Friday, December 20, 2013

Reason #307: I Actually Signed Up For Obamacare

People keep asking me questions about this, so I figured I'd just start from the beginning.

A year ago, I was on the best employer health insurance plan I'd ever had. That's not saying too much, as I've never made enough money to have a really good plan, but I happen to have certain specific ongoing medical needs that cost a not-insignificant amount of money, so for me, the difference between a "good" plan and a "bad" plan is either paying UPMC upwards of $100 per month just to keep my debt to them leveled off...or paying a $50 copay once or twice a year. And the plan I was on a year ago was the first ever to land me in the latter situation.

Then the re-enrollment period came up last July, and my employer was dumped from the plan. We're a pretty big company, but still small enough that if a handful of people get really sick in a short period of time--which is apparently what happened--it can tilt the entire company's insurance situation from profitable to not profitable. So there I was, fresh out of a $1500 medical procedure that had only cost me $50, learning that that would no longer be an option.

The two options I had going forward were thus: a roughly equivalent plan to the good one with a 70% increase in my premium, or a worse plan...with a 30% increase in my premium. Said premium was already on the high side, but it was virtually eliminating my medical expenses, so I was okay with it--but 70% more wasn't happening. So onward I went into the second half of 2013, with less medical coverage and a smaller paycheck to show for it.

Suffice it to say, I was happy to give Obamacare a shot. It's ironic that insurance companies rejiggering their rates in anticipation of the health care exchange might have had a hand in my employer costs going up, because if everything had stayed the same I'd have been happy to keep my employer plan.

I started an account on within the first couple weeks of October--even before all the website nonsense started, I wasn't in a big hurry, because I know enough about the tech industry to expect problems with any big launch. Buying an iPod the day it comes out is stupid, and trying to get health care on day one of the exchange would have been equally stupid. So by the time I got around to making the account, I was well aware of the problems and was just expecting to dip my toes in. I started the account itself, entered most of my personal info with no problems, and eventually they wanted some information on my employer coverage that I wanted to confirm with HR first, so I stopped there. I had the info within a couple days, but I figured I might as well leave it be until things seemed to be going better with the site.

Cut to the beginning of December. Word was they'd mostly met their deadline of making the site usable by the end of November, but there were still problems with the "back end"--meaning people would sign up for a plan but the information wasn't being passed along to the insurers correctly--so my thinking was, better to get signed up soon enough that I would have time to make sure everything went through properly before the end of the year. On December 12th, I logged back in, finished off my profile stuff, and started looking at plans. The website wasn't perfect; not all the navigation options were as intuitive and/or reliable as they could have been, but nothing that really hurt my ability to use it--I've been a Chrome user since the beta, so I'm used to having the occasional hiccup on certain websites. No big deal.

Meanwhile, without too much digging, I found a plan that was pretty close to that old one I had liked, for just about the same amount of money (which, remember, meant it would be cheaper than what I'm paying right now). The exchange gave me an "eligibility notice" based on my personal financial information that told me I might qualify for a tax subsidy, but weirdly, the cost for the plan included a listing for my subsidy, but listed said subsidy as zero dollars. Checking the fine print of my eligibility notice, I saw a message that basically said they'd need more time to look into my situation and determine what kind of tax break I could have--but the base cost of my plan was still acceptable to me, and in the interest of getting this over with I decided I'd go ahead and enroll either way. I clicked the button to do just that, and it went through okay, but then it gave me a link to make a payment on the insurer's website. I didn't want to go quite that far until I was sure about the subsidy thing--and sure that the paperwork for the plan had actually gone through correctly--so rather than actually make a payment, I called the exchange's hotline and was talking to someone within five minutes. She was very friendly, but admittedly didn't have much specific information for me. She told me that I would be hearing from the insurer shortly to finalize things, and that when that happened I could go ahead and pay them without losing my chance at a subsidy in the event that I was ultimately able to get one.

A week goes by. My plan status is still listed on my exchange account as "initial enrollment", but I haven't gotten any mail or phone calls from the insurer yet. The hotline lady gave me a direct number for the insurer that I could call if I wanted to follow up myself, so I called it this morning and, well, it was a useless number. I couldn't get through their menu options without a plan ID number that I didn't have yet, and every time I tried to get an operator it hung up on me. I was not optimistic.

So I tried Googling the name of my plan, and I found a PDF "summary of benefits" document on the insurer's website that had the company's general customer service number on it--that seemed like a safe bet. So I called that one, and got a human being almost immediately. Normally I'm one of the few people that prefers talking to robots on the phone, but given that I wasn't even sure I existed in their system at all it was a relief to be able to just tell someone what my situation was. To my even greater relief, she found my records right away and confirmed that everything the exchange had told me was correct and my first bill was en route. It'll probably show up sometime next week, but since I'm leaving town for Christmas I decided to just get the first payment taken care of over the phone, so she transferred me to billing and 5-10 minutes later I was done--and officially Obamacare's newest success.

I still haven't heard anything new about my tax subsidy, of course, and I'm not optimistic; I do know that I make well under the $44 thousand per year or so that's supposed to be the line for one-person households to qualify, but it's possible there's some other extenuating circumstance I don't know about. Maybe I'll hear something, maybe not--even if I'm stuck at this price for 2014, maybe sometime next year I'll call the exchange again and investigate further, but frankly, I'm already perfectly content with what I'll be paying; it's not dirt cheap, but at least I had dozens of plans to choose from instead of two.

My sense of the new system overall is that it's not likely to be immensely cheaper unless you really do manage to qualify for some huge tax subsidy, but even if the price difference is a wash, it's infinitely preferable to have the option to browse through a bunch of different plans and pick the one with the best details, rather than just have to take whatever my job happened to offer, or research a million different private insurance plan on my own. Having available as the Orbitz or Travelocity of health insurance is definitely a great thing, even if the value element is hard to predict.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Interlude VII - Final Essay

While it's tempting to simply say that yes, the process of globalization is by definition a process of homogenization, I think a more accurate term would be universalization--the process does not make our life experiences interchangeable, but it does make them more broadly translatable.

For example, if you look at the island of Great Britain, with a landlocked population that has been remained largely isolated for the bulk of its thousands of years of human occupation, you will still find an enormous degree of cultural variation from region to region; not just in separate nations like Ireland and Scotland, but even within England itself, there are worlds of difference between the metropolitan Londoners and the countryfolk, between the farmers and the fishermen. Culturally, of course, one only needs to look at the violent struggles surrounding the Catholic Church in Great Britain to see that people will find things to argue about no matter how similar they are.

Great Britain's longevity makes it a particularly useful example, but you can see the same pattern play out to varying degrees all over the world: less so on the island of Japan, which is both landlocked and has a long history of atypical cultural purity and imperialism--but which still exhibits striking divisions between modern and traditional values, and the United States, which is far younger than the nations of Eurasia, and across its three-thousand-mile expanse demonstrates enormous variations in culture, modernity, and lifestyle.

So, then, if even populations such as Great Britain's and Japan's don't really demonstrate all that much homogenization, it seems unlikely that the age of globalization will somehow be the thing that changes that--much less increasing their homogeneity with other nations entirely.

Universalization, on the other hand, can be understood as the mainstreaming of certain societal or cultural infrastructure--cinema being one example, or fast food, or on the more negative end of the spectrum, offshoring and deregulation. Processes and paradigms that were once unique to specific nations are indeed becoming commonplace all over the world, but they do so according to open-market logic--the most useful and popular methods tend to win out, even if they're not always the most fair--and often take on a local flavor specific to the needs and mores of each individual population.

