Thursday, July 08, 2010

Strategic Government (Part 2 of 2)

In the first part of this post, I pointed out some flaws in the way our government is set up, and a few examples of how these flaws manifest themselves in American society. In this post, I'll try to flesh out the philosophy that I think should be guiding our government - strategic and systems-level thinking.

Each aspect of an operation can be broken down into a system - there are inputs, outputs, and procedures for operation. The key insight of strategic government is the understanding that the system is not static - each of the components of the system can, will, and should change over time. Healthcare should use newer, safer, and cheaper technologies, teaching should incorporate psychological research to improve methods, and so on.

The question them becomes what principles should underlie these systems - what should the strategy be. 

Today's government agencies face similar issues - they can grow corrupt and impotent. The former is solved by keeping things as local and transparent as possible. And the latter, as I see it, can only be solved one way - competition. Competition provides the motivation to innovate and ensures a higher caliber of personel in an organization. Say we had competing FDAs, education systems, etc. - agencies (local, regional, or national) would shine and rise to prominence, but then, over time, grow brittle and corrupt, only to be replaced by better ones. This would give the power to the people - want to advance local, sustainable farming? Start an agency or buy from the one that promotes it.

(You could argue that this is possible in today's world, but my whole point is that the existence of government agencies impedes progress. The regulations imposed by the FDA on meat providers makes it difficult and expensive for small farms to get their products to market. The FDA has a monopoly on the rules for producing meat and thus no reason to innovate. And today's FDA is bloated, opaque, and full of industry insiders - you can almost be certain that a few FDA officials are friends with the owners of the large slaughterhouses, who have made it clear they don't want the competition that small farms would introduce.)

Furthermore, we should strive to harness people's passion to reduce cost and increase innovation. Open source principles - which allow anyone in the community to propose ideas and conduct research - are a great way to accomplish exactly this.

An example - an open source education board tasked with setting teaching methods and materials instead of the status quo, where executive boards based on seniority essentially set the agenda and everyone else must follow. How could this play out?

A very close friend of mine teaches in the Bronx and is having success using novel methods to stimulate his 8th grade class's interest in literature and poetry. If he could post videos of his class sessions online to community of teachers nationwide, his practices could be "voted up" (much like videos on YouTube) and employed by other teachers (or, conversely, ignored because his peers don't think they work).

Let's take a closer look - what would happen in this scenario? His methods would be debated, teachers would argue and get mad. Factions would form as people, being only human, would take the new ideas as new religions or personal affronts. But, over time, best practices would survive and thrive, and more students would thus have a better education. Which brings me to my next point...

Many would argue this sort of system is chaos - and they're right. It's messy and crazy and nuts. It is in fact true that there will be times where the various FDA-type organizations are more inadequate, resulting in less informed purchasing decisions and potentially more dangerous food. It's a scary thought, one that typically kills this line of thinking. Without a federal government to regulate food, how will I know I'm not buying poison?

But this is the wrong question - we should be asking if this system is better or worse than the status quo. While a decentralized approach seems to open us up to the negative elements of chance, a closer looks reveals we're always exposed to these elements due to the inadequate nature of our current agencies - the Mad Cow and Salmonella scares happen even with the FDA. It is unclear whether they would occur more frequently in a libertarian system, and they may actually happen less often due to the decrease in collusion/corruption (see the BP oil spill). And the upside is enormous - more quickly evolving standards from competition means we don't have to wait years for the FDA to finally recognize that trans fat is bad for you.

This is an important point. Humans are risk averse but not good at identifying risks - we are more scared of terrorist attacks than car crashes, of car crashes than hamburgers, when the burgers are causing way more deaths than crashes and attacks combined. The government run agencies give us a sense of safety, a theoretically bulletproof system. State run schools? Great, my child and every child will get an education. The FDA? Excellent, I'll get food I know is safe and maybe good for me. In contrast, the shortcomings of the libertarian system are plain for everyone to see - when you have multiple FDAs competing, some things will slip through the cracks. We must understand that the big government narratives aren't reality - our schools are filled with awful teachers, and the FDA approving cornfed beef doesn't make it good for you. And when you compare the flaws of the two approaches in reality, it's tough not to conclude that big government agencies tend to be much more harmful in the long run.

