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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Friday, August 25, 2006

News and notes, pink edition

Note from Buck: Mandasaurous and J.B. West will be posting here Fridays in a feature I like to call (and they don't) Friday Chick Blogging.

1.) So, I have a bike. It's pretty awesome. These gentlemen in Penn Quarter yesterday called it an "antique" and a "British roadster," but they surely meant it as a compliment. I love riding my bike. It's speedy (but creaky) and has a lovely basket to hold my belongings. I hope you have a bike because it's so fun. Also, you are helping the environment because:
  • You are not driving a car. Cars are hot. Cars produce carbon monoxide. If you buy a car you are inadvertently supporting car commercials which are consistently stupid.
  • You are not crowding on a bus. Crowded buses are not good for mankind because it's really hard to like people when you have to squish near them.
  • You are not on the train, being angry it's late. "Delayed? That's preposterous! Hurry now you train!" Yelling on the train platform is unbecoming.

2.) I'm going to tell you a secret. I'm not cool. I'm just learning this now, actually, quite to my surprise. I teach preschool. Kids often celebrate birthdays with parties. It just came to my attention that many teachers are being invited to these shindigs. But not me.

It occurs to me that perhaps, along with being people with children, parents can also be assholes.

3.) Wow! It only took three Food and Drug Administration Commissioners to approve Plan B, the morning after pill. This news is tops. Women and men over 18 years old can purchase these at pharmacies and clinics.

Certainly it'd be nice if the FDA would approve this backup method of birth control to young women too. We ought not back down about what's right and it's right to let women make their own family planning decisions. Especially when we're talking about emergency contraception — anyone can have an emergency.

To me, though, the FDA's approval of Plan B is still worth yahooing about.

4.) Instead of doing stem cell research and actually curing Alzheimer's, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's, smart researchers are spending time finding ways to obtain stem cells without destroying the unused embryos. Since the embryos used for stem cell research are being tossed anyway this seems to be an un-great use of research time.

"There is no rational reason left to oppose this research," said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology and leader of the research team.

But wait! Who can find a "rational reason" to oppose this and further impede research that can cure epidemics like diabetes? Who?!

Dr. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, that's who: "I do not think that this is the sought-for, morally unproblematic and practically useful approach we need."

Friday Founding Fathers blogging

Washington was the shiz-nit. Ask Gordon sometime how he feels about our first president.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

European hero

For a while there, seemed like "Europe" was a three-man league. But while Britain, France and Germany have been busy playing nuclear ping pong with Iran, a fourth European power is stepping it up.

Say hello to the new Italy. After growing up quickly in Battlefield Iraq, the Italians are taking the reins of the new UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon—offering 2,000 troops (the most of any country by far) and a leadership role.

And they've signed up in the nick of time, as each of the Big Three found a reason not to get involved in Hezbollahland. Britain is already overstretched in Iraq, and their presence is unpopular both throughout the Middle East and at home. Germany has ruled itself out, having claimed that they cannot put themselves in a situation where German troops may have to fire upon Israelis. And after scoring a diplomatic coup in getting a ceasefire started, France took themselves out of the game on the grounds of ambiguity.

So how are the Italians playing their hand so well? For starters, they've established a (relatively recent) reputation for being strong and fair—both Israel and Lebanon welcome their involvement, and neither the United States nor the Arab world have any gripes. They're also battle-ready from their excursion in Iraq, with soldiers in sharp condition and civilians back home prepared for the ups and downs of war updates.

Not least of all, Italy is showing that a moderate, mid-range power can make a big splash in this world of polarized politics, nuclear standoffs and all-or-nothing rhetoric.

It's comforting to think that a few thousand inspired troops—in the right place and the right time—just might make a difference in today's political arena. Now let's see if it actually works.

Buck adds:

Those French are wiley bastards. Here's Billmon, quoting Matt Ygelsias, on the French bait-and-switch:
"In essence, through two consecutive bait-and-switches — first over the wording of a UN resolution, and second over the deployment of French troops to Lebanon — France managed to get both parties to agree to a return to the status quo ante, which is better for both sides (that's why the tricks worked), but that neither side could admit to wanting. That's a pretty good result, especially considering that Chirac spent essentially none of France's resources achieving it."

Considering that the French basically invented modern diplomacy, and were pitted against the tag team of John Bolton, Madame Supertanker and the moron, we certainly shouldn't be surprised by the result.

Bureaucracies must die

Over at Urbanagora, Billy Joe Mills has a piece up criticizing liberals for trying to use inefficient methods, such as welfare and the minimum wage, to help the disadvantaged, particularly African Americans.
"Progressives" have always had good intentions; unfortunately they have also always had no clue what they were doing. What often seems progressive, like raising the minimum wage, supporting labor unions, big box ordinances, fair trade coffee (see Brian below), etc, ends up harming the very people who are the objects of the aid. When government gets involved massive, inefficient bureaucracies are created which even when they work, as with welfare, do more harm than good. Non-free market based aid creates larger bureaucracies and fewer benefits, a dual disaster.
I happen to agree with him in a lot of respects. Entitlement program such as welfare (that old conservative boogeyman) are temporary solutions to much larger problems. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and pretty soon he's got his own seafood business.

The problem isn't with government programs themselves, however, but with how they've traditionally been run. Large government bureaucracies are just about the worst things there are: inefficient, wasteful and woefully unaccountable. Even when given a good idea, they tend to screw things up. But why do things have to be this way? We have thousands of multi-billion-dollar organizations in this country that run efficiently and smoothly — they're called corporations.

I'd love to see some government programs closely monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis and judged solely by results. You know, the way things work in the real world. If something doesn't work, you knock it off and try something different. Rather than, you know, just spending, spending, spending until Congress takes the budget away.

Imagine a government agency tasked with helping the poor and given the directive (and leeway) to function as a corporation rather than a standard bureaucracy. Imagine a research and development department, a marketing department, an information technology department — all with the goal to help people, rather than to make money, and all accountable for producing concrete, verifiable results. If someone isn't performing, you fire them and hire a new person. If an idea (like welfare) doesn't work, you ditch it and try something else.

We're lucky enough to be witnessing a trial of this idea right now. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now has an endowment of more then $30 billion, much more than the United Nations' World Health Organization. Here's their stated goal: "In developing countries, it focuses on improving health, reducing extreme poverty, and increasing access to technology in public libraries. In the United States, the foundation seeks to ensure that all people have access to a great education and to technology in public libraries. In its local region, it focuses on improving the lives of low-income families."

Almost more important than the money is Bill Gates himself. One of the greatest businessmen in American history will now be dedicating his time and energy to helping others. And how he's doing that is a lesson on how government can do they same. Gates is spreading his money widely, trying to create the most effect with each dollar and trying to find out what works and what doesn't. The foundation is supporting work into malaria vaccines, paying for thousands of disadvantaged to go to college, installing state-of-the-art computer labs in poor schools, helping increase distribution of vaccines to poor children... it's attacking the problems of poverty and early mortality at their source, rather than trying futilely to deal with them later in life.

Even better, they're ruthless with their grant money. Bill and Melinda personally inspect the results of many of the programs they're funding, and if something isn't working, the money gets shut off. Why continue spending if you don't see immediate and positive results?

Imagine if our government worked this way.

Of course, some will use this as an example of why we should leave private enterprise to tackle these problems rather than government. After all, if Gates and others like him are out there, why does the state have to get involved?

Well, the Bush administration has done has made it abundantly clear that conservatives aren't capable of getting rid of it the big government they're always railing against. Quite to the contrary, Bush has increased the federal government to its largest size ever. So we may as well work with what we've got and try to evolve government to the point where we can actually accomplish some of our stated goals.

Monday, August 21, 2006

When in Rome

Check this post for the deal on Mero's name change.

Just returned from a honeymoon excursion in Italy, and for all the reasons I loved touring the boot with my superhot wife, there are twice as many reasons I'm glad to be back in the good ol' U S of A.

So in honor of breaking down international analysis in true America Versus The World style, I present to you the Top Five Reasons Italy is Better than America, followed closely by the Top Ten Reasons America is Better than Italy.

Why Italy rules:

A helpful graphic
from Buck:

Floyd Landis
They start learning English very young—as early as age 7 or 8 in schools and age 2 on television—and often know at least one other language as well (usually French or Spanish). In America, we should follow this example with Spanish: maybe start kids off in the second grade, then add an optional third language in high school (something they can use, like Chinese or Arabic).

