Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review

I was educated by professors and mentors who were steeped in the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible. Most of what I learned about understanding the Bible came through the lens of the historical-critical method. Marc Zvi Brettler attempts to make the insights of the historical-critical method accessible in his book How to Read the Bible. Brettler is Jewish and his book only deals with the Jewish Scriptures or what Christians know as the Old Testament.

Ultimately, Brettler fails in his attempt to make the historical-critical method relevant. The problem is not with Brettler but with the historical-critical method itself. I must first admit that I am a strong believer in interpreting the Bible in the light of insights gained by modern scholarship. I think it is important to understand the sources that lay behind the text because in doing so illuminates hard to understand passages and gives insight to the original purposes of a particular text.

I do not reject the historical-critical method but I feel I have moved beyond it. What makes the Bible the Bible is what it does. It provokes, it questions, it comforts, and it confronts. It tells a story about God, humanity and the interaction between the two. The Bible invites us into a dialogue with the it; a dialogue that at times can be very argumentative. It is a dialogue that occurs in the present and draws our attention to the future. The critical method of interpreting the Bible can help clear away some of the clutter to hear the voice of the text but it is not the message of the text itself.

I define myth as a story whose truth is greater then sum of its facts. The Bible is a myth. However, the historical-critical method is not a substitute for a real engagement with the text because the historical-critical method often ends up making the Bible to be no more than the sum of its sources.

Lugging Towards Competence

This time next year Iowa will be in the middle of election season. Among the races that will attract attention, the one getting the most will be Governor Chet Culver's attempt to win a second term. The Des Moines Register featured an article on Sunday assessing Culver's performance.

The gist of the article is that Culver had done a good job dealing with crisis situations like the floods and tornados of last sumer. However, Culver's ability to manage the government and his agenda are mixed. He did well his first year but the past couple of legislative saw tensions between Culver and Democratic legislators that stalled much of Culver's agenda over the past couple of years.

I don't really know if Culver can do anything to improve his chances for reelection. The state's economy is in the tank and as a result the state budget is facing a serious shortfall. There is no way to address that and earn political capital. A more harmonious legislative session will not make the budget cutting any easier to swallow.

As an Iowan I feel like Culver has sort of stumbled along and he has not given me any reason to feel excited about his stewardship of the state. However, I think the state is in as good a shape as it can be given the circumstances. One of my history professors in college said that a credible interpretation of Napoleon is that he "bumbled towards greatness." In watching Culver, known as the "Big Lug", I feel like I am watching someone lug toward competence. Lugging toward competence is far more deserving of winning an election then Republican efficient gutting of state government.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Losing Our Team

The Jaguars earned their first victory of the season today but the big story in the Times Union dealt with the possibility of the Jaguars one day leaving Jacksonville for another city. The reasons for a possible move are the usual ones of low attendance, tight economy, and TV blackouts.

Jacksonville is not the only city having trouble selling out their games. The Vikings signed Brett Favre in part because they needed a way to drum up sales. Play-off contender San Diego has also experienced problems selling all their tickets. In the past couple of years I have had no trouble buying tickets to games in such such stalwart NFL cities as San Francisco and Kansas City.

I have attended pro football games throughout the South and if the team is anywhere from mediocre to bad it is no problem to get seats for any game. When Tampa was horrible they rarely if ever sold out and unless the Dolphins are really good then there are often plenty of seats available in Miami. In New Orleans I once bought seats on the 40 from a scalper for face value. When I was in seminary the Falcons had a buy 1 get 1 free sale for a game against an NFC champion Rams team that was called "the greatest show on turf." This was normal in Atlanta where fan loyalty runs first to the Georgia Bulldogs and then to everyone else. In Jacksonville, loyalty goes from Florida and FSU and then down to the Jags. The reason people assume the Jags are about to move is because many NFL people believe that Jacksonville does not deserve a team.

The people who run the NFL tend to view its component parts as things to be exploited. They exploit players through use of non-guaranteed contracts and they exploit fan bases and cities by threatening to move in an effort to wring concessions to get more money. The NFL has shown no problems leaving cities with long football traditions like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. The only way to fight this is to exploit the league right back. Every city that I mentioned above would be fine if they no longer had a team. I don't doubt the feelings of grief would immense but the cities would survive.

