A MODEST PROPOSAL

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2010 by Ed

It does not take much to get the average American – particularly men – excited about military spending. That is why in the midst of a pitched three-month battle over a $90 billion/year piece of health care legislation Congress was able to pass a $700 billion dollar Pentagon budget with not one iota of public debate. And that's for 12 months. And that's not even close to enough, of course, and we'll be treated to numerous "emergency" and "supplemental" expenditures throughout the year. You can never have too many armor-piercing, bunker-busting, laser-guided doodads. Just think of all the great gun camera footage we can look forward to this season on The Military Channel.

I've got an idea. It will require about 0.001% of the military budget and, unlike the rest of it, might actually provide some benefits in the long run.

So, Haiti. Tens of thousands dead, and all of the nation's hospitals destroyed. The international aid agencies, specifically Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, are out of supplies. Both the port and the airport in Port-au-Prince are destroyed, hampering any effort to bring in more. The Pentagon, like the iPhone, has an app for this.

Here is a piece of military hardware to get Ed all worked up: the USNS Comfort. It is a hospital ship with a helipad so it can serve areas without ports or airstrips. It is as large as a supercarrier and has the facilities to rival any hospital on Earth. Beds for 1000 patients. 12 fully equipped operating rooms. Four distilleries to make 300,000 gallons of drinking water per day. A complete pharmacy and radiology lab. Complete labs for dental, optometry, and trauma patients. Two oxygen-producing plants.

Oh my, I'm getting a little excited.


Not pictured: shit gettin' blowed up

Stationed in Baltimore, the Comfort can be ready to sail in five days and it'll take a couple more to reach Haiti. A lot of people who could have been saved will have died in the interim. So here's my idea. Let's build five of them. Staff them with medical students and military doctors, distribute them around the world (Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, etc.) and have them on duty 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Make calls in poor countries and provide medical care for people who have nothing. When disasters happen, the ships can be there in hours, not a week. You know, doing stuff that might make people around the world less likely to hate us. If we can maintain military bases in 30 different countries around the world we can afford a handful of ships. But without any guns, it would be a hard sell on both Congress and the public.

Isn't the military always going on and on about that "winning the hearts and minds" shit after they turn some nation into rubble? That might work – one of these decades. Or we could spend a tiny fraction of our obscene military budget on, you know, helping people. But that doesn't interest us. We want to do as we please and then find some way to make people like us afterward. It worked well in Vietnam and Iraq, so why change now?

REQUIRED READING

Posted in Quick Hits on January 14th, 2010 by Ed

1. Required reading for anyone between the ages of 21 and 30. And maybe even a little beyond that.

2. What does Haiti really need? Chances are it's more than your old clothes and a few PayPal dollars.

3. Austrian Death Machine's new song "Get to the Choppa" might be the greatest thing ever. It is in reference to, of course, the classic Predator scene starring the world's most famous non-Hitler Austrian.

JILLIAN BANDES GETS THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2010 by Ed

Most of the "columnists" featured at Intellectual Chernobyl are in fact syndicated, and in that sense the website is nothing more than a crap aggregator. You can get Michelle Malkin's boilerplate from dozens of identically bad websites, for example. But not Jillian Bandes. Jillian Bandes is TownHall's own. They sign her paychecks. Her job – as if I need to point this out – is to churn out some seriously top-shelf product that a hungry public can find nowhere else. She showcased her powerful prescience this weekend with "Palin Stays One Step Ahead of the Political Class." If you think it's about Palin's move to Fox News, you're wrong. It's actually about how Sarah Palin is about to announce her candidacy for 2012, and the column ran the day Palin announced that she would chase the money like the tacky hillbilly she is. Let's just call her Jillian Kreskin from now on. Was she just trying to will Palin into running, thus fulfilling all of Jillian Bandes' 3 AM fantasies, or did she consciously set out to write a column that we'd enjoy reading approximately as much as an open book pelvis fracture? I'll let you be the judge.

One of the biggest questions for conservatives right now is whether Sarah Palin will run for president in 2012.

Perhaps the lack of anything better to talk about is a bad sign. Or perhaps – try to stay with me here – nobody really gives a shit what a semi-literate hack who governed Alaska for almost two whole years is going to do. My guesses would have been "Launch talk show", "Enter competitive eating contest", or "Join cast of Hee-Haw." But I don't care enough to guess.

Recent moves by Palin suggest that she will.

