American Melodrama

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Snively Whiplash and Dudley Doright tied Sweet Nell to the train tracks, but promised her that they’d return in 2 years, before the train arrived, to set her free. They apologized, but said that she’d be fine and that she shouldn’t worry, explaining that tying damsels to train tracks was only done for the best of intentions. But as the purported arrival of the train grew nearer, Snively and Dudley just couldn’t seem to agree on how to untie Sweet Nell.

Now unlike most melodramas, this one was special. Sweet Nell wasn’t just a cast member, she was the audience too. Part of Nell wanted Snively to be the one to untie her, while the other part of her longed for Dudley to be the hero. Sweet Nell watched the news every night, and reviewed blogs every couple of hours to see when, or even if, she’d be freed from her cruel (albeit artificial) fate. She didn’t know if it would be Whiplash or Doright, both, or neither—but it was exciting. Tied to the tracks, Sweet Nell spent hours talking, even arguing, with herself.

What Nell didn’t see was that out of the corners of their eyes, Snively and Dudley were sneaking quick looks at each other, just to make sure that the other one was following the script. Nell, still tied to the rails, and avidly watching every moment of melodrama, didn’t know that out of sight of the camera, her two competing saviors were sharing beers. Only hours before midnight, Snively and Dudley announced that they still had not figured out how to untie Sweet Nell. Oh, the tension was mounting.

Would Sweet Nell be freed to be tied up another day?

Would Snively be the hero, or would Dudley be the hero?

Then, just before the train was arrived, both of them, together,  untied Sweet Nell, rushing her away from the tracks.  Both of them stood up on nearby picnic tables, bragging simultaneously  “Sweet Nell, Sweet Nell, I saved you from the train.  He wanted you to be destroyed, but I wanted to save you. And I did!”  Snively and Dudley held out their arms to Sweet Nell, whispering “pick me, pick me, I saved you from the train.”

Who would Sweet Nell choose?

Would they have to share Sweet Nell? Maybe they could take turns, switching roles every couple of years.

Would Sweet Nell remember who tied her to the tracks?

Did anybody actually see a train?

Does it matter?

Tune in next year, for the next exciting episode of Authentic American Melodrama.

Kludgeocratic Craziness

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

America is inherently resistant to the idea that the government should or can provide services, yet the overwhelming majority of its people demands high levels of government service. Steve Teles, of Johns Hopkins University, addresses this oxymoronic dilemma in a new essay, which neatly captures ongoing concerns of mine about the complexity and multi-headedness of not just the US federal government, but of the entire system of government within the USA.  He coins the term ‘kludgeocracy’ to describe the ad hoc, overlapping, ill-conceived, and counterproductive approach that is uniquely characteristic of government within the United States of America. 

Professor Teles warns about the inherent counterproductivity of accommodating “the desire to preserve the fiction of small government while also addressing public problems.”  Americans demand all sorts of cake, and our politicians find all sorts of ways to let them eat it, while pretending to meet political demands that we continue to have the cake.  The result is that we consistently create government offerings that are non-optimal. This is not just a federal phenomenon, but it is also relevant to state and local government, and the federal relationship to and ongoing manipulation of local governments.  

His findings are especially relevant for a gridlocked government going over a fiscal cliff. It is tempting to believe that an inefficient Congress is one that is least likely to cause damage, and that procedural arcana, especially widespread formal and informal veto power, is a useful check or balance against overweening government power.  Teles disputes this belief, providing compelling evidence that this sort of bureaucratic non-transparency and inefficiency has the exact opposite outcome, virtually guaranteeing gargantuan omnibus bills that are larded up with irrelevant pork.  The system is tailor made for corruption on the part of external interests, not the least of which are the federal contractors who buy up TV advertising in sponsorship of the Sabbath Windbags.

One of Teles’ observations that especially resonated with me is his assertion that “The American tax code is almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and the corporate side.” How can any normal human being be expected to deal with such a complex, confusing, and ultimately ambiguous ruleset? Why should normal people be expected to hire accountants to figure out how much money they owe the government? Surely this can’t be a full employment plan for the anal retentive.  Americans experience the complexity of health care billing much as frogs experience gradually heating water—it just seems normal when it creeps up to critical levels so slowly. Having spent nearly a decade outside the country, one of the biggest surprises of our return was the total impenetrability of the medical billing system paid for by a purportedly private system that is forced on us by federal rules.  Don’t even start down the path of trying to determine if your 401k or IRA provider is properly accounting for your retirement investments.

