Friday, April 30, 2010

The Coming Intellectual Crisis

As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Fox News's Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld, which airs weeknights at 3:00 AM. In the past, I've compared Red Eye to the Daily Show and made the argument that Red Eye was a funnier and superior program. Now Red Eye is an unabashedly conservative program, but I've always enjoyed it for it's humor, it's libertarian leanings, and the equal forums given to all sides of most issues ... until recently. Just the other night, Red Eye opened with two segments that troubled me. One was host's Greg Gutfeld's Greg-A-Logue in support of Arizona's new draconian immigration restrictions and the other was a critical segment on British hip-hop artist MIA's just recently banned from YouTube video which featured the American military rounding up and executing ginger kids.

It's the sort of stuff I'd expect from knee-jerk Republicans, but not what I've come to expect from Red Eye. Not that Red Eye is typically nuanced, but I've usually found it to be comfortable in the nether regions between nuance and knee-jerkism. Now, before I get any further, I've got to point out that Red Eye is very much reflective of it's host, Greg Gutfeld. The guest panelists on the show are there to react and respond, while the other two regulars, Bill Schultz and TV's Andy Levy, are joke-first, politics distant second personalities. And what troubles me is that Greg's politics, his brand of conservatism (which seems to epitomize the conservatism I see among young people), is more based upon reaction and rejection than it is rooted in any sort of intellectual ideaology.

What I mean by that is that some of the positions Greg takes seem to stem not out any particular view about the role of government and it's relationship with individuals, but from a reaction to the left. If leftists have a problem with Arizona's draconian new immigration bill, than by golly, we better be for it. This sort of thinking seems to be laid out most clearly in the areas of war, foreign policy, and law enforcement issues. How else do you explain a conservatism that reacts with skepticism to bureaucrats and politicians, but defers to military and law enforcement? There's an argument to be made that the roots of some of those positions could be found in the ideas of the leaders of the early conservative movement. But that ignores the fact that the world is different now and more importantly, young conservatives have no real connection with that intellectual tradition.

Reflecting upon my own experiences, I have to say this theory accurately reflects my own experiences. The conservatives I knew in college were far more anti-liberal than anything else. (To be fair, I think many of the leftists I've known found their politics as a reaction to a conservatism that doesn't even really exist- but that's neither here nor there.) While it's not the same thing, I think this concept of reaction rather than organic intellectual development plays a part in the tea party movement. Now, the tea party movement is obviously somewhat older than the younger conservatives I've been discussing, but this idea of reaction is somewhat the same. It's why the tea parties have been so successful at demonstrating opposition to Obama and the Democrats, but have not been a fertile ground for any ideas about what our government should be doing.

The focus here has been the right, but obviously, as I hinted at above, you find some of the same reactionary sort of thoughts on the left, even amongst the intellectual left. Just look at the standard leftist response to school choice, or social security privatization- these ideas are rejected because they come from the right and from free market think tanks. Never mind that school choice and government-enforced private retirement plans are common throughout most of "socialist" Europe.

But the real problem here, as I suppose it always is, is that politics risks becoming a team sport with two sides, where no one actually engages in debate. When your political views are only reactions to what someone else is doing, the sum total of your politics is in danger of becoming stale and intellectually stifled. Real political thought needs to come from the ground up and real policy proposals need to stem from the world as it is, not the world we'd like it to be. Conservatives lost the health care debate (in terms of the fact that Obamacare was actually passed) because far too many public spokespeople for the conservative movement refused to engage in any sort of real debate. It would have been nice to hear just one conservative voice say, "yes, we want to do more to provide health care for those who don't currently have health insurance, but the Democrats are going about it the wrong way." There were plenty of ideas kicking around out there in the intellectual world of think tanks that could have provided coverage to more individuals, yet tilted power away from government and back towards markets.

Anyone who reads many of the young liberal columnists and bloggers out there (Ezra Klein comes to mind), knows that this younger generation of leftists arose by intellectually addressing many of the arguments conservatives have been making for decades. Economics matter, or at least it does now. Costs used to not matter to the left, but they do now, which is why there was so much financial acrobatics that went on (and is still going on) in the debate over Obamacare. The rightness or wrongness of those sorts of argument aside, the point is, the opposing side was taken seriously and addressed seriously. And I fear we're seeing less and less of that on the right.

Campaign Finance Restrictions Are About Entrenching Incumbents and The Existing Two-Party Structure. Period.

Just have to get to this, from Reason's blog yesterday. Politico apparently has the details of the Democratic response to Citizens United, designed to blunt the effects of the Supreme Court's ruling several months ago. It's nothing all that surprising and as far as suppressing speech goes, there's nothing as horrible as what was in place before Citizen's United. But this is what got my attention.


• The legislation provides that any payment by a political party committee for the direct costs of an ad or other communication made on behalf of a candidate affiliated with the party is treated as a contribution to the candidate only if the communication is directed or controlled by the candidate.

• Party-paid communications that are not directed or controlled by the candidate are not subject to limits on the party’s contributions or expenditures.

In essence, it puts the speech of political parties on equal footing with the speech of corporations, unions, ect. But think about it for a minute ... it's one thing to ban coordination between candidates and unaffiliated speakers. The interest of corporations, unions, individuals- the interest of all independent Americans are electing the specific politicians that they think will legislate in their own best interests and the best interests of the nation. But what interests do political parties have, other than the election of more members of their party? Is there any meaning in a distinction between party-funded advertising and candidate funded advertising?

Here's the problem: For all the complaints about money in politics, Congress has never made a single move to restrict the "independent expenditures" of the parties. They fight tooth and nail to restrict the speech of those outside the Washington establishment, but nothing is done to combat the entrenchment of the two major political parties and their impact our electoral system.

That's not to say that I have a particular problem with any of the specific language I noted above. It's just important to note how thoroughly the parties look out for their own interests while continuing to scrutinize the speech of everyone outside of the two major parties.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The One Super Best Friend Who Shall Remain Nameless

For those of you who are unaware, South Park celebrated it's 200th (and 201st) episode with a two-parter mocking the idea of the right not to be offended. It was a tremendous 40 some-odd minutes, full of call backs to nearly a decade and a half worth of South Park, but most of the subject matter of the episode has fallen to the wayside in the wake of a controversy surrounding the return of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. (And it's a shame, really. We could be talking about Tom Cruise working as a fudge packer, or having the Super Best Friend Seaman on his back.)

The crazy thing, as most South Park fans know, is that Muhammad appeared way back in the show's fifth season (before 9-11), as a member of the Super Best Friends. South Park's version of Muhammad worked with Jesus, Joseph Smith, Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu Seaman, and a Tron-like, dradel-shaped Moses to help defeat the evil David Blaine and his giant stone Abraham Lincoln. South Park's second attempt to show Muhammad was met with censorship in a 2007 episode that had political wheels spinning much as they have been over the past week. Then came the latest controversy, as a radical Islamic website made thinly veiled threats against South Park masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone in response to the first half of the two part 200th episode celebration that threatened to unveil Muhammad. Comedy Central responded by taking the cut Parker and Stone had delivered, and censoring every reference to Muhammad. His name was bleeped and Kyle's speech at the end (presumably about Muhammad) was bleeped as well.

I'm of two minds about this whole Muhammad kerfuffle. There's the part of me that falls right in line with the critics who've condemned Comedy Central for not standing up for free speech, but there's another part of me that can understand where the network was coming from. As a large media entity, they did have to think about their employees in the face of a death threat, regardless of how serious that threat may have actually been. It's one thing to stand bravely as an artist in defense of your work, but the world we live in today is just more complicated than that.

That all being said, the censoring of the name Muhammad was a bit much, to say nothing of the censoring of the moral of the episode. At that point, it becomes a sleazy little way to avoid the controversy of actually pulling the show without running much of a risk of actually offending anyone (except of course, Tom Cruise, celebrities, and gingers). Personally, I don't worry too much about what networks should and shouldn't do as far as censoring content (because whatever your views are, networks do have to make decisions about content and what they use to sell their brand), nor do I worry that Islam is being held to a different standard. But I do worry when violence and then the threat of violence becomes the reason for those content decisions- not from the perspective of Comedy Central, but in regards to society as a whole. When a small group of people can use the threat of violence to compel others to their will, that's the very definition of terrorism. We worry so much about 9-11 style attacks, but the real threat of terrorism is it's impact on our way of life. Whether it's threatening our cartoons or strengthening our national security state at the expense of our freedom, the real power (and danger) of terrorism lies in fear.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Health Costs

We're not done yet because the battle over the future of health care has only just begun. If Republicans really meant what they said in the pre-Obamacare debate, then it's possible that we could see wholesale changes in the law. I certainly wouldn't be opposed to repeal, but the politics of it all is troublesome- the thought of future Democratic and Republican Congresses doing and undoing would be problematic for both consumers and businesses.

But now that Obamacare is in the pipeline, I've seen most of the intelligent discussion over the future health care resolve around costs - And it's an issue I wish we had spent more time on before. So much of the discussion leading up to the passage of Obamacare revolved around the cost to taxpayers in terms of tax dollars, with little attention paid to the costs to taxpayers as consumers. From some voices on the left I've heard that the new legislation will help to reduce costs, but other voices (I'm thinking specifically of a podcast I listened to from the Economist) think that the cost cutting measures truly needed in the United States have only been delayed.

