Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yes my libertarian friends, there is hope ...

This Alternet piece on food safety had me smiling, thinking that maybe there is still hope for limited government. The author's beef is with the new food safety regs and the unprecedented power they would give to the FDA. Much of the piece covers the complete lack of statistical evidence that we are in the midst of some sort of food safety crisis, but the money quote comes near the end:

But there’s another factor at work here as well: a drive to broadly expand the powers of the FDA. As one example, it will have the power under the House legislation recently passed to require highly detailed written food plans from all food producers, including the smallest makers of artisan cheese and meats. The owner of a two-person California maker of specialty cheeses, fruits, and nuts, told me that creating such a plan would require about 100 hours of upfront work, and then two hours a day to be kept up to date. Failure to comply could result in a fine of $10,000 per infraction per day, this for a business doing less than $100,000 of annual revenues.

I've covered it before, but there's a segment of the left that gets all in a huff when government bureaucrats threaten their access to raw milk and this is a reaction born of that same mindset, highlighting a universal truth about regulation in all it's forms. The article doesn't mention the big boys of "big food" and that's because big business is never opposed to regulation of this sort. They have the resources to deal with it and it only puts smaller competitors at a disadvantage. Big food can comply with whatever regulatory garbage it's thrown it's way. It's the little guys- raw milk producers and small time operations selling artisan meats and cheeses- who get screwed.

That there's a segment amongst the left that's coming to realize this is heartening to say the least. The implication is, hopefully, that yes there is a tipping point. The more folks who come to resent government intrusion into their livelihood, the greater the chances there are of real changes being made to our political system.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SNL and Health Care

I caught an SNL my wife was watching on-demand this past Sunday and saw a part of yet another sketch about health care reform. I remember back in early October SNL did a "Hall and Oates" sketch where fake Hall and Oates sung about the benefits and drawbacks of health care reform. The October sketch highlighted only a desire not to hurt the insurance companies as a reason to oppose health care reform. And this sketch I caught this weekend (which must have been from the past few months), presented the Republican opposition to healthcare as being motivated only by opposition to President Obama. When pushed, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (played by Will Forte) responds to an angry Barack Obama (played by the Rock, having transformed from Fred Armisen) by saying that Republicans would be for health care reform if Obama was against it.

It's a relatively fair jab at the Republicans, given the behavior of the Republican party over the past ten years, but it's not a particularly fair portrayal of health care reform. To be fair to SNL, they've gone after Obama this year and should no way be seen as any sort of Democratic mouthpiece. (And on a side note, I've got to say, I absolutely love Jason Sudeikis's portrayal of Vice-President Biden, a perfect showcase of politics meets stupid.) But ultimately, the problem is that policy makes for bad sketch comedy and complex policy is even worse. It's hard to do jokes about health care when 90 some percent of the American public, including I think many of the SNL writers, don't fully understand all the issues themselves. So instead what we get are very lame jokes where the only conclusion I can see is that health care reform is supposed to be a good thing and there is no good reason to oppose it.

But as I said, my advice to SNL would be this: stick to what works and point out the ridiculous side of politics and politicians that everyone can see. Don't turn into Jon Stewart and slyly wink at your audience about how anyone opposing this particular set of health care reforms is either stupid or evil.

Some Light NFL Blogging

Remember 2007, when the football world was nuts over the New England Patriots? Love 'em or hate 'em, football fans were glued to each and every Patriots game to see whether or not they could do the impossible and complete a 16-0 season. This year, with only six games left in the season we've got two 10-0 teams, both of whom have decent chances of running the table, yet the discussion is not just muted, it's practically nonexistent.

The Saints have put up 369 points through their first ten games, 42 less than where the Patriots were in 2007, but technically on pace to surpass the Patriots record of 589 points by a single point. The Saints have failed to generate excitement because, at least in part, they were down in each of their previous three games before this last one to mediocre opposition. They ended up with victories against the Dolphins, Falcons, and Panthers, but I think the struggles in consecutive weeks, along with the team's seemingly growing defensive problems, put a few question marks in the heads of football fandom.

