Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terror In The Skies

I'm frightened. Not of incompetent terrorists, but of incompetent and overreaching bureaucrats who have responded to the latest terrorist attack with calls for more restrictions on travel that have seemingly little connection with safety. Is it really any surprise that it wasn't the bold TSA or the even bolder intelligence community that prevented the latest terrorist attack, but the simple courageous acts of individual passengers.

I don't intend for this to be a long post, just a continuation of my questions from last month about terrorism. If the point of terrorism is to cause "terror" then haven't the terrorists won already? We're supposed to treat terrorism as so dire that we'd suspend our usual qualms about the government (in the form of the TSA) getting all up in our business, yet statistically speaking, we're far more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than we are to die in a terrorist attack. There's just got to be a point where we recognize that the piles upon piles of new laws, rules, and regulations that are supposed to protect us from terrorism don't hold a candle to simple concept of common sense. In the wake of 9-11, we've seen two positive developments in air travel: 1) locked cockpit doors, a simple solution to prevent terrorists from crashing a plane and 2) simple passenger awareness of what a barely armed terrorist is capable of. Other than that, have we really made any useful changes in terms of travel? I can't think of any.

That's not to say that we shouldn't continue some forms of safety searches- We don't want a maniac, terrorist or not, bringing weapons on an airplane. But when will Washington learn to use common sense to address a problem?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There's No Such Thing As Equality

The concept of equality gets thrown around quite a bit during the health care debate (amongst other topics) and a thought occurred to me as my wife and I planned on the latest assortment of student loans which have come due. In a complicated world, is there ever really such a thing as equality? Folks on the left will throw around concepts like income inequality, but what does that even mean? The truth is that a $50,000 a year salary for one person is not the same as it for another person. Circumstances matter. Given that health benefits aren't taxed, there's a big difference between someone making $50,000 a year with their health care paid by their employer and someone making $50,000 a year but paying their health care expenses out of their own pocket. Someone making $50,000 a year with no student debt is in a vastly different position than someone making $50,000 a year with $100,000 of student debt. And someone making $50,000 a year in Manhattan is different from someone making $50,000 a year in Mississippi. Truth be told, a renter in the same town or city could technically be up a few thousand dollars over the course of the year on someone else with the same income who didn't find quite as good a deal on their rent.

That's not to say there aren't answers to some of these complications. For instance, eliminating the tax break for employer provided health care would put everyone on a level playing field as far as health care expenses go. But just think about it for a minute. Any system that provides some form of assistance to those who can't afford health care themselves bases that assistance upon income and none of those assessments on income take any of these other life circumstances into account. This is why the idea of a health insurance mandate is so maddening. My wife and I are fortunate to have health insurance, but if we didn't and health reform passes, we would be in the position where we wouldn't be eligible for assistance, but would be required to purchase health insurance out of pocket. The problem is, with so much student loan debt, the added burden of out-of-pocket health insurance would potentially push us to poverty levels.

Let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that we should start taking into account student loan debt in regards to poverty and need determinations. Whether we're talking about student loans, credit card debt, or living circumstances, we're talking about individual choices and we don't want a system where individuals are relieved of the responsibility for their own choices. My point here is two-fold, that 1- herein lies the problem with government mandates, because it's one thing for people to deal with their circumstances, but it's another to burden people with something they can't afford, and 2- more importantly, that equality becomes an impossibility when the multitude of choices we face is factored into the picture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Little, Too Late

If I haven't been blunt in my posting, allow me to be blunt now: The health reform legislation before Congress is bad, bad, bad news.

To my liberal friends out there, let me sketch out what me, the heartless libertarian would be happier with: A single-payer system for those who want one, the only caveat being that folks who make enough money would have to pay for such a system, directly. Give medicare to all for the folks who want it and give everyone the option to buy in. Then, let the rest of us utilize the market- eliminate tax subsidies for employer provided health care and deregulate the insurance market so those of us who want it can have free choice. Yeah, I basically am offering the public option, but I'd rather there be a public option where private markets are still allowed to operate than have the complete evisceration of real private markets, which is what we may see under this legislation.

There is one bright spot to this legislation and that's the fact that if it's passed, it will be purely along party lines. Never before in our nations history has such an expensive piece of legislation been passed without any support from the opposition party. So ultimately, the workings of this legislation will be placed at the feet of Democrats and there may be the political will on the part of the Republicans to scale back a massive entitlement and regulatory boondoggle, something else that's never really been done before in our nation's history. And if we could get to that point, well, that would be a tremendously positive step for the future of limited government. Obviously a lot of speculation, but what more do we have at this point?

