Thoughts on watching the Olympics

The Sochi Olympics are over, and we watched them all, every night.  Which is to say, we hardly watched the Olympics at all.  What we watched instead was NBC’s nightly highlights show.  That is to day, we watched a slick, professional, well produced television program every night, hosted by Bob Costas and (thanks to his pinkeye) a few other hosts.  We watched those sports NBC deemed particularly interesting to US audiences, which is to say, sports that Americans are particularly good at, or sports where the outcomes supported a particularly uplifting/tragic narrative.

And I loved it.  That’s all I wanted to watch anyway. I wanted neat story-lines, I wanted well crafted television.  I wanted exciting finishes, or particularly lovely visuals.  In short, I wanted to skip all the boring bits.

I say it’s all I could have watched, but that isn’t true.  I was gone every night, up in Salt Lake directing a play, but my wife and I had weekends, we found enough time to watch the stuff we wanted to watch.  And I could have watched the daytime coverage (much of it in real time) on MSNBC and CNBC and the internet.  I didn’t; not at all.  Not even the hockey, a sport I basically only follow once every four years.  Or curling, a sport I adore, but have no idea how it’s even scored.  I was happy enough with Bad Eye Bob, and his nightly highlights show.

It’s true that there were way too many commercials, and that they intruded on the action, but we just fast-forwarded those moments. And they had all those up-close-and-personal athlete profile bits, in which we saw or heard how all the adversity the competitors had overcome.  Skipped all those too.  I’m an American, gosh-darn it.  I have a short attention span.  I generally was able to watch a nightly three hour broadcast in a little over an hour, by skipping all the boring parts and going straight to the coolest parts.

And what were the coolest parts?  Well, my wife and I both love the ice skating. I love the fact that it straddles the line between an athletic competition and an art form.  I like that; I’m a theatre guy, and what I like most is the artistry of it.  I’m also not any sort of expert in it.  So what I tend to overvalue is the artistic elements of the programs–the stories the programs tell, the attitude they express.  So, case in point, we were riveted by the ladies’ skating.  The Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, and the South Korean, Yuna Kim, were both exquisite, and I thought both deserved gold, and was happy enough when Sotnikova won it, with Kim taking silver. But bronze? The Italian skater, Carolina Kostner, who won bronze, struck me as peculiarly unartistic, especially her short program, skated to “Ave Maria,” with a heavenly chorus and a pious look to the heavens at the end.  I found Kostner an unattractive performer, but could see that she was a marvelous athlete, and that her program was very difficult.  Gracie Gold, the American girl who finished fourth, had a nasty fall in her free skate, as did Yulina Lipnitskaya, who finished fifth.  But I adored the feisty, sassy American Ashley Wagner, and the impish Japanese girl, Akiko Suzuki.  I also tend to want to disqualify skaters who fall, or who, in my wife’s phrase, ‘exercise the element known as the spinning butt slide.’  So I had Wagner with the bronze, on my personal, completely inexpert and ill-informed score card.  And now I fully intend to go back to ignoring ice skating as a sport until 2018.

As I will other sports that I kind of fell in love with this Olympics.  Like slopestyle, both in skiing and snowboarding.  It’s a nutty sport, combining jumps, spins, twists, plus a sort of obstacle course.  Like many sports at the Olympics, it looked like a sport for crazy people, but the kids who did it sure looked like they were having fun. All the snowboarding events looked fun, and I was delighted with the raffishly dressed, apple cheeked insouciance of the kids who performed.  They all seemed as delighted by their competitors’ good runs as with their own, and when they biffed (and all snowboard sports included biffs aplenty), they’d shrug it off: “ah, well.”

I’m just sadistic enough to prefer sports where the athletes fall, or even crash into each other, over sports where they’re essentially racing against a clock.  I loved snowboard and skiing cross, for example, in which groups of four or five skiers or snowboarders race down a hill with lots of jumps, and as they struggle for position, often knock each other off the course.  I much prefer short track speed skating over long track.  Long track’s a bore–they just skate really fast, and without checking out the scoreboard, you have no idea who is fastest.  Short track, though, had sharp elbows, fabulous passes, skaters leading into turns inches from other skaters.  It’s wonderfully exciting and fun.  Best of all, the short track relays, in which you ‘pass the baton’ (so to speak), by giving the next skater on your team a shove on the butt.

As a Norwegian/American, I should probably say something about Ole Einer Bjoerndalen, the greatest winter Olympian ever.  And I understand how difficult his sport must be–cross country skiing, combined with target shooting.  But to me, it’s a sport more respected than enjoyed.  I’ll grant that what Bjoerndalen does is incredibly difficult, and if we ever fight a guerrilla war in a Nordic country, I totally want that dude on my side.  At the same time, I don’t understand it well enough to really get into it.  I found myself fast-forwarding to the target shooting bits.  Sorry, fellow Norwegians; I’m a shallow American after all.

Before the Olympics, the stories were all about inadequate or incomplete facilities.  Those ended up not mattering.  It was a wonderful two weeks, watching marvelous athletes from all over the world ski and skate. It’s really humanity at its best, human beings celebrating the extraordinary capabilities of their fellow human beings. One American figure skater is 15 years old, and is now the seventh best in the world at her event. Can you imagine that, being 15 and seventh best in the whole world at something?  Amazing and lovely.  As NBC kept reminding us.

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?



The Christie narrative

I’ve been completely obsessed lately with the Chris Christie scandal. My daughter and I have taken to watching Rachel Maddow every night, as she’s emerged as the best source for all things New Jersey.  MSNBC has Steve Kornacki on staff, and he’s from New Jersey, used to work with David Wildstein, knows all the players, has great sources–he’s obviously a great resource. Chris Christie has attacked Maddow as biased.  She is an admitted liberal, and has gone hard after Christie, but I don’t think out of any particular animus.  She’s a journalist, first and foremost, and this is her scoop.  When mainstream reporters were mocking MSNBC because of this obsession with a bridge closing and resultant traffic jams, Rachel Maddow soldiered on.  Three weeks ago, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, (an über-reliable guide to the emerging mainstream media consensus), basically declared that the story was dead; that Christie’s ‘excellent’ performance in his two hour press conference had effectively put the story behind him.  Last Sunday, the This Week tune was very different.  And one of the main reasons is because of Rachel Maddow’s relentless reporting.