Of course there are remaining issues - the devil is always in the details. How would such organizations get funding? How would they serve the poor? Defense and foreign affairs is another area in which I'm largely rudderless. I'm more of the persuasion that the problems can be dealt with in mostly in isolation (i.e. you could layer solutions to those things on top of this type of government), but I've heard some very convincing arguments of the opposite.

However, these are solvable problems - the ones the government should be solving. Instead of trying to build the best healthcare bureaucracy possible, they should be focused on designing a system that forces transparency and accountability and allows for adaptability, competition, and entrepreneurship to solve problems. Monopolies will inevitably become self-serving and ineffective - from a particular agency to the entire government. Obviously, you would need some degree of centralization - my point is more that decentralization and open source can be employed more often than the are today to effectively solve problems.

This should sound familiar - it was what the founding fathers tried to do. They understood the best government was one that was local and always changing. They believed the Constitution should be rewritten every 50 years and that states should be laboratories for democracy. They even gave us the right to bear arms to remove the government's monopoly on violence. Think about how deeply they understood this principle, and far removed from their vision we are today.

It's a messy process, but I believe this approach would be way better than what we have today. We need to approach government at a level of systems engineering, of strategy and not tactics.

I'll try to follow this up with some specific case studies. Clearly, any sort of transition would have to be well thought out and would take much time.

Would love to hear feedback as my views on this topic are far from certain. Credit for this post goes to a few brilliant individuals and authors, as none of the ideas here are my own.

Strategic Government (Part 1 of 2)

So I wrote a really long blog post about our government, and upon finishing I realized I was better off splitting into two halves. This one will address the structural problems I see today, and the second some potential solutions. These are written for fun - to make myself crystalize thoughts into tangible points and to get feedback to add new elements and ideas to my thinking. Make of them what you will. (Also, apologies for the long gap in the "Healthy Living" series - and, unfortunately, it's going to continue. I will get back to it when work and life allow.)

Today, the prevailing ideology regardless of political party is that the federal government, with its power and resources, is the proper institution to provide for or regulate the basic rights we've defined in our country (everything from food/water to education and health care). This is especially true when the poor are involved - locked in a cycle of poverty and unattractive to private innovation, they would be in a far worse situation than the status quo without government run programs and standards. Any societal problem that arises is solved the same way: a government agency is tasked to fix it. 

When we turn to centralized government to solve problems and regulate industries, the quality of service we get is directly dependent on the quality of people in the government - if we have rockstars at every agency, we'll get a great return on our tax dollars and enjoy the efficiencies of scale that central organization provides. However, we have no built-in methodology for assuring this outcome outside of elections, which are indirect and, empirically speaking, largely ineffective.

This approach - creating government solutions to problems - is a tactical and not a strategic one. Today, our government goes from fire to fire, trying to put it out without developing any sort of broader strategy for how to fight fires. This works fine, especially at first - when the passionate and unselfish individuals who created the specific fire-fighting solution are still around (be it an agency or government program) - but eventually the programs grow bloated and, in my opinion, less and less able to handle the problems they're charged to solve. 

This seems self-evident - the SEC has no control over Wall St., our public education system is leaving many children behind, the FDA is classifying french fries as vegetables at schools (any wonder we're so fat?), and our offshore drilling oversight has allowed oil rigs to basically have no backup plan. Be it corruption or ineptitude, it's hard to find a government agency that is widely acknowledged to be doing a good job. (I'm sure I'm overlooking stuff here so I'd love to hear some counter examples.)

The status quo has a clear predisposition to failure. As government agents strengthen their ties to industry (formally by past work experience and informally through social networks), corruption naturally becomes institutionalized, for very human reasons: if you're friends with the people that your policies are going make life tougher for, you're going to think twice before making those policies. Throw in the obvious bribes and favors, and it's easy to see why the system is doomed to fail. 

