Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Favorite Reads of 2017

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Of the books I read this year, these stand out.


The Last Girlfriend on Earth And Other Love Stories, Simon Rich (2016)

Inventive, quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny short stories about seeking, finding and losing relationships. A boy's coming of age is chronicled by the condom he carries in his wallet. A Scared Straight program warns young men what lies ahead (trips to Bed Bath & Beyond) if they continue to pursue relations with women. A man's personal ad seeks an intelligent woman named Chloe because he has that name indelibly tattooed on his chest. The stories are very short—the last one mentioned is a mere two paragraphs—and eminently readable.

Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

Julia Pastrana was an oddity. Born with genetic defects that left her covered in Black hair and enlarged lips, she performed as the “ugliest woman in the world” and was often billed ass the like between. Orphans of the Carnival creates a story of her life that sounds almost contemporary. In the story the reader sees Julia as a woman seeking her own identity in a world that considers her a freak. She veers between frustration and helplessness at her condition and a woman who is able to leverage her uniqueness into a small fortune. The reader also gets a taste of the hoopla surrounding her in life and in death.

The Delight of Being Ordinary, Roland Merullo (2017)

Subitled “A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama”, the story takes the reader on a short getaway by Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. The trip is the Pope's idea, much to the dismay of his personal assistant and cousin, Paolo, whom he asks to arrange the trip during the Dalai Lama's visit to the Vatican. The Pope has been disturbed by dreams of Benito Mussolini and other signs and wants to get away. The Dalai Lama accepts the Pope's invitation and Paolo smuggles them out of the Vatican with the help of make-up, disguises and a Maserati provided by his ex-wife. The trip ranges through the Italian countryside, explorations of religious doctrine and its meaning in real life and relations between husband and wife. The plot is sufficiently plausible for the reader to suspend belief and simply enjoy its clever twists, philosophical excursions and lyrical descriptions of the Italian countryside.

The Eastern Shore, Ward Just (2016)

Ward Just, who began his career as a journalist, traces the career of Ned Ayres from the small-town Herring, Indiana Press-Gazette town to Washington, DC and ultimately to the sunset of the American newspaper. Ayres begins his career by skipping college to dive straight into local reporting, defying his father's expectations. Immersed in the immediacy of the daily newspaper. He very quickly develops editorial skills which become the basis of his career, taking him to Indianapolis, Chicago and ultimately Washington. Just weaves this story around the routine of the newspaper and its allure for one man—Ayres never marries—and tells it with fully developed characters in a coherent story line. The story celebrates the heyday of the American newspaper, when the news printed on its pages was as vital as any electronic marvel we enjoy these days. And the story also sees the end of that printed consequence as those electronic marvels changed how news is transmitted. Writing (or mostly not writing) his memoirs in retirement on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Ayres gently drifts into history along with his profession.


Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy (2015)

Non-fiction. Hill and Gaddy trace the rise of Vladimir Putin from obscurity to his implacable hostility to the west. They dissect the various influences on his thinking and action. Putin is at once the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the Operative. Each of these influences informs his thinking and serves as the basis for his actions. The last—the Operative—examines his career as a KGB and FSB agent and shows how he uses those skills to probe, understand and outmaneuver his adversaries. Gaddy and Hill also demonstrate that Putin is a strategic thinker with a clear understanding of what he wants and plans accordingly. They note that he is flexible in his methods if not his goals. They also point out his weaknesses. Putin has had little contact with westerners or understanding of western thought and is prone to fall back on stereotypical Russian fears of external threats. He is also a one-man show, ultimately responsible for all aspects of Russian national life when his subordinates fail to meet the expectations. They warn that Putin should be taken seriously.

Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Svetlana Alexievich (2016)

Svetlana Alexievich interviews Russians and other former Soviet nationalities on the fall of Communism and the rise of oligarchic capitalism. The voices she records span the gamut from the most dedicated Soviet to the most fervent new capitalist. Throughout the work are the stories of people who feel betrayed by the change, either from the loss of everything they believed in and worked for as citizens of the Soviet Union or from the sense that the new Russia is a diminished rump state where the only value is money and riches. Interestingly, the picture that emerges from the stories resembles what Americans feel about their own nation in the early 20th century, that the nation is diminished from its great power days and is beset by alien immigrants who threaten its longstanding culture.

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, Rosa Brooks (2016)

Non-fiction. Rosa Brooks, an attorney specializing in international law and experience in both the US State and Defense departments, examines the nature of war and the military in the 21st century. She argues convincingly that the separation between war and peace that human society has long attempted to maintain is becoming less operable in a world where war is no longer only between nation-states and can take on different forms that are not readily addressed by military solutions. Brooks describes the asymmetrical nature of war in the post-911 era and the dangers it poses to American democracy and institutions. She further details the extensive efforts societies have made throughout history to contain war, noting that each era developed norms based on their understanding and experience of war. Central to the discussion is the idea that any construct we use to understand war, peace, civilian, military and even the nation-state is in reality nothing more than an attempt to understand and control events. In effect, humans thought it up, humans can also change it. Of course, changing long-held beliefs and arrangements is never easy and Brooks' experience provides her with a unique perspective for recommendations that attempt to bridge the civilian-military divide and develop workable arrangements to tame the all-too-present human tendency for aggression.

