Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"It's Always Sunny" health care plan

After reading over the concessions the Senate Democrats made to Republicans concerning health care, I'm noticing substantially less reform, yet it's being praised as a complete overhaul. I'm not seeing it. Inspired by the cast of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," I've decided to outline my own health care bill, which I think will work seeing as the title is just damn catch. Who doesn't want health care that is "Always Sunny?"

But first, here's a list of some Senate provisions in the latest bill that make no sense to me, information for which I have lifted directly from The New York Times:

Everyone must purchase insurance

  • Penalty: $95 a year per person in 2014; $350 in 2015; $750 or 2 percent of a household’s income, whichever is greater, in 2016 and beyond. No penalty if the cost of cheapest available plan exceeds 8 percent of household income.

  • Exemptions: American Indians, people with religious objections and people who can show financial hardship.

  • No Public Option

    Regulating Insurance Companies

  • Premiums for older people cannot be more than three times the premium for young adults.

  • The legislation would not strip health insurance companies of their longstanding exemption from federal antitrust laws.

  • Insurers would be required to spend more of their premium revenues — between 80 to 85 cents of every dollar — on medical claims. According to a recent Senate Commerce Committee analysis, the largest for-profit insurance companies spends about 74 cents out of every dollar on medical care in the individual market.

  • Cost and Coverage

  • $871 billion. Expected to reduce projected federal budget deficits by $132 billion.

  • 31 million people would gain coverage, leaving 23 million uninsured.

  • No tax increase on the wealthy?!

    I think it's good to force everyone to have some type of health insurance, but when individuals have to purchase it directly, it gets tricky. You have to introduce an overly complex system of penalties (and I have no idea what religious objections one might have to not dying) that would likely leave individuals who can't afford insurance having to pay for the privilege of having no coverage. Plus, when all that is said and done, 23 million people still have no insurance. What do we do with them?

    On top of that, the regulations on insurance companies are a total joke. You can still charge the elderly a ridiculous premium triple that of young adults, not to mention this half-assed attempt to reduce overhead costs related to profits. Now, instead of 26% of our premiums going to profits for insurance companies, it's 20%; stop the fucking presses.

    Medicare has an estimated 3% of overhead costs, so it would seem logical to have some sort of government plan available, but the public option is completely dead because -- God forbid -- it might put the insurance companies out of business.

    And I have no idea how these companies are managing to exist beyond antitrust legislation. If you offer exemptions to antitrust laws, they have absolutely no power at all. (Speaking of which, I wonder if our "too big to fail" banks are exempt too.)

    Well, I say fuck 'em. If you can't provide a needed service, then you should go out of business. It's ridiculous to profit on someone's health or lack thereof anyhow. Health is the one thing that separates us from death, and we decided to make a buck on that? And then we protect it as though it was a holy establishment? Un-fucking-believable.

    And how are we going to pay for it? We're going to increase Medicare payroll taxes (I have no idea where that one came from), tax tanning service operators (I'm not making that up), tax premium health care plans (which makes no sense because it would discourage people from buying better coverage), tax health care companies (which seems logical, but more tightly regulating their profit margins would be better), and then we're going to hope the plan reforms Medicare enough to free up funds there. BUT WE"RE NOT GOING TO TAX THE WEALTHY!

    I know some people say it's unfair to tax the wealthy at a rate above the rest of us. I've actually argued for eliminating income taxes in favor of a large national sales tax, but that's a different debate, and probably a fruitless one. The graduated tax system isn't going anywhere any time soon.

    Still, when it comes to the rich, fuck them too. Odds are, they stepped over a lot of people to make their fortunes, or they were born into it rather than earning it. If increasing their taxes slightly to pay for universal health care is the only penalty they suffer, they're doing well. Besides, when you tax the rich, they're still fucking rich, so where's the harm?

    What I don't understand is the inability to develop a plan that allows every tax-paying U.S. citizen the ability to walk into a hospital and receive care: no hoops, no health insurance exchanges, no nothing. That's the "Always Sunny" health plan, as inspired by this dialogue:

    Doctor: Well, actually, Ms. Reynolds, first we need to discuss how you'll be paying for your stay.
    Mac: Paying? This is a hospital.
    Charlie: Yeah. Since when do you pay to stay in a hospital?
    Doctor: Since always.
    Charlie: Uh, no, I believe that is what taxes are for.
    Mac: Yeah, you don't pay a fireman to put out a fire.
    Charlie: Or a cop to shoot a guy.

    It could seriously be that simple. What puzzles me the most is the Republican opposition. I understand being opposed to the bill that the Senate is producing -- seeing as I am opposed to it -- but it's their endless bitching that watered this thing down to nothing. Now the complaint is it costs to much and doesn't do enough, which is true, but whose fault is that?

    I would love to see something more than a vague, three page document from that side of the aisle. Instead their position seems to be that the current health care system works fine, which is empirically false, a fact which is generally agreed upon. While I don't believe you have to offer an alternative idea to mount a good criticism of an existing one, it would be nice, because right now it feels like the Democrats are failing us and the Republicans just plain don't give a shit. Who are we supposed to vote for in November?

    Saturday, December 5, 2009

    Waging the Afghan War

    I've been silent thus far on Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, mostly because I waiver on this war so frequently. Despite voting for the man, I find myself disagreeing with Obama frequently, but this is not one of those occasions.

    I think he made the right decision, but no one seems happy with it. The Right doesn't think the commitment is enough, and the Left thinks it's time to end this whole thing. On this particular issue, Obama's middle ground stance seems to be the best approach.

    The most common argument I've heard from the Right is that a president should "listen to his generals." Listen, yes; obey, no. Generals have a great deal of expertise, but the military component is not all that goes into a decision like this.

    Americans cannot economically or emotionally handle a drastic troop increase. The current increase would cost about $1 trillion over the next decade, and during a time of 10% plus unemployment, nobody likes to see that kind of money leaving our shores.

    And let's not forget the oft-forgotten fact that this war is already eight years in, and patience is wearing thin. During all the chaos of the last administration, the goals for Afghanistan were in a constant state of flux, and nearest I can tell we are yet to accomplish anything of real significance.

    The recently stolen election really hurts our credibility, and that could be the most important component of all. In truth, nation building cannot work without the support of those for whom the nation is being built. Early in the war, the response from Afghans was very positive because Americans drove out an unpopular government. The problem is we replaced it with one far less stable and equally corrupt, which leads to waning support and a need for more troops. Still, there comes a point when you can't fight your way through this with force, and to his credit, Obama appears to have recognized this, hence the relatively small "surge."

    And now for the Left. Their buzz word is "inherited." The democrats constantly shift the blame for the entire Middle East quagmire to the Bush administration, and for the most part I agree -- though there are several democrats who were in lock-step behind Bush and have since developed amnesia. So democrats, we get it, now please SHUT THE FUCK UP!

    Blaming the previous administration for inherited problems is a tactic nearly as old as the presidency itself. It's a great way to win an election, but a shitty way to run a country. It's important to recognize who made mistakes (W, I'm looking at you), but that doesn't change the reality of now. We have to develop a way to get out of this mess, which means being a bit more forward looking.

    But if you're going to look to the past, go a little farther back, let's say to the 1980s. Our fight in Afghanistan is teetering dangerously close to the missteps we made concerning the Soviet occupation. We ousted an oppressive dictator, became impatient and frustrated over the amount of invested resources, and withdrew. A country full of abandoned, pissed off young people became radicalized and the next thing you know there's a plane sticking out of a New York skyscraper.

    We can't afford this mistake again, otherwise we'll have wasted countless lives and resources only to have failed in capturing the man we set out to find, essentially ending up right where we started. That's the measure of true defeat: to have accomplished nothing at the sacrifice of so much.

    My biggest concern is managing the balancing act among all parties concerned. What surprises me most is that no one seems to address the fact that increased American presence in Afghanistan has been the rule rather than the exception. Eventually the point of diminishing returns will catch up to us, probably sooner than later. Hopefully we will have created some stable system in Afghanistan by then, be it democracy, theocracy, or whatever the people are ready to support. If not, we might be fucked. Ideally we can learn from that mistake, but if history is any indication, it appears that we won't

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Nazi trial

    Accused Sobibor concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk is on trial in Germany for his alleged involvement in the Holocaust.

    Apparently, the state of Israel already acquitted this guy because of a case of mistaken identity, and if Eichmann is any indication of the forgiving nature of the Jewish state, I'd say this guy is probably going to walk.

