Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction

I am a sucker for concept movies. At first viewing, I loved Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Adaptation and Memento were pretty good as well. Lest I forget Fight Club, another clever one. So it's unsurprising that I began to worry that my rave reviews relied only upon that a film have a surreal concept. Fortunately, Stranger than Fiction's failure as a concept movie proved I had inordinately worried.

The movie begins with clever computer graphics that emphasize the mundane exercises around which Will Ferrell's Harold Crick bases his life. Crick works as an auditor in the Internal Revenue Service who one day discovers that his life is actually a construct for a book written by acclaimed author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). You've seen this man before. He was played by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Edward Norton in Fight Club, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is not to mock the common theme in movies of the existential crisis provoked by meaningless work; on the contrary, it is one of the perenially ripe subjects of our age.

The problem is, Stranger than Fiction assumes that a "masterpiece"--the compliment that Dustin Hoffman's English lit professor, Jules Hilbert, bestows upon Eiffel's book--need only present a story that we already know well. Death and Taxes, as the book is called, has barely progressed before we find out that Eiffel has spent years wrestling writers block on the subject of how to kill off Crick. I am usually impressed that authors don't get writers block more often, but I find it hard to believe that a talented writer becomes inert for ten years over killing a character off. Unless the story is a murder mystery, the death seems relatively inconsequential to the larger purpose of the novel.

I wanted to love Stranger than Fiction because it is not often that a zany English professor is one of the protagonists in a film, and moreover, that he is permitted to make clever jokes that appeal to a more literate audience. Unfortunately, Professor Hilbert only came in handy in scenes that would have totally bombed without a closing pithy remark.

No one actor, even Queen Latifah in her absolutely pointless role as Eiffel's publishing company's assistant, ruined the film, though. Stranger than Fiction's problem is that its central concept rendered itself pointless. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the concept--a device that allows the lead couple to forget their turbulent relationship and (unintentionally) reunite--imparts meaning: to be careful for what you wish, to learn how to embrace or at least accept the past, painful as it sometimes is, to question the wisdom of fate if it indeed exists as a phenomenon. In Stranger than Fiction, nothing about Crick's life as product of third person omniscient narration adds meaning to the story. The movie could have easily been about a boring IRS agent who finds love in an unconventional baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and learns how to live life to its fullest, sans cool script device; however, without the gimmick it probably would not have stood out among the pack.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Generalism in a specialized world

Society becomes more complex when individuals become more specialized, and individuals become more specialized when society becomes more complex. This is a truth I despair of every time I confront it, yet it is a truth. As I have said before, I have a visceral aversion to jargon, as its use deters the layperson from understanding the subject matter at hand. At the same time I understand that it is helpful for specialists to have a language with which to communicate with one another. Still, the idea of following a specialized career track, in which one learns the language of the field while moving further away from all other fields, turns me into a commitment-phobe.

And yet, there are fields that are generalist. Law and journalism are the two that come to mind. Both still require the practitioner to learn a language, though journalism's is a language of universalism. As a person who enjoys writing, I fear any stifling parameters to language, which appear in the law, such as legal jargon (too much Latin! and so forth) and a fairly strict writing format. These demands--flexibility in form of communication, generalism--do not comply with the needs of a complex society. So what is a person who wants to be both useful to society, gainfully employed, and interested in her work do?

Be cognizant of this "predicament," I say (to myself). I am in truth living among a luxury of choices. Maybe the new anomie springs from such constant consumerism, where choices are plentiful and perspective takes too much time to summon. I once asked someone several generations older than myself why he had chosen to be a doctor. "Because back then, if you wanted to go to professional school, you either went into law or medicine," he said. It was that easy. Of course, I know it was not easy: medical school is no cakewalk, but the point is, when one has few other choices, one has less room for doubt. As one of my teachers once told me (paraphrased), "the more I have learned, the less I realize that I know." Sometimes the source of paralysis is knowing too much.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Review of movie I haven't seen: Bobby

I continue to feel more motivation to review movies that I have not seen than those that I have. Although I have seen a variety of films recently--The Queen, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Jules et Jim, Network (again)--I only want to review Bobby, the movie about the second most famous Kennedy (or maybe third or fourth). Actually, Bobby is less about Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's brother and once U.S. Attorney General, than it is about the mood of the country when RFK was assassinated in 1968.

Though I am admittedly curious to see this movie, a few of its attributes worry me. First of all, "directed by Emilio Estevez" is not particularly encouraging. The Post says Estevez is "best known" as one of the "Brat Pack" actors, but among members of my generation, it's much worse: he's Coach Gordon Bombay of The Mighty Ducks and D2. He has said, "Quack, quack, quack, Mr. Duckworth!" in a movie. He is a poor man's Charlie Sheen (who happens to be his brother). Just to clarify, his dad is Martin Sheen, and he had to play a hockey coach in a stupid (but admittedly hilarious) kids movie!

