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Fri, Apr. 9th, 2010, 04:50 pm
Journalists: Stop Rolling Over For Your Detractors

Journalism is an important institution in the free world. Few dispute this. Journalism is an important institution in America, too; one so valuable that the framers of our Constitution chose to codify the freedom of the press in the First Amendment.

We live in a complicated world. Few dispute this. Nobody has time to absorb information found in every corner; ordinary Americans do not have time to resolve, for themselves, the inner happenings of the titans on Wall Street or the troubled alleys in Afghanistan. Ordinary citizens do not have time to investigate potential corruption in government or the potential outcomes of current economic trends.

We the people rely on other people to gather that information for us: we rely on journalists.

People will criticize the press for doing just that. This is not a new or controversial statement. The act of journalism has been imbued with constant accusations of "bias," since its beginning, and on many occasions in history governments as well as private institutions have tried to shut it down. The way this story is written clearly benefits the Left, or benefits the Right, a detractor will say.

That may be true. But a story is still a story.

So when I read things like this - commentary on how most people just don't seem to listen to journalists anymore - I'm disheartened. Timothy Noah's article discusses one broad example: collectives endeavors by newspapers, magazines and networks all over the country to explain, as fairly and precisely as possible, what has been wrong with healthcare in the United States, and what a person without health insurance goes through in America.

About 85% of American adults are currently insured (it's a lot lower for children), so most of us do not have the experience of trying to get medical care without insurance. A lot of others may have some individual plan that they think is working great for them, but haven't gotten sick yet and hadn't tried to use it, at which point they may find it less of a good plan than they expected. Our own healthcare costs are inflated by uninsured people who use expensive, late ER-care to treat conditions that should have been simpler, but ultimately can't pay their bills and pass the costs on to us.

So for those of us who aren't in the know - we benefit from having someone else to tell us what uninsured people go through, and we benefit from having independent parties, who are members of neither the health insurance industry nor government, mediate the conversation and bring us facts about what we pay because the system is broken.

People in the media know that the Republican party has been lying for approximately 16 months on healthcare. Exaggerations and politicking are strangers to no party and to no issue, but it is also a bona-fide FACT that Obama's healthcare reform looks like what Republican Mitt Romney passed in Massachusetts, It is a bona-fide FACT that Republicans in Congress worked hard to get their moderate members to oppose a bill that was, ultimately, exactly what they had always been asking for (See Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). It is a bona-fide FACT that the Republican plan for healthcare failed address most problems with American healthcare, and it's a bona-fide FACT that Obama's clan is close to the minimum amount of intervention required, far less than progressives wanted or advocated.

It's a bona-fide FACT that most people polled on the healthcare bill don't even know what's in it, and it's a bona-fide FACT that most people, in general, remain largely ignorant to the inner workings of business and government. It's a bona-fide FACT that Barack Obama has cut taxes for most Americans since becoming president, and a bona-fide FACT that he has no plans of increasing taxes on the vast majority of Americans beyond what they were when he assumed office. It is a bona-fide FACT that a lot of voters form opinions, not on facts and information, but on how often they hear a certain sound byte, or on vague and general sentiments they see coming from the political party or pundits they trust.

This is not to their discredit, it is just how people process information when they are bombarded with countless, contradictory bits of information every day, and they have no time to do a thorough investigation for themselves. They try to find the "middle" of what they are hearing, or they find someone they trust, and take sides. They come to see anyone who tells them what they don't believe (even if it's the truth) as the enemy.

And the Right has, for years, been running against the media when it comes to truth on healthcare, immigration, the military and Wall Street. If you can't come up with a clear and cohesive argument as to why you should should get to hang on to power and privilege to everyone else's detriment, run against the media instead, and tell people that the media is lying.

Journalists need to speak up for themselves. Their institution is crumbling. The way to re-gain the public's trust is not to suddenly try to side with your detractors and question even for yourself whether you are trustworthy - and hope then that your detractors will look more favorably on you.

Journalists need to insist, firmly, that they know how to tell the truth from a lie and that they have no incentive to perpetuate the wrong side. Liberals do not pay the media, corporations do. So when they public information that insults or damages the reputation of corporations, there's no reason for it to be fabricated.

What we've had, though, is a timid, frightened and trembling media run away from itself, fearing detractors.

They hire opinionated pundits and columnists when they don't trust their reporters; a liberal to praise Barack Obama, and a conservative to damn their very own reporters.

They think that somehow, taking a small step to the Right - which translates to talking less about what uninsured people are saying and a little more about what Republican congressman are saying - will put them in the clear or help them find the perfect center. They think that following the polls will work.

Sadly, politicians, who are often accused of bending their views at popular whim, aren't nearly as poll-driven as reporters, who scatter like flocks of pigeons when Gallup or Rasmussen comes chasing. And what happens is that voters, also, try to find the mushy middle. If the media takes a step to the Right, the voters will take a step to the Right, and and then the media will take a step to the Right trying to keep up. Even the Right-leaning media will take a step to the Right.

News to CNN: Fox is still going to accuse you of being "the liberal media" no matter if you report the facts straight or if you uphold Ronald Reagan as the second coming of Jesus. Same for network news and MSNBC.

My advice is to stick to your guns. If you weren't lying when you said all that stuff, then for heaven's sake act like you weren't lying and defend yourself. Run a clean, clear and professional news operation, consider all sides, and tell the truth. Hit back at Fox, hard, and hit back at Conservative lies about who journalists are and what they do.

