Sunday, October 27, 2013

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

There is a wonderful scene in the Bond movie “Die Another Day” where Pierce Brosnan, apparently sleeping in sick bay on a British ship after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans, codes out.  The buzzer goes off, the medical team scrambles, and two men approach with a defibrillator. Bond restarts his heart, zaps the mere mortals, goes top ship, jumps over the side, swims into the bay, and, soaked, bearded, with matted hair, strides into the Hong Kong Yacht Club.

Ah, to be 007.  The entire sequence from no heartbeat to a groomed Bond about to quaff his favorite vintage takes less than three minutes.

Male competence.  And you don’t have to be a superman. You can see it in one of the “knowing what needs to be done” Viagra ads, where the handsome, but decidedly middle-aged driver of a vintage Camaro that’s overheating on a desert road, stops at a gas station, grabs a bottle of water, takes a few swigs, pours the rest of it into the radiator, and drives off through the dust.  Or the new Robert Redford movie, where he battles the elements at sea alone, creatively, heroically. You don’t have to be a sex symbol, either. Richard Farnsworth shows it with his wits in “The Grey Fox” and later still, as an old man on two canes, in “The Straight Story.”  Men are supposed to be competent.

Would that be the case.  These last few weeks, we have had the unique opportunity to see some of the worst incompetence in government in recent memory (you have to wonder whether Jimmy Carter was paying people off.)  First, we had the idiotic and incredibly costly shutdown, a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy to the ambitions of Ted Cruz and his band of bankrupt brigands.  Then, the absurdly awful rollout of Obamacare, which didn’t have just a few bugs in the system, but a horde reminiscent of the locust in “The Good Earth.” And now, the absurdist Stalinist-era show trials of Obamacare hearings (it’s been up and running for a few weeks, so why not haul in the people who are supposed to be in charge so they can answer outraged questions for the cameras instead of going back to fix things?)

Blame the men.  Of course, Katherine Sibelius is in the crosshairs.  But you have to start with the President.  It’s his baby, with his name on it.  He’s got to have it ready.  Of course, Obama isn’t going to be writing code.  But he should have been insisting, from Day 1, that it be ready on time and with as minimal glitches as are possible when introducing a massive new system.  He had to have known that even if this was the best program ever, the Republicans would dig up (literally, if they had to) someone with tears running down their face, talking about how a two-hour delay in signing up ruined her life and generations to come.  He should have foreseen this, and apparently he didn’t. It’s an enormous failure of leadership, and it has to land on his doorstep.

Then, let’s move to the vendors in charge.  A friend who watched the hearings sent me the following, “And the clowns who testified before Congress earlier this week knew -- to the penny -- how much their contracts were worth, but didn't have a clue (nor did they seem to care) about whether they had actually delivered a working solution.”  You would think that the “clowns” would actually have some pride of authorship, if for no other reason because it could be good for attracting other business.  Think again. “Where’s my check?” seems to be their only priority.

Let's not forget the Republicans.  The massive opposition to Obamacare hasn’t just come from a bunch of grandstanding Washington politicians.  It has also taken place at the state and local level, where ambitious and ideologically motived Republican governors have decided Obamacare is a law that may be ignored because their party didn’t pass it and they don’t (personally) agree with it.  In 21 states, structural barriers have been erected by the GOP to the ACA’s implementation.  In North Dakota, the following was adopted as S. 2309: "The legislative assembly declares that the federal laws known as (PPACA) likely are not authorized by the United States Constitution and may violate its true meaning and intent as given by the founders and ratifiers."  Think about that for a second. Since when did a bunch of state legislators become the Supreme Court?  And just when did nullification regain credibility?

So, there you have it.  A poorly implemented law with inadequate prior planning, incompetent vendors, and the steadfast opposition of a political party who has forgotten their history and even their duty.  The original North Dakota bill (it was deleted in the final law) not only provided that the ACA is "considered to be null in this state" but made it a criminal offense for any federal official to implement the ACA.  Just imagine what would have happened in the Bush Administration if 21 states barred their citizens from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, were two immortal monsters who lived on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Scylla was a supernatural creature, with 12 feet and 6 heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of shark-like teeth, and on her thighs were the heads of ferocious dogs.  She dwelt in a cave, feeding herself on anything unfortunate enough (or foolish enough) that came close. Charybdis preferred the shade of a fig tree on the opposite shore.  She swallowed down and then belched out the waters of the channel three times a day, creating a deadly whirlpool that destroyed ships that passed her way.

