget) far exceeded the typical children's programming of the time. The show was founded on the sum of $8 million, which came from not only federal subsidies, but from the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation. The goal of its creators was to harness the addictive properties of television (well-known even back then) for use in developing the cognitive, and eventually emotional, skills of children who were too young for school.

Given that the show was being partly funded by the government, it was marked by an egalitarian and representative streak that would be unfathomable today--casting was conducted with the express goal of nonwhite actors featuring more prominently than white ones, and with specific effort being made to reflecting conditions both high- and low-income viewers could relate to. Indeed, the show was especially successful in poor neighborhoods, where parents perhaps had less quality time with their young ones themselves.

The show was just as agreeable behind the scenes--in order to attract better creative talent, songwriters and performers (notably Jim Henson) were allowed to retain copyrights to their original material, meaning that Kermit the Frog could appear on both Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, and original songs that went on to become genuine hits, like Rubber Ducky, would do as well for their writers as for the show itself.

Another bold step the show took early on was to blend the originally-separated human and muppet portions of the show, after it was determined that the mix wouldn't freak anybody out (no, really). Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, in fact, were specifically designed to easily incorporate into the human-scale sets, whereas characters like Elmo and Grover, obviously, were smaller and designed to occupy a larger portion of the screen than they typically would alongside an adult human.

As time went on, and the show's educational models--which were the first ever on television to utilize an actual curriculum--were proven to be successful, the show started branching out into larger, more serialized narratives. By the eighties, when one of the main human actors passed away, it was decided that his character, Mr. Hooper, would die on the show and allow his loss to become a teaching moment itself--a move that could easily have been disastrous, but was seen as an unqualified success in teaching viewers how to cope with grief and the loss of a loved one.

Sesame Street never looked back--shortly thereafter, Mr. Snuffleupagus was "revealed" to the human charcters (who had previously thought him to be Big Bird's imaginary friend) as a way of emboldening children to speak out about abuse in their households. By the 2000s, topics like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were being incorporated into the narrative in ways that toddlers could understand without alienating them or angering their parents.

The image at the top of this entry is typical of the Republican position on Public Television--they see it as a bureaucratic, anti-capitalist welfare program that props up its own values in defiance of the free market; in other words, as the epitome of liberal thinking, and the antithesis of a juggernaut like Spongebob Squarepants, which doesn't let education get in the way of the bottom dollar.

To which I say, damn straight.

Further Reading

History of Sesame Street

Friday, October 12, 2012

Reason #260: Endurance

In March of 2015, two astronauts--one American, one Russian--will depart for the International Space Station on a thrilling, almost-unprecedented mission: in order to study the effects of an extended manned mission to Mars, they will have to stay there for a full year.

Though that's twice the length of a typical stay aboard the ISS, it's only half the time a Mars mission would take. Meanwhile, the ISS itself is another milestone in space endurance; while individual missions have never been more than six months long, the station has been inhabited continuously for just shy of twelve years now.

Throughout that time, the ISS has completed around fifteen orbits of the Earth every day, averaging roughly seventeen thousand miles per hour, between 205 and 255 miles above the surface of the planet.

Now, not only are ISS missions getting longer (NASA and the RSA will be considering year-long missions as the status quo if the first is successful), but it's also becoming more crowded. When the station was built in the late nineties, it was designed to "comfortably" support seven astronauts, yet it has never actually held that many at once--for its first several years, missions were limited to only two or three individuals at a time, and over the last decade, that number has slowly ramped up to six.

While no one ISS mission has ever lasted more than six months, humans have in fact already been in space for more than a year consecutively--Russian Valeri Polyakov holds the record, at 438 consecutive days aboard the Mir space station in the late nineties. Russians also kick our asses in total cumulative time in space--the record for an American is 382 days, while the overall record is Sergei Krikalev's whopping 803 days--well over two years.

