Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 Year in Books

It is amazing how many books you can read when you essentially have no social life. Here is my year in review for 2015. You can also click these links to read my recaps from 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

Book of the Year

Dog Whistles, Walk Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

Pithy without being sophomoric, this handy Bible of Beltway folkways is not as baldly cynical as Mark Leibovich’s This Town, is less snarky than Dana Milbank’s Homo Politcus, and far more intelligent than Chris Cillizza’s execrable The Gospel According to the Fix. These are authors who point out the absurdity of D.C. convention with bemusement rather than bile. It is light reading that any political junkie will enjoy, and, in a year with many very good, but not great books on my shelf, wins the award by default.


Showdown, Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, Wil Haygood

Haygood’s thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) mediation on LBJ’s decision to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court reads like a political thriller that could be a story arc on House of Cards. The main players are all bold characters and big egos – Johnson, looking to cement his legacy on civil rights, Marshall, a giant of the legal community whose decades-long career fighting against white supremacy is richly detailed and truly inspiring, Senator John McClellan, a bigot of the first order looking to torpedo the nomination, and Senator Sam Ervin, whose acclaim during Watergate is mitigated by his disgraceful treatment of the eminently qualified Marshall.

In the balance, Haygood uses the extended Judiciary Committee hearings (Marshall’s ended up being the longest in history to date) to hopscotch around the months, years, and decades leading up to this event as a way to frame how far the nation needed to come simply to appoint a black man to the U.S. Supreme Court. We learn not only of the broad strokes, but even the smaller points, not the least of which was Johnson’s fear that Marshall would not make it through the hearing and had already lined up a fallback option (William Coleman, a black Republican). Marshall’s legal career is given the just due it deserves, from his time as an attorney with the NAACP, traveling at great personal risk through the Deep South,
to his time as U.S. Solicitor General and judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, but we also get a flavor for the man Marshall was – tough minded, a raconteur who loved good company, and constantly pushing against the injustice he saw each day.

Looking back on the lies and innuendo hurled at Marshall from a distance of nearly 50 years makes the conduct all the more revolting and it is equally troubling to think that such behavior was sanctioned and indeed encouraged in the not-too-distant past. Considering the enormous legacy Marshall left behind, we can only be grateful that he was able to overcome the naked racism displayed by those who would sit in judgment of him.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century, Claire Prentice

This heart-wrenching tale of greed takes us back to the turn of the 20th century when a huckster named Truman Hunt brought a tribe of Pilipinos to the United States and basically turned them into a zoo exhibit at various fairs and amusement parks in the country. While these gentle people were ogled by thousands of people, their captor pocketed all the money and gambled most of it away. The legal twists and turns that resulted once these poor souls escaped his grip is equally depressing and the whole story has a stranger-than-fiction quality to it that will reaffirm any cynic’s belief in how truly awful human beings can be.

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion & The Dark Side of Cute, Zac Bissonnette

You remember Beanie Babies, right? Cute little stuffed animals that suddenly became the Dutch tulips of the late 1990s and early 2000s? Bissonnette does a fascinating deep dive not just into the fad but the man behind it – Ty Warner – a volatile perfectionist whose monomaniacal control over the plush toy empire he created alienated everyone in his life while making him obscenely wealthy. Along the way, we meet the early adopters who were able to make bank off the fad as it escalated and a few of the suckers who were left holding the bag by buying at the top of the market.

Honorable Mention

Mastermind, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova

Konnikova takes the stories of the fictional detective and deconstructs them to illustrate how to think critically. A must for puzzle solvers, law students, and fans of the TV show House.

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Health Care System, Steven Brill

Why our health care system is such a shit show. Full review:

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, Tim Weiner

Nixon is endlessly fascinating to me. See, Things I Love – Richard Nixon. My full recap of Weiner’s excellent book is here:

Killing A King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, Dan Ephron

Ephron’s briskly paced story is about much more than Rabin’s murder at the hands of a religious zealot. It is about a small window of time in modern history when it seemed possible that one of the thorniest issues on the world stage would finally be resolved. Sadly, Ephron argues persuasively that with Rabin’s killing at the hands of a Jewish extremists got what they wanted – a hardening of positions by both Israelis and Palestinians that has left a solution to this problem farther than ever from being achieved. Shalom, Chaver.

The Best of the Rest

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, C.D. Rose

It is impossible to know if Rose’s slim tome of two-page biographies of authors you have never heard of is legitimate or an elaborate stunt, but it is entertaining. My full review:

A Letter to My Cat: Notes to our Best Friends, Lisa Erspamer


Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love after the Big Break-Up, Susan J. Elliott

Didn’t work.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

Two takeaways from Ronson’s polemic about shaming in the age of social media: (1) shaming only works if others make you feel guilty about what you’ve done; and (2) the half-life of any shaming is approximately four nanoseconds these days. Does anyone remember the name Rachel Dolezal? Exactly.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson

Poor guy. Wrote his magnum opus (Devil in the White City) more than a decade ago, which makes all his other books pale in comparison. That said, this one’s a page turner even though you know the end result.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Here is another guy whose literary mark was made years ago. But please read if you want to get incredibly mad about how lightly allegations of sexual assault against college athletes are treated.

Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year, Michael Faquhar

The shittiest things that happened on every day of the year. Great bathroom and/or vacation reading. Full review here:

1944: FDR & The Year That Changed History, Jay Winik

A reach at north of 500 pages, 1944 may have changed history, but it was more so the culmination of events that occurred in the years previous. An enfeebled and near-death FDR sucks it up to secure a fourth term in office, Eisenhower’s landing at Normandy succeeds, and someone finally gets around to liberating death camps that the Allies knew about for years beforehand but did nothing about.

America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the North Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation, Jim Rasenberger

Big year. Long subtitle. The book’s first few chapters on the Wright Brothers are particularly good, but the bigger idea here is that many of the wonders of the modern world we now take for granted were honed during this year in our nation’s history. If only TR had opted to run again instead of handing the reins to Taft.

The Real Thing: Lessons on Love & Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook, Ellen McCarthy

Great read for the hopeless romantic in all of us.


Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, Mark L. Gardner

If you’re a fan of Westerns.

The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips, Kevin Deutsch

If you’re a fan of young, underemployed, uneducated gang members solving squabbles via firearms and how impossible it is for police to get a handle on this phenomenon because so many other parts of society are fucked.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe

Too nerdy.

It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History, Jennifer Wright

No, no. Mine with Special Lady Friend did not rate, but Norman Mailer stabbing his wife in the heart (she survived) and some poor kid (Sporus) who was castrated and turned into a woman by Nero, did. Love hurts, y’all.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Baffling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell

At this point, Gladwell’s books feel like super-sized think pieces you read on Vox

You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, Jen Sincero

Some combination of fake it ‘till you make it, YOLO, and Tony Robbins.

The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationary Obsession, James Ward

You would think a book that digs into the history of ubiquitous desktop items would appeal to someone who rated “How to Sharpen A Pencil” as one of the best books he read in 2013, but you would be wrong. I just could not get into a good flow with this one.

The Death of Elvis: What Really Happened? Charles Thompson and James Cole

I will save you the trouble – years of prescription drug abuse, an awful diet, and a cadre of sycophants who were happy to be on the payroll and keep their mouths shut. 

Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Ian Bremmer

Option A – W’s mindless interventionism. Option B – Old school Taft Republican isolationism; Option C – Obama’s “smart power” strategy. Your call, America.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth

Based largely on the fact that Scandinavian countries invariably rank near the top of the “happiest” people on earth, Booth peels back the onion to reveal the quirks, idiosyncrasies and less savory aspects of life in places like Norway and Finland. Personally, I would not last one winter up there, I do not care how loose they are with vice laws or how much they soak the rich in taxes.

From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Man, Jodi R.R. Smith

I’m never going to fucking learn how to tie a bow tie. Sorry. Oops, I meant to say, this is a slight tome with helpful hints about how to politely alight from dinner parties and writing gracious thank you notes (admittedly, a lost art these days).

Magic Words: The Science and Secrets Behind Seven Words That Motivate, Engage, and Influence, Tim David

You know the old saying “never trust a man with two first names.” Add on the fact that Tim David is also a magician (so, his business is sleight of hand) and you get this, a book that reads like a corporate seminar on how to manipulate other people.

Works Well With Others: An Outsider’s Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You, Ross McCammon

Again with the foot-long subtitle. Jesus dude, you’re an editor at a men’s magazine, clean it up a little, ok? Oh sorry. That is probably an example of what NOT to say in the work place. Otherwise, do not chit chat at the urinals (duh), drink too much at the holiday party (double duh), or piss off the boss’s assistant.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, Ryan Holiday

Pete Carroll recommends this book and hey, he blew a Super Bowl on an idiotic call, so he must know something about overcoming adversity.

Not Recommended

The Smartest Book in the World, Greg Proops

If by smartest, the author meant dumbest and least funny, he nailed it.

When to Rob a Bank: And 131 More Warped Suggestions & Well-Intentioned Rants, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

Should have left well enough alone with Freakonomics. Copying and pasting blog posts into a book should not be a thing.

Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion, Mark Leibovich

Another writer recycling old work in the wake of a literary “success.” Awful. My full review is here:

Whatever Happened to the Metric System? John Marciano

The author tries to stretch the quirky effort in America to convert to the metric system in the 1970s into a book-length history of measurement. Missed it by a mile … err kilometer.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Deficits Do Not Matter

Before our economy blew up in 2008 and before George W. Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses, a guy named Paul O’Neill, who you might remember as Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, was shut down by Vice President Cheney when O’Neill attempted to throw cold water on another round of tax cuts the Bushies were plotting for 2003. According to O’Neill, Cheney brusquely observed that “Reagan taught us deficits don’t matter.” The tax cuts got enacted and O’Neill was shitcanned shortly after his face-to-face with Cheney. 

But a funny thing happens any time a Democrat is handed the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Suddenly, those profligate Republicans who gladly starve the government of actual money and borrow it instead, become very concerned about budget deficits and debt. It happened when Bill Clinton was President and came back with even greater force once Barack Obama took office. 

