Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reports Of The GOP's Demise ...

The idea of the Republican Party, what it stands for and what it hopes to accomplish, is grist for the pundit mill these days. In the span of 3 weeks, TIME Magazine had two potential heirs to the GOP throne on its cover - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. On a recent episode of "Up With Chris," a panel discussed whether the GOP was even worth saving. The RNC has commenced an after action study on the 2012 election and a recent cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine asked "Can the GOP be saved from obsolescence?" Implicit in these stories and commentary is the idea that the GOP must soul search, recognize it is losing the demographic battle for the future of the country, soften its stand on issues like gay marriage and abortion and stop being seen as the party out to protect the wealthy if it has any interest in again governing the country.  

But this analysis is asking the wrong question because it presumes that the GOP, at least in its current iteration, thinks it is losing. I submit that, rhetoric about not being the "stupid party" notwithstanding, the GOP is perfectly happy with its position at both the federal and state level.  The dirty little secret of politics is that the Age of Obama has been very good for the Republican Party, largely tied to their landslide win in the 2010 election, a victory which is anomalous in recent cycles, but whose importance grows with each passing day. 

Consider politics in Washington after 2010. The GOP took control of the House of Representatives and broke the Democrats' brief run of filibuster-proof power in the Senate. Since then, Republicans have mastered the art of economic terrorism, extracting compromises from Obama at every point in the budget and debt ceiling process. The result? Domestic spending is at its lowest level since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the mainstream media has completely bought into the idea that substantial cuts in entitlements spending must be made to shore up our long-term finances (never mind the fact that much of our economic stress was caused by policies these same Republicans supported when George W. Bush was President), and even the President has floated offers to reduce Social Security payments (Chained CPI) and flirted with the idea of raising the eligibility age for Medicare (reported as part of the 2011 debt ceiling negotiation). 

And while they are advancing their agenda of smaller government in real and actual ways under Obama that never happened under Bush, Republicans are also fighting successful rear guard actions. The punditocracy has made great hay over the fact that Republicans voted for tax increases at the beginning of this year, but even that deal set threshold rates for the highest tax bracket above what they were when Bill Clinton was President and maintained a still low dividend and interest rate for the very wealthy. Meanwhile, the reduction in the payroll tax rate was allowed to expire, resulting in a tax "increase" for tens of millions of middle and lower-middle class Americans. In short, the higher tax rate pinch is felt by fewer people at a higher level of the income ladder who can easily afford it while the payroll tax cut expiration eats into the paychecks of everyday Americans struggling to get by. 

Over in the Senate, the 60 vote threshold to move any piece of legislation or nomination has become normative behavior because Democrats refused to tighten filibuster rules, emboldening Republicans to take the unprecedented (literally, had never happened in our more than 235 year history) step of blocking a vote on President Obama's nominee to lead the Defense Department. Meanwhile, grandstanding on Benghazi, which has become a sort of Rorschach of GOP paranoia, continues unabated, and newly minted "Tea Party" Senator Ted Cruz has maligned the character and service of now-Secretary of State John Kerry and presumptive Pentagon head Chuck Hagel. The selection of Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary has languished even as that critical Department has been without an appointed leader for almost a month and nominations to the federal bench still move at a glacial pace. And for this obstruction, not only do Senate Republicans pay no price, they are well positioned to gain seats in 2014.  

And as we look forward at the national level, in less than a week, Republicans will accomplish, through the strenuous effort of doing nothing, yet another massive contraction of discretionary domestic spending through the sequester. While some point to the cuts that will also take place in defense spending, they must be viewed in a much different context than the other domestic spending cuts. The Pentagon's budget has risen by roughly 50% since 2001; the sequester will trim about 7% annually from its current level, which is sort of like losing a pound after you've been declared morbidly obese. Unsurprisingly, the other programs that will see a similar cut have not had that level of growth over the past decade. Indeed, the funding levels of most programs that will be hit by the sequester have barely kept up with the rate of inflation, making those reductions far more painful than that the drop in the bucket at the Pentagon. 

The view from the state level is even more favorable for the GOP. Those 2010 landslides not only handed many Governor's mansions to the GOP, but control over both houses of state Legislatures. A consolidation of power that has been put to devastating effect on issues as disparate as "right to work," laws and regulations that have essentially outlawed abortion in states like Kansas, South Dakota and Mississippi, and restricted access to the voting booth through the passage of a range of laws related to voter identification, early voting hours and voter registration. As these laws and regulations were passed, they faded quickly from the national spotlight, but their impact in the states where they were enacted will be felt for years to come - in Michigan, the fact that union rights have largely been voided is beyond any right wing fanatic's fondest dream and a collective shrug was given by national reporters, newspapers and news programs after it was found that more than 200,000 people were dissuaded from voting in Florida because of restrictive policies put in place by the majority Republicans. 