The takeaway is that government should be concerned with strategy, not tactics. The approach is not "how do we build the best FDA?", then "how do we build the best SEC?", and so on - it's "how do we build the best regulatory agency?" - a systems engineering viewpoint. How do you create a system in which any industry can be sustainably regulated, be it by an outside agency or laying the groundwork for self-regulation?

This is obviously a very complex question. The intricate web of incentives and the diversity of human nature make any system fallible in a large number of ways. People work for or with the government for a number of reasons: they're passionate about their cause, they want a steady job, they know they can make easy money from bribes and favors, etc. They are motivated by vastly separate goals and desires.

The approach to government needs to take all of this into account. The purpose is to build an overall strategy - we're looking to maximize benefit (progress, justice, effectiveness) and minimize harm (waste, corruption, ineffectiveness). No system is perfect but the point is we need to be thinking about these broader issues and distilling them into sets of rules that can then be applied to each specific iteration of the regulation, utilities, and resource problems.

I'll lay out a very rough groundwork for potential solutions in a subsequent post. Again, the purpose is to get feedback and new perspectives, so feel free to share your thoughts. I've clearly left many important points out - either by choice for brevity or, more likely, by ignorance and poor analysis.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Healthy Living" - The Tenets (part 2)

So this post has been severely delayed. Apologies. One of the biggest reasons I'm doing this is to get myself to blog more, and it's already not working. Clearly this doesn't bode well, but I'll carry on and try to get better at following through on this.

So here we go:

Sleep habits - This is a big one, big enough to sneak in Part 1 if I hadn't rambled on for so long. Sleep is one of the biggest unknowns in science. For the life of us, we can't figure out why we do it. We can't take any particular bodily function and say that sleep factors directly into its existence. But we do know that a lack of sleep results in a host of negative side effects - increased risk of diabetes, reduced cognitive throughput, weight gain, impaired judgment, decreased attention span, and more.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, for this lifetime, your body is you. When you do something bad to your body, it tries to find ways to tell you this. If skimping on this one activity causes this many ill effects that we can already measure, and if we don't even understand why we sleep in the first place, think about all the harmful effects a lack of sleep causes that we don't yet know about.

Or, in short, there are very few things core to our existence. Sleeping is one of them.

Nutrition - Similar concept to sleep in many ways. Eating food is, again, one of the few things we absolutely must do to stay alive. Most of you know my take on this: natural, home cooked, fresh, etc. is the way to go. Packaged, fast, synthesized food should be avoided. If you've been living in a cave and haven't read any Michael Pollan, get at it. He spells it out much better than I ever could, especially the tagline for his 2nd most recent book, In Defense of Food, which reads: Eat food, not too much, mostly plans (food as opposed to food-like substances, i.e. almost anything in a package). Nice and simple summation of the philosophy I'm going to try to follow.

Joint/body impact vs fun - This is the first of a stranger set of beliefs that will guide the redesign. One of the biggest areas of rethinking I've been trying to do has been in the area of exercise. I started to question some assumptions I had held my entire life - most fundamentally, the harder your train, the healthier you are.

When I thought about this, this doesn't make much sense. Why is doing crazy cardio that keeps your heart rate at 160+ for extended periods of time good for you? The heart, like any machine designed by nature or man, is optimized for medium usage. It's not good for your car to run at 6,000 rpms on a consistent basis. Why should our bodies be any different? It's a simple materials issue - pushing a system to the high end of its performance capabilities will strain the materials involved, be they metal or living tissue.

Even if you're not with me there, I'm assuming you'll agree that joint impact is an issue. Despite the new barefoot running movement, there is no getting around the plain truth that running is probably not great for your knees. Ditto for other high impact exercises. The machine analogy applies again - if you strike a system with higher degrees of force, you're more likely to cause long term damage.

But on the flip side, some high impact activities are just plain awesome. There are few things in life more fun than a great game of football or more exhilarating than a 20 degree run through Boston Common (a newfound passion of mine, though by no means am I sad to see the winter go).

So my goal will be to optimize along these two goals - if I go for a run, I'll try to keep it short and pay attention to how my knees feel, and if I'm going to be running around for a long period of time, I better be having a blast (playing a game of football, for example).

Sports - Along those lines, I also want to play more sports. They're fun, and the competition gets the juices flowing.