    Actually, I should say roll. He's 89 years old and confined to a wheel chair. Time has done more to this guy that Germany every will. Still, in a lot of ways, he reminds me of Eichmann, particularly Hannah Arendt's famous description in the subtitle of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

    Demjanjuk, by all accounts, is a very unassuming man. He lived in exile in the United States and is a retired autoworker, reminiscent of Eichmann's Argentinian exile and failed life as a chicken farmer. If Demjanjuk is anything like Eichmann, or at least the picture of Eichmann we get from Arendt's account, he's probably just a semi-skilled man caught up in the evils of a confusing time of national identity.

    I'm not saying this excuses Demjanjuk, nor does it excuse Eichmann, but it's important to remember that you're trying a man, not the Holocaust itself. Neither of these individuals seem capable of atrocities of that scale; theirs are crimes of a lower, and perhaps less brutal kind.

    At this point, however, I don't see much good sending an 89 year old man to prison. Convict him, sure, but don't send him to -- what for him at least -- constitutes a state-funded retirement home. If you want to punish him, send him back to the United States and let him deal with finding quality care at an affordable price. He'll die of exhaustion before the search is over.

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Legalizing marijuana

    Though I remain skeptical, it appears that we could be one step closer to legalizing marijuana. I don't really see the harm in it, and the benefits look pretty good from a lay perspective.

    The New York Times article only refers to medical marijuana, but opponents of complete legalization are probably correct that policies of decriminalization regarding medicinal use will eventually lead to looser laws. I don't know, but if I had to guess, moneyed interests in the pharmaceutical industry played a big role at holding up medicinal marijuana for so many years, probably because a cheaply grown plant can treat several illnesses just as well -- if not better -- than a more expensive pill.

    I don't understand why we don't just legalize marijuana across the board. The drug itself is less harmful than many over-the-counter drugs and other legal recreation drugs (alcohol comes to mind). And the whole "gateway drug" argument is bullshit. Nothing about marijuana itself predisposes one to further drug use; if you're likely to experiment with one drug, you'd obviously be likely to try others.

    Still, according to the PEW Research Center, the country remains divided.
    Legalizing marijuana remains a controversial proposal, with 46% saying they favor removing criminal punishments for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and 49% saying it should remain a criminal offense. Support for removing the penalties for minor possession has remained steady since the 1980s, and is down slightly from the 1970s.
    I'm most certainly with the 46%. I don't even understand the argument against legalization; the benefits of taxation could be astronomical -- especially for my home state of Kentucky, where we grow that stuff like madness -- not to mention the money saved on prosecution and incarceration of minor drug offenders.

    I'm honestly surprised more politicians don't take a harder line on this issue. I'm not sure it would be the political suicide some fear, though Gatewood Galbraith, perennial loser in the Kentucky governor's race (and my favorite candidate because he's bat shit crazy) hasn't gained much traction with it. Someone slightly less blunt might have better luck -- I'm looking at you Schwarzenegger.

    "Too big to fail" failure

    The New York Times reported today that Congress is trying to "rein in" companies that are "too big to fail." When I saw the headline, my first thought was, "It's about time." My second was, "I wonder if they've been following my blog rantings." Unfortunately not.

    According to the NYT, the plan is as follows:

    The measure would make it easier for the government to seize control of troubled financial institutions, throw out management, wipe out the shareholders and change the terms of existing loans held by the institution.

    In the event that a crisis were to occur, the proposed bill sets up corporate living wills:

    It would force such institutions to hold more money in reserve and make it harder for them to borrow too heavily against their assets.

    If companies of this magnitude continue to exists, I feel like these steps are good measures to protect the financial system as a whole. But that begs the question, why do we let companies of this magnitude exist? I think it's time for some good ol' Roosevelt trust busting.

    I don't want it to be easy for the government to step in and start running a business; that's not how a capitalist system should work, and under that model it can't. Organizations take chances with each decision they make, some leading to greatness and others to failure. Eliminating risky business ventures can slow the failure rate, but it seems to me that it would also slow invention.

    Also, the idea of not borrowing too heavily against one's assets is really just common sense. However, even Adam Smith new the value of credit, and he always argued that you would be foolish not to have all of your assets working to turn a profit. Wealth is created by making your money work for you, not by you working for money.

    And that's really the principle behind investing, especially in potentially high-yielding ventures like many in the stock market. Speaking of the stock market, it employs this really great method of limiting centralized power and generating wealth: splitting stocks.

    Companies' boards of directors typically elect to do 2-for-1 stock splits, meaning they double the number of shares and halve the price of each. This makes stocks not only more numerous, but also more affordable, which encourages additional investing by an increased number of shareholders. This helps to generate capital for institutions and it expands the ownership power base, thus limiting it. Not to mention the fact that stocks often increase in value after a split, so it generates more wealth for shareholders as well.

    The same could be done with any company that is "too big to fail." Split them into smaller companies, diversify the power base within that field, and let them compete, grow, or fail as performance dictates.

    The problem is less the behavior of these companies than it is the "too big to fail" part, so let's just eliminate that and be done with it.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Resurrecting the public option

    It seems as though the public option might still have a chance at getting through Congress. I was reading this article in The New York Times this Sunday and I got kind of excited.

    I've blogged before about the necessity of a public option -- or at least that's how I see it -- and I've been angry with the Democrats for backing down on the issue. After reading the NYT article, I won't say I stand corrected, but hats off Reid and Schumer for keeping up the fight.

    I agree with McCain when he says that the Democrats have enough votes to pass a fairly progressive public option plan in the House, but that the Senate is too shaky to guarantee anything of great magnitude. In lieu of of an all-out-government-run insurance plan, we may instead see the inclusion of a "trigger" option in some of the bills floating around the capital.

    Essentially, this trigger option would place a time line on insurers to meet certain legally mandated standards -- particularly concerning cost of care. If these conditions are not met, it would then trigger the creation of a government-run or nonprofit plan to enter the marketplace and create a lower, more level playing field.

    In the end, this trigger plan is really just public option light, and I feel like it would accomplish the main goal of the public option as it has been described, namely keeping insurers honest. Still, since the creation of a trigger plan would only be a looming threat rather than an actual one I would rather see a true public option (I'm actually in favor of a a single-payer system, as readers already know).

    Some -- including Sen. Mitch McConnell from my home state of Kentucky -- feel even the trigger option is too much:

    Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said on "This Week" that "100 percent of Republicans have indicated that they don’t think having government in the insurance business is a good idea."

    I think the Republicans are starting to run out of excuses on this one as it becomes increasingly obvious that insurers -- ironically unlike those they insure -- are simply paid up with the right people. I'm curious to see how this whole thing will play out, and I'm hopeful, but I worry that once again the voices of the many will be outweighed by the money of the few.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Measuring the recession

    Today was a good day for investors as the Dow closed at over 10,000 for the first time in longer than a year. Moreover, J.P. Morgan Chase reported some pretty good third-quarter earnings. Hopes are that other major banks, like Citigroup and Bank of America, will report high earnings later this week as well.

    Does this mean the banking crisis is over? What about the recession?

    That all depends on the scale one uses to measure each. Recovery in the stock market is a good thing. I checked my Scottrade account for the first time in awhile without crying, but it's not like I'm rolling in it, and neither are many other small investors.

    Holistically, the economy is still suffering. The housing market is yet to bounce back and foreclosure rates are still high. In my mind, perhaps the most important number for middle-class America is the unemployment rate, which rose to 9.5 percent in September according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- and it's probably growing.

    And what about the banking industry? Well, Chase is claiming that the economic crisis -- which they directly helped cause -- has slowed consumer spending to the point where their credit card department is not expected to turn a profit until 2011. On top of that, let's not forget $25 billion they still owe the taxpayers from the June bailout, which may have been one of the worst decisions in our nation's history.

    I think you could make the argument that the banking industry is worse off now than it was a year ago -- or at least it potentially could be. We're seeing a phenomenon now where large, failing banks are being purchased by larger, faltering banks. This means that institutions that were already "too big to fail" are not only continuing to fail, but are getting even bigger. Take a moment to let that settle in.

    The very concept of "too large to fail" seems to connote ideas of "trusts," "pools," "monopolies," and other business practices that have been illegal for a century. Why can't we break these banks up and overhaul the system? If we allow these institutions to grow without stiff regulation -- and even with it, because we've seen how quickly that erodes -- we are begging for another meltdown. What's worse is the precedent we've set with the bailout, which encourages institutions to act frivolously know that our dime will rescue them. What the hell kind of capitalism is that?!

    I guess what it comes down to is the fact that banks are paid up with the right people, so much so that it often overrides the democratic process itself. The Supreme Court's ruling on the Hilary film could make the current situation that much worse. I just wonder how much our system can stand before it collapses on itself...or maybe even implodes against itself.

