Universal Translator

Thursday, June 28, 2012

First Thoughts on the Healthcare Ruling


A surprising victory for the Forces of Light and Good.  Romney seemed unable to articulate a response other than to repeat that healthcare repeal will be his first job if he wins the presidency -- that even if the ACA is constitutional that doesn't make it good law.  Notably, Romney did not say that he would replace it with anything.  Presumably he is appealing to that extremely large constituency that wishes we could go back the days when college students were kicked off of their parents' plans, when people could be denied coverage for any pre-existing condition, and insurance companies weren't required to spend any particular portion of the premiums they receive solely on reimbursing health care expenses.

President Obama's statement was dignified in its understatedness.  He outlined - again - what the bill does and does not do (necessary, as I've been seeing a lot of Romney ads that grossly misrepresent the bill) and suggested that everybody should now move on.  It'll be interesting to see if the GOP can do that.

Finally, the big news is that the 5-4 decision upholding the bill was decided by Chief Justice John Roberts, and not by Kennedy.  Indeed, it appears that Kennedy would have ruled that the bill in its entirety was unconstitutional.  So can we now please dispense with calling Kennedy the all-important "centrist swing-vote" on the court?  One every significant 5-4 decision rendered over the last few years, Kennedy reliably comes down on the conservative side of the court.  He gets called a "swing-vote" and a "centrist" because he makes a pretense of hemming and hawing and being open to suggestion, but he always votes with the conservative bloc.  Let's just acknowledge that the Supreme Court as it currently stands is dominated by a reliably conservative five justices:  Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas.

And speaking of Roberts . . . . look, I'm glad he cast the deciding vote to uphold the law, and maybe I'm getting a bit cynical in my old age and I should just count my winnings and shut up.  But it occurred to me to wonder where this decision came from.  (Chris Matthews seems to believe that Roberts simply did not want his name associated with something that killed healthcare reform; the argument that Roberts ruled this way based solely upon considerations of his legacy seems unlikely to me -- he certainly wasn't worried about his Citizens United ruling).

Then I remembered that the one main reason Roberts generally is known for being "conservative" is that he is overwhelmingly pro-business.  I remember I saw an analysis a few months ago about the Court's decisions (sorry, I'm not going to bother to try and track it down again today) that found that the Robert's Court seemed to follow two main rules in its 5-4 decisions:  (i) always back big business, and (ii) always back the federal government over the individual rights of non-rich people.

One of the things that most bothered liberals like me about the Affordable Care Act is that it basically operates by requiring people to purchase money from the same insurance companies that have economically raping the American public for years.  Sure, it's supposed to also regulate those companies more, but the essence of the deal -- the reason Obama thought he could get it through Congress in the first place -- was that in exchange for insuring almost everybody, the insurance companies were going to get a whole lot of new, low-cost customers.

So within about 15 minutes of the decision being reported, I immediately wondered whether this was simply another example of Roberts going along with what Big Business wants.  I mean - hey! - maybe the Teabilly rubes do think requiring everybody to enter into the private market and buy insurance from private companies constitutes "socialism" and so are against the ACA on ideological grounds, but I wonder if Roberts is simply thinking that - in the end - this is going to be good for business.

I know, I know . . . I'm an ingrate.

The Lucky Ducky Older Generation

Speaking of Kevin Drum, a post he wrote the other day triggered something I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

          Both the boomers and the generation before them were enormously lucky to have started their careers in the postwar world, roughly from 1950 through 1980.  Good jobs were plentiful; retirement benefits – both public and private – increased steadily; and a variety of factors kept middle-class growth high.  But the beneficiaries of this good fortune, like all beneficiaries of good fortune, became convinced that they had done well solely through hard work and native talent.  If today’s kids aren’t doing as well, it must be because they’re dumber and lazier.

This sounds exactly right to me.  My grandmother is 81 years old, and is interested in discussing only a very few topics.  One of those is how godawful poor she and her family were when she was growing up in the 1930’s.  Seriously, it doesn’t matter what your opening conversation gambit is, she will find a way to turn it into a diatribe about how dirt poor she was when she was growing up.

