Monday, January 19, 2015

State of the Union - 2015

It has been said that you can judge a government's priorities based on where it spends its money and with two recent announcements by President Obama, it is clear he is interested in prioritizing educational opportunity for all Americans. Last year, the President called for the creation of universal pre-kindergarten ("pre-k") and, earlier this month, for two years of free tuition at community college provided students maintain a certain grade point average.

While the cost of these programs is modest in the big scheme of the federal budget, their combined impact would be massive and long-lasting. For universal pre-k, it has been estimated that the 10 year cost would be $75 billion; for community college, $60 billion, for a grand total of $135 billion, or $13.5 billion per year. In a federal budget of more than $3.6 trillion, this amounts to .00375% or less than four one-thousandths of one percent. Put another way, each year of funding both of these programs would be slightly more than what was spent each month in Iraq ($10 billion).

The funny thing is, when it came time to pay the tab for Iraq, no one in Congress demanded a cost saving "offset" or tax increase, they simply borrowed the money - saddling us with precisely the type of debt Republicans claim to hate. Now that the President has put forward potentially game changing educational proposals, Republicans are suddenly crying poor. Putting aside the long-term return on investment we would get by better preparing young children for school and making college less expensive, why is it that when bombs are flying, we can pull out Uncle Sam's credit card, but when it comes to nation building at home, we cannot seem to find the money? 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitt 3.0

Mitt Romney’s announcement last week that he is considering a third run for the White House has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the media and DC’s chattering class. Pundits are feverishly offering tic-tocks of behind the scenes phone calls to donors, the assembling of a campaign-in-waiting and even dusting off some of Mitt’s prior protestations that he was done with politics after his landslide defeat in 2012.

But the bigger question is why anyone takes this guy seriously. Romney spent a single term as Governor of Massachusetts, declined to run for re-election, and left office in 2006 to begin running for President - something he has now done for twice as long as he was Governor. His one major policy achievement, the passage of “Romneycare,” is anathema to large swaths of his party and he has shifted his position on every major foreign and domestic policy so many times, you need a chart to keep track of where he currently stands. He barely eked out a win in the 2012 Republican primary against what was universally recognized as the weakest field in decades and then proceeded to get his clock cleaned in the general election by a President who had an avalanche of negative press dropped on him from the day he put his hand on the Bible and an economy that was still finding its footing. And oh yeah, he produced the single most embarrassing piece of campaign video since Mike Dukakis was caught in that tank in 1988.

There is no clear rationale for a Romney candidacy, much less a Romney presidency. His purported managerial genius was exposed by the Obama team as a farce. The Romney campaign famously had more than twenty people review tweets before they were posted and major news organizations constantly griped about not just the candidate’s inaccessibility, but the inability to get the simplest parts of campaign logistics right – billing, wifi in press areas, etc – so how is it that we would entrust Mitt Romney with the levers of government? The other legs of his platform like lower unemployment and reduced deficits have happened without his stewardship and sops to corporations are as unpopular now as they were in 2012. Obama skewered Romney in their one foreign policy debate and Mitt’s after-the-fact gloating about Russia’s threat to the West has been mitigated substantially by the free fall in the ruble and financial crunch Russia is currently experiencing because of the plunge in the price of oil.

The rose colored glasses of those associated with Romney suggesting that he came close to winning is as delusional now as their ignoring polls leading up to Election Day 2012 that all strongly indicated a big Obama win. Indeed, Romney did not do much better than John McCain – winning two states, Indiana and North Carolina (the latter by a razor thin margin) – that McCain lost, but the former voted for a Democrat in 2008 for the first time since 1964 and the latter, for the first time since 1976. Romney did not come within spitting distance of Obama in critical states like Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio and lost “purple” states like Colorado and Virginia that Republicans once carried easily. Romney was outclassed in two of the three debates and was rightly pilloried as an out-of-touch rich guy who had very little sense or appreciation of the needs and struggles of everyday Americans unless you owned a NASCAR team or were attempting to bully the local planning board into allowing you to construct a car elevator in your beachfront mansion.

Perhaps this Romney boomlet is simply a product of the past falling down the memory hole, but on everything from his gaffe-filled foreign trip to England, Israel, and Poland when he offended the hosts in all of the countries he visited, to his bald lies in the waning days of the 2012 campaign about auto companies moving jobs to China, he was a disaster as a candidate who had one good night (the first Presidential debate) in an otherwise moribund, uncreative, and disorganized run for the most important job in the world. That he is even looked at as a plausible candidate for that position may say more about the latitude offered by the media because the American people have clearly made up their mind about him.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

Round about the time I got to entry number 14, Pasquale Frunzio, in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, I started to wonder whether this slim tome was a high-minded version of the TV show Punk’d. We are told that Frunzio, a frustrated writer living in Turin, is preparing to kill himself a la Sylvia Plath (head in the oven) when a courier comes to his door. Frunzio aborts his suicide attempt to see who is there and is handed a telegram from a prominent publisher expressing interest in releasing Frunzio’s work. According to the BDLF, Frunzio, still groggy from his inhalation of natural gas, sits down at his desk to re-read the telegram. When he turns on his desk light, the spark ignites the cloud of gas that had formed in the apartment, killing Frunzio and destroying the one copy of his manuscript.

