Monthly Archives: February 2013

Health care

I broke one of my own rules yesterday.  I spent way too much time arguing with a libertarian friend about health care.  Anyway, as always happens in these things, I got a lot of Cato Institute quoted at me.  Including this gem.

“For health care providers, insulation is a bonanza. Because consumers are not spending their own money, they accept doctors’ recommendations for services without questioning them and without concern for cost. Faced with an insured patient, a health care provider is like a restaurant catering to convention-goers with unlimited expense accounts. The customer will gladly take the most high-end recommendation and not worry about the price.

“Consumers are happy as well. Insulation relieves the patient of the stress of making decisions about treatment. The patient also does not have to worry about shopping around for the best price.

“The problem with insulation is that it is not a sustainable form of health care finance. Individuals, employers, and government are all under stress.”

“Insulation” means health insurance.  Specifically it refers to the health insurance most Americans have: employer-provided health insurance, once offered as an employee benefit, now mandated by Obamacare.  That’s the insurance I have.  An HMO covers me and my family.  We have a small co-pay when we go to a doctor, and a larger co-pay if he’s a specialist.

Libertarians, like my friend, believe that free markets always, always, as a matter of ideology, always offer the best services at the lowest price.  That competition reduces costs.  That the problem with the American health care ‘system’ is that it doesn’t allow for competition; that it insufficiently provides for free market solutions.

First of all, competition is part of my health care.  My HMO only allows us to see some doctors, and not others, based on cost considerations.  The HMO negotiates with doctors, and the only doctors who they’ll cover are ones that agree to the prices the HMO offers.  From my perspective, those negotiations are invisible. The results are not.  I have to travel to Salt Lake to see two of the specialists I need to meet with regularly.  I can handle it, but it does make me a bit grumpy.  But I do get excellent health care at an affordable cost–I only pay a small percentage of my health care costs.  And I’m certainly not incentivized to compare prices.  My HMO has already done that.

But that’s not the main thing wrong with this Cato article.  It’s this sentence: “Because consumers are not spending their own money, they accept doctors’ recommendations for services without questioning them and without concern for cost.”

I cannot begin to describe the ways in which this is complete and utter nonsense.  I lack the vocabulary for it.  It’s balderdash, bananas, claptrap, drivel.  It’s gibberish, hogwash, fatuity, hooey.  It’s poppycock, rubbish, tripe.  It’s jive, it’s BS, it’s flapdoodle, folly.  It’s silly.  It’s stupid.  It’s idiotic. It’s wrong.

Consumers of health care do not ‘accept doctor’s recommendations without questioning them’ because we’re not spending our own money.  We accept our doctor’s recommendations because doctors know more about it than we do.  In a previous post, I talked about the asymmetry of information that defines doctor/patient relations.  This is what I’m talking about.  We trust doctors because doctors know more about medicine than we do.  They know more about it because they give up years of their lives to get intensive, in-depth training.  It’s certainly true that we sometimes get second opinions, but that’s not for reasons of cost.  It’s because we want to be absolutely sure we’re getting the best medical advice.

Absolutely nobody is going to price-shop when our health or the health of our loved ones is at stake.  Think about it: “well, Doctors Jones and Brown think I have cancer.  But I’m going to trust Dr. Green, because he charges less, and he thinks it’s only a tummy-ache.”

And when you go to the doctor, or take a child to the doctor, you don’t know if the problem is a serious one or not.  Let’s say your child has a headache, and a spiked fever.  You give her some Tylenol, a cool compress on her forehead.  You pray for her, maybe give her a blessing.  The fever persists.  Okay, kids get fevers; it might be no big deal.  But you also know it could be something serious; meningitis, say.

Now, if you don’t have health insurance, you have two choices, both of them completely irresponsible.  You could ignore the fever, and hope she’s going to be fine.  But you might be ignoring a very serious, and treatable problem.  Or you take her in, racking up a doctor’s bill you probably can’t afford.  The doc says ‘we need to do a lab test.’  More expense.  Do you say ‘no, sorry, no lab tests?  We can’t afford them.’  Are you out of your mind? Or, even crazier, would you say “I don’t want to use your in-house lab. I want to use a different, cheaper lab an hour away.”  Nobody’s going to do that.

If the choice is a heavy financial burden or the life of my child, that’s a very very easy call–I’ll figure out the finances.  But isn’t it better if you don’t have to make that choice?  Isn’t it better if you can afford to go to see a doctor?

Right now, about fifteen percent of the American people have no health insurance.  Obamacare will basically provide insurance for those people.  I’m not a huge Obamacare fan (I’d prefer to just expand Medicare for everyone), but okay, it’s what we have, and it’s better than the status quo.  Because it’s unconscionable to say that poor people should be forced to make that ‘bankruptcy v. my kid’s life’ decisions every time kids get sick, but that rich people needn’t bother.

When I think of my children, I remember vividly how difficult the choices were that we sometimes had to make.  With our youngest son, I remember, he was about ten, and he got sick.  He didn’t really have a tummy-ache, and he didn’t have a fever, but he was clearly sick–listless and miserable.  We took him to the medical practice our doctors share, and the only guy who could see him was an older doctor with a very thick Hispanic accent.  This doctor examined our child, and said ‘I think it’s appendicitis.’  Our boy wasn’t really symptomatic for appendicitis, and I was skeptical.  But he called a surgeon, who agreed to see us immediately.  And the surgeon was pretty skeptical too, but took a blood test, and then came out and said, ‘okay, it’s appendicitis, we’re operating immediately.’  Now, we could have chosen not to take our kid in to the doctor–he was just feeling crummy, as far as we could tell.  No fever.  Or, when this older doctor said ‘appendicitis,’ we could have asked for a second opinion.  And a third, and we could have wasted a couple of hours price-shopping.  And if we had done that, there’s a very good chance our son’s appendix might have ruptured.

That’s the reality of health care.  You trust doctors, because they’re generally worth trusting.  Does medical malpractice sometimes occur?  Sure; doctors aren’t perfect.  But in our experience, our doctors have universally given us excellent care.  And we believe that we have very good reason to trust them.

The American health care system is seriously flawed, and Obamacare is untested as a solution to its problems.  I suspect that Obamacare will work very well indeed, and that four years from now, it won’t be a political issue.  But to say ‘let markets provide’ and suggest we get rid of health insurance entirely?  I’m sorry, but that’s nuts.

Free markets do some things very well indeed.  But a ‘free market solution’ to health care falls apart, destroyed by asymmetry of information.  Basically, it’ll become a system that will triage patients based on ability to pay, not health considerations.  And that’s fundamentally, well, unAmerican.



The Sequester

Or, the word Rachel Maddow won’t say.  It’s going to happen, I think.  Neither side seems interested in even talking about not doing it.  We’re going to be stuck with it, and with the consequences of it.  And not only is it stupid, both sides seem to agree on how stupid it is. If you want to understand where American politics is, right now, look no further than the sequester.