The Colts meanwhile have just continued to win, winning close game after close game . Whereas the '07 Pats manhandled opponents and ran up scores, the Colts of '09 have won six of their ten games by less than a touchdown.

The thing is, however you want to judge the Saints and Colts for their performances thus far (and I would say they are not amongst the most impressive 10-0 teams we've ever seen), they both do have achievable paths to 16-0 seasons. The Colts have a few tough division matchups left, starting this week in Houston. If they can get through Houston, they've got a revived Tennessee team at home, Denver at home, a trip to Jacksonville, and finally, games against the Jets and Bills to finish the season.

The Saints and Patriots play this Monday night in a huge game, but if the Saints can beat the Pats, their last five games are at Washington, at Atlanta, home against Dallas, home against Tampa, and at Carolina. Like the Colts, the divisional matchups will be tough, but it's not an impossible schedule. And in some ways, the lack of attention on the undefeated seasons may play to the Saints and Colt advantage. In 2007, after their 10-0 start, the Pats faced a murderous stretch of teams out for blood, barely getting out of Philly and Baltimore with wins in prime time games. Do I actually think the Saints and Colts will go undefeated? No to the Saints because I think their schedule is just a bit too tough and no to the Colts because I think that they could lose a meaningless game at the end of the year if they follow their MO of resting players. But it would be fun if we had a little more focus on these teams.

In other news, the Jacksonville Jaguars would be a playoff team if the NFL season ended today, to the disgust of football fans everywhere. With apologies to Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars are not a good football team and have only the quirks of the NFL schedule to thank for their record. Of their six wins this year, five have been by a touchdown or less, including close games against the Rams, Chiefs, Jets, and Bills. After losing their opening two games, they've lost only twice in their past eight, but those losses were to the Titans, 30-13 and to the Seahawks, 41-0. I don't think they'll wind up in the playoffs, but they've got to be one of the worst 6-4 teams I can ever remember.

And finally, I'd just like to take a moment to appreciate the show put on by the Browns and Lions this weekend. Obviously there were defensive breakdowns throughout the game by both teams, but breakdowns aside, both teams put together not just their best offensive games of the year, but their best offensive games of the last two years. I fully expected this to be some sort of a 10-6 game, not because it was going to be a defensive struggle, but because I fully expected neither team to be able to take advantage of the others mistakes. But they did and this highlighted why offensive football is so much more appealing than defensive football. It's not just that offense is more fun to watch, it's that when we see touchdown passes flying through the air, we know that someone on the field is doing something right. When you watch a 6-3 game, it's always a bit harder to tell just what your watching. I remember in 1997, the Patriots and Steelers played a tense 7-6 playoff game that was all about good defense. But more often than not, those low scoring games are a result of pure ineptitude on both sides of the ball. It's why games between bad teams tend to be low scoring and why everyone was so shocked by this Lions-Browns game. SO take a moment to appreciate the Lions and Browns and give them credit for putting on one of the best shows of the weekend.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Palin

Writing in Foreign Policy, Annie Lowrey asks, Is There a Palin Doctrine? Based on Palin's just releases memoirs, the answer is no, or at least it is according to Lowrey.

The political world has been astir with the release of Palin's book, a sign that one year later, she may be an even more divisive figure than she was during the '08 election. The back and forth on Palin tends to go something like this: Liberals criticize her for being an unserious political candidate if not down right stupid, while conservatives rush to defend her against attacks from the liberal elite. In many ways, Sarah Palin represents a microcosm of political debate today, where style and what side you're on means more than substance. It's why I appreciated the short piece in Foreign Policy, which confirms my suspicions about the Palin book: that it's more concerned with gossip and score settling than it is with serious ideology or policy. Not that there's anything wrong with that per se, but it reinforces the idea that Palin's appeal is based solely on personality and the fact that liberals hate her.

And it may seem trite to be talking about her, but the fact remains that she remains a popular figure in many conservative and libertarian circles.

My dissatisfaction with Palin was summed up with her responses the Katie Couric interview last fall. You can complain all you want that it was a hit job, but her inability to answer questions on important Supreme Court decisions and what news she reads sticks with me. What it means was either 1- She had no answers to give, which does make me question her knowledge base, or 2- She had answers, but she didn't know which answers made the most political sense. So either she really is dumb, she's simply a political creature with no strong principles, or her beliefs don't have a strong intellectual or ideological grounding.

