Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bos'n Paul Ryan - Not Ready For Stand-Up Comedy

So, did you hear the one about the Congressman who ran in Kentucky on a platform of Death Panels, Nanny State and Socialism?  He won because his opponent was soft on gun control.

As Steve Rattner notes in today's NY Times, Congress is moving slow astern with the sequester when the economy still needs full ahead.  Budget scolds like Paul Ryan view the sequester as a triumph, even as we go dead in the water while  nearing the shoals of double dip recession.  This is no surprise. Ryan may have a great workout routine in the gym, but as a stand-up, his routine would be missing both of the critical stand-up comedy basics - honesty and timing.

Let's start with honesty, and give Representative Ryan some points for recognizing the obvious.  Nations need to limit their debt and demonstrate budget discipline. The thesis that debt exceeding 90% of GDP is a drag on growth now appears to be overstated, but at some level of debt and deficit, the government will face rising interest costs (producing a spiral of ever higher debt and deficit) and unacceptably high inflation. Right now interest rates paid by the US Treasury are low because safe investment alternatives are scarce, but this won't last forever. Representative Ryan is also correct in noting that Medicare and Medicaid loom large on the horizon of government obligations as our population ages and medical costs soar.

So,  Paul Ryan is a cute, personable guy who's honest enough to talk about serious deficit issues, why no prospects for a second career in stand-up?  Well, let's take a closer look at honesty and think about timing too.  The time to run a surplus is when the economy is booming. The $238 Billion surplus in 2000 was our largest ever.  We could have maintained a significant surplus right through 2007, retired more than a trillion of that debt Paul is so worried about and demonstrated the kind of budget discipline that would help keep interest rates low even in our deficit years.  Instead Paul Ryan chose to spend like a drunken sailor - that's right, Bos'n Paul gave us the Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D and the War in Iraq - what could have been surplus for those boom years became a widening deficit.  Now, when the economy needs fiscal stimulus, Bos'n Paul has decided to sober up.

It's not just a timing problem.  Even now, in the middle of a recession that is still punishing a generation of new workers, Bos'n Paul is less sober than he seems.  End of life care, prevention and administrative expense are the low hanging fruit of medical cost reduction - the places to start if you want results. An early version of Obamacare included advisory boards to assist families with difficult end of life care decisions, a process in which elderly and very infirm patients frequently receive painful, unnecessary, unwanted and expensive surgeries shortly before death because doctors sometimes recommend them and the families just can't say no.  Naturally Bos'n Paul welcomed this baby step in the direction of reducing end of life care costs, right? Not quite, he bellied up to the bar and  after a few shots he began screaming, "Death Panels" ,over and over and over.

When it comes to prevention, Paul Ryan is all for anything that will save a health care buck - ban the big gulp, require posting of nutritional information, support programs that bring improved diet and exercise to the poor and working, but uninsured, poor, build clinics that treat illness before it requires exorbitantly expensive hospital care - Not!  Bos'n Paul won't spend a nickel even when he knows it will save a dollar.  He does secretly like the big gulp ban, but only because it gives him a chance to have a few drinks with his budget scold shipmates and scream, "Nanny State', over and over and over.

Surely a guy like Paul Ryan would consider anything to cut administrative costs, right?  Well, single payer health care systems like Canada spend less than 2% of what the US does on per capita administrative costs. Normally a market would function more efficiently than a large government bureaucracy, but in health care the demand (that would be the patients) doesn't really get to shop around between suppliers.  Even when a patient has a choice, there are usually no posted prices. Insurance companies and employers are health care middlemen who sometimes limit choice, but always add layers of administrative expense and prevent the functioning of anything resembling a true market.  Why not at least consider expanding the single payer system we use for Medicare? This approach, or even the much watered down "public option" that was ultimately dropped from Obamacare, can't get a serious hearing because the insurance and medical lobbies are just too powerful.  Bos'n Paul would rather take their campaign contributions (someone has to pay for all those drinks) and shout "Socialism" over and over and over.

What do you get if add a sequester to a recession?  A depression and a lot of new Congressman.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Shakespeare Upset Victor Over Vegas

Dreamcatcher presents 'The Language Archive', a romantic comedy  at Oakes Center in Summit
Shakespeare in Vegas, a consistently smart, funny  and engaging creation of Playwright Suzanne Bradbeer is staged jointly by Dreamcatcher Rep and Playrights Theatre at Oakes Center in Summit, NJ.  The structure leans slyly on three Shakespeare classics, but it's really just another instance of a valiant man (or mobster) with a dream (or an obsession?) of building a fitting shrine to Shakespeare (or a large scale model??)  in a special place (Vegas???), to honor the memory of his Sardinian grandmother, (or  her martyred donkey????).  Laura Ekstrand shines all night as Cleopatra, the Nurse (well, maybe Juliet), Lady Macbeth and Margot- a veteran actor who's gone from sweet ingenue to aging, sometimes bitter and still basically unknown veteran.  Margot finds her way back to personal integrity, and maybe even romance, as the star in a surreal Shakespearian Theater struggling for survival in that bastion of culture and accountability - Las Vegas.  Eli Ganias, as Tony, is a one note goodfella for a few scenes, and then keeps digging deeper as his character expands.  Rachael Lee and Jessica O'Hara-Baker are having almost as much fun as they provide to the audience while playing a whacky stripper and a Hooters' heiress, both  excited by their shot at real acting, but not quite getting the whole Shakespeare thing.

Even without the Shakespeare backing, there's a multi-level plot here that is far more than serviceable.  The real treat is the dialogue, especially the barrage of one liners launched by Margot, who knows her theater and her Shakespeare, at a supporting case who knows Vegas.

Only one day left to catch this in Summit, but with any luck it may turn up off Broadway.  OK, I realize Summit is not on Broadway, but I'm thinking lower Manhattan.  This is a new show, workshopped through Dreamcatcher and Playwrights; it's already too good to end and it might get even better if it can find a venue.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Profiles in Cowardice

There's a book on the shelf in my library authored (Note 1) by an ambitious young  politician who wanted to burnish his intellectual credentials before his first run for office. The book offers case studies of United States Senators who voted their conscience, voted their conscience when it was massively, wildly, incredibly unpopular, voted their conscience when it meant suicide in their next bid for reelection.  Today 46 Senators voted against a watered-down gun control bill that did nothing more than extend background checks from dealer sales to Internet and gun show sales.  There was no Constitutional or logical principal at stake.  Polls showed that 90% of the national population, over 85% of Republicans and 80% of  gun owners agreed with expanded background checks.

This was not a vote of conscience, it was a vote of fear.  Fear of the targeted wrath of the gun lobby, particularly the NRA.  Do not confuse the NRA with its members, who often poll rationally on gun control issues.  When it comes to politics, the NRA is a spokesperson for the gun manufacturers, who provide the bulk of the NRA's money and view human life as inconsequential when it stands in the way of selling more guns.

Today the Senate reached a new low.  The very  idea of voting on principle in the face of constituent disapproval - the profile in courage- is now unthinkable.  Today's moral issue is - can you vote on principle, with the support of your constituents, when you know the gun lobby will be gunning for you in your next reelection  bid? Today,  46 Senators (Note 2) cowered, quaked and answered, No!

Note 1 - Yes, I know JFK had feet of clay and that Profiles in Courage was probably ghosted by writers on the payroll of his father (who had a torso of clay).  I don't care.  The book, however it came about, was an inspiration to me, a congenital dissenter.  I would be happy to distribute free copies to today's Senate.
Note 2 -Actually 45, as Senator Reid voted, "No", to preserve future procedural options once he knew the bill was doomed to fail.