Friday, March 27, 2009

March Madness? Not Hardly

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is in full swing.  The original 65-team field has been pared to twelve as I write this, and we'll have our Elite Eight set by tomorrow.  Used to be, the entire country would be swept up in the Madness.  Offices would be virtually closed for business on the tournament's opening day.  CEO's and secretaries alike would agonize over their brackets, struggling to divine which teams might advance through their brackets to reach the mythical Final Four.  Vegas would shift into overdrive: only football (Super Bowl, NFL playoffs and college bowl games) generates more action than the Big Dance.  Husbands and boyfriends would go missing for the three weekends around which the games were played.

This year?  Not so much.  Oh sure, hardcore basketball fans are still tuning in.  And no one is suggesting that Caesar's should close their book anytime soon.  Cool girlfriends can still be found perched on the barstool next to their man as Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson wax hyperbolic when a Dukie cuts back door and lays it in against a renegade, street program like Memphis.

The problem is, that back door cut happen less and less often these days.  Top-level high school ballers are pretty much guaranteed to have moved on to the the fame and fortune of the National Basketball Association by the end of their sophomore years.  And the creamiest of the crop is more likely to bolt after a single season of collegiate seasoning; they're one and done.

It's hard to blame the "student athletes."  Most come from difficult financial circumstances and professional basketball - the League - offers riches beyond their wildest dreams with which they can address their families' dire straits.  The victim is the college game.  The quality of play in college is almost entirely dependent upon a group of kids banding together under the guidance of a coach and gradually learning the nuances of basketball at its highest amateur level as they grow from boys to young men.  It can't happen in a year, or even two.

A generation ago, the best teams in the NCAA Tournament were heavily laden with upperclassmen - juniors and seniors who had played scores of games together and spent thousands of hours in the gym practicing as a unit.  In 1982, the Final Four was comprised of North Carolina, Georgetown, Houston and Louisville.  The players on the court that weekend included Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.  Their supporting casts numbered Sam Perkins, Sleepy Floyd and the McCray brothers, Rodney and Scooter.  The first five players listed above are all in the NBA Hall of Fame.  The others all had long and productive pro careers.

The brand of basketball on display in New Orleans in March of 1982 was so far above today's college game it's a joke.  There is one sure bet, future pro all-star in this year's tournament - Oklahoma's Blake Griffin.  There are several others that could develop into something special at the next level - Louisville's Terrance Williams and Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet come immediately to mind - but no one you would bet even the memory of your no-longer-existent pension on.  Greg Oden should be playing.  So should Kevin Durant.  And Russell Westbrook and OJ Mayo and Derrick Rose.  But they're not.  They're all in the pros, earning millions before they can legally order a drink.  They show up at the arena, drop twenty on their older opponents, then head back to the hotel to play video games in their rooms until they fall asleep.

And the NCAA Tournament stumbles along, with second-tier stars competing against our memories of Bird, Alcindor and Walton.  Of the Big O.  Of Christion Laettner and Bobby Hurley.  The players today blur together, as do the games.  Kids rush upcourt in today's game and pass the ball around the perimeter for thirty seconds until someone jacks up an ill-advised, contested three point shot.  Entry passes are a lost art.  Hell, I'd settle for a well-executed pick and roll.

The only species as endangered as an intricate play in today's tournament is the stunning upset.  Cinderella is making fewer and fewer appearances at The Dance these days.  Fourteen of the top sixteen seeds have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen this year.  For the most part, the surviving schools have the highest-paid, highest-profile coaches who are best able to attract the nation's top talent, if only for a few semesters.  The George Washingtons and Miami of Ohios, yesterday's pint-sized heroes, don't stand a chance.

Not to sound like an old coot, but March Madness ain't what it used to be.  Growing up a rabid basketball fan and attending both the University of Maryland and University of Michigan, I never thought I'd say it.  But I miss Phil Ford and Magic Johnson, hated arch rivals from my formative years.  As much grief as they caused my Terrapins and Wolverines, I give them their due.  They were great college basketball players.  Those were the days.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Don't Let The Door Hit You. . .

Just to review, the Democratic caucus is voting today to decide what to do with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.  You remember Joe:

Last seen in Minneapolis, palling around with a bunch of fat-ass, conservative white guys wearing funny hats.  That one.

Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats (but does most of his traveling with the Republicans:

Lieberman is also the chair of the Homeland Security and Government Reform committee, a rather minor committee as these things go, filled mostly with junior senators.  Some Dems are drawing a hard line, insisting that Lieberman's acts of disloyalty should cause him to be removed from his chairmanship, if not kicked out of the Democratic caucus entirely.  The other side, which includes President-elect Obama, wants to let him off with a good scolding.

Lieberman wants to retain his chair and claims, if it is stripped from him, he will take his ball and go play with the other team.  

Here's the thing.  Lieberman has always said that, "Political party is important, but it's not more important than what's good for the country. . ."  I'll take him at his word.  He backed McCain because he honestly believed that McCain had the best shot at breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington.  No fan of gridlock, Lieberman votes his conscience on each issue, regardless of party, I'll assume.

If that's the case, what difference does it make which side of the aisle he sits on?  Other than national security, Lieberman is a pretty reliable Democratic vote.  Pro choice, pro stem cell research, no on flag burning amendment, yes on driver's licenses for immigrants, yes to expand hate crimes to include women, gays and disabled, yes on death penalty moratorium and more DNA testing, no on school prayer, yes on condom distribution, etc, etc.  

Basically, take the middle east off the table, the guy's a Progressive.  And, if he's such a principled guy, he'll continue to vote as one.  Doesn't matter where his chair is in the room.

Lieberman supported the Republican candidate for president, he campaigned for him and, most importantly, he campaigned against Barack Obama, questioning his judgement and his idealogy.  He needs to be punished.  Even he knows it:

Let the Republicans have him.

Obama's Quagmire?

Rick Perlstein, in Nixonland:

It was not as if American leaders hadn't been warned.  It was "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy," the World War II hero Omar Bradley had first observed in 1951.  Such sage warnings tended to be ignored.  When Undersecretary of State George Ball began criticizing the commitment to South Vietnam in the early 1960's, he was shut out of meetings.  He managed to buttonhole the president nonetheless.  "Within five years," he said, "we'll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles and never will find them again.  That was the French experience."  JFK came back, "George, you're just crazier than hell."  Ball indeed misjudged:  the actual number of troops at the end of 1966 was 385,300.

The parallels between Vietnam in the early 60's and Afghanistan today are striking.  We have a young, idealistic president just taking office, in the face of some doubts over his toughness in matters military.  We are propping up a puppet regime that is unpopular with the native population.  We are facing an insurgency which has the freedom to cross the border of a neighboring nation for safe harbor.  The terrain is ideally suited for our enemy's strengths while neutralizing our technological advantages.  And another imperial power has only recently tasted defeat at the hands of the same insurgents.
The American people are, at best, ambivalent towards our presence there.  Most of the attention in this country has been focused on Iraq, until just recently.  President-elect Obama ran on a pledge to draw down troops in Iraq while escalating the force count in Afghanistan.  We've just spent the past five years paying the price in blood and treasure for having a war jammed down our throats through the use of fear-mongering, exaggeration and outright lies.  

We, as a nation, deserve a fair and open debate on the proper course for the Afghan conflict going forward.  Obama has won the election.  He did so partly because the American people preferred his judgement and temperament to John McCain's.  It always struck me as discordant when he spoke hawkishly about Afghanistan and Pakistan, coming down somewhere to the right of McCain.  Perhaps it was campaign rhetoric designed to offset the stereotype of Democrats being soft on defense.  I hope so.

Obama has promised he will listen to his generals when they advise him on a final Iraq withdrawal timetable.  If sixteen months works, fine.  If it takes longer to get out in a responsible fashion, so be it.  One of the main reasons he was elected was because the voters trusted him to bring the Iraq War to an end, rationally and decisively.  The same standard must be applied to the war in Afghanistan.  If a roadmap for victory can be designed (however victory is defined -- another point of debate) and it necessitates more troops, then, by all means, send more troops.  If it's realistic that bin Laden can be captured or killed by our troops venturing into the mountains of northwest Pakistan, let's get it done.  But let's also consider that the finest military in the world, along with our intelligence communities, have dedicated the past seven years to the task with no success.  They're no closer to cornering him now than they were in 2001 the day after they lost him in Tora Bora, despite the standing offer of a $25 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture or death.  

I'm not saying that bringing down bin Laden wouldn't be a huge victory, symbolic as well as tactical.  I'm just asking, at what cost?  How many more lives is his worth?  All we should ask of Obama is that he approaches Afghanistan with the same pragmatism he seems to be applying to Iraq.  In other words, he should be as careful going into Afghanistan as he is promising to be careful getting out of Iraq.

If Obama wants to use the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as his models for changing America in big ways, he would do well to remember how Johnson's presidency -- he of the Great Society -- was ultimately undermined by Vietnam.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fewer Rivals, Please

Much is being made of President-Elect Obama's admiration for Abraham Lincoln's Team of Rivals approach towards piecing together an administration.  And, judging by his early actions, with good reason.  He's moving deliberately, so most names are speculative at this point, but here's a look at the current playing field:

Chief of Staff -- Rep. Rahm Emanuel, from Illinois.  While an extremely close friend of Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, make no mistake about it, he is a Clinton man from way back.  His first taste of politics at the national level was working for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and he served as a senior advisor in the Clinton White House from 1993-98.  An interesting choice, he challenges the bipartisan meme of Obama's White House due to his cutthroat Democratic bona fides.  Conservatives are howling and the netroots are grumbling as well.

Secretary of Defense -- the consensus seems to be that he will keep Bush's current SOD, Robert Gates, on for at least a year, both as a reward for a job generally accepted as well done in Iraq and as a bipartisan aide to a transition to more of an emphasis on the mess in Afghanistan.  There has been some buzz, slightly abated now, that Sam Nunn, last spotted heading back to Georgia in 1997 as he retired from his senate seat citing a "lack of zest and enthusiasm," was a dark horse possibility.

Secretary of State -- less predictable than a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey and more fun than a pinata party.  Chief party rival Hillary Clinton is the nom de jour.  Other than her very public differences of opinion over foreign policy with Obama, she faces the same difficulties being confirmed in the face of Bill Clinton's aversion to vetting as she did when being considered as a potential vice-president.  (I wonder if she ever sits up at night, over a Crown Royal nightcap, while Bill is jetting to some Arab Emirate on Ron Burkle's Boeing 757 known as "Air F*#k One," for staggeringly obvious reasons, and considers just how much being married to the Big Dog complicates her life.)  Republicans Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar's names are bandied about also as candidates (for both State and Defense) to trip across the Obama Footbridge of Peace being constructed over the center aisle of the U.S. Senate.  

Secretary of Treasury -- former SOT Lawrence Summers is on the shortest of lists, as is former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.  While Summers has practically made a career out of insulting various core Democratic constituencies since leaving public office, it's hard to deny that he is a brilliant economist and comfortable thinking outside the box, a talent obviously in demand these days.  As for Volcker, gimme a break.  Jimmy Carter appointed him Fed Chair.  He's eighty-one years old!  He actually remembers the last time the economy was this bad.  All due respect (and he has certainly earned it), but I'm not sure the focus and energy that the current crisis will demand is the ideal fit for an octogenarian. 

Vice President Biden's Chief of Staff --  Ron Klain, Al Gore's chief of staff when he held the office.

White House Counsel -- Greg Craig, best known for helping Bill Clinton beat the rap at his 1998 impeachment hearings.  He has continued as close advisor to both of the Clintons.

I don't know about you, but as one who supported Obama based upon the campaign he ran and the promises he made, I'm about ready for some names that A)aren't joined at the hip to one or both of the Clintons, B)don't sit with conservative Republicans at Senate picnics or, C)are not hard-wired into the Washington power establishment.  I mean, the only group whose performance over the past few years rivals the incompetence and lack of integrity exhibited by Bush and the Republicans is the Democratic Congress.  

Obama promised, among other things, an approach in Washington that would be as fresh as it was bold.  No more re-treads.  Well, to channel a Clinton greatest hit, I suppose it depends upon what the definition of "retread" is, but most of the names listed above are awfully familiar.  

I'd like to see Samantha Power get some attention for State.  She's a realist -- she stated all the way back in March, while working for the Obama campaign, that sixteen months for an Iraq withdrawal was a "best case scenario" that he would revisit if elected.  She was forced to resign after speaking the truth about Hillary Clinton's campaign (that her level of deceit was unattractive) because she described her as a "monster," even though she told the interviewer that was off the record.  She won the Pulitzer Prize writing about genocide and was responsible for directing Obama's attention towards the atrocities in Darfur.  She would be a bold and fascinating choice.  

Obama met with vanquished presidential rival John McCain today.  The argument has been made that McCain won't relish continuing to serve in a diminished state with an increasingly minority party in the senate.  But it's hard to figure where he might fit in the Team of Rivals, were Obama so inclined.  Where do you put a flip-flopping Republican hawk who has declared a complete lack of respect for your experience and judgement along with a deep suspicion of your past associations, no matter how casual?  Come to think of it, I guess you sit him right next to Hillary. 

I can see only one realpolitik argument for finding a spot for McCain in the administration.  Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is reportedly being considered for Attorney General.  She would bring a fresh voice to Washington, and increase the cabinet's diversity at the same time.  However, she is in line to run against McCain for his Arizona senate seat in 2010 and there is some doubt that the Democrats could find anyone else to mount a substantive challenge against him.  It must be tempting to finish transitioning Arizona from red to blue (McCain only won 53.8% of the vote against Obama) with Napolitano snatching McCain's seat out from under him.  So maybe you leave her where she's at and offer the AG spot to someone like Eric Holder, who led Obama's V.P. search committee.

While attempting to predict the incoming administration is a bit of an old Washington chestnut, it makes for a more enjoyable parlor game than gathering around the television and watching the market fall on CNBC.  Besides, it's the only game in town for the next couple of months.  Unless you're putting together an over/under pool on how many more days until GM goes under.

Hang on.  How many cars does McCain own?  That's right, thirteen

Obama is said to be considering naming "a point person to lead efforts to help the distressed auto industry return to health."  It should obviously be someone who believes in the product.  Someone experienced in deal-making.  Preferably someone with a bit of a jingoist streak to keep him going through the dog days when he looks at the numbers and sees Japan is still kicking Detroit's ass.  Someone who puts country first and would be willing to spend most of this winter in Michigan rather than by a babbling brook in Sedona, Arizona.

The perfect choice to round out President Obama's Team of Rivals.

Car Czar -- John McCain.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Every Little Thing Gonna Be All Right

After some forty-eight years of deliberation, I am a married man.  I have cliff-dived into the Caribbean Sea.  Allen Iverson is a Detroit Piston.  And Barack Obama is President of the United States.

These are ways my life has changed since I last posted here.

Let me get Iverson out of the way first -- we're talking about Basketball.  Not life.  Basketball.  Basketball.  (This should obviously be read aloud in the style of Iverson's infamous 2002 rant about practice.)  Basketball is a frivolous thing and it should not consume one's spirit.  Whether a group of twenty-five year old, mercenary millionaires who can dunk behind their heads from one city can outscore a similar group from some other city over any particular forty-eight minute period of time should really not hold sway over my emotional health.  But it does.  God help me, it really, really does.  

There is a very short list of future-hall-of-fame players whom I would not welcome to my beloved Pistons.  AI sits atop that list.  Not because of the tattoos.  Or the doo-rags.  Not because of the posse, or the brushes with the law or the above-mentioned aversion to practice.  This isn't Hoosiers.  I realize that.  This is the National Basketball Association and its players are young, rich celebrities and I'm not their target market anymore.  I get it.  

It's how he plays.  My Pistons have had a unique personality over the past twenty years.  They play tough, hard-nosed defense and rely on the concept of team rather than worshiping at the altar of David Stern and his insistence on turning the NBA into a high-priced, pay-per-view, indoor schoolyard league of role players standing around watching one or two superstars per team take turns utterly dominating the action.  Stern and the NBA have managed this by eliminating defense entirely from professional basketball.  Touch LeBron, it's a foul.  Lay a hand on D-Wade, he's shooting free throws.  It's absurd.  The Pistons of the late eighties, the Bad Boys, as they were known, or the Chicago Bulls of Jordan and Pippen -- two teams that accounted for eight championships between 1989 and 1998, largely due to their suffocating defensive pressure -- wouldn't stand a chance in today's kinder, gentler NBA.  

