Monday, January 31, 2005

Social Insecurity Complex: Door Number 3 ?

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas has irked the Bush administration by hedging in his embrace of personal retirement accounts for Social Security, but his suggested remedy for funding Social Security and Medicare might be worth consideration.

His idea? Eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a value-added tax.

Los Angeles Times writer Ron Brownstein reports:

"First imposed in France in 1954, a VAT taxes the increase in price at each stage of a product's production — the 'value added' — and is ultimately paid by consumers at the cash register. All members of the European Union use a VAT, with rates ranging from 15% to 25%, according to the EU website.

"A VAT would need to be set at about 14% to replace the Social Security payroll tax, fund a small individual investment account and absorb the public cost of long-term care for the elderly, according to Peter Orszag, a tax expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At that level, a VAT would add roughly $2,800 to the cost of a $20,000 car or $7 to a $50 pair of sneakers. But workers would save thousands if the payroll tax were eliminated in return.

"Advocates view the VAT as easy to administer and economically efficient because it rewards savings over spending.'There are three good arguments for a VAT,' said Harold L. Wilensky, a retired professor of political science at UC Berkeley, who has studied the issue. 'One, it is easy to collect. Two, it is easy to enforce. And three, it is good for the economy.'

"Thomas' ideas leap so far beyond the entrenched lines of debate over Social Security that so far, neither party appears certain how to react."

Democrats have kept mum on the VAT proposal so far, choosing instead to assail some of Thomas' goofier ideas (higher benefits for blacks and fewer benefits for women based on their average lifespans). Of course, if the VAT were to catch on, Dems would likely shred it as a regressive tax that hurts the poor.

Nevertheless, since the more solid ideas to reform Social Security -- raising the retirement ages, limiting benefits, etc. -- are non-starters, why not give this the proverbial run up the flagpole?

Reel Short Reviews

Some quick takes on movies I've seen recently ... (oh, and ratings are out of four stars maximum)

A Bronx Tale (1993)
I'm not sure why I had never caught this coming-of-age story, especially since it boasts such an impressive pedigree. In his directorial debut, Robert DeNiro obviously soaked up a lot from his experiences working with Martin Scorsese; the movie is at its most lush and energetic, albeit derivative, when it recreates the Italian-American neighborhoods of the Bronx during the early Sixties. Alas, Chazz Palminteri's semi-autobiographical screenplay (based on his play) is ham-fisted and ultimately burdened with groan-inducing contrivances. Francis Capra Jr. is excellent, however, as the protagonist at age nine.

Goodbye, Lenin (2002)
Against the backdrop of the 1989 dismantling of the Berlin Wall, this story chronicles a young man's attempt to protect his mother, having recently emerged from a coma, from knowing that her beloved East Germany has quickly slipped into the funkiness of western capitalism. Director Wolfgang Becker keeps the proceedings clever and crisply paced. The movie was a big hit in Germany, where it resonated with audiences for obvious reasons, but it is also an example of solidly crafted cinema. Becker knows his stuff, and manages to pay quickie homage to Stanley Kubrick, among others.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
I wasn't prepared for this heartbreaking masterpiece of Japanese anime about two children orphaned during World War II and struggling to survive in the countryside. This is about as sad a war story as you are likely to see, but don't mistake this for a finger-wagging morality play; it primarily works on the level of of its own harrowing personal drama. Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies eschews political concerns, but it is still an important -- and eye-opening -- perspective for American audiences.

Intolerance (1916)
Directed by D.W. Griffith, this three-hour epic silent melodrama ostensibly chronicles intolerance and hatred through four periods (Babylon, Judea, 16th century Paris and then-contemporary America), but all of it eventually boils down to ostentatious sets and Griffith's fondness for wayward girls with big eyes and interesting names (Mountain Girl, the Dear One, etc.) assailed by the mean ol' world (perhaps Griffith was the ancestral soulmate of Lars von Trier). While intolerancee is more interesting as a slice of historical cinema than it is a story -- this is a 1916 silent melodrama, after all -- it remains impressive for its sheer in-your-face audacity.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
A British black comedy about an effeminate fop killing his way to an inherited title, this movie is more apt to be appreciated for its droll edginess than it is enjoyed. Alec Guinness is always fun to watch -- he has eight roles here -- but lead Dennis Price is stiff and unconvincing; and the film's languorous pace is as murderous as the would-be duke who is our protagonist/villain.

My Favorite Year (1982)
Richard Benjamin's directorial debut would have sunk into obscurity without the ever-watchable Peter O'Toole. A pleasant, if forgettable, comedy set in 1954 New York, O'Toole stars as drunk swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann, who is slated to appear on a TV variety show -- as long as he can remain sober. My Favorite Year certainly isn't a bad movie, but the Dennis Palumbo screenplay never really cuts loose, and instead loses its way with on-the-nose dialogue and musty caricatures about New York Jews.

Office Space (1999)
I don't know how many times I've seen this Mike Judge comedy, but it never gets tiresome. What a great comedy; and a rare one, too, when you compare it to the loud and ridiculous state of most big-budget comedies. Ron Livingston is a wonderful Everyman, and Judge has a sharp ear for memorable lines ("You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear") and eye for detail (even Livingston's sterile, cookie-cutter apartment is completely right). The works-sucks theme, of course, makes Office Space truly universal. And about those TPS reports ...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Indiana for Dummies

Not to kick any town when they're down (wow, what a Dr. Seussian moment that was), but when you live in a state that too often ends up as a punch line for jokes about hicks and in-beeding Southern Baptists, well ... we're willing to chortle smugly and sit back with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-goes-I grin on our mug.

And so: Gloat time. Men's Health magazine has bestowed Fort Wayne, Indiana, with the dubious distinction of being the dumbest city in the United States.

According to USA Today, the magazine's survey has been the talk of the town -- provided Fort Wayne residents can talk.

"I always thought we were the fattest, not the dumbest," says Angela Jurczak, 26, a junior at IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne).

"The elementary education major says it's hard to believe her hometown came in dead last in the smarts department. 'I would have guessed we're at least a C. Not an F. That's kind of sad.'
Sad, yes, but many residents also say it's dead wrong and question how the magazine came up with its findings.

"'In each case, we try to gather enough statistics from good sources to get what we think is an accurate snapshot,' says Matt Marion, who oversees the monthly 'MetroGrades' page for Men's Health. 'We feel pretty confident.'

"Dan O'Connell of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau concedes that Fort Wayne is 'sort of a vanilla city' but says he was 'floored' by the study.'"

Hmm. When the municipal agency charged with boosting the town concedes it's "sort of vanilla," maybe we're not talking about the sharpest tools in the shed. In the long run, we actually suspect that "the dumbest city in America" is bound to be a bigger tourist draw than "sort of vanilla."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Rabbit Screen Test

Thanks to Greg Angelo for introducing us to the wonderful world of bunny cinema.

Shelley Duvall is even more homely as a rabbit.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Same-Sex Simpsons

Another reason to love The Simpsons: A same-sex marriage is on the horizon for a Simpsons mainstay. On Feb. 20, the Baltimore Sun reports, a regular Simpsons character will come out of the cartoon closet and be married in a same-sex ceremony. Surely, we're looking at something a bit more interesting than the coming out of Mr. Burns' dutiful sidekick, Smithers, who is all but openly gay, anyway.

"Patty Bouvier, the chain-smoking, raspy-voiced sister of Marge who has rarely dated men, seems to be the leading contender - one Web betting site,, stopped taking wagers because so much money was being placed on her," the Sun writes.

All that's known for sure (at least as of this writing) is that the character will be married by Homer, who becomes an Internet-sanctioned preacher.

The Baltimore Sun points out that The Simpsons will follow the likes of Friends, Roseanne and Northern Exposure, all of which also featured gay weddings:

"But none of those programs showed the classic wedding moment - the kiss. Fans expect a kiss on The Simpsons, partly because it's animated and can get away with more than nonanimated shows.

