Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Do Women Earn Less Than Men?

April 12, 2014

President Obama’s been loudly hitting the supposed pay gap between women and men. All too typically, this is a phony issue distracting from our true economic problems he should be tackling.

Unknown-1Obama dismisses pay gap deniers by saying, “It’s just math.” I’m reminded of the old line, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

True, if you average all American women, and all men, women earn less. But what’s the significance of this? Not much – because it ignores differences in jobs, industries, career paths, etc. The fact is that women and men don’t have comparable working lives. Women – for a host of reasons (many having to do with differences in psychology and temperament; male and female brains don’t work identically; not to mention divergent parenting roles) – tend to have different talents and proclivities, to want different things, and to choose different careers and jobs than men. They tend to interrupt their career paths more often. And to be less aggressive in seeking advancement.

Such factors explain why, on average, women earn less. But – studies have found that if you control for these factors – that is, you analyze women and men following comparable career paths in comparable jobs – the pay gap is practically zero.

The President might reply that, well, women can’t necessarily get the jobs men get. But that’s wrong for the same reason that pay for comparable jobs really is virtually equal. imagesBecause in today’s highly competitive globalized economy, businesses cannot afford to discriminate against women, instead needing to get the best talent, irrespective of gender. In fact, if it really were true that firms could hire women with equal qualifications for less pay than men – why would they hire any men?

Undoubtedly, at one time women did face severe career limitations. images-3But that time is long past, and so this latest presidential crusade is disgracefully bogus; a cynical political ploy to posture as the champion of women (against a purported Republican “war on women”) and to perpetuate a gender gap that really does exist – in voting.

But it actually sends women a bad message, falsely warning that they face workplace discrimination. How many young women will thereby be discouraged in their career choices? Wrongly imagining they’d be blocked in their true ambitions, and choosing lesser ones instead? And I don’t think the politics of stoking resentments is good for the country.

Nor are the remedies Obama seeks for this largely nonexistent bugaboo of discrimination. All would reduce flexibility while adding bureaucratic and paperwork burdens for businesses, and pretexts for proliferating litigation, making it harder and costlier for firms to function. Yet again we see a president who constantly whines about jobs and pay yet constantly does things that handicap the businesses that provide jobs and their ability to pay workers.

images-4Meantime he ignores what is surely our biggest economic problem: ever more retirees soaking up pensions and health care, with an ever shrinking percentage of working people taxed to pay for it. That’s our real pay gap, and borrowing cannot bridge it forever. It will end in an equal-opportunity catastrophe, for all Americans – working and nonworking – and women as well as men.

Obamacare, Jobs, and La-La Land

February 19, 2014

So you’ve heard that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now estimates 2.3 million fewer people working by 2021, due to Obamacare.

imagesRepublicans gleefully said, “See? It’s a job-killer.” Wrong, retorted Democrats, the jobs are not going away – rather, it’s people being able to leave those jobs, and still get health insurance.

In fact, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and White House spokesman Jay Carney positively rhapsodized about this, as a wonderful liberation. No longer would folks be shackled to their jobs (to have health insurance), they’d gain the freedom to quit and pursue their hearts’ desires, like poetry and art; or, indeed, to retire early and do nothing at all. Economist Paul Krugman says people making this choice are to be congratulated. After all, aren’t conservatives always prattling about freedom of choice? Welcome to Nirvana!

images-1Or is it La-La Land? Sorry to be the skunk at this party – and I’m all for poetry and art – but who is going to support these 2.3 million new poets and artists? UnknownAssuming it won’t likely be consumers of their oeuvre, it will have to be – guess who – people still actually working dreary old jobs.

Think about it. Ultimately all the people getting pensions and Social Security and Medicare (no, you did not pay for it throughout your working life; not much of it anyway) and Disability and welfare and food stamps and child support and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and now subsidized health insurance and poets-and-artists-benefit and so on and so forth – all that must be paid for by people still creating wealth to be taxed, by doing productive work. If any are left.