Way to read the signs, J-Band!

Palin just announced that she would speak at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in April – the second-most important GOP political gathering behind the Republican National Convention.

Is there a list somewhere? This is highly subjective. I always thought it went Republican National Convention, the Brickyard 400, WWE Summerslam, the Tarrant County Fair, John Kyl's Super Bowl barbecue, Focus on the Family's annual badminton tournament, and then the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

While it’s not guaranteed that an appearance at the event means an individual will enter the GOP primary, it’s virtually impossible to enter the primary without having appeared.

Well that's solid logic. I'd say she's a virtual lock to run based on her appearance at this conference alongside fellow future Presidential candidates Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, and Rush Limbaugh (health and the availability of sufficient fudge permitting).

“Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's decision to attend — and speak at — the SLRC… transforms that event into the first legitimate cattle-call of the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes,” wrote Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post.

So the event wasn't a big deal until Palin got there, but it sure is a big deal that she is attending. Palin + Event = Important Event Attended by Important People.

Palin’s SLRC speech will happen right after a keynote address at the National Tea Party Convention, which has a goal of consolidating the movement’s “multiple organizations.”

Well, that only reinforces the fact that she's making the rounds at top-flight events befitting a presidential candidate. Speaking before throngs of teabaggers reeking of Funyons and sadness is an honor bestowed upon only an elite few. John Ratzenberger. World Nut Daily founder Joe Farah. Dick Armey.

Matthew Continetti, author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin, says that the dual appearances are good news on the heels of Palin’s abrupt exit from the Alaska governorship, and that they could indicate 2012 Presidential aspirations. "Palin began her rehabilitation with her book launch and media tour. Now, with the SRLC appearance, she’s continuing to lay the groundwork for a presidential run," he said.

Read that again.

I think we've heard the objective opinion of an unbiased source of Sarah Palin information. In other news, Matthew Continetti reports that Sarah Palin smells like cupcakes and the recent incident in which she murdered a vagrant with her bare hands just to watch him die is "really good news for the former Governor."

"I happen to think her more important appearance will be at the national Tea Party convention next month – Palin, unlike many prominent Republicans, understands the GOP must capture the Tea Party message, enthusiasm, and supporters if it wants to return to power."

Still quoting the same d-bag, for the record. Maybe it's because he's smart enough to realize that headlining a teabagging convention is a rocket ship straight to the top of the political world.

Continetti's assessment is right in line with a National Journal poll last month, which put Palin dead last as the "GOP political insider" choice for the Republican nomination – that’s coming from party leaders, political professionals and pundits. Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was their pick.

"In this stupid poll of people who know their asses from a hole in the ground, we see that Republicans who are interested in actually winning an election ranked Queen Sarah dead last. Such is the folly of man. And God wept."

But Palin’s tea party appeal can’t be denied among the GOP rank-and-file.

Oh, sure it can. Just watch.

Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and forty-one percent of all voters currently see Palin as “representative of a new direction for the Republican Party,” and many put her approval ratings on par with Obama’s. Palin does well in indicators of “shared values” and “trustworthiness” among all voters.

Wow, slightly more than half of the minority party! Sounds like general election dynamite to me.

Combine those favorability ratings with her record-breaking book tour,

Which records did her book tour break? Are there even records for book tours? Other than the record for "Most Appearances at the Sam's Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas on a Book Tour from a Major Publishing House" I'm not aware of any independently verified records being set.

and hopes are pie-in-the-ski

Ah, the ol' pie-in-the-ski routine. Oliver Hardy, correct?

for her nomination as the GOP presidential candidate.

Among Jillian Bandes and Palin's apologist/biographers, hopes are high. Ski high.

Her autobiography Going Rogue has sold over a million copies, with record turnout at her book tour events.

You know what else sold a million copies? Twilight. As soon as those fuckers turn 35 we are totally drafting them into running for president.

"This book tour has been an amazing and inspirational experience for me and my family as we crisscrossed the country and met so many wonderful Americans," said Palin, via her Facebook page.

