Saturday, October 26, 2013

Media Fail - Obamacare Website Edition

If the media reporting on the launch of, the website for the Affordable Care Act, rings familiar, you are not alone. Google the word “glitch” and the thousands of hits that come back invariably describe how the rollout of the ACA website has happened. The conventional wisdom quickly hardened into a belief that this was a massive screw-up by the Administration suggesting that it was ill-prepared for the launch and put into question the law itself, as if people purchasing individual insurance plans was the entire program, that there weren't other ways to sign up (the phone) or that people still had months (literally) to secure coverage. The inevitable fallout, from a hastily convened Presidential event to a Congressional show trial, occurred as the media chorus, including the sainted Jon Stewart, all took a whack at the ACA piƱata.

Substitute any number of other tempests in a teapot that have occurred during the President’s time in office and you will see a similar narrative arc. Remember Shirley Sherrod? She was an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was recorded claiming to have discriminated against white people who sought aid from USDA. The media firestorm was immediate and intense – she was rebuked by the White House, by USDA Secretary Vilsack and of course, all spectrums of the media. Before anyone took the time to investigate the speech in question, she was out of a job. Only later did we find out that the videotape was doctored, the remarks taken out of context and that Ms. Sherrod had been helpful to many people, of all skin colors, in her job.

Was Sherrod too far in the distant past? How about the IRS “scandal.” You remember that one, right? Nefarious IRS employees surreptitiously placed conservative, tea party and other “right” leaning groups under double secret scrutiny. Again, the maelstrom was predictable – HUGE outrage from the right wing media, opprobrium from the “left” wing media (including Stewart!) over the actions of these otherwise anonymous bureaucrats, promises to get to the bottom of things by the President and of course, the Republican circus on the Hill. A week or so later, when reporters had actually taken the time to, you know, REPORT on the story, it turned out that few (if any) groups were denied what they requested – tax exemption – that “left wing” groups had also come under scrutiny and this was all done because of the IRS’s concern with ensuring compliance with an opinion issued by none other than the conservative Supreme Court. In other words, a bunch of groups that had, until recently, not been permitted to receive a REALLY generous government benefit (tax exemption) were scrutinized to make sure they were eligible to receive same. You don't say.

Lastly, and most recently, we had the situation in Syria. Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, the media and most Republicans were practically calling Obama “yellow” for NOT inserting troops on the ground and questioned his leadership. Cable news devoted endless hours to provide airtime for so-called experts to pillory our feckless Commander-in-Chief. Now? You never hear about Syria. Why? Oh, right. Because we negotiated a breakthrough agreement wherein Assad (1) admitted he had chemical weapons; (2) signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention; and (3) agreed to allow international experts to enter his country, take control of his stockpile and destroy it (which has now started).

That the media is hyper-focused on the never-ending news cycle is axiomatic, but the fool-me-once-shame-on-you-fool-me-twice-shame-on-me edict long ago went from farce to tragedy. The obsessive focus on the tick tock of political process stories long ago went from being uninformative to affirmatively misinforming the public, which simply feeds into the mistrust the citizenry has of government. It matters little that Shirley Sherrod was ultimately exonerated (even at the expense of an otherwise spotless career) or that the IRS was simply trying to make sure it followed the strictures of a Supreme Court opinion, Lois Lerner still retired in disgrace. Like newspaper corrections that run after-the-fact and buried 20 pages inside the fold, all that is remembered is the controversy not the fact. 

And these errors and omissions would be bad enough for failure to comply with basic standards of journalism (much less ethics) but when it comes to a subject as complex and critical as our nation's health care system, you would think the media would be even more judicious, not reckless. Instead, the ink was not dry on the re-opening of the federal government before the hard pivot to the supposed catastrophe of got started. The same cycle we saw regarding Shirley Sherrod, the IRS and Syria simply repeated itself - Republicans up in arms, Democrats on the defensive, and reporters viewed as sympathetic to the President piled on - adding great heat but little light.