This country depends on it.

Thu, Apr. 8th, 2010, 03:46 pm
Self-Employment and Taxes: anybody know how that works?

2010 might turn out to be the first year I actually make more than $400 over the course of the year by doing freelance writing. There's a possibility that I will earn considerably more than that if I decide I want to go all-out and do it full time, but that's probably not going to happen.

In any case, I'm already on track to exceed what amounts to about a month's rent from writing.

I don't know how the hell to account for this other than reporting "extra income" on my tax forms next April. I'm assuming it's actually a somewhat complicated and tedious process, as I am told I can deduct the cost of Internet service and new computers and other things I paid for just for writing, as business expenses (and those actually cost me much more than I was paid for writing last year - maybe not this year though).

I've also been told I can walk into Wells Fargo and tell them I need to set up a business account, and put all my freelancing checks there (and buy materials from that account) and my income is what I "pay" myself by moving money from that account to my personal checking or savings. Those self-payments are all I'd need to pay income taxes on (except maybe for business/corporate taxes... which, for me, would be like, what, $0.85 a year?) I can even pay for my health insurance directly from my business account and that doesn't count as income. Is that correct?

I just don't want to get audited by the IRS and learn that I neglected to pay $40 in taxes, and then they'd like, I dunno, come in to take my fucking socks and incense burner or something.

Am I at all on the right track here? As of now, my official business records are this college spiral notebook with handwritten numbers and dried up wine or grape juice on it.

Tue, Mar. 23rd, 2010, 12:48 am
Healthcare Reform Post-Mortem: What Happened, and Where we Are Now

Two comments; first: Yeah! We did it! Change!

And then: what the hell happened?

We had a popular new Democratic president with outstanding rhetorical skills, elected with the biggest percentage of voters in 20 years - largely on plans to reform healthcare - allied by the biggest Democratic majority in congress since 1976 - and in spite of that it took a year-long, caustic and fierce battle to the brink of political suicide to enact a bill that is so moderate and incremental that a liberal Republican could have thought of it. Indeed it has key elements John McCain supported in 2008 and looks somewhat like what Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts.

I'll say it again: "Obamacare" is moderate and incremental. It doesn't go as far to cover everyone as we will need to go in the future, and some will say it doesn't even go far enough for now. Yet we've come out with a country more divided, with a more fearful status-quo, than we have seen since the Civil Rights era.

Lets create a scale of government involvement in a healthcare system for perspective. A totally government-run and non-optional healthcare system where all doctors and healthcare workers are government employees - say Cuba's system - is ranked as 100 in government involvement. A totally unregulated "Ayn Rand's Dream" free-market system where you only get what you can personally pay for even if you're dying, and providers can set whatever price they want, will be a 0 in government involvement.

That would mean "Obamacare" moved us from about a 25 to a 35. Most of the developed world is between 50 and 90.

The National Health Service in the U.K., in which the government employs all doctors but a small minority of citizens still choose private plans and there are small fees for most services, would be a 95. Canada's government-insured system where the government pays for care but you get it from private doctor's offices and hospitals, would be about a 60 with some government and some market. A private insurance system that contains one "public option" letting people buy insurance from the government if they want - a true balance letting individuals opt for a government or private system - would be about a 45. Switzerland's system with compulsory health insurance from nonprofit private companies (banned by law from earning a profit on their services) would be about a 40. America's pre-2010 system, which guarantees care in worst-case scenarios where you are broke but dragged to the hospital bleeding, and provides mostly-free care to seniors, some poor people and veterans - but is mostly market-run and leaves many uninsured - would be about a 25. The new system, when fully initiated after 2014, will ensure that anyone can some level of routine care if they want it and enforces penalties to encourage everyone to do so, but from private companies that earn lots of profit for providing care. It's a 35.

The changes will make a big difference for many uninsured and under-insured Americans, but the post-"Obamacare" American healthcare system is still one of the most right-leaning and market-oriented systems in the developed world. And yet the more conservative 40 percent of the country is treating it like the plague.

So, what the hell happened!?

One word: politics.

To some extent there are Americans who would prefer our healthcare system to be closer to a 10 or 15 in government control, so of course they're going to be bothered by any change that makes the system more universal or more regulated. But they're a fringe that doesn't manifest highly in polls - perhaps no more than 25 percent of the country - so what's going on with these caustic remarks from independent voters, and this anger at Democrats for passing the bill?

Americans have a cultural preference for balance. Some libertarians and liberals are drawn to ideological consistency, but the the crucial bloc that usually decides which direction the country moves in prefers a system that draws a little influence from any two sides of opposition.

The manifestations of a desire for balance are clear and predictable in our recent history: Americans like divided government, and the party that has control of the White House will inevitably, eventually lose seats in Congress. We like Republicans who come from liberal states and Democrats who come from conservative states. Americans usually elect a new president from the opposite party from the last one, and there haven't been three presidents in a row from the same party since 1928 when Herbert Hoover followed Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding. Candidates always win votes by proving "bipartisan" credentials and a willingness to hear out the other side, whether the sentiment is genuine or not.

