Monday, July 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Why Do We Fall?

Needless to say, I was looking forward to seeing The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan being my favorite living director and all. I was unable to make the opening weekend (see previous post). I caught it in IMAX this past Sunday. Before I get into my review let's quickly skip through all the hype.

Of course, a shadow was cast over the opening weekend due to the tragic Aurora, Colorado theater shooting that killed or wounded about 70 people. Nolan condemned the horrible incident in a lengthy response. Still, the film set a record for the opening, even though the total haul was less than expected, perhaps due to the shooting. Before the incident in Colorado scalpers were apparently able to demand $100 for opening weekend tickets.

There was much debate about the film before the shooting. Prior to release, things got really ugly over on Rotten Tomatoes. Some early critics found the film lacking and this prompted a flaming response from defenders who had not even seen the motion picture yet. Critics were initially mixed about the film, though gradually more favorable reviews began to outweigh the more negative ones.

There were wide-ranging perspectives about what the film represented and about its tone. Some saw a Dickensian influence in Nolan's work. Others found the film advocating "responsible capitalism." Still, others saw the film as "fascist and nihilistic." Maybe it was an "assault on corporate America." Certainly, Nolan managed to stir up a vigorous political debate, at least online. It is usually a sign of good art when so many different perspectives are read into a given work.

So, the film premiered in a perfect storm of intense debate, extremely high expectations, a strong news cycle, and large demand - though somewhat lessened by tragedy. Enough of the hype, however, and on to my thoughts about the film.

First of all, I am impressed with Christopher Nolan's vision of making The Dark Knight Rises with 72 minutes of footage actually shot with IMAX cameras, the most ever for a Hollywood feature film. This made the already slow and tedious process of film-making even slower due to the bulky cameras and the much shorter shoot times between reloading. If there was ever a feature motion picture meant to be seen in IMAX this is it.

But, Nolan didn't just use the IMAX technology for technology's sake. He made the deliberate choice of not creating the film in 3-D. In that regard this film is like Nolan's Inception last summer; a big format but without the unnecessary 3-D gimmick presentation. Nolan is selective about the technology he uses (he doesn't use a cell phone, for example) and, therefore, he is the master of it, not the other way around as is so often the case. I applaud his independence and control of his creative process, without regard to trends and cultural expectations.

Although Nolan did not originally conceive of his "Batman trilogy" as one continuous film, ultimately each film is woven tightly with the other two. You simply cannot watch The Dark Knight Rises on its own without missing out on a much richer experience when considered with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Both of the previous films feature a complexity managed and well-handled by Nolan, showing his presently unmatched directorial prowess. Altogether, the trilogy is now one long film much like, say, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Jennifer, my daughter, and I recently re-watched the first two installments. It had been several years since I last saw Batman Begins. That film features a very complex story with a relatively straightforward plot. That all the many layers of story elements are coherently handled is not an easy task. I am even more impressed with this film upon my most recent viewing. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, is more a film with a straightforward story but a complex plot. The two films mirror each other in this respect and are both superb, with The Dark Knight being something artistically close to brilliant.

As Sunday arrived and we traveled to the theater, I wondered if the third film could possibly live up to the high standards of the first two. This one did not disappoint me. The Dark Knight Rises lives up to most of my expectations, it certainly justifies repeat viewings, and clearly reiterates that Nolan is a top-notch director. Given the integrated nature of the final film with the first two, however, I will focus more on the entire body of work rather than on just the final installment.

Throughout the trilogy, Nolan never shied away from pulling in more important characters, more complex story elements, more twists and turns, and posing more questions. Through it all each added ingredient enriches and informs. Nolan skillfully manages all these complications so that the viewer can savor an ever-opening tapestry of action, emotion, and suspense. Each film could have easily become a jumbled mess but Nolan succeeds in creating specific sophisticated labyrinths that might puzzle or confound but never disorient or confuse. You have to pay attention to a lot of details, however. This is not a mindless spectacle.

The Dark Knight Rises might not be quite as great a film as The Dark Knight but that is merely to say it is yet another fantastic film masterly directed by Christopher Nolan. The difference is a matter of a few degrees.  For me, The Joker is a far more perverse, methodical, and terrifying menace than the brutish Bane, and that makes for one meaningful distinction between the two films. It is a solid 10 in my book, one of the best films so far in this young century. The Dark Knight Rises is a solid 9 and most certainly a worthy conclusion to this terrific three film set.

Seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX was an awesome experience. The sound score is terrific. The action sequences are HUGE and LOUD. They deserve the IMAX treatment. But they are not frivolous or simply eye candy for summertime "wow" factor. Sure there are plenty of things to wow about but Nolan isn't excessive or wasteful. Everything that happens in The Dark Knight Rises happens purposefully and serves to propel the exciting story. And the story is more than a match for the special effects.

The experience of The Dark Knight Rises is not just visual nor it it just a rationally complex but satisfyingly rich story. It is an emotional film. The trilogy as whole is a human (not superhuman) story. Perhaps there is no better example of this than when the "true" back story of Bane is finally told. Bane and The Batman have just had an exhausting fight and both are wounded. The action slows down as Bane's daughter tells her father's story to The Dark Knight. Bane actually tears up, reflecting a human being underneath all that rage and wicked strength. The heartless brute is revealed to be something more. If only for an instant.

No review of the trilogy would be complete without a nod to Gary Oldman who portrayed Jim Gordon throughout the films. For me, watching his development was the most satisfying of any character in the film. Oldman did a wonderful job of remaining even-keeled and subtle while expressing frustration and doubt and intense commitment to whatever the situation demanded. Nolan's Commissioner Gordon is every much a "hero" in this film as The Batman.