The Pistons won the championship again in 2004, against all odds.  They were a team, in the very best sense of the word.  No one scored thirty points a game.  No one graced multiple covers of Sports Illustrated or made Gatorade commercials.  The closest thing they had to a superstar was Ben Wallace, an undersized center who, through hustle, hard work and force of will, made himself into one of the great defensive presences in league history.  They surrounded him with intelligent, efficient, ego-free cast-offs from other teams and they proved, perhaps for the last time, that sometimes the sum really is greater than the parts.  

Well, Iverson is not a sum kind of guy.  He's the ultimate part.  He's a wondrous blur of motion, nearly impossible to defend one-on-one.  He makes his defenders look like they're standing still.  Trouble is, his teammates are standing still as well.  Everyone stands around and watches Allen do whatever the hell he's going to do.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  Either way, it's usually pretty amazing.  But it's not basketball.  Not the way I define basketball.  And, until this past week, not the way the Pistons defined it, either.

Whew, I feel better.  Good to get that out and move on to real life.

Did I mention I got married?  Yes, my fiance, Karen, and I tied the knot on October 25th, after just over a year's engagement.  Nothing substantive changed, other than the fact that I can stop using the word "fiance," which pleases me to no end.  It always sounds to me like a South Hampton debutante introducing her boyfriend at her coming-out party.  We've been living together for two years, dated for a year and a half before that.  I mean, it's not like we were saving anything for our wedding night, if you know what I mean.  

We went to Jamaica for our honeymoon.  We stayed in Negril, at the Rockhouse Hotel (pictured above).  Now, I'm not a Caribbean vacation kind of guy.  When someone comes back from St. Bart's and tells me they laid on a beach for a week and did nothing, my head wants to explode.  Lying around and doing nothing is what you do when you're acutely depressed, not celebrating a 'til-death-do-us-part union, I don't care how nice the view.  But a croissant and latte costs about twenty bucks, American, on the Boulevard St. Germain these days, so I agreed to spend a few days in the Islands.  Truth be told, a little down time sounded pretty good, what with the wedding and the election and all.

Jamaica was wonderful.  The hotel was spectacular -- each room is a separate hut, very well-appointed, sitting on the edge of a thirty-foot cliff above the Caribbean.  You get up every morning, walk out to your patio, take a sip of the Blue Mountain coffee waiting for you on the table, and jump off the cliff into the warm, placid waters below.  I'm just saying, it beats morning drive-time radio.  The food is great, especially if you like hot, which I do.  They'll put jerk on anything.  I'll bet you could get jerk jalapeno peppers if you asked.  

And the people are awesome -- warm, laid-back, cheerful.  We spent a fair amount of time with Clive Gordon, who owns Clive's Transport Service.  Negril is about ninety minutes from the nearest airport at Montego Bay and Clive was our driver, so we had plenty of time to chat.  I asked him if Jamaicans were truly this friendly all of the time, or if it was just an act for the tourists.  He said, "Well, we're pretty much high on weed most of the time, so, no, it's not an act.  Everybody's happy, mon."  

Maybe, maybe not.  Once you get away from the hotels and the beach, it's a desperately poor country.  Most of the houses we passed were shacks with no glass in the windows, no electricity, no running water and tin sheets for roofs.  Their slums make our urban projects look like gated communities.  

Everyone we met was fascinated with the U.S. election.  More specifically, they were enamored of Obama.  It was an odd feeling, to be in a foreign country and not feel shame, on some level, for what America has become.  The past eight years have run roughshod over our image abroad.  I've been in Spain, France, Italy, Ireland -- there's a palpable distance between where we were and how we were viewed before Bush took office and where we have moved since.  I'm not saying Western Europeans hate us -- they don't.  I think they look at us more with a disappointed bewilderment.  How could we have let this happen?  Twice.

I didn't feel that in Jamaica this time.  Even though we were there the week before the election, there was a sense that a page has been turned.  Although the Bush years illustrated just how dangerous America going rogue can be, the nomination and probable election of Barack Obama reminded us all of why so much of the rest of the world looks to America as a symbol of the possibilities of dreams.  Every Jamaican I met wanted to talk about Obama and how we got to this point.  There was a sort of a feel of kinship, that we could once again start to work together, as a global community, to try and solve the truly terrifying challenges that lie ahead.