Sometimes Americans' view of "balance" is skewed by privilege or history. For example, the word "feminist" means a belief that women should have equal rights and opportunities compared to men, but most people consider feminism an "extreme" word - though equality would suggest feminist ideals represent a perfect balance. A lot of Americans think 25% representation from women in Congress is reasonably diverse and sounds about right, even though a straightforward analysis would consider it blatantly lopsided. Similarly, it is hard to find middle ground when it comes to issues involving race and sexual orientation when history is full of white and heterosexual dominance - most peoples' compromise position ends up looking more like milder forms of prejudice, rejecting past generations' attitudes but still making life harder for minorities than it is for most people. They like black people as long as most of the black person's friends are white, though they'd never have the same standard for white people. They're OK with gay people as long as the gay person doesn't act "too flamboyant," etc. (It's especially hard for people to find balance when the unfairness tilts in their own favor.)

Americans try to find the middle ground, so when they hear two parties taking two perspectives on a single issue, they assume that both are somewhat right and somewhat wrong, and shoot for the middle. The debate over healthcare reform was no different, and Americans wanted something both Democrats and Republicans would like.

To this cause, Republicans found a brilliant winning strategy to have an unfair amount of influence in the debate. That is: keep crying "government takeover!" and "socialism!" and "leftism!" on healthcare no matter how many items Democrats give up on to move their policy in your direction, and most voters will keep trying to find the "middle" and decide the Democratic plan is too liberal, too much, too fast, or whatever. While all the while the voters are unaware they are moving to the Right compared to where they were months ago. In the end you come up with a product that is centrist or even center-Right, that people would have loved in the beginning, but they still end up thinking it's an overreach by the left and conclude we need more Republicans in government. A win for Republicans, right? Current polls would say so. That's why the first strategy of Republicans in congress was to unify their caucus against the bill, ensuring that not a single one of them voted for it, giving the appearance that the finished bill was totally unpalatable to anyone who isn't on the far-left.

My guess is that this Republican strategy will backfire. They drooled over polls saying a majority of Americans oppose the bill, but a portion of those Americans opposed it because they wanted a more liberal and more far-reaching bill, which surely doesn't make them Republican allies.

Significant numbers of other hesitant voters will be lost too. The problem is that keeping up the current rhetoric is painfully exhausting, and when the venom finally does die down, there will be less to distract voters from the bill itself, which is hardly leftist at all, and certainly not a government "takeover." Meanwhile, the people the Republicans rallied to put out on their front lines - the Tea Partiers and the reactionary wing of Congress - are not an example of "balance" that defines most Americans, who will be at a loss to figure out who represents a reasonable counterpart to Obama and to moderate Democrats.

Newspapers will publish "what's in it for you" stories listing some concrete things that the bill has to offer:

Many Americans age 23-26 will suddenly find themselves covered by their parents' health insurance plans again; a huge benefit to them, and a big relief for their parents too. Many Americans who are just a little older will find themselves finally able to buy insurance due to generous subsidies that decrease with income. Those with pre-existing conditions will suddenly be able to get coverage and others will be saved from being dropped. A bunch of seniors with poor drug coverage will get checks for $250 to help them pay for it, and it's hard to be oblivious to a check in the mail. Employees in small companies will be more likely to get health coverage since their company will be assisted by the government if they provide it and fined by the government if they don't - those who do want to provide coverage will likely be grateful. People seeking individual plans will be able to choose from plans available to people in other states, putting some pressure on insurance companies to keep rates lower and stay competitive.

Most importantly, it will be illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to those with existing conditions, so it will be possible for people with HIV or diabetes to buy health insurance individually. And it will be nearly impossible for insurance companies to randomly drop you, as they have done to many customers before when those customers got sick. And everyone will be required by law to buy health insurance or pay a fine, something they may resent at first but will likely get used to and be glad they have.

Most people will find these changes to be good, and enough of them will be personally helped that they'll end up liking the bill. And the fact that Republicans unanimously opposed it won't make Republicans look very "balanced."

If I have to make a call, I'd guess that two weeks from now this "unpopular" bill will be seen as a positive step by a slim majority of Americans. The wording a poll uses will matter a lot, but I think that by November around 55 percent of Americans will like the bill, which will be a huge victory for Obama and Democrats. I could be wrong, and Republicans could have a surprising endurance in keeping up their current rhetoric, but my guess is that a small upward tick will result in a few of the more moderate Republicans backing off and providing the "balance" that Americans need to re-position themselves more in favor of healthcare reform.

Wed, Mar. 10th, 2010, 09:21 pm
The Current Debate over American Education is Classist

You can't convince me how you believe in the potential of kids from low-income, failing schools, and then in the same breath argue that people who grew up in those schools are bad candidates to be teachers.

But that's what a recent article in Newsweek seems to do, in a discussion of the need to fire teachers whose students underperform, and the need to recruit new teachers who came from more prestegious colleges.

I don't dispute the article's sentiment towards bad teachers, but this quote from a sidebar in the Newsweek article caught my eye: in "2000, 37% of teachers [came] from colleges with SAT scores in the lowest 5%," explaining that this happens because teaching is an "undesirable" fall-back job.

The SAT, like the ACT and every standardized test, does not measure intelligence: it measures the value of your pre-college education. So if the public education system is flawed - and the Newsweek article argues yes, it is - it seems ridiculous to be judging students or their colleges on what their SAT scores were or what their school's average SAT scores were. Consider also that a college with SAT scores in the lowest 5% are not representing the lowest 5% of students, but rather, the lowest 5% SAT-scoring colleges, which still select from higher-performing high school graduates and represent closer to the 50th percentile of all students.