The nicest thing you can say about the American Kludgeocracy is that it is equally negative for the advocates of both large and small government–which probably goes a long ways towards explaining how we evolved into such an innately expensive yet inefficient approach. The vocal advocates of smaller government, immediately identifiable by their use of the word ‘statist’ as a pejorative, are offering little contribution to a national dialogue on what degree of government activity would be optimal for a contemporary nation. They can score cheap points within their own constituency by speaking out against things that they have no ability, let alone courage, to actually attempt to change. False dichotomies are inevitably intellectually flawed, nobody truly wants anarchy, so that leaves the unanswerable questions on the table, how much level of government service and control would be most beneficial, and how do we endeavor to ensure that is actually delivered? Those who are comfortable with government-provided solutions are also loathe to answer this fundamental policy question, preferring instead to stealthily insert their big government solution into some opaque form.

To the extent that we as citizens continue to encourage either of today’s main political parties, or demand that our legislators meet single-issue litmus tests, we are only furthering a system that is becoming increasingly expensive, inefficient and damaging not just to our economy, but to our society. As Professor Teles says, you cannot solve a problem until you can name it: the name of this pervasive problem is kludgeocracy. Such an approach is is politically and culturally corrupting, and its time that we started publicly shaming our legislators when they perpetuate these sorts of byzantine approaches.

Blogosphere coverage of Teles’ paper:

The latest outrageous Republican stunt and its reception in Europe

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

The US election was front page news in many of the Sunday papers in Europe this week, and there were extended stories in today’s Financial Times. This week’s Economist came out in support of Obama. The Sunday Times of London had a fascinating story about how some Republicans had noticed some apparent similarities between the autobiography of Obama, and purported terrorist William Ayers (a well-established and respected professional, who was never convicted, and probably did not cause as much damage as Joschka Fischer, who was forgiven by the German people and currently serves as foreign minister).

The brother in law of a Republican congressman had contacted an Oxford scholar who does work in statistical analysis of authorship (a subject I’m mildly familiar with), and offered him $10,000 to prove that Obama’s autobio was actually ghost written by Ayers. Oxford agreed to take this on as a consulting project, with the stipulation that the results must be published, no matter which way they came out. At this point, the Republicans failed to cough up the 10 grand. Duh!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox got this story wrong, reporting that congressman Cannon’s brother in law actually paid the $10K. A lengthy piece by Oxford professor Peter Millican in the Sunday Times indicated that he did not even have the opportunity to accept the money, because the offer was withdrawn after Oxford made it clear that the publishing of the results would not be conditional on Cannon’s hypothesis being proven.

I’m at an event in Cannes with a number of my co-workers from the US and Europe. One other Londoner was aware of this story about the attempt to use a computer to prove the Obama was a terrorist, but none of the Americans or Germans had picked up on it. One of the American analysts did announce, in front of several hundred co-workers, “If you are sick and tired of coverage of the election, DON’T come to Europe.”

My 3rd National Election Across the Pond

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

This is my 3rd US presidential election season spent in Europe. Although I’m certainly aware of much of what happens I’ve been mostly insulated from negative campaign ads and the constant diet of meaningless spin and posturing. I’ve also had the opportunity to view a globally unique process from outside eyes.

Make no mistake about it, the US presidential election is a matter of great attention around the world. There are two reasons for this. First, it is a totally fascinating form of entertainment, offering a compelling glimpse into American culture. Second, it is a plain fact that America has an impact on the world that far outweighs its relative population size. American foreign policy has a significant impact in Europe and Asia, and American media is consumed throughout the world. Europeans are usually aware of the national political seen in multiple countries, so why shouldn’t they be interested in what happens in our country?

I spent the 2000 election season working in Switzerland, mostly living in the Glockenhof Hotel of Zurich. Bush’s narrow victory was somewhat marred by a controversy–especially in Florida. The idea that the election for the chief executive of the most influential country in the world could be determined by hanging chads was baffling to the Swiss, if not completely distressing. Switzerland, which arguably has been a democracy for centuries longer than the USA. Although a much smaller country, the Swiss Federation has a fiendishly complex electoral system, supporting local and minority interests through proportional representation. The next time we consider sending a delegation to Zimbabwe to ensure fair elections, we need to be aware that the Swiss seriously discussed sending a delegation to the US.

The 2004 election, at least from the outside looking in, seemed very much to be a referendum on the Iraq War, a preemptive war that was deeply unpopular throughout Europe. Relatively few Americans seem to be concerned about how the rest of the world views their president, which is a ‘foreign’ attitude to Europeans, who usually have strong opinions about the leadership not just of America, but also of the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Israel, Australia and a variety of other countries. The deep unpopularity of Bush’s policies has lead to even greater interest in Europe in his successor.

