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Saturday, March 07, 2015

Healthcare, Degrees, and Creative Destruction

Health care is expensive, as Steven Brill sometimes writes, because scans, labs, doctors, pills, etc cost too much. As simple as that sounds, it is surprisingly akin to what ails university training in today’s America. Kevin Carey writes in his new book, “The End of College,” that we have astronomical projections of future college costs due to the place that university training occupies in today’s market, that of a monopoly. Want a degree in Bioengineering so that you can get an entry level job at the NIH? Well, you’re likely--very likely--to need a degree at some university, and the more elite (more expensive) the university the better, in order to make yourself stand out from your peers. There is only one place to get a degree: a college. Likewise, in our health care system, there are only certain providers that are able to provide a diagnosis (apart from Google and WebMD). It is likely--highly likely--that a hospital will be involved. Just like in our university model, there is but one provider for a given desire/need, that of universities for degrees/jobs, that of hospitals for illnesses/treatments.

Creative destruction is an economic idea that has been described as a "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." (Schumpeter) Carey believes that now is a ripe time for creatively exploding the monopoly of colleges over degree programs. As more universities are participating in e-learning (EdX, Coursera) programs which Carey calls the University of Everywhere, degrees can now become obsolete. There would need to be a certificate program of some sort that qualifies a person for a given job, but one can easily envision companies and governments posting the necessary qualifications for positions. One would then merely need to meet those expectations (or alternatively, bargain for the future completion of some necessary component). Alternatively, one can also envision new consulting businesses offering their services to simplify and verify the course offerings necessary for a given goal.

The point here is that within our university system we have extreme costs, much as in health care, and that these costs are due to monopoly systems (and transparency issues). I am wondering if health care costs can be similarly treated by a revolution such as that which Carey calls for in the university degree area.

One can see a further parallel: Health care suffers from a lack of transparency. This is well documented. Anyone who has ever needed to find out the ultimate costs for an illness or procedure, well knows they trod through a Slough of Despond. Similarly, if you have offered your expertise to your children, filling out FAFSA forms, university entrance papers and so forth, comparing college A to college B can be a very much a non-transparent process. We know that the retail pricing of colleges is a fiction. You have to do a lot of work to end up with a final price. And by the time you know the final price it is too late to apply to others (kind of like that knee replacement you just got). You have to send out multiple offers to colleges (with multiple fees) and in the end so much is guesswork. What will the experience of your Jonny or Jane be? No one knows. And to a point this is merely pointing out that life contains a surprise or two. Much like the treatment of your asthma or diabetes or your knee replacement. What if there was a way to decrease the un-knowability?

Carey’s University of Everywhere does this by giving the user/learner ultimate responsibility for the classes taken. He might take a class (likely to be free, by the by) at MIT, one at Harvard, another at Stanford. He might take another at his local public university. The choice is his. Costs go down as knowability go up. He decides what classes to take, not some mid-level administrator at some particular college.

In health care what if we constructed a parallel model, one that explodes the current model of insurance company constructed “degrees” at local hospitals? Right now a company approves, or more likely denies, a mode of treatment. It selects the pricing but also the allowed method of treatment, the devices, the doctors, the pills. The hospital. It will allow this hospital, not that one. It is somewhat like if we said that our college president and board were the insurance company, and the campus of our university system were the various hospitals and providers that the company permitted within it. At the end of our pilgrim’s progress it is hoped he ends up with a degree/cure; it is likely he ends up in bankruptcy/morgue.

The parallel, I have to immediately say, falls apart in that we will always need our hospitals; they are not going to vanish into the electronic ether. But then, neither will all colleges. Though we certainly don’t need the numbers of campuses that we currently have, there will always be a version of Harvard and MIT and Stanford. We can however construct something akin to this individual-oriented scheme.

Exploding the insurance-governed model that currently exists, and replacing it with a government-centered model would simplify billing, saving costs at both the provider level and the overall administration of health, allowing for transparency. To give more power to the consumer of health care, what if we also had a central clearinghouse for scientifically proven health models of illnesses? Well, we actually have one: the NGC, the National Guideline Clearinghouse (initiated by the Dept. of Health and Human Services). This would allow a patient--much as in our student model--to put him/her-self at the center of the process, giving themselves more control; the patient can then access a central, and therefore simplified, site in order to inform themselves to possible treatments, even local specialists who have availed themselves of similar procedures in the past. Links could be set up showing experience and a rating system for a given specialist and hospital system. Hospitals could be arranged by district, districts by regions. Within a given region their might be dozens of choices, districts might have but a few.