That is because the cities have been able to deliver diverse offerings of activities to people with different interest. These cities could develop these diverse offerings because an NFL team gave them the aura of being "major league." Since Atlanta got the Falcons they have become a major international city. The Falcons could close up shop tomorrow and Atlanta would be fine.

What Jacksonville should do is quit worrying about the Jags leaving. Right now use the existence of the Jags as leverage to develop diverse attractions. Miami can ignore the Dolphins and be fine because of what South Beach offers. New Orleans often ignored the Saints and didn't care because they have the French Quarter.

The years of the Jacksonville Jaguars parallels the years I have been gone. When I return it is easy to see that Jacksonville has changed and it is no longer a provincial backwater. I am sure that having the Jaguars is a major impetus behind the development. I hope the city leaders of Jacksonville seek not to grow with the Jags but grow beyond needing the Jags.

I guess what I am saying is use the NFL because they sure will use you.

Backbencher of the Week

For the first time in Backbencher history we have a repeat winner of Backbencher of the Week. A conservative group used a hidden video camera to conduct a sting on ACORN. The resulting firestorm attracted Congressional attention. Since Congress is comprised of many bigoted Republicans and even more spineless Democrats, they voted to strip ACORN of all federal funding.

However, Congress wrote the legislative language in a very broad manner, and one enterprising Congressman saw an opportunity. Rep Alan Grayson(D-FL-8) intially made a name for himself by going after fraud in Iraq War contracts. Rep Grayson realized that the legislative language could apply to the military-industrial complex. The Congressman then allied himself with the Project on Government Oversight(POGO) and together they went through government files. They quickly discovered that large military contractors like Lockheed and Northrop Grumman qualify for defunding . Not only do military contractors qualify to be stripped of federal funding but many financial institutions and even Catholic Charities also fall under this legislation.

Glenn Greenwald interviews Alan Grayson here.

For exposing Congressional hypocrisy, and hoisting Congress and the military industrial complex on their pitard, we are glad to award Rep, Alan Grayson this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review

Over the past couple of weeks I have read two books about historical presidential elections. The first is Lynn Hudson Parson's The Birth of Modern Politics and the second is James Chace's 1912. A first I thought the books might be a little boring but instead I found both of them very readable and enjoyable. If anything, I wanted them to go into even more depth.

What I found most interesting about both books is m=how much the issues is the campaign of 1828 and 1912 parallel current issues. In 1828 one of the major issues was banking and specifically, the 2nd Bank of the United States. The 1912 election centered on the best way to rein a corporate sector that had run amuck. The parallels between those elections and the current political debates over regulating the financial sector and Wall Street were fascinating. It is clear that almost since the earliest days of the republic, the idea of effectively dealing with banks and large corporations has a long history of political viability in our elections. It is alao worth noting that both victors campaigned in opposition banks and big business and then governed in a manner closely aligned with their campaign promises. Populism, even if co-opted, has a long history of being politically successful.

It is also true that the big issues of the American political debate have not changed much over the years. The questions of the size and role of government dominated the eras covered by both books. In 1828 the question was on using government money on internal improvements and in 1912 the debate centered on the regulatory role of the federal government. While it is clear that our political systems has made progress, it has done so within defined limits of the American political system. I am not sure if this is a good thing or not.

What both books point out is that if you are unwilling to fight and defend your beliefs in the political arena then you don't deserve to be there. John Quincy Adams had a defensible record as President but his failure to use the leverage of his office to build political support ensured his defeat. William Howard Taft is a little different case. He never wanted to be, and never enjoyed being, the President; his life's dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This lack of desire when coupled with his distress over a very public rupture with Theodore Roosevelt led Taft to not fight very hard to remain as President.

I once heard someone say that "history does not repeat but it rhymes." If that is indeed the case then both of these books provide a good basic understanding of where our country's politics have come from and what we can learn from our past when it rhymes with our current situation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It's Funny Because It's True

And because it stars Dr. Chris Turk

Why Healthcare Reform is So Hard

Rep. Mike Ross(D-AR-4), who is the leading Blue Dog healthcare spokesman, received a sweetheart deal from an Arkansas based pharmacy chain to sell a piece of commercial property. Oh, and the health industry donated $342, 475 to Rep. Ross. The practice of legalized bribery is alive and well in Washington.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week we recognize a long time advocate of universal health care. Sen Ron Wyden(D-OR) is the co-author with Sen. Bob Bennett(R-UT) of the Healthy Americans Act. This bill is a bi-partisan bill designed to end the employer based health insurance system and replace it with a regulated and subsidized private health care market to achieve universality and affordability.

