Hurricane Katrina Looting?

George W. BushThis is a remarkable catch by Melissa Harris-Perry on The Rachel Maddow Show tonight. Apparently, one of the scenarios you can play at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in their “decision room” is Hurricane Katrina. But it isn’t about helping the drowning and starving people. It is about whether to send in troops to the stop the looting.

This is about what I expect from a presidential library. It has only been in the past couple of years that the Nixon library has been anything close to truthful about Watergate. Eventually, the new Bush library will tell the truth. But as long as he’s alive, it will be all lies and apologia. Because we can’t hurt Bush’s feelings. He’s rich and powerful. We only disregard the feelings of the poor and weak.

Bewitched by Lorenz Hart

Rodgers and HartCatherine the Great was born on this day in 1729. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was born in 1885. Benjamin Spock was born in 1903. And the great Indian director Satyajit Ray was born in 1921.

David Suchet is 67 today. And Elizabeth Berridge is 51.

But by a nose, the day belongs to the great lyricist Lorenz Hart who was born on this day in 1895. With Richard Rodgers, he wrote such great songs as “Blue Moon,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “My Funny Valentine.”

Happy birthday Lorenz Hart!

Pretentious Puppets

Puppet David SollI just watched what I think of as a deeply flawed but interesting documentary Puppet. It follows the Dan Hurlin production of a puppet play about the photographer Mike Disfarmer. My problem with the film is that it isn’t focused. It is kind of about the theatrical backstage, kind of a about the state of puppetry, and kind of about Disfarmer. Without a doubt, Disfarmer is the most interesting of the subjects.

He was a loner portrait photographer in a rural Arkansas town during the first half of the last century. Long after he died, he gained great acclaim for his work. It is stark without a hint of sentimentality. I urge you to check out this work at the official print website where you can buy his prints for $800 a piece. Or you could buy the book Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints for about $40.

The play that Dan Hurlin produced is called Disfarmer. Parts of it are shown in film, but of course, I haven’t seen the whole thing. It tells the story of Disfarmer’s last week alive. And during that time, his body shrinks. That’s rather interesting because it isn’t especially something you could do live with an actual human being. But other than that, it struck me as interesting but not really entertaining. That’s sad, because Disfarmer is a fascinating character.

A lot of the film is dedicated to various puppeteers justifying their art form. The one counter to this was David Sefton, the Artistic Director of UCLA Live. He complained that too much puppetry is for its own sake. Instead, he felt that puppets should only be a tool in telling stories. It may surprise you to learn that I completely agree with him. And that was well on display in the production of Disfarmer. Rather than start with the idea that they want to tell a particular story, the story they are trying to tell is limited to the techniques they want to use. To me, the subject matter begged to be done as a one-man play. I don’t necessarily mean something like Hal Holbrook or James Whitmore. Looking at what Hurlin’s group did, I thought they caught the mood of Krapp’s Last Tape, but didn’t seem to catch its emotional core.

As much as I love puppets, I have my own philosophy about them. Fundamentally, they allow a storyteller to cut costs. When Orson Welles did Dr. Fausus, he used puppets for the Seven Deadly Sins. That makes perfect sense. These characters are only on stage for about a minute each. Should one use seven actors with seven extra costumes as well as costume (and perhaps make-up) changes and generally greater logistical complexity back stage? But in most puppet productions, each puppet requires multiple controllers. I still can’t get my head around that: why would a producer use the talents of a half dozen experienced puppeteers just to create one character on stage.

Another issue I have with this kind of puppet use is that I don’t think it uses the strengths of the medium. I’ve run into this with my scripts for “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour.” One of the primary characters is a puppet. There are lots of reasons that I want to get rid of the puppet, most especially the enormous technical challenges. Unfortunately, the character is a kind of Peter Pan thing: he refuses to grow up. As a puppet, he is vaguely sympathetic; as a human, he’s just a dick. And that more than anything is why I like puppets: they don’t need to have realistic personalities—they can be stretched just about any way you like.

I suspect that the play Disfarmer would have been enjoyable to watch. I just think that the producers are going a very long way out of their way in order to come back a short distance correctly. As for the film itself, it didn’t make me want to learn more about the serious puppetry business. And it made me appreciate ventriloquists more.

