Archive for November, 2010

The Thinker

Review: Candide at The Shakespeare Theatre

In 1766, a “German doctor named Ralph” published a satirical story that pummeled a popular meme of its time, voiced by luminaries like Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right.” The German doctor’s book Candide sold thirty thousand copies of in the first year alone, despite being banned by the Catholic Church. No one was fooled who its author was, because Voltaire’s style was unmistakable. His slim story of the naive young man Candide and his adventures in the imperfect and usually hellish world of man he encountered outside of the kingdom of Westphalia became perhaps the world’s second best known satire, after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Nearly two centuries later, the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein turned the work into an opera. Perhaps it was good that Bernstein was a Jew, because had it been written by a Catholic even all these years later the Vatican might have labeled him an apostate.

As a composer, Bernstein is best known for West Side Story. Candide was an opera that he kept perfecting until his death. “There is more of me in that piece than anything I have ever done,” he once told a friend. Bernstein recorded this final variation (which I own) in 1989, just a year before his death. Candide is probably his finest work in the musical/opera genre.

Unfortunately, as operas and musicals go, Candide is produced only infrequently, perhaps because its irreverent themes still offend some sensitive souls. Which means if you love the opera and it is staged, you have to see it. Saturday night my family and I ventured into Washington D.C. to see it performed at The Shakespeare Theatre’s new venue, The Sydney Harman Hall, just across the street from The Verizon Center.

Candide is something of a stretch for The Shakespeare Theatre, both because it is not a Shakespearean play and also because it is a musical. While Sydney Harman Hall is a larger and prettier venue than its old digs around the corner, it is still small enough so there is not much room for an orchestral pit. What you get with Candide is a mini-orchestra of twelve. Fewer instruments means each instrument must carry more weight. The result is that the orchestra was uneven at times, resulting in occasionally wobbly or slightly off-key notes. Once the overture was over and the performance started, it was easier to tune out orchestral imperfections because, as with almost everything The Shakespeare Theatre does, this production is first rate.

Granted that when staging a satire, the characters tend to be one dimensional. Candide of course is specifically named because he is so innocent and naive, but all the characters in the opera are stereotypes. However, most are very funny stereotypes. The hardest part in the show may be Candide’s (played by Geoff Packard) because he is about as interesting a character as off white is an interesting wall color.

In a show like this, there is no point fussing with elaborate or frequently changing scenery, so the director did not bother. Rather, a wood paneled stage is quickly revealed after the first scene. Filled with numerous side doors, windows and trap doors it allows a metaphorical play to briskly unfold. Most of the actors play many roles, so it can be hard to remember who is who.

If you are not familiar with the plot, then do not expect it to make any sense. Candide and his cohorts are unwilling ping pongs blown hither and tither by misfortune largely inflicted by their fellow men. Characters surely dead mysteriously come back to life. This results in some of the strangest lyrics to ever make it into an opera house, like these between Candide and his heartthrob, the beautiful but vacuous Cunegonde (Lauren Molina). Even with lyrics as weird as these, Bernstein manages to wrap them around beautiful, if not exquisite music:

Candide: Dearest how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayoneted, too.

Cunegonde: That is very true. Oh, but love will find a way.

Candide: Then, what did you do?

Cunegonde: We’ll go into that another day. Now let’s talk of you.

While Candide was written solely by Voltaire (whose tomb I had the privilege of visiting in 2006), in its musical incarnation it has had many authors. Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim are among those who helped refine the lyrics. Like the musical Chess, directors apparently assume they have permission to tinker with the opera. For this production, director Mary Zimmerman contributed new dialogue and, I suspect, new plot elements. Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld) was always something of a dandy, but now he is a pedophile as well. Erik is terrific as Maximilian; when he talks it is hard not to at least titter. Lauren Molina plays Cunegonde with tremendous energy and sprightliness. Professor Pangloss (Larry Yando) is as close as this opera comes to having a lead supporting actor, and is gloriously myopic with his assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds, even absurdly right before he is about to hang. (I feel the same way about those who believe in American exceptionalism. I guess we live in the best of all possible countries.) Hollis Resnik is also memorable as the one-buttocked Old Lady.

Voltaire, the many lyricists, director Mary Zimmerman, choreographer Daniel Pelzig and many others will render these many naivities absurd through the backdrop of Bernstein’s glorious music. I believe that the only thing that has kept Candide from being one of our greatest musicals is it offends the feelings and dignity of many of the virtuous among us. Bernstein’s music is often lustrous and glorious, and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” (9.8MB MP3) surely would compete well against some of Verdi or Mozart’s most memorable arias.

Bernstein considered Candide an opera. I say it is more of a musical. It is surprisingly long (just over three hours with intermission), and it has many spoken areas to connect the many songs. Whether opera or musical, fans of either genre should hustle to The Shakespeare Theater to see this delightful rendition before it folds. It is full of laughter and glorious absurdity, leaving few unskewered, either metaphorically or on the stage. It is a musical about mankind’s not so glorious derriere, but so well done you will be moving in for a close proctological view.

See Candide while you can. Satire has rarely been done better.

The Thinker

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.
The Thinker

Break out the condoms

Miracles do happen in the Catholic Church, but it turns out they are much rarer than even the Catholic Church would acknowledge. I’m not talking about alleged miracles of weeping Madonna statues. I am talking about the unexpected fit of common sense by the Catholic Church this week regarding condoms. What’s next? Women priests?

Not that Pope Benedict is expressly approving use of condoms. They still prevent conception, when used as intended, so using them is still a sinful act. However, according to Pope Benedict, the use of a condom may mean that the person is on a path toward more moral behavior. I’m guessing this means using condoms is now a venial sin, instead of a mortal one.

