Mass MoCA

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Kish and I were blown away by our visit today to Mass MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — in North Adams, Massachusetts. It is an awesome powerhouse of a museum with a fine selection of contemporary art and, most importantly, the space to display the pieces properly, with plenty of room and light.

In20140808-125502-46502950.jpg fact, the Mass MoCA buildings are as jaw-dropping as the art. The museum occupies a sprawling set of brick industrial buildings with plenty of windows and ceilings that are sky-high. The space allows for display of the most titanic pieces imaginable — like Teresita Fernandez’s Black Sun, shown in the photo at the top of this post — and allows ample, crowd-free room from which to admire them.  Mass MoCA has so much space it will be featuring a huge exhibition of the wall drawing conceptions of Sol Lewitt for 25 years.  25 years!

Adding to the adventure are the many nooks and crannies and passageways and bridges that reflect the buildings’ industrial past, and the canal that cuts through the property. Be sure not to miss the rusting boiler room building, which has been converted into a kind of musical art experience, and the Hall Art Foundation building, an aircraft hangar-sized structure that features gigantic pieces by Anselm Kiefer.

During our visit we particularly enjoyed the display of the very evocative art of Darren Waterston, with paintings that are deep, layered, and mysterious, and his full-sized, carefully constructed decomposing room called Filthy Lucre that riffs on James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room and reimagines it as a crumbling ruin.  We also appreciated a huge exhibition of the work of Izhar Patkin that demonstrated, in particular, what the Mass MoCA space permits. In one huge wing, shown in the photograph below, the curators built separate rooms to display Patkin’s beautiful and haunting painted fabric creations. How many museums have the space to permit that?

If you are an art lover, Mass MoCA is simply not to be missed.

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The Costs Of A Porous Border

We’re learning more about the costs — direct and indirect — of the mass influx of unaccompanied minors and other illegal immigrants across our southwestern border, and the news is becoming more and more concerning.

At a closed-door briefing with members of Congress earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson disclosed some of the direct costs.   According to members of Congress who attended, Johnson said the federal government is spending between $250 and $1,000 per day, per child, to house and feed the minors.  When you are talking about more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors already in the country and needing assistance — and U.S. officials predicting that another 30,000 will cross the border by September — you don’t need a calculator to see that the ongoing and future costs are enormous.

As everyone knows, our federal government is cash-strapped.  Some people may say we’ve been racking up huge budget deficits for years, and these costs will add just a little bit more to those deficits.  That reaction ignores the reality of our financial situation.  Every dollar of our deficit is financed through the issuance of U.S. government bonds and notes.  Do we really want to have to issue more bonds and notes to pay for these services, and pledge the full faith and credit of our country for them?  With our current budget situation, the inescapable reality is that we will be borrowing more in the future to pay the interest on these bonds and notes — which means that we’ll be paying directly out of pocket for our border problems for years to come.

There are indirect costs as well.  The U.S. government can’t house all of these minors on military bases, and already we’re seeing governors and mayors raising questions about whether these minors are coming to their states and communities — where they will need more housing, and food, and medical care, and attention.  Who will pay for it?  The NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon is in full swing.  Pennsylvania’s governor has expressed concern about whether the illegal immigrants have infectious diseases, says there should be enough room on military bases in Texas and Arizona to house them, and wonders how he will pay for the needed services if they are sent to Pennsylvania.  Officials in other states are saying that the federal government has resettled some of the immigrants in their states without providing adequate notice to local authorities.  And officials in cities as far away from the border as New Bedford, Massachusetts are concerned that an influx of impoverished, non-English-speaking immigrants will further strain governmental and school budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point.

Massachusetts sheriff recently said, “we are all border states now.”  There’s some truth to that.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that our porous border is creating huge problems for communities and states across the country.  As we figure out how to deal with these unaccompanied minors, we also need to pay attention to the root cause of the problem — a border that sometimes seems to be little more than a line on a map.  We can’t afford to pay $250 or $1,000 a day to care for every child that crosses illegally into our country, and we also can’t afford the security risks of a border that permits them (and adults, too) to do so.  The Obama Administration and Congress need to figure out how to close that border and do it before the costs and consequences become overwhelming.

Adding Up The Obamacare Tab

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, its drafters contemplated that states would design their own health care exchanges, with the federal healthcare.gov website serving as a kind of backstop.  That turned out to be a miscalculation.  More than 60 percent of the states — 36 out of 50 — elected not to create their own health care exchanges.

At the time, some critics argued that the decisions of states with Republican governors to refrain from building their own websites was politically motivated.  In retrospect, however, the decisions to eschew developing state-specific health care exchanges seem more like a wise recognition of the limitations of state capabilities, because the experiences of states that did attempt their own websites have been decidedly mixed.

Six of the 14 states that chose to create their own exchanges — Masschusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii — have had severe functionality problems and have become tremendous cash drains and political albatrosses.  In Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, and Maryland alone, the federal government has paid at least $474 million to support the establishment of non-functional exchanges, and that cost total seems certain to increase significantly.  In those states, Democratic politicians are blaming the website contractors and threatening litigation, and Republicans are saying that the states never should have attempted to build the exchanges in the first place.

Obamacare has become such a political football that every fact and development gets spun to death — but if we can’t learn from the current reality, and recognize that mistakes were made in the legislation and its conception, then we are just compounding our problems.  In all, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about $5 billion in federal funds that have been shelled out to states to allow them to assess whether to create state-specific exchanges and then, in some cases, to support their creation.  That’s an enormous sum of money, and it is becoming clear that a significant part of it has been wasted.  Whatever happens with Obamacare, let’s at least hope that in the future we refrain from enacting statutes that require states to develop large-scale, complicated technological systems, on their own, with the federal government picking up the tab.  As the mounting Obamacare costs demonstrate, that approach is fraught with peril.

The Bully’s Excuse

I think the police in Lynn, Massachusetts are being played for saps.

The police are warning middle-school kids not to play a kicking game.  According to the police, the “game” consists of one kid walking behind another unsuspecting student and kicking him in the back of the head.  Apparently one perpetrator — who is facing charges of assault and battery — told the cops that the kick to the head was part of a game called “Big Booting.”

Yeah, right!  That sounds to me like the classic bully’s excuse when caught beating up a kid, sticking him in the back with pens, and doing the other things that make bullies such beloved figures.  Biff says “We’re just playing a game, teacher, honest!  Go ahead and tell him, Joe.  We’re just playing a game, aren’t we?” while doing whatever he can to give the victim the message that if he doesn’t go along with the story there’s a knuckle sandwich in his future.

I don’t pretend to have a good sense of what middle-schoolers are like these days, but I seriously doubt kids have suddenly decided its a fun “game” to go around kicking people in the back of the head.

Surrogates Out Of The Shadows

Who is David Axelrod, and why should Americans care about what he has to say?

Axelrod is the rumpled, balding, mustachioed fellow who looks like a used car salesman.  He’s been lurking on the edges of the front page since he was involved in President Obama’s winning campaign in 2008.  You see him on shows like Meet the Press or find him quoted in response to Republican criticisms of the Obama Administration.  Recently he made the news when his speech on the steps of the Massachusetts Statehouse, about Mitt Romney’s record as governor, was interrupted by hecklers.

It’s odd that Axelrod was making that speech.  He’s not an elected official and doesn’t live or work in Massachusetts.  The news story linked above describes him as the President’s “top political strategist,” which means it’s his job to do and say whatever he can to get the President re-elected.

Axelrod’s public speechifying is just another step in a long process.  Presidents have long had “advisors,” but those individuals used to stand in the shadows, consulting with the President behind closed doors and helping to shape messaging and tactics.  Now those shadow figures increasingly have stepped into the limelight in their own right.  Their newfound prominence probably is due to the insatiable appetite of cable news show for talking heads.  If Mitt Romney gets elected, his administration may well have a similar figure — the Machiavellian strategist and surrogate who regurgitates the agreed-upon talking points.

All of which, I think, begs the question about Axelrod and the other “surrogates” scurrying around the country during this ceaseless campaign.  Why should anyone assign any credibility to the critiques of a paid flack whose carefully scripted comments are just another facet of a coordinated PR effort?

Drip, Drip, Drip

Any public relations professional worth her salt will tell you: when you are dealing with an unfavorable news story — one that you know is going to have a negative impact — the best approach is to get ahead of the story, get all of the information out, and at least avoid the possibility that the story becomes a running, multi-day issue.  Lance the boil, drain the pus, and move on.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign must not employ a public relations person.  If it does, she isn’t very good at her job — because the story of Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestry has become a never-ending story in Warren’s campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.  Every day, seemingly, there is some new revelation that puts Warren on the defensive, interferes with her intended “message,” and distracts from the issues she thinks are important.

On Wednesday, for example, Warren acknowledged for the first time that two law schools that identified her as Native American did so because she identified herself as such, based on her understanding of “family lore.”  Her admission is just the latest in a series of statements about the issue — some of which arguably are inconsistent — that have just encouraged the press to dig ever deeper into the history of Warren’s employment, whether she identified herself as Native American, and whether there is any proof of actual Cherokee ancestry in her family tree.

I don’t think a candidate’s race, or self-reported minority status, has anything to do with fitness to serve as a U.S. Senator.  On the other hand, I think a candidate’s truthfulness, credibility, and ability to deal with a crisis are relevant — and Warren seems to be falling short in all of those categories.  The Native American story has  dominated the headlines for a month now, and for that Warren has only herself to blame.  Her statements and partial disclosures have a whiff of embarrassed shiftiness about them that have made a minor issue into a major one and, at the same time, made her look evasive and inept.  Although her race shouldn’t affect a voter’s decision about her, her apparent inability to give a satisfactory explanation of her actions reasonably could.