Looking through our course material, more specific examples come to mind. Locomotives, now a ubiquitous system of transportation for both freight and passenger travel, were first developed in England for their convenience and efficiency. The technology proved uniquely useful in the United States, however, whose landmass dwarfs that of England--the intercontinental railroad was what made safe and reliable travel to and from the west coast of the US a reality. What was largely a convenience in Europe became an existential necessity for the US. Moving into the present, high-speed rail has found particular success in Japan, where the enormous metropolitan area of Tokyo renders automobile travel a unique challenge. The Japanese took the western model of locomotive travel and greatly developed its commuter aspect to suit their own needs. Globalization allowed each of these far-flung cultures access to the same revolutionary technology, but left them free to adapt it to greatly different ends.

Of course, those who are wary of globalization tend to be less concerned about technological advancement than the slow creep of a perceived "cultural imperialism". The example of Cosmopolitan magazine, however, suggests that the only way for a cultural product to truly take root around the world is to offer a universal message in the first place. Cosmo, as the course outlines, has been very successful in isolating core universal principles--female empowerment and coming of age--and translating them into numerous different cultures, without causing riots in the more repressive cultures of the Middle East, or boring the daylights out of ultra-progressive Sweden. This requires not just identifying those aspects of their product that have universal appeal, but also giving regional editors the freedom to envelop those aspects in the best parts of their own cultures, and bring to bear their own understanding of where the line is--and precisely how far the magazine may dare to cross it.

This is not to say that the process of globalization is always positive, of course. Filtering the world of globalization through a local lens doesn't always remove the bad elements, and in fact can give them new opportunities to flourish. Dubai's entrance onto the world stage, for all the grandeur and regality of its enormous skyscrapers and resorts, left plenty of room for the subjugation of the country's natives into an invisible, lower class of construction workers and service industry wage slaves and indentured servants. The danger inherent in globalization's advent is not inherent to the process, but in its potential to blind us to injustices by normalizing them--the more widespread acceptance they garner, the less problematic they may seem, or at least, the less fixable. But it's easy to overlook the wealth of different cultures this planet continues to be home to--homogeneous only in their having equal capacities for both good and evil.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Interlude VI - Competition for Everyone

According to Richard B. Freeman (2008), "almost all at once in the 1990s, China, India, and the former Soviet bloc joined the global economy, and the entire world came together into a single economic world based on capitalism and markets." Describe two (2) important effects this development has had on the global labor market.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the joining of that area's workers, along with those of India and China, into the global work force had the immediate effect of increasing competition around the world for many of the simplest and most portable jobs. Market capitalism had been great for the West, in particular the United States, in the years after World War II. Before the war, no middle class existed in the US and so much money was concentrated in so few hands that the entire economy was susceptible to the disaster of the Great Depression--what was a bad turn of events for the wealthy meant unmitigated devastation for the poor, who depended upon the upper class for their employment, and upon the banks for their savings. After the war, new industries existed that served to boost more people up to genuine self-sufficiency than had ever before been the case, which combined with all-time-high taxes on the highest incomes to create the most equal society (at least financially) the US had ever experienced. Once the global labor market opened up in the nineties, however, the finite number of jobs offered by those new industries faced a vastly-increased pool of workers. The United States had pioneered a lot of the technology of globalization, and now that technology was making it harder and harder to justify leaving a basic, low-to-moderate-skill job in the same city as a company's headquarters when there were people on the other side of the planet willing to do it for far less, because a generation ago they were picking rice for a living. Market competition was the thing that created the United States' successful economy in the first place, so it made sense that if Company A only hired middle-class Americans and Company B hired destitute Indians and Chinese, Company B would be the winner of that competition, and thus you'd start seeing more of that in the future.

The second effect of this increased competition was the lowering of wages for those jobs that did remain in the United States. Even companies that preferred at first not to outsource their jobs overseas felt economic pressure from those that did, and whose operating costs were therefore lower) and were motivated to lower their wages nevertheless. Also, more unemployed American workers means higher competition for those few jobs, and once again, lower wages. Of course, this was only a problem in the West; while these new workers in the East were theoretically open to all sorts of exploitative business practices due to their desperation, the immediate effect of their sudden employment was indeed higher levels of income, and a large boost to those countries' urban areas as more and more people moved away from their farms. Time will tell, but in my opinion, workers in the East are going through a process similar to what happened in the United States after the Great Depression; now that work is available, they will become higher-skilled and better-educated, leading to yet higher wages until they eventually catch up with the West, thereby eliminating the impetus for outsourcing as a cost-saving venture and leading to a "genuinely integrated world economy", as Professor Hoberman describes it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Interlude V - The Marriage of East and West

Why are certain cultural products globally popular while others are not? What are some of the SPECIFIC QUALITIES or CHARACTERISTICS that make cultural products (books, music, films, sports) most accessible to global audiences?

While the United States happened to be uniquely positioned at the dawn of globalization to produce cultural products like films, television, and music that could reach cultures all around the world, the last couple decades of experience have been excellently instructive as far as which products are truly global in their appeal, and which are limited to the West, or even the US in particular, in their scope.

In the example of Avatar, one of the two highest-grossing feature films of all time, the movie was the quintessential merging of numerous global sensibilities into a universal product that would be familiar to many cultures without being too specific to any one. Set in the far future, it embodied the promise of technology—a theme that also has universal appeal in the present due to the internet and popular music—in both the high-tech universe of its story and in the groundbreaking-yet-real technology that brought its universe to the big screen (and in three dimensions, no less).

But tempering that promise was, as Professor Hoberman noted, a very anti-imperialist, philosophically-Eastern narrative and moral message. The worldwide success of American cinema demonstrated that global audiences were happy to embrace Western-style storytelling from the get-to, so adding a layer of non-Western themes only upped the ante and enhanced the film’s palatability to far-flung cultures. The lesson to take from this going forward is that even the most universal experiences and messages—love, honor, autonomy—can benefit from being filtered through the proficient delivery system that is American cinema.

A different sort of success has been found by Cosmopolitan magazine, but one no less worldwide in its reach. What Cosmo, as it is known colloquially, has done is to distill its own essence down to a core message—that of feminine pride, independence, and self-assurance—and tailor that to the individual boundaries of a wealth of different nations and cultures. An article about having great sex, for example, could be seen as passé in Sweden yet appalling in Saudi Arabia—but it would be right at home in America. As such, each nation’s editors have been able to translate the same core principles according to their own respective mores in a way that retains the same positive, forward-leaning position in each respective culture; without inciting riots, of course.

From these examples, one may conclude that there are multiple avenues through which the producers of cultural product can appeal to global audiences. While the United States remains in an exceptional position thanks to the length and breadth, and generations-long experience, of its creative industries, the force-multiplier that is universal experience (not to mention diverse casts of characters) cannot be underestimated. Not only will a marriage of both Eastern and Western storytelling strengths produce more globally-appealing commodities, but it serves to further universalize their messages, as well—something that cloistered Western audiences can benefit from as much as the East can benefit from the West’s technology.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Interlude IV - America's Example Trumps Its Flaws

Imagine that the content of the Internet were controlled by a powerful global agency comparable to the United Nations. Explain the possible ADVANTAGES and/or DISADVANTAGES of such a system.

Ironically, the primary advantage of assigning all power over the regulation of the internet to one giant agency like the United Nations would be the decentralization of said power--by taking it out of America's hands. While the existence of one authoritative international body in the place of, for example, ICANN, would mean decisions regarding content control, censorship, naming conventions, and so on would still be in as few hands as always, those hands would then be from a much wider variety of cultures and international powers. This would also mean that said body would be in a better position to adapt to the sudden and unexpected challenges that so often characterize the internet, whereas right now it's much harder for anyone to get anything done if they're not in a position of power in the American system. It would also produce the intangible benefits that come with improved perception--regardless of its actual effectiveness as a regulatory body, the myriad nations of the world would likely be more patient in dealing with it given that they'd have at least nominal say in the decisions it makes.