Another of her favorite topics is how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket over the past couple of decades, how people spend too much money and take on too much debt, and how unjustifiable are their complaints about the state of their financial affairs.  “Nobody helped me and Papa,” she’ll tell you, “we came from nothing and we did all right.”

It never occurs to her that maybe in the 80 years of her life some significant things have changed.

For example, she was born into the Great Depression.  Don’t get me wrong . . . her family was dirt-poor to begin with, but the fact the country was mired in the Great Depression and she was born to a rural family and that rural family lived in one of the least developed of the states (North Carolina) certainly didn’t help.

But shortly after she was born FDR started implementing the New Deal and Keynesian economics.  Government spending was increased, even though that led to record government deficits.  Social Security and Medicare were signed into law.  By the time she was 12 World War II had started – an absolutely huge federal spending measure – and the amount of economic stimulus that deficit-financed project required lifted us out of the Depression.

By the time she was 20 and had married my grandfather, America was still pursuing Keynesian economics.  The highest marginal tax rate was very high (91%) and the money being raised by taxes was being plowed back into the economy.  Military spending continued as the Cold War boomed, the national highway program was taken up, and money was provided by the GI Bill to get millions of people a college education and get them started in middle-class professions.

Unions were strong.  By and large, wealth was not being concentrated only in the hands of the CEOs and a few upper-level executives, but was spread out amongst working-class Americans too.  As more and more people’s standard of living increased, they spent that money and provided a further boost to the economy.  Moreover, as Drum points out, back then people could be secure in their retirement because so many could actually count on receiving a pension, and – of course – America led the world in oil production.

My grandparents directly benefited from only  a few of these economic factors (for example, my grandfather served 20 years in the Marine Corps, and they lived next to Camp LeJeune), but they indirectly benefited from all of them.

Since then . . . let me see.  America no longer leads the world in oil production, but is the greatest importer of oil.  The assault on the New Deal has proceeded apace, and it is anyone’s guess whether Social Security and Medicare will be left standing five years from now – despite the fact workers have been overpaying into the Social Security trust fund for 30 years.  Unions have been gutted, and almost nobody has an actual pension to rely upon.  At the same time, income taxes have been reduced and flattened, and the capital gains tax has been slashed to 15%.

Keynesian economics is sneered at, federal investment in infrastructure and education has been increasingly cut back, and wages stopped keeping up with rising American productivity 35 years ago.  Now almost all the gains in American productivity are concentrated in the hands of only a tiny fraction of the American population.  And if you have the temerity to want to lift your social standing by getting a college education, you will almost certainly incur an enormous amount of non-dischargeable debt to carry around for the rest of your life.

In short, the economic factors that control much of one’s ability to earn a decent living, set money aside for retirement, and provide for one’s family have changed significantly over the life of this one woman.  In the beginning, those factors were almost entirely negative.  Then, for a brief couple of decades, they were incredibly favorable.  And now, they are once again very negative.

It is as if when she was born my grandmother were a tree seedling slowing dying on the ground in the middle of the desert, but then was suddenly picked up by a breeze and carried to the fertile plains of Iowa.  In that place she was able to grow strong and prosper, but it never occurs to her that most of the reason she was able to thrive is because she was surrounded by such a rich environment.  And now that our political system has been so thoroughly captured by short-sighted people whose only concern is to exploit that environment until now it too is almost a desert, she cannot see how hard it has become for most seedlings to grow strong the way she did.

I’ve tried to explain this to her on a couple of occasions she’s already settled on her narrative.  And as with the vast majority of people, having settled on her narrative it is extremely difficult to get her to give that up.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cynicism (cont'd) and Political Mendacity

In my last post I discussed two substantive areas of my life in which I’ve experienced a real disillusionment over the decades – the law and finance – but I neglected to mention one other important area of disillusionment:  politics.

I know, I know . . . I am revealing myself as a naif and a heretic from the Church of the Savvy, which is the only way one should properly understand politics:  with a knowing cynicism that the only thing worth discussing in politics is Who is Up and Who is Down.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really start paying attention to politics until the 2000 presidential race.  Until then I had assumed that everything I had been taught in what passes for civics class these days – high school social studies, undergraduate political philosophy classes and, I suppose, my Constitutional Law classes – was more or less accurate.  Specifically, that different groups of people have different ideas about how the country should be run, that they argue these ideas in the legislature and in election campaigns, and that this by and large is how the will of a majority of American citizens is implemented.

Like I said . . . naive.

It is simply astonishing to me how baked in our acceptance of deep political mendacity and a refusal to engage in good faith debate has become.  For example, Kevin Drum has argued several times that there is nothing surprising about the GOP’s decision to abandon its previous support for a health insurance mandate and to insist instead that such a thing – originally a Republican idea – is, in fact, an unconstitutional blasphemy. 

Friday, June 22, 2012


Via Kay, at Balloon-Juice, I see this:

When I was reporting out my New Yorker piece, I spoke with Akhil Reid Amar, a leading constitutional scholar at Yale, who thinks that a 5-4 party-line vote against the [Affordable Care Act’s] mandate would be shattering to the court’s reputation for being above politics.  “I’ve only mispredicted one big Supreme Court decision in the last 20 years,” he told me.  “That was Bush v. Gore.  And I was able to internalize that by saying they only had a few minutes to think about it and they leapt to the wrong conclusion.  If they decide this by 5-4, then, yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud.  Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t.  What mattered was politics, money, party, and party loyalty.”

(empasis added).

Uhhmmm . . . yeah.  It’s sad that Professor Amar is having to go through this, but it is only what I went through years ago.  If you devote yourself to a profession like the law for any reason other than money, then you are a fool and a naif and real people should kick you in the ribs and laugh at you.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cannibalizing from School (cont'd)

This second essay is what they are calling a "classification essay" -- essentially, we are asked to differentiate and explain the differences between various things.  That sounded boring, and so I decided to go a bit meta and write instead about what storytelling is really like.

I am not a particular fan of this essay, because there is so much yet left to say.  But we have a 4-page limit, and to meet that I have hacked and chopped away a lot of otherwise promising stuff.

Essay below the fold.

Cannibalizing from School

I regret not posting for so very long.  I did not realize - back when I didn't have a job and wasn't going to school -- just how labor-intensive maintaining a website can be.  In my mind, I was just tossing off a coupla ideas whenever they struck me.  But in Reality, it really was a lot of work to try to spit-shine and polish my mental meanderings until they were something I wanted to share.

In any event, one of the classes the school is making me take is an introductory English, designed to teach me how to write.  Since I'm writing this stuff anyway, I figured there wasn't any real difficulty in sharing it.  

What follows is the first of the 4 or 5 essays we have to write.  It is a "process essay," in that it is intended to teach us how to explain to others how to do something.

