Health-care reform passage, preliminary reaction

How do I feel about health-care reform?  Better than if it had not passed, but not very enthusiastic, in the end.  I found this interview by Doug Henwood (March 25, 2010) of a single-payer advocate, Steffie Woolhandler, rather convincing on the question of cost-containment, and for months I had been hearing Robert Scheer say that costs have been skyrocketing in Massachusetts.  (Henwood’s interview of Tom Athanasiou concerning global warming, in the same broadcast, is also excellent.)

On the other hand, my sense is that Americans generally do not want to confront the cost problem, or the explicit rationing that will result if and when the cost problem is addressed more explicitly.

I will have to read the John Cassidy articles in “The New Yorker,” to which we subscribe, referred to by Ross Douthat.  These articles apparently argue that the legislation will likely cause health-care costs to escalate.

My overall sense is that the legislation will do some good for the class of additional Medicaid recipients it creates.  Mainly, I am pleased about the legislative victory for Obama and the reversal of the sense that his would be a failed, and one-term presidency.  It is important that the first black president not be perceived as a failure, or as extremely weak.

I came to believe that financial reform was more important than health-care reform, both on its merits and politically.  Obama ceded too much ground to the Republicans and the new populism represented in part by the Tea Party movement by the way in which the bank bailouts were handled.  I agree completely with Robert Scheer on this point.

I am fundamentally ambivalent.  Part of me wants Obama to be more resolutely progressive/liberal than he has been, and perhaps more so than he actually is, and part of me thinks that this would be politically impossible, regardless of what Obama’s core beliefs are.  One part of the country, the Democratic part, seems to be much more rational than the other part.

I just don’t see how the economic calculations of individual actors can possibly combine, by themselves, to do much to solve the problems of health-care, education,  or global warming.  It’s not that I love government bureaucracy.  No one could possibly love government bureaucracy.  But I don’t love corporate bureaucracy either.  If the proponents of markets would spend some time talking about the problems of  bureaucracy per se, rather than about the problems of government, they would be far more credible.  And it is difficult to see how the profit motive, which is what distinguishes private from public bureaucracy, can really be consistent with providing good and affordable health care for nearly everyone.  The debate that occurred tended not to address this question, but, regrettably, the debate is far from over.

“Accidental Husband” – should have been aborted

“Accidental Husband” is a 2008 romantic comedy directed by Griffin Dunne and used as a star vehicle for Uma Thurman, but it also enjoys the presence of Colin Firth and Isabella Rosellini in supporting roles.  It was released to theaters in the UK but went direct to DVD in the US because its distributor went bankrupt, according to an Internet source.  I saw it last night because it had been on French satellite TV.  It is a terrible movie.  Nearly everyone agrees about that.  But the reason it is terrible, and the reason its script is unbelievable, is that the basic premise is that true love can develop quickly between an upper-middle-class author and radio personality (Thurman), whose career is to dispense advice about love and finding Mr. Right to women, and a working-class stiff in Queens, a firefighter.  It is true that this firefighter has the cosmopolitan trait of being on good terms with an Asian family of vaguely Indian extraction, because he lives in an apartment above their restaurant and because, presumably, he’s an open-minded guy.  The fiancée, who breaks off an engagement or courtship with our firefighter, appears to have been Hispanic.  So the firefighter lives in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Queens and is not a racist.  But does this make it at all likely that the well-off and successful career-girl Manhattanite heroine, who also happens to be a striking beauty, heretofore highly practical in her approach to love, will get wet only for the firefighter?

The only interest to me in this movie is that its plot hinges entirely on a dubious premise about love between people of different social class in America.  No reviewer or viewer of the movie whom I read this morning on the Internet comments directly on this, but this is the only point of the movie.  This raises the question of whether there is a taboo about discussing social class in America in public.  It is the mixing of social classes which drives the plot and makes the movie’s ending entirely predictable.  The only other plot feature of interest is that it’s apparently OK, or even desirable, for an erstwhile upper-middle-class bride in white, including veil, to have premarital sex with the fireman she loves.