Two Bits

Pieces of EightMy sister called me the other night to ask about the phrase, “two bits.” It is a phrase that I don’t hear much anymore, but people of my father’s generation used it all the time to refer to a quarter of a dollar. It seems kind of strange for us to use because one “bit” would be twelve and a half cents. So what’s up with that?

It all goes back to another curious phrase, “pieces of eight.” From the mid-14th century for a few hundred years, the Spanish dollar was worth 8 reals. So a piece of eight was a silver coin worth one dollar or eight reals.

Similarly, since the dollar was divided into 8 reals, 1 real (or bit) is worth 12.5% of a dollar. Thus two bits is a quarter.

Now if we could just understand the basis of “mind your Ps and Qs“!

GOP Does Not What to Fix Obamacare

Ross DouthatEarlier this week, Ross Douthat wrote about the debate that has been going on between Ezra Klein and Ben Domenech about whether or not conservatives actually have an alternative to Obamacare. Douthat thus gave us, The Republican Health Policy Trainwreck. But don’t let the title fool you, it is basically an apologia for the Republicans. His basic point is: “I think the answer is pretty straightforward: a conservative alternative or alternatives, yes; an alternative that Republican lawmakers are ready to vote for, no.”

He claims there is a big rift between conservative policy wonks and conservative politicians. He points to a number of conservative policies that the think tanks have come up with but which the Republican Party will have none of. Oh well, Douthat is a conservative, so I guess he is allowed a little delusion. The fact is that this isn’t even close. As you may remember, the individual mandate (Obamacare) was a conservative policy idea. Once it became politically viable, all the conservatives turned against it—not just the politicians. Thus, I can’t see the new conservative ideas as anything other than a cover for being against any extant policies.

Most of the article is about how Eric Cantor tried to take discretionary money and give it to one of the under-funded high risk pools. And he couldn’t even get the other Republicans to go along with that, even though it was really just a way to make it harder for the government to help poor people. And that’s my point: even the “reasonable” conservatives are only willing to do something on healthcare if it can be used to more generally hurt government services. Regardless, these ideas are not alternatives to Obamacare, they are just Trojan horses meant to destroy the program. (BTW: the supposed alternatives are either changes around the edges of the pre-Obamacare system or ridiculous notations that “the free market” will fix everything. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t be stuck with Obamacare.)

Recently, a study was released that looked at outcomes of a sample of people who qualified for Medicaid in Oregon. Because it was underfunded, those who got it were picked by lottery. In the two years of the study, they found that healthcare outcomes weren’t significantly different for the two groups but financial outcomes were. There are a couple of things to note here. Those on Medicaid received far better preventive treatment. The effects of that treatment will generally be seen over a longer time period than two years. What’s more, the financial aspect is huge. I currently owe almost $200,000 for a hospital stay I had five years ago when I was employed with a company that promised health insurance next month for three years. Anyway, to my mind, the study shows that Medicaid is at minimum a great thing.

But not all people think that. Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt over at The Incidental Economist report on how conservatives are greeting the study:

This has led many to declare (and we’re not linking to them) that the ACA is now a failed promise, that Medicaid is bad, and that anyone who disagrees is a “Medicaid denier”. How many people saying that are ready to give up insurance for themselves or their family? If they are arguing that Medicaid needs to be reformed in some way, we’re open to that. If they’re arguing that insurance coverage shouldn’t be accessible to poor Americans in any form, we don’t agree.

This is what the “reasonable conservatives” like Ross Douthat don’t want to admit: their allies (and maybe they themselves) don’t want healthcare reform. As always, they think that helping the poor is bad because: (1) it disincentivizes the poor to work; and (2) the poor are undeserving because they are morally inferior. And, to use a rhetorical trick that I learned from Matt Yglesias, that’s fine. If they want to hate poor people for being poor they should go for it. What they shouldn’t do is pretend that they are just trying to better serve the poor with all their great ideas for healthcare reform.

GOP Hates Judean People’s Front

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman wrote an excellent article over at The American Prospect, House of Representatives Now a Scene from “Life Of Brian.” It is based upon a Politico article that reported that the House Republicans are divided into two factions. Not moderates and conservatives. No, that would be too reasonable. One of the factions is comprised of hardcore “lower taxes and cut spending” types. The other is comprised of hardcore “outlaw abortion and kills the gays” types. And they do not like each others. “The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front!”

