"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
February 23, 2010
LAW: A Small Victory For Federalism
A unanimous Supreme Court this morning, in Hertz Corp. v. Friend, No. 08-1107 (U.S. Feb. 23, 2010), held that a corporation's "principal place of business" under the federal diversity-jurisdiction statute and the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA)
refers to the place where the corporation's high level officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation's activities. Lower federal courts have often metaphorically called that place the corporation's "nerve center." ... We believe that the "nerve center" will typically be found at a corporation's headquarters.
At first blush, while Justice Breyer's opinion is of great practical interest to commercial litigators, it would seem to be little more than a routine dispute over the construction of a federal statute governing the jurisdiction of the federal courts. But buried within is a small victory for horizontal federalism or what I have long referred to as "federalism's edge," i.e., protecting the balance of federalism from being upset by a single state's efforts to assert jurisdiction over the nation as a whole. Stay with me for just a bit of background and you'll see why.
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The Hertz case reached the Supreme Court because the Ninth Circuit had refused to apply the "nerve center" test used by other federal courts. The plaintiff brought an employment class action composed of California citizens under California law in California state court. Hertz, which is headquartered in New Jersey, took advantage of a federal statute that has existed in one form or another since 1789 that permits "diversity" cases to be removed from state court to federal court. To simplify, diversity jurisdiction, which derives from the explicit language of Article III of the Constitution, gives the federal courts jurisdiction over lawsuits between citizens of one state and citizens of another state. The idea is that federal courts are a more neutral forum and less likely to be biased against out-of-staters. The statute does not, however, allow a defendant to remove a case from the courts of the state in which the defendant is a citizen, the theory being that a defendant won't be harmed by local prejudices in its own home state.
(I'll leave aside here the ways in which this statutory scheme was altered by the 2005 enactment of CAFA, governing nationwide class actions, as the Court's decision didn't turn on its jurisdictional idiosyncracies; the case also involved some procedural issues under CAFA).
A simple enough legal issue where human beings are involved, but as such things often do, the diversity rules get complicated to apply when one of the "citizens" involved is a corporation. The Constitution is silent on the issue, but Congress by statute has provided that a corporation is to be treated as a citizen of the state it's incorporated in (often Delaware) and the state where it has its "principal place of business."
What's a "principal place of business"? Well, courts in New York, Chicago and elsewhere had used the "nerve center" definition defined by the respected District Judge Edward Weinfeld in the 1950s, but the Ninth Circuit instead used a different rule - they let the plaintiff treat Hertz as having its principal place of business in California because that's where it had the most retail car rental locations and employees. You see the problem: California's the most populous state, so almost any company with operations distributed evenly across the country could be treated as a California corporation and denied recourse to federal court, even if the company was very obviously headquartered and identified with some other state.
The Supreme Court saw it too, and didn't buy it; the Court unanimously endorsed the "nerve center" rule, mainly because it was easier to apply in practice, but also mentioning how California's population could skew the question.
Some knee-jerk observers of battles over federal and state court jurisdiction tend to regard anything that expands federal jurisdiction as an affront to federalism, and concededly an employment class action composed solely of California residents is in the usual case less of a threat to expansion of California law over the nation than the kinds of nationwide class actions CAFA was aimed at. But then, the Hertz rule doesn't prevent California state law from being applied by the federal courts. What it does is simply put California back on the same footing as other states in balancing the interests of out-of-state corporations sued by its residents. That balance of power among the states in applying the law within their borders to national enterprises is, too, part of the delicate balance of federalism.
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February 22, 2010
WAR: V-I Day
Your must-read of the day: David Bellavia on the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Read, and take a moment of silence for Bellavia's friends and all the others who sacrificed for this moment.
POLITICS: Scott Brown, Ron Paul, The CPAC Straw Poll and 2012
Let's talk just a little about the 2012 presidential election. I'd like to make three related points:
(1) Nobody should be touting Scott Brown as a 2012 presidential candidate.
(2) The GOP is going to be picking from a bench that is short on candidates with the experience we need.
(3) It's a good thing that Ron Paul won the "straw poll" of 2012 candidates at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week.
Now, as a general rule, it's not a great time for Republicans and conservatives to be talking about the 2012 election. We have more than enough on our plates fighting the policy battles (Obamacare and otherwise) that will dominate the rest of the year, as well as the numerous elections to be contested in 2010. In fact, the Right has benefitted - much as the Left did in 2005-06 - from its lack of a single, identifiable leader; as hard as the Obama White House has tried to personalize attacks on its critics, the absence of a single leader to pick on means that voters' attention has remained fixed on Obama's own failures (and rightly so, given the overwhelming majorities he has in both Houses of Congress). But sometimes it's necessary to head off problems before they develop.
Scott Brown For ... Senator
Since Scott Brown's stunning victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts in January, he's been the man in demand for Republicans everywhere who are looking to rub off some of the magic that allowed him to win the first GOP Senate seat in the Bay State in decades. Inevitably, there have been rumblings here and there about running Brown for president in 2012 against Obama - hey, he can win in Massachusetts, why not?
Hold on there, tiger.
First of all, analysis by following the latest shift in the wind is the worst kind of punditry. A good number of the people touting Brown, a fairly liberal but populist New England Republican, were touting conservative (and also newly-elected) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell back in November, in both cases because of the whole "shiny new toy" factor. A new candidate who hasn't had time to accumulate baggage, make compromises and make enemies always looks appealing, because you can wishcast all sorts of things onto them. But that's a lousy way to pick a potential president or a potential national candidate.
McDonnell, at least, is a plausible national figure, if you add in some experience and he compiles a successful track record in office - he's already been the state Attorney General, and is embarking on a term as the state's chief executive, the closest thing our political system offers (in some ways even moreso than the Vice Presidency) to good training to be President. And running and hopefully governing as a conservative in a "purple" state, McDonnell could conceivably build a record that makes him appealing both to Republican primary voters and the voters of his own state.
Not so for Scott Brown. One can hope that Brown's populist campaign stands as a reminder to him, as he serves, that there are some conservative principles that are enduringly popular even in Massachusetts. But the simple reality is that the voters in Brown's state won't re-elect him in 2012 if he starts acting like a guy who's thinking as a Republican presidential candidate, and Republican primary voters won't warm to him if he votes as a Massachusetts Republican. We saw how well it worked out in 2008 for Mitt Romney, who bailed out on running for re-election in 2006 only to be rejected by GOP presidential primary voters in 2008. The most conspicuous issue on which this is the case is abortion, the subject of some of Romney's most glaring flip-flops and a significant Achilles heel as well for serious GOP candidates like Rudy Giuliani; Brown is something of a moderate on the issue, but remains essentially pro-choice, and while there's plenty of room in the tent for guys like that, it would be a non-starter for someone running to lead a basically pro-life party (the failure of Rudy's campaign has largely convinced me that this is a circle that may just be impossible to square because it leaves the candidate with too little margin for error in other ways). You could pick more examples down the line of less-prominent issues.
Brown, to his credit, has mostly laughed at the idea, but for his own good, he'd be better served if he closed the door on it entirely and emphatically, and moreover resisted the temptation to let other Republican candidates drag him all over the map to campaign for them. Presidential daydreams are bad for the longeitvity of politicians who depend on their regular-guy image, and national Republican politics is hazardous to anybody who wants to get re-elected in Massachusetts.
There's a more fundamental problem with the talkof running Brown in 2012: it suggests that some pundits and activists haven't learned anything from Barack Obama. Brown is a legislator. He's served a couple terms in the State Senate, and being in the minority doesn't have a lot of accomplishments. He's held down a part-time law practice. He's won precisely one statewide election, and has yet to make any mark in Washington. In other words, his resume is just about exactly the same as Barack Obama's in 2008.
