Thursday, December 29, 2011

This is Senator Ben Nelson's Fault

(I started writing this post before Nelson announced he is planning on retiring. As you can guess, I'm not sad to see him go.)

In terms of electoral politics, Barak Obama's 2008 platform was among one of the most popular in recent memory. Not only did he secure 54% of the vote, but the Democrats gained seats in both the House and the Senate, and, until the special election of Scott Brown, had a near super majority in the Senate. And yet almost none of that platform was enacted, and, somehow, so many Americans were convinced they didn't actually want what they voted for the first time around, that the Democrats lost the House entirely and many seats in the Senate. I've talked about the madness of this whole process before (I mean, Republicans held health care benefits for 9/11 first responders or “heroes” as they are occasionally called, hostage to extending the Bush tax cuts on the top 1% of Americans) but I think it is important to place blame where it really belongs. On Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.

By the time the debate over health care reform started, the Obama administration had already stabilized the economy (not in the way I would have, but we didn't have a second Great Depression so I guess that's something) and saved the American auto industry. Rightly concluding that any recovery and subsequent economic growth would be hampered by the cost of health care on Americans and small businesses, they decided to pursue health care reform. Not wanting to repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton's attempt to reform health care, for better or for worse, Obama left the work of crafting the policy in the hands of the legislature. (It being their job and all.) Really, who could blame him given the make up of Congress at the time. And, honestly, the results weren't that bad, even after all of the compromises. If the rolling reforms are allowed to happen, we'll have taken a few steps towards a humane health care system. They weren't what I wanted, but they were reasonable given the state of American mainstream politics, and, when asked about specific aspects of the legislation, most Americans support most of the reforms.

Enter Ben Nelson, Democrat Senator from Nebraska. I think of Nelson as a Regional Democrat, meaning his party affiliation has a lot more to do with where he lives than what he believes. He's only a Democrat because Nebraska Republicans are so conservative. It's the same with Scott Brown and old Mitt Romney. The only reason they run on the Republican ticket is because Massachusetts Democrats are more liberal. Brown in Nebraska is a Blue Dog Democrat. Nelson in Massachusetts is a moderate Republican.

However, this isn't Nelson's fault because he disagreed with the content of the health care reform bill. It is legislators' responsibility to vote with their conscience, no matter what the party whip says. This wouldn't be his fault if he had argued against the bill on the floor of the Senate, if he had sought to change the legislation in committee or through other influence, and it wouldn't be his fault if, even after changes made to deal with his concerns, he still voted against the legislation. It's his fault because he joined the Republican filibuster.

By joining the filibuster, Nelson single-handedly turned what should have been a three month process into a ten month process, one in which all sorts of absolute insanity was spewed by opponents. At one point, in an effort to do anything to get the bill through, Reid tried to tack on what became known as the Cornhusker-Kickback, but that vote-purchasing was too overt even for Washington.

Of course, there were Blue Dog Democrats in the House who railed against the bill, some of whom even going so far as to essentially campaign on their opposition to it. (Just a side note; many of these “Blue Dogs” were elected on Obama's coattails and to thank him for creating a political climate in which they get jobs in Congress, they shat all over his most ambitious legislative goal. Thanks guys.) However, there was really nothing they could do about it, because there isn't a filibuster procedure in the House that allows for the minority party to dictate legislation.

The perpetual filibuster over health care reform sucked all of the policy momentum out of the Obama administration, making it almost impossible to take any additional steps in fixing the economy. Furthermore, by joining the filibuster, Ben Nelson changed the narrative of governance from “The Obama Administration Doing  Stuff” to “Congressional Republicans Making Sure Stuff Doesn't Get Done.” Our national political discussion was as much about what the Republicans were preventing as it was about what the Obama administration was doing. (For example, how many people are talking about the Obama administration's foreign policy successes in the last four years; ending the war in Iraq, assassinating Osama bin Laden, leading from behind in Libya, while navigating two inherited wars, radical changes in an already unstable Middle East...) And, along with all the stuff in the committees and the anonymous holds on legislation and nominations, the filibuster became the primary technique of Congressional Republicans until they took back the house.

And that brings us to now. Obviously, a lot of other factors went into that mysterious process in which “then” inexorably becomes “now,” but I believe a lot of those wouldn't have been possible without Ben Nelson's filibuster. The radical optimist in me assumes he truly believed that the policy was so bad for this country that he stood in the way of a vast majority of legislators to prevent it from being adopted, but I'm pretty sure he just assumed his constituents wouldn't vote for him if someone accused him of supporting something somewhat somehow connected to socialism.

With his retirement, most pundits believe the seat will be filled by a Republican, and frankly that's fine with me. The Democrats might be begging Nelson to say, but from my perspective, it should be the other way around. It's the Republicans who should be begging him to stay, because he was one of the most successful Republican legislators of the last four years.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bruins Udpate: I Told You So Edition

Well, I only really told you about half of what happened. I told you not to worry about the Bruins, but I didn't say they wouldn't lose in regulation again until December 6th. So why are the Bruins currently the best team on the planet? Well, I'm glad I pretended you asked.

A Legitimate Fourth Line: The Bruins play the best third period in the league, a plus 33 last time I heard. They're like a baseball team with a lights out closer. Right now, if you don't have a lead by the second period against the Bruins, the game is essentially over. On most teams, even in the NHL, the fourth line doesn't see a lot of minutes. On the Bruins, they do. Furthermore, their job is to exhaust the opposing defensemen. And Julien sticks with them even when they're on the ice for goals because he trusts the system as much as he asks his players. Which means that all of the Bruins generally have more energy in the third period than all of their opponents.

Depth and Difference: Along with just the numerical depth, each of the four lines presents different challenges to their opponents. The top line has one of the game's best passers flanked by top tier power forwards. The second line combines the best three-zone player in the game (I'm going to keep saying it) with two explosive skaters. The third line combines Kelly's speed and intelligence (The new Reichi?) with Perverley's dangerous skating and stick-handling, while Benoit Poulliot now skates his brains out when he's on the ice. And the fourth line are plenty capable of forechecking the heck out of defensemen and grinding out the occasional goal. And Paille is usually about the fastest guy on the ice when he's out. Very few teams present match up challenges on every single line.

Tim Thomas: It seems like every now and again you have to remind the world Tim Thomas is still the best goalie in the NHL. That helps. And, since we're talking about goalies, I might as well add that Rask might be one of the top 20 goalies in the league. (He just threw down a 41 save shut-out.) That might not sound like anything special, but he's the back up. That's pretty special.

The Julien System: It's about time to start talking about Claude Julien in the same terms as we talk about Bill Belichick. The games are different, so the moment by moment strategy doesn't really compare, but Claude Julien's system has lead to a Stanley Cup Championship, a President's Trophy, four straight playoff appearances, and an .616 winning percentage. Here's an example of why the system works so well. If an opponent is able to skate the puck out of his zone, and the Bruins center is in position, one defenseman backs up, while the other attacks. This makes it almost impossible for a player to skate through the neutral zone, which almost always leads to a harmless dump in. It's subtle but effective and, at least in my mind, proves the depth and success of Julien's coaching.

The Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year and returned just about everybody on that team. And though they haven't found that defenseman that Kaberle was supposed to be, and Corvo, might be, they've add players with a real hunger to succeed. And Tyler Sequin is better. All told this shouldn't be that much of a surprise. The only question is whether or not the Bruins can maintain these advantages through another playoff run. And with that in mind...

My Radical Suggestion for this Post (seriously, I'm totally like that guy from Moneyball): Start resting players now. I know we're a long way from the playoffs, and nothing is certain in sports (or, well, I guess anything), but I think there is real value to resting players as the season goes along. After the President's Trophy winning Bruins were ousted from the playoffs by Carolina, the extent of the team's injuries slowly made their way public. The Bruins were riddled, not with anything catastrophic, but with the wear and tear of playing a hockey season in the NHL. For some reason, that wear and tear hits every team differently, team to team, season to season. I'm not saying the Bruins should send out the JV team every now and again, just give one or two players one or two nights off as a way to mitigate that wear and tear. (In this sense, a mild injury here and there during the regular season, a la Chara's current leg injury could be beneficial.) Furthermore, the Bruins have two talented young players in Steven Kampfer and Jordan Caron who would benefit from a little extra NHL time. Zack Hamill is also beginning to show his NHL worth. Rotate through the line up and with 2-3 weeks before the playoffs go back to all the starters starting. So the Bruins might lose a few games they otherwise wouldn't have; if it leads to postseason victories it is well worth it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review of Pacific Crucible

History books are about meaning; they're not so much records of what happened (we have records for that) as they are attempts to figure out what all that stuff that happened means, both to us now and to the people who went through them. History books are about emotions, feelings, interpretations, and consequences. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll is about the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, and if I were on a committee (would anybody like me to be on their committee) it would win a Pulitzer Prize.

The first triumph of the book is how well Toll weaves the different perspectives on the events together into a cohesive narrative. He shows us the admirals deciding strategies and on the next page or the next paragraph he quotes from a sailor or pilot involved in carrying out those strategies. We see the grand abstractions of global strategies hashed out by Churchill, Roosevelt and the other upper echelon leaders, and the fire balls, oil slicks, and carnage of actual battle. We see the pride and fear of the Americans. We see the pride and fear of the Japanese. An event can never be recreated, and even the best approximations are simply mosaics of the event, pictures compiled by little bits of information and opinion. Toll does an amazing job of bringing clarity and depth to the mosaic of these events.

I drew two conclusions about the war in the Pacific from Toll's book. The first is that this movement was almost the WWI of WWII. Much of the horrifying slaughter of WWI was caused by new technologies being applied by people who didn't know how to use them. So you had cavalry charges into machine guns. The air craft carrier was a brand new technology and, in the beginning, neither the Japanese nor the Americans really knew how to use it. Furthermore, they presented a method of warfare entirely foreign to the dominant naval strategic ideologies held by both sides. Part of why the U.S. won the Battle of Midway so convincingly is that they figured out how to use air craft carriers first; strike first, with enough force to prevent a counter attack, get away.

The second was the power of arrogance. In the first few months of the war, the Japanese swept across the Pacific, easily conquering territory after territory, primarily because the European nations simply couldn't believe people who weren't white actually knew how to build and fly planes. The completely unprepared, undermanned, and undertrained outposts were easily annihilated by a Japanese military that included, what was most likely the most advanced and highly trained air force in the world at the time.

But the Japanese were not immune to arrogance. Despite being an island nation with very limited natural resources, they attacked a nation that had, essentially, a limitless capacity to produce the materials of war. Many Japanese believed that the decadent and materialistic Americans simply lacked fighting spirit. It didn't matter how many planes America built if it didn't have enough pilots brave enough to fly those planes into battle.

From this perspective, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was almost a blessing for the Americans, because it humbled them. It gave them a respect for their enemy. It showed them the limitations of their own defenses. It proved they were not invincible. That knowledge girded them for the long war ahead, made it easier to accept early defeat in service the subsequent victory, and drove them to constantly improve their tactics, techniques, and technologies.

I'm an idea guy. I read history books for those big perspectives, those abstract conclusions that help shape my understanding of the world, but Toll is a storyteller as much as he is a thinker and theoretician. There are characters and conflicts, story arcs and grand images, boardroom tension and battlefield carnage. The beauty is that it all comes together. Very few history writers achieve this kind of complex coherent synergy of event and action. There's Barbara Tuchman, of course. And now there's also Ian Toll.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Waiting for the Children of the Cold War to Die

Did your parents explain the complex political forces involved in the first Gulf War while it was happening? Did they talk about how Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with weapons we had given him? As an 8 or 9 year old, did you see the now infamous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Hussein's hand? What did they teach you about taxes? How about the Junk Bonds scandal, or the Savings and Loan scandal? Even as teenagers, what did you learn about the stock market from the dot com bubble?

Of course, none of that came up. We were kids and our parents were busy. We grew up with a simplified version of the events and many of our core beliefs were developed based on whatever simplifications we received. I bring this up, because I'm trying to understand one of the most baffling phenomenon of today's politics.

We already know how to fix our economic problems. We got out of a Depression once before and it wasn't through tax breaks for the wealthy and government deregulation. To summarize: government funded infrastructure projects kept society from falling apart whilst (and at the same time) developing resources for future economic growth (like the electrification of rural America) until WWII provided the motivation for an even greater federal spending spree that finally jump-started the economy and lead, with the aid of several farseeing plans (like the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan), to the most prosperous three decades any nation has ever seen. We can do that again. We know how.

Furthermore, pretty much all of the forty or so countries that outrank us in just about every quality of life standard, use the same strategy. To summarize: the national government administers those aspects of society which private markets have proven unable to effectively manage, like health care, education, and a material safety net, paid for by a tax structure that recognizes the reality of modern wealth, while regulating destructive behaviors that would not be automatically corrected by the market, like food safety and environmental concerns, and leaving everything else (which is still quite a lot) to the private markets until they prove themselves unable to handle some specific responsibility.

There. Done. Problems solved. Furthermore, given the vast monetary and material wealth of the United States, there is every reason to assume that if these solutions were implemented, we'd get another one of those big stretches of national prosperity and return to that whole being number one thing so many people spend a lot of time shouting about.

But nobody is doing these things. Even a whisper of a fragrance of a hint of the possibility that maybe we should think about perhaps having a federally administered non-profit health insurance option was a non-starter. So why, if these strategies worked to get us out of the Great Depression, and all these other nations are doing better than us in a lot of meaningful ways, can't we do this stuff?

Dan Bern has a song called Children of the Cold War. In it the speaker asks Moses why the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. Here is Moses' response: "We waited that the ones who knew firsthand of slavery could die out,/ Be left behind, buried in the ground./ So that no one but the innocent could reach the Promised Land./ We waited for the children of slavery to die." Essentially, those who grew up in slavery had their core beliefs shaped by that experience and nothing was going to undo that shaping, and so, in order to build a society free of slavery, they had to wait for those who grew up with slavery to die.

In the same way that people in my generation were developing our worldviews in the context of a simplified understanding of, well, everything, including the Gulf War, et al, our parents generation developed their worldview in the context of a simplified understanding of everything including the Cold War. In the simplified Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the enemy of the United States of America, and everything about them is evil. They called themselves “socialist,” and so anything “socialist” is therefor evil. In the same way that we didn't learn all the intricacies of the first Gulf War, like for example, how the US installed government in Iran completely altered the political landscape of the Middle East, our parents' generation didn't learn about the difference between socialism and communism and the particularly brutal brand of fascism practiced by Stalin and his descendents.

Throw in a school of economic thought, a few selfish bastards leveraging a set of ideas for their own personal profit, and an information and education system not too good at complexity and nuance, and you have a political situation in which one entire political party works tirelessly to cut taxes for the wealthy and deregulate the economy regardless of all the historical evidence their policies are absolutely destructive, while outright rejecting any policy that leverages the government spending and regulating power to benefit society.

Dan Bern's point in the song is the same as Moses'; in order for society to progress those whose core beliefs were developed during the Cold War need to, well, step aside. Death might be a bit much, but the problems of the 21st century are not going to solved by a mid-20th century mindset.