I figure this fit of common sense from a church doggedly insistent on not using any when it contravenes previous teachings is something of a miracle. For a church that supposedly is all about the sanctity of life, it was hard to square its devotion to life with the ability to take it away by passing a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS through an unprotected sex act. Yet until this week, that was the teaching of the church: do not use any form of artificial contraception ever! It was a policy so bat shit insane that in a matter of just decades, rather than centuries, the Catholic Church actually got it.

It’s like God himself sent a thunderbolt of common sense directly into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is the miracle part. The Catholic Church, after all, is an institution organizationally aligned to tune out all common sense when it contradicts its teachings. I am sure God never swears, but if God were to swear the message to Pope Benedict would be something like this, “You stupid asshole! People are dying needless and painful deaths. They are leaving orphans to fend for themselves by the side of the road. All because you tell them I say that it is sinful to use condoms! And you claim life to be sacred? Don’t you realize this makes no sense whatsoever? Don’t you realize that you are driving away the very pro-life Catholics we are trying to keep? Change this policy and change it now!

The new policy is currently written in pencil rather than into stone, since it was not ex cathedra. At first, the ruling seemed qualified. In an interview for an upcoming book, Pope Benedict gave an example of a male prostitute using a condom, saying using it would be a “first step” toward moral behavior because it shows concern for his sexual partner. (He might also be showing concern for his life, but that’s selfish, so I imagine is not a good reason to use a condom.) Today we learn that the Vatican spokesman (well, obviously not a spokeswoman) Rev. Federico Lombardi personally asked the pope whether condom usage when having sex with a women was also okay. Two thumbs up from the holy pontiff! “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

So, just for the heck of it, use a condom tonight, and if you are a Catholic why not break out the champagne as well? Miracles don’t happen every day. Pope Benedict may not be a particularly personable pope, but when his obituary is written, this one act may be the one that is most remembered and celebrated.

Perhaps its popularity will inspire the pope toward even clearer thinking. Maybe miracles can come in clusters. For an ex-Catholic like myself, there are still many things to admire about the Catholic Church. Catholic, after all, means universal. One thing you can truly say about the Catholic Church is that age, income and race don’t seem to matter. Granted, we have not had a black pope yet, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.

I am a Unitarian Universalist and like many denominations, we suffer from the same problem: we are a lot alike. Specifically we are left-brained, predominantly white and predominantly overeducated. The Catholic Church does not have our diversity problem. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian: the Church has all the colors of the rainbow. Their ranks include peasants and presidents. Moreover, it is one of the few Christian denominations left that is insistent about doing unto others, feeding and caring for the poor, as well as working on unsexy things like income equality and health care for all (albeit without abortion services).

With condoms no longer a major moral problem for the Catholic Church, perhaps it could loosen certain other ridiculous practices. Being more expansive with birth control would be nice, but is unlikely to happen. However, the church has a real problem on its hands filling its staff. Its policy of not allowing priests to marry is not only counterproductive; it also goes against most of the church’s history. In addition, of course, there is the church’s policy of allowing only male clergy. Like its now vanquished no condom policy, it is counterproductive and makes no sense. Given how many Catholic congregations no longer have priests, changing this policy may be necessary for the survival of the church in a secular age. As a practicing non-Catholic, I am hoping more miracles like this one quickly follow.

Perhaps I should thank Pope Benedict, but my feelings remain mixed. This policy should have been done away with decades ago. It resulted in many people dying needlessly, although I suspect those who rigorously follow Catholic birth control policies are relatively few. Not only was the policy deadly, it was also sinful, hurtful and generated a lot of pointless guilt. It caused adherents to choose between their faith and their common sense. While condoms will still not come with a seal of Vatican approval, at least their use in some situations is understood to be more moral than not using them at all.

It’s a miracle, all right.

The Thinker

The Craigslist economy, Part 2

I can see now why newspapers like The Washington Post are hurting. It used to be that if you wanted to sell something big, like a house or a used car, you called up The Washington Post classified desk, gave them your credit card number and a couple of days later your ad would appear in their classifieds. For a small ad, you were out $50 to $100.

In the 2000s, the way to sell your stuff online was to auction it on eBay. It’s still a good solution but of course eBay wants its cut. I tried it some five years ago when I had people bid on our very used 1992 Toyota Camry. I expected that people might want to first come and test-drive it, but no, just having photos online was enough. It was sold sight unseen for about $1000. I regretted the experience and wished I had paid for a Washington Post classified ad instead. I figured I would have gotten a lot more money for the car.

Given my recent success on Craigslist finding labor to remove an old basketball post, I thought I would try it for the larger task of selling a used car. I did not like my experience with eBay, at least for something as large as a car. And paying for ads seemed so yesterday. Granted, even on Craigslist some people have to pay to advertise. If you are selling commercially, you are expected to pay for your ad. (Apparently, many businesses figure fees are optional and are pretending car sales are private sales, when they are not.) However, if you are just an average Joe with something to sell, you just post it on Craigslist for free. No credit card numbers. No waiting for days for your ad to appear. The ad usually appears online within ten minutes.

As I discovered selling our 1997 Honda Odyssey, selling an automobile on Craigslist is not that hard. Craigslist can give you a temporary email address that forwards mail to your real email address. Call me paranoid, or too scared that the average Craigslist surfer is one of the unprincipled, erotic denizens haunting its casual encounter community. I decided to ditch my Yahoo account that I set up in 1998 for these purposes (too much spam) in favor of a new GMail account instead. Better safe than sorry.