This is what the Pelosis and Carneys and Krugmans, et al, living in their liberal La-La Land, don’t get. images-2Their recent absurd spin on the CBO report shows how mixed up they are. The self-styled party of working people actually thinks people not working is a good thing. The more the better.

I have shouted myself hoarse about America’s key economic problem: a decreasing percentage of people in productive employment supporting a growing percentage not working. This imbalance can only worsen as Baby Boomers retire and longevity continues rising. This will mean government shelling out ever more and collecting less in taxes, with borrowings hence rising to unsustainably ruinous levels.

Unknown-1We cross our fingers that somehow, economic growth will rev up to get us out of this mess. But where will economic growth come from with an ever smaller population segment that’s working? (You may say we lack the jobs. Not exactly true. What we increasingly lack is the skills needed to work productively in today’s world. That’s why “Disability” rolls keep growing, as I’ve discussed.)

Willfully ignoring the true predicament makes President Obama’s reign disastrous. Indeed, his “signature” policy achievement worsens the problem. Obamacare will raise government spending (increasingly, as the young and healthy refuse to overpay to subsidize the old and sick); while incentivizing businesses to limit payrolls (in order to avoid some onerous requirements that kick in at 50 full-time employees) – and disincentivizing work, by tying more government benefits to income, and also (per the CBO report), by giving folks cheap government-subsidized health insurance without having a job at all. If it pays less to work, people will do less of it. (And raising minimum wages isn’t the answer, as I’ve explained. Where’s the money for that to come from, if not other working people’s pockets?)

Incidentally, what would help is immigration reform. Ironically, many Americans hate immigration because they think it’s bad for jobs, when in fact we desperately need more young workers. I’m not talking about Mexican lawn-mowers; it’s much more about technology hot-shots from India, kept out by our suicidally restrictive immigration regime.

images-4I’m still an optimist – about humanity as a whole. About America – not so much. I love this wonderful country deeply, and weep at how we’re sleepwalking to its destruction.

More New York Legislative Slime: Senator Jeff Klein

February 11, 2014

I’ve written before about corruption and cringeworthy behavior in our New York legislature.

Despite a heavy Democratic enrollment edge, Republicans have managed to cling to control of the State Senate by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Well, at least it has kept New York from being a one-party state.

As of 2012, Republicans had a bare 32 of 62 Senate seats. But fearing loss of a seat, they created a sixty-third one (of dubious constitutionality) tailored for their hand-picked candidate to win. But then Democrats outside the district threw in a ton of money, and pulled out an 18-vote squeaker for their candidate, Cecilia Tkaczyk (pronounced “Gotcha”).

Giving the Democrats a clear 32-31 Senate majority. You would think. But this is New York.

Senator Klein

Senator Klein

So Bronx Democratic Senator Jeff Klein organizes an “independent Democratic caucus” group of a few colleagues (one of whom he’s sleeping with) and makes a deal with the Republicans to share power and shut out all the other Democrats. In normal politics this would be considered utterly treasonous to both his party and the voters who seemingly elected a Democrat majority. But this is New York, and they get away with this slimy maneuver.

Klein claims this has nothing to do with personal ambition or power; it’s only to advance his policy concerns. Sure. And that money under your pillow was left by the Tooth Fairy.images-1

So now Klein has sponsored a bill that would require all wine sold in the state to have been warehoused in New York for at least 24 hours. Just another idiotic regulation that pointlessly hobbles commerce, you might think; just part of government’s never-ending war against (small) business. But such legislation never comes out of the blue. There is always some interest to be served.

Klein’s office insists the bill is aimed at job creation. There’s that Tooth Fairy again. The truth: most wine distributors happen to have their warehouses in New Jersey, near the port where much wine arrives. They’ll be screwed. But one big distributor – Empire Merchants – already has warehouses in New York. Thus the bill would handicap Empire’s smaller competitors, maybe drive them out of business, which would limit the wine choices available to New York consumers, and raise prices. All to Empire’s benefit, and the public’s detriment. (And as if you do “job creation” by forcing businesses to add unneeded warehouses.)