Seriously? Of course, because almost all the writers featured in the BDLF are “never wases,” verifying their backstories is almost impossible. Editor C.D. Rose, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book essentially tells us to trust him – that “lack of space and certain legal niceties prevent us from divulging the whole history of the genesis of the BDLF” but that through a variety of methods and sources – junk shops, flea markets, literary agents and others – he has pieced together the stories of people whose work was never recognized in their lifetimes, much less for posterity.

Rose does an admirable job of providing condensed biographies of Frunzio and fifty-one others who strove to leave their mark on the literary world but fell far short of having any impact. If these stories are presumed to be true, many of the authors featured have a “truth is stranger than fiction” vibe to them – the writer who came up with more than 1,900 opening lines to stories but could never churn out a single follow-up sentence [1], the New Yorker whose first “novel” consisted of a single page and a single letter (“I”) and whose follow-up (ongoing) is a manuscript several hundred pages long made up of the same word typed over and over [2], or the genius-level cryptographer who worked for the British spy service during World War II but whose books were written in a cipher nobody can decode. [3]

Dedicated readers will make short work of the BDLF, which clocks in at a modest 168 pages, but will be left to ponder whether the literary canon has been denied valuable additions to its corpus or if history’s judgment has been validated by their absence.


1. Chad Sheehan, Entry Number 36. 
2. Virgil Haack, Entry Number 16. It is also worth noting that Rose does not disclose what word Haack is typing over and over again.
3. Veronica Vass, Entry Number 44.  

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Limits Of New Year's Resolutions

I am not one for New Year's resolutions, but when 2014 began, and owing to a lot of work I had done in the self-improvement department, I set some objectives for myself. These goals spoke to my interest in bettering myself personally and professionally and, while ambitious, I thought if I met some, but not all of them, it would mark a good year. They were:

  • Get a raise at work;
  • Get a promotion at work;
  • Date emotionally available women;
  • Write something on my blog that receives 1,000 page views; and
  • Display my photography publicly.

Well, I went 5 for 5. The raise and promotion went hand-in-hand, I went out with women who were emotionally available (and, yes, in fairness, a few who were not), wrote about Pumpkin (2,617 page views and counting!) and showed my photography at an art exhibit and received several nice compliments on my work. 

I wish I felt better about these accomplishments, but I do not. I try to tell myself that work is its own reward. I have an unusual job that is tailor-made to my talents and work with gifted people who are as committed as I am to our clients' success. In dating, I focus on the process and not the outcome - that is, if I am open and honest, present and giving, and clear in what I want, need and offer, that that is all I can ask for - but it does not salve the quiet nights at home alone or the emptiness of not being able to share all the other good stuff going on in my life with someone who is invested in it, in me

So while it is nice to have a complete stranger look at one of my photos, lean over to her boyfriend and say "ooh, that's a nice one," it means less knowing I do not have a someone of my own with whom to share those small moments. I love Pumpkin dearly and share how much she has enriched my life with people online and in real life, but she needs a "mom" who loves her as much as her "dad" does. 

This is not to say I am not grateful for the things I have or the comfort my job affords me, but I earned those things - worked hard, put in extra time, and sure, got a few breaks along the way - but they did not magically fall into my lap. So, on the days that are not red letter, when the weight of my responsibilities at work or choices I have to make in my life feel like they are too much to bear, when, as a friend has said, you just need a hug, it is not an easy thing to open your front door and know none is forthcoming. 

I did a lot of good work this year, was good to a lot of people, and had a lot of very interesting experiences; I just wish I could appreciate it instead of feeling like so much of it is meaningless without someone to share it with. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

My 2014 Year In Books

Herewith, the good, the bad, and the ugly from my year in books:

Book of the Year

All The Truth Is Out (Matt Bai): Essential reading for anyone interested in the time in our history when politics and tabloid journalism "crossed streams" and gave us the modern Beltway media. My full review is here:

Honorable Mention

How To Be Interesting (In 10 Steps) Jessica Hagy: As pithy as it is insightful, Hagy uses graphics (with a heavy emphasis on Venn diagrams) to illustrate basic truths about ourselves and where (and how) we should focus our energy. Bonus? You can read the entire book in less than two hours. 