I know some people who can’t stand her, who think she’s gloating, that she’s inappropriately gleeful, that she went after a popular Republican politician, and is now doing a victory dance.  I don’t agree, not at all, any more than I thought Woodward and Bernstein were gleefully triumphant when they uncovered some of the main Watergate secrets, and brought down a President.  That’s what reporters do.  They look at powerful people, and hold them accountable when they screw up.  We don’t yet know exactly what Chris Christie did, don’t know what he knew or when he knew it, don’t have a smoking gun. In fact, we don’t even know motive; why Christie did what he maybe possibly may have done. But David Wildstein’s attorney now suggests that there is, in fact, evidence of early Christie involvement.  It’s getting very interesting.

There are in fact three separate scandals involving Chris Christie, so let’s sort them out, and, as is obligatory in political scandal stories, assign each a ‘gate.  First, there’s Bridgegate.  Lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge were closed, by the order of someone in the New York/New Jersey Port Authority, causing massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  Second, there’s Hobokengate.  The mayor of Hoboken claims that she was told that disaster relief money for her city, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, would be contingent on her supporting a private development in her city that the governor favored.  Finally, there’s Videogate; the allegation that money for Sandy relief was diverted by the governor to make a video supporting his re-election campaign.  The state legislature is investigating all three of these scandals, and the US attorney also seems to be getting involved.

Of the three scandals, my favorite, by far, is Bridgegate.  It’s so bizarre.  The idea of a governor deliberately causing massive traffic jams as some kind of political retribution seems so dickish, so mean.  It may seem like small potatoes–people were inconvenienced for a few days, and EMTs were a little later than usual responding to emergency calls. The stakes don’t seem all that high.  But it was a deliberate misuse of the powers of governance.  That’s not supposed to happen.

Anyway, my daughter and I have become ‘experts’ on this particular cast of characters, with strong opinions on who should play them in the movie. (Jodie Foster as Rachel Maddow?)  Starting the week of September 9, 2013, Bridget Anne Kelly (Rooney Mara), Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff sent an email to David Wildstein (Jonah Hill), Governor Christie’s appointee on the Port Authority, saying ‘time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.’  Wildstein responded, ‘got it.’ Lanes onto the bridge were closed for four days, and massive traffic jams resulted.  In November, Bill Baroni (Josh Brolin), also a Christie Port Authority appointee, testified at some length to the New Jersey Assembly, with lots of photos and exhibits, explaining that the lane closures were needed for a traffic study. There was no traffic study; it never existed. The entire ‘traffic study’ presentation was a fabrication, a cover-up.  Baroni was prepped for his testimony by a Port Authority attorney named Phillip Kwan (Chow Yuen Fat), who had previously been nominated for the New Jersey State Supreme Court by Governor Christie, a nomination that the Assembly did not approve. Governor Christie (Wayne Knight) now says that when he first heard of the lane closures, he asked his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd (Liam Hemsworth) and chief counsel, Charles McKenna (Oliver Platt), to investigate.  They claimed to have done so, and discovered nothing.

Okay, so we know there was a crime (the lane closures, involving Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein) and a cover-up (the ‘traffic study’ testimony before the legislature, involving Bill Baroni and Phillip Kwan).  That, at least, seems irrefutable.  Bridget Kelly right now is refusing to testify, as is David Wildstein. Wildstein’s attorney also says that evidence exists that implicates Chris Christie. He wants immunity for his client before he’ll release it.

And all sorts of weirdness has come out.  Someone in the Christie camp released an email to the press attacking Wildstein’s credibility, saying that ‘his high school social studies teacher’ called him ‘deceptive.’  Seriously.  There really is a permanent record, I guess.  Wildstein was supposedly this ‘deceptive’ nobody, but he had a job at the Port Authority, Director of Interstate Capital Projects that paid $150,000 a year, with no job description, in a job did not exist prior to him getting hired there.  Apparently, Governor Christie ordered the Port Authority to invent a job for Wildstein, so he’d have a guy there reporting only to him.

I’m a political scandal junkie, and when I hear Christie saying ‘I knew nothing about this,’ I think of other famous lines in American political history: “The American people need to know if their President is a crook.  I am not a crook.”  Or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  But sometimes, political figures are accused of things they didn’t actually do.  Sometimes they really are innocent.

Example: the Vince Foster ‘scandal.’  Bill Clinton’s Deputy White House Counsel, a long-time friend named Vince Foster, killed himself in 1993.  Immediately all sorts of conspiracy theories were posited, that Foster had been murdered by President Clinton because Foster ‘knew too much,’ or something.  It was all nonsense; Foster’s death was investigated by four separate law enforcement agencies. There never was a scandal there, and we ought to have known it.

How?  To me, it’s a matter of interrogating the narratives.  Let me demonstrate, by comparing the Vince Foster narrative to an actual scandal narrative; the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal.

Vince Foster, then.  Narrative One: a man with a history of clinical depression was found dead in a public park; a suicide note was found in his office. He killed himself.  No scandal. Narrative Two: somehow someone in the Clinton administration had Foster killed, then covered it up so cleverly it fooled four separate law enforcement agencies.  Which is more plausible?

Anthony Weiner.  Narrative One: a young married Congressman met a 21 year old woman, and tweeted lewd pictures of himself to her, using the pseudonym Carlos Danger.  And he kept doing it, sexting at least three other women.  Narrative Two: a faithfully married Congressman had his Twitter account hacked, and someone else sent those pictures, which weren’t even of him.  Which is more plausible?

I think, in both cases, we’d agree that, based on our experience with human nature, that Narrative One is more plausible.  I suppose it’s barely possible that the President of the United States could order the CIA or someone to have someone killed and make it look really really plausibly like a suicide. But seriously depressed people do, sadly, sometimes end their own lives.  As for Weiner, I guess a really vindictive and mean-spirited and massively computer savvy political enemy could hack his Twitter account. But, sadly, powerful married men do stray, and hit on women inappropriately. And it turns out, in both cases, the more plausible narrative turned out to be the true one.

So apply it to Christie. When Kelly emailed Wildstein ‘time for some traffic problems,’ he didn’t respond ‘what on earth are you talking about?’  There was clearly a plan in place they both knew about.  Wildstein was in the Port Authority specifically to do the Governor’s bidding–he didn’t seem to have any other job over there.  How likely is it that Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff would just decide on her own, without talking it over with her boss, Kevin O’Dowd, or the Big Boss, Christie, that she needed to hammer Fort Lee?  How likely is it that she would be able to persuade Bill Baroni to lie on her behalf?  How likely is it that Phillip Kwan and Bill Baroni could have come up with this phony ‘traffic study’ story and make it so persuasive that Governor Christie is still saying ‘who knows, maybe there really was a traffic study?’  Do high ranking members of a governor’s staff just decide to do stuff like this?  On their own?  Are they likely to be able to get away with it for four months?  These are all people making six figure salaries; would you risk your high paying job like this?  So you can punish Fort Lee for something? Or, more likely, was this something everyone was in on?  Including the Governor.