"I'm shocked, shocked..."

“I’m shocked, shocked…”

And guess what? Since 2009, Empire has handed Jeff Klein $53,000 in campaign contributions;  and given to a wide range of other elected officials, including $259,850 to Governor Cuomo (who’d have to sign the bill).

When a contributor gives money to an official whose stances the contributor likes, that’s called politics. When there’s a specific bill created to benefit that contributor, against the public good, it’s called BRIBERY. I’m shocked, shocked, that corruption is taking place in this legislature.

I credit the Albany Times-Union’s Chris Churchill for exposing this cesspool.

Egypt, and the Future of Democracy

January 21, 2014

UnknownEgypt’s new constitution was approved last week by a 98% vote. When a vote is 98%, you know it ain’t democracy. In this case, no opposition campaign was even permitted; people were arrested just for hanging signs.

The result was nevertheless called plausible because most Egyptians are fed up with the turmoil introduced by the 2011 revolution. Yet only 38.6% turned out to vote. Meantime, that civic exhaustion is making the army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a popular hero for cracking down, and a shoo-in for the coming presidential election.

I endorsed the July coup, ousting President Morsi, because his undemocratic behavior seemed to legitimate it. But I expressed concern lest his successors emulate Morsi – that instead of working to ameliorate divisions in Egyptian society, they’d exacerbate conflict by trying to annihilate the Islamists. And so they have.

images-1We’ve seen this movie before – The Empire Strikes Back – the return of the so-called “deep state” – the military, the police, all the elements accustomed to control by force, together with all their powerful and corrupt economic cronies. The 2011 revolution seemed to shake this “deep state.” But it recovered its mojo and it’s back.

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi called last week’s constitutional referendum a vote “for a better economy, for social justice, for new legal protections expanding human dignity and liberty,” and “the dawning of a new Egypt.”

El-Sissi

El-Sissi

Mubarak

Mubarak

Orwellian verbiage if I ever heard it. The reality is precisely the opposite. Not the dawning of a new Egypt, but a fall back to the old one. Amid all this palaver about human dignity and liberty, it’s not just Muslim Brothers who’ve been rounded up and jailed, but also legions of the democracy and human rights advocates who were the vanguard of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the press is less free than ever too. When Senators Graham and McCain met with el-Sissi after the coup, they reported him intoxicated by power. Electing him president will reprise Mubarak and his stifling regime.

*     *     *

But Egypt is not the only case of democracy in trouble.

images-2Bangladesh is a sorry mess, its politics for decades poisoned by a vendetta between two venal widows of former leaders (the “battling begums,” they’re called); the army tried stepping in, but only made things worse; now the civilian government of one of the begums has been dubiously re-elected after a vote boycott by the opposition, and seems bent on entrenching itself in (mis)government forever.

In Ukraine the citizenry struggles desperately against President Yanukovych intent on replicating Putin’s Russia.

I’ve written about Sri Lanka, whose President Rajapaksa finally defeated a long-running insurgency, but instead of building on this for national reconciliation, is gutting the nation’s democracy to cement control by his band of brothers.

images-4And I’ve written about Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra (no would-be tyrant, it seems) won a fair and decisive election victory; but the opposition “Democrats” (actually anti-democrats) refuse to accept it, and have been destabilizing the country, seeking in effect a minority dictatorship. To resolve this, Yingluck has called an early election – which the “Democrats” are boycotting (because they’d lose again).

It’s been my gospel that, in the big picture, the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution; that while nothing in human affairs is ever linear, notwithstanding zigs and zags democracy is rising because it addresses fundamental human yearnings (see my initial comments on Egypt’s 2011 revolution). But admittedly we’re seeing lately more zigs than zags. Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine – and there are others – together with the ostensible flourishing of authoritarianism in Russia and China – and its stubborn persistence in still other places like Cuba – all might seem to make my gospel as wishful as belief in Heaven.