For my money, the Palin phenomenon represents the worst of the right, an anti-elitism where, as I said above, style triumphs over substance. Palin is loved by the right even though she's never expressed a coherent ideology of her own. And that's what scares me most of all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More On 4th and 2

It just won't end. In ESPN's NFL Power Rankings this Tuesday, John Clayton made the comment that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Indy, thanks to Bill Belichick's decision. And in a piece today on ESPN Boston, Howard Bryant tries to tell us that Belichick panicked, went against logic, the percentages and all that is holy in football. Strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely), Greg Easterbrook, also known as TMQ (Tuesday Morning Quaterback), agreed with the views expressed here and in the comments that Belichick made the right call.

What's crazy is this notion of Belichick costing his team a chance at victory with this call. For those interested, the numbers, the pure percentages, are out there that this was in fact an appropriate decision. I haven't seen the critics come up with any numbers, only old-timey football logic. And it's not as though we should treat Belichick as a God or ignore any and all criticism. My problem is the nature of the criticism and this notion that electing a fourth down conversion is the coach costing his team while punting the ball away was giving his team the chance to win.

The thing is, there's strategy and then there's a complete lack of strategy. I'll refer you to the recently fired Dick Jauron of the Buffalo Bills and two particular incidents that come to mind of poor coaching indicative of lack of strategy. First I'll refer you to earlier this season and a game between the Bills and the Jets. The Bills actually won the game, 16-13 in overtime, but it was no thanks to Jauron's coaching. With 3:55, a 27 yard punt return by Fred Jackson gave the Bills the ball at the Jets 49. Plenty of time to run down the clock and get into position for a game winning field goal, right? The Bills ran three plays, two runs and pass, to get down to the Jets 29 at the 2 minute warning. After a second and two run failed to gain a first down, the Bills ran the lock down to 1:19, understandable in the case they didn't convert the upcoming third and 1. What didn't make a lot of sense was the timeout that was burned as the clock ran down leading up to that third and one play and what made even less sense was the one and only play that was run after the Bills converted the third and one. After the first down they lost two yards on a first down run and let the clock run down to 4 seconds before taking their final timeout. In slightly under 4 minutes the Bills managed to run only 4 plays and purposely let the clock run down rather than attempting to gain more yardage for an easier field goal attempt. As I fully expected at the time, Rian Lindell's 46 yard attempt was no good and the game went to overtime. The Bills ended up winning, so this never became big news, but as I watched the game unfold I knew I was watching an example of horrible coaching. There's a big difference between placing faith in your Hall of Fame quarterback to convert a fourth and two and settling for a 46 yard field goal in the Meadowlands rather than trust your offense to run a couple of plays.

Scenario number two with Jauron dates back to last season's finale, a wind-strewn affair between the Bills and the Patriots. Right before halftime, with the Patriots holding a 3-0 lead, and the offenses of both teams essentially stymied by heavy wins, the Bills drove deep into Patriots territory right before halftime. Burning timeouts as they went, the Bills took their final timeout with 28 seconds left, facing a 2nd and 8 at the Patriots 15 yard line. The play selection? A pass to the flat for 3 yards, stopping the clock with 22 seconds left, and then, on 3rd and 5, a run up the middle for 3 yards. As the play ended, there was confusion amongst the Bills as members of the field goal unit ran onto the field and members of the Bills offense stood around looking confused. Now, the wind was tricky that day, and the Pats had just missed a short field goal, so electing against a field goal try was a reasonable choice to make. But the confusion on the field and the selection of a run up the middle is evidence of coaching incompetence.