The primary emotions Nolan explores in the trilogy are fear and anger, love and hope. In the third film, fear and anger become more pronounced whereas love and hope (in the form of personal relations and in the form of the basic human need for the symbolic) are more prevalent in the other films. Yet, each film contains all four emotions to some extent (The Batman literally becomes his most symbolic in the final film). The central emotional statement Nolan seems to make in The Dark Knight Rises is that anger is most dangerous when it represses fear and that you can only truly find your freedom if you let go of your anger and embrace your fears. That's rather profound and is a great example how the story really does trump the spectacular effects.

There are at least three overarching themes throughout this great trilogy. First, you don't need superhuman powers to be hero. Nolan has a personal interest in The Dark Knight as a comic book superhero precisely because he is the most human. What powers he has are harnessed through his intelligence, his intensity, and his use (and occasional abuse) of technology. As The Dark Knight says to Commissioner Gordon near the end of the final film, "Anybody can be a hero."

Secondly, master yourself and make the most of who you become (a very Nietzschean concept I might add). The Dark Knight constantly fights to save Gotham City against several enemies throughout the trilogy but he experiences (most clearly in Batman Begins but through the other two films as well) an inward journey. This journey is one to which we can all relate and it is here that the trilogy might be most accessible.

These two meta-narratives make the trilogy relevant to our time and afford an intimate link with the complex story of The Dark Knight. But, a third theme is even more important and elemental. The Dark Knight often fails, he makes mistakes, he casts himself as a criminal so that he appears to be the enemy and thereby makes others look heroic.

With each obstacle in his personal journey there is triumph and tragedy and, more often than not, it is the tragic that is the most prevalent and powerful influence in his life. But no one who thoroughly considers these three films can miss their most fundamental message, one that is more relevant than anything I can think of given our present global circumstances and the likelihood of difficult political and economic times ahead. The Dark Knight Trilogy poses and answers this critical question...

Why do we fall? If you have seen Batman Begins you know the answer. But you must see the entire trilogy to know what that answer means.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Social Network Tsunami Wipes Out Dream Lake

It was 12:30pm on Friday and I was ready to get out of town. Jennifer and I were headed to a secluded spot in northwest South Carolina. That's the only part of the state with true mountains. Up past Wahalla there are hundreds of acres, with various property owners, mostly wooded sprinkled with 10-15 acre open fields. Several healthy spring-fed creeks filter through and extend for miles.

We were meeting Clint, our 'Dillo Friend, up there to enjoy a weekend of seclusion and swimming in a small lake made from a dam crafted by the current owners on a chunk of this land. The name of their entire property including their exclusive 4-5 acre pond is Dream Lake. Clint and Jennifer have known them intimately for many years. It was the first time I met them.

But first we had to make our way through Atlanta traffic on a Friday afternoon, some of the toughest urban driving in America. I wanted to leave early enough to avoid the mad rush out of the city. I had been in a sales meeting for a day and half. As usual, our sales manager had crammed far more into his agenda than we could possibly cover. As usual, there was no shortage of ideas on how my marketing staff and I could help the sales effort. I'll be busy the next few weeks.

Anyway, it was 12:30pm.  We had started the meeting early at 7am and they started giving out awards. I was sitting next to my boss, the company president. I whispered to him that I was going to leave since things were running late. We were trying to get on the road to Atlanta by 1pm and I still had to finish packing. I had already put in for a half-day of vacation. "Oh, that's right," he replied. I was out of there. Good-bye my fellow wage slaves.

Jennifer and I actually didn't get into Atlanta until 2:30. The traffic was already badly snarled at the intersection of I-285 and I-85, known locally as "spaghetti junction". It was frustrating for awhile but we managed, finally arriving at the uber-Ingles grocery store in Wahalla (great beer and cheese selections) before pulling into the cabin at Dream Lake around 5:30.

Clint and the owners, Marsha and Bob, we're down at the lake swimming. The cabin is situated about a five-ten minute walk from the lake dock. Jennifer and I unloaded and opened up our first beers on ice. We sat on the back porch and let Charlie, our english setter who joined us, get a feel for the place.

We briefly discussed going down to the lake but sitting in the cushy rocker with my beer made me almost inert. The place was sureness. There were towhees nearby, and wrens. There was a nice breeze. The cabin is open to a roughly 12-acre field. I was enjoying the view, sounds, and tranquillity when I heard Clint's voice faintly along the hidden path leading to the dock. Moments latter the three arrived and I shook hands with the owners.

They are both lovely, bright people nearing retirement and totally committed to this getaway place they have created for themselves over almost three decades. This is their space, their pristine Twin Oaks nature experience. So, it is easy for me to connect with Dream Lake, even without seeing the lake. The five of us drank beer and wine and admired a doe running through the open field far away, flickering red with short white striping between the long shadows of the late day sun.  Chicken was on the grill. Life was good.

After a feast featuring the grilled chicken, some of the best sweet cantaloupe I have tasted this year and other assorted wonders, but without dessert, we finished unpacking the car and prepared our bedding in an open screened-in deck over an old root cellar apart from the cabin. Clint introduced me to some Japanese scotch he had brought for the occasion. We were settling into the wonder of Dream Lake at night. With all the cicadas creaking in rhythm. It sounded a lot like our place.

At about 10:20pm my cell phone went off. I was surprised but I had two bars drifting in and out way up here. I answered. It was my daughter.

