Saturday, July 9, 2011

Static and Noise: Lift-Off!

Roger Ebert, Philosopher-King The emergence of Roger Ebert--the penultimate movie critic who was the gold standard of such for decades--has transformed himself into a sort of cultural barometer for modern society. He's never been a slouch, as it were, but his previous entire career was always through the lens of the film industry. After his cancer surgery and the inevitable end of his time with televised film critiques, however, he expanded his range of commentary to include other cultural aspects of our lives, and has also branched out into politics, religion, and education. While I certainly don't agree with everything, his input is generally refreshingly blunt and disarmingly free of malice, which makes him one of the few individuals I disagree with and still enjoy reading. He has always been willing to face up to his critics and (usually) admit when he is wrong. He's also embraced social media quite effectively, something few people in his age range and temperament are able to do. My only fear is at some point his age and/or illness will catch up with him and his commentary will suffer, and no one will really be in a position to tell him it's time to hang it up.
The Debt Ceiling This is one of those manufactured events that you see pop up in Poli Sci 101 textbooks, and I can't bring myself to get worked up about it. Oh, don't get me wrong--there are dire, irreversible consequences if an agreement is not reached. (Hint: it involves immediately chopping social security checks by 40%, for starters.*) And I think many of these consequences are being dismissed by zealots on both sides. Short version: The United States can't incur any additional debt unless Congress authorizes it, which they have done for nearly a century as a matter of routine. Suddenly, both parties--spurred, perhaps, by the bond rating agency's warning of a possible downgrade in quality--have decided to draw a line in the sand. Republicans, who control the House and therefore have the power to either approve or deny a raise in the limit, are using the catastrophic consequences to eke out what amounts to an austerity deal: a long-term structural change on how the government spends money. It's also a bit disingenuous; in, like, two or three years tax revenue will most likely rise and emergency stimulus spending will sink back to pre-recession levels and things won't look so bleak--but you can't force hard choices unless you are in a crisis situation, and the Republicans know this. (I don't necessarily disagree with their logic, since politicians like to kick the can on unpopular but necessary reforms.) I think an agreement can be reached--whatever you think of the tea party, they also like their money to not be worthless--but this is more about political theater than anything else.

Atlantis No More So the last shuttle has taken off of the launching pad. I, like most people my age, still remember the odd feeling of pride, mystery, and wonderment of space exploration when watching a launch. But, strangely, I don't feel the same level of sadness that many people do. Most are chalking this up as yet another strike against the invulnerability of the American way; one less thing to point at with pride. But times have changed. The space program created countless secondary products that we use everyday--plastic, GPS, Tang--but, as could be expected, we have reached the point of diminishing returns. Practical applications haven't been produced in years, which means that many of the benefits of space travel are theoretical in nature. And, more and more, those things can be done with simulators and computers safely on the ground. There is less of a justification of the massive spending of aeronautics and more of a justification of finding cheaper, easier ways to accomplish the same goal--which, of course, will likely start to spur new practical innovations a massive government bureaucracy couldn't. So instead of seeing this as the end of an era, I see it as a necessary process to maintain its survival. Sure, there won't be flashy liftoffs or parades of official astronauts marching through ticker-tape parades, but we'll end up going much further than before.

*Technically, not true: spending overall would have to be cut by approximately 40%, but it doesn't necessarily have to be evenly spread. Social Security, being by far the largest component of the budget, would almost have to be cut, thought not necessarily by 40% (though this would mean that other things, such as military pay, Medicare, all of the cabinet departments, etc., would have to be cut by even more than 40%.). Either way, everyone is screwed.

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