Sunday, June 30, 2013

Confessions Of A Binge-Watcher

Full disclosure: this blogger binge-watched all of the thirteen hours of "House of Cards" yesterday. The following review by Matt Zoller Seitz nails the TV melodrama: good, but not great. If this is (fair & balanced) TV criticism, so be it.

[x Vulture]
Weekend Watching: Matt Zoller Seitz On The Entire Season Of "House of Cards" (02/08/13)
By Matt Zoller Seitz

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I promised a full review of "House of Cards" after last Friday’s preview, and here it is. My verdict: It’s good but not great, intriguing but not revolutionary, unsatisfying in big ways but very satisfying in small ones. I’m glad I watched the whole thing in one chunk, but I’m not sure I’d approach the already-in-production season two in the same way. I always get an adrenaline rush from binge-watching whole seasons of shows, and sometimes the excitement inflates my esteem a bit. So if it seems as though I’m tamping down my enthusiasm in this piece, well, that’s why.

Based on the 1990 U.K. series — and nicking its big flourish, having the hero talk to the audience à la "Richard III" — it moves and feels like a reasonably grown-up pay-cable drama, only much handsomer, thanks to executive producer David Fincher ("Se7en," "Zodiac"), the king of glossy decay. The only thing about it that’s really “new” is the behind-the-scenes innovation of releasing all thirteen episodes on Netflix on the same day, as if it were a superlong film. In theory, this will draw new subscribers to Netflix and keep current ones on the site for days at a time, consuming chapter after chapter.

But it would be a mistake to downplay that innovation’s importance, because the show seems to have been written with it in mind. As overseen (and often screenwritten) by Beau Willimon, "House of Cards's" finest quality is its unhurriedness. It takes its time introducing the main characters and setting up its plots. Then, once we’re in the thick of it (as it were), it has the courage to let moments breathe and to be okay with lingering on uncomfortable silences and letting important moments play out in a wide shot rather than in a tight close-up (TV’s default mode). The show doesn’t seem terribly concerned with hooking you into watching the next episode, either — probably because the storytellers know that if you’re watching "House of Cards," it means you have Netflix, and the next installment is a click away, so what’s the point of a hard sell? These characteristics may seem minor — just a style thing — but I think they’re the key to whatever distinctive flavor the show has.

I was also impressed by "House of Cards's" ability to weave social media into the fabric of the story and make it dramatic, by showing people pausing before texting a reply to somebody, deliberately not picking up a call and listening to the message moments later, or finding words to make dishonesty sound principled in an e-mail (as Cory Stoll’s pathetic, doomed Peter Russo fails to do in an e-mail to a constituent outraged about his silence in the port shutdown). The show’s sophistication about technology seems of a piece with its nature as a Netflix original. I like that it has decided to take place in 2013, in which a congressman’s meltdown during a CNN debate can be turned into an AutoTuned YouTube dance track mere hours later.

The characterizations and performances are hit-and-miss, ditto the plotting; the latter’s weakness are often bound up with the former. Kevin Spacey’s house majority whip Frank Underwood is indeed a brilliant puppetmaster, or maybe chess master, though not as brilliant as he thinks — a fact driven home in the final stretch of the season, in which his wife Claire (Robin Wright) stabs him in the back politically and briefly leaves him for dashing British photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels). He’s so nervy and clever, and such an unrepentant bastard, that after a while I wasn’t quite so bugged by his fourth-wall-breaking asides; I just enjoyed watching him be a snake, tempting the weak and infuriating the impulsive into destroying themselves (like Al Sapienza’s union rep, who gets baited into blackening Frank’s eye and inadvertently ending the protracted teacher’s strike).

Spacey is never able to sell the affair between Frank and his journalist minion/concubine Zoe (Kate Mara). Why? Maybe because he and Mara have no sexual chemistry (neither actor radiates that kind of energy anyway), and maybe because the sexual affair (which was not in Michael Dobbs’s source novel) seems like just another contrived May-September power relationship of a sort that you’ve seen a zillion times. Whatever the explanation for the Frank-Zoe affair’s lameness, I rolled my eyes whenever the series felt obliged to check in on it — though I did laugh out loud when Frank bails on a date with Zoe. (“Running about 30 mins late,” she texts him. “I don’t do waiting,” he texts back.)

I like the show’s un-shocked attitude toward skullduggery — it’s a cliché, yes, but preferable to having to suffer through scenes of a straw man character being appalled to learn that politics is a cruel business. Like The Good Wife and Game of Thrones — and Deadwood and The Sopranos before it — "House of Cards" has a great eye and ear for the protocol of power. In scene after scene, we watch one person decide another’s fate without even thinking of asking permission. Because This Is the Business They Have Chosen, the screwed one has to smile and nod and say something like, “I understand — thank you for your time.” Godfather-lite aphorisms abound, some banal, others sharp enough to stick in the mind. My favorite is Spacey’s admonition to Zoe, “Generosity is its own form of power.” Remember that the next time someone does you a favor.

Is "House of Cards" a realistic portrayal of the political process? It’s no more realistic than, say, "The West Wing" or "The American President," but I don’t think it’s terribly concerned with documentary realism — any more so than the BBC series, which had Frank’s English counterpart Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) gleefully blackmailing, intimidating, and double-crossing everyone at the top layers of government, and climaxed with a major character being spectacularly, publicly murdered. Both versions of "House of Cards" are melodramas offering two main attractions: Byzantine plots that express humanity’s unquenchable hunger for more power, and domestic stories that show the impact of those plots on marriage and family.