Health Care, Here We Come

Unless you've been living in a cave, or some other sort of news-free environment, you should be well aware that the health care bill has the sixty votes needed to begin the process of plowing it's way through the Senate. As the Times notes today, there are still a number of significant hurdles in merging the Senate version with the House version. For the uninitiated or uninformed that means this: Though a health reform bill has passed in the House and is on it's way to passing in the Senate, those bills are different and do not become law until the same version can be approved by both the House and the Senate, at which time it can be submitted to the President.

Megan McArdle has a nice piece covering the many issues of process involved in passing health care reform and the concerning language in the bill which would attempt to make certain provisions unrepealable by future Congresses. Many of the complaints about the passage of this bill, from both right and left, has been the downright icky and open way in which key votes were obtained. It was announced late Sunday that conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska would support the bill in exchange for Medicare concessions for his home state of Nebraska, meaning that federal tax dollars would help Nebraska pay for a share of Medicare expenses that other states have to shoulder themselves. Some folks have complained that this amounts to outright bribery at the public expense, and they're right, to an extent, but Megan quite correctly points out that this is how politics worked and how it's worked for hundreds of years.

But putting aside the existence of bribes/pork as part of the making of political sausage, there's an interesting side issue here that's all about how we structure government and utilize tax revenues. Nebraska's Medicare concessions are symptomatic of a complaint I've had for a long time, where tax money is siphoned from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Left or right, it's an inefficient use of tax money, plain and simple. We pay taxes to the federal government, but the federal government winds up sending some percentage of that money to individual states- states which we also pay taxes too. At the state level, a certain percentage of revenues from taxes and federal funds are then redistributed to cities, municipalities, and counties. If there's a logic behind this sort of trickle down taxation I'd love to hear it, but the end result is a redistribution of wealth to jurisdictions where the complex web of money distances individuals from the political process. And I'd raise the same questions about this sort of redistribution as I would about redistribution on the non-governmental level. Why for instance, in Connecticut to the citizens of wealthy towns pay high federal and state income taxes, only to have money siphoned back to their towns in the form of property tax relief?

I know this is a bit of a tangent, but it's yet another patently inefficient and structurally deficient problem with our current system that's been laid bear by the current debate. And to relate this post to my last, there's a question I'd pose to everyone, but primarily to liberals and supporters of "big government." Why don't we simplify things? Why does health care legislation need to be thousands of pages long and why do we siphon money through multiple layers of government? Giving money directly to the people that need it would be a far more effective way of dealing with a problem like the uninsured than the incomprehensible legislation before us. So why not? Why not the simple solution?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where Libertarians And Liberals Can Agree

Glenn Greenwald, in a post on the progressive divide in the health care debate comments on the similarities of outrage from the right and left:

But the objections over the mandate are largely identical -- it's a coerced gift to the private health insurance industry that underwrites the Democratic Party. The same was true over opposition to the bailout, objections to lobbying influence over Washington, and most of all, the growing anger that Washington serves the interests of financial elites at the expense of the working class.

Whether you call it "a government takeover of the private sector" or a "private sector takeover of government," it's the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense. Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s.

And from earlier in the same piece, Greenwald on corporatism:

The health care bill is one of the most flagrant advancements of this corporatism yet, as it bizarrely forces millions of people to buy extremely inadequate products from the private health insurance industry -- regardless of whether they want it or, worse, whether they can afford it (even with some subsidies). In other words, it uses the power of government, the force of law, to give the greatest gift imaginable to this industry -- tens of millions of coerced customers, many of whom will be truly burdened by having to turn their money over to these corporations -- and is thus a truly extreme advancement of this corporatist model.

Greenwald, the liberal, can sound just positively libertarian at times, can't he? The debate between progressives boils down to those who accept corporate power to further progressive goals and those who who do not. Once again, allow me to present the idea of liberaltarianism. Libertarian and market-based proposals could improve competition and lower prices. Combine this was a voucher program that gives options to the millions who are currently uninsured and you have a market meets social welfare solution that forces the entirety of the health industry to meet the needs of consumers rather the corporate health interests as they exist today.