We don’t know the details yet. But it’s early days.  We will know a lot more, and we’re likely to know it fairly soon. Meanwhile, it’s the best show on television.  The plot may be predictable, but it’s sure fun to watch.

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ‘em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931′s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.








The Grammy Awards

Last night, my wife and I and our daughters had a deeply weird experience, watching, for the first time ever, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards.  I essentially never watch awards shows on TV, except for the Oscars, which I watch every year.  And I freely and fully admit that I’m sort of an old fuddy-dud.  But I’m not remotely hostile to popular music, nor to contemporary music. One of my daughters is a huge Katy Perry fan, and I rather like some of her music.  I waited with great anticipation the arrival of the new Arcade Fire album, have listened to it many times, and think it’s terrific.  Nor am I remotely hostile to rap, or hip-hop.  I like Macklemore, for example.  My wife and I discovered Pentatonix this year, and think they’re amazing.  Naively, I assumed that Reflektor (the Arcade Fire release), would be up for Album of the Year, and that Pentatonix would be under consideration for Best New Artist.

And I’m not bitter that neither Arcade Fire nor Pentatonix were mentioned, either of them, ever, at any time.  To me, they were the two musical highlights of the year, but that’s not what the Grammies are about, apparently.   The music honored at the Grammies is, I suppose Top Forty, if that meant anything anymore.  It’s “Music that you would hear on the radio, if anyone listened to the radio, which no one does anymore.”  It’s so strangely anachronistic, this talk of ‘albums’ and ‘records’ in an age where music is almost entirely delivered via digital downloads.

Still, watching the Grammies, what I did not anticipate is how bad the musical performances would be.  I was actually sort of hoping I would hear music by people I didn’t know, and that I would like some of it, and want to buy it.  This did not happen.  For the most part, the musicians who performed were utterly dreadful.  A whole bunch of awards were given out, in obscure and infinitesimally differentiated categories.  Meanwhile, a bewildering array of performers both ancient and modern, or often enough, both together, would perform, either indifferently or catastrophically. And the ubiquitous and sinister presence of Jay-Z reigned over the proceedings, rather like Michael Corleone presiding over his father’s funeral.

Without question, the nadir of the evening’s performances involved the music of Chicago, as butchered by the untalented, smarmy and smirking Robin Thicke.  Chicago sounded terrific. That great horn section had its usual precision and polish, and Robert Lamm’s voice is as strong as ever.  They began “Does anybody really know what time it is?” with Lamm singing, and sounded, well, like Chicago, as good as ever.  Then Thicke put an execrable gloss on the vocal.  It was all downhill from there.  Thicke butchered two more Chicago songs, to complete the medley, and then that great horn section was somehow induced to provide backing for Thicke’s performance of his own loathsome hit, “Blurred Lines.”  I still shudder at the recollection.

This sort of thing kept happening. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (unaccountably wearing a hat he stole from Smokey the Bear), joined something called Daft Punk, a French duo who wear helmets, making them look like Boba Fett’s Eurotrash nephews, resulting in an utterly forgettable dance groove.  All the mystery of Imagine Dragons’ terrific song “Radioactive” was wiped clean by a frenetic, baffling and incomprehensible rap intrusion by someone I hope never to hear about again in any context whatsoever named Kendrick Lamar.

It also seemed to be a night for burying hatchets.  Next month, CBS will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut, and so both Paul and Ringo were there, and performed.  Ringo sang his one hit from his one album: I thought “Photograph” held up nicely.  Then he played drums for Paul (and was I the only one wondering if this would be the last time?), as Paul performed his new single (!), “Queenie Eye.”  Paul’s voice is shot, but the man’s past 70, and there’s still that charisma.  And Ringo’s got to be 73, and doesn’t look a day past 60.  But, sitting right there on the same row, about four people down, there she was: Yoko Ono, with I think Julian Lennon as her date.  And in a tribute to the “outlaws of country,” Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson sang “Highwaymen” really badly, then were joined by Merle Haggard for “Okie From Muskogee,” a song which in 1969 was a direct rebuke to country outlaws (and hippies) and to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson specifically.  (Boy was it weird hearing Willie Nelson sing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”).   But time wounds all heals, and the old guys seemed to enjoy their time on-stage together.  They were joined by Blake Shelton, who’s too young to have any historical ties to the others, but who seemed to be up there so there’d be one person on stage who can still sing and play the guitar.

There were some nice moments. Sara Bareilles and Carole King sat at pianos and sang two songs together, one by each of them: “Brave” and “Beautiful,” and the result was both brave and beautiful.  They represent different generations of women who do the same thing–singer/songwriters.  And they were both clearly thrilled to be up there, and the songs were great.  John Legend was similarly terrific; just sat at the piano and sang a good song really well.  Simple and great. A young country artist named Kacey Musgraves, who I’ve never heard of, sang her new hit, “Follow your arrow,” and I liked it and her some, though I’m not sure who told her that turning her Mom’s Christmas sweater into a short, short skirt was a good idea. But they were wrong.

Lorde won for “Royals,” a terrific song that I like a lot better in Pentatonix’ cover version.  Lorde, channelling Morticia Adams, also performed it, in a twitchy, odd, tuneless performance that made her look nuts. Katy Perry wore a witch costume, all the better to writhe on what seemed to be a hemlock stripper pole; a unifying theme of the evening seemed to be ‘tribute to bad musical theatre choreography’. Whenever things lagged, bring on the smoke effects and pyrotechnics!

I learned some things.  I did not know, for example, that Pink had been working out with the Cirque du Soleil choreographers.  But she has, and either lip-synced or sang while doing acrobatics.  Sadly, she was joined by a completely forgettable band named, if memory serves, Fun; not an inspired pairing.  I discovered that Metallica can still rock, and were memorably joined by the pianist Lang Lang–the result was a cacophonous mess.  I learned that Taylor Swift can fling her head around while singing, but not while singing well, apparently; the overall performance was embarrassing.  And I learned that Keith Urban sang play him some blues guitar; his duet with Gary Clark Jr. was okay.

Meanwhile, the Jay-Z thing just got weirder and weirder.  Beyonce’s opening number was tuneless and ugly.  Jay-Z joined her at the end, and the place went wild, but it rather felt like a soccer stadium in North Korea going wild when Kim Jung Un ‘scores’ a ‘goal.’  At one point, Jamie Foxx went up to present a winner in some category, and made some sort of comment along the lines of ‘gosh, Beyonce is sure pretty.’ An act of lèse majesté; apparently: he back-tracked frantically, babbling incoherently, then racing through his list of nominees.  There was absolutely this whole ‘Jay-Z can and will have you killed if you displease him’ sort of vibe.  Even the CBS producers caught it; the camera kept cutting to Jay-Z after each performance, as though looking for The Godfather’s blessing.

