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 (4,517 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 in 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. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grimes For Senate

Remember when the Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky Alison Lundergran Grimes refused to tell the Louisville Courier-Journal whether she voted for President Obama in 2012? Of course you do. That little “gaffe” sucked up all the media oxygen for about 48 hours, in part because of her action, but more so because moderator for Meet the Press Chuck Todd deemed her failure to answer this question “disqualifying.”[1] Todd feigned surprise and disappointment that his inflammatory comment was quickly turned into a TV ad run by Ms. Grimes’s opponent, Mitch McConnell, and naturally, the subject became fodder for a televised debate between the two, taking precious time away from a discussion of important issues.

Todd quickly tried to dissemble and parse, shocked that a campaign would take the words of NBC’s political director and host of its flagship political show and use that statement in an ad. Todd’s response suggested a level of naiveté unmatched in Washington or a “doth protest too much” posture that was as phony as it was disingenuous. As is de rigueur with these types of idiotic tempests in a tea pot, the media horde moved on, but a funny thing happened that of course got a scintilla of the coverage of this supposed “disqualifying” event. Largely under the radar and squeezed into whatever tiny reporting space is not being dominated by Ebola panic, that same newspaper endorsed Grimes for Senate.

Unlike Chuck Todd and his Beltway media ilk, who focus solely on political tactics and optics, the Courier-Journal’s endorsement is worth reading. They actually took the time to examine each candidate’s positions and offer their opinion on which one of the two would better represent the interests of the people of the Kentucky. I think this is called “journalism,” something that is woefully lacking in “This Town” coverage of politics these days.

Of course, if Mr. Todd is interested in issuing a mea culpa, I would be happy to tune into Meet the Press this Sunday for it, but I am not holding my breath.  

[1]  No word on whether Mr. Todd thinks that Ms. Grimes’s opponent, Senator Mitch McConnell, is similarly disqualified from office because his desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act would result in cutting off health coverage for more than 500,000 Kentuckians who are now covered by the ACA.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review - All The Truth Is Out

Matt Bai has written an indispensable meditation on modern political journalism that directs far more of its bite and vitriol at his own journalistic brethren than the book's ostensible focus, Gary Hart, the one-time Colorado Senator and two-time candidate for President who was brought low by a sex scandal during his second run for that office in 1987. All The Truth Is Out neatly captures a moment in our modern political history when journalists reporting on national leaders began what has become an inexorable shift from substance to flash, policy to personality, while largely abdicating its role as fact checker and explainer in favor of an obsessive drive for some odd combination of Woodward and Bernstein notoriety and minor cable television news celebrity. 

As Bai shows, that Hart became the poster child for this phenomenon was not all that surprising. Hart's fondness for women was well-known all the way back to his role as George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, but as Bai discusses, that era, when reporters and those they reported on had a tacit agreement that in exchange for candidate access there was a "code of the road" that kept such dalliances out of the paper was waning as the 1980s dawned. Younger reporters weened on the cinematic drama of Nixon's downfall coming at the hands of a couple of Washington Post Metro reporters re-imagined the role of "reporter" in our political life. 

Of course, Hart is hardly blameless. Had he not chased women, there would not have been anything for reporters to cover. A man who was the front runner for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and who led then-Vice President George H.W. Bush unquestionably engaged in dicey behavior; however, as the tale is unspooled, the seaminess of the entire affair becomes clear and the media's role becomes less valorous. Reporters from the Miami Herald tipped by one of Donna Rice's friends about her liaisons with Hart staked out his D.C. townhouse, observing his comings and goings before confronting him in an alley over the woman they saw enter his home. In an era before crisis communications, Hart's stumbling replies and the subsequent media horde that descended on his family home in Colorado was sui generis and much of what was done during those few days was ad-libbed and unplanned. The coup d'grace is applied by the Washington Post's Paul Taylor, burned in missing the initial scoop, asks Hart directly at a press conference if he has committed adultery. In Bai's telling, the hush in the room suggests a rubicon being crossed, but Hart's answer was ultimately beside the point. Had he not dropped out of the race, the Post was prepared to expose another affair he had with a D.C. socialite. 

The whole episode may seem pedestrian by today's media standards, but the questions Bai raises are important ones. Is it fair for a public official's entire career and reputation to be re-defined by a single incident? Does that conduct disqualify him or her from ever entering the public arena ever again? And what is the media's responsibility in all of this? Obviously, we have had many chances to ponder these (and other) questions in the intervening years, but the results are rather arbitrary. David Vitter's name was found in a madam's black book, yet he remains in office. Eliot Spitzer paid for sex, and he was forced from office. Anthony Weiner did not even technically engage in sexual conduct but became a laughingstock, while Scott DesJarlais cheated on his wife and encouraged his paramour to have an abortion, yet he is still a member of Congress. 

The dive toward a lowest common denominator reached its nadir (or apex, depending on your point of view) 11 years after Hart's campaign imploded when President Clinton was impeached. And while reporters gorged like hogs on the salacious details of Clinton's affair, the American people were well ahead of the curve in terms of putting the President's admittedly reprehensible behavior in its proper place. While Clinton's personal popularity plummeted, his performance as President was viewed favorably and his party won seats in the 1998 off-year election - a rarity for Presidents in their sixth year in office. 

