Saturday, November 28, 2009

Healthy Debate

The latest battle in the health care reform war is between the House health care bill and the Senate health care bill. Although the House bill was passed with much fanfare by the Representatives, it is the Senate bill, or some modified version of the Senate bill, that will ultimately pass, for two reasons. The first is that the Senate just generally gets more respect than the House, since there are fewer Senators and they serve for longer (also “Senator” just sounds cool).

The more important reason is that although the House bill would probably be better for the average American, they have managed to construct it so that there is a reason for everyone to hate it. In a good negotiation, all the parties involved should believe they got a little more than they should have. With the House plan, everyone gets to feel like they got a lot less. The New York Times did a breakdown of some of the key differences in both bills. Let’s look at them to see why the House bill could never become law.

Public Option: Both plans have a public option, but the Senate plan would allow individual states to opt out. Having options sounds great, but what this means is that states with strong pro-corporate lobby groups could kill a public option in states that really need one, states where the big insurance companies are crushing average citizens. As far as the average American goes, the House gets the edge on this one. However, strong proponents of states’ rights, the ideology of say, your average center-right Republican, now have a reason to hate the bill.

Employer Contribution: House plan: Most businesses are required to provide insurance or pay an eight percent payroll tax. Senate plan: Employers are not required to carry insurance for employees but if they have 50 or more employees must pay a $750 penalty per worker if any workers receive federal subsidies. What would happen here under the House plan is probably that most people with jobs would get insurance. Under the Senate plan, employers with over 50 employees would simply make sure that their employees make enough so that they do not qualify for Federal subsidies, or, failing that, hold steady at 49 employees. Again, as an average working stiff, you probably want the plan where they have to give you insurance. As a small business owner, however, you now have a reason to hate the House plan.

Abortion: Those receiving Federal subsidies for insurance can’t get a plan that covers elective abortions under the House plan. The Senate plan allows choosing a plan that covers abortion, but subsidies cannot be used to pay for the abortions. The Senate plan isn’t much better, but guess what? Now everyone who is pro-choice has a reason to hate the House plan.

Illegal Immigrants: Under the House plan, illegal immigrants can get national health coverage, but not with Federal subsidies. Under the Senate plan, illegal immigrants can’t. If illegal immigration is your issue, you now have a reason to hate the House plan.

Paying for the Plan: A 5.4% surtax on high income people pays for the House plan. This by itself is enough to send the average conservative spiraling into a rage. Those on the left will argue that this is a very small percentage of the population and the tax will not affect their lifestyle significantly, while a health care plan will ultimately bring down taxpayer health care costs due to fewer emergency visits and more preventative care. The very rich, and many of those who plan to someday be very rich (which is essentially, everyone else), will be outraged at the prospect of shouldering the entire burden for keeping the poor (who many of them hate and find responsible for their own poverty) healthy. Now the wealthy and those who aspire to wealth hate the House plan.

Clearly, most of the provisions of the House plan are going to be abhorred by your right wing conservatives, but there is enough in there for those on the left and center-left to find disagreeable too. The Senate plan, by being less offensive to everybody, will also probably be less effective, but more likely to pass, or at least pass in a modified form.

That’s politics for you!

Lions in Wait

In honor of Thanksgiving, here is a letter I wrote to the General Manager of the Detroit Lions:

Let me begin by saying that I am not a Lions fan. In fact, my interests lie mostly in the AFC and I have no feelings about the Lions one way or the other. However, I see a way to help your team and feel it would be immoral to remain silent. While at first glance my solution may seem flippant, I hope you will consider all the evidence I will present on its behalf.

Your team needs a uniform redesign. A radical one.

Clearly to suggest that what someone wears is more important than strategies or personnel seems ridiculous on its face, but psychological studies have shown that certain colors tend to stir up certain emotions in people and may make them more or less competitive. I refer you to studies that have experimented with painting prisons pink to tranquilize the inmates. You can be sure that when the list of colors that stirs up competitive instincts and emotional fire is reviewed, Honolulu Blue is not found among them.

I would ask you to look at the empirical evidence. In 1993, the New England Patriots ditched their traditional colors and their unintimidating “Pat the Patriot” logo, instead adopting a streamlined symbol with deeper, more modern colors. In the 25 years prior to that, the Patriots had made only a single Super Bowl appearance where they were soundly beaten by the Chicago Bears. Four years after the change, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and four years after that, they began a dynasty that included three NFL championships in four appearances.

Throughout their entire existence, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the laughingstock of the NFL. They even included 14 consecutive losing seasons among their credits, all with their “creamsicle” colors and what some said was an effeminate “Bucco Bruce” logo. In 1997, they exchanged Florida Orange for metallic gold to go with a blood red and skull and crossbones logo. Four years later, they began a season that ended with them hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Lest you argue that it is the team, and not their colors, that determine victory, I would ask you to take a look at the Cleveland Browns, whose name in the NFL is synonymous with failure. In 1996, the team moved to Baltimore, requiring as radical a uniform change as there has ever been in the NFL. Four years later, the Baltimore Ravens were a championship team, while the Browns that replaced them, wearing their old, featureless orange helmets and brown and white uniforms, have shown no signs of life whatsoever.

If you want to win, just look at the evidence. Uniforms do make a difference. Ditch the Honolulu Blue for a deeper blue, black, or even something more befitting a lion like a deep orange. Make the silver more metallic and replace the logo with a more fearsome lion. The recent redesign of the emblem is a vast improvement over the amorphous blue blob that used to grace the Lions' helmets but it is not nearly enough.

I hope that you or whoever reads this letter will give these suggestions the credit they are due. Remember that I am not a Lions fan and have nothing invested in whether or not you take these suggestions to heart, only that I know that it will make a difference.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Craig Berger

If you're a Lions fan, you can thank me when they win the Super Bowl, four years after my uniform redesign plan is implemented.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Visitors Are Your Friends (But not on Facebook)

Like many people of my generation, I eagerly awaited the debut of ABC's "reimagining" of the classic 1980s T.V. miniseries "V." When "V" came out, it was a member of a now dead breed: The watercooler show. These were shows that everyone had to make an appointment to watch, because they would be what everyone was discussing at the water cooler (or in my case, the water fountain) the next day. In the modern era of DVRs and On Demand programming, of course, such events no longer exist.

"V" came out during a time that was starved for good science fiction on television. The Next Generation of Star Trek was still five or so years away, and the idea of a "Sci Fi Channel" was in itself science fiction at the time, so "V" drew huge audiences, expecting to see some cool aliens and maybe a space battle or two.

What they got was a well-crafted allegory of the dangers of allowing too much power to authority. To be precise, it was a Nazi story. If you'll look at the Visitors classic symbol, you'll notice it's really just a swastika with a couple of the lines removed:

The original "V" developed slowly. In fact, even the marketing campaign developed slowly, beginning with advertisements depicting amicable Visitors above the tagline "The Visitors Are Your Friends" which, as the weeks progressed towards the debut, became "tagged" with the classic V sign. With the new "V", we pretty much know right away that the Visitors are trouble, even before the final act when we get to see a bit of reptile flesh.

The new V also tries to get political. With Nazism no longer the hot button political issue of the day (the original was a mere four decades removed from World War II, today we are about as far from the Nazi heyday as those in WWII were from the Civil War), V tries to include more relevant issues, including terrorism (the FBI is tracking a Visitor "sleeper cell") and universal health care (The Visitors are offering it, taking Congress off the hook).

The problem, I think, is that the creators of the new "V" aren't looking at the big picture. The first "V" was warning us not to put too much faith and confidence in authority and government (particularly appropriate for the time it was released). That is hardly any danger today. One can only imagine what Glenn Beck would have to say on his program about the Visitors, or worse yet, Lou Dobbs. Today's message of warning should be not to allow ones' actions to be governed by fear. Fear is what has been the greatest threat to economic recovery and it is behind a message of fear that America has gotten embroiled in two costly wars. Fear is the Nazi bugaboo of today.

This is the opportunity that the new "V" missed. Why not have the Visitors promise to protect us against terrorism? Maybe even have Anna, the Visitor's leader, round up a few Al Qaedas for us. That would be the way to gain our trust and make us ripe for the slaughter. Perhaps even have the Visitors convince us that they have come to protect us from an even greater threat that lies beyond the stars. By failing to do this, I think "V" has missed the mark.

Another way they missed the mark is through their use (or lack thereof) of modern technology. The Visitors announce themselves through a giant broadcast on the bottom of their spaceships. But why not use Twitter? or Facebook, or MySpace? Especially if you're looking to recruit young people. I'm sure there are already in real life "V" social media pages, but they are for multimedia promotion, not as part of the story. How about have the Visitor speeches come in podcasts downloadable on iTunes? It's hard to imagine that the Visitors would not be aware of and be able to take advantage of this technology.

Comparing a single one hour episode to an entire miniseries is not fair, I'll admit, but I'm afraid that we are already seeing a few signs that "V" is going to be just another average sci fi show. And in a world where "SyFy" the channel (not to mention 100 other channels) is no far-off futuristic fantasy but a genuine, ratings share-siphoning reality, average sci fi is not good enough.