The Festival de San Fermίn: How to Run With the Bulls

            I spent the summer of 1991 studying abroad in Spain, and I knew even before my plane left the States that while there I would run with the bulls in Pamplona during the Festival de San Fermίn. Every year thousands of drunken Spaniards and addled tourists take part in this lunacy and, every year, one or more bull runners are gored, trampled or even killed. But Hemingway long ago made the running of the bulls iconic, and I couldn’t see how in all good conscience I could let an opportunity to run with the bulls pass me by. In the event, I discovered that running with the bulls is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that anybody can do safely, provided one knows what to expect and plans accordingly.
            Of course, the first thing you need to do is make sure you are in Pamplona at the right time and that you have assembled the correct uniform. The running of the bulls takes place from the 7th to the 14th of July, so you have only one week to participate in this madness. The uniform is nothing more than a pair of white pants and a white shirt set off by a red sash wrapped around your waist and a red kerchief tied about your neck. The sashes and kerchiefs are for sale all over Pamplona, but you will need to provide the pants and shirt yourself. You should also make sure you have a newspaper, about which more later.
            Some additional necessary preparations are blindingly obvious. For example, it is probably best to run the bulls sober. However, you may find this slightly difficult to pull off. You see, the run (the encierro) takes place in the morning and so you will have to be in Pamplona the night before, and during the Festival de San Fermίn the entire city is a non-stop party. Literally hundreds of social organizations and political groups set up booths selling beer or wine, there is dancing and music on every street corner, and unless you lock yourself in a hotel room it is difficult not to join in the fun. If – like me – you find you simply cannot restrain yourself, then I recommend making the conscious decision to stop drinking no later than 2:00 am. This will give you six hours to sober back up.
            Of course, you might as well use those six hours productively, so that is a good time to locate the encierro and walk the course. In fact, walk it several times. In just a few hours you’ll be barreling down it at top speed, a thousand pounds of thundering hoofed death hot on your heels, and you’ll want to be familiar with its layout. How embarrassing to be trampled to death (not even gored!) because you were so careless as to trip over an unexpected sidewalk.
            You’ll also want to make sure you are in the encierro no later than 7:00 am, one hour before the run actually starts.  The Festival de San Fermίn is Spain’s most heavily attended fiesta and there may be more than a thousand idiot thrill-seekers just like you who want to run the bulls that day. You will need to find a place that isn’t too crowded. You won’t want to have to push past too many bodies in order to reach top speed.       
            When the 8:00 starting rocket goes off and the encierro begins, do not – I repeat, do not – wait around. Unless you decided to start at the very beginning of the course, the bulls are being released some place a block or more away from you. Do not wait until you actually see them to start running. First, nobody else is going to be waiting. (If you thought it would be embarrassing to be trampled by a bull, just imagine how much more humiliating to be knocked down and trampled by a thousand other runners who were smart enough to start without you.) Second, bulls at speed can move surprisingly fast; if you don’t start running immediately, by the time you glimpse the bulls it may already be too late. Just put your head down, grip your rolled-up newspaper tightly, and go.
            When you reach the arena you will pass through a short, high-ceilinged tunnel and then into the stadium proper. The entire mass of runners will then split in two, one half peeling off to the right and the other peeling off to the left. You should be prepared for your reception. The arena itself will already be packed with spectators who will rise as one and cheer you as you enter, and the noise is deafening. I remember thinking when I experienced it: This must be what it feels like to run into the Superbowl.   
            Of course, the bulls will be following right behind you, but that is precisely why the runners split off to the sides. For some reason, after they enter the arena the bulls seem to lose all interest in the runners on either side of them and simply run directly across the stadium field. On the far side of the stadium a gate opens up and the bulls trot right through. None of those bulls will be seen again until they are brought out later in the afternoon to be slaughtered by that day’s matador.
            But this doesn’t mean the bull running is over. After the bulls that have just chased them through the streets disappear behind the far gate, the runners assemble on the ground directly in front of that gate and start chanting, slapping their rolled-up newspapers in their free hands to keep time. When I ran the bulls I unquestioningly sat down in front of the gate too, and tried to translate what my fellow runners were chanting. I had just worked out that they were asking for the bulls to be released again when suddenly the gate opened up and one came charging into the arena, trampling a few people sitting directly in front. Thankfully, it was not one of the monster bulls that had chased us through the streets but a much younger, smaller bull whose horns had been padded to prevent anyone from actually being gored. 
            And that was how I discovered that after running with the bulls in the streets, a new game is played in the arena. Three or four young bulls are released into the stadium and the runners take turns rushing up behind them, swatting them with rolled-up newspapers and then running away. The bulls will chase the person who swatted them until somebody else comes up and swats them again; the bulls then instantly give up on whomever they were just chasing and turn to pursue this new affront. The easily distracted nature of bulls, coupled with the fact you can jump/clamber over the stadium wall if necessary to get away, makes this part of the bull running more fun than it is dangerous.
            Once I had worked out the nature of the “swat bulls and run away game” I played until – on my third trip over the wall – I landed poorly and broke one of my toes. Well, that’s that I thought to myself. I decided that I had accomplished what I had set out to do, that I had acquitted myself adequately, and that running the bulls in Pamplona was something I now could cross off of my bucket list. So I rejoined my friends, tossed aside whatever scraps of good sense I still had left, and availed myself of all the festivity San Fermίn had to offer.
            Done correctly – with foreknowledge, planning and relative sobriety – running the bulls in Pamplona can be a reasonably safe and yet still iconic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, the kind of experience that should be once-in-a-lifetime. Because having run the bulls once, you can spend the rest of your life secure in the knowledge that there is no need to ever, ever do something so crazy stupid again.