Trying new things - This is also a bit of a subset of the joint impact vs. fun point. Pushing the bounds of what you know and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is always a great learning experience and a great time. So, when I'm doing active things, I want to make an effort to experiment with activities I haven't tried. Martial arts, rock climbing, and wind surfing are a few I'm kicking around right now.

I think that's it for now - did I miss anything? I'm going to synthesize these into an exact regimin, which I'll describe in my next post. And after that, it's time to get at it. Hopefully I can stay disciplined and get the next post up soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Healthy Living" - The Tenets (part 1)

I think this is a fairly important post in the still young "Healthy Living" series. When I decided I wanted to blog about this stuff, this post was what I saw as the cornerstone - a hopefully comprehensive list of the tenets around which I'd like to build a healthy lifestyle. So, without further ado...

(Actually, that's a lie. I think I'm going to split this up into two posts - this one will be about the two larger issues, and the next one will elaborate on more specific issues.)

Holistic approach - Above all, I think there has been an unfortunate downside of the emergence of science, which is that our logic has tended toward reductive rather than holistic thinking. We're told to throw a ball farther we should lift weights. We're instructed to avoid this or that nutrient (fat or salt or sugar). We're given drugs for any and all ailments.

This doesn't make any sense. You inhabit one body. Everything is connected. To some, this may sound like new age-y rubbish, but I imagine most people reading this generally agree. However, I want to take it further - I want to explore this link. My hypothesis is that it's extremely strong. By cultivating good habits in all the various spheres of life, I believe you can develop overall resilience and competence - physical, emotional, and otherwise.

What does this mean in reality? I think that, for example, if you sleep well, you're better at handling both a bad break up and a tough day at work, and you're quicker on your feet (again, both mentally and physically). Avoiding fast food probably improves your creativity or mood, in some way, and all sorts of other stuff that we don't see as intuitive today.

And I think we know this - our bodies tell us in their own way - but our science has convinced us otherwise, and our minds are too busy to hear the message. Which brings us to tenet #2:

Quieting of the mind - Until very recently, humans have had relatively few forms of entertainment. While this sounds awful to us, I'm guessing it wasn't so bad. People tend to view their experience relative to their surroundings, and it's hard to miss TV when it hasn't been invented yet.

And with this lack of distractions, premodern cultures had a much easier time turning off their brains by focusing on something simple. Almost every culture ritualized this process in some way: yoga, prayer, and meditation are just a few examples. The benefits of these activities are hard, if not impossible to quantify or even qualify - in the Zen tradition, for instance, you are actively told to not desire any particular outcome from your practice, so much so that desiring an outcome defeats the entire purpose of the meditation.

Think about how crazy that sounds. Any modern viewpoint would write such a mindset off on face. But doing so inherently blinds you to any potential benefits and wisdom that such a philosophy possesses.

To make this a little more credible, I will say somewhat paradoxically that this is based on personal experience - in the 2+ years I've been practicing Zazen (sitting meditation) with some degree of frequency (not to imply I have any degree of proficiency - I'm awful - but luckily that's not the point), I've certainly found it to have positive effects. The tradition's point refers to the intention of the process - you're not supposed to go into it or practice it with any "gaining idea" (reason for doing it).

So I intend to make this a strong tenet in the lifestyle redesign. While meditation or yoga are obvious examples of this, it by no means stops there. The idea is to focus on being in the moment - walks, runs, or games of catch can be very meditative and mind-quieting in nature, if approached with the correct mindset.

There you have it - two of the main points of what I'm trying to do. Take them for what you will. More to come - stay tuned.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Healthy Living" - Personal Introduction

Disclaimer: This is a pretty boring post. I think it's important from the standpoint of fully introducing the concept, so I wrote it, but it's mostly about my health history. The next one will be much more interesting, I promise.

I think the next logical post after describing what I'm trying to do with this "Healthy Living" series should be about my "health" past and present - where I am today. I'll follow that up with a post about the core tenants I'm going to try to adhere to in designing the lifestyle changes and finish introducing the concept with the first pass at a specific plan of guidelines I'll be following.