Once Republicans took over the House, and continuing when they assumed power in the Senate, any time Obama wanted to do something like extend unemployment insurance to people who were out of work because of the crippling effect of the Great Recession, there was a demand for a so-called “offset” - a dollar for dollar removal of funds from place A to fund priority B. It got so bad that emergency funding for New Jersey and New York after Superstorm Sandy was held up for weeks while Congress quibbled over the small details. That tens of thousands suffered needlessly seemed of no moment. Of course, none of this was required when George W. Bush was spending hundreds of billions in Iraq, Medicare was expanded to provide a prescription drug benefit, or when tax cuts were enacted in 2001 and 2003 that drained the Treasury of needed money just as we were embarking on that grave error of an invasion in the Middle East.

There were few voices louder in demanding austerity and cuts to social programs, while simultaneously cutting taxes even more than Paul Ryan. While his economic view was roundly panned when he was made Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential running mate in 2012, Ryan never gave up the ghost. Now that he has risen to the third-most powerful office in the land, you would think a journalist such as Chuck Todd would devote a significant portion of time when interviewing now-Speaker Ryan about the recently enacted federal budget and a companion bill that cut taxes by nearly $700 billion over ten years. Yes, you read that right, SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS - but you would be wrong. Here is their entire exchange:

What does this even MEAN? “by keeping taxes where they are that means we’re keeping them where they are.” Yes, yes you are, sir. “Not raising taxes is not cutting taxes.” WHAT? This is the same guy who helped block a $9.7 billion unemployment extension in 2014 because it did not have offsets and the same guy who voted against the emergency relief bill after Superstorm Sandy, but is totally fine with handing almost $700 billion in tax cuts, mostly to corporations and businesses, without cuts elsewhere to make up the difference. No mention of how this will require more borrowing and increase the deficit over time. No questioning of why it is suddenly okay to increase the deficit when it was supposedly such a huge problem less than five years ago. Nope. Nada. Nothing. 

Unsurprisingly, this steaming pile of horse manure got no follow-up from the guy who hosts the top rated Sunday morning talk show in America. The media literally spent months not too long ago obsessing over the need for a “grand bargain” that would rein in the supposedly swollen deficit that risked destroying the nation. Of course, as the budget deficit has receded, less and less time has been spent reporting on it and even less interest in calling out shameless politicians who are happy to stick it to people without jobs or a home so long as the bill being signed has a whiff of bipartisanship and a novelty beard attached to it. 

To recap, Chuck Todd asked a whole ONE question about this apparent hypocrisy, Paul Ryan gave a word salad answer that literally made no sense, and Chuck Todd moved on. So, the next time Republicans refuse to pay for something or claim we cannot afford it, do not expect Chuck Todd, or anyone else in the Beltway media to question it. 

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fighting ISIS

For much of the last decade, Tom Friedman has been an object of derision outside the comfortable bubble of official Washington. From his blind allegiance to the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq to his habit of predicting that any six month period thereafter would be crucial in determining the fate of our folly [1], Mr. Friedman’s judgment has been brought into question, but the man has reported from and about the Middle East for more than thirty years. Indeed, his seminal book From Beirut to Jerusalem still stands as one of the single best encapsulations of the complex politics of that region, so when he talks, people listen.

As national attention is consumed again with what to do about terrorism, something Friedman wrote in a column earlier this week bears noting:

For whatever ridicule “the Mustache” receives for his sometimes facile explanations of complicated issues, this observation should be printed out and tacked to the wall of any politician purporting to say there is an answer, easy or otherwise, to defeating ISIS.

Consider some of the ideas being bandied about and how easily their limitations are exposed. Most Republicans are calling for a grand international coalition harkening back to the days of George H.W. Bush and the First Gulf War as the model for what American leadership can do. But that metaphor is deeply flawed and not just for the reasons articulated in Friedman’s article. 

In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, our most important coalition partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, was highly motivated to cooperate because they feared invasion by Iraq’s superior, well trained, and experienced military. Iran, on the other hand, was weak, licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell less than a year before Saddam’s invasion and the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing while simultaneously trying to build better relations with the West. China, conversely, was isolated internationally after its crackdown on democratic protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In 2015, Russia is feeling its oats, China is ascendent on the global stage, and Iran is emerging back into the community of nations thanks to its nuclear deal with the United States.

What about Donald Trump’s idea to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. Sounds good, I mean who doesn’t like bombing the shit out of somebody? The only problem, well, problems, are that (1) ISIS is not like the Nazis, with large divisions deployed over a field of battle for the aforementioned bombing; (2) ISIS fighters can blend into civilian populations, thus increasing the chances of collateral damage (i.e., dead innocent people, which tends to anger the locals); and (3) you cannot bomb an ideology out of existence - just ask the Israelis, who have been fighting with the Palestinians since before the state of Israel was declared or the countries that still cling to communism. [2]

So if a coalition will not be an easy lift and we cannot simply carpet bomb ISIS, what about that old standby “boots on the ground?” Right. We are kind of in this mess because some guy with an Oedipal complex decided to invade Iraq in the first place. Our current President has rightly observed that we could deploy thousands of troops to root out ISIS in places like Raqqa, but the question no one has a good answer for is “then what?” The same complications Friedman identified in his column would still apply - the competing interests, conflicting agendas, and most importantly, the total lack of credible political figures on the ground to make something sustainable long-term (just look at the mess in Iraq or the faltering “democracy” in Afghanistan) would still be there. Moreover, unlike the First Gulf War, where a basic status quo ante resulted from Saddam Hussein’s defeat, the heavy lifting of stabilizing and remaking Syria, reconsidering Iraq’s political structure and who should play what role in those decisions, would require a level of diplomacy and commitment our nation has expressed little passion for and the people of that region seem uninterested in adopting. 