The premise of the movie is consistent with serious sociological studies that I have heard about on the Internet.  There are not enough high-earning, well-educated men to go around for the number of highly educated, high- earning women in the US, apparently.  So high-earning women are learning to make do with less well-educated men as husbands, or so I have heard.  My wife and I have not actually run into these couples.  In our own case, my wife made more money than I did in our professional lives, but she is not the better educated one.  We both found the premise of this movie completely unbelievable.  I nevertheless wonder if this misbegotten movie script was conceived in the way that Malcom Gladwell conceives of his very successful writings, if it was ripped straight from the headlines of some work in academic sociology.  In any case, this sociological premise might be interesting to watch if it were presented at all believably, and if the viewer were presented with some of the moments of tension which are likely to arise in the social and extended family lives of married couples in which levels of education and taste differ markedly.

Doug Henwood, often indispensable

Everyone should listen to this edition of Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” (March 13, 2010).

First, you will hear one of the best interviews I have heard about the financial crisis.  The first interviewee is a woman who has written a new book about the financial crisis, and who blogs at Naked Capitalism, under the pseudonym of Yves Smith.  She had experience in investment banking on Wall Street in the 1980’s and now works as a financial consultant.  Everything she says rings true to me.

The second interview is with economist Robert Poland and is also quite good.

America’s relations with Israel

My friend Chris asked via email whether I think that Hillary Clinton’s recent 43-minute phone call to Netanyahu, in which the latter was apparently rebuked for the embarrassing authorization of over 600 new housing units for Israelis in East Jerusalem, represents an important turn in US-Israel relations.  My answer is that I doubt it.  My suspicion is that what the Obama Administration was most upset about were the optics and timing of the authorization, coinciding as it did with Biden’s visit to Israel.  There is as yet no evidence that Obama is prepared to stand up to America’s Israel lobby, and, until that happens, nothing is likely to alter Israel’s intransigence or apparent intention to annex ever more territory in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

I remain puzzled about what advantages the US derives from its “strategic alliance” with Israel.  This is the question raised by the intervention of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt into the debate about America’s relations with Israel.  Robert Wright missed a golden opportunity to address this question while talking to prominent neo-con David Frum recently on bloggingheadstv.…7:49&out=40:36

I am as puzzled by Wright’s failure to address the Realpolitik of America’s relations with Israel as I am by the question of what the calculations actually are which lead America to support Israel so unfailingly, once one leaves the outsized influence of the Israel lobby to one side.

Here, in slightly edited form (edited primarily to remove things specific to the forum, but also to add the value of Israeli intelligence to the US), is what I had to say about this discussion in the bloggingheadstv forums.

“Frum contends that the reason the US should not pressure Israel to concede more to the Palestinians than the relative strength of military forces of Israel v. Palestinians would dictate is that the US has nothing to gain from the application of such pressure. But wait. A lof of people think that the US has much to gain in the Mideast from getting this dispute off the table, more or less. What advantage does the US get from the status quo, or from having Israel as an ally? The most I can come up with is the military advantage of the use of Israel’s air bases and air capability in a future resource war, coupled with intelligence sharing. Frum asserts that such advantages exist, he does not say what they are, and Wright did not press him on this. But that’s a terrible oversight by Wright. The whole point of the Mearsheimer-Walt point of view is that `the strategic alliance’ between the US and Israel is probably no longer in the US interest. Instead of engaging the Realpolitik question, Wright allows the discussion to divagate into the muddy waters of legality, morality, and history of the conflict.

On the question of what happens to the West Bank in the absence of a mediated two-state solution in the near term, it seems to me that a two-state outcome is de facto still more likely than one state, one ends up with two-state by default, that the international community says enough is enough, they prevent wholesale genocide on the West Bank, they cannot disarm Israel, they create a Palestinian state, and so on. In a showdown between Israel’s nuclear capacity and that of the rest of the world, Israel will back down, that’s my bet. It’s just two-state deferred, the only salient point being that the US could never broker a deal because it was prevented by domestic politics from doing so. And the only thing standing in the way of this `inevitable’ outcome, which strikes me as more inevitable than one state, is that there could well be a serious military cataclysm that precedes the solution imposed by the exhausted international community.”

