On One Hand

January 28, 2008

New Mexico con.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 1:50 pm

Last night I got back from a weekend Unitarian Universalist high school youth conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I was an adult chaparone. There were about 60 high school kids there. One signed up to sleep in the “females only” room, none signed up to sleep in the “males only room,” and 59 signed up to sleep in the “co-ed room,” on the floor of the social hall in the church.

That means that two adults had to be awake at all times in the room to make sure that the spooning teenagers stayed in their own respective sleeping bags, and that none of them busted out any drugs or pot. We broke it into shifts; on the first night, I went to sleep at 3:00 in the morning and we woke up at 7:45. On the second night, I went to sleep at 5:00 in the morning and we woke up at 6:45.

That is a total of 6 hours 30 minutes sleep in 3 days. But I had a great time; I’m jealous of people who grew up Unitarian. And somehow, amidst all the standing around, chasing kids, playing guitar and singing, and pacing around the church to check on people, I gained 4 pounds. Go figure.

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January 23, 2008

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January 21, 2008

Celebrity Experts

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Science and Hollywood were once distinct realms with little in common. One was all substance without concern for sensation; the other all image and no substance. One was serious and thrived on professionalism, the other thrived on opening its raw contents to let them spill like a gush of waterlogged maggots on the floor. That all changed with a new social role for American celebrities, emerging in the mindless narcisism and triviality of the late 1990s and rising to a full surge in postmodern reality television. That role is of the “celebrity expert.” While casual know-it-alls such as Dear Abby and Doctor Spock have served generations past, we now have hollywood-style intellectuals rising to a new level of mass appeal. It’s not enough to just know a lot, you have to present it with the name brand of an Oprah-style authority.

These are the likes of, first and foremost, Dr. Phil, recently touched by scandal when his celebrity status drove him to cross the line and publicly reveal private details in his case with pseudo-client Britney Spears. We now also have Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, Suze Orman, Sanjay Gupta and others.

Their roles may slightly differ from one another, but more importantly is how they differ from others in their profession; Gupta is a doctor acting as journalist for CNN, which gives him, unlike from other reporters, the authority to act as his own source without refering to an outside expert. Orman started out as a simple financial advisor and author who occasionally gave presentations for PBS; when Oprah Winfrey found her she was given the authority to enter peoples’ homes and critique their life strategies and personal relationships that involve money. Dr. Drew became famous with his radio program and MTV special entitled Loveline, where he gave sex advice to teenagers, but he now serves as an addiction specialist on Celebrity Rehab; incidentally, Dr. Drew has also starred in film, playing the father of the Olsen twins in New York Minute.

Not only do they differ from run-of-the-mill doctors and accountants, but they also contrast normal celebrities in the opacity of their personal lives; they are immune tabloid-style voyerism under a guise of thick professionalism. In order to respect them, you mustn’t hear of their drug addictions or sexual affairs; in many cases it would be impropriotous for them to so much as get divorced, so they must maintain the the stodgy caution of a politician. But they aren’t exactly just professional consultants either. They are asked to dispense advice that exceeds the boundaries of their training, and frequently cross diciplines to act more as motivational speaker or expert in generality than someone you would speak to anywhere else but on a TV show. And in many cases such as the afformentioned character role of Dr. Drew, they may also dance and sing.

The crossover of information leads one to wonder if the information celebrity experts dispense is legitimate; psychologist Phil McGraw comes out with a line of granola bars advertised to facilitate weight-loss, doubling as nutritionist. Physician Sanjay Gupta meanwhile takes on global warming in CNN’s Planet in Peril series. Dr. Drew is slated in the same mental category as shock-jock Howard Stern among teenagers for his role dispensing sexual tips on Loveline, though on Celebrity Rehab he is trusted as the informed authorative figure responsible for saving the lives and sanity of drug-addicted D-listers.

The role of celebrity expert is neither wholly good nor bad; they all seem to start off with good intentions, even when spotlight attention and loads of money lead them to cross boundaries into sensationalism. It’s good for the public to get a healthy dose of science with their entertainment, because science is one of the most misunderstood fields, defined in peoples’ minds not as a process of knowledge but as anything having to do with planets or atoms or ending in “ology.” And when celebrity experts are not scientists, they tend to contrast the “get rich easy” attitude of most self-help programs in the country which end up leading their clients on a path of destruction. But it seems that the position of celebrity expert almost always leads to some path of corruption; Dr. Phill’s guest cases are increasingly viceral, fringe or bizarre, with super-obese overeaters, popular public bashings of dirtbag dads and adulterers, and an eerie overconcentration on pedophilia or sexual vices. Suze Orman recently analyzed the contents of the living space of a woman with out-of-control spending habits, asking her sister, “doesn’t the presence of this expensive TV erode your love for your sister every time you see it?” A public that wants to be titilated and disgusted at the same time will gravitate towards programs with real-life freaks and terrors, and in a media run as a business, topics that collect the most viewers will always superceed anything else someone may deem important.

Take it for what you will; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Watched by millions of Americans each day, celebrity experts are doubtlessly changing the way we live our lives and process information.

January 20, 2008

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January 17, 2008

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January 9, 2008

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January 8, 2008

Clinton’s comeback; Obama’s challenge

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 9:08 pm
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In a huge upset, Hillary Clinton took New Hampshire’s Democratic vote by a narrow margin with tremendous support among women and senior citizens. John Edwards was knocked down, making this more of a two-person race between Clinton and Obama, which will help determine who is really the best of the two candidates and makes the Democratic nomination into a sure historical first; either the first African-American or the first woman party nominee will be celebrated in Denver this September. The win for Hillary by a sparse two thousand votes is good purely for the public image of her campaign; Clinton and Obama will both receive nine delegates from New Hampshire, because the actual vote counts were so close. But Clinton’s suprise comback is huge when it comes to our analysis of how the campagin strategies worked.

Was it Hillary’s tears that led to this miraculous turn of events? Was it her husband Bill’s recent scathing attacks on Obama? Was it that New Hampshire voters sensed Obama’s momentum and were reluctant to let the Democratic nomination end in anyone’s easy victory?

One thing that may have contributed to Clinton’s win is that the media buzz let voters know that Obama was way ahead in New Hampshire polls, which led independent voters, who have the choice to vote in either party’s primary in New Hampshire but strongly favored Obama, to opt for the Republican race and vote for McCain. More independents voted in the Democratic primary this year, but it wasn’t by as high of margins as were expected. Independents who did vote Democrat indeed favored Obama, but there weren’t sufficient numbers of them to stem the tide that led to Clinton’s victory.

Hillary’s change of character seems to have worked; she truly has a winning personality, but has not let it show until now. Today it is clear that she has no choice but to show that personality if she wants to win, and if any voters are disgusted with it, that is their problem because others will make up the difference.

In Clinton’s victory speech, she remarked that she finally “found her own voice” – which will no doubt be the line reporters choose for tomorrow morning’s headlines – a line that rings a bit melodramatic, but shows that she has finally taken the suggestion of every analyst in America that she needs to crack her hard shell as a politician and show that she is human. This could collect more women voters, who are now fueling her campaign, and are a worthy target for any campaign since more women than men vote in the general election.

Obama has clearly marketed himself as an agent of “change,” and his challenge is now to take that shining rhetoric and turn it to a solid and definable policy. Many support Obama in rhetoric and character but have vague conceptions of where he stands on the issues. He still has a strong chance to win the Democratic nomination, and incredible grassroots support among young people. Though he has little executive experience, clear articulation of what he would do as commander-in-chief can be as good as experience in the eyes of voters, who would be assured that the candidate is about more than just words. Obama made an attempt at that in his consession speech. If he can continue in that vein, he stands his best chance of coming back against Hillary.

Hillary wasn’t highly negative against Obama in this round – but her husband was. She was spared the tax on image that always takes place win a candidate goes negative, but still scored the political points from doubts cast about her opponent. That isn’t going to work forver; if Bill continues to be Hillary’s attack dog, Obama and others will call the Clintons out. Hillary can enjoy a return to victory, but will need to come up with new and creative ways to do campaigning if she wants to avoid a lapse into her old dirty-politic image.

No doubt Chelsea’s frequent cameos at her mother’s campaign events was a good thing for the Clinton campaign; Chelsea Clinton is endearing to all Democrats who remember the 90s, recalling how she, then only a teenager, was lambasted by Republican pundits who called her awkward and unattractive. She is now a successful and independent adult, which might be more than what we can say for the accident-prone Bush twins. We know little about Chelsea Clinton, but she is a familiar face and helps buff her mother’s real-human-being image by putting some focus on her family.