This is it. This is the end of the column. And then Sarah Palin gave up on politics and chased a paycheck. Unless Fox News is the springboard to the presidency, which history doesn't quite support. In a sense we should take it easy on Jillian since she is a victim of unfortunate timing – had she written this three weeks ago we'd hardly have noticed – but on the other hand her complete inability to read Sarah Palin makes her a fair target. The rest of us can smell a small mind from a mile away. Palin's just a rube easily dazzled by dollar signs and the prospect of endless shoe shopping sprees. Politics was never more than a get-rich-quick scheme for her, and it worked. Everyone got what they wanted, excepting of course the cadre of loyal fanatics like Jillian. Like a teenager coming to grips with the fact that his favorite band would sell out in a minute to get on MTV, there will be a few tears shed as the Palinites recognize that their princess was only in it for Rupert Murdoch's money.

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A CONSERVATIVE VERSION OF 'GOOD'

Posted in Rants on January 12th, 2010 by Ed

It is an inerrant fact that anything billed as "The conservative take on / version of _________" is going to be hilariously, perhaps even spectacularly, shit. The Half-Hour News Hour. Conservapedia. Qube TV. Pajamas Media. Conservative punk bands. Michael Steele. Take your pick, as they all have in common that special is-this-serious quality that, frankly, liberals can't do. And they all follow the same pattern: they make a lot of noise, the real media pay them a disproportionate amount of attention lest they be accused of "bias", and then the product in question quietly dies when the gawkers and snickering hipsters have disappeared.

When I first heard that Tucker Carlson was at long last establishing a presence on the internet – in related news, he has finally acquired a touch-tone phone – I assumed that he would fade seamlessly into the cacophony of screeching that is the wingnut underbelly of our electronic discourse. But he aimed high with The Daily Caller, billed modestly as the Conservative Answer to Huffington Post. I'm sure I've seen more underwhelming things but none spring to mind at the moment.

Short of a Flash banner at the top proclaiming "LOOK, WE ARE SIMPLY OUT OF IDEAS" the entire thing could not reek more of complete creative bankruptcy. From the instantly forgettable name – I guess "Tucker's Website" and "The Daily Internet Site" were already taken – to the "1997 called, it wants its web design back" layout, it is a case study in the inherent flaw in asking a bunch of College Republicans to come up with something slick and cutting edge. Their big roll-out event was a "Welcome to the internet!" courtesy piece by Arianna Huffington and a pair of columns from Andrew Breitbart (whose ghastly Breitbart.tv now has competition in the race to the bottom of the cultural barrel) and Rep. Pete Sessions.

Awesome.

Here's the best part: it has a full-time paid staff of 21. Unless Carlson is trying to set a new speed record for pissing through Koch Foundation money, I cannot conceive of a way that this thing will come close to breaking even. At a per-employee cost of, say, $70-$100k (counting all of the expenses beyond salary) I give this thing about six months before Phyllis Schlafly gets tired of flushing money down the toilet and the site goes the way of Google Answers.

The puzzling thing – and from the right's perspective, the sad thing – is that this is not a wholly untenable idea. It could work. There have been successes in the past marketing a higher-end conservative product, something slightly less stupid than Michelle Malkin and Free Republic. But this, to put it charitably, is just more of the same shit. What original content they offer is like the site itself – lame and uninspired. If Carlson thinks that the expense of this monstrosity is going to be subsidized by the public's insatiable desire to read the "diary" of S.E. "I've been to Rio. It's AWESOME." Cupp he is more ignorant of this newfangled internet thingy than we can imagine.

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SECURITY THEATRE

Posted in Rants on January 11th, 2010 by Ed

(Preface: Being an Arizona Cardinals fan has ups and downs, to say the least, and one of the primary drawbacks is that their games often leave one emotionally and physically drained. Just watching these guys is exhausting. 31-10 is a safe lead for 99.9% of the football teams in the world, but not us. The Cardinals relish in finding ways to make everything far more gut-wrenching than necessary, and Sunday's 51-45 gunfight with Green Bay was as ridiculous and improbable as they come. I had to struggle to achieve any kind of coherence with this short piece. My brain is not working. If you like to gamble on sports – I do not, but to each his own – I have free advice for the Arizona-New Orleans game: take the "over.")

Two weeks ago in the wake of the failed Underpants Bomber I noted that with even the most strident efforts to secure commercial air travel the bomber will always get through. Matthew L. forwarded me a recent Wall Street Journal piece suggesting that calculated fatalism about terrorism in the air isn't so outlandish an idea. The author makes a number of obvious but often overlooked points about the diminutive risk posed by terrorist attacks (compared, for example, to dying in an auto accident or being murdered in the U.S.). I'm most intrigued, however, by his use of the apt phrase "security theater." The pointless efforts to reassure panicky idiots that "increased security measures are being implemented" is dishonest at best and achieves nothing except making everyone more miserable and whittling away at what little remains of our privacy in a modern airport.