On top of great specialty areas famous for their own variety (for example, the Chianti region), nearly every restaurant has a brandless house wine—just ask for "the house" and get a bottle of red or white upon request. Tends to be extremely cheap, sometimes as cheap as water (see "Water" below). Drunk and dehydrated... what a life.

It's everywhere: on bridges, in train stations, on ceilings, on floors. The great thing about Italian art is that it's not just confined to museums, but is an essential element of so much great architecture. As a result, they turn so many otherwise bland buildings and streets into living, breathing museums, which is how art is meant to be experienced.

Among magazines in English (and I'm talking largely about American magazines "translated" into British, from Esquire to The Economist), they tend to have much more thorough international coverage. Plus, their advertising is noticeably more creative, more risque, more attention-grabbing and interest-holding—in other words, more in line with what advertising is supposed to be.

On top of being awesome, this delicious salted ham product is readily available on pretty much everything (pizza, salad, red wine). One of the most common Italian appetizers is "prosciutto e malone": cantaloupe slices draped with slices of prosciutto. Not very kosher.

And why America tops that:

Air conditioning.
I cannot emphasize enough the wonders of air conditioning, also known as "Man's Triumph Over Apollo." Every human achievement and advancement since the first world war can be credited to the option of comfortably working and sleeping and laughing and loving indoors from the months of May to September. (Fuck penicillin. Air conditioning is king.)

Imagine you're full of wine and trying to sleep in a hot hotel room. Stumbling to the minifridge, you open a $5 bottle of water and gulp half of it down—only to realize you're drinking tonic water. Yep, they carbonate their damn water (calling it water "with gas") as often as possible, even at restaurants and stores, where you have to ask for "acqua stille" or "acqua naturale" just to make sure you get what we humans normally just call "water." Oh, and you actually have to order (i.e. pay for) it at a restaurant, and it always comes in a bottle (no refills!) and never on ice. From the people who brought you aqueducts.

The current exchange rate.
Low dollar + high euro = saved my tourism dollars for shopping back home. Only things I bought in Italy were the bare essentials (see "Wine" above).

Forget the whole "crazy Italian drivers" stereotype. I'm not saying it's untrue; I'm saying there are other, more glaring shortcomings, like visible street signs that actually say what street you're on. Instead of two signs at a crossroad, you'll see maybe a dozen or more; and they don't label the streets, but rather point to landmarks, which at any location can vary from the building next door to—I'm not making this up—Rome. (The street labels themselves are usually on carved stone plaques on building walls somewhere near the corner.) Oh, and roads are often bumpy and extremely narrow. And sidewalks go from narrow to nonexistent, forcing pedestrians to walk on the street. It's a great system.

Food service.
The art of tipping doesn't play nearly as large a role outside the U.S., and as a result, you don't get nearly the same service. I'm not talking about hearing "how is everything?" every three seconds, but having a waiter glance in your direction more than once an hour would be nice. Want to beat the system and tip anyway? Not so easy if you're paying by credit card—there's very rarely a space provided to write in an additional tip.

Open hours.
First off, tons of businesses are closed in the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August (and August 15 is a national holiday). Next, many government buildings (including museums and landmarks) operate on some ridiculous schedule like "closed on the second and fourth Monday and the first and third Tuesday of the month." Finally, quite a few restaurants don't serve food (or close down altogether) between lunch and dinner, a time that can span as much as five or six hours. I attribute this to a society immersed in appetite-destructive conditions (see "Air Conditioning" above).

Just kidding.

We have so many channels in America; not because they all feature watchable content, but so we always have access to the select genres we enjoy. Even the options at a four-star hotel are limited to old movies, fuzzy sports coverage, CNN and MTV—about 20 channels in all. No wonder they read so much more than we do.

For the two weeks I was there, every radio station and restaurant played the same two songs by Gnarls Barkley and Red Hot Chili Peppers, as did MTV (see "Television" above). Is it so bad that I want a little more variety? Does that make me crazy? Probably.

Knowing your home country is the most powerful entity in the history of the world.

Mero no mo'

The blogger formerly known as Mero is dead. Forever taking his place is Gordon the Gnome, named for the main character in a comic strip Mero created in his college years. You get the same insightful and insensitive international commentary as before, we get more hits on Google. Everyone wins.

Blue Rice comic strip.
A sample of Mero's college comic strip "Blue Rice," featuring the diminutive Gordon the Gnome.
Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.