We've seen in practice the many ways in which Obama's total lack of any of the traditional types of experience we look for in a president - executive experience, national security experience, political and political leadership experience, military combat service, or private sector business experience - has caught up with him. He's made one rookie mistake after another, and even his defenders at this point have to acknowledge that his struggles, especially in managing his legislative agenda, have derived from a fair number of unforced strategic errors borne of a misunderstanding of how to run a presidency - overreaching, trying to do too many things at once, ceding too much authority to Congress, promising things he couldn't deliver. Having never run anything before, he accentuated his own weaknesses by selecting a Vice President, Cabinet and White House staff heavy on generalist legislators and Chicagoans, light on executives and people with useful specialized expertise, and almost barren of people familiar with the private sector. This, in turn, had secondary consequences (legislators and bureaucrats are more apt than your typical businessman to not bother paying their taxes). Nor is this the first time the Democrats have made this particular mistake - in 2004, they had as their Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards, whose only tenure in public office was a single term as a Senator, to which he had no realistic chance of being re-elected, prior to which he had run a small (though profitable) personal injury law practice. Like Obama, Edwards had no executive experience, no real legislative accomplishments, no experience with national security issues, no experience working in any other sort of private business and no military service record.
Republicans are supposed to know better. The absolute last thing the GOP should be doing in 2012 is letting Obama off the hook - or running the risk of electing a candidate who puts America through the same thing - by nominating somebody who suffers the same weaknesses, however good a Senate candidate he may be or however good a Senator he may become.
A Time For Leadership
I have not picked a horse yet for 2012, and would caution anyone against doing so before the 2010 elections are over. That being said, I do know what I want: I want a candidate who can bring the kind of proven leadership experience to the table that we lack in our current president, ideally over some length of time. I want a candidate who has some record of having and standing for principles against adversity. And in light of the ugly record of the McCain, Dole, Kerry, McGovern and Goldwater campaigns, among others, I'd really rather not run a Senator, or someone else whose public career is largely or wholly as a legislator. The presidency is still an executive job, after all.
I'm realistic that we may have less than ideal choices - every presidential election season requires settling for the best of what you have in front of you, and even the best candidates have their drawbacks. As of now, we appear to have only two candidates (Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney) who seem certain to run, though many others are possibles. A number of members of the Senate and House are reportedly thinking of running, several of whom are smart, principled people, excellent at the jobs they now do. Two of our potentially leading contenders (Romney and Sarah Palin) are one-term Governors, in Palin's case a term she resigned before completing. Both are undoubtedly more experienced than Obama - besides being state-level chief executives, Romney had a long and successful career as a business executive, Palin spent the better part of 17 years in a variety of offices including being a mayor and heading the state oil and gas commission, and both had already accomplished more by 2008 than Obama ever had - but are nonetheless a good deal lighter on experience than I'd like to see. (Long-time readers know my issues with Romney; I haven't ruled out supporting Palin in the primaries but really will take a long look at the alternatives first). Several of the party's possible brightest stars in the Governor's mansions - Bobby Jindal, McDonnell, Chris Christie - will not be scheduled to complete their first terms until 2011 or 2013.
Part of the problem is the shortage of GOP Governors elected or re-elected in 2006 or re-elected in 2008, the cycles when you'd look to be getting people ready to make the next step. There are at present only 15 sitting GOP Governors who have been re-elected at least once, and that’s the pool you would ordinarily look to; there's only a few others up to be elected for a second time in 2010. One of the 15 is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's legally ineligible for the presidency. One is Mark Sanford, who took himself out of the running with personal scandal. Others are plainly too liberal to run as GOP standard-bearers: Linda Lingle, Jodi Rell, Jim Douglas. Jon Hoeven is running for the Senate, as is Charlie Crist, who'd otherwise be up for re-election in 2010. Jon Hunstmann left office to pursue an ambassadorship to China. That leaves an eight-man bench:
CPAC Chooses None of the Above
The media has tried out various angles on the news that Ron Paul won the 2012 straw poll at this year's CPAC, winning around 740 votes out of the 2,395 people who voted in the poll, itself a subset of the 10,000+ attendees. Some might take it as a sign of some vitality for Paul-ism, or whatever. To me, what it says is this: yes, Ron Paul's people remain organized and energized in their own way, but the real story is that (1) nobody else has either a naturally strong enough constituency among conservative activists to beat Paul without trying (and straw polls are all about trying) and (2) nobody else was willing to put resources into winning a poll of this nature before the 2010 elections.
That's good news all around. Good news for the candidates because people like Romney, Pawlenty, Palin, Mike Huckabee and others are still prioritizing the 2010 races and policy battles, trying to get other Republicans elected and defeat bad legislation. That's a lesson we Republicans and conservatives want them all to get. And good news for the movement that people are willing to send those candidates, and any other prospective 2012 aspirants, a message: you still have a lot to prove to us. For a movement that has regained its momentum mostly from the ground up over the past year, and that faces lingering doubts as to how well its current and future leaders have learned the lessons of past mistakes, that's maybe the best news of all.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 5:33 PM | Politics 2010 | Politics 2012 | Comments (23) | TrackBack (0)
February 19, 2010
POLITICS: The "P" Word
I know I linked to him once already today, but Francis Cianfrocca's column on Medicare Advantage - which is very much worth reading in full - neatly summarizes, in response to criticism from Obama and Pelosi, why it is necessary for businesses with shareholders to make a profit:
Everyone gets that you have to pay salaries to the people who do the work for you. But you also have to pay the people who provide the capital to start and grow the business (and create the jobs) in the first place. That obligation never goes away. Even though Nancy Pelosi has recently been howling about the fact that insurance companies make billions in profits, she never stops to think that: A) we wouldn't have large, efficient insurance providers without capital; and B) the health insurance sector provides terrible returns to investors relative to other sectors because it's already over-regulated; and C) most of those profits are used by pension funds to write monthly checks to retirees.
POLITICS: 2/19/10 Quick Links
*The NY Times finally releases its expose on David Paterson, which has been relentlessly hyped by leaks, perhaps driven by the Andrew Cuomo camp (Cuomo undoubtedly wants to avoid another racially divisive primary; certainly Rick Lazio thinks the Times is flacking for Cuomo). The story is decidedly underwhelming if you're looking for sexy details, but fairly damning nonetheless in its portrayal of a governor who's just not that on top of things. It's impossible to avoid the fact that being functionally illiterate (Paterson, who of course is blind, does not read Braille) is a serious impairment for a governor.
*Mickey Kaus explains through the example of the weatherization program how the political power of unions - specifically the Davis-Bacon Act - has crippled even the best-intentioned plans to use stimulus money to put people immediately to work.
On a related note, Francis Cianfrocca notes the New York Times' compliants about job-creation programs that are aimed at private sector jobs rather than the public sector. Robert Gibbs, at Wednesday's press briefing, implicitly admitted the same thing - the main benefit of the stimulus has gone to government workers (this is aside from the fact that in many cases, governments just gave raises to existing workers rather than hiring new ones):
Q Robert, following on that, one of the criticisms Republicans keep harping on is that the President promised that the jobs that would be saved or created would be about 90 percent private sector, and Republicans keep pointing out that it's woefully inadequate in that department; it's mostly been government-related jobs, public sector jobs, not private sector jobs. And it's important obviously to save public sector jobs as well. It's nowhere near what the President promised. How do you account for that?