The Washington Post had rather a nice article explaining what it’s all about.  Basically, it goes back to 2011, when the House threatened to not raise the debt ceiling.  As part of the compromise reached to get us out of that mess, the Budget Control Act provided for a super-committee to come up with some budget compromises that would reduce the deficit and debt.  To further incentivize that committee, the BCA also came up with the sequester; a series of budget cuts so draconian and so damaging and idiotic, that nobody could possibly wish for them to happen.  Republicans hate cuts to Defense, so half the sequester cuts are in Defense spending–Democrats hate cuts in domestic spending, so half the cuts are in discretionary domestic spending.  Read the Post article–it’s got lots of specifics about what’s going to be cut and where.  Military families will lose benefits.  It could cost about 2 million jobs–or maybe fewer than that.

Economists all basically agree that this will hurt the US economy, and could send us back into recession.  The CBO thinks it will reduce GDP by 1.5%.  It will also have almost no effect on the deficit.  It will contract the economy enough to counter-act any budget savings.

Most economists think it’s going to be devastating.  Stephen Fuller thinks it’s going to be more devastating than other economists do.  Paul Krugman thinks that any Grand Bargain, based on Simpson-Bowles, which might head off the sequester, would probably do about as much damage as the sequester itself; PK has been pretty grumpy about it all, which is why his blog lately has mostly focused on Europe and the damaging effects of austerity.

So once again, every three months, regular as Exlax, Washington is in emergency mode.  It’s a CRISIS.  But it’s worth pointing out that this sequester crisis is entirely self-inflicted, completely artificial.  Most of the time, emergencies are things that happen unexpectedly to us.  My kid’s sick: that’s an emergency.  I was in a car accident: emergency.  A comet’s about to collide with Earth: international crisis.

This isn’t.  This is something Congress and the White House did to themselves.  It was an effort to force people who have no interest in compromising to compromise.  It was intended to incentivize behavior folks are otherwise disinclined to engage in.

It’s as though I were to say “I’m too fat.  So I’m going to give away ten dollars everytime I eat dessert.” Now, it’s six months later, and I’m broke.  So I say, “I have to rob a bank.  I’m broke.”  Thing is, I don’t actually have to rob that bank.  I could stop eating dessert.  But I’m not going to do that. I like dessert. Or, the other thing I could do would be to stop giving my money away.  I mean, it was just a deal I made with myself.  I could just decide to not do it anymore.

But the sequester is likely to happen.  Neither party seems willing to even consider negotiating the settlement that would head off this deadline.  And both parties seem to think that this sequester nonsense will be so unpopular with folks that they can gain political advantage by blaming it on the other side.  Democrats can say ‘hey, this is something forced upon our nation by Republican intransigence.  They would never accept a balanced approach.’  (That’s code for tax increases.)  Republicans can say ‘this was the President’s idea.  Forced upon us by the pig-headed stubbornness of Obama.  He would never admit that the real problem is his spending spree.’  (That’s code for cutting domestic spending).  And think of the nifty ads both sides will be able to run in 2014, for the midterm elections!  Oh, joy!  Imagine how fun television is going to be to watch two years from now!

I actually have a solution for the sequester, though.  Here’s my idea.  Drum roll please!

Don’t do it.

Congress created this problem, and they can just as easily make it go away.  Just pass a bill rescinding the Budget Control Act.  Straight up and down vote.

And here’s what’s infuriating–that vote will never happen.

It’s the simple, easy and obvious solution to an entirely artificial and unnecessary and idiotic crisis.  Just let Congress vote to rescind.  The sequester is damaging.  It will hurt our economy. No one wants it, and no one ever did.  There is zero political support for the sequester.  No one is lobbying for it.  No one, on either side, likes anything about it.

So make it go away.  Vote now, today, tomorrow, immediately.

But Harry Reid will not call for such a vote in the Senate, and John Boehner will not call for such a vote in the House.  And there’s no enthusiasm among the rank-and-file membership of either body for such a vote.  Both sides think that the voters will punish anyone who votes against cuts in federal spending, because both sides have convinced the voters that the deficit and debt are the biggest problems our country faces right now.  That’s actually not true, but both sides have jumped on the ‘cut spending’ bandwagon.  And both sides think they’ll look stupid if they vote against a cut in spending, even a dumb one.  Which this one is.

The sequester is bi-partisan lunacy on the grandest of scales.  It’s completely stupid, completely avoidable, and completely inevitable.  No wonder Congress’ approval ratings are lower than Paris Hilton’s.



The Oscars

It was a great year for movies, 2012, and the Academy responded appropriately, by honoring lots of them, instead of lavishing a bunch of major awards on one, as sometimes happens.  I love movies, have strong opinions about them, and am usually the most partisan Oscar-watcher ever, alternately furious or smug as awards are announced.  This year, though, I was pretty Zen.  Best Supporting Actress?  Meh.  Anne Hathaway or Sally Field?  I thought they were both terrific. I was delighted for Hathaway for winning, but was saddened that we weren’t going to get to see if Sally Field could outdo ‘you like me, you really like me!’ There was a tie, in fact, in the vote for Best Sound Editing, which I didn’t remember having seen before, but once it happened, I was delighted, and started rooting for more of them.

I thought Seth MacFarlane was just fine as Oscar host, and I sort of liked his back and forth with Captain Kirk (visiting from the future), which allowed him to alternatively introduce the wonderfully tacky song-and-dance number “We saw your boobs” with, uh,  more respectful offerings (all of which I completely forgot as soon as they were over.)

What else?  There were many many musical numbers.  Wow, were there musical numbers.  And this led to the most tiresome annual Oscar tradition–they artificially inflate the program with completely unnecessary musical bits then spend the last hour making lame jokes about how long the whole thing has gone on.  We get it–it’s very late.  So why not just cut the endless Chicago tribute?

Anyway, I have some awards of my own to offer:

Achievements in bad sound mixing: for every single musical number all night.  It was ‘orchestra drowning out the singers’ night.  They drowned out Adele!  How do you overpower Adele?!?!?!?

Also, the award for making a big deal out of the one nominated song anyone actually cared about and that everyone and his dog knew would actually win: Adele again. You notice that; they make a big out of Adele singing her Bond theme song, then do a quick ‘oh, there were also these other songs nominated’ montage.  Adele also gets the award for us finally learning the last name of a previously single-named celebrity.  Atkins, who knew?

Classiest Oscar acceptance speech: Daniel Day-Lewis.  The Brits, man, they are so good at this.  Funny, smart, believably humble; DDL nailed it.  Plus his wife’s adorable.

Every costume designer in the room simultaneously thinking ‘you know, it can’t just look good, the actor has to be able to move in it’:  Jennifer Lawrence’s dress, which may have been the bomb, but which she couldn’t climb stairs in.

Sally Field award for Annual Best Actress meltdown speech: not won this year, in a break from tradition, by Jennifer Lawrence, who did just fine, considering that she’d just, like, fallen down in front of a billion people.  No, this year it was a tie, between Quentin Tarantino, and Chris Terrio.  Odd that the two writing awards winners both gave gosh-awful acceptance speeches.  Tarantino, however, gets extra chutzpah points for suggesting that fifty years from now, he’s the only guy there anyone’s going to remember.  Even though that’s probably true.

Horrendous unconscionable grotesque miscarriage of justice gratuitous slap in the face to one of the great writers of this or any other generation award: I feel rather strongly about Tony Kushner not winning.

Worst unnecessary, show-momentum-killing under-rehearsed badly performed musical number: Tie: all of them.

The ‘I think she, uh, may have had some work done’ award: to Renee Zellweger, whose face looks molded from plastic anymore.

Charming surprise winner:  Ang Lee, absolutely.  Life of Pi was a wonderful film, and it was great to see it get so much love from Oscar.  And his acceptance speech was terrific.

You can even survive Gigli award: To Ben Affleck.  Hollywood loves redemption stories, and what’s more redemptive than winning Best Picture for a guy who was in the desert five years ago.

In a year with no single obvious winner, spread the awards wealth award: Lincoln won Best Actor, plus Production Design; Argo won Best Picture, plus some technical awards, Life of Pi won Best Director, plus well deserved awards for cinematography and SFX, Django Unchained won Best Screenplay, plus Supporting Actor, and Les Mis won Costumes, plus Best Supporting Actress, and Silver Linings Playbook won Best Actress.  Zero Dark Thirty was surprisingly shut out of major awards–it was maybe just a bit too torture-y for Oscar.  Beasts of the Southern Wild was entirely shut out, but just getting nominated was a big deal for that little film, and teeny-little Quevenzhane Wallis was the cutest cutaway shot of the night.

You’re a professional actress, dear–try to look at least a little excited to be here award: to Kristen Stewart, who managed to look both contemptuously bored and terrified out of her mind. Both simultaneously.  She did win two Razzies last night, though, so there’s that.

Worst presenting couple: Jack Nicholson and Michelle Obama. Jack, looking even more seedy and disreputable and gleefully Satanic than ever, introducing . . . the First Lady? Wha. . . ?

Best speech about the power of film as an art form: Michelle Obama’s speech, though, was great.

Proudly raised middle finger to cultural conservatives:  Hollywood’s been under attack lately, more even than usual, because of conservatives re-directing attention from guns to Hollywood as explanations for gun violence. And Hollywood is often accused of leaning very left politically.  So, Michelle Obama?  As an ‘in your face?’  Or also, giving an Oscar to Quentin Tarantino?

Overall: I enjoyed the evening, despite interminable musical interludes and lame comedy bits and the overall smugness and self-congratulatory ego-stroking that makes Oscar Oscar.  I wanted Lincoln to win, but Argo was a really good movie too, so okay.

Oh, also, Twilight: Breaking Dawn won the Razzie for Worst Picture.  Bad choice.  Hard to see it, in a year that also featured Taken 2.





Top Ten Movies of the year

It’s Oscar time tomorrow, and I’ve already laid in supplies for my Oscar party.  Nate Silver has weighed in with his Oscar predictions, and since he’s scary good at prognosticating, I’m going to bow to the inevitable and concede that Argo is probably going to win.  It’s a fine film, very exciting, and a deserving contender. Lincoln is a better film, I think, but if Argo does win, I won’t be as outraged as I have been in the past.  Like, say, last year, when The Artist, a charming French remake of Singin’ in the Rain (sans music), a substance-less gimmicky fluff piece, somehow beat out The Tree of Life.  Remember ’94 (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction), remember ’06 (Crash, over Brokeback Mountain?  Anyway, my predictions.  Lincoln will somehow win Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay, and still won’t win Best Picture.  Oscar is relevant how?

No, my son asked me instead to list my personal top ten–my ten favorite films from last year.  So here goes:

1) Lincoln.  I know, I know.  But it’s such a remarkable film.  So beautifully written, with that eloquent, smart, complex screenplay by Tony Kushner.  America’s finest playwright, writing about our greatest President, and our most stupefying and astounding national tragedy: slavery, and the war we had to fight to end it.  Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln, doesn’t just play him, and Sally Field was just as superb as Mary Todd Lincoln.

2) Seven Psychopaths.  The great Irish playwright wrote and directed his second film, and it’s amazing; strange, smart, human and humanist, post-modern without losing its soul in self-conscious cleverness.  It’s a such a layered film.  And Sam Rockwell gives the finest performance I saw last year in any film not starring Daniel Day-Lewis.  And a performance by Christopher Walken that felt like the coda on a brilliant career.

3) The Cabin in the Woods.  Joss Whedon’s writing partner, Drew Goddard, also directed–I’m still calling it a Joss Whedon film, and putting it in here instead of The Avengers, fun superhero movie.  Cabin is this amazing deconstruction of horror films, a meta-cinematic full-on assault on the preposterous moralism of horror as a genre.

4) Brave.  It’s not just the animation.  Of course Pixar can make a red-haired girl riding a horse look amazing.  It’s the story, the relationships.  When have we seen this before?  A marvelous new Disney princess–a young woman of independence and intelligence, willful and determined, and utterly uninterested in any of the princes who offer themselves as suitors.  Instead, we get a film about a mother and a daughter, exploring that fraught, difficult, but deeply loving relationship. And in a film that also manages to be really genuinely funny. Why was Kelly MacDonald not considered for Best Actress?

5) Life of Pi.  Love the book, love what Ang Lee did with the movie.  So gorgeous.  “Which is the better story.”  A great movie that honors a great book.

6) Hope Springs. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as a married couple re-connecting.  Lovely writing, lovely acting.  Beautiful film.

7) Django Unchained.  Quentin Tarantino, historically revisionating away.  Love the performances, loved the writing, love way it depicts the sheer horror of slavery as the ultimate moral evil.

8) Les Miserables.  How to make a movie out of a musical.  How to turn it into a powerful personal political statement.  Anne Hathaway is magnificent.

9) Zero Dark Thirty.  I really do think it’s ultimately just another good thriller.  But it’s an awfully good one.  Superbly made, if historically questionable.

10) Argo. I really did like it a lot, and wouldn’t at all mind if it won Best Picture.

I would also say that all ten of these films, and all the other films nominated for Best Picture, would have swept last year’s Oscars. This was a great movie year.


Underfunding government

Last March, my wife and I were identity thefted.  In other words, somebody filed for a sizeable tax refund, using our name and identity.  We reported it, refiled our taxes, provided enough information that hopefully they caught the guy.  We were told that we would not be able to e-file.  In fact, we won’t be able to e-file for the next five years.  Annoying, but okay, we’ll do it the old-fashioned way.  No big deal.  So we filled out the tax form, sent it in, and should get a refund, though not as lucrative as the refund our thief got, the slimeball.  The IRS told us to be patient, that it could take a few months to get our refund.  Should expect it sometime in September or October.  It’s now February.  Still haven’t gotten it.  We’re going to be filing our taxes in the next week or so, despite the fact that we still haven’t gotten last year’s taxes dealt with.  But the IRS keeps losing budget.  They’re undermanned.  We need to be patient–that’s what the woman told me last week when I called in, after waiting on hold for two hours and twenty five minutes.

Big story last week–Rachel Maddow had it, so did NBC, so did Salon.  The VA takes basically forever to process veterans’ disability claims.  I don’t mean weeks; I mean years.  Right now it takes an average of two years for the Veterans Administration to process a disability claim.  They’re transitioning to a paper-less system, they say. The new system is kinda buggy.  Plus, you know, budget cuts.  Don’t have enough people to do the job.

Gun control’s a big issue right now, and there’s talk of having a national database of gun owners–that you’d have to register any new gun purchases.  That national database would be administered by ATF–the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  But if that legislation were to pass, the ATF isn’t sure how they’d be able to do it.  They’ve had a hiring freeze since, like, 1985.  Keep losing budget.  They haven’t even had a director for seven years.

Have a friend who’s an acquisitions officer for Hill Air Force Base.  He says that his job is essentially impossible.  His job is to get officers the things they need to do their jobs.  He can’t do it, though, because of budget cuts.  He has no idea what will happen if and when the sequester hits.  Shoot himself, he said wryly.

Love Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift.  I know, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, big lefty, biased source, I know the arguments.  But her book is brilliant, thoroughly researched, and without a discernible political agenda.  But the stuff about our nuclear arsenal has the power to keep me up at night, I’ll tell you.  Keeping tabs on our nuclear missiles up there in North Dakota is a rotten job.  The guys who do it are undertrained, poorly paid, and unmotivated.  There just isn’t money for something like that–nuclear security.

Oh, also embassy security. Because when you read the report about Benghazi, one thing jumps out at you–the security there was inadequate.  Still is.  Not surprising–about half of all current US embassies have inadequate security details. Budget cuts.

Without actually running, you know, numbers, let’s look at this sensibly.  The United States spends more on defense than any other nation on earth.  In fact, if you add up the amount spent on defense by the next seventeen nations combined, we still spend more.  Plus, you know, we have a country to run.  We don’t have the kind of social safety net that our European allies have, but we do have big entitlement programs, plus environmental protection, plus federally maintained roads and bridges, plus education assistance, plus border controls and immigration policies, plus a federal justice system, with all those judges and courtrooms and, I don’t know, bailiffs.  National parks.  Air traffic controllers.  Plus plus plus.

Conservatives say they want ‘smaller government.’  Fine.  They also don’t trust the federal government to do much of anything very well.  Plus, they hate taxes.  Hate hate hate taxes.  And the result is that the federal government actually does screw up a lot, filled, as it is, with underpaid, overworked employees constantly being told they have to do more and more with less and less.  In what must be the dispiriting atmosphere in which half the elected officials in government think you shouldn’t even exist, or your job shouldn’t.

But the collection of taxes is an essential government function.  Caring for our veterans: essential.  Providing security for diplomats abroad, completely essential.  Guarding and maintaining nuclear missiles?  OMG.  Is there a word beyond essential?

And they want to cut?  Seriously, more cuts?

I know this isn’t popular.  But it’s time we faced a central reality.  We Americans are seriously undertaxed.  Our government is being compromised by the un-American selfishness of opposing tax increases.  I’m sorry that this is sort of a rant.  And I can think of some golf courses in Guam that could go, if you want to talk about cutting military spending.  But the real problem is not spending.  It’s not.  It’s undertaxation.

So let me meet my conservative friends half-way.  Let’s have a serious conversation about government.  Let’s agree to increase funding for essential functions, even if that means raising taxes.  And sure, maybe there’s a little fat still to trim. I doubt there’s much, though.

But let’s start with the VA.  I’ll make a serious proposal. Let’s increase funding in the VA sufficient to hire enough claims processors.  The goal–to cut the time to process a disability claim from two years to, say, a week.  And here’s how we fund it.  With a tax increase.  Whaddya say?


Eric(a) at Plan B Theatre: A Review

Last night, I sat in the audience for a rehearsal of Plan B Theatre Company’s Eric(a), which opens Feb. 28.  It blew me away.  Teresa Sanderson plays Eric, a 50-plus year-old transgender man, formerly Erica, an LDS mother of two.

Eric’s speaking at some event for transgender people; that’s the premise.  Like: he has flyers, which he hands out.  Teresa’s performance is extraordinary, utterly courageous, playing a character who does not consider himself a particularly courageous person.  (He is, he’s far braver than he’s able to admit to himself).  Eric excoriates himself, for his fearful unwillingness to tell people about his status, for what he perceives as timidity.  And he wants to be a man–in fact, he wants what strike me as rather stereotypical attributes of masculinity: forcefulness, confidence.  “I want to be Alpha!” he shouts repeatedly.

Meanwhile, Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script traces Eric’s life.  We’re told of his childhood, of his mother, who loved dressing her daughter in pastel dresses, and who (in a richly comic moment) is told by a teacher that Erica wears jeans–in fact, the same pair of jeans, clandestinely purchased at Goodwill–day after day.  “Dungarees!” shouts Teresa, embodying young Erica’s fearful impression of her forcefully feminine Mom.

We hear of the excruciating ritual of coming out, as Eric tells his grown daughter, who ferociously rejects everything about the message.  Eric still loves her, still loves his grandchildren.  She wants nothing to do with him; his other, older daughter, appears to be a little more on the fence.  Eric’s alone.  Loneliness and rejection–that’s what he’s chosen for himself.  Or has had chosen for him by biology.  Or, maybe some measure of both.

But he doesn’t want to be alone, and the most fiercely comic and moving part of the play is his description of a romantic relationship he has just begun to form with a divorced and vulnerable and amazing woman he meets in a bar, a gynecologist, Addie.  Who he still has not been able to tell.  And Addie seems to represent everything he’s so desperately craving–acceptance, love, companionship, understanding.  After a long email relationship, and just two face-to-face dates, he goes to Addie’s apartment, and confesses that he’s been lying to her.  He’s Eric, he’s divorced; that part is true.  But he once was Erica.  That’s the bit he hasn’t told her.  And now Addie won’t see him anymore.

At this point, we’ve fallen in love with Eric, even if Addie has not.  This is in part due to Teresa Sanderson’s performance.  Teresa’s a tremendous actress–I’ve always known that, and have seen her many times, and have always admired her talent, her humor, her focus and charisma.  But this, this is something else again.  She held me completely riveted, every single second of the play.

So a lot of it is Teresa.  But Matt Bennett’s script, my goodness.  That voice.  That amazing, richly poetic voice.  There’s no one else like him in American theatre today.  I was talking to a friend afterwards, trying to figure out who else sounds like MIB.  Tennessee Williams comes to mind, that gift for unforgettable lines, that gift for metaphor.  But Williams always felt, I don’t, closeted to me–locked into his own psycho-sexual obsessions, for doomed and forceful Southern belles and the mean bastards they marry.  For Matt, it just feels effortless.  It’s not–the man works as hard as any writer I know.  But there’s a richness of language in his work that enables him to dig deep into these remarkable characters, helps us know them better than they know themselves.

That’s Eric.  He’s a man who excoriates himself for cowardice, but whose courage astounds us, a man in despair, who expresses it through a grim kind of irony.  A man who considers himself neither intelligent nor eloquent, but who speaks like a poet and scientist.

So transgendered studies is an academic thing and transgender rights is a political thing, and the plight of the transgendered also becomes a moral thing, a religious thing.  And of course, culturally, it seems to be okay to use words (privately) like ‘freak’ and ‘ick’ and ‘gross.’  I have no idea where any of my readers are coming from here.

Let me say this, though, as a committed and practicing Christian, I place compassion at the top of my list of virtues, and I have never felt more compassion for a fictional character than I did for Eric.  I have never seen more humanity expressed than here, in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script and Teresa Sanderson’s performance and Jerry Rapier’s direction and Cheryl Cluff’s sound design, the whole production.  See this play.  It will open your mind, and it will open your heart.

The Great Depression Revised

Arguing economics on the internet is a futile and foolish venture.  I really don’t know why I bother sometimes. Especially since I have no credentials to flaunt: I’m not an economist, heavens knows.  But I have read some.  And honestly the things some people say. . . .

Paul Krugman’s even gotten himself in the middle of a kerfuffle, entirely without intending to.  The Wikipedia article on Austrian-school economics, has at times both included-and-not-included a paragraph citing Krugman’s criticism of the Austrians.  Salon’s got the story, but it’s not hard to imagine it; Austrian-school economics fans play, ahem, some tenacious D.  One hardy perennial is the notion that the world-wide financial crisis was caused by foolish government policies, specifically the Clinton administration’s support for affordable first home purchases.  Yes, it was all the fault of Fanny and Freddy.  Not true, but it’s also a belief that’s all but impossible to refute for people who aren’t interested in evidence.

But another one is the Great Depression.  I mean, the two biggest incidents in the last 100 years of the economy going all kerflooey would be stuff economists would want to get their heads around.  One of my favorite versions of this: FDR followed Keynesian policies.  And they didn’t work, prolonging the Depression.  Facts: Keynes didn’t even finish his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money until 1936.  FDR could hardly have been influenced by it before then.  Keynes did visit America in the middle of the Depression, and he did meet Roosevelt, once, for about an hour, in a conversation Roosevelt, no economist, found deeply baffling. It is true that Keynes admired Roosevelt immensely, but was also pretty critical of a number of New Deal policies. So the ‘New Deal failed because it was Keynesian’ meme is just silly.

Anyway, here’s the latest round:  UCLA economists just published a paper arguing that FDR’s policies prolonged the Great Depression.  By seven years, no less.

My immediate reaction to this headline was laughter.  Roosevelt was elected in 1932, was inaugurated in ’33.  The Great Depression is generally reckoned as having ended in 1940.  Which means, I figured, that these bozos were saying he should have ended the Great Depression ten minutes after taking office.  Full employment, immediately, presumably involving some kind of spell.

That’s not actually what they’re saying.  They’re saying the Depression ended in 1943, and that sensible (non-stimulative, ergo non-Keynesian) policies would have ended it in 1936.  So their argument isn’t entirely silly.  Just mostly.

Here are the facts that are really not in dispute.  This chart shows  annual US GDP.  Our GDP was 103.6 billion in 1929.  The Depression hit that year, and it shows nicely in this chart: 1930=91.2; 1931=76.5; 1932=58.7; 1933=56.4.  That’s when Roosevelt took office, and the New Deal began.  Check the numbers: 1934=66; 1935=73.3; 1936=83.8; 1937=91.9.  Substantial, steady growth every year.  That was the year that Roosevelt, worried about deficits, cut spending, and look what happened: 1938=86.1; 1939=92.2; 1940=101.4.  In other words, by 1940, the economy had grown to its 1929 levels, more or less.  Hard to look at those figures and conclude that the New Deal failed.

And then came the Second World War, and the economy boomed: 1941=126.7; 1942=161.9; 1943=198.6.  And those last three years, according to these UCLA guys, we were still entangled in the woes of the Great Depression?  With that much economic growth? Seriously?

It is certainly true that the Great Depression New Deal-driven recovery was a low employment recovery.  These two UCLA economists think wages were 25% higher during the Depression than they would have been otherwise, and that the economy was artificially depressed by that same percentage.  They briefly describe the methodology they used to calculate the baseline, the assumptions they base it on, and it’s immediately flawed–union strength was growing during this period, and wages would have risen without the New Deal.  Still, unemployment remained far too high during the  depression, and I don’t question at least some aspects of their analysis, that artificially high wages may have depressed new job creation some.

Roosevelt was not an economist.  His approach, during the Depression, was to try everything, and there can be little doubt that some of his less effective initiatives might have counter-acted his more effective stimulative measures.

But what this UCLA analysis misses is this central point: Roosevelt’s great accomplishment was to save capitalism at all.  That was also Keynes’ great achievement.  In the Cambridge of the 1930s, Keynes learned soon enough that most of his fellow economists had concluded that capitalism as an economic system had run its course, that the events of the Depression had conclusively proved its utter failure. Most of his compatriots had either followed Oswald Mosley into fascism, or the much more numerous young Turks of the profession who had turned to Marxism.

It looked like capitalism had failed.  It looked like market economies had dug their own grave.  Were wages artificially high?  Perhaps, sure.  Because they had to be.  The measures Roosevelt used were necessary, and were resented on the left, because they tended to preserve an economic system that looked to be beyond redemption.This is why Joe McCarthy was able to point to so many commies among people who had come of age in the ’30s. Well, okay, he made a lot of it up–this is Joe McCarthy we’re talking about.  But it’s also true that huge numbers of people found Marxism attractive, because, hey, it’s not like capitalism works.

What this critique of the New Deal ignores is the philosophical and historical realities which the New Deal was forced to address.  Roosevelt, by declaring a bank holiday, saved individual banks.  But more importantly, he saved banking as an idea.

Austrian-style economics insists that any government intervention in the economy is harmful, that if we just leave markets completely alone, they’ll self-correct.  Even if this were true–and it isn’t–it’s not politically possible.  If the economy is slumping, voters will always insist that someone do something about it.  And if wages don’t rise, voters will notice that too.

Besides, has anyone else noticed how similar libertarian economics is to communism?  Both insist that the answer to an economic slump is to do nothing.  Austrians say, do nothing, and the economy will self-correct.  Communists say, do nothing, and it will self-destruct, leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Either way, bunnies and unicorns frolic.

Meanwhile, let’s agree that Roosevelt saved our nation.  Saved capitalism, made it work again. Kept enough factories going to enable us to switch to war-time production, made it possible to beat Hitler.

The New Deal worked.  Could it have worked better?  Sure, maybe.  But let’s not make the mistake of basing future policies on fantasies and pipe dreams and projections.  We don’t know what could have happened.  We know what did happen, and how much our country continues to owe Franklin Roosevelt.



Drone warfare

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, this line didn’t receive the attention it should have.

And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

It’s difficult to imagine a more disingenuous statement.  “Kept Congress fully informed?” The Senate Intelligence Committee has been asking for months for some statement from the Justice Department justifying our use of unmanned drones.  Finally, two weeks before the SOTU, a few documents were shared. Some scraps.  That’s “fully informed?”

And really, aside from hard core civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald, nobody much called him on it.  Drone warfare is one of the few bi-partisan issues in American politics.  Absolutely no politician wants to seem soft on terrorism, left or right.  Absolutely no one questions the notion that if we know who and where Al Queda leaders are, we’re not just allowed but obligated to shoot Hellfire missiles at them.

Except, oops: we’re also killing Americans.  Two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn were killed in Yemen by a drone missile strike.  That is to say, without due process of any kind, two American citizens were killed in a missile strike that violated the sovereignty of a nation with whom we are not at war. To be sure, both men were aligned with jihadist groups, and had posted ferocious anti-American articles on jihadist websites.  But al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, a teenager from Denver without political leanings, was killed in a missile strike in Afghanistan.  And the media response to those deaths has been . . . muted.  And Republicans have been among the policy’s strongest defenders.

Even Charles Krauthammer.  I’m not sure conservatives have a more ferociously anti-Obama voice than Krauthammer, except for maybe Glen Beck or someone.  But even Krauthammer thinks the Obama documents justifying drone attacks are quite reasonable.  He agrees with the policy. Which, all by itself, would be enough to turn me against it.

Former columnist, now affiliated with the Daily Guardian, Glenn Greenwald has been a lone voice in the wilderness, in his insistence that there does not exist a Constitutional rationale for the repeated violations of sovereignty of nations with whom we are not at war that essentially define the ‘war on terror.’  Greenwald can be tiresome on the subject.  On and on about it: ‘it’s unconstitutional to kill American citizens without due process, it’s illegal to launch missiles against the citizens of countries we’re not at war with.’ Nag nag nag.  Problem is, the man’s completely and absolutely right.

It also isn’t working.  I don’t question that drone attacks are far more surgical than attacks by conventional aircraft.  I know that drone operators follow very strict protocols intended to minimize collateral damage, to reduce (or even eliminate) civilian casualties.  I don’t doubt that no attacks ever take place unless really good intel suggests that we’re taking out an Al Queda leader.  I know that an argument exists that drones are particularly reprehensible, because they target people who can’t shoot back–that this changes the rules of warfare.  I’m immune to that argument.  Seems to me a surgically precise weapon that only takes out especially dangerous combatants without endangering our troops is a pretty awesome weapon.

It just doesn’t work.  Unmanned drones armed with Hellfire missiles are a tremendous weapon.  I understand why the President likes using them.  But they’re ineffective in the war on terror, in this sense: they create way more terrorists than they could possibly kill.  The United States is less popular in the Arab world now than at the lowest point in the Bush administration.  Arab youths like American television, they like American culture, they like the internet, they are inclined to like American constitutional values.  But they hate our policies towards their country.  Specifically, they hate drones flying over their country killing their people.  As would I, frankly, if the roles were reversed.

This has been true in poll after poll. This poll, in Pakistan shows that America had an approval rating of 39% shortly after Obama took office.  54% disapproved of American leadership, the rest were undecided.  Not great numbers, but not terrible either–the President was extended considerable good will, especially after his 2009 Cairo speech.  Today, our approval is at 4%.  92% oppose US policies.

It’s not just drones.  Our approval numbers dropped precipitously around May, 2011.  Gosh, what happened in May, 2011. Oh, right: we killed bin Laden.  And yes, I know that most Americans were too busy celebrating in the streets to notice Pakistani opinion polling.  But imagine it from Pakistan’s perspective.  The majority of Pakistanis, in 2011, hated bin Laden.  Did not support Al Queda.  But we violated their sovereignty.  We flew soldiers in with helicopters, and we shot a guy. Imagine if, I don’t know, Canada did that to the US.  (I know, that’s nonsense.)  We didn’t arrest him, we didn’t try to arrest him, we didn’t tell the Pakistanis that we knew where he was and would they please arrest him.  We flew in, and we killed him.

And imagine if that happened all the time, only instead of soldiers in a helicopter, it was this scary unmanned robot thing.  We don’t like unmanned robot killer things.  My wife and I just watched that reboot of Total Recall.  Not a half-bad sci-fi action flick, right?  But when did you know, absolutely know, who the bad guys were? When they started killing people using robot soldiers.  Conscience-less, fearless, terrifying robot killers.  And we’ve got ’em, and we use them, and then we wonder why the war on terror is going so badly.

America is supposed to stand for something.  America is supposed to stand for rule of law–not specious rationalizations for extra-legal and unconstitutional unilateral murder.  America is supposed to stand for peace, not that we have much, in our history, but we are supposed to go through the motions, at least.  We’re supposed to declare war, if we want to go to war, as per, say, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution. We’re supposed to obey international law, and participate in making it.

Right now, though, the war on terror seems to have a three part rationale.  Here’s what we’re saying to the rest of the world:  1) We’re America, and we can kill anyone, anywhere, if we think they’re a terrorist, a term which we unilaterally define however it suits us.  2) But you can’t.  3) Neener neener neener.

Two people in Congress have stood up against it.  John McCain, and Rand Paul.  I’m not ordinarily a fan of either man, and think either would make for a terrible President.  But on this issue, they’re right.  Good for them.

But here’s what really disturbs me.  I’m a liberal.  I’m a Democrat. There should be lots more liberal Democrats on that list.  I voted for President Obama, and was proud and happy to do so, because I mostly agree with his policies.  But I gave him a pass on the drone thing.  When it came time to vote, I held my nose and voted for Drone Guy.  And I’m not the only one.  As Joan Walsh from points out, liberals tend to support drone warfare against their (my) better judgment, because it’s our guy’s policy. We’re–gosh, what’s the word for it?–hypocrites.

And that’s just wrong.  Liberals have an obligation to call out our fellow liberals if they’re wrong about something.  We’re pursuing a policy that is unconstitutional, violates our deepest values as a nation, and that also isn’t working.  At the risk of seeming soft on terrorism, I think it’s time to say ‘enough.’  We need to try something else.  For starters, let’s ground our drones.  Let’s stop violating the sovereignty of other nations.  Let’s respect international law.  Let’s cut it out. And then let’s see what happens.

Meanwhile, we have all these drones.  They’re expensive, and they’re really pretty amazing pieces of technology.  Let’s give ’em to the US Postal service.  Get mail delivered faster.  It’d be good for our economy anyway.

The Impossible: A Review

The Impossible tells the story of a family who manage, against all odds, to survive the 2004 South Asian tsunami.  An early title claims that it’s ‘a true story,’ and I believe that’s mostly accurate.  That tsunami was one of the most horrific of modern times, claiming the lives of over 230, 000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.  The film does not in any way minimize that devastation, and the scenes in which we see people engulfed in the raging waters of the tsunami are powerfully filmed, completely terrifying.  The screenplay makes for a very strange film in many ways, but it’s certainly beautifully and compellingly made.

The film follows the Bennett family, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).  The boys are young, 10, 6 and 4.  They’re British, but Henry works for some big multi-national corporation based in Japan, where they live.  Maria is a physician, but isn’t currently practicing, to raise her kids.  They’re clearly very well-off, and as we meet them, are vacationing in a posh beach-side resort in Thailand.  They’re swimming in the resort pool when the tsunami hits, and the next twenty minutes of the film are a nightmare, as we see the horrendous danger they’re barely able to survive.  In fact, we initially follow Maria and Lucas, swept away by treacherous currents, desperately clinging to trees, to mattresses, to whatever flotsam they can grab a tenuous hand on.  They can see each other, but it takes them forever to finally grab hold.  It’s a tremendous feat of filmmaking, by director Juan Antonio Bayona.

When finally the waters begin to recede, they slosh through the horrendous muck left behind to search for a tree to climb in case of another giant wave.  They hear a crying child, and discover a three year old child, who joins them.  They climb the tree, but Maria has been badly injured, and before long, her injuries become infected.  They’re found by Thai villagers, and eventually taken to a hospital, where Maria languishes, half-dead, and Lucas desperately tries to help.  Meanwhile, Henry has rescued Thomas and Simon, and sends them away on a Red Cross bus, while he continues to slosh ineffectually along the beach, shouting himself hoarse, searching. Finally, he joins up with other tourist survivors, and begin to search hospitals.

The story of this family’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. The courage and dedication of these two parents is remarkable, as well as the toughness and resilience of their kids.  At the same time, most film critics pointed out that there have been two films so far about that tsunami, this one and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and both focused on the travails of, well, rich white people.  Entire Indonesian villages were wiped out in that tsunami, families, extended families, all obliterated.  And there were undoubtedly equally compelling stories of courage and survival.  I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything in this film to suggest cultural insensitivity or ethnocentrism, and the ending of the film, with the family safely aboard a jet headed to Singapore wasn’t terribly triumphant–the focus is on the devastated coastline over which their plane is flying.  I’m still troubled by the implications of making a tsunami film in which the peoples who lost their homes and families and lives essentially serve as props in a film about Europeans.

But I don’t think The Impossible was ever intended to be a Hollywood film about the tsunami.  I think it was originally intended as a film about this one family, and their remarkable survival. And their name wasn’t Bennett, it was Alvaraz.

This was clearly always going to be a Spanish production.  The entire production team, from director to screenwriter to every grip and best boy are all Spanish.  Here’s what I think happened: this family comes home and tells this remarkable tale of survival, and Spanish production companies thought that story was amazing and worth filming.  But it’s a film about a tsunami.  Water effects, CGI, shots in a water tank, thousands of extras, high-cost sets.  You can’t really make a small film about a big thing, like a tsunami.  So to recoup their production expenses, they had to aim for a bigger market than just the Spanish market.  And that means Hollywood, and American movie stars.

Granted, the American movie stars they cast, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are actually from Australia and Scotland.  Hey, we Americans will take our movie stars from wherever we can find them.  But they count–they’re famous, they’re good actors and they’re attractive, blonde Westerners.  And they’re really good in the movie–it’s not like the movie is hurt by bad acting.  They’re terrific, both of them.

Are there no Spanish American movie stars they could have cast?  Like, say, Antonio Banderas, Benicio del Toro, Javier Bardem, Gael Garcia Bernal?  Indeed there are, and they’re all wonderful actors, all of them.  Cast alongside, say, Selma Hayek, or Jennifer Lopez?  It is a little weird.  Antonio Banderas is a big star and a terrific actor, and although I love Naomi Watts, I couldn’t say that Selma Hayek is any less of an actress.  There’s no reason you couldn’t make a Hollywood film about the Spanish family all this stuff really happened to, and cast big-time Hispanic movie stars to play them.

But if you did that, it wouldn’t make sense for them not to speak Spanish to each other.  And Americans won’t see movies with sub-titles.

But I do believe that the screenplay stays pretty close to what actually happened to the actual people.  There are too many story oddities that are best explained by ‘that’s what really happened.’

Screenwriting is about set-ups and pay-offs.  You establish plot points early on, and them they’re resolved later in the movie.  And, like, the defining characteristic of this screenplay are set-ups that just sort of lay there, that nobody does anything with and that don’t go anywhere.

Example: the movie makes a point of telling us that Maria is a doctor.  And she barely survives the tsunami, is injured, but able to move around.  Well, what would that be setting up?  Obviously, the story of heroic doctor lady, who despite her own injuries tends the injured, with the help of her intrepid son.  That is what Hollywood would do, right?  Except it doesn’t go anywhere–instead, her wounds become infected, and she spends the last three quarters of the movie unconscious, on a hospital bed.

In my classes I would talk about a volitional protagonist, how the protagonist of the film has to make the most important choices in the story.  And Maria gets way more screen time than Henry does.  But she’s the very definition of a non-volitional protagonist.  She spends most of the movie laying in bed, either completely unconscious, or mostly so.  That’s bad screenwriting–unless, that’s what really happened.

Take Lucas, her son, the ten year old.  In one of her brief moments of lucidity, she urges him to leave her bedside and go do something positive. So he does; starts talking to people and collecting the names of people looking for family members.  And he manages to unite one Swedish guy with his son.  That’s great stuff–very compelling.  It takes up five minutes of the movie, and then Lucas stops doing it entirely.  Like a real kid would actually do. In a movie, that’s bad screenwriting.  In real life, that’s amazing–what a ten year old!

Plus a lot of the movie is at the hospital, where Lucas and his Dad and the two little boys keep narrowly missing each other, until finally, as the boys’ bus is pulling out and Dad’s ride leaves, at the last possible second, they see each other, and run to embrace.  It’s a powerful moment, and takes up at least ten minutes of the movie.  But we see Thai Red Cross volunteers taking down names.  Eventually, they would have been reunited.  So it’s like, a major plot point in the movie is that that they find each other, miraculously, impossibly, they meet at the hospital, and are finally together again.  Instead of a couple weeks later.

All the way through, this happens; it looks like the film is setting up something, which then fizzles away.  But that’s reality.  Our actual factual lives aren’t structured like movies.  That meeting scene’s amazing–so what that it would have happened later anyway.  We start things and don’t finish them.  We make sudden irrational choices, and then wish we hadn’t.  We find ourselves in a position to really make a difference, and then we get sick and nearly die and can’t help anyone.  This movie decided to tell the real story of what actually happened with this family.  Except for everything about them.

Is it worth seeing?  Oh, heck yes.  It’s really powerful. Among other things, it tells the story of how brilliantly Thai first responders and medical practitioners handled an emergency that must have completely overwhelmed their available resources.  A lot of the movie is set in a hospital, and it’s crammed full of patients–they’re putting people in closets, in cots on their lawn.  And we don’t see their triage procedures, but we sense that they’re really coping as best they can, and that every one of those patients is going to get the best care those Thai doctors can possibly manage.  They save Maria’s life, despite her requiring two surgeries, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to have surgery in that cramped and crowded environment, by doctors who are clearly beyond exhausted, they do manage to save her.

It’s also kind of an uncomfortable film to watch. But maybe something as vast and horrifying and unimaginable and can only be comprehended in tiny chunks, like this.  Maybe it helps, to see people who we rich Americans kind of relate to. It is, in any event, a powerful viewing experience.  And one I’m still trying to get my head around.



J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: A review

What do you do for an encore?  You’re a writer, and you’ve written the most successful series of novels in history.  The movies have all been made. The theme park is flourishing. It’s time to move on.  What do you write?

J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is her first published novel since the Harry Potter series concluded.  And I wish I could just review it as I would any novel.  But you really can’t.  I’m reminded of Shaquille O’Neill’s first rap album.  It sold like hotcakes, because it was a rap album by Shaq.  The label printed hundreds of thousands of CDs for his second album.  Almost all of which are sitting in a warehouse somewhere.  The Casual Vacancy was always going to sell.  But it had better be good.

I can say that I was profoundly moved by it.  I can say that I was weeping at the end.  I can say that the writing is pointed and powerful and strong, the characters well-defined, the setting beautifully realized.  It’s also not very . . . likeable.  And that could be a problem, if you let it be one.

The Harry Potter books were marvelously successful in part because we felt so at home in them.  We liked Harry and Ron and Hermione, we like the Weasley twins and the whole Weasley family, we like pretty much all the teachers at Hogwarts, except maybe Snape, who turns out to be the most heroic of them all.  We like hanging out there, in the Gryffindor common room, or Dumbledore’s office, or on the Quidditch pitch.

I didn’t really like any of the characters in The Casual Vacancy.  I thought they were brilliantly written, convincingly human, weak and foolish and cowardly and mean and only occasionally heroic or good.  I don’t want to live in Pagford; the small English town where the novel is set.  Pagford was convincingly described, and I don’t doubt its authenticity.  But I didn’t enjoy myself there.  It’s a town that needs fixing.  It’s a town that needs purging, of all its cruelty and small-mindedness. I want to go there, find the children who live there, hug them tightly, tell them they’re going to be okay.  But I’m not even sure if that’s true.

I cannot say how much I admire this book, or Rowling’s courage for have written it. One of the things she has done with her Potter millions is found an organization called Lumos, dedicated to protecting disadvantaged children. Check out their website–it’s wonderful.  The Casual Vacancy is clearly intended to continue by other means her campaign of awareness, of child poverty and abuse.  At the heart of the book is a sixteen-year old girl, dirt poor, her Mom a drug addict, who spends the novel fighting and brawling and snarling and swearing, desperately clawing to hold her family together–to keep her Mom from using and keep her three-year old brother fed and clothed and healthy and in pre-school. Her name is Krystal Weedon, and when she realizes that, for her, her best chance of any possible actual hopeful future is teen pregnancy, preferably by a middle-class boy whose parents might feel some grandparently sense of responsibility towards her child, we have to sadly acknowledge that she may well be right.  And Rowling makes us weep for this girl, helps us understand the heroism of her ferocious battle upwards.  And how ultimately doomed it is.

And the book isn’t actually about Krystal at all.  It’s about local politics, and how the parish council of the comfortable middle-class town of Pagford comes unglued when one of the councilors dies unexpectedly.  See Pagford is nice. Pagford’s homes are older and beautifully situated, with a nice view.  And Pagford’s residents want to keep it that way.  Yarvil, next door, is larger, and is where most Pagfordians work.  But it’s grimier, poorer, less nice.  See, right between the two towns is a neighborhood called the Fields, dirt poor, drug addicted, welfare housing, filthy. With a methadone clinic, for the heroin addicts.  And, unfortunately, the Fields is part of Pagford.  Pagfordians don’t want it, don’t want responsibility for its denizens, think it belongs with Yarvil.  The parish council is divided equally between those who want to redistrict the Fields away, and those who urge compassion.  A teacher at the local school, Barry Fairbrother heads the pro-Fields faction, and Howard Mollison, the anti-Fields forces.  The novel begins with Barry’s death, an aneurism, age 40.  The rest of the novel deals with the election which will replace him.

But The Casual Vacancy (the title comes from the legal term when a council spot becomes vacant), spends as much time dealing with the local teenagers as it does with their parents.  In particular, it follows Andrew Price (Arf), whose father is a vicious abusive brute who takes it into his head to run for the vacant council seat, Arf’s best friend, Stuart Wall, (Fats), a thin and self-possessed boy capable of the most appalling cruelty, whose greatly detested father is assistant headmaster at their school, and Fats off-and-on girlfriend Krystal Weedon, who lives at The Fields.  So Arf, Fats, Krystal.  Harry, Ron and Hermione? Yeah, maybe, if Hermione were completely screwed up and also the main character.  And Ron was a sociopath.  They even do magic, the kind that kids these days actually know more about than their elders.  Computer magic.  The kids know things about the grown-ups in town, as kids will do, and eventually they hack into the parish council website, and leave damaging messages detailing what they know, all signed ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” And things really start coming apart at the seams.

The novel has many many characters, as a novel about an election would have.  To me, one of the most compelling families it describes is the Jawanda family, formerly Sikh, but by now thoroughly English.  Parminder, the wife, is a doctor, and serves on the Parish council, where she was Barry’s closest ally.  Vikram, her husband, is a cardiologist, and a man who features in the erotic fantasies of many a Pagford woman, though he’s completely devoted to Parminder.  But Parminder is more fragile than Barry, less confident, and completely intolerant of the struggles of her youngest daughter, Sukhvinder, who is not like her popular and brilliant sisters.  And because of Sukhvinder’s insecurities, she has become a target of Fats, who uses the internet to torment her, and who has succeeded in driving her self-loathing to the point that she cuts herself.

Race and class, and the ferocious ways in which nice people in a nice town fight to keep it that way, just the way they like it.  The cruelty of children, and the tormented insecurities of the adults.  And at the middle of it all, the tragic and profane and angry central figure of Krystal, who wants so badly for someone to treat her with some kindness.

It’s a tremendous novel.  It’s not nice.  It’s full of cruelty and fear and abuse and the terrible lengths people will go to to protect theirs.  And it’s a novel about children who don’t have a chance, children who are products of neglect and poverty and drug addiction. It’s about Jay-Z, and Song cry.  It’s about a middle-aged woman’s fantasies about a boy band, and a man lost in his own OCD, and a triumphant girls’ rowing team. It’s a novel of compassion, about people who mostly have lost theirs.

We have to do more.  We have to look around us, and see what more needs to be done.  There are kids who need us.  See them.  I honor J. K. Rowling’s achievement with this remarkable novel.