Archive for February, 2011

The Thinker

Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Last August, I reviewed a book about the Scots, whose cover suggests Scots invented the modern world. I said in that review that the subtitle to the book was doubtless a publisher’s invention. At least with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, the author Jack Weatherford does not attempt to say that the Mongols invented the modern world, but certainly their empire connected much of the known world. When at its largest, Mongols ruled an area the size of both North and South America. That’s a lot of land. Their system of commerce joined these areas together, arguably for the first time.

Their impact, principally in the area of trade, has gotten somewhat obscured over the years. Weatherford does a good job of taking us through the remarkable life of Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol empire, and walks us through an abbreviated summary of its inevitable decline. By the time Marco Polo made his famous journey to China, the Mongol empire was well established. Marco Polo was just one of the first western Europeans to travel the empire and report back.

Much of this book is based on a manuscript that appears to be authentic describing the secret history of Genghis Khan. Even for someone schooled in Mongol, translating the book was very challenging. To help make sense of it, Weatherford spent many years in Mongolia working with local experts, as well as visiting other parts of the formerly vast Mongol empire. At its largest, the Mongol Empire stretched from the China Sea across Asia and encompassed much of Eastern Europe. It included much of India, Persia and the eastern parts of the Middle East. It seems strange that the nomadic Mongols, isolated to the higher altitudes of the Mongolian steppe, could create an empire. For uncounted centuries the Mongols spent most of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan’s initial contribution to history was to do what no one had done before: unite the Mongols. The story of how he did this consumes the first fourth of the book and it is perhaps its most riveting part. This history is fairly well documented in the movie Mongol, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

The idea of a Mongol empire evolved over time. Mongols lusted after goods that their remote location and poverty largely denied them. It did not take too many campaigns for them to realize they could outwit any opponent strategically. Under Genghis Khan’s direction, Mongols learned how to conquer through working with their assets. They had something other empires lacked: rapid mobility. Their army was essentially a massive cavalry. Genghis Khan smartly organized them into armies of ten thousand, each broken down into units of a thousand. Their tactics rarely changed. Scouts were sent out to get a lay of the land and its people. As the Mongol army approached, they gave the local power the opportunity to surrender, which involved a certain amount of plundering, a certain amount of local control but no loss of life. Surrender rarely followed, so they worked on capturing edge towns, which were poorly fortified, and let survivors send their reports back to the city which caused great consternation and usually made for quick captures. They did not believe in wasting their own lives, and learned the advanced arts of siege, which often consisted of lobbing flaming and then novel explosive projectiles over city walls. Whoever they captured were fair game and were often forced to fight against their own people. Given these amazingly effective tactics, it is not surprising that the Chinese built the Great Wall of China. It was one of the few ways they could defend themselves against a massive Mongol cavalry assault.

It all sounds pretty barbaric and gruesome, but similar and less effective tactics were common at the time. The irony was that Mongols were a reasonably civilized race. Once the looting and pillaging of a conquered city was completed, they usually made benign overlords. A certain percent of a city’s goods went back to the Mongol Empire, which opened up trading routes. The free exchange of goods between far-flung places quickly became possible, facilitated by a common paper currency the Mongols introduced. Many nations conquered by the Mongols ended up more prosperous as a result.

Since the cavalry was the Mongol’s only army, it eventually proved something of a limitation. Their empire could only expand as far as there was plenty of ready pasture for their horses. This spared Western Europe from a likely Mongol conquest.

In our imagination, we often see Mongols as barbarians. For their time they were remarkably enlightened. They did not try to institutionalize any religion, but ensured freedom of religion. They created institutions of higher learning, one of the world’s first paper currencies, and a sophisticated bookkeeping system. Mongol became something like Latin for Asia, a common language for trade. Their rule was generally benign.

Like all empires, they quickly forgot the lessons inspired by their leader. Successor Great Khans were generally less effectual and more insular. While they often intermarried as a way to create a dynastic control of an area, they were more insular than inclusive. The plague, which originated in China, facilitated the empire’s end, and trade routes took it to Europe where it decimated populations there as well. Over time the empire fractured into multiple states and then dissolved altogether, but not before they had connected much of Asia together.

Weatherford’s research as well as extensive tours of Asia that the Mongols conquered makes for an accurate albeit incomplete survey of the Mongol Empire. However, it is readily accessible by a layman. Like all good histories, it gives us an accurate perspective of these times principally in the late 13th and 14th centuries. Maybe the Scots invented the modern world and maybe they didn’t, but they could not have gotten too far without the trade pioneered by the Mongols, whose tentacles extended even into Scotland itself.

Weatherford’s descriptions of Mongolia make me want to visit the place, see the External Blue Sky that the Mongols worshipped and walk the largely unknown paths that seven hundred years ago gave the world one of its most remarkable leaders and an empire that united much of the known world. Perhaps I will make this journey someday.

The Thinker

Spoiling for a government shutdown

Here inside Club Feb (the federal government) the incessant question is “Will the government shut down on March 5th?” That’s the date when, unless a new continuing resolution is passed or the Senate and House can agree to an omnibus spending bill acceptable to the president, much of the federal government “shuts down”. In that event, as a federal employee who is likely to be deemed non-essential, I will most likely go home having no idea when I might come back to work.

I suspect this won’t bother much of America, since federal employees have for the most part not been touched by the recession that is still impacting the country. (The same cannot be said for state and local workers.) The thinking will probably be something like, “Well, good. They should feel what the rest of us are going through.”

Maybe we feds will, or maybe we won’t. Fifteen years ago when the last shutdown occurred, non-essential employees eventually received back pay for their furloughed status. This is considered less likely this time. So perhaps I should use my furlough time to stand in line at the unemployment office. At least I would be using my time to generate some income.

For people like me, a shutdown is likely to be an inconvenience and maybe a moderate financial hit. My family has plenty of savings that should ride us through this time. It would take a few months being furloughed for us to feel a lot of pain, although I am sure I will feel more anxiety the longer it goes on. My wife remains employed in the private sector, albeit for considerably less than my salary, so we will have some income. While it lasts, I will be financially prudent and husband cash. I won’t be paying anything on my mortgage beyond what the credit union demands. I won’t be taking any vacations. I may boycott restaurants for a while and defer most optional spending. If I do any extra spending it will be for paint. Paint is cheap and there are always rooms that need repainting.