"'The Simpsons could make a strong political point that the networks would never dare in a sitcom,' says Larry Gross, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and author of 'Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America.' He says a gay wedding on the show is significant - with or without a kiss.'It's part of the peculiar status of television in American culture,' Gross says. 'It's the common ground on which we all discuss issues, whether it's race or feminism or sexuality. And the fact they're discussed in this venue is already a marker of where the culture is moving.'"

Start the grass-roots efforts now: Matt Groening for President in 2008.

Heil ... Rupert ?

Leave it to Ted Turner to take a perfectly credible sentiment and then undermine his own point by subjecting it to the sort of contortion that would make a Rumanian gymnast wince.

At the National Association for Television Programming Executives conference, Broadcasting & Cable reports, the fabled Mouth of the South called Fox News nothing more than the propaganda arm of the Bush Administration.

Well, no argument from us there.

But then came the unfortunate, and inevitable, inference. According to the magazine: "While Fox may be the largest news network [and has overtaken Turner's CNN], it's not the best, Turner said. He followed up by pointing out that Adolph Hitler got the most votes when he was elected to run Germany prior to WWII."

Fox News officials declined comment.

Giamatti Wuz Robbed!

Despite some of our occasional bitch sessions here about movie awards shows, don't mistake us for one of those glassy-eyed crazies who'll be camped along the Kodak Theatre's red carpet, shrieking like an air-raid siren for Catherine Zeta-Jones or Ted Danson to look my way so that one day I'll be able to tell my test-tube baby about how a movie star once acknowledged my existence in the universe.

In other words, those awards shows doesn't really mean that much to me. Hell, Citizen Kane didn't win best picture and Hitchcock never won a Best Director Oscar. The celebration of classic cinema and the celebration of what simpering Jack Valenti clones consider entertainment are not necessarily one and the same.

That said, I'm still a movie fanatic, and so it's my God-given prerogative to grouse about boneheaded Oscar moves.

So, here is: Paul Giamatti wuz robbed. It's not just that his performance in Sideways would've won my vote for Best Actor, but the Academy didn't even nominate him.

Trembling, I raise my fist to the restive heavens as lightning flashes across the night sky to illuminate my ashen face: Damn you, Academy! The fools! The mad fools!

What a crock. No, let me amend that: What a friggin' crock.

As the sad-sack wine connoisseur/failed novelist/depressive high school English teacher Miles, Giamatti's performance was one of serious depth, subtlety and humaneness. For me, what nudges Sideways from an excellent film to the realm of the extraordinary are the small moments of humanity that resonate because they are so easily recognizable and yet reveal such complexity.

I think, for example, of the scene in which Miles goes to the bar in hopes that he will find Maya (Virginia Madsen) waitressing there. The scene is prefaced by a hand-held camera shot of Miles on his way to the place, and briefly this character, so steeped in loneliness and self-loathing, actually has to practice what it is like to smile naturally. It's a quick, seemingly inconsequential moment, but Giamatti is masterfully low-key with it.

He is similarly impressive when delivering a monologue about what draws Miles to the frail Pinot Noir grape. It is a bit of tremendous writing, but it is almost too neatly metaphorical for Miles' own life. Nevertheless, Giamatti makes it authentic.

Uh-oh, I'm wanting to wax rhapsodic now ...

Or there's the hilarious scene in which Miles, in insufferably pompous mode, shows Jack (Thomas Haden Church) how to taste wine appropriately. Or the scene in which Miles slumps in a booth at a burger joint, taking gulps from his prized bottle of wine concealed in a brown paper bag.

Johnny Depp was terrific in Finding Neverland, but I certainly don't think he bested Giamatti. And besides, Giamatti is a character actor. He was great as cartoonist Harvey Pekar in 2003's American Splendor, but let's face it; unlike Depp, Giamatti isn't likely to be swamped with leading-male parts for years to come.

So there. We got it off our chest. Giamatti wuz robbed and that's it.

But while we're on the subject, let me just mention two other glaring omissions with the Oscar nominations: Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, which easily boasted the year's most inventive screenplay, should have been nominated for Best Picture. And the Academy unfairly stiffed Metallica: Some Kind of Monster in the Best Documentary category.

Finally, just to demonstrate that we're not just crabby whiners -- well, we are crabby whiners, of course, but in a vain effort to prove otherwise -- here was a pleasant surprise: Catalina Sandina Moreno's Best Actress nomination for the amazing Maria Full of Grace.

I hope she will acknowledge my existence in the universe when I see her at the Kodak Theatre.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Nattering Nabob Calls it Quits

Bye bye Bill.

William Safire bid adieu yesterday as a New York Times columnist. We are not great fans of his column. His politics, obviously, are too right for our taste; he might be one of the last Republican pundits still certain the U.S. will still find WMDs in Iraq (wouldn't yah know, they're always in the last place you look). Moreover, he is hardly a GOP insider any longer, making much of his prognosticating punditry inconsequential.

Despite his sometimes scurrilous opinions, however, Bill Safire has always been a clever and succinct writer. What else would you expect from the guy who gave Spiro Agnew the line about "nattering nabobs of negativism"? For that alone, we will miss reading his stuff ... although, don't get us wrong, we'll forge on somehow. This ain't exactly akin to the death of Johnny Carson (who, by the way, is lovingly eulogized by Steve Martin in an op-ed in today's New York Times).

But we digress ...

We will give Safire props, too, for his final piece in the Times, a manual on how to read a column. Of his 12 tips for the discerning reader, we offer our favorites:

Never look for the story in the lede. Reporters are required to put what's happened up top, but the practiced pundit places a nugget of news, even a startling insight, halfway down the column, directed at the politiscenti. When pressed for time, the savvy reader starts there.

Do not be taken in by "insiderisms." Fledgling columnists, eager to impress readers with their grasp of journalistic jargon, are drawn to such arcane spellings as "lede." Where they lede, do not follow.

Don't fall for the "snapper" device. To give an aimless harangue the illusion of shapeliness, some of us begin (forget "lede") with a historical allusion or revealing anecdote, then wander around for 600 words before concluding by harking back to an event or quotation in the opening graph. This stylistic circularity gives the reader a snappy sense of completion when the pundit has not figured out his argument's conclusion.

Cherchez la source. Ingest no column (or opinionated reporting labeled "analysis") without asking: Cui bono? And whenever you see the word "respected" in front of a name, narrow your eyes. You have never read "According to the disrespected (whomever)."

Resist swaydo-intellectual writing. Only the hifalutin trap themselves into "whomever" and only the tort bar uses the Latin for "who benefits?" Columnists who show off should surely shove off. (And avoid all asinine alliteration.)

Do not be suckered by the unexpected. Pundits sometimes slip a knuckleball into their series of curveballs: for variety's sake, they turn on comrades in ideological arms, inducing apostasy-admirers to gush "Ooh, that's so unpredictable." Such pushmi-pullyu advocacy is permissible for Clintonian liberals or libertarian conservatives but is too often the mark of the too-cute contrarian.

Perhaps an alternative title for that final rule could be The Christopher Hitchens Hitch. Of course, all the other rules could be named in honor of George Will.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Corpse Bride Trailer

The trailer is out for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. As someone who thinks The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton produced and co-wrote) is one of the underrated masterpieces of the 1990s, I am eager for a return to form for Burton. With the exception of Ed Wood, Burton's early-'80s animated shorts, particularly Vincent and Frankenweenie, might remain my favorite works of his. For me, Burton is at his best when unfettered by the maturity hoisted upon him when he undertakes more mainstream fare. A vivid stylist with a childlike appreciation of the fantastic and macabre, Burton loses his way when saddled with complicated, grown-up stories and themes.

A long-winded way of saying I'm looking forward to Corpse Bride.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

This Just In! Former Nixon Secretary Dead!

Rose Mary Woods, the onetime secretary for Richard Nixon, died today in Ohio. She was 87.

Please bow your heads for 18 and a half minutes of silence.

Johnny the Magnificent

R.I.P. Johnny Carson -- a true icon, generational touchstone and the greatest late-night talk-show host of 'em all (I wholeheartedly concur with Chazz's sentiment that Jay Leno has always felt like a guest host). In honor of the late, legendary "Tonight Show" host, The New York Times has reprinted Johnny's final monologue, from May 22, 1992.

"It's been a hell of a lot of fun. As an entertainer, it has been the great experience of my life, and I cannot imagine finding something in television after I leave tonight that would give me as much joy and pleasure, and such a sense of exhilaration, as this show has given me. It's just hard to explain."

Read and remember ....

And then check out this exceptional Frank Rich New York Times column from 1992 about Johnny Carson's place in the nation's collective unconsciousness.

Shootings in Tal Afar

Thank you to Leila at Sister Scorpion for another view of the Iraq War that just doesn't seem to find its way to the mainstream news media in the U.S.

This latest incident in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar involves a car that failed to stop at a checkpoint at dust. Troops opened fire, killing a mother and father in the front seat. The couple's five children in the back seat survived.

The shooting is only the most recent bloodshed in Tal Afar, which has a sizable Turkish population and has sounded alarms from Turkey diplomats.

"A Very Long Engagement" and "Hotel Rwanda": Some Thoughts

I finally saw A Very Long Engagement and was knocked out. It is a spellbinding movie, exquisitely shot by Bruno Delbonnel and, like Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, reveling in an almost giddy love of cinema's visuals possibilities. Based on a wildly popular French novel by Jean-Baptiste Rossi, the tale concerns a young woman (Audrey Tautou) and her refusal to believe that her fiance actually died on the battlefield in World War I. Although the movie is vivid in its depiction of wartime carnage, this isn't exactly an anti-war film -- or, if it is, its sheer beauty likely undermines that theme.

No matter. Essentially, A Very Long Engagement is a powerful love story about faith and hope. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunot, as he did in 2001's Amelie, fills the screen with quirky characters and even quirkier asides, eye-popping set pieces and Tautou's bewitching and mischievous smile. Critic Stephen Hunter gets it right in his Washington Post review.


By contrast, Hotel Rwanda is deadly serious in what it has to say about humanity's most vile impulses. Director-writer Terry George lacks Jeunot's show-off artistry, and that is all to the good. Such no-frills restraint captures the real-life heroics of Rwandan hotelier Paul Rusesabagina and his efforts in 1994 to save more than a thousand Tutsis from a Hutu-led genocide.

Don Cheadle is particularly magnificent as Paul, who slowly realizes that the mind-numbing atrocities committed by his fellow Hutus are not enough to draw the world's intervention. As he is told be a TV news photographer played by Joaquin Phoenix, "If people see this they'll say 'Oh, my God. That's horrible.' Then they go on eating their dinners."

Some critics have dissed Hotel Rwanda for sanitizing the genocide that occurred and not delving deeper into the geopolitical realities behind the conflict, but we wonder if those detractors wore perhaps expecting a documentary. True, this is a PG-13 view of genocide, but what resonated with us is the film's larger story of the West's disconnect to Africa. In light of the genocide in Sudan, the reality of global apathy is as sad now as it was in 1994-- and as sad as it likely will be ten years from now.

For more on Hotel Rwanda, we'll defer to Ann Hornaday's review in The Washington Post.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Inauguration Wrap

Or, as the Bush White House interprets Janis Joplin:

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to say.

We defer to Crooks and Liars for its succinct inaugural speech review.

Crumbs and Stuff, Take 4

Now that the U.S. has officially conceded there apparently were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (D'oh!), we give it up to the good folks of The American Street for this trip down memory lane in the war that supplanted "shoot first and ask questions later" with "shoot first and figure out why you shot later."


On a more tangential note, we 're glad to see we're not the only one who has a serious problem with the Arby's Oven Mitt.


This just in: Unmarried couples in Virginia can now legally have sex. No longer will they have to drive into the District and do it on the congressman's desk.


The Daily Howler finally lauds someone for news coverage of the Social Security debate. In this case, the recipient of the Howler's rare praise is (brace yourselves, avowed Tiffany Network foes!) CBS News. The Howler's Bob Somerby details how Rex Nutting, bureau chief for CBS Marketwatch, was alone in detailing the President's prominent Pinocchioisms at the Social Security Summit.


Lewd rubbing on a Paris statue forces intervention. No joke even necessary; it would be too easy. Read on here.

Well, tha-tha-that's all, folks. I've gotta get my stuff done.

Next Stop, Iran

The Los Angeles Times notes that UberDick Cheney is ratcheting up the tough talk to Iran by invoking Israel in the role of bad cop:

"Cheney, who often has delivered the Bush team's toughest warnings to foreign capitals, said Iran was 'right at the top' of the administration's list of world trouble spots, and expressed concern that Israel 'might well decide to act first' to destroy Iran's nuclear program. The Israelis would let the rest of the world 'worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward,' he added in a radio interview with Don Imus that was also broadcast on MSNBC.

"The tough talk was part of the administration's attempt to halt what Iran contends is a peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program but which Washington believes is a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons. Facing weak diplomatic and military options, the administration has issued increasingly stern warnings in hopes that threats of sanctions and international isolation will convince Iran to shun nuclear weapons. President Bush and other top administration officials also have spoken in menacing terms about Iran in recent days. But Cheney's words marked the first time that a senior official has amplified the threat by suggesting that the United States could be unable to prevent military attack by its close allies in Jerusalem, analysts and diplomats said.

"The startling reference to an Israeli attack was 'the kind of strong language that will get their attention in Tehran,' said one allied diplomat in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'There's a rhetorical escalation here: They've ratcheted up the threat level by bringing Israel in,' said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration."

UberDick's latest rhetoric comes on the heels of a Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker alleging that C.I.A. operatives are already in Iran to determine potential targets of attack. Hersh contends the goal, according to his sources, is to agree on three dozen or more targets that would do much to cripple Iran's infrastructure.

"According to a former high-level intelligence official, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message. Rumsfeld added that America was committed to staying in Iraq and that there would be no second-guessing.

"'This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone,' the former high-level intelligence official told me. 'Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah 'we've got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.'"

As for covert activities in and near Iran, Hersh writes that the Bush Administration is working closely with Pakistan intelligence to gauge Iran's nuclear threat and with Israel to develop potential targets inside Iran.

"The Pentagon's contingency plans for a broader invasion of Iran are also being updated. Strategists at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, in Tampa, Florida, have been asked to revise the military's war plan, providing for a maximum ground and air invasion of Iran. Updating the plan makes sense, whether or not the Administration intends to act, because the geopolitics of the region have changed dramatically in the last three years.

"It is possible that some of the American officials who talk about the need to eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure are doing so as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at pressuring Iran to give up its weapons planning ...

"In my interviews over the past two months, I was given a much harsher view. The hawks in the Administration believe that it will soon become clear that the Europeans' negotiated approach cannot succeed, and that at that time the Administration will act. 'We're not dealing with a set of National Security Council option papers here,' the former high-level intelligence official told me. 'They've already passed that wicket. It's not if we're going to do anything against Iran. They're doing it.'

"Under Rumsfeld's new approach, I was told, U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities. Some operations will likely take place in nations in which there is an American diplomatic mission, with an Ambassador and a C.I.A. station chief, the Pentagon consultant said. The Ambassador and the station chief would not necessarily have a need to know, under the Pentagon's current interpretation of its reporting requirement."

Are the neocons gearing up for an Act II? Is Hersh smoking weed with Oliver Stone?

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Media Musings, Take 4

You don't need a weatherman to know how much a bigot blows. Check out the Las Vegas weather guy fired for his "slip" regarding Martin Luther King Day.

"KTNV-TV, Channel 13, fired weekend weather anchor Rob Blair on Sunday, a day after he made an on-air racial slur about Martin Luther King Jr.

"Jim Prather, vice president and general manager of KTNV, said Blair 'stumbled' during a weather update ... but added that "this kind of incident is not acceptable under any circumstances, and I'm truly sorry that this event occurred.'

"Blair was delivering the extended forecast when he said, 'For tomorrow, 60 degrees, Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Day, gonna see some temperatures in the mid-60s.' About 20 minutes later, Blair told viewers at the ABC affiliate, 'Apparently I accidentally said Martin Luther Kong Jr., which I apologize about -- slip of the tongue.'"