Of course, one of the biggest problems of health reform, whether you're a free marketer or a single payer supporter, is the general resistance of the public to change. For all our systems problems, millions upon millions of Americans are happy with their health insurance- They're happy that it's provided by their employers at seemingly no cost (or little cost) and they're happy they don't have to worry about medical bills. In a way, you could say that for many Americans the system we have is a form of corporate socialism, where employees are shielded from costs but avoid the specter of government rationing. The idea that individuals should be shielded from health care costs rather than make these financial decisions for ourselves is ingrained in our pysche, cutting across the political spectrum. It's why it's difficult to argue with the notion held by many on the left that it's morally wrong for individuals to be responsible for their own health care costs. Seeing as it's the system we have now, you're got an uphill battle if you're asking people to imagine the world so differently.

But just listen to the unhappiness that's coming from some segments of the left. As Greenwald says, whether you call it a government takeover of the private sector, or a private sector takeover of the government, you're really talking about the same thing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This Is Just Priceless

From the local WFSB news, apparently Michael Moore has threatened to boycott Connecticut if Senator Joe Lieberman is not recalled.

In his Tweet, Moore said, "People of Connecticut: What have u done 2 this country? We hold u responsible. Start recall of Lieberman 2day or we'll boycott your state."

Does that mean Michael Moore would refuse to come to Connecticut, even for a Ned Lamont rally? Would it mean Michael Moore would give up his Aetna Health Insurance? I'm not really sure what it means, but the even more interesting part of this story involves Connecticut representative Rosa DeLauro:

Politico reported Tuesday that Rep. Rosa DeLauro called for the recall of Lieberman.

DeLauro said, "No one should hold health care hostage, including Joe Lieberman, and I'll say it flat out, I think he ought to be recalled. I know that may not even be an option in Connecticut, but 45,000 people die every year because they don't have health care. We don't have the luxury to hold up a bill that could make a difference in people's lives. This is what we were sent here to do."

The state has no recall law for officials, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

You've just got to love the concise way these news websites can bring you a story. Forget about Michael Moore for a second and we've got a sitting member of the House accusing a sitting Senator of a willingness to let thousands die, calling for that same Senators recall when Connecticut has no mechanism for recall. As I said, just priceless.

Lieberman's been hit hard this week for his health care stances and you've got to wonder how long politicians and policy wonks can get away with such hyperbole. I mean isn't this just what the left accused Bush of doing, time and time again: Calling for drastic action with no time for honest intellectual debate, because, damn it, lives are at stake. You could be the biggest lefty on the planet and that doesn't mean you'd think that Congress needs to pass the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of health legislation right now, with no questions asked. I can even understand the urgency that people feel in regards to the need to cover those without health insurance, but if there are hundreds of different ideas about how to do just that, shouldn't we want the best possible one?

Health Reform Shows The Real Need For Liberaltarianism

I've done plenty in this blog on health care and on the liberaltarian project (the attempted meeting of the minds between liberals and libertarians) and as major health care reform grows seemingly closer and closer, I can't help but think that a real opportunity has been missed to further an ideological relationship or at the very least, further a more open dialog between liberals and libertarians.

I recently read a comment on a libertarian blog that liberals don't understand that libertarians do in fact care about the poor and downtrodden, but simply don't believe in using government as a mechanism for charity. That statement is true to an extent, but in some ways, such a draw-a-line-the-sand type arguments have the negative effect of of leaving free markets and individual choice on the sidelines. Libertarian purists can argue over the outer limits of the role of government, but the fact of the matter is that a majority of Americans accept the social welfare role of government in some form or another. To be influential in a major policy debate like the one on health care you can't be in the business of openly advocating the abolition of the social safety net.

What does this mean for health care? Most importantly, it means coming up with market-based approaches to deal with the litany of complaints about our health care system. Reducing health care costs? That's an easy one for those of us advocating market oriented reforms. The simplest way to reduce costs is cut out the middle men, something none of the reforms on the table actually do. Coverage for the uninsured? Let's cover them, but let's do it in a fair and economical way. Why not health care vouchers, where people are able to make their own choices about costs. This is essentially what we have with the food stamp program, so why not do the same for health care?

Mandates, public options, and buy-ins are all bad ideas, but they're particularly bad in that they don't directly address the real concerns that have been raised. Republicans and prominent members of the conservative opposition haven't addressed this, choosing instead to focus solely on opposition. It's a mistake, because 1- Our health care system is a mess already, in a large part because of government and 2- Even if you can quibble about the numbers of uninsured, it does suck that there are people out there who are priced out of an already bloated health care system.

