Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

The new Dream Theater CD is out, and I finally have the time to pick it up later today. Here's the first "official" video, "Rite of Passage". Looking forward to August 23, seeing them once again at the Chicago Theater.

Big Bucks II - Politics

Listening to Republican arguments on the economy, and the potential economic apocalypse should we enact certain policies reminds me of the debate over the Clinton-endorsed economic stimulus bill in 1993. If you are old enough, you might remember the bill passed the House with one vote, the Republicans predicting the death of the United States should it pass. It passed both Houses of Congress, and the results should be memorable - the longest period of robust economic growth in American peacetime. Real wages even started a climb in the last years of the 1990's, for the first time in decades.

We are in the midst of more debates on the potential disaster awaiting us. Now, the times are different of course, in a number of ways. We are in the midst of a recession, and narrowly escaped complete economic disaster last fall. With the economic stimulus package, the passage of Waxman-Markey by the House yesterday, and the upcoming health care reform fight, the Republicans (and not a few Democrats, including Senator Max Baucus of Montana) have rediscovered the virtue of fiscal frugality and are warning of the economic and fiscal disaster that awaits us should we enact any of these bills in to law.

Since the track record these men and women have isn't exactly perfect, one wonders why anyone listens to them at all.

Big Bucks I - Policy

Between the Waxman-Markey climate/energy bill that passed the House of Representatives yesterday, and the upcoming fight on health care reform, there are a couple things to keep in mind. We will deal with the politics in a moment. For right now, it might be nice to address the issue usually discussed under the heading "price tag", as in, "health care reform might be nice, but what's the price tag?"

One of the ways to figure out the "price tag" is to project potential costs-versus-savings in to the future. Now, we all know the limited utility of economic projections, especially in light of the current recession and the financial meltdown from last autumn. Not that either was unpredictable or unpredicted (actually, the recession had begun the beginning of last year, but went unremarked until the entire banking system hung on the brink of collapse). Yet, the timing of the event, its severity, and the political response to it were all highly contingent events, played out against an important Presidential election, making the entire situation volatile. Be these things as they may, there is a certain amount of acceptability to projecting costs-versus-savings. Matt Yglesias has done the service of reprinting a chart from a Conor Clarke article in The Atlantic magazine.

The projected difference in GDP over time with and without Waxman-Markey is that almost-invisible orange stripe. In other words, in terms of prospective dollars, the cost is negligible (the figures from which this graph are taken come from the EPA's own estimates drawn up as part of consideration of the bill).

Bob Cesca does a similar service in re the cost of health care reform.
Via Ezra Klein, here's economist Uwe Reinhardt on the cost of healthcare reform:
A price tag of $1.6 trillion seems immense if one contemplates the figure in the abstract. It is, however, only about 4 percent of the total cumulative health spending of $40 trillion, the amount government actuaries now project for the decade from 2010 to 2020. That is also less than the 6 to 7 percent that total national health spending has increased each year in the past decade.

It is important to note, in defense of those who start getting twitchy when the talk edges past the $1 trillion mark, such numbers are, for all intents and purposes, unfathomable to us. Yet, for precisely this very reason, putting some kind of perspective and context on the numbers becomes all the more important. In other words, while the price tag sounds HUGE, in light of relevant factors, it's really quite small.

These are important points, although in and of themselves quite small. Politicians use these kinds of figures for their own purposes, but us lay folk, who can pressure politicians one way or another, might keep them in mind as the various debates start flying.

Big Yawny Headline From AP

My Yahoo newsfeed has the following as a headline:
Iran's president lashes out at Obama

Wow. Oh, boy. couldn't see this coming. Next thing we'll read is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is denouncing President Obama.

Meaningless Biblical Analogies

Apparently Gov. Sanford believes he is the anointed king of South Carolina.
I have been doing a lot of soul searching on that front. What I find interesting is the story of David, and the way in which he fell mightily, he fell in very very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there.

So . . . is Sanford admitting he raped a woman, like David raped Bathsheba? Is he admitting he sought to commit murder against his mistress's husband in order to secure the woman for himself?

I really don't get the point of this.

The issue isn't that Sanford's infidelity. The issue is the dereliction of duty; the issue is lying to members of his staff; the issue is his odd behavior since returning to the US. Quite frankly, I wonder if he is capable of handling the duties of governor, his behavior has been so odd.

Invoking the name of a Biblical king, and said king's rape and subsequent abuse of power to cover up his own personal failings doesn't exactly make Sanford shine. Other than the fact that Sanford and David both had sexual relations with women not their wives (in David's case, one of several, as Bathsheba later became), I really don't get this.

Friday, June 26, 2009

He Must Have Got Enough So He Stopped

I love Michael Jackson's music, especially the albums Off The Wall and, of course, Thriller.

He was also an alleged pedophile, who admitted on several occasions to sleeping nude with a variety of young boys in his home. He insisted the action was totally innocent and was surprised and dismayed at the reactions of others.

Child abusers quite frequently react this way.

I'm sorry if others can't or won't accept this part of the reality that was Michael Jackson, that just want to talk about "Wanna Be Starting Something" or "Smooth Criminal" or Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo on "Beat It". Go right ahead. I can tolerate drug addiction, fornication and adultery, even flirtations with self-destruction in an artist. The sexual violation of a child, however, is my particular line. It is arbitrary, yes. It might even be called capricious. It is not less (and certainly no more) defensible than any other line others might draw.

I am sad, yes. In one day, two icons, one of my early youth (Farrah and that poster . . .) and one of my youth and early adulthood have died (and leave us not forget Ed McMahon, "You are correct, sir"). I am even more sad, however, that Michael Jackson never realized how destructive his actions were, how much pain and suffering, grief and anguish he caused others.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Psycho Therapy

I hadn't seen this, and while part of me wants to make jokes about "gay exorcism", the reality is, this is child abuse, plain and simple. It's disgusting, vile, and has no place in Christianity. As if gay youth aren't harassed enough, this kind of garbage takes it to criminal lengths.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don't Cry For Me, South Carolina

The story started out kind of weird, got odder, and after a news conference today, kind of melted down and has now taken a turn for the Twilight Zone.

First, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (he's a Republican to all those who watch FOXNews) was discovered to have kinda sorta . . . disappeared without a trace over the weekend. His family admitted that, no, they had no idea where he was. His office insisted they were in contact with him. Later, they said that he was off hiking the Appalachian Trail as he contemplated starting a run for the White House in 2012. He suddenly appears, and admits that he wasn't hiking through the boreal forests, especially since a state-owned vehicle that he uses was seen at the Atlanta airport. In fact, he was in Argentina. He promised a news conference, duly delivered, and admitted (after much hemming and hawing) he was in South America with his mistress.

Fine and dandy. I really don't care about any of that, except that he was all about hanging Bill Clinton by his thumbs for a blow job. Maybe if Clinton had received said oral gratification in, say, Ecuador, Sanford would have been cool with it, I don't know. Anyway, despite the hypocrisy and schadenfreude of this particular event, my interest ended with the press conference.

Until I saw this:
Gov. Sanford's wife apparently just put out a statement saying she asked him to leave two weeks ago.

So . . . not only was he lying to the press, perhaps his staff, and the people of the state he governs (and probably his family as well), but now she is caught having lied to the press. See, this whole thing could have been cleared up when she was contacted over the weekend and said, in short, "My husband is a lying, cheating sack of crap whom I've asked to never darken my doorway again. He has obliged and I'm quite content, even though I'm still living in the manse the state provides the wife of the governor. Oh, and family values rock."

Except, of course, she waits until today to release a statement.

The news is becoming surreal.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Whatever Happened To . . .

Sam Harris and his campaign to rid the world of religion? I almost miss him, he was such low-hanging fruit.

Almost As Good As Newt

Chris Cilliza is reporting that Mississippi governor, and former RNC Chair Haley Barbour, has started the sounding-out process for a possible run at the White House in 2012. With his record, it would be like Newt Gingrich-lite (although, not really light, if you get my meaning). Although he probably won't get the nod, should he, it would solidify the image of the Republican Party as a southern-regional party for quite a while.

What could be better than a caricature of a southern-racist politician, from the most hard-core racist state in the country, running against the first African-American President?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Health Care Reform, The Deficit, Polls, And Nonsense

On the drive home from work this morning, I heard a brief promo for Cokie Roberts' usual Monday morning "analysis" bit she does on NPR's Morning Edition. I have made it clear in the past there are few pundits I despise more than Mrs. Roberts, and even the brief ten seconds or so I heard was enough make me shout and push a CD in so I didn't have to hear her.

Much has been made of a recent poll that shows Americans are "concerned" about the growing federal budget deficit. Quite a few people, both politicians and commentators, have taken this as a sign that some kind of public option on health care is a non-starter because the price tag would be prohibitive. At a time of contracting economic activity, growing joblessness, and the continuing effects of the Bush-era tax cuts, the deficit is growing. Yet, as been repeated ad nauseum since the beginning of the economic downturn, shrinking federal spending at a time when economic activity is stagnant will only make things worse. While the deficit is, indeed, worrisome, it is not, and should not be, at the top of our political "to do" list. Indeed, in the long run, offering a publicly-funded health care option will do far more to save money than anything currently being offered.