Don’t cry over spilled rice

There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.  Is that a lot or a little?  If one lives for eighty years, that is a bit more than 2.5 billion seconds.  Is that a lot or a little?

Most people have thought that life is too short.  When old age arrives, though, and if it brings serious hardships in its train, as it tends to do, some people are ready to accept death.  Hans Jonas was such a person when I met him.  He was eighty-seven, I think, and was “sated with days.”

Now that I have passed the benchmark of sixty years on the planet, or 1.892 billion seconds, I find that certain things I do seem extraordinarily stupid, in the sense that they are a wasteful use of limited time.  Today, I spilled a small quantity of brown rice.  I picket up the fifteen kernels of rice that were on the kitchen counter and walked ten meters into our wine cellar, opened the tin that stores grains and crackers in the wine cellar and protects them from the intrusion of mice, and then replaced the kernels of rice in the bag from which they had been spilled.  This is behavior that might have made sense when I was in my twenties, but now?  The trouble is, now I have these habits…and a wine cellar that is far from the kitchen.

It makes sense to think differently about how to use one’s time as one grows older, but how differently?  In some ways, the most “philosophical” response to aging might seem to be to change nothing.  One simply accepts mortality and finitude and lives in the moment, as one did as a child.

A Serious Man – an existentialist movie?

We just saw “A Serious Man” in English at one of our local theaters,  in a sparsely attended screening.  We tend to be more than a year behind in our viewing of films.  Now I have read seven or eight reviews of the movie.  I don’t want to say too much about it until I have watched it a second time.

After the screening, our friend E. wrote to us to say that, because of my prompting, she had been rereading “Le petit prince” by Saint-Exupéry and come across a passage in which the prince talks about being a serious man.  Then, in another coincidence, last night I was reading a volume of essays by Hannah Arendt that I have and came across the following passage, in an essay about French existentialism that was published in “The Nation” in 1946:

“”The French Existentialists, though they differ widely among themselves, are united on two main lines of rebellion:  first, the rigorous repudiation of what they call l’esprit du sérieux; and, second, the angry refusal to accept the world as it is as the natural, predestined milieu of man. »

« L’esprit du sérieux » consists essentially in the social roles imposed upon us by society, by bourgeois society more specifically.  I wonder if the brothers Coen were aware of l’esprit du sérieux as a trope in French existentialism when they chose the title and some of the thematic material for this movie.  It seems likely to me that they were.   This is something not mentioned in any of the reviews I have seen.

Ben Ratliff interviews Bennie Maupin

When I heard about Ben Ratliff’s new book, in which he talks with jazz musicians about their reactions to recordings they listen to jointly, I was extremely excited.  And I will acquire and read the book.  But I hope that this video is not representative of the book’s contents:

In this video, Maupin provides almost no analysis of any of the recordings.  The conversation gets reduced to historical anecdotes and things like, “That blew me away.”  This was very disappointing, and if I had paid to hear this conversation, I would want my money back.  Maupin cannot possibly be as unanalytical as this, and Ratliff therefore did a poor job of leading the conversation.  If the problem is that of not wanting to get too technical, then the interviewer and interviewee need to consult with one another prior to the interview about how that problem is going to be addressed.  And I wonder if Maupin really takes Ratliff seriously.

Pat Metheny plays Bordeaux

About three weeks ago, we went to hear our friend Gregg play his American neo-country music with his band in a small bar in the town where he lives.  Dinner was being served to a group of about thirty diners who had come from surrounding towns.  I struck up a conversation with a local denizen at the bar, who turned out to be a chef, and he told me that Pat Metheny had just played in Bordeaux, which is about 1.5 hours from where we live but which we had visited for only one day about ten years ago.  We keep hearing nice things about Bordeaux, which has been greatly spruced up in the mayoralty of Alain Juppé, who fell from grace in a housing scandal when he was Premier Ministre under Chirac.

