Thursday, January 27, 2005

Small Victories
Here's at least one aspect of our public life that won't get even worse anytime soon: the administration announced today that it would abandon the effort led by outgoing FCC head Michael Powell to ease restrictions on media ownership rules.

This is good news, albeit with a bad reason behind it:

In a final slap at Mr. Powell, the Justice Department will not ask the United States Supreme Court to consider a decision last year by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia that sharply criticized the attempt to deregulate the rules and ordered the commission to reconsider its action.

Big media companies have been urging the administration to get involved in the case. But its decision not to recommend that the Supreme Court take the case sharply reduces the odds that the justices would intervene. The court had set next Monday as a deadline for the parties to file their initial papers in the appeal.

Officials said one reason the administration decided not to seek Supreme Court review is that some lawyers were concerned that the case could prompt the justices to review related First Amendment issues in a way that could undermine efforts by the commission to enforce indecency rules against television and radio broadcasters. Over the last year, the agency has issued a record number and size of fines, and has been pressed by some conservative and other advocacy groups to be more aggressive.

This is actually kind of remarkable, if you think about it: for the first time I can remember, the Bush administration is putting the interests of its social conservative supporters, aghast at seeing more bared boobies or even the word "damn" in future Super Bowl broadcasts, before the interests of its money men. I doubt this will start a trend, or even get the culture warriors to back off their "ban gay marriage now" snit fit, but anything that pisses off Rupert Murdoch and his fellow media moguls--and cheers what the Times calls "an unusual coalition of labor, consumer, religious, artistic and civil rights organizations"--should be greeted with a smile.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Tolerance Embiggens Us All
After going after Spongebob, right-wing cleric James "SpongeDob" Dobson might next have to pick on someone his own size: a "Simpsons" character is about to emerge from the closet, and then get married. The episode will air February 20:

Simpsons producers haven't revealed which character turns out to be gay, but that hasn't stopped fans from speculating or placing bets on who it might be. Patty Bouvier, the chain-smoking, raspy-voiced sister of Marge who has rarely dated men, seems to be the leading contender - one Web betting site,, stopped taking wagers because so much money was being placed on her.
The Internet rumor that Patty, Marge's sister, comes out and marries a female golf pro has been circulating for so long that it's hardened into what passes for "fact" on the Internet. There have been some clues along the way. When her sister Selma was looking for a husband to start a family, Patty showed no interest. When Homer, naked, runs by the sisters in one episode, Patty says, "There goes the last lingering shred of my heterosexuality."

In any case, [producer Al] Jean warns that the show could be changed at the last minute and is not in its final form. The episode has been in the works for about a year, since San Francisco decided to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry (a move later overturned by the state's Supreme Court) and several other cities followed suit.

"We thought it would be an interesting thing for Springfield to do," Jean says, adding that the town splits into pro- and anti-gay marriage camps. "Lisa thinks it's good for civil rights. The reverend of the local Protestant church is opposed to it. Other people think tourists will come to town. Mayor Quimby wants the money. We don't take a position as much as explore everybody's positions."

Besides Patty and Smithers, there are some other possibilities:

  • Barkeeper Moe: Famous for making a drink called the "Flaming Moe." However, in this week's episode he was spotted with Nelson the bully's mother.

  • Lenny and Carl: The two inseparable buddies work with Homer at the nuclear plant.

  • Duff Man: Well-muscled spokesman for Duff Beer. Clearly spends a lot of time at the gym. Wears a cape.

  • Groundskeeper Willy: Wears a kilt, single, buff.

  • Ned Flanders: Mustachioed neighbor of the Simpsons whose trademark greeting is "Hi-dilly-ho!" Choreographs the Super Bowl halftime show in a future episode. Has also worn his late wife's dress while mowing the lawn.

So who will it be? I'm not sure, but I think I can tell you who won't be the new animated face of gay rights:

  • It probably won't be Smithers, because there would be no drama

  • Not Patty, because she lacks the emotional capacity to love anybody or anything except perhaps the pet lizard, Jub-Jub, she shares with Selma

  • Not Flanders, because, one, he's already hooked up twice since his wife's death, and two, I think the show's producers honestly like that he's become something of a Christian cult hero

  • It won't be Moe, just because nobody wants to envision Moe in any kind of intimate (or, as Homer once spelled it, "intamit") situation.

So if not any of them, then who? My guess is that either Lenny and Carl really will get together--which, as an interracial gay couple, would really upset the KulturKampf Krew--or a minor but recurring character like Disco Stu or Ms. Hoover (Lisa's second-grade teacher) will declare the love that once dared not speak its name.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Hillary's Choice
I don't really want to write anything favorable about Hillary Clinton. I'm not a fan, and I haven't been for a long time. Last month I even added four reasons to oppose her theoretical run for the White House in a Daily Kos post I titled (somewhat grandiosely) The Policy Case Against Hillary:

1. McCain-Feingold. She opposed the reforms; soft money and its corrosive effects were fine with her, because it had helped her and other Democrats, notably her husband.

2. The war. Few questions asked, little skepticism voiced.

3. The bankruptcy bill, as noted above. I don't know how much Wall Street money came her way in 2000, but given the politics of my state and the family history here, I suspect it was pretty considerable. Meanwhile, thousands of New Yorkers are directly punished by this. Unconscionable.

4. Welfare reform/TANF reauthorization. Back when we actually had leverage in the Senate, Hillary went out of her way to announce support for higher mandatory participation rates and more work hours for aid recipients--basically the same formula Rudy Giuliani used here in NYC to created an indentured public workforce with virtually no long-term benefit for participants. In return, Hillary just wanted more childcare money. Never mind that "make-work" welfare badly constrains states' abilities to help low-income workers who are already "working hard and playing by the rules"; that it amounts (and will amount, when this is passed in two months) to huge unfunded mandates on states and localities, and that it constrains local officials from referring participants to programs of education and training that might actually help them toward economic self-sufficiency.