I point these out because bad coaching is bad coaching regardless of end results. The Bills wound up losing that game to the Patriots 13-0, so, like the game against the Jets they wound up winning, the bad coaching was never a big story. The easy out of any armchair quarterback is to point out geniuses and idiots based solely on outcome. As I mentioned last time, one wonders if Belichick would have been called a genius if they had lost the famous safety game to the Broncos back in 2003, particularly if, say, the Patriots hadn't scored a winning touchdown, but kicked a tying field goal and eventually lost in over time. The reason coaches are paid the big bucks is because they're supposed to put their players in the best position possible to win a game. Now obviously, there's no such thing as a brilliant strategist as every coach has a laundry list of poor play calls they wish they could have back. And some issues, like clock management, just have definitive rights and wrongs. But other decisions, like those about punts and field goals, going for it on fourth down, and two-point conversions, exist in this gray area where percentages meet assessments of talent meet gut calls about your team at a certain point in time.

My real problem with the critics isn't that they're stupid for criticizing Belichick, but that they're stupid for how they're going about it.

No TV Power Rankings This Week

I've been incredibly busy with work this week so there will be no TV Power rankings. Not so busy that I haven't been able to blog, but busy in the evenings so I haven't been able to watch much tv. Throw the Sunday night patriots game into the mix and I'm just way, way behind. What I'd like to do is one more post-Mad Men edition of TV power rankings before Thanksgiving, maybe do a December edition, take the holidays off and come back weekly once Lost, 24, and Big Love return in January.

In terms of a brief preview for next week: I've only seen the first hour of the six hour Prisoner mini-series re-make, but it's really fucking good. Don't be surprised if it's number one for it's one and only appearance in the power rankings.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why Not?

One of my biggest problems with health care reform is the all-or-nothing mentality behind any effort at reform. But why can't we have a two-tiered system of reform? Why can't there be a government system for those who would chose coverage under a government system and a deregulated private market for the rest of us? The public option gives the illusion of this sort of dichotomy, but the reality is that the health care reform options currently before the Senate create one massive government system. It doesn't just create a government option, it also increases regulation on the private sector and creates a mandate that individuals purchase coverage. You can avoid the public option if you wish, but you can't avoid the long arm of the government.

So why not two real choices? Why not set up one system for those who prefer government care and another system for the rest of us who don't want the government involved in our health care? And there's no reason you can't make such a system fair: Make the government system self-sustaining through the premiums of those who can afford to pay for coverage and provide vouchers for those who can't afford coverage. To put everyone on a level playing field the tax deduction for employer provided health insurance should be eliminated, but that's always a big bugaboo when it comes to reform. But why not something simple?

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Belichick I Trust

I didn't want to, but I've just got to address last night's epic Pats-Colts game. I wasn't going to write anything and I heard some mixed talk on the radio today, but I'm listening to Bill Simmons (a Patriots fan) podcast with Cousin Sal and it has me simmering. I was upset with the loss last night, but it wasn't the toughest loss I've ever had to deal with as a Patriots fan. There weren't any bad calls from the officials and there were a relatively equal number of "we should of had those" type moments from each team. What we had last night were two teams at the top of their game, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever in the prime of their careers, playing a great game. The margin of victory was one point and that was probably the difference between the teams. Brady didn't make a play at the end of the game and Manning did, end of story.

I feel bad for Bill Belichick and all the crap he's getting today, but I think I might feel worse for Peyton Manning who did the improbable to bring the Colts back and has become a second page story to Bill Belichick being a supposed idiot.

Let's be 100% completely clear for all the armchair Monday morning quarterbacks out there who haven't won three Super Bowls and six division titles: Going for it on that fourth down was not a bad call. Remember, these Pats and these Colts had top rated offenses and top rated defenses going in, but if there was any doubt, however good the two defenses might be, these are elite offensive teams that were operating at a high level last night. The Colts had scored touchdowns on two of their previous three fourth quarter drives, scoring on drives of 2:04 and 1:49. The sole drive they didn't score was a one play drive that ended in an interception after a miscommunication between Manning and Reggie Wayne. Best case scenario, a Patriots punt on that fourth down would have put the Colts at somewhere around their own 35, with just under 2 minutes to go and 1 timeout. Worst case scenario, the Colts are starting at their own 40 or 45 and still get the 2 minute warning in addition to their timeout. Regardless, it was plenty of time for that Colts offense to score. Going for it was a calculated risk, for sure, but there was nothing stupid about it. The choice was, leave the game up to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Punting it puts the game in Manning's hands and going for it gave Brady one last shot. Again, how about some respect for Peyton Manning? As I watched last night, I had no problem with the call because I was terrified of Peyton. My hope at the time was that a missed fourth down conversion gave the Pats a better chance than a punt, because a punt would considerably dimmed the chances of Brady even getting the ball back. It turns out the Colts milked the clock just enough for Brady only to get nine seconds.

