Happy Anniversary, Sarajevo

OK, love anniversaries. Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo (where have we heard that name before?) of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The actual trigger-puller was Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb dupe of an ultra-nationalist, underground Serbian movement called “Union or Death!” popularly known as the “Black Hand”, who in case their name left anyone confused about their intentions, created a logo consisting of a skull, crossbones, knife, vial of poison and a bomb. Today, they’d also have a mushroom cloud. ISIS could take lessons from those guys.

Anyway, in the really super, ultra-condensed, brief version, Franz’s assassination led to Austria declaring war on Serbia, whose allies the Russians declared war on Austria, whose allies the Germans declared war on Russia and because the Russian ally France might then attack Germany, attacked France via Belgium, whose ally England felt compelled to…kaboom! Isn’t simplifying history fun?

Want a good quick read on this? See NYT article “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived” at http://nyti.ms/1qkpcAh  Want the long form, see, oh, any of a few hundred books, including The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark.

So, Gavrilo Princip was arguably the proximal cause of WWI, and this is the anniversary of the start of that debacle. But saying Princip was the cause is sort of like when you have a huge pit full of oil-soaked trash criss-crossed by tightropes over which walk a succession of drunken clowns bearing torches—you know one of the clowns is going to fall and the whole thing’ll go up, it’s only a matter of time. The identity of the specific clown who falls in the pit and triggers the conflagration is just a matter of random, dumb luck. And Europe was full of drunken clowns back in 1914, many of them occupying positions of leadership and authority and had spent the previous 20 years building the pile of oil-soaked trash ever higher. Europe had been headed for a big war for a long time.

We called it “The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Right. War to make the world safe for fascism and mass slaughter it was, leading like a lit fuse directly to the evil-clown rulers Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco and the totalitarian states that took central government rule to levels of control and oppression that the monarchies never even had wet dreams about…And so there was WWII.

So thanks, drunken clowns! 100 million of our best and brightest dead, dead, dead, and many more than that so damaged in body and mind that they could not help create a just and modern society.  Maybe this is a good anniversary to remind ourselves to think twice before we try to bomb and assassinate our way to world peace—it’s often a little hard to tell what might really happen. Are you listening John McCain?

Happy anniversary.

Watermelon, Meet Hammer

I bet you don’t all agree on how amusing Gallagher is, with his giant, whacking sledgehammer and immobile, squishy vegetable/fruit targets.

 gallagher gallagher2

But between the hammer and the watermelon, I bet you agree on which one’s the Republican and which one’s the Democrat. Right? The Republican hammer has been pounding away at the Democratic Affordable Care Act watermelon for the last 6 mos until finally this week, Kathleen Sebelius popped out. Meanwhilst, Democrats—in and out of the White House—have just been sitting in the front row, silently draped in their plastic sheets, somewhat offended by the waste of good food yet strangely attracted to the spectacle.

So what. Sebelius IS a watermelon, right? Botched that website rollout! Give her a whack for me!

Well, any of you ever been involved in a really big, innovative, IT project? And no, I don’t mean changing your FB profile photo or starting a blog. I mean something large that’s never been done before and requiring multiple vendors and multiple years. I didn’t think so. Well I have (certainly not on the scale of the ACA, but still in the multi-million range). So let me remind you the IMPORTANT things that happened with this rollout. The project LAUNCHED ON ITS GO-LIVE DATE in October. And it MET ITS FIRST MAJOR TARGET (7 million registrants by 3/31/14). These are the metrics that matter, not whether there were bugs along the way. Meeting a launch date set over a year in advance and a pre-specified metric in a project this complex is a big deal. And if you think you can do innovative tech (ie, building something that didn’t exist rather than just duplicating current functionality) and NOT have bugs, problems and glitches, well then you don’t know what you’re talking about or have an axe to grind. That is, you’re a Republican.

So why do we insist on being watermelons? Why do we just lie there, taking whack after whack from the Republican hammers being wielded by grinning loons? We reformed health coverage in this country! We made it impossible for insurance companies to deny medical coverage to people who (gasp) actually NEED medical coverage! We made it impossible for them to throw you out once you got sick! We arranged for subsidies to help people who cannot afford the full cost of coverage and expanded access to Medicaid! These are good things. These are great things. What did the Republicans do? Well, they split their seams and shouted themselves hoarse trying to block all this and deny people health care. And most Republican governors are still blocking access by refusing to participate in the Medicaid expansion, which ALONE will cause thousands of otherwise preventable deaths each year (see Paul Krugman in NYT, and the original research article in Health Affairs Blog).