But when she's right, she's right. Even if it means she's trying to ingratiate herself with the right. Yesterday was one of those examples, and Democrats might do well to embrace her framing of the issue:
Mrs. Clinton, widely seen as a possible candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, appeared to be reaching out beyond traditional core Democrats who support abortion rights. She did so not by changing her political stands, but by underscoring her views in preventing unplanned pregnancies, promoting adoption, recognizing the influence of religion in abstinence and championing what she has long called "teenage celibacy."

She called on abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion campaigners to form a broad alliance to support sexual education - including abstinence counseling - family planning, and morning-after emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault as ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.

"We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," Mrs. Clinton told the annual conference of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State. "The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."
Democratic senators such as Harry Reid of Nevada and Dianne Feinstein of California have also pressed for a greater focus on reducing unintended pregnancies, and some Democratic consultants have urged that party leaders mint new language to reach voters who identified moral values as a top issue for them in last November's election.

"Our focus in the speech was to make sure that she still communicated that she was pro-choice - she doesn't want to undermine that - but she also thinks we can have some common ground among all sides and make abortion rare," Neera Tanden, legislative director for Mrs. Clinton, said in a telephone interview.

Sen. Clinton's description of abortion as an at times "a sad, even tragic choice" for women is far more in line with the "uncomfortably pro-choice" position of the majority of voters. Having sounded the right emotional note, she and her co-partisans now need to make the substantive case for why their position of "safe, legal and rare" remains the best option.

Fortunately, Democrats have the ammunition to wage this fight. Opponents of abortion need to know that while the rhetoric from Bill Clinton's White House might not have flattered them to the extent that Bush did while "phoning it in" yesterday (the perfect metaphor for his tepid support of the far-right social agenda, even if I now see that New Donkey jumped on it before I did), the bottom line is that abortions were fewer during Clinton's tenure. The numbers don't lie:

Abortion was decreasing. When President Bush took office, the nation's abortion rates were at a 24-year low, after a 17.4 percent decline during the 1990s. This was a steady decrease averaging 1.7 percent per year. (The data come from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life using the Guttmacher Institute's studies.)

Enter Bush in 2001. One would expect the abortion rate to continue its consistent course downward, if not plunge. Instead, the opposite happened. We found four states that have posted three-year statistics: Kentucky's increased by 3.2 percent from 2000 to 2003. Michigan's increased by 11.3 percent from 2000 to 2003. Pennsylvania's increased by 1.9 percent from 1999 to 2002. Colorado's rates skyrocketed 111 percent. We found 12 additional states that reported statistics for 2001 and 2002. Eight states saw an increase in abortion rates (14.6 percent average increase), and five saw a decrease (4.3 percent average decrease).

Under Bush, the decade-long trend of declining abortion rates appears to have reversed. Given the trends of the 1990s, 52,000 more abortions occurred in the United States in 2002 than would have been expected before this change of direction.

The next two years should feature the Democrats calling "bullshit" on Republican hypocrisy and symbolic politics, steadily making the case that when it comes to the connection between rhetoric and results, there is "no 'there' there." The Senate Dems' newly offered agenda, while not exactly a call to the battlements, is a good start. So is Senator Clinton's stand on the abortion question, regardless of why she took it.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Florida in February
Only now, about 26 hours after the Eagles punched their ticket to Super Bowl XXXIX with a 27-10 win over the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, is the glow starting to fade. Well, actually it's gone; it's quite cold and I'm grumpy and tired. But this game will be replayed on my own mental TiVo for a long while to come.

There was something intensely satisfying, in a narrative sense, about how the Eagles finally got past the conference title game. To me, Andy Reid confirmed his membership in the coaching pantheon with the game he called yesterday. Rather than playing things tight and conservative, as he did in the two home losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina the last two years, he called a fake field goal and a strategic time out to force Atlanta to take a fourth down into the wind. That was just the first quarter. As Gregg Easterbrook probably will note in his column tomorrow, Reid basically challenged his team to win the game--and showed his total confidence that they'd do so.

Those calls were contingent on the situation in the game at the time. His conceptual breakthrough, though, was to realize that on a very windy day, with an opponent who would try to control the ball, the clock, and the tempo, the Eagles would have to run to win. Thus we saw Brian Westbrook carry it 16 times for 96 yards; Dorsey Levens got a handful of carries; emerging big-play guy Greg Lewis took a handoff for a crucial first-down run; and McNabb wound up carrying ten times, more than Atlanta's Michael Vick. To be fair, a few of those McNabb carries were probably busted pass plays, but the result was that for the first time in memory, Philly ran it more than they threw it.

Can they beat New England and take home a title? I think the betting line--Patriots by 7--is fair, but I also think the Eagles have a great chance to win the game. Donovan McNabb won't make the mistakes Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did in his team's 41-27 loss, and I have a feeling Westbrook will find more holes than did Pittsburgh's Duce Staley--the ex-Eagle who has now been on the losing side in four straight conference championship games--and Jerome Bettis yesterday. New England's secondary is still vulnerable, as the Steelers showed in putting up 24 second-half points; in terms of gameplanning, it will be easier for Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to draw up plays than it was for the Steelers with their rookie QB.

Defensively, the Eagles shouldn't allow as many deep passes as the Steelers did; those three Pro Bowl defensive backs have to count for something. And JJ should be able to get more pressure on Pats quarterback Tom Brady than Pittsburgh did. On the other hand, the Eagles' front seven is probably more vulnerable to the run. Hopefully Mark Simoneau will be back and able to play--his speed at LB will be important in containing Corey Dillon.