Of course, the initial hair-on-fire reporting has predictably given way to more sober analysis – that the coverage people are seeking does not even kick in until early next year, that Republicans asked for patience and time to fix, you guessed it, “glitches” when Medicare Part D was rolled out in 2006, that the ACA has many other aspects, like preventative care, Medicaid expansion, allowing young adults to stay on their parents plan until age 26, and others that are salutary and unaffected by the website, that state exchanges are enrolling thousands of people each day, and even the federal exchange, which the media maligns so much, has enrolled 700,000 people. Oh, and the fact that 20 million people have visited suggests that there is a strong desire by those without insurance to learn more about this much maligned law.  In the meantime, resources are being directed to fix the problems on the website, updated briefings are being provided and in a few weeks, this will probably seem like a faint memory, but by then, the media and Republicans will have moved on to the next faux outrage. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The GOP Is Not At War With Itself

Now that the twin perils of the government shutdown and debt ceiling have been temporarily alleviated, pundits have quickly turned to a new narrative, namely, that having been brought to heel by the President, Republicans will now act reasonably in the coming budget negotiations. This enthusiasm stems from comments like the one made by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, saying he would not go in for another government shutdown and in reporting that the rock-ribbed conservative Chamber of Commerce will pour money into campaigns to oust so-called "tea party" Republicans. [1] In all of this, of course, the Inside the Beltway crowd wistfully hopes for its elusive Holy Grail - "the grand bargain." 

This idea makes sense in theory. Politicians are nothing if not self-interested, and the sagging poll numbers Republicans face and even the ever-so-modest effort D.C. pundits are making at actually assessing blame where it is due, would suggest that it is in their best interest to compromise with the President and cease their hostage taking tactics. Added to this is the conventional wisdom that the "tea party" is merely a vocal minority within the GOP caucus, and therefore, if "responsible" Republicans step up to tamp down the fiery rhetoric, the shit show that has passed for what has gone on in Washington since Republicans assumed control of the House in January 2011 will stop. 

I am not as sanguine as people who get paid to opine on politics for a living. First, the idea that the "tea party" is merely a minority within the larger GOP caucus is not accurate. Take the vote on opening government and raising the debt ceiling. More than 60% of the House GOP voted against the deal - in other words, for defaulting on our debt obligations. This vote was not an outlier. Nearly 30% of the House GOP caucus voted against Hurricane Sandy relief, while 151 (or 62%) voted against the permanent extension of George W. Bush-era income tax levels at the end of 2012, even though the bill benefited roughly 99% of all tax payers. [2] 

On legislation that was once unexceptional, like reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, every "no" vote came from the Republican side of the aisle, and comprised one-third of the whole caucus. [3] Still other legislation, like the farm bill, which was once passed with wide bipartisan support, is stuck in limbo because the House passed a version that eviscerates food stamp eligibility. In that vote, less than 10% of Republicans voted against the bill; put another way, more than 90% of the caucus supported taking food out of the mouths of poor people. [4] 

And while it is easy to focus on the shenanigans of House GOP'ers, the truth is, Senate Republicans were the poster children for government obstruction until the House GOP went nuclear. Consider that the use of the filibuster in the Senate reached unprecedented levels in the President's first two years in office only to be surpassed during the second half of his term as Republicans attempted to achieve, as our old friend Senator McConnell famously said, the goal of making Mr. Obama a one-term president. [5] Even after the President's re-election, instead of folding their obstructionist hand, the Senate GOP doubled down, taking the extraordinarily rare action of filibustering not one, but two of the President's cabinet appointments (Chuck Hagel and John Brennan) and Rob Cordray, the President's appointee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. [6] In addition, Republicans slow-walked the appointments of Tom Perez (Labor) and Gina McCarthy (EPA) [7]. Indeed, this lockstep obstruction was not broken until Senator Reid threatened to change the rules on the use of filibuster during the middle of the term. [8]

It is ironic that people like Senator McConnell, or for that matter, purported "moderates" like Kelly Ayotte or Saint John McCain, have been so vocal in their disdain for the more radical elements of their party because each has engaged, in their own way, in the same type of scorched earth politics. And even if one wants to give credence to the idea that sensible conservatives exist, it is only because the rightward tilt of the party has been so extreme that was once extreme now looks relatively "moderate" in comparison to people like Ted Yoho or Blake Fahrentold. [9] 