It would have been silly to expect any kind of calm, level-headed response to the Underpants Bomber. We got the predictable foaming-at-mouth "Liberals put America in danger!" reaction from the Teabagging crowd followed by the inevitable "We have to look like we're tough! Do something!" response from the White House and Congress. Even if we recognize the fact that most anti-terrorism measures in airports are strictly for show, the reaction to this latest incident still stands out as mind-bogglingly stupid. Two examples illustrate the point.

First, on inbound international flights passengers are now required to spend the last hour before landing in their seats and without any "personal items" in their laps. Think about that for a second. We all have to spend the last hour of a 9 or 12 (or 18 or 20) hour flight sitting bolt-upright in an uncomfortable coach seat staring straight ahead and doing nothing. No reading, no iPod, nothing. In what possible hypothetical situation could this add any security whatsoever to international flights? I guess future Underpants Bombers will have a mere 9 hours to execute their plan on that Amsterdam-Detroit flight instead of 10. The cost in misery is substantial. The benefits aren't even plausible let alone realistic.

Second, two flights in the past week have received F-16 fighter jet escorts because of "unruly" passengers who were probably trying to, you know, read a magazine during the last hour of the flight. Most recently, an AirTran flight to San Francisco was escorted by two armed F-16s because…a drunk locked himself in the bathroom. OK, let's give The System the benefit of the doubt and assume they did not know he was just a harmless drunk. Implausible, but let's go ahead and accept that premise. What in the hell are two F-16s supposed to contribute to this situation? If the guy is in the bathroom mixing an Underpants Bomb is the F-16 supposed to fire a missile into the plane and blow it to bits before the terrorist can…ignite a bomb and blow the plane to bits? That'll learn 'em.

An F-16 burns 150 gallons of fuel to take off and ten gallons per minute thereafter. Combined with the other (astronomical) parts and labor costs involved in operating that kind of aircraft we might question the benefit of this policy. Either the Unruly Passenger is a harmless false alarm or it is a real terrorist who will or will not succeed in his plot irrespective of the presence of armed fighter escorts. Armed escorts could have been relevant on 9/11, but what are the odds of a cockpit incursion happening again? Since those events I think a pilot would fly the plane into the ground before allowing a hijacker to commandeer the aircraft and use it as a missile. So, like armies prepare themselves to fight the previous war, our Security Theater seems to be responding to the threat of terrorists from 2001.

We stopped improving airport security sometime in mid-2002. Everything since then has served only to waste money, waste time, and make everyone more miserable. It is a race we can't win, as security measures inevitably focus on past, not future, attacks. Soon we'll be subject to "Total Body Imaging" scanners to catch underpants bombers…and how long do you think it will take would-be bombers to figure out how to beat that? All it will do is make airport lines longer, make people feel more like cattle, and make the next would-be bomber swallow or "keester" a tube of explosives rather than sewing it into his underwear.

I feel safer already.

NPF: THIS IS WHY YOU'RE FAT

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 8th, 2010 by Ed

If you have an internet connection and friends you've probably been sent a "Hey look at this!" email regarding the blog-in-pictures This is Why You're Fat. Readers send in pics of hilariously high-calorie foods that no sentient person would ever eat, ostensibly to help explain why Americans are so goddamn fat. Yes, it's funny. Limited in range, but funny. I mean, 99% of the content repeats one of these themes:

1. Like normal food, only bigger
2. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (bacon)
3. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (gravy or cheese)
4. One unhealthy food stuffed inside another
5. An enormous number of things simply piled atop one another (plus gravy)

While the website is both funny and probably correct to some extent, I have a much better theory about why we're fat. We've become food crazed, and it's a relatively recent development. Let me explain what I mean.

I saw a fabulously interesting interview with Wolfgang Puck several years ago on a network TV show and he recounted a story of when he moved to L.A. in the 70s. He'd go to a club and try to talk to a woman, and he said when they asked what he did for a living he'd either lie about it or admit that he was a chef and the conversation would be over. It was a shit profession for people who were either pretentious French assholes or unemployable borderline-criminal types. And now, Puck told the host, you're interviewing me on national TV. Being a chef went from one step above being a child molester to being a high-glamour profession.