The model would work as follows: Someone has an illness. Their doctor provides a diagnosis (perhaps the person also gets a second, confirming, opinion). The patient or their caregiver researches the clearinghouse and sees that certain specialists must be involved in their treatment (the primary provider most likely has already mentioned this), sees the specialists available in their region and also sees what that treatment will likely entail. (This is a simplification: medical terminology as well as medical knowledge requires advanced learning; what needs to emphasized is transparency and the promotion of the possibility of further explanation at the primary provider level.) What then might appear is an algorithm of choices. Given certain parameters (sex, age, illness, lab results) the algorithm would narrow the choices to certain areas, certain doctors, certain treatments. The experience of Peter Drier had, when confronted with a six-figure bill for a surgical procedure, would not happen if within that algorithm all consults would have appeared, all participating surgeons (not necessarily by name, but by position and allowable billing), all extraneous fees including operating room fees, and if anything would be considered out-of-network (cf. .

The patient then takes their electronic record (yes, now readily available) and sends requests via the Internet to several specialists (they might be anywhere in the world, might be only those available within a district) who then make remarks which the patient reads, with costs verified via the clearinghouse or the government agency involved (Medicare, say). A treatment selection is made with the help of the primary provider. Once the treatment is selected, the specialists necessary for the actual procedure(s) are then selected. It is the treatment that is selected, then the provider, just as in the university model we selected the desired certificate, the classes necessary for that certificate, then the specific university, which, again might be in multiple places, just as our doctors might be in multiple districts.

Costs and confusion in both models decrease, I would guess by quite a substantial amount. But here I’d like to further pose that this would also allow for equitable treatment, as the e-University would be open up not just to wealthy white alumnae anymore but to a general gathering of mixed ethnic groups (from around the world), our health care would be more open to everyone, rich and poor, employed and unemployed (though the Internet would have to be treated as much as a right as electricity). The wealthy would be competing alongside the poor at the MIT courses online; the guy who was just fired but now needs back surgery can have the same opportunity for the procedures that are scientifically proven at that point in time. Fair. Just. And much easier.

There are a few points along the “algorithm of care” (my name for this network of health care) which can produce cost savings. First, having a Medicare For All plan would allow the government to force prices downward (as in all other industrial nations). Second, administration costs would be reduced (saving upwards of 31% of total current costs: according to the New England Journal of Medicine that is what we currently spend on administrative costs in the US). Thirdly, transparency would force downward pressures on similar treatments and providers. Fourthly, providers competing for patient services would create lower costs and greater attention to quality (providers will compete in areas of quality and costs).

The health care system can hardly be labeled as such in America. There is now pressure within it that is rapidly causing destruction of itself, through political divisiveness and spiraling costs. If and when the public becomes aware of the number of deaths caused by our insurance-focused system (upwards of 60,000 in the most recent Harvard study) citizens may well find the need not to tinker, but to blow up the existing structure. Out of that destruction can come a more efficient and fair system.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Checklist

So, this morning I've been thinking about my own relationship to the Christian Church. The Church, as I've written about in recent posts, now has a split personality, mimicking the political divide. Across the board people are siding with a left-leaning, spiritual Church or a right-leaning dogmatic Church. Let's create a list and see what side we come down on.