There were also the minor matters of preparing the car for sale, taking pictures of it to post and figuring out a good sales price. I knew that if I sold it as a trade in, any dealership would give me a lot less than a private sale price. Selling it myself is a hassle, but not so much of a hassle that I wanted to take a $500-$1000 hit to avoid it. Therefore, I went to instead, where I determined my minivan was worth about $2000. It seemed a good starting price. I advertised it for $1999. And in a fit of honesty I did not hide anything in my ad. I warned buyers that the antilock brakes did not work (our mechanic said it was not worth the cost) and going between second and third gears the transmission jumped a bit. Otherwise, it was in great shape. I don’t know what’s Honda’s secret is, but thirteen years later the body almost looks new. No nicks, no scrapes, no rust, nor was I meticulous about washing and waxing it.

While my first encounter with a Craiglist denizen (Shawn, the guy who removed my basketball post) went well, I was still a bit leery. First, there is a large community of scammers out there preying on people, particularly on people selling automobiles. So I decided I would not accept any personal checks. I would accept no cashier checks either, unless they were from a local bank or credit union. Cash was fine but I figured it was unlikely someone would pay cash. Who would carry around $2000 in cash?

My ad went up Wednesday night. Ten people inquired about the car. Perhaps the most unusual inquiry was from a guy who rang me up Friday night. He was calling from out of town, exact location undisclosed, but he said he can fly for free. He wanted to fly into Dulles, check out the car and if okay, drive it home. Driving it home seemed problematical since it did not have a set of plates on it. He said he would pay cash. He sounded very serious. He had me opening the hood of the car and telling him the type of engine I had. Maybe he was just scrounging for parts or hoped to steal the van if I gave him our address. In any event, he did not call back the next day to tell me he was flying in.

Another guy came by to test-drive it. It was technically illegal to test drive the car, as its vanity plates had been put on its replacement (a Subaru Impreza for my wife). However, I felt it was safe to ride shotgun while he drove it around the neighborhood. He had the same model, 1998 edition and he liked it so much he wanted another just like it. He liked what he saw and made a verbal commitment to buy the car if I would come down in price. We dickered and settled on $1700, which was probably less than it was worth but I wanted it gone. Of course, these things are complicated. He worked late at the airport, my wife was at work all day and she needed to co-sign the title, so he would have to come by in the evening. He planned to but had to work late and did not make it by our 10 p.m. deadline. When I called him this morning, he was concerned about the car’s lack of an ABS, figuring it would not get through inspection, which was not true.

I kept wondering how I would feel if the private sale were done in cash, like this guy wanted to do. He seemed nice enough, but he suggested that my wife just sign the title when she was home, then we could conclude the sale at our convenience. I thought: would I be comfortable with this man alone in my house? He was African American, which made me wonder if I would feel the same way if the guy were white. I honestly did not know the answer to that one but felt somewhat bad that the thought went through my brain. Given my suspicions about Craigslist people, maybe we should transfer the title in a public place, like a Starbucks? I figured better safe than sorry.

After our call this morning, I sensed cold feet and told him I would put our van back on the market. I had other people interested in my email box. One of them showed up this afternoon with his wife and three kids. He spent ten minutes driving it with his family around the neighborhood. He was ready to purchase now. His wife had already been to the ATM and withdrawn the money. So we all went inside our house. I guess no Starbucks was needed if the guy is driving a Toyota Camry station wagon and the kids are enjoying jumping in the back seat of their new car. His wife plopped down $1900 in cash on our dining room table and gave me a check for the $99 balance. We gave him the keys, signed the title, wrote up a bill of sale for DMV and handed over our maintenance records. And there it sits in our driveway for a couple of days until he gets the plates and drives it away.

$1900 in crisp, twenty-dollar bills paid out right on our dining room table. Maybe drug dealers are used to carrying this amount of cash but I am not. All that cash made me nervous. We shook their hands and wished them luck. I was frankly surprised they did not negotiate the price down.

Thus concludes, I hope, my latest Craigslist adventure. I have a feeling more Craigslist adventures lie ahead for us. What’s next? Advertise our house for sale by owner on Craigslist? It seems like you can sell pretty much anything on Craigslist. If we ever sell the house, I sure hope the buyer doesn’t bring a suitcase of twenty dollar bills.

The Thinker

A battle lost, but a war far from over

News analysts and politicians are in a tizzy because House Democrats have done what seems to be a very strange thing. How, they ask, can House Democrats elect current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as their new minority leader, when they lost sixty house seats on November 2nd? Isn’t this counterproductive? Isn’t it rewarding failure?

These critics are looking at the wrong set of goal posts. To news analysts and pundits, the goal is to control power. To people like me, the goal of government is to work for the best interests of its people, even if in the process you must lose power for a while because you dared to do what was right and stand up against special interests. By that measure, Nancy Pelosi was a sterling success. Rarely has a Congress been as productive as this current congress, and Democrats in the House led the way. The usually recalcitrant Senate provided the breaks on so much progressive legislation that first was approved by the House. Even so, the 111th Congress passed an amazing amount of progressive legislation. Moreover, Pelosi’s leadership skills were instrumental in marshaling House Democrats, as fractious as their Senate colleagues into a strong and effective force.