There is a network devoted to 24-hour food/cooking related programming. Dozens of other cable networks (Discovery, Bravo, etc.) have food shows. The Culinary Institute of America now includes media training – how to give an interview, how to court the press, and so on – in its curriculum. Anthony Bourdain is wildly famous for writing a book about how shitty it is to work in restaurants. Enormous stores sell nothing but cookwares most of us would never use. People spend $1200 on sets of knives. High-end restaurants and grocers – some of which will mail exotic ingredients to your door – are doing well even in a horrible economy as people shell out per-ounce prices for spices and cheese that were formerly associated only with heroin. We are absolutely food loco as a nation.

Why? There are a lot of explanations – diet and kitchenware as status symbols, better education about the downsides of processed food, etc. – but I favor the following one. First Americans had to accept that drinking was bad for them. No more three martini lunches. Then they found out that smoking was a killer, so the educated middle class shunned that too. Then the 1980s arrived and it turned out that indiscriminate sexual activity could end up killing you, so the bourgeois who spent the 70s doing blow and nailing everyone in sight had to put a stop to that. Then we started hacking away at the middle class lifestyle – salaries stopped going up, paid time off became a thing of the past, and many people saw their standard of living collapse – so people couldn't enjoy escaping on vacations or trips to the lake with their boat. In short, everything Americans used for sensory pleasure has been taken away (although not from the poor; we wanted to make sure we could still market the cigarettes and booze to someone, and who really cares if they die of AIDS?)

Food is what's left. We are fat because we use food as an escape. The pleasure we might have once had from functional alcoholism, chain smoking, or wild partying has left us with endless sublimated desires for physical pleasure and nowhere to satisfy them. So we eat. We eat and look for ever more exciting sensory experiences from our food. We not only shovel down more food to fill the void but we're constantly looking for more indulgent things to eat. If you're ever in Chicago, go wait in line at Hot Doug's some afternoon and watch dozens of hipsters and young professionals – people who have two or three degrees apiece – wait in a lengthy line to eat french fries cooked in rendered duck fat and a hot dog covered with 1000 calories of foie gras. Then you'll see what I mean.

That's my theory, anyway. The bacon-laden peanut brittle isn't helping either, admittedly.

VH1 PRESENTS "I LOVE THE 00s"

Posted in Rants on January 7th, 2010 by Ed

I purposely avoided doing much end-of-year stuff last month let alone any end-of-decade stuff. This is mostly because I have nothing good to say about the aughts. There is a reason the Washington Post called it "a lost decade." Economically, politically, and culturally it was nearly an unmitigated disaster. What sucked? Take your pick. Zero net job creation. 9/11. A Vietnam War redux, only with the public swallowing the transparently idiotic case for war without hesitation and asking for seconds. Eight years of a White House that made Reagan look like a libertine Marxist. A previously unthinkable degree of decline in the tenor of public discourse in a single decade.

People started paying for mp3s. Reality programming took over television. The Black-Eyed Peas existed and people seemed to approve. Twitter and texting did immeasurable damage to our already feeble writing skills while iPhones and Blackberii eliminated whatever reasons remained for people to converse with one another in public places. Independent music became Indie Rocktm, an insufferably twee, ball-less amalgam of fake "retro" and fake Americana. Glenn Beck became the most trusted name in news. The internet became ubiquitous and made traditional media irrelevant, thus allowing each American to find and consume his or her own version of reality. The American auto industry finally committed suicide. Mind of Mencia existed – for three fucking seasons. Pluto lost planet status. AutoTune.

I can wring out a few positives, too. Record companies became essentially irrelevant from the perspective of working bands. Non-traditional media ensured that someone hit the important stories, even if no one was listening. This nation of morons was actually smart enough to avoid putting Sarah Palin one 71 year-old man's heartbeat away from the presidency. Barack Obama managed to not get assassinated by some psychotic teabagger asshole, which is a pleasant surprise. The American auto industry finally committed suicide. NASA laid out an ambitious human spaceflight agenda, even though we probably can't afford it. The mean survival time for people infected with HIV (and with access to multidrug therapy) doubled and is now over 20 years. Pinochet died. Michael Jackson followed. Some sort of health care reform passed Congress, albeit a toothless and questionably useful one.

