Saturday, January 29, 2011

What I Read Today - Saturday January 29, 2011

From: The New York Times

Don’t Know Much About History


Is Michele Bachmann the new Sarah Palin?

And do we really need a new Sarah Palin? Shouldn’t the first one be made to go away before we start considering replacements?

Bachmann, the superconservative member of Congress from Minnesota, made a big splash on Tuesday night with her Tea Party response to the State of the Union address. True, the placement of the cameras made her look as if she was talking to an invisible friend, and her eye makeup had a peculiar zombie aspect to it. But the next day all the attention was on her and not the official Republican response by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.

And the Republicans were afraid to complain! One congressman from Utah told Politico that he thought “to try to upend Paul Ryan was just wrong.” Hours later he issued a retraction — through Bachmann’s office.

On one level, Bachmann is just a third-term representative who only gets attention whenever she does something newsworthy, like claiming the Constitution says she doesn’t have to tell a census taker anything but how many people live in her home. She was passed over in a try for a minor post in House leadership.

Yet, at her invitation, Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court came trotting over to the Capitol to lecture the House freshmen this week about the true meaning of the Constitution. And she makes the leaders who snubbed her quake with terror. What if she rallies her fellow Tea Partiers into a rebellion over, say, raising the debt limit, and the economy collapses?

She does have a history of single-mindedness. Back when Bachmann was a state senator in Minnesota, her colleagues complained that they couldn’t get a budget done because she insisted on bringing everything to a screeching halt to argue about same-sex marriage. It was a controversy marked by her usual flair. “In 2005, she claimed to have been held against her will in a restaurant bathroom by two critics of an amendment banning same-sex marriage; they said they’d merely buttonholed her to talk,” reported The Minneapolis Star Tribune in a profile. “Then foes claimed that Bachmann hid behind some bushes to spy on a gay-rights rally; she said she was merely checking the turnout.”

Bushes aside, Bachmann is a much more serious person than Palin, whose response to the State of the Union address was to focus on the title, “Winning the Future.” (“There were a lot of W.T.F. moments throughout that speech.”) If Palin and Bachmann were your co-workers, Palin would be the one sneaking out early to go bowling, while Bachmann would stay late to reorganize the office seating chart to reflect her own personal opinion of who most deserves to be near the water cooler.

History is superimportant to Bachmann, who claims that she left the Democratic Party when she was a college senior, after reading “Burr,” Gore Vidal’s caustic historical novel. “He was kind of mocking the founding fathers, and I just thought ‘what a snot,’ ” Bachmann told The Star Tribune. It was, she said, a transformational moment so critical to her worldview that she can still remember what she was wearing. (“A tan trench coat, blue pin-striped shirt, like a tailored shirt, and dress slacks.”)

It’s not everybody who switches political parties over a historical novel, but Bachmann’s vision of the past is the core to her ideology. The men who created the Constitution were perfect heroes, so infallible that they fully understood the right to bear arms would someday include semiautomatic pistols capable of firing 30 bullets in 10 seconds.

Last week, Bachmann was in Iowa, setting off alarm bells about her possible presidential ambitions and delivering a speech in which she claimed that the founding fathers had “worked tirelessly” to eradicate slavery. She then cited John Quincy Adams, who was not a founding father.

Bachmann is not a zealous fact-checker, as we learned when she claimed the president’s trip to India would cost the taxpayers $200 million a day, based on an Indian newspaper report quoting an unnamed provincial official. In the real world, many founders, like Thomas Jefferson, expressed reservations about slavery but still kept hundreds of slaves, who were the basis of their personal wealth. Others, like John Adams, never owned slaves and opposed the institution but compromised on the matter of all men actually being created equal in order to bring the southern states into the union. And not a single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence envisioned in any way, shape or form a democracy in which people of Michele Bachmann’s gender would sit in the halls of Congress.

But Bachmann was speaking to the lore of the far right, which strips the founding fathers of their raw, fallible humanity and ignores the fact that, in some ways, we’re wiser.

Maybe she’ll make Sarah Palin look good.