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam andthe Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016)

An extended essay on how societies, with particular emphasis on the United States and Vietnam, remember and mis-remember war. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American son of refugees who fled South Vietnam after the Communist victory in 1975 and is now a professor at the University of Southern California. All societies remember their own war dead as heroes and remember the enemy for all of their duplicity and aggression according to Nguyen. But this universal predilection is a barrier to full reconciliation because the two sides remain at odds. Even when a society seeks to recognize the adversary, reconciliation is incomplete with out fully recognizing the humanity and inhumanity on both sides. Nguyen also notes that war memories are highly circumscribed, focusing primarily on soldiers and ignoring the civilians or other nations affected by the war. This is a highly philosophical work and worthy of a second read.


Friday, December 01, 2017

Tax Cut Clusterfuck

And why is all this happening? You are afraid of losing your donor base! Oh, dear. That would be terrible, wouldn't it? No doubt, it would be maybe the worst thing ever that could happen. So that justifies bypassing Regular Order and thorough vetting of the bill's provisions to enact a jury-rigged bill developed in secret whose provisions are unknown to many senators even as they are called to vote on it. Sure it does. You already have your own set of “facts” and ignore the non-partisan and professional analyses that strongly suggest that your tax plan is a bad idea.

As of this morning, it looks like you may get your wish. I can only hope that I am wrong. Regardless of the bill's fate, I know one thing: Senate Republicans (along with House Republicans and our alleged president) only care about passing something, anything to “prove” that Republicans can govern. Americans' economic security and future opportunity? You talk a good game but it's mostly hyperbole and re-cycled voodoo economics. Real economics suggests that you are doing the wrong thing at the wrong time just to keep your party alive.

Party first! Damn the consequences. 

The Republican Party in 2017.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Reading this story about the Republican tax bill today I flashed back to my year in Vietnam.  The article describes a bill whose likely effect may well harm the nation's economy according to many economists.  The bill is also highly unpopular among the public.  And still the Republicans continue to push this bill through Congress to show that they can actually accomplish SOMETHING after a year of factional disarray and legislative impotence.  The tax bill may not be good for the nation but it keeps the Republican donor base happy.

The tax bill's displaced objectives remind me very much of my year in Vietnam.  Rather than risking our lives for some great national purpose, we were there in 1971 mainly to keep Richard Nixon from becoming "the first President to lose a war."  We were fighting and dying to provide political cover for a politician.  I've never forgotten the the hopelessness and anger I felt in those days.

More important than my feelings then was that along with the death and destruction we inflicted on Vietnam, the war damaged the United States, morally and economically. Nixon's "Vietnamization" policy simply prolonged and increased that damage.  The tax cut may not pose the same level of personal risk that my military service did but I sure have the sense that public power and policy are being used for narrow purposes to the detriment of the larger public.

All because the politicians are afraid.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Missing the Bigger Picture

Saw some interesting observations about health insurance reform in the news this past weekend.  First off is James Davis:
James Davis, who runs communications for the Koch network, lamented that the conversation on health-care reform has focused too much on the number of people who have insurance — regardless of premiums or what kind of care those who have it will receive — and not enough on outcomes.
Hard to argue with looking at outcomes.  I spent my entire professional career evaluating the results of public programs and know that, in the end, public programs should produce the desired results.  I also know that identifying and measuring those results can be difficult, but health care has some definite outcomes for for society as a whole.  Mr. Davis is right to ask about results.  It would not take long for him to find that:
 The United States health care system is the most expensive in the world...[and]...underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance.
Mr. Davis did not say how he would define health outcomes but his statement suggests that he would encourage the Koch brothers to look for ways to promote improved performance at lower costs.  He may not need to do a great deal of research.

Perhaps a magic free market Koch brothers-approved system will change the trajectory of American heath outcomes but I doubt it.  So far, the most successful system the US has come with was the Republican-inspired Affordable Care Act and the Republicans HATED that.  It did reduce the number of uninsured but insurance does not guarantee actual health care.  On the other hand, the ACA did little to reduce costs.  It definitely needs work but I don't have much faith in the Koch's free market libertarian solutions. 

Also in the news is Pennsylvania Senator Patrick Toomey defending a change in the funding formula that will index Medicaid payments to the states to changes in the overall consumer price index rather the typically higher medical price index:
"The idea that there’s a sector of our economy that has to permanently have a higher inflation rate than the rest of our economy is ridiculous,” Toomey said Thursday. “I think that it’s absolutely essential to putting [Medicaid] on a sustainable path so that it will be there for future generations.”
Senator Toomey said the change was needed to “transition to a normal inflation rate” for a program in which he said costs were spiraling out of control.  Here, too, I can't argue with his underlying premise.  Program costs should not spiral out of control.  But he would simply refuse to address the causes of those spiraling costs.  Instead, he would fund Medicaid only to certain point regardless on the impact it will have on access to medical insurance (which may not guarantee health care but is a sine qua non for any hope of obtaining medical treatment).  When the funding runs out so will insurance coverage for many.