Of course, without the military and financial might of the United States to back it up, other nations also might be less inclined to pay it much heed to begin with--as the United Nations in its current form can tell you already. Furthermore, modeling the disbursement of power over the internet after the powers of the UN would also mean dealing with the UN's extensive procedural and bureaucratic problems, making it harder to settle on effective regulatory policies and platforms in the first place.

Where censorship is concerned, while the United States pursuing free speech in China at the same time as it's pursuing Edward Snowden and Julian Assange means that we maybe don't have the strongest position from which to criticize China's censorship of the internet, one disadvantage of having a global agency manage the internet would mean detaching it from free speech in even a rhetorical sense--without powerful American corporations like Google loudly championing free speech in the popular culture, censorship would become a matter of popular opinion. One of the biggest procedural problems in the United Nations is overcoming vetoes from China and Russia, two countries who clearly aren't overly concerned about free speech, so if they were given equal footing in a theoretical internet management entity they could simply use their weight in the international community to prevent the enactment of any anti-censorship policies they disagree with.

In conclusion, I think that the best thing about the current system is that it highlights the problems of Chinese censorship by throwing them into harsh relief. While the Unites States should not, and cannot, lead the world forever on this or any other matter, I believe that the example our Bill of Rights sets for the rest of the world (a tainted example though it may be) is a strong motivator to drag more totalitarian countries into a more tolerant, Western mindset, where divorcing the internet from the American example, while philosophically appealing, would just mean a more tepid set of policies all around. Ultimately, I believe the most American thing about the internet is its free-market values; if the rest of the world comes up with a better system, I believe it will supplant ours whether we want it to or not.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Interlude III - The Leveling of the Playing Field

Describe two (2) major aspects of the globalization process that promote transnational organized crime.

Two major aspects of the globalization process that promote transnational organized crime are the leveling of the international playing field and the democratization of technology.

As I have discussed previously, a primary feature of the globalization process is a leveling of the field for all involved--the loss of jobs in the West, for example, is matched by an increase in jobs in the East. We are still very much in the beginning of this process, which indeed could take generations to truly even out, but while this can mean increased "fairness" in the economic system eventually, right now it means a lot of formerly well-off people suddenly losing their power, wealth, and privilege, which makes them more likely to pursue extra-legal, or at least unregulated, opportunities to further their own ends. European companies dumping their waste off the coast of Somalia is a major example of this--these companies aren't criminals in the traditional sense, but they've become so used to being at the top of the economic pile that they're willing to go to ever-greater lengths to maintain their bottom lines. Meanwhile, those previously at the bottom of said pile are now finding themselves with all the benefits of connectivity to the rest of the world that the powerful enjoy, but without the economic infrastructure to support the responsible use of that connectivity--so they become pirates, or prey on those in need of organ transplants, or trade on the very lives and freedoms of those still even worse-off than themselves.

In keeping with this same leveling, technology is, of course, the key enabler of our newfound connectivity, and as such, it is the easiest and most readily-available tool for those who with to operate outside the law. Even more so than oceanic piracy or black-market organ sales, the hacking and theft of sensitive data from individuals, organizations, and even governments is the greatest leveler of the powerful and the powerless the world has yet experienced, because it only requires a single person. A teenager from Belgium could break into the database of a multinational corporation as easily as a hardened member of Al Qaeda or al-Shabaab, which means that genuine safety and security cannot be simply a matter of law enforcement; we must learn how to shape global culture to discourage these kinds of attacks, from which we have fewer and fewer surefire protections all the time. And of course, even individuals are susceptible to cybercrime in the form of identity theft or ransomware. It would be nice to think that "democratization" of technology means that more power is in the hands of "the people" in a collective sense, but really, it means more power in the hands of individuals--individuals who can have pure, if potentially-misguided motives, as some would describe the members of Anonymous, but certainly just as many corrupt or petty individuals who would just as soon con the average working-class person out of a thousand dollars here and there.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Interlude II - Look to the Old West

How would you describe "offshore" tax havens as one part of the global economic system that exists today?

One major problem with a capitalistic economic model is that is doesn't incentivize goodwill. Proponents would say that the corporations and systems it fosters are by definition the most effective, and therefore the most beneficial to humanity, but the more time goes on, and the more globalization brings capitalism to the far corners of the Earth, the more we can see that that isn't necessarily the case. Only so much voluntary goodwill exists in human society, and the history of capitalism has shown that mandatory taxation is the only way for a civilization to even begin to address issues of social justice.

Take that process as it's existed so far in the United States, for example, and apply it to the much bigger pool that is the entire world, and tax collection naturally becomes much more complicated, the same as it was in America in the 19th century when the nation was a patchwork of states, territories, and lawless wilderness. Eventually, everyone wanted a say in the united government that was emerging, and this desire to participate forced the western populations to come in from the cold, so to speak, and accept more orderly economic strictures.

"Offshore" tax havens, as such, are a natural symptom of market globalization that, while bad, certainly are part of an overall leveling-out process that I think will eventually be a net benefit to social justice by enhancing job opportunities and wages in the less-developed world. Havens are popular now because they're easy for anyone who can afford the requisite staff of lawyers, and because they, like milking a newfound gold claim in 19th-century California, are still essentially legal even in the most egregious circumstances.

Despite this, what we've seen this year could be the first real stirrings of opposition to the current system of tax avoidance. If so, however, what will ultimately be necessary is a totally new global economic system wherein the rules for taxation are consistent from country to country, and in which tax payments can be extracted from foreign banks similar to the process by which criminal persons are extradited from foreign nations today.

This, again, will follow a similar model to the one that united the states. It will not happen quickly, and not everyone will come along willingly, but eventually global governance will have evolved to the point that it will be to the benefit of nations both large and small, both prosperous and developing, to come to the table, and the more they desire representation, the easier it will be for the world community to remove tax shelters from the equation--and people will be better off for it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Interlude I - The Age of the Nation-State

One of the reasons I've been more off-and-on with this blog than usual over the last couple months is that I've been taking a class online, at a website called edX. While the courses are free, they're set up and run by actual college professors, and sometimes even count for college credit if you're so inclined. For no other reason than self-improvement, I enrolled in a class called The Age of Globalization, by University of Texas at Austin professor John Hoberman.

It's been very rewarding so far, but in addition to lots of reading and video lectures, each week ends with an essay question--which nicely (or unfortunately) overlaps with the time that I'd normally be writing about a reason I enjoy paying taxes. While the subject matter is definitely more off-topic than I usually get here, some of what I've been writing about does have a bit of thematic overlap with this blog--the principles of modern society, the benefits of working together, and so on. So in an effort to keep from totally ignoring this thing until the class is done, I thought I'd share a few of my globalization essays here in place of my normal entries. You can expect things to get back to normal when the class ends this December, though something may jump out at me in the meantime that demands a normal entry; only time will tell.

Describe three (3) reasons why you believe that the nation-state IS or IS NOT losing its power, influence, and independence in today's globalized world.

Without a doubt, globalization is absolutely drawing the age of the nation-state to a close--in terms of power, influence, and independence.

In terms of power: a nation-state's strength lies in its ability to govern the behavior of its members. But the rise of capitalism, and then multinational capitalism, has seen commercial power exceed the reach of governmental power in many ways. Not only do world governments no longer have the ability to regulate commercial behavior where enormous multinationals are concerned, in the case of many nations, it's actually against the interests or their societies to do so--hence the concept of "too big to fail". Even if one nation decided to buckle down and get serious about regulating, say, shipbreaking (even a nation with the reach of the United States), the shipping companies affected by this change in policy would be out of the nation's reach, as all their shipbreaking operations are elsewhere in the world. And because of the size and scope of these companies, the US can either do business with them or suffer serious commercial consequences of its own.

