Give ’em Hell

I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.

— President “Give-’em-Hell-Harry” Truman

In this week’s Sift:

  • Is Medicare a Fair Issue? The corporate-media pundits are telling us how unfair it is for the Democrats to “demagogue” the Medicare issue. But what is really unfair is the way Medicare came under attack to begin with.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Millions of people are spending billions of hours in the virtual worlds of online games. What can those games teach us about fixing the “user experience” of the real world?
  • Short Notes. Cities as software. Sane Republicans need not apply for the 2012 nomination. Sarah still isn’t running. Rolling Stone profiles Roger Ailes. A Palestinian view of Obama’s Middle East speech. And I’ve added a Link-of-the-Day to the Weekly Sift Facebook page.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Lots of people had advice for new graduates last week. This week: How do you talk to people who disagree with you?

Is Medicare a Fair Issue?

This week the momentum officially changed. Democrats have been reeling since the debacle of the 2010 election. They’ve been wondering how far the tidal wave would roll and how many of them it would wash out to sea.

Tuesday, Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election in a very Republican congressional district. She did it by focusing on her opponent’s support for the Paul Ryan budget plan, which would privatize Medicare. 235 Republicans in the House and 40 in the Senate voted for that proposal, so they’ll be hearing about the issue too.

Suddenly, it’s the Republicans who are feeling the fear.

Almost immediately, the pundit class started wringing its hands — even in the so-called “liberal” parts of the corporate media. Across the board, the pundits had bought into the following line of thought: Long-term, the federal deficit is insupportable. Something has to be done to rein in entitlement spending. The fastest-growing entitlement is Medicare, so it has to be reined in first. The Ryan plan may have been extreme, but at least it recognized those realities. Now, everyone will be afraid to touch Medicare so nothing will happen. We’re all doomed because the Democrats are demagoguing the Medicare issue.

Is that really what’s happening?

The frame. Here’s one of the most widely applicable tricks of propaganda: If you want to attack a party, a program, an ethnic group or whatever, you start with a problem that affects everybody. Then you take the particular way that the universal problem affects the people you want to attack, and you spin it as if it were a completely unique problem, something that “those people” need to fix right away.

It’s easy. Sexual abuse of children by teachers and ministers is a problem, so let’s ignore it and define the special problem of sexual abuse by gay teachers and ministers. What’s wrong with those gay people? We have to do something about their child-abuse problem right away. You’re not condoning gay sexual predators, are you?

Or we could ignore the general crime problem and focus on crime by illegal immigrants. Do they commit more burglaries and murders than comparable citizens? No. Is it worse to be killed by an illegal immigrant than by a citizen? I doubt it. But illegal immigrants have the same criminal tendencies that all humans do, so you can find cases to play up and make into a big deal.

That’s what Republicans have done to Medicare. They’ve never liked Medicare, because it delivers a valuable service and so is like a billboard advertising the good that government can do. Republicans were against passing Medicare to begin with, and they make a serious run at it maybe once a decade.

To attack Medicare, Republicans can use this larger problem: America has by far the most expensive health care system in the world, one whose costs are pulling away from those of any other country — including countries that consider health care a right, that cover everybody, and that have higher life expectancies than we do.

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act began to attack that problem, but it’s just a beginning. If we were serious, we’d be studying countries like France, Germany, and Japan to see how they deliver better medical care for 2/3rds (or less) of what we spend per person.

But instead, Republicans have shaped the expensive-American-health-care problem into a bludgeon to use against Medicare: Medicare is too expensive (just like the rest of American health care), and its costs are rising fast (just like the rest of American health care). So Medicare’s cost is a completely unique problem that we absolutely have to do something about right now — even as we try to undo Obama’s timid first steps at medical cost control in general.

Paul Ryan claims that his privatization plan will control costs. (The Free Market Fairy will wave her wand.) But according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, that’s wishful thinking. Actually, the Ryan plan will just shift the cost of medical care from the government to old people. (Ezra Klein takes Ryan’s case apart in more detail.)

So fundamentally, the Ryan plan is just a Medicare bludgeon: It ignores the underlying problem to focus on the particular program it wants to destroy.

What can we afford? These days, we’re hearing many cries of “we can’t afford it” because “we’re going broke”. But it’s important to ask who is going broke and what, exactly, we can’t afford.

One answer is: If medical inflation continues its current pace indefinitely, our whole economy will go broke. Eventually, exponential growth would push our medical costs higher than our GDP. In the very long term that’s a real problem, and if the Republicans have any plan to deal with it, I’m all ears. So far they haven’t offered one.