In brief, what the bill does is create state level insurance exchanges that would allow insurance companies offer a variety of coverage plans. The standard plan would be based on the plans offered through federal exchanges that members of Congress and federal employees are eligible for. Health care would no longer be paid for by the employer but would be subsidized by the federal government. The government would get the money by means of a payroll tax. However, the cost to taxpayers would offset by some other tax deductions. Also, the law would mandate that the money employers would have used on employee health benefits would go to the employee in the form of a wage increase. The insurance would also be portable across state lines. Under the Healthy Americans Act insurance companies would be regulated and many of their more perverse acts would be curtailed. The bill would also end many federal plans such as Medicaid and the children's health care system known as SCHIP. Even though I favor a single payer system, I could be satisfied if the final bill resembled this Healthy Americans Act.

Sen. Wyden sits on the Senate Finance Committee. This week the chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus(D-MT), released the version of the healthcare bill that the committee will consider this week. This version of the bill, known as the chairman's mark, can be found here. Even though Sen. Wyden has done a lot of work on healthcare, he was locked out of the process that produced the Finance Committee's bill. As would be expected from a process that locked out the committee's experts, Sen. Baucus' bill was widely criticized. Sen. Wyden has filed a number of amendments to make the Finance Committee bill better. One of the amendments is basically Wyden's Free Choice Act which would open up the insurance exchanges to everyone and not just small business or individuals who don't get their insurance through their employer.

Read an interview with Sen. Wyden here.

For sheer dogged determination that might soon be rewarded with a healthcare bill that might actually become law we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Sen. Ron Wyden. Congratulations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obama and Race

Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives decided to take some school bus bullying and use it to ratchet up racial tension in an effort to discredit President Obama. Limbaugh said, "In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering."

In the 7th grade I was the victim of bullying by some African American kids and I do think that race was a factor in the bullying. Due to court ordered busing, in 7th grade I attended a largely African American school located in a largely African American part of Jacksonville. At the time, I was a small, studious, shy white kid. What I think happened is these African American boys, like all bullies, felt comfortable enough to use physical violence on those they perceived as weaker or out of place. Those boys were on their home turf and they know how to maneuver around what was probably a badly administered school. They were, in effect, African-American boys who bullied white kids because in that environment being white marked people as a potential victim. Race was not the reason for the bullying but it played a factor in why people felt like they could bully and why certain other people were targeted for bullying.

By the way, this happened 20 years ago in the United States of George Herbert Walker Bush. I also know that in the administration of just about every President in American history, black people faced the very real possibility of being hung from a tree for any number of supposed transgressions against white people. The trajectory of American history is filled with racial tensions, and the majority of those tensions come from whites using threats and violence against people with black skin. Whatever violent talk or violent acts African Americans committed against white people came in large part as a response to a long history of whites using violence to prevent African Americans from gaining even a shred of basic human rights. I know that racial tensions exist and have exited throughout our nation's history.

I also know that conservatives will use racial tensions to benefit their own cause. This use of racial tensions is a long staple of southern politics and has been used on the national level since Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy." From Ronald Reagan's talk of "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi to Geroge H. W. Bush's use of Willie Horton to all the talk about welfare queens, conservatives have used racial tensions to achieve political power.

In my own memory, I can recall people I knew when I was in college in Mississippi during the mid 90s calling African Americans Democrats as a racial epitaph because all the white people voted Republican. I know the Republicans used the fact that Democrats removed the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag to gain full political power in 2002. I know that conservative Republicans in Augusta, Georgia supported a Democratic challenger for State Senate because the incumbent Republican supported the flag change.

Just in the past year, Rep. Lynn Westmorland(R-GA-3) called Obama "uppity." Just before President Obama spoke before Congress on healthcare Sen. Saxby Chambliss(R-GA), who during the 2008 election all but admitted that the core of his support came from white people opposed to African Americans gaining political power, said that Obama needed to express humility during his address. It is no wonder then that Rep. Joe Wilson(R-SC-2), a former aide to Strom Thurmond and who voted to keep the Confederate flag on top of the South Carolina Statehouse, would heckle Obama over a provision regarding illegal aliens.

