Monday, February 14, 2005

Service and Benefits for Americans

As anyone who knows me (meaning most of the very few readers of this blog) is probably aware, I'm a big proponent of national service. Of course, I'm biased, since I served in the AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps for a year. But I feel that way because I had an incredibly positive experience in the program, so it's not really a biased argument in the same way it would be if I said people over 6'3" should get tax breaks or something.

(For more on my AmeriCorps experience, read this Salon article I wrote about it.)

A couple of recent articles have contained fascinating proposals that tie national service into expanded benefits from the government.

The first came in the Washington Monthly, in a fascinating article I really can't recommend highly enough about how Veterans' hospitals have become arguably the best health care system in the country. This literally shocked me. While I did figure things were better than they appeared in "Born on the Fourth of July," I didn't think they were great. And philosophically, I never saw the point of them. Why can't veterans just get a voucher to go to a regular hospital, I always figured?

The philosophical question remains, but the article points out that for various reasons having to do with economies of scale, an integrated national network, and patients who stay in the same health care system their whole lives, thus giving it incentives to make them healthy in the long-run to reduce costs, (read the article for full details, please), veterals get better health care than any of us who go to private or local public hospitals. So while the system is shrinking because we have fewer veterans, maybe we shouldn't shrink the system, the article points out. Maybe we should maintain or even expand it and let some of us who aren't veterans join in.

How great would it be to be part of a health care system with hospitals across the country and one that can't drop you because you change jobs or are unemployed? Now maybe we should just be able to buy our way in. But author Philip Longman has an even bolder proposal:

What if we expanded the veterans health-care system and allowed anyone who is either already a vet or who agrees to perform two years of community service a chance to buy in? Indeed, what if we said to young and middle-aged people, if you serve your community and your country, you can make your parents or other loved ones eligible for care in an expanded VHA system?

This is, quite simply, a brilliant idea. And it echoes an op-ed I read in the Boston Globe last month, the core argument of which is the following:

With the creation of a National Service Baby Bond initiative, the benefits of an ownership society would be linked to national service. Here's how it would work: the government would invest $6,000 for every child born in America. As proposed by the New America Foundation, if such a bond accrued interest at a rate of 7 percent, this fund would be worth $20,000 when the child turned 18, and would be worth $45,000 by the age of 30. Additionally, parents and family members would be able to contribute to a child's bond tax free.

In order to collect this bond, young people would have to earn their civic stripes by dedicating a year or two of full-time military or domestic service to America. By engaging in a year of full-time service between the ages of 18 and 30, each citizen would earn access to 50 percent of the bond, and through two years of full-time service the remainder of the bond would become accessible. A young person could choose to use his or her National Service Baby Bond to access the American dream by applying it toward the cost of higher education, the down payment on a home, starting a small business or nonprofit, or establishing an IRA for retirement security.

I love both these ideas for three reasons:
1)They each solve one of our nation's most pressing crises: health care (or lack thereof), and the way huge disparities in wealth create unequal opportunity from birth
2)They fix the problem not through an entitlement, but through a system that rewards national service and treats everyone, rich or poor, the exact same. We thus tie what should be the benefits of being an American citizen, like decent health care and a good shot at the beginning of life, into the responsibility of improving the country, which every citizen should share
3)We also get the benefits of citizen service. In the case of AmeriCorps, we get local fixes to major problems like pollution, poverty, educational disadvantage, etc. I also think military service and the Peace Corps should count, so we would get more people defending our country, which the experience in Iraq is showing we need, and get more citizens doing good work around the world and showing the generous side of America, which I think we desperately need given the feelings of many people around the world for our country.

National service = new benefits for all citizens. In my humble opinion, it should be at the heart of American public policy. I may be representative of nobody else, but I know that if any politician ran for office on a platform like this, I'd support him or her like I never have any candidate before.

PS It's worth noting that both these ideas came, in one way or another, from the New America Foundation.

Apparently this post is "citizens' media"

I don't have much to say about Eason Jordan quitting CNN, since to be honest I haven't followed the story intensely and don't care much.

But I'm always fascinated by the tension between bloggers and the professional media they obsess over like Lord of the Rings devotees on a fan fiction website.

I'm particulary interested in the arrogance of some bloggers. One blogger I read occassionally who does some worthwhile work but is also one of the most arrogant and pretentious online is Jeff Jarvis. A term he used in responding to the New York Times' catch-up story on Jordan that was mainly about the role of blogs was particularly interesting to me:

This morning's story by Katharine Q. Seelye, Jacques Steinberg, and David F. Gallagher -- under the headline, "Bloggers as News Media Trophy Hunters" -- is another example of the disdain in which many quarters of The Times -- not all -- hold citizens' media.

Now I happen to find the Times story primarly lame since it had little original reporting and consisted of alot of copying and pasting from blogs, which any moron can do. Surely the journalists at the NY Times should be able to give us more.

But, ummm, "citizens' media"?? Since when did blogs become citizens' media? When I think of the term "citizens' media," I think of a media that has the interests of citizens as its core mission. It actually sounds like some kind of socialist-esque news operation (which, if it was done the right way, might not necessarily be a bad thing; but that's a whole separate issue).

Blogs, however, are just an outlet where anybody can write their thoughts. Some bloggers are, as CJR Daily editor Steve Lovelady so tactlessly put it in an email, "salivating morons." Others provide interesting insight on the news. A few even do some original reporting. But many -- I would say most -- don't even qualify as news media (yes they are "media," in the same way all communication is "media" by definition). They're just random people spouting their opinions.

These blog triumphalists like Jordan and so many others drive me crazy when they tout themselves so highly. Yes, they sometimes move the "national conversation." Yes they are a great way to find interesting stories or get a new interpretation on stories. And as we argued at the end of All the President's Spin, they can be a great tool for fact-checking the "mainstream media."

But are they "media" in the way we coloquially use the term to refer to the Washington Post or local news station or To me there's a simple way to answer that question. If blogs disappeared, would the professional media manage? They'd have less fodder for stupid articles like the one about Jordan from today's NY Times; they might miss a few important stories blogs have helped push like Trent Lott and Eason Jordan; they might feel less pressure to avoid offending people who have a loud mouthpiece online. In other words, they would be slightly worse off, but they'd certainly survive and do well.

Where would this alleged "citizens' media" be without the dreaded MSM (mainstream media)? Nowhere. Where would they learn news to comment on? Whose articles would they fact check? What outlets would they disparage as having a political bias? Who would they constantly accuse of just not getting it?

This topic of people who confuse commentary with actual journalism -- a phenomenom we even see in the professional media (*cough* Slate *cough*) -- is one I'll return to in the future, as it really drives me crazy.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Hollywood PR hackery

The following note from a studio publicist made its way into Variety recently. It is indeed the job of a very well paid person to write clarifications to the press such as #2 below:

Cynthia Schneider is sending you a release about her client, Craig T. Nelson, being cast in THE FAMILY STONE.

Just a couple of additions/changes:

1) other cast members are: Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Dermot Mulroney, Claire Danes

2) in the description of the movie, please delete “self-absorbed Gotham socialite” and replace with “high strung New York businesswoman”

Call me if you have any questions!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Dean backlash

My good friend Brendan jumps on the small anti-Dean bandwagon, but I think he's too pessimitic.

(Side note: the extremely small number of people who read this blog will note that I seem to link to and comment on Brendan's blog more often than others. There's a simple reason: Since I don't follow politics closely these days, Brendan's is one of the very few blogs I still read.)

Brendan cites and approvingly quotes a vicious piece by Jonathan Chait, who has written some fantastic articles for The New Republic about George W. Bush's spin on economic issues. (And who gave a very nice blurb for my and Brendan's book.) But it's also a column that ignores a lot of relevant information in making an assessment of Dean.

To start, I have to say that when it comes to judging Howard Dean, Chait is one of the last people on the left I would turn to. During the primary, Chait wrote a blog devoted entirely to bashing Howard Dean. I suspect he would find something negative to say if Howard Dean saved a baby from a burning building.

Given how devoid of leadership and ideas the Democrats seem to be, I think they would benefit greatly from a chairman with some national stature and dynamism. When you're talking about someone like that, you're usually talking about someone who has a record with plenty to pick on.