These award shows, like everything else in pop culture, are meant to build to a climax, and last night was no exception.  The climax last night was supposed to be a kind of marriage equality affirmation, in which Reverend Queen Latifah married 33 couples, some gay, some straight, while Macklemore rapped his “Same love” anthem, and Madonna, dressed like Colonel Sanders, blessed the proceedings.  In fact, that was why I was watching; my wife and I know one of the couples getting hitched. Trust CBS to blow it.  We hardly got to see the marrying couples at all; the camera was much more interested in what had been the point of focus the whole night, the spectacle of celebrities applauding celebrities.  (But for what are some of these people celebrated?)  We did not see the couple we’d watched the whole night to see.  What we saw instead was lots of Pharrell Williams’ silly hat and Jay-Z’s baleful glare.  And Taylor Swift dancing to everything.

I imagine that, for the marrying couples, having the whole thing nationally televised was probably kind of fun.  Having Queen Latifah preside was probably pretty cool. Macklemore’s song probably seemed appropriate.  Still, the CBS broadcast turned what genuinely is an important and sacred moment into something star-infested and tacky.  And they didn’t need to.  Let the camera linger. Actually show the couples.  Show them crying, embracing, kissing.  Show something human, for heaven’s sake.

So, yeah, the Grammy Awards of 2014 were kind of a bust.  They honored some mediocre songs and performances, as well as a couple of good ones.  The performances were mostly bad, but not uniformly.  Still, it’s three and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.  Won’t be watching next year, no matter who gets married.

Rachel Maddow and MSNBC

Chris Christie recently referred to MSNBC as a ‘partisan network that has been openly hostile’ to his administration, and ‘almost gleeful’ in their efforts to bring him down.  I’ve also noticed my conservative friends attacking MSNBC, including a few people who linked to this national review piece, which describes MSNBC as an alternate universe, where ‘the political center of gravity and all things Good are defined by the preferences of the faculty at Berkeley and the comments section of the Daily Kos and in which anyone who dissents from this position is believed to possess two heads, a black heart, and a pocket copy of Mein Kampf.’  The Christie administration has also suggested that MSNBC is entirely under the malevolent control of Rachel Maddow.  Shudder.

It makes sense.  Since Fox News is the preferred network for conservatives, it makes sense that conservatives would accuse MSNBC of being a liberal (or ‘ultra-liberal’) alternative.  In some ways, it’s as though American journalism has moved towards a European/British model, in which papers (and TV talk shows) openly display political bias, and voters are defined by the news sources we favor.  Since we’re presumably seeing everything through a partisan lens, it makes sense that media bias would be celebrated.  Traditionally, the idea was that news networks would try to stay as scrupulously unbiased as possible.  People trusted Walter Cronkite because they didn’t know, or even suspect what his biases and prejudices might have been.  He was just reporting the news.

I don’t think that anyone nowadays believes that objectivity is possible.  We’re defined by our life experiences, by our culture, by our backgrounds and family ties and religious beliefs and political experiences. The question isn’t whether or not objectivity is possible; it’s whether or not objectivity is desirable.  Is this something we should be striving for?  Let’s suppose that you’re a journalist, and you are also an admirer of President Obama. And you learn something that you believe to be true, but that reflects badly on his administration.  Should you report it?  I think the obvious answer is ‘yes.’  Of course you should.  Journalism is about telling the truth (to the limited extent that it’s discernible) about people in power.

The National Review attack on MSNBC points to the damning ‘fact’ that 85% of the network’s schedule is given over to commentary, and only 15% to news.  Fox, on the other hand, is more balanced; ’55% opinion, and 45% news.’

I watch both networks, though, and there are clear differences between them. First of all, let’s admit this: both networks try to cover big stories more or less the same.  Hurricane Sandy, or the Boston bombings, or a Presidential election–those kinds of big, all hands on board stories get full coverage on both networks.

But the rest of the time, when there’s not that One Big Story, Fox has some real journalists on their network, and they do straight news shows, but they inject commentary and opinion into, essentially, everything.  When it comes to opinion shows, like Bill O’Reilly’s show or Sean Hannity’s show or now Megyn Kelly’s show, the model is basically that of talk radio.  This is not a put-down.  Talk radio is really really hard to do.  But the bullying tactics of O’Reilly when he has a guest on that he disagrees with, that’s all straight from conservative talk radio.  I think that may be why Megyn Kelly’s show doesn’t work; her inexperience in long-form chatting shows.  She’s an agreeable camera presence, and she’s not as confrontational in her interviews as some of her colleagues have been, but let’s not pretend her show is better than it is–she’s got a long way to go.

Because whatever you may think of their politics, if you listen to Rush Limbaugh or any of his radio colleagues, what they do is astonishing.  David Foster Wallace once explained it; try sitting down at your kitchen table, and just talking on any subject you want to for an extended period of time.  Say twenty minutes.  You have to speak, ex tempore, on any subject at all, for twenty minutes, without repeating yourself, without babbling or pausing or stopping, and you have to make cogent, reasoned arguments, and you have to make sense, and, also, it has to be entertaining enough for thousand/hundreds of thousands/millions of people to want to listen to it.  It’s incredibly difficult.

I did it for awhile.  I did radio for years, and I had a sports call-in talk show.  My gosh was it hard.  I listen to someone like Jim Rome, who does sports talk for a living, and I’m kind of in awe.  He’s projecting personality and attitude, while also getting his facts right, and he does for hours every day, and it’s never boring and it’s never less than riveting.  Amazing.

For some reason, though, political talk radio is almost entirely dominated by conservatives.  I don’t know why that is; it might be that the conservative heroes/villains narrative is easier to construct and maintain than the liberal heroes/villains narrative, for whatever reason.  But Fox News is the beneficiary. Rush Limbaugh, it turns out, doesn’t wear well on television, nor does Dr. Laura or a lot of other radio personalities, but some do very well indeed, including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.  Megyn Kelly doesn’t have that background, and it shows.

But the only person on MSNBC with a radio background is Rachel Maddow.  And it shows on her too.  For one thing, she repeats herself.  This is a useful rhetorical skill on radio, but it can be a little grating on TV.  She’ll say,”the one person, the only person, the single person most responsible for . . . .”  It’s used for emphasis, yes, but also a helpful habit to keep radio listeners, who are probably driving somewhere in their cars, posted on what’s going on.

