Thursday, December 28, 2006

Herblock blogs from beyond the grave

A few months ago I asked, "Where is Herblock when we need him?" Turns out he's over at Digby's place, guest posting from beyond the grave.
When Nixon left office, there was a general sigh of relief. And in his first talk as President, Gerald Ford said that "our long national nightmare" was over. But one month later, in the Sunday morning statement that shocked the country, he said he could not "prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed." So he issued a "full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon," and decided that Nixon should have control over access to White House tapes and documents. He thus insured that the nation's bad dreams would be prolonged far into the future.
Truly a "blockquote." Read the rest here.

John Kerry finally polishes that talking point

Like somebody who thinks of a dashing riposte days after leaving a dinner party, John Kerry finally got that talking point straightened out, in a WaPo Op-Ed about Bush's Iraq policy.
There's something much worse than being accused of "flip-flopping": refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop.
Too bad it took a couple of years to come up with that. If Kerry had been quicker on his feet in 2004, maybe he wouldn't be quibbling from the sidelines today.

Want to jump start the economy? Unclog our economic arteries with health insurance reform.

In addition to its obvious inequities, our inefficient and dysfunctional system of health insurance has become the plaque clogging America's increasingly arteriosclerotic economy. Not only does the American approach to health insurance impose huge, anticompetitive costs on mature rust belt manufacturers like the auto industry in the face of foreign competition, but it is stifling the entrepreneurial energy of the American people.
As health costs soar, more would-be entrepreneurs are reluctant to quit Corporate America and its blue-chip benefits to start businesses, entrepreneurship experts say. That raises alarms about the impact on innovation and job growth, when both are of growing importance to the U.S. economy.

"This is a real problem," says Carl Schramm, CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., one of the USA's biggest entrepreneurship advocates.
Energetic young people with ideas can't afford to pursue their dreams by leaving the jobs that provide their health insurance for themselves and their families. Boomers who would love to retire from jobs that have grown tiresome -- perhaps to start part-time businesses of their own -- grimly hold on to ride out the years until Medicare kicks in, because of the sky-high cost of individual health insurance premiums a their age. It's a progressive hardening of the arteries of an economy that was long regarded as the most dynamic in the world.

It's all so unnecessary -- and accidental, as blogger Ezra Klein pointed out in his LA Times Op-Ed the other day. The result of World War II tax legislation, our ramshackle healthcare system is one of the more dramatic examples of the law of unintended consequence.
Few mention this, but the American healthcare system is something of a mistake. It blossomed out of a World War II tax reform meant to guard against corporate war profiteering. Liberals, with their usual combination of good intentions and inadequate foresight, imposed massive marginal tax rates on corporations, effectively freezing their profits at prewar levels. But the law had a loophole: Corporations could funnel their wartime riches into employee benefits, such as healthcare, thus putting the cash to use within their company. And so they did, creating the employer-based healthcare system.

But healthcare was simpler in the 1940s, and far less expensive. In the 21st century, it's not simple at all. Once a perk of employment, health insurance is now a necessity, and a structure that dumps such power, complexity and cost in the laps of employers is grotesquely unfair to both businesses and individuals. There's no logic to an auto manufacturer running a multibillion-dollar health insurance plan on the side; it should stick to making cars. There's no excuse for pricing the self-employed and entrepreneurial out of the market. And there's no reason the owner of a three-employee start-up should have to go to bed with a heavy conscience because his coffee shop can't pay for chemotherapy.
Klein argues that pressure for reform has reached a tipping point, and that the time for reform has finally come.
The work is not done, of course. There are arguments yet to be had, wars yet to be fought.

Insurers want to retain their ability to discriminate against the ill and the old; conservatives want individuals to assume more risk and expense in order to force wiser health decisions; liberals want the government to guarantee universality and utilize its massive market power to bargain prices down to levels approximating those paid by other developed countries.

What's important, though, is that for the first time since the early years of the Clinton administration, these arguments are being made, and employers, insurers, politicians and, most crucially, voters are making their way back to the table.

The realization that our illogical, mistaken healthcare system can't go on forever has dawned, and so it will end. The question now is what replaces it.
For the time being, progress will probably have to come from the states. It's hard to imagine a presidential candidate having the guts to go out on a limb on health care in 2008, given what happened to Bill and Hillary's plan. But Massachusetts enacted the nation's first nearly universal plan, and California Gov. Schwarzenegger is going to announce his own plan for reform in his State of the State address Jan. 9. I wouldn't quit my job just yet, but it's a start.

If you love movies most people hate, you'll love these -- and may even hum the scenery

"Bombs away! -- Movies that everybody hated...except me" was the self explanatory title of the Kent Williams roundup in Isthmus last week. I tried to use it as a guide to my holiday rentals, but the rest of my family wouldn't let me, which gives some idea of just how uncompromising the list really is. Kent, however, maintains this just proves he's an optimist.
The thing is, of all the words that have been hurled at me over the years, the one that bothers me the most is “negative.” I’m sorry, but I just don’t see myself as a negative person. I see myself as — I’m just going to go ahead and put it out there — a positive person, a glass-half-full kind of guy. And to bring that point home, I’ve assembled a list of movies that everybody, critics and audiences alike, hated, everybody except me.
My favorite line in the piece appears in his capsule review of "One from the Heart," which he gives the subhead "Apocalypse Now and Then."
“Coppola seems more fascinated by reflections of the actors than by the actors themselves,” Pauline Kael wrote. Touché, but is it always such a bad thing when we leave humming the scenery?
To me, this makes perfect sense. Many of the movies that stay with me the longest and return to inhabit my dreams are movies that I remember less for what happened in them than for their visual qualities.

Here are Kent's other subheads. Can you guess which movies he's suggesting we give a second look?
Oh for Heaven’s Sake
Hell, Caesar
Lost in the Desert
Rhymes With ‘Really’
Groucho, Meet Ingmar
Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance
It’s Alive
I Want My Mommie
Read "Bombs Away!" here and find out.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selected December posts, in case you missed them the first time during the holiday rush

Because I'm feeling sort of tired and a bit lazy, trying to catch up on my Christmas reading, and because things scroll by so fast, here are some links:

"Prediction is difficult, especially about the future." Who said it? Bohr leads Berra, but Yogi closing the gap. And what about Borat?

What's that breaking sound? Just more breakage for this guy: Santa Bush and the Christmas Barn Rules. He broke it. He'll fix it, sort of. Oh oh oh. (Photo)

Bush Iraq policy summarized by The Donald. He may be a litigious lunatic about Rosie, but he's right on about Bush.

Fighting the winter blues: Here in Madison we didn’t get London’s fog or Denver’s blizzard. No, just a steady December drizzle all day long on the shortest day of the year -- the Solstice, celebrated by making an ice lantern by the side of a dark and thawing lake and lighting the candles. With photos and a passing discussion about Robert Frost and the Solstice, including link to Library of Congress handwritten manuscript of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Rust Belt Blues: Partly an overview of the history and sociology of Kalamazoo, partly a personal meditation on the self-loathing malaise she sees running through her adopted Rust Belt city like a buried stream of toxic waste, Jaimy Gordon's essay, "Little Man in the Woods," is set in the town that once headquartered Gibson Guitar and other companies, now gone. Self-hating towns and their residents. With update on China connection in the comments.

The Unbearable Lightness of Listening to Bush. Not winning, not losing, gonna hang in there, more troops, wouldn't be there if we couldn't succeed. Nothing new and I drive off to work, scanning the radio stations for the news conference. Can't find it. That figures. Must not be important.

The magpie theory of book selection in the library: Of course I had to check out the book once I saw the bright yellow slip sticking out of it.

The Dr. Pangloss "Best of All Possible Worlds" Award goes to David Brooks. For actually writing “In general, poor people today live at about the same standard of living as middle-class people did in the 1960s.” Relying on American Enterprise institute research does that to people.

The calendar says three months, but in Wisconsin winter lasts six months. Seeing is believing: The meteorology of winter in Wisconsin. (And according to the calendar "winter" hadn't even started!)

The bloodless abstraction of a lot of the neoliberal discussion about Chile, rooted in the murderous abstractions of the Cold War, is so reminiscent of the arguments with similar historical origins (Jeane Kirkpatrick = mother of all neocons?) used to sell the Iraq war. in both cases, realpolitik over principle, with the result that real people -- not abstractions -- were killed and tortured. Nothing can justify that. When the pull of abstraction gets too strong, take a moment to read about Victor Jara.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

TIME puts Madison Guy in the spotlight!

What a rush! There I was, my picture glowing in the newsstand spotlight, right in between the boob jobs, best foods and the latest Bradjolina family pictures. I felt both elevated and humbled at the same time. TIME magazine had named me -- me!!! -- Person of the Year, and not only that, they spoke directly to me and reminded me how great I really was.
Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
They know me so well. They know it hasn't been easy seizing the reins of the global media. And, pros that they are, they graciously saluted a competitor who beat them at their own game, little old me, armed with just my keyboard. They understand!

Or so it seemed at first. But disillusionment soon set in. Who was TIME to name me Person of the Year, and did they have to be so goddamn patronizing? Was this their way of trying to sell a few extra ad pages, or trying to coopt the entire blogosphere with their corporate blather? I wasn't sure. But Frank Rich nailed it [Times Select Link] when he wrote in the NYT:
The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.
That's why, only somewhat regretfully, I am declining the award and asking TIME to remove my picture from their cover. I feel violated.

My favorite Christmas card

Cheerful, seasonal and festive -- and accurately portraying our not-so-esteemed president as a complete buffoon, with bells on. This is my idea of a great Christmas card. My daughter bought this for me three years ago, misplaced it and then recently found it again and attached it to a Christmas gift. When I opened it on Christmas day, it seemed more relevant than ever. It's from Cara Scissoria Greeting Cards, and you can find a lot more of their wonderfully acerbic, political collages at their website. (This one is #4238.)

Baghdad = Stalingrad?

The analogy may seem far-fetched, but it's significant that it was made at all in a major newspaper. W. Patrick Lang and Ray McGovern in a Miami Herald Christmas Eve op-ed on the proposed Iraq troop surge:
A major buildup would commit the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to decisive combat in which there would be no more strategic reserves to be sent to the front. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway pointed out Monday, "If you commit your reserve for something other than a decisive win, or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."

It will be a matter of win or die in the attempt. In that situation, everyone in uniform on the ground will commit every ounce of their being to "victory," and few measures will be shrunk from.

Analogies come to mind: Stalingrad, the Bulge, Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Algiers.

It will be total war with the likelihood of all the excesses and mass casualties that come with total war. To force such a strategy on our armed forces would be nothing short of immoral, in view of predictable troop losses and the huge number of Iraqis who would meet violent injury and death. If adopted, the "surge" strategy will turn out to be something we will spend a generation living down.
Iraq is the neocon wet dream turned nightmare, and it looks as if it just won't end until Cheney and Bush leave office.

It's probably this aura of blind, doomed hubris that led Lang and McGovern to compare Baghdad and Stalingrad. You do have to roam pretty far afield to find a metaphor that does justice to the neocons now planning to double down their Iraq bet with a troop surge. One thing it does bring to mind is the image of the Germans overconfidently pushing east in the face of the approaching Russian winter. And we know how that turned out.

November 2008 has never seemed farther away. It can't come soon enough. And let's not be too quick to take the "I word" off the table.

UPDATE: Check out "The Inevitable Blowback Against the Inevitable Escalation" at Booman Tribune (h/t Rants from the Rookery).

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas lights

Merry Christmas, and let's hope that, against all odds, we really do see the beginnings of peace on Earth next year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Snowless Christmas Eve walk

Owen Park, Madison. Then home. Shut off computer. Merry Christmas!

Informal, totally unscientific bumper sticker poll of Madison's last-minute book shoppers

It's the afternoon of December 24, and all of Madison's grasshoppers -- the book buyers who somehow just couldn't manage to complete their Christmas purchases by Amazon's shipping deadline -- are swarming to Borders and Barnes & Noble while the ants curl up by the fireplace, watching football or maybe popping a DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" into the player. I enjoy being out then, because I enjoy the company.

Of course, I am there purely in a research capacity, analyzing whether the last-minute shoppers have any particular political leanings. I undertake a bumper sticker survey of the parking lots of both West side megastores. I probably look as if I lost my car, but this is serious sociological research.

The results: At Borders, progressive bumper stickers outnumber conservative ones, 6-0. Oddly enough, at Barnes & Noble, I can't find any political stickers at all -- until finally, a sheepish looking Feingold supporter pulls up uncertainly in an ancient Toyota Corolla. I did, however, spot a bumper sticker promoting Drama and Forensics, and another urging "Save the Ales," paired with "Saving the world, one beer at a time."

Conclusion: Last-minute shoppers are overwhelmingly liberal. No wonder I enjoy hanging with the other grasshoppers.

Wisconsin State Capitol

So that would be a holiday tree, with handmade decorations from the state's schoolchildren. And that would be the dome that is still anchors the Madison skyline, despite the encroaching condos and office buildings.

Holiday cheer at the Blue Moon Bar & Grill

The Blue Moon (scroll down for online jukebox) has some of the best burgers in Madison. Great place to enjoy good company, have a few beers, check out the games on the tube and soak up a bit of holiday cheer.