Ultimately, much of what passes for policy discussion in our nation assumes that we know what is best for others and that they will support our beliefs because hey, America. But the calls for more passion from the President, more boots on the ground, or more bombing raids belies a simple fact - some problems are not ours to solve.

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1. Friedman’s reliance on this trope was dubbed a “Friedman Unit” by the blogger Duncan Black (a/k/a “Atrios”).

2. Of course, getting rid of one ideology does not guarantee anything. The Soviet Union dissolved but it was simply replaced with a mixture of dictatorship and an oligarchy that has left most Russians no better off than they were under communist rule. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Donald Trump Is All In

A while back, Chris Hayes hosted a Facebook chat where he was asked a question about why MSNBC airs Lock Up, a show about life in prison, for hours on end during the weekend when the network, in the questioner’s view, should be airing news or talk. Hayes’s answer, as is his wont, was rational, thought through, and a bit contrarian. Essentially, he said that Lock Up is a ratings winner for the network, indeed, the show’s viewership was greater than Hayes’s eponymous weeknight show, and that you should not presume that just because you think a program is lowest-common-denominator and a waste of time, that others feel the same.

I have been thinking about this question and answer in the context of the all-consuming political Berserker that is Donald Trump. You see, the endless hours of cable TV time, column inches in print and online, and predictable “this will be the end of Trump” thought pieces have done nothing to stop Trump’s rise. If anything, he is stronger now than the day he entered the race for President, with much bombast (and predictions of his immediate demise) declaring the need to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

What is being missed, either intentionally or through ignorance, is the phenomenon that Hayes neatly captured – what is said along the Acela Corridor or on Meet The Press by journalists and pundits who consume political conventional wisdom like oxygen is far removed from the “ordinary” Americans in fly-over country who have fueled Trump’s rise. Trump has broken every rule of politics and not paid a penalty for it and the people who analyze it are unable to interpret it because they cannot see why he is getting away with it. And they cannot see that because they are not willing to admit there is a virulent strain of nativism, racism, and xenophobia that courses through the veins of today’s Republican Party. To the Beltway crowd, the problem is a lack of bi-partisanship exemplified by Obama’s failure to invite Republicans to the White House for cocktail hour or Senators no longer getting all chummy after hours. 

This facile diagnosis of what ails us ignores the extreme rightward tilt in the Republican Party that would run off Ronald Reagan (he of the 1986 “amnesty” law, tax increases, and “cut and run” strategy in Lebanon). And this anger should not come as a surprise to anyone. It was less than six years ago that Tea Party activists shouted down their elected officials at town hall meetings, bought into right-wing paranoia over “death panels,” and protested against the Affordable Care Act waiving signs that depicted the President as a bone-in-his-nose witch doctor, Adolf Hitler or Heath Ledger’s Joker. That same virulent strain of bigotry and intolerance that still questions the President’s birth place or religion is simply being transferred to fears over people illegally entering our country and Muslims. 

Of course, Trump may not get to the finish line, but the media downplays the fact that many of his competitors are simply peddling a lightly sanitized version of his basest prejudices. Whether it is Ben Carson’s opinion that a Muslim should not be President, Marco Rubio’s call not just to close mosques but places where “radicals” might congregate (as if they would hold up a sign or something?), Ted Cruz’s effort to allow states to “opt out” of accepting Syrian refugees, Jeb Bush’s call to only allow Syrian refugees who are Christians into the country, or Rand Paul’s proposed legislation that would bar immigration from 32 majority Muslim countries, these ideas all traffic on the same side of the street, but are just a click or two to the “left” of temporarily barring any Muslim from America.  

For almost six months, the media has dismissed Trump’s rise as a novelty act that would wear thin or an ego that would implode. Instead of continuing to discount or denigrate his campaign, the media would be far better served trying to understand why he is doing so well and not simply fulminating against it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Rank Hypocrisy of Lindsey Graham

Irrelevant Republican candidate for President Lindsey Graham may not be able to attract more than 1 percent in national polls, but he can always be assured of fawning coverage from the Beltway media. Earlier this week, Graham delivered a speech to a group called the Republican Jewish Congress, laying into his competition for their hard right positions on immigration and “hateful rhetoric” directed at minority groups in America. 

Graham’s speech occurred on the heels of a quote he gave to the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin, who dutifully transcribed Graham’s comments into a lengthier story on the GOP’s fear of a Trump nomination. According to Graham:

Of course, the DC media *loves* this type of alleged honesty from the political spawn of the original straight talker, John McCain, but a funny thing happened yesterday just hours after Graham’s polemic against wedge politics. The Senate took up a bill via reconciliation, a strategy they bemoaned when they were in the minority as undemocratic, that would defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare, you know, that law that millions of people, many of whom are African American, Hispanic, or Latino, and who Graham claimed - earlier that day - his party needed to bring into their tent. Graham voted in favor of that bill, not only making him a hypocrite of the first degree, but he may have also redefined a term the people at the RJC are very familiar with - chutzpah.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Emancipation Day V

My ex-wife moved out five years ago today. There is a picture of me laughing at something a friend of mine said at work that day, and I have always thought that ear-to-ear grin was less about what he said than how I felt knowing when I got home that night she would be gone. It should have been an auspicious beginning, but five years on, my overriding emotion is loneliness. Not at the fact that I miss my ex-wife - I haven't given her a meaningful thought since before she left, but rather, at my inability to find someone to share my life with. 