"Dad there is someone here you need to talk to." I couldn't hear her clearly and these seemed like weird words to me. "What?" My daughter repeated the words. "Ok."  The next voice I heard was a sheriff's officer. He sounded young. "Sir are you aware that your daughter is throwing a pretty big party at your house tonight?"

I stopped. My daughter told me she was having 5-6 girls over to watch movies. She has done this many times in the past without incident. "No sir officer, that was not my understanding."  "Sir are you aware that there is alcohol all over your property?"  I stopped again. Shit. "No sir officer that is happening without my knowledge or permission."

"Sir I need for you to have some adult present here."  "Are there any charges being filed officer?"  "No sir, but if you don't get here I am going to have to take your daughter to jail." Those words hung in the air - take your daughter to jail. This was a new phrase for me. Fortunately, I have not had many personal run-ins with the law in my day.

"Officer I am in South Carolina over 3 hours away."  "Sir well I suggest you get someone over here."  My next thought was immediate. "Ok officer I am going to have my father come over. May I speak with my daughter again please?"  He handed the cell back. I explained what I was going to do and that she was to pack a bag with everything she needed and she was to go home with my dad and stay there until I could come get her tomorrow.

That sucked because we had planned to spend an entire weekend in wonderful Dream Lake-mind. Jennifer was very upset that we couldn't stay and initially tried to talk me out of going. But, I told her that - for reasons I did not understand yet - my daughter was on the verge of going to jail. This unusual circumstance required, in my mind at least, a complete change of plans. But, still it was by now coming up on 11pm and we were in no condition to drive.

My dad finally arrived on the scene and I was able to talk to him over our home phone. At last, I got an accurate assessment of the situation. The officers were a couple of guys not much older than the kids at the party. There were about 40 kids at my house, but only a few had been drinking. No one was apparently full-fledged drunk. My daughter had not been drinking at all.

The sheriff's officers sent all the kids who could drive and pass a breathalyzer test home. Everyone else had to call their patents to come pick them up, a process that took about 45 minutes. Finally, almost 11:30pm my dad called to tell me all was well, the crowd dispersed, my house locked and secured, and my daughter under house arrest.

We left Dream Lake after a late breakfast on Saturday. The drive back was faster, of course, with much less traffic. After helping Jennifer unpack the car, I went to my parents' house and brought my daughter home so that we could hear her side of the story. There had already been several cell phone conversations and texting back and forth between us during the morning.

Naturally, my daughter was upset about what happened. She had gotten a nose bleed first thing Saturday morning from the anxiety she was feeling. While Jennifer and I were both concerned and somewhat frustrated by the course of events, I nevertheless stressed to my daughter that this could have been a lot worse (after all, no one was arrested for anything at the party) and it was not the end of the world. This is how you learn things - hopefully.

My dad's version of events was brief before I brought my daughter home. He said that there were a lot of kids but no one was out of hand and they didn't appear to have been making much noise. The young officer in charge of the scene had treated him respectfully after my dad informed him that he was there to shut the party down and take his grand-daughter home.

"Were you ever young?" my dad half-jokingly queried the officer at one point, the patrolman looked like he was still wet behind the ears my dad told me. "Did you do everything just right and the way your parents wanted you to?" my dad asked. The officer could do nothing more than smile and say "No sir."

My daughter told us that the evening had, indeed, started off as a spend-the-night party with about six girls. But, one of the girls had forgotten some medication and her boyfriend went by her house to pick it up and bring it over. Now, we had laid down only two rules to her before we went to Dream Lake. One, no boys. Two, no booze. So, the first rule was violated right there even though it wasn't a major offense...yet. Admittedly, it must have seemed an ethical "gray area" for the my daughter.

The boyfriend came over with several of his friends, which included my daughter's boyfriend. The gang hung out for awhile before the boys left to go get something to eat. Meanwhile, a couple of the girls left the gathering to go do other things.

During all this changing around, a number of text messages were sent. My daughter had gone silent on Facebook, which was wise. Nevertheless, she suddenly started receiving texts asking if this person or that person could stop by the party. Everybody knew by now that my daughter's parents were not home.

After that several people just showed up without asking at all. As more arrived some were over 21 and had brought beer, vodka, and other drinks violating our rule number two. This was the critical moment. If my daughter had contacted me at this point I could have had my dad go over there and shut the party down without the sheriff's office ever getting involved.

But she made an inexperienced choice. She took the car keys away from the drinkers so they couldn't drive. She called her boyfriend and asked the original gang of boys to return to help control the situation. Although her boyfriend did not drink anything either, a few of his buddies ate gummy worms dipped in vodka. Yeah. I understand that stuff, but still.

Things were spiraling out of control though the party apparently did not get overtly rowdy. More people started texting my daughter, petitioning to come. My daughter told them no, she would rather they didn't. This pissed off some of these other folks, who my daughter does not normally associate with and who are apparently more skilled at partying than anyone who was yet present. One of my daughter's girlfriends received a text from some of them that mysteriously read "You just watch."

By now, half of those present were either drinking something or eating vodka-soaked gummy worms. An interesting variation to be sure. It was at this point that two sheriff patrol cars ventured up my driveway. My daughter feels fairly certain that it was a disgruntled would-be partier that called the cops. I have not yet spoken to my neighbors so, for now, I believe her assessment.

At any rate, it was about this time that all this karmic activity, fueled by youthful exuberance, inexperience, and the power of social networking, caused my cell phone to ring in the dark tranquility of Dream Lake several hours away. I liken it to a gigantic wave of activity I knew nothing about suddenly crashing upon me hundreds of miles away. Of course, I knew no details other than what the young officer was telling me. I had to do the best I could long-distance and with iffy cell reception.

Meanwhile, on my land, a major operation ensued. Those who claimed not to have anything to drink were given breath tests and released to go home. The rest called their parents to come and pick them up. About 11pm there was a tangle of kids and parents up and down my driveway heading away from the scene of the almost-crime back to their homes. Many would have to pick up their cars the next morning.

The officers made the kids pour all the beer out into our yard. The place still smelled of beer when Jennifer and I arrived home yesterday, but a heavy rain that morning had at least lessened the odor. Today I noticed that two fairly large chucks of grass in our front yard are dead, I assume from where all the beer was poured. My dad remained until everyone had left except for my daughter and her boyfriend. He made sure the house was locked up and left the boyfriend to clean up all the beer cans and other assorted trash that was scattered around.

So, yeah, it could have been a lot worse. Had the officers not arrived when they did a lot more alcohol would have been consumed. My daughter chose to take the keys of the drinkers which is understandable at an elementary level. But her scenario violated rule number two and would have led a bunch of drunk guys sleeping in their cars on my property - at best. Precisely the opposite of what I intended.

But, as I said, this was a learning experience for her. She did what she thought best. She even took the time to take all the kitchen knives and hide them in case "someone got crazy."  When she told me that I smiled at the consideration, the attempt at being responsible, in the midst of so many bad choices being made.

So, now my daughter is now grounded. I don't know for how long. If it doesn't pertain to her job or to softball or to school, she will not be a part of it. There will be no gatherings at our house. There will be no meeting others to go out to eat somewhere. It is a just punishment. She did some things wrong but she also did what she thought best, and she did not end up drinking herself. That was one very smart choice on her part. She did stop others from joining the party even though she should have drawn that line much earlier.

Instead of floating around in the cool water of Dream Lake and relaxing with wonderful conversation and music and food, Jennifer and I, both needing to get away due to work related stresses, ended up driving over 7 hours total within less than 24 hours. Our getaway was ruined but it was time to be parents. Frequent calls from our daughter while she was under house arrest at my parents' home indicated a need by her to have us there. So, grumbling, we returned, we listened, we chastised, and we loved.

The three of us ended up re-watching  Batman Begins in preparation for seeing The Dark Knight Rises sometime soon. The Dark Knight is next on our list though it might have to wait to be watched. We cooked hot dogs. Jennifer and I took naps and slept late this morning. If not a needed change of scenery at least it wasn't a stressful weekend after we got a handle on the party madness.

My daughter will probably go with me to see The Dark Knight Rises. We often attend films together. Under present circumstances, however, as I put it to her: "You might as well go with me since that is about the only way you are going to get to go anywhere."  It was not meant harshly. We both smiled about it. But, certainly I know that planning to see the film, just like the Dream Lake getaway, doesn't mean something won't strike out of the blue and cause a change in plans.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Floating on Calm Emerald Water

Jennifer and me floating out a ways from the shore on vacation in Destin, FL.  Photo by my daughter.  She and her friend later joined us out past where the waves broke, where they only swelled.  I had my panama hat, Jennifer her visor.  I could look down and see the sandy bottom a few clear feet beneath us, though over our head this far out.  The gulf coast is gorgeous here with aqua and emerald waters slowly fading to deep blue out beyond where our floats went.  Things could be tougher, right?  The only problem was we did not have beers out there with us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Supreme Decision: Part Two - The Text

Note: This is the second part of my blog about the recent Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act. This portion simply looks at the text of the opinions as presented. I have omitted some extensive legal citations in the text for the sake of readability.

What better way to blog on the Fourth of July than by looking at the recent landmark Supreme Court case, which shows all Americans how the Founding Fathers set up their government.

Let us consider the text itself, not what anyone says about it. It is 193 pages. (Read it here.) The first 6 pages are the “Syllabus” or summary of the ruling. This is followed by the majority opinions. First, Chief Justice John Roberts fills 59 pages with support from Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, except for the specifics on the mandate which Roberts authors alone. This is followed by the Court’s most liberal justice, Ruth Ginsburg, assisted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor who are obviously voting with Roberts but take exception to his understanding of the mandate as only constitutional as a tax, among other things. Ginsburg writes 61 pages with support from Justices Breyer and Kagan.

The dissenting opinion is a united document from Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – a rarity among Court rulings, which are usually written with two or more opinions as with Roberts and Ginsburg/Sotomayor in this majority. It is covered in 65 pages; with one additional page of one extended paragraph offered by Justice Thomas at the end of the document as printed text.

Here are a couple of extended quotes from the Roberts opinion…

‘Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. Congress already possesses expansive power to regulate what people do. Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do. The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it. Ignoring that distinction would undermine the prin­ciple that the Federal Government is a government of limited and enumerated powers. The individual mandate thus cannot be sus­tained under Congress’s power to “regulate Commerce.”

‘Nor can the individual mandate be sustained under the Necessary and Proper Clause as an integral part of the Affordable Care Act’s other reforms. Each of this Court’s prior cases upholding laws under that Clause involved exercises of authority derivative of, and in service to, a granted power. The individual mandate, by contrast, vests Congress with the extraordinary ability to create the necessary predicate to the ex­ercise of an enumerated power and draw within its regulatory scope those who would otherwise be outside of it. Even if the individual mandate is “necessary” to the Affordable Care Act’s other reforms, such an expansion of federal power is not a “proper” means for mak­ing those reforms effective.’

‘…the individual mandate must be construed as imposing a tax on those who do not have health insurance, if such a construction is reasonable. The most straightforward reading of the individual mandate is that it commands individuals to purchase insurance. But, for the reasons explained, the Commerce Clause does not give Congress that power. It is therefore necessary to turn to the Government’s alternative argument: that the mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes.”’ (Syllabus, page 3)

Authenticating the fundamental importance of what I have posted as THE transcendental discourse in America between Federal Authority vs. State Sovereignty, Chief Justice Roberts specifically refers to this interplay in his landmark opinion: '"State sovereignty is not just an end in itself: Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power." Because the police power is controlled by 50 different States instead of one national sovereign, the facets of governing that touch on citizens’ daily lives are normally administered by smaller governments closer to the governed. The Framers thus ensured that powers which "in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people" were held by governments more local and more accountable than a distant federal bureaucracy. The independent power of the States also serves as a check on the power of the Federal Government: "By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power."

'This case concerns two powers that the Constitution does grant the Federal Government, but which must be read carefully to avoid creating a general federal authority akin to the police power.' (Syllabus, page 4)  So, very clearly, Roberts’ ruling that the mandate is unconstitutional and may be applied only as a tax resides at the core of the Federal-State power dialectic.

State Sovereignty is also mentioned in the Ginsburg opinion. The Justice disagrees with Roberts. ‘“It is more than exaggeration to suggest that the minimum coverage provision improperly intrudes on “essential attributes of state sovereignty.” First, the Affordable Care Act does not operate “in [an] are[a] such as criminal law enforcement or education where States historically have been sovereign.” The Federal Government plays a lead role in the health-care sector, both as a direct payer and as a regulator. Second, and perhaps most important, the minimum coverage provision, along with other provisions of the ACA, addresses the very sort of interstate problem that made the commerce power essential in our federal system. The crisis created by the large number of U. S. residents who lack health insurance is one of national dimension that States are “separately incompetent” to handle. Far from trampling on States’ sovereignty, the ACA attempts a federal solution for the very reason that the States, acting separately, cannot meet the need. Notably, the ACA serves the general welfare of the people of the United States while retaining a prominent role for the States.’ (Ginsburg pp. 35-36)

State Sovereignty is also an underlying concern of the dissenting opinion. “The values that should have determined our course today are caution, minimalism, and the understanding that the Federal Government is one of limited powers. But the Court’s ruling undermines those values at every turn. In the name of restraint, it overreaches. In the name of constitutional avoidance, it creates new constitutional questions. In the name of cooperative federalism, it undermines state sovereignty.” (Scalia, et al, page 65)

Shifting gears a bit, the Syllabus of the opinion reads: ‘The Government claims that the expansion is properly viewed as only a modification of the existing program, and that this modification is permissible because Congress reserved the “right to alter, amend, or repeal any provision” of Medicaid. But the expansion accomplishes a shift in kind, not merely degree. The original program was designed to cover medical services for particular categories of vulnerable individuals. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid is trans­formed into a program to meet the health care needs of the entire on elderly population with income below 133 percent of the poverty level. A State could hardly anticipate that Congress’s reservation of the right to “alter” or “amend” the Medicaid program included the power to transform it so dramatically. The Medicaid expansion thus violates the Constitution by threatening States with the loss of their existing Medicaid funding if they decline to comply with the expansion.

‘The constitutional violation is fully remedied by precluding the Secretary from applying (the statute) to withdraw existing Medicaid funds for failure to comply with the requirements set out in the expansion. The other provisions of the Affordable Care Act are not affected. Congress would have wanted the rest of the Act to stand, had it known that States would have a genuine choice whether to participate in the Medicaid expansion.’ (Syllabus, page 5)

The Syllabus then proceeds to define the subtle dance of concurrence and dissent that makes the Roberts Ruling so complex. ‘JUSTICE GINSBURG, joined by JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, is of the view that the Spending Clause does not preclude the Secretary from with­holding Medicaid funds based on a State’s refusal to comply with the expanded Medicaid program. But given the majority view, she agrees with THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s conclusion in Part IV–B that the Medicaid Act’s severability clause determines the appropriate remedy. Because THE CHIEF JUSTICE finds the withholding—not the granting—of federal funds incompatible with the Spending Clause, Congress’ extension of Medicaid remains available to any State that affirms its willingness to participate. Even absent (the statute) command, the Court would have no warrant to invalidate the funding offered by the Medicaid expansion, and surely no basis to tear down the ACA in its entirety. When a court confronts an unconstitutional statute, its endeavor must be to conserve, not destroy, the legislation.’ (Syllabus, pp. 5-6)

Roberts recognized the dissent in Ginsburg’s opinion. ‘JUSTICE GINSBURG questions the necessity of rejecting the Government’s commerce power argument, given that (the statute) can be upheld under the taxing power. But the statute reads more naturally as a command to buy insurance than as a tax, and I would uphold it as a command if the Constitution allowed it. It is only because the Commerce Clause does not authorize such a command that it is necessary to reach the taxing power question. And it is only because we have a duty to construe a stat­ute to save it, if fairly possible, that (the statute) can be inter­preted as a tax. Without deciding the Commerce Clause question, I would find no basis to adopt such a saving construction. The Federal Government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance. (The statute) would therefore be unconstitutional if read as a command. The Federal Government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance. (The statute) is therefore constitutional, because it can reasonably be read as a tax. (Roberts, pp. 44-45)

This is the heart of the matter. President Obama does not agree with Justice Roberts that the mandate is constitutional only as a tax. In fact, the President claims it is not a tax, defying the constructional ruling. He is forced into a corner politically because, if it truly is a tax, then the Senate has some special rules that allow it to vote again on the policy before the November elections. Depending on how the complex possibilities of this scenario play out, it could make for a rather wild climax to the fall elections. The Democrats control the Senate, but having to vote in favor of a “new kind of tax” in an election year might play into the hands of Republicans.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Coldplay put a smile upon my face

I found this image at Patch.com
Last night Jennifer and I went to the Philips Arena to see Coldplay.  (Read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution review here.) I have previously blogged about my interest in this great band and I bemoaned the fact that I missed them last year at the return of Music Mid-town to Atlanta.