Consider some of the legislation passed by this Congress and compare it with any congress in your living memory:

  • Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. No longer will women have pay discrimination lawsuits thrown out because 180 days have elapsed.
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This act drew plenty of scorn from Republicans and certainly did add greatly to our national debt. However, it also saved two to three million jobs and held our economy together. Skeptical? Our nation’s Number One investor Warren Buffet says it’s true. Without it and the bailout, it seems certain that we would now be mired in a depression instead of the effects of a lingering recession. Instead of 9.6% unemployment, it is likely the unemployment rate would be 15% or higher. Like the auto companies or loathe them, the bailout kept them afloat and even GM is returning to profitability. In some cases, taxpayers are making a profit from these bailouts, while saving large numbers of jobs right here in America.
  • Credit CARD Act. The act ended a host of egregious and abusive practices by credit card companies who were charging usury interest rates and fees. The act makes shopping for credit cards much less complicated and much more straightforward.
  • Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act. For the first time, the FDA is allowed to regulate cigarettes as the dangerous and controlled substance that they are. Coming soon to packs of cigarettes: graphic pictures of the effects of smoking to help dissuade smokers, courtesy of an empowered FDA, albeit fifty years later than necessary.
  • Worker, Homeowner and Business Assistance Act. Provided fourteen extra weeks of unemployment insurance for the longest unemployed Americans in the worst 24 states. The act has kept millions from destitution and homelessness.
  • Statutory Pay as you Go Act. Reinstated pay as you go budget rules that Republicans discarded in 2002. Ensures that most new spending is offset by cuts elsewhere or by new taxes. It’s a law any Republican should love, which make you wonder why they were the ones to abandon it.
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Health reform. While not perfect, for the first time your health insurance company cannot end your insurance because your condition is unprofitable for them. The act covers the health insurance needs of young adults under their parents’ policies through age 26. It squeezes real cost savings and efficiencies from Medicare and Medicaid. It opens health insurance plans to all comers and does not allow any health insurance company to reject you. The Act makes significant and meaningful changes that will lower the rate of growth in medical costs by ending much of the shifting of costs to others and state and local governments.
  • Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. Closed the donut hole for Medicare Part D recipients. It also allowed the government to make student loans directly to students, taking away the profit from the middleman.
  • Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This act puts in place governance that should preclude much of our latest financial disaster from happening again.

Time and time again, Pelosi stood in the firewall and organized House Democrats to pass progressive legislation. Through her raw power, guile, persuasion, strong-arming, nudging and probably some backroom deals she made things happen. No shrinking violet, she was one liberal unafraid of critics and unafraid to intimidate them.

Pundits will say she pushed through legislation America did not want. Others will say that she should have spent all her time creating jobs for Americans, although many of these same critics expected her to do it without spending any money. It was largely Democrats that kept the economy from collapsing altogether. Despite the higher unemployment rates, the Obama administration and the Pelosi/Reid 111th Congress has still created more jobs in two years than President Bush created in eight.

That’s of little comfort though to the unemployed. I am sorry that the public took out their wrath on a Democratic congress, and I am sorry for the sixty or so Democratic House members who lost their seats. They fell on their swords, but they did so nobly. They moved crucial progressive legislation. They kept an economy from collapsing and bought us time to recover. They all deserve our thanks, respect and honor. They are true patriots. The problems we face are engrained and long standing. There is no silver bullet for any of these. If they can be solved at all, it is only through the application of a lot of time, money and quality legislation. By that standard, and not by the artificial one of who controls power after an election, the 111th Congress and Speaker Pelosi were great successes.

We progressives may have lost a battle on November 2nd, but this war is far from over. To win the war, we need proven leaders who can chart a way forward. Nancy Pelosi is such a leader. House Democrats did the right thing by making her their minority leader in the next Congress. Those who are angry with her have their anger misplaced. I would rather have a Republican 112th Congress than a Democratic 111th Congress that accomplished nothing of note. With courage, conviction, spunk and determination, Pelosi showed her mettle and that she has the right stuff. Let’s hope she stays in Congress long enough to inflict some revenge. I think she will live to see it.

The Thinker

The ordination

I always cry at weddings and funerals. Maybe this is not too seemly for a man, but I do. I don’t bawl like a baby but instead I sit there with my handkerchief at the ready to dab away the inevitable tears. How could you not cry at a wedding or funeral? These events are rife with emotion, unless you hardly know the people involved. Unsurprisingly, I cried at my mother’s memorial service five years ago. I cried in September when my father remarried more than sixty years after marrying my mother. And I found myself crying today when our new minister was ordained and installed.

So now, I cry at weddings, funerals and ordinations. There must be something about formal ceremonies that mark major life-changing events that make my tears flow. Crying at wedding and funerals makes a certain amount of sense, but it makes less sense at ordinations. After all, I hardly know our church’s new minister. She arrived in August straight out of seminary, having paid us a whirlwind candidate visit in May. Then we checked her out and found much to like. Aside from her sterling letters of recommendation from various esteemed professors at her seminary, the profound way that she seamlessly integrated with various communities within our Unitarian Universalist church, the powerful services she led, she is also youthful, blonde and attractive. It was no wonder then that ninety eight percent of the congregation voted to call her as our minister. What was there not to like? Over the forty years of our congregation, we’ve had a half dozen ministers or so, including an alleged philanderer. We also had an interim minister so desperate for a settled ministry that he wrote fraudulent recommendations for himself under the guise of our church leaders. We felt entitled to a minister fresh out of seminary who is full of vitality and promise.

Perhaps this ordination would have made less of an impact had not every member at the ordination not actively participated in it. If this been an ordination for a Catholic priest and even if I was still a Catholic, unless I was a friend of the new cleric it’s unlikely that I would have been invited. It’s also likely that my role would not amount to anything more than passive participant. That is because in most faiths some bishop or some other high-church official (often under the sanction of God) usually ordains new ministers. It works differently with Unitarian Universalists. Only a congregation can ordain a minister.