Q On the stimulus, I want to give you a chance to respond to something that Michael Steele, the RNC chairman, said this morning about the Recovery Act, and I'm quoting him directly here now: "The other fiction we need to dispense with is this 'saved and created' nonsense." I'm still quoting: "I don't know what that is. I don't know what that looks like. And if I can't put my fingers on it, if I can't touch it, and if I can't get up at 6:00 in the morning and go to work there, then it's not happening. And that's the reality of a lot of people right now."
That's your Obama Administration economic growth strategy, folks. And yes, it ties into the repeated remarks over the years by President and Mrs. Obama denigrating private sector employment and bemoaning that more people don't go to work in "public service" jobs (whose salaries must be funded by private sector workers), and into Obama's proposal to forgive student loan debt for public service workers, giving yet another leg up to public sector employment. That's why what Chris Christie is doing in New Jersey in standing up to the public sector's 'government of the government, by the government, for the government' mindset is so important. Christie's a great spokesman on this issue because he worked as a government lawyer - and lawyers are the one profession in which government workers make only a fraction of the salaries they could earn in private practice.
*Weather is not Climate. Michael Fumento and James Taranto have some fun at the expense of those on the Left who have ignored that point in the past and now have to face public mockery from those parts of the country experiencing an unseasonably cold or snowy winter. Of course, the Anthropogenic Global Warming crowd stubbornly clings to the argument that any weather - warmer, colder, stormier, less stormy - is proof of the theory, but he who lives by the anecdote dies by it as well.
BASEBALL: Hall of Mags
Congratulations to Dave Magadan, who was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. No, I never thought I'd use "Dave Magadan" and "Hall of Fame" in the same sentence either, but as Pete Abraham notes, Magadan's college batting stats were otherworldly: a career .439 batting average and 188 RBI in 162 games. His plate patience must have made Magadan just impossible to pitch to at that level. (He also batted .323 as a minor leaguer).
Magadan's value as a major leaguer was almost entirely in his impressive career .390 OBP, which ranks 99th all time. In 16 big league seasons, only once (his last) did he fall below a .360 on base percentage (for contrast, Don Mattingly's career OBP was .358). Magadan didn't do much else - he was slow, not much in the field either at third base or first, no power, and was often platooned (career 671 OPS against lefthanded pitchers is a major reason he never had 600 plate appearances in a season). His best year came at age 27 in 1990, when he took over Keith Hernandez' job as the Mets first baseman, batted .328/.417/.457 and finished just 2 points short of leading the majors in batting (that distinction went to Eddie Murray, who batted .330 for the Dodgers, although Willie McGee won the NL batting title at .335 before being dealt to the A's).
February 18, 2010
POLITICS: Kudlow For Senate?
I've suspected for some time now that the California Senate race against Barbara Boxer was basically the high-watermark Senate race for the GOP - that is, the toughest race that has a non-trivial chance to be winnable if everything breaks just right. But the recent withdrawal of Evan Bayh from his own re-election race in Indiana (not as "safe" a seat as Boxer's, given Indiana's natural Republican tilt, but an entrenched incumbent with a $13 million warchest) is a reminder, as was Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, that you really never know where your opportunities are until you press them.
The GOP in New York is already stretched fairly thin trying to fight a two-front war against what should be vulnerable candidates, Gov. David Paterson (who is basically doomed, but likely will be replaced as the Democratic nominee by the more formidable Attorney General Andrew Cuomo) and his Senate appointee, Kirsten Gillibrand (who should emerge successful from what nonetheless promises to be a vigorous challenge from former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford). Former Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio is the leading contender to be Republican nominee in the Governor's race, while the Senate field lacks even a candidate as mildly well-known as Lazio, assuming George Pataki resists entreaties to run.
Now, with polls showing the generally invulnerable-seeming Chuck Schumer bleeding popularity, Republicans may open a third front if they can talk longtime CNBC/National Review economics commentator Larry Kudlow into running. Kudlow was previously mentioned as a possible Senate contender against Chris Dodd before the field lined up in Connecticut, but New Yorkers aren't generally that picky about that sort of thing, at least in Senate races. Kudlow would lock up the Conservative Party nod, which always helps.
As the Daily News warns:
Schumer is a formidable opponent. While Wall Street might not be as happy with him as it once was, he still has managed to amass a whopping $19.3 million worth of campaign cash.
Schumer is a relentless campaigner and, with the likely departure of Harry Reid, may end up running to be the leader of the Senate Democrats next spring. I can't say I see a realistic path to beat him, from where we stand today, and Kudlow's a political novice. That said, you gotta be in it to win it, as the saying goes; if something else comes out to drive Schumer down, you'd hate to not have a horse in the race. And even if Schumer does end up winning handily, if he's forced to devote his time and money to running his own race instead of propping up Gillibrand and other Democrats around the country, Kudlow will have accomplished something.
BASEBALL: Where We Left Off
Not that this should come as a huge surprise, but Kelvim Escobar is apparently so injured that he can't grip a baseball right now.
Escobar's been a good pitcher in the past, and even if he's not a reliable workhorse, a sometimes-healthy Escobar would be an asset to the Mets. But this report suggests that Will Carroll, who's been sounding alarms on the Escobar signing all winter, was right: the Mets' comically inept medical staff got suckered again into inking a guy who's maybe not going to pitch this season at all.
February 17, 2010
POLITICS: Mugged By Reality
I have not previously followed the work of San Francisco political reporter Benjamin Wachs of SF Weekly; apparently he's an increasingly cynical and disenchanted liberal following the ever-appalling doings of San Francisco city government. Thanks to the heads-up from Josh Trevino, it's worth taking a little time to look over Wachs' uproariously acid farewell to his beat, which practically defines "going out in a blaze of glory." Seriously, read the whole thing.
The real meat, though, is in a lengthier article by Wachs and Joe Eskenazi from December on how San Francisco is, in their view, "The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.":
It's time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year's city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion - more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho - for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can't point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle - and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.
The article is a long one, and filled with horrifying detail of the city's incompetence and dysfunction, like this one, which manages to combine reckless overspending, bait-and-switches with the voters, and head-poundingly foolish naivete in dealing with dangerous and violent people:
Back in 1999, San Francisco voters were pitched a $299 million bond to "save" Laguna Honda Hospital as a 1,200-bed facility for the city's frail, elderly population. Who doesn't want to help the frail and elderly? A decade later, the Department of Public Works project is still incomplete, its price tag has swelled by nearly $200 million, and the hospital is slated to hold only 780 beds - so the city is going massively overbudget to construct a hospital only 65 percent as large as promised, which is four years behind schedule.
The accounts of shreiking outrage from nonprofits and unions at the idea of measuring results or holding people accountable are equally familiar. For all of liberalism's pretensions to being "reality-based," the recipients of its largesse are remarkably shy about letting anybody test whether any of their ideas actually work. All of this supports a conclusion that is wearyingly familiar to any observer of American big-city liberalism in action:
The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can't afford, and no one is held accountable. A belief that good intentions matter more than results leads to inordinate amounts of government responsibility being shunted to nonprofits whose only documented achievement is to lobby the city for money. Meanwhile, piles of reports on how to remedy these problems go unread. There's no outrage, and nobody is disciplined, so things don't get fixed.
Ask residents of Detroit, or Oakland, or Washington DC, or Memphis, or Baltimore, or pre-Giuliani New York, or pre-Katrina New Orleans, or any number of other big American cities, and you'll hear a similar refrain; San Francisco may well be the worst, but it's hardly alone. And as Wachs and Eskenazi note, San Francisco can in some ways get away with things other cities with fewer natural advantages can't (see: Detroit). That said, Wachs and Eskenazi have produced an unusually detailed and comprehensive indictment of their city's one-party government. Read it and pass it on to anyone you know who hasn't yet digested why the rest of the country traditionally mistrusts giving more money and power to big-city liberals.
