Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chicago defends its title: Best political town in the US

Perhaps you are ignorant, and believe that DC or even New York have more interesting political cultures than Chicago. This isn't really forgivable, but I'll let it slide, since it's New Years Eve. Let me simply make the case, based on this article by Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times over the weekend.

In Chicago in 2009, Mayor Daley reached 20 years as mayor of the city his father had governed for 21, marking the imminent demise of his father's title as longest-serving mayor in the city's history. Despite running the city so ruthlessly that he's never once had a serious challenger since being elected in the first place, it's still possible for reporters to write sentences like, "[Richard M. Daley] responded by showcasing a political resiliency that has long been underestimated." If you run any other city in America for two straight decades, and never once face serious electoral opposition, nobody will underestimate your political resiliency. But such is the mark that his father left on the city (titles of books about him include "American Pharaoh", "Boss", "Himself!", "Clout" and "The Last Boss") that Richie may never fully emerge in his own right, despite being a fairly fascinating character himself.

In Chicago in 2009, the City privatized its parking meters for the next 75 years, earning $1.5 billion and blowing it all almost immediately to shore up a massive budget deficit. The City's Inspector General concluded, shortly after the deal went through, that taxpayers would have been nearly $1 billion better off over the 75 years, had the City retained the rights to the meters.

In Chicago in 2009, a 14-year-old talked his way into a police uniform and even got to drive a squad car, before it was discovered he was a) 14 years old and b) not a member of the police force. Daley was not pleased with this development.

In Chicago in 2009, the head of the city's schools left to become US Secretary of Education, triggering a cabinet shuffle involving the head of the city's transit agency and the Aviation Commissioner, which preceded another cabinet shuffle involving a dozen of the mayor's top advisers and commissioners.

In Chicago in 2009, Al Sanchez, the former head of the outrageously clout-heavy Streets and Sanitation department and the nearly-equally-clout heavy Hispanic Democratic Organization (Southeast) was convicted of hiring fraud. Two weeks ago, a judge ordered the case be retried, ensuring embarrassing testimony will be replayed.

In Chicago in 2009, police officers marched around City Hall chanting "Daley sucks!" during the International Olympic Committee's final visit to the city before giving the Olympics to Rio. The cops were mad because Daley rescinded a promised 16% pay increase (that they had already been critical of for being too small) as a result of the ongoing budget crisis.

In Chicago in 2009, the mayor's nephew was forced to drop out of a deal involving $68 million in city pension funds, following a wave of federal subpoenas. Daley publicly criticized the nephew, an event entirely without precedent among the Daley family.

In Chicago in 2009, the International Olympic Committee, after having extracted from Daley a promise to guarantee basically any expense the games incurred in Chicago (which he'd earlier, repeatedly, promised taxpayers he wouldn't grant), gave the games to Rio de Janeiro instead.

In Chicago in 2009, a well-connected alderman under investigation for accepting $40,000 in shady payments from a developer (yawn), agreed to wear a wire, which has just begun to yield indictments.

In Chicago in 2009, the President of the Board of Education was found shot in the head beside the Chicago River, an apparent suicide. It's not clear why he would have killed himself, but he had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury following a scandal regarding admissions to elite city high schools (like my alma mater, whose principal - my old principal! - was forced to testify.)

In Chicago in 2009, Oprah announced she was leaving the city in 2010, and Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up in the Air

If you haven't seen it, you really should. There's a lot to like about it, but I've noticed that the critical consensus has focused on the slickness of it, the vacuum-packaging. Many critics see this as an aesthetic flaw, but I think it's one of the elements that makes the movie so insightful.

Up in the Air is about the late 2000s in a way that few movies are ever "about" the era in which they're made. Plenty of movies get made about epochs after they're over, but more often than not, they're nostalgia pieces that use the scenery and images of the time as pure eye-candy. Many other movies get made at a certain point in time, and make no attempt to disguise their origin in that time, but never really attempt to capture anything essential about it.

The mechanically warm quality of Up in the Air is absolutely essential, as it's a story about travelers moving through environments that have been created in labs to simulate coziness. At one point, George Clooney's main character, Ryan Bingham, points out how, when he swipes his credit card to pick up his ticket at the airport, the system prompts the agent behind the counter to say, "Welcome back, Mr. Bingham" - as though he's a regular she's seen dozens of times before, even if they're total strangers.

The movie is constantly noticing the ways in which our environments are created and designed, rather than allowed merely to come into being. It does this without judgment: not only does Ryan prefer his environments mass-produced, the movie almost convinces you to see the wisdom of his approach. After dozens of elegiac shots of airport windows and hotel rooms far more inviting than his own apartment, you begin to see the beauty in the everyday.