What I Read This Week - Saturday January 29, 2011

I am reading the book Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through The Power of Words by Kevin Hall.  Jackie recommended it to me:

From: Aspire........
"There is nothing more lethal to personal integrity as half-finished tasks. "

"Our path is the way we travel.  Our vision is where we travel. Our purpose is why we travel."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday January 18, 2011

From: The Wall Street Journal

Obama Rises to the Challenge

He sounded like the president, not a denizen of the faculty lounge.

The beginning of the president's speech wasn't good, and was marked by the sonorous banalities on which White House staffs in times of crisis always insist. "We join you in your grief," "We mourn with you for the fallen," "a quintessentially American scene . . . shattered by a gunman's bullets." Modern presidents sometimes speak as if their words were crafted by producers for a TV newsmagazine like "Dateline." This is bad because television producers tend to think their audience is composed of people who require the plonkingly obvious to be repeatedly stated in the purplest prose. The trend should be stopped. Presidents are not anchormen of true-crime shows, or were not meant to be.

I begin grouchily to underscore the sincerity of the praise that follows. About a third of the way through, the speech took on real meaning and momentum, and by the end it was very good, maybe great. The speech had a proper height. It was large-spirited and dealt with big things. It was adroit and without rancor. The president didn't mourn, he inspirited.

It began to turn when Mr. Obama started to make things concrete. Vaporous talk of victims turned into specific facts about real human beings: Phyllis Schneck was a gifted quilter, Dorwan Stoddard spent his spare time fixing up the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. But the speech came into its own when the president spoke, again in concrete terms, of the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: "I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here." He had learned that "right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues in Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time."

This was met with thunderous applause. He repeated the sentence: "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time." More and deeper applause. Something seemed to shift at this point. Suddenly the president was fully integrated into the text, he was it and it was him. He lauded the heroes who did specific things. To Daniel Hernandez, in the front row: "You ran through the chaos to minister to your boss." "We are grateful to the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload." "We are grateful to petite Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition."

He was saying: We are not a nation of victims, we are a nation in which people work together doing brave things and achieving great outcomes. "Heroism is here . . . just waiting to be summoned." This is a statement worthy of a president.

Throughout Mr. Obama's career, he has critiqued America and its leadership from an outsider's stance, from that of an intellectual relatively new to public life. His sound was all faculty lounge. In this speech he celebrated America, and in celebrating it, he aligned himself more closely with the values the American people most justly celebrate in themselves—instinctive courage, idealism, willingness to take the initiative. His remarks reminded me, in fact, of part of the speech Ronald Reagan gave when he first announced for the presidency, which I read the other day in Craig Shirley's history of the 1980 campaign, "Rendezvous with Destiny."

Reagan said he saw America as "a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naive; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom."

The heart of Mr. Obama's speech asked a question. The lives of those who died, and the actions of the heroes of the day, pose a challenge. What is required of us now, how do we honor them?

Here, deftly, he addressed the destructive media debate that followed the tragedy. But he approached the subject with compassion and sympathy. It is human nature to try to explain things to ourselves, to "try and impose some order on the chaos," to say this happened because of that. And so we debate, and consider causes and motivations. Much of this is good, but not all. "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized," we are too eager to lay to blame "at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do." It is important that we talk to each other "in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds." Scripture tells us "that there is evil in the world." We don't know what triggered the attack, but "what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."

Lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, but "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [the victims] proud."

In saying this, the president took the air out of all the accusations and counteraccusations. By the end of the speech they were yesterday's story.

We have to be better, said the president. The way to honor the dead and those who tried to help them is to live up to their example, and make our country worthy of them. Of 9-year-old Christina Green, who was drawn to public service: "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it."

This was just what was needed. After a terrible tragedy, a political leader came forward with words that ennobled and consoled. Those rattled and damaged by the tragedy deserved it, and—sorry to be corny, but this is true—our children are watching and need to hear words that are a plus, not a minus.

Mr. Obama in some new way found the tone of the presidency in this speech, the sound of it. In a purely political sense he was talking to the center—to the great beating heart of the middle of the country—while going to the center himself. And so it may mark a turning point in his fortunes, because it prompts and allows people to see him in a new way, a fresher way.

One speech can't change everything, and shouldn't. But one speech can begin something new, or boost a certain momentum. After the strategic bow to the Republicans on taxes, and the appointment of a more moderate and business-friendly chief of staff, the Tucson speech marks the third time since the election that the president has in effect reached toward the center. The question in the coming year will be whether he can gain some purchase on that ground, whether he can begin to hold it, as he did in 2008.

Mr. Obama is attempting to come back as a real force, and as a potentially effective thwarter of Republican intentions, especially on health care. You can see the sweet reason and rope-a-dope coming: If there's a specific part of the program you have problems with please tell me, let's work together to make it better.

Republicans will have to meet him with dignity and good faith, and go toe to toe on one thing, the facts. For the facts on this are on their side.

But they should know their adversary. Something is going on with him. He's showing the signs of someone who has learned from two solid years of embarrassment and unpopularity. Maybe he has "not come back from hell with empty hands." Maybe he is going to be formidable.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday January 11, 2011

From: The Wall Street Jounal


What I Read Today - Tuesday January 11, 2011

From: The New York Times

The Politicized Mind


Before he allegedly went off on his shooting rampage in Tucson, Jared Loughner listed some of his favorite books on his YouTube page. These included: “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Communist Manifesto.” Many of these books share a common theme: individuals trying to control their own thoughts and government or some other force trying to take that control away.

Loughner also made a series of videos. These, too, suggest that he was struggling to control his own mind. Just before his killing spree, Loughner made one called “My Final Thoughts.” In it he writes about different levels of consciousness and dreaming. He tries to build a rigid structure to organize his thinking. He uses the word “currency” as a metaphor for an inner language to make sense of the world.

“You create and distribute your new currency, listener?” the video asks. “You don’t allow the government to control your grammar structure, listener?”

All of this evidence, which is easily accessible on the Internet, points to the possibility that Loughner may be suffering from a mental illness like schizophrenia. The vast majority of schizophrenics are not violent, and those that receive treatment are not violent. But as Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist, writes in his book, “The Insanity Offense,” about 1 percent of the seriously mentally ill (or about 40,000 individuals) are violent. They account for about half the rampage murders in the United States.

Other themes from Loughner’s life fit the rampage-killer profile. He saw himself in world historical terms. He appeared to have a poor sense of his own illness (part of a condition known as anosognosia). He had increasingly frequent run-ins with the police. In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.

Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

These accusations — that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl — are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

Yet such is the state of things. We have a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations. We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience’s pleasure buttons.

I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.

The good news is that there were a few skeptics, even during the height of the mania: Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast, James Fallows of The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. The other good news is that the mainstream media usually recovers from its hysterias and tries belatedly to get the story right.

If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?

Torrey’s book describes a nation that has been unable to come up with a humane mental health policy — one that protects the ill from their own demons and society from their rare but deadly outbursts. The other problem is this: contemporary punditry lives in the world of superficial tactics and interests. It is unprepared when an event opens the door to a deeper realm of disorder, cruelty and horror.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What I Read Today - Monday January 10, 2011

From: The Daily Beast

By: Eleanor Clift

As the Arizona congresswoman fights for survival after being shot in the head, Eleanor Clift recalls her comments a week ago—on nasty rhetoric and what it takes to be in Congress today.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is fighting for her life after being shot in the head at an event in Tucson Saturday. The news is stunning—all the more so because I was talking with her just a week ago, at Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, the annual gathering of self-improvers where Giffords and her astronaut husband, Captain Mark Kelly, have long been regulars.

The sessions at Renaissance weekend feature pointed, if always polite, political reflection. They are off the record, but given Giffords’ grave condition, I think it’s worthwhile to recount some of what she said in the two panels that I shared with her. One was on “Post-Partisanship—How did it come to this?”; the other on “How’d we get here?” She talked about how ugly her last campaign was with ads that said, "Her husband won't even vote for her—why should we?" Those spots referred to the fact that Captain Kelly is active duty military assigned to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and as such has a legal address that is not in his wife’s district. Plus, he has children from a former marriage that requires his residency where they are. In recounting the ads, she seemed stung by the unfairness of the attack and its personal nature, considering the supposed reverence of her opponent for the military.

Giffords lamented colleagues who draw the spotlight for “outlandish and mean behavior….You get no reward for being the normal, reasonable person."