So much of the show’s morality and emotion are situational, and I like that "House of Cards" doesn’t portray any relationship as either/or. These are complicated people, and you can’t really appreciate them unless you can hold contradictory thoughts in your head as you watch. The tactical and emotional tug of war between Frank and Claire, for instance, seems at once completely mercenary and oddly, sincerely affectionate: Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth smoking cigarettes in a window. The eleventh-hour relationship between Zoe and the young reporter that she friend-zoned in the pilot is notable, too. It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been used and abused by Frank. The sight of Zoe in a (seemingly) healthy relationship doesn’t erase the memory of her coldly ambitious behavior early in the series, but it does complicate our feelings toward her, because it seems like an instance of hard experience forcing a person to mature. Who can’t relate to that?

Russo’s story is the one that’ll linger with me. It’s almost unbearably sad. The young congressman was a modestly successful screw-up who might have muddled on indefinitely in the same job if Frank hadn’t appealed to his fantasies of redemption, and roped him into a mythic quest that Frank knew he didn’t have the mettle to finish. “They say dad’s gonna die like Amy Winehouse,” one of his kids casually tells Claire. The scene of a hung-over Russo screwing up an important CNN [sic — radio] interview was so agonizing that I couldn’t watch most of it; I just stared at my notes and pretended "House of Cards" was a radio play.

The implication that Frank sought Russo out because he knew he’d self-destruct and ultimately set Frank on the path toward the vice-presidency is truly chilling. But then, the most powerful people are often supreme narcissists, adept at mind-effing even smart men and women. Frank relearns this lesson while dealing with president’s supposed VP pick, billionaire Raymond Tusk (the great Gerald McRaney, channeling his George Heast [sic — Hearst] from "Deadwood"). Tusk treats him like an errand boy, then comes on like an arrogant usurper, then reveals that he and the prez schooled him as thoroughly as Frank schools everybody else, and that they’re about to hand Frank the prize he fought so hard for, as if it were a Christmas present. Generosity is its own form of power. Ω

[In June 2013, Matt Zoller Seitz was named the new editor-in-chief of Seitz will continue in his role as TV critic for New York magazine and Vulture, where he has worked since January 2012. Before that, he was a TV critic at Salon. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Dallas Observer, and The New York Press. Seitz received a BA (English and journalism) from Southern Methodist University.]

Copyright © 2013, New York Media

Since the Google Reader will go dark on July 1, 2013, another site is available tor readers of a lot of blogs (or a single blog). The alternative is Feedly. For a review of Feedly by the NY FIshwrap's David Pogue, click here.

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Who're You Gonna Believe? Marylander Selina Meyer ("Veep") Or South Carolinian Frank Underwood ("House Of Cards")?

Full disclosure: after reading today's post by David Sirota, this blogger went to Amazon Instant Video and downloaded the entire first season of "House of Cards." What the hey: "Veep" has gone into hiatus with the recent conclusion of its second season on HBO. "House of Cards" is remake of a Brit series providing a behind-the-scenes look at the House of Commons; "House of Cards" revolves around a South Carolina congressman in DC. Interestingly, "House of Cards" was the first TV series offered by Netflix. On a whim, this blogger checked in Amazon Instant Video and Shazam! Netflix has granted distribution rights to Amazon in the pursuit of ever more suckers- subscribers (like this blogger). If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of TV make-believe, so be it.

[x Salon]
What “Veep” Got Right About Our Government
By David Sirota

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After two full seasons of “Veep,” it should be clear that Armando Ianucci’s HBO satire is the most accurately scripted show ever made about American politics — full stop. There is no need to qualify or massage that statement; it’s just flat-out true, even though I’m guessing many people who work in politics despise it.

The reason that’s my guess is because unlike other movies and TV shows about politics, “Veep” — whose season finale just aired — portrays politicians, staffers, lobbyists and reporters not as the heroic idealists and brilliant Machiavellis that politicos desperately want to see looking back at them from the mirror. Instead, “Veep” shows Washington for what it is: not merely Hollywood for trolls, but a place where painfully average and often untalented drones follow their star-fucking ambitions only to be caught in a soul-sapping system that devours whatever last remaining shreds of humanity they still possessed.

“Veep” is comedy, of course — but it is also genuinely important television. That’s a rare combination, for usually “important” shows are those that make us cry in sorrow and not in laughter. Not “Veep.” You get to laugh at the insanity of how major government decisions are more often the product of “Office Space” dynamics than “Air Force One” theatrics — and upon seeing that, you also get to weep on the inside about that painful reality. True, we may not be used to such biting commentary in the comedy space, but like “Dr. Strangelove” in the 1960s, “Veep” applies the humor of satire and caricature to deadly serious events in order to make its message more palatable — and, arguably, more powerful.

To be sure, if all “Veep” did was mix significant meta-messages with humor, it would be a great show, but it wouldn’t necessarily be on its way to the rarefied level of “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and other programs sanctified as Important Television. What has set “Veep” on that path up Hollywood’s Mount Olympus is its historical timing in the lineage of political television, and more specifically, how its emergence reflects a growing maturity among a mass audience finally starting to acknowledge the crisis of American democracy.