Essentially, the statement in Newsweek is like saying low-income people who graduated from urban schools with average test scores and worked their way through school at the city college are a black stain on the educational system as teachers, compared to students who went to major universities and lived in the dorms. This is a prime example of the politics of privilege.

Yes, there are myrad problems with schools in America, which is why, as Newsweek itself cites, kids who grow up in low-income households underperform middle-class students, and black and hispanic kids underperform white kids in public schools year after year. It has been a permanent problem plaguing the country and proving that some injustice is taking place. And while teacher incompetence might be a factor in school districts everywhere, it does not explain the fullness of this disparity.

Poverty is one of the most obvious unaddressed factors here, but here's something else that stands a chance of explaining much of this issue. The vast majority of teachers are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. In schools where the majority of students are Hispanic or black, the white teachers are a "ruling class" of sorts in an intrinsically sensitive situation as the ones making crucial decisions for and wielding authority over people who are different from them. We know that to grow up white in America is to be instilled with subtle and overt cues that your own culture, values and experiences are superior; considering the power a teacher has over her or his students, it would be so easy for conscious and unconscious biases to affect the students. Teacher training programs often pay some lip-service to diversity, but cannot be truly effective unless they are led and organized by people from diverse backgrounds who aren't afraid to "go there."

Perhaps the fact that white, middle-class people who have not been thoroughly trained in anti-racism dominate the American teaching class is responsible for some of the following facts:

• Statistically, black and Latino students recieve receive harsher punishments for misbehavior in school compared to white students, which has costly psychological effects that impact learning.

• As an ultimate extension of this problem, black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than students of any other race, resulting in absence from the classroom that causes them to fall behind in learning.

• Statistically, black students - particularly boys - are more likely to be placed in special ed when they don't need to be, which results in confusion and reduced learning among those who don't belong there.

• Statistically, black and Latino students, as well as female students, are less likely to be recommended for gifted programs by their teachers. Many schools in poor districts are less likely to have gifted programs in the first place.

These are all extreme cases that have measurable proof, but I could have brought in many more links. And if all these things are true, I think it would indicate that more subtle attitudes that privilege whiteness, "giftedness" and middle-class experience are definitely present dividing students and teachers.

Teachers across America, who are mostly white, are obviously not adequately trained to handle a racially-diverse, income-diverse and ability-diverse group of students. This is not to dog on teachers; it just seems to be the fairest and most precise explanation for why it is consistently the nonwhite and low-income students who have lower average test scores and struggle with the lowest graduation rates. Teachers are verifiably misenterpreting social and cultural differences as learning disabilities. Teachers are verifiably singling out people of color for extra dicipline. Teachers are verifiably less likely to recognize hard work and achievement in students who are not white. The way that these things work is subtle: the actions that perpetrate inequalities may be subconscious and un-self-recognized. You may not be able to easily single out individual teachers and say "you're racist" or "you're sexist," but the way the system ia working makes it so: the facts are indesputable.

So this other Newsweek excerpt struck me as well: "About 20 years ago, a Princeton senior named Wendy Kopp wrote her senior thesis proposing an organization to draw graduates from elite schools into teaching poor kids. Her idea was to hire them for just a couple of years, and then let them move on to Wall Street or wherever. Today, Teach for America sends about 4,100 grads, many from Ivy League colleges, into inner-city schools each year."

I've written about my issues with the Teach for America program in the past, but the way it was put here struck me as an enormous conceit that parallels my thoughts on privilege in education. Somehow, it suggests, ivy-leaguers are so genetically or dispositionally superior to everyone else that their 6 weeks of training before they teach is superior to the years of teaching experience and cultural experience shared by the teachers already in that district. It suggests that 22-year-old Berkely graduates are the crucial element that will revolutionize poor school districts and communities. It reminds me of the white hero narrative we often see in American film (acknowledging that TFA members are mostly but not all white and their students are not all people of color), and it turns out that research varies drastically when it comes to the corps' effectiveness for students and on its ability to empassion its teaching staff. (Naturally, the studies the organization cites about itself are only the positive ones.) A young person's passion and enthusiasm may contribute something positive to students, and the organization is good at instilling its corps with the most up-to-date research on pedagogy, which a 10-year teacher may not have - but while everyone seems to want badly for the program to work, communities it serves can be ambivalent.

The Internet has countless hellish accounts of privileged people importing to low-income schools and hating it, which represent extreme cases where students and schools were very clearly caught up in something damaging. Ultimately, I think that the exact opposite is the answer to work on education in America: the thing we need to do is recruit and train people more from within that community to teach there, and allow them to take crucial roles in training prospective teachers. Teaching should not be a "fall back" for suburban people who don't know what to do with their degree, it should be a way for people from poor communities to demonstrate their own success and inspire students who identify with them.

As for middle class suburban people who do want to travel to low-income districts to "make a difference," there needs to be an affirmative-action program for the faculty of every teacher education program in America, and programs need to focus not on connecting college students with diverse students, but on connecting them to diverse teachers who can model, from personal experience, better ways to approach "diversity."

Tue, Feb. 16th, 2010, 04:59 pm
J.K. Rowling Explains the Benefit of Failure

I was inspired by this video where J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter - who was living off of government welfare when she wrote her first book - explains the benefit of personal failure and disadvantage.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.