From now on, every time you hear some dunderhead fuming about the “botched” ACA, pull out the hammer:

  • Launched on time
  • Met its targets
  • Why are you killing people?

Capitol Hill is full of fat frogs croaking “Benghazi, Benghazi” who need a good whack and I want to see people in the administration haul off and take a swing for once.

Who Would Jesus Serve?

The Arizona legislature just passed a bill (see NYT) allowing businesses to refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate their “religious beliefs.”

This bill will right important moral wrongs like the flower shop owner whose conscience would bother him just forever if he had to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding (case in Washington state). Hmm…I wonder if the florist’s conscience would also prod him to donate flowers for free to all funerals of gay people? And the bakery in Colorado that doesn’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.  Of course, I guess this would also mean that a Muslim business owner would be able to refuse to serve unveiled women (or a woman alone or, gasp, in the company of an unrelated man!).

We’ve got to put a halt right now to business owners being forced to act against their beliefs! Next thing you know, restaurants will have to let Black people eat right next to White folks! Plantation owners will even have to give up their slaves, which of course the bible permits (Leviticus 25: 44-46)! Why the moral fabric of society will be torn completely asunder if religious shopkeepers can’t follow their Christian principles and refuse to serve people who don’t share their beliefs. I mean, that’s what Jesus always did, right? When all those people came for Passover dinner at the Sea of Galilee and there weren’t enough loaves and fish to go around, Jesus made sure that the true believers got served and the undeserving poor (some of whom were probably prostitutes for crying out loud!) were sent packing, right? Least, that’s how I remember it. Maybe I better check the bible again (John 6:1-14). Hey, wait a minute. Jesus served everybody? He made sure there were enough loaves and fishes for all? He didn’t even check photo ID?

Now, I’m not a Christian, but I’d think that if these Christian business owners really thought they needed to run their shops based on their oh-so-important religious beliefs, they could at least pick some non-toxic ones. Beliefs like 1 John 3:17-18 “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Christian values, my ass.

Chris Christie, Leader of the Free World

Imagine you work for a large, belligerent, mean-spirited man—sort of like a wild boar but without the grace and sense of portion control—say, someone like Chris Christie. And you and some of your fellow minions (all of whose careers depend completely on the wild boar’s good will) come up with a really, really great idea, a wonderful plan to punish the “animals” (preferred gubernatorial terminology for “Democrats”) who have been nipping at your boss’s heels. The one little catch is that if word of your plan gets out, your boss will be incredibly embarrassed and suffer great political harm, perhaps even to the extent of having to speak politely to reporters. What to do? Do you a) run with the plan anyway, knowing the boss loves surprises and would never dream of taking retribution on you if by chance you accidentally scuttle his chance to be president, or b) even though you’re sure he’ll totally love your plan, cover your ass by making sure he was ok with it? “Uh, say, boss, I bet it would make those bums up in Ft. Lee look pretty bad if there was to be, like maybe, uh some traffic problems on the bridge, uh, you think?” (for current background on the bridge scandal, see NYT article)

Clearly the answer is “b.” Underlings, even clueless Republican underlings, working for a bullying micromanager wouldn’t even dream of taking such a politically drastic step without having an ok from above. So it looks like we’re in for a long round of “what did he know and when did he know it” to see if someone was so incredibly stupid as to document a conversation with the governor about causing 4 days of gridlock in the entire town of Ft. Lee.

However, as entertaining as this might be (Rachel Maddow is proving an excellent and engaging investigative reporter), I’m not sure it really matters. Or matters in terms of whether Chris Christie is the kind of person we want as the ever-becoming-less-aptly-termed Leader of the Free World (although certainly still “leader of a gigantic army with thousands of nuclear weapons”). It does matter in terms of possible indictment or impeachment but here’s why it doesn’t matter for the Christie for President nightmare (and why “b” might not actually be the correct answer). Assume for a minute that Christie actually in truth didn’t know about the plan. To me that means that the underlings were all so completely convinced that the bridge closure plot was simply “business as usual,” something so obviously in line with Christie’s wishes and modus operandi, that it didn’t even occur to them to get permission—it would be like getting permission to order pizza. They know what he wants without him having to say. So the fact that Christie runs an administration in which underhanded political tricks that inconvenience 10s of thousands (and apparently caused one death) are considered business as usual—something not worth bothering the boss about—is as damning as if Christie had cooked up the entire scheme himself and moved all the traffic cones (although he’s already confessed to that). Whatever turns up from here on out, Christie is clearly unfit for the Oval Office. What remains to be seen is whether he is fit for an early bus ticket home.

