March 13, 2008

Mamet, Heracletus and Me

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:00 pm

Heracletus, a friend and arch-libertarian, emailed me (and the rest of his address book) with the following:

If you don’t know (and shame on you if you do not), David Mamet is a U.S. national treasure – a terrific playwright whose plays have been made into movies like “House Of Games”, “The Spanish Prisoner”, and “Things Change”.

There is some naughty language in this piece so if you don’t like cussin’, don’t read this. It is tremendous, though, and well worth your time:,374064,374064,1.html/full

Mamet’s conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative has generated glee from conservatives, I gather. I don’t get what the fuss is about. Here is my reply to Heracletus (lightly edited):


[Actually, I addressed him by his real name, which as you might have guessed, is not Heracletus.]

Well, I read this, and I have to say that I don’t know what he’s talking about. He says:

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

I’ve never believed the first two, as a rule, but do believe the third, as a rule. But exceptions always arise. Frequently. The dividing line between good and evil cuts through each and every human heart.

Now that he’s had an epiphany, he says:

I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

Well, yeah. Of course. I totally agree.

And I began to question my hatred for “the Corporations”—the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live.

I’ve never hated “the Corporations”. I have an MBA, I’m a management consultant, I’ve worked for and consulted to corporations my whole life.

And I began to question my distrust of the “Bad, Bad Military” of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world.

I don’t distrust the military, but I do doubt the ability of the military to solve non-military problems, and for avowedly militaristic civilian leaders with no combat experience to understand the difference. But I respect and admire the military just the same.

And yet I’m still liberal, or at least left-of-center. I don’t get Mamet’s “before” beliefs, and I don’t get what the big deal is about his “after” beliefs, and why they are incompatible with being left-of-center. The whole thing left me scratching my head.


OK State Representative Sally Kerns

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:51 am

These days I try not to pay too much attention to the religious right — it’s just so soul-crushing to hear their hatred spewed under the banner of Christianity. But every once in a while it’s good to check in and see what they’re up to. And this one is a doozy:

Excuse me, I have to go indoctrinate some two year-olds.

March 5, 2008

Identity Politics

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:14 am

I’m really trying to maintain my sympathetic view towards Hillary Clinton, but her campaign is making it difficult. It’s not just that she’s gone negative against Obama with her snarky comments about him being all rhetoric with no substance. If she had lost Texas, her negative attacks would have been the last dying gasp of a failed campaign. What bothers me is that she’s gone negative and won. It takes me back to the Republican swiftboating of Kerry and the swiftboating of Gore back before we even had the term “swiftboating”. The promise of Obama is to rise about the destructive partisan attack politics; how ironic that he is the victim of such attack politics from within his own party.

But what really bothers me is the identity politics aspect of this. From Jonathan Chait:

One question asked if the candidate’s gender was important. 17% said yes, and of them, Clinton won 57-43. So voters who wanted a female candidate outnumbered those who did not. Another question asked if the candidate’s race was important. 20% said yes, and of those, Clinton again won 57-43. So voters who did not want a black candidate outnumbered those who did. Race and gender both seemed to cut in Clinton’s favor — which may not be a shock, since whites and females outnumbered blacks and males.

In both questions, voters who did not care about race or gender split evenly. Clinton’s winning margin — assuming the exits hold up, and it is close enough that maybe it won’t — came from the pro-female, anti-black (or, I guess, anti-male, pro-white) vote.

Gloria Steinem has argued that black men are ahead of women in their progress against prejudice, therefore Clinton is more deserving of the “affirmative action” vote (my term). This is really discouraging on several counts. First, I’d like to believe that we’re all beyond identity politics, that since a woman or a black could be elected President, we can just focus on who should be elected President. Steinem’s argument that we should elect the candidate from the more disadvantaged demographic pulls us back into the race and gender wars. While affirmative action is still necessary in many contexts, I had hoped that this primary race would prove that, at least for Democratic voters, we are now color- and gender-blind.

But if Steinem is right that the electorate is not beyond identity politics, she’s wrong about who is the most disadvantaged. These exit poll results make it appear that when voters choose a candidate based on their race or gender, they’re voting against the black and not the woman. It looks as if racism lives on, even as sexism is disappearing.

Obama’s message is that we can rise above all this. I don’t know if he’s right.

February 27, 2008

The Democratic Debate and Health Care

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:26 pm

The first 16 minutes of last night’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were spent debating their respective health care plans, and specifically the merits of Clinton’s mandate vs. Obama’s lack of same. It was time well spent, but it didn’t do much to clarify the trade-offs involved.

Both Clinton and Obama ultimately want universal care, but both realize that a single-payer plan along the lines of those in virtually every developed country in the world except the US is politically impossible. So they both have developed plans that fall short, but each have made different choices on how to compromise the goal of true universal care. Clinton is able to claim that her plan provides universal health care, but it achieves it with an individual mandate, i.e. requiring everyone to purchase health care under the force of law. Obama’s plan has a mandate for children, but doesn’t have a mandate for adults.