I know, because I have been to therapy, that focusing on what I do not have is not constructive. Similarly, *not* focusing on the things I have, and more importantly, the things I have done to better myself in those five years, is counter productive. And yet, in those quiet moments when Pumpkin is looking at me quizzically or Ghost is lumbering upstairs with me, it is hard not to dwell on what is missing.

You see, I have been alone for a long time. Even before I divorced, my ex-wife and I rarely talked, living what were essentially separate lives Monday through Friday before briefly connecting during the weekend for errands and chores, but there was little intimacy, love, or affection for years before we finally called it quits. Naturally, as soon as she was gone, I went searching for that connection like a thirsty man in the desert. The early results were not good and in retrospect, I now know I was not ready to even articulate to another human being what it is I wanted or needed. 

When someone did come into my life who I felt an instant connection to, who I described as someone when I woke up the morning we met I did not know existed in the world and when I went to bed that night did not know how the world could exist without her, things did not end well. More than two years later, we have spent countless hours talking to each other - on the phone, in meetings, by text and email - it is a special kind of torture to have someone who you feel such comfort with and around, who you care about so much and want to be with but has absolutely no interest in giving you a second chance. And while I have gone on a lot of dates since we broke up, the feelings are still there and no one I have been out with makes me feel like she does. 

It is a hard thing to explain to people who have friends and family what it is like to lead a solitary life. It is not just the awkward explanations for why you do not drive home for holidays or rarely go out on a Friday night, it is the day-to-day struggle that grinds. Last winter, I got caught in a bad ice storm. While I made it home ok, I fell in my driveway, badly bruising my ribs. It could have been worse - I could have landed on my head, elbow, or wrist, but laying there, slightly stunned, my immediate thought was what would happen if I had really hurt myself? What if I needed to go to the hospital or have surgery? Who would help me? Who would take care of Pumpkin and Ghost? But once I got up, I just made do. For weeks I could not sleep on my side and I winced when I put my clothes on in the morning, but the pain eventually faded and life moved on without a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand to make life a little easier. 

Being entirely self-reliant is both a blessing and a curse. You just get used to doing everything yourself and do not even both asking for help, even when it is needed. The more you muddle through life without the help, the more you prove you do not need it, from surviving Hurricane Sandy to the raccoon who shimmied its way into your attic and literally crashed through the ceiling while you were sleeping, the winters filled with polar vortexes and the money you needed to buy a new car, you just put your head down and do it, until you are in a heap on your icy driveway, hoping you did not seriously injure yourself. 

It is not an easy life, but one I am becoming more and more resigned to living. My demographics, as they say, are not great. After all, most people my age (45) are married and/or have children - I have neither one. You will not find me hauling the kids in the minivan to soccer practice or plastering Facebook with neatly manicured images of my perfect marriage (ok, you will find me plastering Twitter with pictures of Pumpkin and Ghost, but still …) Perhaps I will find a "companion" later in life, hopefully, while my heart is still healthy enough for sex (as the ad says), but I have no expectations at this point. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Trump and Truthiness

The media has taken a brief pause from scaring the living shit out of Americans with hyperbolic reporting on terrorism to return to their political bĂȘte noire - the debunking of whatever slur-du-jour uttered by Donald Trump. Two recent examples illustrate the power of "truthiness" - the Stephen Colbert dubbed term generally defined as an idea having the "feeling" of truth, evidence to the contrary. 

The first had to do with Trump's re-tweeting of a debunked statistic regarding murder in America:

While the numbers were well off the mark, there was a patina of "truthiness" embedded in the bogus graph. To wit, it is not true that 97% of African-Americans are killed by other African-Americans, but according to PolitiFact, that figure is around 90%. [1] Everything else in the graph is way off base, [2] but if you are a Trump supporter who thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is undermining law enforcement or fails to focus on the pandemic of black-on-black violence, the inaccuracies are less important than that kernel of truth.

The media has also freaked out about Trump's statement that "thousands" of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey celebrated on 9/11. Again, this idea has been widely debunked but Trump has clung to a Washington Post article from a week after the attacks that talked about the FBI investigating claims that a couple of people had engaged in such behavior. Here again, the "truthiness" of Trump's claim is more important than whether what he said was literally true. If you are a Trump supporter suspicious of Muslims and fearful of terrorism, whether Muslims celebrated in Jersey City, Paterson, or the West Bank (where they actually *did* celebrate) is less important than the fact that some people cheered the fact that we were the victims of a terrorist attack. Arguing over the number of people who celebrated or where is not nearly as important to Trump supporters as whether it happened or not. 

And the media scrutiny is also curious. Most cable and Sunday talk shows are content to simply allow politicians and their surrogates to spout easily debunk-able talking points without pushing them to defend their statements. Indeed, while Chuck Todd cross-examined Trump on his 9/11 claims, he blithely allowed panelist Hugh Hewitt to repeat lies about Planned Parenthood selling "baby parts" later in the same episode. [3] More generally, there are gaffes and policy claims that go largely unreported, from the tax plans that tilt heavily to the wealthy to Marco Rubio's off-handed comment that the Paris terrorist attack was "good" for his campaign. This is not to say that the media should let Trump off the hook, but rather, why it is that they are not holding other candidates to the same standard.

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3. Hewitt appears to conflate "baby parts" with "fetal tissue." A lengthy exegesis can be found here:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Review - The Prize

Dale Russakoff's book The Prize starts like a spy thriller - cloistered in the back of an SUV late at night, two men are plotting a revolution. But unlike a John LeCarre novel, these men - New Jersey's Republican Governor, Chris Christie, and the Democrat running the state's largest city - Newark Mayor Cory Booker, are not engaged in Cold War scheming, but rather, a discussion about how to remake public education in a city that graduates barely half its high school students and most consistently read, write, and do math well below their grade levels.

What unfolds over the following few years is a cautionary tale of what happens when well-intentioned people try to make radical change without understanding how to do it and the arrogance to try it without including the people who would be affected by it. Woven throughout this experiment in public policy are people talking past each other, or not at all, of generations-held suspicions of outsiders, racial tension, and bald political machinations that squander much of the good will and philanthropic contributions earmarked to help the children of Newark.

Of course, things do not start out that way. Buzzing from a splashy announcement that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to improve schools in Newark (another $100 million in "matching" funds would bring the total to $200 million), all things seem possible. Wrapped in that gift are the demands of education reformers - accountability, metrics, best practices, and of course, that loaded term, "charter schools." Left unspoken, either in the public reveal on Oprah Winfrey's eponymous show or in the strategic planning that would follow, was an interest in engaging those who would be most affected by this change - the families in Newark and the teachers who served them - in its planning, coordination, or implementation.

And perhaps this is unsurprising. The Newark School District has been under state control for more than two decades, stripping locals of much say in how their children are educated while strong union protections offer little incentive for more junior teachers to thrive and allow entrenched older, poorer performing teachers to continue receiving a generous salary even as they fail to meet the needs of the students they are responsible for educating. In this way, the reforms Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker were all lobbying for were admirable. No one would question that the school system had failed the children of Newark, but, as Russakoff shows, the opportunities presented by this infusion of cash were not fully realized and much of the book reads as an after action report on where the reformers fell short. 

Zuckerberg did a very Silicon Valley thing - he "bet on people." In this case, Booker, who charmed him with his vision for Newark's future, Christie, willing to be equal parts bull in the china shop and model for bipartisan agreement, and the seductive appeal of Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle to help poor children. While Zuckerberg's philanthropy may have been well-intentioned, he was woefully naive about what it would take to make this change possible. Betting on people may make sense when it comes to the latest start-up, but when those people are also politicians, the ROI is likely to be less impressive. One thing The Prize shows is that leadership from any of these three men at various points along the way may have made a difference as the reform effort unraveled. But Zuckerberg is portrayed as largely hands-off, only intervening when timetables had already slipped significantly, Booker's focus is strong at first but wanes as obstacles accumulate and he instead turns his eye to the U.S. Senate, and Christie's national profile diverted his attention, first in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and later, after the Bridgegate scandal broke. 

To take an example, one of the signature needs for implementation of education reform is the mitigation of tenure protection for teachers. Union contracts tend to make it hard to remove poor performing teachers and also allow more senior teachers to "bump" less experienced ones if layoffs occur. The political leadership failed to deliver the type of contract that would have allowed for generous performance bonuses, additional staffing, and the removal of the worst teachers that the three men all claimed would happen. Instead, more than $90 million - or almost half of the entire philanthropic donation - went into the pockets of the same teachers the reformers claimed were failing, in the form of back pay, buy outs, and administrative fees. This failure had a tangible impact on the reform effort - while schools were shuttered, the remaining ones were able to cherry pick the best teachers, but the excess teachers could not be terminated, resulting in costs that would ultimately run into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Christie and Booker's hand picked superintendent, Cami Anderson, exacerbated the problem by approving $1,000 a day contracts for outside consultants even as support staff and janitors were being handed pink slips. 

The community does not wrap itself in glory either. Russakoff leaves largely unexamined the lack of personal responsibility of men and women having children when they have no steady source of income or at a young age or without the basic family structure that might improve their chances of success. This is brought into sharp relief when Russakoff talks about poorly attended community outreach events but also at protest rallies against educational reform where parents defend the abysmal outcomes produced by the school system they are protecting through their presence. It makes no sense, yet little time or attention is focused on it. Russakoff leaves it to the reader to find in Appendix II the fact that nearly three-quarters of households in Newark are led by a single parent and that 42% of children in Newark live below the poverty line, but the dots that connect those alarming statistics to the poor performance of the students in Newark's schools rarely lead back to blaming the parents who are raising these children in near third-world conditions. 

Often in The Prize one is left wondering whether the scope of the problem is simply too great to solve. Russakoff highlights the beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts of teachers, principals and school staff who dip into their own wallets to pay for school supplies, arrange rides for students without reliable transportation, and provide ]extra tutoring sessions for the children under their charge, but too often these gains are phyrric, either because of the students' unsettled family life or the simple passage of time and transfer to other educators who do not go the extra mile to help. A case study highlighted in Russakoff's book is a 7th grader named Alif Buyah, who, when we meet him in 2012 has already been held back twice. Through patience and diligence, his teachers nurture Alif, creating a specific tutoring plan, helping him get to and from school, and through his hard work and their support, he is promoted to 9th grade by the end of the school year. But Alif's success would be short-lived. A combination of trauma (a close friend was murdered in front of him), bureaucratic decisions (his school was closed as part of the district's reorganization), and his own struggles without the aid of those who had helped him resulted in truancy, absenteeism and drug use that wiped away all the gains that had been made in that one magical year. 

If there is one grace note in The Prize it is found in the small stories of commitment as illustrated through the educators who, against all of the bureaucratic bullshit, are truly passionate about making a difference in the lives of young people. But the systemic change envisioned in Newark has not come to pass. Achieving such a result would have been hard under ideal conditions, but the unforced errors made by so many along the way ensured the reform effort's defeat. Indeed, the cruel irony of what has happened in Newark is the creation of what is akin to a 21st century separate but equal educational system where about a third of Newark students are hand picked by charter schools saturated in services and money while the rest are educated in understaffed classrooms by a hodge-podge of great, good, and not-so-good teachers - not a particularly good return on a $200 million investment. 

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015


While the pundits score last night's Republican debate, who zinged who, who looked "Presidential," who garnered the greatest applause lines, and gee whiz, weren't those moderators great?, a larger truth is unsurprisingly being obscured. In a friendly room packed with partisans and batting practice softballs, the hard right ideas that were articulated in Milwaukee - on taxes, on immigration, on foreign policy - may have played well, but arguing for the massive deportation of the undocumented, the starvation of federal tax revenue while spending mindlessly on the military, and shutting down entire federal agencies, will not play well in Peoria come general election time.

And this is a problem that any of the candidates on stage last night will struggle with. Marco Rubio can repackage his stump speech into small sound bites for a 90 second answer that go largely unchallenged by a friendly Fox Business News panelist, but he will have to answer to an ocean of advertising and pushback regarding his inexperience, his flip flop on immigration, his no-exemption stance on abortion, and his tax plan if he is nominated for President. The same is true for Ted Cruz (my pick for who will win the nomination), who wants to shut down five government agencies (though he only remembered four - must be something in the water in Texas) and whose religiosity will be a turn off for millions of Americans. 

Of course, if the primary electorate somehow toggles toward the mainstream, the relative moderation of a guy like John Kasich will cause the right wing elements within the Republican Party to blanche and the limp effort by Jeb Bush thus far suggests that but for his last name, he would have been written off long ago. Chris Christie was a rising star once upon a time, but between his middling record in New Jersey and the embarrassing "Bridgegate" scandal, he has been relegated to the "kid's table" debate and is now an also ran. The rest of the field are non-starters on the national stage. Trump is a bloviating egomaniac, Fiorina appears allergic to the truth and is a fact checker's wet dream, and Ben Carson does not appear to know more than a thimbleful of information about anything that one needs to be President. 

And this does not even take into account the "Blue Wall" of states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six Presidential elections and will hand Hillary Clinton 90 percent of the electoral votes she will need to be elected, leaving her free to contest the handful of states to get her to 270. Couple that with the extreme views being espoused during these debates - instant fodder for devastating 30 second attack ads - the demographic shifts that continue to favor the Democrats, President Obama's surging popularity and the contrasting economic success of the two most recent Democrats in the White House versus the past three Republicans, and you start to see why the Republican debates are just exercises in deciding who will lose next November.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Jeb Can't Fix It

In the wake of another horrible debate performance where his well-paid staffers did not bother preparing him with any follow-up for his limp zinger at Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush is attempting a re-boot with the odd tagline “Jeb Can Fix It.” It is probably unclear to most whether Mr. Bush is speaking about his own flaccid campaign or the larger issues facing the country. Regardless, based on past performance being an indicator of future results, I would not hold my breath on either account.

The debate debacle was just another in a long list of indignities for the former Florida Governor. The party’s presumed standard bearer when he entered the race, Bush has been pummeled by real estate mogul Donald Trump for months, looked confused and wobbly when predictable questions about his brother’s Administration were raised, and has watched as people with no political experience like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have had their moments in the sun. 

Bush is doing what any candidate with deep pockets would do – he has hired a new image consultant, tightened up his stump speech and lowered expectations while underscoring his determination to win. And these are all well and good, but a guy who started out claiming he wanted to be his own man is now leaning almost entirely on his family connections for money, staff, and support. His super PAC may have a nine figure balance in its bank account, but Super PACs cannot pay for the basic needs of office space, travel, staff salaries, and other necessities that campaigns must pay to keep their candidate afloat. Bush’s third quarter fundraising was woeful and his “burn” rate was high, meaning he has little cash on hand to do those things that a campaign needs to pay for. Another poor debate performance and the money may dry up entirely, depriving Bush of the one thing he needs to survive. 