Ultimately, these various factions disagree on tactics not policy. Big business has done quite well under President Obama, thank you very much. The stock market has more than doubled since its 2009 bottom and has closed in on all-time highs within the past year. The coffers of multi-national corporations brim with trillions in profits even as they've shorn their workforces and hide their profits overseas. Regulatory fears have been largely unfounded, and, as noted above, the President was nice enough to give permanent tax certainty at the end of 2012. Lastly, discretionary government spending as a share of GDP is at its lowest level since the 1950s [10] even as we desperately need investments in infrastructure, education and research and development.

What the GOP has done while never controlling more than one house of Congress during the Presidency of a Democrat who won election (and re-election) with commanding electoral majorities is one of the great unwritten stories of the time. Indeed, negotiating over a grand bargain would really be like "licking the bowl" after making the cake. Having, through coercion and threat, squeezed government spending, permanently extended tax cuts for 99% of Americans and blocked major pieces of legislation, for Republicans to add something like Chained CPI to their goodie basket would be the cherry on the sundae. [11] The media's failure to see these Republican gains is largely due to how they define "concessions." Somehow, things like opening government and paying our bills are seen as compromising by Republicans instead of what they really are - the bare minimum definition of a functioning government. Meanwhile, because the media elite are largely insulated from the people whose lives are adversely affected by things like sequester cuts or government shutdowns, they are more than happy to frame cuts to earned benefit programs like Medicare or Social Security as reasonable compromises even though asking the wealthy, whose accumulation of wealth is at its highest point since before the Great Depression, to pay a little more, would be far more appropriate.

Ultimately, "tea party" types serve as a convenient foil for Republicans who were once considered extreme, allowing them to look moderate while still advancing the same pro-corporate, anti-abortion, low-tax policies that have defined the modern conservative movement from the time Ronald Reagan came to Washington. At the end of the day, the reason the fever won't break, the lunatics run the asylum and the hostage taking will continue is not because establishment Republicans have failed to get religion, it is because these parts of the party are not at war with one another, they simply disagree about how to get to the same destination. 


1. For the McConnell quote, see, For the Chamber of Commerce, see generally,  




5. See generally,

6. Republicans took the novel position that they would filibuster ANY CFPB appointee, not just Mr. Cordray. 

7. McCarthy was treated particularly shabbily. Senator David Vitter sent her more than 1,100 questions to respond to and months went by before she was brought up for a vote. 


9. A recent study found that the Republican party is more conservative than it has been in 100 years:


11. The President has signaled his willingness to consider Chained CPI in the context of a "balanced" budget reduction package:

Saturday, October 19, 2013


I made some hay over the fact that I turned 43 earlier this month. A recent, and highly unscientific study published by The Telegraph (UK) tabbed 43 as the average age at which men reach "full maturity." [1] I do not know about all that, but here are a few life lessons that have carried me closer to that vague ideal:

Give people the benefit of the doubt until they give you a reason not to.
Do not underestimate the power of forgiveness.
Exercise regularly.
Attraction is far more about how a person makes you feel than a pre-determined list of qualities you think they must have.
Show me how a person spends their time and money and I will tell you what their priorities are.
If you are going to be in a long-term, committed relationship with another person, you need to like them. 
Read good books.
Figure out what your purpose in life is and then pursue it relentlessly.
Life companionship is not a game. It's about finding someone you get along with so well, and find so beautiful inside, that outside is just a pleasing window to the good stuff.
If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.
The blessing is next to the wound.
Pain engraves a deeper memory.
Stand up for the things that truly matter to you. Don't waste your time on the other stuff.
Pay extra for the name brand. 
Your belt should match your shoes (men, particularly).
There is no limit to what good you can do if you do not care who gets the credit (h/t Ronald Reagan).
If the problem is not solved within two emails, pick up the phone and call. 
Sometimes you screw up. Own it, apologize, move on and try not to make the same mistake again.
You must accept people who are important in your life as is. Do not assume they can or will change because you want them to. 
At the same time, realize that people have the capacity for change. Pay attention to how they act, not what they say.
We are all imperfect. 
Understand the line between questioning authority and recognizing when a decision has been made.
Tell the people in your life you love them, but more importantly, show them, through deed, not just word, that you do.
"Please" and "thank you" are as important when you are an adult as they are when you learn those words as a child. 
Pay attention to how people treat waiters and waitresses. 
You have control over what you say and how you treat others. How those things are taken is out of your hands. 
There is a fine line between confident and cocky. 