Secondly, the cast aims to be an exciting ensemble and as such includes one-note actors like Helen Hunt, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher, and Heather Graham. A film that aims to create an aura around a consequential historical figure totally does itself in if it casts Ashton Kutcher in any role, even as an extra. As for Heather Graham, I was not aware that she was still around, but she has the honor of being my least favorite actress of all time. Her over-acting ditz schtick made the sequel to Austin Powers exponentially worse than it already was, and she looks like an albino bug.

Finally, and most importantly, from all accounts, Bobby is based upon the premise that Bobby Kennedy was a good guy. That is not to say that the film is incorrect to portray him as a figure who inspired, because he did, especially in the mounting turbulence of 1968, but it adds nothing new to the popular historical picture of Bobby Kennedy, which, as tends to be the case with historical figures, is not a very multi-faceted picture. To his credit, he visited Appalachia to bring attention to the plight of the impoverished, and he became a voice of calm in the early throes of instability in Vietnam, but he was also the legislative aide to Joseph McCarthy during the opportunistic witchhunts of the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and he was, by all accounts, a ruthless operative bent on enforcing loyalty to himself and his brother. He also gave written approval to the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., who the discredited J. Edgar Hoover suspected as a Communist, though in fairness, Kennedy also leant support to the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education and worked hard to desegregate the government. I can certainly see how it would be interesting for a film to explore how a U.S. politician impacted the American people--I often wonder how consequential political figures are upon peoples' day-to-day experiences--but the portrayal of this oft-recounted historical moment risks bringing nothing new to the table.

Top ten Thanksgiving table conversations of 2006

...And the clichés that accompanied them:

(1) the recall of O.J. Simpson's book and interview
"I wonder how those jurors feel now, acquitting a cold-blooded murderer."
"I'm glad the media finally had some sense."
"That man will do anything to make a buck."
"The poor Brown and Goldman families."

(2) the Michael Richards racist outburst
"Kramer really is crazy!"
"The media and the politically correct police are at it again, making Kramer look bad."
"He should have apologized for being an awful stand up comic while he was at it!"

(3) Wii versus PS3
"Boy, the lines are going to be long tomorrow, huh!"
"Mom, can I get a PS3/Wii/Xbox" ad infinitum
(4) College football
"It really should be Michigan versus Ohio this year in the NCAA football championship; it's too bad they're both in the Big Ten."
"Boy [fill in the blank team] sucks this year."

(5) Professional football
Nothing interesting

(6) Traveling
"It was a zoo at the airport this year!"
"I hate flying, what with the security checkpoints and the long lines."
"It was a zoo on the expressway this year!"
"I hate driving, what with the tolls and traffic."

(7) Thanksgiving food and how it makes you full
"Boy, I'm not going to be able to move after this tasty meal."
"This is the best stuffing I've ever had."
"You've outdone yourself with the pie."
"Well, I know what I'm going to be having for dinner for the next week [pause for effect] turkey!"
"Time to loosen the belt buckle a notch or two."

(8) The weather
"You missed some great weather we had last week, Aunt Bertha."
"Boy, I guess I chose the wrong week to come to Chicago. It sure is cold here!"
"Why, I think this is the most beautiful Thanksgiving we've ever had."

(9) The new Congressional majority
something that inevitably makes things awkward between guests of opposing political loyalties

(10) What the younger dinner guests are going to do after high school/college/work/graduate school
"So, you have your colleges picked out yet?"
"So, you know what you're going to do after college?"
"You're an English major: what are you planning on doing with that?"

Please feel free to comment with other typical Thanksgiving dinner conversations.

Big Pharma needs to reevaluate their priorities

The Post and the Times have been covering the re-grouping of the big pharmaceutical companies' lobbying arm in Washington in reaction to the results of November's election. Big pharma is already alarmed that Democrats have promised to negotiate lower drug prices for Americans, which the Medicare Part D plan forbids. They are predicting a less friendly group of legislators while at the same time putting their energies in their big lobbying arms:

Many drug company lobbyists concede that the House is likely to pass a bill intended to drive down drug prices, but they are determined to block such legislation in the Senate. If that strategy fails, they are counting on President Bush to veto any bill that passes. With 49 Republicans in the Senate next year, the industry is confident that it can round up the 34 votes normally needed to uphold a veto.

While that showdown is a long way off, the drug companies are not wasting time. They began developing strategy last week at a meeting of the board of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

I have two thoughts after reading about such jockeying amongst the big pharma players and their allies in Congress. First, lobbying, at least in this industry (though I'm sure in others too), is not based so much on the merits of the interests that the lobbyist is representing but rather on the lobbyist's own ties with members of Congress and their staff. The Times and Post article both detail how the pharmaceutical lobbies are hiring people acquainted with members of the majority party. How much of policymaking is based on what and not who the legislator knows?