The decade was a mixed bag personally. I quit a job I hated, entered a profession I thought would allow me to make a living, and now, after six years of training and a Ph.D., I make almost three-quarters of what I made in 2000 (actually it's barely half if I take inflation into account) in a field that suddenly offers almost no hope of anything better than temp work. I'm happier despite all that. I became an uncle three times over. I got engaged, de-engaged, and re-engaged. I lost touch with some people and met others. This site went from five unique visitors per month to fifteen or twenty thousand. I got something published in an academic journal, and thus some evidence that I existed could be located if I died tomorrow. My friends and family all did well for themselves personally, professionally, or both. No one, including me, died. I was introduced to rats.

Let's open up the floor – not to our personal ups and downs, but for nominations for the Bests and Worsts of the 00s. I know I missed a lot; the list of Bests feels particularly skimpy (which says a good deal about my personality). Let's do our best to remember a few things about the decade we can't wait to forget.

POINTLESS DIVERSIONS

Posted in Rants on January 6th, 2010 by Ed

Regular readers know that, among other things, I could be described as a sports fan. Many of you probably find that annoying and consider sports to be low brow or flat-out stupid. But I feel the need to preface today's post with a reminder that I like watching football on TV, attending a baseball game, or playing a little basketball as much as anyone. Maybe moreso. I will talk endlessly about historical baseball statistics or the logic of zone blitzing at the slightest provocation. I've been to the World Series and the Super Bowl at considerable cost. I decidedly am not That Guy Who Hates Sports.

OK? OK.

Illinois recently became the latest state with a University system in crisis. On January 5th the interim President of the UI system released a dire assessment of their financial status and announced the kind of draconian cuts becoming common in public universities. His strongly worded statement was no doubt intended to goad the state legislature into action, but it is jarring to see things like this:

"The state’s credit rating has been recently downgraded and among the 50 states only California is worse."

"The consequences for our University and others in this state are unprecedented and worsening. In our case, the University of Illinois has received only 7% of this years state appropriation since the first of July. The shortfall is more than $400 million and mounting. At some point we will be unable to meet payroll and complete the academic year unless there are significant payments from the state as promised."

"In anticipation of next years challenges, academic and administrative support units should consider issuing notifications of non-reappointment for selected individuals in employee classes whose terms and conditions of employment require advance notice of termination."

Thus Illinois joins California, Georgia, Wisconsin, and many other large public university systems in instituting furloughs (which is a nicer way of saying "paycut"), hiring freezes, and tuition hikes to cover substantial budget shortfalls. I understand clearly that state legislatures are cutting funding for higher education because they're broke. They're cutting everywhere they are legally able to make cuts. Fine.

Here is my question: why do broke Universities still have athletic departments? Simply put, programs unessential to the core mission of the university should be eliminated or cut to the bone before a single penny is taken out of academics and research.

The vast majority of athletic programs lose money. And by "the vast majority" I mean almost every single one. The most recent NCAA summary report states that 103 of 119 Division I athletic programs lost money, an average of $8 million per program. And not a single Division I-AA program made a profit. All 118 lost money, many losing over $10 million. Keep in mind that I-AA schools are traditionally small, regional public schools that are poorly funded to begin with.

One of two things needs to happen. First, athletic departments can be subject to the same draconian logic applied elsewhere on campus and forced to make cuts until they break even. This will undoubtedly upset the balance of male and female athletic scholarships mandated in Title IX, as football teams will be far more likely to make money than a track or diving team. If that bothers anyone, here's the second option: do away with all of it. The number of programs that can make money on their own is much smaller than you'd think; just because the football team draws 50,000 fans per game doesn't mean they're not losing money. So off with all of their heads. None of it is essential to a university's mission. The highest paid state employee in any state is inevitably a coach at one of the public universities. The Governor makes $200,000 and Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer or "Coach K" are signed for 5 years, $25 million. If Illinois is so broke that it is legitimately worried about finishing the academic year, why is it paying a few million to its high profile football and basketball coaches?

I like to say that each constituent group of a university is motivated by a single concern. For students, it's drinking. For faculty, it's parking. And for the alumni, it's football. The pressure to maintain athletic programs (and pump money into them until they are good) comes overwhelmingly from alumni, overgrown fratboys who made some oil money and like having their ass kissed when they return to campus. Fine. Make the alumni cough up the money to run the programs at break even or abolish it all. While we're at it, why do the pro sports leagues, from the NFL to the WNBA, get to make billions while using the NCAA as a free developmental minor league? How about this: every time a pro league drafts a college player, the team or league is required to donate $100,000 to the general fund of his or her university along with one full athletic scholarship in that sport.