One story that drove that home for me.  Clive was telling us that, before he opened his taxi service, he was a teacher.  For twenty years he taught high school in the town of Lucea.  Teachers aren't well-paid in Jamaica.  He was driving a cab at night to supplement his income.  One evening he dropped off some guests at the Rockhouse Hotel, the same place he was taking us.   The registration desk sits separate from the hotel, in a small hut at the end of the entrance driveway.  As he unloaded his guests' bags, he recognized the young woman working at the registration desk.  She was one of his students from several years before.  They got to talking and she told him life was good -- she'd been at the Rockhouse for a couple of years now.  She mentioned how much she was getting paid.  It was considerably more than Clive was making as a teacher after twenty years.  

The story reminded me of my past.  I moved to New York after graduating college with my English degree and paucity of job offers and took up bartending.  The tips were great, the drinks were free and the girls were pretty.  I remained in the bar business for over a decade.  I might still be pouring drinks for a living if I could put down a bottle of Absolut before it was empty.  I promise you I was making more when I quit than any high school teacher in the city.  But working for tips is a hard way to earn a living.  It ages you.  I looked in the mirror sometime after I turned thirty and was sure of only one thing -- I didn't want to be doing the same thing when I hit forty.  So I headed to DC in search of honest work.  Which I found, more or less.  But that's another story.

My point is, in terms of the way we value our teachers, America is no different than a third world nation like Jamaica.  Where's the incentive to mold the minds and spirits of our children when you can make five times the money waiting tables?  Or one hundred times the money as a junior broker?  

Obama talks about changing that.  He reminds us of JFK and the Peace Corps.  Of paying back the opportunities we've been given just by the virtue of being American.  National service is back in fashion, at least talking about it is. 

I think that's part of what I was sensing in Jamaica.  For better or worse, less fortunate nations look to America for help, for inspiration, for hope.  Those qualities have been in pretty short supply these past eight years.  The Obama candidacy is, above all else, a symbol of the promise of what we can be, at home and around the world.  

I hope so, anyway.  I've lost about half my net worth this fall.  If things don't turn around quick, I might call up Clive down in Negril and ask him to FedEx me up about a half-pound of Monkey Skunk.  I'll lock the door, fire up a big fat one and put on some Bob Marley:

Don't worry about a thing,
cause every little thing gonna be all right.

I actually believe that, sort of.  A good thing, too, because I don't smoke.  Maybe it's the impending Obama presidency.  He seems a remarkably charismatic and inspirational leader.  Good for him -- he'll need all of his powers to lead us out of this mess.

But my guess is, it's not Bob Marley, or the fact that the Pistons have started out 6-2, or the trip to Jamaica, or even Obama's victory.  All those are reasons for good cheer but they're not the main thing.

Then main reason I'm in a  good mood is Karen.

Everyone was right.  Married really is better.     

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Poor America

One debate down, two to go.  (I don't count Biden-Palin.  That's not a debate, that's vaudeville.)  Last week's first Obama-McCain debate was scheduled to cover foreign policy yet was dropped surreally into the middle of the nation's most pressing economic crisis since 1929.  I don't mean to suggest they should have switched topics but let's just say that Waziristan has never seemed farther away than it did last week while watching the Dow do its impression of a lead balloon.

McCain accused Obama of going through the entire debate without uttering the word, "victory."  Obama rebutted that McCain never used the phrase, "middle-class."  Both accurate points that, I suppose, say something about both campaigns and to whom they're speaking. 

Here's a word I haven't heard either of them say in quite some time:  


According to McClatchy Newspapers and the lastest census figures (2005), there are now thirty-seven million Americans living below the poverty line of $20,000 per year for a family of four, which is a thirty-two year high.  Forty-three percent of those, or sixteen million, Americans live in extreme, or deep, poverty.  Deep poverty is defined as a family of four making less than $9,903 per year, or half the amount of those living in your basic, run-of-the-mill, common everyday poverty.  The total of Americans living in deep poverty grew twenty-six percent from 2000-2005.   

Think about supporting a family of four on ten grand a year.  That's $200 a week.  $50 a head.  

$50 a week to cover the cost of a life in the world's richest country.  Where a Venti Latte at Starbucks costs $4.  You do the math.

Now, I'm no expert on monetary policy -- I buy a lottery ticket twice a week -- but I don't think $50 a week can get it done.  

We're facing economic Armageddon, or something approximating it.  From what I understand, they're going to start making me pay cash in restaurants pretty quick here.  Businesses, small and large, will be forced to close if they are unable to obtain the credit necessary to operate in today's economy.  Which means a whole lot more people making under, not only $20,000 a year, but under $9,903 as well.  

Deep poverty.

I'd like to hear the candidates talk to the impoverished.  I know the reason they don't.  Poor folks don't like to think of themselves as poor.  They prefer to be called "working-class" or "lower-middle-class."  Just as upper-middle-class people are quick to answer to "rich."  It's a big downer for everyone to consider the deprivations and hardships of being really, really poor.  It's difficult to sell the American Dream in Paragraph One and pivot to $50 a week in Paragraph Five.  Nobody wants to think about being poor.  It was Reagan's genius that he sold the fantasy that anyone could be rich to a bunch of poor bastards that had no chance, nada, of every sniffing the inside of a Mercedes.  Twice.  

But there's at least a reasonable chance that a whole bunch more of us are going to join the thirty-seven million Americans currently living in poverty.  The McClatchy analysis determined that fifty-eight percent of Americans will spend at least one year of their life in poverty.  One in three will succumb to deep poverty.  To quote Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis:

"It would appear that for most Americans the question is no longer if, but rather when, they will experience poverty.  In short, poverty has become a routine and unfortunate part of the American life course."

I'd like the candidates to address this catastrophic statistic in their next debate.  Not on their websites.  Not in a stump speech.  On national television, in front of tens of millions of Americans, many of whom, I'm sorry to say, are not middle-class.  They're poor.  They're not worried about their kids going to college, or retiring with dignity.  They're fighting to stay alive.

And that number is growing.  

Now, if you'll excuse me, the MegaMillions jackpot is $32 million tonite.  I gotta run.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Down and Dirty

The Dow dropped some five hundred points on Monday, losing 4.4% of its value between breakfast and high tea.  Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch was snatched up by Bank of America and American International Group teetered on the brink of collapse.  Contrary to John McCain's initial reaction, the very fundamentals of our economy (the mortgage market, access to credit, pension holdings) were being buffeted by the winds of deregulation.

Thank God.

Yeah, my net worth fell from inconsequential to piddling yesterday but, as I often tell myself, it's only money.  I lost a pretty penny but, on the flip side of that coin, many people went all day without mentioning the name of Sarah Palin.

That has to be worth something.

The Wall Street story allowed the Obama campaign to focus on what this election needs to be about if he is to emerge victorious -- how failed Republican policies have created a nation that is considerably worse off than it was when the Clintons left office in 2000.  McCain applied the shovel to his own grave by first declaring our economy "fundamentally sound," before his handlers pushed him back out in front of cameras several hours later to muddle through a stack of cue cards explaining that, by "fundamentals," he meant the American workers, their work ethic and their values.  Which was, of course, nonsense.  Ridiculous.  A blatant lie.  

I've been of the opinion since McCain reacted so rashly to the spectacle of the Democratic Convention by plucking Palin from out of her tanning bed in the Great White North that the choice's bounce would have a short shelf-life.  He's too old, too Republican and too disinterested in domestic policy (especially economics) to get away with choosing a running mate who addresses none of his weaknesses and speaks to few Independents.  Throw in the near daily dose of Palin Drama -- pregnant daughter, Trooper Gate, the Bridge to Nowhere fiasco, her predictably erratic performance in her first major interview, her husband's history as an Alaskan secessionist, book banning, librarian firing, classmate hiring, etcetera, etcetera -- and the shine is coming off the Republican ticket before our very eyes.  I'm guessing November 4th looks a long way off to Team McCain right about now.

Speaking of the Bridge to Nowhere, her version of the story is as close to the truth as their campaign has come on an issue since their hook-up.  She claims she said, "Thanks but no thanks."  Well . .  . almost.  What she really said was, "Thanks" and then, much later, "No thanks."  By Team McCain standards, that makes her George Washington.

As for Obama, his brand has been losing its luster as well.  What started out as a pledge for a different kind of campaign has been inexorably dragged backwards towards the swamp of politics-as-usual.  He campaigned on the promise to accept public funding, thereby leading the charge to cleanse our electoral process of the influence of special interests, but he was ultimately unable to resist the lure of the huge financial advantage his fund-raising machine represented over the Republicans.  He initially agreed, in general terms, to a series of town-hall meetings with McCain only to flip-flop when he took a healthy lead in the early polls and was reminded of the old political rule that the leader debates as seldom as he can possibly get away with.  

For most politicians, these would be minor infractions.  After all, the game has been played this way forever.  Money is speech, we have a constitutional right to Free Speech, so collect as much money as possible, from whatever sources are available.  And never play to an opponent's strengths if it can be avoided.  McCain has always been a one trick campaign pony -- town hall meetings.  So, the conventional wisdom was, don't debate him using the town hall forum.

But Obama hasn't been selling himself as a conventional politician.  What made him special was his ability to inspire a belief in a new kind of politics.  Every time he resorts to politics-as-usual he cheapens his brand.  And every opportunity McCain has to accuse him of being afraid to go in front of the people with him is an opportunity lost for Obama to convince undecided voters that he is someone they can feel comfortable voting for. 

It's a tricky problem.  While he might very well be able to govern with a new style of politics, it's proving very difficult to get elected with them.  When McCain manages to force Obama to waste time and money defending himself against scurrilous attacks and outright lies, McCain doubles his winnings.  He wins not only because Obama is thrown off his message that McCain is out of touch and is offering no real solutions, but also because Obama seems a little less special each time he engages in gutbucket politics.  And, on the other hand, if Obama chooses not to rise to the bait, he comes across as weak, unwilling to fight for himself.  And if he's unwilling to defend himself, how can we expect him to defend the American people.  Like I said, it's a tricky problem.

McCain faces some of the same challenges.  McCain has spent years railing against Beltway politics and nasty campaigning.  Yet, when presented with the opportunity to carry his party's banner, he dropped those vaunted principles of his faster than he dropped his first wife.  When he realized he was going to have to go negative to stand any chance whatsoever, he replaced Terry Nelson with Steve Schmidt and saved a seat in the back of the Straight Talk Express for Schmidt's mentor, Karl Rove.  He agonized over throwing his lifelong ideal of honor off the back of the bus for about a second and a half.

The difference is, Republicans can win with lies.  They're comfortable getting down and dirty.  They've been doing it since Lee Atwater.  Hell, since Pat Buchanan.  Republicans talk about the high road and idealism and leaving the world a better place for our kids.  But they don't mean it.  You aren't serious about improving the next generation's lot in life if you are borrowing money hand over fist against their future.  You're not serious if you are unwilling to admit that the country's infrastructure is crumbling and that it's going to take hugh sums to repair it.  Sums that will require more than cutting earmarks and eliminating wasteful government programs.  Goods and services cost money.  The only way to raise that money is to raise taxes.  Which the Republicans are unwilling to admit.  (Note I didn't say they're unwilling to do.  They'll do it.  They just won't admit it.)  You're not serious about leaving the world a better place if you deny the causes and effects of global warming and refuse to consider environmental, energy and transportation policies that are necessary to combat climate change.

Obama started out this campaign almost two years ago and has been trying to stick to the high road ever since.  He was mostly successful in the Democratic primaries because he was running against, well, Democrats.  There is a bar below which, for the most part, Democrats will not crawl.  Let's call it common decency.  

But now we're in the general election and it's Obama against the Republicans.  He's been slogging along the high road, dodging McCain mudballs and slowly losing his lead.  Last week he came to a bend in the road.  He rounded the turn and pulled up short.  He was met with Lipstick on a Pig and Comprehensive Sex Education for Kindergarteners.  Behind which, the high road had vanished.  It had crumbled and collapsed as surely as the bridges and roadways across America under the strain of Republican economic policy.  It had become the Road to Nowhere.

So, Obama no longer has a choice.  McCain has forced him to finish the journey on the low road.  It was a noble experiment, this New Politics, but it's not for winning elections.  Time to take the gloves off.  Hopefully, Obama can put them back on when it comes time to govern.