Unknown-1Perhaps in truth the great wave of democratic progress, in the latter part of the 20th century, represented a harvest of “low hanging fruit;” in societies where (using a related metaphor) the soil was fertile for democratic seeds to take root; whereas the places singled out above are the tougher cases, with stonier soil.

A couple of threads run through all of them. The will to power is of course very strong; even stronger is the will to retain power once gained. Fettering that human ambition is a key challenge for any democratic system (as the writers of The Federalist recognized). And it’s very hard to do where civil society is weak. That’s true in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where democratic consciousness is not sufficiently developed to be able to thwart illegitimate power. Ukraine hangs in the balance on this. images-3A similar story is Venezuela, which couldn’t keep Chavez from shredding its democracy. Of course, he was originally elected, which points up another problem: where democracy is not mature, voters are too often suckered by the likes of Chavez, Yanukovych,  the begums, and el-Sissi.

Another factor is an ethos of pluralism. This means accepting that elements of society other than your own have a legitimate role to play, a right to participate in governance, and even to wield power if acquired through fair process. For all America’s partisan divisions, it would be unthinkable for election losers to go into the streets to overturn the result. We take that for granted; but such is exactly what Thailand’s election losers are doing. They don’t share our ethos of pluralism. The same is true of other nations I’ve discussed. This is particularly a problem in Arab countries like Egypt: a refusal to accept that segments of society other than one’s own have a legitimate role that must be respected and accommodated.

Unknown-3If that sounds childish, in fact it is. But people outgrow their childish traits, and most of us become mature adults. The world is still divided between childish and mature societies. But the former will, in time, grow up too.

Our New Year’s Inaugural Diversity Bath: A Great Country Altogether

January 2, 2014

imagesYesterday, I was an invitee at the inauguration of Albany’s new mayor, Kathy Sheehan. After 43 years here, it was the first time I didn’t feel like some kind of outsider. Indeed, what struck me about the event was the broadness of representation (especially the great number of blacks commingled): not a segment of the city, but the whole city, as it were, come together as a community celebrating our new day.

I sat next to a former black elected official, outspokenly left-wing; but she recited the pledge of allegiance, and even sang along with the national anthem, without irony.

Much was made of Sheehan’s being our first woman mayor, and in her speech she spoke of diversity’s virtues. “E pluribus unum” (“one out of many”) is our national motto; and I take it to heart, as one who is here only because some other country had a very different attitude. The Albany inaugural event was an embodiment of that motto’s spirit. While the simultaneous mayoral installation in New York City was striking a different note: not of inclusivity but divisiveness, all but declaring some citizens the enemies of the rest; to me an echo of that other country.

Before

Before

At the reception I was glad to encounter newly elected city councilman and community activist Mark Robinson. I told him my name and that I didn’t think we’re related (he’s black). Then I said, “I only know about you from the newspaper. But I think it’s a great country altogether when you could go from where you’ve been to where you are today.”

He seemed deeply appreciative. Where he’d once been, in fact, was prison, for drug dealing. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “There are no second acts in American life”?

“A great country altogether” is actually another line from literature, the penultimate line from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He said it about America, upon his arrival here at last, for something seemingly frivolous that greeted him. But that surface frivolity bespoke something far deeper about the character of this country that, again, was much in evidence at our inaugural event. We are a free people; and a community of free people. The two ideas are not antithetical.

Pertinent to this theme, with another attendee I compared notes about the New Year’s Eve party we’d both been to, hosted by our mutual friend Geraldine, formerly Gerald.*

“I think there were only three males,” I said, “best I could tell.”

“Well, let’s see: you . . . Jack . . . and Melissa.”

“So Melissa is still a man? OK; but what about Ryan?”