So, most of you know me, but I'm a 6 foot Indian kid, usually weighing slightly less than 165 lbs. As a rule, Indian men tend to store body fat in the waist, build smaller but denser muscles, and generally be of slighter build. I certainly conform to this body type. I tried to maintain a heavier weight during high school (for football purposes) and hovered in the 180-190 lb. area, but even then I didn't gain much actual size (another characteristic of my body type).

Since then, I've realized 165 lbs. or slightly below is a good equilibrium weight for me - it tends to stay in that region almost irrespective of my health habits (which can vary a fair amount but not drastically so). I think that it means it's a good weight for me. Has anyone else found they have a natural "equilibrium weight" by the way?

That all may sound a bit off topic, but I think it's important to note that body types vary widely, and it's something one should keep in mind when designing a workout plan. Looking at my family and maybe Indian people in general, we tend to have skinny joints, which can often mean knee and hip problems down the road. That means I probably want to do things that limit strain on my joints - keeping my weight down and avoiding high impact exercises, for example. (That's far from a scientific analysis and I have no idea if Indian people as a whole are more likely to have joint problems. I'm mostly writing from personal experience - please disagree if you so desire.)

Speaking of which, I should probably describe my past/present habits. I have weekly goals of hitting the gym 5 times a week, which I do probably 85-90% of the time. Workouts usually consist of one pure cardio (20-30 minute run), then 3-4 days of short cardio (5-10 minutes to get the heart pumping) and lifting (major muscle groups being legs, back/biceps, chest/triceps, and shoulders - sometimes I'll combine legs and shoulders), and then maybe a day of yoga (which I'm not very good about fitting in).

Past that, my second goal is meditating 5 times a week for 30 minutes, which I actually get to 65-80% of the time. Right now, the meditation is all of the zazen variety (good explanation here), but I'd like to branch out and this will probably be another thing I change going forward.

Finally, my eating habits are good, but not great. I haven't done a very good job documenting them, but I'll try to summarize as accurately as possible. I'm really good about breakfast - eggs, toast, fruit, maybe some cereal. Past that, I do some cooking, though not often beyond the pasta and friend rice realm. That said, I do a pretty good job getting fruits and veggies, but not a very good one by any means. I stick to whole wheat bread and brown rice almost exclusively and haven't had fast food for ages. I try to go vegetarian every other day - it doesn't always work out that way, but I'm pretty happy with my meat intake. That said, I eat out probably 3-5 times per week, at least 1 (and sometimes 2) of which are Dominos. It's not good for you by any means, but $6 for what amounts to 2 meals (medium two topping pizza) is hard to pass up on a start up budget. For what it's worth, I typically tell them to go light on the cheese. :)

Anyway, I think that's about everything. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 01, 2010

"Healthy Living" - A New Blogging Series

So I was in between sets at the gym a couple weeks ago, looking around at all the people straining to lift weights and zoning out on cardio machines, when I started to wonder: what makes one healthy?

And as I went through the mindless motions of the mundane rowing machine, I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that what I was doing probably was only as "healthy" as I had managed to convince myself it was.

What about pulling on the handle was actually good for me? Sure, maybe it worked out my biceps and upper back muscles. But what did that do? What made those muscles more important than others? I wasn't at the gym for cosmetic reasons, so why was I here?

That, of course, got me to the bigger picture - in our age of corn-fed beef, packaged food, chic yoga classes, and mega gyms, what does it mean to be healthy?

So this new blogging series is going to be my attempt to answer that question while simultaneously making a series of lifestyle changes (which I'll blog about as part of the series). I'm going to spend the next few posts introducing the series by describing my current habits, fleshing out what I believe is healthy (and by all means feel free to disagree), and laying out my plan for the changes I plan to make.

The goal is threefold: mostly, I think writing about this will help hold me to the changes I'm making. Second, I've always believed journal-keeping has enormous self-reflective benefits, and I'm hoping writing about the experience will help me get more out of it. (Sidenote: dream journal keeping really does promote lucid dreaming, or at least it seems like that so far.) Finally, I want to open the process up to feedback/comments/criticism from my many (read: 3 or 4) readers.