Homer, in recounting Odysseus’ wanderings between his victory in the Trojan War and his return to Ithaca to regain his Kingship, describes his dilemma when he approaches the Straits.  He knows death awaits, but Scylla is quiet, so he chooses to spare his ship and steers away from the whirlpool.  But Scylla darts out and catches six of his men, one in each of her heads, for a midday meal.  Much screaming ensues.  Later, after his surviving men have angered the Gods, the ship is drawn into the whirlpool, and only Odysseus survives by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours.

The myth of Scylla and Charybdis are sometimes colloquialized into “between a rock and a hard place” and that is exactly where Obamacare, and Mr. Obama, are right now.  He’s not going to get any help whatsoever from the GOP (I will spare you any comparison between Ted Cruz and Scylla beyond noting that he only seems to have six heads) the public is dubious and getting more so now with the media amplifying the Republicans complaints, and his tech people have failed. The good ship Obamacare threatens not only to go down in the whirlpool but a lot of Democrats may end up being swallowed in 2014, and they will not get eaten without some screaming.

And, therein lies the dilemma for Mr. Obama. Yes, the Republicans sabotaged Obamacare, and the contractors screwed up.  But in our system, while the President doesn’t have to be James Bond or even Robert Redford, he does have to be competent, and sometimes, heroically so.  History will not care about North Dakota, it will not remember what talking heads said on Fox News, or the 42 (or is it 43?) repeals of Obamacare by the House.  The Republican obstructionism and even the shutdowns (past and present) will be footnotes to a larger story.  The buck stops at the President’s door. 

Obamacare belongs to Obama.

Fix it, Mr. President.  Show us you are the kind of guy who knows what needs to be done.

Michael Liss (MM)

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Ted Cruz Plays With Fractions And Factions

Ted Cruz Plays With Fractions and Factions

How many of you woke up this morning with the phrase “Federal Ratio” on your lips?

Provocative, isn’t it?  Not unlike a data point from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  While it certainly makes you want more, it could probably use some context. 

So, how about an alternative:  “Thomas Jefferson Used The Federal Ratio to (Legally) Steal Presidency in 1800.”

Before you go looking for hanging chads (and the election of 1800 was a doozy, with 37 votes in the House of Representatives) I want to bring you back to the First Fraction.

“Federal Ratio” refers to Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

In short, that’s the Three-Fifth’s Clause, which made slaves three-fifths of a person.  It still stings to look at, enshrined, as it was, in one of our most sacred documents. All of us are aware of the moral evil of slavery, but to think that a living, breathing, “Person” could be characterized as anything less than a full human being shocks the conscience.

And yet, the self-evident ugliness of the Federal Ratio obscures the fact that without it, we would never have had a Constitution, and, for that matter, never had a nation. The South simply wasn’t going to agree.  Why count slaves at all, since the South considered them not men but property?  That was a tradeoff between Northern economic interests and Southern political ones.  In the years before income tax, the North wanted to be sure the South paid taxes and fees proportionate to their actual population.  The South, needless to say, felt differently about how their “chattel” should count. On the other hand, the South also feared the faster-growing Northern states would come to dominate the electoral map unless structural impediments were put in place. 

So, in today’s parlance, to “make the deal” the Constitution enshrined this horrible injustice. And, if you accept Garry Wills’ argument in “Negro President” the numerical edge that the Three-Fifths Clause earned Jefferson 73 electoral votes to John Adams’ 67.  Wills calculates that the Federal Ratio may have swung 12 Electoral votes in Jefferson’s direction.  His work has been disputed by some historians, but the fact remains that between 30% and 40% of the total population of Maryland, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia were slaves, and applying 3/5 of that number swelled the Electoral Vote count of those states.  Put a different way, Massachusetts had almost 422,845 free  residents in 1800 and Virginia about 539,181.  But because Virginia also had 346,968 slaves, they received 21 Electoral Votes to Massachusetts 12. 