An Obama-Hillary race will will be an exciting season in American politics; both candidates represent some kind of all-time first, and both are incredibly skilled politicians. Continuing uncertainty about the eventual nominee will also deny Republicans a clear frontrunner to wear down until November. Politics junkies can look forward to a passionate race that will be uncalled at least through February, and hopefully as long as possible, until the official nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this September.

January 7, 2008

Hillary’s tears win sympathy

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:48 pm
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Barack Obama has been shooting ahead in the Democratic primaries after a comfortable win in Iowa, leading to a surge in New Hampshire polls and increased favorability among Democrats nationwide. Hillary Clinton lost the support of many Democrats when she went negative against Obama in December and early January; campaign statements about Obama’s high school cocaine use and sneaky mentions of Islamic faith on Obama’s father’s side of the family have cost Clinton a crucial level of support. Cuthroat, negative campaigning sometimes works when done in close elections by a lesser-of-two-evils candidate against the other, as it scares voters against the one who was attacked. But Clinton is already painted as a dirty, establishment politician, while Obama is generally liked; Clinton’s negative campaigning only seemed to prove those fears true, and reflected more poorly on Clinton than Obama.

In the face of her loss, a tired and weary Clinton is emerging as a better politician than the campaign machine she evolved from. During Saturday night’s New Hampshire debates, Clinton was asked to discuss her lack of “likeability,” to which she half-jokingly replied, “it hurts my feelings.” All four debating Democrats joked as they sparred through the debate, and Clinton coated her otherwise nasty attacks with a sense of mirth. Days later, she tearfully explained the hardships of campaigning and her heartfelt desire to change America, but in a way that was neither melodramatic nor self-pitying. The real-and-open Clinton is far more likeable than any other, and would prove to be a less decisive figure in a general election.

The truth is that Democrats are generally favorable towards all their candidates, and would rather see them working together as a team than working against each other. The competition between them is a necessary evil for now, but Democrats want to choose from their best tendencies, not their worst tendencies. It may be too late for Hillary to turn Obama’s surge around, but she will certainly do better with Democrats when she is friendly and personal, and avoids nasty attacks at her opponents.

Clinton previously refused to show this softer side, which many attribute to the fact that she must consciously overcome fears that a woman president would be too “emotional” to be a good leader. But an emotionless and calculating woman is going to lose on personality in a culture that expects their women to be kind and warm – and we are so used to seeing men fight dirty in politics that we hardly notice it. For Clinton, the humanness is a double-edged sword; if she shows to much of it, she is seen as fragile or weak, if she shows too much of it, she is seen as a cutthroat bitch who has a grudge against men. All these challenges Clinton faces for the fact that she is female.

In spite of her cold image, journalists and supporters who know Clinton personally say that she is very warm and genuine in a one-on-one conversation. Meanwhile, Obama, who can take one’s breath away in a public speech, seems rambling and sometimes downright bizarre in personal conversation. When NBC’s Brian Williams showed Obama that he was pictured on the cover of Newsweek – an photo of himself that Obama had not yet seen – a visibly exhausted Obama gave a weak response. He said the picture made him think of his grandmother, who would have been proud, and “her chin used to tremble and she would get all weepy.” While Obama’s speech language is powerful, the term “all weepy” hardly contrasts it with something heartfelt and personal. It was hardly an inspiring quote, melodramatic and understated at the same time.

Obama is going to win in New Hampshire, and Clinton, a powerful politician, is going to stay in the race even from behind. One thing the New Hampshire contest might achieve is to weaken Edwars near to the point of elimination, and force his supporters to choose between Obama and Clinton. A true contrast between the two will better determine who is a safer bet in the general election. This is good for Democrats. In spite of Edwards’ perceived electability, he is exceptionally negative towards the wealthy, though he himself is a multi-millionare. His scathing attacks on “special interests” are going to turn off a lot of voters in crucial states and appeal to Republican accusations that Democrats are engaging in “class warfare.” A populist candidate never wins the general election, and Edwards is too entrenched in that route to appeal to moderates or independents later on.

But Democrats still really like Hillary, and Democratic women, in particular, really like what she stands for as a woman who has gone so far. If Obama wins the nomination, Democrats are going to want to see her retain a role in the national scene. She will be encouraged to become senate president or even play a role in the cabinet, and though the vice presidency highly is unlikely, it is a vague possibility.

January 6, 2008

Taxes

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 5:00 pm
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The term “taxes” is one of the most weighted words in politics. It’s usually thrown around in political campaigns in completely irrational and decontextualized ways; it serves as a buzz word more than anything else, as each party appeals to its base.

Republicans talk about how Democrats will”raise taxes” or “tax Americans to death” when in reality most Democrats are willing to lower taxes on the middle class, and would lower taxes overall to help a weakening economy if the federal debt were not so outrageous. Meanwhile, Democrats talk about Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich” without mentioning what tax rate the wealthiest Americans pay in the first place.

During the January 4th New Hampshire Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton said she would raise taxes for the highest-income earning Americans to pay for healthcare. I think that was a bit of a blunder, since any mention of the phrase “raise taxes” plays right into the Republican playbook. She would have been better off saying “I think the richest Americans earning more than half a million dollars a year could be paying a 40 percent income tax rate rather than 35 percent.”

I would like to see some numbers on exactly what percent of income either party or any candidate thinks should be paid in income taxes. I think it would be easier for Americans to understand, and would ultimately benefit the Democrats, who are viewed unfavorably on taxes even though most Americans would rather not lose what their taxes pay for.

I don’t think anyone should be paying more than 50 percent of his or her income in taxes. Though it’s absurd how much some Americans make, it isn’t the government’s job to redistribute that; the imbalance of wealth is a failure of culture and not a responsibility of government. Remember that in a democratic republic, “government” is not an external organization that rules over the population; a democratic government means the people govern themselves, and it is more like an agreement between neighbors to protect each other from worst-case scenarios. The government’s concern is not the ratio between the richest and poorest Americans, it is the financial well-being of the poorest Americans, and the encouragement of the poorest Americans by making sure they see reasonable rewards for their hard work, are safe from starvation or disaster, and are given every opportunity to thrive. Welfare is absolutely a responsibility of government; but class redistribution is not.

Ultimately, the poor are no less poor if the richest person in a nation is a millionare or a trillionare. The presence of filthy rich people shouldn’t be our concern. But it is our concern if the poor do not have a fair chance to succeed, and capitalism is a moral system only if they do have that chance.

But it is also undeniable that the rich have a greater ability to pay taxes than anyone else, and work less per dollar than anyone else. The idea that the highest-income Americans work harder for their money is complete nonsense; if they are to be commended for anything, it is that they were likely given good health, high biological intelligence or wealthy parents, made smart business decisions and executed those decisions with good timing. I’m sure many of them do work hard and have made responsible life choices, but if hard work or effort could be measured, it would allign itself with anything but income in the U.S. economy. America is no longer a fronteir nation with a wide open and unclaimed West; it’s time to choose reality over one of our dominant national myths, and settle into a stable and permanent way of living with sustainable economic growth. No one is ever going to convince me that to earn a million dollars in a year by owning or trading stocks entails harder work than to earn twenty thousand dollars in a year by laying bricks.

It might be surprising for some Americans to learn that the highest income tax bracket is 35 percent, and kicks into effect for Americans earning about $350,000 a year or higher. That means a person who earns $430,000 a year will live a lifestyle of a person earning $300,000 a year, which, in both cases, will be spent almost entirely on luxuries or investments since basic living costs for an average family are about ten percent of that post-tax income. Most Americans earn between $31,000 and $77,000, which means they currently pay exactly a quarter of their income in taxes, minus deductions.

The lowest tax bracket, for those earning less than $8,000 a year, is 10 percent (in 2003 the Wall Street Journal editorial board refered to them as “those lucky duckies!”). Republicans who support a “flat tax” (or consistent tax rate for all income levels) think that the difference between what the rich pay and the poor pay is unfair, but few societies in the world forgo a progressive tax system, and raising taxes on the poor would burden them while adding negligible amounts of money to the federal treasury; hardly a pragmatic approach.

Considering that one must earn more than $160,000 a year to pay more than 28 percent of personal income on taxes, we can zoom in on the Americans who Republicans are talking to with their tax-cut rhetoric. The upper-middle class – those who fall into this tax bracket with between $77,000 and $160,000 a year – are the most important constituents of the Republican party when evangelicals are excluded. Those whose earnings rank them in higher brackets are too few to make an impact on the vote, but those earning less are not wealthy enough to substantiate the party’s financial contributions. Thus it should be no surprise that they pay only 3 percent more in taxes than those of the income brackett below; so a person earning 150,000 a year pays nearly the same rate as a person earing $32,000 a year. That is to contrast the 10 percent jump in the tax rate between people earning less than $30,000 a year and people earning more than $32,000 a year.

Americans earning $350,000 a year and above now pay 35 percent of their income in taxes; I would support returning this to the pre-2001 levels of 39 percent, but I think it would be better to include a higher tax bracket somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million a year. I don’t think its unreasonable for people at the highest levels of income to pay 45 percent since, at such high levels of wealth, even a drastic cut in income leaves one with similar experienced living standards, and the same amount of financial “pain” as taxing a low-income American at a drastically lower rate. But if all of the basic responsibilities of government were paid for – those being universal healthcare, excellent schools, public safety, food programs and social security – and the federal budget found itself in surplus, I would support an automatic decrease in tax rates effective immediately after the elimination of federal debt. It doesn’t matter how low it goes; since the goal of the tax code is to pay for government’s responsibilities and not to redistribute wealth, there is no “minimum” tax that any American should pay.

If Democratic candidates were explicit in what tax levels they thought different Americans should pay, it would clarify the fog of information that is used against them. Democrats aren’t for high taxes, they are for a progressive tax system that can accomplish what the government is responsible for accomplishing.

The distribution of population and business in this country proves that taxes are not prohibitive to a healthy economy when government is doing its job. Big cities like Chicago and New York are anchors of business with highly thriving economies, in spite of high state income taxes and sales taxes. California has one of the highest state income tax rates in the country for its top bracket, taking 10 percent of the income of those earning more than a million dollars a year, on top of existing federal tax rates; still, the richest Americans flock to California for its quality of life and culture. Wyoming, which has no state income tax at all, fails to grow.

Most of those who oppose current taxes do so out of principle, rather than a beleif that the rich are living pitiful or desolate lives. Meanwhile, those who support current tax rates or would entertain the possibility of higher rates do so out of a beleif that the poor or unfortunate are living below tolerable standards; for them taxes are not raised out of principle, they are raised out of necessity.

January 5, 2008

Hair clippings

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 5:08 pm
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I was giving a lesson to the middle school group at the UU church, but couldn’t think straight and wasn’t sure what lesson I was giving. Meanwhile, new kids I hadn’t met before kept showing up – even after there were 12 in the room, not a single kid was a regular – and I wasn’t able to remember any of the new names I was learning. There was a heavyset, hispanic-looking boy with long hair and a slight moustache at one end of the table; I asked him if he was really in middleschool, and he said yes but he looked like he could be 18. A thin, curvy blonde girl seemed too old as well; she insisted she was in 8th grade.

The youth program director, who I work under, appeared in the room and told one of the younger kids, probably 9 years old, that firearms were not allowed in our congregation. She reached down and pulled a handgun from his waist. “Aww, it wasn’t even loaded,” he complained, but the my boss pulled off the magazine to reveal a full set of 16 bullets. “Oh really?” she barked accusingly. “I’m going to hang on to this. You can have it back when you leave,” she said, re-attaching the magazine and putting the gun on a table. “Aww,” the kid said again.

I went back to giving my lesson, but noticed that I was having a hard time annunciating. There was a hair in my mouth – no, there were several hairs – which were increasingly annoying. I tried to pick them out, but gave up. The more I talked, the more my mouth felt full of hair clippings, and I excused myself when they became so obstructive that it was nearly impossible to speak. By the time I got to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, quarter-inch long hair clippings were literally pouring out of my mouth, and were clinging to my cheeks and chin and scattered across my clothing. I tried to rinse most of them out in the sink, but the supply seemed endless. It was the color of my own hair. I remember thinking that this would be nearly impossible to explain to the board of directors and I would be fired for producing such a disaster in the middle of a service.

Then I woke up.

My roommate said, “I’m pretty sure Freud would have something to say about that.”

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