It should be a very good game with more than enough storylines to keep the press frenzied for 13 days--two great head coaches and their justly lauded coordinators, two great QBs, Dillon and (hopefully) Terrell Owens making their first Super Bowls. I'm just planning to enjoy the ride.

Back tomorrow with some thoughts on the Democrats' possible spine transfusion and Hillary Clinton's abortion... um, "triangulation" might be too harsh, especially considering that what she said is pretty close to what I think about the issue... but it sure sounded like political positioning.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Best of the Gym Reading, Vol. II
Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect points out some sad and profound truths about two Texan presidents:

Before [Lyndon] Johnson became president, the United States had not had a president from the South since Zachary Taylor died in office in the summer of 1850. In the 40 years since Johnson's landslide victory, southerners have been president for 24 years -- at least if we grant Poppy Bush's claim that he was really a Texan. By ending southern exceptionalism, by steering to passage the great laws that ended legal segregation and enabled southern blacks to vote, Johnson made it possible for southerners to run for president freed from the burden of defending a profoundly racist system. He made it possible for them to win.

...For all the attacks leveled then and since on Johnson's programs, the numbers tell a different, far happier tale. In 1959, 22 percent of Americans lived in poverty. By 1973 that figure had fallen to 11 percent, and it has never climbed back to anywhere near its pre-Great Society levels. Poverty among the elderly in particular fell from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent today -- numbers to remember as we consider dismantling Social Security. domestic matters [Bush] is the anti-Johnson through and through. Bush's vision is to get people off the government's grid, not put more on. He calls this the "ownership society," and it would be a lovely vision if everyone could afford to buy into it.

...After decades of conservative rule, Texas is a pretty fair prototype for Bush's ownership society. There are no income taxes. There are scarcely any unions. Benefits are low. Regulation is scarce. Markets are unfettered.

And the results fall somewhere between sobering and sickening. As the president proposes to "reform" Social Security, it's notable that the state he served as governor leads the nation in senior poverty, with 17.3 percent of the elderly living beneath the poverty line. Texas may be a state of biblical values, but "honor thy father and thy mother" seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Texas also leads the land by a wide margin in its percentage of medically uninsured. Fully 25.2 percent of Texans, in the latest government figures, go without health insurance. New Mexico, which ranks second, with 21.6 percent uninsured, has a way to go to catch Texas.
The Texas difference is a political difference. In its resistance to taxes and services and unions, Texas has created an ownership society that excludes more Americans than any other state. And this is the model that Bush is commending to the nation as a whole.

That Lyndon Johnson made George W. Bush's presidency possible, then, has to rank as one of those great ironies that history apparently adores. For Johnson's mission was to bring Texas up to the standards of the United States. And Bush's mission is to bring the United States down to the standards of Texas.

You and What Army?
I haven't had the mental toughness to read through Bush's speech yesterday, let alone watch or listen to it; just watching the coverage on "The Daily Show" was almost enough to make me barf up my post-gym dinner. But for all the bold talk about how spreading freedom is the mission of this generation, etc, I have to wonder how exactly he thinks we're gonna do this.

Put aside the hypocrisy of talking about "freedom" and "liberty" while supporting the despotic regimes of Saudi, Pakistan, Uzbekistan et al--not to mention our bankers in Thugocratic China, who can cripple our economy whenever they have a mind to do so by just calling in all the US debt they hold. We're left hoping that none of the "bad actor" states we've targeted--Iran, maybe North Korea--calls our bluff. With a "broken" military reserve, we don't have the forces to do anything, and we probably don't have the international credibility to muster up a posse as George H.W. Bush did so effectively against Saddam in 1990-91.

Iraq very possibly will turn out to be the wrong war, at the wrong time, against the wrong foe. Iran is a lot scarier, and it's run by people much smarter (and, I'd argue, more motivated--none of the mad mullahs are writing romance novels) than Saddam.

But really, I couldn't care less what Bush says. I know Michael Gerson can write a beautiful speech, and I know Bush is an effective enough politician to deliver it well. (As the late NFL Films "Voice of God" John Facenda supposedly said to his producer/scriptwriter Steve Sabol, "You've given me a horse I can ride," Bush similarly owes Gerson.)

I'm watching the actions. What I see is promotion and praise for the same ideologues and incompetents that got us into the current mess, whose loyalty clearly is to the man who raised them up to prominence, not to the law or the country; free-spending economic policies so irresponsible that even many conservatives are starting to balk; ongoing politicization of government agencies that owe it to the American people to do their best work rather than pursue partisan goals (the Social Security Administration is arguably the most efficient organization in the world); and a near-total disdain for the almost 60 million of us who desperately wanted to change the national direction. There will be a reckoning.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A Political Identity Crisis
I'm at work today, trying to avoid the gushing foppery masquerading as news and trying to keep my chin and spirits up on a day that strikes me as an apt occasion for mourning--certainly not a $40 million celebration in which the losers (the people of DC) are forced to pick up part of the tab.

The reality of another four years of this utterly vile government--its blend of malice and ineptitude, its astonishing arrogance, its inabilty to do anything well except, I guess, self-perpetuate through election victories--brings back all the despair I felt in those first few days after November 2. Worse, we've now seen more indications of Democratic surrender: the disgusting performances of "our" Senators in the Gonzales and Rice hearings, the baffling support of many inside the party estabishment for status-quo insiders in the race for DNC Chair. Our elder statespeople--the Bidens, the Feinsteins--in recent days have looked as spineless and unprincipled as their radical critics have long alleged. I never wanted to believe those charges; now I don't see how anyone can feel otherwise.

We're pissed off, we're sad, and we're not sure what to do next. This Daily Kos diary expressed very well the raw anger I feel whenever I get any communication from the DNC (and whenever I see or hear anything of the bumbling and bombastic Terry McAuliffe) and their one-note message: more money for us to misuse. The responses were cheering in the sense that they echoed my own feelings, but disquieting in that they show just how alienated many of us have become from what remains our best institutional mechanism for organized political resistence.

Read into the responses and it gets worse: some predict we'll lose even more seats in the 2006 midterms. Even if we get more votes, some point out, rigged election systems will deny us victories.

The despair and alienation brings up an interesting and potentially momentous question: At what point do we stop identifying ourselves as Democrats? And--if the party moves in the reform/insurgent direction many of us, from all points on the Democratic ideological map, want it to follow, and we still lose in 2006, 2008 and beyond--at one point do we stop identifying ourselves as Americans?

My own belief is that after two more years of Bush's spoils-based domestic redistribution policies, 2006 will see a deepening of the partisan geographical/philosophical divide: here in New York, the Democrats will take back the governorship and probably knock out some Congressional Republicans. The gaps seen between presidential voting and statewide office voting, in states like NY and PA and MA, will shrink or disappear; Senators Santorum and Chafee, both nominal Republicans, are already in deep trouble according to early polling. In Congress, I think the Democrats will gain seats, but not enough to retake either house. And the Republicans in power will continue to enact policies in the spirit of James A. Baker 3d's quote, which I'm paraphrasing here: "Fuck the blue states; they don't vote for us anyway."

Our political system has always been self-correcting: a bad cycle or two brings electoral consequences. But between gerrymandering, the K Street Project, and (as we all know) the simply superior political tacticians on the side of the Theoligarchy Party, that might no longer hold true. I guess we'll see, because if the last four years presented a compelling case for throwing the right-wing bums out, the next four should present an overwhelming argument to do the same.

Today I'm in mourning for what has happened to my country. If another right-wing Republican goon is sworn in, four years from today, I'm not sure I'll even still regard the country as mine. What happens then, I'm not sure. But it might be self-evident, so to speak.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Nice performance by the Eagles yesterday, despite the fact that to some extent, critics' concerns about the effects of a month without competitive football proved valid. The defense was excellent, but on offense they made mistakes and left ten points on the field... and they still weren't really pushed in the game.

The game planning was excellent on both sides of the ball. The rested defensive linemen put pressure on Daunte Culpepper, blitzes were used judiciously and effectively, Randy Moss got discouraged early and never was a big factor. Donovan McNabb, who played very well, went back to the best of his pre-TO form in terms of spreading it around. WRs Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and Greg Lewis all played credibly and Brian Westbrook had his off-the-shelf standard Westbrook game: 120 total yards, a touchdown. They won cleanly on both lines--pass protection was really good, very much in contrast to last year in the playoffs. (I've been saying that's been an even bigger difference than the advent of TO.)

It also helped that they were facing a flawed opponent that had arguably played its Super Bowl the week before. The Vikings have a ton of talent, but are just not well coached. Seemed like the Eagles could do almost anything they wanted--particularly on offense, they ran the same plays for positive yards again and again. Even when the Vikings moved the ball, it often felt like Culpepper and his receivers were making great individual plays rather than exploiting systemic mismatches.

Next week against Atlanta will be a bigger challenge and might tell us a lot about whether Andy Reid has improved as a playoff coach. He'll have to go against his instincts and run the ball more, to keep the Falcons' two-backs-plus-Mike Vick ground game off the field so as not to grind down the Eagles' smallish defensive line. I'd like to see The Chiefs were able to destroy the Falcons 56-10 early in the season, almost exclusively with the running game. If Reid doesn't go pass-crazy, they should be okay.

It's tougher, but still possible, to find reasons for hope in the great affairs of our country. Apparently there's some pushback against the Bush administration's efforts to politicize the Social Security Administration for its ill-conceived push to neuter the most successful social insurance program in history, and news like this gives me some cheer in that it lays out how the tensions in the right-wing coalition might lead to a schism sooner rather than later. Of course this is dependent somewhat on the Democrats' ability to exploit the small fissures, and if the last decade has taught us anything about politics, it's that one should never underestimate the Dems' ability to blast their own feet off.

Today of all days it's also worthwhile to think about what idealistic Americans have accomplished in terms of social change, in the face of conditions that probably seemed far more daunting than what we see today. This PBS special on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., aired last night, featured a lot of informal footage--home movies and the like--that I'd never seen before in my fairly extensive trawling through the filmography and literature of the civil rights movement.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Mindless Pleasures
Not much posting here, perhaps because there's not much post-worthy stuff going on, far as I can tell. If you want to read good insights and find useful information about the coming political war over Social Security, Josh Marshall is your man; if football is your game and you want to read something really brilliant about this weekend's Vikings-Eagles tilt, check out this guy.

But I do have to recommend one incredible diversion, perfect for your sunless January: Guess the sitcom star/dictator. Thus far I've stumped it with some fictional dictators (Big Brother, Ming the Merciless) and some very obscure Simpsons characters (Lindsay Nagle). But damn, this thing is fun.

Another--though I'm not even sure this counts as mindless--is the series premiere of SciFi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," tonight. We watched the December 2003 miniseries on Wednesday and were very impressed. Here's a review. Finally, something to fill the void left when SpikeTV canceled "Friday Night Bonus Treks"!

Yeah, I'm a big geek. But I'm engaged now, I don't really even have to impress myself anymore...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Next Thursday
My dad turns 62 years young. It'll be three days before what I hope will be the Eagles' (latest) shot at redemption in the NFC championship game, assuming they get past the Minnesota Vikings this coming Sunday. And, um... hold on, I know this... oh yeah: Republicans will celebrate our national consignment to four more years of debt, demagoguery and damage, if not damnation, with Bush's second inauguration.