The most puzzling criticism of Belichick today has been the criticism of his clock management. Yes the Patriots left themselves without timeouts, but it's not as though they needed them. Yes, they could have potentially called several timeouts when the Colts brought the ball down to the 1 with just under a minute left, but that would have been delaying the inevitable. They did burn timeouts on that final failed drive, but once again, that was the strategy. Just as they went for it on fourth down, taking the timeouts was designed to win the game then and there. 2:23 left, all they needed was one first down and they couldn't do it. Given the nature of the game, given the nature of the quarterback on the other sideline, I just can't argue with the strategy of giving your superstar a chance to win the game.

The story today should be that Manning beat Brady and manning may be the most unbelievable quarterback ever. I've always placed Brady ahead of Manning, but after last night it's hard to argue against the proposition that Manning has surpassed Brady. But instead, the story today is nothing but criticism from the Monday morning quarterbacks who can't hold a candle to Belichick in terms of football strategy. Criticize coaches when they do Dick Jauron like things and actively do things that hurt your football team and don't put players in the position to win. But don't be a Monday Morning asshole and criticize a reasonable strategic move when it fails. Remember back in 2003 when Belichick took that safety? It was the right call and would have still been the right call if the Patriots had lost that game in Denver. And last night's call was tough, no doubt, but it certainly wasn't stupid.

More Thoughts on Terrorism

I had a number of other thoughts this weekend related to Nidal Malik Hasan and the upcoming trial of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, which, according to announcements last week, will take place in Manhattan Federal District Court.

I laid out my opinion on Hasan last week, that while he may have engaged in acts of terrorism, the terrorist label is not particularly useful. In regards to Mohammed, many folks on the right are upset that the trial is taking place in a civilian court, while reaction on the left has been mixed. Personally, I've found Glenn Greenwald's take to be useful, as he points out that any enthusiasm for civilian trials must be tempered by harsh, cold, political reality. Ultimately, what the Obama administration has chosen to do is pursue in civilian court only those cases which it thinks it can win. I've got a real problem with this and anyone with respect for the rule of law ought to have a problem with this. I won't claim to have the be-all, end-all answer on the mechanisms for judging the guilt of terrorists, but I do know that what I said over five years ago still holds true. While a makeshift system may have been appropriate in the wake of 9-11, we, as a civilized society, need to have specific procedures laid out for dealing with terror suspects. We didn't get it under Bush and we're still not getting it under Obama.

I bring this up in relation to Hasan because, as I've written before, that terrorist label has lots of baggage. On Red Eye last week, I heard Republican Congressmen Thaddeus McCotter make the point that we need to treat Islamic terrorists differently (and not try them in civilian courts) because they are not criminals out for profit, but engaged in an ideological war against us. It's a weak argument when one thinks back to Timothy McVeigh, who was tried in civilian court and executed for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Again, this is not to say that Khalid Sheik Mohammed should be tried in civilian court. I'm torn on that question, but the answer is ultimately not as important as the need to have a system laid out ahead of time, with clear rules regarding who is funneled into what system of justice and why. I haven't ever heard this point being made specifically, but the general thrust of the argument on the right seems to be that Islamic terrorism should be pigeonholed into it's own category and this is troublesome, sort of like hate crimes legislation to the extreme. It's problematic, plain and simple, to have a different system of justice based solely on religious and political beliefs.

And the other problem here goes right back to Hasan and whether or not he is a terrorist. I don't see any way how someone like Hasan, acting alone, could ever be logically funneled into a special system of justice. Other than political and religious belief, there's just no way to separate Hasan from Timothy McVeigh's, the Unabomber, or even the Coulmbine shooters. In the end, we're just talking about language, but the larger point is that language should correspond to specific legal consequences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Television Power Rankings

Mon. Nov. 2 thru Sun. Nov. 8

A bit shorter this week, as the flu kept me from keeping all the blog notes I typically keep.

