Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Political Bell Curve

Our new prez is reaching "across the aisle", as the pundits say, and trying to close the breach that has plagued American politics since Jefferson and Adams hired PR hacks to lie about one another in an effort to become President Number Two. Adams, apparently, was the more successful smearer, although Jefferson returned the favor the next election cycle to become Three. Political snarling has a lengthy pedigree and there really weren't many (if any) good old days when the two parties put their collective shoulders to the ground and noses to the wheel, an activity that makes for some really hideous noses, and created legislation that was supported by all involved.

Obama seems intent--and I wish him success--but, as a long-time realist and recovering cynic, I doubt that there will be any dramatic shift in the comity quotient inside the D.C. echo chamber.

I have a pet theory or three about why the current snarling seems so widespread and constant. Would you like to know what they are? No? Too bad because I'm going to trot them out for inspection anyway.

First, in the past 30 years or so, the size of political staffs in Washington has exploded. These folks write the legislation, deal with the lobbyists who help write the legislation, write position papers and speeches that the lawmakers present as their very own. Often, a legislator doesn't know what his or her position is until the staff decides. In the case of Robert Byrd of West Virginia, he doesn't know what year it is or if he is still breathing without staff confirmation.

Once was, lawmakers actually took a significant role in the law creation and policy development processes but now they are consumed with raising money for the next election and don't have the time. Young staffers (and they are mostly young, energetic and ideological) do not have to stand for election and therefore can carve out, with impunity, some radical positions for the boss to take. Given that the boss doesn't really have time to think deeply and often about anything but fund-raisers and donors, the ideological lines in the sand, from left to right, get further and further apart.

The second theory deals with just the House of Representatives. Both Republicans and Democrats are in on this one and it's called "redistricting". You may recall in 2003 when all the Democrats in the Texas Legislature hid out in New Mexico and Oklahoma trying to avoid a legislative quorum that would have led (which it eventually did) to a vote to redistrict Texas in such a manner that there would be a majority of Congressional districts that were solidly Republican. See, the district lines get re-drawn based on polling place and census data to make the district a "safe" one for whichever party is re-drawing the lines. This is also known as the gerrymander, after the fictional critter of indeterminate shape that describes the new, often odd-looking district. How, you may ask, does this contribute to politicians in Washington who barely speak to one another? Well, thanks for asking.

In a safe district the general election is a foregone conclusion, that's what makes it "safe". Therefore, the real drama takes place in the primary election, among the candidates from the party that created the district. If you are a Democratic primary candidate in a liberal safe district, you had best be REALLY liberal otherwise the "base" of your party will look on your more liberal opponent with favor. When pundits talk about the "base" of either party, you can substitute the word "kook" and find that they are synonymous.

In a :safe district" primary, the only voters who count are the ones from the party that owns the district. A voter from the minority party is just voting so that he or she can get one of those little "I voted" sticky thingies. Their candidate has no chance in the general election but the voter will get yet another little sticky thingy. Therefore the majority candidate who makes it to the general election has had to appeal to his or her "base", make some odious promises to same and sell their soul to these devils, if they weren't already a kook themselves. This is how people like Cynthia McKinney and Tom DeLay end up in Washington talking past each other. With great relief I can report that both of these politicians are gone from D.C. now (interestingly, McKinney rose up from ignominy to run for president this last election on the Green Party ticket and was trounced rather soundly by a young, semi-black man from Chicago). However, Cynthia and Tom's replacements in the House are products of the same rigged system.

Finally, there is the wonder of talk radio, the perfect media outlet for bloviators from either kooky end of the political Bell curve. The conservatives have really co-opted this forum because the kookiest of the liberals aren't much good at it. Besides, as almost everyone seems to believe, without any reliable imperical evidence to prove it, the main-stream media are all the lap dogs for the liberals and the scales weren't fairly balanced until Sean Hannity, et al, came along.

Well, apparently, even some conservatives are now questioning conservative talk radio's real contribution to the party's appeal beyond the kooks...I'm sorry, base. In fact, one of my favorites, John Derbyshire, posits in the American Conservative Magazine that conservative talk radio is counter-productive to growing the Republican Party back to a position of relevance.

I suggest that you give it a glance:


Observoid of the Day:
You can point something out to a dog but the dog will just stare at your finger.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pennies From Heaven

In honor of Abe Lincoln's 200th birthday, the U.S. Treasury has created four new designs, seen here, for our most beloved but perhaps most useless coin, the penny. I recently received a forwarded e-mail narrative (misspellings, poor grammar and all) from a friend about these new designs. My friend did not write the narrative below but forwarded it to me.




Indeed! I too am outraged, albeit for a completely different reason than that of the creator of this particular bit of paranoid bile.

But first, the fact. Yes, the penny is being re-designed but only the "tails side" not the "heads" side. "Heads" will still have the "In God We Trust" motto arching above Abe's profile, gigantic mole and all. This was not difficult to verify. Simply search "new penny" on the search engine of choice and there it is. Even FOX News got it right.

So, how does such a piece of misinformation, with its overt claim that the ACLU and "other similar groups" have secretly hatched an evil plot to erase God from the public domain, one penny at a time--with the apparent cooperation of the U.S. Treasury to boot--make it to my in-box and to tens of thousands of other in-boxes around the net?

Initially, someone had to write the crappola, although they could have made better use of their spell check software. The author could be (1) supremely ignorant and paranoid, (2) having a bit of fun at the expense of the supremely ignorant and paranoid or (3) intent on spreading divisive misinformation in an attempt to rally the supremely ignorant and paranoid to some cause, apparently which is to "speak up". Of course, speaking up on the penny issue would simply open one up to embarrassment sort of like Rosanne Roseannadanna. I'd advise against it.

Here's the issue that has my dander up--which begs the question, what the heck is a "dander" and why do we prefer to have it "down" instead of "up"?--I digress; someone who I know, someone who has made it onto my distribution list of e-mail contacts and friends, forwarded this bit of blather to me in an apparent and earnest attempt to recruit me to the speak up against the new penny design. Me!

No, I'm not an offended member of the ACLU, although that organization does some very worthwhile things while at the same time doing and saying some really silly things. Go figure. Neither do I object to the motto "In God We Trust" on our lucre, although, historically speaking, it is a rather recent addition to which Teddy Roosevelt objected strenuously but to no avail.

The reason that I received it was because the sender likely sent it to his or her entire contact list--10 others, 20 others, 50 others, more? Who knows? Certainly not all of the recipients of this one forward did likewise (I, for instance, forwarded it to no one) but there's a good chance that more than one recipient did and so on and so on. This stuff grows like mold in a bachelor's refrigerator.

The internet has put the power of communication in the hands of nearly all. This is a good thing with a dark side. The paranoid, the ignorant, the stupid, the crazed, the mean-spirited, the radical left, the unbending right and the merely careless now have much the same megaphone power as that formerly reserved for people who bought ink by the barrel or had access to the airways. We have more communication now--often better communication--but also mounds of bullshit.

I have no illusions that the B.S. will ever go away. My hope, however, is that the "merely careless" among us will begin to realize that forwarding unattributed, unverified and scurrilous information is an activity--and all too easy at that--that does not advance the common good and often retards it. If we are all to be "journalists" with the click of the "Send" key, then we have an obligation to our friends and contacts to send them information, not misinformation. For you readers who are paranoid, ignorant, stupid, crazed, mean-spirited, radically left or unbending right, and you know who you are you little dickenses (is that a word?) this admonition from Mother Brittain will likely go unheeded.

This rant does not condemn the forwarding of satire, The Onion headlines and newscasts, jokes (although some of my contacts are good taste challenged), videos of interest, family gossip that we all knew was true long before we heard it officially from a reliable cousin, interesting pictures (preferably undoctored but who can tell anymore?), irritating editorials from Paul Krugman or John Krauthammer or official notification that the sky is falling.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trillions and Trillions Adds Up

There is real freedom in creating one's own blog. Foremost is the absence of those pesky "fact checkers", the busybodies employed by most magazines and newspapers to verify, well, facts. In a blog, one has the option of verifying the facts ones-own-self or--and this is much, much faster--simply making stuff up. What you are about to read has been personally fact-checked by the author. This practice is known in the publishing field as "on the author" which indicates that the writer takes responsibility. If there is to be legal action, his or her buns are on the line.

Yesterday, our newest Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner (his mother calls him Snooky) came before the Senate Finance Committee, an assemblage of Senators who pretend to fully understand "finance" (and in the case of their re-election campaign war chests, they do) to explain the administration's bailout plan for the nation's ailing financial industry. Apparently, the whole show didn't go that well and the Dow Jones indicator took a nearly 400 point beating, especially the bank stocks. My bet is that Snooky found this outcome problematic and called his mother for advice. "Old Lady Geithner" (albeit she was only in her 30's at the time) was the long-time treasurer of P.S. 419 PTA during much of 70's and the books always balanced under her watch.

In any case, much of the discussion in the Senate hearing involved how many "trillions of dollars" would be involved in righting our listing financial ship. Over the past several months the media have been tossing around the term "trillion" with, dare I say, abandon, without providing the average Joe the Plumber (who now has a national speaking tour contract, a fact that I find extremely disturbing) with context or perspective. I'm here to help.

A trillion: a 1 followed by 12 zeros plus four commas. 1,000,000,000,000. If you really want to get a banker's attention, place a dollar sign before the 1. Still, even in this stark numeric presentation, a trillion is an abstraction. What you need is a concrete illustration. Okey dokey.

The average pubic hair is 60 microns in diameter. Not all pubic hairs are created equal, with fine blond hair being somewhat smaller and coarse dark hair larger. For reasons that I will explain directly, I shall use the worldwide average. Picturing exactly how science developed this average gives me a slight case of the shudders. Now, were we to lay 1 trillion pubic hairs cheek by jowl, that is to say side-by-side not end-to-end, and assuming that they have cheeks and jowls (at this small size it's very hard to tell) this collection would extend from the earth to the moon and then nearly half way back. This thin mat of pubic hair could act as a route map for future moon exploration although they will not want to get too close because the hairs would likely scatter quite easily, even in the vacuum of space.

Collecting 1 trillion pubic hairs might prove more interesting than actually figuring out how to arrange them side-by-side and extending them into space. Both endeavors, however, would require a very large workforce, a fact with implications for the "creating jobs" part of the Stimulus Package, yet another trillion dollar government project. Given the total population of the earth, factoring out those who have no pubic hair, the very young (not yet) and the very old (not anymore), the trillion hair collection would certainly have a wide range of hair type, from extremely fine (think Gwyneth Paltrow) to quite coarse (think Whoopie Goldberg) which leaves me comfortable with my calculation's 60 micron average.

If one didn't want to bother with the difficulties of space placement, 1 trillion pubic hairs could be laid (lain?) side-by-side in 150 rows between Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. Then again, what with earth's atmosphere, air currents and tens of thousand of all terrain vehicle enthusiasts between the two cities, maintaining an accurate count could prove difficult. Better, I think, to simply imagine the illustration, although that would have no impact on the jobs front (for those of you considering a "public pubic hair collector's" spot on the government payroll).

Nearly suffice to say that most of us have a tenuous grasp on the true magnitude of 1 trillion. I say "nearly" because there is one additional example that really brings it home. In the vein of several illustrations that I have read recently regarding time equivalents of a mere 1 billion, e.g., "1 billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter became president in 1977", let me use a time yardstick to capture 1 trillion, which is one thousand billion or 32,000 years before anyone had heard of the peanut farmer from Georgia. Here we go.

One trillion nanoseconds ago it was 16.6 MINUTES AGO. Your lukewarm coffee was piping hot back then. Just over a quarter of an hour ago you were doing something productive instead of reading this and then "Wham", a trillion nanoseconds whizzed by. Did you put them to good use? Hardly. You were thinking about collecting pubic hairs off of bars of soap or perhaps plucking them a few at a time from Gwyneth Paltrow, an activity that some critics would say was appropriate payback considering some of her work. Some of you were likely thinking of other fantasy celebrity donors, although very few probably recalled poor Whoopie, while still others got the urge to dust off the old ATV and go out for a little environmental destruction. No, none of this has been productive and I consider this my calling.


Monday, February 9, 2009

More Internet Drivel from a Reliable Source

It is my understanding that if I create a web log, at least one trillion people will eventually visit and collectively embrace me to their digital bosoms. That's a lot of bosoms; more, actually, than there are dollars in the fiscal stimulus package. Therefore, with visions of digital bosoms dancing in my very modest brain, I am launching "An Inconvenient Bruce", my very own soapblog. I make no apologies to Al Gore.

As I am a recovering businessman, musician, writer and mediocre raconteur, my hope is that I may eventually produce some information and/or insight about something that will benefit mankind or womankind (especially the ones with the bosoms who will embrace me; digitally speaking).

My plan is to also use this space to publish, in serialized fashion, my latest literary effort, The Baby Boom Delusion, a book that is currently being reviewed and summarily rejected by every single literary agent in New York for being "too depressing". Well, I say, if one can't be depressed about the current state of affairs and the Baby Boom's contribution to same, then that person has not been paying attention. New Yorkers, I find, often do not pay attention unless it happens in New York.

Naturally, I will treasure the feedback that comes pouring in from my trillion or so bosom buddies, though I may not respond to all.

If you are reading this initial missive, you are currently on my e-mail distribution list. If you have e-mail contacts who might be interested in some of my various postings, please forward this to them so that they too, can join in the fun by visiting "An Inconvenient Bruce" to be entertained, offended, outraged, illuminated, titillated (which sounds like it has to do with bosoms and sometimes does) and/or updated.

As for now, I will leave you with an Observoid of the Day:

Barack Obama has been president for three entire weeks and, except for large chunks of the Kansas population, the sky has not fallen and socialism has only a tenuous hold on the financial system.