But the other MSNBC news/opinion shows are really not very good.  Martin Bashir comes across as pompous and arrogant, all the things that make conservatives hate liberals.  Lawrence O’Donnell can be astonishingly self-righteous and especially intolerant of religious people.  Poor old Reverend Al Sharpton just seems sort of out of it a lot of the time.  Chris Hayes was pretty good, and I think Steve Kornacki’s new show has some promise.  But for the most part, Rachel Maddow is the main reason to watch MSNBC at all.

And she’s terrific, mostly because what she does ISN’T really commentary, it’s journalism.  Here’s why I say that:

She always acknowledges her news sources.  She’s great about it; saying ‘most of the story comes from reporting by the (local newspaper).’  She wants to get the story right.  If she has a guest on, she’ll say ‘you’ve seen our coverage about this story.  You know more about it than I do. How have we done? Did we get anything wrong, and if so, what?’  She documents everything; every allegation.  If she doesn’t know something,she’ll say so. And when she does offer her opinion, it’s pretty modestly stated.  She’ll say ‘now, this is just my conjecture. . . .’

It is true that she’s really gone after Governor Christie’s administration a lot lately.  And she can come across a bit gleeful.  But she’s not anti-Christie, except in the same sense in which Woodward and Bernstein were anti-Nixon.  She’s got a whale of a story in her sights, and like any good journalist, she’s going to pursue it.  And for months, she’s been the only mainstream journalist interested in ‘Bridgegate.’  Small wonder that she’s excited about how that story seems to be unwinding.

She wrote a terrific book last year, about the military and above all our nuclear arsenal.  It was a superbly researched book of sheer journalism.  She’s really a good journalist more than anything.

There certainly is some sense in which Fox is the cable network for conservatives and MSNBC is the cable network for liberals.  But there’s some solid journalism being done on MSNBC. Where both networks are deficient is in the area of policy analysis. With Ezra Klein leaving the Washington Post, abandoning the immensely valuable Wonkblog, there’s a real opportunity for a non-partisan, policy driven, wonkish TV show that just looks at the facts of various policy proposals out there.  Does raising the minimum wage cost jobs, for example?  Ezra Klein was great at just running the numbers for us, on Wonkblog.  There’s talk that he will be given a show to do just that on MSNBC.  That’s where he belongs, honestly.



Evangelii Gaudium: the Pope and economics

Jon Stewart had a a great bit on his show last night. Fast food workers across the nation have been protesting their wages, insisting, accurately enough, that you can’t feed a family on $7.50 an hour. And that McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King and Carls Jr. are profitable enough that they could increase wages if they wanted to.  What should happen, of course, is a minimum wage hike, and Jon had a lot of fun pointing out the absurdity in conservatives’ various argumenta ad absurdum.  And, as has become de rigueur in such discussions, Jon invoked the most recent exhortation from the Pope, Evangelii Gaudium. The Joy of the Gospel.

The whole thing’s wonderful. Man, this Pope is amazing. And this is a powerful read, the whole exhortation.  It’s smart and kind and authoritative and moving.  And accurate.  And a wonderful challenge to all of us who claim to be Christians.

Let me trace His Holiness’ argument in Chapter Two, section I. He begins by acknowledging the blessings of technology, blessings made possible by free markets.

In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.


Reading Evangelii Gaudium again this morning, the word that jumped out at me was the last one: power. Wealth is power, technology is power, information is power.  The Pope’s analysis is that free markets have led to the creation of new power centers, without checks and balances, and without accountability. Here are the social consequences of this power:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

So what might be the proper check and balance on the economic power of corporatization? Government, in theory.  But only if we embrace the right theory:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Those comments, about trickle-down economics, are the ones that have been getting most of the media attention.  But it’s the next section that grabbed me:

This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

The Framers of the American Constitution were famously realistic, perhaps even cynical, about power.  They recognized the tendency of most people, when they have power, to abuse it.  So: a system of checks and balances, decentralizing political power, Congress as a check on the President, the Courts, a check on democracy. And it’s worked pretty well for two hundred and thirty years.

Libertarian economists insist that corporate power, market power, is self-correcting, because of the power of market competition.  And we do see that dynamic at times, with the thesis of IBM opposed by the anti-thesis of Microsoft, leading to synthesis: Google. Sometimes, yes, it works.  But more often the result is more Hobbesian than Hegelian; nature ‘red in tooth and claw.’  Big companies would rather not compete if they can avoid it.  The preferred default mode for corporations isn’t competition; it’s monopoly.  And if a check on employee abuse is unionization, ask that guy trying to organize Wal-Mart employees how well that’s going. The healthy competition between labor and management does not usually work out as mutually beneficially as it does in Major League baseball, where it can be built on a superstructure of failed dreams and abused teens washing out at Class A level.  McDonald’s will pay $7.50 an hour as long as they can get away with it, and they’d pay $5.00 an hour if they could get away with that.  To some extent, they’re prevented from doing so by wage competition; no business can get away with paying a buck an hour less than the company next door.  Not unless they can find another cheaper source for labor.  Illegally?  Sure; some will.

That’s the great insight of Pope Francis. The check and balance on big business is government.  Trickle-down is not an economic theory, it’s a governing theory, and one that abdicates a central function of government.  Corporations would rather not compete fairly if they can avoid it; they love tilting level playing fields in their favor.  Big business is famously amoral. History couldn’t speak more clearly–businessmen absolutely will employ and abuse small children, pay starvation wages and cooperate with their competitors so everyone can, put rat poison in hot dogs and tell tell people they have diseases they don’t have so you can sell them medical equipment they don’t need.  That all happens, and will continue to happen.

The Framers didn’t anticipate the power of corporations.  They might have; they certainly had experience of it. The Boston Tea Party was a response to a tax that was imposed after lobbying by the biggest multi-national corporation in the 18th century world; the East India Company.  Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the seminal work of economics, was available to the Framers; its publication was probably the second most important thing to happen in the world in 1776.  But their theory of government didn’t include other centers of power than purely political ones.

Let’s acknowledge this fact, though.  Baldly stated, income inequality can only be overcome if rich people are forced by government to give money to poor people.  That’s how poverty is overcome.  In the US, we had a problem; poor old people died too young.  Solution: Social Security.  Taxing people, so that we could cut poor old people a check.  It works great.  Are old sick people uninsurable?  Medicare: cut ‘em a check.  Are poor people and their families and children not getting enough to eat?  Solution: food stamps.  And yes, I think private charity is terrific, and I think giving money to charity is ennobling and a moral imperative.  But the baseline for starvation in the US is 80 billion.  That’s how much the federal government pays in food stamps.  And that’s an amount no private charity can come close to covering.  Government is us, and We The People, in this Christian nation, have been charged with feeding the poor.