If drastic times call for drastic measures, why is the least important part of a university exempt from making Tough Choices? The last time I checked, the University of Illinois campuses have basketball teams. Football teams. Women's speed skating teams. All of it costs money and none of it is necessary. If professors are taking 10% paycuts and non-academic staff – administrators, people who clean your kid's dorm, and so on – are being fired, there is no justification for athletic department expenses beyond on-campus recreational/intramural sports. Enough with the bullshit about how "Athletic budgets are separate! They don't take money away from academics!" That sleight-of-hand bookkeeping insults the intelligence of everyone who sees it. Universities have a finite amount of money available and they divert large portions of it to sports. It is a zero-sum game. Tuition is going up, salaries are going down, people are getting fired, and classes are going to get a hell of a lot larger. Athletics, as enjoyable as they may be, are a luxury that we simply cannot afford if the apocalyptic predictions of our policymakers are accurate.

VENDING MACHINE

Posted in Rants on January 5th, 2010 by Ed

Perhaps you caught Rush Limbaugh, he of the $400 million radio contract, marveling at what wonderful care he received in a Honolulu hospital recently. He refused to take questions (notably about the opiates that were in his possession when he was stricken) or "talk about politics" but he did manage to give a typically logical sermon on the glories of free market health care:

"Based on what happened to me here, I don't think there is one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy, and I got nothing special."

We'll assume that his "confidence inspiring" experience left him short a little blood in his brain, and therefore he should get some slack for failing to understand the difference between point-of-service health care and the financial underpinnings of the system. Most Americans believe that outstanding health care is available and the problem, if anything, is that a lot of people can't afford it. Find a way to insure everyone and we'll truly have the best system in the world, right?

I disagree. As long as Rush is playing the anecdotal evidence game, let me share some of my own.

Having insurance is very important to me – perhaps moreso than the average person who lives life without a financial safety net – because I have a couple of chronic health problems that require a Keith Richards-sized handful of expensive medications to keep in check. Lots of people are in similar situations – diabetics, for example, have continuous, substantially above average medical requirements that make them costly members of an insurance pool. The last time I was brave enough to calculate the total, my out-of-pocket cost would be about $1600 per month. So I'm thankful to have coverage.

Anyway, the point is that I already take a lot of pharmaceuticals. I'd prefer to take less, but people who have cancer would prefer not to have cancer. Our health really isn't about our preferences. Last week I saw a new doctor for the first time, given that I've been pretty healthy since moving to a new state. We had the standard new patient visit, just chatting about my overall health. I mentioned that I've had a lot of respiratory problems since moving here, perhaps because of a local allergen that I'm not used to. He said something offhand about this area being bad for allergy sufferers and rattled of a prescription for Symbicort and a second for an Albuterol inhaler. After a perfunctory respiratory exam (which he didn't bother with before giving me the inhalers) he told me I might have a touch of bronchitis, necessitating Zithromax and some cough suppressant I'd never heard of. He noted that my right shoulder sounds like a cement mixer when I raise my arm – an old boxing / drumming / etc. injury that probably requires surgery – and wrote me up for a nice anti-inflammatory.

It almost became a game at this point.

He asked about my sleep habits. I truthfully answered that I sleep terribly, usually a few hours per night. Before the sentence was punctuated he was halfway through the Lunesta prescription. He suggested that given my family history I might consider a beta blocker for high blood pressure – which I don't actually have, but I might get at some point in the future. I considered faking the symptoms of pregnancy to see if he'd give me an epidural, but I let it go. I walked out of the office holding – I shit you not – eleven prescriptions counting my long-term medications and the Appetizer Sampler of other medications he decided I should try based on our 10 minute consultation and a cursory physical exam. Excepting one of the inhalers – I have to admit that my asthma is horrible lately – I threw them all in the trash.

This, to me, is not good health care. This is a vending machine that dispenses pills. It is one step removed from a WebMD-style interface in which one inputs symptoms and presses a button to have pills clatter out of the computer like a slot machine. Like Mr. Limbaugh I'd make the argument that the care I received was in no way exceptional. In fact I consider this pretty standard based on my experience with a lot of doctors over the years. Our health care system, primarily due to the "get 'em in and out as fast as possible" business model of insurance companies and the exaggerated influence of the pharmaceutical industry, makes almost no effort to find out what's wrong with us. It doesn't treat conditions, it treats symptoms. Did my doctor suggest allergy tests to figure out what's causing my problem? A shoulder X-ray? A sleep specialist? Nah. Tests are expensive! Writing prescriptions is easy. Doesn't cost the provider a dime. And let's not hold the public blameless either; we are a nation of people who want quick, chemical solutions. We don't want to make lifestyle changes, we want pills that thin our blood and absorb more cholesterol and put us to sleep and wake us up and give us boners and make pain go away.