This brings me to 2008, an election that continues to attract attention throughout the globe. Joe, who turns out not to be a plumber (nor is his name really Joe) has been front page news here, and everyone in the UK has seen him on TV. Tonight’s news did a story on Palin having spent $150,000 on clothing (they missed the important fact that part of that was spent on hair and makeup). They dug up some earlier footage of Michelle Obama talking about how little Barack spent on clothing, and a recent clip of Palin claiming to be a redneck, pointing out that she was wearing a $2,500 jacket at the time. The Brits know all about rednecks.

Although it was considered an insult to suggest that Tony Blair ‘wanted to be president,’ the English actually are a bit jealous about the American’s having the ability to directly elect their national leader, explaining some of their curiosity about the process. When we were still at the lapel pin controversy stage, I did think that TV in the UK was going out of its way to film Americans making silly comments. Treated to the spectacle of seeing McCain, to a chorus of boos, explaining to his rally attendees that Obama is not a terrorist, but is an honorable man (although he’s been pallin’ around with terrorists), and that Obama is not an Arab, but is “a decent, family man” (I leave it to my readers to decide for themselves if ‘decent Arab’ is an oxymoron).

One pundit suggested that this year’s campaign “might be the last great presidential race of the TV Age.” That’s hard for me to judge, because I’ve been seeing this year’s political videos on the web. We do get more US TV than ever before, so I can get my fill of Fox, which generally just shows the same stuff here that it does in the States–MSNBC and CNN have EU offices and concentrate on non-US news. We started getting Colbert Report and the Daily Show here recently, two shows that I’d heard about, but had never seen. I’m not quite sure what the Brits make of them, but they have a long tradition of deeply satirical news shows, and were doing it long before SNL and Chevy Chase.

US presidential races certainly make for a much more colorful race than Europeans are accustomed to, although Zimbabwe and South Africa have their moments of drama. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Palin is just the most recent in a long line of American politicians who started in show biz, including Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Ventura, and multiple congressmen. The Brits have had a couple of actors as MPs, and the Italians notoriously elected a porn queen, but none of these people have reached the level of national political importance (although Berlusconi has a background in media and sports) . Asking some of my continental coworkers if they could think of any entertainers or atheletes turned politician, a German somewhat indignantly replied that nobody really wanted to be a politician in Germany. Before discounting that as yet another example of eurodecadence, I would suggest that it might be possible for somebody to want political office just a bit too much.

Well, I’m going to get my news fill on The Daily Show, now, and tomorrow, Elizabeth and I are off to Rome to see what the latins think about the political circus.

Can I vote for Colin Powell?

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Colin Powell’s carefully worded endorsement of Barack Obama may well be remembered as a highly-significant political speech. In Sunday’s network broadcast of Meet The Press, this former Bush Secretary of State and Republican, very precisely states the reasons why he has become disappointed with John McCain, and why feels that Obama will be a more suitable president. He very gracefully lays out his objections to Palin, and the implications of her choice as running mate, without attacking her personally.

After the rather poor treatment that Powell had from the current administration, and his disagreements about Iraq, I don’t think anybody was actually surprised that he is endorsing Obama. Perhaps some of the specific reasons did come as a surprise.

What resonated with me was his concern that as of late, the McCain campaign has found nothing more substantive to offer in support of his candidacy beyond contentions that Obama has been “pallin’ around with terrorists.” Powell made a very compelling case that McCain has gone over a line that shouldn’t have been crossed, portraying the Ayers allegations as well-exceeding the level of mud he expects to be slung by his commander in chief.

Personally, I don’t think that terms like ‘anti-American’ or ‘unpatriotic’ should play any part in a political campaign. Its insulting when Palin paints entire regions of the country as being anti-American. What kind of a bigoted sort of worldview could possibly underlie ideas like that?

A very bizarre incident happened in Lakeville, MN last Friday, at a McCain rally when one supporter accused Obama of consorting with terrorists, and to a chorus of boos, McCain gallantly defended Obama’s honor. Then another supporter stood up and explained that Obama was an Arab. McCain again corrected one of his supporters on national TV, defending Obama’s honor by saying “No ma’m, he’s a decent family man.”

Call me the bigot now when I admit that I don’t think most of the audience at that rally picked up on the irony of McCain’s awkward defense of Obama. Powell got it, and along with American Muslim Abed Z. Bhuyan (Powell Rejects Islamophobia), I found Powell’s plea to recognize and stop anti-Islamic hatred to be one of the few truly profound and important messages delivered by a ‘politician’ during this year’s political race.

My concern is that we are in huge need of wise leadership, but wisdom doesn’t seem to be a currency that buys much in American politics right now.

Too cute to eat

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

Whackamole-3.jpg

Before dinner tonight with a group of people from church, Brooke & Tate’s precocious 2-year old, Asher, came up with a new term for a food that combines a video game with high-fat dip, “whackamole.”

In honor of Asher’s clever coinage, Elizabeth created this little guy to accompany us to the gridiron.