The difference is significant but profound, and was probably the reason that I was crying. A new minister must first pass through a number of tough academic and other hurdles. In this case, it required several years at the Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a year in residency and three months as a chaplain ministering to the dying and infirmed in hospitals and nursing homes. However, all that effort and expense is moot if the candidate cannot find a congregation willing to ordain him or her. Not only did we have to choose to formally ordain this new minister, and she had to take the vow of ministry, we had to make the association real through the laying of hands. If it were a Catholic ordination, I imagine there would have been song, chiming bells and incense. For this ordination, the new minister was first surrounded and touched on the shoulder or arm by family and close friends (an inner circle), then by participating clerics (a second circle, who were touching those in the inner circle), then by the ordaining congregation (who were touching the second circle) and finally by any others at the ceremony.

The effect was amazing and moving. There is something tangible in the act of touching that cannot be replicated by chimes, music or incense. You could feel the energy of our collective body. It surged between all the participants during the ceremony. It felt electric. This simple mass act of laying of hands gave this ordination both extraordinary dimension and meaning.

At its essence, ministry is all about connections between people and helping people surmount the many obstacles that challenge them. This is why an ordination through a mass laying of hands was both a symbolic and a deeply meaningful experience. For many, if not most people, religion is about God and ministers guide us to living according to God’s plan. For Unitarian Universalists, ministry is about relationships between people, some formally in covenant with each other, such as members of the same congregation. However, ministry also expands to the community and world at large. We acknowledge that we are all connected.

In some ways, we are all ministers, helping each other as we find energy and strength. Our minister plays many roles including leadership, acting as a role model, helping forge deeper bonds of fellowship between us and helping us through personal crises. However, she also helps us engage with a larger network of people outside our comfort zone. These latter activities extend to the usual stuff like food drives and helping the homeless to more personal people-to-people connections, such as the English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes that one of our lay ministers took up as her call. Much of her ministry extends to the unlikely community of largely cloistered Muslim women who see much of life behind thick veils.

Ministry must be a calling because, except in a few rare cases, is does not pay very well. Our minister won’t be starving, but she likely will earn half as much this year as I will, and I suspect her work is much harder. Perhaps that was why I was crying. I suspect that her life will be full of very hard but very meaningful work. While she will minister to us, we will minister to her as well, providing her with the support she will need for the very hard and often thankless work ahead of her. She will be engaged in making the world a better and more harmonious place, a seemingly impossible task.

I hope that through our laying of hands during her ordination we have fully charged her battery for the long and Herculean tasks ahead of her.

The Thinker

My plan to reduce our deficits

Over at Daily Kos, many are calling President Obama’s bipartisan commission to recommend was to achieve fiscal stability, “The Cat Food Commission”. If enacted, a proposal released yesterday by the commission’s co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson would certainly require a lot of austerity and painful choices. This is why it doomed to go nowhere. However, it is useful to underscore what it might take to actually achieve a balanced budget.

It’s like Bowles and Simpson tried to produce a document they knew could not possibly garner any support. Even some members of the commission, who were surprised when the co-chairs released it, found they could not support it. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly rejected its suggestions for changes to Social Security and Medicare. There are some good ideas in the recommendations. Simplifying tax rates, for example, would make a lot of sense and make it harder for some to avoid paying a fair share of taxes. Overall, the proposal requires too many sacred cows to be slain. As one example, it says that we should stop the home mortgage interest deduction. Good luck on getting that one through Congress. You can bet if it came to a vote, the real estate lobby would target for defeat any member of Congress that voted for it.

So I know a few things already. Congress will not pass some massive, comprehensive budget reform law. That is as likely to happen as a single payer health care plan was likely to pass in this Congress. No, if it happens at all, there will be all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing, with the big winners likely big business and the big losers ordinary, income-challenged Americans. Most likely, Congress will choose to punt any real reform until sometime past 2012 and hope an improved economy keeps voters from focusing on the problem. While our budget deficit has been a long-standing and chronic problem, what citizens really want from our government now are jobs and some semblance of the prosperity they had ten years ago. The budget deficit issue was mostly fodder whipped up by Republicans and Tea Partiers to add to our anxiety level so they could win political power.

No question about it: our budget deficit is bad. However, it is not nearly as bad as some would suggest. Our debt, as a percentage of gross national product, has been much higher than it is now. Toward the end of World War 2, public debt hit around 110% of GDP. Now we are about 50% of GDP. This number would be a lot less intimidating if we were still not painfully climbing out of a recession. If you produce less output, then of course your debt as a percentage of GDP will be higher. After World War 2, the government generally lived within its means or racked up only modest deficits. We reached a post World War 2 low during President Nixon’s term of office. It has skyrocketed under Republican presidents since that time. As a nation, we have endured much higher levels of relative debt before and came through it, and have done it without draconian solutions like cutting social security benefits.

What disturbs me the most about the Bowles-Simpson proposal are some of its assumptions. One assumption is that tax rates should be as low as they are now. If anything, our current tax rates are too low and need to be higher. In order to keep taxes at that low a level and shrink the deficit, it proposes all sorts of unpopular ways of cutting expenditures, most of which are impossible to pass. Moreover, since they are politically impossible to pass, at some point you must raise taxes to make up the difference.

Their proposal to reduce social security benefits and extend the retirement age is very unpopular with the public, who are happy to pay higher withholding rates in order to keep the current retirement ages. Then there is the good news from the system’s trustees that Social Security is solvent for at least the next fifteen years with no changes to the law. Solvent means that Social Security’s accumulated assets (in U.S. Treasury Bills) won’t be exhausted for at least 15 years, and it only just recently started to draw down from them. In short, Social Security is not causing a drain on the treasury and for now its surpluses reduces our budget deficits. So it needs tweaks rather than the draconian solutions in this proposal. Rather, it appears that the Bowles-Simpson proposal wants to monetize the Social Security surplus to further reduce the deficit. This can happen if the retirement age increases because the U.S. Treasury makes money as long as Social Security collects more than it pays out. Frankly, this and similar “reform” proposals are a scam and taxpayers should be up in arms about it. Many of the new Tea Party members of Congress were elected promoting the false claim about the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security system.

What are feasible ways to really get to a balanced budget again? The fastest way is to have an economy that is rapidly growing with near full employment, because that means more taxes are collected, obviating a whole lot of painful deficit reduction choices. Arguably, the fastest way to do this is to borrow more money to stimulate the economy some more. That’s not likely to happen and even I agree that the odds it would work at creating lasting growth are dubious. This, combined with modest tax rate increases, say to levels during the Clinton Administration, would do a lot to bring in more revenue and close the deficit gap.

Since Social Security is solvent, the three biggest factors driving the deficit are Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending. (Too low tax rates should go without saying.) The new health care law will, if it is not overturned, squeeze cost savings from Medicare and Medicaid, slowing their rate of growth but not to the point where they keep up with general inflation. It would not be popular, but legislative caps on these programs to a percent of the GDP would be a sane approach. If anything should stimulate efficiency, this should. Caps could be raised, but only if revenues were raised as well, i.e. it was deficit neutral.

Then there is the Department of Defense, which even its secretary admits is a vast, inefficient and bloated bureaucracy, feeding an ever-expanding military industrial complex. Our military is also vastly overleveraged. Frankly, we cannot afford the military we have. It needs to be shrunk. As a nation, we need to make hard choices about where to spend our defense dollars. The Bowles-Simpson proposal at least does us a favor by pointing this out. Reducing our military presence overseas and closing many of our overseas bases makes a lot of sense.

If you look at the drivers for deficit spending, along with entitlements, elective wars also drive up debt. Bush’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least three trillion dollars, and probably more like four to five trillion after all the costs are paid out. Our current debt is about 13 trillion dollars, which means just these two wars have bloated our debt by nearly 25%. Elective wars have huge financial consequences so they must be much harder to start and need to be paid for. Here is my proposal: strengthen Congress’s right to declare war or any major military incursions. Require that all wars be paid for in higher taxes, unless two thirds of both houses of Congress agree to suspend the rule. Another lesson: diplomacy is a lot cheaper than war!

Do these things and many of the other problems will take care of themselves. Any new entitlement needs to go through a process to ensure it is deficit neutral (which is the case with the health care law, by the way). Congress’s recent pay-go rules need to be codified into law, which will probably require a constitutional amendment.

Politicians often find it more expedient to cut discretionary spending, but excluding defense, this is a small portion of the federal budget. In 2009, non-defense discretionary spending was only 12% of the federal budget, or about $437 billion dollars out of a $3.5 trillion dollar budget. This spending rarely rises much beyond inflation. Entitlements and defense spending are driving up the debt. While there is wasteful non-defense discretionary spending, it’s likely not a lot, and certainly not enough to solve our deficit problem. For most of us giving up our space program, food and drug safety, air traffic control system, national parks, the weather service and such are not negotiable anyhow.

In short, we don’t have to retire at age 69 in order to solve our fiscal problems, but we do have to seriously contain costs for entitlements, decide defense spending is not sacrosanct, keep ourselves out of elective wars, and, yes, raise taxes to something reasonable but not too burdensome. Why would we choose to spend our senior years eating cat food when it is not necessary?

Let’s get to it.

The Thinker

Review: Monsieur Ibrahim (2003)

Life on Blue Street in Paris apparently involves encountering many French prostitutes. It’s impossible to even get to your local Turkish grocer without running into and wending your way through them. However, these prostitutes are sweet and good-natured. There are no heroin tracks on their arms. If they did not hang out on street corners all day, they might be wholesome enough to take home to Mom and Dad. Families live in and around Blue Street as well, and they include sixteen-year-old Moses (Pierre Boulanger) and his stressed out father. The prostitutes seem to come with living in the neighborhood. They form part of the local tapestry, but just a part. Also part is Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), the local Turkish grocer. He sits on his stool fifteen hours a day and sells a modest assortment of neighborhood necessities. Ibrahim’s store and his constant presence form the de facto center of this little community.

Moses (Momo) is a devilishly handsome but shy teen who lives alone with his chronically depressed father. He never sees his absentee mother, and living with his father is at best a mixed blessing. Their apartment is covered in books but the books cannot mask his father’s depression, made much worse when he loses his job. Eventually he abandons his son altogether, leaving Momo to live by his wits on Blue Street. Survival depends on selling his father’s collection of books for income, depending on Monsieur Ibrahim for fatherly guidance and free food and on the local prostitutes for a bit of feminine nurturing.

Momo and Ibrahim make for something of an odd couple, Momo a Jew and Ibrahim a Muslim and Turk. However, both live largely lonely lives. Ibrahim sees everyone but is befriended by no one. Momo is full of social awkwardness, but in spite of his circumstance he remains a good-natured young man. Ibrahim’s wife died long ago. Both find in each other something missing in their lives. Momo finds a father figure and the example of a man whose Muslim faith steers his life with quiet conviction. Ibrahim finds some relief from a life that is otherwise unremittingly long and lonely, as well as someone he can shower with gentle affection and compassion.

Life is happening to Momo. He clumsily introduces himself to sex through one of the local prostitutes. The prostitutes, sensing a fellow lost soul, give him some of the nurturing his absent mother never provided. No social welfare worker would approve of Momo’s upbringing, but Momo is embraced by a sort of communal love anyhow.