I'm certainly not going to go Tom Cruise on you and suggest that taking medicine is inherently bad. But before we crown the American Way the best of all possible worlds we need to examine more closely what those who can afford our health care are receiving. Rather than parroting the all-too-convenient line that our system is great except that some people can't afford it, I'm more interested in "reform" that addresses both cost and quality. Because the latter often falls woefully short of the "confidence inspiring" monument to patient care that makes Rush and his ilk so misty-eyed.

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HONEYMOON IN SAGINAW

Posted in Rants on January 4th, 2010 by Ed

What differentiates the current economic malaise from recessions past, in my opinion, is the lack of an obvious exit strategy. People who know a lot more about economics than I do have suggested that our situation is uncomfortably similar to Japan's real estate bubble in the early 1990s – the one that initiated a fifteen year recession from which the nation never quite emerged. Policymakers seem ill-prepared to address the fact that we may be entering a lengthy period in an economic trough as opposed to a sharp but brief recession from which we'll emerge Better and Stronger than before, as was the case with the early 1990s recession in the U.S.

What is the exit strategy? Sure, real estate prices will probably bounce back at some point (although not to the ridiculous levels of the previous decade) and the financial sector will stabilize. But what is the big growth industry that will fuel our economic recovery? It is beginning to feel realistic rather than pointlessly alarmist to suggest that instead of a "recession" we are actually seeing a downshifting of our equilibrium level of prosperity. Policymakers are beginning to recognize the elephant in the room – the possibility that we might not get back to our previous standard of living. Not this year, and maybe never. Like Americans in the 1970s had to face the fact that the good times of the 1950s were gone for good, today we have to wonder if even the unequally distributed "good times" of the 1990s are better than we can ever hope to see again.

Michigan leads the nation with an official unemployment rate of 14.7% – and a real-world rate that might be twice that. Among other factors, the collapse of the domestic auto industry has hit the state hard. I feel for the state's elected officials. Honestly, what in the hell are they supposed to do? Michigan hasn't stumbled into some sort of temporary economic torpor. It is, for all intents and purposes, dying. The auto industry is never coming back; any growth the "domestic" automakers experience in the future will be driven by production in low-wage countries or, if domestic, low-wage southern states. Michigan has no natural resources that can sustain it the way Texans rely on oil money in hard times. It has no other industry of note. It has a poorly-educated population that most potential employers would avoid at all costs. There is nothing in the state to fuel a recovery and nothing for it to do but sit back and watch its population fall year after depressing year.

Their options are few. Unlike economic sinkholes in the south, Michigan can't even sell itself as a tourist/retiree destination. "Visit Flint" and "Come to Kalamazoo, where it snows so much you'll wish you were fucking dead" don't strike me as winning ad campaigns. Instead they'll probably go the route of Ohio in the Rust Belt eighties – deluding themselves into thinking that they can lure a bunch of "high tech" industry to the state's abandoned cities. As Ohio found out, there are 49 other states with the exact same plan competing for the exact same employers. And since everyone's offering the same deal – tax breaks, free land, eager workforce, etc etc – it's hard to see how Michigan can compete.

I don't mean to pick on our friends in Michigan, and certainly many other states in the Northeast and upper Midwest face the same dilemma. It is a microcosm of our national dilemma – what exactly are we good at anymore? Now that businesses are confronted with such strong incentives to ship jobs overseas, we've created an economic void that hasn't been filled. And we don't even have a half-decent idea of how to start filling it. Without some sort of speculative bubble, be it dot-com stocks or housing prices, to create the illusion of prosperity we as a nation are going to confront the same dilemma with which a few states like Michigan are already faced. The economy we had is gone, maybe forever. And no one appears to have the faintest idea how to replace it. The Clinton-era balm of re-training and educating workers in some vague and unspecified way for some vague and unspecified jobs has been exposed as a fraud. Now we don't even have a half-decent lie to peddle.