While the Republican Party is not setting itself up to lead at the national level, it does not need to, and indeed, may not be inclined to do so. They are getting so much of what they want by mindless obstruction. In the states, a brash, in-your-face attitude is re-writing policy in profound ways that will be difficult to undo, particularly in southern states where it is the Democrats that are flirting with extinction. To paraphrase Twain, reports of the GOP's demise have been greatly exaggerated. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Elizabeth Wurtzel Has A Sad ... Or Something

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s New York magazine essay My One Night Stand Of A Life, is a deeply narcissistic, highly vulnerable and excruciatingly honest piece of long form writing that shows what happens when talent fades. If Ms. Wurtzel’s name sounds familiar to you in an “I Love the 90s” kind of way, you’re not alone. She rocketed to fame in 1994 when her autobiography, Prozac Nation, became the touchstone for a generation of raw testimonials about childhood struggle, depression, uninhibited sexuality and mania. And now, in what is the literary equivalent to a C-list celebrity’s finding a second life in the now mainstreamed genre of reality TV, Wurtzel has unloaded a more than 5,500 word stream of consciousness rant about her life at 45, a sad and lonely place that feels like the logical bookend to this particular form of Generation X writing.

My One Night Stand reads as if a stereotype of the young woman as artist was frozen in amber and brought back to life in middle age. While the rest of the world grew up, got married, had kids and moved to the suburbs, Wurtzel lived a dizzying life of casual hookups, drug use and apartment hopping that she wants you to know makes her better than you because she can still fit into the same pair of 501s from high school, rubs elbows with Bret Easton Ellis and decided to go to Yale Law School "on a lark" in her late 30s. But much of My One Night Stand reads like a defensive explanation for why a once shining literary light has produced such a paucity of work while "stubbornly and proudly, empathetically and pathetically" refusing to grow up. There is no question Wurtzel is fully aware of her own self-absorption. Few writers, let alone psychologists, could better diagnose her malaise. When she speaks of herself as one of New York's "Lost Boys" or spins a plum such as this, straight out of a 2 AM dorm room discussion: "I live specifically, with intent. The intent is, I know now, not at all specific, except that I have no ability to compromise," she is zeroing in on precisely what makes her piece either the greatest mockumentary since Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop or the well paid navel gazing of a woman so wrapped up in her own world that anyone making it to the end of her article will not laugh at her bravado ("no one else seems to live as I do") but rather, feel great pity for her cluelessness and need to justify her existence to others (it is unclear) who question it. 

While Monday morning quarterbacking one's life in middle age is not uncommon, Wurtzel's almost pathological desire to relitigate hers, from hardscrabble roots as a middle class child of a single parent in Manhattan to Harvard, the self-assuredness that (according to her) has allowed her to write what she wants and have that be sufficiently remunerative to never have to compromise her ideals and to justify blowing her money on drugs, men and partying, is to erect a series of straw men only to discover there is nothing to knock down. Wurtzel has not learned a critical lesson that others her age (and I count myself in that category, though she has 3 years on me) who have moved on from these battles have internalized - "who cares." Here, the arrested development Wurtzel clearly suffers from is in full bloom. She must pacify herself by humblebragging her achievements, from being published in Seventeen magazine before she went to college to matriculating at Yale Law School in her late 30s. While she lolls away a Friday "working from home" only to, gee whiz, discover her name, and the only female one at that, in the "Literature" category of famous Harvard alumni in a publication released by that university, this incessant CV-checking and the attendant name dropping she sprinkles throughout My One Night Stand screams "insecurity," not "accomplishment." 

Wurtzel is constantly reminding us of her genius, but having attended Yale Law, her world view is shockingly black and white. In law, as in life, wide shades of grey exist, yet in Lizzie's world you are either a soul-sapped parental unit who may or may not be divorced or a struggling artist whose life is a swirl of drama befitting a character on Girls even though you are closer to an AARP card than being kicked off her parents' health insurance plan. And if it is true that lawyers are binder producing drones whose work product lands in warehouses off the New Jersey Turnpike, why exactly did Wurtzel go to law school (and why does she mention this fact over and over again)? Oh right, a "lark," which, according to her, is part of what makes her unique. Perhaps at Yale every student is earnest and prepared to enter the legal profession, but I know many people who have attended law school on a lark, some dropped out, some were there solely to satisfy their parents or their own intellectual curiosity, but larks they were. 

Perhaps Wurtzel anticipates these critiques, explaining that her fierce independence simply did not allow her to take the easy or predicable path and that objectivity about her decision making simply does not exist; however, as she speculates about the version of her life that does not include working for nationally-renowned trial attorney David Boies (which appears to be the version in REAL life, as she is not listed as an attorney with his firm, a point she neglects to mention), she also fails to consider that had she not been so frivolous in her choices, she wouldn't be sharing with the world the story of getting kicked out of her sub-let apartment by a 50-year old woman she calls "Hooker Maria." Indeed, the thread woven throughout this piece is Wurtzel's odd belief in her uniqueness, as if she is the only person who can "love with a pure heart and hope for the best" or that everyone else is willing to do things that make them "adjustable" but she cannot, and you can never hope to live the "overwhelming emotional life" that only Elizabeth Wurtzel experiences like "flat sheets of hard rain." 

Here, Wurtzel's decision to never establish roots explains how she thought nothing of contacting a famous lawyer (the aforementioned Mr. Boies) to solve a simple tenant dispute; something akin to asking Stephen Hawking to solve your 7th grade algebra problem. Indeed, playing the helpless naïf, who, at 45, cannot get her shit together enough to resolve a conflict by either taking some of that “royalty account” she proudly boasts of to buy a home or deploying some of the skills any student learns in law school – of mediation and negotiation – to reach an acceptable outcome appears to be a cross she happily bears. That the "Hooker Maria" incident drove Wurtzel into a spiraling depression for months on end that made her cringe at close contact or the delivery man's ringing of her doorbell says far more about the importance of learning adult problem solving instead of being used as an excuse to barricade yourself in your apartment ducking behind couches at the slightest curious sound. 

It is far easier to call a father-surrogate, but really, requiring someone to swoop in and solve your drama swirl at age 45 makes you lame, not tortured. Blowing advances on Birkin bags so you can brag about toting Hermes on the IRT and adopting the philosophy that "if you take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves" is a great philosophy if you want to be a 45-year old with little to show for your life's pursuits other than your Gyrotonic-toned body and the belief that people still care about what you say for anything other than the can't-look-away-from-the-car-crash value. 

You see, the Peter Pans of the world who refuse to grow up assume the trade offs of giving up their freedoms are too painful, too binary, too zero sum. The Wurtzel manifesto of "true love and artistic integrity," of justifying all the poor decision making by clinging to principles that amount to a middle finger lofted high and in no particular direction is wonderful when you are 21 and have learned little about life, but surely Wurtzel's neck is sore from tilting at these particular windmills. Lizzie Wurtzel won't buy a home or invest money in the stock market because she would rather be a sad girl bemoaning the friends she no longer has or the life she thinks she has lost (but fiercely defends). But the dirty little secret is that the trade offs are not as dire, the loss of cool points not as dramatic, as they might appear. Rather, it is the obligations that come with mortgages or retirement accounts or <gasp> marriage, that the Elizabeth Wurtzels of the world truly fear. Far easier to keep ironic distance, having cinematic episodes where you are slumped in a heap on a park bench with the late afternoon rays of sunshine casting "brilliant shadows" as you collapse sobbing before calling someone to fix your problems. 

Sadly, Wurtzel's zealous clinging to her particular worldview limits what might be an interesting second act. Instead of spraying her "pathological honesty" all over magazine pages for all to read (and pick apart), she could take that Yale Law JD and turn it to some public good, because the haze of David Boies's legal brilliance notwithstanding, Ms. Wurtzel could visit many a Legal Aid office, public defender or law school clinic and find equally intelligent (and more socially conscious) lawyers not motivated by a $1,000 per hour quote. As a writer who still commands an audience, she could take on causes that extend beyond her own self-interest or simply grow up and embrace the totems of adulthood she has so deftly avoided. 

Having popularized the confessional as memoir, Wurtzel's influence is unquestioned and her place in modern literature secure. Click over to Jezebel, xoJane, any of hundreds of blogs or read quarter-life memoirs on any given day and you can see pieces written about eating disorders, prescription pill addiction and more, all of which owe a debt to her style and technique. And therein may lie the truth at the bottom of My One Night Stand - having once been extraordinary and yes, unique, the author is now pedestrian and ordinary. Instead of burning out, she is simply fading away. 