The Invisible Bridge (Rick Perlstein): Had I been blogging back in 2009, Nixonland, the predecessor to this book, would have surely been my book of the year. As it is, this doorstop (804 pages) is encyclopedic in its assessment of the years between Nixon's resignation and the Republican National Convention of 1976. Perlstein efforts, and largely succeeds, in turning over every cultural and political rock in his illustration of Ronald Reagan's inexorable rise to the head of the Republican Party. 

Stuff Matters, Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our World (Mark Miodownik): Using a photo of himself drinking tea on his deck, Miodownik explores the "stuff" shown in that picture and how it impacts our modern world - the porcelain made to use his tea cup, the glass surface of the table it rests on, the concrete slab it all sits on, and much more. Generally accessible to those of us with a limited scientific background, Miodwonik is a winning writer with a breezy style. 

The Good

The Squared Circle - Life, Death & Professional Wrestling (David Shoemaker): Shoemaker, who writes under the nom de plume "AKA The Masked Man" for the sports website Grantland is a passionate fan of professional wrestling who gives the reader not just the history of "sports entertainment," but enough behind the scenes stories to make any mark happy. On the other hand, the interludes of premature wrestler deaths is a sobering reminder of the demons and sacrifices many in the sport carry. 

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps (Chris West): West brings a historian's eye and a short story writer's talent to his survey of modern British history as told through stamps. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum): I read this book after seeing a PBS special that featured several stories from what turned out to be a fascinating book about the ubiquity of turn-of-the-century (and thereabouts) instances of death by various forms of poison - be it carbon monoxide in New York City tenements or the thousands who perished during Prohibition drinking tainted alcohol. 

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander): Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand today's prison-industrial complex and how it has arisen through the aggressive prosecution of young, mostly brown and black skinned young men for low-level criminal offenses. 

Appomattox, Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Elizabeth Varon): An excellent examination of how the end of the Civil War was refracted through different lenses (North and South), Varon relies on numerous contemporary sources to illustrate how the South never accepted that they were defeated (the myth of the "Lost Cause" arises almost immediately) and how the North's reaction ran the spectrum between "in your face" jingoism and Lincoln's admonition to show charity to all. 

Network (David Itzkoff): Itzkoff's book about this seminal 1976 movie delves into all the nooks and cranies that not only went into making this still-relevant movie, but provides rich background and texture about its stars, and most particularly, its mercurial screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. 

Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Nicholas Griffin): Griffin uses the 1971 visit to China of a group of American ping-pong players as a jumping off point for the examination of U.S/China relations and also as a cautionary tale about the perils of quick celebrity, as shown through the swift rise and downfall of one of the team's stars, Glenn Cowan. 

Tomorrow-Land, The 1964-65 World’s Fair & The Transformation of America (Joseph Tirella): While the imperious Robert Moses was putting the final touches on the New York World's Fair, a social revolution was roiling an inch below the surface. 

It’s Not You, 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single (Sara Eckel): I found this book to be filled with good and reasonable advice about dating without being too preachy or smug. 

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert): I know this book has made some end of year "best of" lists, but I was not blown away by it. Don't get me wrong, it was good, but in discussing prior mass extinctions and what we are doing to our planet now that may lead to another one, I found myself struggling to follow the narrative. 

Flash Boys (Michael Lewis): Continuing his series on Wall Street, the Great Recession, and what has (and has not) changed about our financial industry, Lewis tackles the niche market in flash trading, "dark pools," and other esoteric financial instruments that will leave you incredibly depressed at knowing how little of what we call "investment banking" has anything to do with anything other than making a quick buck while pushing the legal envelope. 

The Dylanologists (David Kinney): Dylan fans make Deadheads look like amateurs in comparison, but the object of their affection is as inscrutable and distant as his lyrics. 

Divide (Matt Taibbi): Another book about the inequities of the criminal justice system, but here, the experience of poor, minority defendants is juxtaposed against wealthy corporate interests. Suffice to say, the outcomes will not fill you with a sense that we are achieving equal justice under the law. 

Proof, The Science of Booze (Adam Rogers): Like Stuff Matters, this book deconstructs a process - the creation of alcohol - through history and also by component part. A little science heavy for my taste, but a decent read otherwise. 

On the Run (Alice Goffman): As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Goffman embedded herself with a group of inner city men and their families. The result is this uneven meditation on the difficult choices men and women who live in poverty make about their lives. My full review is here:

The Last Stand (Nathaniel Philbrick): An expansive and well-researched history of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. 

Bloody Spring (Joseph Wheelan): Grant's Wilderness Campaign is examined in all its bloody detail. Wheelan makes a persuasive case that Grant's stubborn commitment to his war of attrition is what finally broke Lee. My full review is here:

The Doors, A Lifetime Of Listening to Five Mean Years (Greil Marcus): I'm a sucker for anything having to do with the Doors, and Marcus's book examines the band's prolific output and profound influence on music by devoting a chapter to each of about a dozen of the band's songs. 