I applaud Pope Francis’ analysis, and I concur with his solution.  It does not repudiate the power of free markets to insist that every power base in any society can and should have checks and balances.  Or to insist that the death of a homeless person should be news at least on a par with changes in the stock market.  Our Tao must not be the Dow.  And we can only serve God by responsibly regulating mammon.




Obamacare: one more time

I have an unfortunate addiction to the Sunday morning talk shows, especially This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which I remember fondly from its beginnings, when the wry, sardonic David Brinkley hosted.  Stephanopoulos is a good host–a tough interviewer, mostly–and he sometimes books interesting guests, but still, it’s a show for Washington insiders, an hour on Sunday mornings dispensing Beltway wisdom. Everything’s political, everything’s hyperbolic, and everything’s short sighted.  And the vaunted roundtable–that exercise in meaninglessness where five or six journalists and opinion-makers, carefully balanced ideologically, shout at each other.  Blarg. Don’t know why I watch it, but I do.

Anyway, President Obama’s Presidency is over, apparently; a total disaster. His approval ratings are at their lowest ebb, and his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act is seriously flawed.  The roll-out went badly, the website doesn’t work, plus, he lied about it. (Which, by the way, he didn’t. I even said he did earlier in this blog.  I was wrong.)  Liar, liar, pants on fire: the ACA fiasco is (I’m not kidding, there are people saying this) Obama’s Katrina.

Katrina.  As in Hurricane Katrina. A natural disaster, where the federal response was so horrifically incompetent that hospitals in New Orleans were forced to triage which of their patients they were going to euthanize. So we’re to equate the launching of a somewhat buggy government website with that?  Ah, but it makes sense; Katrina lowered Bush’s approval ratings and the ACA rollout lowered Obama’s: equivalence!

But here’s the thing.  Obamacare is the central issue in American domestic politics right now.  That’s pretty sad, when you come to think of it, given how many other really really important issues there are, like, oh, education, welfare, immigration, global warming and environmental issues related thereunto, gun violence, incarceration reform, the penal code, infrastructure repair and modernization, transportation, unemployment, racial polarization, income disparity, unionization and labor issues, and the national debt. But no, none of that matters; it’s Obamacare!  Worse than slavery!  Equal to the Holocaust!  Or so our Republican friends would have us believe.

So the House of Representatives has passed something north of 50 bills canceling Obamacare, none of which has ever even come to a floor vote in the Senate, and none of which ever will be, quite properly.  Nothing in the Constitution requires either House or Senate to actually vote on silly symbolic bills originating in the other chamber.

But here’s the thing.  Obamacare is either going to work, or its not going to work.  The website got off to a bad start; it’s either going to get fixed or it’s not.  The ACA is either going to help people, or it’s not.  Which means this: if the ACA works, it’s going to be good for Democrats, and if it fails, that’s going to help Republicans.

There’s going to be an election in 2014, midterm elections for Congress, and those elections are either going to be ‘won’ by Democrats or by Republicans. And since Republicans have made so much noise about Obamacare, their electoral success is tied directly to the success or failure of that program.

And it’s going to work. It’s already getting fixed, and it’s going to work fine.  Here’s some evidence:

Kentucky decided to set up its own health care exchange and not participate in the national exchange (something the ACA not only allows, but encourages).  It’s called Kynect.  This story in the Washington Post shows how it’s going: brilliantly.  In fact, it’s quite remarkable, to read about dirt-poor rural folk with serious health problems who suddenly, for the first time in their lives, can afford to see a doctor.  Fifteen percent of Kentucky residents–around 600,000 people–had no health insurance.  So far, over 50,000 of them have signed up, with four more months left to sign the rest of them up.

In California, same story.  They went with their own exchange, and after a slow start, they’re seeing 10, 000 people a day sign up.  And costs are quite a bit lower than projected.

Long-term, how does it work?  The best comparison to Obamacare is still Romneycare, in Massachusetts.  This article gives a pretty balanced and reasonable assessment of the Romneycare experiment: it worked pretty well.  A lot more people got insurance, and most health metrics improved.  Fewer sick people, better health outcomes.  Costs were reasonable, and affordable.  Some people figured out ways to game the system–inevitably.  Certainly voices that say that Obamacare is going to be economically catastrophic have little support for that view based on Massachusetts.

And how’s this for anecdotal evidence: it’s worked great for John Boehner. Yep: the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  He decided to get rid of his government provided health care plan, and get insurance via Obamacare.  In various interviews, he talked about how hard it was for him to navigate the website; how he kept getting error messages. It turned out that while he was giving an interview complaining about it, a representative from was waiting on hold, having called him to see if he could fix the problem.  And waited for 45 minutes.  Finally, though, the Speaker got through, and it turns out that his Obamacare policy is going to cost him more than he was paying via his government policy.

Sixteen dollars more a month.

Okay, so it cost more.  But his government policy (something called FEHBP) was a group policy, specifically designed for government employees.  You’ll need to see the linked story above for details, but his FEHBP insurance policy was very heavily subsidized by the federal government.  The bottom line is that a 64 year old smoker was able to get a first-rate insurance policy, for $433 a month. So how much would an equivalent policy have cost in the bad ‘ol pre-ACA days?  My guess is that he wouldn’t have been insurable, not at all, not by anyone.  Or the only insurance options available would have been insanely expensive.  But the fact is, insurance companies weren’t exactly racing to insure 64 year old smokers in high stress jobs.  And now they are insuring people like Boehner. Because they have to.

Next fall, there’s going to be a national election, and the big issue will be Obamacare, and everything will depend on whether or not the ACA works, whether or not the website works.  And the website is working a lot better now, and will continue to improve.  And the best evidence from the states shows that the health exchanges likewise work really well.

And that’s why I predict that in the 2016 Presidential race, Republicans won’t have any interest in Obamacare as an issue.  Because by then, it will be working pretty well.  Not perfectly, because nothing invented by man works perfectly.  But well enough.  It’s not a great law, but it is a pretty good law; it’s going to help a lot of people, and it’s going to save a lot of lives.

Or not. But right now, most of the evidence is trending towards the ACA working.  Glitchy websites get fixed.  And sick people have a much better chance of getting well.  Something to root for.