You can read her article here and make your own judgment:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Harry Reid Is Bad At His Job

A few weeks ago, Republicans in the Senate, aided by the media, got people to buy into the idea that Democrats interested in reforming the filibuster rule to ease the unprecedented obstruction of the last Congress were playing with fire. That failing to honor the rights of the minority party would blowback in the Democrats’ faces when they inevitably lost control of Congress’s upper chamber. The spook campaign worked. Instead of passing muscular rules that would have still provided for minority rights, but not at the expense of critical decisions, from Cabinet appointments to bringing legislation to the floor in a timely manner, Senator Reid took his slice of the loaf and a handshake deal, that pinky swear, Republicans would not continue their lockstep opposition to anything and everything in the Senate.

Cut to yesterday and the first ever filibuster threat of any Cabinet member in the history of our country. That Republicans show no similar fear of precedent or blowback is unsurprising. Democrats, being the good government types they are, always back down and never take revenge. Yesterday’s decision by the GOP to force a cloture vote on Chuck Hagel (a Republican, no less) did set one precedent –it showed that if they ever do get the majority back, they will be as unafraid to change the rules to ensure Democrats cannot pull these types of shenanigans as Democrats are willing to do just the opposite.

Ever thus.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Death of Aaron Swartz

A few weeks ago, a young man named Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Ordinarily, a 26 year old's death by his own hand would not garner much attention, but Swartz was both a promising young computer programmer (he helped develop RSS feeds) and a criminal defendant in the matter of U.S. v. Swartz [1], accused of illegally connecting a laptop computer to the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and illegally downloading more than 4 million documents, which, according to the indictment, Swartz intended to upload to peer-to-peer file sharing networks. The service from which Swartz took the files, JSTOR, charges a fee of upwards of $50,000 to users (typically universities and colleges) for access to the network. Some of the fees collected are returned to the original copyright holders while allowing limited access to the network for MIT students and guests.  

The indictment listed 13 felony charges and Swartz potentially faced decades in prison and $1 million in penalties. In the aftermath of his death, his advocates pointed to the heavy handed tactics of the U.S. Attorney's (USA) office in Massachusetts, suggesting that the stress and pressure applied by the USA drove Swartz to kill himself. Others suggested that the tactics employed by the USA were politically motivated and that the office sought to make an example of Swartz.  While Swartz's death was certainly tragic, the lily gilding done by those who rose to his defense in the wake of his suicide conveniently omitted some critical information.

First, Swartz was not an impoverished defendant relying on a wet-behind-the-ears public defender. His lead counsel was Elliot Peters, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and partner at Keker & Van Nest,  who counted among his other clients disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Peters' honors and awards are numerous, including being named one of the Top 100 lawyers in California [2]. Peters had an arsenal of legal tools at his disposal to defend Swartz, among them, a lengthy pre-trial motion to suppress critical evidence in the case that was pending at the time of Swartz's death [3]. 

Second, Swartz was offered, and turned down, a generous plea bargain. Namely, a sentence recommendation of between 6 and 8 months in prison in exchange for a guilty plea on the 13 charges. Now I will admit, in plea bargains it is far more common for the prosecutor to knock down many charges to one or two, but if one is pleading guilty, is the number of counts really that big a deal? Would the 6-8 months been any different had Swartz pled guilty to one felony instead of 13? 

Third, even if he went to trial, according to his own attorney the U.S. Attorney's office was only going to seek a sentence of 7 years, far less than what they could have asked for [4]. Oddly, Peters lamented the fact that the sentence recommendation if Swartz pleaded guilty was lower than what it would have been had the case gone to trial (such discrepancies are precisely why pleas are offered); regardless, while the charges against Swartz could have landed him in prison for decades, if his own lawyer is to be believed, the government was not going to ask for a lengthy prison sentence even if they prevailed at trial. 

What we do know is that Swartz had a well-paid and highly experienced criminal defense lawyer who had negotiated what most defendants would view as a good deal. That some think it would have been offensive for Swartz to have pled guilty to crimes he did not think he committed, or that because MIT decided not to pursue Swartz through civil litigation the government should have dropped the case, are frankly beside the point. The criminal justice system has its checks and balances. If Swartz believed in his innocence, he had the means to advance that point, and through an attorney with a stellar resume; pre-trial motions afford the defendant to argue that the government has not met its burden in charging him with any (or all) of the charges against him.  Even after a case starts, a defendant can seek dismissal of certain counts (or the entire case) if s/he thinks the government has not met its proofs. A judge rules on these motions and bases those decisions on the law and fact as presented to her. This is the way our judicial system works and to argue that those rules should have been suspended or modified because a bright young computer programmer was being charged is simply not the way things work. 

Swartz retained, as every criminal defendant does, his right to confront his accusers; however, had he done so, he also would have had to accept he might lose and be found guilty- it's something we call "litigation risk" and every person involved in either a civil or criminal case must weigh it when deciding how to proceed. Indeed, litigation risk is largely why 90% plus of both civil and criminal cases settle (civil) or result in a plea (criminal). While the conduct of the U.S. Attorney's office may have not been what we consider a model of prosecutorial discretion, the reality is that a grand jury heard testimony and returned a lengthy indictment related to the theft of millions of documents (and yes, I'm aware some were later made available at no charge) that did not appear, at least to this reader, to be demonstrably different than what shut down music services like Napster. Weeks before his death, Swartz was offered a plea deal that would have resulted in a very modest prison term (and likely at a minimum security prison) in return for a guilty plea. He turned it down. 

This is not to minimize Aaron Swartz's death. It was tragic and my heart goes out to his family and loved ones; but to assign blame for his death on people whose job it is to charge and prosecute people alleged to have committed wrong doing is also unfair. 


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hiking The AT With Bill Bryson

If you are a book worm, one of life's great pleasures is the library book sale, where gently (and sometimes not so gently) used books can be bought for bargain basement prices. And so it was that I recently procured a $1 paperback copy of Bill Bryson's 1998 book A Walk in the Woods, a memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). As a Bryson fan (his recent book, At Home was my 2011 "book of the year"), I looked forward to his equal parts tangy and tart writing and punchy prose. In this respect, AWITW did not disappoint. In Brysonian style, digressions into the origins of the AT, its flora and fauna, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates and the lost stories of many small towns along the way unfolded, crisply and with vivid insight.  Bryson's partner in crime is one Stephen Katz, both foil and foible, a recovering alcoholic Bryson vaguely knew a lifetime ago and who comes along for the ride.

For the first leg of the trip, as well as the book, we move smartly. Packs are purchased, routines are established in fits and starts, coffee is funneled through makeshift toilet paper filters each morning, tents are pitched and taken down, sore feet massaged each night by crackling early spring fires. A freakish snowstorm hits Georgia, providing narrative drama and the tone of peril as our doughy, middle aged duo overcomes challenges little by little. By and by, Bryson and Katz find their footing, the hike quickens, random strangers are met along the way, and a comfortable pace, both in their walking and the author's writing, are established. And then, just as the reader is getting comfortable and the hiking boots are broken in, the duo cuts their trip short. The suddenness of this narrative shift is jarring - as Bryson tells it, while stopping at a general store, he notices how very little of the full AT (which clocks in at about 2,100 miles) he and his partner have traversed. 

They are quickly whisked back to civilization and from there, the book loses much of its thread. Bryson takes some day trips into Pennsylvania coal country while Katz is off stage, back in Des Moines and not to reappear until nearly the end of the book. The book becomes like Bryson's hodge podge walks, disjointed and unsatisfying. The privation of the wilderness is replaced by the knowledge that the author is traveling from place to place by car, parking his vehicle in a spot along the trail and then circling back to it by the end of the day. The greatest drama we hear of is a juvenile argument Bryson gets into with a "rent-a-cop" on a side road near a coal plant. Otherwise, Bryson's frustration at going from a hiker living day to day in the woods to a day tripper dipping in and out of the wilderness is palpable. 

By summer, Katz has returned for the duo's trek through Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness - a trek of true challenge (at least back in the mid 1990s, before cell phone became commonplace). The trip ends up being ill fated - as Bryson fills in the blanks on Katz's life between the two legs of their trip, we learn he has slipped and returned to alcohol and having lost the hiking chops that he had developed down South. The duo aborts early on in the hike and are left to consider their fates. In this way, the book acts as middle aged meditation, of men coming to grips with weakened virility and submission to the hands of time and living that did not incorporate either clean living or good nutrition. That said, their 870 mile total was nonetheless impressive, a full 40% of the overall total of the AT, or, as Bryson notes, a walk from New York to Chicago (and then some). 

A final note - Bryson wields a sharp pen and lacerating wit, but too often, his barbs came off as churlish, particularly some of the stereotyping he did of backwoods people in the South and in casual conversations with less serious hikers along the way. Perhaps this is owing to his years in England or maybe he's just a contrarian cuss, but I found his tone off putting at times. Overall, an uneven effort that I felt far better about spending one dollar on as opposed to the cover price of $14.95.