Thirteen Days In September (Lawrence Wright): Another book that made some "best of" lists, I did enjoy this re-telling of the thirteen days President Carter spent at Camp David with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Wright's genius is putting you in the middle of many of the negotiating sessions, late night kibitzes and inner thoughts of the participants. 

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work (Mason Currey): Currey examines the habits of artists across the centuries in this light, readable book that confirms much of what we think of genius - it's esoteric, eccentric, and an often lonely pursuit. 

A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps (Chris West): A nice companion to West's examination of British history, though because much of the history discussed was familiar to me, not a particularly enlightening read. 

The Bad

Seven Bad Ideas (Jeff Madrick): A left-leaning lesson in economics and failed theories that read way too much like a dusty textbook for my taste. 

Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity & Get Discovered (Austin Kleon): Barely suitable toilet reading. Sorry. 

Talk to the Hand (Lynne Truss): A disappointing jeremiad against modern manners by an author whose Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one of my favorite books. 

The Last Magazine (Michael Hastings): A thinly veiled roman a clef by the now-deceased Hastings about his time at Newsweek magazine was both oversharing of personal peccadilloes and overinflated about himself and his colleagues in journalism. 

Still Writing - The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (Dani Shapiro): I do not have a single memory of anything from this book. Like literally, none; ergo, "bad."  

All The Time In The World (Jessica Kerwin Jenkins): Discussion of the hours of the day and their connection to things in our world, or something? Again, it's all fuzzy. 

A Short Guide to a Long Life (Dr. David Agus): A bunch of shit you won't do to increase the likelihood you will live longer told in an uninteresting way. No thanks. 

The Ugly

You’re Not Special (and other encouragements) (David McCullough): Tell a bunch of millenials they are not unique snowflakes and turn that into a book deal where you drone on for 300+ pages. Stick with Oh, The Places You'll Go for your graduation needs, people. 

The Politics of Life (Craig Crawford): I overpaid (50 cents at a book sale) for this banal attempt to turn the ordinary "politics" you encounter at home and work into some sort of opportunity to utilize Machiavellian tactics. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Grateful Dead in 1984

In their three decades of performing, few years are treated with more derision in the Grateful Dead’s canon than 1984. Of the thousands of hours of “officially” released music[1] exactly one song, not show, but song, from 1984 has been released.[2] This puts 1984 below other years that are universally recognized for their poor performances[3] and suggests a desire on the part of the band and its archivists to erase this period in the band’s history.[4]

But here’s the thing. While 1984 will never be confused with the technical proficiency of 1977 or the gooey 1973-74 jazz-era Dead, it has an urgency that those more cherished years lack. It is far and away my favorite year of the Dead’s music precisely because of its imperfections, its messiness, and its dislocation. The band was performing on a knife’s edge every night with Garcia in frail health and other band members struggling with their own personal demons.[5] Because of this messy brew, the unpredictability and unevenness of the performances is not just seen show to show, but sometimes within the shows themselves, which can toggle between moments of jaw dropping intensity and mind numbing drift.[6]

Thanks to YouTube, you can plainly see Jerry’s poor condition – slumped over his guitar, his hair greasy and unkempt, it is a wonder he is even able to remain upright for two hours, much less produce some of the thickest, dirtiest guitar leads of his life, yet he does.[7] The band’s MVP for the year is unquestionably Brent Mydland, whose Hammond B-3 sets an ominous tone littered with creepy sound effects and darkly layered leads.[8] And in the music itself is enough subtext to fill an auditorium. Listening to any version of “Lost Sailor,” it is impossible to hear the lyrics about a seaman adrift and not think that Weir is speaking directly to Garcia, whose descent into heroin addiction was well underway by this time.[9] And in the same way that others observed that Weir’s genius was in the notes he did not play, the near total absence of one song in particular – High Time – from the band’s rotation, speaks volumes about the delicate place Garcia was in during this time. Meanwhile, other warhorses in the band’s repertoire, like “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” and “Eyes of the World,” are played at a warp speed suggestive of cocaine binges and manic desperation.[10]

But even in all this chaos, there are moments of pure magic – the proverbial “x” factor that Deadheads speak of often but rarely get to experience. Flash to the July 13, 1984 show at the Greek Theater and you will hear the only “Dark Star” the band performed between 1981 and 1989, and as an encore no less. The novelty of the performance notwithstanding, the version itself is self-contained and complete – from a standing start, the band winds its way through soaring guitar leads and letter perfect keyboard runs that never feel embellished or extraneous, the outro jam after the second verse melting away organically at around the 17 minute mark to close a show that would have been notable for the stellar “Scarlet>Touch>Fire” second set opener and a space-influenced “The Wheel” that had a level of weirdness uncommon for this sprightly number.  Similarly, the band’s performance of “Morning Dew” on October 12, 1984 stands out as one of the signature versions of that song. It doesn’t reach the zen-like musical perfection of Cornell ’77, but instead, was played with an urgency that underscored Garcia’s uncertain future. Nothing need be said about the connection between the song’s lyrics, Jerry’s passionate interpretation of the music, and his alarming appearance to make the emotional leap that Jerry feared he was near death (and knew it).[11]  

