Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Questions for the 2012 Red Sox Off-Season

A sweep of the Yankees next week might do a little to ease the pain of 2012 but I don't think there's much hope for that. If we can say one thing went well for the Sox this season, it was that they were ready to shed salary when the Dodgers were looking to spend money. If the Red Sox bounce back soon, we'll probably consider that trade one of the best in Sox history. But there are a few more steps between the Sox and World Series contention and a lot of questions ownership needs to answer. Here are the three most important.

Is this a 2-3 year plan or a 4-5 year plan? Spending big bucks on superstar saviors hasn't worked the last couple of years, regardless of the quality of the superstar. And though the Red Sox showed they've got a lot of young talent, I don't think it's fair to expect Middlebrooks, Nava, Ciriaco, and the like, to make the Sox a World Series contender next year. So the Sox will certainly be planning ahead, they just need to decide how far. Whether it's 2-3 years or 4-5 will decide much of their strategy this off-season; whether they spend it further developing their farm system, stay put to see another season from their young players, or begin putting missing pieces together. How they answer this question will also affect the contracts they offer to their veterans, specifically David Ortiz.

Ortiz showed this year he can still be an offensive force. Even with the growing health concerns that come with aging, Ortiz proved that, barring injury, he can contribute for another two or three years. But four or five? If the Sox are aiming for 2-3 years, they should offer Ortiz a three-year contract. Yes, I know how old he'll be in three years, but he was putting up MVP caliber numbers before his injury; (and I think we all know he'd be playing if the Sox had a shot at the playoffs) degrading from there will still be pretty good. And even if his decline suddenly increases (which it certainly could) he'd still be a valuable pinch hitter. And it would guarantee what I think everyone wants to see; Big Papi ending his career in a Sox uniform. If it's a five year plan, well, it'd be hard for me to ask David Ortiz to spend the last years of his career on a bad team. Offer him a one-year deal, commensurate with the one he got this year, with the understanding that he'll get that offer for as long as he can play, and with the understanding that if he wants to spend his last years on a team with an actual shot at the World Series (except for the Yankees) the organization would not hold any exploration against him in future negotiations. If he decides to stay, great. If not, who can blame him. Pedroia, Lester, and Ellsbury all could have close to a decade to win another title, Ortiz doesn't. Which brings me to question two.

Is Jacoby Ellsbury the future of the Red Sox? A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury will win an AL MVP. He might win several. He takes away hits. He steals bases. He creates runs. With his power blossoming last year, he is arguably the most complete baseball player in the league. But that doesn't mean he's the right player to build a franchise around or that he represents the strategy the team wants to pursue. Maybe the Sox decide to build from their pitching staff out, overhauling their starting rotation and bullpen. If so, they might not have the money to pay Ellsbury what he's worth. Maybe they want to try a power-hitting first baseman again, or save the salary costs for a future free agent market.

But if they do believe Ellsbury is the future, they should pay him a lot and now. And we should give him a contract that extends at least a year past whatever the goal for contending is. I know the Sox have had some problems with big contracts recently, but unlike Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Beckett's most recent, Ellsbury is home grown. When we think about his contract, we should think about it in terms of Dustin Pedroia. I think it's obvious the Red Sox won't be big spenders this off-season, but if they want Ellsbury to stay, if they want to demonstrate to every player in the league they're willing to pay for the players that are important, they'll have to open their pocketbooks for him. And finally.

Is John Lackey a legitimate number three starter? Even with the inconsistency, Lester and Bucholtz are still the top two starters in the Sox rotation. Felix Dubront pitched well enough to be a respectable number four, and given next year is a rebuilding year, I think it makes a lot of sense to have the number five spot decided in pre-season. But that still leaves the number three spot open. We're now being told that we actually never saw the real John Lackey, that every single one of his lackluster performances, when he struggled with the second-time through the order and made getting to the sixth inning an adventure every game, was because he was pitching injured, and that with the successful Tommy John surgery and a full season to recover we will finally see the whole rationale for signing him in the first place. It's an exciting possibility and would solve a lot of problems if true, but Matsuzaka was not an entirely new pitcher after his Tommy John surgery, so why should we assume John Lackey (who might also be clubhouse poison) is? Answering this question will determine a lot of what the Sox do this off-season. Even if they decide to not sign a number three quality starter this year, they'll still need to organize their contracts, drafts, and deals with that open spot in mind. And if Lackey isn't their number 3, what exactly are they going to do with him? (Dodgers?)

Unfortunately, the wrong answer to these questions could lead to a long time in the wilderness. Throw money at a super-star free agent before all the home-grown talent has matured and the Sox are right back where they were this year. Play it too safe and they might miss the free agent that is the missing piece. Sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a gillion dollars and he plateaus. Don't sign him and watch him tear up the league for somebody else. Go with John Lackey and find out, that, yes, in fact we did see the real John Lackey and also he is clubhouse poison. Spend our resources on another pitcher and get nothing of value in return, while missing other opportunities. Hedge bets all around and end up with a cobbled together roster no match for the American League East.

But even if the Sox do struggle for the foreseeable future, it's important to remember that Boston sports have had a pretty amazing last thirteen years or so. One or more titles in each of the four major sports. Consistent playoff appearances in each of the four major sports. Did you know we even won titles in BOTH professional lacrosse leagues? (Yes, there are two professional lacrosse leagues.) And this is before considering any college sports. Boston College might have the best college hockey program of all time. (Though it's not on TV, we've got some good rugby clubs too.) As we look back on these Red Sox and forward to what they will become, it's important to remember that we've lived a charmed sports life for a really, really long time. These things always come in cycles, some shorter, some longer. The Red Sox are just the first in Boston to begin their next down cycle. The Celtics will probably be next. Brady will retire. So will Bergeron. We might just have to relearn an old New England skill; losing and loving with class. (Except to the Yankees.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review of the The Devil in Silver

The fundamental metaphor of The Devil in Silver is pretty easy to grasp. Pepper, the protagonist, is brought to the New Hyde mental institution not because he demonstrated a mental illness or implied he was a risk to himself and others, but because the plain-clothed cops who arrested him didn't want to deal with the paperwork of formally booking him. Though Lavalle doesn't articulate the idea directly until two-thirds of the way through the book, it's clear that we are supposed to understand life (or maybe society, fine line for social animals) as an asylum we can't escape from.

In another writer's hands, this metaphor might have induced eye-rolls, but throughout the course of the book, Lavalle reveals, deepens, plays with, and complicates that image. For example, in the beginning of the book, Pepper spends a lot of time thinking about Marie, a woman he hoped to have a relationship with, but after a while at New Hyde, after he began to adapt, Marie might as well not exist. So, yes, all the world is an asylum we can't leave, but we also have an amazing capacity to adapt to whatever our situation is, to join what surrounds us. Another; the staff at New Hyde are overworked, underpaid, and don't have nearly the resources they need to provide the care that is asked of them, yet, they still control the lives of the patients. Through this relationship, and in the context of the guiding metaphor, Lavalle explores how differences in power, even amongst the powerless, create antagonistic relationships. When one group can make the other take sedatives, there is going to be an “us and them,” relationship. And, whether it's a middle school or a corporation a group with over a certain number of members is going to fracture into tribes and cliques and so, after he comes out of his initial drug addled semi-coma, Pepper aligns himself with Dottie, the matriarch of New Hyde, Loochie, a teenager who compulsively pulls out her hair, and Coffee, an African immigrant who thinks if he can just call President Obama, all their problems will be solved.

And haunting New Hyde, is The Devil. The first time we see The Devil, it drops into Pepper's room from a hole in the ceiling and nearly pummels Pepper to death. Later on we get a good look at it. It's described as having the head of a bison on top of the body of an old man. Despite the fact that The Devil actually kills residents of New Hyde, the staff accepts its presence.  They even throw a blanket over its shoulders and guide it gently out of the room when they save Pepper. The actual term “the devil in silver,” refers not directly to this Devil who lived behind a silver door, but to the hallucinations seen by silver miners induced by the poisonous fumes created by, well, silver mining.

Much like the overarching metaphor of “World as Asylum” Lavalle's Devil is a risky image. No “explanation,” for the character will be satisfying. But Lavalle is able to provide conclusion for the character without restricting how we interpret it, not by foisting some kind of artificial ambiguity over the character, but by creating an environment, a plot, and a group of characters, that provide a range of understandings of the big reveal.

Victor Lavalle has a unique style. Even though I knew from The Big Machine how deep and intelligent of a writer he is, the depth and intelligence of The Devil in Silver still took me by surprise. He has a direct, conversational prose style, but he doesn't write with the ponderous simplicity that is so often considered (and too often lauded as) “accessible.” Wisdom just rises from his work like steam from the sewers.

In this way, Lavalle is, more than any one else I've read, the true heir to Kurt Vonnegut. The weirdness of Lavalle's (and Vonnegut's) work doesn't come from a commitment to the fantastic, but to the realistic, not from an obsession with the strange, but from a quest for the mundane. Often, the only way to understand reality is through surrogates; plots, characters, and settings totally different from anything that happens or can happen in reality, but that provide us a connection from distance that helps us understand what we see every day. For example, the residents' (inmates') conflict with the Devil, and Pepper's leadership role in that, perfectly maps out the tangle of ethical questions and assumptions knotted around treating mental illness with medication, but that all doesn't come together until one, succinct, and stunning moment. It takes a battle with a marauding old guy with a bison's head to get there, but the truth Lavalle reveals is more powerful and more meaningful from the course we took to get there.

This just scratches the surface of the themes and ideas explored by Lavalle through the residents of New Hyde. Race, class, immigration, law enforcement, sex, the paradox of know-it-alls through the life of a rat; Lavalle even sneaks in a Ulysses reference. But, taken with Big Machine, Victor Lavalle's greatest talent, which connects him again with Vonnegut, might be his heroes. With “anti-heroes,” pretty much the only heroes we read and see anymore, and with traditional heroes as stale, lifeless, and unrealistic as they were when artists first created anti-heroes, we've entered an era of protagonists. For better or worse, we no longer have heroes, just characters the book happens to be about. But Ricky Rice, from The Big Machine, and Pepper, from The Devil in Silver, are different.  They have quests.  They have flaws.  They try their best.  They make mistakes.  They want to save the world and they are heroes. And, in the world of books, so is Victor Lavalle.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why I Will Vote for Elizabeth Warren

The United States of America emerged from The Great Depression and World War II with a period of some of the fastest and most egalitarian economic growth the world had ever seen. We were still a long way from being a more perfect union, with huge sections of population considered second class citizens, but in terms of the economy, especially when you think about it in the context of human history, post-war America was a miracle. That American ideal of home and car ownership was created during this period, as was the idea that would, in one generation, became an American assumption; that your children will have more wealth than you did. How did we go from The Great Depression to the Great Expansion? It wasn't tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation of markets.

Our path to prosperity from the Great Depression, isn't really up for debate. It is historical fact. Federal spending, whether in the form of New Deal programs or World War II kept society from completely collapsing while the economy recovered from reckless financial practices and historic drought. Some of those programs, like those run by the Public Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, not only put people to work in the moment of crisis, but also produced infrastructure vital to our future productivity and leisure. Imagine how long it would've taken to have a consumer electronics market without the electrification of rural America. After WWII, three policies in particular built on the products of New Deal spending, and established the key resources for the explosion of growth. The GI Bill did two things, one short term and one long term. In the short term, it gave all the returning soldiers something to do while the economy readjusted itself to peace time. Instead of flooding the market with millions of new workers, returning soldiers went to college. In the long term, it produced the most highly educated work force in the world. The Eisenhower highway system, originally intended to make it easier for American troops to move from place to place, also allowed for the cheap transportation of goods from place to place. To put this another way, McDonalds would not be nearly as successful without this investment in national infrastructure. Finally, the Marshall Plan ensured there would be other economies for the United States to trade with. Government spending in Europe allowed American manufacturing to thrive.

The spending programs were coupled with regulations of the financial industry, including banking and the stock market. Regulations like The Banking Act of 1933, which included the Glass-Steagall Act and FDIC, ensured there was an inherent level of stability in finance even while the risks of investment were taken.

The result of these federal spending programs coupled with prudent regulations: from 1948-1980 we had six recessions and stock market crashes. From 1980-2010, when we began to roll back regulation, lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans and cut spending on infrastructure, we had 11 recessions and stock market crashes, with 2008 only being the most recent and most drastic. (That's actually being a little generous, as I'm not counting the recessions with primarily foreign sources, like the Asian market crisis.) We now work more hours for less wealth. American families, with two full-time adult wage earners, can no longer afford that house and car that was, less than a generation before, practically a birthright. And the gap between the rich and everyone else has exploded.

Republicans and Democrats have been talking about the middle class for months, but you don't have to do anything more than open a history book to know which side is correct. Federal investment in infrastructure coupled with prudent regulation created the American middle class as we know it. Elizabeth Warren supports policies that worked. It's that simple. Though the specifics will of course be different, the strategies of The Great Depression are applicable to The Great Recession. Elizabeth Warren will work to implement those strategies.

Furthermore, the arc of American history has always been towards a more inclusive society. When our Founders put pen to paper, their idea of freedom was limited to white men who owned property and since then we have been struggling to extend the benefits of a free society to more and more members of our community. That struggle for inclusion isn't just about voting rights, though if it was contemporary Republicans would still be on the wrong side, but about an economy where all people are paid the same wages for the same work, where families are able to plan their interaction with the economy, where workers are valued as human beings through fair pay, safe working conditions, retirement security, and leisure time, where immigrants who want to contribute to our society are given the opportunity to do so, and where domestic partnerships are not restricted to a certain arrangement of genitals.

Elizabeth Warren's policies are not just moral, historically proven, and good for the economy, they are moral, historically proven, and good for American. Oh, and I'd rather not need a lawyer to understand my credit card bill, so let's thank Elizabeth Warren for that too.

Scott Brown has done his best to keep his head down in the two years he has been in office and it's not hard to see why. He wouldn't stand a chance for re-election if he adopted the policies that define his party at the moment. But while he tries to distinguish himself from his own party, he has to distinguish himself from Elizabeth Warren, and his major legislative attempt to do so resulted in what I consider the strongest argument against his abilities as a legislator.

The Blunt Amendment was offered during the fabricated conflict over contraceptive coverage, in response to the Obama administration slightly changing existing contraception policy. Scott Brown did not just vote with his party in favor of the amendment; he co-sponsored it. The problem is, regardless of how you feel about contraception, the amendment was poorly planned and poorly thought out. It's goals aside, it was bad legislation. Essentially, the Blunt Amendment would allow employers to not contribute to health care policies that include, or health insurance companies to not cover, "specific items or services...contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.” Scott Brown will tell you his co-sponsorship of this amendment was about religious freedom, but even if that were true, it's still bad legislation.

What if my employer were a Christian Scientist? If so pretty much all health care would be contrary to its religious beliefs. And who would get to decide whether an employer/health insurance provider has an actual “moral conviction” against a specific service or procedure? What's to stop a health insurance company claiming that chemotherapy is against their “moral convictions?” Who will arbitrate between the providers and the provided and between the employers and the employed? There are three ways to answer this question; additional federal legislation that specifically outlines exceptions which means a massive intrusion of the federal government in the economy; ceding that authority to an existing federal agency which means a massive intrusion of the federal government in the economy; let the courts figure it out, which could mean millions of tax payer dollars spent on litigating particular moral convictions and particular services or procedures. Rather than rolling back Federal involvement in religious beliefs, the Blunt Amendment would have required either massive Federal management efforts or an endless stream of tax payer funded litigation.

The Blunt Amendment was a poorly thought out, poorly written piece of legislation smashed onto a bill about transportation, designed to fabricate some kind of statement about religious freedom. It would have been an expensive, legislative disaster if it had been adopted. And Scott Brown didn't just vote for it, he co-sponsored it. Oh, and he bought his pick up truck for his daughter's horse trailer. I've got no problem with that, but don't throw on a Carhartt jacket and sit in a pickup truck, pretending you're an average American dude, when you own horses. Run on your policies, not your totally fabricated, totally disingenuous brand.

In short, Elizabeth Warren supports policies that solved our nation's past crises and laid the ground work for a more prosperous society, while Scott Brown supports the policies that caused the current crisis and could continue our course towards a divided society. In some ways, we are lucky in Massachusetts to have an election like this. This isn't about ideology or politics, this is about history, and history tells us the right choice is Elizabeth Warren.