As I've been thinking about the issue of health care costs over the last couple of days it occurred to me that the entire premise of this debate is wrong .. or at least, misguided. After all, why is it so important that we reduce health care costs? From an individual perspective, we should pay for as much health care coverage that we as individuals find valuable. And even taking the point of view of society as a whole, the value of this nebulous concept of health is potentially limitless. After all, would 17% of GDP (or 30% or 40%) sound like too much money if all that money covered cures for cancer and a significantly better quality of life for all Americans? As I said, I'm just not sure we can put a cap on the value of health.

But even if your goal is to reduce health care costs, I can't possibly see how those costs are going to be reduced through bureaucratic top-down regulation. There are two ways I see to reduce costs, and those are 1- literally ration care from the top down or 2- make individuals responsible for their own health care decisions and health care spending. A true market-based systems allows individuals to make decisions about their own health care spending. A single payer system leaves those decisions to the government to make for society as a whole. But the system we have in the United States hides costs in layers upon layers of bureaucracy, hiding costs from consumers and the new legislation only entrenches the third party payer system and serves to further hides costs. For those who doubt the idea that government is moe powerful than private industry, consider this: It would be relatively easy for the government to mandate lower costs from health care providers. If they did, the system would have to adapt. But private insurers don't have this power. There's enough competition between insurance companies to ensure that no one insurer can mandate health care providers lower costs. So what am I saying? God help me, but I wonder if single payer (or better yet some sort of public option-private hybrid) would have been preferable to what we're saddled with.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lost Questions That Need Answering

Last week we got the whispers and with only six hours of Lost left, I think it's appropriate to pose the major questions of the show that still need answering. Personally I came in to the season with mysteries like the whispers and the smoke monster rather low on my list, but the decision to address those mysteries through personification rather than exposition was probably a wise move. I had thought some of the major plot and story points would be addressed earlier on, while the mysteries of the island would have waited until the end, but creatively, I think the writers approach has worked.

So here are my top ten remaining mysteries I feel need to be answered. I'm not including the obvious ones about the Man in Black, Desmond and the flash sideways world, along with any other mysteries that seem likely to be resolved as part of the natural progression of the story from where we are now.

1- Walt

Much of the first two seasons of the show focused on Walt's specialness, but his importance seemed to vanish along with his importance after the season two finale. Let's be clear. I don't need Walt's "powers" explained, any more than I need Miles's or Hurley's powers explained. What I do need is a little more about his connection to the island and why the Others took him and subsequently let him go.

2- Why can't babies be born on the island?

Some Lost fans get very confused about this whole idea, but I thought the season 3 Juliet episodes were pretty clear. Women who conceive on the island die during pregnancy. As we saw with Claire, babies conceived off the island could be born on-island and as we saw with Sun, babies conceived on island, along with their mothers, are fine if they leave the island early in a pregnancy. And as we saw in season 5, there were no issues with babies being conceived and born on the island in 1977. So what happened?

3- Adam and Eve

It's an obvious one and I imagine they must be planning on answering it (otherwise, why bring it up earlier in the season?) But how it fits into the plot is beyond me.

4- The Dharma Supply Drops

Remember in season two, when a mysterious Dharma supply drop occured in the middle of the night? If I'm remembering correctly, it had something to do with the lockdown in the Swan hatch, seemingly designed to prevent the Swan's inhabitants from seeing who was dropping the supplies. So who was dropping those supplies? It's extremely relevant because it represents the rest of the Dharma story. We know the purge occurred in 1991, but we also know that Swan hatch continued to be staffed by Dharma (Radzinsky and Kelvin) throughout the 90's.

5- The rest of the story about the Others

What was the deal with that spring in the temple? Why did some Others live in the temple and other Others live in the Dharma barracks and follow Ben around? How did the Others chose their leaders? And what are the rules that kept Ben and Widmore from actually killing one another?

6- Intrigue Off The Island

Larissa wants to know how Ben and Widmore got all their money, but given that the Others were able to come to and from the island, I figure they both made use of their power and connections to create these networks around the world. What I do want to know about is about this off-island war between Ben and Widmore? More importantly, who did Ben have Sayid killing off? We know Sayid didn't kill off all of Widmore's people, because we see Abaddon (and a quite unworried Widmore) after Sayid stops killing. And, who were all those nutty assassins after Sayid at the end of season five and what did they want with him? I'd chalk it up to revenge on Sayid, except they were also watching Hurley and had Kate's address.

[Side note here - Remember during Miles episode last season, where he was recruited by Bram (the big dude from Ilana's group)? What was the deal with Ilana and the rest of her now deceased group? Neither Ben or Widmore seemed to know about them and I remember Bram telling Miles that in joining Widmore's freighter group, he was joining the wrong side. And actually, we've gotten all this talk about Jacob not telling people what to do, but didn't he ask Ilana to help him?]

7- The Sickness

We've gotta get this answered right? I mean we can't just leave things with unfeeling Sayid, the zombie killing machine exactly as he is now. So what's it all about? And is Claire infected? And was Rousseau infected? And while we're talking about infection, is there any connection between this infection and the quarantine on the Swan hatch doors and the injections Desmond had to give himself?

8- Daniel Faraday Crying

I keep coming back to this because we saw Faraday inexplicably crying as he watched the footage of the faked Oceanic 815 in both seasons four and five. Is there a connection here with the sideways universe? We'll see.

9- Why did some people flash through time and not Others?

This was entirely too convenient to be mere coincidence. At the end of season 4 (beginning of season 5), we see Locke flash away, while Richard and the rest of the Others with them stay in the present. On the beach, all our Losties flash away through time, along with Juliet, a former Other. And Claire, in "Jacob's cabin" with "Christian", doesn't flash away either. So what's the deal?

10- And finally, what's the deal with Christian?

A favorite theory of some has been that Christian was always the smoke monster, but as I've written before, there are far too many holes in that theory. Christian appears to Michael on the freighter and tells him he can leave. Christian appears to Locke down in the well, hundreds or thousands of years in the past. Christian appears to Sun and tells her about Jin being stuck in the past. And Christian takes steps to take Claire with him and separates Claire from Aaron. My theory has been that Christian is some manifestation of the island itself, but as with everything else, we shall see.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Health Care

We just gotta do health care, don't we?

My principled opposition to this version of health care reform has never wavered in no small part because the further into the process we delved, the worse the outcome. What we've wound up is, in some ways, the worst of all the available options. The American people have been sold a bill of goods where they've been promised more and better care that won't cost us a dime. It is, on it's face, preposterous, but it's emblematic of all of American politics where we've headed into the chasm of massive budget deficits on the assumption that we can get more and more from government without paying for it.

Now, unlike some, I don't think Obamacare signals the end of freedom and prosperity, but I don't see how it won't exasperate many of the existing cost problems with health care. That more people will be covered is undoubtedly a good thing, but the entire debate has been conducted as if the bill we got (or some version of it) was the only way to achieve coverage for those people. There's been no debate about the costs of other proposals, whether they come from the left (universal coverage or a public option) or from free marketers. No matter how you slice it, you can't keep the structure of our current system, provide greater subsidies for the poor, and mandate coverage of all pre-existing conditions and expect this to not increase health care spending.

My biggest worry is what I've heard termed the insurance death spiral- that the individual mandate won't be effective because the penalties are far less than what it costs to actually purchase insurance and they'll be no incentive for the young and healthy to purchase insurance because it would simply make more sense to pay the fine and just obtain insurance when they actually need it. And insurance companies would not be able to deny them because of the pre-existing condition requirements. So what you could wind up with is an increasingly higher percentage of sick people making up the pool of the insured and higher and higher premiums to cover that increasing percentage of sick people.

Not that this is entirely relevant, but one thing that's killed me in this entire debate is this perception of health insurance companies as evil incarnate- I mean they are evil, to an extent, any third party payer of medical costs, be it a private company or government, is going to make some evil decisions. But to blame insurance companies for the massive increases in health care spending in this country is asinine and defies simple logic. If insurance companies were driving up health care costs in order to enrich themselves and make more profits, we'd see a spike in the profits of these companies. But from what I understand (and anyone is free to use numbers to prove differently), the profit margins for health insurers have remained relatively modest over the past several decades as health costs have soared. Now sure, there could be some blame for soaring costs to be placed on mismanagement in administration, but it's nonsensical that either 1- the government could step in and drastically reduce administrative costs or 2- that this is even a significant problem. After all, if there was billions of dollars to be saved in the better administration of health insurance, surely someone would have put that into effect to, you know, make billions of dollars.

So where does this leave us? In a way, the future of health care is even more volatile then before, as most of the Obamacare provisions don't take effect until 2012 and some don't take effect until after a potential second term is over. Perhaps the most positive thing to be got from the debate over health care is that it's becoming harder and harder to pull a fast one on the American people. People from every corner of the political spectrum demand specific and demand answers and are not content to let politicians just figure it out amongst themselves.