But the memory hole is an odd one. As recently as this past week's Time magazine, in discussing U.S. relations with Iran, noted "several American Presidents have been burned by trusting Iranian 'moderates.' Ronald Reagan wound up with the Iran-Contra scandal." (emphasis mine) Note the passive voice about a scandal that was breaking at the same time as Gary Hart's. As if an affirmative decision from within the White House to violate federal law and, but for some selective "memory lapses" by Reagan, would have legitimately opened the door for impeachment, was somehow foisted on an unsuspecting President. And that is the problem that Bai so acutely diagnoses. If anything from the violation of federal law to an advance staffer's hiring of a prostitute are all equivalent "-Gate" level scandals, it is impossible to provide the context or sense of proportionality that is woefully missing in today's political discourse. 

And Bai's observation about context is particularly acute. The half-life of a candidate's qualification for office has gone from whether he lied about cheating on his wife (Gary Hart - 1987) to having the host of Meet the Press question whether a candidate for Senate is disqualified from that office because she would not share who she voted for for President in 2012 (Chuck Todd speaking about Alison Lundergran Grimes - 2014). This reductio ad absurdum is not demanded by the populace, it's an affirmative decision on the part of the media to turn national politics into precisely the tabloid clown car that erased the distinction between the National Enquirer on the one hand, and the Miami Herald and Washington Post on the other, yet all of whom got their hands dirty ferreting out the hidden sex lives of Presidential candidates. And while the media crowned itself the moral arbiters of our time, as Bai points out, even as Hart was walking away from the campaign, he did so in front of many reporters who he (Hart) knew had engaged in precisely the same type of conduct he was forced out of the race for.

But the media has created a fail safe way of handling these issues that absolves them of any responsibility or accountability. The trap the media set with Hart is one they would use over and over again - arguing that the indiscretion was not the disqualifying fact, it was the lying about the indiscretion that was the true crime. Of course, this convenient tautology puts a candidate in an impossible situation - honesty would be condemned, but lying would sic the hounds until the truth emerged. In the balance, an entire career, in Hart's case, was reduced to a photo of a twenty-something sitting on his lap in front of a boat called the Monkey Business while ignoring the more than decade's worth of service Hart had provided as a campaign manager to George McGovern and a widely respected U.S. Senator. Bai argues persuasively that the nation was a poorer place for this trade off. While Hart's conduct may have precluded him from becoming President, he was shunned from polite D.C. society and thus, from valuable contributions he may have made to our nation's discourse. 

Indeed, the portrayal of Gary Hart is largely sympathetic - that of a man with a preternatural sense of the big issues that have animated our world but ostracized because he happened to come along at a time when the tabloid and political streams crossed. As Bai notes, the upshot of the Hart "scandal" was a pack mentality that turned every political reporter into "amateur private investigators and psychotherapists" constantly digging for dirt on people whose hypocrisy was presumed, the only question being how it would be exposed. Lost in this monomaniacal desire to expose politicians as inherently fraudulent was both the context and nuance that would separate a high crime from a misdemeanor. 

When the media dismisses all of this by saying we elect the people we deserve, they are engaging in a convenient trope that is too cute by half. The record low approval rating of Congress and the general malaise (to borrow from Jimmy Carter) in our nation suggests that we are not a people who thinks our political leaders reflect our views. While majorities support things like background checks for gun purchases or taxing the wealthy to pay down the debt and deficit, heavily gerrymandered Congressional districts ensure these things never come to pass. The impact of the media's interest in turning every Presidential contest into a horse race that ignores policy was seen to devastating effect in 2000 - Al Gore rightly predicted that the massive tax cuts George W. Bush wanted to enact would blow a hole in our budget (and it did), but Gore was mocked because of the type of clothes he wore and the vaunted "lock box" he wanted to put all that surplus money into (imagine where our budget and debt levels would be had we listened to the then-Vice President). But because Bush was deemed a "regular guy" (never mind his blue blood roots and Ivy League education), all that "fuzzy math" was subsumed in the media grinder that conflated authenticity with competence. 

And things have only gotten worse. As the media searches for any whiff of scandal, politicians create an ever more impermeable bubble around themselves to avoid "gaffes" or moments of honesty the media claim will humanize, not destroy, them. In the balance, these two groups have talked past one another. Reporters on the 2012 campaign trail amused themselves with pithy tweets about poorly stocked filing centers and delayed departures while the candidates utilized their own YouTube channels to get their messages past the media "filter." The loser in all of this is the public, because at a time when we have access to more information than at any time in history, the media's default to wall-to-wall scandal coverage when, say, is "glitchy," evaporates when the problem is solved and more than 8 million people use it to get health insurance. 

As Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN Worldwide recently said, "Chaos is good for CNN." But that is a maxim that all the media has absorbed. But in its endless chase for ratings, the media has confused the corporate bottom line with the public service it is supposed to serve. Suggesting that their reporting is simply giving people what they want is also true of everything from junk food to alcohol, but we all know those things are not good for you either. What All The Truth Is Out identifies is the point in time when things changed, and unquestionably for the worse.