February 16, 2010
BASEBALL: It Tholes For Thee
Josh Thole will compete with Omir Santos this spring training to be the Mets' starting catcher, GM Omar Minaya told NJ.com...."I think Thole is going to compete for a job in spring training," Minaya said. "We'll see how he plays coming off a very good year. He led the league in hitting in Venezuela (winter ball). With Thole, where is he? Do we rush him? Does he take the job?"
Maybe now we can dispense with the hand-wringing over the Mets lacking the money to sign a fourth-string catcher.
POP CULTURE: Harry Connick, Brian Setzer and the State of Swing
In the fall of 2009, Harry Connick Jr. and the Brian Setzer Orchestra both came out with new albums - Connick's Your Songs, and Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue. Both are professionally done albums, and neither will place among the best, or worst, recordings these mature, mid-career artists have made. But the contrast between the two illustrates how Connick's recording career has gone astray after a great beginning, while Setzer gives his fans what they want.
Once upon a time, Harry Connick was not just an exciting musician, but a nearly unique one. A child-prodigy jazz pianist since age six, the son of the New Orleans DA burst on the national scene in the late 1980s, gaining national stature at age 22 with the double-platinum, Grammy-winning soundtrack for the romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally... At the time, the world of traditional pop/Big Band/swing music had largely atrophied - there was still a mostly-aging audience for then-veteran traveling performers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Perry Como, etc., and that style of music was still vibrant on Broadway, but suddenly here we had a young crooner breathing new life and energy into the standards and - on albums like 1990's We Are In Love and 1991's Blue Light, Red Light - writing some new ones of his own.
Connick's talent and flair helped sell the form to new generations of music fans. Lots of people still listened to Sinatra even if they didn't otherwise go for the traditional pop sound. Others, like me, had grown up listening to that kind of music - it's what my parents listened to, and was really all the music I knew until my older brother got me into rock around age 9 - and had a lingering affection for it. Connick proved that a young artist making new music in the old style, with his brassy Big Band sound and retro-cool pompadour, could still sell records and make a name for himself.
Then, on the heels of his successful 1993 Christmas album When My Heart Finds Christmas, Connick decided to take an unexpected turn. Ditching the big band, he put out a New Orleans funk-rock album, 1994's She. Not all his fans appreciated - I was him tour for the album at Jones Beach, and there were older fans who walked out when they heard the new material. But matching Connick's vocals and piano with the funk-rock sound worked, and made its own distinctive and different sound. He followed up with 1996's Star Turtle, a solid album if not as outstanding as She. Approaching his 30th birthday, Connick had mastered three genres - the third being jazz piano - all of which tend to reward their masters with long careers.
Unfortunately, it's been mostly downhill since then. Connick's output since Star Turtle has been steady - two more Christmas albums, seven other vocal albums, plus instrumental albums, show scores - but he has never matched his promise either as a Big Band act or a funk-rock act. Albums like 1999's Come By Me and 2004's Only You were dull and barely-listenable slow jazz. He's spread himself thin, dividing his time with feature film and TV-series acting, raising a family, disaster-relief work after Katrina, even hosting a series on the Weather Channel.
Your Songs was supposed to be a return to a more mainstream sound for Connick, and at first glance, its 14 songs fit the bill, running the gamut from Sinatra standards like "All the Way" and "The Way You Look Tonight" to 70s pop like "Just the Way You Are," "(They Long To Be) Close To You," and "Your Song." The album was the brainchild of legendary record executive and co-producer Clive Davis, who explains how they picked the songs:
We embarked on this project together. Over a five- or six-month period, we'd meet every Wednesday afternoon for five or six hours and just listen to music, looking for the right songs. I felt it shouldn't just be old classic songs but also more recent composers, and that's why we included Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" and Elton John's "Your Song."
Well, relatively recent. The good news is that the finished product is polished and pleasant to listen to - the songs are all professionally rendered with loving care, and Connick glides through standard after standard with good-natured ease. It's Easy Listening at its easiest, and there's a place for that - I pop it on in the background while I work.
The bad news is that Your Songs is yet another wasted opportunity. Not one of Connick's renditions is likely to make anybody forget the previously definitive versions, or even place him on equal footing as a vocalist with Billy Joel or Elton John or Sinatra or Karen Carpenter or Roberta Flack. He's just treading water, and he's not even doing it because he wanted to follow some artistic muse - it's an essentially commercial record.
Part of the miscalculation in the album is Connick's singing style. There remain two schools of crooning, the Frank Sinatra school and the Bing Crosby school. Sinatra, at least once he matured as an adult artist, was legendary as an emotional interpreter of songs, the guy who could climb into the lyrics and make you feel them. When you listened to the older Sinatra, you felt the miles in his voice. That wasn't all his appeal - he also had that swaggering cool and of course the great voice - but the ability to mine the words of a song was the distinctive feature of his style of singing, and one reason why he remained popular even with the rock generation.
Bing Crosby represented the apex of the opposite style, the smooth crooner who focused on making beautiful music to listen to. You could get an emotional wallop from a Bing song as well, if it hit you right - his Christmas songs do that, the warmth of Crosby's voice being all the song needs - but the focus was on the smooth sound.
Whatever doubt there may have been in his youth about whether Connick would ever develop into a Sinatra-style interpreter of songs, it's clear by now that he's remaining firmly in the Crosby camp. There's no heartache or heartbreak in Your Songs, no sense of emotional vulnerability - Connick still sounds like a guy singing to impress on a first date, not a man baring his soul. On the Big Band and funk-rock albums, that didn't matter much; the invigorating swing and the infectious groove were all he needed to set his sound apart and make great music. But singing ballads, Connick exposes his limitations.
An album of this sort is doubly frustrating because it's so unnecessary - anybody can sing these songs, or we could just listen to the originals. By contrast, Connick, Setzer and Canadian singer Michael Buble are about the only male vocalists in the business with the chops to do justice to new Big Band albums and the major-label platform to get them heard. Maybe he's just running out of ideas, but we can only hope that Connick does more with his talent on his next record.
Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue goes in the opposite direction. The 50-year-old Setzer, of course, started as a throwback 50s rockabilly artist in the early 80s with the Stray Cats, and reinvented himself in the mid-90s through a novel fusing of that sound with Big Band/swing music on albums like 1998's The Dirty Boogie and 2000's Vavoom! Setzer, too, has been away from making new music in his signature sound for a while - the past decade has been largely consumed with making Christmas records as well as 2007's Wolfgang's Big Night Out, a mostly instrumental record reworking classical tunes - but Songs from Lonely Avenue is a return to his wheelhouse, and the first album in which he wrote all original songs.
The focus on original music means that Songs from Lonely Avenue faces the opposite challenge from Your Songs' excessive familiarity; it has none of the instantly recognizable classics that powered earlier Setzer albums, songs like Jump Jive an' Wail or Mack the Knife. But in their place, it has a consistent film-noir-ish mood and fresh quality music all the way through. The only questionable decision is putting two instrumentals - Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin and Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin - back-to-back in the middle of the album rather than separating them as thematic bookends. Probably the best song on the album is the slightly bluesy, hard-luck saga Dimes in The Jar, and while Setzer's not really any more of a bluesy vocalist than Connick is, he brings his best Tin Pan Alley sound to the track. And unlike Your Songs, which gives Connick only minimal opportunity to match his dazzling piano to his vocals, Songs from Lonely Avenue gives us plenty of Setzer's signature guitar work.
Harry Connick Jr. could learn a few lessons from Brian Setzer - like not making records that don't mean a thing 'cause they ain't got that swing.