Fundamentally, I think this stuff is really important. The modern world introduces quite a bit of stuff (physical and emotional) into our lives, so much so we tend to forget that we're organisms. We just need to eat, drink, and sleep. Health is wealth, and all that.

Enjoy, and try not to come to the conclusion I'm a complete idiot.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dear Idiots at NBC

I wanted to sincerely thank you for reaching a new low in Olympic coverage. Your recipe of distilling events to the top 5 competitors, Americans, and crashes/wipe outs made for a fantastic viewing experience.

Seriously, how do you suck so much? It's 2010. Stream every event. Live. Archive the video so it's easy to access after the event. You think it's ok to target the mass market by synthesizing, tape delaying, refusing to post any video online until 1-2 days after the event (and even then making it impossible to find), and adding your inane profile pieces. It's not.

Let me let you in on a little not-so-secret. You're pissing off your most loyal customers. The very small percentage of people who actually want to watch the Olympics. No, I don't want your synthesized version of bobsledding. I want to watch every run for the top 20 teams (and every wipe out, of course). I want to watch it live. I'm happy to sit through a minute long ad for every 5-10 minutes of actual event.

Contrast that to what I actually did. DVR the event, skip everything except for the action, and hate your guts for continuing to ruin one of the modern miracles of sport, the Olympics.

And here is the kicker: Most of us don't give a crap about the Olympics. A fraction of that most of us will watch it, maybe. That fraction of your precious mass market is going to watch whether you stream or not.

Get it together, NBC. Not only are you pissing us off, you're leaving considerable money on the table. Oh, and try to make your website and iPhone app navigable next time around.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Way Forward for the Dems (and why Massachusetts was a good thing)

As a new resident of the Bay State (seriously, don't they know the SF Bay is much more important than the one they have here? :), I was able to get a bit of a closer look at the special election that vaulted Scott Brown to the Senate.

In terms of responses, panic seems to be the norm. I'm not saying that's not justified, but I just don't see it the same way. I'm hugely uneducated when it comes to politics, but I felt like putting my voice out there, so take this post for what it's worth:

Let's start with a bit of history. I'm going to begin with a bold argument - the "60 seat majority" was a bad thing for the Democrats. I think the entire concept is a little misleading. For starters, that 60 is really 58 Dems and 2 Independents (most frustratingly, Joe Lieberman). More importantly, Democrat Senators aren't all alike - the ones from Arkansas and Nebraska hold a somewhat separate set of beliefs from the ones in California, and must respond to vastly different constituencies.

So when it came time to fix health care, the first bill introduced didn't jive with every Senator's vision, and the inter-party negotiating/bickering began. Had some of those more conservative Democratic Senators actually been Republican, the dynamic would have been much different - the Republicans would have had to decide whether they actually wanted to filibuster a popular health care bill (back then, it was polling very well).

Think about how different that would have been - instead of a summer of prolonged debate, an opportunity for Republicans to spread misinformation about the bill far and wide, they would have had to respond, immediately - are we going to filibuster this popular bill, or not?

Side note: The whole "60 seat majority" thing has caused us to forget that filibustering has major public opinion downsides - it's seen as obstructionist and partisan. I think we're going to remember this soon.

We all know what actually happened - the prolonged debate did take place, the forces that be, well organized as they are, managed to convince a relatively uneducated public that the bill was toxic, and nothing got passed until December.

(I'm really not trying to be partisan here - my own thoughts on the health care bill are very mixed. It appeals to my liberal ideals but betrays my libertarian persuasions. That's a conversation for another day. I mean to deal in facts - the Tea Party-ers and insurance companies managed to steer the conversation to inane and fear-inducing things like death panels. Through mostly these tactics - framing of issues rather than the issues themselves - the bill become unpopular. And, let's face it - the public is absolutely uneducated when it comes to the state of health care. No one knows whats going, even people who should. Which is part of the problem, actually.)

In the process, the Democrats, the President, and pretty much anyone in favor of reform took a beating at the polls (and not to mention, the bill got very watered down). A giant, good-for-nothing mess.

But I digress. This post is about the future, not the past. What to do now? