Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The New York Times Hates On Big Love

It never fails. Every time the New York Times writes about the critically acclaimed HBO drama Big Love, there's always this undercurrent of hostility toward the polygamy and religious fundamentalism that form much of show's backbone. How else to explain a review of Big Love's third season that ends with a recommendation for a book by an author who abandoned polygamy and then abandoned Mormonism all together.

Long time readers will remember I was critical of the Times coverage of Big Love back at the start of the new season in January, when a different critic echoed similar feelings about the show. Of course, the complaint back in January was that the characters of Big Love weren't religious enough and that their religion was just a smokescreen for their polygamy, but that was before the show spent an entire season on faith and the characters struggles to meet their commitments to Heavenly Father.

It's just precious that the liberal New York Times can't come up with reviewers who are accepting of different lifestyles and open-minded enough to appreciate the characters of Big Love and their story for who and what they are. The undercurrent of hostility I mentioned isn't in regards to faith in general, but the faith of fundamentalists, whose religious beliefs lead them to make choices that right-thinking liberals wouldn't make. And I wonder if it's not just the polygamy, but this focus on family and reproduction as God's commandment that the Times reviewers find particularly troublesome.

Here's what the latest review had to say about Bill's three wives, Barb, Margene, and Nicki, yet again, missing so much of what the show is about.

Yet in spite of its seeming celebration of diverse family arrangements, the show bristles with so much submerged pain that nearly every character seems marked for spiritual death, the way characters on “The Sopranos” used to be marked for actual death. The wives’ endurance is wearing thin. They have lost their capacity to contort themselves for Bill’s orthodoxy. They can no longer be one, when they are so decisively three. And you don’t have to object to polygamy on principle, anymore, to see that it’s strangling the women of “Big Love” — even as, maddeningly, it seems to meet their needs.

Yes, there's a lot of suffering in Big Love, but that's because it's a television show, not a family picture album. To the extent the woman on the show find suffering in polygamy, their suffering comes from the very sort of judgments the outside world (like the Times reviewers) are passing on these woman. Barb has suffered spiritual crises because she's been alienated from her family and faces excommunication from her church. These are crisis brought on by how people view her marriage from the outside looking in, not from her marriage itself. Nicki spends this season dealing with temptation and facing the demons of her father and the daughter she had secretly left behind- again all factors outside the marriage. And Margene faces her mother's death and the struggle to balance work and family, hardly anything unique to polygamy. That the wives do things at times to hurt each other and the family, but that's no different than any marriage, any family. This notion that "the wives need to contort themselves to Bill's orthodoxy" is preposterous and really has me wondering how anyone who watches the show can fail to see the strength these characters draw from their family and the value they find in it.

More On Newspapers

There were a lot of good points in the comments to my last post on newspapers and journalism, so I figured this was worthy of its own follow-up post. Last time, I mentioned Bill Simmons podcast with Chuck Kosterman and there was one point the usually articulate Simmons was trying to make and just couldn't quite spit out. The two were basically rehashing the old internet versus newspapers argument, when Simmons pointed out that the reason he went to the internet was because the entrenched nature of many newspaper writers- particularly the sports columnists- made him realize that he could work for twenty years and never get the chance to really do the kind of writing he wanted to do. Klosterman kept pointing out that Simmons himself had become a sort of internet version of the entrenched columnist he was railing against and what Simmons sputtered to get out was that his writing on the internet was held to a much higher standard than many of these newspaper columnists. While some columnists would spend years mailing it in so to speak, Simmons felt he was continually working his ass off to keep his front page spot on ESPN's web page.

And I believe Simmons- with so many options there is more accountability on the internet. It's simply easier on the internet to go somewhere else. There are generally few options in regards to sports columnists and local papers and you can imagine the difficulty of gauging public opinion of their work.

Now, Klosterman makes a good point that popular journalism is not at all the same thing as good journalism, but I think this plays into the point I made last time about the need to distinguish newspapers from journalism altogether. USA Today may be (or have been?) a popular newspaper, but they're not doing journalism, they're just regurgitating the news gleamed from elsewhere in a visually pleasing format. I don't think the public mistakes bad journalism for good or bad writing for good, I just think that the public in general, particularly older generations, are wedded to this same idea of newspapers and journalism being interconnected. In the newspaper world, people talk about the papers themselves more than they do about columnists and much, much more than they do about reporters. I think given the opportunity, the public can appreciate good writing and good reporting, but we're basically being held back by the restrictions of a dying format.

More Outrage

Today's New York Times has published a resignation letter from Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of the American International Group’s financial products unit. In the letter, DeSantis criticizes how dysfunctional the work environment at AIG has become and defends his bonus (and presumably those of some others) on the grounds that their particular departments at AIG were making money and these were the bonuses they had contracted for. I won't reprint the letter here, but it's well worth a read. And what's DeSantis doing with his bonus? He's donating 100% of it to charity.

It's a PR move certainly, but God knows it's a needed one, as DeSantis's references the reckless and baseless comments by the Connecticut and New York attorney generals indicate the need for some opposing voice to be heard over the cacophony of criticism. I won't begrudge anyone the chance to tell their side of the story.

But even more interesting than the letter was the reactions of the New York Times commenters, a great many of whom are not just angry about the bonus, but angry that this bonus is going to charity (and not, presumably, back to the government).

I'll post one of the comments that's more reasonable in tone, but indicative of the flawed logic we're dealing with here:

Lately, a lot of people have been experiencing a version of the distress, frustration and anger Mr. DeSantis describes. You work hard; you do nothing wrong; your company tanks because other people were stupid or wasteful; your own employment and income prospects turn dark. You are asked to continue working, to help save the company, but there are no guarantees . . .

Unless the taxpayers are underwriting your million dollar contractually guaranteed bonus!

Few workers have been offered that kind of safety net, because few work for private businesses funded with public dollars. That seems to be the part of the puzzle that Mr. DeSantis and his colleagues have not figured out. They are basically civil servants now, and their contracts for continued employment should have been negotiated to accept that reality: neither asking anyone to work for $1 nor guaranteeing anyone that the dollar would turn into millions at some future date.