What neither of these men seem to wonder is why American health care costs are spiraling out of control even as the country spends far more per capita than any other nation.  This is a complex question that deserves considerable debate and discussion.  It is not a question that can be crammed into partisan legislation and voted on the quick-time.  Of course, in today's Congress, partisan legislation enacted in haste is exactly what we will get.


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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Violence is Not Left or Right. It is Violence.

In the wake of the GOP ballpark shooting, politicians and pundits have been warning about the dangers of "left wing violence" and calling for restraint.  Which is fucking balderdash when you consider that in the past 10 years right-wing extremists have been responsible for about 74 percent of murders committed by domestic extremists in the United States

But more important than left- or right-wing violence is the fact of violence itself.  Violence is violence, an unfortunate human trait that is not always easy to predict or prevent.  What we can do, though, is look for the clues.  One clue is a  history of domestic abuse.  Maybe, just maybe, their previous violent behaviors could disqualify them from owning a weapon, especially weapons of mass destruction such as assault rifles and high-capacity automatic handguns.  That way, even when we miss all of the clues, the carnage is likely to be much less.

One of the enduring lessons of my military service is how easy it is to kill another human being.  Walking through the jungle in Vietnam with an M-16 in my hand it was disturbingly obvious that I could kill the guy in front of me just by pulling the trigger.  Any number of reasons, including the fact that such an act would be just plain wrong, kept me from acting on that thought.  You don't need any imagination to know what carnage an individual blinded by ideology, well-armed and acting with the element of surprise can inflict.  We have too many actual examples.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Another Virginia Primary Election

Today's Virginia primary election brings back vivid memories.  In June 1969 I was 21 and newly eligible to vote in that year's gubernatorial primary.  And what an election it was.  An insurgent liberal state senator was a candidate for the Democratic nomination, challenging the ordained candidate of the Byrd Organization which had dominated state politics for the past four decades and was notable for its support for segregation and extreme fiscal conservatism.

But in 1969 Harry Byrd was four years dead and Virginia, along with the nation, was changing.  The incumbent governor, Mills Godwin, was an Organization stalwart who introduced Virginia's first state sales tax, and increased spending for highway construction,state mental health facilities and a newly-created community college system.  Enough to make old Harry spin in his grave.

The Organization and its traditional politics still held much sway in Virginia and the Lieutenant Governor, was its preferred candidate.  State Senator Henry Howell from Norfolk was a long-shot candidate backed by labor unions, civil rights groups and Virginians who wanted to build on and expand the previous four years.  Howell challenged the prevailing political attitudes in Virginia and decried the cozy relationship between state government, big business and utilitiy companies.  That was shocking enough for Virginia.  Even worse, Howell was loud and brash, running a campain to "Keep the Big Boys Honest" and pointing out that "Mrs. Moneybags" didn't pay sales tax on her hair-dos but even the poorest Virginians paid sales tax on food and medicine.  Virginia ladies and may have haughily dismissed him as "Howling Henry" but I and others loved him for just that reason.

So concerned was the Organization about a possible Howell victory that some of its leaders encouraged a the son of a former governor to run as a centerist "moderate" candidate.  His primary qualifications were a recognized name and service as ambassador to Australia.  It was enough, though.  He eaked out a narrow victory over Howell in a three-way race and a slightly higher margin in a run-off election.  In the end, though, Virginians were ready for a change and elected Linwood Holton, the first Republican to serve as Virginia governor since Reconstruction.  In many respects, Holton was the second most liberal candidate for governor after Howell.

The 1969 gubernatorial election and Henry Howell pretty much defined my politics for the rest of my life.  Howell never did become Virginia's governor but he was a public official with a genuine concern for the disposessed and excluded.  His skepticism of the established order has always resonated with me.  So this year, when the entire nation is watching Virginia and Democratic candidates are as liberal as ever ran for governor, I can look back and see where it all started.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

Looking Back

June 1st passed without my noting the 13th anniversary of Unsolicited Opinion.  I began posting to this site in the second year of the Iraq war and have kept at it ever since, although more sporadically in recent years.  These days I am more inclined to post my thoughts to Facebook since more people are likely to see them there than on this blogtopian backwater.  I like the interaction I get there as opposed to the occasional comment that came my way through this site.

But Facebook is not especially good for long-form pieces where I want to include source links and explore issues in any detail.  That kind of writing belongs here.  Which is another reason that more time passes between posts.  I am less likely to be writing long-form pieces lately.  One reason is that I am working on a memoir of my Vietnam experience which has absorbed much of my energy in the past couple of years.  Aside from the routine challenges of writing, the subject matter makes requires much energy that has left me with little inclination to write longer pieces.  Much easier these days to post a quick comment or link to a story on Facebook and be done.

Maybe, too, I am running out of energy to be outraged.  Back in 2004, the outrage was palpable and the ideas flowed easily.  These days I'm no less outraged but the energy is not as strong.  I often feel like I'm just rehashing the same pieces to an audience in the high (maybe) single digits.

Still writing has its value, if only for me.  I don't think I'll stop writing Unsolicited Opinion but the volume may continue to be low.