The Federal Ratio is but one of a series of compromises enshrined in the Constitution’s intricate machinery for balancing interests.  The makeup of the Senate is a second, with small states wielding a disproportionate impact.  Others include gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the power of  both the House and the Senate to draw their own procedural rules. At their best, these interrelated levers of power force compromise.  At their worst, they just help people game the system, either by suppressing dissent, or facilitating unjust outcomes that do not reflect the will of the majority.

The Founders clearly knew this.  They were very concerned about the formation of political parties and particularly sensitive to the dangers of factions.  This didn’t stop them from being elitists.  The Electoral College and the selection of Senators by State Legislatures ensured that the best and the brightest wouldn’t cede too much control to the unwashed and uneducated.  But they anticipated that, eventually, the aristocrats would sort things out, and in Madison’s words in Federalist 10 relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.”  

The Founders never met Ted Cruz.   I am not sure what he thinks the Federal Ratio is, but it clearly excludes any calculation of people who oppose his puritanical views.

Any discussion of Cruz inevitably brings us to the unpleasant math of the current crisis. The short term deal struck between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell merely delayed the inevitable.  The two sides are going to have to engage substantively and come up with some sort of bargain (Grand or otherwise) on the big issues.

Unfortunately, bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans cannot be even addressed until a more explosive one amongst Republicans and the Tea Party is resolved.  While the GOP has a coherent policy and a “median” political philosophy, the various factions (the New York Times identifies six discreet blocs just in the House) prioritize things differently and cannot agree on tactics.  Even more importantly, they can’t agree to empower anyone to negotiate for them.  In short, the new joint committee chaired by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan is almost certainly doomed to failure.  Expect it to fall apart in December in a cascade of mutual recriminations.  It is not that Ryan and Murray aren’t knowledgeable and able—they are.  But Ryan won’t have the ability to deal, because he won’t have the ability to bind his caucus to any compromise.

The bizarre aspect of this is that a majority of Republicans (both inside Congress and in the business community) would love deputize Ryan; he is very conservative and very pro-business. They can’t, because a determined minority, led by Cruz, threatens to pull the pin out of the hand-grenade every time the word compromise is uttered.  That minority fails to recognize that the refusal to bargain reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the architecture that the Founders created.  Even the Federal Ratio, as repulsive as it is, has a purpose—to balance competing interests and leave both sides with something.

Mitch McConnell’s eleventh hour intervention was in keeping with this more traditional path of exchanging priorities, while giving his party a way to stop the bleeding.  And by gathering up more than enough votes in the Senate, he provided political cover for those who had to choose purity out of necessity rather than passion.  But he also left the GOP House with a stark choice; either take the deal now and live to fight again, or jump into the pyre and play martyr. 

Not this earned him a lot of gratitude.  Over 60% of House Republicans preferred self-immolation, including a chunk of the House GOP leadership and 71 of the 80 termed by The Times as the “Tea Party Core” and “Shut Down Strategy” blocs.  Among the true believers “McConnell” has almost become as dirty a word as “Obama” (almost, let’s not get carried away.)

That brings us back to the ringleader of the failed strategy, Ted Cruz, who has gone on to serial ranting.  He careens from open mike to open mike, veering between fantastic claims about Obamacare, and highly personal condemnations of those of his fellow Republicans who he deems to have stabbed him, and the cause, in the back. Ted Cruz sees himself as a Tribune of the American People.

But, back in the land of the sane, Cruz has people worried, because the only rules he plays by are the ones he devises.  As the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker said last week in the Washington Post, “Cruz is a mirage, an idea conjured in a fantasy that can’t be realized in reality. Like many successful politicians (and narcissists), he reflects back to others their own projected needs and desires. But then reality sets in — the debt-crisis deadline looms, or the defunding ruse is exposed as theater — and only dust and dung remain among the shards of mirrored glass.”

“Dust and dung” were a little harsher than I was going for.  I was just looking for better math.  Unfortunately, with Cruz, the only number he cares about is One.   

Michael Liss (MM)

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Table

They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Table

There is a classic bit of copywriting by John Caples, first published in 1926, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano—But When I Started to Play!”

Our hero (Jack) is at a gathering, and the host has just performed a classical selection.  He gets up, does a little Paderewski, dusts off and spins the stool, and sits down to perform.  His friends expect a comedy act, because everyone knows Jack can’t play a note.  But then, he launches into Moonlight Sonata and the crowd listens, rapt, and stunned.  When it is over, “I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand -- wildly congratulated me -- pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm!”