(I have a plan: single-payer health care. Model it on what the French, Germans, and Japanese are doing. Their costs are lower and are rising more slowly than ours. And they have lower amenable mortality — fewer deaths from curable conditions.)

Instead, we’re talking about particular government programs funded in particular ways, and worrying about the date on which the funding will be inadequate. To solve that, the Ryan plan draws a line in the sand and says, “We’ll only fund this much.”

That “saves” the Medicare program by giving up on its mission. Ryan just surrenders to the notion that our society can’t afford to take care of old people when they get sick. (Imagine applying the same “solution” to defense: We’ll cap what the government spends, and if in the distant future that turns out not to be adequate, each of us will be responsible for the cost of defending our own homes against the invaders.)

That’s the outcome we should be working hard to avoid, not the one we should be embracing.

And that’s the Medicare issue in a nutshell: Democrats remain committed to the idea that America will take care of its old people when they get sick, and Republicans are willing to give that commitment up.

That issue is totally fair. Democrats should use it to give the Republicans hell — in the Harry Truman way, by telling the truth about them.

To a large extent, Republicans are just starting to reap what they have sown. They won in 2010 by spreading the false idea that government spending was riddled with bridges-to-nowhere that the Democrats weren’t willing to cut. Now that they control the House and a lot of state governments, what do they want to cut? Medicare, Medicaid, education, and a bunch of other programs that deliver services people actually need and use.

You can’t turn off an idea like government-is-full-of-waste just because it’s inconvenient now that you’re in office. People know that huge numbers of bridges-to-nowhere have not been cancelled. And they’re going to resent giving up services they need while all that (fictitious) waste is still untouched.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Unless you’re a gamer — which I’m not (unless Sudoku counts) — you probably have no idea how much time and effort your fellow citizens are investing in virtual worlds. It’s awesome.

In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 5 million “extreme” gamers, who average 45 hours a week gaming. Other sources say that 10 million Western Europeans and 6 million Chinese put in at least 20 hours a week. And if you picture this as vegging-out time, similar to watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island, you don’t get it. We’re talking about spending time in a virtual world that in many ways is more challenging than reality.

Know what the largest wiki other than the Wikipedia is? The WoWWiki created and maintained by the 12 million people who play World of Warcraft. The Halo-playing community also has a massive wiki. Think about that. This isn’t just time spent playing the game, these are massive community documentation projects, undertaken by volunteers who just want to demonstrate and share their knowledge.

Once you understand that, there are a variety of standard reactions. You might deplore the extreme waste of time and effort. Or you could blame someone: Something is wrong with the gamers; they’re escaping because they can’t hack it in reality. Or something is wrong with the games; they’re designed to cause addiction.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer and a director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. Her new book Reality is Broken asks a different question: What is lacking in Reality, that people go into game worlds to find? And what can game worlds teach us about how to improve the user experience of Reality?

These are some of her findings:

  • Reality is simultaneously too easy and too unrewarding. The optimal human experience is to face a genuine challenge that we know we can overcome if we try hard enough and use all our abilities. Too often what we face in Reality is drudgery that may or may not accomplish anything — or unemployment.
  • Games provide clear missions and well-defined success criteria. Reality usually doesn’t.
  • Games emphasize hope over fear. You aspire to reach higher levels. And failure is nothing to be afraid of — you just start over and try again. But Reality often emphasizes fear over hope.
  • Real work disconnects us from our social network. Games can keep us in touch with each other.
  • Reality trivializes our effort. The backstory of a game like Halo puts each individual’s effort in an epic context. How often does your real job do that?
  • Reality is unimaginative and uninspiring. Things are the way they are, and we are seldom challenged to imagine them differently. But a game world can help us envision something radical.

The gaming community — like the open software community — demonstrates something we don’t know how to think about yet: The 21st-century economy produces large numbers of people who are hungry for the right kind of challenges. Whoever figures out how to provide those challenges in real life will be able to channel vast amounts of effort and creativity.

The most interesting part of the book concerns “happiness hacks” — simple habits that are clinically proven to make people happier: (Dance. Help a stranger. Get outside. Teach somebody something useful.) The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to be happy. The problem is that happiness-enhancing habits seems hokey, we have a hard time motivating ourselves to maintain them, and our everyday lives don’t provide easy opportunities to practice them.

McGonigal describes a number of games that get around those problems. The most interesting was an experimental iPhone game implemented in Boston: GroundCrew. GroundCrew players submit and grant each other’s wishes, which appear on a World-of-Warcraft-like quest board. The example in the book is of a dancer who can’t leave rehearsal but really wants a latte. Another player queries the game for “quests” near him, sees the latte wish, and fulfills it — gaining points in the game that will raise the value of his own wishes. I can imagine a lot of ways this model could go wrong, but the game designers seem to have anticipated them.