Second, lobbying sure costs a lot of money for big pharma. This is an industry that has two lobbying arms: the K street group whose targets are the Congress and the drug representatives whose targets are the physicians. Big pharma estimates that it spends 5.7 billion a year on marketing to doctors, another group estimates that 90% of the 21 billion in marketing that the companies have, or 18.9 billion is spent on marketing to physicians, a large part of that devoted to gifts large and small. The thought is of course that the physician will in turn prescribe their drug that they are hawking. Here's one physician's account of drug company "largesse":

It's gotten to the point that it's impossible not to partake of drug-company largesse when I attend a conference. Drug companies underwrite many of the talks, and even the buses that move us from lecture to lecture at no charge carry ads for popular drugs. Sure, I'll turn down the theater tickets and box seats at sporting events and the expensive tours, wine tastings, and meals, but it's impossible not to receive some form of freebie, however inadvertent.

Back at home, there's the community detailing with expensive luncheons and dinners, mostly with lectures attached, but not always. I receive invitations daily, and it's all free—not to mention the magazines and brochures that show up in my mail, without my having requested them. I can't tell who's been sending them; I wish they'd stop.

There's more too, for example, invitations to cruises, on which I could be paid as a consultant, to discuss "how I prescribe antidepressants." I was even gifted with a pricey, inscribed Mont Blanc pen when I became a medical director—I did not keep it—and<sup> the drug rep was upset, because who wants a pen with my name in gold?

Even if the physician makes an active effort to avoid submitting to the quid pro quo, studies have shown that gifts to physicians still have an impact on what the physician prescribes. Here's Dr. Charles Atkins' view:
Of course I'm influenced by them, I'm just not sure how much and in what ways. I have my suspicions, which are reflected in such questions as, Why are we so quick to abandon old medications when the new ones come out? If people spent the same amount of time, energy, and money extolling the virtues of off-patent medications, would we switch so quickly?
And Dr. Stephen Cha:
Like political contributions, these gifts are not necessarily improper, and some industry-physician collaborations can lead to important advances. But research shows that such largess affects physicians' prescribing practices and may compromise their objectivity.

Certainly if I knew that my doctor was getting $5,000 to $20,000 a year from the maker of Vioxx, I would wonder why the doctor was prescribing it.

It is often argued when a patent on a drug expires, allowing the sales of a generic counterpart, or when lawmakers express a desire to negotiate with the drug companies for lower prices, or when pharmaceutical companies are urged to sell expensive HIV/AIDS drugs to poor countries, that the research & development budget of that company will be negatively impacted to the point that it cannot possibly devote the same energies that it has in the past to develodevelopingrugs. However, companies like Merck, Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb, and so forth, need to take a look in the mirror when they can spend billions on lobbying to Congress and to doctors and still defend not losing some money by getting drugs to people who need them.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hilarious Thanksgiving video from zefrank's The Show!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Marriage in France: Passé

The Post featured a surprisingly complex and well-reported article today about the decline of marriage in France. Marriage rates in the Western world have been on a decline for awhile and even more in parts of Europe. The declining marriage rate in northern Europe is seen as a rejection of those institutions that promulgated marriage--the Catholic Church, the traditional family, the closed society--no more so than in France.

In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the marriage rate in France was 4.3 per 1,000 people, compared with 5.1 in the United Kingdom and 7.8 in the United States. The only European countries with rates lower than France's were Belgium, at 4.1, and Slovenia, with 3.3.

The knee-jerk response in some American quarters will of course be that the French are "godless," "socialist," and "relativist." However, the consequences of the marriage decline has not been chaos, broken homes, or rampant polygamy:

Contrary to predictions three decades ago, when the marital downslide began, French family social structures have not disintegrated. Instead, society has accepted and embraced changing attitudes. French law stopped distinguishing between children born in or out of wedlock more than 30 years ago.

A willingness to believe that the marriage decline stems from a dissolution of morals would be too eager to ascribe moral failings to a people, and it misses what is so fascinating about this trend: there are neither the same incentives nor influences to get married as there used to be:
The tax breaks the French government offers married couples, which are not as substantial as U.S. marriage tax reductions, are not enough to persuade most cohabitating couples to formalize their relationships. In France, the greatest financial and tax incentives target the number of children a couple has rather than the parents' marital status.

The couple that is profiled in the story did not see a reason to get married, but they have two children and have cohabitated for many years. It is tempting to compare the U.S. and France, but because of the different populations and sizes between the two countries, it would be difficult to draw conclusions . It is fair to say though that marriage in the U.S. has become a racket. When so many weddings devolve into a game of keeping up with the Jones', it's no wonder that some people would just assume avoid the game. Can a society that marvels at the "huge rock" on a woman's finger and fawns at million-dollar weddings really judge one that does not consummate as many such affairs?

Ségolène Royal, who last week won the Socialist Party nomination for president in next year's election, and Francois Hollande, the party's leader, have had four children during their 25 years of cohabitation. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, another possible presidential contender, has spent nearly 22 unmarried years living with Patrick Ollier, a member of the National Assembly.