Much of the vitriol directed as Obama is because of his race and considering the role race plays in American life and politics this should not be a surprise. That is the reality and it will be so as long as it pays off for public figures and politicians. The path to conservative power has for decades been through the use of racial tensions, and they will continue to stoke racial fears until it no longer works for them. Anyone claiming ignorance of this fact is being deliberately ignorant.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

With Congress back in session we return to our practice of rewarding unheralded action of Congressmen/women and Senators.

The August break was marked with several confrontations between members of Congress and angry constituents. Senator Al Franken(D-MN) demonstrated the best way to handle angry protesters when he was confronted by some tea party activists. Later during the recess, Sen. Franken drew a map of the United States using nothing but his memory.

For handling the August recess like a seasoned veteran, Sen. Al Franken is this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review

I like Graham Greene and this week I finally read Our Man in Havana. Our Man in Havana tells the the story of a Mr. Wormold; a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited to be British intelligence's man in Havana. Wormold has no idea to run a spy network and decides to make things up including passing off a drawing of a vacuum cleaner as secret weapon. Things begin to spin out of control when everyone assumes that what Wormold reports is true.

The easy parallel is to The Quiet American and there are quite a few similarities. They are both satires of Cold War adventurism and both aim to criticize western interference in other countries. However, Our Man in Havana is not nearly as scathing and it does not attempt to take sides in the way The Quiet American does.

The real them of Our Man in Havana is love. Womold is both motivated and haunted by his love for his teenage daughter and for the wife who left him. In fact, Wormold's scheme is an attempt to gain enough money to provide his daughter a better life. Later Wormold realizes he is in love with the Beatrice; the aid British intelligence sent to him. Beatrice gives the theme of the book when she tells the assembled military and intelligence chiefs that "a country is more a family than a Parliamentary system."

I always enjoy reading Greene and Our Man in Havana is a quick, enjoyable and fun read.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Political SAT

Elizabeth R. Dilley is to Red Oak as

A) Richard Daley is to Chicago

B) James M. Curley is to Boston

C) Tom Pendergast is to Kansas City

D) Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall are to New York

E) All of the Above

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Healthcare Reform to the Max

Sen. Max Baucus(D-MN) finally is circulating his idea for healthcare reform and moderates appear to be gathering around a public option with a trigger that would go into effect if insurance companies fail to meet certain targets.  It now appears that the outlines of a healthcare deal appear to be in place.  After the craziness of August it is hard to believe that we are close to some type of deal but Jonathan Cohn explains how August affected the the political situation and how the odds of a bill being passed are unchanged and perhaps more likely.

Based on my studying of the issue, this is my guess as to what will happen.  A bill with a public option that has a trigger will pass.  The bill will increase Medicaid eligibility and will include an individual mandate.  To help people pay for the mandated insurance there will be subsidies of about 350% of poverty level.  There will also be an employer mandate and some type of insurance exchange that will allow individuals who don't get insurance from their employers, and small businesses, to have access to reasonably priced insurance.

I am not the first to suggest this but President Obama strikes me as someone who uses conservative means to achieve progressive ends.  As The American Prospect pointed out earlier this summer, Obama maintains a strong belief in the ability of American institutions to solve our country's problems.  As far as I can tell this belief includes the medical establishment in the U.S. 

The current reform proposals seek to keep the basics of our the employer based health insurance system but it wants to make the system achieve universal coverage and do it in a more efficient manor.

This is a far from perfect bill and it feels like a colossal disappointment when compared with what seemed possible at the beginning of the debate.  However if a bill like the one described above passes then it will be the most progressive legislation in a generation.  More important a bill that is successful and popular will set the stage for further progression towards public based universal healthcare.

The reality is that not all Democrats are liberal progressives.  Even though the Reagan era looks over, the Democrats are still struggling to posit a positive message about governments role in our society.  The most important thing this bill might do is to reverse the "government is the problem" mentality that marked the last 3 decades of political debate and restore the public's trust in the government's ability to pursue collective action for the public good  If the bill does that then it will be easier to move from this bill to an even more substantial reform of our healthcare system.  

Monday, September 7, 2009

Book Review

One of the reoccurring themes of this blog is my attempt to find and read good fiction.  I trust my ability to find good non-fiction but I feel like I need help to find good novels.  This time, I followed the advice of blogger Matt Yglesias and read his father's most recent book titled A Happy Marriage.