The day after Gregg’s concert, a Sunday, the man I had met called me on the telephone to say that Metheny had not yet played in Bordeaux, that he would be playing on Tuesday.  So I began research to see if we could get tickets and if we wanted to take the time and spend the money to do so.  Pat Metheny is probably my favorite guitarist of all time.  The ticket offices were not open on Sunday, one could not buy tickets online.  I read a number of online reviews of the concert.  Metheny was doing a one-man show tour with something he calls the orchestrion, a very elaborate one-man band using standard instruments controlled mechanically or electro-mechanically in various ways that I do not fully understand.  Essentially, Metheny plays amplified guitar(s) while accompanied by a large band of instruments, various drums, electric bass, two marimbas, and grand piano.  The band is preprogrammed, although Metheny is able to control what it plays to some extent by using controllers on one of his electric guitars and by using foot switches.  The precise method and degree of control were not explained during the concert, nor are they explained on Metheny’s web site.  He did say during the concert that solenoids play an important role in the control function.

The next day, Monday, I ordered two tickets by telephone, at a total cost of 102 euros, about $141 American at current rates.  To this would be added the cost of getting to and from Bordeaux, autoroute tolls and parking, and the cost of a snack and a dinner in Bordeaux., which would all add up to an additional 96 euros, so it would turn out to be a very expensive concert.

On our drive along the autoroute to Bordeaux, Georgiana played a podcast of “Fresh Air.”  Terry Gross was interviewing Mike Judge, creator of the animated television series “King of the Hill” and its predecessor on MTV, “Beavis and Butthead.”  We had seen many episodes of “King of the Hill” before moving to France.  “Beavis and Butthead” was never much to my taste.  In the course of the interview, a scene from Judge’s most recent movie, “Extract,” is played and discussed.  In this scene, a young woman con artistenters a guitar store and pretends to be interested in buying a guitar for her father, who is having a birthday.  The salesmen in the store ask the attractive young lady what kind of music her father plays or likes, to which she replies that she does not know.  “Does he like Pat Metheny and fusion music?”  Again, she does not know.  It seemed an odd coincidence that the subject of Pat Metheny should arise in the course of an interview of Mike Judge on this particular podcast, which had been chosen more or less randomly.

Our day in Bordeaux was wonderful, however.  We took one of two walks recommended in the Michelin guide around the historic center, which is quite beautiful, if one likes 18th century French architecture.  We stopped along the way at an alternative tea house called the Samovar that could have been in San Francisco.  Bordeaux is not known for being a hip town, as one of the other customers, a long-time resident who does painting restoration in historic buildings, told me.  Its general reputation is that of being stuffy and of being dominated by the bourgeois families in the wine industry.  But under the mayoralty of Juppé, Bordeaux has become more “dynamic,” more hospitable to youth culture.  The weather was crisp and overcast, but we were compensated by an almost complete absence of tourists of any description.  Most of the restaurants were deserted at lunchtime.  We contented ourselves with a lunch of kebab sandwiches and frites, by far the least expensive dining option in France.  We noticed a restaurant that was offering a very reasonably priced prix fixe lunch and which was full and made a tentative plan to return to eat dinner there before the concert.  During our walk, we passed through a small covered shopping mall which happened to house the office of the ticket agency from which I had purchased our Metheny tickets by telephone.  We were able to pick up our tickets there, rather than at the theater, and could therefore avoid the worry of having to deal with will-call at the theater that evening.

I was familiar with the ticket office, because I had spent a day in Bordeaux on my own once, after having dropped Georgiana off at the airport.  On that occasion, I went to a very odd and disappointing exhibition about the history of the Jews in France.  The exhibition took place in a rehabilitated naval facility that looked like it had been used to dock submarines.  During the Middle Ages, Bordeaux had a fairly large Jewish community, mostly exiled from Spain.  I also tried to visit the main synagogue in Bordeaux on that occasion, but it was under renovation.