No matter.  All is forgiven by one of the best live concert appearances I have seen...well...ever.  It sounds silly and naive to say stuff like that.  My daughter is spoiled rotten.  She is young so she has little context for seeing and hearing something extraordinary.

On the other hand, you can appreciate the extraordinary in itself even if you are very young.  My daughter and her friends were all beaming and excited afterwards.  They loved the show and had bright eyes, smiles on their faces.  It was a sell out (about 21,000).  The crowd was totally in to it and sang along with all the lyrics.  Coldplay's fan base is truly fanatical in enormous numbers.  Oh yeah, and the music was inspirational fun very well-styled.

Few bands can generate the intensity and generosity of energy and sustain it so tirelessly through over 90 minutes of performance.  Coldplay was not perfect last night in their performance.  I have seen them do better live versions of certain songs on my Vevo App.  But, overall, it is quite amazing how well they execute live musically.

One of the many highlights for Jennifer and me was the bracelets we were given when we arrived.  We talked about them before the concert, wondering what they were for.  On a half-inch wide band was printed "ColdplayFilm" in the group's special font.  (Lots of videoing going on last night.  Maybe a video of the tour coming out in the future?)  On the other side was the Twitter logo, probably sponsoring the mysterious handout.

Mine was, appropriately for Coldplay, a yellow band.  But there were others: pink, blue, white, and green.  Fastened to the band was something that looked kind of like a cheap digital watch.  Only there was no facing on it.  It was just sitting there.  No buttons to press.  Nothing.  There were four small screws underneath where you could take it apart.  It did not otherwise open.  My own special monolith like in 2001.

Clues were provided about 20 minutes before the show began.  On the five large circular video screens suspended from the ceiling of the arena, instructions were given in the Coldplay font.  "Please put on your wristband...It is part of the show."  This was followed by a funny but cliche standard four-step illustrated instruction on how to fasten the bracelet to your wrist.  Repeat the instructions.  Apparently everyone complied, I know I blindly did.

Coldplay opened with "Hurts Like Heaven" to the large and revved-up audience, the lights went dark and almost immediately probably 15,000 of these bracelets (I have no idea how many they gave away, not everyone had one) lit up and vibrated and pulsed in various programmed ways controlled by some singular technician.  Turns out there were six small LED lites stitched into the thick wristband canvas.  Maybe 100,000 little lights.

The results were truly spectacular.  From our seats we looked out into the expanse of the Philips Arena and it was filled with these colored bracelets, like rock and roll starlight.  All grooving and moving in a thousand different ways.  The music was great, the crowd was ready and roaring.  It was a magical moment.  We all gaped.

I took the afternoon off work to go to Atlanta for the concert.  We got down there before the 5pm business traffic hit, had a nice dinner at Mary Mac's, and checked a few neighborhood shops.  Traffic was terrible near the arena and it took forever to get in and out of there. 


At any rate, before I left work for the day I sent out a "A Short Coldplay Concert Mix" email to my three employees.  They had all left for lunch and I sent it last thing before I left.  I include it next in this blog because I can save myself some typing for what I want to share with you.

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So, OK not trying to be pushy or anything here.  I’ll share with you a bit about this concert I am going to with my wife and daughter, her best friend and their boyfriends tonight.  If you don’t care for any of this, no biggie.  But, I encourage you to at least watch the Viva La Vida clip. (Sorry about the stupid ads in youtube.)

Tonya isn’t as familiar with Coldplay.  So, this is an introduction.  For Lisa and Leani, this is kinda why they are my favorite contemporary band.  There have been greater rock bands but no one is better than Coldplay in this moment.  Somewhat surprisingly in this day and age of cranking out the albums to bring in the bucks, Coldplay has produced only 5 studio albums and 1 live album since their first release in 2000.

Some cool (I think so anyway) facts…
  • Even though Chris Martin is a huge, strong talent (like Sting was with The Police) the band shares all revenues equally.
  • The band has a contract that no member can do “hard drugs” under penalty of banishment from the group.
  • Even though it may not sound that way (and this isn’t a main reason for me liking them – I just think it is interesting), there are many examples of Christian influence in their lyrics and songs.  Songs such as “Moses”, “God Put a Smile on Your Face”, “Hurts Like Heaven”, etc.  “Viva La Vida” has lines regarding “Missionaries in a foreign field” and “I know St. Peter won’t call my name…”
All of these video clips are from a terrific concert they performed worldwide live on the Internet last October from Madrid.  The whole concert is like one big sing-along…oh yeah, and it was raining most of the time…

Viva La Vida…my daughter thought it would be uncool to go to a concert with her parents….until I showed her this…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ldOuVuas1c

The Scientist…my favorite Coldplay song…it has a lot of angst in it…gives them their “edge” though…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLm_aSP369M

Yellow was their first hit back in 2000 and shows their Alt Rock origins…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRP72Ib2e9I

This is a *wild* version of God Put a Smile on Your Face….watch for the Townshend-esque guitar slam at the end…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHAdbn2e_QQ

Their most recent hit is Every Teardrop is a Waterfall…this is the finale on their tour playlist in Atlanta as it was in Madrid…watch for the drummer playing the acoustic guitar and switch back to drums…good back-up vocals too, he is a workhorse, great talent…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGLwhTQsxUw

There is no such thing as a “bad” Coldplay song…I am going because Coldplay makes me feel good…I plan to get there early and have a couple of beers…of course…See y'all on the backside of the Fourth.  Have a great one.