"We never had time to get married," Alliot-Marie said in a recent interview. Royal has expressed distaste for the notion, once calling marriage a "bourgeois institution."

"I don't see how marriage would bring any more to our union as a couple," [Sandrine] Folet said. "It doesn't take away anything, it doesn't bring anything."

Like anything else, institutions that no longer seem functional may be deemed irrelevant. France and its neighbors may be headed towards total secularism, but that does not mean that they are valueless and rudderless.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Roundup of the Ridiculous

I have never been filled with such glee.

This video is a brilliant (albeit totally unintentional) illustration of Corporate America.

Bank of America sings U2's "One"

I used to think that TV commericals that cheesed up classic rock songs were made by cynical people, but now I'm willing to believe these people are for real.

Secondly, I love Professor John Orman:

The political party formed by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman after he lost the Democratic primary in August has a new chairman - and it's not Lieberman.

However, according to the bylaws adopted by its new chairman, Lieberman critic and Fairfield University professor John Orman, the senator is an eligible party candidate.

According to bylaws established by Orman, anyone whose last name is Lieberman may seek the party's nomination - or any critic of the senator.

Orman seized control of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party this week after registering as its sole member and electing himself as chairman.

Orman has triggered a process that will force Lieberman and state elections officials to decide the future of a party created solely to return the senator to Washington.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Cities and My Very Own D.C. Travel Guide

Because I just returned from a weekend in New York City, whose land mass could probably fit 50 D.C.s, I am feeling like an inferior city-dweller. As another friend and fellow D.C. resident told me, D.C. always seems a bit of a disappointment after a weekend in New York. The truth is, the two cities cannot be compared: they are just different in their economic and therefore general composition. D.C. is furthermore just a unique city because of its preponderance of government jobs and jobs that revolve around government jobs. This of course shapes the city's character to a great degree: where an NYC or Chicago has many longstanding cultural outposts (think jazz clubs and intimate music venues), D.C. has only a few. This is because the D.C. metropolitan area has for a longtime been more a bedroom community, populated by government employees and their family. That it now vies to be a "cool" city is a newer development.

Furthermore, as a result of it having a job market centered around careers that promise greater stability than most--law, government, consulting, D.C. is a little more conservative than somewhere like NYC. That is, people in D.C. are more risk-averse (not to say NYC doesn't have this--it does, but it also is home to people with very "risky" professions such as artists). Politically, of course, D.C. is actually more liberal (or at least more Democratic-leaning) in the District and its surroundings, but culturally it's not. I had no idea that people wear leggings with flannel shirts and flats until I saw it, many times, in NYC. The celebrity sitings are cooler in NYC too. For instance, the first celebrity I saw in D.C. was Dennis Kucinich; in NYC this past weekend, I saw Michelle Williams and (I believe Heath Ledger) in Brooklyn.

So, because I need to console myself about living in a less hip, less dynamic, less urban, more conservative city--and really, I live in NoVA, which is a city-cum-suburb, I'm going to comprise a "Weekend in D.C." travel guide to prove to someone (me?) that D.C. is (At least the Metro remains superior).

Just a note about the following guide: the places below to which I have not personally visited come highly recommended by others or are generally known as beloved D.C. institutions. So without further a due...

(Note: anything denoted with a $ sign costs money; anything without that notation is free!)

Friday: Museum Day

  • Morning
    • National Gallery (Metro: Archives-Navy Memorial or Smithsonian)
  • Lunch
    • Walk to U.S. Senate Cafeteria, Dirksen or Russell Building ($)
  • Afternoon
    • Air and Space Museum
    • Freer and Hirshorn Galleries (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza or Smithsonian)
  • Evening
    • Jazz club on U. Street or the Black Cat ($) (Metro: U Street-Cardozo)

Saturday: Monument Day

  • Morning
    • Arlington National Cemetery and Iwo Jima (Metro: Arlington Cemetery, Rosslyn)
  • Afternoon
    • White House (tour optional) (Metro: McPherson Square or Farragut West)
    • Old Executive Office Building
    • Renwick Gallery and/or Phillips Collection ($) (had to throw in a few more great art museums, esp. the Phillips) (Metro: DuPont Circle)
  • Dinner
    • Old Ebbit Grill (Metro: Metro Center)
  • Evening
    • Walk from Old Ebbit Grill to the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Memorial (in my opinion, doing the memorials in the evening makes them all the more striking)

Sunday: D.C. Neighborhood day

  • Morning
    • Eastern Market: visit the market on 7th and North Carolina, stop for coffee at one of the nearby coffee shops, like Murky Coffee, and at Capitol Hill Books, then walk East on North Carolina to Lincoln Park (Metro: Eastern Market)
  • Afternoon and Evening
    • Dupont Circle, Kalorama, Georgetown: in Dupont, stop by Kramer Books, then walk up Connecticut Ave. until Kalorama Road, where there are beautiful homes (Metro: DuPont Circle)
  • Evening
    • Kennedy Center concert ($) (Metro: Foggy Bottom)

Please comment, take issue with, or offer suggestions to this itinerary. It is certainly a work in progress and furthermore reflects my own personal tastes, which tend towards art viewing and neighborhood exploring. Oh, and I definitely could use more restaurant suggestions. The D.C. restaurant scene is a little too lobbyist-oriented for me to be able to justify becoming an afficiando (i.e., I could not handle the expense).

Democrats ready to focus on Americans' economic concerns

This couldn't be better news. If anyone doubted that we'd see much of a difference from Washington, D.C., with a Democratic majority, you need not worry:

Striving for a few quick legislative victories in January and longer-term goals whose details -- and viability -- are not yet certain, Democratic lawmakers want to shift the dialogue on Capitol Hill to workers' pay, college tuition, health-care costs, retirees' income and other issues that touch ordinary families.

...Still, key Democrats interviewed in recent days portrayed their strategy as an attempt to do several things at once: distinguish themselves from the outgoing Republican majority, heed voters' messages from the midterm elections and lay groundwork for the 2008 presidential campaign, in which they predict the widening income gap in the United States will be a prominent theme.

As it should be. Can we lay to rest the notion that this is a conservative Democratic congress already?

But if this happens...

Their success is not assured. Democrats will hold a tenuous 51 to 49 majority in the Senate, where Republicans and the Bush administration will be well-positioned to thwart their legislation,

more of them should just be voted out.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Inevitably, the subject is now 2008...

...even though, it is not worth devoting much space to in the newspapers, simply because our country has more immediate priorities. My own thoughts on how Democrats should decide who runs for president in '08 are best summed up by Chris Bowers:
Nothing saddens me more then when I see people in the netroots trying to play Washington insider. When I see netroots activists talking about which vice-presidential candidate someone should choose in order to better scam certain national demographic groups into voting for the Democratic ticket, it really bums me out. Whenever I see netroots activists declaring their support for a candidate based on his or her "electability," it really bums me out. Whenever I see netroots activists deeming candidate X or candidate Y "un-electable" for one of the many clichéd and utterly discredited reasons that the established has always used to deem candidates unelectable ("doesn't play in the heartland," "too liberal," "can't swing the South or the border states," "not enough military credentials") I almost start shaking with rage. Since when did we become the same losers we are trying to replace via the silent revolution?

What Democrats need in 2008 is a candidate who can truly inspire people. That is the only way we are going to achieve the transformation that the progressive movement promises. It is not going to be done through narrow targeting.

In an age of narrow targeting, where our country is "sliced and diced" by pollsters and pundits--as Barack Obama put it in 2004--in order to find the perfect candidate, the candidate is discouraged from being bold. The most compelling candidates I have seen, Obama, Clinton (probably Reagan, though I was only a semi-cognizant being when he was presdent) are good at looking at the big picture and trying to draw out a few anxieties that speak to the broad American experience and respond to those anxieties with a few ideas. Hillary Clinton should not remover herself from the race because she's a woman, nor should Obama remove himself because he is half black or because he will not have served a full U.S. Senate term by 2008. Either candidate should remove her/himself if s/he starts narrowly defining issues, persisting to appeal to a political "center" that probably does not exist, or targeting a few states and regions to eke out just enough votes to win the electoral college map.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Political Psychology

Great article at TPM about David Brooks and others like them and why they insist on mercifully defending a corrupt, hypocritical politics while voiceferously attacking made up enemies like the netroots and Ned Lamont:
It’s The Ghost of Left-Liberalism Past that spooks aging neoconservative and liberal war-hawk pundits. They keep summoning that ghost to displace a gnawing, growing anxiety borne of hypocrisies they dare not face in themselves: These are people who've done a bit too well in corporate America as we know it now to challenge its increasingly degrading seductions, inequalities and worse. Yet they’re too well-meaning to be comfortable defending it, either -- except when they can find enemies and evils that are far worse, at home and abroad.

...Obsessing about what the late Michael Kelly called the left-liberal "sandalistas" is fundamentally a dodge, and it only reinforces a taboo on criticizing new configurations of capital, employment and consumption that are eviscerating social trust. Tuesday’s vote was in part a protest against that evisceration, for which conservative Republicans, their apologists and certain Democratic fellow-travelers like Joe Lieberman bear a lot of responsibility and have no answers. To shout that most liberals have none, either, isn't an answer.

...Similarly, the War on Terror has never been threatened by an anti-war movement, whether led by Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan or Ned Lamont, as much as it has been undermined by that war’s own architects and apologists. “The Good Fight” against terror isn’t selling because Beinart and others have distorted that undertaking badly. Lamont felt driven by such nonsense and Lieberman’s truly awful record of supporting it to ignite the spark that changed the national conversation.

Since the War on Terror is indeed different from the one in Vietnam, Lamont supporters have protested it and its Iraq miscarriage very differently from the way anti-war movement of the 1960s and ‘70s protested. But that hasn’t stopped [Slate columnist Jacob] Weisberg from invoking the ghost of McGovern and Brooks from writing that Lamont supporters “rationalize their [outrageous] behavior by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country.”

When someone writes this way without realizing how accurately he is describing himself, he certainly won’t tell readers that Lamont lost mainly because most Republicans voted for Lieberman -- who estimates that 75 percent of his voters were either unaffiliated or Republican -- and that, even so, Lamont carried Connecticut’s largest, poorest and least-white cities against Lieberman overwhelmingly: Hartford by more than two to one, Bridgeport by nearly two to one, New Haven by three to two. Is that a Net roots triumph? Hardly. Does Brooks’ “comic sociology” hold the answer? Silence.

But who got all this going in the first place? Who, trapped in their own illogic and then their belated discovery that the world is a place too hard for Wilsonian idealism, wound up in the arms of a Senator who’d gone hook, line, and sinker with the Bush National Security Strategy? Can’t pundits and reporters stop peddling the line that Lamont was the candidate of Moore, Sharpton, and That’s not who he is or ever was, and it’s not what 40 percent of Connecticut voters endorsed, and Brooks, Beinart, and Weisberg should resolve not to insult them by reducing them to the demons in their own fevered imaginations.

"Resolve not to insult them by reducing them to the demons in their own fevered imaginations." What a great point, and a really good article about people who cannot extricate themselves from 60s and 70s paradigms and who cannot acknowledge the influence their own privilege has on their need to defend the status quo. Read the whole thing.

More on why conservatism didn't win

It doesn't really need to be said at this point, because I think it is pretty obvious that conservatism lost in this election, as I said below. Still, compare 2000, when George W. Bush had the gall to say that talking about income disparities was "class warfare." Had he said that in 2006, even some Congressman in Idaho would not have wanted to campaign with him. Center for American Progress, which is focused on the urgent issue of health care reform, compiled a list of what winning Democratic candidates said about the issue in the 2006 elections. Here are a few of the quotes they include:

  • “With costs rising out of control and health care coverage declining, the health care system in our country is broken, and we need to make fundamental changes.” “My health care coverage plan rests on four bedrock principles: First, affordable coverage for all Americans; second, maintaining your choice of doctors and plans; third, controlling costs; and fourth, expanding preventive care.” Bob Casey, Senator-Elect, Pennsylvania (speech, campaign website, last viewed 11/6/06)
  • “Health coverage is eroding; health care costs are spiraling upward. It is a lethal combination and a vicious cycle...For individuals and families a lack of health insurance is a financial disaster waiting to happen...For the nation as a whole, it is a drag on our potential.” Sherrod Brown, Senator-Elect, Ohio (speech, 9/13/06)
  • “We can begin to address the problem through the eventual implementation of a policy guaranteeing adequate health care for every American.” Zack Space, U.S. Congress, Ohio Congressional District 18 (campaign website, last viewed 9/11/06)
  • “We have a moral obligation as a nation to ensure that every citizen has access to quality, affordable health care.” John Yarmuth, U.S. Congress, Kentucky, Congressional District 3 (campaign website, last viewed 11/06/06)

Health care reform is anethema to conservatives, but it's an important issue for most people, as seen in this campaign. I really hope the Congress can get something done on this, the very least of which would be using the leverage of the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

Another thing I hope will come of this change in Congress is more attention to the difficulties of professionals in metropolitan areas of this country who have to pay back student loans, often raise families, and deal with higher cost of living. The Democrats' focus on re-tooling the alternative minimum tax so it doesn't effect the middle class is a good start, a tax that George W. Bush seems all too happy to prop up in its current form. Coupled with repealing Bush's ineffective tax cuts for the super wealthy, the Democrats could make sure repealing or indexing the AMT to inflation doesn't put us into more debt.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Democrats win big!-why?

As Kevin Phillips, architect of Nixon's Southern Strategy, pointed out, the Democrats overcame a very effective Republican machine to win the midterm elections. Less noted in the post-election analysis is that they won against a system that has been gerrymandered against them. What's more, even in their minority status, they represented more Americans in the Senate than the Republicans did. Finally, Democrats are always going to be at disadvantage with funds because their supporters, as an aggregate, are just not as wealthy as Republicans' are. It's a shame our current system penalizes them for this.

And yet, Democrats won. Sizeably. Conservative pundits like George Will, Bob Novak and others have been insisting that conservatism as a political ideology did not lose, rather the current Republican party lost. I find a few problems with this statement:

(1) No political ideology is ever consistently implemented by a political body. It's naive to think that if Republicans were just able to promote conservatism, they would be fine. Everything that we have seen in the last twelve years, from hypocritical anti-Clintonites Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston having affairs of their own while espousing family values, to corrupt pork-barrel spending, to pay-to-play policy making, to inconsistent tax relief, is exactly what the Republican party is all about. It should not have taken George Will twelve years to realize this. Any political party is only as good as the people who represent it, and even those vestiges of the initial Republican revolution who we saw on TV the other night--the J.C. Watts, the Bill Bennetts--had trouble adhering to conservatism.

(2) Conservatism did lose, all across the country. It lost in all of the states where referendums to increase the minimum wage passed. The conservatism that believes in legislating morals lost in South Dakota, where a statewide abortion ban was voted down; it lost in Arizona where a ban on gay marriage was voted down; and it lost in statehouses across the country, where state governments became majority Democratic. It lost in the new, fast-growing voting bloc of 18-29 year olds, 60% of them whom voted for progressive candidates.

(3) Kind of an addendum to #1, but Republicans were never really conservative where it counted, and they never will be. They promoted excess in the financial sector, which as Phillips said, is "running amok on debt;" they created a huge government deficit; they ignored the problem of global warming in favor of propping up industries of excess, like the auto industry; and they themselves engaged in corruption, cronyism, promotion of government largess--especially because of Iraq, where contractors are not being held accountable for their work and are running up a huge tab at the American taxpayer's expense.

In sum, Conservatism lost big. I'll have more to say on why I think the Democrats won and who was most responsible for these gains and then hopefully what I would like to see from the new Congress in coming blog entries.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Two years ago I was in Paris, a huddled, sad entity. Tonight, I am in Virginia, (prematurely) rejoicing in the hope that Jim Webb is the new Senator of this state, and generally just feeling about 500 times better than I did this time in 2004, because Democrats won the House. But this Allen-Webb race is killing me!!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Republicans against voting rights

From the bowels of humanity:

Tim Daly from Clarendon got a call saying that if he votes Tuesday, he will be arrested. A recording of his voicemail can be found online at:

The transcript from his voicemail reads:

"This message is for Timothy Daly. This is the Virginia Elections Commission. We've determined you are registered in New York to vote. Therefore, you will not be allowed to cast your vote on Tuesday. If you do show up, you will be charged criminally."

Daly has been registered to vote in Virginia since 1998, and he has voted for the last several cycles with no problem. He has filed a criminal complaint with the Commonwealth's attorney in Arlington.

Seriously, I don't know how these people can live with themselves, but I don't think they are so concered about that in the first place. Any Republican who sanctions such tactics (and at this point, it's as high as the RNC) is against the fundamental right to vote and has no business running to hold an office that serves the American people and our Constitution.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Absurdity in Virginia

As I've said in the past, I don't know whether to laugh or cry when it comes to George Allen. To see him stoop so low against opponent Jim Webb is both encouraging--it clearly means that he is worried about his once safe seat--and astonishing--is it possible, I keep on asking myself, for a person to possess no moral compass? This election is the year of polticians saying anything to get elected, and Allen is quite possibly the worst offender, right up there with Bob Corker. Thankfully, there are Republicans who are intellecutally honest enough to admit it:

I'm a Christian, a writer, a military parent and a registered Republican. On all those counts, I was disgusted by an e-mail I just received that's being circulated by campaign supporters of Republican George Allen, who's trying to retain his Senate seat in Virginia.

...Mr. Webb's son is a Marine in Iraq. That's an uncommon fact in this era in which most political leaders' children act as if it is only right and proper that it's someone else's war to fight.

Mr. Webb also happens to be running against a desperate opponent supported by people who circulated the stupid e-mail, something that reminds me of a 2000 smear campaign aimed at another war hero, John McCain.

The Webb e-mail is the embodiment of the cynical Republican strategists, some of whom must know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Was Agatha Christie a murderer because she wrote about murder?

In other news, I went out and did some literature dropping for Jim Webb today out in Centreville, Virginia.

Economy Improving, Right?

The front page of the Washington Post indicated yesterday that the joblessness rate is the lowest since 2001. Combined with strong market performance, shouldn't this bode well for Republicans, one might ask. According to an article by Jacob S. Hacker, traditional economic indices such as these are not the ones that Americans are particularly concerned about. Meanwhile, some ridiculous conclusions have been made about the continued dissatisfaction with the economy, as Hacker describes:
Some analysts have described current voter angst as a hangover of economic success. "Americans have developed perfectionist standards," economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson has argued. "We expect total prosperity and are disappointed by anything less." And conservative pundit George Will recently decried the nation's "economic hypochondria" -- an entitlement mentality characterized by a low threshold for economic pain.

As Hacker says, these pundits are looking at the wrong indicators:
But the problem isn't the public -- it's the standard statistics used to judge the economy. Inflation, unemployment and economic growth all capture economic performance at a particular moment or period. Yet a growing body of theory and evidence suggests that to understand public perceptions, one should look at the security and stability of family finances over time. With that perspective, the grounds for unease suddenly look much clearer.

This is absolutely right. Even as a recent and relatively young member of the American workforce, I have to say that my biggest fears are that somehow my retirement savings won't pan out, even though I'm making an effort to plan ahead; that even if I go to graduate school to get credentials for a professional career track, I won't be able to afford increasingly high property values and the better schools that come along with the areas that are home to expensive properties; that my health care premiums will be exhorbitant. Low joblessness and a strong market don't shed any light on such concerns.

However, narrow, short-sighted economic analysis is the way many analysts and politicians in our country look at growth. Consumer confidence and, in particular, strong consumer spending are overly-relied-upon indices in a country whose average savings rate is zero. If people are not saving, there will be a point when our country will have to face the prospect of a large population who cannot afford retirement: at at time when social security dividends will be depleted, the U.S. will need to somehow figure out how to support millions of cash-strapped retirees, or these people will have to keep working. So I fear.

What exactly is behind all of this?
In a path-breaking recent paper, "The Evolution of Top Incomes: A Historical and International Perspective," Thomas Piketty of Écoles Normales Supérieure in Paris and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley have shown that the share of national income held by the richest 1 percent of Americans -- stable at about 32 percent throughout the middle decades of the 20th century -- began to rise sharply in the late 1970s and by 2002 had surpassed 40 percent. In the past few years, most income gains have gone to people at the very top of the income ladder, with middle-class Americans seeing only a small boost in their economic standing.

Income is not rising. Americans are being counted on to spend, to consume, even if it poses great risk to their savings and credit ratings, even if their salaries aren't increasing with inflation. Ultimately, according to Hacker, dissatisfaction wtih the economy boils down to instability:
...There's good reason to think that our economic lives are more unstable than they used to be. Bankruptcy, for instance, is much more common today than it was just 25 years ago and research by Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School -- presented in a 2003 law review article, "Financial Collapse and Class Status" -- shows that many of those who file for bankruptcy were once squarely middle class. Princeton economist Henry Farber, in his article "What Do We Know About Job Loss in the United States?" has found that the likelihood that a worker will lose a job over a three-year period has been rising -- and is now about as high as it was in the early 1980s, which saw the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In my own research using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics -- a survey that has traced a large sample of Americans over time -- I've found that family incomes have become much more unstable since the 1970s; the gap between our income in a good year and our income in a bad year has expanded.

Hacker concludes by discussing studies showing Americans have great aversion to loss. Some might counter that the economy is cyclical, that fits and starts are to be expected. Funny how those people tend to be the ones who have never known the fits. Who can blame Americans for being loss-averse: loss is stressful, often traumatic. Such an experience weighs down upon anyone even in better times. In the back of one's mind is the fear of losing it all again. So, just as in 1992, it's the economy, stupid, but the establishment doesn't seem to yet understand why this is a problem for the Republicans.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Long-Awaited Borat Movie

Rotten Tomatoes is showing that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Glorious Benefit of Kazakhstan has an average of 100% positive reviews. Well, after a busy week at work and a three week preparation for the movie, consisting of watching seasons 1 and 2 of "Da Ali G Show" on DVD, I was ready to fully enjoy the Borat movie. That it was getting almost universally great buzz was highly encouraging, especially because there are so few quality movies inspired by television characters, and therefore critics are wary of being swiftly disappointed by this genre (duds include It's Pat and Stuart Saves his Family, and the only successful TV-to-big screen transition that I can think of right now is Wayne's World).

Unfortunately, Borat was underwhelming, and I am not saying that based on any contrarian agenda of my own. Like I said, I wanted to love Borat. I love Sacha Baron Cohen and want to believe that this young, funny, attractive, Jewish man, embodies sheer brilliance. And yet, Borat just wasn't that funny. I admit, I laughed myself to tears at the most memorable scene in the movie, whose contents I will not give away--anyone who sees the movie will know exactly the scene--but that was partially out of sheer astonishment. Otherwise, I think this reviewer puts it best:

It's offensively funny in places but it can't sustain itself for a feature length running time and it's not nearly as clever or as fun as it should be.

...A handful of these situations are hilarious, but the problem of the movie is that it's not structured as a satire that asks us to laugh at ourselves by seeing our inconsistencies through the eyes of an outsider. It asks us to laugh at the outsider by seeing him as a contemptible boob.

The satire that "asks us to laugh at ourselves by seeing our inconsistencies through the eyes of an outsider" is what makes the Borat installment on "Da Ali G Show" so brilliant. One of my favorite parts of a Borat segement is when someone starts explaining to him how we do things in America, and when Borat's American interviewees end up advocating suppression that should supposedly be an exclusive provenance of Borat's Kazakhstan--all while declaring the U.S. #1 because of our freedoms--we are reminded that the best comedy comes from reality, even if it must be provoked a bit.

This is why the sheer bufoonery that drives much of the Borat movie struck me as the dumbing down of the Borat concept by a studio that believed it needed to broaden its film-going audience by trading the clever for the obnoxious. Or maybe I am going too easy on Sacha Baron Cohen when I put the disappointment of the movie at the studio's feet. Either way, Borat could have been better.