For many other federal employees down the GS ladder, a furlough of any duration will hurt. Contrary to the public perception, government jobs do not come with lavish salaries. The principle benefit of federal employment is consistency: checks are electronically deposited every two weeks like clockwork. Many federal employees live paycheck to paycheck like their private sector friends. They will be hurting if a shutdown lasts more than a few weeks.

Ironically, the people the shutdown will hurt the most will be those not in the public sector. As I mentioned over eight years ago, the number of federal employees understates the true federal employment picture because it conveniently ignores contractors. The employers of these contractors may dole out salary while their contracts are suspended, or may not. In my building, those likely to go without pay include cafeteria workers, janitors, the housekeeping staff, the grounds crews and a fair portion of the security force. They, of course, are the most visible of those directly affected. Contractors working off site will also be affected. Some with national security contracts and other “essential” contractors will keep humming along. All these affected people will likely be spending less money. Restaurants such as Starbucks in D.C. will likely be impacted, and these reduced sales will affect what they order from suppliers. So there will doubtless be a multiplier effect. Clearly, a shutdown of any significant duration will undermine our economic recovery. Deficit spending may be undesirable, but it is still spending. It keeps people employed and the economy humming.

Politicians will be busy trying to win a war of perceptions. It is likely that Republicans will lose this one. The real pain may begin around March 10, when the first set of social security checks may not go out, although according to NPR the primary impact with Social Security will be enrolling new registrants. In 1995, checks to veterans were suspended, which made for terrible PR. Perhaps President Obama could declare these functions to be essential, but there is little reason for him to do so, as it only gives Republicans more leverage. Expect very public closures of national parks, including prominent places like the Smithsonian and the Statue of Liberty. Other essential functions should keep humming along. Do not expect TSA employees to stop working. In many cases, it remains murky whether those who are essential will be paid. In my agency, “essential” people are required to work but there is no way to pay them. Can any employer require someone to work with only a promise of payment at some murky time in the future? If it goes on long enough, it feels a bit like slavery.

There are some additional things that could be done to move negotiations along. Perhaps President Obama could order the Treasury not to pay members of Congress, which may not be possible. What will happen during a furlough is that a representative’s or senator’s staff would be furloughed. History suggests that if  social security payments are stopped, everyone will sober up, but suspending veterans’ pension payments could do the trick. The wildcard of course is that we have eighty-seven new House Republicans, most of them aligned with the Tea Party, who do not seem amenable to any sort of compromise. The public will doubtless be regularly polled to see which side they agree with. At some point, one party may realize obstinacy is counterproductive to their reelection, and cave.

In the fifteen years since the first government shutdown, doubtless the bureaucracy learned some lessons as well. My current job is in many ways a direct response to the last shutdown, since it resulted in making our data publicly accessible. The strategy worked, to the tune of twenty million or more web pages served per month just for the system that I manage. Should serving this data to the public be deemed not essential, a growing and possibly vociferous community of people and organizations that depend on our data would note its absence. While I expect most phone calls that Congress will receive will come from frightened senior citizens and veterans, government provides a lot more services than it used to, and many are now available on the Internet 24/7/365. The effect may be to raise the pain threshold, but that may be useful if it leads to a quicker resolution of the conflict.

Here inside Club Fed, there is a certain nervousness about a shutdown, but also a certain resignation. Some things are simply beyond our ability to control. As prudent stewards, however, we must be prepared to act if the government is shutdown. Right now, this preparation is taking significant time and resources. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is good if it results in an end to deficit spending. Right now, all this necessary preparation means we are doing less of our primary mission. In that sense, it adds to waste in government.

I am betting it’s going to happen. The House seems to be spoiling for a fight. I might as well head to my local Lowes and start buying paint and rollers.

The Thinker

Some ways to cut medical costs

Are we paying too much for medical treatment? Ask a physician and they would probably tell you that you are not paying enough. Ask the rest of us and we would say, “Hell yeah!” One clue that physicians may be myopic on this is to compare how much Americans pay for health care vs. other countries. In general, Americans pay much more money for inferior outcomes.

It’s well known that a lot of the money we spend on health care is wasted on unnecessary procedures and treatments. Other spending is fraudulent. Medicare is a fee for service insurance program. All sorts of fraudulent and fly by night outfits bill Uncle Sam for bogus, superficial or overpriced treatments. These costs amount to billions, if not tens of billions a year. The problem is hardly limited to Medicare. The same is true in the private insurance market. I have a Blue Cross/Blue Shield standard option plan. My insurance company blithely went along with all sorts of medical treatment for me that turned out to be a waste of money. I had veins removed on my leg a couple of years back. Remove extra veins and the theory went the remaining veins would better take up the slack, relieving pressure on my foot and thus the numbness I was experiencing. My legs look great but the surgery had no effect on solving my problem. Indeed, it might have exacerbated it because I had to wear compression stockings for weeks after surgery. If you have a nerve impingement issue, this makes symptoms worse.

All sorts of parts of our medical system are ineffectual. We depend on physicians, but it is clear that many of them are ethically compromised. No doubt you have witnessed what I have seen many times in doctors’ offices. It’s amazing physicians can get any work done with all the drug representatives coming in and out of their office. Like Santa Claus they come loaded with Christmas presents, often including catered lunches for the doctors, but also plenty of drug samples for their pricey proprietary drugs. (I know this because I get reports from my wife, who works in a neurology practice and sees this happening regularly.) More than one physician I have encountered are on a first name basis with these drug company salesmen and women. This is not surprising since they see a whole lot more of the physician than I do.

