Wednesday, September 09, 2009

On the public option

I haven't really gotten Kevin's idea that it would be ok to drop the public option as long as other things are done. I think that argument just misses the larger issue. Any health reform fails without a public option because the public option is the first step to fundamentally changing our health care system from the free market, monopolized morass of the status quo to a single payer, Canada style system. Absent the public option, we basically have tinkering on our way to unaffordability. Or, to put more clearly, offering the subsidy and no public option is acceptance of the status quo - an admission that things aren't that bad and that we just need to massage the monopolized system to fix its ills.

A mandate and subsidies don't freak out the GOP because they know that these are minor repairs that they can fight against and whittle away. What the GOP fears is that Obama will actually get angry and use his rhetorical power to actually do some monopoly busting. That's why they say death panels and all that other nonsense. They fear the long term, psychological changes that will be brought on by a well functioning, easy to use public option.

Perhaps people who have not lived in a universal health care system can't truly grasp this concept but it is the ease of use that wins the day for single payer. You walk into the hospital, you get service, you pay nothing. No special cards, no long forms, no hassle, no foul looks when you say you don't have insurance. If you think about the nightmare of private insurance, where most people don't even understand what is covered, what to do in case of an emergency, or how much they'll be paying in situation X, Y, and Z and you compare that fear to how the same person feels in a public health insurance system, the status quo loses every time. No one, given the choice between a monopolistic or hybrid system and a public option, single payer system would chose the former. That's why the GOP is freaked. And that's why we need to hold out for the public option. It's not even about getting those 45 million insurance (although that will happen and it's a great necessity). It's about fundamentally altering health care in America and putting us on the road to a Canada style system. That won't happen with the subsidies mess.

(Aside: It's never been about cost. The USFG can spend whatever it wants. That's why we just pissed a trillion or two down the drain fighting wars that didn't need to be fought. It's about values. Do we value American lives more than we do filling corporate coffers and defense contractors pockets? Other countries have made clear that they value their citizen's lives first. Somehow, anytime someone suggests that we might value our citizen's lives, the Right screams bloody murder about budget deficits. Notice they don't blink twice when asked to spend a trillion dollars developing a weapon system that doesn't work or to invade a foreign country.)


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Man can not live on barbeque and burritos alone

I've been back in the US for just over a month and this would be a good time to restart blogging. The time I spent in DC was well spent and a net negative for my desire to continue to slim down, but who's getting out the scale anyway.

Returning to Atlanta was like returning to a foreign city. The town itself has changed so dramatically in the intervening nine years that I have been away as to be almost unrecognizable. Change, as one would expect, occurs on dual, linear paths arcing in opposite directions, which is to say, that the "new" downtown is much better than the old downtown, but the "new" Buckhead is a giant nightmare that I continue to avoid as much as possible.

Changes or not, Atlanta is a city that perfectly illustrates my sense of cultural dislocation: the city is engineered, designed to get people in during the day and out during the night. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, we tend to value living outside of the city in gated communities that resemble defensible fortresses of private security. It's odd really, the rest of the world tends to value living in cities. Johannesburg real estate, for example, is much pricier in the city than out (although there are specific racial issues that explain that case). My point being, that our culture, and specifically that which dominates in Atlanta, is not a culture that values public space and that makes me rather uncomfortable.

Good news, barbeque and burritos haven't gotten worse over the last five years. Atlanta has seen a proliferation of burrito joints, most of them rather plain, but Chipotle continues to shine. In terms of barbeque, the South has to be famous for something and being famous for generational knowledge for slow cooking delicious pork isn't bad. Fat Mat's continues to reign although I have yet to find a place that has great beef brisket.

The graduate program is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I feel quite comfortable to be back in the walls of academia, but on the other, I'm not entirely comfortable with the department. That should come in time but there are certain things that I'll just never get over. Smart people sound stupid when they have thick southern accents, for one. (Imagine, "Remember Cicero, y'all!")

And the discipline I have selected has a tendency, like most disciplines, to appeal to notions of sophistication in unpleasant and unnecessary ways. There is a particular jargon, for example, that is almost used as an entry barrier, or, to put more succinctly, one needs to become familiar with an advanced and rarely understood typology that is divorced from one's ontological disposition to be able to re-remember the things that we have forgotten from our ahistorical discursive space. (Note: Previous sentence was not intended to make sense or be intelligible.)

I'll put it this way, earlier today I watched another graduate student from the Moving Images program (essentially Film Studies) and I quite literally understood nothing. The presenter used a series of vocabulary that was progressively less understandable. Now, I'm not needing to actually understand what she was talking about. It's not part of my field, but it is illustrative of the phenomenon that I'm dealing with on a daily basis. This discipline has a tendency to use language that essentially doesn't exist. The most mind blasting word that the presenter used that I can remember was "indexology". No, you will not find that in any dictionary.

That being said, I do feel that I shall be able to do what I want to do and carve out my little niche. The university has been extremely supportive and encouraging and the professors for the most part appear to be willing to help in whatever way that they can. I also can't really complain about my deal, the work part is good and it gives me the flexibility I need.

What does concern me is that I am not entirely convinced that I have put myself in place to be successful, or, as successful as I would like to be. I have entered a world that is almost entirely unfamiliar and while I am doing the work, there is much more that I don't understand than I do. It's rather disconcerting, for example, to read the assigned articles and not be able to clearly identify the main arguments afterwards. To some extent that is because I'm used to reading extremely straight forward arguments. I also think that the authors we have been reading have a rather opaque writing style that is not particularly conducive to being understood. I'm trying not to worry about it too much at the moment (and have been told to, essentially, chill the f*ck out) but it is concerning that the major ongoing debate about a central tenet of the discipline seems to be not only entirely irrelevant but also utterly incomprehensible. Maybe it's just me.

In my master's program, every participant had a distinct character. In this space, I well documented the trials and tribulations. That will not be repeated this time around for two reasons. One, there is a certain politics of academia that must be respected. That is to say, I'm not really interested in insulting people that are likely to be colleagues in the long run. I'd rather learn how to interact with them in positive ways and then use those relationships when the time comes. The other reason I won't be repeating London's storytelling is that I'm mixed in with a crowd of a mostly higher caliber. Pretty much anyone can get into a master's program and manage to do reasonably well. The admission filters just aren't that strong. At the doctorate level, the quality of the applicant goes up and those who make it through generally can contribute and hold their own.

That being said, I'm taking a political science class on Latin America that at least promises to provide a bit of humor. This class is a graduate level course with a mixed population - half the class are political science PhD students, the other half are either masters or PhD students from various fields. So, there are some people who are rather lacking in context, shall we say. The best example, and someone I'm fairly sure will be making a repeat appearance on this blog, is a rather young lad who claims he has travelled extensively in Latin America. I can only imagine when he travels, he goes 5-stars for in the first class session he argued that Latin America doesn't have much income inequality. Best not to open up the stupid at your first class.

In his second class, he argued that uneducated people shouldn't be allowed to vote. Best not to continue the stupid in your second class. Both times the professor dealt with the issue rather diplomatically but I can't express to you just how awful something sounds when it's not only utterly stupid (and an argument derived from the racist, sexist past) and it's spoken with a pronounced southern accent. I'll try to record exact quotes from now on.

I'll end this little missive in a moment but I wanted to make a comment about what I have seen to be university-wide technophobia. I am, unapologetically, a child of the high tech revolution. I like having my tech and, all things being even, I much prefer to take notes on a laptop, email in assignments, and at least attempt to be all digital. Unfortunately, the professors are a bit behind in the times. Not only will they generally not receive assignments by email, they also tend to look at you funny if you crack open a laptop and use that instead of an actual notebook. I'm wondering if they just suspect we are doing other things or if they don't understand the vast benefits of being able to search and find through every note you take during your doctorate program. Either way, they just need to get over it. I'm not putting the laptop away. In fact, the extended MacBook Pro battery has proved terribly awesome.