In terms of influence: ironically, the failure of the European Union to earn even a hint of the kind of loyalty European citizens already feel for their respective nations is a sign of those nations' fading influence. In World War II, the Allied Powers were every bit the unilateral, anti-democratic entity the EU parliament embodies today, but because it was a time of war, the citizens of allied nations believed in what the Allies were doing and truly saw citizens from other Allied nations as brothers in world society. Now, without so existential a threat to rally people behind, the EU represents nothing to the European people but another layer of bureaucracy that at best is unnecessary and at worst is something to ignore. While this disregard does not seem to carry over to European citizens' sense of national pride, I believe that this pride is now largely vestigial; if they truly listened to their national leaders, and their leaders wished for that devotion to be transferred to the EU, it would be done, as simple as that.

In terms of independence: as previous sections of this course have demonstrated, national independence is the first thing to go in the age of globalization. The only true independence now lies in the global free market, which allowed for the rise of multinational corporations like McDonald's and Walmart. Ultimately, the power companies like these represent is demonstrated by the rise, now, of state-owned enterprise. It's not enough now for a historically unimportant, second-world nation like Brazil to do well within its own borders; to really make it in a globalized world they much use the sway of their governments to foster multinationals of their own--and only then use the money and prestige that comes from a successful multinational to boost their own standard of living. Of course, as even SOEs become too large to survive as state-owned entities, even they must eventually break away from their host nations--as we're now seeing. What happens next is unclear, but it can't be good for those nations.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reason #305: Shutdown

So look: the shutdown is bad. I'm against it happening. But this blog is about finding the positives, and--as tough as that can be sometimes--damn it, that's what I'm gonna do!
  • First, anything written into "permanent law", like Social Security, is separate from the normal, year-by-year (or month-by-month, these days) budgetary process, and thus is still funded, as not to do so would be against the law.
  • Still at work: EMTs, air traffic controllers, VA hospitals (generally), food inspectors, federal prison guards, FEMA, and as we learned yesterday, law enforcement. While none of them will receive a paycheck until the shutdown is over, they are still earning their normal pay and will get it all in a big lump once the shutdown is over (which raises the question of how much money a two- or three-week shutdown is really saving).
  • Note to people demanding that Congress stop receiving paychecks as well: one, for most of them their federal paycheck pales in comparison to their other sources of income. Two, congressional pay is one of those aforementioned separately-funded things, so their not getting paid wouldn't impact the budget process. Third, the only reason the whole "retroactive pay" thing happens for people like the capitol police is because they're deemed essential workers; if Congress were deemed nonessential then it would be illegal for them to keep working, and they'd never be able to pass a budget. Lastly, even if all this were amended, it wouldn't go into effect until the next congressional session and wouldn't help right now anyway.
  • Hilariously, one service deemed nonessential is the processing of gun licenses--meaning that we've finally found the one thing more sacred to conservatives that getting guns in the hands of as many people as possible. The border patrol also has to hold off on hiring new agents, so there goes the illegal-immigration argument.
  • Obamacare, the thing this is all about, is now in effect and has not been hindered at all--because it's mostly a reorganization of private insurance plans, which have nothing to do with federal spending. Even the Medicaid expansion and tax incentives come out of permanent funding.
Last but not least--for all it's cost us in other ways, government spending is actually down right now; for the first time since the Korean War. Politicians spend so much time bickering about reduced spending versus higher taxes that we can all lose sight of the shared goal of lowering the deficit--and even if nothing else can be said about it, this does lower the deficit.

Further Reading

There’s much less time to avoid a government shutdown than you think

How Congress Will Still Get Paid in a Government Shutdown

Friday, September 27, 2013

Reason #304: On The Debt Ceiling

The United States had no debt ceiling until 1917--its debt obligations were minor, and sporadic, enough that Congress was able to authorize them on a case-by-case basis. The Second Liberty Bond Act in 1917 set limits on the debt the nation could incur, but they were different from one category to the next, and there was no one absolute limit until 1939. In 1979, noting the insanity of requiring that Congress pass one bill to incur debt and another bill to pay for it, they instituted the Gephardt Rule, which essentially linked the debt ceiling to any raise of the overall national budget--if they wanted another ten bucks, well, then the debt ceiling would have to go up ten bucks. Easy-peasy.

That worked okay for a little while; then came the Republican revolution in 1994. It wasn't until Newt Gingrich and his cronies swept into the lead in Congress that year that the debt ceiling and the budget were once again severed, which is what led us to this point--where Congress can increase spending as much as it wants without having to vote to actually pay for that spending. Brilliant, right?

Anyway, it's true when Obama says that before his administration, no Congress had ever actually used that authorization as a level to extract miscellaneous agenda items from the other party. During a period of divided control of Congress, Ronald Reagan famously had to harangue Congress to allow raises in the debt ceiling eighteen times (and George H. W. Bush seven times, though admittedly, the Democrats were in control by then).

The point is, as much as Republicans are supposed to be the fiscally-conservative party, the debt ceiling's history as a political tool is decidedly bipartisan; since it doesn't actually limit spending in any way, is makes an easy cudgel with which the party not in control of the White House can hammer the party that has control of the White House, on purely rhetorical grounds.

Moreover, the Department of the Treasury has a number of "extraordinary measures" it can enact to continue making payments on existing debt for months beyond a theoretical breach of the debt ceiling, so it's really the perfect rhetorical tool--it sounds bad, and it can hurt perception of the American economy's stability, but Republicans can wave it around as much as they want without doing direct harm to the economy (which is to say, if our credit rating gets downgraded because of their nonsense, they can still blame the president).

Of course, the executive branch has the power to authorize an increase it unilaterally and to hell with Congress, as Nancy Pelosi noted recently. But at this point, I say why not?

Further Reading

Wikipedia: United States debt ceiling

Wikipedia: History of United States debt-ceiling increases

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reason #303: Sure, Give Putin the Nobel. Who Gives a Shit.

Proving that there's no one they won't rally behind if it allows them to criticize Obama, Fox News has joined the still-relatively-scarce calls for Russian Prime Minister President Emperor Whatever Vladimir Putin to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his spearheading, if that's what you want to call it, of the effort to take international control of Syria's supply of chemical weapons.

Some even go one step further, suggesting that Obama should turn his own Nobel, which even I'll admit he barely earned, over to Putin--since compared to the guy who last week was getting ready to bomb people, Putin is obviously the real man of peace here.

It's all fairly silly, of course, but this morning I heard someone on NPR, I'm not sure whom, make the case that the United States should want nothing more than for Putin to win a Nobel--because it will mean we've pushed him, through his own pettiness and egotism, to become a better leader.

I have a friend at work who's very into the Myers-Briggs personality matrix--INTP, ENFJ, all that stuff. I've never really been that interested in it--not that I don't think it makes a certain degree of sense, but I prefer to take people on a case-by-case basis rather than attempting to fit them into some sort of personality box, accurate or otherwise. After working with me pretty closely for a couple months, my friend decided that I'm an INTJ--intuition, something, something, judgment. As you can see, I still wasn't too interested.

But one thing I thought was interesting was that the INTJ profile he showed me mentioned Putin as a famous example of the INTJ type (which is actually fairly rare). So I've been feeling an odd sense of kinship with the piece of shit for the last couple months.

And make no mistake--he is a piece of shit. "Egotist" is the least critical word I can think of to describe him. Which is why the Nobel idea really isn't half bad. At the end of the day, it really doesn't mean a damned thing--obviously, since they basically gave it to Obama for being black and popular at the same time. So if stroking his ego a bit actually motivates him to take the whip he's got hanging over Syria and crack it a couple times, and in the process save thousands of lives (or at the very least, rid the world of some chemical weapons), then by all means--give him a fucking Eagle Scout badge while we're at it. He can have mine.