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I'll share one other small thing from the concert.  The band performed an extended encore which was in two parts.  When they first came back out to play - after the usual several minutes of non-stop cheering, facilitated this time by vibrant, rock and roll starlight - they did not return to the main stage.  Instead they surprised us by coming out on a tiny, maybe 15-foot stage that had been set up over a few seats opposite the arena stage. 

In other words, they performed the first part of their encore cramped together on a platform smaller than most Atlanta clubs would offer their bands.  No room to jump around, tightly packed, the band did their thing in close quarters actually in amongst the crowd, giving people who had paid mega-bucks to sit hundreds of feet away from the stage a chance to see them up close. 

During this time, the band was not carried by Chris Martin's insatiable energy but rather by the drummer, Will Champion on keyboards (he also plays guitar) and (a rarity) lead vocals.  A very nice treat before they all ran through the floor crowd (with heavy security, of course) back to the main stage to powerfully wrap things up.

It is no exaggeration to say these songs were performed pretty much as you can see them in the links above.  Only it was live, a feast for eye and ear, tangibly electric...and instead of fireworks at the end (we were indoors after all) there were other great effects including the starlight bracelets.

This concert is with me today, the day after, and it will stay with me for a long time.  With any luck at all, I will think back upon it with delight for many years, just as I think back fondly now upon on some college-day concerts.  The energy of thousands singing along, the energy of the band loudly rocking through one great tune after another, the energy of all the special concert effects - all of it coalesces in my memory and, well, puts a smile on my face.

Late Note:  It turns out the LED wristbands given out during the concert are called Xylobands - after than the name of the tour. A technical view of them can be found here.  The end result can be seen here.  Luckily, I did not get OCD about finding tour videos on youtube before the concert in Atlanta.  So, the xylobands were a surprise.  A wonderful surprise.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Three Days of Wicked Heat

A pic of the outside temperature reading at my house about 4 pm yesterday.  We had three days of record-setting high temperatures in a row.  Temperatures were 104, 106, and 107.  Humidity was under 30% each day.  Even more unusual for my county was the fact that we had gusty winds all three days as well.  It was like walking out into a gigantic hair dryer.  Very hard on the trees in my woods as we have had no rain for several weeks.  A brief thunderstorm last night offered some minor relief.  Am I watching a desert forming here?  We started doing some targeted irrigation of shrubs Saturday evening.  But, you simply cannot water trees enough.  I am sad for them.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Supreme Decision: Part One - The Politics

Note: This is the first part of my blog on the recent Supreme Court decision concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. This portion reflects the news coverage of the event and the politics surrounding the decision. Facts about and quotes from the printed text of the decision itself will be offered in a later post.

Last month I blogged about the fundamental importance of the Supreme Court's decision about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. The decision is central to over two centuries of political discourse regarding the limits of Federal Power and the rights of State Sovereignty.

This past Thursday the Court handed down a surprising and complex 5-4 ruling upholding the individual mandate as a tax. The mandate itself was ruled unconstitutional. Of course, this is tricky ground. Because the Court cannot rule on a tax that is not in effect yet. So, the majority opinion used some fancy legalese to get around that. Chink in the armor? I doubt it.

The decision was split along traditional, knee-jerk liberal-conservative lines. But, Chief Justice John Roberts, typically a conservative, voted with the Court's four more-liberal members. This upheld the general constitutionality of President Obama's signature domestic legislative accomplishment to date. The Chief Justice surprised almost everyone because usually Justice Anthony Kennedy serves as the "swing vote" on this Court. This time Justice Kennedy dissented and it was the Chief Justice, for the first time in his tenure, that made the liberal majority.

This was widely held as a victory for President Obama. I am not so sure. The best way to describe it would be to say that “Victory” is really “Victory*” – with an asterisk. That asterisk is the Ruling by Chief Justice Roberts. Legal scholars, who know a great deal more than I do about such things, were not surprised by the complex Roberts Ruling.

Roberts stitched together a majority by careful, moderate maneuvering.  In this way he crafted defineable majorities out of both the conservative wing and the liberal wing. By a 5-4 vote, the liberals agreed with Justice Roberts allowing the mandate, though they disagreed with him that it was only constitutional as a tax. The conservatives agreed with Justice Roberts in a 5-4 vote that the mandate itself was unconstitutional. That the Federal Authority could not trump State Sovereignty in the specific area of the Medicaid provisions of the Act was actually carried by a wider 7-2 vote. The decision was basically in these three parts. Otherwise, there was nothing stated about Obamacare.

It was a brilliant threading of a tactical needle, joining both sides of the Court in essentially separate but simultaneous 5-4 decisions.  Chief Justice Roberts deftly embraced his ordinary enemy. In doing so he accomplished several things. First, he secured the right to author the primary text of the landmark majority opinion. Though it is tempered somewhat by Justice Ruth Ginsberg’s opinion, Justice Roberts has Justice Ginsberg outvoted because her complaints are precisely where he stitches himself 5-4 with the conservative dissent. Therefore, it is the Roberts Ruling, not the Ginsberg concurrence, on the mandate that will become the opinion to which future Supreme Court cases will most likely refer.

Among the areas of the Roberts opinion that future court cases will use as Supreme Law are: The Federal Authority can regulate but it cannot create civilian behavior via mandate using the Commerce Clause. The Federal Authority cannot use funding as coercion upon the States to force compliance with a Federal Law. The Federal Authority cannot take Medicaid funding away from the States if the States freely opt-out of compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

Obviously with two interwoven 5-4 votes there was much dissent from both the liberal and conservative members of the Court regarding the Roberts Ruling.   Justice Ginsburg wrote the other majority opinion (assisted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor), mainly to criticize the Roberts mandate ruling. The third lengthy written opinion for this Ruling was the dissent co-authored by all four conservative justices in unison. The other two liberal justices only acknowledged support for or dissent against certain parts of the two majority opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas offered a separate, one-paragraph addendum to the general dissent, drawing attention to the “unprecedented” nature of the Government’s attempt to “regulate inactivity.” (emphasis is Thomas’)

Even though Obamacare “survived” the Court, it did so with a specifically restrained, not expanded, Federal Authority. The Roberts Ruling, coupled with the four dissenting justices, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional will have a lasting impact on future Supreme Court rulings. It was a victory for President Obama to the extent that the legislation may now move forward - albeit subject to further political efforts at repeal. It was a historic decision for State Sovereignty in that the power of the Federal Authority was expressly limited in terms of the constitutional nature of Federal mandates and the curbing of the ability to coerce the States into submission to Federal Authority.

At work on Friday, I stupidly got myself into a political argument over the Roberts Ruling with our ultra-conservative accounting manager and our support manager. These whiny conservatives sicken me. "Oh my god! The government can now tax anything they want! Why didn't they just strike the whole thing down?! Now we have to work and repeal it all through political process! That sucks because the liberals might win!"

Gag me with a spoon.

Our accounting manager says: "Name me one other thing that is taxed because it is not being done. They can tax anything. I am not as free as I was. I am being taxed for doing nothing. This is how freedom gets taken away. It happens in little steps."

The man is an idiot. But I merely debated with him for a half hour. I was not uncivil, the discussion was sprinkled with jokes, though I was passionate about my opinion. Here's why he is an idiot.

First of all, he interprets freedom as having a monetary basis. I actually had to remind him that “there is way more to human freedom than money and taxes.” Moreover, he does not understand that a tax exists within freedom; it can always be repealed by the voters, whereas a mandate is completely dictatorial - you must do such and such, we don’t care how you vote. I pity him because his material interpretation of freedom is fundamentally dehumanizing. There are people without money all over this world that are and express themselves to be free. If I went broke tomorrow I would still be a true free spirit.

As Roberts correctly understands, it would be catastrophic to freedom if the Federal Authority could mandate activity out of inactivity. Which is essentially what makes it unconstitutional. It violates the essence of the Founding Fathers idea of individual liberty.

Secondly, my accounting manager is an idiot because the Roberts Ruling will end up helping conservatives. Whiny neocons have no clue about the opportunity freely given to conservatives. They are too busy boo-hooing about the taxes to appreciate that the decision will likely limit Congressional Power.

The Roberts majority opinion is written so pro-conservatively that I became confused as I initially read the ruling. It seemed the Chief Justice was deciding oppositely from the way the news said he ruled. The first half of the six-page summary opinion is very negative toward the mandate. A lot of media guys got it wrong to begin with as well.  It seemed the mandate would be struck down.  Period.

When the news media correctly reported that Obamacare was ruled as constitutional by a 5-4 decision the reaction from conservatives was immediately and passionately negative. The decision was (and still is today) seen as a “disaster” that overreaches State Sovereignty.

This is a shallow interpretation, as I have already indicated, because this decision greatly preserves State Sovereignty. The Republican Attorney General for the State of Virginia understands this and I completely agree with him.

Of course, now conservatives are galvanized and this is precisely the nature of the gift of the Roberts Ruling. It preserves the freedom of dissent. There is no binding mandate, only a tax if you opt-out. The Republicans are completely free to repeal Obamacare. Nothing denies them this freedom, just as it does not deny the Democrats the freedom to secure this expansion of the welfare state. As messy as it seems, this is the way the Founding Fathers set things up. It is supposed to be messy. This is how the competitive freedom of political ideas works in a democracy.

So, I get frustrated with all the neocon whining about the vast expansion in Federal power to tax which, as I just explained, can be repealed by the voters if they freely choose in our democratic process. Yes, the liberals can win. The conservatives can also still win. A Mitt Romney presidency with Republican control of the House and the Senate is not an impossibility. It is, on the contrary, a genuinely free possibility, free to succeed or to fail.

Now that the constitutional question is addressed with a truly landmark decision, I can return and refocus to my original and long-time criticism of Obamacare as policy. It does nothing to address the cost of healthcare and, therefore, in the long run, it will drive costs even higher. Obamacare is about expansion of coverage not containment of costs.  There is no precedent in American history where flooding a marketplace with Federal money lowers the costs of anything. With healthcare in particular, it has only been because of Medicare and Medicaid that our health system has grown all out of proportion with the rest of the economy.  The cost goes up because the (Federal and private insurance) money is there to pay for it.

If we want to make healthcare affordable, the last thing we need is all the new money Obamacare will throw into the mix. Now, I will not vote for Romney and the neocon establishment in November. As I have always said, Mitt is a plastic, wax museum statue of a man. I cannot tolerate his brand of disingenuousness. But, Obamacare is enough to make me not vote for the President. I will likely vote Libertarian in 2012.

No matter how you feel about Obamacare as policy, however, Chief Justice Roberts has ruled that your belief about the policy is not a constitutional concern.