February 13, 2010
HISTORY/POLITICS: Madison Was Wise: Lessons From Federalist No. 62
I wrote at some length earlier this week on the crucial role of the legislative filibuster in preventing transitory legislative majorities from saddling the nation with permanent legislation of great complexity. As with so many questions of great significance, the Founding Fathers had wise and useful foresight to offer on the dangers of frequent and complex changes in federal law. Let's go to the words of James Madison in Federalist No. 62, his explanation of the virtues of the Senate:
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The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. Every new election in the States is found to change one half of the representatives. From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. But a continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success. The remark is verified in private life, and becomes more just, as well as more important, in national transactions.
The Senate is designed to ensure that no great and complex changes can come to the law, but by operation of the great majority of the people in the several states. The Framers designed it that way. We should be rightly suspicious of those who always want to change the rules when they cannot get their way.
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February 11, 2010
The NY Times looks at an issue of pressing importance to its readers: how hard it is to get by in Manhattan on $500,000 a year. In fairness, the article is done with a sense of the absurdity of the question, and is pretty informative if you wondered how, exactly, people can end up feeling like they really are just getting by on that much money. Of course, the single biggest line item is predictable:
If a person is married with two children, the weekly deductions on a $500,000 salary are: federal taxes, $2,645; Medicare, $139; state taxes, $682; and city, $372. With an annual Social Security tab of $6,621, the take-home pay is about $293,000 annually...
Whatever you may think of the justice or efficiency of different tax rates, that's one seriously large bite. It goes a ways to explaining why, in "New York...a new study from the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research group in Manhattan, estimates it takes $123,322 to enjoy the same middle-class life as someone earning $50,000 in Houston".
Compared to my own living expenses in Queens and experience with Catholic school tuition, I can see where some of the more astronomical expenses are; $192,000 a year ($16,000/month) for a three-bedroom apartment is obscene even compared to the cost of home ownership inside City limits, and some of the travel, wardrobe and other expenses listed are truly hard to get my head around.
POLITICS: So, What Did You Do?
America's 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was reportedly hospitalized with chest pains this afternoon in New York. Hopefully he'll be fine, but naturally any threat to his health puts one in mind of the man's legacy as a two-term president.
What struck me is this: when he was president, there was endless debate about Bill Clinton. Was he a liberal at heart who tacked to the center for pragmatic reasons, or was he essentially a moderate? Was he wasting his prodigious political talents, or was campaigning all he really knew to do well anyway? Did he revive liberalism from its decline, or validate the Reagan Revolution?
But nine years after he left office, as his presidency begins to recede into history and his party has passed to new leadership, this much is clear: it doesn't matter anymore what Clinton's intentions were, or what his talents were, or what he believed in. It doesn't matter anymore who was up or who was down in his Administration, or who leaked what to which newspaper, or how he went about making decisions. It doesn't matter who the public blamed or what the polls said. It doesn't matter what Clinton said, either - we remember a few stock phrases (other than the embarrassing ones about his various scandals, probably his most enduring line was his campaign's standing reminder to then-candidate Clinton that "It's the economy, stupid").
What matters from the Clinton Administration is what the president and his Administration did, and what it failed to do. Thus, for example, Clinton's fiscal and economic legacy was not Hillarycare or the BTU tax, which went nowhere, nor was it the Contract with America, but rather an essentially centrist set of compromises with the GOP that yielded income tax hikes, capital gains tax cuts, welfare reform, fits of spending restraint but few spending cuts, major free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, and a series of both regulatory and deregulatory bills on the workplace, private securities litigation, and the financial markets. The book isn't closed yet on the ripples from that era, but the decisions made, the bills passed, the judges appointed, the wars fought and unfought, etc., are done, and as historians debate President Clinton's legacy, that is what they will examine. The same will be true of George W. Bush.
And the same will be true of Barack Obama. Obama is known for his eloquence, but little he says is remembered the next day, and still less will live on after him. Obama spends much of his days pointing fingers of blame - at the Bush Administration, at Congressional Republicans - but blame is not a legacy. Obama's true intentions are subject to as much debate as Clinton's or George W. Bush's, or for that matter FDR's or Lincoln's, but only his record will really matter.
Which ought to give him pause. Obama entered office with an unprecedented base of support in Congress - even FDR didn't have a filibuster-proof majority in his first year in office - and yet it is hard to think of a modern two-term president who accomplished less, either legislatively or in international affairs, than Obama in his first year. Even Clinton, for all the frustrations of his first year in office, got his tax hike package passed.
Unlike Clinton or Bush, Obama's political obituary is far from written. But we should not lose sight of the fact that when it is, all the rhetoric and the news cycles will pale in comparison to that awful question: what did you do with the time that was given to you?
February 9, 2010
BASEBALL: Jake Is Back
The Mets have re-signed Mike Jacobs to a minor league deal. Which would make a lot more sense if not for the fact that Daniel Murphy, the incumbent 1B (cringe) is lefthanded. For his career, Jacobs has hit an acceptable .263/.325/.505 against righthanded pitching - enough power to kinda sorta justify the crummy OBP - but a horrifying .221/.269/.374 against lefties.
If Murphy's the first base option, that probably makes Jacobs a platoon pinch hitter.
POP CULTURE: Beatlemania!
It's tempting to chalk up this performance to a more innocent age in rock, and it was, but if you're familiar with the Beatles' live performances before February 1964, you know it's more a reflection of a more innocent age in television; they were usually not this tame.
Three things stuck out at me watching this. One is how young George Harrison was. A second is how heavily they leaned on songs featuring Paul McCartney; you'd almost not know John Lennon was a major figure in the band. And the third was the graphic reminding the ladies that, sorry, John was already married.
POLITICS: Lame Blame
All presidential Administrations talk down their predecessors, both to lay blame for problems inherited and - it's usually helpful if you have this part too - to show forward progress by contrast to what came before. But never in my lifetime have I seen a president so fixated on his predecessor as Barack Obama. Megan McArdle, who has been given more than enough reason by now to regret voting for the man, asks in the context of the massive expansion of the budget deficit when enough is enough:
[A]t some point, Obama has to take responsibility. Listening to his defenders reminds me of those people who sit around whining about how their Dad was really distant and critical . . . I mean, fine, you apparently had a rotten childhood, but Dad can't get come and get you off the couch and find you a girlfriend and a better job. Girls and employers get really creeped out if they try.
POLITICS: No Better Option
Via Pejman, who looks at other examples of the man's elegant argument style, a brilliantly simple distillation by Milton Friedman of the core of the case for free markets and free enterprise:
POLITICS/SCIENCE: The NY Times' IPCC Alibi Falls Flat
One and a half cheers to the NY Times for the article "Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel," which admits to some of the scientific and ethical problems facing the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri. But the Times being the Times, while it lays out some of the damning facts, it omits key damaging details (especially regarding the egregiously amateurish nature of the IPCC's errors regarding the Himalayan glaciers) and otherwise spends the rest of the article trying to explain away Dr. Pachauri's problems, with hilarious results.
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The most hilarious of these is the Times' effort to instruct you, the reader, on why there's no financial conflict of interest in payments received by Dr. Pachauri from various businesses with interests in the panel's work - emphasis mine:
Several of the recent accusations have proved to be half-truths: While Dr. Pachauri does act as a paid consultant and adviser to many companies, he makes no money from these activities, he said. The payments go to the Energy and Resources Institute, the prestigious nonprofit research center based in Delhi that he founded in 1982 and still leads, where the money finances charitable projects like Lighting a Billion Lives, which provides solar lanterns in rural India.
Sounds like those critics are way off base, right? The man gives all the money to charity. So, where does his money come from?
Dr. Pachauri, 69, said the only work income he received was a salary from the Energy and Resources Institute: about $49,000, according to his 2009 Indian tax return, which he provided to The New York Times. The return also lists $16,000 in other income, most of it interest on accounts in Indian banks.