What's surprising about all this talk about health care vs deficits is that it takes place in the midst of discussions about the truly abysmal way health insurance companies treat policy-holders. On the very same program in which Mrs. Roberts waxed stupid about our national angst over deficits, came this story:
Insurers Revoke Policies To Avoid Paying High Costs
by Joanne Silberner

According to a new report by congressional investigators, an insurance company practice of retroactively canceling health insurance is fairly common, and it saves insurers a lot of money.

A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently held a hearing about the report's findings in an effort to bring a halt to this practice. But at the hearing, insurance executives told lawmakers they have no plans to stop rescinding policies.

The act of retroactively canceling insurance is called rescission. It happens with individual health insurance policies, where people apply for insurance on their own, not through their employers. Their application generally includes a questionnaire about their health.

The process begins after a policyholder has been diagnosed with an expensive condition such as cancer. The insurer then reviews the health status information in the questionnaire, and if anything is missing, the policy may be rescinded.

The omission from the application may be deliberate, to hide a health condition that might have made the applicant ineligible for insurance. But sometimes there's an innocent explanation: The policyholder may not have known about a health condition, or may not have thought it was relevant.

The rescissions based on omissions or immaterial conditions incensed many lawmakers.

"I think it's shocking, it's inexcusable. It's a system that we have in place and we've got to stop," Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said at the hearing.

From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) was also appalled.

"Doesn't it bother you to do this?" he asked Don Hamm, CEO of Assurant Health, who appeared with the CEOs of UnitedHealth's Golden Rule Insurance Co. and WellPoint's Consumer Business.

I'll take National Health over this kind of evil, immoral garbage any day of the week.

On the same issue of health care reform, I would like to raise a point of contention with Bob Somerby from his Friday Daily Howler. In it, he attempts to portray the "real fears" some people have about "rationing health care", and compares it to a long article that addresses the issue of "health care rationing" without, as he claims, actually dealing with their "fears". I would submit that, in fact, the "fears" expressed by those interviewed in the first part of Sombery's piece are both misguided and based on nothing more than propaganda. The way the issue of "rationing" is addressed in the piece he sharply criticizes in the second part of his post in fact addresses the issue head on - without treating false ideas and fears created by political propaganda as worth notice.

The entire question of "rationing", especially in light of the story about insurance companies dropping people so they don't have to actually pay money to cover them, ends up being a non-existent issue. As does the debate over whether or not "some bureaucrat" stands between an individual and his or her doctor. See, as it stands now, some bureaucrat does, but its a faceless, unaccountable number cruncher at a private health insurance company. If a public option is offered, not to replace but just to compete with existing health insurance companies, it migh raise the standards across the board.

Somerby takes a writer to task for not addressing fears, when those fears are misguided. Somberby takes a writer to task for addressing the issue of "rationing" in a thoughtful, substantive way, without pandering or talking down to his readership. Is it any wonder we can't have a serious debate on health care reform?

MST3K For Your Monday

I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 eleven years ago. On Saturday's, I would take Moriah out for the afternoon while Lisa got ready for Sunday service, then come home and relax. Flipping channels I landed on Sci-Fi and saw a bad movie being watched by a man and two puppet robots who tore the movie apart. I laughed so hard tears were coming out of my eyes. I kept saying, "Lisa, you have to come see this. This is me and my brother!" And that's true.

I discovered the show was already past its prime, though, but lucky for me episodes were released on VHS, and later DVD, so I didn't have to worry too much about missing anything. The setting was familiar enough to anyone who sat around on Saturday afternoons or evening as a kid watching Chiller Theater or whatever one's local TV channel called its broadcast of bad horror movies. Except, unlike those old local shows, here folks actually called it as they saw it - and the results were usually very funny.

Along with bad horror movies, bad '70's pictures, bad '80's pictures, and even an Oscar-preview or two, the folks at MST3K managed to take apart short films. Whether produced for industry or education, these shorts are invariably bad; if you are old enough, you might even have been forced to sit through one or two of them. These first two, "A Date With Your Family", and "Appreciating Your Parents", are so filled with horror - suppressed emotion, weird Freudian imagery, the insistence on submission to parental authority - it is really no wonder those who were forced to watch them in school would, upon reaching young adulthood, drop acid, read Herbert Marcuse with approval, and shout the "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock with gusto.

What they did best, though, was rip into "Z"-grade horror films. While I Was A Teenage Werewolf was more a "D" film (there are a couple moments of real tension, such as the stalking of the young woman practicing alone in the gym; Michael Landon's performance as a typical "angry young man" also lifts a truly bad film above the summy floor of late-50's horror schlock), it nevertheless gets the full treatment. Here's a clip from Mike and Crow and Tom Servo making sure we don't take any of it seriously at all.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

All RIght, Huckleberry, What Would You Do?

As the violence in Iran continues, deaths mount, the Ayatollahs clamp down, the BBC gets kicked around, Twitter and Facebook get blocked and used as sources for finding dissidents, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina wants Pres. Obama to do more.
He’s certainly moving in the right direction, but our point is that there is a monumental event going on in Iran, and you know, the President of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it. Other nations have been more outspoken, so I hope that we’ll hear more of this, because the young men and women taking the streets in Tehran need our support. The signs are in English. They are basically asking for us to speak up on their behalf.

That's his complaint? The President hasn't spoken out more? Are you freakin' serious?!?

US history of interference in Iranian politics goes back over half a century, to a CIA-engineered coup in 1953, and two decades of funding for one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. It seems to me that Pres. Obama is doing exactly right - he has spoken out, and quite forcefully, on the violence and suppression of peaceful demonstrations by the Iranian security forces. What else can he do? Would issuing a proclamation every five minutes help?

I wonder what Huck would do were he President? Send in the Special Forces? Broadcast an appeal to the Iranian government in Farsi? Maybe send his Vice President on a secret mission with a cake and a Bible like his hero, Ronald Reagan?

A few days ago, Charles Krauthammer whined about Pres. Obama calling the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini, the "Supreme Leader". I kid you not. That is how far gone these people are. The Republicans want Obama to "do more", yet what more can he possibly do that will really make a difference?

The reality is, whether we like it or not, this is an internal problem for the Iranian people. I don't like it, I would like to see change there, but it seems to me with the security forces and military squarely behind the current Islamic Republic, the Guardian Council, and Pres. Ahmedinejad, the outcome is preordained. Unless the security forces switch sides, or the military backs off, or the Guardian Council decides enough Iranian blood has been spilled and perhaps changes need to be made, we are going to see a few more days (at most) of violence, and then when enough folks are dead or in prison, it will all be over.

And no volume of words by Pres. Obama, or Lindsay Graham, or Charles Krauthammer, or anybody else, will change that.

Field Of Conservative Talking Points

My family sat and watched the film Field of Dreams last night. I haven't seen it in ages, and was quite surprised at how perfectly apt it is a summary of conservative ideology circa the late-1980's, and even contains elements of Gingrichian-style nuttiness that was even then (the film was made in 1988 and released in 1989) emerging on the national stage.

First, I should admit that I never really liked the movie. It is uneven, major characters and plot points don't enter the story smoothly or early, and as far as I'm concerned, brother-in-law or not, if Timothy Busfield had laid hands on or said things about my child the way he does in this film, I'd have laid him out.

Many of the themes that play out here are also at work in my least favorite film of the 1990's - Forrest Gump. The many references to the 1960's, to what "a crazy time" they were (Terrence Mann retired from the world because he was treated like a guru; Ray Consella moves to Iowa as an act of rebellion against his father). Yet, the setting, the symbolism of baseball - and not contemporary baseball, but old-time baseball - the "entrepreneurial spirit" Ray shows in pursuing his dream even as the bank is pursuing foreclosure, the redemptive power of surrender to a childlike faith in the past; these are all hallmarks of American conservatism. While there are certainly "liberal Hollywood" nods toward freedom of thought, the confrontation over the writings of Terrence Mann (he masturbates!) is really a clunky vehicle for introducing the character. The entirety of Mann's arc is overcoming his experience of the 1960's, in a Heideggerian sense. That is to say, jumping back behind it, and finding a far more primordial way of being (to get all fancy for a moment).

For the most part, this is a conservative film, made in a conservative era, promoting conservative ideas. Setting it in Iowa is almost pure genius. Using old-time baseball (untainted by drugs, hype, or race-mixing) is also pure genius. The dreams of long-dead white men are far more important in this film than the real struggles of people living today. Even Ray's desire to reconcile with his father - played out at the end - is part of this.

The only thing I am really happy about, at this point, is I am quite sure this film could not be made the way it was made, were it made today. For one things, no Kevin Costner (yea!). Mostly, though, the entire struggle between Ray Consella and the bank would run differently; Mann may be a disillusioned liberal, but his faith might just be renewed not in childhood fantasies that can never be realized, but in the set of beliefs that gave him strength in his prime (childhood isn't nearly as idyllic a time as we would wish it to be; the Chicago White Sox of 1919 may have loved baseball, but they were quite willing to throw a World Series for a pretty small amount of money). My guess is the entire film could be done today, but it would look very different.

Virtual Tin Cup

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