As refreshing as some aspects of the tea party movement have been, the truth is that it's fallen short in the practical idea department. Saying no to more lousy big government is all well and good, but what can we do about the lousy big government we've already got? That's the tough question and that's where this whole notion of liberaltarianism comes in to play. Make the focus on markets, on individuals, and on lessening regulatory burdens and the shrinking of government will follow.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Your Water Is Not Safe ... If You're An Idiot

We did this once before and now it's time for the second round. Tuesday's New York Times led with this article by Charles Duhigg, claiming 20% of the nation's water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

I'll stop Mr. Duhigg right there as the term "water treatment system" is extremely misleading. EPA data (and drinking water regulations) refer to public water systems, not water treatment systems. The difference is in the details, as water treatment systems bring to mind large scale operations that provide water to hundreds of thousands of people. The truth is, the vast majority of public water systems are not the large facilities which that language brings to mind. According to the EPA's data, which dates back to the year 2000, there are 154,879 public water systems in the United States. Of those, nearly 90% (89.96% or 139,325) are water systems of varying classifications that serve fewer than 3,300 people. Many of these systems are literally groundwater wells, as any non residential wells serving the public are considered to be public water systems.

The thrust of the rest of the article is how little or nothing is done about public water systems which violate health standards. The evidence for this is the relatively few number of water systems which have been fined or punished by regulators, as if fines or punishment is the primary method of ensuring drinking water safety. I'll take a minute here to step back from my libertarian roots and give some credit to drinking water regulators for not being completely overzealous assholes. When regulators do show concern for health violations, they generally tend to be concerned with helping the affected water system bring it's drinking water into compliance and not with socking it to them. When public systems have health issues that remain unresolved, it's usually because there are no simple solutions. The Times article mentions arsenic and uranium, both of which can be naturally found in groundwater. If the bedrock in a given area with numerous groundwater sources of drinking water contains levels of elements that the EPA considers to be unacceptable, solutions can be costly if not downright impossible. The idea that fines and penalties for these systems would make people safer is just plain asinine.

I mentioned this in my post from a few months ago, but this is just shoddy, irresponsible journalism and the Times ought to be ashamed of itself. Once again there's been absolutely no effort to grasp the real meaning of these numbers, nor is there any effort to really investigate if and where Americans are actually drinking bad water. What we've got is simply data with no context, data that fails to address the causes and the possible solutions of contaminated drinking water. There's no questioning of the health limits set by the EPA and there's no recognition of the fact that these limits are bureaucratic and political, not particularly scientific. It's a scare story, pure and simple, and yet another indication that the passive acceptance of the regulatory state has made us all stupid.

You may tell yourself, this is not my brilliant coach. And you may tell yourself, this is not my Hall of Fame quarterback.

Have we Pats fans been under the illusion that our Super Bowl run in the first half of the decade was really something more than "Once in a lifetime?"

Maybe, maybe not, but I find myself telling myself that these are not my New England Patriots. In the five real road games they have played this season, the Patriots have failed to earn a victory and perhaps more frighteningly, have completely disappeared in the second half of those games. In total, the Pats have been outscored 74-24 in the second half of those games. Worse yet are Tom Brady's numbers: 46 of 87 (a lousy 52.9%) for 523 yards, 2 TD's and 4 Int's. Seemingly everything that once made the Patriots such a force to be reckoned with has disappeared, both the clutch play of Brady and the defense.

I heard Cris Carter on Mike and Mike talk about how it's hurt the Patriots to have lost so many playmakers. But while it's true that no one seems to have stepped forward into that playmaker role, it's also true that not one defensive player not named Asante Samuel was a playmaking, game changing force in crunch time since the last Super Bowl run in 2004. And the lack of playmakers on defense says nothing for the offense, which has just as many healthy playmakers as ever. Hell, in the past few weeks we've even seem special teamer Sam Aiken become more of a weapon, scoring on an amazing play in Miami yesterday. We've got Moss, Welker, Kevin Faulk and of course, Brady, but this team is just plain not getting it done in big spots. It's depressing and I've got no real answers, other than that this may be karma turning to smack us Pats fans square in the face, for the years of luck during our Super Bowl runs and for our running up scores in 2007.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The I-President

From Obama's Afganistan speech the other night:

This review is now complete. And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.