I got an e-mail this morning about one of the several proposed protests for this grim occasion: Not One Damn Dime Day. The idea is that, in the absence of opposition to the war and the Bush agenda from political or spiritual leaders, we can take it upon ourselves to make our views known by spending no money on January 20, 2005. The idea is spreading pretty quickly across the left blogosphere and beyond, as this news story illustrates. (Is it lefty paranoia or just an uncannily sharp eye that I noticed the link to the "Not One Damn Dime" site is incorrect?) But this Snopes piece, while more of an editorial than their usual debunking of urban mythology, makes a fairly compelling argument for why we maybe shouldn't bother.

Myself, I think it raises the more interesting question of what would happen if we did something like this for a week. Or a month. Or six months. It worked for Gandhi, I believe. And the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s put the concept to more than occasional good effect.

RIP, James Forman
Speaking of the civil rights era, one of its heroes died late Monday night. James Forman, organzier of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, passed away from colon cancer at 76. A Freedom Rider and participant in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party effort to unseat that state's racist Democratic "regulars," Forman was older than SNCC contemporaries like John Lewis and Julian Bond, and for that matter Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 76 next week. Like Bob Moses and many other champions of the movement, Forman became disillusioned with the country's failure to make further progress on racial issues as the 1960s wore on, and became both more radical and more marginalized. He died in a hospice in Washington, largely forgotten and deserving of better; hopefully his death, coming so close to the observance of King's birthday, will refocus attention on one of the prouder chapters in recent history and possibly even spark some critical thought about where we were then, and where we are now.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Supersized Contracts
In one of the most fitting displays of Gotham excess since, well, probably the Republican Convention last summer, the Mets and Yankees tomorrow introduce their shiny new toys within hours of each other: centerfielder Carlos Beltran, relocating to Queens after signing a seven-year, $119 million contract, and pitcher Randy Johnson, a surly 41 year-old strikeout machine who comes to the Bronx from the wreckage of the Arizona Diamondbacks at the cost of $57 million (three years at $16 million per, and a $9 million payment to the Snakes) plus a pretty good haul of talent in pitchers Javier Vazquez and Brad Halsey and catching prospect Dioner Navarro.

This isn't the place to read laments about baseball's unfair economics, much less the bloated salaries its superstars regularly fail to "earn"... especially considering that the Phillies had the sixth-highest payroll in the game last year and boast two sluggers pulling down eight digits in Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome. But there's using your market advantages wisely, as the Yankees have often done in the past and the Red Sox are starting to do with regularity, and then there's just flat-out overpaying. That's what both New York teams have done with these silly deals. Beltran is a legitimate star with power, patience, speed and a great glove, who rose to the occasion big-time in the playoffs last year and is just 27 years old. But damn--the guy hit .267 last year and was quite pedestrian down the stretch in September, failing to homer in his last 87 regular season at-bats. Had the Chicago Cubs not suffered one of the more severe cases of windpipe constriction down the stretch and held on for the wild card, Beltran wouldn't have entered free agency with that record-setting (eight homers, 20-plus runs scored) October wind at his back, and his payoff probably would have been closer to five years at $55 million or $60 million; at most, he would have gotten the five-year, $75 million deal Vlad Guerrero won from the Anaheim/Los Angeles/California Angels of Purgatory last winter... which, after Vlad carried his team into the postseason and won the MVP award, is looking like a pretty sweet bargain.

The Mets overpaid, but they are likely to get value out of Beltran for years yet; he makes them probably four wins better in 2005 and could stay at or close to that high level for the length of his contract, assuming that he takes well to the pressures of playing in New York (talk about not being in Kansas--or Kansas City--anymore). Johnson, on the other hand, could quite easily be a major albatross for the increasingly desperate Yankees. He'll be 44 by the time his contract expires after 2007, he's just one year removed from a season where injuries limited him to part-time work. As Jayson Stark points out in his column about the Yanks' ongoing vulnerabilities, Johnson is bidding to defy history by continuing to perform at such a high level into his 40s; the only previous pitchers his age to do so were knuckleballers. And Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus rightly observes that a year ago, nobody in their right minds would have traded Javier Vazquez for Johnson straight up, much less adding in $9 million and two prospects, one of whom (Navarro) is highly regarded.

Just as the Mets overpaid for Beltran based on what he did in October, the Yankees made a potentially disastrous move in dealing the 20-something Vazquez, coming off a bad three months and a lousy October, for the 40-something Johnson. Of course, neither team is likely to garner much sympathy if these deals go sour.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Democrats' Impotence
What could have been and should have been a stirring day for the Democratic Party, a sort of coming-out party for an invigorated opposition, dissolved into typically pathetic passivity yesterday. The Democrats rolled over on Alberto Gonzales, the Torturer's Apprentice, and while they did protest the certification of the Ohio electors--or rather, Sen. Barbara Boxer did, with subsequent support from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--they apparently spent almost as much time worrying about being "divisive" as pointing out the colossal shenanigans that undermined the voting process. In the end, all but Boxer voted to certify the electors, and Joe Biden and Ken Salazar among others made it clear that Gonzales will be confirmed.

It's enough to make me wonder what the point is. If there's one consensus view among rank and file Democrats and the various subgroups that inform (if not comprise) the party, it's that now is the time to draw clear distinctions and fight back, at least rhetorically. They've got to spend the next two years absolutely slamming away at what the ruling Republicans have done, and are doing, to this country we love. The DLC guys think so, thinks so, everybody in between thinks so. Fuck these concerns about being labeled "obstructionist"; it sure didn't hurt the Gingrich/Dole Republicans, similarly marginalized during Clinton's first two years, when they blocked or tried to block everything aside from NAFTA that the Democrats proposed. And, political considerations aside, is "obstructionism" so bad when you're standing in the way of bankrupting the country, confirming theocratic psychopaths to lifetime judicial appointments, destroying the most successful government program in history, and stepping deeper into a tragic and senseless war that has made us less safe?

There are times when "compromise," or at least being open to other points of view, makes sense. I got into a big flame war on DailyKos--which, yes, I've started reading and posting to regularly again, including this diary in which I tried to explain what I was thinking--the other day for a passing comment I made about abortion, along the lines of thoughts I've shared here. But damn--we're at the point where on a host of key issues, there is no further ground to give. If we don't stand up now, we'll be crushed against the wall, and in a sense we'll deserve it.

And then what's left but recreational drug use, the NFL playoffs, and free music downloads?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Back to Ohio
Congress will be certifying the 2004 election results tomorrow. Though I personally don't think the election should be overturned, based mostly on my belief that the popular vote, not the electoral college, is the real source of sovereignty (the EC effectively stands against the principle of one person/one vote), I have become convinced that a Congressional investigation into what happened in Ohio is badly needed if we're to preserve faith in our democracy.

These arguments aren't primarily based on the personal and financial ties between the Bush administration and the companies that counted the votes, notable though I think those are, or even the fact that the "proprietary" vote-counting software is effectively unaccountable, significant though I think that is too. (I'd ask Republican friends to imagine how they would feel if Jane Fonda owned the vote-counting company and refused to let them know how she went about tallying their votes.) This is mostly based on, one, measured discrepancies between the balloting and the reported results; and two, "legal" but sleazy actions such as the Ohio Secretary of State/Bush campaign co-chair's decision to send too few voting machines to poor and minority precincts where he knew Democrats would dominate. That is not what democracy is about, and by focusing public attention on this behavior I would hope we can end it.

Here is a great summary source from DailyKos explaining why, with excerpts:

Partisan Election Officials: Conveniently enough, Bush had the Secretaries of State (and Chief Election Officials) in three battleground states as his Bush-Cheney '04 Campaign Chairs. Kenneth Blackwell (OH), Terry Lynn Land (MI) and Matt Blunt (MO) all employed strikingly similar tactics in placing unreasonable restrictions on provisional ballots (which are heavily used in Democratic areas), new voter registration, and felony voting rights. All three have come under fire from the public and from the courts for their efforts to obstruct and deny voters their rights.

Long lines were intentional, and meant to suppress the Democratic vote. Ohio had upwards of 68-90 extra machines available on election day, and despite frantic calls from poll workers asking for more machines, the State refused to release them. The initial allocation of machines were deliberately designed to decrease Democratic turnout; Nearly one out of three (31%) Democratic precincts had less voting machines in 2004 than in 2000 compared to less than one out of six (16%) Republican precincts. Of the 217 precincts where voting machines were subtracted, 184 (85%) were Democratic.

There was no Ohio recount. Let's say that again. There was no Ohio recount. As explained in the link below, there were at least 31 violations of Ohio law, ranging from denying public access to voting records to outright vote tampering and fraud. Every action taken by Ohio officials during the recount was meant to obstruct access to records and to, for some reason, prevent auditing the actual vote totals. Under Ohio law, denying access to public voter records, as was the case here, is in and of itself fraud.

Every "irregularity" favored Bush. If the "irregularites" were truly due to random chance or error, then they should have benefited Kerry around 50% of the time. But almost every instance of touch-screen "vote-hopping", every claim of a pre-punched ballot, every instance of a glitch awarding extra votes....every irregularity favored Bush.
Has the election of our President become arbitrary? Two elections in a row, we have seen razor thin margins in battleground states. A different rule on provisional ballots here, an extra voting machine there might literally be outcome determinative. Are we comfortable with that as a nation? That our President could essentially be decided by an unexplainable computer glitch or a partisan ruling rather than by the will of the people?

And here's more from this argument of why Congress should investigate:

More than 106,000 Ohio ballots remain uncounted. As certified by Blackwell, Ohio's official results say 92,672 regular ballots were cast without indicating a choice for president. This sum grows to 106,000 ballots when uncounted provisional ballots are included. There is no legal reason for not inspecting and counting each of these ballots. [...]

Most uncounted ballots come from regions and precincts where Kerry was strongest.
Turnout inconsistencies reveal tens of thousands of Kerry votes were not simply recorded. [...] Most striking is a pattern where turnout percentages (votes cast as a percentage of registered voters) in cities won by Kerry were 10 percentage points or more lower than in the regions won by Bush, a virtually impossible scenario.

Many certified turnout results in key regions throughout the state are simply not plausible, and all work to the advantage of Bush. In southern Perry County, two precincts reported turnouts of 124.4 and 124.0 percent of the registered voters. These impossible turnouts were nonetheless officially certified as part of the final recount by Blackwell. But in pro-Kerry Cleveland, there were certified precinct turnouts of 7.10, 13.15, 19.60, 21.01, 21.80, 24.72, 28.83 and 28.97 percents. Seven entire wards reported a turnout less than 50 percent. [...]

Due to computer flaws and vote shifting, there were numerous reports across Ohio of extremely troublesome electronic errors during the voting process and in the counting. [...]

In Miami County, two sets of results were submitted to state officials. The second, which padded Bush's margin, reported that 18,615 additional votes were counted, increasing Bush's total by exactly 16,000 votes. [...] Two Miami County precincts were certified with reported turnouts of 98.55 and 94.27 percent. In one of the precincts this would have required all but ten registered voters to have cast ballots. But an independent investigation has already collected affidavits of more than 10 registered voters that did not cast ballots on Nov. 2, indicating that Blackwell's officially certified vote count is simply impossible, which once again favoring Bush.
Ohio's Election Day exit poll was more credible than the certified result, according to intense statistical analysis. In-depth studies by Prof. Ron Baiman of the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that Ohio's exit polls in Ohio and elsewhere were virtually certain to be more accurate than the final vote count as certified by Blackwell. Ohio's exit polls predicted a Kerry victory by percentages that exceeded their margin of error. [...] The stark shift from exit polls favoring Kerry to final results in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio all went in Bush's direction, and are, according to Baiman, a virtual impossibility, with odds as high as 150 million to one against.

The Ohio recount wasn't random or comprehensive and may have involved serious illegalities. [...] In many districts, Republican Secretary of State Blackwell chose the precincts to be counted in a partisan manner, weighing the choices toward precincts where there were no disputes while avoiding those being contested. Moreover, there have been numerous confirmed instances where employees of the private companies that manufactured the voting machines had access to the machines and the computer records before the recount occurred. [...]

As noted above, I'm not really interested in overturning the election result; to be brutally honest, part of me actually wants to see Bush and the Republicans reap the whirlwind these next four years. What I am interested in is improving our practices of self-government. Even if the election wasn't "stolen", this was not done right or fairly. And if it happened in Ohio, it could happen anywhere. Leaving all these questions unanswered would be bad enough; leaving them unasked is simply disgraceful.

Monday, January 03, 2005

By Jove...
I think they've got it:

Since the GOP has no interest in compromising or courting Democratic support on much of anything, Congressional Democrats have no option other than to operate as a full-throated opposition party, which could have the added political benefit of enabling all of us to finally shed the Party of Big Government label.

But Democrats should be smart and selective about their strategy for opposition, projecting a positive message of reform even as they do everything possible to stop the more arrogant Republican excesses. On the domestic front, that means calling constant attention to the Bush-engineered fiscal crisis; to the strong odor of corruption and special-interest coddling arising from the GOP Congress; and to the wide array of national challenges, from skyrocketing health care costs to our dangerous dependence on imported oil, that Washington's Republican rulers are ignoring. It also means carefully picking the right fights on judicial nominations, opposing unqualified and right-wing-activist judges and defending the Constitution, but not opposing each and every lower-court nominee who is simply a standard-brand conservative.

As the last election convincingly showed, the current administration and its allies has deliberately chosen a strategy of maximum polarization because it is the only atmosphere in which their extremist views can secure majority support. That has not changed in this New Year. Nor has the Democratic imperative of becoming an opposition party that stands for a clear alternative agenda for a country in dire need of real leadership.

Perhaps this will be the test of whether "the party" is really as attentive to the DLC as that organization's critics always claim. Of course, if they don't listen to them this time, when the DLC and the "reform faction" seem to be one and the same, one almost has to wonder if there's any point to the Democrats at all.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting debate on dailyKos, prompted by the proprietor's evident frustration with the faction of Democrats that believes the irregularities in Ohio--about which there doesn't seem to be much doubt--were sufficient to tilt the election to Bush. His point, with which I agree, is that the real goal needs to be election reform, and that by presenting the question in a charged partisan context we hurt the (perhaps already dim) prospects of achieving that reform. My response:

...cries of "fraud" obscure the much more significant question of what is "allowed" under our horrendous election system: strategic placement of voting machines, built-in biases against poor and minority communities, transparent contempt for the whole notion of equal protection. Calls for reform are both justified on the merits and unimpeachable as politics: not even Tom DeLay could say with a straight face that the current system is fair and equitable. And the stink of the same officials responsible for elections serving as campaign chairs for candidates should be so foul that even the idiots on CNN wrinkle their noses. What we need to really achieve reform is to take the partisan politics out of this issue.

As it is, we make it too easy for the press and public to draw parallels between Republican cheating and Democratic whining; both seem outcome-focused. Thus, the chattering classes tacitly accept the partisan premise that the ends--Republicans in power--justify the anti-democratic (small d) means of tilting the electoral playing field.

Update: Forget what I wrote--this analysis of the real significance of Ohio and the debate over misdeeds, "fraud" and how we push back is superb, and heartbreaking.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

One Last Listen Back
I'm not really feeling a "year in review", in part because I want to speed away from the wreckage of 2004 as fast as I can, and in part because I think my looking back on the year in entertainment would be only marginally more useful than having Larry Bowa discourse on the evolution of media theory. Over the last couple weeks, I've looked at list after list of the year's "best movies", and I've generally only seen one or two of them. For what little it's worth, the best two new movies I saw last year were "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Kill Bill, Volume 2." Most everything else slotted in between mediocre and suck.

I don't generally buy new books, so I can't really discuss the year's best writings either. Check back with me when The Strand gets them on sale, probably this spring or summer...

Which leaves us with music. I did probably buy more new music in 2004 than in any year since my flaming youth, thanks in part to the re-emergence of several favorites from said flaming youth, and in part because some enlightened corners of the music world seem to be figuring out how to use the internet as a marketing mechanism: I streamed the entire Wilco and Elvis Costello LPs online before buying them. A couple free, legal MP3 download sites I found toward the end of the year--3hive and Better Propaganda--probably will help perpetuate this happy trend into 2005.

So without further ado, here are my favorite 5 albums of the year--not necessarily "the best," just the ones I enjoyed the most--and a few additional notes:

5) Interpol--Antics. Yes, their debut "Turn on the Bright Lights" is even better, but this is a pretty excellent second album and gives me hope that these guys will do good work for a long time to come.

4) Modest Mouse--Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Never liked these guys before, but this album has about five songs on it that are just amazing. I don't know if they got better or my tastes just changed. Having seen them on "Saturday Night Live" last night, however, I don't regret my inability to catch them live last summer...

3) Guided by Voices--Half-Smiles of the Decomposed. A very solid final bow from the greatest band since Husker Du, probably their best album since the mid-90s glory days. They evidently played their last show on New Year's Eve.