“Ryan is a girl.”

“I thought so too, until he was introduced to me as Melissa’s son.”

“That’s because Ryan is becoming male — while her father is doing the opposite.”

Melissa’s wife was there too; as well as another cheerful married female couple, of whom one had apparently started as  husband.

Welcome to Twenty-first Century America.

Not that all this is exactly normal. But the better word to use is common. It isn’t common, of course, but it’s up to the individual to choose how to live, and that includes the most essential aspects of our identities. And in this country, in this time, at long last, glory Hallelujah, people can do exactly that. There were some straight people at the party too but we all had a fine time together.

And after the mayoral bash, my wife and I went to the annual New Year’s party of a local activist poet, yet another convocation of non-conventional people, rounding out our diversity immersion.images-3

Isn’t this a great country altogether?

‘Tis.

*The names in this story are changed.

Nelson Mandela: Will and Goodwill

December 5, 2013

My remembrance post about Margaret Thatcher lionized her for something all too rare in political “leaders” – will. Thatcher knew what was right. That’s not unique. But she also had the political will to see it through, no matter how hard. And it was very hard, encountering a virulence of opposition few politicians can withstand. However, she stood firm, believing voters would ultimately support what was right – and if not, then so be it. We need politicians willing to lose.

UnknownNelson Mandela represented a very different but no less important leadership quality – goodwill. Now, if ever there was a man coming to power with a justifiable grievance against his foes, it was Mandela. They’d imprisoned him for 27 years! And of course had denied his people the most basic rights. So if he’d used power to do down those enemies, to settle scores, we should not have been surprised. But that was not Nelson Mandela. Instead, he did the opposite, and that was surprising – again, something all too rare in political life.

So instead of showing his opponents a fist, Mandela reached out the hand of goodwill. He had the vision to understand how that was best for all South Africans, black as well as white. A vindictive policy would have perpetuated the ugly and dysfunctional past conflict. Mandela inherited a “for whites only” country but did not seek to make it “for blacks only” (unlike, say, Zimbabwe’s vile Mugabe). Instead he sought a South Africa that would settle down, rise above its past, and join together to get on with improving quality of life rather than rubbing old wounds.images-2

That made Mandela unique. And what a shame that is; a shame that one who thus was genuinely a “uniter rather than a divider”* was in fact so unique. I am too often disappointed and frustrated that “leaders” so persistently lack that sort of vision. Ones like Mugabe. And, I hate to say it, Obama. And, alas, Mandela’s own successors in South Africa, gone from bad to worse. All relentlessly pursue partisan agendas. They imagine it serves their interests – but does it really? Is it better to be a Mugabe than a Mandela?

Mandela’s death occasions an outpouring of veneration. Mugabe, they’ll spit on his grave.

* As George W. Bush promised to be. (And Obama too.)

Robert Nozick and a Socialist Libertarianism

December 2, 2013

UnknownThe late philosopher Robert Nozick authored a classic libertarian text, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Subsequently, he didn’t exactly recant it, but did decide its viewpoint was incomplete.

In an essay, The Zigzag of Politics (in his book, The Examined Life), Nozick begins by noting that democratic institutions and liberties are not only about government; they “express and symbolize, in a pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” That’s what we express in voting; we do it not because we expect to affect the outcome, or even because the outcome itself is so important. images-1What’s more important is our membership in, commitment to, and honoring of this social arrangement of ours. Voting isn’t just a utilitarian act, it’s a public sacrament.

That’s why I keep saying “democracy” isn’t merely elections; it’s a culture, a way of life. Elections don’t create that, they reflect it. We see the lesson again and again. In Egypt, it was a lack of such democratic culture that caused Morsi to behave as he did; and caused the subsequent rotten behavior of his ousters.