For something completely fun: Stroll down memory lane with this treasure trove of the Great American (and Increasingly Extinct) Advertising Jingle.


The American Leftist reviews another of those Oops! stories -- this time the strange and sad tale of a poster child for the Iraq invasion whose account of rape and torture under Saddam's reign proved as fictitious as compassionate conservatism.

Just to preempt any pro-war blubbering that Saddam's rule was, indeed, marked by torture and mass murder: No one is disputing that. But it sure doesn't speak well for mainstream journalism or the Bush Administration when their prime examples are fake. This time, the egg yolk in on the face of The Washington Post and Paul Wolfowitz, who, no doubt, could use it for hair gel.

Devil in Disguise


Our worst suspicions confirmed!

The Bushes + the Longhorns = Satan

Make Love, Not War

Thanks to the Sunshine Project, we have a rare glimpse into the high-stakes world of the Pentagon and its tireless efforts to devise stronger, more advanced weaponry.

Like, say, a chemical bomb to spur widespread humping.

No, we're not making this up. According to documents culled from the U.S. Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, military researchers pushed for development of a "distasteful but completely non-lethal" chemical that would make enemy combatants irresistible to one another and induce "homosexual behavior."

The London Daily Telegraph is particularly intrigued by the documents' revelations surrounding the Yanks' one-time pursuit of a "Who? Me?" bomb that would lower the morale of enemy troops by making them all think that someone among them was farting or had serious halitosis. Again, we are not making this up.

From the Daily Telegraph:

"Since 1945 there had been extensive research into the effectiveness of the 'Who? Me?' bomb, the declassified documents said.

"But it was found 'that people in many areas of the world do not find fecal odor offensive since they smell it on a regular basis.'"

Now some might call this absurd waste of money, but not me. In all honesty, I find the imagination somewhat comforting. In the months following 9-11, you might recall, Pentagon brass invited Hollywood moviemakers and other creative types to brainstorm all the weird and spectacular ways that terrorists might launch another attack. At the time, I was a little chagrined to think that military folks had such little imagination in this regard. Had none of these high-ranking officials sworn to protect and defend our nation from harm a modicum of whimsy? Was "Star Wars" the best we could think of?

But now ... now I feel better and safer. Lady Liberty can rest a bit easier. The terrorists will have a hard time outsmarting us -- not as long as the World's Greatest Superpower has the audacity to dream of whoopee cushions and Mardi Gras.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Okie Bloggin', Take 2

A quick roundup of some of our favorite Oklahoma-based bloggers ....

Beating the wintertime blues is the order of the day at our irrepressible booster of all things Okie, Oklarama.

Oklahoma's "Make My Day" law gets a well-deserved pistol-whipping from Okiedoke.

Existential Ramble examines how Iraq has become the tricycle for terrorists wanting to take off the training wheels.

Over at Lip Schtick, that incorrigible Wal-Mart poet known as LilRed waxes on the joys of Brussels sprouts.

The Left End of the Dial takes on the so-called Social Security crisis.

Our used-to-be-an-Okie Token Liberal weighs in with his Top CDs of 2004.

The Downtown Guy offers an excellent account of the history of, and challenges facing, Oklahoma City's historic Capitol Hill area.

Greg Angelo, the snarky keeper of Have Some Cheese, Rat! calculates the priceless side of George W. Bush. espouses on the impact of Oklahoma suburban sprawl.

The Blue Dot Blog dissects that American love of good vs. evil.

William Shatner's shoes and Al Roker's jock strap are on the shopping list at It's Not Easy Being Green.

Dr. Pants has the music in him over at Dr. Pants' Wholesale Pants Warehouse.

At Reflections in d minor, Lynn examines the furor over religion and suggests a live-and-let-live approach.

Dash Rip Rock at Pop Cultured is chomping at the proverbial bit (hope he doesn't catch anything) for the new Beck release.

Oklahoma Wine News takes note of some upcoming Oklahoma events involving flowers, jazz and chocolate.

This Is Class Warfare takes Red Dirt to task.

Red Dirt tasks back.

The Tortuous Logic of Tort Reform

If the first term of George W. Bush was all about smokin' out Al Qaeda and Saddam, then this second term is shaping up to be happy endings for the rich and really rich.

What a charitable guy that Dubya is. First he announces efforts to partially privatize Social Security, and now he promises a round of so-called tort reform on behalf of the nation's doctors and captains of business and industry.

If that sounds like a pretty wide spectrum of benefactors, that's 'cause, well, it is. The New York Times made the point recently that business-related tort reform and the rising costs of medical malpractice premiums have been linked partly to give a kindly Marcus Welby, M.D., face to the issue:

"The impending battles over malpractice costs have in some states been wrapped in the broader cloak of 'tort reform,' intended to restrict the civil liability of many types of businesses. They also come at a time when President Bush has pledged to push for federal restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits.

"But in most of the states, soaring malpractice premiums have been the driving force for the campaigns -- in part because compelling stories about doctors and their patients have put human faces on the larger issue. In some regions, soaring premiums have led doctors to strike, stop delivering vital services and even quit."

Republicans are crafty on this public-relations tactic, especially since medical malpractice costs and larger questions surrounding business liability are, indeed, two separate issues. Having once upon a time worked in TV news, I can confirm that obstetricians closing up shop in small-town America make for a helluva lot more poignant television than a beleaguered toy manufacturer facing a class-action lawsuit over its new Barbie Nunchucks.

But even in the realm of skyrocketing medical malpractice costs -- and they are astronomical and rising, no doubt about it -- there is hardly a consensus that the fault rests with evil trial attorneys and a litany of lawsuits, as the GOP would have you believe (and has done a fair job getting the vast majority of docs to believe, too). Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune provided an excellent encapsulation of the issues involved:

"The Congressional Budget Office attributes the problem of rising liability insurance costs to several factors. Premiums for physicians nationwide rose by 15 percent between 2000 and 2002, according to a January 2004 CBO report. Since 1993, premiums for all physicians have increased by about 25 percent. Growing claims are partly to blame, the CBO found, with the average payment for a medical malpractice claim rising "fairly steadily" since 1986, from $95,000 to $320,000 in 2002. But insurers also have been forced to raise premiums to offset reduced investment income.

"Insurers maintain that unreasonable costs of litigation have been a problem for years. It may be easier to absorb those costs when the stock market is flush, they say, but the problem resurfaces when profits are leaner.

"It's ultimately consumers who pay the price for increased litigation, said Sean McBride, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform. 'It's not just an abstract cost to business,' said McBride, pegging the price at $809 a year for each American.
'It's costing consumers higher prices on just about everything they are purchasing.' The U.S. Chamber says the defense and payment of liability claims drains about $230 billion a year from the American economy. The system is 'bilking' small businesses of $88 billion a year, it maintains.

"'We have not promised price reductions with tort reform,' said Dennis Kelly, an American Insurance Association spokesman. 'We want tort reform to create a more balanced legal system that is more equitable for all parties.'

"Trial lawyers dispute the notion that huge jury awards are driving the high costs of health care. They argue that less than 2 percent of all health care spending is traced to the cost of litigation, a statistic supported by the CBO."

First off, we need to differentiate between medical malpractice reform and plain ol' tort reform. Lumping the two together plays into the Republican playbook and does a disservice to both problems. With regard to climbing medical malpractice premiums, we would suggest that -- while trial attorneys are easy whipping boys and insurance companies inexplicably escape culpability -- something clearly needs to be done. We can flap our jaws incessantly about why medical malpractice insurance premiums are so high, but the fact remains that they have jumped in recent years and are pricing many docs, especially OB-GYNs, out of the profession.

Still, we find the Republican Party's position on overarching tort reform more than a bit disingenuous. As we see it, either you have widespread deregulation of business and industry or you have serious tort reform -- but you shouldn't have both.

