Monday, December 31, 2012

On New Year's Eve: Mitchie At The Bat

On New Year’s Eve: Mitchie At The Bat

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Cliff-ville nine that day:
Time had been a-wasting, with but hours more to play.
And when John’s B plan died of fright, and Grover’s did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

The House’s bankrupt brigands rose to leave, all in deep despair.
The rest prayed for the sacred tax cuts that seemed only fair;
They’d thought, if only Mittens was in charge, they’d have a shot
He’d show those Dems, he’d make them pay, sequestering or not.

But Big O dispatched Romney, as Ryan’s song fell flat,
And Akin turned a lulu and Mourdock a maddened hat
So the team had not the votes, grim faces all foretold,
No Senate, no Prez; no way to slash the old.

Unfair, they cried, our vision was to be much prized,
Big O’s a Kenyan Socialist, and very much despised;
But when the dust had lifted, and Rove had thrown a fit,
Obama, mean Obama, had vanquished good old Mitt.

So what to do when all seemed lost the job-creators quaked;
O Tempora, O Mores where’s pity for goodness sake?
But hope springs eternal, cash flowed this way and that,
For Mitchie, mighty Mitchie, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Mitch’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Mitch’s bearing, a happy scowl upon his face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
Grey hair and steely glasses, no doubt twas Mitchie at the bat.

Ten thousand Red-State eyes beheld him as he settled in the dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he spit ‘baccy on his shirt.
Then whilst greedy Dems demanded tribute from the wallet at his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Mitch’s eye, a sneer curled Mitch’s lip.

And now the first proposal came hurtling through the air,
And Mitchie stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Too much tax and too much spend, the pitch unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Mitchie. "Strike one," the timekeeper said.

From the Foxes, Rush and Bill, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on Benghazi’s distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the time-keeper!" shouted a Cato man from the stand;
And it’s likely they'd a-killed him had not Mitchie raised his hand.

A smile of secret pleasure on great Mitchie’s visage shone;
He had an ace, he didn’t care; he bade the game go on;
He nodded to the hurler, a new pitch towards him flew;
But Mitchie still ignored it, the time-keep said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, “let’s get our guns”;
But one sly look from Mitchie and the audience was stunned.
They saw his lips turn up to grin, his cell phone at the ready,
Was it filibuster, or just say no, that made him seem so steady?

The sneer is gone from Mitch’s lips, he beams and makes the call;
He chits and chats, and slaps the back, looks for Biden after all.
Joe, Oh No! He’s a buffoon and clown, don’t make us feel the pain.
Joe’s a dealmaker, he’ll cave, says Mitchie with disdain.

Joe does cave, but sure enough it doesn’t make the grade.
To compromise seems so wrong, why should a deal be made?
Far more fun to keep the pledge and scrap for every penny.
Because it’s not enough for some, and way too much for many.

Ah, so you thought there would be happy ending, with sun shining bright?
Barbeques and ice cream, all friends with hearts so light,
Where somewhere folk are laughing, and somewhere there’s no goat;
But there is no joy in Cliff-ville – The House refused to vote.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Wise Men Of Washington Present Their Gifts

The Wise Men Of Washington Present Their Gifts

Wayne LaPierre came thundering in last Friday, verbal guns blazing in all directions, and handed the nation an early holiday gift.

The NRA’s initial response to the Newtown massacre had been one of comparative quiet, other than the perfunctory “we mourn with the victims” that they have prerecorded for every act of mass gun violence.  But enormity of the loss, and the age of the victims, seemed to give a hint that this time would be different.  After a few days passed, they announced they would wait as the women and children were buried, then make a “meaningful contribution” to the discussion.

LaPierre’s press conference/cock-fight was that “meaningful contribution.”  Without dissecting it line by line, he made three main points: a) it was the media’s fault for just about everything, b) let’s not waste time debating legislation that won’t work, and c) if only the liberals and gun-haters had heeded the NRA’s call to place armed guards in every school, this would never had happened.  He then refused to take questions and stalked off. 

It was an impressive display worthy of a Vladimir Putin, and so pugnacious even the redoubtable Murdoch-owned New York Post had a front page picture of him with the caption “Gun Nut.”  But that’s all noise.  The NRA isn’t going to compromise, because it doesn’t think it has to.  It has counted heads and noses and muzzles, and is confident that there are enough supporters in Congress to block any and all legislation.

They are probably right.  For the lock and load crowd, LaPierre runs the most effective lobby in the country, a potent mix of legitimate Constitutional claims, extreme paranoia, a loyal membership, and pure muscle. They could advocate for having toddlers carry derringers in their onesies to keep nurseries safe and their supporters would nod their heads in unison and stock up for the grandchildren.   The NRA is absolutely ruthless in disciplining its electeds, and completely uncaring about the press it gets.  And their benefactors in the gun industry exhibit the same type of scruples.  In the last few years, the gun manufacturers Colt, Sturm Ruger & Company, and Mossberg & Sons have effectively lobbied against legislation in Connecticut itself, threatening to take jobs out of the state should any type of legislation be passed.

Besides, in Washington, Congress is busy right now.  In the House, the extremely conservative bloc of Republicans (as opposed to the very conservative bloc, or severely conservative bloc) showed once again that they embraced the culture of life by rejecting Speaker Boehner’s inartfully named “Plan B.”  Plan B was Boehner’s job-killing outrage that would extend the Bush Tax Cuts for everyone--except for those making $1,000,000.00 or more.  No, screamed the caucus, the very foundations of Western Civilization were at risk. 

Plan B wasn’t real, of course, since nothing seems to be real in Washington.  The object was to put the House on record as extending tax cuts for all, except the tiniest sliver, and daring that noted Class Warrior and Socialist, Mr. Obama,  to veto it.  They paired it with a bill that did pass narrowly, a measure to alter the automatic spending cuts set to kick in next year by replacing reductions in the military budget with (smaller) domestic cuts.  The thinking was that for the small price of increasing tax rates on incomes over $1M (which the affluent don’t pay anyway) the GOP would get some of the spending cuts they want, and deftly renege on the sequester deal they made with regard to military spending.  That would then strengthen the Speaker’s hand in negotiating the big ticket slashes at the entitlement programs that are the idée fixe of good Conservatives everywhere.  And it would allow the GOP to go back to their districts/states and look good: against tax increases, for the military, and against “wasteful” government spending.

But it didn’t work. Apparently, anything less than complete capitulation by Mr. Obama and the Democrats is unacceptable.  Now, one might ask how the Speaker blundered so in counting noses before putting up Plan B.  Boehner (and Cantor, if the story can be believed) were both shocked.  The only explanation I can think of is that they simply assumed that the paired bills were a deal too good to pass up, and, like the NRA, were confident in victory.

A nifty little plan, but a failure.  There are some walls of irrationality that are too high to climb.  Thankfully, Boehner did what every good Washington politician seems to do these days when faced with hard work and hard decisions.  He adjourned the House for the holiday, and kicked the can to the Senate.

So with six days left to go in the year, we are left to plunge over the Fiscal Cliff, one hand frantically reaching for our wallet, the second for our Bushmaster.  Meanwhile, the absolutists are popping the champagne corks. 

And yet, both the NRA and the Snifter-of-Brandy Club may have erred. Could they have made a better deal now then they could be forced to accept later?

The NRA might have. One wonders what might have occurred if  they offered some very small compromises that had absolutely no teeth, giving pro-NRA legislators the opportunity to make a meaningless gesture and bury the rest. Let’s be honest, the majority in Congress quails at the thought of the NRA’s sulfurous touch, and would have loved the cover. 

Boehner’s ego and standing wasn’t the only casualty of his failed Plan B gambit.  It also derailed a quieter initiative that he and Obama were working on, which actually had real revenue increases and real entitlement cuts.  That deal is now off the table.  Boehner, and the House, are now out of the discussion.  The Senate could come up with and pass something balanced and reasonable, with a hike in the Debt Ceiling. Then the House would be in the very place Boehner was hoping to put Obama in; vote for something that looks like a compromise,  or make the country suffer.  So now Boehner has to count on the tender mercies of McConnell and Reid, and hope they work fast, because on January 1, all those nice tax cuts for the GOP’s true constituency vaporize, as does the beefy part of the military budget.

Gifts?  Not exactly frankincense and myrrh, but surely something.  When the bully walks away from the table and dares everyone to do something, strange things can happen. People start to talk freely for the first time, and may even exchange ideas.  There’s nothing like a little fresh air to clear the mind.

We can only hope.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On Absolutism And Nihilism

On Absolutism and Nihilism

There are times when a sane person should take a step back from whatever barricade he or she is manning that particular day and take a jaundiced eye at the infinite cruelty that the world sometimes seems to offer. And start to search for answers.

We are wired to be systems organisms, creatures of habit.  Watch runners in a marathon and see how they keep themselves in rhythm, their strides perfectly matched.  Studies have shown that women in the same office magically, over time, synchronize their monthly periods.  Go to a concert hall and listen to the Bach B Minor Mass, or Beethoven’s Ninth, and hear the blending of instruments and voices surging forward in a complex wall of sound that intertwines a primal beat with a core of supreme organizational genius.

This is who we are; on a subconscious level, we not only link up, but are attuned to those whose behavior is somehow outside that norm; the homeless person moving with an irregular gait, a driver weaving across the road, the odd speech pattern or tone of voice.  Quickly, we analyze the possible threat, contextualize it, and decide whether to take action.

So, too, it is in the way of our public lives.  We have little social courtesies such as holding a door, or giving up your seat, and large ethical systems, like religion.  Our laws and our politics are effectively a series of agreements that we rely on for order; we look to our police and our elected leaders to see to that order.  We gravitate to communities that share our values.  We wrap ourselves in a cocoon of certainty. And we feel safe.

Of course, this is an illusion of security.   There is always evil, sometimes inescapable evil. In our civic lives, we often find that the moment we think we have a social contract or a guiding principle (no matter how long-standing) there is always someone telling us that plain language doesn’t actually mean what it very clearly seems to say.   Whether this is genuine belief or opportunistic sophistry is irrelevant.  Insistence on form obliterates substance, and an attempt to create order instead leaves us unable to adapt and vulnerable to unexpected consequences.

The great “The Bridge On The River Kwai” is a terrific exploration of this.  Captured British soldiers are imprisoned in a POW camp deep in the jungle in Burma and forced to build a rail bridge on the route to Rangoon from Malaysia.  A new battalion of prisoners is marched in, headed by the formidable Colonel Nicholson (Alex Guinness) who immediately faces off with the camp Commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as they vie for control.

This isn’t really a war movie.  What it really is about the conflict between two world-views that are, at bottom, not all that dissimilar--Nicholson and Saito share the expectation of command--and how even strong convictions and good intentions can end in ruin.

Nicholson is a martinet, but he’s not without compassion.  He sees a dispirited and broken group, and genuinely belives that his men will be better off with order, regular work, and discipline.  The bridge gives him the opportunity to create that order.  Perhaps that’s self-indulgent, but it gets results, and troop morale and health improve markedly.

But Nicholson’s core conviction leads him astray.  Saito, in effect, cedes control of the project to him, and Nicholson has his engineers and men construct a far better bridge than the Japanese could have built themselves.   In one of the more bizarre sequences, Nicholson realizes that they are behind the construction schedule.  Needing more men, he recruits patients from the infirmary, reassuring the enraged Major Clipton, the Camp doctor, that a little light work and sunshine might do the lads more good than lolling about in bed.  

Saito is mortified.  He has enough self-awareness to realize that, while he is accomplishing his goal of building the bridge, the achievement is no longer his. He is as much captive as captor. He contemplates his shame and weeps privately.

Nicholson becomes consumed with the task; he sees this a project with an honorable end and as a monument to the perseverance of his men, with no collateral impact.  When Clipton notes that, in doing such a magnificent job, the troops may be aiding the Japanese war effort, Nicholson isn’t angry.  He’s flabbergasted that anyone could possibly think this way.

In watching and reading about the horrible events in Newtown, and in the reactions of people across the country, squaring off over the role of guns in our society, I found myself somehow reminded of Nicholson and Saito and Clipton. 

On December 15, 1791, Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights, and with it the Second Amendment, became law.  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 
Those 27 words must be the most parsed in history. For gun control advocates, they are a rusty antique musket pulled from a cupboard by a patriot wearing a three cornered hat, rushing out to meet the Redcoats.  Since the British Empire is long gone, guns must be cute neutered props that you see at historical reenactments.  To pro-gun groups like the NRA, those words are the holiest of holies, the lynchpin of all other rights, and transcendent.

These two absolute positions are just plain wrong. 

No matter how much some may wish away the presence of every gun, they exist, and the Second Amendment does as well.  It is irrelevant what other countries do.  This is the deal we made 231 years ago, and unless it is otherwise repealed through a Constitutional process, that’s the deal we have to keep.  Law-abiding citizens are entitled to have firearms.  Ignoring the Constitution because we don’t like what it says is a trip down the road to anarchy. 

And to the NRA, and those sincerely committed people who think that the Second Amendment is some sort of uber-right though which every person is called by a higher power to pack heat in every possible location, no, the Second Amendment doesn’t say that either.  Read the Bill of Rights, all of it, and find one that isn’t somehow limited in some way.  Reconcile, if you can, the position of the NRA and many pro-gun legislators who also supported the Patriot Act.  You can't.  When you cherish all rights in the Constitution, then you have the moral authority to complain about the limitations on one right.

If Newtown teaches us anything, it is that crazy murderous people exist in this world and we cannot stop them all from carrying out their lunacy.  The strictest of laws, or the complete absence of them, will mean nothing to them.  Newtown also shows that we need to have a calm discussion about  reasonable regulations,  the necessity for training and licensing both at the user and seller end, as well as limitations on where guns can be taken.  And, finally, as a friend who is an avid hunter and gun owner said to me the day after, we need to have a serious talk about the desensitization to violence in the young that things like third-person shooter games bring.  Start that process, and we can preserve the essence of the promises we make to each other.

There is an awful moment for Nicholson in the final scene when he discovers that the bridge has been sabotaged and he calls in the Japanese to save it.  As people die all around him, he suddenly understands what his single-mindedness has brought, “What have I done?”  Injured himself, he stumbles over to the detonator, and falls on the plunger, destroying the bridge, and the train passing over it.  The path of absolutism leads inevitably to nihilism. 

The final words in the film belong to Major Clipton.  Moving from vantage point to vantage point, he looks down at the death and destruction.  “Madness!...Madness! Madness!”


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zombies and Gerrymanders

Zombies and Gerrymanders

People who know me understand I will not eat coleslaw.  I am sure it’s wonderful, to others, but the combination of chopped cabbage mixed up with a mélange of other roots and smothered (or doused, or soaked) in some form of mayonnaise-based goop is not merely a bridge too far but perhaps even occupies an alternate universe of culinary horror (with haggis, perhaps?)

My rational mind understands that coleslaw comes in little side dishes that diners and delis leave on tables as a warning to future generations.  But actually having the kitchen place the offending matter directly on the plate with your entrée produces the most profound difficulties; how do you dam up the runny awfulness from contaminating the entire dish?

Yes, I have been mocked, but now, I have proof, in the form of an article in the Science Times.  Even if one puts aside the toxic nature of mayonnaise, it is cabbage itself, drawn from the very Earth, which creates the risk.  In every serving of coleslaw, the cabbage contains about 100 million baculoviruses. It turns out that this virus causes caterpillars to lose their minds (such as they are) and to become zombies, climbing to the top of trees and feeding constantly, where eventually they dissolve from exhaustion, spraying their baculovirus-laden selves upon the leafs below, perpetuating the cycle.

I found this story particularly compelling in light of our current stalemate on the fiscal cliff.  It is going to be very hard for Republicans, and particularly House Republicans, to support anything that looks like a tax increase, particularly on higher earners.

Wait, you say, what about Speaker Boehner’s offer?  It is true the Boehner has put on the table $800 million of “revenue enhancements” but a) he doesn’t really have the support of his caucus, b) he doesn’t really want to tell us what they are, for fear that ordinary voters won’t like them, c) they extend the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, and d) they retain most of those special tax treatments available to those who’s tax attorneys wear handmade shoes.  So, the Boehner “revenue enhancements” are really the Boehner re-imagining of the tax burden to have it fall more heavily on those working, middle and upper middle class families.  And, needless to say, the Boehner cuts to entitlements fall most heavily on the working, middle, and upper middle class families.  Shocking, isn’t it? 

And therein lies the genius of Boehner’s offer.  If he can get Mr. Obama and the Democrats to ante-up on entitlements and other domestic spending, it will be a coup of the highest order.  Boehner will have done his job as he sees it; protect the wealthy while getting everyone else to pay for deficit reduction.  And, he will do it while letting most of his caucus vote against it, so they can claim later on that they opposed the Democrats on both tax increases and entitlement reforms.  It’s brilliant. 

So, if Boehner hasn’t offered anything serious (and he hasn’t) and this is such a shrewd play, why can’t he convince his fellow Republicans to get on board?  That’s actually a very interesting question, and brings me back to coleslaw, and zombies.

The short answer, for most of them, is they can’t.  The “job creator” genus of baculovirus that invades their central nervous systems is far too powerful.  In fairness, there is a wing of the Republican party that simply belives that all entitlement programs should be eliminated as quickly as possible.  Some, like the conservative columnist George Will, dress up their opposition in intellectual finery by claiming that the original New Deal legislation was unconstitutional.  Others are more simplistic in their approach.  They divide the country into the takers vs. the makers.

There is, of course, a cognitive dissonance in this.  The self-image the GOP indulges itself with, prudent, thrifty, devout Puritans in a battle for the nation’s soul with the slothful, beer and chips swilling lads on the dole, is a tad detached from reality. And yet, like caterpillars relentlessly moving up the tree trunk, the GOP holds fast to this fiction.

Why?  Yes, we can be cynical and say some are paid handsomely.  There’s always a think tank to manage, a gig on Fox, a book to write, a speech to give, a lobbying organization to help out. But many others don’t know any other reality, and, more importantly, don’t have to defend their views.  The GOP is solidly in control of the House, even though they lost the aggregate popular vote in all House elections. Their districts have been carefully drawn to maximize their chances of re-election, with Democratic-leaning voters surgically snipped away and sutured together.  The most appalling example of gerrymandering might be in North Carolina, where Democratic House totals led statewide.  How did that voter muscle turn out at the ballot box?  Not so well.  Democrats won only 5 of 18  Congressional seats (no, that’s not a typo).  Check out the Congressional results in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, and in Ohio, and you would have thought Romney won in a romp

And that leads us to a type of peculiar moral hazard that has become more and more pervasive in our political system, particularly among Republicans.  There’s no risk to acting irresponsibly. Unlike the zombie caterpillars, zombie politicians have no real risk in being completely insensate to new ideas or new realities.  They remain well fed, safe and comfortable, and seemingly indestructible.  The greater danger is when they stray; then they can be primaried. So they don’t think independently, they don’t look to craft compromise legislation, they can’t see beyond their own interests.  Instead, they wrap themselves up in the pleasant poetry of a shared political prosperity theology.  And time drains away.

Are we going over the cliff?  I really don’t know, but in the spirit of the holidays, I offer the devout a thought from Dickens:

“Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

It’s a start.



Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dr. House Cures The Fiscal Cliff

Dr. House Cures The Fiscal Cliff

There is a fascinating article in the Tuesday, December 4, 2012 edition of The New York Times “Could a Computer Outthink This Doctor” which focuses on Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal, an associate professor of clinical medicine at The University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Dhaliwal does on-stage presentations in which he is given small bits of data about an ill patient at intervals; the initial presentation, subsequent examinations, lab and diagnostic tests, the emergence of new symptoms, etc.  He has 45 minutes to diagnose the illness.

Being a devourer of the early episodes of “House” (I lose patience with TV after a while, having a deficiency in the enzyme that allows one to sit still for more than fifteen consecutive minutes) I found this story particularly appropriate as we careen towards December 31, and the cliff/slope/chasm/abyss awaits.

On “House” the drug and pain addled Dr. Gregory House races the clock to save dying patients from obscure disorders. His methods are a tad unconventional, but have involved breaking and entering, consumption of large quantities of illicit substances, odd pieces of equipment and unexpected tests, and, occasionally, more conventional diagnostics, such as extreme forms of sarcasm.

In the real world Dr. Dhaliwal sometimes uses a computer program called Isabel.  Isabel, like the chess playing Watson, can cross reference symptoms and test results against a huge database of diseases, including obscure ones that the average (or even “House-like”) doctor simply wouldn’t have been familiar with or able to recognize.

The developer of Isabel is Jason Maude, a former London-based money manager who created it after his then 3-year-old daughter, Isabel, developed chicken pox. The doctors were so focused on the chicken pox that they failed to place the proper weight on the rest of her symptoms: high fever, vomiting and skin rash, and missed an extremely serious complication—necrotizing fasciitis. 

Isabel survived, but is still, at 17, undergoing plastic surgery for the damage caused by the flesh-eating bacteria. 

In talking about Isabel’s experience, Mr. Maude refers to “anchoring bias”.  In investing, that can mean having an initial value or impression (such as the price of a stock a year ago) bias future investment decisions.  In medicine, it refers to the cognitive trap of allowing first impressions to exert undue influence on the diagnostic process, even in the face of later and contradictory bits of information. 

In Isabel’s case, her doctors’ anchoring bias was her chicken pox; in doing so, they saw but did not observe the severity of her other symptoms, with calamitous results.

In politics, “anchoring bias” stems from ideological inflexibility, party loyalty, or sometimes cold cash.  It can be hard to determine what precisely motivates which elected, since all claim the cloak of principle.  In practice, however, it is irrelevant, a point vividly demonstrated by both sides in the fiscal cliff debate.

President Obama floated a plan that had $1.6 Trillion in tax increases on the wealthy, to be achieved by letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and $400M combined in reductions to Social Security and Medicare.  And a provision that would raise the debt limit.  The problem with the President’s plan is that it doesn’t do enough towards deficit reduction.  It’s anchoring bias seems to be what worked under President Clinton can work again.  Of course, that was 12 years ago, before massive tax cuts, unfunded wars, and TARP.

Speaker Boehner put on the table his plan: $800M in “new revenues” which he proposes to get from eliminating unspecified deductions. And he proposes $600M in Medicare cuts, $200M from Social Security, and $600M in other unspecified cuts to domestic spending.  No cuts to the military, no tax rate increases.

To say Boehner’s plan is not credible is an understatement.  It’s a GOP fantasy, harsher than Romney campaigned on (particularly the cuts to Social Security and Medicare).  It also fails to raise the debt limit (so the GOP can extract more concessions after the deal is struck) and it mostly exempts the only two things that the GOP seems to care about: the wealthy and defense contractors. 

The White House quickly rejected the Speaker’s plan, but they barely got there first.  Boehner’s own Republican Caucus, including Jim DeMint, Godfather of the Tea Party, and Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority leader, denounced it.  Raising taxes in any way is anathema to these people.  All the deficit reduction must come from entitlements and domestic spending. The conservative Heritage Foundation put out the following statement “Rarely in modern American politics have more counterproductive, more foolish words been set to paper.”

A rational person might point out that we have just had an election where Mr. Obama won decisively, and the Democrats picked up both House and Senate seats.  The GOP has apparently drawn from those results two interesting conclusions.  The first, since they kept the House (through gerrymandering) the Constitution apparently requires that all fiscal policy meet their needs only.  The second is that Mr. Obama didn’t actually win. Radioactive Romney lost; meaning any Romney campaign idea that doesn’t reflect the most extreme views of the caucus is similarly radioactive.  Mr. Obama, and his plans, received no votes at all. 

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have thought that McConnell and DeMint and the Heritage Foundation’s objections would merely be a feint, to make Boehner’s proposal appear more balanced.  But it doesn’t seem that way at all.  Their anchoring bias is so strong it reflects itself in a messianic sense that elections, and the wishes of the electorate, are not worthy of notice. 

Mr. Boehner, for all his oleaginous perma-tanned appearance, is actually a very smart man.  GOP House leaders have been punishing Members who strayed too far from the party line by denying them committee appointments.  Boehner knows that if he can’t bring his caucus with him, he can’t negotiate at all.  And he knows Obama knows it as well. So Boehner tried another tack-he demanded that Obama counter the offer his own caucus rejected.

So far, Mr. Obama hasn’t taken the bait.  Having been rolled badly the first time around; he isn’t likely to make the same mistake twice. 

But Obama has a problem as well. Not only does he have the unions, traditional liberal groups, and AARP telling him they can give nothing, but he can’t make a deal in a vacuum. He needs a bargaining partner, and if Boehner isn’t it, it’s hard to see who would be. 

The problem with all this Kabuki is that it might not be Kabuki.  The anchoring bias might be the only thing that matters; these folk may not be able to disengage themselves to see clearly. As the patient (that would be all of us) careens towards the cliff, there is a very real risk that no deal can be made. 

How would Dr. House, or Dr. Dahliwal deal with this disease?  Without preconceived notions, without an anchoring bias. I think we can be pretty certain they would have kept searching for answers until they were certain.      

As a child, I read a story about the 16th Century French physician, Ambroise Paré, who served several French Kings on the battlefield.  At the time, firearms were wildly inaccurate, and wounds were both ragged and covered with powder burns.  Limbs often had to be cut off.  The conventional treatment for gunshot wounds was to pour boiling oil over them, and for the stumps, to cauterize with heated irons.   Paré, observing the agonies of the men, tried ligature on the stumps, and a light dressing with turpentine and oil of roses for the wounds.  The outcomes improved vastly.

Not surprisingly, Paré’s innovations were opposed by much of the medical establishment.  But he persisted, and the soldiers adored him. A deeply religious man, he once wrote, “I bandaged him and God healed him.”

There’s always prayer.