“Big Government” Vs Snowden

Since President Obama took office, conservatives have railed almost continuously against “big government” and “government spending.” They have latched onto these memes as tightly (and with about as much intelligence) as a starfish trying to pull open a clam—though I must say I don’t recall hearing a peep about these concerns during Bush’s 2 terms.

So by all rights and logic, Edward Snowden should be a hero of the conservatives, shouldn’t he? After all, the NSA surveillance program he revealed was large and expensive. And even more anti-conservative, its whole purpose was to gather and store massive amounts of data on everybody in America. That’s something they used to do in East Germany, not the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Heck, during the time of the founding fathers, many argued against having a CENSUS because that would be a major infringement on freedom. “You want to know how many people live in my house? Bugger off!” So you can just imagine what they would’ve thought about the government compiling a list of everyone you ever wrote or spoke to.

That must mean conservatives want to give Snowden the Medal of Freedom and a lifetime fellowship at the Heritage Foundation, right? Nah, they want to kill him. Their only debate is whether to just kill him or to give him a fair trial and then kill him.

What’s with this? Well, it’s because conservatives really don’t believe in their own memes. They’re not against big government. They’re against big government that protects its people from dying of hunger and treatable medical conditions. But they’re totally FOR big government that protects its people from dying of being blown up by Muslims. They’re not really against government spending. They’re just against government spending that helps ordinary people get an education or keep their homes. They’re totally in favor of government spending (or providing tax breaks—same thing) to help big companies keep their businesses.  

Why this logical inconsistency? Well, I think deep down, conservatives (at least a few) actually do understand that just as it doesn’t matter how many brushes or how much paint Rembrandt used, it’s not the SIZE of government and number of dollars spent that’s important, it’s WHAT that government does with its size and spending that really matters. Thing is, when you get down to it, what they want the government to do are things that benefit only THEM. Keep me safe from terrorists (who could strike ANYWHERE!)? Fine. Keep other people (particularly those with less income and darker skin color) safe from illness? What a waste. They probably brought it on themselves anyway.

Now this is actually quite rational. Unfortunately, it’s rational because conservatives realize that the memes “I’m against big government” and “I’m against taxes” sound a whole lot better than their real meme, which is “To heck with you, what about me?” And portraying the progressives’ meme as “Tax and spend” riles up the conservative base a lot more than would the actual progressive meme “We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do to make life better for everyone.”

So how about Snowden? Well, is the NSA surveillance program making life better for us all? Does it even help anyone? Doesn’t appear to be much evidence of that—no senator has come forth to say “I saw completely convincing evidence that it foiled a major terrorist attack. Although I can’t tell you the specifics, I have no doubt it worked.” No, the NSA seems to have created a program both sides can hate. It is an expensive overreach that has taken away significant privacy rights with little demonstrable benefit and is now defending itself by playing on overblown fears of personal danger. Snowden didn’t give away the store, he lifted up the flat rock showing the creepy-crawlies hiding beneath.

Whose War on Christmas?

One of the many good things about Christmas Day is that Fox News will now suspend its peculiar annual ritual ranting about the fictitious liberal “war on Christmas.”  Now, admittedly some liberals are a bit uncomfortable with the country’s fixation on the feasting and gifting part of Christmas when so many are hungry and in want, but liberal guilt pangs hardly rise to the level of a “war” even by today’s lax usage standards (“the war on tire underinflation”). Besides, feasting and gifting are at best peripheral to the “real meaning” of Christmas? Even a Fox anchor (at least one caught unawares) would have to admit that the ecumenical meaning of the Christmas holiday is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. Right? Sounds pretty liberal to me (practically a hippie manifesto). So who could be at war with that? Hmm…

Well, a NYT op ed today discussed the upcoming House and Senate compromise deal on the Farm Bill, part of which contains $8 billion in cuts to food stamp benefits to 850,000 of the nation’s poorest households. The “compromise” part means that the House Republicans compromised their Christmas wish for $40 billion in cuts down to only $8 billion. Gee, less food for the hungry. Now there’s a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking (oops, can’t even do that—Republicans don’t want to provide home heating aid either). Say, who else didn’t want to give out coal?

“Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire… No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

That’s right, Ebenezer Scrooge was at war with Christmas. Sound like anyone we know? Maybe, the Republicans? Fox News? Now of course they all just love the crèche in the city hall courtyard, the nativity scene re-enactments at the school pageant. But those displays seem to be the beginning and end of their devotion to the Christmas spirit. And here’s what Dickens’ Christmas spirit had to say about that:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

Yes, cutting food and health care for the poor, referring to them as “takers” who are simply a drag on society (“what, are there no workhouses?”) is the ultimate war on Christmas. When your concerns are only with the “haves” and “have-mores,” then you are at war with Christmas. The real Christians seem to think so. Pope Francis stated in his Christmas Eve message last night:

“If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.”

Well, Scrooge ultimately changed. He reclaimed his sense of fellowship with humanity, he even bought food for the poor. Perhaps we could do the same. All of us.

Merry Christmas to all.

Money is Power—For Now

Went to a reception for Joe Sestak the other night. He’s not “running” for the Senate yet, but he’s “exploring” it seriously. And if you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel, you know exploration costs money, what with all the sled dogs and dried seal meat—and that’s just to get to the North Pole, which is much cheaper and easier than getting to Washington, DC, even from here in Pennsylvania.

Now, I don’t begrudge Joe my contributions, because I’d like his explorations to succeed (and I’ve hosted several events for Joe to prove it) and it does take a lot of money. Joe has $ 1 Million at his disposal but Pat Toomey, the evil Grinch who recently took over the North Pole (because Santa Claus gave away too many food presents to unworthy hungry people) has $3 million. Neither Joe nor the Grinch (quite correctly) thinks he has enough. Why on earth does it take so much?

It’s certainly not sled dogs and seal meat (interns and pizza). Nope, it’s all needed for TV advertising. After all, how would we know who was an evil, Muslim, socialist minion of Hitler if his opponent didn’t tell us that on TV—over and over and over? However, much more important than scurrilous information is the positive feedback loop of the money/TV connection. The more money candidates raise, the more seriously they are taken by their national party (which won’t back anyone who can’t generate a whopping nest egg on their own), by the pundits, by their potential opponents (what eager-beaver Republican would want to challenge Toomey knowing he’s starting $3 Million or more in the hole?) and by potential donors (nobody wants to put money into a losing cause). Thus the positive feedback loop. Candidates who have money are the most likely to get money, which then enables them to get even more money.

This isn’t anything new, and I’ve already written about it (Voting with Dollars). But there’s another way money in politics has affected democracy that I haven’t mentioned. Money has so obviously become the key to political success (as opposed to, say, voting) that the huge number of eligible voters without the spare cash to funnel to people who represent their hopes and dreams have become convinced that the game is rigged against them—so why bother. Why bother volunteering, why bother talking politics with friends and neighbors, why bother…VOTING.

And they don’t. This is the real triumph, and evil, of money in politics. The top few percent have used huge media cash infusions to convince the lower 75% that they are powerless*, EVEN THOUGH IN A SINGLE ELECTION THEY COULD THROW THE BUMS OUT AND VOTE IN CANDIDATES WHO ACTUALLY REPRESENT THEM. This reminds me of the pictures you see of hundreds of prisoners of war being escorted by a mere handful of armed guards. The prisoners could overwhelm their captors at any minute—but they’ve been convinced that they are powerless…and so they are.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Let’s modify the old slogan: “Workers of the world VOTE, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Don’t let a relatively few wealthy guardians of privilege and the status quo continue to flood themselves and their cronies with contracts, tax breaks and deregulation, things that are against the interests of almost everyone who lives here (and on the earth) yet continue to be done because the beneficiaries have convinced us that we can’t stop them. Well we can, if we only will.

*Turnouts are typically < 50% for off-year Congressional elections, and often in single digits for state and local primaries—where the $$-driven decisions are baked in (FairVote.org)