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