Michael Ventura, an appreciation

10 Jan

Last year, Michael Ventura retired his column from the weekly newspaper, the Austin Chronicle.  I consider Michael Ventura the finest columnist in the English language alive today.

Michael Ventura is a Sicilian-American New Yorker who moved to California and wrote for LA Weekly for years before moving to Lubbock, Texas and writing a bimonthly column for the Austin Chronicle.  He has lived and driven across this nation several times over, and he can write from a unique perspective.  His range and deep understanding of humanity, the United States, and art allowed him to publish some of the greatest columns about what it means to be American and live in the United States at the dawn of the 21st century.

In one series of columns, “Dispatches from the Former United States“, he took the perspective of the year 2107 reflecting on the successes and failures of the United States of America.  In “Red State Blues,” “Broke Down in Bossier City,” and “Lubbockian Identity” he examined the people and places ignored by the American intelligentsia.  He also writes about the breakdown in culture and common understanding that leads to the mental unrest grappling this country.

Who else can write a column accurately describing the globalization and diversification of middle of nowhere Lubbock, Texas and reflect, “Lubbock, Texas, 1973 would never have agreed to become Lubbock, Texas, 2008.”

He challenges us to take that step and mentally engage with those different than us.  And to see the changes we did not even notice happening under our very own eyes.  In his next to last column, he writes about the “World that Calls itself the World” and how our media ignores and disempowers us from the world that is our world.  You know, the one we live and see every day in our lives.

The greatest writers can write about topics so distant from their readers’ experiences yet still reach out and touch and move the reader by reaching for their shared humanity.  Michael Ventura was able to do that every week in the Austin Chronicle to me.

 

Austin Chronicle – “Letters at 3AM”

Michael Ventura – “If I was a Highway” – book  collection of his columns

Issue LVII: Austin and the Cost of Cool

9 Jun

Leslie Cochran, the most famous homeless man in Austin, died last year.  For a city whose unofficial slogan was “Keep Austin Weird,” the town became just a little bit more square.  As the icon of weird in Austin, he ran for mayor every election and crashed on the street in front of my apartment near the old Tower Records.  His obituary ran in the New York Times.   

And that perhaps is the problem.  When the New York-Hollywood media set starts to notice a fun place, they’ll suck all the coolness out; at a minimum, they’ll wrap a velvet rope around it and start charging for entry.  For a place that is no longer and town and not quite a city, Austin looked to guidance for its future as one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in Texas and the nation.  And the coolest.  

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor, preached a vision for growing urban areas like Austin.  His theory was that cities needed to recruit what he called “the Creative Class” who will bring the new economy to blighted cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he used to teach at Carnegie Mellon University.  The Creative Class works in industries that require thinking and creativity and high levels of formal education.

It is important for your city to be “cool” for young people.  Because without all those gays and rock bands, your town will not attract workers with the high social capital and job skills your region needs to grow in the future.   

Austin was a chosen city that was intrinsically cool (#2 in Florida’s list).  Austin has been “cool” since at least the 1970s when cheap pot, rent, and beer brought the music scene it is known for today.   

 What makes a city cool?  A combination of “diversity”, tolerance, outdoor activities, arts, nightlife, and walkability sets the stage for most creative cities or towns.  Richard Florida’s book made a huge splash amongst policymakers and the media.  He turned his book into a consulting company and then abandoned Pittsburgh for the University of Toronto.       

 Ten years later after Richard Florida’s book came out, what has the Creative Class done for America’s cities?  Our first warning in 2005 was when Joel Kotkin first pointed out that San Francisco (#1 in cool) had become an ephemeral city with no middle class, children, or jobs that transformed itself into an entertainment and eating center.  The City of St. Francis has become an adult Disneyland that drives the rent up and pushes minorities and the middle class out.      

 

Now Florida admits that the benefits of focusing on the Creative Class actually benefit that class and not anyone else in the city.  It gentrifies cities and makes them monochromatic and increases the gap between the rich and power when the middle class moves out.  Austin is the only city in Texas that became less diverse and more white.  East Austin (historically a Mexican-American neighborhood) is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States. 

And not every city can be cool like Austin, Boston, Boulder, or San Francisco.  There are not enough yuppies and hipsters in the world to save every city in the nation.  But it does help real estate companies pocket big tax subsidies for projects in these neighborhoods and help Richard Florida collect $35,000 per speech from Rust Belt towns.

 

I am not saying that tolerance, arts, walkability, and creativity suck.  All cities need them, even the boring ones.  The New Urbanism movement of re-creating lost spaces and emphasizing the environment when planning development has improved nearly every American city.  But focusing on a narrow sliver of the population to save very different cities will not improve most cities or even states in the nation.  And the side effects of attracting wealthy outsiders may just make life more unpleasant from the poorest people actually living there and the rent much higher.        

 Cool costs too much.  It costs personality and pushes out locals for out of towners obsessed with “the local thing to do” all while the actual markers of local flavor pass away to make room for placeless markers of upscale “cosmopolitan” urbanity that an honestly be find anywhere. 

 True Austinites swore to never let their town turn into Dallas, but that never stopped the city from subsidizing a mall with a Neiman Marcus.  Focusing on the city’s fundamentals and authentic flavor and independent businesses is the key to true personality and (hopefully) revival.        

 

Austin was always the place that was way cooler before you go there.  The end of Austin was hailed (before my time) when Liberty Lunch closed, when Las Manitas Avenue Café closed (during my time), and when Leslie Cochran died (after my time).  This time the old timers may be right. 

  Links

Washington Monthly – “The Rise of the Creative Class” 

Houston Press – “Finding Austin

San Francisco Chronicle – “The Ephemeral City

The best articles on gun control

23 Dec

Since the shootings in Connecticut earlier this month, I am sure that every one is interesting in learning more about the history of guns and gun control in the United States.  A friend of mine passed along a very interesting article last year about how the Black Panthers started gun control hysteria by marching on Sacramento armed to protest a gun control bill written by a Republican and eventually signed by Governor Ronald Reagan.  The modern NRA began with a coup in 1977 led by Harlon Carter which moved the organization’s focus from hunting and marksmanship to a zero tolerance policy for sensible gun laws.

And for those concerned that the world will end (or at least get more violent), I recommend listening to this interview with Steven Pinker about the decline of violence worldwide about how murder and violence and war are at historic lows.  Crime is at historic lows in the United States, and war is becoming (surprisingly) much less rare.  To paraphrase John Lennon, “War is ending, if we notice.”

Links

Atlantic Monthly – “The Secret History of Guns

WNYC – “Steven Pinker on why violence has declined

Dear Dr. Gawande

26 Aug

Dear Dr. Gawande,

        As the nation (or media’s) most foremost health policy expert, I must object to your recent article comparing hospital chains to restaurant chains.  Since I am pretty sure the New Yorker will not publish my letter to the editor, I will share this letter publicly with my dear readers. 

       Comparing health care to the Cheesecake Factory is ludicrous. Anyone in health policy knows that health care is meal ordered by one person, eaten by another person, and paid for by a third. Competition does not bring down prices in health care because patients do not know what they want and do not know how much it costs and there are no standard national prices. This is not like choosing between Olive Garden and Carabba’s.

       There are narrow niches which could be competitive like the cited example of the author’s mother’s knee replacement. But these are elective procedures in which the patient has time and knowledge about exactly what he/she needs. That is not most of health care or most patients. Low spending regions in the United States are generally dominated by local monopolies. The CMO at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, Texas (a low spending region) openly told me competition increases prices in America.

       What motivation do hospital chains have to bring down actual prices? Consumers don’t pay hospital bills directly, and CMS rules forbidding charging anyone lower than the Medicare rate effectively rule out any downward pressure on prices. Instead hospital chains focus on increasing volume and usually fraudulently as Hospital Corporation of America has done with cardiac catherization labs. Most of these chains will be like HCA and not like semi-noble physician-run enterprises like the Cleveland Clinic or Mayo Clinic.

       Quality of care contracts will not lower costs much either. A recent study (New England Journal of Medicine, September 8, 2011) comparing spending in Massachusetts Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s quality contract with non-quality contracts showed that quality contracts merely slowed the increase in health care spending by 1.9% or a princely $15 per quarter per enrollee. Meanwhile Partners Healthcare’s anti-competitive contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield contributed $1 billion in excess profits.

         You are the eloquent defender of changes already in progress, pretending that those in charge of healthcare will be like the ICU quality improvers and not like hedge fund managers only interested in bilking the public. A for profit health care systems means that medical clinics and facilities want to make more money, every quarter, every time.

        The proletariazation of American physicians from Jeffersonian small businessmen into wage labor for “Hamiltonian” hospital systems will not make health care better or more affordable or even higher quality. It will concentrate wealth and power further to distant elites. Health care quality improves for the uninsured and insured (NEJM, July 5, 2012) when more people get insurance. A nonprofit, universal health care system will lower overhead and standardize payments and care. Fairness is cost-effective.

        Hamilton may have brought America money, but Jefferson brought us justice. Beware of technocrats who think that tweaking a corrupt and unjust system will fix its ills and not their salaries.   

 

Sincerely,

A working physician

 

Issue LVI: Manufacturing Consent – TED Talks and the ideology of innovation

28 May

Facebook went public this month, and a 28 year old kid is now one of the richest people on Earth.  Combining technology and an innovative idea, Facebook went from being a fun diversion in college to one of the most valuable companies on the planet.      

Mark Zuckerberg may be a bit strange according to the media, but billionaires of his generation differ from generations past in a few ways.  They appear to have earned their money in their own lifetime instead of inheriting it.  Perhaps as a consequence of their earning their own fortune from their own “innovation”, they like to socialize in gatherings quite different than the country clubs of their forefathers.  They like to apply their agile minds to solving the world’s “big questions.”   

Their preferred setting?  Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum or the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.  Or there is the Clinton Global Initiative in its many locations. 

But the best known to the general public is probably TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design.  It began as a Silicon Valley conference in 1984 that started to take off in the 1990s.  By the late 1990s, the conference was sold to a British businessman named Chris Anderson.  Born in Pakistan to the son of missionaries, he made the conference focus on global issues like war and the environment.  Anderson also jacked the price up and demanded that all conference attendees prove that they were “TED-worthy” of attending.  Exclusivity meant your ability to innovate and a history of changing the world.  In 2006, the conference began to stream their 18 to 20 minute talks online to the general public as TED Talks with the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” 

The talks were a hit and some of the lecturers became mega-famous in their own right.  A Swedish professor named Hans Rosling launched Gapminder at a TED Talk about inequalities in health and income in the world.  Google bought the software and hosts the website.   

The talk is usually a Powerpoint presentation in front of a rich and high IQ audience.  Topics usually focus on a single issue and how it affects the world.  The solution usually has a simple (often high-tech) solution that will fix the problem soon. 

There is a general idea that the problems of the world can be addressed by the presence of influential, high IQ, and affluently TEDworthy people at these sort of conferences.  Thorny questions of politics, power, history, and social injustice can (and have to be) glossed over in the less than twenty minutes allotted.  Bonus points if the solution involves entrepreneurship.       

But this month, a talk by a venture capitalist did not get published on the TED website because for being overly political.  The capitalist, a traitor to his class, pointed out that the rich do not create jobs if they can avoid it.  Hiring is the last resort of the businessmen (he should know, being one).  Taxes on the rich have fallen, and the incomes of the 99% have been stagnant or shrinking.  The solution was to redistribute wealth to people who can spend more to increase consumption and grow the economy.  This was considered too partisan by Chris Anderson and only after a public outcry did the speech get published online.     

I cannot bash the new elite too much; they aren’t like the Russian oligarchs blowing their fortunes on English football teams or ties at Harrod’s.  At least they like to show that they care, and their concerns will lead to ameliorating the lives of many people.  But just as the rejection of philosophy is a philosophy too so too does the rejection of ideology and the “political” become an ideology in itself. 

Centrist wise men (like the cartoonish Thomas Friedman) will prattle about how a “non-ideological, centrist, and technocratic” approach to the solutions of the world is needed.  These solutions will not threaten entrenched corporate power.  It also ignores the actual track record of technocrats and their record of disasters: money-laundering in Russia by Harvard University, food riots in Venezuela by the IMF, a second Great Depression in Argentina in 2001, and counterproductive mass austerity and unemployment imposed on Southern Europe by the current European Central Bank.  In contrast, the markets reacted negatively in 2002 when Brazil elected Lula da Silva (a former shoeshine boy and steelworker) as president.  He managed the country so well over two terms it continues to grow during the Great Recession.  Sometimes the smartest aren’t so smart. 

The nonprofit sector that elite idea conference industry hopes to attract have their own downsides.  The nonprofit foundations can defang the most strident critics of injustice and turn them into salaried professional NGO workers.  A recent speech by Arundhati Roy pointed out how business foundations have shaped public discourse unaccountably for decades in the United States.  The first foundations were by Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.  The Gates Foundation today plays a destructive role domestically by funding every significant university, think tank, and media outlet promoting their vision of charter schools and a business approach to public education (see my previous post on this topic).  Roy points out how big business in India is now adopting these tactics by sponsoring literary festivals and philanthropic endeavors. 

Foundation money saps the anger of the community organizers most capable of fighting for radical change.  By giving Indian activists big money, social status, research fellowships, “genius grants”, and accolades at conferences internationally it mutes their criticism of the structural causes of injustice and inequality in society.  They too want to climb the NGO ladder in a way similar to the corporate ladder.  “Justice [has been transformed] into the industry of human rights,” she says.    

But a conference of the 1% talking about the problems of the 99% will never solve any of the big problems in the world.  It is only when the 99% wakes up and takes power with its own hands will humanity make this a fairer and more just world. 

 

Now that is an idea worth spreading. 

 

References

New York magazine – “How the TED Conference started an Intellectual Movement

Salon.com – “Don’t mention income inequality please, we’re entrepreneurs

Arundathi Roy – “Capitalism: a Ghost Story

Atlantic Monthly – “The Rise of the New Global Elite

Issue LV: The numbers do lie: why statistics won’t save health care

24 Mar

My latest post has been published on the British journal of current and international affairs, openDemocracy.  It is a nonprofit publication focusing on human rights and democracy.  It is widely read in the US, UK, EU, and India. 

Enjoy!

 

openDemocracy – “The numbers do lie: why statistics won’t save health care

Issue LIV: When the Arab Spring plays Cricket

27 Jan

A civilian ambassador to the United States is recalled home after asking the American military to help prevent a military coup in his home country.  The president denies asking America for help.  The military denies it runs things or wants to run things.   The ex-ambassador remains in house arrest while the president (alternatively known as corrupt, depressed, schizophrenic, and a numbskull) flees to Dubai for medical treatment.

As the rotting edifice of Pakistani politics sinks further in disrepute and shame, it begs the question, “Is there any chance it will get any better?”  If the Pakistani military were as good defending the nation as playing politics, perhaps Pakistan would still have Bangladesh, taken Kashmir, and wouldn’t be dealing with so much terrorism in their own backyard.  If President Zardari, a man so grotesquely out of touch with his people that he visited his French chateau during the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, was as good at governing as he was at stealing, perhaps he would not have to worry about being overthrown every other week.  And if the opposition was not so full of incompetent crooks, perhaps they would actually win an election.

But that brings us to perhaps the only rays of light in Pakistani politics, the perhaps last two honest men in a world of sleaze, nepotism, and murder.  One is Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, a man who lost his job because he said General Musharraf could not be president and general at the same time.  His firing led to a political revolt that led to the overthrow of Musharraf and the return of “democracy” to Pakistan.  Unfortunately, this led to the return of Asif Ali Zardari who managed to use his wife’s death and her famous last name to win Parliament and then the presidency.  He reluctantly let Judge Chaudhry back into office after protests only to see him sue Zardari for corruption.  The Supreme Court could dismiss his government at any time.

The only other honest man is perhaps Imran Khan, the Pakistan cricket captain who won the 1992 World Cup.  An Oxford-educated ex-playboy, his political party has only won one seat in 15 years….. his own.  But in an era where Pakistanis are tired of the rigged two party system (three if you count the military), he has drawn hundreds of thousands to his political rallies.  In the era of  worldwide revolution, why him and why now?

Imran Khan built an honest charitable cancer hospital named after his mother from money he won from the World Cup.  75% of patients are treated with support from the 25% that are private patients.  In a nation where wealth is inherited or embezzled, his money comes sport not stealing.  Building a support base from a middle class that has not participated in politics on a grand scale, Imran Khan hopes to win the next election with the support of young people tired of politicians living in palatial wealth while giving nothing to regular people.  He also pushes for an end to the war in Afghanistan and for drone attacks that have killed hundreds of innocent  people.  Khan frightens Washington.  India, on the other hand, would likely be delighted if he does as he says and uses cricket and common sense to build bridges between the two nations.

But Imran Khan has had some blind spots in the past.  He supported Musharraf’s coup against Nawaz Sharif and is allegedly supported by the Pakistani military.  As a Johnny-come-lately to Islam after years of women and womanizing, feminists fear that he would fail to repeal medieval Islamic rape laws to show how Muslim he is.

One thing is clear though.  If there is one man to watch in South Asian politics in the next year, keep your eyes on this former cricket captain.  After 15 years in the political wilderness, now is his time.

 

India Today – “Want a new beginning with India

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