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize

    It was announced early this morning that President Obama will be awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and that leaves me in utter shock. Dr. Hollander pointed out this AP story that shows I'm not alone.

    Apparently the president himself was unaware that he was even nominated. I have to say, I'm not surprised. He's now the fourth U.S. president to win the prize. Jimmy Carter won in 2002 long after his term in office expired; needless to say he had racked up an impressive resume both in and out of office. The other two presidents to win were still in office. Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 for negotiating a peace between Japan and Russia. Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 after negotiating an end to WWI and beginning the steps to create the League of Nations, which was later replaced by the United Nations.

    Obama seems a bit out of place in that group. I think he is an intelligent, well-intentioned man who most certainly has made "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," as the Nobel committee has stated. But are efforts enough? Other U.S. presidents who won the prize has results, but Obama is yet to deliver on that front.

    I find it odd that the prize is going to a sitting president who has failed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, failed to speedily end the war in Iraq, and is seriously considering escalating the war in Afghanistan. War and peace don't really work together unless you're Leo Tolstoy, but I guess the Nobel committee thinks differently.

    I think Obama would do well to decline the award. I know people spend a lifetime of effort to win one of these things, but it's clearly questionable as to whether he is deserving. An exercise in humility would do him that much more good on the international stage.

    As for the home front, he's fucked either way, as conservative pundits will have a field day questioning the legitimacy of this award if he accepts(some of them don't even think he's legitimately the president); if he declines they'll argue that even he thinks he's not all that great.

    In the end that choice would be mostly a personal one. I like Obama, I really do, but I'm just not convinced that he is the effective leader we all hoped for, and I certainly don't think he has the resume to justify this honor. Hopefully his future endeavors will prove me wrong.

    Sunday, October 4, 2009

    Health Care Reform (?)

    Last week's news that health care reform bills featuring a public option failed to make it out of the Senate Finance Committee left me feeling that much more unsure about health care reform.

    I'm a big proponent of a public option, though I'd rather we take a stronger socialist stance that would feature a single-payer plan. A lot of the arguments against the public option are that it would serve as a "Trojan Horse" that would lead to a single-payer system. Naturally, I don't see a problem with that, nor do I really follow the logic.

    My figuring is that a public option would be able to provide affordable health care under reasonable conditions and rates. I think private insurance companies could compete, though they would most definitely see a drop in profits. If that means a rise in the quality of care, I'm all for it.

    However, assuming private insurance companies could not compete and we actually did end up with a single-payer system, then I'm all for that too. Really all that would mean is that a privatized, profit-driven model could not provide adequate coverage and that the government could. If this scenario led to a rise in the quality of care, then where is the problem?

    Still, I don't understand why public and private-run health care institutions could not coexist in a competitive marketplace. Industries like education and parcel services have existed under this model for decades and -- despite problems -- have managed to provide access to these needed services at a level that is usually acceptable. I'm not sure why health insurance would be different.

    Nor do I buy into the argument that a public option or a single-payer system would put a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor. We already have insurance executives enacting that role now, so even if the mystical government bureaucrat accusation came to fruition, I don't think things would be much different than they already are.

    Insurance essentially serves as a middleman, transferring money from individuals to a pool, and then to a health care provider. Ideally, all that should occur is paying a bill, but since overhead costs for private companies is usually 20 percent higher than those of public institutions, that pool isn't as large as it could be.

    Despite all these setbacks to a public option, reform is apparently taking place, and the leading bill from Max Baucus might have a chance. I'm just concerned that without a public option it won't be as sweeping a reform as we need.

    The Baucus alternative to a government run plan is to set up state-run exchanges to make shopping for insurance easier. I think the idea is that the people could see if they're getting screwed. My concern is that insurers could artificially inflate their prices as a trust or pool, which would still make insurance unaffordable.

    The plan calls for subsidies to help lower-income families purchase insurance but does not require employers to provide insurance to employees, nor does it require individuals to purchase insurance. If these subsidies are not enough to make health care affordable to all -- and they probably aren't seeing as an estimated 25 million people will still be without insurance in 2019 -- and if people are not forced have health insurance, then why bother?

    The large expense of emergency room visits will still be shouldered by taxpayers and the system could flounder. Not to mention the fact that this bill does little to provide anything resembling universal coverage. In fact, the tax proposed on high-end plans would probably encourage people to less adequately insure themselves.

    The Baucus plan is essentially an extension of Medicaid, but it doesn't seem like the bill calls for enough money to enlarge Medicaid to the required extent. Also, Baucus estimates that American families will still spend roughly 13 percent of their income on health care. I'm not sure what the number is currently, but 13 percent seems high to me.

    I certainly don't have the answer to all of this mess, but I do know we need money to make this thing work, and it has to come from somewhere. It seems to me that the extra 20 percent or so that private companies take for overhead and profit would be a good place to make up the difference, but the finance committee apparently doesn't see it that way.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    The truth will set you...SOLD!

    Photo by Jonathan McIntosh
    The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court is expected to issue a groundbreaking ruling concerning campaign finance.

    The debate has been re-energized with the rare request for second arguments in a case concerning "Hillary: the Movie." The film was made by Citizens United, a conservative political group that, in this case, aimed at discrediting Senator Clinton both personally and politically during the 2008 election.

    The film was not permitted to be distributed online or via DVD because the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws prohibit corporate money from being used in such a manner. The court could potentially negate those laws as well as overturn the 1990 decision in the case of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce which originally banned corporate money from being used to either support or oppose political candidates.

    Precedents concerning the current case before the Court go much further back. In the 1886 decision of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Court extended the right of personhood to corporations (though there is considerable debate about the intention of the Court in this case, the effect remains the same). Nearly a century later in 1975, Buckley v. Valeo established a seemingly separate precedent that money constitutes a form of free expression and is thus protected under the first amendment.

    Those in favor of restricting limitations on campaign finance are using the current case to connect the logical dots between 1886, 1975, and 2008. If corporations are persons, then corporations are guaranteed free speech under the first amendment. Money is a form of free speech. Therefore, limiting the amount of money a corporation can spend on any cause is a violation of the first amendment.

    Logically this argument appears sound, and ordinarily I would not be against limiting free speech in any way, but I make an exception here for various reasons.

    First, extending financial contributions in such a way would actually make corporations more person-like than people. People are limited to $2,400 donations to individual candidates and $30,400 to political parties per election year. Removing the cap from corporate spending places individuals' "monetary speech" below that of corporations -- though one could argue that system already exists.

    Second, corporations are not actually people. The 1886 case extended the rights of individuals to corporations, but none of the responsibilities or consequences that come with those rights. An argument based on the full personhood of corporations is based on a false assumption.

    Lastly, to allow infinite monetary contributions to campaigns by corporations would be an affront to representative democracy. Essentially, such a ruling would make a fact what many already assume to be true: a vote for every dollar, not for every person.

    Though I am not much for argumentation on the basis of intention, I think it applies here. The creation of a corporation is intended to protect personhood by removing the business from the individual. It safeguards the personal assets of owners in the event of financial collapse or legal action. Incorporated institutions were meant to exist beyond the realm of personhood, not act on its behalf.

    Moreover, the passing of the first amendment was intended to protect individuals from tyrannic rule by government; the courtroom logic that will likely play out here will place individuals under tyrannic rule by corporations. In either case, the opinions, beliefs, and values of the public become inconsequential.

    Lastly, consider that the founders never considered free speech to be completely unlimited. If it were, the Constitution would not provide instances in which speech becomes criminal (i.e. treason) nor would there be similar situations in the practice of day-to-day law (i.e. perjury).

    The sad news here is that we the people are probably fucked. According to The New Yorker, the Roberts Court almost always sides with industry:

    In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff.

    I am not a believer in the idea that corporate America is evil, and I believe corporations deserve a fair shake in the legal system, but to consistently emerge the victor in the highest court in the land points to unfairness in a different direction. This matter is something about which we should all be particularly concerned.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Intelligent (?) Design

    I see the appeal of intelligent design, though it doesn't really make sense to me, at least insofar as I understand it, and although I have only a rudimentary understanding of Darwinian evolutionary theory, it seems more sound. That said, I'm always looking for information to fill the knowledge gaps I have, and recently I saw a NOVA special about both evolution and intelligent design that I found rather enlightening.

    As a viewer, you knew going in which side was going to "win" in a science-based program like NOVA, but I felt like intelligent design had a fair chance to defend itself. It just didn't stack up to evolutionary theory.

    Many people argue that intelligent design is a convenient repackaging of creationism, a point which I agree with but I feel is most certainly debatable. Sill, I would say intelligent design isn't about creationism in the same way Animal Farm isn't about Stalinist Russia. Orwell never says Napolean is Stalin or Snowball is Trotsky, but we all know the score; similarly, "intelligent design" could easily be "creation" and the "intelligent agent" behind it all could be "Creator" or "God."

    Whether intelligent design constitutes religion is a huge issue concerning its potential to be taught in school sciences classes, but perhaps the more important one is whether it is even science. Let's turn to the dictionary, shall we:

    science - the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena

    Accordingly, for intelligent design to be science, it would have to meet the above criteria. In relation to intelligent design, one could make the argument that notions of irreducible complexity are based on observations that seek to describe and identify phenomena. However, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation are nowhere to be found.

    Again, let's consult the old dictionary:

    theory - a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena

    Experimental investigation is based on falsifiable testing of a phenomena, and intelligent design cannot be tested. Since it cannot be tested it can never assume the status of theory. Period.

    Intelligent design seems to have come about from a religious need to provide a counter to Darwinian evolution, even if that counter has no basis in science. The common critique of evolution is that it is "just a theory," as though it is some random idea that is accepted without questioning. Perhaps in the early stages that might have been a fair critique (probably not though), but over 150 years of repeated empirical testing through anthropological records and genetic experimentation have provided a large body of evidence for the validity of evolutionary theory. It has also been used as a successful model for prediction.

    The bottom line is that theory is more than an idea; it is a body of work. Evolution meets this standard while intelligent design falls short, aiming only to debunk evolution and replace it with pseudoscience.

    The problem is that intelligent design introduces the untestable supernatural element of an intelligent agent (i.e. God) aimed at purposeful creation. While this view could very well be true, it cannot be tested. Once the supernatural enters the debate, you've gone beyond the realm of science. To teach intelligent design in a science class would mean an expansion of the very principles that make science science.

    I have no problem with the introduction of a scientific theory to counter evolution; if one exists (and I'm not aware of any that do, though there probably are some) then by all means, teach it. But intelligent design is not a scientific theory and should not be taught alongside evolution. That's a humanities course at best, but frankly I'd rather read the mythology that already exists. I see no need to add to it.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009

    Why I hate the Democrats

    The New York Times reported today that the public option for health care is on its deathbed. Most of this has come from an inability of the White House and the Democratically controlled Congress to lead the debate on the issue. If the Democratic majority cannot effectually push through legislation based on a unified agenda its control of American government will be short lived.

    But what else would you expect from a party of pussies?

    You won the election. You control all the elected branches of government. Your run the country. Those are the rules. Instead, the minority party and the Blue Dogs have pushed the progressive agenda -- the one for which the majority of the country voted -- to the side.

    I just don't get it. In every other republic in the world the majority party dictates policy. We did it here during the Bush years, and idiotic and catastrophic as many of those policy decisions were, they made it through and shit got done -- stupid as it may have been.

    But that was the one beautiful thing about the Bush years: ruthless efficiency. The answer to the opposing minority was, "Fuck you, we won." That's how democracy works. Individuals are elected based on an agenda (or at least they should be; regardless of the reason for which they are elected, there are always policy plans). If you win, you get to implement your agenda. If they work, or you can make people believe they work, you get to keep your job. If not, somebody else gets a turn, and how glorious is that?

    The guy I voted for won. The policies that he supported -- many of which I liked -- won by extension, but are they being implemented. The answer is a resounding "No." The failing health care reform initiative, the legislation about which I am most concerned, is a prime example of my point.

    The NYT article had the following to say: “I just want to figure out what works,” Mr. Obama said in March at a White House forum. If he could drive down health costs and expand coverage “entirely through the market,” he said, “I’d be happy to do it that way.” And “if there was a way of doing it that involved more government regulation and involvement, I’m happy to do it that way, as well,” he added.

    Well, given the deregulation of the health care industry and the inability of the free market to control costs and increase efficiency, I'd say the latter is the best approach. Why a health care reform bill that includes a public option and stringent restraints can't be railroaded through is beyond me.

    My belief is that it could pass easily, it simply won't, and the reason is the crippling concern about public opinion, not what is best for the public. Great leaders take the citizenry down a path its not ready for, a path that ultimately leads to something better. Mediocre leaders just try to keep their jobs, and that's what we've got now.

    Again, according to the NYT, the Republican response to health care reform has been one of fear: Conservatives...see the public option as a step toward a single-payer system in which the government would pay most of the nation’s health care bill and could supplant private insurers.

    Well, if Obama is right about finding something that works -- and he is -- who gives a shit if the insurance companies go under provided a single-payer system means better coverage?

    I know, it's "socialist," and that's scary for whatever reason, but it's not an argument against a policy, it's fear mongering based on a loaded word. I wish that just once someone would just come out and say, "Yep, it's socialist. Why is that bad?" I don't think anyone would know what to say. I'm not sure most Americans even know what socialism means, especially the ones opposed to socialist ideas provided previous arguments are a good estimator.

    In the same breath these ignorant lemmings -- who have been paraded around on TV by manipulative bastards -- are calling Obama a fascist and a communist. I don't think he's either, BUT YOU CAN'T FUCKING BE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME!!!

    Sill any attempt at a progressive political agenda has to bow to these dumb ass swing voters who couldn't tell their asses from holes in the ground unless Hannity or Beck showed them the way. So I say to Obama, fuck these people, fuck their uninformed political agenda, and give me my goddamn health insurance. That's why I voted for you, and if you don't deliver, then the next guy will get a turn, and that's the irony of this whole mess.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009

    In Principle

    I've always thought the term "in principle" to be an annoying dodge people use to avoid taking a stand, but as of late I've been (ironically) rethinking my stance. I feel it could just as easily be a way to maintain and defend a personal ideology while at the same time adapting to an ever-changing reality.

    I guess what prompted this whole thought process has been the most prevalent political idea in my mind: health care reform. I can't say I'm surprised by the amount of emotion proposing such legislation evokes. Any government decision that deals so directly with life and death is bound to have critics, myself being one. While I don't feel we're taking progressive enough action (I favor a single-payer plan), many others think the government plans to go too far.

    The result has led to me watching a lot of individuals beg for "their America back." The reality is "their America" never really existed. It's just a nostalgic longing for a past in which, given their youth, these individuals were too naive to notice the corruption and problems that existed during the time. The baby boomer America consisted of Watergate, political assassinations, sanctioned racism, Vietnam, and a ton of other negative things. I do not mean to say that "their America" was any worse than the one we live in now, but how much better could it have really been?

    The thing I find most surprising is how willing people are to cling to an ideology even if it leads to their downfall. Yes, America is founded on principles of capitalism and we have a mean libertarian streak in us. Is it best to let "the market" regulate the practices of business and by extension numerous aspects of our personal lives? Yes, in principle.

    I don't want the government in my business anymore than they need to be. I don't think the government has the right to tell me when and where I can smoke a cigarette, to regulate marijuana and other drugs so strictly, to make judgments about profane content via the FCC, to violate my privacy through domestic spying, to suspend habeas corpus en mass, or to do a host of other things.

    However, this principle falls apart in that there are numerous things I would like the government to run (and tax its citizens to do so): public roads, libraries, police forces, fire departments, public schools, the military, utilities, and HEALTH CARE. The reason being is that, in a privatized business model, responsibility to investors to turn consistently higher profits leads to cuts in the quality of service in order to increase revenue, particularly if competitors are few and services and price are similar among them.

    Health care is essential to a high quality of life and should be available to everyone at the cost of everyone. Problem is this view doesn't mesh well with traditional American ideals. It doesn't mesh well with some of my principles either, but their comes a point when defending a principle only leads to shooting yourself in the foot, and God forbid you do that because it will cost too much damn money to go to the doctor and get that treated, leaving you bankrupt financially, though perhaps not ideologically. At least you'll have your principles, but is it worth it?

    I'm reminded of a short essay written by George Orwell, I believe. In it, he argues that societies are built around revolution, but that revolution never creates a situation for advancing the lower class. Instead, the middle class merely deceitfully offers advancement to the lower class in exchange for aiding in toppling the aristocracy. The lower class then discovers that the middle and upper classes have simply switched places.

    I feel like much of the political scene now is very different. Out of fear that abandoning the commonly asserted ideal (or myth) that is America will lead the middle class into poverty, the middle class is deceived by an elite few in the upper class into fighting its own interests, and all out of principle. Rather than working with the lower class to stand a fighting chance against powerful interests, the middle class is being eroded all in the name of principle. Health care is just the most recent example. Environmentalists could make similar arguments, as could economists concerning the bail outs, or even accountant when one considers the death (estate) tax reform.

    I don't stand on either the right or left; I'm an issue to issue guy. I try to follow a libertarian ideology because I feel granting citizens greater freedom is generally the best thing to do. But not always. For certain things freedom causes chaos and suffering, which has been the case for health care, and it has all been for a principle that probably couldn't be identified by most who suffer in its name.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    There's a Fox in the newsroom

    Fox News must officially drop the word "news" from its title. Here's a quick definition of "news:" the presentation of a report on recent or new events in a newspaper or other periodical or on radio or television. A "recent event" implies something that is factual, and "report" implies relaying of information, not creating it.

    This last year has been unbearable, and I'm speaking from the standpoint of a sane person, not someone on either the left or the right. Fox is not in the business of news, but rather the business of profit. Journalistic integrity is an afterthought.

    First, the TEA parties. We got it: you've been Taxed Enough Already. Not to mention your pissed about all the wasteful spending the government does. What better way to display fiscal conservativism than do buy and subsequently waste a shit-ton of tea. In any event, these tea parties were not spontaneous, but rather largely created and propagated by Fox. That is not news.

    Second, the healthcare debate. News is about information, not misinformation. If you want to have an honest discussion about the merits of a public option or end of life care from a conservative standpoint, by all means do so. But to advance the notion that healthcare reform is socialist -- which it may be -- and therefore inherently bad -- which is a nonsequitur conclusion by the way -- or that the government wishes to involuntarily euthanize the elderly is unconscionable. This is not news. Christ, Jon Stewart had a more frank healthcare discussion in his interview with Betsy McCaughey than Fox has ever considered.

    Third, the birthers. Holy shit. For starters, the natural born citizen clause in the Constitution is outdated and no longer useful, at least in my opinion. Either way, IT DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER BECAUSE OBAMA IS A NATURAL BORN CITIZEN! It's nowhere near true. This is not news. But I get it, you don't like him. Fine. Deal with it. I had 8 years of Bush and better reasons to question his legitimacy (Supreme Court, I'm looking at you) but we let that one go.

    Finally, Glenn Beck. I don't even have a punchline for this guy. I can't tell if he is just nuts or just that good a snake oil salesman. Either way, he's in good company with Hannity, O'Reilly, and Murdoch, all of whom are irresponsible in abandoning anything resembling journalism; what's worse is it's working.

    Monday, August 3, 2009

    In defense of Palin

    Photo by Bruce Tuten
    I think people have been too rough on Sarah Palin lately, particularly involving her quitting the governorship of Alaska. As much as it pains me to do it, I feel a few words need be said in her defense.

    First, to be clear, it is a stupid argument on the sides of both liberals and conservatives to squabble over whether or not she "quit." Here's the dictionary definition of the word, for all curious parties:

    quit –verb (used with object)
    1. to stop, cease, or discontinue: She quit what she was doing to help me paint the house.
    2. to depart from; leave (a place or person): They quit the city for the seashore every summer.
    3. to give up or resign; let go; relinquish: He quit his claim to the throne. She quit her job.
    4. to release one's hold of (something grasped).
    5. to acquit or conduct (oneself).
    6. to free or rid (oneself): to quit oneself of doubts.
    7. to clear (a debt); repay.

    Palin fits 4 out of 7. She quit her job; deal with it.

    The real question is why, and most of the reasons offered are pretty good ones.

    The most plausible is that she has political ambitions at the national level. In order to involve herself in the politics of the country at large, she needs to leave Alaska, but remaining governor while doing so would leave Alaska, well, ungoverned. While it is a common practice to hold one's position while campaigning (Bush, Kerry, McCain, Obama, Palin, Biden, etc.), it is an irresponsible one because it involves neglecting one's constituents. In this situation, quitting is a good call.

    Also, if she felt the stress on her family was too much, quitting is perfectly reasonable, although continuing to be a media whore makes little sense after the fact.

    Finally, if for whatever reason she felt she was incapable of fulfilling her duties as governor, quitting was the right thing to do. I think Palin is an endearing figure for many people. She is good at several political tricks -- pandering, question dodging, and righteous self-indignation to name a few. Still, she is a goddamn moron. Nothing she has ever said or done could possibly make anyone conclude anything different; she can barely speak in complete sentences.

    Still, unless she is leaving office to avoid scandal, I don't think it is a bad decision. Oddly enough, her favorability among Republicans has dropped since her resignation, which could hurt any aspirations at national office she might hold. This disappoints me: I was looking forward to the Republicans running an ignorant religious nutjob as opposed to just manipulating one for his or her vote.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009

    This is why we are stupid

    Obama plans to speak to the nation tonight about healthcare reform, one of the few issues that actually affects all Americans in the meaningful way politicians often claim things do. That said, it would be nice if we paid attention, but apparently several networks were hesitant to carry the broadcast because it interfered with regularly scheduled programming.

    You have got to be fucking kidding me. Apparently, FOX declined to air it outright, and NBC and ABC only jumped on because the White House "shifted the event's time from the previously announced 9 p.m. to the lesser-watched hour of 8 p.m."

    So, if I'm reading this correctly, these networks wouldn't provide their audiences with much needed information on one of the most important issues of the day because they were afraid of losing viewers had they failed to air reruns and reality TV shows. Moreover, by airing it at 8 p.m., this means fewer people will watch.

    Following this train of logic, either the networks are wrong if they don't air the news conference and are completely irresponsible in fulfilling their public duty to the American people, or they are right to fear a losing viewers because the American people are that stupid and/or apathetic. I can't decide which is worse.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009

    Thoughts on Uncle Walter

    Last Friday, Walter Cronkite died in his New York home. The Times wrote a pretty solid obit that's worth a look. I was sad to here the news even though I did not come of age during the Cronkite years. The man was a legend, and as a journalism student, it's been a foregone conclusion that he set the standard for what television journalism was supposed to be.

    But, I suppose in truth I'm not really sad abouthim dying (seeing as I didn't know him), but rather his work and what it represented dying with him. I suppose that makes his death a bit like Michael Jackson's passing: I'm a few decades late in mourning what we liked him for in the first place.

    Still, I think sometimes we give Cronkite's generation more credit than it is due, probably because of what Cronkite and other journalists of the era embodied. That statement merits some explaining.

    I think Walter Cronkite was a legend in his field for three reasons. First, you have to give credit to the man. I don't care how much circumstances affect or influence success, somebody's behind it calling the shots. Chalk one up for Walt.

    Second on the list has to be the culture. Though Cronkite was managing editor of the CBS evening news for most of the 1960s and 1970s, his most memorable moments -- as well as the country's -- occurred during the 1960s. That decade had a lot going on: civil rights movements (race, gender, sexual orientation), assassinations (JFK, MLK, RFK), the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the explosion of rock 'n' roll, and a MAN WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON. That time was everything at once. A collision of hope and hate, love and war, and the last moment in American history when straight, wealthy, white patriarchy faced a legitimate challenge to its cultural authority from united countercultural forces. News of that magnitude is historically important no matter who the voice behind it is. In my lifetime the only news events I can even remember are the collapse of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Most everything else -- O.J. Simpson's trial, Clinton's blowjob, the little Cuban boy, etc. -- seems fairly trivial.

    Lastly, the media environment cannot be ignored. CBS was one of only three network stations during most of Cronkite's run as anchor. With fewer television options, Cronkite had a much easier time commanding a larger audience as well as the nation's respect. Having a captive audience gave Cronkite the freedom to run a newsroom with some journalistic integrity.

    The business of television has changed since then, though the profit model has not. Now we can just as easily escape the news for something more trivial as we can pay attention to current events. This reality isn't necessarily bad until the news becomes watered down in order to compete with entertainment programming. Television journalism is, for all practical purposes, as dead as Cronkite himself.

    But this is what I meant earlier when I said that I think we give earlier generations too much credit. I'm not sure they appreciated the value of actual news more than we do now; I just think it may have been the only thing on during a time when channel surfing took all of three seconds. Would they have given Cronkite the same attention and respect had he been competing against more "entertaining" pundits or reality television? I don't know. Probably no more that we would.

    I will say this much: Cronkite knew the business, and he was good at what he did. In the way of news anchors, we don't even come close. Brian Williams is okay, but that's about it. Charlie Gibson seems like a smart man, but unfortunately he doesn't play one on TV; and watching Katie Couric is like watching a trainwreck smile at you. I just hope someone is waiting in the reserves to bring back some of the old Cronkite integrity, but I see no reason to be hopeful, and that's the way it is.

    Thursday, July 16, 2009

    Journalism's death rattle

    Yesterday, The Colbert Report aired one of its funniest episodes ever, which opened with this segment about Stephen wishing to be named the "worst person in the world" by Kieth Olbermann:

    The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
    Stephen Wants to Be the Worst Person in the World
    Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

    This would have been completely hysterical, except for the hint of a very sad truth inherent in his satire. Namely, when Colbert remarks, "And why not hold me to the same standards as others in the conservative media. I'm just as much a journalist as Fox News." I wish that weren't true.

    There's a really great scene in the film Almost Famous where Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character talks about the early 1970s as being the final death rattle of rock 'n' roll. The early 21st century may be the final death rattle of television journalism.

    There's no question that Fox News is -- for the most part -- a mouthpiece for the right. It slants so far to the right that the Earth would tip off its axis unless MSNBC weren't there to balance the scales. What's worse is that such blatant pandering is becoming an excepted reality and, even more startling, this reality is not the most contemptible slap in the face to journalistic integrity.

    Now programs airing under the guise of "TV journalism" are actually selling themselves to overt sponsors. Now we have Morning Joe: brewed by Starbucks and the complete relinquishing of an entire network to a figurative stroke job of Obama's healthcare plan. Ever since the Twenty-One quiz show debacle, not even game shows have had single, overt sponsors. And though I would not argue that understanding the healthcare plan is bad, airing what essentially amounts to an infomercial and calling it journalism is irresponsible as best and outright wrong at worst.

    The death of television journalism coupled with declining sales in newspaper subscriptions leaves me to wonder where the hell we're going to get information in the near future. I'm not sure the Internet is always the best answer and I don't see radio making a comeback.

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    Abortion: The jury is in

    I've been following the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor over the last several days. Her confirmation, as admitted by Republicans, is almost a certainty. It's difficult to argue against her qualifications, so all that's left is an attack on her opinions, which may or may not reflect her judgment.

    Today, The New York Times reports that Republican senators are pressing her to speak about her stance on abortion and all the legal precedent surround Roe vs. Wade. This move is idiotic for three reasons.

    First, Sotomayor gains nothing from taking a stance one way or the other, so she won't. Republicans know this, and so does everybody else, so go ahead and pander to your constituents, but let's just all acknowledge that it's grandstanding and move on.

    Second -- and this one might be my own crackpot theory -- Republicans could give a fuck about making abortion illegal. Overturning Roe vs. Wade just sends the issues to the states, and it's virtually a guarantee that abortion will be legal somewhere in America if the legal precedent is changed. While this move might help local politicians grab single issue voters (and if you are one, please kill yourself, or at least stop voting), it does nothing for pro-life politicians on Capitol Hill. Gaining votes on the promise to abolish abortion is a much simpler -- and a much more renewable -- path to campaign success that actually changing the law. There's too much political capital to be gained in preserving the status quo.

    Third, given my strong belief that the status quo will remain, I don't think Roe vs. Wade is going anywhere, and rightfully so. In a country founded on the principals of freedom, it seems counter productive to take certain freedoms away. If one disagrees with the practice of abortion, there are ways to limit it without taking painfully slow legal action -- like moving beyond abstinence-only education for instance. Yes, somewhere along the line adventurous teens make mistakes and shack up with a drifter with a motorcycle (for me it was Bob, but to be fair, prison is a lonely place), so let latex be your savior and prevent the "problem" before it starts.

    Perhaps more importantly, the existence of abortion as allocated by Roe vs. Wade is part of our social contract, and it creates a point where we have to address incongruities within our sanctity of life arguments. My stance here is utilitarian and somewhat abstract, so I tend to agree with thinkers like Peter Singer.

    According to Singer, not all life is equal, nor should it be. Voluntary euthanasia, abortion, and perhaps even infanticide are justifiable in certain circumstances as acceptable utilitarian reactions in the world in which we actually live, not the world in which we hope to. This means reframing the abortion debate completely.

    Logically, there is no significant dividing line between the fetus and the newborn infant. "The location of the being," says Singer, "-- inside or outside of the womb -- should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it." Singer doesn't argue this as a victory for conservatives, for he believes infanticide could be justifiable in certain cases since the fetus/baby distinction is so poor. (I won't attempt to explain this argument in full here. It is complicated an typically misunderstood, but if you are interested in further reading, I highly recommend his book, Writings on an Ethical Life.)

    Furthermore, given the fact that a fetus or an infant is essentially a blank slate, there are valid arguments for bettering the lives of those involved in killing decisions by invoking ideas of replacement value. "A woman may plan to have two children," says Singer. "If one dies while she is of childbearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child and then gives birth to a hemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child that for a hemophiliac."

    I'm aware that this is an emotionally cold stance, but I appreciate Singer's ability to jar one's standard way of thinking and force his reader to approach difficult issues from a new vantage point.

    If, according to the sanctity of life argument, all life is equal, why should it matter if one aborts a child now and gives birth to one at a later date? Assuming the woman wishes to have only one child, the end result is the same either way. The only change is timing. Is this wrong? I honestly don't know, but it is worth consideration.

    And while I disagree with Senator Coburn on many issues, he raised an interesting point about our societal approach toward abortion during the hearings:

    At another point, Mr. Coburn observed that "we now record fetal heartbeats at 14 days post-conception. We record fetal brainwaves at 39 days post-conception."

    "And I don’t expect you to answer this, but I do expect you to pay attention to it as you contemplate these big issues," Mr. Coburn continued. "We have this schizophrenic rule of the law where we have defined death as the absence of those, but we refuse to define life as the presence of those."

    I would argue that lacking those characteristics mark death, but having them is necessary but not sufficient to mark life. But he is right to urge for a clearer understanding of what constitutes life or death. My opinion though, is that we move forward from a framework in which Roe vs. Wade is intact, because I don't see us backtracking.

    Sunday, July 5, 2009

    Lazy post, but funny

    In continuing my theme of posting about Twitter, I thought it pertinent to share a story from The Onion. I'd comment on this one, but I've got little more to say than I think this one is pretty funny.

    Monday, June 29, 2009

    Twits should back-pedal

    A few weeks ago I made a post to this blog concerning the usefulness of Twitter. Essentially, I had argued that Twitter was a useless, narcissistically driven media outlet, but with the recent news in Iran, I felt it appropriate to swallow my pride a bit. I'm not a humble person, but I may have been a little overzealous in my condemnation of Twitter and I happily admit that fact.

    So now I'm really confused. Is Twitter a beacon of democratic hope or a cesspool of idiots? The answer, I feel, is neither. The obsession over the medium has led journalists, bloggers, Twitter users, and society en mass to oversimplify this thing into a black and white dichotomy. I fear we are missing the point.

    Twitter is a micro-blog, just one of many subcategories of various social networking sites (SNS). What distinguishes SNS from traditional media is user-generated content. Yes, it's incredibly easy to make fun of Twitter just as it is easy to blame the media for a host of problems for which, at best, they are indirectly responsible. Perhaps our handling discontent concerning traditional media has unduly spread over into the SNS realm.

    We treat SNS, and all new media for that matter, as a category of its own in some respects, but in many others our framework of approaching new media is constrained by our old approaches to traditional media. The point is this: blaming the media still works, but who are we ultimately blaming? For traditional media, it typically means throwing charges at faceless of despised corporate bigwigs, but what about new media?

    For media that relies on user-generated content, we can only blame the users: us. I'm not sure we realize that. Maher is right that Iran could save Twitter by lending it some credibility, but Americans in coffee shops aren't twittering about Iranian protests; Iranians are doing that. We twitter about how sad it is that Michael Jackson died and that we'll miss him -- though we did't know him; about the poor sexual decisions we made when we were blackout drunk the night before; about our dogs; about nothing.

    I can no longer condemn this use though. It has its place. Media serve an escapist function too, and we can't be expected to intellectually attend to every world political event at all times; it is too straining. But escapism only works to a point, and sooner or later we need to embrace the fact that an informed citizenry is a good thing, much like the Iranians seem to be doing.

    The bottom line is that SNS, and new media in general, are really only as timely and relevant as their users make it. Twitter isn't all bad, but it certainly isn't the democratic beacon we have made it out to be because we haven't made it that.

    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Prescription for America Proves Sour Medicine

    "Prescription for America" was billed as a debate by ABC, and its airing proved to be a television event -- if for nothing else its uniqueness -- however, I could smell the bullshit in D.C. from my Georgia apartment.

    I just reread Harry Frankfut's "On Bullshit" this week, and here is a brief extract that might make advance my point:

    What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

    Bullshitting means misrepresenting what it is you aim to do. ABC bullshitted us, and so did Obama. "Prescription" was not a debate. The other side of the healthcare debate -- namely, alternative plans -- was not represented, and indeed was misrepresented. Most people agree that the current healthcare system is broken, but rather than debating the merits of Obama's plan against alternatives like single-payer healthcare, what we saw was Obama's plan vs. the broken system. We were inundated by it and rhetoric from Obama reinforcing that dyad:

    In terms of cost, understand that the system is already out of whack in terms of costs as it is. So if we do nothing, costs are going to keep on going up 6 percent, 7 percent, 8 percent per year, and government, businesses and families are all going to find themselves either losing their health care or paying a lot more out of pocket. That's going to happen if we do nothing.

    I don't think the issue of unsustainability is under much dispute, but simply because the current system is terrible doesn't make Obama's plan the best plan, only a better one. Instead, ABC's format framed Obama's plan as the only alternative, closing the door on what would be a genuine debate.

    Gibson and Sawyer appeared to play devil's advocate, but in reality they lobbed Obama a series of softball opposition questions which he either hit out of the park or completely sidestepped -- in true political form he was. But to the credit of Gibson and Sawyer, and I can't believe I said that, they had to navigate tough journalistic waters (though I do not consider Sawyer, a fellow Louisvillian and former Nixon aid, to be a journalist or even a hack for that mater). They had to "report" a story in which they were intimately involved, and without the proper distance it's difficult to maintain objectivity. Moreover, forcing them to act as opposition moves them from moderators to some strange opponent/moderator hybrid that was just awkward and inappropriate.

    No, not a debate, but rather a speech with interruption -- some, ironically, paid for by McDonald's. Obama had a chance to pitch his argument against a straw man whom he burned to the ground, all while ABC tried desperately to grasp for journalistic integrity, misrepresenting what amounted to a persuasive speech as a deliberative debate. All this mess gives Obama more weight with the public and, I fear, undue credibility to the viability of his plan as compared to alternatives.

    My purpose here, as media student and a bit of a junky, has been to critique the presentation of Obama's plan, not the plan itself. Though I recognize some major problems that could arise -- particularly in terms of cost, implementation, and adequate primary care coverage -- I feel like his plan is workable, and uniquely American, which is not a bad thing. Each country deals with healthcare differently, and though I like the single-payer plan, the competitive platitudes of American business would never allow it. I guess I feel his plan is not the best, but it might be the best we can do. Unfortunately, that is not the sense last night's viewers got.

    I will say this in closing. It was nice to witness a few bright spots from Obama, who I feel has been timid about many issues lately (gay marriage, bank regulation, the handling of Guantanamo, etc.). For better of for worse, I feel like he's really going to go to bat for us over healthcare, and it's about time he lived up to his promises and we got something done. Here's and example of what I'm talking about:

    GIBSON: "Your critics on the Republican side of the Senate Finance Committee wrote you a letter and said: 'At a time when major government programs like Medicare and Medicaid are already on a path to fiscal insolvency, creating a brand new program will not only worsen our long-term financial outlook, but also negatively impact American families who enjoy private coverage for their insurance. What do you say to them?"
    OBAMA: "They're wrong."

    He's finally sacking up and taking command of this wayward bipartisan ship, and it's long overdue. Also, I was impressed with the way he addressed the socialism fear surrounding the public option of his plan:

    So we would have -- I think there are some legitimate questions in terms of how the public option is designed. One thing I have to say, though, is, it's not an entirely bad thing if, as long as they're reimbursing doctors in an adequate way, and -- and -- and so not being oppressive on -- on health care providers, and as long as there are not a whole bunch of taxpayer subsidies going into a public plan, if the public plan can do it cheaper and provides good quality care, that's the competition that we talked about.

    Though he didn't say it outright, the implication is that if government, in a competitive market can provide a better option, then why shouldn't it? That, I think, is a valid argument. I do wish, though, that in my lifetime a president would out and out say that we already employ several socialist policies (USPS, public schools, social security, medicare, etc.) that have worked well for us in the past and that we also hold dear. Who's to say similar programs would be different, or somehow more socialist?

    Still, overall I was incredibly disappointed with this healthcare "debate" and I am fearful of the misinformed discourse it will produce. Obama finally appeared to take a bold stand, and that's an important thing, but I'm not sure it will be worth the potential damaging influence the program could have on even more misinformed public opinion.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    Twitter is Useful

    Typing the title for this blog was among the most painful experiences in my life, at least to my pride. I am openly opposed to Twitter's existence because I believe the site serves little practical use -- despite promises to connect people in meaningful ways. Though I still feel Twitter is largely a narcissistic medium, it is crucial for the select few who have found a way to put the medium to good use.

    According to The Washington Post, Iranians are using the site to organize protests against their recently reelected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians believe stole the election illegally.

    Twitter co-founder Biz Stone delayed scheduled maintenance to the site to allow protesters more time to communicate with one another and to provide sources outside Iran with information about the uprising. I have to give Stone credit on this one. Whether you think it is a publicity ploy or not, he's allowing his site to fulfill its democratic communicative promise, which, oddly enough, is realizing itself in Iran.

    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    The Rise and Fall of the American Empire?

    "All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged...the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas in the more ancient method of expense they must have shared with at least a thousand people...and thus, for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest and the most sordid of all vanities , they gradually bartered their whole power and authority."

    - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

    The above quotation is Smith's account of how it is feudal lords came to lose their power and influence and the expense of the growing middle class. To me, this reads like a metaphor for the America's seemingly continual decline in stature worldwide, and I'm not sure how I feel about this. The tension of globalism and nationalism may be the largest political elephant in the room of our generation; maybe one day we'll realize that and come to grips with it - myself included.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009

    A Man without a Party

    Classes started up again here at UGA. During day one of my public opinion course, our professor asked if we considered ourselves either Democrats or Republicans, and I, along with two others, allied with neither. In my estimation, at least in the current political climate - and perhaps always - to consider oneself a Democrat or a Republican is roughly equivalent to a declaring oneself a lunatic.

    Personally, I hate to think of living in a country ruled by either. The Bush years gave us the nearest approximation of what an evangelically-backed, self-righteous, and idiot-prone Republican party. Obama-philes seem to await the coming pendulum swing that would provide a Democratic counterpart, but his time in office will be over before the Democrats can develop a workable fiscal policy or locate the backbone to implement it.

    That said, I'm not sure bipartisanship is the answer either. Swallowing two shit sandwiches is hardly preferable to eating one.

    For, the most frustrating part of following politics isn't the game-like nature by which are lives are dictated; as much as I disapprove, I understand. What I can't grasp is why it is we do much of we do and why we fail in doing so much of what we should. For example, why would we hold GITMO prisoners without trial? I understand the argument that details about torture could result in a mistrial and thus the release of dangerous prisoners, but the answer is simple: so be it. Is it more dangerous to release a potentially dangerous man or to tread the most certainly dangerous waters that come in protecting our principles at the very expense of those principles? The answer seems most obviously the latter, but we pussied out for fear of political suicide.

    In contemplating the ongoing policy dilemmas we face as a nation, particularly the balance we attempt to strike between security and freedom, I came across this passage from P.J. O'Rourke's "On The Wealth of Nations:"

    Freedom cannot exist without limitation. Adam Smith was not a man to flinch at thin conundrum. In his consideration of banking Smith stated his most fundamental free market principle: "If any branch of trade, or any division of labour, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so." However, in his consideration of banking, Smith also stated his most fundamental caveat to that principle: "But those exertions of natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and out to be, restrained by the laws of all governments."

    I've always liked O'Rourke because I think he's a sensible and intelligent guy with a pretty good read on our national bullshit. I also like his fervent defense of individual freedom and liberty and people's natural tendency that we want to be left the hell alone. This passage was particularly striking for me because it seemed like an approach to economics that transcended party bullshit.

    By this I do not mean it was bipartisan, at least in the sense of parties working together, but perhaps in the sense that party differences are and should be irrelevant when considering what is in the people's best interest. The best political label I can find for Smith is that of a Libertarian who isn't retarded. It's a zero-based approach in which he begins with a proposition of absolute freedom and then restrains that freedom only insofar as it assures stability without strangling the freedom government policies are meant to protect.

    I'm not sure if 18th-century thinkers are more intelligent that we are or if they only seem that way in retrospect. Increasingly, I am of the opinion that we aren't nearly as smart as we think we are, but my hope is that we only appear stupid now because the idiot voices of the past have faded into obscurity. Hopefully history's judgment and recollection - or lack thereof - of the Bush administration will renew my faith in the populous and in myself.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009

    Outhouse Lessons

    Image by Leonard J. DeFrancisci
    This past weekend, I was back in my home town for the "Thunder of Louisville" fireworks event, a spectacle which I have always enjoyed. It was here that I realized that life lessons and revelations come at the oddest of moments among the strangest places, namely while waiting in line for to use a fiberglass shithouse.

    For those of you who don't know, "Thunder" is the largest fireworks display in North America and nearly 1 million people attend annually. With all the adult beverages, things get a little rowdy and the pisser is in high demand, so I expected the usual 30 minute wait. What I didn't expect was a confrontation with a shirtless man and his harlot/girlfriend.

    I had been waiting for some time and they had been behind me for several minutes when, out of nowhere, the couple accused me of line jumping. "We've been here, like, forever," she said, to which I replied, "Well, I've been here for forever and about 15 seconds." Needless to say she did not appreciate the audacity that I suggest she wait her goddamn turn.

    Ironically, it was this couple that I saw line jump the man next to me, while simultaneously two angry women cut to the front of my line. I understand that it's a trivial thing, and people exercised good judgment, for the most part, in not retaliating, but I find the whole thing irritating, and here's why.

    This whole scenario is just one illustration of the tragedy of the commons, a problem our culture experiences daily at all levels, ranging from the executive suite to the porta-shitter line. The self-entitlement that seems to dictate an attitude of, "My shit is more important than yours, so fuck off," appears dominant. The problem is, once one person stops playing by the rules and we as a group sanction it, then everyone has to break the social contract just to keep even, which leaves the morally right out in the cold.

    I realize it's a bit ridiculous to compare a bathroom line to a societal breakdown, but I feel the similarity valid, and the experience was kind of a profound realization for me. I worry that Hobbes might be right in asserting that basic human nature dictates a world that is both "nasty" and "brutish." Law and rules avert that to an extent, and self-entitlement subverts that establishment.

    I do not mean to say that all law is just, but governing rules of basic courtesy are reasonable rules to live by, and it would go a long way to making our culture more bearable. In short, I have to piss just as bad as you, so wait your fucking turn you moronic infant!

    Wednesday, April 8, 2009

    Executive Assassins

    So I was watching the Colbert Report the other night and was struck by a segment he did concerning an executive assassination ring. Allegedly, a group of assassins traveled abroad and executed U.S. enemies, reporting only to the office of Vice President Cheney and having no oversight by either Congress or the CIA.

    I wasn't sure if this bit was a joke, which speaks to the character of Cheney, or at least my impression of him. As it turns out, this is no joke. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh accused Cheney of operating an executive assassination ring during a speaking engagement at the University of Minnesota. Apparently Hersh plans to reveal more details about his findings in his upcoming book.

    I'm not sure if the allegations are true, but I don't think a respected journalist like Hersh would accuse Cheney of something so vile without some sort of evidence. We'll see how this plays out, but I find it sad in and of itself that not only is such a thing occurring, but that no one is really that surprised.

    Thursday, April 2, 2009

    The Height of Arrogance

    Image by Niusereset
    I firmly believe that debate is the greatest source of learning. You have to challenge your ideas and the ideas of others to discover what holds true for you, but at some point, you might do well to pump the brakes, lest you become a pompous douche bag.

    Case in point: religion.
    I do not care if you are a strong believer or a nonbeliever, and the idea that religion is a topic of discussion that should be left off the table is completely ridiculous. Please argue. Please debate. But for the love of God (or Science H. Logic if you are an atheist) don't preach to me. If you promote these ideas, fine; but if you evangelize on their behalf, go ruin someone else's day.

    The Religious

    Here is the text of a mass forwarded e-mail I recently read:

    In Florida, an atheist created a case against the upcoming Easter and Passover holy days. He hired an attorney to bring a discrimination case against Christians, Jews and observances of their holy days...

    The argument was that it was unfair that atheists had no such recognized days. The case was brought before a judge. After listening to the passionate presentation by the lawyer, the judge banged his gavel declaring, "Case dismissed!"

    The lawyer immediately stood objecting to the ruling saying, "Your honor, how can you possibly dismiss this case? The Christians have Christmas, Easter and others. The Jews have Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, yet my client and all other atheists have no such holidays."

    The judge leaned forward in his chair saying, "But you do. Your client, counsel, is woefully ignorant." The lawyer said, "Your Honor, we are unaware of any special observance or holiday for atheists."

    The judge said, "The calendar says April 1st is April Fools Day. Psalm 14:1 states, 'The fool says in his heart, there is no God.' Thus, it is the opinion of this court, that if your client says there is no God, then he is a fool. Therefore, April 1st is his day. Court is adjourned.

    You gotta love a Judge that knows his scripture!

    Actually, no I don't. Just because someone doesn't hold the same viewpoint as you doesn't make them a fool. If they hold that viewpoint without any reasonable explanation, you could probably make that claim (note that I said reasonable, and by this I do not mean traditionally logical, but rather something that has an explainable cause).

    I am not an atheist, and I probably never will be, but I can't argue that individuals that are atheist have reason enough to believe there is no God, just as the theist has a faith-based reason to believe there is. And who the fuck are you to pretend like you know who God thinks is a fool? Just because you memorized an obscure piece of scripture - written by MAN, mind you - does not make you an ultimate authority. Piss off.

    The Non-religious

    As a Catholic, and lapse one at that, I suppose I am fundamentally opposed to the premise of atheism, but you are entitle to that view if you believe it true, and there is good evidence to that end. However, understand that insulting the religious and calling them ignorant isn't converting anyone to your cause.

    The religious people of this country seek explanation for things beyond their level of understanding, which varies for each person. For them, faith is the answer, and sometimes it is a good one.

    Christopher Hitchens disagrees vehemently. Hitchens is more than an atheist; he is an anti-theist, actively campaigning against religion. His newest book is entitle "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." Thanks Chris. Hyperbole needed a new friend.

    Look, I get it. Religion makes no sense to some people, and many see it as a destructive force. I cannot argue that religion has not been a force for destruction. From the Crusades to witch hunts to Islamic terrorism and everything in between, religion has been a breading ground for horrible things.

    However, the same is true for secularism. I doubt Stalin went to church very often. And though I haven't read Hitchens' book, the idea that "religion poisons everything" is ridiculous. Again, as a Catholic, I recognize the atrocities of the past and present and condemn them as much as anyone else, but there is good in religion too. Religion offers people a community which they may not otherwise experience, and religious institutions across the globe provide charitable services to the poor and needy. Could this be done without religion? You bet. But religion is undeniably a part of it, so to claim all religion is poisonous is ignorant.

    Moreover, the devotion many atheists and anti-theists have toward science is potentially as dangerous. On a recent episode of "Real Time," Mos Def made the argument that everyone has a religion of some kind, a point which Hitchens and Bill Maher immediately refuted based on the misuse of the term religion.

    At some level, it probably isn't fair to lump all belief systems under the term "religion." Traditionally, religion is based on faith, while many beliefs have greater logical foundations. Still, the faith many atheists have in science is often as unquestioned as the faith others have in religion.

    Everyone looks for a constant in their lives. Religion provides unchanging certainty, so it brings comfort to some. Science - or at least its method - provides something viable to cling to for uncovering truth. I don't question the scientific method, but I do recognize that science changes its mind a bit. What is true today may be false tomorrow. Discovery drives science.

    To that end, is it not dangerous to advocate ceaselessly for a cause of science that may be just as false as any religious cause? For example, the inventors of the frontal lobotomy hailed the procedure as a cure for several mental illnesses. They were awarded a Nobel Prize and the procedure gained wide global popularity. Turns out, lobotomies simply destroy part of your brain, making you more docile. And where did all the original scientific support for this procedure come from? One experiment on one gorilla. Imagine if we had individuals advocating as passionately for lobotomies as they do for global warming? We'd all be praying for the Chief to smother us with pillows.

    I know what I presented is an unfair comparison; global warming has substantially more supportive evidence for its truth than did the lobotomy procedure. My point, however, remains the same: many people who praise science for its method begin to praise the discoveries of science as ultimate truth. They are not. Science is a game of disproving and questioning, of uncertainty and untruth. So yes, hail science, but do so cautiously.

    And atheists, before you criticize others for unquestioned belief, ask yourself how much you question your own, and remember that a religious people may have questioned their beliefs just as fervently and come to a different conclusion. To those on either side of this issues: If you want to debate me, I welcome it, but if you want to condescend to me, you can shove it up your ass.