Watch McGonigal’s 20-minute TED talk.

Do you have trouble motivating yourself and your housemates to keep the place livable? Do you want to settle once and for all that argument about whether you or your spouse does more housework? Do you want the kids to stop whining about every little thing you ask them to do?

You need to play Chore Wars. It’s a game based on the quest-for-experience-points model, except the quests are household chores. The “players” design characters for themselves, agree on a set of “quests” and the points each one should be worth, and come up with real-life rewards for the winners. After the game is set up, players log in and claim the points whenever they complete something.

Basic accounts are free, and a one-time charge of $10 upgrades you to a gold account with extra capabilities.

Every day, huge numbers of adults play Lexulous — online Scrabble — with their mothers. “Check in on your mother regularly” is one of those good habits people feel guilty about not keeping up. But day-in-day-out, Lexulous players send a move, get a responding move, and maybe add a comment or two about the weather or how the grandkids are doing.

If you think “I’d rather get a call or a visit”, you’re missing the point. People who touch base every day are more likely to call or visit, and more likely to have something to talk about when they do.

The Quest to Learn school is using the gaming model to define a curriculum. Its web site explains:

Quest is not a school whose curriculum is made up of the play of commercial videogames, but rather a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences.

Two sci-fi novels imagine how game worlds can influence Reality: Halting State by Charles Stross and the Daemon/Freedom™ series by Daniel Suarez.

Short Notes

The most paradigm-changing thing I read this week: Cities as Software. An Australian writing in a Dutch magazine points out:

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. … [V]irtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment.

But cities are also software: sets of rules that define how spaces and buildings are used. And many cities have empty buildings — idle hardware — that are nonetheless expensive and/or difficult to access for temporary events. And yet, if you have enough temporary events, one after another, you have lasting change.

He goes on to explain how a shoestring operation, Renew Newcastle, is re-writing the software of an old Australian steel-making city:

In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city [are] active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become.

Recently, Lonely Planet rated Newcastle #9 on its Cities to Visit list.

When I think about what has made cities near me interesting — Waterfire in Providence, Steampunk City in Waltham, the Lowell Folk Festival — it’s usually a temporary rewrite of the city software, not new hardware.

Here’s what you need to know about the race for the 2012 Republican nomination: Sane people need not apply. This video was created to attack Jon Huntsman as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). But if you showed it to the average Independent, I think they’d vote for him. I was halfway through before I grokked the rhino image and realized it was supposed to be negative.

I’m constantly bewildered by the pundit-class assumption that the Republican establishment will control this process. After Romney implodes, I keep hearing, they’ll steer the nomination to Tim Pawlenty, who garners 6% in the latest Gallup poll. Or maybe Huntsman, who (at 2%) is within the margin-of-error of zero. Bachmann, Palin, Santorum, Cain — they’ll all get swept under the rug somehow.

Propagandists are like arsonists: They always think they can control the blaze, and sometimes they’re wrong. The Republican establishment stoked craziness they couldn’t control in 2010, and wound up with un-electable Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. They don’t control the craziness now, either.

BTW, I’m standing by my prediction that Sarah Palin won’t run. Yeah, she’s hinting, but I predicted that, too. I was particularly amused by this:

a person familiar with a potential Palin campaign describes a different approach. “What you would likely see [in Iowa] if Palin were to run is an unconventional and modern campaign focusing more on mass communications, internet contact, and mass assemblies as opposed to the more traditional one-on-five coffees,” the insider said.

The “insider” is spinning Palin’s biggest weakness: She can’t run a traditional Iowa/NH campaign, because she can’t answer unscripted questions. The kind of blather she gets away with on stage or on Twitter won’t work in somebody’s living room.

Rolling Stone: How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory. And Media Matters gives a prime example of how it’s working out.

The buzz has all been about the Israeli reaction to President Obama’s Middle East speech. Rashid Khalidi gives a Palestinian view.

For a while now I’ve been thinking that the Weekly Sift Facebook page ought to provide something more than just a Monday-afternoon announcement that the Sift is up. This week I’ve started experimenting with a Link of the Day: A couple lines about something cool that I expect to say more about in the next Sift.

The Link of the Day is in the spirit of being a political blog for people who don’t have time for political blogs (one of the slogans I’ve used to describe the Weekly Sift). It’s just one thing. If you’re looking for something to read over lunch, check it out.