Could Obama have handled this Syria situation better from the beginning? Probably. But that Obama is willing to take advantage of a good idea that he didn't necessarily have himself is a sign, to me, that he actually does care about helping the people of Syria, instead of just looking like a big, decisive, tough guy. You know who was decisive as hell? George W. Bush.

I've said here before that I think when you're the president of a country like ours, there are some situations where there simply are no good answers, and good leadership is about knowing which decision damns you the least. So when it comes to war, and potentially killing innocent people to get at the less-innocent ones, I think a little indecision is damned refreshing.

Further Reading

Vladimir Putin, The Next Nobel Peace Prize Winner?

Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize

Friday, September 6, 2013

Reason #302: The Conversation

So now that I've got that out of my system, I can talk about Syria a little more directly. I argued quite specifically for missile strikes a little while back, and while I stand by that argument, I have to admit I've heard a lot of good points made against them in the last week--and a lot less crazy bullshit.

The Washington Post had a great article about Syria over the weekend (below) that (subtly) makes the case for strikes insofar as they would enforce the worldwide "norm" against using chemical weapons. Even if we can't single-handedly remove Assad from power without invading and turning it into a redo of Iraq, and even if we don't necessarily want the rebels to be running the show over there, punishing Assad for his apparent use of sarin still has intrinsic value--provided it's an effective lesson, and that he's willing to listen.

What I'm not so sure of is whether he would listen. The best argument I've heard against the strikes, and there have been many, is that Assad is literally fighting for his own survival--if he sees his options as either "use chemical weapons and win" or "don't use chemical weapons and die", then he's going to use them, and any other measures he deems necessary, to stay where he is, no matter what the West thinks about it. Assad can't go back, after all this, to just being an iffy Ahmadinejad figure on the world stage; someone we tolerate, but don't like or take seriously. So what's his motivation to ever play nice again?

The problem, of course, is that that argues for regime change--something no one in America has any interest in anymore, thanks to the recklessness of the Bush administration. As far as I'm concerned, Assad being free to gas thousands of his own people with impunity because the West wasted all its gumption on another invasion entirely is just another entry for Bush's list of crimes against mankind--maybe not in the legal sense, but certainly in the moral sense.

Of course, that's also why I can appreciate Obama giving this decision over to the congress--even if the prolonged debate renders the results less effective, and even if he admits it's a formality and his mind is already made up. After Iraq, seeing a congress that actually may not vote to authorize the strikes, that isn't breaking out the war paint at the mere possibility of throwing a couple hundred missiles around, is a welcome sign, and shows that Obama really wants this debate to happen, even if it makes him look bad afterward.

As much as I support Obama in a general sense, I still don't really know what I think about all this. But for once, at least, it's nice to be asked.

Further Reading

Reason #287: Death From Above

9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

Chris Hayes States Opposition To Syria Intervention

Friday, August 30, 2013

Reason #301: On Conspiracies

First off--the Friday after my last entry was my birthday, and I was out of town. That hasn't always stopped me in the past, but I figured, screw it--I just hit 300, I can take a little time off. Thanks for your indulgence.

Second--I was going to do my entry this week about Eric Holder, but given the recent events in Syria, I've been seeing a lot of eye-rolling from my liberal friends about the notion of engaging another country militarily. As clear as Assad's atrocities have been--and as I was writing that last sentence, a report just popped up that the State Department has confirmed (excuse me, claims to have confirmed) that last week's chemical attack killed over 1400 people, including more than 400 children--there is a totally reasonable debate that can be had about this; whether air strikes are the right strategy, whether we can afford it, whether it's our responsibility at all, and so on. But that's not what I'm hearing--what I'm hearing is, "oh, Obama's drumming up another war as a favor to his puppet masters in the military-industrial complex."

Here's the thing--I can believe that shades of the whole conspiracy thing are true. I believe people in power are often dishonest about their motives. I believe that they think it's in their best interest to keep certain things a secret. I believe there are structures in place that facilitate the powerful staying powerful. But to whatever extent that's really the case--I don't give a shit. I don't think those things affect my quality of life anywhere near as much the above-board stuff does. And to whatever extent it's not true, when someone starts telling me about the shadow government that really controls things, what I am seeing is someone waving their hands in the air and shouting "look! Look how much smarter I am than everyone else!! I know what's really going on!" and how convenient it is that that knowledge doesn't require any real, agreed-upon information about the world.

Which isn't to say that they can't have information, or be very extensively informed--the conspiracy worldview, I think, begins at the point that someone looks around them and thinks, "man, the world is really fucked up. I don't know what's going on here...wait, why don't I know what's going on? It couldn't be that I'm a poorly-educated, ethnocentric American--an invisible man must be preventing me from knowing! He doesn't want me to know! That's got to be it!" And from that point on, any and all evidence that person comes across fills one of two roles--if it backs up his worldview, great--"look! See? The towers came down easily, so obviously they had bombs in them!"--and if it doesn't, well, of course it doesn't--"they" don't want it to. What, you think they're going to let us see the real evidence?

No matter how smart and extensively-informed a conspiracist becomes, the starting point of their worldview is a refusal to actually button down and engage with the world around them, because it's easier to come up with the ending ahead of time and cherry-pick your facts than it is to try and take a world as fucked up as this one at face value, and really try to understand why, when some of the facts say one thing and some say others. It's funny to me that most of my conspiracist friends are also the most anti-religious, because that's exactly what it is--a religion. A way of refusing to engage with reality in favor of a controlled narrative that's easier to digest.

When the Affordable Care Act was being debated by Congress, I was lying in a hospital bed recovering from major heart surgery. As Obama and the Democrats slowly inched further and further away from true universal health care in favor of a stunted, compromised version of a Republican idea, I was racking up a third-of-a-million-dollar medical bill. As far as the political process is concerned, no one is in a better position to be cynical about Obamacare than I am. Yet as much as its origins anger me, as little as its passage did for my situation, by the end of this year, it will have helped me. My heart condition requires me to have an echocardiogram once a year, at a cost of roughly one thousand dollars. Two echos ago, I didn't have very good health insurance, so I had to pay essentially the full amount--at about a hundred dollars per month, meaning that if it was a yearly procedure I would basically be paying a hundred dollars a month forever.

Then, last year, I was lucky enough to get on a better plan--one that paid all but fifty dollars of my last echo. Fifty dollars. As of last month, however, my employer was dumped from that plan, and I was forced to switch to one that both cost more and had worse coverage--one that, in all likelihood, would once again force me to pay the full thousand next time.

But because Obamacare's health insurance exchanges are about to open up, I at the very least have the option to look into a plan of my own, priced at a rate commensurate with my income, that's specifically suited to my personal needs. For a lot of people my age, the difference between one health plan and another means next to nothing--barring a serious accident, they have no regular medical expenses, so who cares if the coverage is crappy? But for me, picking the right plan is the difference between paying one hundred dollars a month forever, and paying fifty dollars once a year. As much as the health care industry is fundamentally fucked, and as much as Obamacare is fundamentally compromised, it is a real thing, that came out of the above-board political process, that makes my life easier.

When I attempt to discuss politics with someone and they go straight to the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderberg Group, what I hear them saying is that doesn't matter. If I'm gay and I want my husband to visit me in the hospital and retain parental rights over our children in the event of my death, that doesn't matter. If I'm black and I want to ride in the front of the bus or I'm a woman and I want to own property, that doesn't matter--because even if you do get those things, it's only because they let it happen--they, who want only to keep you appeased and docile.