I do not make this decision lightly. I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions. We have been at war for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home.

Most of all, I know that this decision asks even more of you — a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens. As president, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars. I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I have visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I have traveled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.

So no — I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaida can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al-Qaida, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

I'm posting solely because of what struck me as I read about the speech on the day after: President Obama's use of the word "I." It strikes me as the inevitable continuation of President Bush's insistence that he was "the decider," a somewhat troubling allusion to thoughts on executive power. Both parties and both sides, left and right, never seem to care much for executive power when they're out of power, but both parties really grab hold tight when they're in the oval office, all the time making the President and the executive branch more powerful and more influential over aspect of government.

Too much from a lot of "I's?" Maybe so and I'm certainly not actually comparing Obama's speech to any made by Presidents in the past. But the way in which the speeches are put together nowadays I can't imagine this is some coincidence or some case of middle school-level writer overusing a pronoun. For my money, the point is clear: I, Barack Obama did this ... I, Barack Obama made these decisions. I just wonder if there's a politician out there other than Ron Paul who'd be willing to accept a less active, less powerful, less arrogant role for the President.

TV Power Rankings: Final Fall Edition

Given the plan with these rankings, I thought this list would be more appropriate as a sort of fall summary rather than an up-to-the moment list. So Mad Men will obviously retain it's top ranking and read ahead to see where everyone else falls into place.

1. Mad Men (So I guess Mad Men gets another stay at the top, which is just fine for what's probably the best show on tv right now. I'd love to compare season three with season's one and two, but I'm not sure I can do that without watching the series again.)

2. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (The best comedy of the fall will follow the best drama. This may be Sunny's best season yet even though none of the individual episodes may match the brilliant stretch near the end of season three. What's particularly intriguing is the show's somewhat subtle recognition of the years that have gone by since the show began and the characters acceptance and embrace of their roles (Other than Dee of course, who continues to delude themselves). Because these are seemingly decisions the characters are aware of- as we saw in "The D.E.N.N.I.S. System"- it has the feel of character development rather than a slide into caricature.)

3. Dexter (I've wavered back and forth on just how good Dexter is and I'm still not quite sure. The plotting and some of the secondary characters are purely average television, probably not much better than the Law and Order's, CSI's, and NCIS's of the world. But Dexter himself and some of the other secondary characters- Deborah and the recently deceased Frank Lundy among others- are really top notch television characters. Dexter's inner-monologue never ceases to be fascinating, particularly since Dexter's inner self doesn't always seem to match what we see and hear on the screen. Deep down, Dexter is a fascinating study in self conceptualization and judgments about right and wrong, good and evil. That we have to put up with Quinn is disappointing, but not a deal breaker.)

4. Fringe (Fringe gets this spot for it's unyielding commitment to the bizarre. This season has been a mixed bag, but the bald observers, the body changers, and all the bizarre ways in which these folks communicate never fail to keep my interest. Olivia's developed into a much more interesting character and the dark secrets about Walter and Peter continue to be compelling.)

5. Californication (It gets the spot ahead of 30 Rock because I think it's been making me laugh more this season. The most underrated, can't-beleive-my-friends-aren't-watching-this comedy on the air.)

6. 30 Rock (It probably would not be this high if not for it's stellar reputation. I've enjoyed the season thus far, but it doesn't seem to be matching the quality of past seasons. I've had my complaints throughout these rankings, but bottom line is that little things about Jack and Liz seem off. Can't put my finger on it, but something ain't right.)

7. South Park (I was worried about the season early on, but the string of episodes including the Whale Wars parody, the fag episode, and the Glenn Beck/Avatar spoof saved the season from mediocrity.)

8. Parks and Rec (Very underrated and as I've said before, doing the Office thing better than the Office. As opposed to the Office, which has become increasingly insular and incestuous in it's relationships, Parks and Recs has done a halfway decent job of maintaining that illusion of the outside world. The Office was an interesting character show until the characters became mostly one note jokes- Here's to hoping Parks and Rec keeps developing it's characters and continues to mix in the measured levels of wacky.)

