Wednesday, January 30, 2013

No both sides don't do it!

While Republicans think of ways they can legally steal Presidential elections and Congressional majorities using the gerrymander and rigging the electoral college, Democrats continue to play an entirely different kind of game. I'm not sure what game exactly, but it's different. Republicans are playing rugby and Democrats are playing badminton I guess. Now, badminton is a fun, honorable, gentlemen's pursuit. But ultimately, badminton players get the shit beat out of them by rugby players.

Take for example, South Carolina and Massachusetts. The Senator from South Carolina, a red state, steps down from office and the Republican governor of that red state appoints a Tea Party ideologue who will, given the incumbency and name recognition advantages of the office, cruise to re-election when his special term is up.

In Massachusetts, a blue state, the senior Senator is confirmed to become the next Secretary of State. The blue state governor of that very blue state does NOT, of course, replace that senator with a well known Congressman who plans to run in the next election for that vacated seat. Now, this Congressmen needs all the help he can get, because he will most likely be facing a well funded, well-liked Republican candidate who has demonstrated electoral success before. No, the Democratic governor of that very blue state instead requires that all appointments would, to be considered, need to refuse to run for the special election to fill that seat. And he makes a temporary appointment to a former chief-of-staff who agrees not to run.

Now, please, tell me again how "both sides do it". Please tell me that. God how I wish "both sides did it". Well, actually I wished we lived in this magical political bubble where all politicians acted in a consistently noble and honorable manner. Really, I do! It would be wonderful! But what did James Madison say? "If all men were angels, no government would be necessary" - Federalist #51. Yeah, men aren't angels. Nor should we expect them to behave as such, politicians or otherwise. So since we can't expect the Republicans to act like angels, can we at least expect Democrats to act-in-kind? I can't tell you how annoying it is to hear my fellow Democrats whine about Republican behavior. By God, we should be doing the same fucking things! I mean, the media will accuse us of the same dirty games anyway! It's always a "both-sides do it" story. So why shouldn't we be doing it? Why must we consistently put ourselves behind the 8-ball in terms of electoral and procedural effectiveness?

As Democrats, we like to say we put good governance above all else. That we are devoted to civil equality. To improving economic opportunity. To protecting the poor and the weak and the downtrodden. That we are vanguards of environmental justice. And so on. But a lot of the time, it's bullshit. In fact, we're more vested in the protection of our own facades of justice and nobility. It's why we Democrats elevate process over policies and, quite frankly, its pathetic. It's why Harry Reid brags about his bipartisan efforts to preserve the filibuster. Do you know what the filibuster has prevented through the years?  A healthcare plan with a public option. Cap and trade legislation on carbon dioxide emissions. If you were really interested in the stewardship of our environment, and the protection of our national health, you would take the electoral and procedural steps necessary to achieve those aims. But we're just not as vested in those aims as we claim to be. We'd rather lose nobly. And I say nuts to that.

I mean, Jesus Deval Patrick, do we have to go through this crap again? You couldn't appoint Ed Markey to the seat? Do you really think the appointment of a Democrat to a Democratic seat in a Democratic state is really so unseemly? Do you think Nikki Haley is worried about that shit? Do you think the next Washington Post headline will read, "Deval Patrick corrects 100 years of journalistic mischaracterization! Turns out both sides don't do it!"  Because I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. But, ya know, I'm sure you'll win an extra seven votes or so for acting so nobly this time. And if it costs us a Senate seat, so be it I suppose. Priorities, right?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tim Geithner, still treading water

Just in case you forgot, Tim Geithner is still full of shit. Here he is complaining about his critics in a recent New York magazine interview:

“This is a deeply complicated world, in a fog of gray and ambiguity,” he says. “It’s easier for people to absorb the simple narrative of the black and white. And for them the black and white is, ‘Those are the people that got us in the mess; you saved them and they paid themselves billions in bonuses, and they should have gone to jail, and they are still walking around.’ I don’t know anything powerful enough to overwhelm that simple narrative.”

 Italics mine. So what is Geithner's response to this trenchant criticism that has plagued his tenure? This consistent, but "simple" critique that he has been given years to formulate a sophisticated response to? Well, uh, he literally DOES NOT HAVE ONE. He says he doesn't know "anything powerful enough to overwhelm that simple narrative." Well Tim, you're in the middle of a one-on-one interview. You are being given an exclusive opportunity to make your argument here. Why don't you use this very specific time with a nationally-renowned journalist to make your case directly to the American public? No? You got nothing? You're full of shit? Very well then. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.

[For the record, I was in favor of some kind of bank bailout. You can't cut off your nose to spite your face, and I wasn't willing to let the American economy fall into the abyss just so I could punish a few bankers. However, the structure of the bailout was abysmal. The bailout should have a) taken steps to reduce moral hazard in the future and prevent the "too-big-to-fail" phenomenon b) relieved homeowners of mortgage debt on a $1 to $1 basis for every buck given to the bankers c) taken substantial steps to prevent the use of the money to be paid as bonuses to management and d) required the firing of management and the replacement of the board of directors upon condition of accepting bailout funds. Since the bailout did NONE of those things, and Geithner was the face of opposition to those conditions, I say good riddance to bad rubbish.]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Senators - Stay where you are!

I enjoy reading books by people like Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert who like to make the point that, in short a) people don't really understand how their own brains work (Kahneman) and b) people do a very poor job of predicting what will make themselves happy (Gilbert). Gilbert goes on to demonstrate that while we can make excellent guesses at what makes "people" in the abstract happy, we do a terrible job in our own personal lives. We just can't seem to predict our own future levels of happiness.

I read a lot of these types of books both to better understand my own mind and overcome my own inherent biases (Kahneman-stuff), but also in an effort to construct and promote public policies that increase overall "happiness," rather than more traditional measures of social success like GDP or HHI (Gilbert-stuff). I also, I admit, use these types of books as a more socially-acceptable form of self-help, as pointed out to me (not to my entire surprise), in an excellent series of articles in the current January "Self-Help" edition of New York magazine.

This is a rather lengthy introduction to the fact that I read today that Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is stepping down from his post. Salazar's resignation comes on the heels of other high-profile Cabinet resignations such as Hillary Clinton (State), Leon Panetta (Defense), Hilda Solis (Labor), Lisa Jackson (EPA) and wanker-extraordinaire Tim Geithner (sorry, couldn't resist. This is my blog after all). We may see Ray LaHood go too, who is actually very good (for a Republican, har-har).

Now, I don't really mind seeing Salazar go. He was a so-so Secretary of the Interior and I wouldn't mind seeing someone at the Interior who wasn't so tight with the oil and mining interests. We did elect a Democratic president after-all. Again. But what's apparent to me, and not at-all apparent to the candidates who aspire to these positions, is that these jobs suck. Name a Cabinet position. It sucks. Generally speaking, 50-75% of a President's Cabinet usually turns over between the first and second terms. Chew on that! These people are just chomping on the bit to get the hell out of there. And yet, we see U.S. Senator and state Governors lining up to fill these positions. These are people who, under normal conditions, either need to be term-limited (Governors) or dragged out of office kicking and screaming (Senators). It's your John Kerry's and Janet Napolitano's. And even worse, when the President nominates these people, a power vacuum is created in their open posts that are often filled by the opposition party. And for what? Two years from now, John Kerry is going to hate his job. Okay, maybe John Kerry won't...But Chuck Hagel will. I'm sure former governor Kathleen Sebelius (Health) already does. The reality is, Senators and Governors have a lot more personal-decision-making authority in their previous positions. In the Executive Branch, they are really just elaborate enforcers. And from time-to-time, (perhaps most of the time), they will be tasked to enforce legislation or executive provisos they don't even agree with. That is not a formula for personal workplace satisfaction. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

If I may give a recommendation to my friends in the U.S. Senate or state Governor's office - turn down these positions! [Editor's note - I am assuming the vast majority of my readership is US Senate-level or higher] Honestly, turn them down. You clearly enjoy your Senate seat. You clearly enjoy the Governor's mansion. Why are you trading that in for a job you will despise in a few years? Do you think you're the exception? You're not. And the abandonment of your position is usually a net-loss of the incumbent party. Take Democrats. Would this country be better off with John Kerry in the Senate over Scott Brown? Yes. Would this country be better off with Janet Napolitano in Arizona over Jan Brewer? HELL YES.

Listen, I know you're not going to listen to me. Everyone thinks they know what's best for themselves. Everyone thinks they can predict their own anticipated levels of happiness. But the fact is, we're pretty terrible at it. Look at the turnover in this Cabinet. Look at the turnover in the Cabinet historically. There is a pretty good case to be made that you'd be better off staying where you are. You clearly enjoy the position, otherwise you wouldn't waste four hours a day fundraising just to keep it.

So please, let the career bureaucrats take those illustrious, high-paying, unaccountable positions. You know. Faceless bureaucrats like myself. Thank you and good day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2013 - Top Ten Movies (Honorable Mention)

Well, I think if I wait to see Zero Dark Thirty, I'll never get around to my Top Ten Movie List, so I'm just going to roll with what I've seen so far. And I'll start with the Honorable Mentions.

While I'm here, I'd like to point out an interesting development in the mainstream film industry. In the past, the major studios would dump their worst, most pointless, most disappointing movies during the winter months of January-March. I always thought this was bad practice. I mean, what else are people going to do during the winter months? Going to the movies strikes me as a decent winter activity. I always suspected that releasing decent movies with broad appeal during the barren winter months could do extremely well. There is a not insignificant portion of the population (cough, cough, me) that, ya know, likes going to movies! We go the movies as a matter of routine. But we won't go if you are only releasing the most egregious crap dredged from the bottom-of-the-barrel. So these winter months always struck me as a marketing opportunity. I'm not sure if it's accidental or not, but Hollywood seems to have gotten the message. Taken probably started the trend and interesting, well-acted movies like Safe House continued it. There are dollars to be made at the box office during this season. As evidence, look at the upcoming slate of January-March releases.

  • Gangster Squad - Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn
  • Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters - Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton
  • A Good Day to Die Hard - Bruce Willis
  • Jack the Giant Slayer - Ewan McGregor (Director Brian Singer)
  • Oz The Great and Powerful - James Franco, Mila Kunis (Director Sam Raimi)
These strike me as movies with a solid pedigree and decent box-office potential. [Important Editor's Note - I probably won't see any of these] Now, to some extent, I'm sure some of them are being unceremoniously dumped into the winter months because of a disappointing finished product. For example, I seem to recall Hansel & Gretel getting some buzz about a year ago during the briefly-lived Jeremy Renner era, but the current trailer looks awful. But I think releasing Die Hard in February is an excellent decision. It's a significantly faded brand, but a lot of people will probably go to see it because it's competing against some terrible shit. Die Hard in February is an event. Die Hard during the summer gets buried in the shuffle.

Onto the honorable mentions. First Up -

Django Unchained

Definitely my most surprising Honorable Mention. Going into the movie, I would have bet $1,000 that Django would have cracked my Top Ten list. And it's entirely possible it may crack my Top Ten list one day in the future. I hold Inglorious Basterds in infinitely higher esteem today then I did the night I saw it in the theaters. But Django disappointed me in a few ways. 

One, the main character was perhaps only the third or fourth most compelling character in the film. That's a problem. The good guy protagonist doesn't always need to carry the movie. Antagonists can do that (see Heath Ledger, the Joker). But he needs to be more compelling than his sidekick. In this film, Christoph Waltz gets the better of Jamie Foxx in every way. That's not really Foxx's fault. But as written, Waltz's Dr. King Schultz is just an inherently more interesting character - he gets the punchlines and moral cleanliness that probably, in a more traditional narrative, would be reserved for the villain and the hero respectively. 

Django also lacked the dialogue-driven humor and quiet suspense that powered QT's greatest films and most memorable scenes. Barring one awesomely hilarious scene poking fun at an impromptu KKK iteration, nothing in Django compares to the Michael Fassbender scene in Basterds, any of the Uma Thurman-David Carradine scenes in Kill Bill vol. 2, the Lucy Liu introduction in Kill Bill vol. 1, or pretty much anything in Pulp Fiction

Uncharacteristically, I thought the music in Django was awful. The inconsistency between musical genres from one scene to the next drove this viewer to distraction and threatened the movie's connective thread. Generally, I enjoy QT's eclectic musical choices and many of the most iconic QT scenes are driven by his musical selections (Stuck in the Middle With You, Girl You'll Be A Woman Soon, Battle Without Honor or Humanity). But man, there was no connecting thread across genres in this movie. It really threw me off from moment to moment. 

Lastly, as mentioned in other reviews, this movie could have ended about thirty minutes earlier. I don't mind long movies. When I pay $12 for a movie, I don't mind if I get three hours for my money. But there is no reason to set-up the ending for your movie, delay it for thirty minutes, and then deliver the same ending the audience expected. It's utterly pointless. 

However, I do award Django bonus points for creating the most likable German character in my cinematic viewing history (allowing for the possibility that a non-Nazi filmmaker has portrayed Germans positively in a movie I haven't seen). As a German-American, I'm used to (and not opposed) to seeing my antecedents predominantly depicted as history's greatest monsters (pre-Jimmy Carter). I can honestly say a core component of my political identity is a genuine fear of excessive national pride and patriotism. Having seen what Germans are capable of, I continually view tribalism as a extremely dangerous form of social identity, and I try to avoid it when possible. That being said, it was legitimately nice to see a positive German role model. Yes, he was a bounty hunter, but he also demonstrated a moral integrity that exceeded that of anyone else on the screen, including Django. As someone who is used to seeing Germans depicted poorly on-screen (again, I repeat, I have no problem with that. It is an important historical reminder, perhaps the most important historical reminder), this was a welcome development. It appears some of us are redeemable. Yay!