Roughly speaking, there have been three distinct eras in the last 20 years of politically themed pop culture. The first began in the 1990s and included documentaries like “The War Room” and films like “The American President” and “Dave.” It ultimately culminated in Aaron Sorkin’s hit show “The West Wing.” These are entertainment products that basically portrayed politics as a competition of ideas between principled idealists. Dishonesty, avarice, deception: If these traits existed at all in this world, they were either ascribed to cartoonish bad guys or, if shown among good guys, depicted as unfortunately necessary means to ultimately honorable ends.

No doubt, this entertainment era appealed to the audience because it legitimized hope in what for many felt like a hopeless time. The Clinton administration was deregulating Wall Street and jamming NAFTA down the throat of the working class — all while Republicans were shutting the government down and impeaching the president over blow jobs. Then 9/11 happened and President Bush and Darth Cheney used the attack to wage a war on behalf of their oil buddies. In that depressing abyss, “The West Wing” was a televisual palliative encouraging us to remain hopeful that in some corners of politics, principles and ideals were still important — if not now, then soon in the future.

The problem with this entertainment genus was not that it was overly optimistic, idealistic and unrealistic in giving us a supposedly utopian version of what government could be. On the contrary, the problem is that the vision was presented as utopian even though it isn’t. It’s fundamentally flawed, and even a bit scary.

Watch the scene in “Dave” when the impostor president cuts the budget, or watch most of the policy decisions on “The West Wing.” Notice anything missing? Yes, that’s right; for the most part, the public simply isn’t there. By that I mean, there may be occasional references to polls about public opinion, but decisions affecting millions of people are happening in a complete vacuum with almost no input from or regard for anyone other than those elites who happen to be shuffling in and out of the Oval Office.

This, of course, is cast as a good thing. It is policymaking as a virtuous technocratic debate over ideas in the hermetically sealed White House — a high-minded discourse that prevents the distorting influence of interest groups, corrupt lobbyists or the larger throng. But that’s neither a vaguely realistic portrayal of how politics works nor what we should even hope for in a democratic society. Indeed, though public involvement in decision-making comes with its obvious downsides and allows for abuses by those with lots of money, it is still better than the opposite. Why? Because for every enlightened sovereign like Jed Bartlet, whose isolation from public forces results in humane policy decisions, there are far more George W. Bushes and Barack Obamas in the real world who, when similarly isolated from or hostile to the public, end up acting in far more destructive ways. [Note: the preceding links are separate and distinct.]

America knows that’s true (beyond the obvious consequences of real world events) thanks, in part, to the darker themes that ultimately supplanted the first era of political entertainment. This second modern era has been defined by films like “Ides of March,” “Thank You for Smoking,” and “State of Play,” all of whose zeitgeist can be seen in ABC’s “Scandal” and, in its purest form, in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” In this world, if principled idealists like Jed Bartlet exist, they have no power at all and are to be laughed at — or trampled. The real decision-makers are people who have absolutely no moral compass, ethical grounding or specific policy aspirations whatsoever. It is a world where everyone with any power is Darth Cheney.

This world is a more realistic representation of how politics works in that political actors acknowledge the public does actually exist — and, like in the real world of politics, those actors see the public existing solely for the purpose of being manipulated rather than being represented.

No doubt, “House of Cards” and its cousins are loved by the professional political class because they play to that class’s vanity. Sure, those entertainment products portray politicos as the 21st century epitome of the phrase “banality of evil.” But they also depict those professional politicians, operatives, lobbyists and media courtiers as incredibly smart and savvy, and those qualities, as NYU’s Jay Rosen notes, are the most revered among professional political elites.

But, however entertaining this savvy world is, its assumption about savviness is the portrayal’s ultimate shortcoming. That’s because while the political/media class loves to imagine itself as a club of sophisticated 15-dimensional chess players, and while watching such fictional chess players in “House of Cards” is extraordinarily entertaining for an audience, that’s not the way politics works. At all.

If you’ve worked in Washington or on a campaign, you know that lots of people are certainly scheming and plotting, but that because so many people and layers are involved, such schemes and plots are almost never executed — and when they are, they are almost never as successful as Hollywood pretends. Part of that is because almost nobody who works in politics — or perhaps in any industry — is even half as smart as, say, Frances Underwood. But the other part is that even if Frances Underwood was a real congressman, the complexity of the political system — with its departments and agencies and gossipy staffers and congressional receptions and lobbying networks — make it nearly impossible to successfully execute those political triple-bank-shots that TV suggests he’s pulling off all the time.

This gets us to the third era of political entertainment as epitomized by “Veep” and its earlier iterations, “In the Loop” and “The Thick of It.”

In this world, politicians, staffers, reporters and other political players are actually human beings; that is, they aren’t purely principled Jed Bartlets or completely self-absorbed Frances Underwoods. Instead, like most people in Washington, they are a mix of both. Unlike the cartoons from earlier eras, they are also human in wholly unexceptional and apolitical ways: sometimes a bit jealous, other times a little kind, other times irritable, but always just authentically human. Indeed, the characters’ identity struggles between all of these political and apolitical qualities is part of “Veep’s” comedic fun.

Likewise, in this world, the public is a full-scale character, not just because Vice President Selina Meyer [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] is often out and about with the masses, and not just because staffers are often focused on manipulating voter opinion, but also because we see that “the public” is really no different from the elites.

