Monday, February 23, 2015

Passings and Passages

Passings and Passages

We are losing a friend soon, far sooner than we want to.  The wonderful, brilliant, funny, insightful, awed and awe inspiring Oliver Sacks has written his own elegy.  The rare cancer of the eye that he was treated for nine years ago has done something equally unusual—it has metastasized to his liver.  Dr. Sacks can fight the battle, but he cannot win the war, and the tumors eventually will take him.

I said “elegy” but I was wrong, because there is nothing elegiac about it.  Sacks is one of life's great enthusiasts: I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.”

I said “friend” without ever meeting him, without ever exchanging a single word, not an email, or a tweet, not the smallest electron.  I don’t know him at all, except from his acutely observant but joyous books, and his charming appearances on TV. He might be a bear in person, perhaps eccentric to the point of exasperating.  He is linked in many people’s minds with Robin Williams’ portrayal of him in “Awakenings” and I wonder if that wasn’t an inspired choice, despite the obvious dissimilarities.  Perhaps the two share the same quicksilver intelligence along with dispositions, enthusiasms and extreme immoderation. 

Sacks’ genius isn’t just of the mind—it's also the generosity of his spirit.  Read his books and you open yourself up just a bit to the great kaleidoscope of his world.  I love  “Musicophilia,” which includes a spot-on description of the dreaded earworm, those little scraps of music that embed themselves on continuous loops in our brain.  I happen to be very susceptible to the dirge-like.  “Te Deum” from Verdi’s Tosca is a killer—it can stay with me for days, even while (especially while) I’m running in Central Park. 

Yet, I think his most accessible, his most alive, is “Uncle Tungsten” the story of his boyhood growing up in an absurdly scientific, endlessly stimulating household.  There’s a cool manufacturing plant that makes light bulbs (hence, the tungsten) and a collection of odd relatives, and all types of apparatus scattered everywhere, and smack in the middle of it is the supremely inquisitive Oliver, just having a gas soaking up a nerdy kid’s delights. 

I don’t think you lose someone like Oliver Sacks, because he stays with you.  His humanity is palpable—he admits to fear, and yet he retains openness and gratitude.  I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.”

There is a lot of darkness in the world right now.  I was going to write about some of it—about all the horrible acts committed, about Islamic terrorists and broken ceasefires in Ukraine, and bizarre statements by former Mayors of New York, and even the awful weather, which dims the sun and beats us back into domestic incarceration. 

Yet, I can’t. No politics this week.  There is time enough to examine, to criticize, to praise and to mock.  We have an absolute abundance of material, and if there is a certainty, it is that it will be there next week and the week after, season after season, like the evergreen. 
It just doesn’t seem to be the right time and place to moan when someone so extraordinary accepts a harsh reality and reaches for the light. “I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

To do these things, Sacks needs to husband that strength, and focus his energies.  No more time for the NewsHour, and no more attention to arguments about politics and global warming.  He takes note of the friends and colleagues he has lost, “(E)ach death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself.”

Yet, he remains an optimist. “I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.”

It is an optimism that must come from an unquenchable joy.  Share it with him--grab the New York Times, or, better yet, read one of his books, and find the pleasure he takes in so many things, and make one of them your own.  

February 23, 2015

Michael Liss

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Boehner's Bibi-Gun

Boehner's Bibi-Gun

How do you feel about a foreign policy based on slogans and snark?  How about one apparently developed from an entirely idiosyncratic view of how and when to express American military power that is dependent on one person’s less-than-objective view of his singular ability to bring peace on Earth and good will to all men?  Perhaps you prefer one that relies completely and solely on closed fist and a sledgehammer, even when a scalpel and tweezers might be more effective?

You don't like any of them, do you?  In a world of escalating threats, of both state sponsored and stateless terrorism, of barbarity on a shocking scale, car-bombs, beheadings, kidnapping, burnings, you might be wondering just what those folks we send to Washington might actually be doing on our behalf?  

Not much, I’d say.

Part of this is because of a very uncomfortable truth.  We don't really have a governing principle when it comes to foreign policy, except self-interest.  The freedoms we enjoy are not universal.  Most of the world’s population lives in dictatorship, sometimes of the right, sometimes of the left, and very often those dictatorships do not faint at the sight of blood.  And neither do we, so long as we think we have a strategic interest in supporting the blood-lettor over the blood-lettee. That, we like to console ourselves with, is the burden of leadership—selective immunity to the suffering of others.