2) Camper van Beethoven--New Roman Times. One of my very favorite bands as a kid reunites after 15 years doing other stuff, and not only was it like they'd never stopped, it was actually more like they returned to a direction they'd gotten away from even before they broke up. Cranky, pretentious, self-indulgent, totally inventive and sounds great. Also an amazing live act.

1) Wilco--A Ghost is Born. I saw Wilco live in 2002 after they released the universally hailed "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and was not impressed. I figured YHF was a classic case of a so-so band somehow writing an amazing album, the musical equivalent of Brady Anderson's 50-homer season. Wrong wrong wrong: "A Ghost is Born" actually has better playing, better production and better songs. Believe the hype.

Honorable mention: TV on the Radio--Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes; Mission of Burma--ONoffON; Elvis Costello and the Imposters--The Delivery Man.

Best reissue: Talking Heads--The Name of this Band is Talking Heads.

Bands I'll probably wish I'd included on this list after I get the albums: Pilot to Gunner, The Walkmen.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Free City of New York
The New York Press did me a great favor last week, making it much easier for me to explain this notion I have of a free and independent New York City by writing an article about it. The piece itself isn't terrific; it's flawed by the author's apparent inability to decide whether he wanted to make a serious case or just indulge in a Swiftian exercise. But it's a start, and it makes the basic materialist argument for why this is an idea worth taking seriously:

Money—who's making it, who's taking it—has always been and always will be the only argument for American rebellion; it was the predicate for the original New World secession from the English empire in 1775. If taxation without representation was the complaint then, it remains the rub today. Mayor Bloomberg's office claims that New York City sends as much as $11.4 billion more to Congress than it receives in services. The current hacks in the White House opt—among many other indignities—to blow our prodigious revenue on the occupation of Iraq, which as of May 2004 had cost New Yorkers $2.1 billion. The darker burden, of mortal consequence, is the vast terrorist recruitment the war has spawned, with New York—dense, vital—still the most coveted target.

The city's match with the state government in Albany is equally rapine. The New York State legislature for the most part represents the ingrate pawing of upstate cretins while netting an estimated $3.5 billion more annually from hardworking city taxpayers than it returns in spending on city services and infrastructure. Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who in 2003 floated a secession proposal for the establishment of New York City as the 51st state, claims that independence from the Albany thieves—the first step in secession from the odious United States—would gain the soon-to-be Free Republic of Gotham a billion-dollar annual budget surplus, with vastly reduced business, property and personal income taxes.

This is the obvious corollary thought, and counter-argument, to the "fuck the blue states" tax code change now under consideration in the Republican Barad-dur. As noted in yesterday's entry, this runs counter to once-cherished Republican principles of federalism... but that's a drawing-room argument, of no particular utility where the rubber hits the road. If we want to defend our priorities, which for me and, I'd guess, most other New Yorkers have to do with local services conducive to our quality of life rather than Bush's cherished programs to comfort the comfortable, enrich the donor class and impose Rev. Dobson's worldview as widely as possible, we have to fight for them.

The Press article digresses into an explication of how secession became discredited in the eyes of Constitutional law, and hints at ways to remedy this. Again, a drawing-room argument. The point is the money; the money is our leverage. What is interesting, though, is the author's story about how he tried to make this case to a bar full of discontented Brooklynites:

Drinking heavily and disgusted with the fraud that Lincoln and history have perpetrated on the American people, I posed the idea of a New York City secession movement one evening in a Brooklyn bar. I presented my arguments, as laid out above. I spoke first to the financial interest. Assuming both that Councilman Peter Vallone's numbers are correct and that Wall Street, our principal asset, continues its residence here post-secession rather than fleeing to New Jersey, I offered that New York would be a kind of Hong Kong off darkened China—a money mecca, but also a hub of trade, books, news, movies, advertising, art, fashion and free-thinking. Why, I asked, should New Yorkers, galvanite forces of growth and creativity, remain the fleeced animals of a corrupt regime 200 miles away that wastes our wages and workforce in a criminal war? I talked about legalizing marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, acid, ecstasy and prostitution. (Casino gambling, however, the province of hypocritical moral degenerates like Bill Bennett, would be punished by 5000 years in prison).
I was explaining how all of this and more could be done when a nasty tone shot into the conversation. These were hardworking drug addicts and alcoholics, but also Medicaid and Medicare and other federal-aid recipients. They were wary.

I said that a popular referendum, led by drunks like themselves, could go to the polls in a super-majority and demand the establishment of a secessionist republic. There was more suspicion. The idea of going to a voting booth scared them, and anyway it all sounded like a lot of work. Secession is legal only among states, and the city's secession from the state requires the approval of the larcenous state legislature and the U.S. Congress—pretty much spelling doom for "legal" secession in any case, as both bodies are recognized chambers of corruption, indecency, mendacity and calcified interest, and would never approve the departure of a money machine like New York.

Yet there resides a higher law, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. This is the moral law that says that governments "are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." No one in my Brooklyn bar understood the concept. The patrons cried out, "But I'm an American! We're Americans!" Things went badly.

After escorting myself into the night, I understood that a New York City secession movement is hopeless. People aren't ready for it. Yet I can't help but think of what Tom Paine wrote in his explosive pamphlet, Common Sense, in 1776: "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason."

I think the national Republican party is on a course that could be succinctly described, in terms of how public policy treats "blue" communities like New York, as "taxation without representation." If our politics remains self-correcting, as has historically been the case, this won't matter: in 2006 or 2008 we'll change course. If the DeLay/Norquist/Rove effort to build an enduring Republican national majority has succeeded, however, and we keep losing, then at some point more drastic remedies will seem less like overreaction and more like, well, common sense.