1. Mad Men (Last Week # 1) (And who says nothing ever happens on Mad Men? A fitting season finale for our number one show, as we saw the destruction and rebirth of Sterling Cooper and the apparent end of the Draper marriage. Best of all, I have no idea where this leaves us for the fourth season.)

2. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (Last Week #2) (There's not a better comedy on television right now, end of story. I loved the return of the lawyer, Frank's stress egg, and yet another ridiculous video production.)

3. Dexter (Last Week, #4) (Perhaps the television shock of the week, Dexter breaks his father's code. It was completely unexpected, yet shouldn't have been given the time constraints we've seen Dexter under. It was sloppy work and Dexter knows that sloppy work is what's likely to get him caught. John Lithgow's Trinity killer has taken on a life you couldn't have imagined when the season started and while the end result seems obvious, the path to that end is not so clear.)

4. V (Last Week, Not On Air) (The series premier of V makes its way this high up the list just because, wow, it was just so well done. I know, it's the same old alien invasion story, but when was the last time we saw this played out on the small screen. It's an intriguing premise and I'm curious to see where they go with it.)

5. Fringe (Last Week, #5) (Finally back on the air, Fringe gave us another excellent chapter which finally made more use of the underutilized Agent Broyles.)

6. 30 Rock (Last Week, #3) (Last week was actually a step up in quality from previous weeks, but the new season has still been a let down thus far.)

7. South Park (Last Week, #8) (A few weeks back, I criticized South Park and they've responded with a string of fantastic episodes. This was one of those great moments where a political statement about language is heavily anchored with the kids. The truth is, kids do use words like "fag" to mean much more than the narrow views of the PC police. Could be do a big bump up next week.)

8. Californication (Last Week #6) (I actually still have yet to see this last week's Californication, but I see no reason why David Duchovney would ever be knocked out of the top 10.)

9. Parks and Rec (Last Week, #7) (It was nice to see Ron get some more air time, but overall, a fairly mediocre episode.)

10. Flash Forward (Last Week, #9) (Two weeks in a row now the show has returned focus to the characters and the deeper existential questions posed by the flash forward. But the big shocker was the suicide, calling into question just how inevitable these flash forwards actually are. Another good installment and Flash Forward may see a bump up in the rankings.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is Nidal Malik Hasan a terrorist?

It's a deceptively simple question and I've got two answers depending upon your definition of the word terrorist. Yes, if terrorist means one who commits an evil act that causes terror. Under this definition, Hasan is a terrorist, as are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, and Seung-hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer. And while such a definition is worthwhile in pinpointing evil, I'd have to say such a definition is fairly worthless in a political sense.

When we use the word terrorist in regards to "the war on terror" or even the "war on militant Islam" we're referring to a far narrower definition of the word terrorist and it's this definition that I wonder whether or not Hassan actually fits. To connect Hassan to Al Queda and to militant Islam is to connect each and every wannabe violent actor to their individual political fantasies. It's not that Hassan's political motivations aren't important; we'll certainly find out over time just what Hassan's motivations really were. But the simple fact is that the militant Islam angle of this case may play to the motivation of this tragedy, but that angle has little to no bearing on the planning, execution, or even the ultimate outcome.

This is precisely not the sort of case "the war on terror" is designed to stop. The purpose of the war on terror is to prevent another 9-11, to prevent those sorts of planned and coordinated terrorist attacks. The moment the war on terror becomes about stopping lone madmen is the moment we know we've gone too far. If this is the sort of terror the war on terror is designed to prevent than the war on terror truly is a lost cause.

To respond to the comments in the last post, if we're to find out that Hassan wasn't dealt with appropriately before this tragedy happened because of PC fears about discrimination, heads should role. But ultimately, the connection to militant Islam is a relatively unimportant one- the idea of a soldier seeking information on and attempting to contact any violent and radical fringe group should have raised enough red flags to prevent this from becoming the violent bloodbath it became.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Lessons From Fort Hood?