Jon Stewart: dead wrong about something

I love The Daily Show. I watch it every morning–can’t stay up late enough to watch it live–and I think its incredibly funny.  He’s been wrong a lot lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that Jon Stewart is the most consistently funny political comedian of my lifetime, and a thoughtful and incisive interviewer.

People get two things wrong about Jon.  First of all, Jon’s favorite targets are not politicians or policies, but the media’s coverage of them.  He loves to attack Fox News, for example, because he thinks their particular brand of ideologically driven news is really really funny.  But he attacks CNN as much or more, because their desperation for ratings gives their broadcasts a show-offy edge that’s hilarious.  It’s been interesting to watch Jon’s coverage recently of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.  I mean, you have to cover Rob Ford if you’re a politically-inclined comedian.  “I only smoke crack cocaine when I’m in a drunken stupor in my basement.  Only then.”  That’s funny stuff.  But Jon clearly feels guilty–well, ambivalent– about it.  Let’s face it, Rob Ford is a guy with a serious, life-threatening problem.  If he drops dead, that’s not so funny.

Jon does get into politics, a lot, and he’s never funnier than when he’s really really ticked off about something.  And I tend to agree with him.  This creates the impression that he’s a serious political player, a commentator who we should listen to and regard.  I don’t think that’s true, mostly.  He’s a comedian.  As he puts it, “I don’t think what I do is honorable.  But I try to do it honorably.”

But on one issue, he’s completely, wholly, entirely wrong.  And it’s an issue he’s spent two whole shows on recently.  And I have to speak up here.  Friends tell friends the truth, and Jon, I’m sorry, but you’re allowing your own parochial provincialism to blind you to the truth of things.  Here’s Jon’s initial rant. I’ll grant you, it’s passionate, strongly stated.  Colorful images and metaphors.  But I’m here to tell you something you clearly need to hear.

Chicago-style stuffed pizza is delicious.

In grad school, I worked for three years in a pizza parlor.  Garcia’s Pizza, it was called, owned by a company called the Flying Tomato Brothers.  We sold deep dish pizza by the slice.  And then we expanded, and included a stuffed pizza option. It didn’t take long for stuffed to dominate our menu. I still make it at home, for my kids.  It’s incredible pizza.  It’s amazing.

And yes, I’ve been to New York.  I’ve eaten New York style flat pizza.  And I’m a civilized human being.  I eat New York pizza the way God intended, off a paper plate, folded.  Skinny end first.  And it’s okay.  It’s not bad, as a change of pace.  For those days when you really feel more like crust, and are willing to short-change the cheese and the sauce.

What New York pizza really does, though, is emphasize pepperoni.  And pepperoni, though tasty, gives people heartburn.  That’s the whispered secret behind why New Yorkers are so in-your-face confrontational.

When you go to New York, you become a New Yorker; that’s just basic survival.  I remember flying into Kennedy from overseas one time.  We were standing in a line waiting to go through customs.  Each person in line was going to a different customs official, and then the line would re-form as we headed to ground transport.  As we approached the customs desks, the woman ahead of me said, in that strident New York accent, “when we get through customs, and go back in line, I’m still ahead of you.  I’m not arguin’, just bein’ informational.  I’m in front.”  ‘Infumational’ is how she put it. And she wasn’t kidding.  If my customs guy was faster than hers, it was my obligation to wait for her to finish, so she could still be ahead of me in line.  And she wasn’t confronting me about this fact; she was informing me of it.  She was in front of me.  Just sayin’.

There’s an appropriate New York response to that and similar announcements, I’ve learned.  It consists of two words, the second one ‘you’, the first one beginning with the letter ‘f.’  But I’m a nice Mormon boy from Indiana/Utah.  I allowed myself to be cowed.  Intimidated.  By a fifty-ish red-haired woman a foot and a half shorter than I am.  I finished with customs first, then waited so she could be ahead of me in the next line.

But why would she say that?  Why would she be ‘infumational’ on that point, so confrontational, with a total stranger.  The real answer, I’m convinced, is New York pizza.  The pure acidulous pepperoni, unleavened and untamed by copious amounts of mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, had curdled the milk of human kindness in her.  She had been raised to eat pizza aggressively, folding the crust, biting down in the tip.  Instead of savoring it, on a plate, with a knife and fork, and really getting the full flavor of all that melted mozz.

Jon did make amends, after a Chicago restauranteur came by the show with some deep dish, allowing as how it was ‘tasty.’  But what the guy gave him was just deep dish, maybe with a hint of stuffed crust.  It wasn’t full blown stuffed pizza, the kind Jon–in what I can only defend as a sad lapse caused by short-term temporary early-onset dementia– had referred to as ‘a marinara bath for rats.’   Even Jon’s new pizza mogul friend dismissively called stuffed pizza ‘a casserole.’  It saddens me. Jon Stewart, who I love and admire, is closing himself off to one of the essential joys of the human experience; one of the world’s culinary treasures.  I’d bake him a stuffed crust pizza myself, if only he could be persuaded to come to my home so I could cook it for him.

He’s also wrong about Hawaiian.  Deep dish pizza with ham and pineapple–the sweetness of the fruit setting off the tartness of the sauce–is another treasure.  But Jon may be confused.  He called ham and pineapple ‘California’ pizza.  And California does indeed do terrible things to pizza.  Close to my home is a California Pizza Kitchen, part of that chain.  They sell many many varieties of pizza there, all of them, without exception, completely inedible.  It amazes me–I’ve seen people go in there, sit down, and pay good cash money for pizza that tastes like someone poured catsup on a soda cracker.  Of their own free will and choice!?!?!?  Sometimes I don’t understand people.

So I get it, and I agree there are some things civilized human beings simply must never do.  Put chicken on pizza, for example.  Or buy Little Caesars on the way home from work.  Or Dominos.  (Pizza Hut and Pizzaria 712 are the only home delivery options worth eating in Provo).  Brick Oven makes an okay pizza in Provo, though I’m not a huge fan of their crust.  But ham and pineapple is terrific.  And stuffed crust is the best. The best.  Ever.

And when in New York, sort of as part of your overall cultural experience, a New York flat pizza can be choked down without too much difficulty.  It goes 1) stuffed; 2) deep dish Hawaiian; 3) other deep dish; 4) commercial delivery pizza, 5) New York pizza, 6) every other kind of pizza imaginable; 7) cardboard, covered with Heinz; 8) California Pizza Kitchen.

And yes, I’ve had Italian pizza, in Italy.  It’s basically flavored bread.