Friday, October 11, 2013

Turning Chicken Shit Into Chicken Salad

With the spectacular crash of their efforts to defund (or repeal) "Obamacare," polls showing their party is about as popular as herpes and even the media starting to go against them, you have to hand it to the GOP - instead of beating an orderly retreat, passing a "clean" debt ceiling and continuing resolution to pay our bills and open government (respectively), they've deftly pivoted back to the catnip that makes the DC media purr - the elusive "grand bargain." Suddenly, all the sturm und drang they caused by shutting down the government is now a faint din because Republicans now want to talk about budget deficits (which they exploded under George W. Bush) and our long-term debt (another victim of W's fiscal recklessness). 

Of course, the media is more than happy to encourage this discussion because there's nothing the inside-the-beltway types like more than the idea of "big" things being done. They lionize it movies like Lincoln and shill it in books like Chris Matthews's soon-to-be-released Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. It feeds the conventional wisdom that if both parties just got around the table and negotiated they could come together to solve our nation's problems. Unsurprisingly, the concessions that the media (and Republicans) are focused on tend to hurt the poor and elderly (chained CPI, sequestration, etc.) and rarely hit the well-to-do (Republicans say that any new taxes are non-starters and are funding domestic programming at something barely above down-to-the-bone levels).

Sadly, Democrats are inclined to buy into this narrative and even encourage it. Instead of advocating for policies that would make Social Security more progressive by, for example, lifting the cap on salary subject to Social Security tax (the current ceiling is around $113,000, so people at higher income levels pay no social security tax on their wages above this level), or expanding access into Medicare by lowering the eligibility age, Democrats appear content to merely accept the basic functioning of government and our payment of bills already incurred as their deal points. Of course, if the contours of a "grand bargain" begin to take shape that includes cuts to entitlement programs, any Democrat raising their voice in opposition will be subject to excoriation not just be Republicans (who are suddenly hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya cooperative) but the same media who craves an illustration of bipartisanship like a thirsty man in the desert (never mind that entitlement cuts won't hurt *their* bottom line. Most in the DC media are in the top decile (if not higher) of income earners in America). 

Aside from the potential for a massive political cave by Democrats, the cruel irony is that this narrative is being steered by a party that controls one-half of one-third of government and is wildly unpopular. The President and Democrats in Congress will not only do Republicans an enormous favor by entering into "grand bargain" negotiations, they will be forever tarnishing their reputation as the protector of the "little guy." If Barack Obama signs legislation that trims Social Security benefits or tweaks Medicare, he will strip from Democrats two pillars of its political identification that began under FDR, continued under LBJ and have been part of the party's DNA ever since. Moreover, by accepting temporary concessions, be they related to the lifting of the debt ceiling or opening government, the President will simply hand Republicans the ransom notes they will be able to use next year or against the next Democratic President.

Not that anyone's asking for my advice, but among the things I would demand in a negotiation with Republicans would be (1) legislation that eliminates the debt limit; (2) levying the FICA tax on income above $250,000; (3) allowing people to "buy into" Medicare beginning at age 60; and (4) an "up or down" vote in both houses of Congress on the President's American Jobs Act. The party that lost a landslide election, got 1 million fewer votes in Congress and lost seats in the Senate does not get to dictate the terms of the debate. The President and Democrats in Congress must press their advantage, understand that the American people are not "center right" and that the right wing echo chamber is more bark than bite. Lead. Do not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Walter White And The Death Of The Anti-Hero

With a sly wink to LOST, Vince Gilligan brought the curtain down on the life and times of Walter Hartwell White, mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned ruthless drug lord; and as the camera panned upward from Walter's prostrate body, an era on television may have also come to an end. As chronicled in the book Difficult Men (Brett Martin) and extolled in print by such television critics as Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, the last decade has seen a renaissance in television drama ushered in by The Sopranos and continuing with shows like Dexter, Mad Men, The Shield, The Wire, and of course, Breaking Bad

The common thread these, and other lesser shows of the genre share is a universe of ambiguous morality, where laws are broken, good people die and the central characters are deeply flawed but written in a way that encouraged the audience to cheer for them. James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano bestrode the television screen for six seasons, with his deliberate lumber and hooded eyes, engaging in a litany of illegal and immoral activity without once losing the audience's affection or support. Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan was literally a serial killer, but because his victims were themselves "deserving" of their fate, we (mostly) excused his behavior. [1]

Concepts of "good" and "bad" in the era of "difficult men" is always a moving target in part because of the subtlety of the writing but also because the line is hard to draw. Blessed with a genius-level IQ and a cancer diagnosis, Walter White makes the rational choice to provide for his family by producing a high quality illegal drug that people with agency opt to purchase and consume. Don Draper is, to paraphrase Austin Powers, someone who men want to be and women want to be with. If he is able to ditch work for hours on end to watch movies or have sex with willing partners, should we tsk tsk his behavior because others do not have that luxury and believe in their marital vows? 

Generally, our "heroes" are juxtaposed against others whose own bad behavior allows us to maintain our allegiance. Were the pushers on the corner in The Wire that much worse than the cops and politicians who stalked them? Vic Mackey engaged in all manner of illegal activity on The Shield, but he was also putting away "bad guys" and fighting some "good guys" who held high office. For much of Breaking Bad, Walter's foes were far more mendacious than him - whether it was street thugs like Tuco or Crazy-Eight or master criminals like Gus Fring or neo-Nazi Uncle Jack.

It would be easy to say that these anti-heroes are lionized - they have riches, women and the fealty of those below them, but as the era winds down, these shows have gone to great lengths to tear down the idols they so assiduously built up. The fabric of Walter White's tenuous family life was ripped asunder as the show took its bow - Walt was forced to bear witness to his own deceit - Hank being dragged into an unmarked grave, hearing his own son wishing him dead, and leaving his baby daughter in the hands of firemen after rashly kidnapping her. Walt is exiled to a purgatory of sorts, a simple cabin in the New Hampshire countryside, left alone with a barrel of money and little else but his own regret over all that he had wrought. [2]

On Mad Men, Don Draper was metaphorically killed during the sixth season. He lost everything - his job, his wife, and the innocence and unconditional love of his daughter. But it was not just the fact that his foundation crumbled, it was the pluck-the-wings-off-the-fly way in which it happened that made the experience so searing. Sally now despises him, but it is because she caught him, literally with his pants around his ankles, with his mistress. His wife didn't just leave him, she called his kids "screwed up" on the way out the door. And if it was not bad enough that Don was shown the door at Sterling Cooper and Partners at an early morning Thanksgiving day meeting, insult was added to injury as he bumped into former nemesis Duck Phillips wheeling his putative replacement in for an interview. 

The Sopranos's controversial ending is also consistent with the "just desserts" leitmotif. Worst case, that fade to black was the Members Only hit man putting a bullet in Tony; best case, the symbolism of Tony constantly needing to watch his back suggests he will not die of natural causes at a ripe old age. Finally, Dexter Morgan's fate was also bleak. His wife was killed by a serial killer he let live, his sister died thanks to his failure to dispatch another serial killer and his son ends up being raised by yet another serial killer (!) in Argentina while he is is left to live an anonymous life as a logger in parts unknown. 

In all of these scenarios, the moral universe caught up with our protagonists, justice was served, and we were reminded that bad behavior is not rewarded. Ultimately (and perhaps ironically), all these shows can be seen as conveying a deeply conservative view of the world - while spending season after season building up Tony and Don and Walt and Vic and all the rest, these shows elevated these men to great heights only to make them fall. But it appears the run of anti-heroes has come to an end. Recent series like Low Winter Sun and The Killing failed to catch on, [3] and others, like The Newsroom, have a protagonist whose worst vice is smoking and not being sufficiently Republican. In Game of Thrones, the bad guys are odious sadists like King Joffrey and the protagonist is a cherubic woman with an iron will; Homeland's Carrie Matheson may be crazy, but she is definitely not evil. Even critics like Soller Zeitz, who filled what could be a book writing lengthy recaps of Breaking Bad and Mad Men episodes, appears to have given up the ghost. Writing in New York magazine about CBS's remake of the late-1960s show Ironside, poo-pooed the eponymous character as "just another arrogant, angry, rule-breaking hero on the edge, as if TV needs more of those." [4] (emphasis mine). 


1. You will get no argument from me that Dexter was a show that ran well past its expiration date. Indeed, had the show wrapped after its superlative fourth season, its stature would have been elevated. Instead, it limped along for another four, with an ending that was more whimper than bang. 

2. Felina offered Walt the opportunity to set things straight - his family was taken care of financially and he gave Skylar a bargaining chip to negotiate her way out of prosecution; however, he did not survive the shoot out at the neo-Nazi compound.  

3. Even so, the ending to The Killing saw Detective Sarah Linden pulling a Brad-Pitt-in-Se7en and shooting an unarmed & handcuffed suspect. Suffice to say, one assumes things won't end well for her either.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Republicans Have Already Won

While they tend to do a piss poor job at governing, Republicans are expert at messaging, and in the fight over our national budget and debt, they have attempted to portray the President as a classic ‘tax and spend’ liberal against whom they are fighting the good fight for fiscal restraint and prudence. The only problem? Reckless economic policy was the calling card of the last President. The guy in the White House right now is what would have once passed for a Republican’s wet dream. On the two domestic issues Republicans claim to care about most – taxes and government spending, consider this:

·        The President signed a bill that permanently extended 99% of the tax cuts first passed by George W. Bush;
·        So-called “discretionary” domestic spending is at a near 60-year low [1] and across-the-board sequestration cuts have been levied on almost every cabinet and administrative agency within the federal government;
·        The President has cut a budget deficit that peaked at more than $1.41 trillion at the end of fiscal 2009 [2] (when the full impact of the Great Recession hit) to $642 billion, a reduction of more than half in just four years, an amount unprecedented in such a short period of time in our nation’s history. [3]

Oh, and he also passed a health care law that will hand insurance companies millions of new customers, generate billions in revenue for pharmaceutical companies, has extended the life span of Medicare, "bent" the health care cost curve down and was hatched in the rock-ribbed conservative hallways of the Heritage Foundation. In other words, Obama has governed in a way Republicans always claim they will when they take the White House but never do - prudently, with fiscal restraint and an eye toward squeezing efficiencies out of both the private and public sectors of our economy. 

For the purposes of the budget and debt negotiations, the first two bullet points are particularly important to keep in mind. By starving the treasury of trillions in tax revenue, the President not only tied his own hands, but the hands of any future President interested in broad-based domestic policy simply because collecting more revenue in the future will require actual tax increases, not the deus ex machina of a “sunset” provision to negotiate against. With regard to domestic spending levels, the Democrats have agreed to a figure for Fiscal Year 2014 of $988 billion, only $19 billion more than what Paul Ryan's House Budget of $967 billion calls for. If you're scoring at home, that's a difference of less than 2%, practically a rounding error in a budget of nearly a trillion dollars. [4] 

So the idea that Democrats now need to compromise more after the President was re-elected overwhelmingly, Senate Democrats gained seats and House Democrats collected 1 million plus more votes than House Republicans is laughable. Would it kill the media to start doing its job and reporting information like this? And for your tea party types, please, stop going on about how Obama is the bastard child of FDR and LBJ who will march granny off to a death panel, if only she survives living in a FEMA trailer while her grandchildren are indoctrinated in socialist thinking.





4. It is also important to note that the $988 billion figure is itself a compromise. The original Senate budget called for $1.085 trillion in domestic spending and the 2011 debt limit compromise used a funding level of $1.066. Ibid.