I basically agree with Megan McArdle on the Lessons of Fort Hood in that there are no real political lessons to be learned from this tragedy. I've already heard the cries of "terrorism" from several voices on the radio today, but why should the political beliefs of Nidal Malik Hasan really matter anymore than beliefs of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters? Sick people acting on their own have no shortage of reasons for committing heinous acts and there's nothing about their reasons that are particularly helpful in preventing future tragedies.

Now, obviously, if Hassan was being monitored by various authorities, as has been reported, there are plenty of questions to be answered, just as you have at least contemplate the missed warning signs when it comes to school shootings. But the terrorism connection is just a nasty manipulation of the tragedy. As Megan McArdle points out, we already knew there are Muslims out there who wish death on all Americans. And more importantly, Hassan was American born and no one has disputed that this shooting was the project of a sick mind and not the operation of a clandestine sleeper agent. Hopefully it occurred to relevant law enforcement 8 years ago that terrorists might try to infiltrate our military.

If there's anything to be learned from this tragedy, it's that I find myself further alienated from the entire concept of the war on terror. It's unwinnable in the sense that free societies will always be vulnerable to the violent machinations of sick minds and eliminating each and every terrorist is no different from eliminating each and every serial killer or each and every rapist. That's not to say we just throw up our hands and let bad people go about their evil business, but it is a real soul searching question about how we as a society wish to move forward.

Monday, November 02, 2009

This Week's TV Power Rankings

Monday Oct. 26th - Sun. Nov.1st

1. Mad Men (Last Week # 1)(JFK, JFK, JFK! Admittedly not this season's finest hour, but in a series so concerned with historical time and place you just had to tackle JFK head on and it was about as well done as you could expect. Kudos to the writers for getting to JFK before the season finale, leaving us all wondering where we're going to be left at season's end.)

2. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (Last Week #3) (Sunny leaps past 30 Rock this week out of the sheer superiority of it's storytelling. Whereas other comedies have an irritating tendency to simply try too hard, Sunny has the unique capability to allow both story and humor to emerge from a simple premise, flowing naturally through the utter selfishness and dysfunction of the main characters. As with Dee's realization that she's rejected a perfectly able bodied soldier, the characters are almost always aware that life's cruel jokes are on them, but are completely oblivious to the fact that these jokes are a direct result of their narcissism and inhumanity. My favorite line of the night: "Frank, no one wants to watch a 60 year-old man eat garbage." Actually, that's exactly what we want.)

3. 30 Rock (Last Week, #2) (30 Rock slips because of some sloppy storytelling. I loved Liz's message that whether New Yorkers or Middle America, we're all terrible people, but having her get sick from her southern sandwich was a rather tired plot device that cut against the themes of the rest of the episode.)

4. Dexter (Last Week, Not Ranked) (The only reason it's took Dexter so long to crack the top ten is that I only got caught up with Season 4 this weekend, having steamrolled through the show's first three seasons over the past month. Of course, while the week I jumped in was good, it wasn't nearly as the cliffhangers from either of the last two weeks, with the surprise shooting and the revelation of the Trinity Killer's real identity. Season four is halfway done and color me impressed, although the family theme, from Harry's constant badgering in Dexter's vision and the use of the baby to portray both calm and chaos, has been a bit heavy handed.)

5. Fringe (Last Week #4) (Fringe returns this week, but will need a strong showing to keep it's spot.)

6. Californication (Last Week #5) (Kathleen Turner's Sue Collini has me cracking up with every raunchy line she delivers. For all the strength of it's main cast, what really keep Californicaton interesting is it's supporting players.)

7. Parks and Rec (Last Week #6) (Pikitis! There was something endearing about Leslie's feud with teenage vandal Greg Pikitus, in a Scott Tenormon sort of way, minus the evil Cartman element. Unlike the Office, where only a few of the characters have any real depth, Parks and Rec has done a great job of slowly setting up our supporting cast as real people, not just caricatures.)

8. South Park (Last week, #7) (The first great South Park of the new season. My wife watched Whale Wars this summer and I can see Trey and Matt must have done the same and must have been thinking exactly what I was thinking: Why don't these hippies fucking do something. You couldn't watch Whale Wars and not feel something for those whales, so it's hard to imagine caring about whales so much to actually be out in the South Pacific and not wanting to blow shit up and kill some bad people. That all being said, this was one of those rare moments where South Park acknowledged a truly complex issue of conflicting values and morals with no clear cut answer.)

9. Flash Forward (Last week #8) (Now that was more like it. The series has been so driven by the mosaic investigation that it was nice to finally see the characters have a chance to take a breath and just be themselves for a bit. Simon's introduction as the show's seeming villain has been rather drawn out, but it was nice to see Dominic Monaghan back in action. Because I was relatively happy with this week's installment, I'll keep the complaints to myself and focus instead on the fun aspects of the show. My big question now is about the kid's flash forwards: What else did Charlie see to get her so freaked out?)

10. House (Last week, #9) (House wasn't on the air last week, not for a baseball-related reason, which would be understandable, but for a "So You Think You Can Dance" results show. I imagine they had left the day open in case there was baseball, but come on.)

Not On The List:

# Curb Your Enthusiasm (Last Week, #10) (This was much closer to classic Curb than the past few week's, with the story flowing from several classic Larry incidents. But a black swan? Remember what I said a few weeks ago about Curb being hard to relate to? Things don't seem to be improving on that front.)

# The Office (Last Week, Not Ranked) (It's interesting that a few years ago the Office excelled at doing hour long episodes when the past few years it's been at it's best in doing 1-2 minute comic strip type productions, like last Thursday's haunted warehouse. Not a bad episode about Michael's fall into Koi pond, but- continuity check- it seems as though there should have been more follow up with Pam and Michael after last week's revelation.)

Coming Soon: V premiers on ABC this Tuesday night and the AMC's the Prisoner starts up in two weeks, on Sunday. Nov. 15th.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Two-Faced Mandate

In an editorial in today's New York Times on Mandates and Affordability, the need for a health insurance mandate is explained thusly:

WHY IS A MANDATE NECESSARY? It is important that everyone be required to buy insurance, either from their employers or on new insurance exchanges.

Reliable studies show that people who lack insurance seldom get regular medical care and therefore suffer more severe illness and death than those who are insured. When they do get sick, they often turn to expensive emergency rooms for free care — driving up costs for everyone else.

Finally, the health care reforms, which require insurers to accept all applicants, will not work well unless nearly everyone carries health insurance. Unless the pool includes a large number of healthy people, the costs for everyone on the exchange will be too high. It is important that everyone be required to buy insurance, either from their employers or on new insurance exchanges.

Reliable studies show that people who lack insurance seldom get regular medical care and therefore suffer more severe illness and death than those who are insured. When they do get sick, they often turn to expensive emergency rooms for free care — driving up costs for everyone else.

Finally, the health care reforms, which require insurers to accept all applicants, will not work well unless nearly everyone carries health insurance. Unless the pool includes a large number of healthy people, the costs for everyone on the exchange will be too high.

So on one hand, we need a mandate to prevent the uninsured from driving up costs for everyone else. But on the other hand, we need a mandate to ensure that the uninsured help offset the costs of sick people with insurance. It's sneaky because on the surface, you're talking about getting people to pay "their fair share," but the reality is that those are contradictory rationales. Now perhaps it's not entirely contradictory if we're talking about different groups of people, but the language above seems intentionally unclear.

After all, the "free care" in emergency rooms is only free for those who can't afford to pay their bills. The working young and healthy Americans who have chosen to go without health insurance will pay emergency bills because they don't want unpaid debts to ruin their credit. Or in other words, to the extent that free emergency room care actually drives up health care costs for everyone, this is only the case amongst the poor and those who can't afford health insurance in the first place. However these folks have their health care costs covered, they're not paying in the first place, so any sort of a mandate has no real effect on them.

As I've written before, the real reason for a mandate is to force the young, healthy, and working uninsured to join the insurance pool. This notion of offsetting costs literally represents a transfer of wealth, from young to old, healthy to sick. Of course insurers can charge lower premiums if the young and health sign up- the young and healthy don't need much health care, so the money they pay in premiums will offset some of the costs of the old and the sick. It's not about fairness, but a blatant attempt to further hide costs. And the Times practically says as much.