Thursday, June 07, 2007

Yay, Rudy!

According to the Wall Street Journal (sub req'd), Candidate Rudy is getting ready to propose his health plan. His plan involves reducing the tax break for employer-provided insurance, pushing people to buy their insurance individually, but not forcing everyone to buy insurance and subsidizing it for the poor (as they did in Massachusets). Now, I'm no expert, but it seems to me that this plan would:

1) Make insurance more expensive for most people, especially senior citizens
2) Make the process of getting and keeping health insurance more uncertain and stressful for most people, and
3) Make it more likely that if people's health deteriorates in the future, they'll be forced to pay more for coverage or denied coverage.

In other words, it seems like it was pretty much designed to take all of the things that people dislike about our health care system now and make them worse.

Thanks, Rudy!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Dept. of Bad Luck

How much would it suck to have your long-awaited lung crash into Lake Michigan just before you were supposed to get your transplant?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Department of "No duh"

I am considering bringing back "No duh." It is succinct, pithy, and easy to type.

Anyway, today's entrant is this article about how Wal-Mart is having trouble selling higher-end products and apparel (a trend already documented in the Journal) because consumers see it as a purveyor of low-end, crappy products. This apparently came as a surprise to Wal-Mart; indeed, in the article their spokesperson even denies that it is the case. Well, guess what, Wal-Mart: it is in fact the case!

The really interesting article to write would have been the one about how Target has managed to avoid this problem, even though they're basically the same as Wal-Mart. Their marketing strategy is nothing short of brilliant.

Failure on HBO

People have been getting all valedictory about The Sopranos lately, most recently David Remnick in The New Yorker. I honestly don't find Remnick's take on it to be that interesting: it's a good show, with good characters; lots of stuff happens, which the characters have trouble talking about; etc.

I figured out recently that the thing that I find most interesting about The Sopranos is that it looks at selfishness in a really distilled way. The thing that's interesting about Tony, and that makes him different from any other upper-middle-class New Jersey dad is that he's completely, almost Platonically self-interested: a true rational maximizer. Of course, self-interest is a big part of most people's motivation, but it's typically tempered by other things: commitment to family, religious or other morality, etc. Seeing it taken to extremes in Tony can help us understand how it works, albeit in a more tempered way, in people like ourselves.

So what does The Sopranos think about self-interest? To simplify really radically, I think that two big things that the show says are that other institutions and values that are around today can't really compete with it, and that it ultimately fails.

One thing about Tony is that he doesn't change (or, at least, I've never been able to see how he changes). I think that one of the reasons for that is that there's no institution in his life that has any kind of persuasive power to convince him to change--or, indeed, any particular interest in changing him. His family are all also deeply selfish, although not as perfectly as he is. The Mob is the one institution in the world that's really based on nothing more than the common selfishness of its members, so having Tony be a part of it is perfect. The Church, ably represented by Father Rintintola, is a joke. The government, we see from its cold treatment of Adriana, isn't really any less selfish than the Mob. And therapy can't really do anything to redeem him as a person (apropos of not much, I think that the relationship between Tony and the therapeutic process is one of the most interesting things about the show; I wish I knew more about psychology so I could understand it better).

This season, so far, has been about the ultimate failure of Tony's self-interest: his ultimate inability to get what he wants. We start the season at Janice's idyllic lake house; even there, Tony is deeply troubled by the realization that he's getting old. As the season continues, Tony's seen seen so many things slip away: his power vis-a-vis New York, his relationships with his old friends, Christopher...it seems clear that even if he gets out alive, and even if he gets out with his position intact, he'll be deeply diminished. It seems like if anything is the message of the show, it's that you can do whatever you want to get ahead, but you will get fucked in the end--not by karma, or some other sort of cosmic justice, but by life, because that's how it works. And you had better be prepared for it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Letters to Barney

First in an ongoing series.

Re: "Terror Arrests Play In Political Arena", by Adam Nagourney, 8/11/06.

Dear Mr. Calame,

I am writing because I was, frankly, baffled by the way in which the above-referenced article was written. Clearly, the political effects of the British terror plot are an important subject. However, your reporter's article addressed that subject in a way that put aside independent, even-handed analysis in favor of repeating Republican spin. The article is biased in two ways: first, it places Republican talking points on the issue front and center, while burying the Democratic take; and second, it de-emphasizes objective analysis (for example of polling data) that contradicts the Republican line.

The emphasis of the Republican take in the article is clear from the beginning (indeed, in some cases from the headline: on the "today's paper" section of your website, the article is headlined " The Political Effects: Arrests Bolster G.O.P. Bid to Claim Security as Issue." In the article itself, no non-Republican voices are heard until the twelfth paragraph, more than halfway through the article. The article makes it clear that both Democrats and Republicans responded to the arrests; why is the Republican response so much more important that it deserves such clearly preferential placement in the article?

Furthermore, the article downplays the fact that the actual state of public opinion in the U.S. suggests that the terror arrests in England, and the issue of terrorism generally, are not unambiguously good issues for the Republican party. The last New York Times/CBS News poll showed a very narrow six-point gap between the parties on the issue of terrorism; both the most recent poll and the previous poll showed that gap at its narrowest point since the September 11th attacks. The Washington Post's six polls on the terrorism issue this year have shown the Democrats with an advantage three times. The article completely foregoes any discussion of public opinion on handling of terrorism, instead simply assuming that it is an issue favorable to Republicans. To the extent that it does discuss the possibility of a change in the politics of terrorism, it does so beginning in paragraph 16, clearly downplaying it relative to the Republican talking points that it undermines.

It is true, as the article says, that the Republicans have successfully portrayed Democrats as weak on terrorism in the past, but it is not clear why your reporter should so blithely assume that the past and the present are identical; furthermore, it is also not clear why your reporter should feel the need to help Republicans continue to make that portrayal.

Your readers rely on you to analyze politics in an incisive, independent way. We know that when politicians make statements about events, they tend to interpret these events in whatever way is most favorable to their political interests, even if that means straining the truth. So, we rely on the independent press to put their statements in context, to sift through the spin and tell us what is really happening. The article that I have discussed clearly failed to do this; I hope that you will work to make sure that your political reporters do a better job of serving their readers in the future.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Take away that man's punditry license!

It's honestly beyond awesome to read Martin Peretz, of all people, complaining that Ned Lamont only gets taken seriously because he's rich.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada (or, Anne Hathaway Please Be My Girlfriend)

Went to see it over the weekend, and really enjoyed it--one of the best movies I've seen in a while. In particular, I think it's a really distinguished contribution to the genre of Movies About Work. One of the easiest mistakes to make in thinking about TDWP is to think that because it's about fashion it's a chick flick--far from it. Indeed, the movie that it most resembles is Wall Street, except that it's set in the fashion world rather than the financial world, and its main characters are women.

I think it probably had an especially powerful inpact on me, since I'm also an ambitious young person starting out in a career. What it really made me think about was the power of the aesthetic as a motivator. The distinguishing thing about Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly (the titular devil) isn't that she demands that people produce a very high-quality work product (although she certainly does)--it's that she demands that her entire world conform to a particular aesthetic. Everyone who works for her has to be perfectly dressed, her office always has to be laid out exactly how she likes it, and everything has to always run like clockwork. One of the first scenes in the movie has her arriving at her office ahead of schedule, and her staff rushing frantically to transform the office from how it actually is--a working space with clutter strewn everywhere--to how her aesthetic demands it be. The business purpose of Runway, the magazine she runs, exists in the background but is never talked about--the real apparent purpose of the organization is to create and sustain an aesthetic, an imaginary world of perfect taste and perfect female beauty.

It's easy to assume that this is peculiar to the fashion industry, but I really don't think it is. I think that aesthetic is a more powerful motivator than money in most business fields. I think that most young finance workers are motivated less by money than by a dream of what it's like to be a financial titan--by an imagination of themselves as Kirk Kerkorian or Carl Icahn, being noticed when they go to lunch, sitting in boardrooms, making big deals, and generally being Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. I think you could pretty easily generalize to other careers too--I know for a fact that most people in politics imagine themselves on The West Wing. When I was working on a campaign in 2004, I would work sixteen-hour days, then go "home" to my fold-out couch and watch West Wing episodes on DVD; they were a big part of motivating me to go do it again the next day.

Since aesthetic is such a powerful motivator, the consequence is that it's very easy to start making decisions that are based on chasing that aesthetic. You see this in business all the time when CEOs make ill-advised acquisitions--their main motivator is a desire to run a bigger company, not a conviction that their acquisition is necessarily a good use of capital. One of the smart things about TDWP is that Andy's decision to buy into Miranda's world is signalled (very dramatically) by a change in her wardrobe--in this case, a substantive change and an aesthetic change are identical.

Now I'm not trying to say that aesthetic considerations are a bad reason to do something; far from it. If we don't have dreams, what do we have, right? But the thing is that there is a real world out there, and the danger comes when one rejects what's real to chase an aesthetic. Indeed, that's virtually a dictionary definition of sin. Thus, the Devil of the title isn't really Miranda, it's the force that tempts us to reject the real world, in which we have to do things we don't want to do in order to satisfy our obligations, in favor of an ultimately unreal ideal of beauty--the glamour of evil, if you will. That's not exactly a new theme, but I think it's laid out very well here, in a way that will hopefully make young people think about it.

Also, Anne Hathaway is teh hott.

Mods vs. Rockers in the Democratic Party

So there's this discussion going on, prompted by what's going on with Lieberman, about whether there's a gap between how different types, and/or different generations, of Democrats see the political landscape. It seems like it's kind of devolved into an argument about whether the increase in political partisanship over the last eight years or so is a blip, the significance of which has been played up (Ed Kilgore's view), or if it's a long-term phenomenon that's unlikely to change during our lifetimes (Digby's).

My feeling is that I just don't understand why it has to be either of these. History is all about unpredictable change. Things are one way, then they're another way, then they're yet another way. Why can't we just say that politics were more collegial in the past and now they're more adversarial, without making a judgment about the permanence of the change? One way of practicing politics made sense fifteen years ago, now a different way makes sense--and ten years from now who's to say how things will look?

My reason for being so concerned about this is that I hope that in the future today's generation of activists don't make the mistakes that we're criticizing in yesterday's. It's true that a lot of older-generation Democratic politicians, activists, and pundits are making mistakes because they don't recognize that (to put it histrionically) yesterday was a time for peace, but today is a time for war. But let's say that in ten years we win the war--it'll be just as destructive if we don't know when to stop fighting. After all, that's why the Republicans are in trouble now--they're so used to fighting a scorched-earth battle with us that they don't recognize when they've taken it too far. If the Republican Congress had recognized that the Bush Administration was overreaching and acted to rein them in--that is, consolidated their gains rather than overreaching--they wouldn't be in danger of losing control of both houses right now. So what I'm saying is that it's important for the Democratic party to fight, but I'd like it if we could do that while avoiding an apocalyptic mindset about the fight that we're in. Whether that's possible, though, is yet another question.

On another note, I like this frame because it allows me to oppose Lieberman without vilifying him. It's not that he's bad, it's just that, like Tom Hagan, he's not a wartime consigliere.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

So, you're an Internet-based organization, huh?

When researching the prior post, I made a startling discovery: MoveOn's website is a piece of crap. I was just trying to find out whichspecific House races the WSJ reporter was referring to, and I had a hell of a time figuring it out (in the end, I gave up trying to find out which Colorado race they're involved in). Virtually every link just goes to a donation form.

The DCCC website looks terrible in Firefox, but at least they put their actual candidates front and center.

This has always been my problem with MoveOn: Long on ambition, really, really short on execution. Ten years ago, that was the problem with private-sector Internet startups, and after myriad failures, many of them ultimately got their acts together as businesses. Hopefully that will happen with political organizations on the Internet too--and soon.

The Journal Sounds Stupid

Normally I'm a huge fan of the Wall Street Journal's news reporting (who isn't?), but they really dropped the ball on this front-page story on MoveOn (sub. req'd). The thesis of the story is familiar and tired: MoveOn is a crazy fringe lefty group that's taking over the Democratic party and causing it to become crazier, fringier, and leftier. But the reporter, Jeanne Cummings, does a terrible job of making the argument. Let us count the ways:

1) The headline of the article is "In a Key Primary, MoveOn's Revolt Divides Democrats." When I saw the headline I was curious--what primary could they be talking about? It turns out that it's Lieberman vs. Lamont in Connecticut. Now, I don't think I've ever heard anyone else make the argument that Ned Lamont's success was produced by MoveOn, or even that MoveOn has played a really significant role in his campaign, and this article, try as it might, can't persuasively make that connection either. Cummings talks about the fact that MoveOn endorsed Lamont and has directed contributions and volunteers his way, but she gives absolutely no evidence that their support has been decisive, or that they've shaped the race in any way. Instead, she relies on insinuation to make the connection, and the result is an awfully flimsy front-page story.

2) Cummings is also very deep into the idea that Lamont is a crazy fringe lefty candidate, but doesn't really provide any evidence. You'd think she'd realize that she'd have to work a bit harder to substantiate that claim after the New York Times endorsed Lamont, but apparently not.

3) Right up top, Cummings gives us this:

The price MoveOn is asking for [supporting Democratic candidates] is a bigger voice in what Democrats would do with their power. The group that made its mark opposing Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election is now trying, over the objections of some Democratic leaders, to push its own party leftward, particularly on Iraq. Party leaders worry that such a shift would imperil moderate and conservative Democrats whose appeal in Western and Southern states is critical to winning back Congress. It could also alienate swing voters, who polls suggest are shifting back to the Democrats this year. Says moderate Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu, who supports Mr. Lieberman, "I don't think it's a winning strategy or a smart strategy."
But the only example she has of this is MoveOn's support of Lamont--and, as we've already seen, this is a pretty tendentious example. Cummings's other example of MoveOn's nefarious involvement in Democratic politics is its involvement in House races against weak Republican incumbents in Connecticut (Nancy Johnson), Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio -- a pretty mainstream strategy. That Landrieu quote above (which, independent of its context, could really be about anything) is the only evidence Cummings has for her claim that MoveOn is pushing an overall move to the left. Furthermore, apropos of that...

4) What the hell is "the left" in this context, anyway? Apart from a small aside on trade, "pushing the party leftward" for Cummings seems to mean being more aggressive on the Iraq war. But, as every liberal blog reader knows, withdrawl from Iraq is a mainstream position. Those crazy fringe lefties who didn't want to invade have been proven right on every issue. The country has acknowledged it. Reporters who actually cover foreign policy have acknowledged it. I'd guess that most people in the Republican political establishment have acknowledged it (although they're in too deep to admit that publicly). The only people who refuse to acknowledge it are the Democratic political establishment and the political press establishment.

In summary: bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit.

Good Stuff in The Economist

Lots of it this week:

A good article on welfare reform, ten years after (sub req'd). Of course, there's a lot of the gloating about how wonderful the free market is that's typical of the Economist, and it's hard for me to believe that putting posters up in welfare offices has had a big role in encouraging people to work (this is seriously something they mention). But they do a good job of reviewing what's worked about welfare reform, and have some interesting things to say about what still needs to be done.

A review of the Suez Crisis, on its fifty-year anniversary. In case you don't remember (I didn't), the basic story of the Suez crisis is that two major military powers (the UK and France) launched an ill-advised invasion of an Arab state (Egypt) because they didn't really understand some major new realities of the post-colonial world (you could say that they had a pre-WWII mentality). The plan backfired disastrously, and allowed a genuinely dangerous global enemy (the USSR) to gain a foothold in a part of the world where it hadn't had much influence.

Parallels to the present much?

The one big difference, of course, is the role played by the U.S. Eisenhower realized from the beginning that the Anglo-French invasion was crazy, and tried to stop it; when England and France invaded anyway, he quickly stopped them by threatening to withhold loans from England. Would that we had that kind of leadership today.

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