So which is better? That is the wrong question — the question should be which is less bad, since it really is a choice between the problems caused by one plan vs. the problems caused by the other A mandate, whether for everyone or just children, has to be enforced. So what do we do with an adult who would rather gamble they won’t get sick and save the money they would otherwise spend on insurance? It’s the same issue the IRS faces — how to collect taxes from a tax evader. The IRS seizes assets and garnishes wages, and some government agency would have to do the same to enforce a health insurance mandate.

So a mandate is bad, right? Not so fast. Obama’s plan doesn’t have to enforce a mandate, but what about that person that gambles they won’t get sick, but does? And what if they get really sick, requiring care far beyond their ability to pay? As a humane society, we’ll give them care, but we can’t create an incentive for people to opt out of health insurance by telling them that it will be there anyway if they need it. Obama’s solution is to make them pay for the health insurance that they didn’t buy. What if they can’t afford it? Seize assets and garnish wages.

Either way, it’s the same issue. The difference is a choice between enforcement before someone gets sick, or after. Obama will let some adults gamble they won’t get sick, and win, all to avoid having to force them to buy insurance they don’t want. Clinton makes the opposite choice. Insurance could be more expensive under Obama’s plan, since some healthy people will opt out of the risk pool, but then his plan will avoid the cost of enforcement. Both plans are problematic, but in different ways.

(I should mention that both plans subsidize insurance for the poor, and ensure that no one can be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions, both vitally important elements of the plans.)

The root cause of these flaws in the respective plans is that they fall short of a single-payer plan. As a society, we aren’t willing to let people die in the streets as they do in undeveloped countries, and a good thing too. But we are (unnecessarily) squeamish about single-payer “socialized medicine”. So we fall between two stools, avoiding the inhumanity of one without gaining the benefits of the other.

Anything between those extreme models of death-in-the-streets and single-payer health care requires decisions about how to pool and price risk and the administrative systems to track who pays for what care. This ends up being inefficient, cruel, or both. As an ardent capitalist, I prefer private free-market solutions, but as a believer in universal high-quality health care at the least cost, I’ve come around to believing in the necessity of a single-payer system. I think both Clinton and Obama do too. It’s just a shame the electorate doesn’t.

February 9, 2008

Obama continued

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:52 pm

An assortment of Obama-related items. First, Lawrence Lessig, legal scholar and founder of the Creative Commons, explains in his inimitable slide show style why he’s for Obama:

Lest we forget, Obama is not Jesus, although if you touch the hem of his robe, your irritable bowel syndrome will be healed. Seriously, if you read through the comments of this post, it’s a little disturbing to hear of people not voting for Obama because of the enthusiasm of some of his supporters. After all, young people are supposed to go overboard when they find someone they can believe in. Better Obama than Ayn Rand or Karl Marx.

Lastly, I don’t know to what extent these results reflect today’s caucuses and primary wins for Obama, but the Iowa Election Markets have shown a complete swap of Clinton’s and Obama’s positions since Super Tuesday. While the delegate counts still favor Clinton, apparently the traders believe Obama will get the nomination. (I’ve found the IEM the best of the election markets, but it can’t predict the future, only accurately incorporate currently available information.)

Lastly, Andrew Sullivan, whose blog has become my source for all things Obama, has an article in the Atlantic arguing that the boomers in politics have been refighting the battles of the 60’s for the past 30 years, and will continue to do so until someone that came of age after the 60’s, a post-boomer, becomes president. Obama is not only demographically such a figure, but understands that this is so, and has crafted his entire message as a call to move beyond the silly partisan food fights (Whitewater, Ken Starr, impeachment, swift boats, etc.) of the 90’s and 2000’s.

February 2, 2008

Something’s Happening Here

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:43 pm

I have never seen anything like this. Obama’s oratory has been described as lyrical. Here’s the proof.

January 27, 2008

Why I’m Voting for Obama

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:24 pm

On February 5th, I will find myself in a rather novel situation — voting in a primary where my vote actually matters. Until now, California has always had a rather late primary, so my vote was merely symbolic. It was kind of nice, actually, since I could be an uninvolved observer in the primary process, knowing that I would have no meaningful role to play in the decision-making. I could watch from afar without risking any emotional stake in the success or failure of any of the candidates.

This year, however, California has moved up its primary, so I’m forced to decide on a candidate while the outcome is still unknown. I’m registered as an independent, and the Republicans have closed their primary to us non-aligned, but the Democratic primary is open. Which is good, because that is the only party with any candidates I would want to cast a vote for.

For a long time, I’ve felt that Hillary Clinton was the safe, low risk choice. I thought that Obama showed a lot of potential, but I was afraid he was not-ready-for-prime-time and was not quite up to the challenge. Having experienced seven years of a President that seemed to have a lot of charisma but then proved to be horribly incompetent, I was concerned about another untested candidate, no matter how much charisma he had. Sure, Obama could turn out to be great, but he could also prove to be a big disappointment. At least with Clinton, we knew what we were getting, and I would be very content, not thrilled, but content, with her as President.