To be sure, the year’s performances were uneven and sometimes desultory, but the failure to acknowledge the gems that were produced is a glaring oversight, particularly when such a significant body of the band’s music is being released. While it may have been novel to limit Dick’s Picks releases to those that were two-tracked and (mostly) pristine back in the day, the need for that level of sonic perfection is not needed or expected in today’s web-based world. One need ask why it is that David Lemieux continues to turn a blind eye to any performance after 1980 while continuing to mine earlier years over and over again that are already well-represented in the public space. It is long past time for 1984 to receive its just due.[12]

[1]  This includes 36 “Dick’s Picks,” 12 “Dave’s Picks,” entire tours (Spring 1972 (Europe) and Spring 1990 (U.S. East Coast)) released by Grateful Dead Productions, more than a dozen “digital downloads,” and various and sundry other shows such as the “From the Vault,” “Road Trips,” and “View from the Vault” series.   
[2]  Shakedown Street, 12/31/84; released on the “So Many Roads” box set. Ironically, while the song itself was played during 1984 on the West Coast, other parts of the world had already moved the calendar ahead to 1985.
[3]  The Dead’s final years are generally considered pretty thin in terms of quality; however, a full show from 1992 was released as part of the “Dick’s Picks” series (12/16/92) and a full show from 1993 (5/27/93) was released as part of the “Road Trips” series. Songs from both 1994 and 1995 appear on the “So Many Roads” box set as well.
[4]  Of the 36 Dick’s Picks, only two, Dick’s Picks 6 (10/14/83) and Dick’s Picks 21 (11/1/85), cover the years between 1983 and 1990.
[5]  Just listen to Phil slur out an acknowledgment to “Paul in the rainbow bud….” before the 7/4/84 version of “He’s Gone.”
[6]  A perfect example is the version of Uncle John’s Band performed on 4/23/84. It clocks in at more than 17 minutes, shifting between hard driving leads and aimless noodling that finally lands on the only version of “Only A Fool” the band ever performed. Similarly, an extended version of “He’s Gone” from 6/26/84 goes on for more than 16 minutes and is at times heart breaking in its intimacy and at others, searching for its sound.
[7]  The “Shakedown Street > Playin > Terrapin” from 6/30/84 is denser than a black hole and the 4/19/84 version of “Wharf Rat” may be the single greatest live version of that song the band ever played, with Garcia going for lead after lead that stretches the song well past 11 white knuckle minutes.
[8]  A couple of examples are instructive – just listen to the 4/26/84 version of “Shakedown Street” or the 4/19/84 “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” encore.
[9]  The signature version of Lost Sailor is also from 4/23/84, which includes an amazing little riff by Mydland about 5 minutes in that will make the hair stand up on your arms.
[10]  See, e.g., 7/14/84, 7/21/84, and 10/17/84.
[11]  Indeed, Garcia would collapse in a coma shortly after the band completed its Summer 1986 tour. If there is a year that is more reviled than 1984, it is 1986, which has not had any show “officially” released through GDP or Rhino Records.
[12]  A good place to start would be releasing any of the following shows: 11/2/84, 10/20/84, the three-night Philly Civic Center run (4/19-21), or 4/26/84.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

House of Cards & The Limits of Binge Viewing

The latest fad in television is the so-called "binge" watch, which is loosely defined as watching a large number of episodes, seasons, or indeed, an entire TV series, in a short period of time. This phenomenon was created by the release of TV shows on DVD and accelerated with the availability of many programs on Netflix. Indeed, it was Netflix that took binge watching to the next level when it began creating its own original content. Instead of parceling out episodes of Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards one at a time like conventional television broadcasters, Netflix released an entire season of each show at once - encouraging binge viewing while generating buzz on social media as people raced to complete their viewing before anyone else. 

I recently "binged" on both seasons of House of Cards, watching all 26 episodes over an about 10 day period. Ironically, the binge format, which Netflix has taken to the next level, worked against House of Cards. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, you know that House of Cards tells the story of Frank Underwood, who, when the show begins, is the Majority Whip (#3 ranking member) in the House of Representatives. Over the course of the show's two seasons, he maneuvers himself first into the position of Vice President and, ultimately, President, without a shot being fired. Along the way, he does a lot of deceitful (and illegal) things, leaving a wake of dead bodies, broken foes, and half-smoked cigarettes in his wake. 