Maybe this is just my legal mind at work here, but what the commenter describes is a real problem. Fine, so you want to consider AIG employees as civil servants, as they are getting paid out of TARP money. And fine, their contracts for continued employment should have been renegotiated. But the point is that their contracts weren't renegotiated and that these AIG folks were still operating under their old contracts. Casting these AIG folks as public servants doesn't make things better, it makes things worse. After all, when was the last time you remember the government tearing up a valid public sector employee union contract and take back money that had already been paid out to government employees?

There's been so much anger directed at AIG, I've been surprised there's been so little directed at government at all levels. It was the government that gave AIG this TARP money and it was the government that didn't place any conditions on it. It was the government that should have "renegotiated the contracts of public servants" and it was the government that once again failed to do so. Perhaps just as bad as the hundreds of billion being poured down the drain into failed companies, is the ginned up outrage expressed by politicians of all stripes. All this political posturing needs to end; the very last people who should be outraged about how taxpayer money is being spent are the very people who decide how to spend taxpayer money in the first place.

Yet there's more anger directed at AIG and men like Jake DeSantis than there is anger directed at the government that hasn't managed to do a single thing right in regards to this financial crisis. You would think that Mr. DeSantis giving his money to charity would be a worthwhile compromise, but no, there are still those who demand that the money be taken away from charity and put back in the hands of the very same politicians who created this problem in the first place.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Will It Ever End? (More thoughts on Battlestar)

The Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin and the always enjoyable Abigail Nussbaum blog on the end of Battlestar Galactica from two very different perspectives. Law professor Somin enjoyed the series as a whole more than critic Nussbaum, but both were underwhelmed by the series final resolution, when technology, government, and every semblance of modernity was rejected and humans and Cylons alike scattered amidst the primitive peoples of the newly discovered earth.

Perhaps it was my own politics seeping through, but my initial reaction to the show's resolution was not horror at the apparent ludditism, but pleasure at the outright rejection of government. For a show that made it's living dealing in intense realism, I can see how some could have a problem with an ending so heavy in symbolism, but it was so reflective of the show's thematic elements that I can't find real fault in it. However you hashed it, the political system was an abject failure and technology was literally failing before our eyes. Man created the Cylons and precipitated their own destruction, again and again and again. This self-destructive nature of man wasn't just about technology, it was pervasive throughout institutions and relationships. The decision to abandon "civilization" and start over was reflective of these failures, but I never saw it as a critique of modernity and the complexities of life, but a struggle over the very nature of man.

But don't take my defense here and or praises elsewhere as evidence of the show's greatness. I've laid out my critiques before, but to hit on the major ones again, much of the plotting was poor, major character story lines were not adequately followed through, and the politics were stilted and inconsistent. But in the end, Battlestar is worthwhile, if only because so many different people have so many different opinions on it, start to finish.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Not-So-Big Crisis

Lamenting the death of newspapers in the Nation, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney enlighten us on how the free press can be saved from evil corporations and the internet: government subsidies and a bunch of rules.

I've been meaning to blog about the decline of the newspaper industry for a while now (Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman had a podcast on the subject in relation to sports journalism on Simmons's podcast a few weeks ago, for those interested in such things) and this piece seemed as good starting point as any. What's interesting to me is how the debate tends to flow from the historical role of newspapers in America, as if this history was of the utmost importance in today's technologically sophisticated climate. So much emphasis is placed on declining journalistic standards and corporate control that little time is given to why it is exactly that newspapers are failing as a business model across the board.

Newspapers have spent the last decade forging ahead into the digital age, changing little in their plan of attack beyond providing free content on the internet. Some like to correlate the financial woes of the newspaper industry with the rise of free news content on the internet, but the stronger correlation seems to be with the growth of Craigslist and other online sources of free advertising. When I was in college in the early part of the decade there was plenty of free news content available on the internet, but I didn't know about Craigslist. According to Wikipedia, Craiglist expanded from 30 or so cities in 2003 (the year I graduated) to over 450 by 2007. As Craigslist has grown exponentially, so has the plight of newspapers. This change happened so quickly it's hard to place blame on anyone in the newspaper business, but it does mean that newspapers need drastic changes to survive, not cheaper attempts at doing more of the same thing.

The biggest mistake made by Nichols, McChesney, and a hell of a lot of other newspaper mourners, is the conflation of the newspaper with journalism, as if the newspaper in it's current state (or classic state really, seeing how watered down current newspapers have become) is the only mechanism by which journalists can fulfill their role as the fourth estate. I'm certainly not the one to reinvent the newspaper industry in one felled swoop, but just think about the many different costs that are part of newspapers. Are editorial boards and opinion writers necessary expenses in the age of blogs and online commentary? Are photographers necessary in an age of cable television and Youtube? Do the Sunday comics actually bring in more cash from readers than they cost to produce? And given reduced circulation, do newspapers actually make enough money from sales of physical sales of papers to cover the costs of production?

It seems to me as though newspapers have made cuts here and there and continually failed to ask the big questions about the product they're producing. I'm with the newspaper romanticizers who long for newspapers to provide quality groundbreaking reporting. But how much does that actually cost? How many reporters does a small city like Hartford actually need? I have no idea how many reporters they actually employ, but it seems to me as though the local Hartford Courant only has a few worthwhile stories a week and has that groundbreaking type stuff only a few times a year. Either you've got a lot of people doing a shitty job or you really only need a few journalists in a small city. It sounds outrageous, but just look at your local paper and see how many stories or either from the AP wire or are simply rewrites from the AP wire.

Allow me to be clear. There's no reason that the problems of newspapers need to be the problems of good journalism. There are plenty of quality journalists out there working independently of newspapers. Take Radley Balko for instance, who writes for Reason magazine (which is in part funded by the non-profit Reason think tank), and has done tremendous investigative work in the area of criminal justice on stories not covered by local or national journalists- the Cory Maye case, Dr, Stephen Hayne and the disreputable Mississippi forensic system to name a few. I've seen more solid, traditional journalism from Balko alone than I've seen from the Hartford Courant over the past five years.

There are plenty of reasons why the level of journalism in newspapers has sunk so low, but that's a separate issue from the financial troubles of newspapers. Yes, newspapers have cut back on news staff, but that's got nothing to do with the crap the remaining news staff is printing.

Nichols and McChesney propose that government money and government regulation is needed to support good journalism while completely missing the idea that yes, it may be possible for good journalists to make money independent of the outdated newspaper model. That people don't want to pay for the online content of a crappy paper doesn't mean that they wouldn't pay a lesser amount to support the work of a good reporter. For pennies a day, a mere 10,000 people could support a good reporter to the tune of $100,000 plus per year and yes I do think that people would pay these small amounts to support good journalism.

ESPN online offers sports fans the opportunity to access premium content on it's website and ties that offer in with its print magazine for a cost of $40 a year. I pay it and plenty of my friends pay it because there are columnists we want to read and information we want. There's no reason the same model can't work for good journalism. Journalists could go solo, they could form non-profits, or they could try and make a go as a profit making enterprise. I don't know the best answer and I don't know if there actually is a best answer. But there's a world of possibilities made all the bigger and all the easier because of the internet, not in spite of it. To throw in the towel and rush to the outstretched hand of government is a failure of imagination, perhaps even a concession to the argument that Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.

But like all the bailout banks, give newspapers a chance to fail so that we the taxpayers don't wind up subsidizing the same lousy crap. Let's give real, worthwhile journalists the opportunity to reinvent themselves and change the news business for the better.

Who Watches The Watchers?

More great local examples of problems with government: Jon Lender writes in the Hartford Courant on the unchecked spending by independent "good government" agencies. It's actually not that much money, just under $25,000 on a trip to a conference on government ethics law, but the kicker is the extra spending in the face of a massive state budget deficit and the fact that this spending is seemingly unchecked by the democratic process.

It's almost comical how these sorts of situations tend to arise. Government corruption leads to the perceived need for independent agencies in government to keep tabs on our elected officials, but no one ever asks who's going to keep tabs on these insider watchdogs. The issue becomes newsworthy when citizens rightly demand more control and more transparency in the budgeting process in response to the economic crisis.

My libertarian answer would be less government, more transparency, and accountability through the Democratic process, but hey, what the hell do I know.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Battlestar's Sendoff

I'm unexpectedly awash with emotions after the 130 minute conclusion of Battlestar Galactica that I hadn't actually planned on watching live this evening. For all Battlestar's faults, tonight's finale met the challenge of wrapping up the remaining plot lines and providing a fitting farewell for our characters. For all my complaints of poor storytelling, the finale built on the visions and religious imagery that had been revealed all the way back to season one. The pieces fit together quite beautifully, but in true Battlestar fashion, chance of a lasting peace between Cavil's Cylons and the remnants of humanity was destroyed by the revelation of a dark secret and a final act of deadly emotion that was all too human.

The first hour was for plot resolution and showcased some tremendous action and special fx sequences in the rescue of half-human, half-Cylon Hera, but the last hour proved all the more powerful, with the lush greenery of Northwest Canada (where the show is filmed) the backdrop of a hopeful future for man and machine. After four dark seasons, to have such a beautiful, hopeful ending was quite powerful.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm certainly going to give Battlestar another run through. Certainly, the show tried to do too much in it's four year run, but the finale highlighted the show's strongest attributes and was a worthy goodbye. I'll just take a second to once again recommend the show to everyone who's never seen it- the production values are great, the actors and the characters are incredible, and even at its low points the show is still well written. It's certainly one of the most bold and powerful shows ever put on tv- I'll leave my praises at that.

The Health Insurance Scam

It's health insurance renewal time here at my job and having to discuss this sort of thing for the first time in my wife had the real cost of health insurance actually sinking in. At our small company we've got a choice of plans, some with high deductibles, some with no deductibles, with costs for a young couple like my wife and myself ranging from under $500 a month to over $1,000 a month. The company pays a substantial percentage of that cost, while the employees have the remainder deducted from their paychecks.

Do the math and cut those figures in half. A young single person in their 20's who works for 10 years could have paid (between both themselves and what their company pays for them as a form of compensation) over $50,000 in health insurance. That's a hell of a lot of money, money that even having had a major knee procedure I haven't come close to using all of. So why do we pay so much for health coverage that we don't use? Simply because that's the system we have, the one that's encourage by law and the one that we're familiar with.

But imagine an alternate universe where all that money we spend on health insurance went instead to some form of personal health savings accounts. This way, as people get older, the money that they pay for health care would accrue over time. If you lose your job, hit hard times, and could no longer afford your health care costs, you're coverage wouldn't just disapear over night, as it does under our current insurance system. Your current payments wouldn't just be for current coverage, but future coverage as well, regardless of your ability to pay in the future.

This doesn't mean there's no role for health insurance, only that health insurance could be restored to it's proper role of providing for rare catastrophic and expensive care at low premiums.

I was never a big fan of the idea of health savings accounts, until I actually thought about the money involved, but it is a workable idea that restores more power to individuals as purcasers of health care services.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bye, Bye Battlestar

I was trying to find the time to respond to two very excellent short pieces on Battlestar Galactica, but just haven't found the time. So rather than leave everything hanging as the series comes to an end, I figured I'd link to the pieces and give you a few incomplete comments of my own. So check out Abigail Nussbaum on some of thematic problems with the show and Hal Duncan with quite a bit more.

I can't say I disagree with either entirely, but I will hit on one point of contention. Both Nussbaum and Duncan reject the show's 9-11 allegory (or imagery, if you want to say it doesn't rise to the level of allegory) because the imagery doesn't accurately represent the reality of the plot. As Nussbaum says, the show tries to look at a holocaust through a 9-11 lens. Duncan goes further, criticizing the show for failing to take bold stands (or any stands at all) on the various controversial political issues it raises.

In the show's defense, I think Ron Moore and company fully intended the show to be morally ambiguous and fully intended the imagery not to be taken at face value as allegory. From what I understand, Moore's idea was to create a realistic science fiction show, realistic meaning one that would potentially be more approachable to traditionally non-science fiction viewers. Keeping in mind that Moore came from Star Trek, this meant doing away with funny looking aliens, technobabble, and scientific driven plot devices. It also meant anchoring the new world in very human terms, not just in terms of simple visuals, but thematic elements as well. So when Laura Roslin is sworn in as President in the midst of an emergency, her swearing in looks just like LBJ's after the Kennedy assassination. We get the wall of photos on Galactica, bringing to mind the most recent memorials to 9-11 victims. And in the New Caprica arc, the attempted execution of the "radicals" is directly taken from the classic World War II film "The Great Escape."

I think the show succeeds in this regard, using familiar imagery to place the story in an emotional context for the audience. Yes, politically and ethically speaking, the Nazi Holocaust of World War II was more akin to the Cylon holocaust on Battlestar, but emotionally speaking 9-11 is a much better anchor because it's what we're familiar with. It was sudden and we watched it unfold, as opposed to the Nazis, whose terrible crimes were only truly revealed in the aftermath of the war. As the show has drawn to it's conclusion, I find it still manages to move me, because of all the powerful imagery and the acting and despite the show's severely deficient storytelling.

Moving on, here's Duncan, on how the show's failure to answer the hard questions it raises results in an ends product that's dramatically unfulfilling and thematically vague.

At every turn, I think, the show tries to throw its “hard questions” into the mix to satisfy one portion of its potential audience — the liberals who reject fundamentalism but who were equally as dubious of the military, political and religious agenda that emerged out of 9/11, the whole War on Terror — only to pussy out with an immediate backflip that will satisfy another portion of its potential audience — the conservatives who hate Islamic fundamentalism but are convinced that the only sensible response to 9/11 is the War on Terror, that this is necessary for our very survival.

Personally, what I loved about the show from day one was it's refusal to turn to allegory and it's willingness to show all facets of the human condition, no matter how offensive. The show has done it's best to showcase our responses as humans, to make us understand how all people can respond the way they do to the world around them. It was a bold endeavor that has succeeded at times but failed at others. But the point is that the enemy isn't all bad, whatever horrific crimes they've committed, as we've now seen through the rebel Cylons. The point is that the military isn't all bad. And the point is that humanity is capable of both beautiful and terrible things. Battlestar is ultimately about people and to tell those stories without becoming too captive to political cliches is quite an accomplishment.

No, where Battlestar lost me was its poor storytelling; Its failure to follow up on powerful and interesting themes and its failure to consistently see its characters through their powerful experiences and its failure to plot effectively after the New Caprica arc. But as I mentioned before, the show can still move me because it is such a beautiful production, however clunky the writing may be. It convinces me that ultimately what we're going to be left with when Battlestar comes to an end is a tremendous story that was just plain poorly executed. I actually agree with many of the smaller complaints of both Nussbaum and Duncan. Far too often, intriguing plot points like the Cylons desire for citizenship were given short shrift. In a way, the show was too dense, never being quite able to handle the full weight of the truly interesting ideas it was raising. Some of the standalone episodes of season two and three raised fascinating premises that were never truly followed through on. Rather than bombarding the audience with more themes and more tragedies for our characters, the show could have followed following the New Caprica storyline with another few season of recovery time. Add in the basic plot line with the Cylons and the search for earth and you'd have a pretty full show, without all the extra weight being added to the mix.

My other thought as the series comes to an end is that it will certainly deserve another watch from start to finish having that knowledge of the ultimate ending. Hopefully I can convince my wife to take the ride with me.

Another Word On The AIG Bonuses

You, me, and every other American don't own any part of AIG, despite the rhetoric by some folks that we own 80% of the company. For all the money we've spent as taxpayers we probably should own that much, if not more, but the government did not buy up shares of AIG, the government did not loan the company money, nor did they nationalize the company in lieu of bankruptcy. No, what the government did is write a blank check, a blank check that everyone is quite rightfully pissed off about. Well, everyone that is except the politicians who voted for the bailout bill in the first place. They signed off on a blank check, so what right do they have to be pissed about how AIG spent it? We talk about government serving the role of mother and father, but this has taken things one step further, with the government in the role of grandparent writing a big check for their grand kids birthday. If Grandma wanted them to be careful and save that money, she should have gotten them a savings bond. Don't get upset when the grandkids go and spend all that money on comic books.

I hope what people are coming to realize is you can't keep a big company afloat while punishing those executives who helped to ruin the company in the first place. This is the brilliance of the market, where you don't need the government to punish the executives who've fucked up. If the market was allowed to function, the company would go bankrupt and the executives wouldn't have any jobs or any bonuses. But this is what happens when the government steps in to support a failing company, you wind up execs spending taxpayer money in ways that taxpayers don't like and the government bumbling around feigning outrage and making excuses for why this has happened. Politicians can talk about conditioning bailout funds all they like, but the truth is, once you get into the business of telling a company what it can and can not do with it's money, you might as well just be running the thing in the first place.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This Is Just Priceless

Straight from my own backyard, AIG is defending it's award of bonuses as necessary under Connecticut law. Failure to pay the bonuses would have resulted in a double penalty payment to the AIG employees at the companies financial products unit in Wilton. But the absolute best part- if this doesn't make you a libertarian than I don't know what will- part of the story is the reaction of angry Connecticut politicians who are now seeking to change the law.

"The state of Connecticut should not be used as the scapegoat or the excuse for AIG to pay these outrageous'' bonuses, said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk.

"We are outraged to learn that AIG is using Connecticut wage laws as leverage to use taxpayer money to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses," [Senate Republican leader John] McKinney said.

"The fact that AIG would even consider paying bonuses of any kind out of taxpayer funds is appalling, especially when it was AIG's greed that led to the business failure that necessitated a federal bailout in the first place," [Governor Jodi] Rell said. "To cite Connecticut state law as a defense for this action is contemptible."

And yes, I understand the complaint that AIG is just using the law as an excuse to pay the bonuses out. But if it was so cut and dry that this double penalty law wouldn't apply, why are the politicians all agitating to change it. More importantly, it's a little lesson to the legislature and all law makers that all laws no matter how well intended have unintended consequences.