I've often had mixed feelings about academia, which seems to, on one hand, be a noble realm of liberalism and ideas, designed to encourage our brightest minds to collaborate for a common good. On the other hand, academia is full of institutions of privilege that are designed take smaller distinctions in competence and intelligence on admissions requirements, and make them big distinctions through opportunity and prestige by the time of graduation.

It seems that the ultimate goal of presidents and faculty members who aim to make their academic institutions "prestegious," is to aid and increase social inequality and stratification. They want to give their graduates the best footing compared to everyone else, and the differences between the Ivy Leaguer and the non Ivy Leaguer are much greater after graduation than before.

That's hardly the utopian aim of bettering society, and hardly makes education "the great equalizer."

My personal experience colors my mood towards academia. I don't think I lacked the intelligence to go to a prestegious out-of-state school; teachers and counselors pointed me in that direction from an early age and insisted I was sufficiently talented. I think that I didn't have that opportunity because it was too expensive and because personal burdens I have faced made a single-minded quest for success impossible. My dream was to go to NYU, and while my high school grades and test scores were sufficient, I realized it was out of my price range by a factor of five. Similarly, I think that the privileges I have had by being white and middle-class and male are unearned, and I don't know if I could get even to where I have gotten if my background was different.

These are all questions we have to face living in a society that deems itself a "meritocracy," that still holds a comparitive model of success even as it attempts to develop a fair and coherent system for evaluating success.

Those feelings really come to a head when it comes to my thoughts an institution such as Harvard, which, as a liberal person, I want to defend from the irrational hatred of the Right, yet I have seen much conceit and privilege come from there, as well as ideas that are much less than progressive. How does one, then, gracefully address the unearned privileges that go unrecognized in Harvard's student body, and yet honor the hard work and merit that its graduates have invariably accomplished?

I think that J.K. Rowling, who saw some period of despair after she graduated from college, does a brilliant job of putting the culture of success in privileged academia in proper context without making assumptions or rabble-rousing.

Harry Potter is often slighted by elites in literature and art as being unintellectual and phillistine; I had plenty of English professors who reflected that sentiment. But she is also the person who made writing - a traditionally poorly-paying profession - into the most lucrative, as she is the richest person in the United Kingdom today. It is hard to say her interpretation of literature is less valuable or prestegious than theirs in light of that, and it's hard to knock on her in light of a speech that is similarly nuanced and insightful.

This video is two years old, but I stumbled upon it today and had to pass it on.

Thu, Jan. 28th, 2010, 01:13 am
Obama's First State of the Union Address: A Great Start for 2010

If you are viewing this entry from Facebook, click "view original post" at bottom of the page to see the poll as it is included on livejournal.

It's late and I won't say much about the State of the Union right now, but my first impression is that I'm pretty pleased with President Obama's performance, and eager to see how it will play out in the polls over the next few weeks. The president sounded conciliatory but tough - a good balance for the public to see, but the president will have to be willing to play hardball with recalcitrant Democrats behind closed doors if he wants to get anything done in 2010. He'll have to completely ignore Republicans and move on without them, which is, ironically, the best way to get them to turn around and cooperate when they see they have suddenly become irrelevant. A good resource for specific themes in this address is Tom Shaller on fivethirtyeight.com.

I think my favorite lines in the whole address were President Obama's chastisement of Congress - he spoke of the Senate in particular, and he did not spare Democrats his frustration, which is good when the American public is similarly frustrated with Democrats. He repeatedly pointed out that the House already passed items on his agenda, but the Senate - where Democratic majorities are stronger - has failed to move on practically anything, which is partially due to Republican obstructionism and more to do with Democrats being hesitant and ineffective.

But President Obama directly addressed Republicans, too, by mentioning that if they are going to use their meager 40 seats in the Senate as some kind of mandate, then they are part of the government too and need to take ownership of the country. By this point Republicans had already heckled the president - condescendingly and, in my opinon, in a way that was not fitting of the event - and needed to be told off. He could have been harsher in those cases, but I think he shamed them in a smooth way, and in any case maybe their rudeness will embolden President Obama into being less concilliatory himself.

I'll be interested to see how the snickering and pouty faces Republicans made through most of the speech play in the media over the next few news cycles - they were so out-of-it that they didn't even stand and clap when President Obama first mentioned cutting the capital gains tax for small businesses, which has been a Republican issue for ages.

Even moreso, I'll be interested to see just how many points President Obama upticks in the polls after this - I expect it to be more than a couple but less than a complete game-changer (I expect to see him around 53 - he'll get back the people who voted for him). I'm very pleased to see him taking ownership of the way the last year has gone and pleased to see exactly how he expresses his view of his mistakes and others'. Here's to hoping the next few weeks are full of action and that a forceful White House can light a fire under congress to do something meaningful in 2010.

Poll #1517636 Obama's First State of the Union Address

Did you watch Obama's first State of the Union Address?

Yes!
11(84.6%)
A substantial portion of it
0(0.0%)
A little bit here and there
1(7.7%)
A few clips on news shows or YouTube
0(0.0%)
No
1(7.7%)

How did your interest in this year's State of the Union relate to your interest in others?

I was much more interested
5(38.5%)
I was a little more interested
6(46.2%)
I had about the same level of interest
0(0.0%)
I was less interested in this one
2(15.4%)
I was much less interested in this one
0(0.0%)

Rhetorically, how did the speech strike you?

I was thrilled and impressed
3(25.0%)
I was pleased, but I'll be watching the polls to see if it worked
6(50.0%)
I'm hot and cold on it
0(0.0%)
It didn't go far enough
2(16.7%)
I'm disappointed
1(8.3%)

How did this year's State of the Union influence your opinion of the President?