Finally, I have to say, District 9 was so utterly awesome that if you haven't seen it, you should immediately go see it. As in right now. Unless you have an aversion to violence, because it gets rather sizzling in the second half. I haven't seen any other movies of late, but District 9 will hold me over for another couple weeks.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Initial observations

1. People are still rather fat. It's not just a stereotype, it's a problem. In my extended stay at the Orlando airport (a total of 7.5 hours) I watched a family of four consume their weight in high fat, high sugar, high calorie foods. The father was the only one who didn't really eat and he was also, not coincidentally, the only one who wasn't pushing the portly-to-obese barrier. We need to think about what we are putting into our mouths.

2. Cars have gotten boxier and uglier. It's no wonder why American car companies are in the crapper. No only do they produce inferior, poorly engineered products, they also products butt ugly machines. The new "box on wheels" design has got to go.

3. On my flight to DC, there was a youngish man with his presumed girlfriend who had a problem with the flight crew and eventually go kicked off the flight. The police were called. He was utterly ridiculous and a jerk. Now, I can't verify this, but I have a very sneaky suspicion that he plays for one of DC's sports teams. I won't name any names, but I can say that this individual had the physique, body art, attitude, and wispy beard to match a particular individual in the DC sports scene.

4. It's weird responding to people in public in english. I guess after 3.5 years, my natural inclination is to say something in spanish. I'm sure I'll get used to it soon enough as I revert back to my original culture but it is a little odd to hear english all around me.

5. The US is perfect, much as they say in Colombia. The roads are perfectly paved with all the correct markings, the stop lights are well defined (and seem long), the distance is vast. These are the things that Colombians say about the US and they're right. Compared to where I've been, we present an appearance of perfection. I'm not complaining about it, just saying that I have a heightened appreciation for that which we do right. And we do roads right.

6. Chipotle, thankfully, has done nothing to degrade the quality of their pork. Still as succulent and delicious as ever. I shall soon become reacquainted with their other meat options.

7. The MacBook Pro is easily the coolest computer I have ever owned. More than that, however, it suits my needs. I don't want to have to worry about maintenance and hassle and viruses and all the other crap that goes with Windows. With Mac, my PC concerns are essentially over. Now, if Google would only release Chrome for Mac.

8. After living in Colombia, I find that I don't like my air conditioning so cold anymore. Maybe it's because I prefer fans and the air circulation that they provide or maybe it's just after living for so long without, I am not so addicted to artificially cooled air. (Note: There is no A/C in Bogota because the average temp in the city is between the 50s and 60s. This comment only refers to A/C in the hot lands or times when I was traveling with my wife who doesn't like a lot of A/C.)

9. If there's anything about DC it's the consistent nature of things. The politicians still think they're hot shit, the people are always in a hurry, and hope springs eternal for Redskins Nation in July and August. My mother's house is about 5 minutes from Redskins park and while tempted, I'm not going to make it to a training camp session. But that won't stop the thousands of other who will as we saw yesterday when we passed them on the road, all lined up to park.

10. All things considered, it's good to be back. I have to confess I was quite nervous about coming back and not knowing what to expect. I shouldn't have been. The US is still here, as always, with good, decent people who are largely ignorant of what their political leaders are doing. I don't say that to denigrate Americans - most people around the world are mostly ignorant of what their governments do in their names. No, I say that because often, living abroad, one only gets the most narcissistic view of America - the political view - and that's a bit depressing. It's reassuring to see with my own eyes that people are people - whether Colombian or American, we all want the same things. No matter how nihilistic and depraved our leaders become.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Making eggshells from eggs

The other night I went out to a pub with some friends to celebrate my imminent departure. We had a jovial time until, at the end of the night, unpleasantness struck. Without getting too specific, one friend started a fight in the street and the other friend came to his defense. Both ended up with bloodly lips (multiple taxi drivers came to the defense of the other guy) and the three of us were forced to explain the situation to the police (well, I didn't have to explain anything other than that I wasn't part of the fisticuffs).

This event put a damper on the evening and really pissed me off. There is almost no situation where violence is called for and the contretemps certainly could have been avoided with a dash of prudence. Unfortunately, there's no reasoning with drunken stupor.

When I talked to the implicated the following day, they both had varying explanations for the unfortunate event. The friend who started it claims he remembers everything except who threw the first punch. His lack of memory a convenient form of ego protection since, without any physical provocation at all, he started the blowup with a full on, open hand slap to the other guy's face and then chased after the dude swinging wildly, hitting mostly air, and falling flat on his drunk ass at least three times. A small part of me, a very small part, was in hysterics with his clown show of brawling.

The conclusion of this event was anti-climactic. The police didn't do anything aside from annoy us. The other guy took off. And the one taxi driver who claimed that my friend had damaged his cab during the fight refused to produce the taxi or any witnesses and was eventually ignored by the police.

The emotional after effect is more long lasting. I'm still pissed off at my friend. But I'm reserving my anger for an appropriate moment mostly because he's in a downward, depressive cycle that has no clear end in sight. His alcoholism is on the verge of being converted into a chronic disease, a symptom of obvious psychological trauma which I'll not theorize about in this space. Unfortunately, this friend suffers from an advanced case of pride and that makes broaching the subject extremely difficult to impossible. Another friend did talk to this individual about a year ago and that created so much huffing and puffing that the two didn't speak for a solid year.

A part of me would like to judge my friend, speak harsh words, explode with righteous outrage. But I won't do that and not just for pragmatic reasons. No, I won't judge him because I tend to think that when we look at others and see things we do not like, things that we judge, things that are revolting to us, that our revulsion, judgements, and dislikes are a form of ego protection. The things that provoke strong dislikes in others are things that are usually reflected in some part of our own being. Or, to put is more squarely, we tend to judge others for things that are or could be present in ourselves.

For the last several days, I have thought about the event, my friend, and the subsequent going away party we had on Saturday night (in which I drank nothing stronger than orange juice and my friend got tanked again). And while a small part of me continues to be angry with him, most of me just feels sad for him. I think I have a pretty good handle on his emotional situation, I think if he was willing to open up to me I could help him by listening and offering some small advice. Yet, I know that he'll never let me in because to do so would be to admit weakness and he is too proud to do so.

Instead, I'm leaving the country with only a tiny bit of hope that he will right his ship and begin to address that which ails him. I have no great confidence in that hope and I know that I will continue to think of creative ways in which I can deliver the messages I need to deliver. But for now, I feel more useless than useful. I feel as if a friend is drowning in the ocean and ignoring every lifejacket thrown his way. As I learned much earlier in life, I can't jump down the rabbit hole with him even though the alternative is to do nothing.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Here's another bad "study" from Foreign Policy

I don't generally have a very good opinion of Foreign Policy magazine. They're kind of like Foreign Policy-lite and I have a feeling they try to say provocative things in the hopes of ratcheting up page clicks or subscriptions. Unfortunately, these types of things often make them rather clownish.

Enter today's offer: Foreign Policy's 5th annual failed states index. These sorts of indices are rather useless since they paint broad strokes and therefore wouldn't actually be useful to foreign policy practioners but for some reason, they keep pumping them out like they're foreign policy's answer to US News's annual College Rankings. Back in grad school, I remember reading the index then and thinking that it had been rather foolishly produced (with a rather poor methodology). Apparently, things haven't gotten any better.

One thing I know for certain - only someone who has never visited and knows very little about Colombia could suggest the country is in danger of being a failed state. Security wise the government controls the vast majority of the country although the guerilla still manages to attack population centers from time to time (but not in any of the big cities). The suggestion that the guerilla represents, today, a viable threat to the functioning or longevity of the government is laughable. Economically, Colombia has largely been unaffected by the global economic crisis. Growth is still over 5% and foreign investment continues to rise. Politically, the country faces no crises of government or legitimacy, the president continues to be the most popular president in South America, and democratic processes are well respected (although politically motivated violence continues).

Looking at the list, Foreign Policy has decided that Bolivia is more stable or less at risk than Colombia. Curious since they continue to face a serious political crisis that threatens to tear the country in two. I'm sure there are others, like Venezuela or Honduras, that are much lower than Colombia that could be debated out.

I think that, behind all the fancy sounding explanations of why their methodology is oh-so sophisticated, Foreign Policy suffers in this compilation by giving equal merit to the 12 social, political, economic, and military variables that they use to evaluate state stability. Some factors matter more than others. In the case of Colombia, a booming economy, military control of the vast majority of the country, and political legitimacy matter much, much more in determining if the country is at risk of being a failed state than, say, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Yet, Foreign Policy makes no attempt to evaluate which factors are the most important. Thus, Colombia's high rankings in IDPs, for example, bumps it way up above Honduras or Venezuela, countries that don't really have IDP problems but do have a host of other problems that more directly challenge the legitimacy or ability of the state to funtion.

Well, I won't quibble any further on a "study" that, aside from mass consumption, is utterly useless. Instead, I'll just conclude that again, Foreign Policy has generated page views by producing faux scholarship and I'll wonder if they did it on purpose.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A totally shocking report

Could it be that Bush's abstinence only education not only failed to reduce teen sex but also increased teen pregnancies and STDs? CDC says yes with the worst impact in the South where the religious message is generally more impactful. I know, this comes as a real shocker.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The End of an Adventure

Two weeks from today, I fly back to the US and the Great Colombian Adventure officially comes to a close. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm very excited to be going back to the US, to see my family, to begin the next step in my professional development, and to become reaquainted with my culture. On the other, I'm a bit sad to leave Colombia's good parts, I'm a little concerned about what I'm going to find, and I certainly don't want to leave my wife behind for the 4 month period that we are planning to be apart.

Of course, Colombia will never really be in the rear view mirror. I married a Colombian and my kids will be half Colombian. We will visit as often as we can and we shall raise our kids to be aware of their dual, equally valuable heritage. But the days of living in Colombia, those are over. I seriously doubt I'll ever come back to live and if I did, it would be as a very old man in search of easy retirement. That is a really weighty statement and it's one that I'm not entirely sure if my wife has thought through. In fact, I'm fairly convinced that she is actively avoiding thinking of all the implications of our decision, as would most of us, I imagine.

As I mentioned above, I'm a bit concerned about what I'm going to find in the US. I married a Latina and in my country, race matters (unfortunately). On top of that, we're going to Atlanta, a modern city in the hub of the South, America's traditional racist core. It's very likely that I have little to be concerned with. Atlanta is, after all, a modern city with modern ideas, not to mention a huge Latino population (over 15,000 Colombians alone). But I still worry. I don't want my wife or my kids to be subjected to America's racial politics.

More than my petty worries, however, is the irrepresable conclusion that one chapter of my life is closing as another opens. This chapter was of falling in love, getting married, meeting and immersing myself in a new language and culture, and strengthening the bonds of the most important relationship in my life. In a sense, this was a chapter of growing up, of preparation of what is to come. The next chapter is one of adulthood. It involves me finally having taken a decision about my career and future. It will involve the arrival of children and everything that goes with that. It is, in a certain sense, a huge step, but a step that I am overeager to take. And ultimately, I believe it is a step we could not have taken in Colombia.

I'll sum up with a final thought. I'm big on symmetry. When everything balances out I'm happy. So how's this for balance:

When we left London, my wife went to Colombia while I stayed in the US for 4 months.
Now I'm going to the US while my wife will stay in Colombia for 4 months.

Our roles have officially juxtaposed.


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