Mass MoCA

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.


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 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.

Does Limiting Public Employee Collective Bargaining Save Money For State And Local Governments?

In Wisconsin and Ohio, new Republican majorities in state legislatures, and new Republican governors, have modified public employee collective bargaining rights and argued that it is part of an overall effort to bring state and local government budgets back into balance.  Democrats have responded that the budget control argument is a bogus fig leaf and that the real motivation for the Republicans’ actions is union-busting, pure and simple.

It therefore is interesting that in Massachusetts — Massachusetts! — the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill to restrict the ability of municipal public employees to collectively bargain about health care benefits.  Moreover, the House effort was led by Democrats, who argued that the changes will help struggling cities and towns.  Indeed, the Democratic Speaker of the House contended that the changes would save cash-strapped municipalities $100 million and allow them to maintain more jobs and provide more services.

The Massachusetts initiative still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor, so it may well not become law.  Still, the fact that Democrats in the Massachusetts House supported such a measure on budget grounds seems like a powerful argument for the proposition that modifying public employee collective bargaining rights is a legitimate way to achieve significant savings in government spending.  If Democrats have accepted that argument in Massachusetts, how can Democrats in Ohio and Wisconsin contend that similar efforts in their states are motivated wholly by partisan politics and mindless anti-union sentiment?

What Goes On At Webner Park?

The other day someone mentioned to me that there is a “Webner Park” in Revere, Massachusetts.  I was skeptical of this claim, but sure enough, it’s true.  (Why is it called “Webner Park”?  Who cares?)

When I heard there was a Webner Park, I wondered what it looked like and thought it would be worth a visit.  I imagined it would be a bucolic area, richly forested, with perhaps a pond or two, some waterfowl, and furry woodlands creatures frolicking on the rolling grasslands.  No such luck.  The view from show a half ellipse with a few straggly trees, ringed by an off-ramp.  The “park” is hard up against the Route 1 Northeast Expressway and probably is loud from road noise and reeking of gasoline fumes 24 hours a day.  There don’t appear to be any ponds or even baseball fields.

Webner Park looks like it could be the place in the neighborhood for teenage trysts, furtive beer-drinking, or other nefarious behavior.  In all likelihood, no Revere resident is going to have fond memories of their time spent lolling on the burnt-out fields of Webner Park.  Sigh.

The Massachusetts Mess, Coming Soon To A Neighborhood Near You

The Wall Street Journal has published an article with the latest news from Massachusetts — the state whose universal health care program served as the model for the federal program that will soon be taking effect nationwide.  The news, to put it mildly, is not good.  The highlights (or rather lowlights):

*  The Massachusetts plan increased private employer-sponsored plan premiums by an average of 6 percent.

*  Massachusetts has the highest average premiums in the United States.

*  There is rampant and growing abuse of the state’s “individual mandate,” in which people buy insurance only when they are about to incur significant medical expenses and then drop the coverage after the expenses have been covered by insurance.

*  The state imposed price caps on insurance rates that had no actuarial support (but were politically popular), even though underlying state health costs are rising at a rate of 8 percent annually.

I am sure that all working Americans will welcome increased health plan premiums, to go along with the tax increases that will take effect starting in 2011.

Massachusetts’ Offshore Wind Farm

I’m delighted that the federal government has approved construction of America’s first offshore wind farm, which will provide most of the power for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

The wind farm I pass on I-65 in Indiana (via Google search)

The project was held up for nine years, partly because locals complained that the turbines would be an eyesore. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Every time I drive from Ohio to Chicago I drive past a wind farm, and I’ve always thought the turbines were beautiful. The Times article says opponents fear they will be an “industrial blot,” but they’re one of the most sleek and graceful examples of industrialism I’ve seen. They’re sort of organic-looking, so they blend in well with nature, and their size and the speed of their turbines make them a magnificent sight. Also, they just look clean and harmless – instead of emitting smoke, they seem to emphasize the purity of the air – which is fitting for what is perhaps the cleanest and most harmless form of power we have.

The beauty of these things shouldn’t be an issue, anyway. What matters is that they provide clean energy. The wind farm’s opponents worry that the turbines will ruin the “pristine beauty” of their coast, but they will make their community’s environment more pristine than the hidden smokestacks currently used for power. The people of Massachusetts should be proud to be national leaders in adopting this form of power.

Doubts About The In-And-Outers

Massachusetts has its own version of “health care reform” legislation, which is similar in some ways to the federal “health care reform” legislation.  For that reason, the current Massachusetts experience may be a precursor of what we could soon be facing on a national scale.

Yesterday that Boston Globe ran an interesting article that should cause concern among all responsible citizens.  The article addresses the phenomenon of what might be called “in-and-outers.”  “In-and-outers” are people who come in to the health “insurance” system only when they already need immediate health care, rack up health care costs that far outstrip the amounts they pay in premium, and then go out of the system when their need for health care ends.  The rest of the time, they pay a monthly penalty that is less than the monthly cost of the premium would be.  During the few months they are in the system, their average health care costs are far greater than the average health care costs of the long-term participants in the health insurance system. This phenomenon — which has created an imbalance in Massachusetts totaling in the millions of dollars — also could occur under the federal “health care reform” legislation.