I already thought Obama was awesome, and I'm thrilled with the speech!
3(27.3%)
I was getting lukewarm on Obama, and he reminded me why I liked him
5(45.5%)
I was always lukewarm on Obama, but I warmed up top him after the speech
0(0.0%)
I like Obama, but I was disappointed with the speech
1(9.1%)
I am skeptical of Obama, but his speech was okay
0(0.0%)
I'm skeptical of Obama, and the speech didn't change anything
2(18.2%)
I dislike Obama, but less now
0(0.0%)
I dislike Obama as much as ever
0(0.0%)

In terms of substance, how do Obama's plans for 2010 strike you after the speech?

Way too far to the Left
0(0.0%)
Too far to the Left, but as good as can be expected from a Democratic president
1(8.3%)
It struck a perfect balance
5(41.7%)
Farther to the Right than I am, but I understand how compromise is necessary in this climate
4(33.3%)
Too far to the Right - I'm disappointed
1(8.3%)
The president's agenda is a mixed bag for me
1(8.3%)

How did President Obama's comments towards the Democrats in congress strike you?

He was soft
4(33.3%)
About right
8(66.7%)
He was too hard on them
0(0.0%)

How did President Obama's comments towards the Republicans strike you?

He was soft
4(33.3%)
About right
8(66.7%)
He was too hard on them
0(0.0%)

When you watch or read about Obama's State of the Union, which perspectives do you take? (select the ones that dominate your view)

I listen to his policies in light of whether I agree or disagree
1(9.1%)
I think about how the speech will affect popularity ratings and future elections
0(0.0%)
I think about how the speech will influence the cooperation of Democrats in congress over the next few months
0(0.0%)
I think about how the speech will influence the cooperation of Republicans in congress over the next few months
0(0.0%)
I think about how the speech will be recorded in history
1(9.1%)

Tell me something you would change about the speech

Last question: What did you think of the Republican response?

I didn't see any of it
3(27.3%)
It was great and I agree with it
0(0.0%)
I disagree with the message but I fear it will be effective
2(18.2%)
I agree with the content, but I don't think it will be effective
0(0.0%)
It was boring and looked staged
6(54.5%)

Thu, Jan. 21st, 2010, 01:46 pm
Young People Stayed Home in Massachusetts on Tuedsay

Yesterday I made the claim that the electorate that sent Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in Massachusets must have looked very different from the electorate that sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008; the collection of voters that went to the polls was much older and more conservative than what Massachusetts normally looks like.

Today a study proves that was true, and the numbers are comforting and depressing at the same time. only 15 percent of people age 18-29 voted in yesterday's special election in Massachusetts. Those voters favored the Democrat by 3 to 1. Meanwhile, 57 percent of voters over 30 showed up - which resulted in exceptionally high turnout for a special election - and those voters were considerably more conservative than their 20-something peers. The older, more conservative selection of voters ultimately sent a liberal Republican to the Senate in Massachusetts.

To compare, about half of all young people voted in 2008, and favored Barack Obama 5 to 1. It is often true that the most liberal voters become no-shows first, which is why the U.S. government is always at least a little more conservative than the average viewpoint of ordinary Americans.

The numbers should be comforting to liberals who can clearly see there is not some basic shift in the country away from Barack Obama, but are also disturbing when they reveal that young people are just as lazy and apathetic as they've always been; Barack Obama did not inspire them to become permanently involved. He made voting "cool" that year, and whether or not he can repeat that will likely depend on how the White House plays it cards from here until the midterms, and from then until the 2012 elections.

President Obama needs to throw some token of support to young people and progressives to shore up his favor with them and ensure they re-elect him and send him a stream of downticket Democrats to help him pass an agenda. Passing the healthcare bill (just to get it off the table) would be a start - albeit that is Congres's, not the president's job - and a jobs bill would be vital, but repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell and putting a little focus on higher education would make a big difference too.

Wed, Jan. 20th, 2010, 03:42 pm
Take a Breath, Folks: Brown's Victory is Not Disaster for Democrats

There is a lot of sensationalism in the media right now, especially among progressives. That is because a Republican, Scott Brown, just won the remainder of Ted Kennedy's senate term in sparkling-blue Massachusetts in a special election yesterday. The narrative is reading: Democrats Failing, America Tilts to the Right; electorate punishes Democrats for liberal agenda.

Take a deep breath. America isn't going down the tubes. We are not embarking upon a resurgence of Republicanism. Does anyone believe, even for a second, that Massachusetts voters are actually tilting conservative? Trust me, folks: if you haven't suddenly tipped to the Right, neither has Massachusetts.

Something else is going on.

Obama's rise to power was as much about demographic changes in the United States as it was a repudiation of Bush. Black, Asian and Latino Americans are becoming populous enough in many states that Democrats can lose by huge margins among white people but still win the election - minority groups are reluctant to vote for a party that is all about protecting privilege, which they don't have, and the Republican party is, indeed, all about privilege. The young people turning 18 right now are more liberal than their still-voting grandparents by huge margins; if only people under 25 could vote, gay marriage and legalized marijuana would already be a reality. That has been an incredible benefit to Obama and the reason why he won in so many states in 2008.

But young people don't vote in special elections - and the special election for Kennedy's seat was no exception - so what you run with on January 19, 2010, a special election, looks more like the electorate of 1992.