But here's the thing. Unlike other programs that feed off the cultural zeitgeist like Game of Thrones or Mad Men, each of which generates pages and pages of critical analysis after every episode, because the entire season of House of Cards can be viewed as quickly as you can keep hitting "play," much of the nuance and suspense is drained from the experience. There are no cliffhangers because whatever sticky situation Frank, his wife Claire, or any of the other players in this drama experience, are resolved not a week later, but 45 minutes later. And so, the smaller plot points are obscured because you breeze right past them in service of the larger whole. If you asked me to connect the dots that landed Frank in the Oval Office, I could give you the high points, but not the subtlety. 

On the other hand, you blow right past major plot twists, like Frank's killing of Zoe Barnes, a main character in Season 1 who is tossed in front of a Metro train in the first episode of Season 2, that in a show that only runs once a week, generates days of water cooler discussion. [1] Indeed, because so much of House of Cards plays out like a chess match, consuming three or four episodes at a time devalues the writing and pace the producers are no doubt trying to create. Better that we be able to linger over Frank's asphyxiation of Peter Russo or his and Claire's tryst with their Secret Service agent, but who has time to ponder these developments when there's another episode just waiting to be viewed? 

And that is too bad, because House of Cards is precisely the type of show that would benefit from being watched in smaller doses and endlessly picked over by the Internet. Instead of the sugar rush of dropping an entire season in everyone's lap and having it unpacked in a week, the drama would build over the course of several months, heightening the tension and making the outcome feel far less certain. Ultimately, like gorging until you cannot eat anymore, binge viewing a show like House of Cards will leave you feeling full, but not entirely satisfied. 

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1. This was shown most recently when a character on the show The Good Wife was unexpectedly killed off; however, other major deaths, be they of the "Red Wedding" variety in Game of Thrones or Lane Pryce's demise on Mad Men, not to mention the in limbo cliffhanger we were left in during the fifth season shoot-out in Breaking Bad would have been significantly diluted were we able to just advance to the next episode uninterrupted. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Morning In America

In 1984, with unemployment above 7 percent and the country clawing its way out of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, President Ronald Reagan bet his re-election chances on selling the American public on a belief that a better tomorrow was just around the corner. The ad campaign, cleverly titled “Morning in America,” combined with a wave of patriotism fueled by the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, helped Reagan waltz to a 49-state landslide that November.

Flash forward thirty years, and there is an *actual* morning in America occurring, except few in the media want to report on it, much less give the current occupant of the White House any credit for creating it. It is remarkable to see how quickly the devastation wrought by the Great Recession of 2008 has faded down the memory hole. At its nadir in March 2009, the country was losing nearly three-quarters of a million jobs a month; the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell to 6,547, its lowest level since 1997, and had lost the equivalent of nearly half its value in the six months from when Lehman Brothers went belly up. Foreclosures skyrocketed, housing construction came to a near stand-still and both General Motors and Chrysler would have gone bankrupt but for aggressive government intervention. The final price tag on the Great Recession was 10 percent unemployment, a budget deficit of more than a trillion dollars, and trillions more (on paper) lost to reduced 401(k) balances, home valuations, and stock market losses.  

As we close the books on 2014, the economic health of our country is much stronger, but you would be hard pressed to find nearly the same amount of coverage of this fact in the “’mainstream media,” much less a tip of the hat to President Obama for his hand in it. You see, the media far prefers paint-by-numbers pieces about Obama’s need to reach out to Republicans after November’s mid-term elections or his (supposed) unpopularity. Consider:

·        The deficit is not only at pre-Great Recession levels, but because the economy is larger than it was in 2008, as a percentage of GDP, it is much smaller, specifically, less than 3% of that total – a level most economists agree is indicative of long-term economic stability.

·        Chrysler, now majority owned by Fiat after the government midwifed that transition, is experiencing strong growth. In both October and November of this year, Chrysler’s Jeep line saw record sales of their vehicles. Meanwhile, General Motors emerged from bankruptcy with an initial public offering and the government sold its last remaining shares in GM last December at a total net loss of just $10 billion.[1]

·        The nation’s energy prices have plummeted. Gas is at its lowest level in four years, saving drivers billions at the pump, a huge expansion in natural gas resources have cut home heating bills, and massive expansions in alternate energy, particularly solar energy, has occurred in the wake of incentives and efforts advanced in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.[2]

·        The unemployment rate is now below 6% and we are closing in on five years of consecutive job growth, most of which has occurred in the private sector. One can only speculate what the unemployment number would be had states not laid off hundreds of thousands of cops, firefighters, and teachers when they’re budgets shrank and tax collections were reduced

·         Health care spending is growing at the slowest rate on record while more than 10 million Americans have gained access to health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, actuarial studies of Medicare show that the long-term growth in that program has slowed so much (in part due to the Affordable Care Act) that we may save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade from health care costs we simply will not incur.[3]

·        The stock market, admittedly not my favorite barometer for economic health, has nearly tripled since hitting its floor in March 2009. This has meant that retirement accounts, pension funds, and investments for millions of Americans have gone up significantly, further adding to the nation’s economic health.