After our full day of pedestrian tourism, we did ultimately return to the restaurant that had attracted our attention during the lunch hour.  We were the first to arrive for dinner, a little before 7PM.  Waitpeople were on their way out with trays of food.  My wife told the waiter that we are a bit pressed for time, due to a concert.  “Pat Metheny?”  “Yes.”  “Ah, they just went out with food for the band.”   There are hundreds of restaurants in Bordeaux, many of them closer to the Femina Theater than this one.

When we arrived at the hall, after our very reasonably priced and tasty meal, people were being searched for cameras.  As it happened, I had a very small camera in the vest pocket of my windbreaker, since we had spent the whole day as tourists.  The young fellow of North African descent in red livery who was doing the searching asked if I had a camera, so I replied in the affirmative.  “You can’t come in with a camera.  It is written on the back of your ticket.”  “You’ll have to call the police, because I’m going in.”  “You should have left the camera in your car, it’s written on the back of your ticket.”  “The car is too far away, I’m going in.”  And back and forth we went, until finally he said, “Well, you had better not take any pictures,” to which I replied, “I have no intention of taking any pictures.”  Once inside, we read the very fine print on the back of the ticket, and it said that the taking of photos was prohibited, it did not say that cameras were prohibited.  The agency where we picked up the tickets could have told us about such a prohibition, but they had not.  So after the concert  I confronted the young man who had been told to search for cameras and to keep them out of the hall, and we again went back and forth.  He was unconvinced by any of my arguments, legal or prudential.

Our seats were in the very rear of the second balcony of a fairly large hall, and there was no leg room whatever.  I would have been miserable if I had had to sit with my legs jammed up into the seat in front of me for close to three hours.  Fortunately, there was a fold-in aisle seat that extended into the aisle when opened, so I actually had ample leg-room during the concert.

The hall was full, and the audience was attentive and appreciative, as French audiences always seem to be.  The music was very good.  The orchestrion played with only one minor technical glitch during the entire evening, and Metheny himself was in very good form.  The music was very typical Pat Metheny music.  The first half of the concert featured many tunes that he had been playing with Bred Mehldau in a traditional quartet setting, while the second half featured music from his “Orchestrion” album and a familiar oldie played as an encore.  There was some Steve Reich influence in evidence, due to the rhythmic presence of the marimbas.  It was very much like a Pat Metheny Group concert, without the group.  As a sheer technical achievement, it was very impressive indeed.  Musically, it was very good.

For a guitar player, an amateur one with professional aspirations, an experience like this can be either exhilirating and lend encouragement or it can be discouraging.  For whatever reason, I tend to be encouraged by displays of virtuosity.  It was a very memorable concert, and I did not regret at all the money spent to get to Bordeaux and back.

There is little gossip pertaining to Pat Metheny that is available on the Internet.  At one point during the concert, he did vouchsafe that he has a French wife.  But he does not speak French.  It turns out that his wife is French-Moroccan.  Metheny said that he had visited Bordeaux several times as a tourist.  Metheny’s own web site is fairly interesting, although I find his musical recommendations to be somewhat unreliable.  I do not at all understand his principle of selection for pop music, other than that it represents music he likes.  On the other hand, Metheny is quite articulate when discussing music.

The experience raised the question for me of whether there is something like destiny at play in life.  I only found out about this concert by a chance meeting, and it is quite unusual for a French person to take the initiative of calling up a near stranger the day after meeting.  Then it was odd to hear Pat Metheny come up in the podcast on the way to Bordeaux.  It was mildly odd that we walked by chance past the office of the ticket agency, and so were able to get our tickets in advance without any waiting or rushing.  It was certainly odd that, among all the places where one might have eaten dinner before the concert, we chose the one that happened to be catering for the crew of the concert.  A possible after-effect of the concert is that I am spending more time trying to learn the ins and outs of my Boss GT-10 multieffects guitar pedal.