I also have been turned off by the visceral dislike of so many towards Clinton. A man might be described as being a strong leader, but a woman with the same traits is cold, shrill or strident. I was unwilling to buy into the meme that Clinton was ruthlessly seeking power because it seemed to be based on her gender more than her actions.

But that was until a week ago. And according to Jonathan Chait, I’m not the only one:

Something strange happened the other day. All these different people — friends, co-workers, relatives, people on a liberal e-mail list I read — kept saying the same thing: They’ve suddenly developed a disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think we’ve reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons.

The sentiment seems to be concentrated among Barack Obama supporters. Going into the campaign, most of us liked Hillary Clinton just fine, but the fact that tens of millions of Americans are seized with irrational loathing for her suggested that she might not be a good Democratic nominee. But now that loathing seems a lot less irrational.

Bill Clinton was a good President (even if not such a great husband), but his race-baiting lately has been disgraceful. Kevin Drum is feeling the same way:

I don’t like dog whistle racial appeals when Republicans do it, and I don’t like it when Bill Clinton does it.[…] Yes, Obama has to be able to handle this kind of sewage, and yes, this will almost certainly be forgiven and forgotten among Democrats by November. But it’s not November yet, is it? My primary is a week from Tuesday, and I’m not feeling very disposed to reward this kind of behavior. At this point, it’s looking a lot more likely that I’m going to vote for Obama.

But it’s not just that I’m less inclined to vote for Hillary Clinton. I’ve also been moved by Obama’s vision, as has Caroline Kennedy:

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.

Think it’s a stretch to compare Obama to JFK? Take a look:

Obama has overcome my reluctance, my fear, to hope for something more than just competence and the right stand on the policies. He has inspired me to hope for a transcendent vision of what American can be.

Yes we can.

December 11, 2007

Romney and Lutherans Continued

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:45 am

Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand Romney’s comments about Lutherans in his religion speech (h/t Kevin Drum).

December 8, 2007

Romney and Lutherans

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:47 pm

As we’ve all heard by now, last week Mitt Romney gave his JFK speech, attempting to make conservative Evangelical voters comfortable with his Mormon religion. There have been many excellent commentaries on the absurdity of his “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” statement, but I noticed another statement in the speech:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

Hmm. Confident independence of the Lutherans. Confident independence of the Lutherans? Sorry, but as a life-long Lutheran, I’m just not getting it. I never would have used that phrase to describe my denomination, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US. I would mention our emphasis on justification by grace, which after all is what got Luther excommunicated from the Catholic church and started this whole Protestant thing in the first place. But independence? The ELCA has entered into ecumenical agreements with the mainline Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and UCC denominations, and even signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholics, essentially putting to rest the dispute that began the Protestant Reformation. Hardly steps that assert our independence.

Romney must have been referring to the other US Lutheran denominations, the conservative LCMS and the arch-conservative WELS. Both have condemned the ELCA for its ecumenism, and have created a fundamentalist Lutheran doctrine Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize. The LCMS goes so far as to forbid their pastors from praying, even in a civic memorial, with non-LCMS pastors. Indpendence indeed.

While they represent a minority of Lutherans in the US, as conservatives, they are the ones likely to vote for Romney. So I don’t know if it was a deliberate nod to the conservative minority Lutherans, or if they are the only ones Romney, or his speechwriters, are familiar with. Either way, he certainly wasn’t talking about me or the people I go to church with.

October 25, 2007

A Nuclear Iran

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:17 pm

So I have a question. I’m no foreign policy guy, have no expertise in nuclear proliferation, Iran, or terrorism. I may be naive. Scratch that — I am most certainly naive. But still…why are we so afraid of Iran having a nuke?

If Iran were to develop a nuclear bomb, the U.S. would point a small fraction of our nuclear arsenal at Tehran, say a mere thousand warheads or so. We would make it clear to Iran that, should they use a nuclear missile on anyone, anywhere, we will use ours on them. Unlike with the old USSR, this isn’t mutually assured destruction, since only one side would be destroyed, and it wouldn’t be us.

But what if Iran gave a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group that then used it on Israel? I would think Iran would understand that they would be held responsible for any nuclear attack on Israel, even if it didn’t originate from a missile silo on Iranian soil.

Nuclear proliferation is a really really bad thing, but nuclear bombs are not a particularly useful weapon if you value your country’s continued survival.

So my point isn’t that a nuclear Iran wouldn’t be a bad thing, or that we should threaten Iran with nuclear annihilation. But I’m just asking: why do we think Iran would use a nuclear weapon when the biggest, baddest nuclear power in the world, the U.S., could reasonably be expected to retaliate in kind? Why are we so afraid of Iran having a nuke?

Can anyone explain it to me?

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