Monsieur Ibrahim is not a movie that aspires to greatness, just to restate a lesson in life and compassion in a gentle and understated way. Sharif, a very talented actor, seems to be deliberately sequestering some of his acting skills to provide us with his gentle and understated character. Boulanger is handsome, winsome and impossible not to like, which may be why Momo succeeds where many others like him would fall through the cracks. He looks like a young Shia LaBeouf.

If you keep your expectations about this film modest, you will appreciate its tight focus, light directing and competent acting. It’s a French film, of course, so you will have to endure English subtitles. It is worth seeing if the opportunity arises, but not exceptional enough to seek it out.

3.1 on my four-point scale..

The Thinker

The Craigslist economy

A couple of posts over the years about Craigslist might suggest I know a lot about the site. In fact, I don’t spend much time there mainly because there is not much of interest for me there. In 2005, I did note Craigslist’s casual encounters community, if you can call it that, where you can fritter away your time trying but almost certainly not succeeding in hooking up sexually with a variety of strangers, most of whom I suspect would flunk a criminal background investigation. These posts about Craigslist have been good for me, bringing in a ton of people to my site who doubtless would otherwise never have visited.

I had no idea though that Craigslist had morphed into such a powerful economic force. How did I learn this? Because I had my first Craigslist casual encounter this weekend. No, no, not that kind of casual encounter. If I were brave/stupid enough to try that kind of casual encounter, I’d insist on wearing two condoms. I mean another kind of casual encounter, the kind where I used the power of Craigslist to have some onerous chore done that I didn’t want to do. In fact, if I tried I almost certainly would have failed.

I needed someone to remove a basketball post buried in concrete on the edge of my driveway. For at least ten years, I had been planning to either repaint it with Rustoleum or take it down. I decided in the spring that I would take it down this year. I had many other great projects I was going to do this year as well, a half dozen or so I actually accomplished. Two weeks ago, I decided to tackle taking down the basketball hoop and post once and for all. I no longer had hot weather as an excuse.

After three hours of grunting, groaning and twisting muscles rarely exercised, I managed to get down the basketball hoop and backboard. It required copious amounts of muscle power, lubricants and WD-40. After I hauled it to the curb I went back to look at the towering ten-foot post itself. I looked hard at the concrete it was embedded in. I contemplated what I could do to remove it myself. I figured it would involve a sledgehammer, a shovel and a lot of work. Since my wife could not help with the project, I would have to do it myself, somehow without damaging me or my property in the process.

Some guys are Tool Time Tims. Not me. I have the usual assortment of common household hardware, but did not have a sledgehammer, electric metal saw and the other specialized stuff I would need. So I do what I usually do. I Googled “how to remove a basketball post”, figuring some tips were what I needed. I quickly zeroed in on the most useful tip: have someone else do it for you by putting an ad on Craigslist, in this case under the Services, labor/move. So I did. Within ten minutes of posting the ad, someone was bidding on it. Over the course of several days I got close to three dozen people expressing an interest in the work. I had no idea how much something like this would cost, but I guessed at least $50 and said tell me your price. Some were insulted and wouldn’t do it for less than $200. I finally hired some guy who did a lot of handyman stuff and even had a web site, who bid $85.

Thus began my casual encounter with Shawn, who arrived yesterday afternoon in his van with ladders on the roof and a big mess inside. He immediately took a shovel to the problem. A couple of hours later I went out to check on his progress. Shawn is a big, strong guy, likely forty-ish, with curly hair, a can-do attitude and perseverant look on his face. He had dug all around the post and had it tipping diagonally, exposing an enormous concrete base, at least two feet in diameter and close to three feet deep. Uh oh.

It was getting dark but Shawn said he would be back in the morning. I was wondering though if he would actually come back; after all, I had a job contracted for $85 and this was much more work. Yet, he did show up again this morning and with his chisel and rock drill kept attacking the concrete base, trying to break it up. He eventually succeeded, much to my amazement, then filled up most of the hole with the concrete rubble and covered it with topsoil. The post lay next to my driveway. I tried to lift it but could not. “Just put an ad on Craigslist,” Shawn told me. “There are scrap metal people who will come around and haul it away for you for free.” Really? This was all news to me.

Shawn may have been one of three dozen bidders for my little project, but he earns most of his money from Craigslist. “I used to put out flyers to get business,” he told me, “but Craigslist works much better.” Craigslist pretty much is his market these days. He’s a guy with an aging van who lives in an apartment in Maryland and keeps most of his gear in a public storage locker. Anonymous people on Craigslist pay him money to do odd jobs like this. From the looks of him, he probably doesn’t have any health insurance, but he manages to scrape together a living of sorts from Craigslist. It works for him and, surprisingly, it worked for me too.

I’m not sure my casual encounter with Shawn is quite over, though. Now that I know a handyman, I may use him again. I have some deck work that needs to be done, some fencing as well, a bit of caulking, oh, and I need a bit more landscaping done too. I am not sure I want to do all of them, but now that I know Shawn, I know whom to call. Or I can just post an ad on Craigslist and see who shows up.

I confess I still treat this Craigslist hook up stuff with some suspicion. I wonder in particular how many of these laborers really have the skills to do something like break up concrete. Still, I had no idea who to call to do something nasty and hard like remove a basketball post, nor did I want to spend hundreds of dollars to get rid of my eyesore.

But I did anyhow. Shawn put in a full day of labor altogether. He earned a big bonus because this was a lot more work than either he or I expected. He protested that $200 was too much, but I wrote him a check for it anyhow. I think he’s going to need some new tires or shocks for that van of his. It looked pretty worn.

Thanks Craig Newmark. Thanks Internet. I am late to this Craigslist thing, but I can see in the 21st century, services like Craigslist are now wholly mainstream. I am just behind the times, I guess. Shawn, I’ll be in touch. And I guess there will be more casual encounters with people like Shawn on Craigslist in my future.

The Thinker

Election 2010 postmortem

As best I can parse it, the message from voters last night was, “the beatings will continue until the morale improves.” Republicans gained at least sixty house seats. Looking at the House electoral map it looks largely red from sea to shining sea. Unfortunately for Republicans, we have a bicameral legislature. While Republicans made important gains in the Senate, they did not win majority control. Democrats control at least 51 senate seats. Colorado and Washington State remain in dispute, but seem likely to go blue. Lisa Murkowski apparently won a write in vote in Alaska, and will doubtless canvas with the Republicans. So the Senate remains Democratic, with a likely 53-47 Democratic majority.

One lesson for Republicans: the Tea Party giveth and the Tea Party taketh. Their energy doubtless piled on Republican House majorities, but proved counterproductive in the Senate. While adding Tea Partiers Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida, overall Tea Partiers likely cost the GOP control of the Senate. Christine O’Donnell lost by seventeen percent in Delaware. John Raese lost by ten percent in West Virginia. Harry Reid, largely reviled in Nevada, won by five percent over an even worse candidate, Tea Partier Sharron Angle. In Alaska, voters were inclined to not take the advice of their former governor Sarah Palin and through a write in process elected Lisa Murkoswski instead. Doubtless, there will be recounts in Washington State and Colorado, but it doesn’t appear that the extreme positions of Dino Rossi or Ken Buck helped Republicans. More milquetoast candidates might have flipped these seats and given Republicans control of the Senate too. While the outcome in the House was a major disaster for Democrats, in a poisonous election year for incumbents, Democrats actually came out surprisingly well overall, retaining control of the Senate and, of course, the White House for two more years.

Democrats though need to check their backs, because Republican governors also did very well last night. Republicans control a majority of governorships and added control of ten legislatures last night. Governors and state legislatures draw congressional districts, which means that districts will drawn in an even more partisan manner, resulting in higher levels of Republicans in Congress. The long-term trend for Republicans though is not good. Ultimately, demographics will do them in, unless they can find ways to broaden their appeal toward Hispanics and younger people.

There is a lot of exit polling trying to make sense of this election. Doubtless, the analysis will get spun and respun. The animus driving this election though is clear: it’s the economy stupid. If somehow Democrats had managed to undo all the excesses of Republican rule in their two years and employment were at five percent instead of near ten percent, this wave likely would not have occurred. Voters expect politicians to make their lives better. When it does not happen, they tend to vote their bum out and vote the other bum in. At least fourteen percent of House seats flipped in this election. This is a remarkable number rarely seen in our history. It reflects the great anxiety that Americans are feeling now. What is remarkable is that with 9.6% unemployment even more representatives were not voted out of office.

It remains to be seen whether either party will learn from this election. My betting is neither will, which means, as I predicted in September that the only thing we can count on for sure in the next two years will be greater national dysfunction. What is the point of having power if you do not use it? House Republicans will probably be unable not to scratch the itch, so I expect all sorts of convoluted attempts (which are doomed to fail) to somehow “undo” health care reform and punish President Obama for alleged “socialism”. In reality, the American people don’t care that much about the health care law. What they care about is their own bottom line. Just getting back to their standard of living before the recession would make most Americans happy. Unfortunately, even if we had a united government there are no quick solutions to our national problems. The only real solutions are long term. So far, major tax cuts, many targeted toward business of all kinds, haven’t spurred hiring. Deficit reduction won’t spur hiring either. It may be prudent for the government to live within its means, but that doesn’t translate into more jobs. In the short term, it takes money out of the economy, increasing unemployment.

What will it take? Some certainty about our future would help. To start, it would be helpful to clear up the backlog of millions of foreclosed houses. Doing whatever it takes to resolve these foreclosures quickly makes an unknown problem a known one with a defined size and scope, allowing businesses to adjust their economic expectations accordingly. The other part are systemic reforms that Democrats have been working on, albeit sporadically and ineffectively. Health care costs are the biggest vampire on our economic health. The health care law certainly is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is no quick way to change a health care system. It takes time. Eventually though these efficiencies work their way through the system. As health care costs are controlled, more money is available for uses that are more productive and we add more certainty to the economy as well.

Unfortunately, the American people show little patience for long-term solutions focused, as they tend to be, on their own personal pain. Many of the reforms working their way through our system now, like health care reform and financial reforms, will add certainty to our economy. However, since we seem to be doomed to have not just divided government, but hostile government for the next two years, more certainty is likely to elude us, which will likely keep unemployment artificially high. Certainty does increase if parties can find common ground and develop consensus solutions. It is hard to see how this can happen with so many new Tea Partiers and no-compromise Republicans in Congress. It is not even clear if House Republicans will raise our debt ceiling in a couple of months, and keep our nation from defaulting on its loans.

If you are a praying and patriotic person, now is a good time to pray because we need political accommodation that will almost certainly elude us. Just as was true when voters went for Democrats, voters are giving Republicans a qualified mandate to get useful work done. They have no more inherent trust in Republicans than they do with Democrats, in fact less as poll after poll bears out. They just want things to get better. Will Republicans listen? If obfuscation is their strategy, they may find, as Democrats found out yesterday, that their hold on power will also be short lived.


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