A little legislation is in order. My physician suggested a statin for my high cholesterol. He wrote a prescription for Lipitor, which came with a $75 copay for me and costs Blue Cross hundreds of dollars for each bottle. He has done this for other drugs he has prescribed for me, even though I have repeatedly told him I prefer to start with a generic drug, and use a branded drug only if necessary. I am currently trying to get my Lipitor prescription changed to a generic. It may be that I need Lipitor, but I doubt it. I seem to have garden-variety cholesterol issues. I suspect that he prescribed Lipitor by default because of the Lipitor brochures in the examining rooms and likely on his desk. (I sometimes wonder if he is on the take, and gets a percent of any prescription he makes.) It rarely occurs to my physician to give me a generic drug. I’ll bet that your physician is the same way.

Only one physician I associate with has the presence of mind to start with a generic drug (my cardiologist). As a result my heart medicines cost about ten dollars a month instead of hundreds. No one seems empowered to tell physicians what they can and cannot prescribe. It is clear that many are in the pocket of drug companies. There needs to be a law: physicians must treat with a generic drug if available and escalate to a branded drug only for a compelling and urgent need, to be enforced by local medical boards. Moreover, the AMA should change their code of medical ethics. It should be unethical for physicians to meet with drug company representatives unless it is at neutral forums where counterpoint is possible. It should be unlawful to accept any of the bountiful gifts they receive from these drug companies either.

If we cannot enact common sense laws like these, then physicians offices should at least have a prominent policy statement in their lobbies saying how they interact with drug and similar medical companies, so patients like me can know in advance and maybe shop elsewhere. They should record and annually publish statistics on the companies that came to call, who they saw and what freebies they received from these companies. As consumers, we have a right to know if our physicians are being influenced. Right now we have to trust that the physician is looking out for our best interest.

Our primary care physicians must remain our speed dial, but it is clear to me that the primary care system is breaking down. PCPs are generalists by training. As medical knowledge has increased, it is clear that they can no longer sort it all out. What we need now are centers of expertise that can assist PCPs. A PCP would still be the one we would go to for physicals, urgent cares, cold, flus and the like. When an issue reaches a certain degree of complexity, the physician would elevate it to a center of expertise. I can use myself as an example. Both my vein surgery and tarsal tunnel surgeries were clearly a waste of time and money because they did not solve my problem. However, if it had been presented to a team of specialists (who should not be on the payroll of any health insurer), they might have had me follow a more logical course. They might have researched foot numbness like I had, figured out the tests I need, diagnosed sciatica as a likely condition and treated for that first, starting with physical therapy, then chiropractic therapy. My PCP suspected neuropathies and sent me to a neurologist. What I needed were teams of experts: a neurologist, a podiatrist, an orthopedist and likely others to put their heads together and present a step by step treatment plan, probably moving from most likely to least likely, based on my symptoms. My problem was beyond what my PCP could handle, beyond writing me referrals. Besides he had boatloads of other patients he also had to juggle.

The Affordable Care Act is moving toward elements of what I have in mind, which proposes outcome-based reimbursements rather than for a fee for service model. It all starts with a proper and intelligent assessment. The patient is the ultimate person that should approve final payment. Did the treatment solve his problem? Did the treatment persist?

A new payment model might look something like this. Unless the problem is simple enough that a PCP can handle it, the first payment would be an outcome center for a treatment plan. It would be based on as complete a medical record as exists for the patient. The second would increase payment to 75% when the treatment plan is completed, with perhaps staggered payments if the treatment plan will require months or years. The outcome center would reimburse specialists as needed. The balance would be paid three months later when the patient certifies that the outcome was satisfactory. This would give everyone incentive to get the treatment right the first time. Moreover, physicians would begin to align themselves to meet the market for what are medical needs actually are.

There is no socialized medicine here. Those who want to see a specialist on their own would still have complete freedom to do so. The government would not dictate treatment plans or what are reasonable patient outcomes, although existing institutions like the National Institutes of Health can shepherd the creation and certification of outcome centers and best practices. Patients would get better, faster and more effective treatments. Physicians could take pride that they are doing what is best for their patient as part of a holistic approach. PCPs would find their jobs more manageable. Moreover, health care resources would align toward the efficient needs of consumers. Of course change is always scary, but changes like these are long overdue.

The Thinker

The non-government of the United States

Govern: to exercise continuous sovereign authority over; especially: to control and direct the making and administration of policy in

Egypt is now a democracy, sort of, if democracy means letting the military govern a country for six months or so until elections can be held and if the military then actually cedes power to a real republic. Hoping for a democracy in Bahrain, oppressed Shi’ites attempted to create their Tahrir Square by occupying a traffic circle. The government there decided it had learned a lesson from Egypt’s protests: crack down fast and rule by violence, resulting in numerous deaths. Meanwhile, in Iran rabid Islamists want to try and execute protestors who recently demonstrated for more freedom there. The trend is the same: whether it is Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan or even the West Bank, the Muslim world wants freedom, democracy and government that executes the will of its people.

Freedom is good, but about that democracy thing: it is at best a mixed blessing. Just because you have a democracy doesn’t mean that those running it will choose to actually govern. So be careful what you wish for. Egyptians, you may find yourselves longing for a little honest oppression after you try governing yourselves as a republic, because it is often a very messy process. As we here in the United States can attest, republics sure aren’t all they are cracked up to be. In fact, they tend toward dysfunction, with parties jockeying endlessly for power using all means, fair, unfair and often illegal.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got— a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two hundred and twenty four years later, you have to look at the mess we call our republic and wonder if maybe a monarchy would have been an improvement. If we had a king, perhaps he could at least shame our Congress into doing its job. For if a government is to work, it has to actually govern.

Here in the United States, governing is so 20th century. Today, there is no guarantee that an agency will have an appropriated spending bill, even by the end of their fiscal year. Instead, you will get one continuing resolution after another, usually based on last year’s funding. CRs are Congress’ way of telling the nation it cannot do its job. This happens because we have elected a Congress of polarized people who put ideology ahead of governing. Congress is currently debating another continuing resolution to fund the government. If they cannot agree on one by March 4th, federal employees like me will be indefinitely furloughed. I had best stock up on paint, because apparently I will have plenty of time to paint in March. For if you can count on anything in Congress, it’s on Congress skirting its job.