Jack’s chopsticks-to-concerto secret was a correspondence course from the U.S. School of Music.  Even more remarkably, both he and the school assured readers that no special talent was needed.

Caples was touching on something much bigger than a keyboard: the transformational myth.  Women can go from duck to swan with new haircut and a few dabs of makeup.  Men can unleash the beast with any number of items that populate my email spam box. A new life awaits those with right tools and the energy to pursue their dreams. 

Of course, there’s a political metaphor here (you knew there would be.) We have always had plenty of ugly ducklings in government, but we seem to be outdoing ourselves in the woefully inadequate and senselessly destructive.  More and more people seem to believe that no special talent, or knowledge, is needed. There are three key trends.  The first is the rise of a Sarah Palin-type “common sense” populism, which is dismissive of hard data and relies on nostrums and slogans. The second is the ubiquity of opinion masquerading as fact. The third is a sort Gresham’s Law of politics, where the bad currency of the willfully ignorant and mindlessly aggressive pushes out the good of serious lawmakers.  Public service just isn’t very attractive.

Which brings us to where we are right now, shut down and about to default, or to quote Woody Allen in a different context, between the horrible and the miserable. And not many people to fix it, because government is overrun by people who just aren’t up to the job, and don’t know it.  They took the U.S. School of Music’s class on how to play the electoral cymbals, their neighbors tell them they sound really good, and they think they are ready to go solo (as a violinist) at Carnegie Hall.

But, deliberate, good lawmaking needs a variety of talents. The first is actual knowledge of the subject matter beyond slogans. A second is knowledge of self--you have to know your skillset.  You can be a terrific administrator but a dull speechmaker.  A great policy wonk but a little low on charisma.  Or simply, a very smart and dedicated legislator, but a lousy negotiator.

And that is perfectly fine.  Different tools for different jobs, so long as the institution of government contains all the necessary ingredients and they are properly deployed.  Ultimately, the question becomes whether the leadership has the emotional intelligence to know when to delegate.  It starts at the very top.  Clinton was a political polymath—he could pretty much do it all, but Reagan, rather famously, knew his limits and when to send in his team.  Both were successful.

Mr. Obama, I’m afraid, hasn’t quite grasped this.  I think he still believes that the oratorical skills that took him the White House should carry the day at the negotiating table.  What he misses is that the times are different, the opposition simply hates his guts (there is no point in mincing words) and he’s just not good at the give and take.  The President is not a retail politician in any way.  He needs to step aside, just a bit, and let others take the lead.  Using other people’s talents is not a sign of weakness. 

John Boehner, for different reasons, is even more of a disaster.  Boehner, either through weakness or fatal misjudgment, has allowed himself to become the tool of the obstreperous and uninformed.  He knows it, the majority of Republicans, both in and out of government also know it, but he doesn’t know how to deal with it.  The simple fact is, when you let the omnivorous egomaniac Ted Cruz become de facto Speaker of the House, you have failed completely.  

Fortunately, there are some glimpses of light.  Five people have stepped forward.  The first is Paul Ryan, who has managed, in an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, to appear moderate in tone (his substance is another matter.) The other four are two pairs of Senators, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, currently planning to huddle together, and Susan Collins (Maine) and Patty Murray (Washington State) who have just had what amounted to a well-bred shouting match. 

These four Senators are perfect for their jobs.  McConnell and Reid are the same people; partisan, coldblooded gutter-fighters who know every inch of the chamber they rule over and the details people are (really) fighting over.  Murray sits on the Appropriations Committee and is the 4th ranking Democrat in the Senate. Collins also serves on Appropriations, and is considered a “moderate” bridge.

There are two critical items that must be resolved. 

The first is simply process.  Can you let a minority hold hostage the operation of the government and the very creditworthiness of the nation to achieve political ends?  The answer absolutely has to be in the negative.  McConnell, who plans on being Senate Majority leader in 2015 and beyond, knows that.  His desire to restore regular order is the key to resolving the process issue.

The second is policy.  Obamacare is just one of countless policy items that were on the hit list of the GOP’s extortionist wing.  Here is where Collins comes in, and why she and Murray were so much at odds.  Collins tried very hard to broker a compromise, but the “compromise” was designed to satisfy conservatives in the Senate, mainly some fig- leafs with regard to Obamacare, and, more importantly, the retention of the sequester levels of spending for another six months in return for a short extension of the debt ceiling until January 31, 2014.  Collins’ compromise breaches three key firewalls for the Democrats; it locks in sequestration levels that the Democrats only agreed to as a short-term measure in 2011, it confirms the effectiveness of extortion as a tactic on Obamacare and other items, and it sets the stage for a reprise in January, when the GOP can pull the same stunt again. Murray is upset because she knows that Collins used her “moderate” credibility to interest a handful of conservative Democrats (including Joe Manchin of West Virginia) in what is essentially partial win for the Tea Party and a big win for the GOP in general.  Collins gets a lot for the GOP and gives almost nothing.

That’s why Murray called her out, and why Reid immediately rejected the plan, while, at the same time, praising Collins.  If you had any doubts as to how good it is for the GOP, McConnell expressly embraced it on Sunday.  So, it is dead, for now, but what Collins has actually accomplished is resetting the argument.  It is up to McConnell and Reid to now hash out the details, but a ritual spanking of the Tea Party, less sequestration, more time on the debt ceiling, and maybe you have the outlines of a deal.

Tony Blair, on the occasion of his last speech as Prime Minster, said; “Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall. Although I know that it has many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. If it is, on occasions, the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”

Blair, like so many truly successful politicians, was an optimist.  But the “pursuit of noble causes” begins with people sitting down at the piano to do the nation’s business.  Let’s see if they can play.  Jack’s story notwithstanding, talent would help a lot


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Paging Dr. Sacks

Paging Dr. Sacks

Oliver Sacks, the physician and author (“Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”) also wrote the fascinating “Musicophilia,” a series of case studies about people who have profound “musical misalignments” that cause them to hear and experience music in a way that is vastly different than that of the average person glued to a pair of ear buds.

One of the more unusual disorders Sacks describes is Cochlear Amusia, which manifested itself in a patient he identifies as Jacob L.  Jacob was a composer in his late 60’s, who, after a month’s period of relative inactivity, found himself with the stunning realization that the rather good piano he was playing was grossly out of tune in the upper register.  Or so he thought, because when he returned home that evening and worked on a synthesizer, where pitch is perfect, the same anomalies appeared.  Once again, the upper registers sounded out of tune, when they clearly weren’t.  Even more distressing, while the “mistuning” was always sharp, the degree of sharpness varied from octave to octave and sometimes from note to note, leaving him without a linearity he could have compensated for.   Jacob visited his audiologist (like many musicians, he had previously experienced some hearing loss) but there was no obvious cause, and worse, no treatment.  The problem seemingly wasn’t in his ears, but in his head.  He no longer heard notes, even amplified notes, at the same pitch “normal” people did. For a composer and conductor, this was devastating, and led Jacob to consult with Dr. Sacks. 

I thought of Jacob’s affliction when I read of two seemingly unrelated political situations, the first regarding the New York City Mayoral race, and the second, the steadfast conservatism in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, the home of (to me) of that paragon of obstreperous weirdness, Congressman Steve King.

Let’s start with New York, where Bill de Blasio is, as they say in the business, just killing it.  Recent polls put him so far ahead that his opponent, Joe Lhota, is in danger of being lapped.  Why? I could give you a lot of reasons, starting with Dante’s Afro, running through Bloomberg fatigue, to Lhota’s lackluster campaign, but it still wouldn’t come close to explaining the extent of deB’s lead. In truth, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever on the merits.  This is not to say that a Democrat (almost any Democrat) doesn’t have some built-in advantages.  But the fact is that Lhota is competent and experienced (although dull) and de Blasio, is, well, quite the dreamy Progressive. 

And yet, if Lhota didn’t keep his headlights on, de Blasio wouldn’t even see him.  He’s winning because people are listening to his music. Yes, deB is too liberal for many (me included) and yes, Lhota has a good track record as a manager.  And yet, the outpouring of (often very eager) doom and gloom predictions from everyone on the Right doesn’t seem to fit the circumstances. On issue after issue, people hear the notes of criticism, but they don’t register. de Blasio is going to curtail stop and frisk.  OK, maybe crime will go up a bit, but it does not necessarily follow, as has been opined, that soon we would all be experiencing a replay of “Escape From New York.”  de Blasio wants to keep the current cap on charter schools and charge them rent.  OK, even assuming that charters provide a better option for neighborhoods with failing schools, he’s not sending in the National Guard to root them out, and children will not be forced to march ten miles through deep snow (with no shoes carrying fifty pounds of potatoes on their backs) to get an education.  de Blasio wants to provide universal Pre-K.  So does Joe, but de Blasio wants to pay for it with a tax of ½ of 1% on high earners. Joe opposes the taxes.  So, let’s say that deB is able to convince Cuomo and the state legislators to raise the tax—a highly debatable proposition.  Lhota and his allies have been predicting a Conestoga wagon train (in Porsche Cayennes?) of the wealthy, eyes filled with tears, leaving behind their Park Avenue digs.  Presumably to be followed by squatters muscling past doormen and bringing the unwashed (literally) to the very doorsteps of privilege. Possible?  Maybe, but even if you make gigantic amounts of money, would a tax of ½ of 1% cause you to decamp to, say, Mississippi?

This doesn’t mean I agree with any of the above de Blasio proposals.  I just don’t buy the proposition, as many conservative opinion-makers insist I must, that within six months New York will become another Detroit.  And, given Mr. Lhota’s poll numbers, it seems that many New Yorkers don’t buy it either.  He is just not playing our tune.  If I were his campaign director, I would very much like an etch-a-sketch moment and start all over again, because if Bill de Blasio wins decisively, it will mean that Joe Lhota booted away a very real chance.  Bill de Blasio was not inevitable. We are more left of center here in New York than most of the rest of the country.  But we are not irrational.

Meanwhile, in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, the estimable Steve King, noted crazy person (he of the cantalouped immigrants calves, strange visit to Egypt, enduring passion for dog and cock fighting, Obama-baiting and other restful and relaxing pastimes) may be exploring a Presidential run. Set yourself a moment after you read that.  King won last time out by a relatively narrow margin, but it’s very clear that he has the bedrock support of the same sort of rural conservative voters who have elected Republicans, and Tea Party types, all across the country.  There’s an interesting piece by James Stewart in the New York Times, “In Rural Iowa,Spending, Not the Shutdown, Raises Worry.”  King’s district abuts rural Minnesota and Nebraska to the North and West, and this area breeds a certain type of person, with just as distinctive a personality and political views as we have in New York.  Enough of them are Steve King people to keep sending him back to Congress to do that thing that he does so well. They do so because they share his social values, they share his views on immigration, on guns, and on government spending.  They may think Steve can go a little overboard at times, and sometimes they question his tactics, but, in the main, they hear his song, and they cut him some slack.  And, just to be clear, those hardheaded farmers who work twenty-hour days are not irrational either.

How does a gigantic democracy such as ours reconcile Bill de Blasio and Steve King?  Especially when they may hear the same music but not the same notes? Right now, if you have been watching the appalling comedy in Washington, not all that well.

Still, I have hopes.  Jacob, Dr. Sacks reports, made some small headway against his affliction, using all his training, and the brain’s plasticity, to compensate.  It enabled him to keep going, although with great effort. Then, Sacks received a note from Jacob, saying the condition had largely abated. Jacob had received a commission “to write a score for a large string orchestra and several solo instruments, which largely called twelve tone semi-dissonant techniques…” It was tremendously difficult, given his problems, but he persevered through composition, studio work and rehearsals.  And one day, he noticed his Cochlear Amusia started to improve. Not every day, and not linearly, but steadily to the point where he had regained almost full function.   

In Sacks’ words, “Jacob’s brain has literally reshaped itself.”

Now that’s cool.  Maybe Bill de Blasio hangs with Steve King. From dissonance comes harmony?

Or maybe Dr. Sacks makes House calls?


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Closing Our Ears To Sin

Closing Our Ears To Sin

In the late 1520’s and early 1530’s, the Anabaptists, a radical (and persecuted) fringe of the Reformation, flooded into the German city of Münster.  By 1533, inspired by the direction of Bernhard Rothman, they gained enough support so that they were able to win control of the City Council.  There, they proceeded to create a messianic kingdom under John of Leiden, and expelled all non-Anabaptists. 

530 years later, on June 27, 2003, the House of Representatives, on an almost entirely partisan vote of 216 to 215, enacted H.R. 1, the largest single entitlement program since the institution of Medicare in 1965. The opponents of the bill complained about its cost, lack of controls, and inflexibility.  The proponents argued it was something we owed the beneficiaries, something critical that was lacking in the then-present insurance market. 

As you might have imagined, the initial reaction to the Münster revolution was not entirely positive, and John of Lieden found his poll numbers dropping precipitously.  An army of Catholics and Protestants surrounded the city and besieged it.  In response, the ruling Anabaptists went further, mandating common ownership and even polygamy, saying these were in accordance with Biblical precedent.  Books were burned, property destroyed, and people were encouraged to go naked in the streets to prepare themselves for the rapture.

By 1535 (presumably in time for the “mid term elections” ) the city was recaptured, and the Anabaptist leaders all met violent ends; they were tortured, then executed, and their bodies were hung in cages from the steeple of St. Lambert’s church at the center of the town. 

Things did not quite go so badly for the supporters of HR-1.  Despite the opposition, and despite sharply rising deficits and economic uncertainty, the law survived.  Many of them remain in Congress (most in the House, some now in the Senate) to continue to ply their trade and stand up for the principles they hold dear. 

Who were these people who voted for HR-1?  207 of them were….Republicans.  2003 was not a typo, and the gigantic entitlement program was Medicaid Part D.  Newly empowered, having won control of the House after Karl Rove savaged the Democrats in the midterm elections for being insufficiently patriotic after 9/11, they were persuaded the lock in the senior vote by creating this massive giveaway.  As a sweetener to their corporate backers, the government was forbidden from negotiating discounts with the pharmaceutical manufacturers.

HR-1 was introduced by Denny Hastert (yes, that Denny Hastert, of the “Hastert Rule.”)  Among the Republican ayes was a Mr. Boehner of Ohio’s Eight Congressional District.  Joining him was Eric Cantor (now House Majority Leader, and Cassius to Boehner’s tremulous Caesar) and Darrell Issa (head of the Inquisition.)  Also, Tea Party stalwarts Mike Rogers and Spencer Bachus of Alabama, and now current Senators John Boozman of Arkansas,  Jeff Flake of Arizona, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mark Kirk of Illinois,  David Vitter of Louisiana, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. 

Also, such luminaries as Chris Chocola, then representing Indiana’s Second District, now head of the adamantly “shut it down” Club for Growth.  He was for Medicaid Part D. And crazy Joe Barton and Jeb Henserling of Texas (Chair of the House Financial Services Committee).  And former Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan.  And I could go on.  For a very long time.

All these folks worried so much then about the seniors in this country that expended every ounce of concern for their fellow human beings in that one agonizing vote. They just plum tuckered themselves out.  Now every single one of them is front and center on eliminating Obamacare and in using a government shutdown and the debt limit as leverage.  And many are insistent on using the same tools to cut back Social Security and Medicare at the same time.

What happened to these people in a scant ten years?  Besides the spelling of the last name of the person in the White House? You would have to ask them.  Surely something has converted them, made them see a new light, drawn them away from the “Compassionate Conservatism” (and party-building) of Mr. Bush.  They burn with righteousness.

Religious fervor like that can be near an eternal fire.  It can take the form of a complete reorganization of the present to purge the sins of the past.  The Anabaptists, for example, wanted to strip away the excesses of an ossified Catholic Church too hierarchical, and too dependent on the selling of indulgencies and relics.  They wanted to simplify, to return to the spirit of the more primitive church, the one closer to the individual.

Sometimes, as in Münster, things got out of hand, and the counter-reaction was violent.  But religious reformers like the Anabaptists often saw in their suffering and persecutions an echo of the martyrs of the first few Christian centuries, and drew strength from their defeats.

Political reformers also often find themselves caught up in a new passion.  They forget their past lives, purge themselves and their followers of (political) vices and even memories. and move forward with the zeal of the newly converted. They, too, are ready, if necessary to martyr themselves for a cause.

Take Congressman John Culberson of Texas, who, in a frenzy of pure passion for the new Gospel, evoked the spirit of the heroes of United Airlines Flight # 93, and shouted out to the Republican Conference “I said, like 9/11, ‘let’s roll!’” 

In case you were curious, Congressman Culberson voted “aye” on Medicare Part D in 2003.  He has since found the courage to close his ears to sin.

And so, as the clock passes midnight on October 1, 2013, so must we all.