Meanwhile, the ISS has also been a major player in the emerging field of space tourism, having hosted seven different private citizens in its lifetime--all of whom were carried there by Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the price of $20-40 million, because NASA is apparently allergic to money.

Further Reading

1st Year-Long Space Station Mission May Launch in 2015

Wikipedia - International Space Station

Wikipedia - Space tourism

Wikipedia - List of spaceflight records

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reason #259: The Debates

Everybody who pays even the slightest bit of attention to presidential politics has heard about at least two significant debates--Lincoln-Douglas in 1858, and Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are known for embodying what "real" debates are meant to be--two candidates, unmoderated, addressing and responding to each other directly, speaking sometimes for as long as ninety minutes.

At the other end of the spectrum, the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first ever broadcast on national television, and has gone down in history not for what the candidates said, but for how they looked. Kennedy was tan and well-rested, Nixon a sweaty, unshaven mess. That one evening undoubtedly set the debates on the path they've taken ever since, but it turns out that's even more true than many people realize: prior to Kennedy-Nixon, there were pretty much zero recognizable presidential debates of any kind.

Even the aforementioned Lincoln-Douglas debates were for an Illinois Senate seat; though they two men did end up running against each other for president two years later, no debates took place in the election that year, or at all until well into the next century. Franklin D. Roosevelt notably declined a debate challenge from Republican Wendell Wilkie in 1940, and in 1948 and 1956, there was exactly one Republican and one Democratic primary debate, respectively--each between only two candidates, a stark contrast to the parade of clowns we saw this year.

When Nixon and Kennedy finally ended up before the cameras on September 26, 1960, television news was far younger than even the internet is today; one gets the impression the candidates were motivated less by the debate opportunity itself than by the desire just to get on TV for a while. After their bad showing--literally--at the first debate, Nixon's team learned quickly, and made sure that their candidate was as comfortable and presentable as possible from there on out. They had made a big mistake, all right, but it's safe to say that no one has made it since.

But even after all of that, the 1960 debates spent more than a decade as the exception rather than the new rule--there wouldn't be another of their ilk until 1976, televised or otherwise. '76 was the first time an incumbent president, Gerald Ford, had to meet his challenger on the equal footing a televised debate offers, and as Rachel Maddow thoroughly illustrated on her show last night, it would be the first in a long series of debates where the incumbent, having lived in a bubble of yes-men for four years, would come across as befuddled and indignant in the face of someone aggressively coming after his job.

Third-party candidates have traditionally been excluded from general election debates over the years, to the consternation of many, with two notable exceptions: in 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to debate alongside both Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and Independent challenger John B. Anderson, which resulted in one debate between Reagan and Anderson (who largely agreed with each other) with no Carter, and finally, one debate between Reagan and Carter with no Anderson. Sure enough, Carter didn't make it through the sequence of events looking very good, and Reagan went on to crush him a couple weeks later.

Then in 1992, Independent Ross Perot managed to attract enough support that he was allowed into all three Bush-Clinton debates, and even went on to win almost 19% of the popular vote, which is unimaginable in the modern, post-Nader world of third-party candidates. Perot's candidacy is of special significance to me, in that his near-constant 30-minute political infomercials, paid for with his own money, are my earliest presidential-election memory of any kind--if only because they were always preempting TGIF.

Vice-Presidential debates have traced more or less the same trajectory over the years, with the exception being that they've rarely made much difference in their respective races. By a long shot, the most famous moment in any Vice-Presidential debate came in 1988 (sorry, Sarah Palin), when Dan Quayle, George Bush's running mate, compared his own political experience to that of JFK, and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen replied "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The moment rang true, and Dan Quayle went on to become a bigger joke than Joe Biden could ever dream of being. Nevertheless, people were being asked to vote for George Bush, not Quayle, so he also went on to become Vice President.

Further Reading

The Commission on Presidential Debates - Debate History

Wikipedia - Presidential debates

Wikipedia - United States Presidential Election Debates, 2012

Wikipedia - "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"