9. The Prisoner (I've got a separate post coming solely devoted to a review of AMC's remake of the Prisoner, but suffice it to say, my ultimate reaction is disappointment. In some ways, the remake is actually more existential than the original, but this somehow has also led the remake down the thematic path to meaninglessness. The new version is supposed to be more about the characters, but other than Ian McKellen's Number Two, none of the characters are all that appealing. The original had humor and political substance, both of which are disappointingly missing from the remake.)

10. Flash Forward (Started off with promise, troubled me in episodes two through five and settled itself rather nicely over the past month or so. After not dealing with the thematic consequences of the flash forwards for most of the season, they were dealt with, shockingly, in the episode where Gough committed suicide. The real interesting questions still lie smoldering beneath the surface: In the future can be changed, how relevant are these flash forwards? Or can the future really be changed? I'm hoping to see more of Charlie- I mean Simon- in upcoming weeks.)

11. Community (Finally caught up with the weeks and weeks of Community on my DVR and the results are in: It's a very funny comedy. Like Arrested Development and 30 Rock, Community succeeds in taking expectations and flipping them on us with comedic result, case-in-point being the not so wonderful do-gooder Brita. I was worried in the early episodes that the supporting cast wasn't all that interesting, but they've grown more interesting and the series has expanded from it's seemingly insular premise.)

12. Curb Your Enthusiasm (Ehhhh ... I know lots of folks liked the finale but I was less than thrilled with it. To be honest, I'm a bit tired of Larry's antics, or at least, of the typical Larry gets in a ridiculous fight with a stranger material. Jerry Seinfeld was actually a breath of fresh air this year, playing a great straight man to Larry's off-the-wall behavior. What we needed this year was more Jerry, more Funkhauser, and more Leon.)

13. V (It's really a bit hokey, but you've got to admit, it's really well done hokey. There's something compelling about the idea of a priest fighting alien invaders, making the mid-season cliff hanger ending all the more intriguing. Like I said it's hokey, but the first four episodes gave us a lot of mystery, some decent character development and the promise that in the spring we'll see Elizabeth Mitchell's son playing a big role with the V's.)

14. The League (Interestingly enough, the League has proven to be better as a comedy and male-bonding type show than it has been as a show about football and fantasy football. The special guest appearances- Terry Bradshaw and Antonio Gates- have been incredably forced and much of the fantasy related humor- trading for Plaxico Burress for instance- has been downright stupid. The thing about fantasy football is, the more seriously guys take a league, the fewer stupid trades there are and the less interested they'd be to talk to Terry Bradshaw. It's why Taco's comment early in the show's run- "Can you beleive we have to make a lineup every week"- was actually funny, because most fantasy footballers are familiar with the oddball who doesn't know and doesn't care about the rules but lucks into success.)

15. Law and Order: SVU (One of my guilty pleasures that makes this big list. SVU differs from the other Law and Order installments in that it really allows itself to focus on the characters, mostly it's two leads, Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. Week in and week out they have quality guest stars and two episodes from this past fall strike me as particularly good, above and beyond the typical police procedural: When Olivia was nearly framed for murder by manufactured DNA evidence and the episode where Elliot put himself into solitary confinement.)

16. Lie To Me (In some ways it's been better than House has this year, which is why I've ranked it ahead of it's similar Fox companion. But the supporting cast on Lie to Me never seems to click to me and the plots are your run-of-the-mill Law and Order type stuff with some truth detection thrown in. The stuff with Lightman's daughter has been interesting, but ultimately, Lie to Me would probably benefit from the advice I give to House just below.)

17. House (House is struggling through what may be it's worst season yet, but it's not for lack of effort. The Chase kills African dictator plot was a mistake, if only because that sort of guilt just doesn't make for good tv. Ultimately though, House has grown dull because of the formula, which needs to be shaken up if the show hopes to survive. The opening two-hour episode was so interesting because it was so different and because it gave us a chance to enjoy and appreciate Dr. House without the inevitable patient in trauma cut away to commercials. It's not that the medical mystery aspect of the show is no longer interesting, just that the way it's presented is. House could learn from a show like the X-Files, which was widely creative within a semi-procedural format, or better yet, from a show like Dexter, where the crime drama is secondary to the characters.)

18. The Office (I happened to catch reruns of the first couple episodes of the Office the other night and it gave me perhaps the best explanation of where the show is now. What was so interesting about those first few episodes were the number of awkward moments, pauses, and ummms and ahhhs by the characters. Maybe the Office is really supposed to be brilliant in that the characters who were nervous around the camera back in season one are now just playing to the camera, day-in and day-out ... But I just don't buy it. The British Office was so brilliant because it was so short and because the reunion show featured Ricky Gervais's David Brent (who Michael Scott was based on) returning to the literal office for a Christmas party after a failed attempt at capitalizing on the celebrity of appearing on a reality show by releasing a terrible album. It was a recognition that the mockumentary nature of the show had meaning, something that the American Office has failed to do. The characters act as though the cameras have meaning, but five years in, we've yet to see any consequences to that meaning. The Office still makes me laugh and it's better than plenty of the other crap on tv, but it's just not very special anymore.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Patriot Fatigue

After the Colts loss a few weeks ago, I took issue with ESPN columnist and Boston "Sports Guy" Bill Simmons's claim that the loss was one of the Belichick-era Pats five worst ever. That list of worst losses included the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, playoff losses to the Broncos and Colts in '05 and '06 and the regular season loss to the Colts in '08. The list made little sense, mostly because of the inclusion of a Brady-less loss in Matt Cassel's sixth start last year and the absence of regular season losses to the Colts in '05 or '06. My larger point was that this year's Colts loss wasn't so bad. And hopefully, that point should resonate even more to Pats fans after that awful, awful Monday night loss to the Saints.

Monday night's loss to the Saint's was dynasty devastating, the sort of disheartening loss that makes you wonder just when the other shoe is going to drop. It wasn't like the aforementioned '05 playoff loss to the Broncos, where big mistakes by key Patriots were the difference in the game. It was just a flat out beating, the sort we've rarely seen since Belichick came to town and never seen in a big game. This wasn't Peyton Manning making great plays or the defense looking old and slow, this was Saints receivers running all over the field, apparently uncoverable and the Patriots looking completely and 100% lost. I'm not saying that the Belichick-era Patriot dynasty actually is over. But I am worried.

Forget about the loss to the Saints for a minute and the worst part may be the Pats unimpressive 7-4 record and I say unimpressive because 7-4 is exactly where the team stood last year at this point in the season with Matt Cassel. And at least last season the Cassel-led Patriots had me excited, coming off Cassel's second straight 400-yard game in a win over the Dolphins at this point of the season. And maybe that's the difference. I wrote a post before the start of the 2008 season saying how Pats fans had to set themselves up for disappointment, as the only real redemption for the Super Bowl loss to the Giants would be another 18-0 run with a Super Bowl win to cap it off. Things changed with Matt Cassel at quarterback, but with Brady back under center, we're once again in the realm of high expectations. A bar was set in 2007 that can't possibly be reached, yet Pats fans won't truly be happy unless that bar is reached. In truth, another Super Bowl ring would be satisfying however it was accomplished, but the loss to the Saints leaves such an accomplishment feeling a bit out of reach.

The worst part of this season for me personally has been Tom Brady just not getting things done. Of course he's still a great quarterback, but he's come up lacking in each and every big game this season, all of which- including this Saints game- could have been won with big time performances. Ultimately though, Brady this year has matched Belichick, as both the coach and quarterback have not fared so well under pressure. Ultimately these Patriots just lack spark, which falls on the shoulders of both Brady and Belichick. They've beaten up on lesser competition, but otherwise, this entire season has been ... rather uninspired. Just for fun, here's where the Pats stood at this point of the season in each of the other Belichick seasons since 2001:

2001: 6-5 (finished regular season 5-0, won Super Bowl)
2002: 6-5 (finished regular season 3-2, missed playoffs)
2003: 9-2 (finished regular season 5-0, won Super Bowl)
2004: 10-1 (finished regular season 4-1, won Super Bowl)
2005: 6-5 (finished regular season 4-1, lost to Broncos in playoffs)
2006: 8-3 (finished regular season 4-1, lost to Colts in AFC Championship Game)
2007: 11-0 (finished regular season 5-0, lost to Giants in Super Bowl)
2008: 7-4 (finished regular season 4-1, missed playoffs)
2009: 7-4 (?)

This 2009 team doesn't have the look of the plucky underdog that the '01 or '08 team had. They don't have that dominant, yet under appreciated feel of the '03 or the '06 team. They don't have the elite pedigree of the '04 or the '07 team. And unlike the '02 and '05 teams, where high expectations were lost early in the season, this 2009 team has only just seen their high expectations crushed in week twelve. Of course I want them to succeed, but I won't be feeling confident the rest of the season.