  1. Evolution/Creationism. I definitely come down on the side of Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne.  Fossil evidence is clear, having established intermediate stages in multiple species (whales, for one). There is nothing that states (except an extremely literal reading of Genesis) that God does not act through evolution, nor that the universe did not begin as a singularity. Far from it, Let there be light! as a certain unambiguity to it.
  2. Age of the universe. See above. You have to simply eliminate science from your life to date the earth, or universe to about 5,000 years ago. The speed of light, the rate of decay for radioactive elements, would have to be different, drastically different. Placing humans alongside dinosaurs is a jumbled misreading of geological science.
  3. The Nature of Time. Time is a basic belief for Christians. We place ourselves into a certain stage along a continuum. Personally, I think time an illusion, and that we all exist in a Providential (Boethian sense here) Now. Quite Buddhist, yes; but I don't see any contradiction with Christianity and Buddhism (not Buddhism as often practised, but Buddhism as taught by Gautama/Siddhartha). 
  4. Homosexuality. I've investigated the verses on homosexuality in the Bible and have found them wanting. Wanting of absolutism, wanting of any humility that might state that we, as Christians, do not have a definite, unambiguous text that states that Jesus, or anyone else (other than the Hebrews of Leviticus), was categorically against gay love. Now, as for gay lust, that is another matter--but no different than heterosexual lust. Sin is sin, as they say. [Addendum: the typical translations are quite definite in their statements, but I would urge the reader to look closely at the original koine Greek text for any definite judgements. Cf. and note the various definitions of the relevant terms. Whether you come down on the side of "homosexuals" or "homosexual acts" or "pederasts" or others you have to see that there is diverse opinion on the meanings of these verses. Now, given that there is diverse opinions, then there cannot be any definitive judgement one way or the other...other than to reveal one's own prejudices. [For another nice summation of these "clobber" verses see] The attitudes and beliefs of increasingly more fundamentalists have been leaning towards allowance of homosexuality within marriage, that the sin is in the judging of others who have no ability to change their fundamental sexual makeup. For a take on a recent forum, The Faith Angle Forum, cf .
  5. One Man, One Woman/Marriage. Please. The Bible isn't a marriage manual, nor a sex manual. This is obvious, as there are so many different applications of "marriage" within the covers.
  6. Revelation/Second Coming. I believe in what Christ said: namely, that only our Father in heaven knows the date of the end times (as noted above, since I do not believe in time as a continuum, I would place the End Times as...Now.) Any Christian who states that we are living in the end times (often appended with the statement: obviously) would then have to be going against what Christ said and believed. Is this not blasphemous? Why then do we hear so much of this stuff from the Christian Right? 
  7. Ecology/Climate Change/Global Warming/Environmental Movement. The Christian Right is firmly digging in their heels on this one. Denial of global warming is a given for them. This despite numerous Biblical injunctions siding with the progressive movements for environmental consciousness (Cf Ps 8, Rom 8, Ps 121, 130, 136, 137 taken from the Evangelical Environmental Network site, also a useful reference), and the plethora of scientific data (often ridiculed) detailing human causation of climate change. Conservative Christians will still side with the oil industry which is employing the same tactics as the tobacco industry did decades ago to instill doubt in science for the sake of corporate profit. Thing is, the Bible is crystal clear on this. Even Exxon has admitted to the science of global warming (within its business plan!) as has the U.S. Navy--rebuilding ports to account for rising seas--and various municipalities, such as Washington D.C. and Miami and New York City. But FOX News says it's all a bogus liberal conspiracy led by Al Gore, so I guess it is!
  8. Literalism. I do not believe in the literal truth of the Bible...since language is not "literally" true. That is, language is fuzzy and symbolic, filled with metaphor and trope. There simply is no meaning to the phrase, "Is the Bible literally true"? Well, no , since nothing in language is "literally true." Language is wonderfully vague, filled with a fog of ideas. Deal with it. Anyone stating that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible simply doesn't understand what language is.
  9. Female pastors/Feminism. I have a daughter, therefore I am a feminist--I believe that she should have every right and opportunity that my son has. Can a female pastor speak with authority? Of course. But men have to learn to listen. Truth, out of the mouth of a female is just as true as from a male. Respect, mutual respect, is the key ingredient for both sexes.
  10. Translation. I suspect that not every pastor or church leader has taken a course on translation theory, or even that they've given it much thought. They should. The Bible that they like to profess via sola scriptura simply isn't the Bible that they are talking about. First, there is the original, and the question of What is the original? Is the original merely the texts that we have in the original Hebrew and Greek? Or is there another, further, spiritual original that we, as humans, can just touch on with the tool of language, a tool that can do wonderful things, but a tool that is also limited. And further, what happens to that "original" when we go from language to language? Translation is like filling a pail with water to the very brim. Pick it up and carry it over to another pail, and then spill the contents into that second, almost identical pail. Do you still have exactly what you had in the "original"? No. You've lost some of the contents. You find out later that the second pail isn't even the same size. Close, but not the same. Nothing in language translation comes out the same. Isn't language great? Again, deal with it.
  11. The Catholic Question. I've heard pastors denounce the Catholic Church as a cult. You can find sites on the internet devoted to the cause of unmasking the "Whore of Babylon." Sheesh. I question if these pastors ever bother to read the Catholic Catechism to see what the Catholic Church actually teaches--and its reasoning for believing the way they do. I've read what Catholics think concerning soteriology, Mary "worship," the infallibility of the Pope, the Eucharist, honoring the saints, the Mass, etc. and I find the explanations quite descriptive and logical. And consistent. Not that I agree on all points; but to label Catholics as a cult, as not even belonging to the Christian religion, is not merely incorrect, but is to my mind a moral sin. And it speaks of a laziness of mind that is downright embarrassing. Not to bother to take the time to read what is plainly there--a few minutes to find the appropriate passage is all that it would take--is inexcusable.
  12. Prayer. This is a difficult one for me. Has prayer helped me? Definitely--it took me out of the slough of despond. It was really a miracle, allowing me to live a normal life with OCD and depression. Yet... I feel as Kierkegaard felt, when he said The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. I do not view prayer as magic; I don't think my prayers for someone else influences their lives. Still, I do pray for others, and think others should as well. Theoretically a creator God can change the lives of others and so I pray for those in need. But secretly I hear God telling me that You want to better their lives? Go--and just do it, just go and help them yourself! I think we are God's instrument of influence--but we like to pray and say that we did something.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The New Church--After Religion