When the GOP embraces the mantra of an unencumbered business environment, then it seems only logical to allow the specter of, yes, litigation and high jury awards to ensure protection of the public. Call me crazy, but I just don't have enough boundless faith in the innate goodness of industry to guard against polluted air, dirty water, useless or potentially harmful products and a zillion other less-than-desirable effects without a hammer coming from somewhere -- government-enforced regulation or the wild west regulation of the courtroom.

There is little arguing that we live in a mighty litigious society burgeoning with insidious attorneys and greedy plaintiffs. But you also have plenty of the same mind-set in the business community. If mutually assured destruction had a twisted kind of logic in the Cold War, surely the tensions between business and attorney serve a purpose in ensuring public protection.

Don't be fooled. In the end, tort reform is all about who has the deeper pockets. Democrats circle their wagons around trial attorneys 'cause that's the ones who brung 'em. Republicans sidle up to big business and chambers of commerce 'cause them's the ones who brung them.

It is as simple as that.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, attorneys and attorney-related PACs contributed nearly $118 million to Democratic candidates in last year's elections, meaning that roughly 70 percent of attorneys' campaign contributions went to Dems.

By contrast, Republicans captured 75 percent of all 2004 campaign contributions from the energy sector ($32 million); 59 percent from the finance, insurance and real estate industries ($159 million), 63 percent from healthcare professionals ($37.7 million) and 75 percent from the transportation industry ($31 million).

As The New York Times puts it:

"The battles pits two of the nation's most powerful and generous campaign contributors: trial lawyers and doctors.

"In the 2004 campaign, the American Trial Lawyers Association political action committee gave $2.1 million to federal candidates, almost all of them Democrats. The American Medical Association's political committee contributed nearly $2 million, with 81 percent going to Republicans."

Inaugurate This

Just for fun, we offer a compare-and-contrast speech for today's Inauguration. Ask not why we bring this speech to you ...

Ironic, Don'cha Think?

You've got to love unintentional irony. Check out this CNN headline (thanks to Tom Tomorrow and This Modern World).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

CBS Wants to Be Hip

Talk about floundering around for something bold. Now CBS chairman Leslie Moonves says a post-Rather "CBS Evening News" might even include "a role" for Jon Stewart. Read on.

"One of the things we're looking at is having something that is younger, more relevant," Moonves was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "As opposed to that guy, preaching from the mountaintop, about what we should and should not watch."

As Stewart himself might say with falsetto voice: "Awkward!"

"In Good Company": A Review

Hollywood movies have a hard enough time creating one engaging lead character, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find the confident and likeable In Good Company, which actually gives us two characters well worth an audience’s time.

Fifty-one-year-old Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is an honest, hard-working sales executive for Sports America magazine, but the poor guy is so ill-suited for ever-changing corporate dynamics, his colleagues affectionately refer to him as a dinosaur. Like those poster children for extinction, Dan certainly has some issues with time. He is certain his 13-year-old daughter is too young for a boyfriend, but she has one. He is certain his wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger), is well beyond child-bearing age, but she’s pregnant.

And this old-school salesman with the no-frills sales pitch is absolutely certain that, in a just world, his boss is not supposed to be half his age. But whadd'ya know? Dan's world is upheaved when Sports America is purchased by a giant media conglomerate called Globecom. Dan is demoted and replaced by 26-year-old up-and-comer Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), whose chief familiarity with dinosaurs is his having hawked dino-shaped cell phones to children.

For many fimmakers, it would have been too tempting to fashion all this into an anti-big business screed in which a ruthless twentysomething climbs the corporate ladder over the bodies of older and better people. But director-writer Paul Weitz is smart enough to make Carter, as workaholic and pathetically ingratiating as he is, thoroughly sympathetic. After all, Carter's carefully constructed universe is failing him, too. Once his newlywed wife (Selma Blair, in what amounts to a cameo) walks out on him, the newly crowned sales boss is desperate for a friend -- and organizing Sunday meetings in the office just doesn't fill the void.

He latches on to Dan one evening, all but inviting himself to the man’s home for dinner. It is there he is smitten by Alex (Scarlett Johansson -- who wouldn't be smitten?), Dan’s oldest daughter attending college at New York University.

Carter, in particular, is exceptionally well-drawn, and the gifted Topher Grace captures magnificently the character's blend of obnoxious self-absorption and suffocating need for affection. Grace might be destined for great things in film, a Tobey Maguire-type, only with a smirk and quirky charm.

Quaid, too, redeems himself for his work in last year's The Alamo and The Day After Tomorrow. Harrison Ford would have turned Dan into a one-note curmudgeon, but Quaid smoothes the character’s rougher edges with vulnerability, projecting a man confused and bedeviled by a world spinning out of his control.

It is bewildering to think that Weitz, who, along with brother Chris made the first two American Pie flicks, once wrote a scene in which a guy makes love to a warm apple pie. He has a deft touch here. In Good Company juggles lots of themes -- out of sync with the times, justice in the workplace fathers and sons, fathers and daughters -- without getting weighed down by them. The movie is smart but not cynical, satirical but not oblique. Admittedly, there are occasional strains at believability; we suspect even Dan would be shrewd enough not to harangue revered Globecom honcho Teddy K (played by an uncredited Malcolm McDowell) at a staff meeting. But that is quibbling with what is an engaging, warm and character-driven story.

Weitz also deserves credit for compiling a suitably off-kilter soundtrack -- featuring the likes of Iron & Wine, David Byrne, the Shins and Damien Rice -- that sets a leisurely, if melancholy, tone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Butt Out

First, the Fox Network censors Mickey Rooney's octogenarian ass from an upcoming Superbowl ad, the latest act of absurdity in the latest post-nipplegate, FCC-inspired lunacy.

And now this. The Washington Post reports that Fox's animated series, "The Family Guy," is the latest program falling victim to the butt ban:

"Fox felt it had to pixelate the bare bottom of animated tot Stewie in an episode of 'Family Guy' that aired a couple of weeks ago. (It did so in a Christmas ornament reflection.) When Fox ran the episode about four years ago, before Janet Jackson exposed her breast at the Super Bowl, endangering the moral fiber of American youth, it did not blur the shot of Baby Stewie's behind.

"Fox also pixelated the bare backside of Stewie's dad, Peter, in a recently rerun episode, and obscured the backsides of the family's nudist neighbors in episodes rerun over the summer opposite NBC's coverage of the Olympics in Athens. You know, the same Games that may get NBC slapped with an indecency fine from the FCC for showing, among other things, replicas of ancient Greek statue nudes."

Our big question: If Fox is so uptight about showing assholes, why is Bill O'Reilly still on the air?

Rather Have Couric?

At first it was easy to dismiss the rumors that CBS is angling to make Katie Couric Dan Rather's successor when Ditzy Dan steps down this spring. But now Time magazine is reporting that CBS has actually approached Couric about the prospects.

It is becoming increasingly likely that CBS' in-house candidates, John Roberts and Scott Pelley, will be passed up in favor of an attention-grabbing marquee name. Ahh, such is the whimsical world of TV news.

But the logic of something escapes me.

Let's get this straight. CBS, its news division having fallen into the proverbial shitter over credibility, hopes to reclaim its Tiffany Network status by hiring ... Katie Couric?

Hasn't CBS already endured one on-air colonoscopy too many at this point?

Monday, January 17, 2005

MLK Day in Oklahoma

On this MLK Day, I would urge you -- particularly if you are an Oklahoman -- to check out this excellent post by Sister Scorpion regarding African-American history in the Sooner state. And thank you, Okiedoke, for calling attention to this site via your blog.

Cutaways, Take 4

Well, the Golden Globes have come and gone. A few brief observations:

1. We would never have suspected that the most surprisingly down-to-earth and, darn it, poignant acceptance speech would come from Teri Hatcher.
2. Jamie Foxx is an excellent actor and all, but he needs to get over himself; besides, we think Paul Giamatti wuz robbed.
3. How does "The Aviator" win Best Motion Picture and its director, Martin Scorsese, not win an award, too? Who does the foreign press think directed the friggin' movie? Howard Hughes?
4. Kudos to Jason Bateman for listing all the writers of "Arrested Development." Classy move.
5. William Shatner's a class act, too.
6. Geoffery Rush must have marital troubles: Barely remembered to kiss his wife, and failed to acknowledge her in his acceptance speech (take note, Mary Hart! You read it here first!).
7. Poor Mariska Hargitay of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" must have been freezing. With apologies to a dear friend whose line I must now steal: That woman's nipples were stiffer than Jerry Orbach.


Ain't It Cool News gives us a rundown of some incredible films to look for this year. Here are a few I'm particularly hot 'n' bothered about:

Robert Rodriguez joins forces with graphic comics writer Frank Miller for "Sin City." Incredible cast, and the trailer looks tee-rific.

The H.G. Wells sci-fi classic "War of the Worlds" gets the Spielberg treatment and Tom Cruise gets star billing. You know, I can't bend spoons with my mind or anything, but something tells me this will make a lot of money.

Sam Mendes directs his third film, "Jarhead." After "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition," what more of a reason do you need to know this will kick ass?

There's really no logical reason I should be looking forward to what surely will be a disappointing big-screen version of "Bewitched." But here's the deal: I had a mad crush on Elizabeth Montgomery up until I entered junior high, and I had a mad crush on Nicole Kidman up until ... well, until my wife began reading this post. So, yeah, I'll see it -- but the corns on my foot are telling me director-writer Nora Ephon cannot be trusted.

Cameron Crowe offers us a coming-home drama, "Elizabethtown" (which, incidentally, was partly shot in Oklahoma). "Vanilla Sky" excluded, I'm convinced Crowe can do no wrong.

A true master of B-movie horror, the exalted George Romero, returns to the zombie genre (as opposed to, say, historical costume dramas) with "Land of the Dead." I have a bad feeling about this, but there's no way I'd miss it. Bonus bit: The guys from "Shaun of the Dead" will have cameos as the undead.

I have hope for James Mangold's biopic of Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line." Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon star as, respectively, the Man in Black and June Carter Cash.

"Tim Burton's Corpse Bride." With a title like that, what else do you want?

"Charlie & the Chocolate Factory." As a friend of mine recently suggested, this might just be the very movie that Tim Burton was born to make -- or, as Steve Martin phrased it back in "The Jerk"; it could be Tim's "special purpose." Alas, I must throw up a red flag: Burton admits he's "no fan" of the original 1971 flick, and we all remember what favors the director did for "Planet of the Apes."

Roman Polanski will turn his attention to a telling of "Oliver Twist." We suspect this will be a particularly harrowing account of Dickensian proportions.

I will always give a new Ridley Scott movie a chance, and so I'm eager for his "Kingdom of Heaven," an action-adventure yarn following a knight during the Crusades. Big red flag, though: Orlando Bloom, quickly becoming this decade's Ryan O'Neal (and that's no compliment).

Douglas McGrath's "Every Word Is True" examines Truman Capote's work in compiling his true crime classic, "In Cold Blood," an amazing book about two crooks and a senseless murder in Kansas. Oddly enough, Capote is the subject of two movies to open this year."Capote" is notable mainly for its cast, including the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman as the author and the equally incomparable Catherine Keener as "To Kill a Mocklingbird" novelist Harper Lee.

First, the eye-rolling news: Another "Batman" movie. Now, wipe the vomit from your chin and listen up. "Batman Begins" is directed by Christopher Nolan, who saw that the world needed a movie told in reverse order, and he gave us "Memento," and he saw that it was good.

We're mighty close to reaching the say-uncle point on comic book movies, but as a onetime Marvel devotee, I have to admit my inner geek is having doubleback wackadoo spasms for "The Fantastic Four." That said, I'm not sure that the genius behind the Jimmy Fallon bomb "Taxi" is the right choice to direct.

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I really liked "A Beautiful Mind." So, yes, I'm looking forward to director Ron Howard and badboy Russell Crowe reuniting for the real-life boxing saga of 1930s-era boxer James Braddock in "Cinderella Man." Just keep Hillary Duff out of the mix and no one gets hurt.

Peter Jackson does "King Kong," complete with (presumably) mind-boggling CGI effects up the proverbial wazoo and Naomi Watts as the Faye Wray damsel in distress. Be still my gentle heart.

Richard Linklater's upcoming "A Scanner Darkly," based on a Philip K. Dick novel, is detailed via a blog maintained by frequent Linklater performer Wiley Wiggins. Yeah, yeah -- the movie stars Keanu Reeves, but I still wanna see it.


The Writers Guild of America has weighed in with its selections for the best screenplays of last year. The interesting nominee, for best adaptation, is "Saturday Night Live"'s Tina Fey for her "Mean Girls." It's not a masterpiece by any stretch -- and maybe a just a tiny bit redundant if you've seen 1989's "Heathers" -- but this bubblegum-flavored black comedy has moments of bitchy fun and wry observations before it eventually sputters out of energy and opts for the neatly wrapped resolutions.


Stop the presses! Warner Brothers has announced it will back a movie version of the old 1960s espionage TV series, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." Oh, sure, it might not mean much in the, like, real scheme of things, y'know, but tonight I will go to bed just a bit happier and wiser, just knowing.

Yeah, yeah, it'll suck. I know that. But still, a boy can dream, can't he?


Movie City News wraps up the best movies of 2004, according to the collective wisdom of movie critics.


The Movie Blog tells us that Liam Neeson is set to portray Abraham Lincoln in a Steven Spielberg project that, in turn, is based on a to-be published biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Neesom is a great actor, no doubt, plus he's a tall mo-fo to boot, so we can see him as our 16th President, albeit as one with a thick Irish accent. Spielberg can occasionally strumble when he takes on Big Message flicks (think "Amistad" and Anthony Hopkins' never-ending dissertation at the end). Still, we are eager for the Abe and Mary Todd meet-cute scene.


The other day, I'm surfing with the remote control and come across "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi Channel. Why in God's name, I wondered, would it be airing reruns of that kitschy and forgettable series? And then I realized it was a new show, which led to the more perplexing: Why in God's name are they doing a new version of a kitschy and forgettable series? Are we to seek shelter in a closet or bathroom away from any windows and await the return of Pink Lady and Jeff?

That said, the Vodka Pundit absolutely swears by this new "Battlestar," so who knows? Maybe we'll give it a shot.


Oh, and I give it up to The Movie Blog for its wise and even-handed meditation on why there just isn't enough nudity in mainstream movies anymore.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Big-Balled Bush

You've got to hand one thing to the Bushies.

This administration has great big balls.

We don't just mean great big balls in the John Wayne-on-steroids sense. We mean serious traffic-stopping cojones, the kind that cast shadows the size of dirigibles, that have their own time zone, gargantuan nads that make the earth shudder and quake as if Armageddon has an 8 a.m. tee time.

So. Anyway, back to my point ...

The dust hasn't even settled from the Armstrong Williams fiasco, but still the White House is making no secret of taxpayer money being used to influence the political debate over the future of Social Security.

The New York Times' Robert Pear reveals that Social Security Administration officials are serving as White House lapdogs as the Prez and his chums sound the alarms on Social Security and push partial privatization as the long-term fix:

"The agency's plans are set forth in internal documents, including a 'tactical plan' for communications and marketing of the idea that Social Security faces dire financial problems requiring immediate action.

"Social Security officials say the agency is carrying out its mission to educate the public, including more than 47 million beneficiaries, and to support President Bush's agenda.

"But agency employees have complained to Social Security officials that they are being conscripted into a political battle over the future of the program. They question the accuracy of recent statements by the agency, and they say that money from the Social Security trust fund should not be used for such advocacy.

"'Trust fund dollars should not be used to promote a political agenda,' said Dana C. Duggins, a vice president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 50,000 of the agency's 64,000 workers and has opposed private accounts."

Anyone sense a pattern here? Surely, even Bush proponents are troubled by the use of taxpayer funds for political advocacy. As Pear points out:

"The Bush administration ran afoul of a ban on 'covert propaganda' when it used tax money to promote the new Medicare drug benefit and to publicize the dangers of drug abuse by young people. The administration acknowledged paying a conservative commentator, Armstrong Williams, to promote its No Child Left Behind education policy. But on Social Security, unlike those issues, the government has not concealed its role.