That's right: his primary source of income is his employment by the same entity that receives the payments! This is like saying that a lawyer makes no money off bringing clients to her firm...which then pays her salary.
In response to the recent criticisms, Dr. Pachauri provided an accounting of some of his outside consulting fees paid to the Energy and Resources Institute. Those include about $140,000 from Deutsche Bank, $25,000 from Credit Suisse, $80,000 from Toyota and $48,750 from Yale. He has recently begun work as a strategic adviser for Pegasus, the investment firm, but has not yet attended a meeting, and no money has yet been paid to the Energy and Resources Institute. He has also provided advice free of charge to groups like the Chicago Climate Exchange.
If you are keeping score at home, that's $293,750 to the Energy and Resources Institute - enough to fund six years' salary at ERI for Dr. Pachauri. So much for the notion that there's no financial interest at stake.
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong per se with climate scientists doing business with green technology companies or others with interests in their scientific work. But as I have noted before, neither should scientists who receive such funds be treated as Solomonic icons of disinterest, while they assail their critics as paid shills of industry. It's healthier to remember that everybody has an angle and a bias - and look deeper at the data, the theories and the integrity and transparency of the process used.
But the Times' effort to spin this one away is just pathetic.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 5:37 PM | Enemies of Science | Politics 2010 | Science | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: The Legislative Filibuster: Democracy's Sobriety Checkpoint
In recent weeks we have been deluged by hand-wringing columns from "progressive" pundits bemoaning the filibuster rules in the Senate - which allow a determined and unified minority to block legislation that has fewer than 60 votes - and essentially declaring the filibuster to be proof that American democracy doesn't work and should change the way it does business. (See Brian Darling's discussion of one recent example of the genre from Paul Krugman declaring the filibuster to be the "downfall" of American greatness, and here for Ezra Klein declaring that "The Senate's problem is not disagreement. It's elections."). The immediate cause of the shrieking is the inability to pass Obamacare through the Senate in the form in which it passed the House, which the progressives decry as proof that America can't be governed, ignoring the alternative possibility that there are better approaches to health care that do not involve an Obamacare-style comprehensive bill at all. For some liberal critics, like Vice President Joe Biden (a man who participated in countless filibusters in 36 years in the Senate) or the New York Times editorial board, this is a posture of pure opportunism diametrically opposed to how they viewed the value of the legislative filibuster during the Bush presidency, while others, like Mickey Kaus, have long argued that the legislative filibuster* should go because of its role in obstructing progressive legislation.
Regardless of their motives, however, the progressive critics are wrong. The legislative filibuster is an essential, traditional check on a particular weakness of democracy - the very weakness the progressives seek to exploit by passing Obamacare before the 2010 elections.
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This much is true: the filibuster is undeniably anti-majoritarian, and thus in a general sense anti-democratic. The House, even gerrymandered as it is, provides a roughly proportional representation of the American people; each Member represents a comparable if not identical number of people, all its members face re-election every two years, and a bare majority vote is needed to pass a bill. This has been true of the House throughout most of our history (the filibuster was abolished in the House in 1842).
If a recently constituted popular majority was the rule of the day, that would be all we need. But the Framers of the Constitution also gave us a Senate that is deliberately anti-majoritarian: Senators give equal representation to states of varying size, only a third of its members face the voters each biennial election cycle, and until the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were selected by state legislatures as de facto representatives of state government rather than of the people. While the Constitution says no more about the filibuster than that "[e]ach House shall determine the Rules of its Proceedings," (Art. I Sec. 5), the Senate by tradition allowed for unlimited debate (more here and here). That tradition has always had its critics; it was first challenged by Whig Senator Henry Clay in 1841 in a debate over bank legislation, was subjected to cloture by vote of two-thirds of the Senate by rule change in 1919 (a procedure first used to ratify the disastrous Treaty of Versailles against a Republican filibuster), and the threshold was lowered to 60 votes by the Democrat-controlled Senate in 1975. And there are exceptions: without going into exhaustive detail here, the major exception is the "reconciliation" process used for tax and spending bills, which cannot be filibustered and thus may pass with a bare majority. But the basic ability of the minority to prevent a floor vote on major domestic legislation has never been eliminated, and stretches back to the dawn of the American Republic.
For conservatives, of course, the fact that the filibuster has been time-tested as part of our Constitutional structure is reason in itself to be skeptical of efforts to eliminate it; experience is the lifeblood of conservatism, after all, because it represents the collected lessons of trial and error of the greatest number of people. But the progressive critics, most vocally the pundits who have never worked as anything but a pundit, tend not to put much stock in experience, so let me address them on their own terms.
I would give more consideration to the arguments against the filibuster were it not for one inescapable fact: for a variety of practical and political reasons, federal legislation, and in particular large, "comprehensive" federal programs and regulatory schemes, are almost never repealed, pretty much regardless of whether they work well or not. They're generally designed that way: the President promises a for-all-time solution to a problem, bills are written so as not to require reauthorization or in some cases (for new entitlements) not to require even new appropriations, bureaucracies are created, unionized civil servants hired, businesses, lobbyists and legal advisers grow up around the regulatory scheme, and self-interested segments of the population grow dependent on the status quo. In other words, if you're concerned about the dead hand of tradition ruling the future, the last thing you should want is a system that makes it easy for a political party that wins a majority in one election cycle to saddle us permanently with massive new federal legislation.
This is, of course, why reconciliation is different: while it is difficult to undo bad spending decisions, for some of these same reasons, it remains ultimately the case that tax and spending policy is set anew each year, as it is in states and municipalities across the country. It's also why, when Congress does face a genuine need to act quickly, it can attract bipartisan, filibuster-proof majorities to enact bills like the Patriot Act and TARP that - whatever their other flaws - had to go back to Congress for reauthorization later. But in cases like Obamacare, there is no pretense by its supporters that this is intended to ever be revisited from scratch again.
Meanwhile, the transitory nature of the Democrats' majority is already on display. The 2008 election cycle was already something of an aberration, given the role of the September-October financial crisis in boosting the Democrats' fortunes; now it seems highly likely that Republicans will drastically narrow their margins, if not erase their majorities in one or both Houses, in this fall's elections. Already, the margin of passage of Obamacare in the House is in doubt. Knowing that we sit at the likely high water-mark of the Democrats' fortunes, why should our system make it easy for them to enact legislation that could outlive our grandchildren? If the public truly, after two years of reflection, wants Obamacare, it can always elect still more Democrats this fall to make it law.
Democracy, tradition, free markets, federalism and Constitutional originalism are all derived from the same basic observation: people make mistakes, and even electorates and markets can err in the short run - but the more people whose experience you involve in a decision, the larger your sample size, the better your chances of getting it right. Our democratic system respects the ultimate right and power of the majority, but it contains checks and balances precisely to prevent short-term majorities from saddling the country with long-term decisions. A Senate majority large enough to break a filibuster takes time and geographically broad-based appeal to develop, as it should - even the high Democratic tides of 2006 and 2008 weren't robust enough to provide the margin of error against the death of a single Senator derailing the 60-vote majority. There is no reason why our system should disregard its longstanding defenses against the perpetual rule of a single election cycle's fleeting majorities.
* - I'm limiting my discussion here to filibusters of legislation. I've discussed at length here and here my views on why filibusters of judicial and executive nominees are bad, some strategies for eliminating them, and why it may be unfortunately necessary for Republicans to use them in the short term to put pressure on recalcitrant Democrats to agree to mutual long-term limitations on their use. Worst of all, of course, is the tradition of single-Senator "holds," often anonymous, a tradition that's been badly abused by both parties, sometimes for nakedly personal gain or revenge.