We have learned that history is unkind to those who seek to be top dog.  Most of the rest of the world either opposes you outright, resents you, or thumbs their nose at you while happily letting you spill your blood and your treasure making their lives safer. 

That is not a peculiarly American gripe.  Great empires don’t survive as great.  Sooner or later they overextend themselves—they mistake other people’s fights as their own or decide to reach for something beyond their grasp.  If they are lucky, like the English, they become like grandma’s old club-chair—a little worn, a little decorous, but still comfy for an afternoon snooze. If they are unlucky, like the Romans, the Greeks, or the Turks, well, there’s plenty of sacking, looting, and pillaging ahead. 

We are at a crossroads right now.  9/11 relit the match that Reagan helped put out—it gave those who desire perpetual military involvement on a global scale the excuse to advocate it for in all circumstances.  But Iraq did exactly the opposite.  By dragging us into an endless and pointless war under ginned up circumstances, it eroded respect for the government’s truthfulness.  A significant majority of Americans think Iraq wasn’t worth it, or even justified.

This push and pull is far more difficult to resolve intellectually than the Cold War arguments, because then we were facing up against whole countries, as countries, who were determined to defeat us.  Our strategy was dependent on brute force—we needed the biggest of everything to maintain the balance of power, including the certainty of mutual mass destruction.  We knew the Russians and the Chinese (and their client states) were more than willing to risk lives, but we were also certain we understood they were not willing to take existential risk.  So, the domestic arguments we had were over the size of the Communist threat, and how to deal with it, but the tools at our disposal—diplomacy combined with muscle, dealing principal to principal, were never in question.  Rather, it was the ratio of the two that was debated, with the public preferring to err on the side of caution.  This mood was beautifully tapped into in Reagan’s “Bear in the Woods” commercial during the 1984 campaign. 

Move forward thirty years, and all of that seems quaint.  Our attempts to fight states (Iraq and Afghanistan) have resulted in quagmires or worse.  Wherever we break up the old order, brutal or not, it's as if we kicked an ant-heap, and all the sectarian anger spills out like lava, burning everything in its path. Instead of freedom, we have fostered chaos. The alphabet soup of ISIS and ISIL and the asymmetric threats of seemingly every other fringe group, every other lunatic with a gun or a bomb, are completely outside our experience.   I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons why the neo-cons are so eager to fight the Russians in Ukraine is out of some sense of nostalgia, like former Wehrmacht soldiers getting together in beer halls singing the old tunes.  They want a real live shooting war with a visible army.

Where does one find a country that presents both a danger and an opportunistic target?  That would be Iran, who may (or may not) have an insatiable desire for nuclear weapons, and a regime that we think would use it—on our allies, and on us. 

And how to deal with this threat?  Not easy.  Let me start by saying I don't know who is right here.  Mr. Obama has an approach to Iran that emphasizes negotiation over military intervention.  That is the way he approaches most things, and in many respects, while it lacks the frisson of a John McCain “Boots Everywhere” policy, it can be effective without excess loss of life—where the situation presents itself.  I just don’t know whether the situation is actually presenting itself here, and the consequences of being wrong are potentially quite substantial.  The Republicans disagree.  They distrust negotiations, and prefer rapidly escalating measures that ultimately must be backed up with the threat, and even the actuality, of force. 

Unfortunately, the debate over how to handle Iran, which should be analytical, contemplative, and deadly serious, has devolved into bad comic opera.

With the President having articulated a negotiations-first strategy, the Republicans have decided to counter with the heavy artillery, their Bibi-Gun.  Bibi Netanyahu will make their case for a muscular approach to Iran in a speech to Congress.  They expect he will do so effectively and persuasively, thoroughly rebutting the President’s approach so as to discredit it with the American people.  Their mood traverses the spectrum from happy to positively gleeful.

I hate this idea.  To start with, it is extraordinarily cheap politics for partisan gain. Second, and far worse, it will move the debate from the brain to a more glandular location.

The facts are not really in question. Speaker Boehner made a private invitation to Bibi to speak to a joint session.  The invitation, and Bibi’s acceptance, was done without informing the White House, which is a significant breach of protocol.  Both men have an agenda here, and it’s not really Iran. Bibi has elections coming up and wants to look strong—and he has a marked preference for Republicans.  Boehner wants to score political points with his own caucus and hopes to embarrass Mr. Obama.

If we didn’t live in such supremely partisan times, someone with a brain in his head would have told these two, ostensibly very smart men, that what they were doing was profoundly stupid.  The impact was the rough equivalent of throwing a stink-bomb into high-end garden party.  A lot of very elegant guests don’t care for the bouquet.  Vice President Biden will, regretfully, be unable to attend, and a lot of other Democratic electeds will suddenly find an overwhelming need to tend to constituent needs on that day.  “Echo Chamber” may be more reality than either wanted. Back in Israel, Bibi is the subject of withering criticism for allowing his ego to take the place of good judgment, and a majority of Israelis think he shouldn’t speak.  But, perversely, he may be saved in the election by the latest terrorist attack—a gift from extremists that makes the mind spin (and reminds you of what really we face in the region) and the perception that if Bibi doesn’t like Obama, Obama must really like Iran. 

In the meantime, are we really debating the best approach to Iran—or any of the other dozens of threats that seem to emerge like buboes on a plague victim?  Of course not, when we can stick it in Obama’s ear and all snigger like 12 year-old boys upon discovering Grandpa’s cache of Playboys.

Think about that for a moment.  Are you really safer because of it? And then think about a line from a recent speech Marco Rubio made,  "And yet there are people talking about boycotting the speech to protest, because their feelings are hurt. Because they’re upset about the way it went down. Because they don’t like the way it was scheduled, because it is disrespectful to the President." 

Of course, he was directing it at Democrats, but if Senator Rubio wanted to show real leadership, Presidential leadership, he would nail it to every last door on Capitol Hill. 

Someone has to be an adult about this.  We all know the problem when children play with Bibi-guns. You could take an eye out.  

February 17th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, February 9, 2015

ACA Follies

You may not have heard, but the Republicans have a new plan to replace Obamacare with a true conservative alternative.  They are bringing in Bibi Netanyahu to be the new ACA Czar.

You have to admit, for just a moment, you thought it possible.  But, there is an ACA plan, and it is fabulous. As to “new”, well, “new” is a term of art.  As Dana Milbank points out in the Washington Post, the “new” plan is almost word-for-word cut and paste from something they introduced over a year ago, but didn’t publicize very much.  The “Burr, Hatch, Upton Obamacare Replacement Plan” looks stunningly like the “Burr, Coburn, Hatch Obamacare Replacement Plan.”  Senator Coburn retired, so Orrin Hatch gets moved up in the billing, and Fred Upton (Republican Congressman from Michigan and current Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) rides in the caboose.  After that exhausting expenditure of time and energy replacing the digital signs, they had to rest, and left everything else alone.

Why bother with an ACA replacement, since every realist knows that what the GOP wants (and has now expressed no less than 56 times) is repeal without the “replace” part?  Because, opposing Obamacare was easy—it was both philosophically abhorrent to Republicans to expand medical coverage to those who didn’t have it, and it was great politics.  But governing, which is what the GOP desperately wants to do in 2017, is a little different, and they know it.  Hence, the great new plan.  

The Republicans have begun to realize they have a political problem.  Actually, that’s not quite accurate.  In fact, they anticipated it years ago when ACA was first enacted, but reaped so much electoral hay out of it that they forgot.  ACA is type of entitlement program, just like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, veterans benefits, and a countless other smaller line items that give a leg up to a certain class of people.   All of us are united in hating big government and taxes and regulations and programs, but our ire tends to abate quite markedly when we benefit.  We like those things, and feel “entitled” to keep them.  The GOP knew that in 2009, which is why they fought it tooth and nail.  They forgot it afterwards in their glee over the 2010 mid-term elections. ACA became the carbuncle on the donkey that couldn’t be lanced, and the GOP was more than happy to keep inflaming it.

We are at a crossroads right now.  Not only does the GOP control Congress and the majority of the statehouses, but they also have teed up before a conservative Supreme Court King vs. Burwell, which, if it goes the GOP way, will absolutely eviscerate the law by invalidating a key funding structure. 

That makes life good?  Not necessarily. What the GOP (and the Democrats) and, I would hazard to say, even the nine Justices on the Supreme Court may have lost in all the sound and fury was just how complex the ACA really was, not just from a programmatic and drafting perspective but also from a psychological one.  It is a different type of entitlement. Not like, say, Social Security, that you age into and keep.  But rather something that creates benefits (and burdens) that can wax or wane over a period of time, or because of changes in an individual’s personal or family situation.  Embedded in ACA are a lot of components that are appreciated by many people episodically, such as those relating to pre-existing conditions, portability, the ability to obtain individual policies in the exchanges, and being able to keep your children on your coverage through age 26.  While those pieces may not mean everything to everyone at every time, and nothing for some (like seniors, who already have their entitlement), they do have a lot of attractiveness to a wide swathe of the electorate at some point in their lives. Kill off ACA, rip it out by its roots, and the losers you create will be real ones, not just predominantly angry political opponents.

This unusual asynchrony creates an extraordinary challenge for the political system.  The GOP has been operating under the assumption that everyone hates Obamacare, and their full-scale, no-hold-barred assault (including some extremely questionable plaintiff-shopping in King vs. Burwell) means they will be greeted as liberators the moment the dragon has been slayed.

That is not necessarily true, and the latest “Burr Hatch Upton” reiteration may (may) indicate that there is some awareness of that amongst their wise men.  Part of politics is optics, and the optics of aggrieved seniors talking about the Founders and wearing three-cornered hats is not nearly as potent as that of a single commercial showing a worn-from-worry-but-proud middle-aged couple recounting the story of their wonderful 24 year old daughter, with a preexisting condition she has triumphed over, and who had cobbled together three part time jobs with no benefits, then got sick with no coverage because the Republicans took it away from her. That image, in some form or another, must (or at least should) keep the smarter heads in the GOP up at night.

It ACA flawed legislation?  Without a doubt, and its very complexity and inherent contradictions create opportunities to attack it legislatively and through a highly skeptical court system often looking for an excuse to invalidate it, even if that does amount to what many feel would be an extraordinary moment of judicial activism. 

We could, of course, fix those flaws.  We could take some vetted conservative ideas and apply them to existing ACA legislation, and improve it. But we don’t, and we won’t, because the fix involves moving from politics to policy, and when the Democrats passed ACA without a single Republican vote and the Republicans responded by defining uncompromising resistance to it as an article of faith, it weaponized the issue. Burr Hatch Upton is just a fig leaf for repeal without replace.  If the Republicans were serious about amending the law constructively, they would put some meat on those bones, pass it in Congress the way they like it (they have the votes) and send it to Mr. Obama, and then real negotiating would begin.  But amending the law legitimizes it, and they can’t bring themselves to do that.  So, other than a little self-plagiarizing, and hoping the Supreme Court takes another whack in King vs. Burwell, they are paralyzed beyond throwing the long-ball of government shutdowns or waiting until 2017.

I think the GOP is making a gigantic mistake—a gigantic political mistake.  They have a unique opportunity to make substantial changes in ACA while keeping the most generally desirable parts, and get the credit for fixing it.  But I don’t think they have the emotional capacity to do it.  They have lusted after repeal so long they can’t give up the dream.  They are going to let down that middle-aged couple with the brave 24 year old. 

I am reminded a bit of Mr. Spock, who once told a rival,  “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

January 9, 2015

Michael Liss

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Mitt Exits, Stage Right

Mitt Exits, Stage Right

What exactly was that?  Two weeks ago, Mitt was tanned (Mitt is always tanned) and rested and ready for a third grab at the brass ring.  And now, the Mitt boomlet has turned bust-let (it can’t be a full blown bust, it never had the time to inflate fully as a boom) and we have to turn the page so soon?  Mitt, fini? 

I am actually disappointed.  I had hopes he would elevate the debate, or at least put some substance in it.  Not going to happen.  Jeb is now putative elder statesman and object of adoration of those who jingle the moneybags (cosseted in silk, of course, so they don’t make any noise.)

Mitt had a particularly ugly week.  He wasn’t seeing good numbers from Iowa, where the potential caucus-goers who retained some residual warmth when thinking of him as a former Republican Presidential candidate had far less when considering him as a present one. His former campaign coordinator in Iowa, David Kochel, jumped ship right after participating after a Mitt-for-Prez conference call—to Jeb.  And, in what was the most unexpected blow, as set out in a rather eye-opening account by Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin in the New York Times, a major donor, William Oberndorf, reacted to Mitt's reentry with an emai 52 other major Republican movers and shakers and bestowers of favors to say that Mitt had his chance and it was time to move on.  And that full deck of string-pullers apparently agreed, almost to a person.  Mitt, a man of great personal wealth, was suddenly without the funds to continue.

The truth was that not only was Mitt unloved, but also that Mitt was outflanked. Put in different terms, Mittcorp suffered a boardroom coup.  While Mitt was doing the elder statesman and criticize Obama thing, Jeb and his people were quietly collecting proxies.  When Mitt reached for support, he found it had completely evaporated.

That fact, in itself, tells you three things.  The first is that Mitt’s reflexes for the give and take of politics had grown dull.  The second is that the Bush network is massive, adept, and focused.  And the third is that the battle has now been joined, not “for the soul of the Republican Party” but rather for corporate control. 

This battle is important, not just to Republicans, but to all of us.  It isn’t really a public fight, but rather an extraordinary, if largely invisible war between many of the people on Obendorf’s list of 52 (and a lot of others) and the more ideologically-minded candidates and their supporters. 

I want to be a little unkind here, and even a little conspiratorial.  Take a look at the names in Parker and Martin’s article.  How many of them do you recognize?  And this isn’t purely ideological or partisan.  Hillary has her own list of well-heeled donors also ready for pay-to-play.  All these contributors know that in any Administration, regardless of party, politics and profitability are linked.  The economic elites have always been served in this country—it’s just a question of the degree (or audacity) of service.   

But it isn’t quite as binary as that, because we aren’t a kleptocracy or even an oligarchy.  Rather, we are a representative democracy where most citizens can vote, and all votes are counted as equal.  So, first, you have to win, and that means motivation, turnout/voter suppression, ground-game, and a few of the black arts.  Money, especially unlimited and impossible to trace money, buys all those things.  

In a local or even a statewide election, the power of green can be overwhelming.  One of the truly brilliant aspects of the Koch strategy is that there is seemingly no office too small for them to pay attention to. Still, when you are talking about electing a President, cash is an enabler (maybe even decisive in a close election) but it’s not a complete substitute for an attractive candidate.   You need to find a vessel to capture the prize.  So, if I am an “investor” I want the person who has enough general appeal to win.  And, I want that person to have genuine skills, because I want him or her to have coattails so as to get or create greater legislative majorities to enact my program.  Finally, I want him to be reelected, so he can continue to work on my behalf.

In short, I need an appealing, but competent, grownup.  If he shows himself to be able, his precise ideology, so long as he stays bought, is less important to me than his nature of his rhetoric and demeanor.  Get me what I want, make sure I keep it, and don’t scare people so much that they start looking too closely at what you just acquired for me.

Look at three different parts of the GOP spectrum for a moment.  There is Jeb, who hasn’t held elective office in twelve years, but is perceived as genial, attractive, competent, and non-threatening. There is Ted Cruz, angry, closed fist, and scorched Earth, not a team player.  If it’s Ted, I know he would deliver the keys to the treasury, because that’s where his ideological predilections are.  But the risk is he would anger so many people in imposing his personal view of a conservative utopia that I might not get to keep it.  Ted’s loyalty is to himself, only. And, there is the newest rising star, Scott Walker.  Walker is completely in my thrall, he has the demeanor of a rapacious butler/bodyguard/assassin, willing to serve completely and take any measure to do so.  But Walker worries me a bit—he is crude, and so proud of his body count that one can easily see how one day, he will take it on the chin, and no one will mourn.

So, the big money is on Jeb right now, even if the passion (in some quarters) may be elsewhere. Jeb makes them feel safe.  But 2016 has a tremendous number of risks—it seems that the more complex and intractable the world’s problems appear to be, the more we have attracted the not-readys, the never-will-bes, and the what-can-they-be-possibly-thinkings.  One of those folk could actually get the nomination, and win.

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times by Vivian Schweitzer a while back, about the often-hesitant steps that even gifted classical performers take in approaching the works of the truly great composers.  There is a sense of unease, a feeling that there are pieces that are so complex, so emotionally demanding, so intellectually layered that mere technical proficiency isn’t enough.  You have to wait your turn, until you are fully capable of assaying their depths. 

Why? To a non-musician it seems odd—isn’t music like math, isn’t technique enough?  With the right type of training, and sufficient dexterity, don’t you just have to hit the notes, cleanly, in the correct sequence?   

Obviously, no--not even to many who can play at the highest levels.  As the cellist Paul Katz says, in discussing Beethoven’s late string quartets, “no mortal ever feels totally ready.” 

You might think, that for the role of most powerful person on Earth,  more politicians might also have that sense of mindful humility.    

On the other hand, how hard could it be, right?  

February 2, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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