Nozick says his previous libertarian position didn’t adequately incorporate the way politics is not just politics, but also symbolic, images-3a temple wherein we give expression to our civic togetherness. The purist libertarian would limit government to doing only what enables people to freely flourish, and otherwise leaving them alone. So if your social conscience moves you to support a certain project, recognize that others have a right not to; it should be funded voluntarily, not by coerced taxation. But Nozick now says this “would not constitute society’s solemn marking and symbolic validation of the importance and centrality of those ties of concern and solidarity.” The point is “to speak solemnly in everyone’s name, in the name of society, about what it holds dear.” And while a particular individual may prefer to speak only for himself, that’s not compatible with living in society, which sometimes must speak for all.

Nozick goes on to suggest some work-arounds, like allowing a program’s “conscientious objectors” to opt out of the associated taxation, provided they pay compensatory taxes to fund something else.

I could scarcely take that seriously. And I found the rest of Nozick’s argument unpersuasive, especially in light of the modern realities of society and government.

My libertarianism is not anti-social. Indeed, you might call it “socialist libertarianism,” imagesnot because it incorporates anything of socialist economics, but rather recognition of our being profoundly social animals. (David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, regretted that the world “socialist” was already taken, by the left.)

Why did we invent society, and support it? Not because “society” is some greater entity to which we must bow down and subordinate ourselves. That pernicious idea is at the heart of all collectivist ideologies. No – it’s because society serves us, its individual members, enabling us to realize most fully our human qualities, including our human need to interact with our fellows. Empowering this is, again, the basic limited role of government, says the libertarian.

But that may conflict with other things that our social consciences may, per Nozick, want government to do, which entail restricting and coercing people (or taxing them, also coercive). Of course, nobody much wants it restricting, coercing, and taxing him. But doing it to others . . . this is where the libertarian becomes very cautious and skeptical.

It’s all well and good to talk about noble minded projects of social solidarity, as Nozick does; Unknown-2but in the real world, opening this door lets in not only saints and angels but a host of creepy crawlies. I’m actually all for the social solidarity of helping the less fortunate, but the problem is that, like the Staten Island ferry of the old political joke, this drags in behind it a huge load of garbage.* And special interests know how to exploit this, much better than do the needy.

But Nozick seems to be writing from Mount Olympus images-2(or the proverbial ivory tower; he did teach). My own ideology, as I’ve explained, is an ideology of reality – that is, I let my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa. And the salient reality I see in the modern world is government grown vastly in its size, scope of operations, and role in society. We may indeed want a government and politics that give symbolic and solemn expression to our social solidarity – but haven’t we now gotten rather more of it than we’ve bargained for? Unknown-1Surely the role for government that Nozick is talking about is not in deficiency. It is hugely in surplus, so very hugely that this – not a need to express social solidarity – is the greatest challenge facing us today. That being so, libertarianism is the only reasonable position.

* As the ward boss explained to the worried neophyte candidate at the bottom of the ticket, “Al Smith is the ferry. You’re the garbage.”

If You Like Your Obamacare, You Can Keep It

November 11, 2013

Unknown-1The President repeatedly said that if you like your health plan, you can keep it (“no matter what,” he even added). He forgot to add: IF the government likes your plan too.

He says he “regrets” people being screwed because they relied on his words. It’s an “apology” akin to those saying, “I’m sorry if my remarks offended anyone” — not sorry about the words themselves, or admitting they were wrong — i.e., a non-apology.

So now all the millions with cancelled insurance are being told: your old plan wasn’t any good anyway, and the government will help you get a better one (once the website is fixed*).

Until then, Obamacare seems to mean more people losing insurance than gaining it. But the real story is the paternalism of government telling folks it knows their insurance needs better than they do, and the new plans will be better because they cover more. What about all those preferring a cheaper plan – cheaper, because it doesn’t cover so much? Tough luck. Government has decided every health plan must cover maternity care, for example; so even if you’re a sixty year old male, you’ve got to have (and pay for) a plan that covers maternity.

Unknown-2It’s another classic case of Liberal Disease: the belief that anything desirable should be required. So if it’s ideally nice for a health plan to cover maternity care, and much else, now it’s all required, for everybody, want it or not.

This is the syndrome responsible for lack of affordable housing. Apartments must meet so many rules and regulations for niceties, raising their cost, that simple cheap rooms the poorest can afford are unavailable. Likewise day care: providers must meet so many government requirements that there’s no cheap day care. And all these requirements were created by the same do-gooder liberals who bemoan the inevitable results, lack of affordable day care and housing. Now they’re doing the same for health insurance.

It was always clear that a key feature of Obamacare is to get insurance to lower-income people by having government (i.e., taxpayers**) subsidize it. So the affluent are paying for the non-affluent. Nothing new there. However, in addition – this is the sneaky part – the healthy are paying for the sick.

Unknown-3That’s what’s really going on with all the requirements for insurance plans. It’s not a “bug” that many folks are forced to pay for a lot of coverage they don’t need, it’s a design feature: another way of sucking money from some people to pay for the health care of others.

UnknownTrue, the very concept of an insurance pool is to spread risk. Everybody pays a little for fire insurance so that the occasional fire is covered. But the difference with Obamacare is that it isn’t voluntary. We don’t get to decide for ourselves whether to participate in this pooling of risk. We’re thrown into the pool.

The administration says that when the dust settles, many people will actually pay less for insurance. My wife was one whose plan was cancelled, and we did get another, through the New York website, a little cheaper. For now.

But the future viability of the whole Obamacare scheme depends on its working as hoped – that is, all the sheep obediently line up for shearing – all the young and healthy people sign up for more health coverage than they really need or want, in order to pay for all the older and sicker folks. imagesIf instead the insurance plans attract too few suckers***, they will hemorrhage money treating the old and sick, causing next year’s rates to rise substantially – thus attracting even fewer healthy young people. And so on, a vicious circle that unravels the whole thing.

* Rather than trying to fix it on the fly, wouldn’t it have made more sense to call a time-out and close the website temporarily for repairs?

** Or more borrowing from China.

*** Yes, there’s a penalty for non-insurance, but for most people it’s much less than the insurance cost. Also, the penalty is on your tax return, and query how well the severely understaffed IRS can police it – will they verify that people claiming to be insured really are?

Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

November 3, 2013

Jonathan Franzen’s first significant novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was pushed at me by my librarian wife. imagesI was impressed by a writer so young (mid-twenties then) having such insight into people. (Lack of same made me give up writing fiction.)

He did it again in The Corrections, an even more humanly intimate book. Franzen isn’t just trying to write novels like other writers nowadays do. Theirs may often be piquant, clever, entertaining, deep, even brilliant. But Franzen strives to do what Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Proust did.

His latest big opus, Freedom, even has a nod to Tolstoy. UnknownIt’s basically a triangle story: the marriage of Walter and Patty, with Richard the third leg. If there’s an overall theme, it’s conveyed by the tendentious title. It’s free will: people making choices and (of course) not always good ones. Part of the book takes the form of a long autobiographical essay by Patty, entitled “Mistakes Were Made.” Her biggest mistake was what she then did with that manuscript.

We always read such books, in part, as self-evaluation. And I was struck by the contrast between the sheer complexity of what was going on with Franzen’s characters and the uncomplicatedness of my own family situation. images-2I was even moved to discuss this with my wife. Sometimes I feel I’m a monument of self-satisfied complacency. I did, long ago now, have a more tortuous relationship with a woman; indeed, it still feels like I’m in the calm after a storm; yet not even that storm entailed the labyrinthine quality of Franzen’s story.

Maybe a novelist like him could portray me as papering over some inner snakepit of turmoil and pathology. But I don’t feel it.

Unknown-1This book is full of politics. Walter is a deeply earnest Minnesota liberal tree-hugger (bird-hugger, actually). From the start I found myself hearing his lines with the voice of Garrison Keillor doing his semi-loser character phoning his mother. That voice proved pitch-perfect throughout the novel.

Walter vents his societal and environmental concerns, with such passion and eloquence that you’d suppose Franzen is expressing his own views. Yet I wasn’t quite convinced this is not in fact a devilish send-up of people like Walter. While it’s obvious Franzen truly loathed Bush II and the Iraq War, otherwise there’s something a bit off about Walter’s rants. There’s a delicious set-piece where Walter and his assistant (and lover-to-be) try to enlist borderline rock-star Richard in an anti-population crusade, with Walter’s windy speeches punctuated with neatly puncturing one-liners from Richard.

It reminded me of a great scene in The Corrections where a young lefty college prof belabors a standard anti-corporate diatribe – whose foolishness a student then deftly disembowels. And Freedom contains one telling line about liberal denial of reality that no Walterian liberal could have penned.

Unknown-2Especially over-the-top was an episode that only occurs in novels and movies – Walter’s speech at a corporate shindig going wildly off-message blurting his true subversive beliefs. Having him zoned out on medication is the author’s pretext, but it’s a thin one. And did he portray Walter bellowing that humanity is “a cancer on the planet” because he, Franzen, believes such stuff, or to show what nuttiness Walterian thinking can lead to?

The book reaches a satisfying ending. I won’t be a spoiler with too much specificity. But it does illustrate the theme of free will – we have the capability of acting, taking our fates in our own hands. Reading the penultimate section, I was pounding the page, exhorting Patty, “You should just go and . . . .”

And then she does.

Moscow on the Hudson: New York’s Corrupt Politics and Casino Referendum

October 23, 2013

I am proud to be an American. But not to be a New Yorker.

UnknownI’ve written about the slime of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (still in office, despite further smudges). That’s just the beginning of New York political corruption. It’s gotten so malodorous that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a blue-ribbon “Moreland Commission” to tackle it. That looks like basically a useless farce.

New York is also – perhaps not unrelated – the least democratic state in the union (in terms of closed political processes, restrictive ballot access, etc).

The latest travesty is a referendum this November to authorize seven new casinos. Cuomo wants this, for the potential tax revenues.

images-2I hate casinos. Once, when my daughter was little, I showed her one, saying, “See all these glitzy lights, the fancy decoration, all this complicated equipment? Imagine the cost – building it, heating it, the electric bill. And paying all the people working. Plus the owner makes a profit too. Where do you suppose all that money comes from?” She got the point.

images-3Casinos prey upon suckers, and especially the less affluent. This is not the kind of “economic development” we need. But, on the other hand, my libertarian instincts would allow casinos, if people enjoy them. Also, casinos in New York currently can be operated only by Indian tribes. (Footnote: because they’re notionally “sovereign.” I’ve never understood this. Yes, we ripped them off, long ago. But they’re not independent nations, not outside American law; why are they exempt from some laws?) And the State itself, with its off-track betting operation and lottery, shares with Indians the monopolization of gambling. I believe in free markets, not monopolies, another reason to open up the gambling business to more competition.

But then the State pulled a fast one. As noted, Gov. Cuomo wants this referendum passed. It looked iffy. So he got the State Elections Board to change the ballot wording. Unknown-1Now, instead of simply authorizing casinos, it says it’s for “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes” (with of course no mention of downsides). A blatant pitch for a “yes” vote right on the ballot itself. This biased wording makes the outcome almost certain.

Moreover, the smarmy language change was put through in a secretive and clearly illegal manner. Some guy brought a lawsuit, but it was thrown out on a technicality – he filed it late – never mind that the Elections Board itself had been late in making the change public!

imagesRule of law and democracy go hand-in-hand. Government must conduct elections in a lawful, open, and unbiased manner. Government breaking the law and manipulating elections to get the desired outcome is absolutely intolerable in a democratic society. This is not America, it’s Putin’s Russia.

New Yorkers must vote “NO.”Unknown


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