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February 8, 2010
POLITICS: After Murtha
The important practical question following the death today of Congressman John Murtha is what happens to the House seat he held on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania's 12th District. The good news, so far as I can tell from early reports, is that Ed Rendell won't get to appoint an interim replacement, but rather the voters will have to choose one in a special election. As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reports:
According to state law, the governor has ten days once the vacancy is officially declared to decide on the date for the special election, which can come no sooner than 60 days following that proclamation.
This is yet another critical election; recall that Obamacare passed the House with a 3-vote margin of victory, and any effort to run it back through the House with the watered-down Senate langauge on abortion will cost at least two of those votes (Bart Stupak and Joseph Cao), while now two others (Robert Wexler and Murtha) have left the House since the vote was cast. Mike Memoli at RCP notes the continuing flux with special elections already coming up to replace Wexler and the yet-to-resign Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii:
Democrats have won every [House] special election in this Congress, including one pick-up from the GOP in New York 23. Another is set in the Florida 19th on April 13, with yet another seat opening soon when Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) steps down to run for governor.
In other words, there will be a couple more opportunities for voters to affect the composition of a House already narrowly divided on President Obama's signature issue, and for now, at least, there are no longer the votes to pass anything unless and until Nancy Pelosi turns some "no" votes into "yes" votes without losing more of the original "yes" votes.
PA-12 has trended Republican in recent years - Cillizza notes that it was the only district carried by John Kerry in 2004 to flip to McCain in 2008 - although it's hard to tell how much of that is due to Murtha-specific issues and to the hangover from Obama's ham-handed comments during the Pennsylvania primaries. My best advice to the PA GOP is to study carefully the mess made in NY-23 (the behind-closed-doors selection of a thin-skinned and too-liberal member of the dysfunctional, corrupt and discredited state legislature) before a candidate is chosen for this special election.
February 4, 2010
If you thought Alexi Giannoulias, running in the shadow of Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris, wasn't enough corruption and scandal for the Illinois Democrats in one election cycle, you were right. Meet the winner of the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor:
What Chicago election is complete without elements of domestic violence, prostitution and tax evasion?
It's a one-time gift by Democrats that they've nominated these guys with absolutely no regard to how they would fare in the general. They assumed that, as usual, the general would be a cakewalk, and so they could nominate whatever corrupt/crazy/socialist idiot they liked in the primary.
February 3, 2010
POLITICS: After Obamacare: What Do Conservatives And Republicans Want on Health Care?
Democrats trying to defend their flailing healthcare bills have tried, repeatedly, a two-pronged attack on the mostly united Republican opposition to the various plans floated by the Senate and House Democrats and the Obama White House. One is to suggest that Republicans are criticizing the proposed Democratic solutions without having any of their own - implying that there really is no other choice but to pass a Democratic bill and that Republican opposition is irresponsible. The other and related contention is to argue that Republicans have a responsibility to cooperate in bipartisan fashion on the bills currently under consideration, rather than seek those bills' defeat.
These arguments are useful as political spin, but they are wrong. Moreover, they ignore the fact that the GOP has opposed the healthcare bills with much the same strategy employed by the Democrats against George W. Bush's effort to reform Social Security - which almost certainly resulted in the destruction of any chance in the foreseeable future to fix Social Security's fiscal problems or even prevent them from getting worse - as well as by forces both Right and Left against the Bush-McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration bill.
For the uninitiated, here's a sampling of what conservatives and Republicans do think about health care. I can't speak for everybody, but I think I can explain in general what the majority of the Right thinks and wants on this isue, and why it precludes most if not all elected Republicans from supporting any comprehensive healthcare bill built along the lines of those floated over the past year:
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1. The System Is Not That Bad: The fundamental disconnect starts at the beginning: by and large, most people on the Right think the United States has a great healthcare system, the best in the world. Pretty much nobody thinks the system is perfect: there are lots of skewed financial incentives, lawsuits are too expensive and prevalent, costs are excessive in some parts of the system, and there are, in fact, too many people who don't get care they need. The system is messy in much the same way that democracy and free markets are messy, and similarly in need of constant tweaking. But the general feeling among conservatives and Republicans is that while you might make fundamental changes in the structure of the system if you were starting it from scratch, when you're dealing with the system as it is, the best thing to do is work around the margins rather than launch a massive federal takeover of the whole shebang that rewrites every aspect of the system from Washington with no possible way to anticipate how all those changes will play out.
That very premise is the basis of the deep divisions over this issue, and helps explain why the further the process has advanced, the more public opinion has favored the opposition, despite the generalized initial public sentiment that "reforms" should be implemented. If the voters are leery of drastic, comprehensive systemic "reform" now that they have had time to see what it looks like, they will naturally prefer doing nothing at all. Maybe the opportunity won't come this way again soon to do a fundamental overhaul of the system, but there's always a next year to do smaller, more incremental bills that work around the margins. That's precisely why the GOP has suffered no political damage for not having its own comprehensive plan - GOP solutions like permitting insurance to be sold across state lines are piecemeal and can be enacted as such without having to get all the moving parts into the same bill.
This is the diametric opposite of President Obama's position. As the President put it in last week's State of the Union Address:
There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. (Applause.) Let me know. Let me know. (Applause.) I'm eager to see it.
There you have it - he's only willing to consider an alternative proposal if, in his view, it reduces premiums and reduces the deficit and covers all the uninsured and "strengthens" Medicare, and clamps down on "abuses" by insurance companies - even a proposal guaranteed to do any one of those things is unacceptable.
That's a recipe for giving Republicans no choice but to simply say "no." But it doesn't mean the GOP, if it took control of Congress, would be unwilling or unable to present the Obama White House with bills that could address particular problems with the system.
2. What Matters Is Health Care, Not Health Insurance: The core concept behind comprehensive reform is that the federal government has a responsibility to eliminate with one fell swoop the estimate tens of millions of people (nobody knows the real number) who lack insurance. This is one reason why the Democratic plans all include a mandate that compels citizens to purchase insurance, and why they also include a battery of other interlocking provisions designed to control the allocation of risks, the imposition of costs, and the terms on which insurance can be offered or coverage denied. Despite all of that, it remains questionable whether the uninsured would truly be eliminated under any bill on the table - to pick two examples, illegal aliens may be hesitant to claim coverage (and could be barred from coverage, depdning how one reads the bills), and if the less onerous penalties for refusing to buy insurance are selected (the Senate bill won't criminalize refusing to participate in the mandate; the House would), some young, healthy people will just pay the fine and opt out of the system.
Is it worth disrupting the health insurance arrangements of the insured majority to extend coverage to the uninsured minority, and perhaps not even all of the uninsured minority? To answer that, you need to remember that what matters isn't insurance, it's care - the sole purpose of health insurance is to secure access to health care.
And people without insurance in this country still get health care, often from sources like clinics and emergency rooms. Not all the care they may want or in some cases need, nor the best or most cost-effective care. And of course, not everyone with insurance receives perfect care either. Many of the distinctions between the insured and the uninsured are differences of degree. Moreover, many of those who lack private sector insurance are covered under Medicaid or Medicare.
Conservatives don't argue that this is an optimal situation - but we do argue that in light of these realities, it's entirely acceptable to focus on solutions that improve access to both insurance and care, rather than guaranteeing insurance. If you can reduce genuinely unnecessary barriers to competition and low-cost insurance, if you can provide better ways for people to shield assets from taxation to spend on healthcare - these are goals that can reduce the number of people who lack insurance, without necessarily having to come up with a single magic bullet that claims to eliminate the lack of insurance overnight.
3. Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom: A fundamental objection to Obamacare in its various forms is that by enacting a vast new federal regulatory and entitlement structure, it freezes the entire industry in amber in ways that will choke off the possibility for future revisions. The political trauma of the efforts to enact this legialstion only underscores the extent to which politicians will be unwilling to revisit comprehensive changes in the future. If it passes and doesn't work out perfectly - and how many government programs do? - neither the states, nor the private sector, nor in all likelihood future Congresses will be able to fix it. Like Medicare, it will simply run on autopilot forever more.
This was one of the objections Scott Brown raised in the Massachusetts Senate race: Massachusetts has its own statewide system of "Romneycare," which had many similarities to the federal program. But the Massachusetts Legislature today remains free to alter or repeal or defund Romneycare, much the way that Tennessee's Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen has done with TennCare, the system originally modeled after Hillary Clinton's health care plan, when it grew too expensive for his state.
The states are, in Brandeis' term, the laboratories of democracy for at least two reasons. One, multiple states can try differing approaches, and learn from each others' experiences - whereas once the federal government acts, innovation is at an end. Two, states do not have the federal government's budgetary processes - many have balanced budget amendments or other constraints on deficit spending, they have to compete with rival states to keep taxes reasonable, some have line-item vetos, zero-based budgeting or other tools Washington lacks for revisiting budgetary decisions annually, and the partisan/ideological temperature is lower in many statehouses. When forced to make genuine choices among competing budgetary priorities, states can't just choose "all of the above."
The diversity of state and private-sector approaches is also evident in the debate over rationing of care and whether this will lead to government "death panels." It is true that rationing in one sense or another - that is, decisions to forego some care on cost/benefit grounds - will occur in any remotely fiscally responsible healthcare system. It is arguable, even, that not enough rationing is done today. Ideally, rationing should be done by the consumer, as happens in any field where consumers, rather than insurance intermediaries, make purchasing decisions; as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP's go-to guy on health care these days, explains:
Rationing happens today! The question is who will do it? The government? Or you, your doctor and your family?
What's particularly menacing about putting rationing power in the monpolistic hands of the vast, impersonal and bureaucratic federal government is, again, that it eliminates the possibility of competition or outside supervision putting any counterweight on the desire to control costs. It's possible, of course, that the federal government will respond to concerns about rationing by being profligate, but that presents the opposite problem of hemhorraging money. Either way, the system becomes much less fluid when a single actor with the coercive power of the state behind it is calling the shots.
Even where the GOP has more ambitious proposals for reform, they are not based on top-down diktats from Washington; Ryan argues for a broader, less incremental approach than many in the party, but his proposals would operate by gradual, voluntary reform of existing structures through the market, rather than an avalanche of new regulation driven from a single office in the capital:
We set up state-based exchanges. You don't have to participate in the exchange if you don't want to. You don't have to sell it in the exchange if you don't want to. I don't want a closed system that will gravitate towards more government control. I want it to be decentralized that has regulatory competition and market competition. You can be in or out of the exchange, which keeps everybody honest.
Note the emphasis on avoiding individual or employer mandates, thus avoiding the most freedom-encroaching aspects of Obamacare while also eliding the major Constitutional objections to compelling people to buy a private company's products, as well as the essentially corrupt nature of tethering individuals to a government-compelled relationship with large insurers.
4. This Is Still America: The final really core disagreement is that many Republicans and nearly all conservatives object on principle to making health care a fundamental entitlement guaranteed by the national government. Experience the world over shows that health care is one of the most critical tipping points in altering the relationship between the citizen and the government in cradle-to-grave social-welfare states on the European model (when people call Obama a "socialist," this - along with de facto direct government control of major industries - is what they are thinking of). Having health care systems run at the state level is bad enough, but having them uniformly dependent upon Washington for funding and regulatory favor simply takes too many of the most important things in life and puts them in a single pair of hands. That's not the American Way, and if that sets us apart from other nations, it should.
When all is said and done, when 2010 has - as it seems increasingly likely - come and gone without the passage of a sweeping comprehensive federalization of health care, Republicans in due course will offer, and will need to offer, constructive solutions of their own that can marshal support across the GOP and, hopefully, in some cases across party lines. But what will be clear is that those solutions will not be just mirror images of the Democrats' vision. They will instead reflect these core distinctions: incrementalism over one-bill-to-rule-them-all; a focus on increasing access and decreasing cost rather than making sweeping guarantees; avoidance of coercive government mandates; and diffusion of power among consumers, states and businesses rather than concentration in Washington.
After Obamacare, we can stop pretending that a handful of experts in Washington know better than the rest of the country. After Obamacare, we can return to debating solutions more in line with traditional American values and American ways of solving problems by the trials and errors of a free people. After Obamacare, the goals will be more modest, but more realistic. After Obamacare, health care reform will still be possible - but only if President Obama abandons his utopian schemes and looks at the kind of solutions that Americans have long regarded as common ground.
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POLITICS: Gloves Off
Truly, we live in a golden age of political advertising unseen since Ralph Nader told his parrot he wanted to dress up in costume and get jiggy with a panda.
First up is an NRSC ad that concisely sets forth why Republicans everywhere rejoiced at yesterday's Illinois Senate primary win for Obama crony Alexi Giannoulias and his, er, baggage train:
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Funny, hard-hitting, and a sign of why the first polls out of the gate show that Giannoulias is going to have a tough battle with Mark Kirk to hold onto the "f___ing valuable thing" that was once Barack Obama's Senate seat. Then we have this ad from the New Orleans coroner's race - I don't know any of the facts or even which parties these guys belong to, but....dude:
Then we get this bizarre 3 1/2 minute web ad from Carly Fiorina, accusing Tom Campbell (one of her two opponents in the GOP California Senate primary - Chuck DeVore must be laughing his sides sick at this) of being a "FCINO" (Fiscal Conservative In Name Only), an unfortunate acronym that takes a distant second to the flying demonic sheep as the strangest part of the ad:
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February 2, 2010
BASEBALL: Speed of Lightning
Panariello and his partner, Adam Elberg, work independently of the Mets, recommended by Reyes' agent Peter Greenberg. They have a good relationship with the Mets' medical people, including trainer Ray Ramirez, but the rehab and training is their deal, and this amazing indoor facility has all the bases covered.
SCIENCE/POLITICS: Surrender on Autism
The Lancet, a once-respectable scientific journal, has conceded and retracted a now-discredited 1998 study claiming to show a link between vaccines and autism. Of course, the genie loosed by that piece of junk science can't be so easily put back in its bottle, but score another one for science and a defeat for its left-wing enemies.
On a similar note, yet another scandal involving hackery posing as climate science at the IPCC.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 5:48 PM | Enemies of Science | Politics 2010 | Science | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)
February 1, 2010
BASEBALL: The Minaya Era in a Nutshell
The reasons why Omar Minaya needs to be fired - and probably Jeff Wilpon too - are legion, but this interview with JJ Putz captures perfectly the essence of a dysfunctional organization more interested in futile news cycle-to-news cycle CYA efforts with the press than with doing the work needed to create a winning ballclub and hold accountable the people who fail to get their jobs done:
"When the trade went down last year, I never really had a physical with the Mets," said Putz. "I had the bone spur (in the right elbow). It was discovered the previous year in Seattle, and it never got checked out by any other doctors until I got to spring training, and the spring training physical is kind of a formality. It was bugging me all through April, and in May I got an injection. It just got to the point where I couldn't pitch. I couldn't throw strikes, my velocity was way down."
[T]he Mets told Putz not to talk about being hurt with the media.
Ugh. So, don't bother checking out the guy's arm when you're making a multimillion dollar business decision, then order him to cover up what you were too dumb or lazy to check - knowing full well it will come out soon enough anyway.