In case you have forgotten, here is how it is supposed to work: all appropriation laws would be signed into law before October 1 so agencies can work from an approved spending plan. The plan is supposed to execute the desires of the American people, as expressed through compromise involving two houses of government. What often happens these days is the actual bill to fund the agency gets signed into law late in the year, then a twelve month plan hobbled by continuing resolutions all has to get executed in a couple of months. It’s crazy, but that’s American democracy at work for you.

So let’s do a status check for Fiscal Year 2011 to see how well gears of our old republic are turning. Today is February 18, 2011, nearly five months into the fiscal year that started October 1, 2010. How many FY 2011 appropriation bills have actually been signed into law? Zero. Okay, well, how many have passed the House? Two (military construction/veterans affairs and transportation, both in the last Congress.) How many have passed the Senate? Zero. I don’t know what they are doing in Congress, but governing is obviously not very high on their agenda. It’s like they forgot how to mark up bills in committee, vote for or against them on the floor and send them to a conference committee. Ironically, the new House started off the year with a reading of the constitution.

The only spending “bills” that have passed are four “continuing resolutions” funding the government at Fiscal Year 2010 levels until Congress decides to get around to this messy thing called legislating. Here’s the thing about continuing resolutions. They really aren’t authority to spend any money at all. Congress and the president just pretend they are. They are a resolution, which amounts to a wish or a promise. If they were an appropriation, they would have arrived as bills, and when enacted would become a public law. A CR is not a public law. A CR is basically Congress saying “We need some more time to work on the bills, so is it okay if agencies meanwhile spend money at this rate until it runs out on this date with no guidance from Congress?” By signing it, the president is saying, “Okay by me.” What is missing is any intent from Congress on how the money should be used. That’s the part that Congress is supposed to do but is not. It’s called legislating, also known as representatives and senators doing this thing called “work”.

It is looking increasingly probable that Fiscal Year 2011 will end with no appropriations bills signed into law at all because the House and Senate are controlled by different parties and neither are principled enough to meet in the middle. Instead, eighty-seven new Republicans in the House want to cut $60 billion from non-defense agencies, which somehow must be done by September 30. The Senate does not want to do it. CRs have become the fictional instrument to keep a dysfunctional government running. The House and Senate seem likely to continue at loggerheads indefinitely, potentially until the 2012 election. Maybe in 2013 Congress will get around to actually directing agencies on how to spend their money.

To all appearances, Congress seems suspended in gridlock with not even a hint that either house will move toward political compromise. If you ask me, we now have a republic in name only.

The Thinker

Review: King’s Speech

Rumor is that King’s Speech will win Best Picture at this year’s Grammy Awards. So why do I have to go to out of the way theaters in order to see it? Oh, I see, because it does not have any special effects, it takes place in stuffy old England around World War II, it is not marketed to the youth crowd and deals principally with the unpleasant subject of stuttering. In addition, it is full of old people, or at least people outside of Hollywood’s prime demographic. Indeed, it might not have been made at all if it had not been for Great Britain’s national lottery, which funded the film. So this is a movie funded by government socialism. That should keep conservatives from going, even though Winston Churchill shows up.

Yet despite its socialist funding, it’s a terrific movie, and hopefully Great Britain will get its share of the profits. They could use some extra money right now. Of course, if you fill a movie with great actors you are much more likely to get a great product. King’s Speech has plenty of them: Colin Firth as King George VI, Helena Bonham Carter as his devoted wife, Derek Jacobi as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII and Geoffrey Rush as the King’s speech therapist Lionel Logue.

You would think that there could not be much tension in a movie about a prince with a speech impediment. You would be wrong because Prince Albert (as he was known back then, and to intimates as Bertie) has a chronic problem that is manifested in a fear of public speaking. Moreover, his brother Prince Edward is hopelessly infatuated with a twice-divorced woman from Baltimore. He eventually abdicates his throne, leaving Bertie as the reluctant speaking-impaired king. Then there is that mustached menace across the channel, which means certain war with Germany, and the singular requirement for the king to rally his nation to war. The tension could hardly be higher, particularly as we learn that Edward’s abdication is unprecedented. Britain needs its king now more than ever. Failure of the King to step up and rally his nation might be fatal.

Bertie feels his speech impediment is hopeless and does his best to ignore it, but his wife Elizabeth is made of sterner stuff. In desperation, she confidentially seeks out an obscure and uncredentialed speech therapist who specializes in stutterers and who practices out of a basement office in a dodgy part of London. Lionel Logue, as played by Geoffrey Rush, is peculiar himself, having emigrated from Australia. There he helped shell-shocked World War I soldiers restore their speech through therapy that was part psychotherapy. Prince Edward turns out to be his toughest case, particularly when Lionel insists they address each other as peers. Their relationship, which will eventually blossom into a deep friendship, is strange and stormy but forms the core of this intimate movie.

Director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler give us a gloomy, fog-filled England, which is perhaps metaphorical but is typical of its climate. The movie is wonderfully intimate, full of the complexity of being inside the royal family, which includes many charms and burdens. Bertie is portrayed as a devoted father who is blessed with a loving and caring wife. This is quite a contrast to his father, King George V (played by Michael Gambon) who was both physically and emotionally abusive with his children. It’s a wonder that Bertie developed only a speech impediment given his unassertive nature, his domineering father and the indignities that he endured.

I would probably not give King’s Speech a best picture award, but it is very well done with fine acting throughout. It is neat to get something of a backstage pass into the life of royals, and to see them as people instead of stereotypes. Most of us will have no problem feeling empathy for Bertie. Helena Bonham Carter’s role as Queen Elizabeth (King’s consort and future Queen Mum) is exceptionally well done, and somewhat out of her typecast. Geoffrey Rush portrays Lionel as somewhat weird and awkward himself, which is perhaps why he can be so therapeutic with the king.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

A winning frame for Democrats in 2012

Last December, I wrote about how Republicans politically manipulate us. Political manipulation, of course, is hardly new. It is certainly not illegal, although the egregiousness of it lately from the Right, not to mention the many boldfaced lies by politicians and their surrogates like Fox News often makes it infuriating. I promised back then that I would offer my suggestions on how Democrats can change this dynamic. Here, at last, are my thoughts.