The book tells the two intertwined stories of how the main character(who is a stand in for the author) meets and falls in love with his wife, and how he prepares to say good-bye to her as she dies of cancer.  Using flashbacks the book moves from the present day, where plans are being made to say good-bye, to 30 years ago when the protagonists first falls in love.  The chapters alternate between the present and the past with a couple of detours thrown in that explain revelations the main character has about his wife and his marriage.

The only criticism comes because the book is autobiographical the setting is among the literary set of upper middle class Manhattan.  The couple in this book have access to more resources and advantages then an average person and they press those advantages to get the best care.  Since this is autobiographical, this is only a small complaint but I do wish the more novelists writing about the struggles of a similar couple without the advantages being well off brings.

That said, the story is a good; especially the last half.  As the twin narratives move toward a consummation, the tension in both narrative arcs draws the reader into the story.  Most importantly the author tells a story and tells it well.  There is enough tension and emotion in the subject matter of love, life, and death that a straight forward approach is all that is needed.  All the writer needs to do is tell the story and tell how he felt.  He does and the book is better for it.

A Happy Marriage is really a good piece of writing.  It tells a story in a straightforward, honest manner and it does so with showing off how much work was behind the production of the story.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


The depressed economy is also affecting sports.  The NFL believes that up to twelve teams could face blackouts.  A blackout occurs when the home team does not sell all of the tickets for the game and the game is therefore not shown on TV in the home team's city.  Bad and mediocre teams in economically troubled areas (like the Detroit Lions) are having trouble.  More surprising is that teams expected to be contenders like the Miami Dolphins, the Minnesota Vikings, and the San Diego Chargers are also facing the likelihood of having games blacked out.

This news hits a little close to home to me because my hometown team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, face the very real possibility of having all eight games blacked out.  Jacksonville is facing blackouts because the team is not expected to do well, they play in the second smallest market, and the stadium is large due to the demand of the college games played there.

I think the idea of blacking out games, especially during economically troubled times, to be ridiculous.  Since I just bought tickets to an NFL game, I know how expensive even the cheapest tickets are.  To deny people a chance to see their favorite team just because they can't afford tickets in tough economic times seems a sure fire way to guarantee a gradual loss of support.

I also believe that the blackout itself is a bad policy.  It was put in place in the 1970's and it was not until the recent decade that just about every game was a sellout.  Often that sellout came because local TV stations and corporate sponsors bought enough tickets to avoid a sellout.  However, I have been to many games that did not come close to selling out and the threat of blackouts did not bring out a rush of people to see the game.  

Between the ever growing expense of game tickets, and the fact the game is structured to be enjoyed on TV, the experience of watching a game at home often surpasses the experience of watching in person.  At home there is no traffic, or expensive parking, or concessions the overcharge, or the possibility of bad weather.  Given that the at home experience compares nicely with the at the game experience, the best idea is to not punish those who stay at home but to find a way to include them in the league's marketing strategy.  

However, since the NFL is run by the type of greedy bastards who sell directly to ticket scalpers and think that people who can't afford to keep their season ticket contracts in bad economic time need to be sued it is unlikely that NFL will go the route I suggested.

All that being said, for a lot of people who root for bad teams not having to watch their team lose on TV might be a blessing in disguise.

The Moral and Political Case for Healthcare Reform

Nicholas Kristof wrote a column this week that tells a heartbreaking story of a couple forced to divorce because our healthcare system made it impossible for them to stay together and still afford the treatment for the husband's early onset dementia.  The moral case for healthcare reform is that in a civilized and just society this would not happen.  Working people would be able to have access to health care.  Middle income people would have sufficient resources to get care and not face going broke when they realize their insurance is not sufficient to pay their medical bills.  And there would not be insurance companies making obscene profits while people go broke or can't afford the care they need.

Despite our pretensions, we don't really live in a civilized and just society.  Working class people can't afford healthcare.  Middle income people often find their insurance is not sufficient and they go broke.  All the while insurance companies make profits.  The reason for this is we have politicians that fine with this reality.  Rep. Lynne Jenkins(R-KS-2), who recently said the Republicans need a "Great White Hope" to go after President Obama, held a town hall this week.  A single mother said the she has trouble getting medical care for her child because she can't afford the insurance.  Rep. Jenkins laughed off the woman's concern.  The political case for healthcare reform is that people like Rep. Jenkins need to be kept far from power.  The better the health care is then the more likely the forces that profit off our dysfunctional system, and their political minions, will continue to be in the political wilderness.