Most liberals say they "would consider voting for a Republican," even if it's only a half truth, but for those who were being straightforward, Scott Brown happened to be one of the ones they would consider it for. In Massachusetts, 22 percent of Democrats chose Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley. Brown is more liberal that most Republicans nationwide and is now the single most liberal Republican in the Senate - he would not win a GOP primary for president unless he tacks far to the Right after arriving in the Senate, which would incidentally kill him in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Massachusetts voters are, quite reasonably, put off by the Democrats' line: "we can't do anything with our meager 20-seat majority" so are saying, shit guys, quit being babies and put up with 59 seats.

If Obama weren't the president or if the Democrats only had a 50 or 55 seats in the Senate, Massachusetts voters would not have sent a Republican. But most people do like the idea of "balance" in government and aren't buying the line that Democrats are totally crippled by the Republican minority - remember, Republicans got a war and a horribly disastrous tax cut under the Bush administration, with much smaller majorities.

Some angry liberals who wanted a more progressive healthcare bill voted for Brown out of spite of the Democrats. Brown is also really, really good-looking, once modeled nude for Cosmo (which makes him seem tempered in socially-liberal Massachusetts), and yes, that has an effect on voters. He is not a "radicalized" Southern-style Republican, he matches the culture of Massachusetts, and even then, he would not have won had Coakley not really messed up and arrogantly assumed the election was over at the primary.

Saying this election spells doomsday for Democrats is like saying "the roads are too icy for ANYONE to drive" after a passed-out-drunk driver driving a car with no brakes plowed through a broken stoplight and hit a fence in March.

This narrative is even good: the media like to view everything through the lens of massive trends, and will begin looking favorably on a party or coalition after it has hit some sort of painful, rhetorical "rock bottom." I'm glad that Democrats' "rock bottom" is happening during a 1-race special election rather than a midterm or presidential election year.

This doesn't dictate what will happen in November 2010. President Obama is going to give his State of the Union Address in two weeks and re-set the agenda in light of this (painful) learning experience. For the next 10 months we are only going to be seeing Democrats bring up issues that at least 55% of Americans approve of, and they're going to move through them more quickly so they can actually show some progress - something progressives and hard-up middle-class Americans can mutually celebrate.

If Democrats don't do that, they absolutely deserve to be voted out of office for incompetence - but I have more optimism than that.

Fri, Jan. 15th, 2010, 04:41 pm
How Harry Reid Could Keep his Senate Seat

Cross posted to On One Hand

It's not looking good for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is up for re-election in November despite polls that show him trailing major potential Republican candidates.

Democrats in general have seen a precipitous drop in favorability in Nevada since the 2008 elections. The tourism-based economy and rapid population growth Nevada experienced over the last decade set the state to be hit especially hard by a national economic downturn, and unemployment is currently considerably higher than the national average. That isn't really the Democrats' fault and certainly isn't Harry Reid's fault, but voters almost always punish the incumbent party for economic woes - and President Obama, who got 55 percent of the vote in Nevada, is down to a 44-percent approval rating, an 11-point drop. (Meanwhile Obama's national approval ratings are only 3 points lower than his 2008 share of the vote; he won with 52 percent and is currently averaging 48-49 percent approval.)

The numbers Reid faces don't automatically spell disaster for Democratic incumbents, as Reid won re-election in Nevada in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote even as President Bush beat John Kerry there by 2.5 percent. But Reid has since gotten himself a lower-than-average favorability rating as a Democrat. People on the left consider him to be a timid majority leader, and recent revelations of his pre-2008 gaffes about Barack Obama and race don't help. Beyond that, there are always voters who wish their state's representative would focus on their state rather than on national issues as a majority leader.

One way Reid could win some favor in his state is by offering to resign his Senate leadership to do just that - focus on Nevada. His announcement would say "Nevada has served a crucial role in national policy by having one of its senators serve as majority leader, but six years is sacrifice enough and now it's time for Harry Reid to focus on Nevada again."

A simple internal poll could test this message by asking Nevadans "if Harry Reid were to resign his senate chairmanship to focus exclusively on serving Nevada as senator, would you see this as a favorable or unfavorable move?" and as a follow-up question to determine how many likely voters would vote to keep Reid in office if he did resign the chairmanship. If the numbers are good, or even just okay, Reid should do it.

Senate majority leader is a powerful position in the senate and might be tough to give up, but Reid is backed into a corner. He can't be Senate Majority Leader if he's no longer in the Senate anyway. Ask Tom Dashle, the Democratic senate majority leader from South Dakota who lost his seat to a Republican in 2004, if its harder to lose his status as a senator entirely or just resign the chairmanship.

Either way, it would be considerably less humiliating for Democrats if Harry Reid were no longer senate majority leader and then lost the seat.

Beyond that, Reid should announce that Republicans promise to obstruct Democratic efforts to pass important jobs bills that are yet to move through the Senate, and it is vital to the interests of all working and unemployed Nevadans to keep the seat Democratic. Reid should promise that he will not run again if Nevadans show that they would not re-elect him and another Democrat would do better. Of course it is almost certain that Reid would not make this kind of statement until the point at which he actually decides not to continue in the Senate - which probably won't happen anyway.

Hanging on to Senate seats will be of particular interest for Democrats in 2010 as the GOP's obstructionist agenda promises to capitalize on any chance to oppose Barack Obama's policies. Keeping Nevada in Democratic hands will be important this year, and the tremendous surge in voter registration Democrats enjoyed in Nevada before the 2008 elections would make losing their majority leader's seat an especially bitter pill to swallow.

Mon, Jan. 11th, 2010, 12:34 pm
Confession: I Have a Farm on Farmville

Cross-posted to On One Hand.

I used to reflexively put all my friends' application items on "hide" when they showed up on my Facebook news feed. That included annoying, meaningless notifications like "Christina could use some help fertilizing her crops!" or "Dan found a baby calf on his FarmVille, will you give it a home?"

When I saw a friend obsessively tending to her FarmVille Farm, I asked what it was about, and she was happy to explain. Farmville looks kind of like SimCity - a game I loved as a kid - except that instead of zoning for homes you plant crops, and come back to harvest them when they are grown, which brings in money you can put into buying equipment or more crops. In the communication era there is an added social element that traditional computer games from my youth didn't have, and that is in peer networks; in Farmville you can send gifts to other users or add them as "neighbors" in the game so they come fertilize your crops, which scores you both points. You can decorate your farm to make it look nice for when visitors see it on their own computers, and there are even certain items on Farmville that you can only get with the help of others, which help you advance or bring in cash.



The game looked amusing enough, so I said why not and signed myself up - it's free, and I figured you can put in as much or as little time as you want to. But there's a problem with that kind of test-the-waters approach - FarmVille is addictive. It's designed to give you early rewards, along with increasing responsibility. They start you off with a surge of excitement as you harvest fast-growing crops (strawberries mature in four hours) and advance through the early levels quickly. But as soon you plant something, you give yourself the requirement of coming back soon or face the risk of having unharvested crops linger too long and "wither" to brown twigs, turning moneymakers to money sinks.

A quick google search will indicate how many people are hooked on this game - there are dozens of blogs devoted to Farmville tips and strategy, and communities both for and against the rapidly-growing phoenomenon. At the time of me writing this on January 11, 2010, there are about 75 million people using Farmville across the world (and growing exponentially as each user brings in two or three friends). To put that in perspective, if each of those users spent an hour a day on the game (which would not be far-fetched and many people put much more time into it), the application would be accumulating as many hours of attention as the entire economy of a small country or a medium-sized American state. Picture every working-aged person in Ohio waking up at dawn to harvest the digital pumpkins, working intensely till dusk to plant daffodils, which will be ready in 2 days.

I remember when I was sixteen and people treated the Internet as a geeky thing that socially-awkward people were drawn to. "You actually have a website up there?" someone would ask with a wrinkled nose, talking about my Friendster account or, later on, my profile on an early version of Myspace. "How creepy. You talk to people? Are they, like, stalkers or something?" Now, virtually everyone under the age of 40 along with a hefty dose of those over 40 have Facebook accounts. Maybe Farmville is the next Facebook, if the 70 million users (and growing!) are any indication: this stuff can catch on fast.

Now I'm checking my Facebook friends' news feeds for brown or golden chicken eggs somebody found in a chicken coop that, if clicked, will give my farm new chickens or occasionally other treats like a fig tree or water trough.

A friend told me I was being ridiculous. "That isn't even real," she told me, and asked me how a pursuit that can only serve to be cyclical (harvest crops to earn money to plant crops) is worthwhile.

Well, I said, isn't that cycle a lot like the way the real world works? FarmVille like capitalism, intrinsically connected to the idea of perpetual growth. Think about it: all you really need to survive as a human being is 2,000 calories a day, a roof over your head and maybe, you could argue, medicine. Things like television, computers, brand name clothing and updated styles in furniture are all vanity and excess. Things we grow so used to that we consider them "necessities" and couldn't imagine living without them. Plop a guy from 40,000 BCE into our society and he'll be thinking how about I set up a leather tent in your back yard, work an hour a day to pay for canned beans and rice and have 23 hours of free time to do whatever the hell I want? That's the life! Most people aren't the caveman, though; most of them work hard for extra pay and buy nice things all for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses, which is all I'm doing on my farm - harvesting crops, buying expansions and keeping up. I don't want my friends reaching level 15 before I do!

I have only been on FarmVille for three days. I am generally motivated by novelty, but novelty by definition doesn't last. I'm sure that as time goes by the excitement will wane and harvesting virtual crops will settle into the same smooth daily predictability of checking my inbox or brushing my teeth. I'll let the artichokes sit ripe for a few hours till I have time to get them, maybe losing one or two to withering every now and then but generally keeping things regular and comfortable.

In the meantime, my first crop of yellow bell peppers is ninety-five percent grown and I am absolutely thrilled. A few of my friends fertilized them for me, so we'll have bulging, sparkling yellow produce in no time. I could leave them alone to look pretty on my farm, but instead I'll harvest them the second they finish, to plant new seeds - time is money! We value hard work here on FarmVille!

In the beginning, and I suppose even now, I'm a little embarrassed to be caught up in this. I'll click "ignore" when the game prompts me to post eggs on my wall for friends to collect from me - instead I email them directly to someone who sent eggs to me first. I don't want people to see lots of FarmVille notifications on my public wall and realize that I'm obsessed with a computer game.

But outsiders oughtn't be so quick to judge, really. If you haven't gotten on FarmVille yet, open an acre and see if you can play for a half an hour without getting as hooked as you were as a kid when you brought home your first baby pet.

Seriously, I dare you.

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