It is important for Democrats and Progressives to understand the dynamics of political campaigns and how it varies from governing. Campaigns are designed to win power. Governing is the wise execution of power, to the extent you can execute it within the political context. When voters elect large majorities favoring Republicans, such as occurred in the 2010 election, this happen for a variety of reasons. Issues certainly are a factor in votes and when the economy is doing badly and jobs are hard to get those in power can expect to get hammered. The Karl Roves though understand that election outcomes are a result of three primary factors: firing up the bases so they vote en masse, depressing the opposition’s base if possible (in some cases this results in electoral fraud, like making it difficult for minorities to vote) and finally swinging as many independents your way as possible. The one that matters the most is firing up your own base.

Independents being independent will tend to swing with the issues of the day. If you can’t get a job you will blame it on the bums in charge and vote for the opposition party. Republicans and Democrats will largely vote the party line. To win independents, framing the issue is important. Republicans are excellent at framing issues. “Obamacare”, a term they made up, is a one-word frame. When they mention “Obamacare”, in the same sentence they also mention the one thing about the law that raises the most dander: the requirement in the law to purchase health insurance. The idea is to focus one fact to the exclusion of everything else and blow it up disproportionately. It works. So to compete, Democrats need to find their own frame. I will have more on that in a bit.

Most elections will swing toward voter apathy, but Americans tend to vote more in presidential election years than in other election years. Regardless, our recent voting history is pretty dismal. Even in a presidential election year, roughly only half of eligible voters will vote. So those who win, as Republicans proved in the 2010 election, disproportionately vote in higher numbers than others. They are “fired up” about something. The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world play the role of evangelists to the faithful. Money flows, and in a typical year Republicans, having deeper pockets, will outspend Democrats.

Polarization thus fires up political bases. One of the reasons moderates have become so rare is that no one gets excited over a moderate. It is easier for a party to nominate a moderate if the opposition can be painted as extreme. These days though a party will prefer to choose someone from the extreme ends, if possible, in order to fire up the base.

In the 2008 election, Democrats were genuinely fired up principally between two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The energy was with the Obama campaign because it excited the imagination of more Democrats. Plus, Obama was framed (truly or not) as a “transformational figure”. In 2008, voters had eight years of Bush-Cheney and found it very disagreeable. They wanted change. “Change” became Obama’s frame and it worked successfully not only energizing Democrats but also many Independents.

Picking the right candidate thus becomes crucial. Ideally it should be someone who will fire up the base but when election time rolls around can pivot toward the center and be seen as “sensible” by moderates and independents. Among potential Republican candidates in 2012, there are not many that fall into this category. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are the only two that I see that could realistically compete against Obama in 2012. There must be a compelling reason to oust an incumbent president. Polling suggests without some much worse economic news there likely will not be this animus. Romney and Pawlenty though just might have a chance.

Winning an election and governing are two completely different experiences, as Obama is finding out. This is where you need someone who can pivot toward the center and pull his party with him. It annoys progressives like me when this means we get a less than perfect health care bill like the Affordable Care Act. However, unless a party has overwhelming majorities in Congress you will never get the “ideal” solution implemented into law. House Republicans are going to discover this unfortunate reality in March when the current continuing resolution funding the federal government expires. A federal government shutdown in March, likely lasting some weeks, is very likely if not inevitable. It will probably take senior citizens not getting their social security checks to prod these Republican purists toward some pragmatism and middle ground. The longer Republicans obstruct, the greater the political price they will pay. At the moment, they do not understand this, and that includes Newt Gingrich who should know better. Democrats can use this blindness to their advantage.

Political success thus comes from firing up the base for the elections to win more political power, then convincing the base to accept half a loaf when governing actually starts. Whichever political party does this best ultimately has the most political clout. With a few exceptions, like Franklin Roosevelt’s overwhelmingly Democratic congress, political compromise is necessary and must happen. Even in Roosevelt’s case, while Congress was aligned with him, the Supreme Court was not. There will always be opposition.

What is remarkable about Obama’s first two years in office was how much he and the Democratic congress actually accomplished. This was a feat not seen for decades. It drew the expected political opposition, and drove much of the animus that occurred in the last election. In 2008, voters wanted change. Obama and the Democrats largely delivered and in the process paid a price.

What frame or frames should Democrats use in 2012? Republicans know the secret: it must be a KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) frame. Here is the frame that I would use: Republican Recklessness. Republicans want radical and reckless changes to our system of government. America, however, is a moderate country. So vote Democratic to protect our safety net and to keep reasonable people in charge.

Democrats can point to successes, and there have been many. The Affordable Care Act is noteworthy, but probably not something to highlight right now. One can point to the way the Obama Administration is winding down costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how Democrats kept the economy from collapsing (bailing out GM, Ford and other major companies were successes, saving thousands of jobs), ensured that the jobless received benefits during a dramatic economic downturn, and kept a basic floor under the people of this country during a very rough time. It should not be much harder than that. There are so many examples of reckless policies from the Republicans it is hard to know where to begin, but obviously highlighting their proposed cuts to Social Security are on the table. Democrats should be a little fearless for a change and say Republicans plan to decimate Social Security and Medicare. The evidence is all around. Americans won’t need much convincing.

That’s how to win in 2012 or at least break Republican gains. Democrats should be able to pick up seats in the House, but holding on to the Senate will still be tough. But it’s a frame that can win, and the underlying truth of it will be hard for any sober person to disagree with.

The Thinker

Rep. Chris Lee fails Infidelity 101

Hey Chris Lee! I am glad to read that you resigned from the House of Representatives today. (Republican House Representative (NY-26) Chris Lee resigned after the web site Gawker published correspondence that he was pursing a woman on Craigslist who he was trying to date. He sent her a picture of himself naked from the waist up taken with his Blackberry and identified himself by his real name.) You are too stupid to be in Congress anyhow.