Her 2010 race cost $4.2 million. It was her third congressional election. In her relatively short legislative career in Washington, she raised and spent over $10 million—a fact she pointed out with an emphasis reflecting her dismay at what it takes to maintain a career in Congress these days. “At night, I'm not out with friends having a nice dinner. I'm in the call center, where, because of the time difference, I can call until 10 p.m.," she said. Giffords is one of 12 Blue Dogs left in Republican districts, and the only woman member of Congress left in a Republican district. She is back home every weekend, she said. "Nobody moves families to Washington anymore unless they're in an impossibly safe district." She talked about her struggles as a moderate: "It's held against you if you cross party lines,” she says. Case in point: The first vote she cast in this new Congress as one of some 20 Democrats opposing Nancy Pelosi as minority leader drew a Daily Kos screed titled “My Congresswoman voted against Pelosi, now she’s dead to me.” After the shooting, Daily Kos removed that post from the site.

Giffords lamented how lawmakers with high profiles today get attention, pointing to Michele Bachmann, Alan Grayson, and Joe “You Lie” Wilson, who earned their place in the spotlight through "outlandish and mean behavior….You get no reward for being the normal, reasonable person."

Giffords took a strong stand against the Arizona anti-immigration bill, and though we don't yet know the motivation of the young man who did the shooting, it's likely that the heated emotions aroused in the state over the immigration issue may have played a role. Giffords was one of 20 Democrats on the target list that Sarah Palin posted before the election, which featured the crosshairs of a gun site over each member’s district. It’s been taken down since the shooting—but can't be erased from the blogs.

On a personal note, Giffords is one of the smartest, nicest and down-to-earth people I've ever encountered in the political world, a truly committed public servant with a great future. What a terrible irony that her husband can go up into space in a capsule and return home safely but his wife’s safety can’t be assured outside a Safeway supermarket.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.

What I Read Today - Monday January 10, 2011

The Forgotten Side of Success

by Charles R. Swindoll

1 Peter 5:5-7

Maybe we should confess that one reason we find it so hard to set selfishness aside and adopt the spirit of a servant is that we're driven by dreams of success. We want to be winners.

Face it; we live in a success-saturated society. Right next to the books applauding our selfishness are dozens of bestsellers telling us how we can be more successful. Dozens of books and magazines every year, along with scores of DVDs and hundreds of seminars, offer new ideas and new motivation techniques that have the promise of prosperity. Success is big business. No wonder thinking like servants is so hard.

Curiously, however, few ever address what most folks want (but seldom find) in their pursuit of success: contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, and relief. On the contrary, the roads that are supposed to lead to success are not only rocky; they're maddening. As the Executive's Digest once reported, "The trouble with success is that the formula is the same as the one for a nervous breakdown."

And what formula is that? Work longer hours, push ahead, let nothing hinder your quest---not your marriage or family, not your convictions or conscience, not your health or friends. Be aggressive and, if necessary, mean, as you press toward the top. You gotta be smart, slick, and sly if success is the bottom line of your agenda. It's the same old fortune-fame-power-pleasure line we've been fed for decades.

At the risk of sounding ultra-simplistic, I'd like to offer some counsel that stands 180 degrees in contrast to all the above. My suggestions will never appear in the Wall Street Journal or as part of the Harvard Business School curriculum, but they do represent a philosophy supported in Scripture.

You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5-7)

These verses address three crucial realms related to true success: authority, attitude, and anxiety. And the best part of all is this: following God's directives will bring the one benefit not found in the world's empty promises---a deep sense of lasting satisfaction.

It's what we could call the forgotten side of success. And I would add that it is the success that will come to those who wish to develop the heart of a servant.

Excerpted from Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living, Copyright © 1981 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. (Thomas Nelson Publishers). All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What I Read Today - Friday January 7, 2011

From: The Wall Street Journal

The Captain and the King

Why Owen Honors had to go, and why a stammering monarch is a movie hero.


At a time of new beginnings in Washington, and as a new year starts, some thoughts on leadership that begin with two questions. First, why is it a good thing that the captain of the USS Enterprise was this week relieved of his duties? Second, why is the movie "The King's Speech" so popular and admired? The questions are united by a theme. It is that no one knows how to act anymore, and people miss people who knew how to act.

Capt. Owen Honors, commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, was revealed to have made and shown to his crew videos that have been variously described in the press as "lewd," "raunchy," "profane" and "ribald." They are. Adm. John Harvey, who Wednesday relieved Capt. Honors of his duties, said the captain's action "calls into question his character and undermines his credibility." Also true.

In a way it's not shocking that Capt. Honors did what he did, because he came from a culture, our culture, in which, to be kind about it, anything goes. Mainstream movies, television, music—all is raunch. To say the obvious, John Paul Jones, Bull Halsey and Elmo Zumwalt likely wouldn't have made those videos, if they could have. More to the point, some average, undistinguished naval captain in 1968 wouldn't have made them either, because he would have had his mind and consciousness formed in the 1930s and '40s, when our culture was more coherent and constructive. It can also be said that Capt. Honors's videos were not extreme by the standards of our day. Even his bigotry seemed self-spoofing, as obviously nitwittish and vulgar as the character he was playing—himself—was nitwittish and vulgar.

But the videos were a shock in that this was a captain of the U.S. Navy, commanding a nuclear-powered ship, and acting in a way that was without dignity, stature or apartness. He was acting as if it was important to him to be seen as one of the guys, with regular standards, like everyone else.

But it's a great mistake when you are in a leadership position to want to be like everyone else. Because that, actually, is not your job. Your job is to be better, and to set standards that those below you have to reach to meet. And you have to do this even when it's hard, even when you know you yourself don't quite meet the standards you represent.
A captain has to be a captain. He can't make videos referencing masturbation and oral sex. He has to uphold values even though he finds them antique, he has to represent virtues he may not in fact possess, he has to be, in his person, someone sailors aspire to be.

A lot of our leaders—the only exceptions I can think of at the moment are nuns in orders that wear habits—have become confused about something, and it has to do with being an adult, with being truly mature and sober. When no one wants to be the stuffy old person, when no one wants to be "the establishment," when no one accepts the role of authority figure, everything gets damaged, lowered. The young aren't taught what they need to know. And they know they're not being taught, and on some level they resent it. For the past 20 years I have heard parents brag, "I brought up my child to question authority." Ten years ago I started thinking, "Really? Well good luck finding it, junior."

In England this week the story continues to be Kate Middleton, who is not an aristocrat, marrying into the royal family. Meaning she's about to become, in a way, a leader within her culture. Clever people on TV are giving her media advice. Be one of us, they say, lighten and brighten, bring in less formality and stultifying stiffness.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. If any family ever needed to be classed up it is Britain's royals, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, that great lady. Kate should take her polite and striving middle class upbringing and use it to add dignity and distance to the House of Windsor. They came close to losing public support for the monarchy the past 40 years, in part due to the advice of PR geniuses who told them, in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, to get with it. Stop being fusty, hipper, show your humanity. It seemed reasonable—Britain was exploding with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cool Britannia. The royals had to catch up. And so they showed their human side, and revealed over the decades that they were not better than anyone else, not more disciplined, serious, patriotic, faithful or self-denying. Intimate public confessions, raucous medieval tournaments in which they rolled in the mud, toe sucking. This is royalty? Then what are slobs for?

The only good advice would have been: Stay boring, strive to appear to be persons of rectitude and high morality, don't be modern, stand for "the permanent against the merely prevalent," love God and his church, don't act out and act up. Be good.

That, looking back, is all Britain needed. But it's what every nation needs, now more than ever, from its leaders. Which gets us to "The King's Speech."

It is England, the 1930s, a time of gathering crises. The duke of York, a shy man with a hopeless stammer, is forced to accept the throne when his brother abdicates. "I am not a king," he sobs; he is, by nature and training, a naval officer. Hitler is rising, England is endangered. The new, unsure king's first live BBC speech to the nation looms.

He will stutter. But he is England. England can't stutter. It can't falter, it can't sound or seem unsure at a time like this. King George VI and his good wife set themselves, with the help of an eccentric speech therapist, to cure or at least manage his condition.

He sacrifices his desire not to be king, not to lead, not to make that damn speech. He does it with commitment, courage, effort. He does it for his country.

He and his wife aren't attempting to be hip, they are attempting to be adequate to the situation. The king is aware of the responsibilities of his position, and demands a certain deference. When his therapist tells him they must work as equals, he stammers, "I'd be home with my wife and no one would give a damn, if we were equals." As for personal style, the great scene is when the king, on the prompting of the therapist, screams every low curse word he knows. It's funny because it's obvious he doesn't say those words. He is a person of restraint, and old-fashioned ways. He doesn't want to be one of the guys.

And audiences love it. The Journal's Joe Morgenstern called the movie "simply sublime," and it is, for some simple reasons. It's about someone being a grown-up, someone doing his job, someone assuming responsibility. It is about a time when someone was taking on the mantle of leadership, someone was sacrificing his comfort for his country.

Someone was old-school. Someone wasn't cool.

What a relief to see it. No wonder at the almost-full 4:45 p.m. showing at an uptown Manhattan theatre on Wednesday, they burst into applause, and some, you could tell, wanted to cheer.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

What I Read Today - Friday January 7, 2011

From: The New York Times

Buckle Up for Round 2


The health care reform law was signed 10 months ago, and what’s striking now is how vulnerable it looks. Several threats have emerged — some of them scarcely discussed before passage — that together or alone could seriously endanger the new system. These include:

The courts. So far, one judge has struck down the individual mandate, the plan’s centerpiece. Future decisions are likely to break down on partisan lines. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, this should concern the law’s defenders.

False projections. The new system is based on a series of expert projections on how people will behave. In the first test case, these projections were absurdly off base. According to the Medicare actuary, 375,000 people should have already signed up for the new high-risk pools for the uninsured, but only 8,000 have.

More seriously, cost projections are way off. For example, New Hampshire’s plan has only about 80 members, but the state has already burned through nearly double the $650,000 that the federal government allotted to help run the program. If other projections are off by this much, the results will be disastrous.

Employee dumping. This is the most serious threat. Companies and unions across America are running the numbers and discovering they would be better off if, after 2014, they induced poorer and sicker employees to move to public insurance exchanges, where subsidies are much higher.

The number of people in those exchanges could thus skyrocket, especially as startup companies undermine their competitors with uninsured employees and lower costs. The Congressional Budget Office projects that 19 million people will move to the exchanges at a cost of $450 billion between 2014 and 2019. But according to the economists Douglas Holtz-Eakin and James C. Capretta, costs could soar to $1.4 trillion if those who would be better off in the exchanges actually moved to them. The price of the health care law could double. C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, who has been among those raising the alarms about this, calls the law’s structure “unworkable and unfair.”

Health care oligarchy. Since the law passed, there has been a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, as hospitals, clinics and doctor groups have joined together into bigger and bigger entities. The drafters encourage this, believing large outfits would be more efficient. The downside to this economic concentration is there could be less competition and cost control. In many places, the political power of these quasi-monopolies would be huge, with unforeseeable results. The law bans doctors from starting up hospitals to increase competition.

Public hostility. Right now about 53 percent of Americans oppose the health care law and 43 percent support it, according to an average of the recent polls. Complaints are especially high among doctors. According to a survey by the Physicians Foundation, 60 percent of private practice doctors say the law will force them to close their practices or to restrict them to certain categories of patients.

Given this level of unhappiness, people will blame the Obama law for everything they hate about the health care system. Political opposition was fierce last November, and it could easily shape the 2012 election and lead to changes or repeal.

Over all, there is a strong likelihood that the current health care law will face an existential threat over the next five years. Each party should be preparing contingency plans.

When the crisis comes, Democrats will face an interesting choice — to patch the Obama system or try to replace it with something bigger. The administration may want a patch, but by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1, according to a CNN poll, Democratic voters would prefer a more ambitious law. Liberals could logically say that the mistake was trying to create a hybrid system, rather than moving straight to a single-payer one.

Republicans are going to have to move beyond their current “Repeal!” posture and cohere behind a positive alternative. One approach, which Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has written about, is to allow more state experimentation. Another approach, championed by Capretta, Yuval Levin of National Affairs and Thomas P. Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, revolves around the words “defined contribution.”

Under this approach, Republicans would say that the federal government has a role in subsidizing health insurance — a generous role, but not unlimited. The government would provide needy citizens with a predefined amount of money to spend on insurance and allow them to shop in a transparent, regulated, but not micromanaged marketplace.

After the trauma of the last two years, many people wish the issue would go away. But it’s not going away, especially since costs will continue to rise.

Some Congresses achieve health care; members of this Congress or the next one will have health care thrust upon them.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday January 4, 2011 (while holding for the IRS)

From: The New York Times  (Freakanomics Blog)

Game Theory and Child-Rearing


A reader named Clark Case, who lives in Aurora, Ohio, and works as a product manager, writes in with a child-rearing observation. His kids are 7 and 4; his wife is a homemaker:

My wife came up with a punishment method for my kids that I thought that you (and perhaps your blog readers) would find interesting.

When the kids get to tussling and or screaming at each other in such a way that she is finding aggravating, she will send them to their respective rooms with the stipulation that they can come out when they both agree to apologize to each other.

Game theory, I suppose, would argue that they should immediately apologize to one another to minimize the period of detention. What seems to happen, though is that one will think that the other deserves some extended detention and will give up freedom himself in order to see that the other gets it.

Am interested to hear other game-theoretic attempts at child-rearing …


What I Read Today - Tuesday January 4, 2011

From:  The New York Times

The Achievement Test


Unless something big and unexpected happens, 2011 will be consumed by a debate over the size of government. Republicans will launch a critique of big government as part of their effort to cut spending. Democrats will surge to the barricades to defend federal programs.

This debate will be contentious, but I hope it’s not rude to mention that it will be largely beside the point. National destinies are not shaped by what percentage of G.D.P. federal spending consumes. They are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens. The crucial issue is not whether the federal government takes up 19 percent or 23 percent of national income. The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?

There have been cases when big government has encouraged virtuous behavior (in the U.S. during World War II), and cases when big government has encouraged self-indulgence and irresponsibility (modern Greece). There have been cases when small government was accompanied by enterprise and development, and cases when small government has led to lawlessness, corruption and distrust.

The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does. The budgeteers and the technicians may not like it, but it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most.

The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives? Over the years, America has benefited from policies that passed this test, like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill. Occasionally, the U.S. government has initiated programs that failed it. The welfare policies of the 1960s gave people money without asking for work and personal responsibility in return, and these had to be replaced. The welfare reforms of the 1990s involved big and intrusive government, but they did the job because they were in line with American values, linking effort to reward.

Over the past few decades, Americans have waged political war as if all that matters is the amount of money going into federal coffers. The fights have been about “cutting government” or “raising revenue.” But amid this season of distraction the entire society suffered a loss of values and almost nobody noticed until it was too late. Both business and government started favoring consumption and short-term comfort and neglecting investment and long-term growth.

This hasn’t been a case of government corrupting capitalism or vice versa. The two have worked hand-in-hand. The government has erected a welfare state that, as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has pointed out, spends vast amounts on consumption (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest on the debt) and much less on investment (education, research, infrastructure), while pushing the costs on future generations. Meanwhile, the private sector has encouraged a huge increase in personal debt to fuel a consumption bubble. The geniuses flock to finance, not industry.

If we’re going to reverse this tide, it might be useful to put the Achievement Test back at the center of politics. This would help focus the national mind on the fundamental challenge: moving from a consumption-dominated economy oriented around satisfying immediate needs toward a more balanced investment and consumption economy. It might also cut through the gridlocked trench warfare between big-government liberals and small-government conservatives.

Reframing the argument around achievement wouldn’t end partisan division. Democrats and Republicans differ on what makes an economy productive. But it would allow for horse-trading.

As part of the budget process, Republicans could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure people have the incentives to take risks and the freedom to adjust to foreign competition: a flatter, simpler tax code with lower corporate rates, a smaller debt burden, predictable regulations, affordable entitlements.

Democrats could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure everybody has the tools to compete: early childhood education, infrastructure programs to create jobs, immigration policies that recruit talent, incentives for energy innovation.

The two agendas sit in tension, but they are not contradictory. The exciting thing about this moment is that everything is on the table. Thousands of policy proposals are floating around, thanks to the various deficit commissions and policy entrepreneurs. As the parties argue about the debt limit and the rest, it should be possible to take items from both and ram them into a package that cuts consumption spending in order to make investment spending more affordable.

How big will the resulting government be? That is a secondary issue. If a policy enhances achievement, we should be for that thing. If it displaces investment, we should be skeptical of it. Quality, not quantity, matters most.