What it means to be human (spiritually human, not our sinful nature but that which aspires upward) must be the principal that we follow to the New Church. We must focus on the human, not the unknowable Holy (but know that the spiritual humanity must come from holiness, must come from the Creator, and this spirit language is our meeting place). We must create the new language of the spirit to subsume the language of the Word. This is so because literalism is killing the church. So perhaps poetry will save it.

What Hans Christian Von Baeyer once said of science (Discover, March 1996), "Science, in other words, thrives on anomaly, inconsistency, controversy, and doubt. Certainty kills it" should also be applied to the church and spirituality. Whereas certainty comes from the mind, doubt comes from the body: an experience leaves the question What has happened? Who am I, now that this has occurred? Certainty says, This is so because X is Y. It is an answer. And the answers the old church is leaving us are proving unsatisfactory.

The New Church should be like a ship at sea, not at port. The existing church/ship sits at dry dock, getting its repairs done and reviewing its itinerary. Cargo sits about--these are the rules of the church. No homosexuality. Belief in transubstantiation (or not). Belief in infant baptism (or adult). The rules for Christ's divinity--all that stuff has been worked out in creeds and so forth. The cargo is also filled with a ballast of burdensome connotations: judgmentalism, bias, hatred, political activism (of the wrong sort).

However it is the ship out at sea that will be the one that will prevail. It sails along in a fog of knowing/not-knowing. The captain is unsure of his compass and maps--indeed he does not even use these as he thinks them not so useful. The sailors on-board appear to still need their sea-legs under them; they're a bit wobbly-legged. The mists are so pervasive that one cannot always see clearly ahead, and that is fine; this church is used to sailing in murky waters, this church is used to not-knowing. Its cargo is still somewhat overladen: perhaps too mystical, too tolerant of every and all beliefs to the detriment of core belief systems. But it sails. It reaches far distant places. And it is a glad ship, a happy ship. No dour faces here.

The existing church is bound by literalism and rules. As Diana Butler Bass writes in "Christianity After Religion": it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, "us" versus "them." She quotes William Cantwell Smith as he explains that today's church is "something whose locus is in the realm of the intelligible." God is not in the realm of the intelligible. His knowing-ness is like the ocean, like a mist we sail through. We cannot know it. But we pretend; we pretend to know this and that truth, that God wants us this way, not that way. But it is just a pretense.

Language is never literal, but we say we want only literal belief in the Bible. How can that be? God has given us a misty way of knowing and communicating: language. I suspect that is the only way we can know Him: through an emotional, felt connection through poetry, and the other arts. Through shared moments. Is the New Church to the Old Church as true teaching is to propaganda? The Question to the Answer? If the New Church is to foster openness and spirituality, then it has to come to grips with The Question vs The Answer.

It seems the church as it is now constituted is more or less dancing to the same tune of Dogma. It selects the answer it wants, then proposes what hermeneutics are necessary to get there. Every generation is different than the preceding one. Each has to grapple with its own question of Who are we? As we get further away from the generations of our forefathers, we are like a stretched band of gum. Thinner and thinner as it gets pulled it eventually breaks. The Millenials are that generation that has broken from religion. They haven't broken from spirituality (and if humanity is spiritual in its make-up, then how could they?) but they are no longer seeing meaning in dogma. Answers are like that: they have no mystery in them. Nothing to hold the attention. I wonder if the old church to them seems like a dusty mathematics tome. Full of answers, and nothing very much like the mystery of the question of their lives.

Diana Bass makes a point in Christianity After Religion that as we journey we come through different experiences, we become new people, we learn new things. The Millenials are a generation that travels, that does not put down roots. This generation thinks nothing of quitting a job then starting anew. No company men here. This puts them into situations that are constantly shifting. The Question always looms large for them. Bass notes that the old way of religion was this: Belief. Belief is of the mind, not the body in experiencing connectedness and emotion. Belief is an answer. What we need in churches is experience of the spirit; we need the question.

To be successful in the new awakening of the church it will have to be one of the New Light-types, as described by Diana Bass: “more open and inclusive, with greater flexibility in gender roles, a quest for liberation and social equality, a marked liberalism in attitudes regarding sexuality, increased religious diversity, commitment to a wide range of spiritual practices, and acceptance of difference."  There will be a backlash, much like there was after Carter, when the Reagan revolution took fear and loathing to new heights (the City on a Hill). We saw this first with Robertson, Falwell, et al, but we also now see it with the Tea Party [cf Bass, Christianity After Religion]. In a very real sense it is the Christian Church in its floundering, last gasping, thrashing ways that is keeping the Awakening from its course, keeping the Spirit from its work. There will be no stopping it, but the Church will try; and it will fail, with the senescence of its members, with the boredom of its congregation, with the flight of youth. The new Awakening will be cast as demonic, the work of the Devil, if it is recognized at all by the Old Light churches. As Bass writes, “The New Lights of the old awakenings have become the Old Lights of the new one.”

The new, romantic, church will be concerned with the future of the world. Not the future of America. The New Light Awakening will not see boundaries on a map. People the world over need the Spirit. It will be concerned for the children of the next generation and so a Greening will occur in the Awakening. Climate Change will be uppermost in discussions. Alternative power will be the focus for churches: the churches of tomorrow will be run by solar and wind. There may be churches who specialize, some on ocean pollution or over-fishing; some on fracking and the dangers of polluting carbon sources; there will be human rights churches, and churches for the poor and disabled. There will be a lot of these, as the need will be great. There will be rain forest churches and churches for the indigenous. There may even be churches devoted to the rich...not to lobby for their influence and money, but to pray that they find the Spirit for they are far from turning toward God. The New Light churches may also finally embrace agnosticism, those who live in the gray band of not-knowing, of uncertain-ness. And of Zen, whose particular embracing of irrational un-literalism would be a heal-all to the churches of today.

The New Lights will be formed by men and women of Quality (cf Pirsig), of Spirit. They will see the old pass away and they will sense the new. They, for a while, will exist in a floating, non-choosing Way. A Way that holds the old in a balance with the new. This new man/woman is said to be a Man without Qualities (cf Musil), since he has left the old behind, and the new Way has yet to be codified and creed-ified. This Man/Woman will come from the younger generations; the old are inflexible and stiff, resistant to change. He/She will likely come from outside the church tradition. May well come from social liberation circles where there is an emphasis on equality and fairness. She (my bet is that it will be a she) will be low-born, not of the wealthy; or if from the wealthy then she will renounce it utterly. She will be something like the recent Pope Francis, I imagine; though without the baggage of the old church to surround her. She will form the new Way; the Old Lights will denounce her; and the New Church will rise again, just as it did in the 1790s, 1820s, and in the1870s.

"We will never understand anything until we have found some contradictions." Niels Bohr

"Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the most important thing is to seek God in the heart of mankind."--Hazrat Khan

Mat 16: 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but to life.--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bass, Diana; Christianity after religion--The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening; HarperOne. Bro. David Steindl-Rast

Monday, February 10, 2014

The New Christianity

Although evangelical protestants like to invoke as their model the early church of the New Testament, one that consisted of small fervent congregations holding worship ceremonies in homes or wherever, it increasingly seems to be jettisoning foundational theology for simple political ideology. To wit: A political position on the topic of poverty would, to a Christian concerned chiefly with Christ's Word, attempt to square the individual's responsibility and response to the poor with the conservative position that the poor are poor due to their own lax moral compass and laziness, that is, due to the individual's faulty preparation to modern life. This hypothetical Christian would have to ask himself what would Jesus do and say on the topic? There is ample proofs for this unfortunate researcher: the New Testament shows Jesus constantly concerned with the poor. The entire Bible contains over 300 references to helping the poor and needy. Indeed this may well be the central purpose of the Gospels (other than the obvious John 3:16). But is this the typical response of a typical American Christian evangelical? Certainly not in the Republican Party.

Though there used to be a niche for a Christian Republican with more progressive values in the Northeast, these uncommon folk have long since been labeled RINOs and marched out of the party. There simply is no room in the GOP for a Christian response to the poor. Instead of following Christ, the typical evangelical Republican of today's America is to first march in lock-step with the ideology of the Self, which is the conservative mantra, the anti-government libertarianism that sees the individual self as maker of destiny (cf. Ayn Rand), and then to twist the theology until it lines up with the Christian response (ie. If we help the poor they will never have the opportunity to learn how to earn for themselves and pick themselves up by their non-existent bootstraps).

It is thus the ideology of the Christian evangelical that fuels his purpose, not Christ's message. It is the temptation to power not the choosing to do Christ's will, that is at the foundation of his choosing. If we only asked ourselves from where does the thought process originate, from Christ or from ideology--from the love of power--we could see the mendacity that is now so thoroughly absorbed in the fabric of evangelicalism (at least within the GOP--since it is largely absent in the progressive parties as they are irreligious in habit). Not all who cry Lord, Lord, know him, as He quite clearly said--and meant. ("Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" Luke 6:46)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The new poetry?

Decades ago people stopped reading poetry. Perhaps it was because it was too esoteric, too irrelevant, or just too silly sounding. Maybe it was because there was a lot of bad poetry being written. In any case, beyond a few university presses and micro-journals there is very little print being devoted to poetry these days.

But writers of poetry abound. There is no small demand at creative writer workshops and MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs. Everybody wants to be the next Eliot, but no one wants to actually read Eliot.

The same fate, I fear, is due other arts. Local theater is dying. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the seats were empty at a pretty decent production of a Neil Simon play. Most of those present had come on a bus from a senior citizen home. I saw one person who might have been under thirty. Probably the driver of the bus.

If you are a painter, then you know how poets feel. Everybody wants to paint and draw; no one wants to pay for your work of genius.

Are you a ballet dancer? Then your fate is most likely--"So you think you can dance" aside--that of a teacher.

When was the last time you read a short story? A novel? Maybe a novel. For some reason novels, though way more time intensive than stories, still hang in there. Barely. I give it another ten years.

Dance, theater, art, poetry, writing. Doomed. But doomed in a quite interesting way. No one is buying, but there sure are a lot of participants. If you had a hundred people in a room you'd find a lot of people who love to dance, act, and write. Just that you'd also find no one who actually paid for someone else's art, and I think that is the key to the problem.

We still love entertainment. Harry Potter, anyone? Spider Man? Movies are more popular than ever. We love movies. Now, reading a story takes about as much time as looking at a film. Why the big discrepancy in audience? Maybe it is because people can write a story themselves--not that they all do, but it is conceivable to them that they could do so in theory. They can't picture themselves making a movie. Movies are grand things, like operas, that take an army of workers to produce. A story is a small affair, intimate, something that anyone might make oneself.

Perhaps what is happening is that if something can be done by ourselves, then it can't possibly be much good, or at least very important. Truly useful.

Are we suffering from a grand case of societal inferiority complex? If it is something we could produce ourselves, individually, then maybe it isn't worth consuming. We can all see ourselves act out parts from our vast experience watching TV and film, so we don't make that ticket reservation for the theater. It doesn't seem relevant to us. Why not instead go see that vacuous film about some superhero? "Why," we say to ourselves about the play or musical, "we could do that!"

And so it must not be that good. That entertaining. That important.

This is likely to be linked to the modern notion that things don't need work to be good. Just inborn talent. Genius. We don't need to struggle to learn an art for years and years. Turn up at "America's Got Talent" or "American Idol" or any of a dozen other like-minded shows and you will see performer after performer who is untrained and undisciplined. Just like us.

We want our artists to be born genius's fully formed. We want that to be ourselves too. But secretly we know, deep down, that true value in the arts is hard work. Worthy practitioners practice their craft hour after hour, laboring, sweating, panting.

But the effort seems so effortless on the big screen. On the page. On the stage. That's what we want: that effortlessness that comes from lazy genius.

The truth and the lie

A while back an acquaintance said that he only read nonfiction, as he was interested in the truth. Feeling like I needed to chime in, I said I read fiction for the same reason. I added that poetry was even more true than fiction (stories, novels, plays). Puzzled by this, I tried to explain it but I'm afraid I wasn't successful. I made the comparison that historical books (here I mean nonfiction, not historical period pieces) are like map-making. The author researches his topic like the geographer, then picks and chooses certain geographical data to include. To see that he needs to pick some and discard others is obvious: to include all data points, a map-maker would make a map as large as the earth (if that's what he's mapping). But we put too much weight here on "data points." The truth is so much more than "Mr Lincoln arrived at his law practice early on the morning of June 7th, 1837." The reader wants to know motives, reactions, emotions. These are often lost to history. The biographer can guess, of course, but then we enter the drama, the stagecraft of authors. We begin to encroach on the territory of fiction. Fiction gives us something that the historical data points cannot give us: the motivations of humans everywhere, the Everyman. What we don't have in data points is made up for in the truth of what we actually are. The truth of why we do things, the truth that inhabits our souls. You will find more truth in one paragraph of an Alice Munro story than you will find in an entire hagiography by Peggy Noonan. When the writing is unflinching, unblinking, fleshing out the human character at the core of all of us, then you can recognize truth and its rarity. Rare, since to write truthfully is to condemn yourself to its excesses, deviancies and joyful elevations both. It is to inhabit whatever it is--call it Truth--that is the same in all of us, amorphous souls that we are. The Syrians have a saying (so I have read) that goes something like this: There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed lie. (And we all have been told that beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is an Alice Munro story, but also it is true of any great writer of fiction, but not so of even the greatest of the writings of history, even Grant, and Churchill. Only a lie, it seems, can tell the truth.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Games We Play: Payroll Tax Cut

Obama wishes to extend the payroll tax cut. The Republicans, the party of tax cuts, wishes to prevent this. Why? Of course, to make Obama look bad, thus giving the GOP an edge in the next election. Here is my reasoning.

Leaving aside for the moment whether we agree that this is the GOP motive, can we say that the GOP has some other reasoning for eliminating a very popular reduction in taxation? Well, they would, and do, say that a tax reduction is indeed needed for the middle classes in this time of recession, but that we need to pay for this so that the deficit is not increased--and they don't mean to pay for it with another tax increase on the rich. Because a tax increase on the rich--I mean, the job creators--would be bad for the economy. You see, the GOP states that increased taxes reduce the economic engine. Tax decreases improve the, let us say, the economic mpg. Tax reductions pay for themselves, in other words, by increasing efficiency, letting people spend as they will.

Well, if payroll taxes are reduced, that would increase the economy and pay for itself. Why vote it down with some excuse that we now suddenly need to pay for it? Do tax cuts pay for themselves or don't they?

There is only one reason for the GOP to come out against the tax cut for the middle classes: to make Obama look bad. They are willing to harm this country for their own pathetic grab for power.