This latter quality in particular is what makes “Veep” rise to the level of Important Television. Whereas so much of the past’s political entertainment presents an intellectual divide between Voters and Politicos — the former portrayed as a faceless throng of idiots, the latter portrayed as distinct individuals of super-human intellect/cunning — “Veep’s” reliance on run-of-the-mill not-so-super human characters astutely rejects the Great Man Theory of political history embraced by the two earlier eras of political entertainment.

Instead, “Veep” points out that intellectually, morally and ethically, there is often little distinction between those who are governed and those doing the governing. It does this by refusing to depict the government as some super-sophisticated Google campus teeming with geniuses. No, in “Veep’s” more true-to-life portrayal, government is shown to be a public sector Initech, which itself is a reflection of all the mediocrity and small-mindedness of day-to-day life in America. That correctly implies that there are plenty of “regular people” (including absolute idiots) in politics; that in a sense we do have a government “of the people”; and that this “of the people” quality (far more than brilliantly constructed conspiracies by supposed political geniuses) explains a lot of why government is so dysfunctional.

Thus, in using a show about Washington to show that government is us — warts and all — “Veep” is not just a show about politics. It is actually a stealthily biting commentary about the nation and American culture as a whole. Sure, the program may never show us the president, but that’s not important because it shows us something far more significant: ourselves. Ω

[David Sirota attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he earned his bachelor's degree with honors in journalism and political science. Sirota is a political journalist, nationally syndicated weekly newspaper columnist and bestselling author living in Denver, CO. As one of the only national columnists living and reporting outside of Washington, DC, he is widely known for his coverage of political corruption, globalization and working-class economic issues often ignored by both of America’s political parties. David Sirota is the author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government—And How We Take It Back (2006), The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington (2008), and Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011).]

Copyright © 2013 Salon Media Group

Since the Google Reader will go dark on July 1, 2013, another site is available tor readers of a lot of blogs (or a single blog). The alternative is Feedly. For a review of Feedly by the NY FIshwrap's David Pogue, click here.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Friday, June 28, 2013

Today, Lindy Hops Up To Resuscitate The 1965 VRA

Texas — home of the White Primary (1878-1944) — is also home to the Dumbos who will never rest until non-white voters are disenfranchised once again. Thus the Dumbo-dominated SCOTUS ruled the key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) unconstitutional so that Texas (and other racist-dominated states in the former Confederacy) could evade the oversight of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). White supremacy, here we come! However, Michael Lind offers a simple cure to racist desires: universalize the VRA to cover all 50 states! If this is a (fair & balanced) elegant solution, so be it.

[x Salon]
A No-Lose Fix For The Voting Rights Act
By Michael Lind

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By striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and thereby gutting the act’s Section 5, the Supreme Court has presented defenders of voting rights in America with a challenge —and a historic opportunity. The challenge is the need to avert a new wave of state and local laws restricting voting rights in the aftermath of the Court’s decision. The opportunity is the chance that Congress now has to universalize Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, to make it apply to all 50 states.

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 imposed a special coverage formula on jurisdictions with particularly bad histories of racial discrimination in voting, including nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—and dozens of county and municipal governments, including the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Section 5 authorized the Justice Department to require “pre-clearance” of proposed changes in electoral laws in these jurisdictions. The pre-clearance requirement has been used in recent years to thwart attempts by the ethnocentric non-Hispanic White Right to engage in voter ID laws or redistricting plans that were evidently motivated by the desire to indirectly eliminate or dilute the votes of nonwhite citizens or poor citizens.

By striking down Section 4, the coverage formula, the Court gutted Section 5, the authorization of pre-clearance. Eliminating pre-clearance gives states whose legislatures are controlled by the bitter, desperate, demographically declining White Right a green light to try to enact voter restriction policies that are racially discriminatory in their effect and undoubtedly in their intent.

Is there anything that progressives, centrists and enlightened conservatives can do, to avert a new wave of voter restrictions at the state level, which, while racially neutral in appearance, have the intent and effect of reducing black and Latino electoral power, to the benefit of the ethnocentric White Right?

If I read the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts correctly, Congress could enact a version of Section 4 that could be approved even by this mostly reactionary Supreme Court. Roberts criticized the recent reauthorization of the VRA for not updating it:

Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.

Congress should accept the Court’s challenge and rewrite the Voting Rights Act to revive Section 5 pre-clearance by enacting a version of Section 4 that passes this Court’s newly announced test.

The option of trying to revive a modified version of the old Section 4 would probably fail. For one thing, it is not clear how any modified list of states, short of the whole, could satisfy this Supreme Court, with its solicitude for “state sovereignty” (a concept more at home in the Confederate Constitution than in the U.S. Constitution).

Another problem is that even progressive Democrats might shy away from a vote that stamped the label “racist” on Alaska or Texas, as opposed to, say, California or Wisconsin. In the past, most recently in 2006, members of Congress avoided gratuitously insulting nine states — and several New York City boroughs! — by voting to renew all or part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Any new legislation that sought to name particular states as particularly racist would undoubtedly die in Congress.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: Congress can rewrite Section 4 to make it apply to all 50 states in perpetuity, thereby reviving — and universalizing — Section 5’s federal pre-clearance of state and local electoral law changes.

The rationale for universal federal pre-clearance of changes in state and local electoral laws is independent of the legacy of anti-black racism in the U.S. as a whole and the South in particular. In any ethnically diverse democracy that is also a federal system, the national government needs to be able to restrain the power of ethnic groups, including those that are national minorities but local majorities, from manipulating the electoral laws in sub-national jurisdictions to create tyrannical “ethnocracies” like the older White South.