"The agency's strategic communications plan says the following message is to be disseminated to 'all audiences' through speeches, seminars, public events, radio, television and newspapers: 'Social Security's long-term financing problems are serious and need to be addressed soon,' or else the program may not 'be there for future generations.'

"The plan says that Social Security managers should 'discuss solvency issues at staff meetings, insert solvency messages in all Social Security publications' and spread the word at nontraditional sites like farmers' markets and 'big box retail stores.'"

We will concede that the critics in Pear's story appear to be employees' representatives who certainly risk losing their jobs with a retooling of Social Security. But their motivation for speaking up isn't at issue -- nor, really, is the matter of how best to solve the entitlement program's projected shortfall. Valid arguments can be made, and are, for the concept of injecting choice into Social Security. There's something mighty stinky, however, when the case for doing so is financed and fashioned by the very agency at the eye of the political storm.

Granted, the lines are pretty fuzzy about how taxpayer money can be used for political promotion. Most elected officeholders, after all, maintain communications experts who espouse their bosses' agenda in the media. But blatantly partisan squabbles don't warrant taxpayer-funded spin from bureaucratic entities -- especially when the whole controversy is about whether the entity in question in is danger of going bust.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Name Calling

Note to Ted Kennedy: When trumpeting the great multiethnic hope of your own party and having to garble his name, try to make those Dewars-moistened lips spit out something along the lines of Lou Baracka or Baracky Balboa ... even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Ba-Ma. But, Christ Almighty, not ...

From an AP report on a recent Kennedy speech on the future of the Democratic Party:

"Kennedy also mangled the name of the Democrats' new star, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, calling him 'Osama bin ... Osama ... Obama.'"

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Temporary Hiatus

Sorry about the lapse in postings, dear readers (yes, yes, I'm talking to you, Mom), but I've been laid up sick as a dog who's ... sick. Between illness, work obligations and a meth binge, it's been a tough time for posting. So give me a few days and then I'll be back, fit as a fiddle.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

More on Mississippi Book Burning

Kudos to The Moderate Voice for its take on the controversy surrounding the Jon Stewart book in Mississippi. As Joe puts it:

"People on the right and left need to lighten up. Everyone insists they are against PC but everyone embraces it. You can't make a joke about a turkey's birthday without getting reamed these days (I know because I had that happen in a show. 'It's SATANISM! He's talking about signs!')

"All the talk about trying to ban a book like Stewart's from young, innocent impressionable minds is pure pap. Perhaps the justice should visit a middle school and talk to students and see what they know. Believe me, nude doctored photos of Supreme Court justices isn't what they want to secretly see. Girls don't say: 'Man, what a hunk that Clarence Thomas is!' Boys don't say, 'Dude, that Sandra Day is a hot babe!'"

The eye-rolling inability of people to lighten up, on all sides of the political spectrum, is certainly one of our pet peeves here in Chaseland. That said, I have to disagree with Joe on his assumption that kids don't wanna see doctored photos of Supreme Court justices in the buff.

It's the undoctored photos they don't wanna see.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Mississippi Book Burning

As LilRed notes in Lip Schtick, a couple of Mississippi libraries have banned copies of the Jon Stewart bestseller, "America (the Book)," because of its infamous illustrations of nekkid Supreme Court justices. Lil Red, knowing me to be a fan of Mr. Stewart -- we diminutive Jews must stick together -- was curious about my thoughts on the subject.

And so here they are.

First thought: There are books in Mississippi?

Second thought: Seriously. There are books in Mississippi?

I kid because I love. In all honesty, it doesn't bother me one iota. I will concede that it's the prerogative of libraries -- even those in Mississippi -- to ban what they want, especially since I can't argue that Stewart, while funny as hell, is anywhere in the sane league as Twain, Camus, Henry Miller or any of a number of other once-banned writers.

And as Stewart himself pointed out in response to the controversy, the pictures of the au naturale jurists are among the least objectionable things in the book.

Gallagher Lashes Out

"What I never got was that he was never funny enough to be a guest, so how does he become the host? But that's America for you. America wants the mediocre. It doesn't want the heroic or the moral."
-- Gallagher, remarking on David Letterman, in 2005

That's right. Gallagher, the comedian of the Sledge-o-matic, twists off on Letterman, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey and everyone else in The Oregonian. The guy is pissed -- pissed! -- about being ranked a measly 100 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Top Standup Comedians.

Personally, we think Gallagher is damned lucky to have been ranked No. 100. If he beat out Fred Travelena at all, it is a complete travesty of comic justice and Comedy Central's arbiters of taste face certain doom in the fiery pits of hell.

More on the Social Insecurity Complex

For a concise and easy-to-understand synopsis of the major questions facing Social Security, check out this article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune. Aside from the Jennifer Anisten-Brad Pitt split, there is no more important issue facing domestic policymakers.

Social Insecurity Complex

What I find most astonishing about the debate over Social Security is how it seems so truly, immutably, unalterably polarized. Hell, no longer do the White House and Democratic opponents even really debate the best route to resolve the predicted funding woes of Social Security.

Now, the fundamental question, according to sky-is-falling Republicans and head-in-the sand Democrats, has shifted from which policy works best to the more basic: Is there even a crisis that needs fixing?

Short answer, of course, is: Of course -- but I am suspicious of both dogs in this hunt. The Bush White House is intent on barreling through a revolutionary (and, as of this writing, still largely ambiguous) privatization plan based on a principle so suspect that it even sounds goofy to me -- and I tend to believe anything that dissuades me from having to do the math myself.

The White House is singularly focused on persuading the American people that there is a clear and present danger to Social Security (WMD, anyone?). A recently leaked email memo written by Karl Rove operative Peter Wehner lays out the administration's game plan."We need to establish in the public mind a key fiscal fact: right now we are on an unsustainable course," Wehner writes. "That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness; it is the pre-condition to authentic reform."

Let's review the paradigm of the Bush plan: Social Security funds are expected to shrink as the result of declining productivity in future years, a problem that will be aggravated by a marked rise in retiring baby boomers. Fair enough.

So we avert the crisis through individualized accounts tied to the vagaries of the stock market, which inexplicably will be doing gangbusters in spite of a staggered economy.

And let's not even start considering the billions that would be needed in startup costs for the new scheme; early estimates of the Bush plan estimated such costs at up to $2 trillion. Of course, that's money Dubya insists would not be factored into the ever-worsening federal deficit. The President pays for programs the way Wimpy tried paying for hamburgers. Then again, at least Popeye was around to keep Wimpy honest with an occasional ass-whuppin'.

Not that the Democrats make much sense, either, deferring instead to the Alfred E. Newman approach to statesmanship: What, us worry? It's not our problem. Things aren't supposed to get desperate for, like, about 40 years. Take another bong hit and chill.

Something must be done. When Social Security began, there were more than 40 workers for each retiree. Now, there are three. Some remedies are painfully obvious and more than sensible: Raise the retirement age, a logical change when you consider Americans' longer lifespans; trim benefits for the wealthiest recipients and rethink the whole payroll tax cap that results in the less affluent actually paying a larger percentage of their share.

These suggestions, of course, are about as inviting as shit casserole.

With Social Security easily the most potentially critical domestic policy debate we will face this year, I thought I'd defer to some folks whose views I think at least merit attention.

That said, I'm still not sure where I come down in this fight.

Washington Monthly writer Kevin Drum, writing in the Dec. 29 Los Angeles Times' "Stop Sweating Social Security -- the End Is Not Near" dismisses the notion of calamity around the corner.

"Ten years ago Social Security trustees predicted that the system would become insolvent in 35 years, meaning 2029. Five years later they were still predicting that insolvency was 35 years away -- doomsday had been postponed to 2034. Today, they're predicting that insolvency is 38 years away, in 2042. What happened? Why does the insolvency date keep getting further away? How could the trustees have been so continually wrong?

"The answer is all in the numbers. For instance, the future of Social Security is highly sensitive to predictions of economic growth, and the trustees assume a very conservative growth rate of 1.8% per year. That compares with expected growth of 3.9% this year, a fairly average year for the U.S. economy. Another example: Because young people are the ones who support the system, Social Security projections are also sensitive to immigration rates. Immigrants tend to be young, so the more immigrants, the stronger the system.

"But despite the fact that immigration to the U.S. has been steadily increasing for more than half a century, the trustees assume not just that it will stop growing -- itself a conservative estimate -- but that it will actually decline. What this means is that every few years, as reality outpaces the previous year's predictions, the trustees move the insolvency date forward.

"For now then, making drastic and risky changes to Social Security is like performing major surgery before you even know the results of a biopsy. A more prudent course is to wait and see -- act only if problems really develop down the road. In the meantime, I've stopped being a Social Security doom-monger. On the list of things to worry about, it shouldn't even be in the top 10."

David Brooks, in the Dec. 11, 2004, New York Times, sees Democratic opposition as part of a kneejerk distrust of the free market:

"What you hear these days is not liberalism. It's conspiracyism. It's the belief that the Bushite corporate cabal is going to do to domestic programs what the Bushite neocon cabal did in the realm of foreign affairs. It's the belief in malevolent and shadowy forces that will grab everything for their own greedy ends. This is Michael Moore-ism applied to domestic affairs, and it will leave the Democrats only deeper in the hole.

"I don't deny that many business and Wall Street types would like to capture the system for their own benefit. As Theodore Roosevelt observed, every new social arrangement begets its own kind of sin, which has to be punished by law. But as Roosevelt and his great hero Alexander Hamilton understood, corruption is the price we pay for economic freedom, and the benefits of that freedom vastly outweigh the costs."

Paul Krugman wrote in the Dec. 7, 2004, New York Times that the so-called "Social Security crisis" is overblown bigtime. He points to a Congressional Budget Office projection that Social Security, even if it goes "bankrupt" in 2052, would still be able to pay 81 percent of promised benefits. As such, Krugman argues, Social Security's future funding woes can be corrected without privatization:

"The report finds that extending the life of the trust fund into the 22nd century, with no change in benefits, would require additional revenues equal to only 0.54 percent of G.D.P. That's less than 3 percent of federal spending -- less than we're currently spending in Iraq. And it's only about one-quarter of the revenue lost each year because of President Bush's tax cuts - roughly equal to the fraction of those cuts that goes to people with incomes over $500,000 a year.

"Given these numbers, it's not at all hard to come up with fiscal packages that would secure the retirement program, with no major changes, for generations to come."

Krugman's latest allegations of Social Security being a fake crisis arrived in his Jan. 3 New York Times column, "Stopping the Bum's Rush."

"Here's the truth: by law, Social Security has a budget independent of the rest of the U.S. government. That budget is currently running a surplus, thanks to an increase in the payroll tax two decades ago. As a result, Social Security has a large and growing trust fund.

"Where's the imminent crisis? Privatizers say the trust fund doesn't count because it's invested in U.S. government bonds, which are 'meaningless i.o.u.'s.'

"The short version is that the bonds in the Social Security trust fund are obligations of the federal government's general fund, the budget outside Social Security. They have the same status as U.S. bonds owned by Japanese pension funds and the government of China. The general fund is legally obliged to pay the interest and principal on those bonds, and Social Security is legally obliged to pay full benefits as long as there is money in the trust fund.

"There are only two things that could endanger Social Security's ability to pay benefits before the trust fund runs out. One would be a fiscal crisis that led the U.S. to default on all its debts. The other would be legislation specifically repudiating the general fund's debts to retirees. That is, we can't have a Social Security crisis without a general fiscal crisis -- unless Congress declares that debts to foreign bondholders must be honored, but that promises to older Americans, who have spent most of their working lives paying extra payroll taxes to build up the trust fund, don't count."

In "Talking Points Memo," Josh Marshall urges Democrats to take the bottom-line approach at what the debate really is about.

"Imagine for a moment that we were having a different sort of Social Security debate. In this alternative universe it wouldn't be about reform or privatization or who had the best plan to save Social Security. The issues would be different. The question would be whether we should abolish Social Security and replace it with a system of loosely-federally-regulated 401ks, or not.

"It wouldn't be abolished overnight, of course, but phased out over time. So any oldsters collecting benefits now wouldn't need to worry. And the same would probably go for pre-fogies too ... say, anyone over 55.

"But that's the essence of it: abolishing Social Security or not.

"Well, guess what? That is exactly the debate we're having. Only many of Social Security's defenders don't seem to know it. It's not that they don't know it exactly. They, more than anyone, understand the stakes involved. But for all the great facts they're bringing to the table, they still seem content to frame the argument in a way that obscures the true issues involved and benefits their opponents immeasurably."

I'm not the greatest proponent of the Heritage Foundation, but its Social Security analysis is worth a look for its pro-privatization case.

Mickey Kaus weights in, via kausfiles, with the option of (perish the thought!) a bipartisan compromise:

"I don't trust either David Brooks' knowledge of Social Security or my own, but I suspect Brooks is right that a 'grand bargain' is there to be struck between Democrats and Republicans -- a bargain that includes 'personal accounts.' Why? Because Democrats haven't been averse to creating private accounts for today's young workers as long as it's done on top of a solvent regular pay-as-you-go Social Security system that provides a basic floor of guaranteed benefits. (President Clinton called his proposed 'add-on' private accounts 'USA Accounts.') And because Republicans still have to do something -- cutting benefits or raising revenues--to fix the imbalance in the regular Social Security system for current, baby boomer retirees (who aren't young enough to think about substituting private accounts for regular Social Security).

"Suppose centrist Democrats did what was necessary to fix regular ol' Social Security, and then did what was necessary to create add-on private accounts. Would the result look all that different from what the Bush plan will actually look like (benefit cuts and all) when the president finally gets around to giving us the details?

"But, you say, Democrats would surely object to any Bushian system that would let today's young workers live in poverty in their retirement years if their private accounts were invested unluckily and went blooey -- Dems would insist on today's Social Security benefits as a minimum guarantee. And so they should! But couldn't that floor could be provided by a stringently means-tested old-style Social Security system--one that gave full guaranteed benefits only to seniors who really needed them?"

And then there is American Prospect writer Matthew Yglesias, who reviews the Bush push for partial privatization of Social Security:

"The reasoning, ostensibly, is that individuals would invest a reasonably large portion in the stock market, which gets relatively high returns. And that this would allow people to, on average, have as much retirement money as is promised under the current system without any need to raise taxes. The underlying assumption here is that future stock market performance will resemble past stock market performance, with investments seeing gains of between 6 percent and 7 percent per year over the long term.

"That seems like a reasonable assumption. ... But underlying that ... is the assumption that the economy will perform about the same in the future as it has in the past. This way, profits will grow at a roughly equal rate to the past profit-growth that's historically driven the stock market's relatively high returns. If the future economy is worse than the past economy, then future profits will be worse than past profits, and future stock investments will be worse than past stock investments.

"If it's true that the future economy is as strong as the past economy, we can therefore expect the future stock market to solve our Social Security problems. As a result, there is no Social Security problem.

"The $11 trillion long-term Social Security deficit we've been hearing so much about lately ... are based on a prediction that the economy will do significantly worse in the future than it has in the past. If this is right -- which it may be -- then the stock market will do worse, too, and solve nothing."

"Much less reasonable are the Trustees' assumptions about productivity growth. They say that after growing 3.8 percent in 2002, 3.4 percent in 2003, and 2.7 percent in 2004, productivity growth will crash to 1.8 percent in 2005 and then slowly decelerate to 1.6 percent by 2012. After that, growth will average 1.6 percent until the end of time.

"The important thing to note is not that the Trustees are necessarily wrong but, simply, that it's silly to pretend to think a panel of government accountants can predict economic events in the year 2037, much less offer a full 75-[year] projection of the future course of the American economy. The trustees might be right: An aging society might prove less innovative and less productive than the America we've come to know. If this is true, Social Security is going to have a problem. So will the stock market. So will the Defense Department. So will just about every aspect of the American government and economy."