I am sure your wife and kids won’t be happy with this attempt at infidelity, but I won’t give you a hard time about that. There’s obviously a lot of it going on, and if infidelity made you deathly ill at least a quarter of Congress would be dead. No, you are just the latest hypocrite to be caught. The good news: at least you weren’t caught with your pants down, just your shirt off. The bad news: you failed Infidelity 101.

I mean, your stupidity was just breathless! If you want to screw around with another woman while married, start by using an alias. Particularly if you are a member of Congress, do not give your real name, well, at least not until you are so far in bed together (either actually or figuratively) that it really doesn’t matter. I am glad you learned about Craigslist. It shows you have an elementary grasp of this Internet thing. Now here’s another site you might want to check: Google. It’s a search engine. Type in anyone’s name and you can probably learn a lot about them. Since you are a politician, your name will be near the top of the rankings. That’s all it took for your potential paramour to smoke you out. Dumb. Really dumb.

Second, these search engines are also great at finding images of people. After searching on your name, click on that images link in Google. Notice anyone familiar? It doesn’t have to be Google. Bing, Yahoo and any search engine worth it’s salt will find your picture in three clicks or less.

Third, while married men trolling for single (generally younger) gals are nothing new, most of those who actually hope to succeed should probably be looking for an accomplice in crime. A single woman who is interested in you will soon smoke you out. It could be little clues like you are only available between 8 AM and 10 AM Monday thru Friday, or you never take them home to meet your Mom and Dad. A philandering politician with brains will probably not troll Craigslist for a woman in the first place. Instead, they will look for someone emotionally vulnerable conveniently right in the office. (Hint: check out your congressional interns and pages. It worked for Bill Clinton!) Failing that, they will seek out someone who also has something to lose: a married woman. In the infidelity business, double jeopardy is good. Yes, it’s possible her husband will come after you with a baseball bat while you are making whoopee, but them’s the breaks. (Hint: lock the door!) In short, in responding to a Woman seeking Man ad, perhaps you should have tried Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section instead.

Fourth, while Gawker did not publish your email address, it would be wise to not use your email address. It might raise a suspicion when you declare yourself a divorced lobbyist that maybe you are not entirely honest.

Fifth, if you must send a picture of yourself, at least make yourself a bit hard to identify. Wear sunglasses or something. Photo matching is getting better every year, but your eyes give away your secret identity. If you must send a picture of your face, at least reduce it and use Photoshop so it renders a bit fuzzy.

Sixth, if you are a prominent person, understand that if you want to indulge in some philandering you will have to do it with people you know. Politicians usually have learned how to be charming. It’s time to pour on the charm with the women. You are reasonably handsome. With a little charm and a touch of innuendo, it’s very likely she would have made the first move. Then you could at least claim to have been emotionally vulnerable. You could blame it on the long hours or something. I’m sorry, but married politicians with any semblance of brains just don’t get to use Craigslist or any online dating service.

Now get to the back of the line. Take some comfort in that you are hardly alone, just the example of the moment. I don’t know if you actually succeeded or not, but if not then you can honestly say that technically you did not commit adultery. You can take your place at the end a long line of much more prominent politicians. Rest assured someone else will be behind you shortly. In fact, in a few weeks you will fade from our collective memory. When your wife ditches you, as she probably will, simply move out of state and pick up a different career. Even so in your newly single state, you might want to change your legal name. The good news is then you can post a legitimate ad in the Men seeking Woman section of Craigslist. Your brain may be defective but, hey, even I will acknowledge your nice abs.

(P.S. And thanks for giving me something to write about. I was having a brain fart.)

The Thinker

Review: Mongol (2007)

I am roughly half way through the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. This history of the Mongol empire that Genghis Khan created in the 13th and 14th century is interesting and likely reasonably close to the truth, as it is based on a secret history that was recorded at the time. There have been lots of movies about Genghis Khan over the years, some good, some quite dreadful, but few have been both really good and reasonably historically accurate. Mongol, an excellent Russian production released in 2007 comes quite close.

To the extent that we think about Genghis Khan today, we tend to thing of him as some sort of crazed Mongolian leader bent on empire and loving to dish out death, misery and torture. There is no question that in his quest for empire Genghis Khan and the Mongols killed a lot of people, and many perished in ways that would make even a medieval torturer squirm. Life was very harsh back then so the behavior of the Mongols was actually rather typical. Genghis Khan succeeded so well because he was a brilliant strategic thinker, and because Mongols traveled light. A full review of the book will come once I am done with it. Since Genghis Khan’s empire endured after his death, the Great Khan goes to his reward well before the halfway part of the book. So it was safe to Netflix this 2007 movie. It is part of an expected trilogy of movies about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The next installment was supposed to released last year, but it has not appeared in theaters yet.

Reading Weatherford’s book, you realize that Mongolia is a very desolate, arid and cold place. The Mongolians did not have much besides lots of horses. Back then they spent much of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan realized that to rise as a nation and as a people they first had to unite. Mongol tells the first part of Khan’s remarkable story: how he united his people and, tangentially, how he conquered his first Chinese kingdom.

Based on Weatherford’s descriptions, the film’s director Sergey Bodrov does a remarkable job of getting the details right. To say that life on the Mongolian steppe was harsh was to understate just how hard survival was. It meant constantly moving from place to place. It meant endless winds and unfathomable cold. Aside from their horses the Mongols had almost nothing. Bodrov does an outstanding job of depicting the harshness, poverty and cruelty of 13th century Mongolia. Mongolia had no kings, but there were all sorts of warlords who vied for constantly shifting regional leaderships.

Genghis Khan’s childhood and young adulthood would appall our modern sensibilities, but it is very well rendered in Mongol. It was a time when a man picked his bride as a prepubescent; where men about to be overrun often sensibly abandoned the women and fled just to survive; and where the notions of chastity and monogamy largely did not exist. Life was ephemeral on the steppe, and Genghis Khan, then known as Temudjin, got far more persecution and abuse that most. This was because his father was a clan warlord, and he made enemies with the leader of a local clan, who thus wanted Temudgin dead.

Actor Tadanobu Asano plays the key role of Temudgin. He is certainly not a name we would recognize here in the states, but he does an exceptional job in a very challenging role. It is hard to render Genghis Khan likeable, but Asano does a realistic job. By the standards of the 13th century, Temudgin was something of a gentleman. While capable of being ruthless, he built trust through being respectful of his men and not seeking to take more than his share of any plundered booty. He never really lusted for empire, or for gold and jewels. He lusted for unity and peace among his people. To end their endless civil wars he had to break more than a few eggs.

Much of the movie focuses on Temudgin’s basic fight to stay alive, starting as a young boy. He survived through a combination of luck, unusual resourcefulness and the exceptional loyalty from those who grew to know him. This included his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) who remained remarkably loyal and faithful to him. This was despite more than once having her life ripped apart when neighboring tribes captured her. Temudgin loved and was very attached to Borte as well, even though they spent much of their lives separated. Temudgin’s primary opponent turns out to be Jamukha (Honglei Sun), which starts as a great boyhood friendship. Temudgin also must endure years as a slave and imprisonment in a neighboring kingdom. Asano well captures Temudgin’s steely character and plays him as a man full of great self-confidence and ceaseless but quiet determination.

It is hard to find fault with any of the casting. As you might expect, the movie has an exotic Lawrence of Arabia feeling to it. In addition to the fine casting you get to enjoy gorgeous scenery in very distant lands. And there will be plenty of blood drawn. There are many, many battles, mostly on horseback. Mongols were great shots with a bow and arrow while riding on horseback, and they were efficient when using their swords. You will see lots of spurting blood during the battle scenes, but it’s clear they were added by CGI.

Mongol thus qualifies as a distinctive, well done and largely historically accurate movie that is well worth seeing. Genghis Khan was a remarkable character and his life story turns out to be very compelling. You will find the movie very well done and very engaging, and won’t even notice the subtitles. I am ready to see its sequel, and I hope it is as good as this first movie, which was deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2008 Oscars.

Good stuff and worth my 3.4 out of four points rating.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Bet on more debt

Revolution is breaking out not only in Egypt but also on Capitol Hill. While protestors demanding freedom are taking over Tahrir Square in Cairo, Republican senators and legislators complaining that oppressive “socialism” is diminishing our freedom.

On Capitol Hill, we have the expected noise principally from Republicans about how dreadfully awful our $1.5 trillion dollar deficit this year will be (I agree) and how it must be stopped now! The chess pieces are moving. Earlier in the week, Senate Republicans forced a vote on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which predictably lost. Certain federal district courts apparently don’t like the ACA either. One Florida judge declared the whole act unconstitutional.

Glimmers of Republican sanity are emerging. House Republicans, or at least its leadership, seem to be backing away from an earlier threat not to extend the federal debt ceiling later this year, realizing that the resulting economic meltdown may not be good for their reelection prospects. Meanwhile, President Obama is playing a clever game of defense, setting boundaries on what is acceptable and not acceptable to cut and vowing to veto bills with earmarks. Overall, the momentum certainly seems to be on the side of those trying to cut deficits and reduce the size of the federal government. This time will the cut federal spending and deficits crowd actually succeed?

My vote: bet on more debt. It seems likely that non-defense discretionary spending will be frozen for a few years. Of course, there will be lots of threats and wailing about how bad things are and how the dynamics must change now. However, that’s all they are: threats and wailing. To effect real change, new external drivers are needed. Specifically, our creditors need to stop lending us money (or slow the amount of money they are lending us) or bond rating firms (some of whom were bailed out by federal tax money just a couple of years ago) need to downgrade the U.S. Treasury’s AAA bond rating.

There is little evidence now that either of these things will happen. Why? There are many reasons but principally there is an enormous surplus of capital in the world, including trillions held by U.S. companies. Many of those holding the capital are already heavily invested in U.S. treasuries and do not want to see their investment’s value diminished. A lot of their extra money can certainly be invested in other stocks and bonds, but even blue chip companies are not as safe a refuge for money as U.S. treasury bills. Seeking safety, it seems unlikely that capital will flee U.S. securities.

The improving economy will eventually increase tax revenues. It will be hard to see over the next few years, particularly since Congress and the president have already agreed to borrow money to fund a cut in social security withholdings. Nevertheless, eventually the economy will pick up a head of steam, bringing in more in the way of revenues and thus lessening the deficit. As the deficit shrinks, however marginally, the animus to cut federal spending eases as well. Getting out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will help eventually as well.

Another reason to bet on debt is to consider what really matters. For Republicans, the deficit is a talking point toward their real utopian goal of cutting the size of the federal government. To seriously do this they need sixty plus votes in the Senate, a majority of the House and a Republican president. Two out of three are possible in 2012, but three out of three are very unlikely. As for right now, we will all have to muddle through somehow. What this will amount to in the end is probably a freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech that this is only fifteen percent of federal spending, so a freeze does not solve any underlying problems. Medicare costs in particular will keep rising.

Republicans talk about cutting Medicare and Medicaid, but it is mostly talk. What they really want to do is cut non-defense discretionary spending. They want symbolic victories, like getting rid of the Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting because these agencies offend them. Even if they succeed, which is unlikely, they don’t address the real problem. Discretionary spending outside of Defense has not been the principle cause of deficits since the Great Depression.

The real problems driving up the debt, aside from the bad economy and tax cuts are: Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending. Of the three, only one is a realistic target for major cuts. Can you pick the right target? If you said Medicaid, come up and claim your prize. Why Medicaid? Because when push comes to shove, the disenfranchised are always the first to go. You can see it in being played out right now in state and local governments. Here in Virginia, for example, services for the mentally ill were one of the first cut. A few people speak for the mentally ill, but not many and they are not well organized. Nor do they contribute to politicians’ war chests. Even with Medicaid, it is not going to go away, but if forced to choose between the three, it will be the first to be sizably cut. That is because those who buy influence ultimately win. The poor, being poor, cannot buy influence, and survive only on largess. So Medicaid stands a decent chance of being a loser, while farm subsidies will doubtless continue. (After all, they go principally to red states, and principally to large agricultural companies.)