Today, non-Hispanic whites are a minority in California, Texas and other states. By the middle of the 21st century, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority in the U.S. population as a whole, according to some projections. Who knows? Maybe in the future the outnumbered non-Hispanic white group, or other minority communities, will need to be protected against unjust attempts to dilute their votes by new, post-white majorities that prove to be as ethnocentric and undemocratic as non-Hispanic whites frequently were when they enjoyed majority status.

In other words, the rationale for congressionally authorized federal pre-clearance of changes in electoral systems at the state and local level would be compelling, even if there had never been any history of racism in the U.S. at all. The mere prospect of potential state and local majority tyranny in the electoral arena is rationale enough for a universal, permanent pre-clearance policy by the federal government.

It might be objected that this policy would not prevent similar majority tyranny at the federal level. That is true, but it is not a persuasive argument against federal pre-clearance. For most of American history, the greatest threats to enfranchisement of various minorities have been at the state and local level. The few exceptions — for example, Northern states that refused to enforce the federal fugitive slave act — merely underline the rule.

The federal government repeatedly has been forced to use not only the law but also military force to restrain local majority tyranny, during the Civil War and Reconstruction and again during the civil rights revolution. Conversely, state and local majority tyranny have flourished only when tolerated by the national majority. In the United States, the national majority has always been, and likely always will be, a more reliable champion of civil rights and voting rights than local majorities.

Universalizing Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, then, makes excellent sense on its merits. It would make for smart politics, too. Proposing to universalize Section 4 would be a no-lose proposition for progressives, centrists and non-racist conservatives.

If a law universalizing Section 4 were enacted, then the Northern and Western states would have nothing to fear — unless, of course, their state governments were trying to use devious methods to restrict or dilute the voting power of particular groups, like the disproportionately minority poor. But that is as it should be. Why should race-motivated voter ID laws or redistricting schemes to dilute minority voters by “packing” them in ghettoized electoral districts be subject to more federal scrutiny in the South than in the Midwest or West Coast or New England? The same level of federal scrutiny should be brought to bear everywhere in the United States.

If a law universalizing Section 4 were to die in Congress, it would almost certainly be killed by Republicans based in the former Confederacy. Their success in stopping universalization of Section 4 would be a Pyrrhic victory, further identifying the Republican Party in the national mind with the most benighted white reactionaries in the former homeland of slavery and segregation. This outcome would strengthen not only Democrats but also reformist Republicans making the case that their party must be freed from its Southern captivity.

The neo-Confederate opponents of such a proposed law could not complain that it imposed a double standard. After all, the new, universal Section 4, along with the revived pre-clearance system of Section 5, would apply to Massachusetts, New York and California, as well as to Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.

Would a universalized version of Section 4 be acceptable to this Supreme Court? Because all states would be treated equally, the argument that it treated some unfairly would be irrelevant. Opponents would have to argue that by permanently universalizing Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Congress was exceeding its constitutional authority. That would be a hard argument to make, given the clear language of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

If universal, perpetual federal pre-clearance of changes in electoral laws by all state and local governments, to make sure they do not disadvantage particular minorities, is not “appropriate legislation” for defending “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” under the 15th Amendment, it is hard to imagine what “appropriate legislation” would be.

Justice Roberts has stated that Congress can pass a new version of the Voting Rights Act that reflects “current conditions.” Congress should take him up on his offer and rewrite the Voting Rights Act to make it apply to all 50 states and all local governments, forever. Ω

[Michael Lind is Policy Director of the New America Foundation's Economic Growth Program and — most recently — the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2012). Lind holds a B.A. from the University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from University of Texas-Austin.]

Copyright © 2013 Salon Media Group

Since the Google Reader will go dark on July 1, 2013, another site is available tor readers of a lot of blogs (or a single blog). The alternative is Feedly. For a review of Feedly by the NY FIshwrap's David Pogue, click here.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Make Two Health Insurance Premium-Payments & Call Your Provider In The Morning?!

Full disclosure: this blogger's health insurance (and 50% of his dental insurance premium) is paid by the State of Texas. Even though the blogger was not employed in a State-funded position during 35 of his 37 years in the groves of Texas academe, in retirement, this blogger is treated as a retired State employee. How this came to pass is a long, long story that is steeped in Legislative shenanigans in the late 1970s. Considering the news reports about the final act in the State Zoo aka the Texas Legislature, little has changed in nearly four decades. A political wag once said that "Texas doesn't need a circus. The State Legislaure meets in every odd-numbered year." Of course, the next potential train wreck on the horizon is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly called Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This blogger received notice from his health insurance administrator that the date for choosing a health plan was moved from August 2013 to November 2013. The delay is related to the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly called Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This blogger is eating worms so that he can wait with baited breath of the big moment. In the meantime, if health insurance is the (fair & balanced) palliation of depression, so be it.

[x Boston Fishwrap]
Is Health Insurance An Antidepressant?
By Leon Neyfakh

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For those who support President Obama’s health care law, which has already begun to expand the number of Americans with health insurance, the rationale is a no-brainer: Having medical coverage makes people healthier and enables them to get the care they need when they get sick or injured. And broader coverage could help control our national health care bill by encouraging regular doctor visits and preventive care that cuts down on expensive emergency treatment.

But over the past several years, a stream of new information has dealt blows to both those ideas. Data from a pioneering Medicaid program in Oregon suggest that expanding health coverage hasn’t saved the state any money—in fact, it increased annual health care spending by about 35 percent. Even more surprising is that, after two years, having Medicaid has done little to improve people’s physical health.

But the Oregon data have revealed a separate, intriguing upside to the experiment that has thus far gotten little attention. According to a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine this past May, people with access to Medicaid were a whopping 30 percent less likely than their counterparts to screen positive for depression.

This startling result raises the novel and perplexing notion that when we talk about health care, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. It may be that, overall, the most important advantage of getting more Americans insured isn’t that it lowers their risk for heart attacks, or helps them avoid last-minute surgery. It’s that it just makes them happier.

“I was surprised initially,” said Jonathan Gruber, a health care economist at MIT who is considered one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act and is a coauthor of the NEJM paper. “I didn’t realize what a mental health toll being uninsured was taking on people.”

The idea that medical insurance acts as an antidepressant hasn’t been a big part of arguments from either side of the health care debate. That fight usually comes down to questions about whether or not society has a moral obligation to provide a safety net for sick people who can’t afford to pay for their own health care—and whether affording them that protection is worth the price. But the new finding suggests that what’s really at stake is how much we’re willing to pay to give all Americans the less stressful, more fulfilling lives that come with having health insurance.

“Health insurance is about reducing financial uncertainty,” said Amitabh Chandra, a professor of health policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who was not involved in the Oregon study. “And it’s very good for well-being—not in a placebo sense, but in an actual sense.”

“Well-being” is an admittedly squishy concept: It’s difficult to measure objectively, and it’s hard to convincingly put forward as the focus of a huge piece of public policy. But in principle, at least, there are few more deeply held national ideals than the pursuit of happiness: To think of that pursuit as a public health issue is to realize that the Affordable Care Act’s real legacy may be quite different than what we expect.

Among the handful of states that already offer Medicaid to a wide swath of low-income people, Oregon is uniquely useful to researchers. In 2008, a small budget surplus allowed for an additional 10,000 people to enroll in Medicaid, and state officials held a randomized “lottery” to determine who would be able to apply. This created a rare opportunity for researchers, setting into motion a sort of accidental science experiment. When the only difference between two groups of random people is that one has access to Medicaid and the other doesn’t, it’s possible to draw conclusions about the program’s impact by tracking patients’ progress over time.

Since the lottery, a team of the country’s top health care experts has been doing just that, zeroing in on about 12,000 people and carefully monitoring various aspects of their medical status through interviews and questionnaires. The data that have come out of their closely watched effort so far, covering the first two years of the program, show that people who won the lottery cost the system, on average, $1,172 more per year than those in the “control” group. They bought more prescription drugs, had more mammograms and cholesterol screenings, and made more doctor visits, but didn’t reduce their costly use of emergency rooms. “When apples are on sale, people tend to eat more apples,” explained MIT economist Amy Finkelstein, one of the principal investigators on the study. And when the apples are being paid for in large part by the state, that means higher costs for taxpayers.

It would be one thing if all those apples were making people healthier. But according to the sweeping set of findings published in May, Finkelstein and her team found that after two years, the people in the Medicaid group were no better off than their counterparts in terms of their blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar, and their risk of having a heart attack was not significantly lower. Instead, the big difference was in the realm of mental health: Of the lottery-losers who didn’t get to apply for a Medicaid slot, almost 1 in 3 showed signs of depression when researchers interviewed them. In the Medicaid group, just over 1 in 5 did—a relative decline of about 30 percent.

Finkelstein says she doesn’t yet know why having insurance might make people less prone to depression, and along with the other principal investigator on the study, health economist Katherine Baicker from the Harvard School of Public Health, she cautioned against jumping to conclusions. One possibility might be that depressed people with insurance are more likely to get treatment. The Oregon researchers have not yet analyzed the possible role of talk therapy, but they’ve found that the group with access to Medicaid was not prescribed antidepressants at a significantly higher rate than the group without.

For Gruber and Chandra, the Oregon findings point to a striking conclusion: The coverage itself was what made the difference. In other words, the individuals in the Medicaid group—whose risk of catastrophic medical expenses was almost entirely eliminated—were less depressed simply because they had insurance.

“People who are uninsured live under constant daily stress,” said Gruber. “They’re worried about getting sick, and they’re worried about paying the bills if they get sick. And I think that manifests [itself] in many aspects of life, including...depression.”

Gruber’s belief is supported by a large body of research showing that stress in general, and financial hardship in particular, frequently lead to the onset of mental health problems. In 2010, Sidra Goldman-Mellor, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, systematically surveyed the medical literature and reported that “dozens of studies have found statistically significant associations between negative economic transitions and depression.” One of the studies cited was a survey of Mexican-Americans, which found that the odds of experiencing an episode of clinical depression for the first time ever were five times higher for people who had lost their jobs during the 7 to 12 months before the survey.

Financial crises like bankruptcy and mortgage difficulties are linked to stress and depression as well. A study by Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatry professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, found that individuals who had experienced a major financial setback were almost seven times more likely to experience the onset of depression during the subsequent month. Kendler also found that unlike other traumatic events—the death of a loved one, for instance—financial catastrophes tend to be continuous, not discrete events, and thus can cause depression several months down the line.

Paying for health care, especially when it’s life-or-death emergency treatment or chronic care for conditions like diabetes and cancer, is an enormous cause of financial hardship. A 2009 study by a team that included Senator Elizabeth Warren found that more than half of all personal bankruptcies happen because of medical bills. In that light, health insurance can be seen as a financial instrument designed specifically to protect against such a crisis. According to the Oregon study, being insured made people almost 60 percent less likely to have to borrow money or miss a payment on a bill.

For health care economists, it is intuitive to see health insurance first and foremost as an economic tool, and it’s frustrating to them that more people don’t talk about it that way. Health insurance, after all, doesn’t prevent terrible things from happening to us. It just makes it easier for us to cope with them when they do, and provides us with the peace of mind associated with knowing that a health emergency won’t destroy us financially.

The idea that insurance is most effective at protecting us against our own fears—without making us significantly healthier physically—leads to a difficult question: Just how important is that?

That was the reaction from some quarters following the publication of the recent Oregon paper. A writer for the National Review suggested satirically that instead of going through with Obamacare, the government could get the same results for far less money by just putting Prozac in the water. Others made the argument more directly: “The absence of physical-health improvements indicts the entire enterprise,” wrote Michael Cannon, the director of health policy studies at libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. More independent voices echoed the sentiment: “Given this result,” wrote the Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle, “what is the likelihood that Obamacare will have a positive impact on the average health of Americans? Every one of us, for or against, should be revising that probability downwards.”

For Gruber, such responses reflected the widespread belief that mental health issues are not as serious, or worthy of attention, as diseases like cancer and diabetes. “We as a society just don’t care about mental health in the way we care about physical health,” Gruber said. “It is just not viewed as real health.”

There are good reasons to think it should be. For one thing, studies have shown that depression increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. For another, depression costs society a lot of money, just like other medical issues: According to one widely cited paper, the annual economic burden in the United States alone is on the order of tens of billions of dollars.

Even more to the point, though, is the argument that making people happier—relieving their stress, making them less depressed, and better able to pursue their goals—is exactly what public policy is for. “The role of social policy is not to improve GDP, necessarily, but to improve well-being,” said Gruber. Or, as Finkelstein put it, “There are lots of things we pay for as a society, from bridges to public housing to national security, which we don’t do to save money—we do them because we think they have some other benefits, and then we measure those benefits to try to decide if they’re worth the costs.”

As data collection continues, the Oregon study may yet show that over the long term, having insurance does in fact make people physically healthier. But in the meantime, we face a central question: How much are we willing to invest in helping people live less anxious, more stable lives? That’s a relatively mysterious cost-benefit calculation to bring to a political debate. When it comes to national health policy, said Katherine Baicker, “This study can’t tell you what the goal should be.” What seems more certain is that, as the Affordable Care Act plays out the Oregon experiment on a much larger scale, we will need to broaden the conversation about what constitutes “well-being,” and consider what we, as members of society, owe one another. Ω

[Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for The Boston Globe's Ideas section in the Sunday edition. After graduation from Harvard in 2007, Neyfakh wrote about technology, society, and the feelings of 26-year-olds in the New York Observer. In November 2010, Neyfakh joined the staff of the New York Times-owned Boston paper.] 

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company dba The Boston Globe

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

No More Foo-Bird Jokes Because This Blogger Is Going To Listen To "Snap Judgment" Segments Produced By Stephanie Foo!

"Snap Judgment" is sandwiched in the KUT-FM (Austin, TX) Sunday morning lineup between "This American Life" and "Radiolab." Full dsclosure: this blogger is an NPR junkie and all of his household radios are preset to KUT-FM. More full disclosure: "Snap Judgment" plays as white noise between the blogger's focus on "This American Life" and "Radiolab." If this is a (fair & balanced) auditory experience, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
NPR’s Great Black Hope
By Mark Oppenheimer

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“This is a true story,” Glynn Washington assures me as we cross the Bay Bridge, shortly after midnight. He’s just fetched me at the San Francisco airport, and I am discovering the thrill of hearing a voice you know from the radio coming at you from the driver’s seat. “I had a girlfriend,” he continues, “and we kept fighting and breaking up.” They were living in Michigan and had planned a relationship-saving trip to Canada. “And on the way out of Ann Arbor, this show comes on—it’s this guy I had never heard before, a dude named Ira Glass. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ and she was like, ‘Turn this noise off right away!’ ” That was the epiphany Washington needed. “I was like, ‘Stop the car.’ I knew right then the relationship was not going to work.”

That was 1997, when "This American Life," Glass’s public-radio show, was just two years old, and people were beginning to suspect that his style of curated storytelling might be radio’s next big thing. Now Washington, a proud student of Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, "Snap Judgment," Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

Public-media executives are obsessed with their diversity problem. They are well aware of the perception that NPR is most influential among the elderly (or at any rate the middle-aged—the median age of an NPR listener is 56) and the Caucasian; they also realize that many of the medium’s stars are white men of a certain age. Washington’s big break came as a result of the radio bosses’ fixation on expanding their core audience. Minority hosts and reporters have a presence on public radio’s flagship magazine programs, but due to the nature of such programming, they blend in with the rest of the chorus. While Michel Martin’s daily show, "Tell Me More," has a multicultural focus, it is heard on only 117 stations. Tavis Smiley, who had a daily NPR show from 2002 to 2004, never really caught on (perhaps because he was a poor fit for the medium). So in 2007, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes government money to NPR and other public-media ventures, and Public Radio Exchange launched the Public Radio Talent Quest, in the hopes of finding future hosts, perhaps from outside the elite—and mostly white—pool that traditionally yields public-media talent.

The day before the deadline to submit entries, Washington, then a nonprofit administrator, heard an advertisement for the competition. He had an idea for a show: It would, like "This American Life," feature people telling their stories, but the stories would focus on crucial life decisions. And it would have the rich audio production of WNYC’s innovative "Radiolab," with constant background music and sound effects. Using the GarageBand program on his Mac, Washington worked overnight to make a demo. The resulting entry was selected as one of 10 finalists, launching Washington on a reality-show-style adventure: “They started giving us various tasks to do, and kicking people off the island, so to speak.” Eventually, Washington was declared one of three winners, each of whom was given $10,000 to produce a pilot show. "Snap Judgment" went on to become the first big public-radio hit since "Radiolab" launched in 2002 (with the possible exception of "The Moth Radio Hour").

Public radio is enjoying a golden age—you could say that the past decade has been to radio what the 1970s were to film. Besides the famous innovators, like Glass and "Radiolab’s" Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, several lesser-known figures have captured the attention of radio enthusiasts: Jonathan Goldstein, the host of Canada’s "WireTap"; Roman Mars, who covers design and architecture on "99% Invisibl"e; and the Kitchen Sisters, who make food documentaries. According to Washington, "Snap Judgment’s" great contribution to the genre has been to get out of the way. “My big problem with public media,” he told me, “has always been this: Whenever they speak to someone who is from a micro-community—a minority, or someone of a lower socioeconomic standing—they stick a microphone in the person’s face and then they translate it! The Eastern-educated reporter, producer, whatever, then tells us what this person just said.” Translating is a reporter’s job, of course. But not Washington’s. “Ira Glass is the best features reporter in America, right?,” Washington said. “I’m not a reporter. I’m a storyteller, from a very different place than [where] Ira honed his reporting chops. Ira was bouncing around NPR for almost 20 years before he had his show.”

Many NPR hosts come from NPR-ish families. Not Washington. “I grew up in a cult,” he told me. His parents were members of the Worldwide Church of God, a sect founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, an apocalyptic radio evangelist based in Pasadena. Washington got out—a story he tells with an escapee’s pride—and went on to the University of Michigan and its law school. He studied in Japan, then worked for the State Department, then ended up directing a program at the University of California at Berkeley. Some of the best "Snap Judgment" segments are drawn from his own life, and you get the feeling he could carry several episodes a year by himself.

“Losing My Religion,” a 2012 episode, features five stories. Two are Washington’s own (including the tale of an interracial teen romance that incurred his preacher’s wrath); one is the story of an ex-nun; another recounts a road trip the author Ingrid Ricks took with her dad; and the fifth is a profile of the South African peace activist Robert V. Taylor, who found that his religion conflicted with his homosexuality. Behind the stories are hundreds of separate sound clips, from a suitcase zipper to a police siren to a girl’s nighttime prayers. Not to mention dozens of musical excerpts: De La Soul, Willie Nelson, Aarktica. (The obvious choice, the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion,” was rejected in favor of a cover version by the Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica.) "Snap Judgment" feels more kinetic than storytelling shows like "This American Life," partly because it features shorter stories and more of them, but also because of its soundscaping. The music is selected not by public-radio careerists, but by people like Pat Mesiti-Miller, 27, a white hip-hop artist who got hired after he saw a "Snap Judgment" ad on Craigslist, and Stephanie Foo, 25. “I produce stuff I like to hear,” Foo told me at the show’s Oakland headquarters.

When I asked Washington whether he was having any luck attracting a diverse audience, he said that he was, just not on the radio. The people who hear his broadcast are older white people. But those who download the podcast or stream the show “skew 60 percent female, maybe 40 percent minority.” Online, "Snap Judgment" is most popular with people ages 33 to 42. “It’s much younger than the traditional NPR listener profile. "Snap" listeners, a lot of them have never heard of NPR before.”

Naturally, everyone wants to know what Washington puts in his special sauce. At industry conferences, he is constantly asked how to bring “diversity” to public-radio listenership. He’s getting sick of this question. “This is what you do,” he told me. “You hire the people you’re trying to reach.” Some of them—including certain members of Washington’s youthful, multiracial scrum of producers—may not even like public media. “I listen to public radio and get stressed out,” Foo told me, recoiling from what she sees as the genre’s clichés. “Like, you can’t do a story on bird-watching.” She has slowly persuaded her friends to listen to "Snap Judgment," but mainly as a podcast. They don’t own radios. Neither does Foo. Ω

[As the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative, Mark Oppenheimer is a Lecturer in the Yale University Department of English. Oppenheimer has been a writer for The New York Times Magazine, an essayist for The American Scholar, Southwest Review, and Yale Review as well as a writer for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity (2012). He received a B.A., (History, Magna Cum Laude) from Yale College and a Ph.D. (Religious Studies) from Yale University.]

Copyright © 2013 The Atlantic Monthly Group

Since the Google Reader will go dark on July 1, 2013, another site is available tor readers of a lot of blogs (or a single blog). The alternative is Feedly. For a review of Feedly by the NY FIshwrap's David Pogue, click here.

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves