Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who done it? We did.

I enjoy watching crime dramas.  I have seen nearly every episode of the longest running (tied) drama on television, the original Law & Order.  Some episodes I know so well that in the first 30 seconds I remember who did it, but I still would watch because the twists and turns were so captivating.  CBS is nick named the Crime Broadcast Service because of their reliance on procedurals with its fall prime time schedule having two-thirds (14 out of 21 hours) dedicated to crime.

No wonder then that instant analysis and wanting to wrap up a crime in 42 minutes (leaving ample room for commercials) is a driving factor in news coverage.  Crimes are committed and in the same news cycle the police are expected to find the perpetrator and like nearly all crime dramas, that means the course of justice has prevailed.  Sure there’s a courtroom drama now and then, but the percentage of cases (fictional and not) that result in acquittals is miniscule.
In 2009 America's crime rate was roughly the same as in 1968, with the homicide rate being at its lowest level since 1964. Overall, the national crime rate was 3466 crimes per 100,000 residents, down from 3680 crimes per 100,000 residents forty years earlier in 1969 (-9.4%).    In 2009, according to the FBI, there were 581,765 arrests for 1,246,248 violent crimes, or 46%.  1,728,285 arrests were made against 9,082,887 property crimes, or just 19%.
Perhaps this is why the fictionalized crime shows are so popular – because the crimes get solved, unless, of course you watched Season One of The Killing on AMC or were a fan of Twin Peaks in the 90’s…shows that purported to be solving a murder, but, really were intricate character studies instead.  That the majority of real-world crimes go without arrests is not the expected narrative.
When a real-life crime happens, the instant analysis becomes a character study in and of itself.  In 1999 the Columbine massacre was neatly summarized into a narrative of two bullied boys taking revenge.  The truth turned out to be much more complex . 
This week’s shooting at an Aurora, CO movie theatre has received block-buster coverage and instant analysis.  Crime happens, perpetrator captured, analysis complete and conviction is just a matter of logistics.  Anybody who accumulates an arsenal of weapons and ammunition and plans and executes a rampage has a mental health issue.  Jared Loughner shot Rep. Gabby Giffords last year – and addressed in last year’s blog Mad as Hell…or as a Hatter? there is a mental health crisis in America.  According to the CDC 3.3% - or more than 1 million people – have “serious psychological distress” but are not institutionalized. 

Public policy conversations focus not on how to treat people, but instead on the issues of gun control – as if the person who goes to the gun range or shoots for sport is the same person who walks into a movie theatre and mows down dozens of people.  It’s an inauthentic discussion.  The root of the issue is that there are damaged individuals and the country’s inability to prioritize diagnosing and funding treatment for mental disease is the public policy dialogue that’s needed.  It’s just not quite as sexy as the Second Amendment battles.  Nor is as easy as suggesting that every criminal is mentally ill - that does a disservice to the sick.  It's complex.
It’s easy to blame the politicians for focusing on gun control – but it’s actually we allow it to happen because we engage with it.  It’s an easy subject to get two competing sides on framed around a highly emotional and outrageous crime.  The FBI estimates there are 200 million guns in the U.S., nearly one for every adult.  Outrageous!  Guns, however, don’t cause damage until they are misused…don’t take away Constitutional rights!
It’s the misuse that is the next logical discussion to take place.  In our desire for quick analysis and simple answers – a complex discussion of mental illness just doesn’t fit the narrative.  Let’s not be surprised when the next incident occurs that the person(s) will inevitably have a mental defect.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

It’s easy to know we’re in the midst of summer.  It’s not because of the record temperatures and humidity scorching the bulk of the U.S.  Just look at what’s playing at the local Cineplex.  The Avengers teamed four superheroes together to launch the popcorn movie season in May.  A few weeks back a reimagined Spiderman opened.  This weekend Batman is on the agenda topping the weeklong ComicCon in San Diego that saw dozens more crusaders coming to the big screen in the next few years.

Mythical superheroes got their start in 1938 with Superman.  There have been scores since, with a variety of powers, affectations and costumes – but all with the commonality of a strong moral code to make a difference in their communities and the world.  The ability to effortlessly solve massive problems or rid the world of evil inspires.  They’re also a lot of fun.
Superheroes are a cash machine as well – with comic franchises worth billions of dollars.  This money is generated because people from all walks of life, all socio-economic positions are drawn to the universal excitement of the good versus evil stories. 
It’s not too much of a stretch to look at the political climate through the same spectrum.  The stark division of good and evil is drawn by the leading candidates.  Solve complex entrenched problems by a single vote!  Romney-man or Super-Obama to the rescue.  Winning has become the barometer of success.
The media coverage of politics as a sporting event is not a novel observation.  Lots of the terminology is similar:  – who’s up, who’s down  – watching poll numbers as one analyzes batting averages.  Even the Democrats versus Republicans has vestiges of rivalries like the Celtics against the Lakers or the Yankees and Red Sox.

The result of politics being communicated to the electorate as a game or a cartoon minimizes the stature that public service should have.  Donning my Aaron Sorken hat and standing on my soapbox – representing our fellow citizens on the important issues of the day matters.  There are grand public policy considerations and history to consider certainly.  More importantly, though, is the day to day impact on the people.
·       8.2% is the official unemployment rate.  The unofficial count puts 30 million Americans out of work or underemployed.
·       $16 trillion is the current U.S. debt load – with trillions more in unfunded liabilities sitting there.  The U.S. spends $1.43 for every $1 it brings in is simply not sustainable.
·       Americans are dying in military conflicts around the world that the Congress never authorized.
I enjoy going to the movies and seeing good triumph over evil.  I can get caught up in the minutiae of changing opinions like anybody else.  I also rigorously distinguish these escapist ways with the reality that my beloved America is in some serious need of saving.  The issues are epic but don’t require a superhero to solve them.  The best way that this can happen is for voters to educate themselves and divorce policy from personality.  Now that’s a movie worth watching.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Totalitarian Democracy

Americans celebrated the 236th signing of the Declaration of Independence last week with traditional bar-b-que’s, time off from work, and visiting with family and friends.  Parades and fireworks marked the occasion for hundreds of towns and cities across the land.  It’s generally a non-religious, non-political holiday that celebrates the principals and ideals of freedom.  So why would anybody vote for anything but American-style democracy?

The PRI party won the Presidential election in Mexico last week.  The party had been out of power for two cycles, 12 years.  The Democratic Revolutionary Party has filed a legal challenge after the recount confirmed their loss, claiming the party paid people to vote. They’re unlikely to prevail.  Prior to their ouster in 2000 the PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years .
Vladimir Putin was reelected President of Russia in March.  Opposition parties have claimed fraud and more than 20,000 people protested the inauguration.  He took office shortly after the vote and there have been few reported skirmishes since then. 
Leaders who rule with the proverbial iron fist have the base support of their people since a majority voted for them.  There is something calming about a “decider” who has the confidence to dictate how things should be.  The appearance (or the reality) of indecisiveness is perceived as weakness.  One only needs to look at how President Carter is remembered for his handling of the Iranian Hostage crisis The release of the hostages happened in the first minutes after President Reagan’s took office.  Carter couldn’t do it in 444 days, Reagan did it by just taking the oath…that's the mythology from the time.  The reality is, of course, that their release was the result of months of work by Carter’s team but Reagan's own image and PR machine made a much more interesting and commpelling narrative.
President Obama has mirrored George W. Bush in providing unapologetic, intrusive and far reaching policies to protect America from terrorists.  Bush began two major military conflicts that Obama has continued, albeit modifying the commitment in Iraq downward in favor of a larger buildup in Afghanistan.  President Obama, even more than his predecessor, uses an expansive definition of the role of “Commander in Chief.”  He even reviews and personally authorizes the killing of those he alone believes are enemies or threats without utilizing any Rule of Law.   
Jeffersonian Democracy is the bedrock of what Americans believe freedom is:  civic duty, individual rights and the power of the people over the corruption of aristocracy.  These principles are realized via three separate but theoretically equal branches of government that follow strict constitutional guidelines in establishing policy.    Its opposite is totalitarianism - where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life. 

The United States has the same totalitarian streak as those we criticize.  Democracy as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and the other founders is messy.  For democracy to work representatives must collaborate and compromise for the common good and no one person can make decisions for the rest.  In an unstable world the democratic process will continue to be used to elect those who will undermine it.  It’s totalitarian democracy at work.  As we celebrate freedom we should work to insure it actually exists.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Faster than Instant

Did you enjoy the additional time this week?  On Saturday international timekeepers added one second to the universal time clock moving from June 30 into July 1.  We seem to need all the additional time we can get.  The “information age” we live in has reached a point where receiving information quickly has sped up to the point where experiencing events in real time seems to take too long.

Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was misreported by the two major news organizations – Fox and CNN.  President Obama, in fact, thought he had ‘lost’ because he was relying on the cable networks for information.  Members of Congress even began releasing statements based on the false reporting. 

Within minutes both networks updated the initial reporting, which actually had an element of truth to it, but no context.  It is a 197-page dense split opinion that covers four separate cases.  The Court allocated the most number of days for oral arguments in its recent history to hear testimony.  The final judgment was released in the last hours of the last day of a busy session with lots of high profile cases.  Reporters and analysts were then expected to read, digest and report within minutes of the release of the paper documents, since the court doesn’t provide electronic releasing or press friendly summaries.
Certainly there’s an argument that the Court needs to catch up with the times.  In today’s age of  technology when cameras fit into pens and watches – having the proceedings of the nation’s highest court recorded should be an easy, non-invasive process.  It’s been rejected year after year.
Perhaps the more compelling question is why we need to get the information so quickly?  The Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s signature domestic program that will impact each American certainly justifies the interest and scope of coverage.  It has short and long term political and economic policy impact.  All the more reason to spend the time to get it right.  The initial reporting came 8 minutes after the opinion was released.  480 seconds.  Evelyn Wood’s speed reading courses aren’t that effective.

There’s not much of an uproar amongst the general public about the misreporting.  Media critic Howard Kurtz is properly agitated and did some excellent analysis on his show.     I blame Bill Gates.  Not personally, of course, but in concept.  Microsoft had a track record in the 1990’s (and beyond?) for releasing products that weren’t ready --- they crashed, didn’t work and often caused a myriad of other problems.  The Microsoft products were innovative and cool and when they worked (which was more often than when they didn’t) it was so much better than anything before, the problems became tolerable.  Steve Jobs’ Apple became a bit of an antidote for that with their products largely working.  Since his passing, though, the company has released Siri which has not fulfilled the founders promise. 
Americans no longer expect excellence or accuracy.  The benefit of technology and getting information fast is perceived as more valuable than getting it right.  As much as I love having the pulse of the world at my fingertips, I appear to be in the minority in wanting precise and truthful information as a baseline expectation.  Whoa, that's a pretty quick judment, maybe I need a leap minute or two to be sure.