Polls show that one of the most popular concepts in the federal “health care reform” legislation is the provision banning insurance companies from denying coverage to people who have pre-existing conditions.  As I’ve written before, I think this may only be because people don’t fully understand the point of exclusion of pre-existing conditions, which addresses one of the fundamental underlying concepts of insurance.  In reality, pre-existing condition exclusions hold down costs for responsible people who buy insurance to protect against future risk by preventing people from “gaming the system” by buying insurance only when, for example, they learn that they need knee surgery or have some other condition that requires expensive short-term treatment.  “In-and-outers” aren’t buying “insurance” against future risk because the risk is already realized.  Instead, they are buying a subsidy for their health care, and sticking the people who stay in the insurance pool long term with most of the tab.

This phenomenon isn’t fair, but it is predictable.  There always will be people who will try to maximize their economic benefit and take advantage of other people, without regard to fairness.  If the federal “health care reform” statutes don’t recognize and account for that reality of the human condition, it will be a significant problem for the rest of us.

A Show-Stopper

Republican Scott Brown has been elected to the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts.  Democrat Martha Coakley has conceded, thereby confirming an upset that seemed unthinkable as recently as 10 days ago.  Astonishingly, only one year after President Obama swept to victory on a wave of hope and promised change, voters in one of the bluest states in the country have turned to an outsider Republican who has promised to vigorously oppose the President’s signature initiative, “health care reform” legislation.  Brown will be the first Republican Senator from Massachusetts in more than 30 years.  The result of this special election thus reflects one of the most abrupt changes in the political climate in many years.

I hope everyone takes a deep breath before overreacting, in one direction or another, to this result.  Republicans need to realize that, at least in part, voters are angry, frustrated, and motivated by a “throw the bums out” attitude that can just as easily be directed at failed Republicans as at failed Democrats.  Democrats need to realize that many Americans think the country is on the wrong track and that the amount of time and attention spent on “health care reform” legislation indicates that national Democrats have taken their eyes off the ball, when they should have been focused on jobs and the economy. With any luck, political leaders will pause to reflect before charging ahead with their respective agendas, heedless of what Americans, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, are trying to communicate.

I also predict that the reaction of the punditry and professional politicians to Brown’s victory will just stoke the simmering disgust and contempt that many Americans feel for politicians.  The votes in Massachusetts had not even been counted when the backbiting and blame games began, with national Democrats pointing the finger at the Coakley campaign, the Coakley campaign blaming the Democratic National Committee, and so on.  The unseemly exercise in immediate finger-pointing just seems to confirm what many Americans suspect — that the political classes are untrustworthy, unprincipled, and ready to sacrifice anyone and blame anyone to save their own skins and their own reputations.  Coakley ran a campaign and lost; now, for those who are trying to spin the election campaigns as having no national message, she gets savaged as an inept loser who is solely responsible for an historic defeat.  With this kind of backstabbing from members of your own party, why would anyone want to get into politics?

“The People’s Seat” (Cont.)

The attention being paid to the special election to elect a Massachusetts Senator to succeed Ted Kennedy seems to be growing, and the signs point to a national Democratic party that is very worried.  President Obama, for example, has announced that he will go to Massachusetts tomorrow to campaign for the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley.  Whether that will help or not seems to be debatable — the polls indicate that many potential voters are opposed to the President’s “health care reform” proposals, and independent voters seem to be hearing Republican Scott Brown’s call that a vote for him will stop “health care reform” and send a clear message that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are on the wrong track.  This article summarizes the race and provides a bit of useful information on the political winds, and the electorate, in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts contest is interesting because it is so surprising.  Here in the swing state Midwest, Massachusetts is viewed as the bluest of the blue states.  It is hard to imagine that Brown really can win — particularly if the Democrats pull out all of the “get out the vote” stops on Election Day.  If Brown nevertheless pulls off a victory, it will be an upset for the ages that undoubtedly will send significant shock waves to members of Congress who are up for election in November.

“The People’s Seat”

Massachusetts is holding a special election to select a successor to Ted Kennedy.  To the surprise of many, the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, appears to have made a competitive race in a traditional Democratic state — one that has not had a Republican Senator since 1972.

Last night, Brown, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, and a third-party candidate named Kennedy had their final debate of the campaign and evidently had a spirited exchange of views on a number of topics, including the “health care reform” legislation.  The debate moderator, pundit David Gergen, asked Brown about how he could vote against health care reform if he sat in Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Brown responded:  “Well, with all due respect it’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat.”  A report on the debate is here.

It is hard to believe that the political climate has changed to the point that a Republican could be elected to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, but at last one poll showed Brown leading by a percentage point.  (Another poll, which used a different turnout model, showed Coakley comfortably ahead.)  A lot of people will be closely watching Massachusetts next Tuesday.