While the pundit class is not quite ready to write Jeb off, they are also reluctant to concede three important points: 
  • The “Bush” name is mud. Whether Republicans will ever admit it or not, their failure to embrace Jeb suggests they acknowledge that the country does not want another Bush in the White House. Jeb! has tried to excise his family’s name, but it is hard to take that seriously while employing nearly twenty of your brother’s high-ranking appointees;
  • The Republican Party is deeply conservative in ways it was not prior to 2010. Tax raising, amnesty giving liberal Ronald Reagan would struggle to win in today’s GOP. The combined support of outsiders like Trump, Carson, and Cruz easily eclipses fifty percent and what “establishment” energy exists is flowing toward Rubio as Bush falters; 
  • It will be hard for Jeb to win early primaries or caucuses. There are four early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Bush is lagging badly in Iowa, New Hampshire handed his brother a 17 point defeat in 2000 and gave Pat Buchanan 37 percent support against Jeb’s dad as a sitting President, South Carolina is basically Antebellum at this point and Nevada is a hotbed of libertarian thought. Even if Bush survives to contest these primaries and caucuses, none favor whatever ideology he is selling. Going 0 for 4 is a one-way ticket to political oblivion.
Of course, when your super PAC is sitting on $100 million and your last name is “Bush,” you cannot be counted out entirely, but the reality is that Right to Rise has run ads for weeks and Bush’s numbers are dropping not rising. The candidate’s uneasiness about his brother and his awful record as President have not changed and he continues to be gaffe prone, as his recent “stuff happens” comment regarding gun violence indicates. Lastly, the GOP electorate itself, in the wake of gains made last night based on hard-right ideology, is more likely to stiffen its opposition to anyone who appears to be part of establishment politics, like the brother and son of two former Presidents.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Battle In Boulder

Last night's CNBC debate has been roundly panned. The moderators are being blamed for asking bad questions and for failing to control the stage. Candidates blithely uttered empty rhetoric without pushback from the journalists or each other and the network could not even get the debate started on time.

These are all fair criticisms. But I would argue that in this chaos an important thing happened. Like hockey's recently adopted three-on-three overtime rules, the unwieldy flow of conversation combined with some candidates' clear desperation to attract attention and have "a moment" as they say in the business these days, resulted in some very important takeaways:

  • Jeb Bush Is Done. Like a silent movie actor who did not adapt to "talkies," Bush is a politician from a prior era who has not been able to make the transition to today's campaigning. Whether it has been his tin ear for social media or penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, he has floated on "inevitability" and his family name for months while his campaign has sunk like a stone. But last night may have been the death knell. He threw a tentative jab at Marco Rubio and Rubio was ready to counter-punch, flicking aside the older man's zinger and coming over the top with a haymaker. Bush spent the rest of the debate mostly silent and when he did speak, touted his fantasy football team. One would have thought it impossible for someone to make his brother George W. look deft and intelligent, but somehow Jeb managed this trick.
  • The Rise of Generation X. I am roughly the same age as both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and while I find their politics odious, I must tip my hat to their understanding of the modern media environment. Rubio sidestepped a high and tight pitch about his shady dealings in Florida (all of which were totally within bounds to ask about and accurate to boot) and Cruz dropped the line of the night when he flashed his Princeton-honed debating skills in skewering the moderators with a real time critique of their questions. That a candidate who has skipped out on his job (and readily admitted as much) and whose rise has been lubricated with a billionaire's largesse, and another one who espouses extreme right wing views on basically every subject under the sun, came out looking like winners should tell you something.
  • Joisey Attitude. Given even small openings, Governor Chris Christie displayed some of the natural political chops that once made him a favorite among the GOP donor base. He also took a swing at the moderators and used each opportunity provided to drive home his message. It may not end up making a difference in his polling, but Christie sold his version of governing (which those of us in New Jersey know was, well, a bit exaggerated) while coming off as someone who would not shrink from a debate with Hillary.
  • A Kinder, Gentler Trump. Other than the quick strike oppo dump he did on John Kasich (whose shellshocked reaction ended whatever flow he was trying to establish), Trump's shtick was toned down compared to previous debates. I will be interested to see if this version of Trump, equal parts dorsal-fin-flashing shark and guy-now-trying-to-talk-policy works for voters. Trump himself recognized the hedged bet, using his closing statement to take a pot shot at CNBC and bragging about how he re-negotiated the terms of the debate to everyone's benefit.
  • Everyone Else. With Rubio, Cruz, Christie, and to a lesser extent, Trump, sucking up most of the oxygen, the also-rans were Rand Paul (why are you still in this race, sir?), Mike Huckabee (ditto), Ben Carson (a paper tiger if you ever saw one who is out of his depth after 15 seconds), and Carly Fiorina (slick presentations may work in the boardroom, but you've been exposed as a shitty CEO and liar on the debate stage). 

In another era, after a debate like this, one or more of the candidates circling the drain below 5% would drop out and maybe even a guy like Bush would reexamine whether he should continue, but as was shown in 2012, all a candidate needs to do is get hot at the right time and suddenly they could find themselves in the "finals" for a 50/50 crack at being the most powerful person in the world. 

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