When I say that to the extent conspiracies are true, I don't care, what I mean is, I choose to live in a world that I'm able to interact with. If I'm able to effect political change, or if I build a successful business and use my profits to help civilian society without even getting politics involved, those are real things, and the extent to which they're being allowed to happen by murky figures below the surface is, frankly, irrelevant and has nothing to do with the quality of the average person's life. I'd rather care about that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reason #300: The Free Market

I believe that in any group of human beings over a certain size, there exists a certain amount of goodwill and a certain amount of bad will, and that these levels don't really change. The role of governmental institutions, then, is to maximize the utility of the good while minimizing that of the bad.

That said, when the mechanisms of one part of government cease to function--as we can all agree is currently the case in Congress--that goodwill will eventually find other ways to express itself. At least, in a sufficiently free society it will.

Which is where capitalism comes in. While capitalism has developed some issues as an economic model, I think the beautiful thing about America is that our government is structured to follow many of the same rules that govern the free market, including supply and demand. So when progress is impossible at the federal, or at least congressional, level, the demand for it is met in other areas, and the federal government is content to allow that to happen--or even adopt someone else's ideas, if they seem good enough. Right now, this is happening most notably at the local level.

Thomas Friedman, famous for his book The World is Flat (and its attendant hypothesis) recently made the case that cities have become "the great laboratories and engines" of America--in order to compete in a flat world where a job that needs to be done can be done just as easily in Mumbai as in, say, Chicago, Chicago must then develop a "world-class" industry to offer people in order to remain relevant and productive in a global society.  And if it can't rely on the federal government to get it there, the tools are present for it to get there on its own--which is indeed what's happening right now in cities across the country.

I wrote recently about Pittsburgh's new mayor-presumptive Bill Peduto, who already has a decade-spanning track record as a progressive thinker who isn't afraid to try new things and ruffle feathers; in an ideal scenario, Peduto will follow in the footsteps of mayors like Rahm Emmanuel (who famously left a job in the White House to run Chicago instead) in redesigning his city from the ground up--and not being afraid to unmoor from federal funding, and its underlying setbacks and limitations, in the process.

Another narrative everyone likes to agree on is that America is the Roman Empire of the modern era, and like Rome, it is currently in the midst of an inevitable decline. That's true enough, but I think it's less a harbinger of someone else's rise--even China's--than of that new flat world Friedman was talking about. If there is to be a new empire in the world, for better or worse, it will be a capitalistic one--a new supranational paradigm wherein the best idea wins, no matter where it comes from.

Further Reading

I Want to Be a Mayor

The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy

Reason #293: Participation

Friday, August 2, 2013

Reason #299: Twisting Arms

About a month ago I mentioned the Supreme Court's neutering of the Voting Rights Act's Preclearance provision--and the fact that short of Congress fixing the provision, the Department of Justice would now have to go out of its way to challenge any and all discriminatory voting practices one at a time.

Well, a few weeks later Attorney General Eric Holder began that very process, and with a bang, not a whimper. He announced before the National Urban League last week that the DOJ was asking federal judges in Texas to subject the entire state to preclearance, on the basis of an ongoing fight over a redistricting plan that state Democrats say would disproportionately target minority voting districts--and furthermore, Holder said he plans to similarly challenge the voter-ID measure Texas famously passed within hours of the aforementioned Supreme Court decision. Holder said of the move that while Texas is the DOJ's first target in its ongoing fight to protect voting rights, "it will not be our last".

Meanwhile, Congress has been using the time that it could be spending fixing the VRA to instead fight tooth-and-nail against all of Obama's executive appointments, from the very controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief to the really-shouldn't-be-controversial-at-this-point Labor Department and EPA. Said positions (also including the ATF, which hasn't had a director since 2006) have been blocked by a constant threat of filibuster for years now, but last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid went as far as he's ever gone on his threat to change the rules of the Senate so that executive nominees were no longer veto-able (technical term, you understand). And against all odds, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans finally backed down.

Which isn't to say that most of them voted for any of the nominees in question--heavens, no. All they really compromised on was to allow the confirmations to pass on a simple majority vote, like was already supposed to be the case. And even then, Todd Jones' confirmation as ATF director took five hours of voting simply to get past cloture--closing the debate period and allowing for the vote itself, which still requires 60 votes--and only got there after Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was badgered for several hours into changing her vote, and Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp flew in from sick leave in North Dakota to finally cast the 60th vote.

That final hurdle at last having been cleared, Jones' actual confirmation moved forward, and the first ATF director in seven years was approved 53-42. For the record, Lisa Murkowski voted "no".

Further Reading

Reason #294: So Let's Talk About the VRA

Holder Signals New Push to Gain Control Over State, Local Voting Laws

A Critical Look at Holder’s Texas ‘Gambit’

Senate confirms Todd Jones to lead ATF

Friday, July 26, 2013

Reason #298: Getting Caught Trying

Since taking control in 2010, Republicans in the House of Representatives, famously, have so far attempted to repeal Obamacare thirty-seven times. With your indulgence, I will now, briefly, defend that practice.

Not repealing Obamacare, specifically, mind you--but the act of loading up your car, announcing your imminent vacation, then repeatedly, deliberately, and for a number of years driving straight into a brick wall.

Obama gave a big economic speech the other day, essentially daring the Republicans to come after him on the debt ceiling this fall. It had all the attitude and bombast and, frankly, common sense of most of his speeches, but even his supporters have to admit, we've heard it all before. Obama has been touting the economic benefits of infrastructure spending, health care reform, and so on since before he was even in office--and while his people would gladly point to that as a sign of consistency, there's clearly a certain segment of the population that just isn't on board for that no matter how many times you ask.

That's why it's in the Republicans' interest to repeal Obamacare dozens of time when they know perfectly well it's not going anywhere: it gives them something to wave in front of their base as a sign that they're fighting the good fight. When gridlock is this institutionally assured, both parties really only have two options--catatonia, or fruitless exertion. It may not be terribly empowering, but the exertion scenario still has its benefits; it keeps the base active, keeps the legislative muscles intact, and who knows--once in a while you may even sneak something through.

The title of this post is a phrase that gets used now and then in political circles, though I haven't been able to determine its origin. What it means, basically, is that voters would rather see a politician fail doing what they believe in--even, on some level, if it's antithetical to what said voters want--than see them as doing nothing whatsoever. It's a lesson the Republicans seem to have learned long ago, and have been demonstrating throughout their 30-month reign in the House. You could say that Senate Democrats at least demonstrated their own understanding of this last month in passing their doomed immigration-reform bill (though Marco Rubio's motives are harder to work out in this context), so hopefully this week is a sign that Obama is starting to figure it out as well.

Further Reading

House to vote, yet again, on repealing Obamacare

Obama Needs to Get ’Caught Trying’ on Job Creation: Ron Klain

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Reason #297: Food Stamps

Okay, right off the bat--food stamps are, on average, $134 a month. That's around $4 per day. Whatever else there is to say about them, let's all understand just how little money we're actually talking about.

Moving on--I read all sorts of random stuff during the day, both in my free time and when doing research for this blog, and almost never do I come across something that reshapes my image of American society as definitively as "Hipsters on Food Stamps", an article on the blog The Last Psychiatrist (link below). It's very long and very expansive in its scope, but briefly, it's a response to an eponymous Salon article discussing the phenomenon of college-educated young adults, unable to find work in today's economy due to their crunchy liberal-arts degrees, turning to government assistance and then using it, alongside whatever income or family support they are getting, to buy organic this and gluten-free that at Whole Foods.

While the original is presented generally as a slice-of-life, what-are-ya-gonna-do type of story, The Last Psychiatrist's response turns the entire subject on its head to make the argument that, one, this situation is the responsibility of said hipsters' narcissistic parents for raising their children to believe that a Medieval History degree was as valid as any other, and more to the point, worth $100 thousand in guaranteed loans, and two, blames that situation on the college-industrial complex, so to speak, for selling the entire nation on the notion that a college degree will make you more valuable to employers simply by brunt of its existence.

That might have been true when people were going to college for engineering and  brain surgery and whatever, but back in the here and now, America has indulged my entire generation into economic irrelevancy--and the article makes the case that this is costing us far more in lost productivity, and the devaluing of everybody's degrees by proxy, than food stamps ever could. If every other Starbucjs barista wasn't paying off a mountain of student loans, their career prospects would be no different and they'd have one less bill to pay every month.

Food stamps, in other words, are no more of a subsidy for laziness and naïveté than are college loans--either way, we're all paying for it.

Further Reading

Friday, July 12, 2013

Reason #296: Seven out of Ten

It's a given now that this is the worst Congress ever. Both in terms of popularity and productivity, they are demonstratively, empirically, the worst--you can prove it with graphs. But given the dramatic halt to which the Senate's immigration reform package has come in the House this month, and the Senate's own hissyfit this week over Harry Reid's attempt to change the filibuster rules so maybe one of Obama's appointees--to departments that in some cases are currently being run by nobody--can actually get approved for once, I'd like to take a step back and actually look at some of the relevant numbers.

In 2012, Obama won the popular vote by five million or so votes, but actually lost more congressional districts than he won. He won Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, but only carried between a quarter and a third of their respective congressional districts. Naturally, many Republicans see this as a failure of democracy, regardless of how many actual voters all those Republican districts represent.

Likewise, if you look at the vote totals by party, the Democrats received far more votes for both their House and Senate confidantes--around five percent more in both cases, mirroring Obama's numbers--yet were still crushed in the House, and barely held onto their majority in the Senate.

The disparity between House election results and the actual vote margins is due to the most extensive gerrymandering this country has ever seen--any state that has a strong Republican majority then immediately goes to work redrawing its districts to spread out its conservatives into as many districts as possible while cramming its liberals into as few districts as possible. This is helped along a great deal by the fact that heavily-populated areas tend to be more progressive in the first place.

But there's another way to look at it.

Even in a country where Republicans have a stranglehold on every drop of their territory, where they're enacting voter-ID laws and cutting down on early voting to stifle Democratic turnout, Obama still won twice--and by a bigger margin the second time. Even in a country with a conservative Supreme Court that neuters the Voting Rights Act and rubber-stamps each of the aforementioned discriminatory redistributing efforts (and they have), Democrats have won four out of the last six presidential elections.

Consider: from 1968 to 2004, Republicans won seven out of ten presidential elections. Of the ten elections before that, Democrats won seven. Of the ten before that, going back now all the way to guessed it: Republicans won seven. Prior to that, the political parties get harder to distinguish by modern paradigms, but it could, at least, be argued that liberals had another good run.

While I don't want to point to this an some magical absolute pattern, it is true without a doubt that American politics are cyclical--generations come and go, and new movements are born in response to old ones. Even if the pattern holds true and the Obama presidency heralds another 7-out-of-10-wins period for Democrats, the tide will eventually turn. But even more certain than that is the fact that by 2044 or so, this will be a majority-minority country--which means that conservatism, as we know it today, is in its death throes.

The conservatism of 2050 will not be anti-gay, or anti-Hispanic; those battles will be over. It may well be anti-abortion, but with irreligion on the rise and Catholicism in the midst of both upheaval and decline, who's to say? I see no reason to believe it won't still be anti-poor, deep down, but after forty years of progressive politics it's not crazy to think that entitlements and social welfare and all that good stuff will have run totally off the rails and need reigning in.

The point is, a wild animal is always loudest and most dangerous when it's cornered. And for all the noise they create, for all the harm they're still doing, the Tea Party wing of modern conservatism is most definitely cornered.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reason #295: The Prosecution Rests

A light one this week, in honor of the holiday.

I usually avoid cable-news trial coverage like the plague. Even the Trayvon Martin case, which is as invested in a "trial of the century"-type story as I've likely ever been, is starting to get on my nerves, and it's only been a couple weeks. I usually listen to Hardball on Sirius radio in the car on my way home from work, and a few days ago even Chris Matthews seemed to have had enough, ceding his usual 5pm timeslot to Martin Bashir's trial coverage (and by "coverage" I mean forty minutes of raw video straight from the courtroom).

Obviously people are strongly divided on how this case should shake out, but if there's one thing I think we can all agree on, it's my relief that today, with the prosecution resting its case, the ordeal is half over.

Further Reading

Prosecution rests in Zimmerman trial

Reason #213: Release

Reason #171: The Right to Remain Silent

Friday, June 28, 2013

Reason #294: So Let's Talk About the VRA

A year ago, when Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare as constitutional, he wrote in the majority opinion that he sees it as the Supreme Court's job to interpret the law as gently as possible--in other words, to err on the side of constitutionality whenever possible and only strike things down when there is no other alternative. As such, they ruled that the Affordable Care Act's insurance mandate was constitutional; not on its own terms, but under the Congress' power to implement taxes--even though that wasn't necessarily the argument its defeners had been making.

I spent the first half of this week assuming today's post would be about DOMA. Before Wednesday I was terrified that the Supreme Court would rule in the other direction and I'd be without a nice, easy topic to write about. But now that I'm here, and this week's events have had a couple days to percolate, I feel like I've already said as much as I need to say about gay marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act. As usual, what little there still is to add was already done quite effectively by Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night, so I'm just going to add a clip below this post that sums up my thoughts.

In the meantime, I'm going to take a page from the John Roberts handbook. Given the title of this blog, I think my own responsibility is to find silver linings wherever possible--rather than just revel in the big thing that everybody likes, I want this blog to highlight the positive aspects of things nobody likes.

Which brings me to that other big ruling this week: the lynching of the Voting Rights Act. Briefly (because I already explained this once), Section 5 of the VRA states that certain areas with a history of discriminatory voting practices (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc) have to clear all future changes to their election laws with the Justice Department. For the last fifty years, "preclearance", as it's called, has been helping to stem the tide of minority voter suppression and ensure that everybody has a seat at the electoral table. The Supremes didn't technically invalidate any of that--all they actually said was that the original formula for determining which states and districts required preclearance was outdated and needed revision--and until such a revision was passed by Congress, the requirement itself was essentially suspended. On its face, that is, well, totally correct. The idea that a particular district should be punished today for laws it passed more than half a century ago is silly. That one of the original preclearance districts is the borough of Brooklyn, I think, says everything.

The problems are twofold: one, many states still are trying to pass discriminatory laws (Voter ID, anyone?) and preclearance was the only thing holding them back; two, making this Congress responsible for fixing the problem is like, well, making Congress responsible for fixing anything--it ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

Make no mistake: I don't like what happened. I would rather have the existing preclearance formula than nothing, and thanks to Tuesday's ruling, what we have for the foreseeable future is indeed nothing. But I'm just not as broken up about it as most of the left, because of the one thing everyone seems to agree on: the Voting Rights Act worked. We are, indeed, living in a different country than we were fifty years ago. The VRA as originally written needed to be enormous, and sweeping, and no-holds-barred, because it was the only thing standing in the way of laws that made Voter ID look like child's play.

But here in 2013, largely thanks to fifty years of the VRA, minority advocates have something they didn't back then: infrastructure. Everybody's been talking about the Voter ID law Texas passed literally hours after the ruling as an example of how the discrimination floodgates are about to open, but you know what? Pennsylvania was never subject to preclearance, and they tried to pass Voter ID here last year--and we stopped it. Resoundingly? No. But the, for lack of a better term, anti-discrimination agenda has enough weight behind it now that it's harder to pass even vaguely discriminatory laws now than it was to pass overtly racist ones in the 60s. And hell, it's not completely impossible that Congress will eventually come up with a new formula that really is better and more effective than the old one.

Maybe it would be easier if the VRA was left alone, but the fact that many on the right talk about "the end of racism" as a cover for continued racism doesn't mean that they're not correct in theory--the goal of the VRA, like with affirmative action, is to speed us along to a place where it's no longer necessary. Sure we're not there yet; maybe we'll never fully get there. But given that the American people will be mostly brown in thirty years no matter what the law says, I'm open to trying a different route for a while.

Further Reading


Friday, June 21, 2013

Reason #293: Participation

A few months ago, I did something I'd never done before: I volunteered for a political candidate.

Bill Peduto, my longtime city councilor, was running in the Democratic primary for mayor of Pittsburgh. Because no Republican has won a mayoral race here since 1934, the primary essentially is the election--whoever wins that, wins in November.

Having followed Peduto's exploits in city government for several years, I was already impressed with his track record for getting business development and infrastructure projects to actually, y'know, happen, and his general orientation in favor of small arts organizations (read: he's aware of their existence), and combined with the fact that he and Pittsburgh's current sleazypants "boy mayor" Luke Ravenstahl have never gotten along, I knew he'd have my vote the second he got into the race.

Now that it's all over but the coronation, Peduto is starting to talk in more detail about plans for his administration, including increased cooperation between the city and county when it comes to development funding, with the hope of turning downtown Pittsburgh--the hub, indeed, of the entire county--into a "mini-Manhattan"; not only a bustling business and office center but a living, breathing neighborhood, with grocery stores, apartments, and the kind of unique mom-and-pop retailers that were chased out of downtown ages ago by the usual bland national chains.

Even more importantly--especially in you work in downtown Pittsburgh like I do--Peduto wants to change the way downtown transportation works, introducing a robust shuttle loop system to ferry people between downtown locations as opposed to the current system of every single bus on the planet driving straight through the middle of downtown every five minutes. He's also a friend of bicyclists, and has gone on record as wanting to see bikes comprise as much as ten percent of all city transportation (compared to their pathetic current rate of 1.6 percent).

Of course, great as all that is, Peduto is still a politician, and in a city that's around three-quarter Democratic, it's easy to become cynical about any one person really standing that far ahead of the pack. What's more, the field of candidates looked very different when I first started working for the Peduto campaign, and there was every reason to think he didn't have a chance. So why did I, once an ardent supporter of both John Edwards and Anthony Weiner, finally make the leap and volunteer for Bill Peduto?

I was mulling that over in the campaign office one day, and I happened to recall an old Mitch Hedberg joke that explained it perfectly: "I bought a $7 pen because I always lose pens and I got sick of not caring." Peduto, I realized, was my $7 pen; for once, win or lose, I just wanted some damned skin in the game.

Further Reading

Bill Peduto, Rising Urbanist Star, Wins Pittsburgh Mayoral Primary

Bill Peduto looks for county's help in creating a 'mini-Manhattan' in Downtown Pittsburgh

Wikiquote - Mitch Hedberg

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reason #292: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

(Editor's note: As an apology for skipping last week, today's entry is something of a special presentation--not only does it fill the role of Reason #292, but it will double this evening as my "performance" at SpokenWord Pittsburgh, an event being held at my night job, the Space Upstairs. If you live in Pittsburgh, come on by and see if it makes more sense the second time.)

In 1766, the Swedish Parliament adopted what is today considered to be the world's first Freedom of Information Law. The brain child of Enlightenment thinker Anders Chydenius, the ordinance declared that "an unrestricted mutual enlightenment...not only promotes the development and dissemination of sciences and useful crafts but also offers greater opportunities to each of [our citizens] to gain improved knowledge and appreciation of a wisely ordered system of government", and as such, "we have graciously decided that the previously established office of Censor shall be entirely abolished and that it shall not hereafter be the duty of the [government] to supervise, approve or disallow the texts submitted for printing, but the authors themselves."

That was the first official instance of a government--a monarchy, no less--establishing legal precedent for freedom of the press, which obviously went on to influence America's founding fathers significantly. While freedom of speech was right there in the First Amendment, though, it wasn't until 1966 that we enacted the Freedom of Information Act, which established that not only could citizens disseminate any information of their own they so chose, but that the government had a responsibility to provide free access to its own records whenever the citizenry asked for it--at least in cases where doing so didn't involve a clear and present danger. This is known as the presumption of openness--the same way that anyone arrested for a crime is presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise, any government document I'd like to see is presumed to be available to me unless specifically classified.

All this is to say that, in my opinion, the concept of personal privacy is no longer relevant.

What freedom of speech really did, in the grand scheme of things, was democratize information. It established in principle that even the authority of a king was secondary to an individual's right to be informed, and to use that information to better himself. For a few centuries, that was all well and good; people could educate themselves and their children, and have at least a rough idea of whether their ruler was an asshole. In America, even children can readily demonstrate the monumental value of information in four simple words: "the British are coming".

Still, at the end of the day, information wasn't genuinely free--the circumstances of your birth and financial situation determined both how much you could get your hands on and how free you were to utilize it. No matter what the law said in principle, a dirt farmer was never going to end up as worldly as an Ivy League postgrad. Now, of course, we have the internet, and pretty much anyone can read pretty much anything whenever they feel like it. Great, right? Well, the problem here is that once you build a modern society around the idea that all information is free...all information is free. The more technology advances, the harder it becomes to pick and choose--so either it's all okay, or none of it is.

I could make the argument to you that all this was inevitable, evil or otherwise. I certainly don't think George Orwell believed Big Brother could be avoided--all Nineteen Eighty-Four did in the end was give us a name for it. I could also make the argument that privacy has no inherent value--or to put it another way, I'm sure there was a quiet dignity to washing our clothes in the river, but that didn't stop anyone from buying a Whirlpool when the time came.

Taoist philosophy, of which I am a devoted follower, frequently advises us to follow the example of water. When you drop a boulder in a river, the water doesn't try to push through it, it just goes around. It folds this new development into itself, and evolves accordingly--and in so doing, the boulder eventually erodes away to nothing.

I don't mean to suggest that privacy never mattered, or that it shouldn't be mourned now--but what I am absolutely suggesting is that it is, in fact, dead. The boulder is now thoroughly lodged in the river. Our job, then, is to assume the shape of our new container, and evolve accordingly.

We knew the boulder was coming, and now that it's here, we know its features: our phone calls are no longer private. Our e-mails probably never were. If the powers that be decide that we're a threat, they can send a drone to our doorstep anywhere in the world.

That all sucks. This is going to be a tough generation.

But I'll never understand how people always seem to forget--even Orwell--that governments are nothing but people, and what applies to us, applies to them. The details of the NSA phone database were first revealed in 2006, then promptly forgotten, and re-revealed this month, yet no one finds it interesting that the National Security Agency that we're all so afraid of--whose job it is to keep secrets--is now the victim of the only scandal ever to be whistleblown on two separate occasions?

Privacy may be extinct, but with it goes deniability. If the government wants to tap our phones, so be it--we'll find out about it. If they send a Predator drone after innocent Pakistanis, we'll find out about it. If they suppress the vote in minority districts, we'll find out about it. I say that with confidence, because they have--and we did. Just ask the hacker group Anonymous--this is not Nazi Germany, and it's not Soviet Russia, it's the Wild West.

This will be a tough generation. Facebook notwithstanding, no one knows what a post-privacy society looks like, and I'm sure there will be battles ahead. But I would rather fight tomorrow's battles than yesterday's, and Big Brother is undoubtedly yesterday's battle.

Further Reading

The World’s First Freedom of Information Act

Wikipedia - Freedom of Information Act

Sources: US intelligence agencies tap servers of top Internet companies

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls