Random thoughts

* Look, “can tell time” was not part of the job description when I applied for it. At least I’m going to my review meeting 2 hours early instead of posting for the interview 45 minutes late…

* It’s odd – I didn’t go through Arlington at all on this trip. That makes it a full three years since last I saw that part of the old country other than on Google Earth. I remember the last day, turning in the key in July 2004 and then walking back to where I was parked – it was like all the years rolled back at once and I was standing in 1997 seeing the apartments for the first time.

* There are so many things that are so many years ago now. California is six years this July. Next January, I’m ten years together with my girlfriend-turned-wife. This summer is my twentieth high school reunion. I don’t know why all of this amazes me so much. I probably said this already elsewhere, but 1997 is the midway point; on one side is everything from junior high to leaving grad school and on the other side is everything SINCE grad school. It doesn’t feel like a quarter-century since I was an impressionable young seventh-grader, consumed with comic books and RPGs and vaguely aware of things with two X chromosomes. There’s a big post about the non-linearity of time in there somewhere.

* Speaking of Google, above, DoubleTwist (an open-source iTunes workalike to let you use your music library with other phones) now has an interface to the Android Marketplace. It even has a web version – which means that for the first time, you can practically explore the world of Android apps without an Android device. And based on this, I was able to look and see that there are Android versions of probably 90% of my commonly used iPhone apps – there’s not a Twitter client as polished as Tweetie 2, I don’t think there’s a Tumblr app let alone one as good as the iPhone version, and I’d have to learn to live with the Texts From Last Night website – but almost everything else is there. Facebook, Foursquare, Amazon, DirecTV, MLB At Bat, Absolute Radio, Paypal, Open Table, Urbanspoon, the FCC broadband checker, WordPress, IMDB, Evernote, Midomi Soundhound – all official versions. There are also workalikes for things like Wikipedia readers, wi-fi scanners, movie ticketers, Caltrain and VTA schedulers, RSS readers, even a sleep cycle alarm clock and a lightsaber. The practical upshot is this: there is very little to keep me from replicating the functional equivalent of my iPhone environment on a Nexus One or similar Android device, especially if it includes a mechanism for direct download and playback of podcasts.

* The catch is, though, almost every single one of those apps I mentioned (except for Soundhound, the alarm clock and the lightsaber) is something that under normal circumstances can be used through a web browser, plain and simple. So why all the apps? Convenience? An attempt to refine the interface for a mobile device? (Probably.) And yet as I look through the apps, I notice a lot of apps for multiple services. Foursquare, Gowalla and Whrrl…Yelp, Urbanspoon, Opentable, Geodelic and AroundMe…and obviously Facebook and Twitter. And that’s where the thought clicked:

WE ARE BACK TO 1992. Instead of being segregated into AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, GEnie, and the like – not to mention a crap-ton of BBS outlets – we now have to have a Facebook account, a Twitter account, etc etc. These are not open systems, and are not generally fungible (except insomuch as Facebook has connectivity to them through RSS or whatever). Basically, we’ve come full circle and in the case of Facebook and Twitter are back to having a single entity providing us with a closed communication service. Or put it another way: if your email provider goes down, the rest of the world carries on using email. If Twitter goes down, that pretty much does for everybody. If Facebook goes down – well, not nice to think about, especially since the privacy model changes repeatedly and occasionally they publish everyone’s email without thinking about it. Social networking has created a situation where we are back to largely non-interoperable services and dependence on single providers, only this time there’s even more potential for mischief. Especially in light of the explosive growth of Foursquare and its competitors, who have somehow managed to wheedle us into reporting the details of our life in a manner that I can only assume they will attempt to monetize eventually…

* Actually, that’s the uneasy-making part. Social networking compels us to disclose all manner of things, because we’re only telling our friends. Well, that’s what we’re meant to think. But anything we tell our friends, we’re also telling Facebook, or Twitter, or Foursquare, or Google, and at some point the VCs and angel investors will demand some sort of return on their capital – at which point these entities will find it necessary to use your personal information to make money. Yes, I do continue to use these things – but when I only have maybe half a dozen friends on Foursquare, Buzz, Whrrl, and Gowalla combined, what’s the ratio of communicating with friends vs. preparing a detailed demographic survey to be sold for big bucks in a couple of years?

The problem with these services is that they promote lock-in. Everyone’s on Facebook, because everybody is on Facebook. It’s Metcalfe’s Law run riot – as long as these systems are closed, there can be only one – the more there are, the less likely you are to use them all. Friendster begat MySpace begat Facebook, with each one being effectively killed by its successor – because who wants to update three different social network sites? If there were some sort of interoperability system for social networking, you’d at least have the security that comes with distribution – imagine if email were simply one great big bulletin board with a few rudimentary privacy filters. As it is, I’m getting more and more uneasy every time I check in.

* I may or may not be using a company iPad this time next week. Hmmmmm…

You can’t go home again

But if you drink nine pints of stout, you won’t really notice.

We closed the 4P’s last night (it’s always and forever the 4Ps, no matter what the sign out front says) – half of a dozen of us, in the old style, knocking down pint after pint and fortifying ourselves on THE GREATEST POTATO SOUP ANYWHERE and roaring along in actually pretty good harmony. We sang the old rebel songs with our own modifications, and when the band didn’t play them, we put them on the jukebox and belted them out. I may or may not have stood on the table for “Sweet Home Alabama” despite the fact that it’s not particularly MY sweet home…all we lacked was the Chernobyl cloud of pipe smoke overhead, which you don’t get in any bar in DC anymore.

I haven’t been back to Arlington, and I may not get there, and that would be fine – so many times, trips like this take on the feel of visiting the place where they shot a movie you saw long ago. Even now, everything feels slightly unreal – even the old route home down Rock Creek Parkway and onto 66 felt familiar, but it’s not like I was never gone. Tyson’s Corner was almost unrecognizable, even inside the mall once I oriented myself. Names, places, things that I remember on the periphery of my consciousness – stuff that I’m sure was critical once, problem users and implacable foes and girls who walked out of the cafeteria line like it was a runway show – so much of it barely rings a bell anymore.

We’re old. We’re none of us getting younger, and the other five guys around the table last night represented twelve kids back home (ten of them girls – you don’t think God has a wicked sense of humor, think again). For many of them, it was the first trip to the 4Ps since the old days – or at least since we were last in town in 2007. We couldn’t do this on the regular anymore even if we wanted to – it’s damn near impossible to synchronize babysitting and then throw down the cash (and the bill last night wasn’t a patch on the old days, when we routinely pushed the upper edge of three figures because there were so many of us staying so late.) Even if I’d stayed around, this kind of thing wouldn’t have continued steadily on – maybe my birthday every year, with a little luck, but making it once a month? Not a chance. One person can’t make it, then another, then maybe you feel like you’re in a rut anyway. One guy moves, another gets married, there are kids now, you get out of the habit, and before you know it, it’s been years and years. In fact, when I first walked in and sat down, and looked around at the changes in the menu, and the decor, and the staff, and the jukebox, I had a creeping sense of dread and sadness – that it wouldn’t be the same, that it couldn’t be the same, and that it would only be depressing in the end.

But it wasn’t. It was glorious. It was enough to be able to reach back and touch that part of who I was again – and a great comfort and relief to know it’s still there. Here we go again, we’re on the road again, we’re on the road again, we’re on our way to paradise…

Line of the night

“Well, I didn’t come three thousand miles not to get crabs.”
-to the waitress at Dog Fish Head Shoulder Knees and Toes Knees and Toes Ale House, who had the crabcake special available at market price ($23 for 2, as it turns out)
If there’s one thing I’m learning in a hurry, it’s that managing a Flip camera, an iPhone, and a regular still camera makes for a difficult juggling act. I’m counting on the next phone taking VGA-quality full-motion video AND snapshots that are at least good enough not to look utterly noisy – maybe that way I’ll get the pictures AND the video when the toddler decides that her new friend the stuffed turtle needs to go through the bedtime routine.
(Honestly, the Google Voice integration and noise cancellation are pushing the Nexus One hard…Cupertino’s got about 3 months to get their thing together before I get into renewal territory…)

The Rise And Fall of the South (again)

So my second-cousin-in-law (to whom I am related in the exact same fashion as I am related to a prominent Senator in the health care reform shenanigans) sent a link to a book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again)”. Setting aside the standard comical use of “Politically Incorrect” to somehow imply ‘truth-telling and edgy’ when in fact it generally means ‘rude and hackneyed’, I think the author misses the point just by the title. The South has in fact already risen again, and now sits on the precipice of another fall.

Culturally, it didn’t take long at all. Sixteen years after the Birmingham police were hosing marchers and setting the dogs on them, CBS was running a Friday night back-to-back of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Dallas.” (I once took a graduate seminar on Southern studies with another Alabamian and sixteen non-Southerners, all of whom – to a man – said their image of the South originated with “The Dukes Of Hazzard”.) ‘Southern rock’ was a dominant form (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, 38 Special, you name it). Movies like “Urban Cowboy” were grossing tens of millions of dollars (not to mention Grammy and Golden Globe nominations and a multi-platinum soundtrack), artists from Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell and Barbara Mandrell had their own variety shows, and CBS showed the Daytona 500 wire-to-wire for the first time. For their trouble, they got a fistfight in the infield between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough while Richard Petty got the checkered flag – and blockbuster ratings. Time Magazine was running special cover stories on “The New South” when they weren’t putting Bear Bryant on the cover – and the Alabama Crimson Tide was quickly displacing Notre Dame at the apex of college football awareness (though not enough for the 1977 poll voters, who jumped the Irish from fifth to first for the title despite a higher-ranked Alabama beating an even higher-ranked Ohio State. I’m not mad).

Politically, the old crop of Southern senior senators went nowhere fast. Names like Howell Heflin, Sam Nunn and Jesse Helms came in to replace the old Sparkmans and Eastlands and Russells, while Strom Thurmond plowed right along. Jimmy Carter won election in 1976. More importantly, consider this: from 1976 to 2004, each election had at least one Southerner on one Presidential ticket every year. In fact, both tickets had a Southerner every year from 1980 to 2004, barring 1984 (Mondale-Ferarro for the Dems) and 1996 (Dole-Kemp for the Repubs). Texas and Florida each became as pivotal an electoral prize as California or New York – after all, the 2000 election hinged on Florida.

To see the real political rise, though, look at the 1990s. The Democrats won two Presidential elections behind an all-Southern ticket of Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee). The Republicans countered behind Newt Gingrich (Georgia), who took over the House of Representatives in January 1995 alongside such pivotal committee leaders as Bob Livingston (Louisiana), Dick Armey (Texas), and Tom DeLay (Texas). When Bob Dole left a year later to run for President, the Senate went to Trent Lott (Mississippi), who was succeeded in the 2000s first by Bill Frist (Tennessee) and then Mitch McConnell (Kentucky). Meanwhile, Denny Hastert – who replaced Gingrich and displaced Livingston after both had adultery scares – was effectively a figurehead while Tom DeLay (aka “The Hammer”) ran the Republican affairs in the House. The Clinton/Gore team was succeeded by George W. Bush (Texas) and Dick Cheney (born in Texas but elected out of Wyoming). And the entire Republican succession rested on the final realignment of – the South, where retiring veteran Democrats were almost uniformly replaced with Republicans, especially as VRA created “majority-minority” districts of African-American voters and left behind lily-white Republican safe seats (the transformation of AL-6 and AL-7 is instructive here).

In every way that mattered, the governance of the United States from 1995 to 2007 was effectively Southern, in politics and practice. The style of Southern politics (see previous posts) became nationalized, and cultural populism masked a rush to “business-friendly” policy (most prominently and painfully the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which allowed commercial and investment banking to merge and ultimately gave us the 2008 meltdown).

Meanwhile, the culture of the South continued to metastasize. Atlanta – Atlanta! – hosted the Olympics. The self-proclaimed title of “America’s Team” was shared between the Atlanta Braves in baseball and the Dallas Cowboys in football. NASCAR grew to become the only sport other than the NFL with free broadcast coverage on multiple national over-the-air networks. Country music went wholly mainstream behind everyone from Garth Brooks to Shania Twain to Toby Keith to Taylor Swift. Monday Night Football continues to be opened by Hank Williams Jr, a Detroit rock-rapper cloaked his entire career in Southern imagery (right down to his pilgrimage to Nashville where Kid Rock received the ‘blessing’ of George Jones himself), Jeff Foxworthy got an entire TV career out of “You Might Be A Redneck” jokes, and – astoundingly – a book by a former weathergirl from Birmingham became both a print touchstone of the lesbian experience AND a wildly successful feature film with two Oscar nominations, while another Candide-esque tale of a marginally-bright Alabama boy racked up SIX Oscars and made a blockbuster A-lister of Tom Hanks. (Also launched a chain of the worst tourist-trap seafood joints on Earth.) And most of all, from stem to stern, the national press – just as they had in the 1970s – began to gravitate to the South as the repository of old-time value and virtue in times of crisis, and gladly bought into the notion that the folks with Confederate flags on their trucks (as Howard Dean put it) were, in fact, the quintessence of “real Americans.”

It’s all falling apart now, though. 2008 featured no Southerners on the Presidential ballot. 2009 featured a Republican party in disarray, shedding its non-Southern elements once by one. And 2010 has seen the most talked-about movement in politics revealed as the same sort of irate redneck that scowled through Birmingham fifty years earlier – only instead of bombs on black homes, it’s bricks through Congressional office windows and cut gas lines on a home mistakenly identified as a Congressman’s. And the reason it’s come to that is because, once again, the South’s moment has passed, and those who cling to its values are raging against the dying of the light.

So why is it falling again? Simply put, the South is utterly dependent on a devil. Whether in politics, in religion, in football – there has to be a bad guy, and his defeat is at least as important as one’s own victory. The highest happiness for a Crimson Tide fan is not to see Alabama on top, but to see Auburn on bottom. And as NASCAR goes more and more corporate, as country music becomes less and less Nashville, as American Idol stops being regularly won by folks from the 205 and Southern comics drop by the wayside and the White House goes to a biracial Yankee and the Congress into the hands of a sharp-tongued woman from San Francisco – as the devils win, the South feels itself losing.

Until Southern pride shifts to being “We’re great!” rather than “Y’all suck!”, expect the backlash to continue. If there were an easy fix, it would have been tried in the last century and a half.

Last bit, for now anyway

Maybe I haven’t explained why the Southernization of politics is a bad thing. I’ll thumbnail it real quick just in case somebody hasn’t read the whole damn blog.

In 1877, the Democrats – who had won the popular vote in the 1876 Presidential election, but saw the electoral vote split between contested states in the South – made a deal where they would concede the election to Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans in exchange for the end of Federal occupation of the postwar South. Aided by paramilitary violence by assorted Redeemer groups (look it up), the result was the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws – not to mention the whitewashing of the voter rolls. By the mid-1880s, the old Confederacy was essentially a one-party zone; the Democrats owned the whole thing. (For an interesting comparison, match the electoral map of the 1896 election to that of 2004.) They would continue to own the whole thing until the 1960s, when the national Democratic embrace of the civil rights movement paved the way for George Wallace and ultimately a switch to Republican voting for President, which trickled down to the Congress by the mid-1990s.

But for that period of almost eighty years, the Democratic primary was, for all intents and purposes, the general election. Republicans were negligible – if not outright nonexistent. One-party rule meant that except for the occasional populist appeal to rise up against the big mules of industry or finance, campaigns were fought between candidates whose actual policy differences could be patched over with a postage stamp.

So what happens if candidates all believe the same things and pursue the same policy?

What you get is the Southern style of politics. Elections that are fought on the basis of personality, hyperbole, and the constant appeal to vigilance against the great Other over the hill – whether that be the Negro menace or the Yankee menace or the Red Agitator menace. Candidates competed to be the most outspoken defender of Southern womanhood, to pay the greatest tribute to the gallant fallen of the Lost Cause, to whip crowds of working-class white men into a mad frenzy that would drive them to go out and elect the kind of people who would then continue to leach money out of the South while keeping its poorest “below the salt in the pickle barrel,” in Wayne Flynt’s immortal phrase.

Southern-style politics doesn’t care about policy differences. Hell, it doesn’t care about policy at all. The Southern style of politics gets you the “Suppose a state trooper pulls your wife over one night. He turns out to be black. Think about it. Elect George Wallace” radio spots of 1970, or the “white hands” ad for Jesse Helms in 1990. That constant threat that the boogeyman is coming to get you, and only (INSERT WHITE CANDIDATE HERE) can stand firm against the assault of the forces of evil. Southern politics is about scaring the shit out of you until you pull that lever.

You know…Teabaggers. The hysterical cries of socialism, the dark warnings about the President’s real origins and nationality, the impending doom of a radical Muslim takeover or a radical feminist takeover or a Godless homosexual takeover – the “Tea Party” movement and its amen corner in the national broadcast media are the inevitable final product of the cult of Southern conservative populism that had its origins in the Redeemers and its apotheosis in George Wallace.

For almost eighty years, these forces were allied with the Democrats, at a time when both parties had their liberal and conservative wings. Then, for almost forty years, they were allied nationally with Republicans, until the South was as monolithically Republican in federal government as it had been Democratic thirty years prior. Since 1994, they have held the reins of power in the Republican party – Gingrich, DeLay, Lott, McConnell, and of course Bush; John Boehner of Ohio is the first non-Southerner to occupy a non-figurehead leadership position among national Republican officeholders since Bob Dole left to run for President in 1996. And in the past twenty years, the effective result has been to make the GOP the party of the South. California – a state that went GOP in six straight elections from 1968 to 1988 – is generally regarded as unobtainable for Republicans in a national election. New England – the traditional heartland of the Republican party for generations, the home base of Dewey and Rockefeller and Lodge, of rock-ribbed New Hampshire conservatism – has not a single Republican in the House of Representatives. Look again at that 1896 map, and then at 2004 and 2008 – the South is still solid; it’s just switched sides.

The polling numbers tell the tale. Presidential support, belief that the President is in fact an American citizen by birth, pretty much all aspects of approval of Obama in particular and the Democrats in general – the numbers are fairly consistent from the East to the Midwest to the Pacific, but skew wildly in the South. It’s not a coincidence. The South, after a couple of ascendant decades, is losing the Civil War again. That’s why you see the hysteria. When Medicare Part D passed in 2003, it was a half-trillion dollars worth of unfunded entitlement giveaway, which passed literally in the dead of night when the Speaker held a fifteen minute vote open for three hours (with the cameras turned off) until they could threaten, browbeat, and twist enough arms to get over 218. And nary a peep from the very people who have now decided that implementing a Nixon plan from 1974 amounts to the breaking of the seventh seal and the unleashing of the Antichrist.

That’s the politics of the South. And it will be the end of us all – if we let it.

Loiterin’ in the lobby

I don’t know why I have a catastrophic irrational attraction to the lobby of a posh hotel. I think maybe a bit flipped in my brain back in 1983, when the family stayed at the Contemporary Resort Hotel during a Walt Disney World visit in the early days of EPCOT, and I was mesmerized by the monorail sliding silently through the Grand Canyon Concourse. (This may also be where I get my catastrophic irrational attraction to commuter rail transit, whether it be the Metro or the VTA light rail or Caltrain or the Underground or…but I digress.)

As it turns out, assorted lobbies of assorted Disney resorts became the scenes of a number of moments throughout my life, from 1989 to 2003. But somewhere along the way, I stumbled into others. Two stays at the Mayflower in Washington DC, right across the road from my future employer. A spring break spent in the Kansas City Riot Regency during the NAIA tournament – there wasn’t a Vitale-esque All-Lobby team, but if there had been, I would have been first team. More than one drive to Nashville to spend hours hanging out in the Opryland Hotel, with its outrageous jungle of greenery and fountains that to this day strikes me as the world’s greatest Quake map. And all that just gets you up to the end of the undergrad years.

I think the appeal lies in the fact that a very nice hotel means you’re away from home. You’re in rarified air, and normal activity is on hold in favor of something unique – dare I say, adventurous. Plus people are probably treating you very well (e.g. Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay) and have no objection if you want to swan across the lobby bearing a tumbler of $28 Scotch (e.g. Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley). Something as simple as hanging out after a movie becomes an event if you’re doing it at Fahrenheit in the Ritz in Georgetown. And let’s face it: getting a spontaneous round of applause as we sailed through the St Francis, still in the tuxedo and wedding gown, is probably as close as we’ll ever get to feeling like we just won the Sugar Bowl. (For the record: she was wearing the gown.)

If I’d had a lick of sense, I’d’ve skipped out on buying tickets for the NCAAs and just spent my money drinking at the Doubletree in San Jose with the Vanderbilt entourage. At least it would have been over quickly and for less money. Assuming I’d had the sense to read the bar menu first…

NB: Yes, I did have the “El Capitini” this weekend at the Ahwahnee. However, it was their hotel bar’s signature cocktail, created to commemorate the ascent of El Capitan in 1958. Vodka, champagne, Cointreau, and (I think) just a dash of something pomegranate, served in a moderate-sized birdbath with a carabiner clipped to the stem. What the hell – you only go around once, so you may as well go around waving something with a sugared rim.

An aside…

To all the GOPers talking up how they’re going to win big in 2010 and repeal the whole health care package: grow the fuck up. No, seriously, do some second grade math. Even if you could pick up a hundred-twelve seats in the House, there’s the little matter of the Senate. There aren’t 26 Democratic Senate seats open in 2010. So as long as Barack Obama is still President, nothing ain’t going nowhere, because it is not mathematically possible to get the 2/3 vote that would be needed to overturn a Presidential veto of any repeal bill.

I wish I could remember who said it, but elections have consequences. The Democratic majorities in Congress far outstrip any Republican majority during the “Contract with America” era, and Obama explicitly campaigned on doing something with health care reform. So to borrow from Merle Haggard – since the President came through the White House door and did what he said he’ll do, my advice to you is to enjoy the free Bubble-Up and eat the rainbow stew with a silver spoon underneath that sky of blue.

Nash Vegas, son, what.

ETA: Now I hear that John McCain is butt-sore: “There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They have poisoned the well in what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.” Wait, would this be an end to the cooperations that saw, um, no Republican votes for the health-care package? Or for the stimulus package last spring? Or are you thinking about the shattered record for filibusters, which is shattering a record set by the GOP in the last Congress?

Can U solve the puzzle?


Now What?

Anybody who says they know how this thing is going to play out is unbelievably full of shit. Seven months is a long time in politics – seven months ago, we were just coming off the August recess and the meme was taking hold that a passel of sign-wavers with guns were somehow representative of “real America.” I don’t think anybody anticipated that things would go down the way they have.

So after a year of wrangling, we have a bill that’s more or less along the lines of the Nixon proposal from 1974 – which Democrats, egged on by unions, turned down in the expectation they could get something better after the elections. Of course, the denouement of Watergate and the Ford interregnum (Whip Inflation Now!) pretty much put things on turbo-puree to the point where nothing ever moved again on large-scale health reform – sure, there was COBRA and cat-health and some nibbling around the edges, but it didn’t come up again until the Clinton effort in 1994. Which failed pretty spectacularly, putting things on hold for another sixteen years. Looking back at the health program Roosevelt ran on in 1912, or the health package cut from Social Security at the last minute in 1935, one gets the general impression that you can only do something really big every fifteen to twenty years, and you might not get it. Medicare wasn’t exactly a landslide, and the party that then decried it as a slippery slope to socialism is the same party now campaigning against Obama’s bill because it might threaten Medicare.

David Frum nails a lot of this in his own blog. In the absence of any other leadership following the 2006 and 2008 meltdown of the GOP, Republicans have essentially turned to their noise machine to lead them. The flaw in this, of course, is that the needs of talking-head blowhards are substantially at odds with the needs of a practicing party-in-government. Which means that instead of negotiating to drag the bill in a better direction, the Republicans in Congress were bound to a strategy of scorched earth. And the more the rhetoric ramped up, with its socialism and death panels, the more they were locked in – as Frum said, “How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?”

Right now, I daresay that the vast majority of people wailing about their defeat – or crowing about their victory – have absolutely no idea what’s actually in this package. Which is not surprising – most of the last three months’ worth of screaming has been about various aspects of Congressional rules and process that are like Etruscan calculus to people whose civics education ended with “I’m Just A Bill.” But the general outline is pretty logical, so try to keep up:

* All insurance relies on more people buying it than using it. The larger the pool of insured people, the cheaper the overall cost to the insurer.

* Insurance presents a paradox, in that insurers make a profit by NOT providing the goods or services for which they charge.

* Therefore, insurers have every incentive to find all possible means of not providing those goods and services. In the health insurance field, this generally revolves around exclusions for “pre-existing conditions” – which have in the past included the likes of pregnancy or domestic abuse.

* Insurance companies, therefore, require a non-market force (i.e. the government) to ensure (ha!) that they will deliver goods and services for which they are paid.

* However, requiring insurance companies to cover everyone no matter what creates a perverse incentive; i.e. nobody buys insurance until they become sick, which destroys the large pool of insured people we mentioned above.

* Consequently, if you’re going to insist that everyone have coverage, you’ve got to make sure they get coverage. In a genuinely government-run system, this would take the form of single-payer insurance. To wit: everyone gets insurance, and pays the government for it via taxes. In a non-single-payer system, this means you are obligated to obtain insurance from somewhere.

* If you have a job with health insurance now, that’s where you’ll get your insurance. If you have Medicare, that’s where you’ll get your insurance. If you are not getting your insurance that way, and you’re not sponging off your folks, you now have to buy some insurance. This is butt-expensive in most cases, because of all that business about pre-existing conditions and the size of the pool.

* So the next step is to maximize the buying power of these folks. This is accomplished through the “health exchanges”, which is a fancy term for “making a big pool.”

* For insurance companies, this big pool represents a whole bunch of potential new customers.

* For said customers, this pool gives them the same purchasing power as a big corporation has; they have more programs to choose from and said programs will probably cost less than if they were out on their own, thanks to the negotiating power and economy of scale that comes from a large pool.

These three things – a coverage mandate for insurers, a purchase mandate for the insured, and a mechanism for maximizing the market interaction between the two – are at the core of the reform effort. It’s the same thing that passed a few years ago in Massachusetts under that wild liberal Mormon, Mitt Romney (and Multiple Choice Mitt is running like hell from it with the Invisible Primary only months away). It’s also damn near the only way to get at universal individual coverage without actual government-provided insurance.

Now, there are other things that can come into play here – for instance, selling insurance across state lines. But when this happened with credit cards, all the providers moved to the states with the least restrictive regulations, which is why your credits cards all come from Delaware or North Dakota and charge you ricockulous interest. I suppose you could sell across state lines if you had some overarching federal regulation, but I’m not sure how much of that is in the current package. There’s also the notion of a “public option” – allowing people to chose Medicare or some other government-provided insurance as one of the competitors in the exchange. A lot of people considered such an option to be necessary to put real cost-control pressure on insurers. A lot more considered it to be the camel’s nose under the tent for an actual government-run single-payer system. Whether this is a good or a bad thing largely depends on whether you are a teabagger or a dirty fucking hippie.

Notice that most of what I’ve said has been about availability. Actual cost is another barrel of bourbon altogether. The big expenses in this scheme mostly revolve around providing subsidies to people who are now obligated to buy insurance, which more or less boils down to an expansion of Medicaid. The funding mechanism seems to be a general tax hike on some folks who can probably afford it (especially after twelve years of the Bush II tax relief) and, more controversially, a tax on certain big-ticket health plans which heretofore have not been treated as income (much to the chagrin of unions who negotiated such packages in lieu of pay hikes). But even this is more about the cost of the insurance, rather than the cost of the actual care.

I think the thing most people are counting on is that if everyone has insurance, they will actually go see the doctor before things get to the point where they wind up being wheeled into the emergency room with an exploded ventricle. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to tell somebody their cholesterol is 224, outline how to change their diet, and maybe prescribe some statins or something, if the alternative is to do nothing and then try for a balloon angioplasty and triple-bypass fifteen years down the line (with corresponding inflation to match). This is probably why you see a lot of talk about “bending the curve” rather than “slashing costs,” especially since one of the biggest cost-reducing moves would be to just sign everyone up for Medicare and do away with all the redundancy and administrative overhead of a hundred different insurance companies.

But that’s the course we’ve taken: a plan that was literally Nixonian thirty-six years ago is now at the left edge of what can get through Congress. Which in itself is a remarkable thought, especially since the current opposition to the Obama health care reforms stems almost entirely from the Nixon-era “Southern Strategy”. It’s not the least coincidence that the opposition comes freighted with racial code-words (if not outright epithets*) and the language of violent rebellion; the Tea Party movement is the last gasp of the same forces that propelled everyone from Tom Watson and Cotton Tom Heflin to George Wallace and Orval Faubus. The same South that was a third faction, passed to Democrats in 1876 and on to Republicans in the 1960s, is now the Republican party in name and practice – and they bet everything on stopping Obama. The actual content of the plan was never relevant; all that matters is that Obama has to lose. Like I said, nobody knows what the next seven months will bring – but if the Republicans fail to capture at least one house of Congress in November, they will have to think long and hard about the fruits of being the party of the Confederacy.

* The word is “epithet,” meaning “an adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned; such a word or phrase as a term of abuse.” The word is not “epitaph.” But then, I woudn’t expect mental defectives** like Karl Rove or Michael Steele to grasp the difference.

** That was an epithet. Learn, morons.

The Plan

In retrospect, you can see what Team Obama was hoping for – having gone to school on the failure of the Clinton healthcare effort, their first goal was to get full Congressional buy-in, mostly by staffing out the bill to them. Once the House and Senate had passed something, Obama would play his hand based on what looked most viable in the conference report.

They can’t have expected anything but what they got from the GOP. Once Jim DeMint tipped his hand with the remarks about how they intended for health care to be “Obama’s Waterloo,” anybody with a brain in their skull should have expected scorched earth. I don’t think they expected to get to the August recess without a bill, which made matters much worse. They certainly didn’t plan on Ted Kennedy dying, or the circus that followed for months. Democrats lack anything remotely like the party discipline of the GOP, and all the proof needed is in the Senate. For all the talk about the two women in Maine, they were right there with their party when the final votes were taken. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ own “mavericks” had to be bought off – although, fortunately, the nature of those favors make them easy to erase in a budget reconciliation process.

There are plenty of DFHs* who would have liked to see more – a public option and Medicare buy-in at the least, a full-fledged single-payer system at best – but all the clamor for using reconciliation to blast through a 51-49 bill in the Senate overlooks the fact that the House wasn’t going to deliver anything like it. In fact, the only way the bill got through the first time was with a pile of extra abortion-related folderol that brought on a bunch of Democratic pro-lifers, which suggests that an actual government-funded plan would have been no easier to push through.

The GOP was probably out of their minds to think that they could ride this to an overthrow – anything is possible in the House, certainly, but to pick up 40 seats when they have more retiring members than the Democrats is probably optimistic. Certainly turning over 9 more seats in the Senate is asking too much, in all likelihood – and the Democrats, if they can’t have a filibuster-proof majority, would probably be as happy with 53 reliable votes as 59 where they have to look over their shoulder to see what a Nelson or a Lieberman or a Lincoln is playing at. The GOP also neglected to consider something David Frum points out – that in 1994, the Democratic president had been elected with 43% of the vote AND there was ample fertile ground for the GOP to take since the South had not completed its partisan realignment. Long story short: the GOP may well try to run against this bill in November, but as people get more of a sense of what actually happened, they may not response to promises to restore things like the Medicare Part D “donut hole” and coverage denial for children with pre-existing conditions.

In the meantime, Nancy Pelosi has to go to the front of the line for top-seed Speakers of the House – she delivered what the likes of Sam Rayburn, Carl Albert, and Tip O’Neill never could. Gingrich still stands in front for philosophical implications, but Nancy wins on results delivered.

* Dirty Fucking Hippies – not the ones selling weed out on Telegraph Ave, though they are most assuredly dirty. These are the opposite number of the Teabaggers – the ones who are still fighting Nixon and COINTELPRO, the ones who talk about “self-appointed experts from the military-industrial corporate-lock-down security complex” when you’re just trying to run an OS update on their workstations. The ones who thought that Obama was going to bring about the Age of Aquarius – in stark contrast to anything about the man that was borne out by, you know, evidence. The difference between them and the Teabaggers is that the Teabagger types always come home to the GOP in the end. The DFHs just go off to Boulder and Austin and Santa Cruz and sulk.

El Foldo

59% free throw shooting isn’t going to get you through the 2A high school regionals in Alabama, never mind the NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt failed to create a lot of opportunities – only 6, SIX, offensive rebounds – and then failed to capitalize on the ones they got. They left 12 free throws missed. Make one, and you get overtime, probably. Make two, and they’re putting up a desperate heave from 3. Make three lousy free throws – you know, the ones you get to take standing still, with nobody covering you – and it’s a different ballgame.

I don’t know whose fault it is – maybe it’s the players, maybe the coaches, maybe nobody’s fault – but this team was tight. They were strung tight as a drum, and it showed the whole game. They were playing not to lose. They played like a team terrified that all those predictions, from Yahoo to ESPN to the White House, were at risk of coming true – the ones that said Vandy was the automatic upset in round one, a sure thing for a bracket buster.

Next year will be tough. Everyone is back except Jermaine Beal, and you can’t replace a senior-leader point guard so easily. Also, having everyone back means that AJ Ogilvy is back – and he can’t decide whether he wants to be an All-American or the prettiest hipster in the West End. If I got the sense that he cared even a little bit about basketball, I’d feel a lot better about 2011.

And make no mistake, next year is for the whole shootin’ match. Tennessee is losing a shit-pile of manpower, and Kentucky is unlikely to keep Cousins AND Wall – and who knows, the NCAA may already be catching up with Calipari depending on what you hear and who you believe. You can’t count on John Jenkins wanting to stick around with the kind of money that will be on offer, and you couldn’t blame him for taking it. So this is it: the year’s over, and barring a sudden collapse, Vanderbilt will be the overrated team of the tournament. How the players react to that will determine what kind of Commodore team rolls out of the garage next November.

As an aside, this is the fourth team from Nashville I’ve seen play at HP Pavilion in person. They are a collective 0-4. Not only am I never setting foot in the Tank again, I hope a fuckin’ meteor levels it.