And this is all being done while domestic government spending is at Eisenhower-era lows and after a small pinch was felt by the wealthiest Americans, whose tax rates went up ever so slightly in early 2013. Of course, when you are receiving the lion’s share of the economic benefit, it should not be surprising that you barely feel the effect of a small deduction in your take home pay.[4]

With all of this good news, why is it that the right track/wrong track numbers (24/65) show the populace in a foul mood?[5] Perhaps we should not be surprised. That same poll showed that 73% of Americans think the budget deficit has been growing for the last five years (it has shrunk by nearly $1 trillion) and 53% think fewer people have been deported than a decade ago (it is way more and only 29% knew that). This is on top of the 30+ years of evidence we have showing that Republican Presidents drive up deficits and debt while Democratic Presidents are left to clean up the mess. But because the media has ceased being a neutral arbitrator of “facts” and has instead morphed into meek neutrality that simply presents both sides (even when facts exist to prove the truth of one over the other) that people are so misinformed about basic information is predictable.

This is not a small thing but it is also a curious double bind that the media creates. On the one hand, they put the onus on the Administration to get the word out, but on the other, show little interest in reporting on good news.[6] Once done, the story becomes how “ordinary” Americans don’t “feel” the economic recovery or how getting into the details of how the Affordable Care Act is changing health care delivery is too “wonky,” which leaves the national media left to report on their more preferred topic – “dysfunction” in Washington that is blamed on both parties and oh yes, no one really likes that Obama fellow.

Ultimately, the public is ill-served because the political arguments suck up all the oxygen in the room and suffocate the discussion of the policy. Perhaps that is why after turning twelve years of Reagan-Bush deficits into a surplus, Democrats were turned out in 2000 or that stemming the flood of red ink accumulated through tax cuts, an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit, and two wars, not to mention the most calamitous financial crash in 80 years, Obama’s achievements are met with a shrug by the media, who are already copping to “Hillary Fatigue” and fixating on who the Republicans will choose to run against her in 2016. It will be left to the historians to put this all in proper context. Today’s “journalists” simply can’t be bothered with reporting the truth.
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[1]  It should be noted that at the time of this sale, the government had netted a recovery of roughly $11 billion from all investments through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, so even though the taxpayers took a small loss on GM, the overall investment was a net positive.
[2]  As recently as 2008, solar accounted for almost zero home energy production. In 2014, solar generated enough energy to meet the electricity needs of more than 1.5 million homes, a doubling of that amount over 2013.
[3]  A recent report issued by the Congressional Budget Office reduced its estimate for Medicare costs in 2019 by $95 billion – the equivalent of all that is spent in a year on welfare programs, Amtrak, and unemployment insurance. All told, Medicare is on pace to spend $700 billion less this decade than was predicted in 2010.
[4]  That many of the affluent receive income from dividends, capital gains, and carried interest, which are not taxed as severely as ordinary income, does not hurt either.
[6]  To take one example, the latest report regarding lowest-on-record increases in health premiums was buried on page A22 of the New York Times.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hillary Fatigue

If Hillary Clinton runs for President, we know she will compete against other Democrats to get her party's nomination and if she wins it, a Republican foe to be the first woman elected President of the United States. But a candid interview with, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd indicates that Hillary will have another competitor to deal with - the media. You see, according to Chuck Todd, the media is just gosh darn tired of the Clintons:

Scott Porch: I already have Hillary fatigue. 
Chuck Todd: The biggest problem she has is that a ton of people in the media have Hillary fatigue. I don’t know if the grass-roots Democrats do; eight years ago they did, which is why they looked to Obama. People had Hillary fatigue — really Clinton fatigue — and were looking for a new direction. Now in the grass roots there’s some Clinton nostalgia, especially as Obama’s presidency looks shaky. But the Hillary fatigue in the press corps is going to be a challenge. (emphasis mine)
Now in fairness to Todd, it was the author of the interview who brought up "Hillary fatigue," but the fact that Todd not only acknowledged it as a thing that exists, but that the media "suffers" from it, is really quite astonishing. Mind you, Todd has railed against personality-based politics, but here, he is essentially saying that the media is not going to give Hillary a fair shake because they are tired of dealing with her. These are the people who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of democracy, the ones who ask the tough questions of those we are going to elect to run our country, but apparently that all goes out the door if the candidate has been in Washington, D.C. too long or the media is bored with them. 
And if Todd were just some random journalist who appeared on your TV from time-to-time perhaps this would not matter as much, but he is the political director of NBC News and the host of one of the most venerated political shows out there - in other words, what you hear and think about politics is impacted in a very meaningful way by the Chuck Todds of the world and you should know that he, and the group of journalists who cover Presidential politics really really do not like Hillary Clinton and are really really going to make it hard for her to win the Presidency. 
You can read the entire interview here and draw your own conclusions:

Monday, November 10, 2014


The mainstream media is falling over itself to inaugurate a new era of Republican dominance in Washington, D.C. after last week's mid-term election. TIME magazine put incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its cover with a sly perversion of Shepard Fairey's 2008 "HOPE" poster, now titled "CHANGE," and rivers of ink and hours of cable political chat shows are heralding the effective end of President Obama's presidency. 

For those brave enough to raise even the most modest dissent, they are quickly shouted down by the purported undisputed evidence of this latest Republican "wave" that has swelled their majority in the House of Representatives, given them a Senate majority, and expanded the number of governerships under their control. All of this, of course, is being deemed a repudiation of President Obama and his policies. Yes, the media wants you to believe that the same guy who was re-elected in an electoral landslide 2 years ago is suddenly in such bad odor that even his own party is sick of him. 

There is a lot of superficial evidence to support this thesis. After all, the Democrats in the Senate have lost a net of more than 10 seats since briefly holding a filibuster-proof majority in 2009 and the House that convenes in January will have more Republican members than at any time since before the Great Depression. This is not a small thing but it fails to explain why this has happened, and it is not simply a snubbing of a supposedly unpopular President.

You see, the three-legged stool that has allowed for this ascension is more nuanced than just pointing the finger at President Obama. First and most importantly, is the fact that Republicans paid no price for their lockstep obstruction of the President. For this, you can thank the media. When you consider that in just the last year, there was a government shutdown, cuts to programs that provide food and heating to poor people, and then Congress basically skipped town in late July and, but for a few days in September, went back home to campaign and paid no price for any of this speaks to the fact that the media is pre-disposed to a "both sides do it" narrative about Washington gridlock. 

Second, as people far smarter than me have discussed, Congressional districts are so finely gerrymandered in most states that Democrats will find it incredibly difficult to regain the House before the 2020 census. And this is true even though Democrats won one million plus more votes in House races in 2012 than Republicans did. 

And thirdly, in the Senate, the map was exceedingly favorable for Republicans. In places like Arkansas (Romney + 24), Kentucky (Romney +23), Montana (Romney +13), and Louisiana (Romney +17), any Democrat would have had a hard time winning (and Louisiana is going to a runoff, though Democrat Mary Landrieu would have won if the state did not have a law on the books requiring the winning candidate to get 50% +1 of the vote) and in those states where a glimmer of hope existed, like Kansas, the historical record showed that a non-Republican was last elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932. 

That's not to say that a couple of races, in Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina did not show Republican strength, they did; however, turnout did matter. In Iowa, about 500,000 fewer votes were cast than in 2012, but most of that reduction came from the Democratic side, where the President received more than 822,000 votes in 2012, but Bruce Braley got about 491,000, or about 60% of Obama's vote total. By comparison, Joni Ernst got 80% of Romney's vote total (586,921 v. 730,617). In fact, had Braley managed to retain the percentage of Obama's vote that Ernst did of Romney's, he would have won handily. The same is true in Colorado, where Mark Udall retained just 69% of Obama's vote, but his challenger, Cory Gardener, collected 81% of Romney's vote. Had 80% of Democrats who voted for the President voted for Udall, he too would have won. Now that is not to say that every voter who voted for the President or Governor Romney voted the same way in 2014, but the general point is that Democrats did not turn out in these close elections like they did two years ago. 

In the election's post-mortem, the media clung to the idea that second-term Presidents typically lose their off-year elections, but the reality is that Democrats, in the midst of Bill Clinton's impeachment scandal, gained seats in 1998 while George W. Bush, mired in Iraq and Katrina, lost seats. Indeed, the quick analogy of Obama to Bush was particularly galling - the voters spoke loudly in 2006 against a war that had cost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars and a response to a natural disaster that was appalling and indefensible. If voters in 2014 were railing against "gridlock" in Washington, that is not something that can be left at the President's door. The idea that the guy who made 99% of George W. Bush's tax cuts permanent, has had more Republicans serve as Defense Secretary than Democrats and currently has the former number two official from Bush's Justice Department serving as FBI director cannot be accused of being unwilling to extend a hand in cooperation. 

Of course, the President can't win either way. When he was re-elected, the media called on him to be magnanimous towards his vanquished foes. Now that his party has shrunk in Congress, he is being told to compromise, ignoring the fact that there was nothing stopping the now suddenly flexible Republicans who claim to want to do deals on tax reform (shocker) and free trade from doing so when they were in the minority. But oh well, "bygones" as they say.