This Week’s Challenge

Last week’s challenge — what advice do you have for new graduates? — got a lot of interesting responses. Only one person had a direct career suggestion (medical technology — because it combines technology with people skills and subtle pattern recognition, it should be hard to automate completely). But more general advice (summarized and in no particular order) included:

  • Live within your means. (Several people offered some version of this advice: Spend less than you earn. Don’t go into debt. Live below your means. Don’t buy stuff you don’t need. Take compound interest very seriously.)
  • Learn basic skills that will make you less dependent on the money economy. (This is my abstraction from a lot of more specific suggestions: Learn how to grow and preserve food, to repair stuff, to give first aid, to entertain yourself and others, and so on.)
  • Don’t get married before you’re 25.You don’t want to hear the details. Just don’t.
  • Make time to do what you love. If you can turn it into a career, that’s wonderful. But even if you can’t, don’t lose it.
  • Bicycles. They’re good for your health and the environment at the same time.
  • Don’t let yourself rust. Keep moving, keep learning, keep adapting.
  • Maintain a social network. You can’t count on staying in the same place or keeping the same job, so this won’t happen by itself.

This piece of advice popped into my head while I was reading other people’s suggestions: Don’t wait for permission. If you want to be a journalist, go cover stuff. If you want to make movies, make them. Who’s stopping you? Do stuff, throw it out there, and get feedback so that you can improve.

This week: Do you stay close to people whose worldviews/philosophies/politics are opposed to your own? Can you talk to them? How do you do it?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Carolyn Roosevelt  On May 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Thanks for the Huntsman link, though it gives me a shudder that it's talking sense that makes him such box-office poison on his own territory. Wow.
    And the graduate advice is spot-on (at any age.)

  • Personal Home Inspector  On June 1, 2011 at 1:38 am

    The GOP apparently does not believe that there are enough votes out here to phase them or to impress them with the potential and possibility of irrelevance and being the out party for an extended period of time. This was erroneously demonstrated to the GOP in 2010. Those electoral gains emboldened the GOP and they appear to honestly believe that they can do it again. So called “independents” and “moderates” went to that side in the midterms in significant numbers and progressives and Dems slept through the midterms for their respective reasons. I hope that people do not make those same mistakes again. Otherwise, you can kiss this nation goodbye.

  • Save My Marriage  On June 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I think the Republican¬s are right. Either let the country tank or let old people and poor people die, We already have their money. Why the hell would we want to pay it back to them or even care about them. The most important thing is to keep a big budget for more wars, and ensure that the wealthy and corporatio¬ns don't have to pay a dime more in taxes. They have worked very hard to get where they are. In fact, we should also cut spending for education. If people don't make enough money to educate themselves¬, that's too damned bad. Not our fault these poor lazy leaches should be approachin¬g their government for a handout or a hand-up. I can't stand these Democrats always looking for a way to help people with tax dollars they pay. Don't they realize this money is no longer theirs. If people don't like it, they should never have voted us in office.

  • Carolyn  On August 4, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Hm, not sure this is current, but I have a thought about this challenge.

    I really like in a comfortable Liberal enclave, but it does limit the conversations I have access to: the last time I was in a room with someone who had a relative in the military, I was either having my hair cut, or having blood drawn at the hospital.
    But–Facebook often puts me in conversations way across political and religious lines. People I went to school with are mostly back down South, and their other friends say thought-provoking stuff I don’t agree with at all. Because of the friend in common, we mostly keep it civil.
    Once in a while, I feel like I do some good, like pointing out that it’s neither fair nor reasonable to assume that hundreds of millions of Muslims want to slaughter us in our beds. One on one, over Scrabble, a person I haven’t seen since 1972 quizzed me about this, and I think I talked her down.

  • weeklysift  On August 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Carolyn, Thanks for responding to the challenge. Here’s why you might be seeing non-current Sift posts: When I transferred the blog over from Blogspot, not everything came through correctly. I’ve slowly been fixing the broken links, bizarre characters, and so on in the archives.

    What I didn’t realize until this week is that every time I update those posts, the updates are getting sent out to everybody who subscribes to the Sift’s RSS feed as if they were new posts. I haven’t figured out what to do about it, so RSS subscribers are likely to keep getting unintentional Sift nostalgia until I get the archives completely fixed.

    Here’s how not to be fooled by them: Sift posts come out on Mondays. Anything that appears on the other six days of the week is a glitch.


  • […] possibility of another way of functioning entirely led me to Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. McGonigal starts with the observation that the multi-player computer games like World of Warcraft […]

  • […] positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. […]

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