The Defense Department may get symbolic cuts, but that’s all they will be. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is proposing “cuts”, but this does not mean he expects DoD’s budget to go down. No, he is proposing slowing its rate of growth. While there are some Tea Partiers who would favor real and painful cuts to the Department of Defense, there are too many teats feeding off the military industrial complex. Cuts will be mostly symbolic and weapons systems built in large numbers of congressional districts, as usual, will be mostly immune to cuts.

Social Security is largely untouchable. Social Security will neither be abolished nor will it be replaced with some sort of voucher system. Any honest Republican knows this. At worst, the retirement age will be increased but that will prove unpopular with voters, who can hardly keep a job now. Moreover, social security is not insolvent. It will always have a steady revenue stream through withholdings. The only concern is that over the next twenty years it will be slowly drawing from its trust of already accumulated savings, i.e. Treasury bills, unless the law changes.

Medicare spending is the most chronic and largest problem. Cutting it and raising taxes are the only two things that will seriously reduce the deficit. Unfortunately, it remains popular with the public and retirees depend on it. Republicans live in a fantasy world that it can be converted into a voucher system. To fix Medicare will require making painful choices among many vested interests including doctors, drug companies, retirees, hospitals, ancillary insurance providers and clinics. For it to become solvent will require that hardest of work: everyone must share in the misery. Of course, everyone will want someone else to endure the misery, not them.

The last reason to bet on debt is that tax increases have become anathema. When push comes to shove, Republicans will put deficit spending ahead of tax increases. This is as sure as the sun will rise. The only way to seriously raise tax rates is to have a Democratic congress, sixty plus Democratic votes in the Senate and a Democratic president. That too is very unlikely.

So for the short term, unless our creditors and rating firms force our hand, expect barbarians at the gate, but wielding only noise as weapons. More debt will win because it is the least painful choice. Future generations, after all, aren’t yet of voting age.

The Thinker

The View at 54

Today happens to be my birthday, my 54th birthday in fact. I tend to largely ignore my birthdays and this one in particular is not noteworthy. There were a couple of birthday cards on the breakfast table, and my friends on Facebook have been offering felicitations, since now they know these little secrets.

If you are behind me in time stream, you may wonder what your life will be like at 54. Your view at 54 will doubtless look different than mine, but I can probably set some realistic expectations.

At 54, my life feels very settled and mostly comfortable. With the current economy, I am fortunate to have a job because many men my age who lose their job are fortunate if their local Wal-Mart will hire them. For much of my life, I felt like a salmon swimming desperately upstream. At 54, you may be over the hill, but you (hopefully) are done with the arduous climbing. At this altitude, you can see a long way. This vision is something akin to wisdom, which, if you are learning lessons from life, comes naturally with age. At my advanced age, you should know what to do and what not to do, and are painfully aware of the consequences if you act against your better judgment. You realize you got a pretty good thing going and are more concerned with preserving what you have than boldly trying new things.

No doubt about it. I am settling down. Retirement is no longer an abstraction; it is something I am already grappling with. I am making choices that in some ways are as complex as those I endured to get here, but largely these choices are more fun to deal with. Knowing that I won’t be salaried forever, I am paying a lot more attention to figuring out how I will navigate the fixed income world. Right now this includes paying down the balance on our mortgage and slowly shifting investments away from stocks into safer securities like bonds. Since I am in my prime earning years, I am also saving more than I ever have. I am maxing out my 401-K. At the end of the month, whatever income is left over goes toward paying down the mortgage balance. $79,266.91 to go. I can theoretically retire next year, but will pick up another job when I do retire at least until the mortgage is fully paid off. With luck it will be a part time job, something I truly enjoy doing and something I can do for a lot less money.

It’s not all terrific at age 54. I miss the body I had in my 20s. Age has taken its toll. I have dealt with an enlarged aorta, an irregular heartbeat, a vasovagal syncope that broke my nose and put me in the hospital, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, then low blood pressure, tarsal tunnel syndrome and painful, persistent sciatica that increasingly feels incurable. Aside from these issues, I am in good health, a little overweight but not too much, with thinning hair slowly mixing with grey. My libido has sagged, which is entirely natural but which, oddly, is rarely discussed among men my age. I still feel reasonably sharp although with so many memories keeping it all sorted is increasingly a challenge. My brain purges a lot of detritus, like hundreds of emails that I scanned over the course of the day.

The years keep tumbling by, so much so in that they all sort of run together now. It’s getting to the point where I can no longer keep my decades straight. I have to think hard when someone asks where I was or what I was doing in a certain year. Listing my employment history would be a real challenge. Who supervised me thirty years ago? When did I start and leave that job? How much did I earn back then? Why should it matter?

Time moves much more quickly but oddly I feel much less anxious about it. Aging was much more traumatic going from 29 to 30 that from 49 to 50. Turning 54 is a piece of cake. Yes, I know I have more years behind me than ahead of me. Death bothers me a lot less than it used to. At age 29, death was big and scary principally because (in retrospect) aging was big and scary. Now death is more of a known commodity. I know sort of what to expect by seeing my mother go through it, and while dying is no fun with its mystery gone so is much of its terror. I am accepting aging so much better than I used to. If you are lucky, you make it to old age. None of us gets out of life alive. We are born to die. The pragmatist in me says just enjoy each day as it comes and don’t spend too much time fretting how it will end. End it must. I hope not to escape death, but to live as healthy and as meaningful a life as nature will let me, and to accept it gracefully when it won’t.

While I am far down life’s runway, there is much more runway ahead and it is some of the best runway: straight, level with no potholes or grooves in the pavement. Life may be comfortable at 54, but life still throws the occasional curve ball, some of which let you know there is so much life worth living ahead of you. Last year, my father remarried at age 83. By doing so he singlehandedly redefined my expectations of old age. Just this week I received another surprise. I may be 54, but I am not too old to have a new niece or nephew. My youngest brother’s wife is pregnant, with a baby expected in six months or so. With a little assist from medical technology (they are in their mid forties), my brother will also join the fatherhood club. I am sure like with everything else he does that he will excel in the role.

Maybe it’s good that those first 54 years are all blending together. Now I can anticipate what adventures may lay ahead when I turn 55.


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