Sleepy Hollow

Years ago, I taught a class in television writing, and as part of that class, we watched every new fall show on the major networks.  From time to time, just for fun, I do it again, and this fall was no exception.  And we learned, unsurprisingly, that most of the new offerings were terrible.  Many have, in fact, already been canceled.  But there are often standouts, and for my wife and I, one such standout is Fox’s show Sleepy Hollow.  It supposed to be an expansion of the Washington Irving short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  It is that, with maybe some overtones of Rip Van Winkle; it also owes massive amounts to the Bible, specifically John’s  Revelation.

The premise of the show is that Ichabod Crane, a former member of George Washington’s staff, fell in battle during the Revolutionary War, but was wakened now, today, 2013.  One of his last memories before his ‘death’ was beheading a Hessian soldier, then seeing the headless horseman rise and continue fighting.

Ichabod Crane, in the Irving short story, is a schoolteacher.  Irving describes him very specifically:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

That hardly describes Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series. You may remember the actor as Emily Blunt’s lost-and-returned soldier husband in Salmon Fishing on the Yemen, an unusually good rom-com I’m pretty fond of.  Mison is, I am reliably told by the womenfolk in my life, a hottie.  He’s good looking, charming, long-haired and athletic, and on the TV series, he plays, not Crane the oddball schoolteacher, but Crane the military officer, with an officer’s command and presence.  The show is about the return of the Headless Horseman, and Ichabod’s partnership with a modern cop, Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, as they fight not just the Horseman of Irving’s story, but the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and other forces of Biblical evil, gathering for the End of Days.

Obviously, one issue in a show like this is the deliberate anachronism of an 18th century American in 21st century New England.  How would a Revolutionary soldier deal with a world of automobiles, cell phones, television–heck, even radio?  How would he deal with highways and traffic lights, fast food and billboards and all of it?  Zippers.  Chewing gum.  ATMs. Velcro.  Everything.

What makes it work for me, though, is something that’s basically a throw-away line in the exposition–the idea that he was on ‘General Washington’s staff.’  Because that’s a tremendously suggestive notion.

Because George Washington’s staff, man, there’s a group with some serious talent.  That was one extraordinary bunch of young men.  One of the less celebrated aspects of Washington’s leadership was his ability to identify, assemble and inspire young talent.  If we can place young Ichabod in that group, that tells us a lot about him.  And that group included people like Edmund Randolph, the first US Attorney-General, John Trumbull, one of the first great US painters, plus any number of future Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Mayors.

Two men from Washington’s staff every knows about.  One was Alexander Hamilton.  He was twenty in 1776 (or nineteen, or twenty-one–he was never sure), a poor kid from the West Indies, son of unmarried parents, orphaned at the age of ten (or so), self-educated. But he was apprenticed to a merchant, made his way to New York, got a better education at Columbia, made himself known with his pen. Washington tried him as captain of an artillery regiment, at which he excelled.  We know Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury, as the one real economist among the Founders.  But as a young man, he showed signs of military genius–Washington made him chief-of-staff.

The other guy we’ve heard of is Lafayette.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette–another teenager, who had every early advantage Hamilton lacked, but who shared Hamilton’s precocious military genius, and the man the childless Washington regarded as a son. Lafayette was Washington’s conscience, even purchasing a West Indian plantation and freeing his slaves, to prove to his mentor that it was possible to run a for-profit plantation while paying your workers a living wage.  He wanted Cayenne to become as famous as Mount Vernon or Monticello; sadly, he lost it in the Terror, and his freed slaves were murdered in a civil war.

But most relevant to Sleepy Hollow may be John Laurens.  Laurens was twenty two when the Revolution began, son of a wealthy South Carolina planter, exiled to London to finish his education when the war began.  On the TV series, Ichabod Crane says he was educated in London–as was Laurens.  Crane says he studied law, philosophy and science, and read very widely–that was also Laurens’ curriculum.  But Laurens, despite his upbringing as a slave-owners son, was passionately opposed to the institution of chattel slavery.  He tried to free South Carolina’s slaves, and form an army of freed slaves, and lead it to battle against the British.  Had he succeeded, he may well have stopped the British from taking the South.  But Laurens was opposed by the Southern aristocracy, and was eventually killed, in 1782, in a small battle of little importance.  He was an astonishingly brave, idealistic and brilliant young man; sadly, men like him are often the first casualties of any war.

In the TV series, Ichabod Crane almost immediately accepts the brave new world in which he finds himself, and adjusts almost immediately to, for example, cars.  For most men of the late 18th century, this would not be dramatically plausible.  But Laurens, say, or Hamilton, or Lafayette were men of the enlightenment. They expected scientific progress. A young gentleman of their class and period would be expected to read broadly in science and engineering, in addition to law or political philosophy. Once they got over the immediate shock of discovering themselves in 2013, they could quite likely take new technology in stride.

Crane also partners up with a 2013 police officer, an African-American woman.  And yes, for an 18th century man, this would require considerable mental adjustment.  But less than you’d think.  Remember that Lafayette and Laurens were passionately opposed to slavery, and passionately committed to the notion that blacks were equal to whites in every sense except opportunity–that, given education and the chance to advance themselves, former slaves could do anything they wanted with their lives.  Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, suggested that slavery was congenial to blacks, because they lacked the capacity for education and reason.  Laurens was from Jefferson’s culture and class, but could not have disagreed more vehemently.  Again, for almost any other 18th century young man, a police lieutenant of African descent would be unthinkable.  For a ‘member of Washington’s staff,’ it would be, more or less, what they would expect of the future.  The bigger shock, in fact, may well be that a woman could be a cop. But then, their culture didn’t have cops either, and in the Revolution they may have seen women in combat. Molly Pitcher, anyone?

In fact, the one adjustment to modern life that Ichabod makes most easily is his ready acceptance of magic and miracles–the Four Horsemen, the witches and ghouls and other Biblical manifestations.  Washington’s staffers, like the General himself, were thorough-going Deists every last man-jack of them; hard-headed rationalists who understood the universe through the metaphor of a timepiece–once wound by God, it’s meant to just keep ticking.  The supernatural bits in Sleepy Hollow are what should throw Ichabod for a loop.  But this particular enlightenment man was, in his previous life, supposedly married to a witch (a good witch, we’re hastily assured), so he’s pretty used to odd stuff going on.

So that part’s pretty silly.  But it allows the show’s producers to wave their magic CGI wands, plus, you know, it’s a show about a 250 year old man, so it can’t be entirely realism.  Thanks to young Tom Mison’s charisma and skill, Ichabod’s a most compelling character, and Beharie’s great too–they have great chemistry in what’s basically a buddy-cop movie, with witches and Headless Horsemen.  Anyway, we’re big fans, and have fewer problems suspending disbelief than you might expect. Catch it if you can; Fox, Monday nights.