The movie Life of Brian is not particularly about religion. It is mostly about extremists—in particular, revolutionary groups. My favorite part of the movie is the scene where they discuss what the Romans ever did for them. “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” That’s right out of a Tea Party movement. “What has the government ever done for us?”

What Waldman is getting at without explicitly saying so is that the Republicans have become a revolutionary party. They are not interested is governing. They think the entire system is invalid; they don’t want to reform it; they want to destroy it. Generally, they don’t succeed because people are smart enough not to give them power. But when they do it is very bad. When the Nazis gained control of the German government, almost the first thing they did was dissolve the parliament and make Hitler dictator. The point is that half measures don’t matter to these kinds of people. It is all or nothing. So until they have complete power, they have nothing to do but out-purity each other.

Waldman started his article with a claim that is music to my ears:

Here in America we have a long tradition of candidates who run for office telling voters that they’ll be good at making laws because they know nothing about making laws. This is a longtime pet peeve of mine, particularly the “I’m a businessman, not a politician” variant (see here, for example), but the idea that “outsiders” who aren’t beholden to the ways of the Capitol can be successful in curing it of its less appealing habits is almost as old as the republic itself.

This is one of my pet peeves too. No one would ever say, “My drain is clogged; get me someone who knows nothing about plumbing!” But I think that Waldman is wrong to think that the dysfunctional Republican Party is the result of idiot outsiders who have taken over the party. Usually, there are norms that stop zealots from entering a party. In the past, such people would hook up with the Constitution Party or some other extremist group. But over the last 30 years, the Republican Party has become more and more friendly ground for radicalism. Eventually, there is a critical mass of crazy where only the crazy are allowed. And that is what we now have with the Republican Party. Note: contrary to what many say, this never happened to the Democratic Party. It is possible that the party became too liberal, but it never became socialist.

I worry that events will lead to a place where the modern Republican Party is in control in Washington. But even that will cause them to implode. There is no way that the Republican Party can continue on as it has. The internal conflicts and the unending search for purity will eventually destroy it. But even under the best of circumstances, this process will be very painful for those least involved.

False Equivalence and the Hero Archetype

Obama CopeJonathan Chait thinks that all the calls for presidential leadership to get Congress to, you know, do its job is magical thinking. In an article this morning, he said that there are two kinds analysts: quants and guts. Quants are people who look at the numbers. “The Democrats don’t have a filibuster-proof majority so little gets done.” Guts are people who just know that if Obama would show leadership and, say, part the red sea, everything would be fine. He’s right as far as it goes: a lot of observers want to create a kind of romantic narrative where the president is Achilles who can win the battle through force of will.

Where I think Chait got it wrong is in assuming that these people are not apologists for the Republican Party. He noted that the pundits who are pushing this line largely agree with Obama. While that’s true, they aren’t liberals; they are professional centrists who tilt slightly to the right or left depending on the person. They cannot allow themselves to say that something is wrong with the Republican Party much less with our entire political system. And so they focus all of their disappointment on Obama’s supposed lack of leadership.

These same commentators were not complaining about the watered down legislation that Obama did get passed when he had the power. That’s because they all like middle-of-the-road legislation. Of course, it is even more the case that they don’t want any actual economic reforms. After all, their lives are good.[1] But when it comes to new legislation that might inconvenience gun buyers a tiny amount but otherwise would be useless, well, that’s unacceptable! Maureen Dowd, Dana Milbank, and Ron Fournier want Congressional action for its own sake. If Obama had complete control the Congress and he decided to enact a financial transaction tax, I’m sure they would be outraged.

What these moderates want above all else is the appearance of Congressional action. They want a narrative that says that all is fine in Washington; there is no dysfunction; both parties love America and are trying to do what is right. They cannot admit that anything is wrong, so they turn to the narrative that Obama isn’t leading, as though he is Hugh Beaumont on Leave it to Beaver. It is pathetic, of course; but it isn’t new. It is just a different take on false equivalence.


For the record, I am very much a quant. In fact, after last year’s election, I repeatedly countered the idea from people (including Chait) that Obama’s sizable win mattered in terms of policy. His big win in 2008 mattered because the Democrats controlled Congress. He could have won 100% of the vote in 2012 and it wouldn’t have matter as long as Congress was still controlled by the Republicans. So there is a lot of magical thinking going around.

[1] Here is Randy Newman’s “My Life Is Good”: