The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

An Open Letter to kids

I’m writing this to American kids currently in school, in grade school or maybe junior high.  I’m a former college professor; you probably don’t know me.  And I’m not important.  I just wanted to tell you that there’s something you can do to improve your school and your school experience.  It would make school more fun for everyone.  It would also stop a bunch of really mean bullies.  But it won’t work unless everyone does it.  So you need to tell all the other kids in your school, and all the other kids in every other school in the country, and you all have to do it together.

The end of this year, like the end of every year, you will have to take a test.  This isn’t the usual kind of test, like a math test, where your teacher is trying to see how well you understand long division or something.  It’s a test the government makes you take.  You know the one I’m talking about, right?  The one your teacher has been preparing you for, because, she says, it’s really really important for you to do well on it?  Not for your sake, but for hers. It’s a test that doesn’t have anything to do with your grades in any classes; it’s really kind of a test of how good your teacher is, and how good your school is.

I want to suggest that you fail this test.  I think it could be fun, actually.  Miss every question on purpose.  Do as bad on this test as you possibly can.  Don’t even try to do well on it.  Fail it.

I know that your teacher won’t like this.  It will make her look like a bad teacher.  And that’s why it’s important that everyone else in the country does this too; every kid in the country.  Because the point of doing this, failing the test on purpose, isn’t to say to everyone “I have a bad teacher, and I go to a bad school.”  You probably have a lot of school pride.  You probably go to a very good school. You probably have a very good teacher.  You don’t want to make her look bad.

No, you should fail this test on purpose, because it’s a stupid test.  And it’s stupid of the government to make you take it.  And if everyone fails the stupid test, then maybe all the grown-ups who are in charge of education in America will realize it’s a stupid test, and stop making you take it.

Here’s why this would be good.  I bet your school is kind of boring.  Here’s why it’s boring.  A lot of people who want to be in charge of schools in America are bullies. Grown-up bullies. They think that most teachers are bad at their jobs.  They want teachers to only teach in bad, boring ways. They want to spend all the time on boring subjects, so that when you finish school, you can work at a boring job and they think you won’t notice how boring it is, ’cause you’ll be used to it. They don’t trust teachers to teach stuff that’s really interesting, or to teach in ways that kids would find interesting. And they certainly don’t want to pay teachers enough money to live on.  Or pay a little more money so that classes don’t have so many kids crammed in there that it’s really hard for anyone to learn anything.  That’s why they came up with the idea of making every kid in America take a stupid test.  So they could beat up on the schools that they think are doing a bad job.

Those tests make everything worse, for everyone.  Teachers have to teach what’s on the test, regardless of whether it’s interesting or important. Teachers aren’t free to do what they do best: teach.

There’s an important principle of science here.  It’s this: when you measure something, you change it.  Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself. Like, if you wanted to know how long your cat’s tail was, so you got a ruler and measured it, but you had to hold the cat still, and now she won’t climb up on your lap anymore, because you might be trying to measure her tail again.  Well, it’s the same thing with the stupid test.  Making you take it makes school stupider.

There are some countries in the world that told the bullies to go away and stop bothering schools.  Finland is one of those countries.  In Finland, kids have lots more time for PE, or for music, or art, or science classes where you do real experiments.  In Finland, teachers decide what to teach, without bullies telling them what to do.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a problem with bullies. Two bullies: Charles and Terry.  My Mom made my lunch every day; a sandwich, only the bullies took it from me and I went hungry.  So I told my Mom that I was really really hungry, and could she make three sandwiches instead.  She thought I was going through a ‘growing spurt,’ and made me extra sandwiches, and so I gave them to the bullies instead, and still had one left over for me.  Then one day, I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’  And I told Charles and Terry that they couldn’t have my sandwiches anymore.  And they beat me up, and it hurt for a day or two.  But they stopped bothering me after that.

That’s the way to deal with bullies. Ignore them.

So let’s send the bullies a message.  You don’t have to do good on that stupid test.  If you fail it, it won’t hurt your grade.  And if everyone fails it on purpose, soon they’ll go away. And everyone will be much happier. And schools really will improve.

So do it.  Skype and tweet and text everyone you know.  Everyone fail the test together.  Every kid in America.

The Bundy standoff

Big news in the Old West recently.  Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had not paid grazing fees for twenty years, and who has lost in court regarding those fees repeatedly, resisted the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to seize his assets, several hundred head of cattle.  He was supported in that resistance by a self described armed local militia.  This CBS news story strikes me as a good starting point, if you’re interested in reading more about it.

As the situation started to escalate, and as tempers grew ever more heated, the BLM backed down.  The Clark County sheriff Doug Gillespie helped negotiate a settlement, but one to which the BLM was not party.  400 head of cattle, seized from Bundy, were returned to him.  Negotiations are on-going, and the situation remains unresolved.

For some on the right, this whole situation is more about states’ rights than it is about one elderly scofflaw tax cheat.  The National Review offered their usual overheated and preposterous analysis.  Apparently, this is part and parcel with the Obama administration’s (legendary, and entirely fictitious) lawlessness and tyranny.  Blarg.

Obviously, nobody wanted for shots to be fired; nobody wanted that kind of escalation.  And yet, as I’ve been reading about this case, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’ rhetorical question, much beloved on the Right.  In fact, this specific situation is one in which we know exactly, precisely, unequivocally what the Founders would have done.  It’s almost an exact historical parallel to the Whiskey rebellion.  In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania forcibly resisted the collection of a tax on whiskey.  President Washington not only sent troops to deal with it, he personally commanded them (in the last military adventure of his career).  The Founding Fathers (or at least Washington, Adams, Hamilton–those Founders in the Washington administration), had little patience with armed insurrectionists.  One option in Nevada would have been to call out the National Guard, disperse those ‘local militias,’ disarm, arrest, and try them.  Probably just as well we didn’t go that route, but it remains an option.

And yet, as I read about this on the intertubes, I did feel some sense of poignancy.  One commentator pointed out that Clark County once had many rancher families.  Now Bundy’s the only one.  Clark County is home to Mesquite, quite possibly the tackiest gambling-oriented resort town in a state inundated with them. This protest is in part over the loss of a lifestyle.  Possibly it’s in part about images of the Old West, over nostalgia over a cowboy lifestyle now vanished, or vanishing.  Relegated to cultural obscurity, to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, replaced by the most sordid examples of pop culture tackiness (read Las Vegas).

And perhaps that goes a long way towards understanding at least some of contemporary conservatism.  Isn’t the Tea Party movement driven by white resentment, by specifically elderly white male resentment?  Isn’t it possible to see a successful Presidential campaign, by a black candidate with a suspiciously foreign name, based on a theme of ‘Hope and Change’ as threatening?  If you’re used to being in charge, being on top, seeing people who look like you running the world, wouldn’t you see a call for fundamental change as sinister, as threatening?

So it’s not surprising that this ridiculous ‘protest’ by a rancher who doesn’t recognize the existence of the federal government as a legal entity, who believes that ‘federal land’ actually properly belongs to the state of Nevada, his state, his western state, his place in the world, his home, could be so embraced by conservatives.

And let’s face it.  There was a time when you could graduate from high school, get a good job at a good wage at a local factory, work there all your life, retire with reasonable benefits, and meanwhile coach Little League or work with 4H, or volunteer as a Scoutmaster, and enjoy a good life.  Support your family, have a presence in the community, go fishing or hunting on the weekends.  Or a time when open range ranching was an economically viable occupation.  And those times are gone, probably forever.  And that world has been replaced by a world of uncertainty, and what must seem like moral relativism, and what must seem as the triumph of obnoxious young furriners, dang it.

So Clive Bundy’s in trouble again over his ranch.  So you pick up your rifle and show your support for a friend and neighbor, and the heck with his fruitier political views.  It does all make sense.

The BLM, the Obama administration showed remarkable restraint, and good for them.  But this will need to be resolved, and Cliven Bundy cannot win. Nor should he.

 

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

So now that we know that Obamacare’s a success. . . .

The rollout of the health care exchanges on Healthcare.gov went badly.  For two months, people were effectively unable to enroll, due to software glitches in the programming of the website. Half of the states rejected ACA money to expand Medicaid, even that expansion cost those states nothing, largely for irrational reasons. The anti-ACA misinformation campaign was ferocious; a majority of Americans now think that the Affordable Care Act is a good thing, but that ‘Obamacare’ is a disaster, despite them being exactly the same thing.  The President’s early sales pitch misfired as badly as it could have done.  When he said ‘if you like your current health insurance, you’ll be able to keep it,’ that wasn’t strictly true.  Lots of people had cheapo, low-cost, low-benefit insurance policies they liked just fine.  They offered the illusion of adequate coverage, but didn’t cost much; obviously, if you didn’t get sick, that kind of policy would seem perfectly adequate.  Insurance companies made a cheap buck off those policies, knowing they could only offer them for a year or so; the ACA would outlaw them, and it would look like the President’s fault. What the President should have said was ‘if you have a good health insurance plan, offering adequate coverage, you’ll be able to keep it.’  He didn’t say that, and he’s paid a high political price for it.

The initial goal was for 7 million people to be enrolled in the Healthcare.gov exchanges.  Two months ago, that goal looked completely unattainable, for all the reasons listed above.  The early enrollment period ended yesterday.  Although final figures aren’t yet available (some late enrollments still need to be processed), they will exceed 7 million by a considerable amount.  That’s 7 million people who did not previously have insurance, many of them having been denied coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.  Now they’re all covered; getting affordable health coverage, and for many, life-saving health care.  The website works.  The ACA works.  It’s going to continue to work.  Service will improve.

Republicans continue to shout from the rooftops that Obamacare is a catastrophe, that it’s a complete failure, that it’s the worst bill in American history.  Quite possibly, Tea Party favorites like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Pluto), will continue to compare Obamacare to slavery, or the Holocaust, or the zombie apocalypse.  Republicans are counting on this being THE big issue in the 2014 Congressional elections, and they’re hoping that they could very well win the Senate, and increase their lead in the House, based entirely on Obamacare.  That could happen, I think.  Off-year elections are low-turnout elections, and conservatives are unified in their hatred of this President and his signature legislative achievement. If enough young voters stay home, a strong showing by conservative voters could cost the Democratic party Congress.

But long-term, opposition to Obamacare will increasingly become a losing strategy.  Because in it’s own slipshod, ramshackle fashion, Obamacare does work.  Is it a flawed bill?  Of course.  Could it be improved?  Absolutely.  What I would love to see is a sensible, bi-partisan approach to the ACA that acknowledges the bill’s strengths and works to fix some of its problems.  And writing those words ‘sensible’ and ‘bi-partisan’ caused me to throw up a little in my mouth.

What I am certain of is that the ACA will not be repealed, and that opposition to it will fade over time.  And there will be no viable conservative alternative, because, let’s face it, the ACA IS the conservative alternative.  What liberals wanted was a single-payer system.  What liberals wanted was for health insurance companies to go out of business.  Republicans say they want a ‘market based’ alternative.  What could be more market-based than a health care exchange?  What could be more market-friendly than a website where lots of health insurance companies compete for your business?

What everyone hates about health insurance is a situation where you have a serious illness and your insurer won’t pay for your treatment.  What everyone hates is the concept of a ‘pre-existing condition’ that makes it impossible for you to get any health insurance at all.  It’s the double-bind in which parents without insurance coverage find themselves.  Your kid’s sick.  You don’t have insurance.  Your only choices are both irresponsible.  You can go to an emergency room and rack up a bill you can’t afford to pay.  Or you can not get treatment for your child, who may well have a serious, but treatable illness.  Choice A stinks.  Choice B stinks worse.  We’re the richest country in the history of the world.  We have to be able to fix this.

But it also doesn’t make sense to pay for something you don’t need.  If you’re not sick, paying health insurance premiums is a waste of money. Wouldn’t it make more fiscal sense to only get health insurance after you get sick?  By the same token, paying fire insurance premiums is a waste of money.  What makes more sense is to buy fire insurance only when your house is actually on fire.  But that defeats the purpose of insurance.  So we say to everyone who buys a home ‘oh, and you also have to buy fire insurance.’  We say to everyone who wants to operate an motor vehicle ‘you have to buy auto insurance.’ And that’s why the ACA includes a health insurance mandate.  We’re going to make you buy health insurance (and auto insurance, and fire insurance), because that’s the only way to make sure the money is there to care for people who become really really ill.  (Or wreck their cars, or burn down their houses).

So whenever you hear people say ‘what I like about the ACA is the prohibition on people who can’t get coverage due to ‘pre-existing conditions,’ but I hate the mandate; this is America; we can’t make people buy insurance,’ understand that those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

One thing I don’t like about the ACA is the way it continues to link employment to insurance coverage.  I think the ACA has incentivized companies to cut employee hours so as to avoid having to pay for health insurance for those employees.  That’s happened a lot at universities, for example, and it’s reprehensible.

I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘defined contribution’, where companies no longer have to administer health insurance, but simply create a pool of money for insurance, and allow employees to buy their own coverage on an exchange.  I think companies would like the flexibility of defined contribution.  And all employees would have access to the money set aside for health insurance, though with less money available for part-time employees.  I like the flexibility of being able to choose between a PPO (Preferred Plan Organization) or an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), each of which have advantages and disadvantages.

But the reality is, misinformation aside, the ACA works, and better than most people thought it would.  Any narrative about ‘the failure of Obamacare’ will become increasingly quaint and old-fashioned. We’re moving towards a time when everyone in the country will have access to affordable, high quality health care.  We’re not there yet, but the ACA is a step in the right direction.  Let’s put this debate behind us, and take the next step forward.

 

 

Ukraine

And. . . the bizarre West Wing parallels continue.  This article does a nice job showing the more obvious ones; the last two seasons of The West Wing are about a Congressman, Matt Santos, as he runs for the Presidency, and the Santos=Obama prescience is really quite amazing. (Not to mention Vinick=McCain).  But now there’s another one.  The last year of the fictional Presidency of Jed Bartlet is marked by a crisis in Kazakhstan, in which the President puts American troops right in between a Russian army and Chinese troops.  Well, we have a Russian army invading a neighbor; not an exact parallel, but once again, there are voices calling for American armed intervention.

Or sort of.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone actually calling for President Obama to send troops to Ukraine.  You kind of have to read between the lines.  Bill Kristol, for example, wrote:

Ukraine can expect no serious assistance in getting Russian troops off Ukraine soil or helping secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nor is President Obama committed to seeing to it that President Putin pay a real price for his actions.

And his entire column is an angry denunciation of President Obama’s measured, diplomatic response to this particular piece of Russian aggression.

Bill Rogers, R-Michigan, (kind of a favorite go-to guy on the Sunday talk shows, because he’s articulate and usually pretty reasonable), said “Putin is playing chess with us; we’re playing marbles.”  But he also agreed that President Obama doesn’t have a lot of viable choices:

There is not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed,” the Michigan Republican said. “And unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”  He continued:

There are not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed, and unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”
In other words, me paraphrasing: ‘we probably can’t send troops in, though we could have earlier, and should have. So, darn it, we probably can’t go to war over this yet.’
Good old Lindsay Graham weighed in as well, calling President Obama “weak and indecisive,” and saying that Presidential weakness on this scale “invites aggression.”  He then added melodramatically “President Obama needs to do something!”  Others have attacked President Obama’s supposed timidity and weakness: Dick Cheney among them.  And everyone–by which I mean the mainstream media and Congressional Republicans– agrees that this is the defining crisis of the Obama Presidency.
That’s bonkers.  When President Obama took office, the American economy was in freefall.  Tanking big time.  That was the defining crisis of the Obama administration, and he handled it pretty darn well.  I know our economy has stagnated, but the fact that the Speaker won’t even bring a jobs bill up for a vote in the House has a lot more to do with it than any action the President can realistically take.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a serious matter.  The Ukrainian people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union’s tyranny, and we have a moral obligation to support their Democratic aspirations.  We also have treaty obligations towards Ukraine; specifically, the Budapest accords, to which Russia is also a signatory, and which Putin has violated most egregiously.
But the fact is, we have no national interests at stake in Ukraine. And Putin has not invaded most of the country, nor has he tried to take it over.  He hasn’t, for example, sent troops to Kiev.  He’s in Crimea, putatively to protect the lives of Russians living there–a big majority of the Crimean population.  Worst case (and most likely) scenario; the Crimea votes on which country they want to be part of; Russia, or Ukraine.  We probably could live with that, and so could Ukraine.  We don’t really have a dog in that fight.
I suppose the President could have sent troops to Ukraine two weeks ago, to prevent the Russians invading.  Problem is, you sort of have to be invited to send troops to foreign countries, and no such invitation was (or would ever have been) extended. I suppose the President could have sent ships to the Black Sea or something.  In the middle of the Olympics, precipitating an international crisis.
I think everyone can agree that it’s morally wrong for a country to unilaterally violate another nation’s sovereignty, and especially egregious to do so under some made-up pretext.  But we have no credibility on that issue internationally either.  Because that’s precisely what we did in Iraq.
So why on earth are we listening to Bill Kristol on Ukraine?  Or Lindsay Graham or Dick Cheney?  They were wrong, spectacularly and brutally and violently wrong, on Iraq.  What on earth qualifies those characters as geo-political players, as people whose expertise should be consulted?
What solutions are they offering?  Kick Russia out of the G-8. Not sure it matters, plus Putin doesn’t even care enough about the G-8 to attend the last one, plus we can’t do that unilaterally, and Germany might not agree to do it now.  They need Russian oil.  Sanctions?  A lot of Europe relies on Russian oil.  We can, and should, freeze Russian assets in American banks.  But there’s not a huge economic price Putin’s going to have to pay here.
Diplomacy is the answer, and I get that it can feel like a pretty ineffectual one.  But that’s how civilized nations resolve their differences.  Russia is not, let’s be clear, behaving like a civilized nation right now, and should be condemned for it.  But we didn’t either, in 2003.  Did we?

 

Change

I’ve been reading a terrific book lately, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, about the bankers who ran the economies of the four great nations of the earth during the 1920s and 30s, and how their stubborn allegiance to a monetary policy based on the gold standard led to the Great Depression, and eventually to the dreadful events of the 40s and beyond.  The main characters of the book, Benjamin Strong, Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau and Hjalmar Schacht, are a bit overshadowed by a fifth figure, John Maynard Keynes, who was also active during the period, a gadfly, commenting throughout, who had the annoying habit of being right pretty much about everything.  Since I just wrote a play about Keynes, I found myself wishing I’d read this a year ago!  But better late than never.

The big Four bankers in the book clung to the gold standard because, as far they knew, doing so had always worked before, so why change?  In fact, the gold standard never really worked well at all; major panics and recessions plagued the Industrial Revolution at regular intervals, and nobody knew how to prevent them.  We still don’t, though our better grasp of monetary policy does seem to have smoothed things out somewhat, 2007-8 notwithstanding.  (And the Great Recession was as much caused by bankers and governments ignoring the lessons of the past as by applying them). 
But the point is, the bankers of the 20s and 30s really were sensible men, busy applying the lessons of the financial crises of the past, and unable to comprehend how completely the world had changed. 
We do that, we humans.  Generals fight the latest war by the strategies and tactics of the previous one, business people apply the successful models their grandfathers employed, election campaigns follow the blueprints of earlier contests.  We think about the world through existing prisms, and though ‘thinking outside the box’ has become a cliche, boxes continue to constrict cogitation.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit the last few days, in relation to a few major stories.  First, the current unrest in the Ukraine, and the emerging narrative on the Right about what our President has done poorly, and what we should do now.  Second, the release by the Joint Chiefs of new proposals for national defense spending.  And a third thing: the debate in Utah over air quality.
As you probably know, Vladimir Putin has sent troops to the Crimea, a direct violation of the Budapest accord, which Russia, the Ukraine, the US and the UK signed in 1994, guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty.  I think it goes without saying that Vladimir Putin doesn’t give a rip about international law, or that he just violated a treaty to which the nation he leads is signatory. Although US media sources are quick to declare that claims of violence directed towards ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine are merely pretexts for Putin’s invasion, there have in fact been reports of such violence. I think it’s likely that if the Crimea were to hold an open plebiscite, that Crimean Russians would probably vote for the region to rejoin Russia.  That’s also a factor.  But really, this seems like a power grab.  Putin has publicly mourned the end of Soviet hegemony over its former republics, and just as he sent forces to Georgia in 2008, he’s doing the same now in Ukraine.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently told President Obama that, in her conversation with Putin, she wasn’t sure he was completely sane. Makes sense; he’s reliving the Cold War, at least to some extent, which always was irrational.
But so is the American Right.  In a moment of international crisis, it’s customary for politicians to set partisanship aside and support the President.  Not this group of conservatives, who have apparently decided to set aside patriotism in favor of more name-calling and second-guessing.  He’s ‘weak,’ we’re hearing.  He doesn’t ‘project strength.’  The Russians will always test a new President, and Putin, having tested this President’s resolve in Syria, has now decided it’s okay to push even harder, and retake part of an old Republic. 
We’re re-fighting the Cold War, in other words.  Weak=bad and strong=good, and the Russkis only respect tough guys. 
But we had a tough guy in the White House in 2008, and it turns out, the Russians tested him too, in Georgia. And George W. Bush didn’t do much about it then either, because, let’s face it, his options were very very limited.  As are this President’s. 
We can apply diplomatic pressure.  Putin doesn’t seem to care.  We can kick Russia out of the G-8.  But Germany has balked at that, because Germany needs Russian oil and gas. 
Or we could send troops in. Which, let’s face it, we’re not going to do, anymore than President Bush would have in Georgia.  We simply do not have any compelling national interest in the Crimea.  Unless we’re seriously contemplating sending our young men and women into harm’s way so the President can ‘look strong’ when John McCain or Rudolph Guilani makes fun of him.
The Cold War is over. And Iraq and Afghanistan have made us very leery about foreign adventures.  What we have not done, as a nation, is rethink our national priorities.  We haven’t had a national conversation about the military, about what we want it to do, and where we want it to go, and under what circumstances we are willing to send young people to fight, and kill, and die.  Are we in fact the world’s policeman?  Isn’t that a better job for the United Nations?  How does the UN Security Council reign in Vladimir Putin when Russia has a permanent veto over all UNSC decisions?  What’s the use of having an international treaty, like the Budapest Accord, when one of the countries who signed it has no intention of being bound by it?  
Which brings us to the US defense budget.  Here are the facts. The US has an annual defense budget of 682 billion dollars. That’s 39% of the money spent by the entire world on weapons and soldiers. That’s more than the next twelve (or ten or fourteen, depending on how you calculate exchange rates) countries combined.  If we cut our military spending in half, we’d still be number one in the world in military spending.
That’s crazy.  That’s completely unsupportable.  The doctrine that the military still relies on is this: we need to be able to fight two full-out wars on two different fronts simultaneously. That’s World War II level thinking.
The threats we face today are 1) international terrorism, 2) rogue states, and 3) humanitarian military disasters in failed states.  Category 3 clearly doesn’t concern us much, considering how completely the US has managed to ignore the continuing horror show in the Congo.  Category 2 bothers us now in Crimea, but we’re not going to send troops there, for all kinds of obvious reasons.  The biggest rogue state in the world right now is obviously North Korea, which continues to experiment with the ‘insane complete dictator’ form of government. The fact that the closest thing we have to diplomatic relations with North Korea is Dennis Rodman speaks volumes, but so does the fact that every time Kim Jung Aun starts to act up, China (its only ally) steps in quietly and shuts him up.  Dude can’t feed his people; I don’t think they’re honestly much of a threat. 
That leaves terrorism, and right now our strategy for dealing with terror seems go as follows: figure out where a terror cell is, send in drones, kill a few terrorists with considerable collateral damage, and tick off local populations sufficiently to boost recruitment into terrorist organizations.  So that works splendidly. 
Okay, so, here’s my standard for ‘advanced’ or ‘civilized’ or ‘industrial’ or ‘First World’ nations.  I call it the ‘daughter’s fiancee’ standard.  Let’s suppose that your daughter got engaged to a guy from another country, and told you they planned to live there after the wedding.  How concerned would you be?  If the fiancee was from, say, Switzerland, you’d be totally cool with it, wouldn’t you? So, that’s a positive daughter’s fiancee country, or PDFC. If he was from, say, Somalia, you’d freak out, right? So that’s a negative daughter’s fiancee country, or NDFC?  Well, let’s compare the US to all the other ‘positive daughter’s fiancee’, let’s compare the US to all the PDFCs in the world.
So let’s compare the US to other PDFCs in the world in terms of taxation.  Let’s look at total taxation as a percentage of GDP.  The US is around 26%.  That’s low. The UK is 39%, Finland 41%, France 46%, German 40%. I linked to the chart; see for yourself. If your daughter married a French guy, you’d be delighted, wouldn’t you?  Visit ‘em in Paris?  C’est magnifique. 
(It’s an interesting chart, isn’t it?  Do you notice something?  That PDFCs all have high tax rates?  NDFCs low tax rates?  How thrilled would you be if your daughter moved to Ethiopia (11.6%)?  Or Bangladesh (8.5%)?  Direct correlation between high taxes and functioning economies?)
So here’s my point.  The US has the lowest tax rates of any country you’d want your daughter to live in.  It also has the highest defense spending of the next fourteen countries combined. So what things do we end up not having enough tax dollars to really do very well?
Health care.  Education.  Environmental protections. Transportation. Pensions. Retirement.  Maternity leave for mothers and fathers. 
Can we rethink these priorities?
Right now in Utah, one of the biggest problems in the state is air quality.  It’s a huge issue. Salt Lake County has the worst air quality in the country.  It’s due to a combination of factors: mostly too many cars, in a valley surrounded by mountains.  And, following this session, the legislature has, apparently, no plans to do anything whatever to alleviate it.  Because we’ve always had single family homes in suburbs, where you really do have to have a car to get around.  Public transit?  More high density neighborhoods?  Don’t even think about it.
We need to rethink.  We need to reconsider. We need to rethink the military, our place in the world, lifestyles built on non-renewable energy, recklessly expended, and rendering our planet uninhabitable. 
Here’s Keynes, writing in 1919:

In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or “labor troubles”; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.

 

And, as Keynes predicted, those ‘fearful convulsions of a dying civilization’ would spend themselves in the worst kind of barbarism, violence, ferocity and genocide. I’m not saying we’re on the brink of anything similarly catastrophic.  But our priorities seem to be, for now, to dig a hole, and sit in it, and pull the dirt in over our heads.  All is well, all is well.  But I’m not persuaded anything we’re trying works all that well anymore.

Our conservative Constitution

In the 1940s, with the world embroiled in war, the conversation in economic circles turned to what would come afterwards.  With two major world wars in thirty years, whatever Europe was doing clearly wasn’t working.  What should humankind try next?  What might work better? William Beveridge, a British economist, chaired a committee that produced a report describing one possible future; the European social welfare state.  I’m not alone in calling it a ‘combination state’; a market economy, but with a very strong social safety net.  And some version of that combination state has become the European norm. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Korea; basically all the countries in the world that work pretty well, all have some version of the combination state. Basically, use this rule of thumb; if your daughter told you she was marrying someone from one of those countries, and she and her new husband were going to live there, you’d be fine with it.  Those kinds of countries.

The United States is pretty close to a combination state, but we’re not really one by these measures: we don’t have universal health care.  We don’t really subsidize higher education.  There are lots of family-friendly policies (mandatory maternity/paternity leave for new parents, mandated work days and vacations, generous retirement benefits) that all the countries listed above have, and that we don’t.  That’s why America is usually described as a more ‘conservative’ nation than the other successful countries in the world.

For example, Norway had a national election last September, and although Labor won the most seats in Parliament (Storting; literally ‘Big Thing’; I love Norwegian), a conservative/centrist coalition gained enough seats to win power.  But the Norwegian Conservative party (Høyre, or ‘Right’ in Norwegian), is only comparatively conservative; most Høyre members hold to policies that would put them on the left fringe of the Democrats here.

For example, in that election, Høyre ran on issues like improving Norway’s health care system, improving Norway’s hospitals, and better care for the elderly.  There’s a long waiting list, for example, for nursing home care–that was an issue in the campaign.  But nobody, on either side, even mentioned, oh, requiring families to pay for nursing home care, or requiring college students to pay tuition (they pay none, even if they go to college in some other country), or things like co-pays for doctor or hospital visits. No responsible politician in Norway could hope to win on such a radically conservative agenda. Erna Solberg is the new Prime Minister–she’s ‘Conservative,’ but is seen as a moderate, and is anyway hardly a polarizing figure.

So it’s interesting, isn’t it?  Why is it that all of Europe, basically, is some version of a combination state, but the US isn’t?  Why is stodgy, old, traditional Europe so much more liberal than the US?  The answer, I think, has to do with our Constitution.

The US Constitution essentially favors conservatives, and makes political life difficult for progressives.  When I say this, I don’t mean that the Constitution is built on a Christian foundation, or that it favors a market economy, or that God inspired our Constitution, and God’s a conservative.  I don’t mean any of that.  I mean it in this sense; the Constitution makes it easier to block legislation than the other forms of Democratic government we see on the world stage.

Most countries in the world have Parliamentary systems of government.  To take Norway, again; 8 political parties won seats in Storting.  That means that if you’re a politically engaged Norwegian, you can choose to support a political party pretty close to your views. You vote for your guy, and if he wins, you hope the party you favor can join the ruling coalition government. Supporting even a tiny party, like the Green party (with one seat in Storting), still makes sense–that one guy could join a coalition, and wield genuine power in a government.

But in America, the Republican party consists of pro-business people, religiously oriented social conservatives, Tea Party constitutionalists, internationally expansionist neo-cons, libertarians–it’s an unstable coalition.  Honestly, guys like Rand Paul should probably just be libertarians; people like Michelle Bachman should probably just be Tea Party candidates.  But Paul or Bachman can’t really leave the Republican party without diffusing its power.  That’s because we elect candidates, not parties.

So when a Parliamentary coalition government is formed, they really do get to rule.  They will always have a majority in Parliament; in fact, that’s the source of their power.  Most European parliaments are unicameral, or, if bicameral, one of the houses is constitutionally nugatory.  So in England, whoever has the most seats in the House of Commons rules.  The House of Lords has no say in governing; the Lords exist as a kind of super-advisory committee.  (Most Lords are really awesomely-successful people who just got Lorded; imagine having a governmental body with no power, but consisting of people like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and John Elway, who could be put on committees and offer advice).

Anyway, that’s the secret.  Parliamentary government means that whoever wins an election gets to set and pass its agenda. It was inevitable that some election, hard-core progressives would win, and we’d get a social welfare state.  And once implemented, welfare states are hard to get rid of, because people really like them.  A lot.  So Erna Solberg, the new ‘Conservative’ Prime Minister of Norway can’t realistically run against having a national health service.  People like it too much.  Try to get rid of it, and you’re going to lose a vote of no confidence, leading to an election you’re going to lose.

But in America, the central Constitutional doctrine is separation of powers. The Framers were way too cynical about human nature to trust anyone with that kind of power.  In a Parliamentary government, the executive branch is inextricably linked to the legislative branch.  Here, they’re separated.  It’s difficult to get legislation passed.  Intentionally.

American government is, right now, almost comically inept, risibly incapable of governing.  The House of Representatives is so politically opposed to the policies of President Obama that they essentially won’t vote for anything he proposes.  We end up having these horrible, bruising fights over absolutely routine matters, like raising the debt ceiling, which simply means paying our nation’s bills.  The result is gridlock–nothing gets done.  I’m not saying that this is an outcome the Framers intended, or anticipated, but it’s not necessarily one they would have minded much.

This is why I say the Constitution is basically a conservative document.  Because isn’t the essence of conservatism a skepticism towards new ideas?  Progressives saying ‘hey, let’s try this!’  And conservatives saying ‘not so fast, there, bub.’  Conservatives want to study things out, think it through, carefully consider all the possible ramifications of any change in policy.  Conservatives are, by nature, cautious.

I see it, for example, in the current debate over marriage equality.  Liberals say ‘it’s not fair to deny an entire class of people something as basic and fundamental as marriage solely on the basis of fundamental biological differences.’  And conservatives are saying ‘marriage is the founding, central, crucial institution of society.  Let’s not rush into changing that something that fundamental.  Let’s slow down.’

And when it comes to federal legislation, our constitution makes it easier to block new ideas than it is to enact them. It gives a lot of power to those who want to say ‘wait.’  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I do think that a US combination state is inevitable.  It really does appear to be the favored form of government internationally.  I mean, mankind has tried the ‘insane paranoid dictator’ form of government–it didn’t work very well, and doesn’t work today, in North Korea.  We’ve tried the ‘maybe we don’t even need a government; let the strongest survive’ approach–it didn’t work well either, and doesn’t today, in Somalia.  We’ve repeatedly tried the ‘thugocratic laissez-faire, favoring one guy and his ten best pals’ approach, currently on display in Russia.  What works is democracy.  What works is free markets.  But also, what works, is a strong social safety net.  We can see that lots of places today, and we can see as well that it generally works pretty well, with some hiccups.  Maybe when we implement it, we’ll have cured the hiccups. If so, (and this is hard for me to say), we’ll have conservatives to thank.

Meanwhile, we can see that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does actually seem to bend towards social justice.  With that quote from Dr. King, let’s keep the good fight going. While respecting our conservative friends, urging us to carefully look before we leap.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.

 

 

 

Changing Obamacare

President Obama recently announced that he would, by executive order, extend the deadline for the employer mandate part of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.  The reaction on the Right was, uh, negative.  Just for fun, I thought I’d Google ‘constitutionality of Obamacare changes,’ just to see what I’d find.  I think my computer exploded.  Shrapnel everywhere. It was amazing; article after article on the same theme; Obama is a dictator!  He’s acting unilaterally in a way that violates the clear intent of the Constitution!  George Will weighed in.  So did Charles Krauthammer.  So did, wow, everyone else on the Right, from Michelle Bachman to Ted Cruz to John Boehner.  If Obamacare is the one issue, above all others, that unifies conservatives, then changes to Obamacare amp up the volume to eleven.  Any time you get to call President Obama ‘lawless,’ that’s Christmas in July to conservatives.

The argument goes like this.  Obamacare is the law of the land. The executive branch has to implement it, but can’t change it without approval from Congress.  But the President has changed it, by granting this employer mandate extension. He’s therefore in violation of the Constitution.

I scrolled through thirty pages of invective and bile looking for someone, a constitutional scholar say, making the argument that this particular executive order is, actually, fine; constitutional.  The fact that I couldn’t find such a site or blog doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.  People who hate this President have generated so much traffic for any anti-Obama site that voices on the other side become hard to find.

So I thought I’d write one. I’m declaring myself a Constitutional scholar, based on having read it a couple of times.  Read some books about it.  I figure I can at least make an argument.

And I figured I’d start with the Constitution itself, see where that leads us.  So: Article One starts off with this: “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.”  And Article Two starts off with this: “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.”  Huh.  That’s it.  That’s all the guidance the document grants us.

Let’s break it down.  The ACA has in it certain requirements.  Employers are required to provide health insurance for their employees, given certain stipulations.  And employers are given a certain time frame by which they’re supposed to accomplish it.  So, on the one hand, you could legitimately argue that the entire bill, including the specific deadlines mentioned in it, have all now become the law of the land, in which case President Obama can’t change those deadlines without Congress’ approval.  On the other hand, you could argue that the mandate itself is the clear intent of the law, and that things like deadlines are more like technical matters that the executive branch can amend consistent with that intent.

I think that both of these interpretations are potentially valid.  I think that the Constitution doesn’t specify what provisions of a law are ‘legislative’ mandates and which ones are up to ‘executive’ discretion.  And I think, historically, that the executive branch has been granted some latitude regarding the implementation of laws passed by Congress. As long as the executive branch doesn’t actually violate a law, it can execute the law in lots of different ways.  I would add that, realistically, the executive branch has to have some wiggle room here.  As long as a good faith effort is being made to implement the law, the executive branch has to have some logistical leeway.

Before I deal with this specific case, though, I think some context might be in order.  The complaint is that President Obama didn’t have the authority to unilaterally change a deadline, that to change a deadline, he needed Congressional approval.  Fine.  But in reality-world, Congressional approval was never going to happen.  We all know this, right?  The House of Representatives has voted to repeal Obamacare, what, over 40 times?  The rhetoric on the right is ferocious on this subject.  The Tea Party loathes everything about the ACA.

So suppose President Obama had gone to Congress and said ‘I want to extend the employer mandate by a year.’  What are the chances that they would have passed a bill doing that?  Zero.  Nada.  There is no chance that the House of Representatives would have passed any such bill. None.  There would not have been a single Republican vote in the House for any such measure.

Nothing unites Republicans like their hatred for Obamacare. They were trying to destroy it.  If the President had said ‘I’d like Congressional approval to put off this mandate.  If you don’t give me that approval, I think the whole program might fall apart,’ well, that was what the House wanted.  For the bill to fall apart.  That’s why they kept voting to repeal it, over 40 times, right?

So the President couldn’t possibly ask Congress for permission to extend the employer mandate. There’s no chance Congress would ever have passed any such bill.  And knowing that Obamacare implementation was in jeopardy would have given the House the lever it needed to repeal the whole thing.

My argument, then, is that the only way the President could fulfill his Constitutional obligation to execute the ACA law passed by both House and Senate and signed into law by him was to act unilaterally regarding implementation. That an executive order delaying the employer mandate was the only possible way to actually respect and honor the will of Congress when it passed the bill in 2010.

That’s why the President did not act unconstitutionally when he delayed the employer mandate.  He did not act tyrannically, he did not subvert the Constitution, he did not violate his oath of office.  It was his Constitutional obligation to execute the law.  His mandate was to follow the clear and unmistakable intent of the ACA.  Businesspeople (like Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google), visited him and asked for an extension.  The Department of Health and Human Services took a little longer than usual to write the specific regulations that employers needed to follow.  A short extension of the implementation deadline was needed, for understandable and practical reasons. By executive order, he extended the deadline.  That’s a perfectly reasonable way for him to proceed.

So it turns out, there is no Constitutional crisis here.  Congress has legislative authority, and the President has executive authority.  Implementation deadlines exist, probably, in some gray area between ‘legislation’ and ‘execution.’  In reality, though, they reside more comfortably on the ‘executive’ side of the equation.
And given the political realities with which a President must contend, there was simply no realistic way to seek Congressional approval.  If the House wanted a say in Obamacare implementation, it might have demonstrated some good will first. Like, I don’t know, not voting to repeal the bill 40 times.

Rhetoric has consequences.  And it does strike me as disingenuous to say ‘Obamacare is treasonous, and Obama is Hitler for passing it!’ and then, in the next breath, argue ‘also, you must rigidly enforce its every provision!’

The Constitution is really really important.  Abiding by its provisions is the obligation of every lawmaker and by every President.  But this is not an ‘unlawful’ or ‘unConstitutional’ President, and a slight extension of the employer mandate has not led us to the brink of Constitutional crisis.  Maybe it’s time to tone down the rhetoric a little, and, I don’t know, maybe pass an immigration bill or something.  How’s that sound, guys?