Howard Dean has that, of course. He said some embarassing things and ran a campaign that proved to have support that was very shallow beyond a core group. But of course, everyone in the world thought he had the campaign sewn up in December of 2003, not just him.

Stuff like Garance Franke-Ruta's quotes from his campaign staffers are just silly. I think any journalist could find staffers from a presidential campaign, especially a losing one, with negative things to say about their boss. (Unless they work for Bush, in which case I believe there is a mental implant that shocks them if they ever go off message in front of a reporter)

And yes, Dean sometimes went off message. But he got great press during his campaign until he started losing. I don't think anyone should really be criticizing his skills in dealing with the press. I don't see any reason to believe that he couldn't stay on message when appearing on CNN to spread some DNC talking points. I saw him on Real Time with Bill Maher a month or two before the election and he was totally on message talking up John Kerry. The man isn't clueless.

Perhaps the most damning thing that could be said about Dean's campaign was how quickly they burnt through the money. Chait accurately points out that "Dean, remember, raised about $50 million by positioning himself as the most anti-Bush candidate, but blew through it so fast that he was nearly broke by January." But that's the kind of thing that's easy to say in hindsight. Given how the primaries unfortunately work, winning Iowa and New Hampshire is key, as Kerry found out. If things had gone better for Dean and he had won Iowa and New Hampshire, he would have rolled through later primaries and raised more money and everyone would have praised his financial acumen. Furthermore, the next few primaries after Iowa and New Hampshire, like South Carolina, were ones he probably wasn't going to win, so it seems to me to make sense to have spent heavily in those two states. That's not to say it was the right decision, but it's not as obvoiusly wrong as Chait makes it out to be.

Oh, and Chait points out that only 27% of Democrats approve of Dean. I can't access that poll on the Wall Street Journal, but I wonder how many approve of Simon Rosenberg or Donnie Fowler? I bet very few, since nobody knows who those people are. It hardly seems like a fair comparison.

And to my mind there are many positives Chait ignores. Dean is well respected in the base, which matters more than Chait wants to admit (the base didn't win the last campaign, but they helped Kerry get very close). And what about Dean's time as governor of Vermont? He was elected five times, balanced the budget, supported gun control, and created a model health insurance program. And while Vermont clearly leans left, it isn't San Francisco, and he certainly had to appeal to a more rural constituency than most Democrats are used to.

Actually, this article in The New Republic about the selection process for DNC chair (which exposes the flaws of letting the DNC members vote, but doesn't seem to dwell on the top-down selection that got us the unauspicious chairmanships of Terry McAuliffe and Ron Brown) shows why Dean may be an excellent DNC chair. Think he was too undisciplined during his presidential run? He clearly ran a campaign that gave those voting for DNC chair exactly what they needed to hear to vote for him. Think he's a clueless liberal? Dean took that head on and pointed out that his record is a lot more than what Joe Trippi made him in the presidential campaign, for better or worse.

Most importantly, Dean wants Democrats to take the mantle of "reform," which if implemented correctly is exactly what we need to be. He's clearly someone who gets we need fresh, big, easily understandable ideas.

Will Dean be a great DNC chair? I'm not sure, but I think he certainly could be.

One thing I am sure of is that simplistic attacks like Chait's that ignore both Dean's tenure as governor and what he had to say while running for DNC chair aren't very helpful in figuring that out.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Corporate praise

Yesterday, my boss at my journalism job dropped the following letter on my desk. Some things are pretty much beyond commentary. So I have retyped it for your enjoyment. Make of it what you will:

Dear Benjamin:

I am happy to congratulate you on your first year of service with Reed Business Information. As a part of the RBI team, you have added value to the company while helping to achieve our organization's strategic goals.

Formally recognizing your time and service is one aspect of RBI's commitment to your success. Under the Reed Elsevier conviction of Valuing Our People [ed's note: yes, that is capitalized in the letter], we feel it is important to recognize those who stay with RBI in the long run. After five years of employment and every five years thereafter, you will be eligible for the RBI Service Recognition program, which offers a memento gift and an announcement in the company newsletter marking your anniversary. [ed's note: I am told the memento gifts include a film camera -- not digital -- and a picture frame]

The service you provide to the company ensures our continued success and innovation. It also helps you achieve your own professional development and growth. RBI supports employees who seek out internal growth opportunities, and we embrace teh efforts of those who wish to be continually challenges and stimulated in their careers.

Again, congratulations on your first year with RBI. I wish you great success in the future.


Jim Casella
Chief Executive Officer

(As you might suspect, his signature is very obviously printed by a computer)

Not blogging is so freeing

I rarely find Glenn Reynolds' commentary on Instapundit worthwhile for any reason beyond a good insight into that particular brand of snarky and arrogant center-right commentary so prevalent on blogs. But I really agree with part of this post in which he talks about the burden of blogging:

There are two downsides to blogging. One is that it can fill up your time, one five-minute chunk after another. The other -- much worse -- is that it forces you to pay attention to the news, which is usually depressing, infuriating, or frightening, or some combination of all three.

That summarizes quite well the intense feeling of relief I had when we finally ended Spinsanity. As proud as I am of the work we did there, I was exhausted. Not only from writing for it several times a week, but to a large extent from having to follow the news so closely. Spinsanity, quite simply, made me sick of politics. It has been so much fun in the past few months to only pay attention to politics when I feel like it. Sometimes I go a few days without reading the news at all. And when I feel about it, like the SOTU or Kerry's interview on Meet the Press Sunday, I pay some attention.

It's just not my job anymore. I can free my mind to think about other things. Even more trivial things. Which is weird, because I used to be this total politics nerd who followed it intensely. Which probably explains why even though I have acted like a typically apathetic 20-something for the past few months, I was able to identify most of the senators who appeared on screen during the SOTU last night, much to my girlfriend's amusement.

It's odd that Spinsanity has made me so politically apathetic, I suppose. But after nearly four years of spending much of my free time on a website and book I think were vaulable contributions to the political discourse, I figure I deserve to be a slacker for a while.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Shift on Thrift

I was pleasantly surprised that I liked some of Bush's State of the Union tonight. Especially on foreign affairs, where he dropped the ideological arguments for Iraq and sounded good, assertive notes on democracy in places like Ukraine and lack of it in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. What didn't I like? He didn't even mention the tsunami, which strikes me as a real blunder in terms of talking about America showing its generous side to the world. And he didn't mention the (near?) genocide in Darfur, which would seem like the most obvious example of freedom not being on the march around the world.

Then of course there's domestic issues, where Bush was his usual deceptive self. He claimed he's going to make his tax cut permanent, continue the course in Iraq, and cut the deficit in half in five years, which is of course impossible, even if you use Bush's dishonest standards. He claimed Social Security would be bankrupt in 2040, which rightfully drew jeers from Democrats who knew it was a dishonest statement (I wonder if I can declare bankruptcy if a time comes when I can only pay about 80% of my bills?). And he said the following, which really caught my attention:

Personal retirement accounts should be familiar to federal employees, because you already have something similar, called the Thrift Savings Plan, which lets workers deposit a portion of their paychecks into any of five different broadly-based investment funds. It's time to extend the same security, and choice, and ownership to young Americans.

As far as I can tell, this is thorougly dishonest. As this AARP document makes clear, the government's Thrift Savings Plan is "one part of the Federal Employee Retirement System that also includes Social Security and a defined benefit pension." But Bush's private/personal accounts are not part of a plan that also includes Social Security; they partially replace Social Security.

I wonder how government employees would feel if their contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan caused concomitant deductions in their guaranteed Social Security benefit? Methinks they would protest. But too few people seem to protest when it comes to Bush's thoroughly dishonest sales campaign for Social Security, just one more in a repertoire of dissembling (see All the President's Spin for the first term highlights).

(I also largely liked the Democrats' response, at least on substance. But somebody needs to give Harry Reid a charisma injection and teach Nancy Pelosi how to move her face when she looks at the camera. [Yes, I am ashamed to be focusing on the stylistic here, but I don't think anybody out there really cares to hear about why I think Democrats are mostly right on the issues])

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The year in moving pictures

Last week I finally saw the the last movie from 2004 that I wanted to see (an event that usually happens about a month into the following year), so I'm ready to share with a world that doesn't care my picks for best and worst films of the year.

My choices for the year's best films are those that both impressed me in their craft and engrossed me with their story. So the well made but boring "Finding Neverland" doesn't make the list, nor does the engrossing but quite high quality "Hellboy."

As for the worst list, it's a mix of movies that were just plain awful and those that were pretentious and unnecessarily lauded, two things I really hate.

I'm just picking an arbitrary number for each list. However many I think belong.

The best

1. Tie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunset
Although I am deep down a romantic, it's rare that I see a romantic movie that really gets to me. This year there were two. "Eternal Sunshine" is a brilliantly made film with a structure that helps to tell its story and make its point. This is a movie with a point, but it makes it through its storytelling, not by banging you over the head or, until the very end, even stating it. And it's a point with which I thoroughly agree: Even if you knew in advance all the heartache and pain that love will bring, love would still be worth it. Which goes to show that if you're truly in love, it's always worthwhile to stick to together and make it through the inevitable problems.
As for "Before Sunset," it has no structure to speak of. Two people spend 80 minutes talking. But the conversation is so real and the personalities so distinct and interesting and familiar that it's a compelling story. I think most of us have had the experience of a passionate (perhaps foolish) love/attraction when we were younger that didn't last or wasn't meant to be. And most of us who have gotten a few years into adulthood know what its like to deal with the disapointments of life, many of which are due to our own poor choices. I think if our slightly more mature self came face to face with that younger passionate self, this movie is exactly how the conversation would go. And the raw attraction on the screen between Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply (not chemistry and not lust, but attraction) is amazing. It was so real that it reminded me what the feeling is like. Really an amazing accomplishment.

3. Million Dollar Baby
I agree with most of the positive reviews. It's a moving and compelling story of three weird people who have, in their own unique way, deep love for each other. And these are very unusual people and a very unusual setting to see in a film. The controversial final act only serves to make those relationships revealed and raw.

4. Sideways
You all know why. It's funny and deep and has a painfully real humor that Alexander Payne seems to capture so brilliantly. It's not as good as "Election," but that's an extremely high standard.

5. Hotel Rwanda
This movie definitely has faults. In particular, some of the exposition is a bit awkward and the photography early in the film is almost laughably bad. It looks like a TV movies from the early 80s. But the story is so compelling, some moments are so moving, and Don Cheadle's performance is so tremendous that I couldn't help but love it. I was particularly impressed at the way it conveys the physical and emotional horror of the Rwandan genocide without having to show the slaughter in detail.

6. Touching the Void
A British documentary/recreation that came out last spring about a pair of British climbers who nearly die and one of whom has to make it down the mountain with a severely broken leg. It doesn't linger on the grossness of the injury, but really effectively conveys what it would feel like to be severely injured and left for dead on a mountain and how a person could actually make it down the mountain alone in that condition. A scene near the end where he has to go about a mile with a crutch that falls on every step is particularly painful (in a good way). I don't think any other movie made me understand the protagonist's situation better than this one all year. And the fact that it was real is even more amazing.

The worst

1. Napoleon Dynamite
Easily one of the most loathsome works of art ever. I have never seen a film that had more hatred for its own characters. The entire movie exists only to hold its characters up for ridicule. We're supposed to laugh with the filmmakers at the simple, stupid, unfashionable rural people. It's also shockingly racist, with latinos who are naturally gangbangers and a black woman who turns a white guy she hangs out with into a gangsta. There's no excuse for anyone over 18 to not be horrified by this film. (Of course all the 20-something hipsters I saw it with in Los Feliz loved it)

2. Garden State
Not really a terrible film, but so pretentious it had to be on the list. It's been a long time since I saw a movie with such a yawning gap between its belief that it's saying something deep and the utter shallowness of its content. Zach Braff mistakes clever moments (like a guy in a sidecar) with a clever film, which this is not. Ultimately this movie has nothing beyond stupid obvious points to make and its pretensious of being the new "Graduate" are insulting even to that awful stage version of "The Graduate" with Jason Biggs.

3. Van Helsing
For exactly the reasons you're thinking. I know it seems obvious, but trust me, it really is that bad. To not note its awfulness would be libelous.