We Don't Need a Surge in American Cities

Radley Balko had this excellent, excellent post yesterday on the problems of fighting crime the same way we fight wars. Balko's response was prompted by this statement from Harvard criminologist William Stuntz:

The war in Iraq bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle against violent street gangs in the roughest parts of American cities. The tactics Petraeus used to win that war are eerily similar to the tactics the best police chiefs use to rein in gang violence. But better tactics alone cannot do the job. In Boston as in Baghdad, those tactics work only if the police forces that use them have enough personnel: lots of police boots on the most violent ground.

Today, that condition is not satisfied. Most American cities are underpoliced, many of them seriously so. Instead of following the Bush/Petraeus strategy, the United States has sought to control crime by using small police forces to punish as many criminals as possible. As all those who have even a passing familiarity with contemporary crime statistics know, that approach–call it “efficient punishment”–does not work. Like the Army in pre-surge Iraq, the nation’s criminal justice system is in a state of crisis. America needs another surge, this one on home territory.

Here's part of Balko's response and I highly recommend you go and read the rest of his post:

I don’t entirely disagree with Stuntz. There is some academic support for the idea that more cops on the streets can lead to a reduction in crime. And I’m certainly with him when he argues that throwing astronomically high numbers of people in prison isn’t a healthy way to deal with crime.

But if we’re going to put more cops on the streets, we need to emphasizing the right kind of policing, where cops become an active part of their communities. The problem with policing today isn’t so much a lack of personnel, it’s that it’s plagued by a structure of perverse incentives and a lack of accountability and transparency, problems driven by 40 years of get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and war imagery from politicians and law-and-order activists. Police departments have become driven by statistics (a mentality exacerbated by competitive federal grants, like Byrne Grants, that hinge on arrest and seizure data). Stuntz doesn’t mention the drug war, which I’d argue is not only a huge contributor to inner city violence, but the driving force behind most of these improper incentives. But let’s put that aside. My intent here isn’t necessarily to debate drug prohibition, though it lurks behind much of the discussion.

The problems accompanying the fact that there are entire communities who no longer trust the police charged with protecting them aren’t going to go away once we put more cops in the neighborhood. That will likely only make things worse. We first need a major overhaul in the way police interact with the communities they serve. Policing has become too reactionary, too aggressive, too us-versus-them. Bad cops are in the minority, but good cops cover for them. And far too many officers subscribe to a soldier’s mentality, and take too literally the idea that theyr’e fighting a “war” on drugs or crime. It’s a toxic state of mind that older officers will tell you (and have told me) is more and more common, even as violent crime and the number of officers killed in the line of duty have plummeted.

I can't put it any better, but I think it's important to note this is a point that libertarians and critics of the drug war more often than not fail to actually make. Regardless of your opinions of what should and shouldn't be illegal, there are real problems with the mindset that we need to fight a war on crime. War is nasty business, but police work shouldn't be. War is about crushing your enemy, but police work should be first and foremost about- as Balko says- protecting communities. We can debate drugs all we'd like, but maybe the real first step needs to be changing our attitudes about law enforcement.

How Lost Saved Time Travel

Perhaps the most fun part of having become a full-fledged member of the Lost phenomenon is the vast community of discussions that exist about the show, it's mysteries, and it's characters. Lost fans can be known for having some pretty wacky theories, but it's all in good fun, as my my own personal latest theory that the four-toed statue is an ancient tribute to Vincent, the resident Labrador retriever, would indicate.

One line of theories that puzzles me, are those which revolve around our time traveling heroes changing the future as we know it. These theories persist, despite all the evidence and all the storytelling that tells us that in the Lost universe, you cannot change the past and you cannot undue what has already happened. I hate to spoil other fan's good times, but in the Lost universe, the rules have been laid out as science and from a creative perspective, the rules make a hell of a lot of sense. In a long form story like Lost, changing the past isn't just problematic, it's down right brutal to do to your audience. Beyond the obvious paradoxes associated with changing the past, why should the audience care about what they see on the screen if some future time travelers could prevent what we've seen from ever happening?

Through Desmond, Lost laid out it's time travel rules, past, present, and future, quite explicitly in the season 3 episode "Flashes Before Your Eyes." With the help of Ms. Hawking, Desmond comes to learn that no matter what he might do, he can't change the past. In the case of Charlie, Desmond learns this means that if you're going to die, you're going to die. Interestingly enough, this lesson about Charlie isn't about changing the past, but changing the future. The lesson here is that history is already written, an idea that fits very nicely into the numerous ways Lost has explored the concept of fate. To help understand the internal logic, it's best to take a step back and think of the Lost story as fans in creative terms. Rather than look at Lost as flowing from episode 1 forward, look at the story through it's own time line, starting back at the time of the statue, through the 50's, into the Dharma 70's and up through the plane crash of 2004. That time line is Daniel's string and what we're seeing now is those characters jumping around that string. But the most important piece to remember is that this story is already written and we're just having it revealed to us in bits and non-linear pieces.

The most fun part is, as we started to see a few weeks ago, is that even though our characters can't change the past, that doesn't mean they aren't part of the past as it happened. They're supposed to be there because that's fate and because that's how the story was already written.

What the writers of Lost have done is make time travel a simple story telling device rather than an unnecessarily complicated element of plot. Time travel stories where you can change the past inevitably end up being first and foremost about time travel, which works well in short stories or stand alone episodes of Star Trek, but fails miserably as part of a continual long form story. Fans start to wrack their brains over time travel, but in Lost, you needn't bother. Just sit back and enjoy the story.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bernie Madoff and AIG

Two big ticket items in the news of late have been disgraced financier Bernard Madoff's guilty plea and the subsequent examination of his assets and the news that bailout beneficiary AIG plans on awarding million in executive bonuses.

On Madoff, I have two completely different sort of thoughts. The first is on the severity of his crimes and the nature of punishment in general. I've heard countless victims (and ordinary folks) on the news calling for severe punishment for Madoff, some even remarking that this fraud was merely a step down from murder. That last part had me scratching my head a bit, particularly because I don't think this fraud left anyone penniless and destitute. Yes, fraud is fraud, and fraud is wrong, but personally, I'd rather have my money taken by a con man than a mugger on the street or a home invader. I don't think you have downplay the severity of fraud by pointing out the differences between crimes against property and physical crimes against your person. This is where I wonder about the nature of punishment in general, particularly at a point in time where we as a society have seemingly rejected the rehabilitative model of punishment. I would say that today our collective psychology jails people with the dual goals of retribution and the protection of society in mind, but in the case of Bernie Madoff, we're not really looking to protect anyone, are we? Just an interesting thought, that however you dress it up, our real urge with criminals is to make them suffer for their crimes.

My other Madoff thought is in regards to people's baffled inquiries about where the billions and billions of missing dollars went. Certainly Madoff has massive amounts of money hidden, some of which will be discovered and some of which will not. But the interesting fact that people seem to be missing is that Madoff perpetuated his fraud through high payments to early investors, exactly how a ponzi scheme is supposed to work. There are obvious practical problems in seeking restitution from those who benefited from Madoff's crimes, but one must consider whether we should have such legal mechanisms in the first place. Even if we can say that investors bear no responsibility for the nature of their investments, we could still say that the Madoff winners aren't entitled to their ill-gotten gains.

I find it interesting to move from Madoff on to AIG, mostly because of the very populist desire, echoed today by President Obama, to deny AIG executives the bonuses they may be contractually entitled to. (I say may be because most news stories aren't clear, and truth be told, without actually reading the contracts, who's to say what the truth is.) What's interesting to me is how much more anger is directed at these AIG executives than at the Madoff winners and how the Madoff winners have been mostly left alone, while President Obama has urged the Treasury to do everything in it's power to prevent these bonuses from being paid. It's interesting because you have anger about the money that may be a legal requirement and a simple matter of contract and silence about the money that was obtained through fraud.

Now obviously, nothing is that simple. The majority of the Madoff winners most likely had no criminal intent and a large number of the AIG executives may be complicit in the companies failure. But regardless of the facts, which are different in terms of each individual involved, we've reached a point in the court of public opinion where guilt- and more importantly how we treat money- is more about emotion than law or facts.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Thoughts on Big Love's Third Season

If I had to be completely honest, I'd have to admit that this season of Big Love has been better than anything else on tv this year and would certainly be in the running for the title of best season of any show, ever. I may be more emotionally invested in the ultimate outcome of Lost, but this run of Big Love has has been just an incredible triumph of television storytelling, seamlessly maneuvering through complex plots, tricky character development, and complicated relationships.

The truly excellent writing was prominent last night in an episode where the shit hit the fan on all fronts; Kathy Marquart's funeral and the suspicious circumstances of her death, the revelation of Nicki's betrayal's to the rest of the family, and the threat of the Hendricksons being outed as polygamists from multiple directions. But in the end, it was this season's most interesting bit of pseudo-history, a purported letter indicating that the Mormon Church never truly intended to abandon polygamy, that delivered last night's biggest emotional shot to the stomach, in a heartfelt and unexpected way. Bill had the evidence that this letter was true, the erratic, self-proclaimed polygamist prophet Hollis Green wanted that evidence and was on the verge of having Bill killed because Bill's partner Don had taken that evidence out of Bill's safe earlier in the episode. My mind was racing with complicated thoughts of conspiracies when Don came rushing in, pulling the fire alarm to save the day and send the Green's fleeing from the scene. Asking about the letter, the answer Bill got from Don wasn't about business or conspiracies, but family. Two of Don's three wives had left him earlier in the season, taking the kids with them and claiming polygamy was a cult. Don, without a doubt the sweetest polygamist patriarch on the show, wanted the historic letter to help convince his wives to come home and be a family again. It was just such a bittersweet scene, the sort of emotionally powerful moment that's reserved for the movies and it's the sort of thing Big Love has been chocked full of this season.

Friday, March 06, 2009

More Socialism

Writing in the Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr. reimagine socialism in the wake of the death throes of capitalism, in a manner that seems reminiscent of old socialism. There's plenty of illogical intellectual non sequiturs to quibble with, but what I find most troubling here (and with the ideas of all those ready to abandon capitalism is the complete lack of understanding that we owe much of our way of life to our economic system. Economics is inherently interconnected with our government, our culture, and our technological development and you can't just look at any one institution in a vacuum. To appreciate the incredably high standard of living we enjoy today, there has to be some recognition of capitalism's role in achieving that standard. And after failing to recognize any of this, what proposals do we have for this new socialism?

Well, that [capitalism] hasn't worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we--not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners--have to control our own destiny.

We admit: we don't even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism. Yes, we have some notion of how it should work, based on our experiences with the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the labor movement, as well as with countless cooperative enterprises. This notion centers on what we still call "participatory democracy," in which all voices are heard and all people equally respected. But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for, involving hundreds of millions, and potentially billions, of participants at a time.

What might this look like? There are some intriguing models to study, like the Brazilian Workers Party's famous experiments in developing a participatory budget in Porto Alegre. Z Magazine founder Michael Albert developed a detailed approach to mass-based planning that he calls participatory economics, or "parecon," and one of us (Fletcher, in his book Solidarity Divided, written with Fernando Gapasin) has proposed a locally based network of people's assemblies. But all this is experimental, and we realize that any system for mass democratic planning will be messy. It will stumble; it will be wrong sometimes; and there will be a lot of running back to the drawing board.

Or in other words, nothing at all except some vague platitudes about how people can work together in some idealistic form of mass democratic planning. They specifically reject both the anarchic and spontaneous nature of the market and the centralized work of elite groups of planners, but that would seemingly leave you with only the worst aspects of both. The rejection of "elite planners" is interesting, as it is seemingly a reaction to much of the traditional concerns over socialism where democracy is all but eliminated. Of course, the biggest problem with "elite planners" isn't the elite part but the planner part. Be it mass democracy or a small group of technocrats, the folly is that any group can come to decisions about how to best structure society than can individuals acting on their own or in mutual agreement with others. And this is where proponents of socialism consistently go wrong, assuming that planning is inherently superior to not planning.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lost's Real Hero

Usually I rely on my buddy McBlog's blog to sound off on the latest Lost, but with no post in sight, I'll just do my usual commentary right here at home. Last night's episode, "LaFleur," packed exactly the sort of emotional punch I was discussing the other day that's been missing thus far from season five. In what's become typical lost fashion, "LaFleur" was presented an a non-linear fashion, with the end point being the both expected and unexpected emotional climax, rather than simply a conclusion of plot. While the Oceanic 6 had their three years off the island, we find that the small remaining group of Losties spent an eerily similar (in terms of time) three years on the island, albeit from 1974-1977 as part of the Dharma Initiative.

The first question there is about that three year period, which perhaps explains why Jack, Kate, and Hurley appeared when they did in 1977. If they weren't supposed to have left the island than this could be part of the island's way of self-correcting, putting our characters back together after having experienced equal amounts of time apart from one another. I'm in the camp that Locke, Ben, and the plane, didn't go back to the 70's and Locke and Ben's different experiences with time (it hasn't been three years for either of them) could play into that.

But to leave the nitty gritty of plot and go back to our characters, after having gone two years without a Sawyer-centric episode, last night was the time for the show's new hero to shine. The transformation of Sawyer from Han Solo at the beginning of A New Hope to Han Solo at the end of Return of the Jedi has been nothing short of remarkable, despite how predictable such a transformation might be. Coming on the heels of episodes focusing on Jack and Locke, it was all to evident that Sawyer's developed into the show's real leader and it's true hero. The last two weeks have showcased Jack and Locke as utter failures in their efforts to convince their friends to come back to the island, with their ultimate successes coming only because of the machinations of Ben Linus and the work of as yet unknown forces. Yet while Jack and Locke can't convince anyone else of anything, Sawyer convinces his small group to stay on the island and remain part of the Dharma Initiative, not out of self interest but out of selfless concern for everyone else tied up in this mess.

In another typical Lost twist of fate Sawyer's con man past proves vital in his perpetuation of a shipwreck story to presumable Dharma leader Horace Goodspeed. And as if to further exemplify Sawyer's mastery of the leadership role, we see his brief meeting with Richard Alpert, resolving a dispute with the Others not through lies but with the complete truth.

Much of Sawyer and the gang's three years on the island are glossed over, presumably because nothing much interesting happened. Jin learns English, Sawyer and Juliet hook up, and Sawyer manages to become head of Dharma security, enabling him to run an operation searching the island for any of the remaining time traveling survivors. Because of the circumstances, we harbor no hard feelings for Sawyer and his relationship with Juliet in regards to his feelings with Kate. As Sawyer fortuitously tells Horace near the end of the episode, three years should be enough time to get over someone, but in the Lost universe nothing should be unexpected.

"LaFleur" was heavy on the characters, a first for Lost this season and on further reflection was no slouch in the mythology department either, albeit a bit more subtly than we've come to expect this season. The first relevant piece of information we get is the time frame, 1974-1977. This is 20 years after the Losties appearance in "Jughead" and presumably before Dr Chang's Dharma initiation videos and before "the incident." If we're to believe Charles Widmore, he should still be the leader of the Others, as he says he peacefully led them for three decades. And given that Ben has to be at least 40 in 2004, he's got to be on the island with his dad by 1977. A pleasant surprise last night was the ageless Richard Alpert, appearing to discuss the apparent breaking of a truce that has existed between the Dharma folks and the Others. On one hand we have the question of what Richard knows about time travel and our survivors and on the other hand we have the question of what the hell those two Others were doing in attempting to execute Amy and her husband who seemed to be on a picnic.

That's all I've got for now, but stay tuned to my buddy McBlog for more on Lost.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

One Episode Before the Bye, Thoughts On Lost

It's been a wild ride this fifth season of Lost and with a bye week coming up after this Wednesday's new episode, I figured this was as good a time as any to look back at what we've seen this year. A good starting point is this Zap2it piece by Ryan McGee that echoes my feelings on last week's episode, the Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham. McGee agrees with me that negative fan reactions to 316, the episode preceding Bentham, were unwarranted because Lost was merely playing their new game of telling a story by revealing it's pieces in a non-linear fashion. So while we may not have found out what happened with Hurely, Sayid, and Kate yet, we certainly will by the ends of the season because it's part of the story being told. The problem with the Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham is that it failed as a story and those failures can't be corrected.

I'd disagree with McGee as to the characterization of "pathetic Locke," mostly because pathetic Locke is what John is off the island. I don't mind John's failures because it's part of who he is and somehow related to his connection to the island. As to McGee's complaints about the Walt scene, I hadn't thought about it that deeply, but it's certainly true that this meeting was lacking in terms of a meanigful follow up from Locke and Walt's relationship the first season. And finally, like McGee, my biggest complaint is the lack of any sort of development in last week's episode. I wouldn't say that the show is sinking under it's own narrative weight, only that this was a poorly planned hour.

The brief scenes after the plane crash (or landing?) when we see a presumably resurrected Locke were fascinating, as was Locke's meeting with Charles Widmore, and of course, the final scenes between Ben and Locke were Lost at it's finest. But the rest of Locke's journey was just plain lacking and more than a little bit rushed. Brief and at-peace Sayid made sense, as did crazy Hurley, but it was a bit shocking how palpable the venom of Kate and Jack toward Locke actually was. And beyond that, it only intensified my primary concern about the Oceanic 6 plot line, that none of our characters seemed the least bit concerned about the rest of the survivors and what had happened to them. This is the bit that makes Sun personal journey off the island understandable, as her rage over Jin's death gives way to hope- any hope- that he's alive. But the idea that no one would be the least bit interested in where Locke came from and what happened to everyone else is more than a bit troubling. There's a big difference between the unwillingness to return to the island which we saw earlier this season and this idea that no one would bother to ask about Sawyer, or even Rose and Bernard.

Kate's reaction to Locke is particularly odd, as she accuses him of wanting to go back only because he's never loved anyone. I'm assuming this had something to do with Aaron, but in the context of Sawyer- whom she clearly still thought about as she was doing the favor he asked of her- it's troubling not to hear her even ask about him.

Thus far, season 5 of Lost has had a number of great reveals and the complicated time travel has made for some excellent storytelling, but there have been some clunky parts in regards to the Oceanic 6. Some of them may be cleaned up and explained by season's end, but I worry more about characters than I do plot. While season 5 has already exceeded season 4 in terms of narrative pace, it's lacked much of the emotional oomph that was crammed into season 4. At this point last season we had already gotten "The Constant" and Ji Yeon" and nothing thus far this season can approach the emotional resonance of those two episodes. Certainly there may be some of that coming (possibly even this week from the looks of the previews?) and it should be kept in mind that Lost has always been a show who's mysteries necessitate looking beyond single episodes. Last season was so beautifully constructed from start to finish that it wouldn't surprise me to see the first half of this season as pure set up for the narrative shockers and emotional moments that are sure to come later this season.

My only other comment on Lost at this point is on the fans who insist in continuing to try and decipher who's good and who's bad. It seems clear to me at this point that we've got two men, Charles Widmore and Benjamin Linus, who are master manipulators and both seemingly driven by their conflicting concern for the island and self-interest. Trying to paint either Ben or Widmore as a good guy means excusing murder and all sorts of other nasty behavior, plain and simple. We know this for sure in Ben's case, and unless Widmore wasn't actually the one who sent Keamy and that team of mercenaries to the island he's a pretty nasty guy too. (And I hope everyone noticed how Widmore was nearly Ben-like in sidestepping Locke's question about those mercenaries.) The real questions people should be asking are about Ben, Widmore, our characters, and everyone's relationship with the island and that should be the mystery that slowly revealed as the series slowly comes to an end.

Speak Of The Devil

I didn't realize as I was blogging yesterday that Rush Limbaugh had addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Sunday. Rush's speech prompted a firestorm of responses (The New York Times editorial blog has a good roundup here), ranging from the obvious liberal dismissals to conservative applause, to the rebukes of moderate Republicans and some conservative intellectuals. Also intriguing is the desire of some on both the left and right (including some in the Obama administration) to paint Limbaugh as the face of the Republican party.

Reading through the speech, it's not as terrible as some make it out to be. There are some nods to limited government, individual freedom and free markets, but just as I was saying yesterday, far too much time is spent on the dastardly plans the Obama administration has for all of us. Like it or not, the public image of conservatism and the ideas of free markets and limited government were severely damaged during the Bush years and to harp on politicians and politics when your belief system is in danger of becoming insignificant is like pointing fingers on a sinking ship rather than spending the time to patch the hole. Yes we've seen the "Tea Party" reactions to higher taxes and government spending, but these sorts of spontaneous grassroots reactions are insignificant if they can't be placed in a larger ideological context. The Boston Tea Party would have been a bunch of assholes wasting a lot of tea if not for the intellectual ingenuity and brilliance of Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers.

The thing about Rush is that he's got ammunition in his intellectual arsenal. He can name drop Hayek and he can make reference to the great conservative arguments of the last 30 or 40 years and yet there were more references in his speech to Democrat politicians than conservative intellectuals. And there was more on how Obama wants to punish achievement and other questionable socialist slurs than there was on how free markets and limited government actually make our lives better.

In the American Conservative, John Derbyshire has a somewhat fortuitous piece from just a week ago or so on How Radio Wrecks The Right, basically worrying that the domination of this sort of lowbrow conservatism actually does cost conservatives a market share so to speak of those individuals who could be persuaded by intellectual conservative arguments. Some conservatives respond to this argument about dumbing down conservatism by pointing to the left, but that type of response is exactly the problem here. It's been years since a mainstream conservative figure actually laid out the ideological basis for a conservative agenda and the consequence is the anemic state of political discourse that exists today.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Not Impressed With The Opposition

I was gonna post this last week, but never got around to finishing it and my lead in says it all. As bailouts and stimulus packages become the law of the land, I've been terribly unimpressed with the opposition to President's Obama economic agenda and more specifically, I've been unimpressed with the Republicans and the conservative media. At a point in history where Republicans have an opportunity to reclaim a powerful ideological banner, they've chosen instead to play politics. And where conservative media has had a chance to become beacons of freedom, they've instead chosen the role of liberal attacks dogs.

I didn't actually see Bobby Jindal's response to President Obama's address, but in reading the transcript it seems clear to me that the response was merely Obama's talking points, met one-by-one by Republican talking points. And I don't want to hear that this is what politics is and always has been- Just go and read a Barry Goldwater or a Ronald Reagan speech and the difference between talking points and ideas should be a little more clear to you. Much like so much of what we see in the media today, these sorts of speeches have become echo chambers for same-thinking people, but unlike the Democrats who have a semblance of ideological cohesion, the Republicans don't have any sort of a record to stand on. You can't promise to return to decades old principles without clearly and confidently laying out what those principles actually are.

Bobby Jindal, at the very least, doesn't have the taint of being a Republican Congressmen in the Bush administration all over him. It's nice to see some Republicans finally standing up for their "principles" in opposing much President Obama's economic agenda, but where the hell have they been for 8 years. As I said, for my money, it reeks more of political opportunism than principled opposition.

Even more disappointing is what I've heard from conservative talk radio, Rush Limbaugh in particular. My relationship with talk radio strained over the past few years over the ramping up of illegal immigration rhetoric and the failure to deal with the war on terror on anything more than a superficial level, but this past month or so has been even worse. With the opportunity to provide real intellectual opposition to a President who's policies lack any ideological meat, talk radio has resorted to mere name-calling. When I should be hearing about the benefits of free markets and limited government, I'm still hearing about Obama's socialist past as a community organizer, Bill Ayers, and Jeremiah Wright.

The truth is, it doesn't matter whether President Obama is guided by a radical socialist ideology (as those on talk radio assert) or whether he's providing similar pragmatic big government solutions that we may have still seen if John McCain was elected (as I'd argue). What matters are the reasons why these policies should be opposed and despite the number of people who do oppose this agenda, I have a growing sense that those people have increasingly fewer people to speak for them. It shouldn't be difficult, but maybe it's just part and parcel of the dumbing down of politics, where pointing fingers at the Democrats is easier and makes for better ratings than real political discourse. What troubles me is that a non-ideological, non-intellectual approach can't possibly best the purveyors of big government and good feelings in the court of public opinion.