Of course, the plot of this movie centers around Ryan's job, which is to travel around the country firing people. Any movie "of the moment" has to engage fully with the economic realities of life in the worst depression since the Great Depression, and this one does so, but there's so much more going on here. Anyone can make a movie about a recession, after all, but it's much harder to tell a story about a time that perfectly captures that time, right in the midst of that time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glenn Greenwald doesn't want to tax the rich

I'm going to give Glenn the benefit of the doubt, and engage with him on the substance of his recent post about why the Senate health care bill should be rejected by progressives. He spends most of the post pretending that the only progressives who support the (Senate) health care bill work for the New Republic, and that their only defense of the bill is that its opponents are unserious lefty hippies. This is insulting and obviously untrue - to take just one example, Ezra Klein (who I'm sure Greenwald dislikes, but who doesn't he dislike?) has written tens of thousands of highly substantive words making the progressive case for the health care bill.

Anyway, the main point Greenwald's post makes is that today's Cadillac plans will be tomorrow's Chevy plans. As health care costs rise, this tax will hit more and more middle-class people, who'll be subjected to a seriously increased tax burden, and what looked at first like a tax on the rich will become a tax on the middle class, a la the AMT.

MIT economist Jon Gruber responds (a day ahead of Glenn's post) by arguing that what looks like a tax isn't actually a tax, it's an incentive to restructure the health insurance market in a way that keeps costs low - most employers will, he asserts, switch to plans that cost less than the threshold that triggers the tax, and pass the savings on to their employees. This seems a bit naive to me, but he claims something similar happened in the late 90s, when health insurance premiums stopped rising and wages started to go up, in real terms, for the first time in a while. When premiums started to rise again, real wages fell.

The other point he makes is that this new tax simply offsets a tremendous loophole in existing tax law. Right now, an employee's wages get taxed, but her insurance premium paid by her employer doesn't. In other words, if she makes $50,000, she pays taxes on that. But if her employer also pays $25,000 a year for her insurance, that never gets taxed. If another company pays the exact same wages, but only buys a $15,000 a year health plan, then the existing law is giving the first company a massive tax break, only because the first company didn't do a very good job of shopping around for efficient insurance plans. That doesn't sound like the right system of incentives to me, nor does it sound like a very progressive situation.

Gruber sums up the argument better than I ever could:
So in the end, we have a policy that provides the necessary financing to pay for subsidies to low-income families; induces employers to buy more cost-effective health insurance, lowering U.S. health-care spending; offsets a bias in our tax system that favors more expensive insurance; and raises wages by $223 billion over 10 years. To put a twist on an old saying: The Senate assessment on high-cost insurance plans doesn't walk like a tax or talk like a tax -- because it is not a tax. It is an innovative way of financing the health reform we so desperately need.

We talk about politics like we're all morons

This is hardly an original insight, but it's particularly disturbing when the top story in the day's New York Times contains such aggressive stupidity:
In one of her Sunday appearances, Ms. Napolitano had said the system worked once the attempted bombing occurred, meaning that the government responded by increasing security and alerting other planes. 
But on another show, she did not make clear she was referring only to what happened after the incident, making it sound as if the system as a whole worked — an incongruous conclusion given that the suspect was allowed to fly to the United States on a valid visa without extra screening even though he was listed in a terrorism database, bought a one-way ticket with cash and checked no luggage.
Why does the Paper of Record think this is important enough to spend several paragraphs on (including 2 before this quote, and one after)? It's pretty obvious that Napolitano does not actually believe that the system as a whole worked - she explicitly was talking about the reaction to the attack, not the procedures that allowed it to happen.

Over the course of multiple live interviews, the Secretary at one point might have misspoken (they refuse to quote her appearance on the second show, noting only that she "[made] it sound as if the system as a whole worked", and of course she didn't misspeak at all on the first show) and now we're spending two days talking about it, and we're probably not done yet. In whose paranoid imagination does this constitute news, let alone news of such importance that it merits five paragraphs in the New York Times story of the day?

But it gets worse:
The visual contrast of a president on vacation while there was anxiety about air travel also drew fire. Although aides issued statements describing conference calls with counterterrorism advisers, pictures of passengers enduring tougher airport screening were juxtaposed with reports of the president picnicking at the beach and playing sports.
Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

An asshole tries to light a bomb in his crotch on Christmas, and the President is supposed to drop everything what, exactly? I thought the whole point of fighting terror was that it wasn't supposed to dictate how we live our lives, but now some marginal schmuck gets through airport security in Amsterdam, and it's supposed to be a Grave National Crisis? This isn't Katrina, where a whole city was wiped out and the President partied on: nobody was injured, it took days to determine for sure that al Qaeda was even involved, and the guy's trying to spend a few relaxing Christmas hours with his family. How is this a problem?

The more noxious aspect of this allegation is that it reveals how thoroughly some people want us to capitulate to terrorists, and drop everything in response to their slightest provocation. Rep. Peter King, for instance, is quoted as saying "We’re now, what, 72 hours into this and the president’s not spoken, the vice president’s not spoken, the attorney general’s not spoken and Janet Napolitano has now told two different stories in two days."

Obviously, this would be a different type of story had the bomb actually gone off, but it didn't, and the entire executive branch getting in front of news cameras and reassuring the public isn't likely to make us all calmer about the whole situation; quite the opposite. What we need to do is treat these incidents with extreme, and quiet, seriousness that ensures public safety while not handing al Qaeda massive propaganda victories every time they try to mount an operation.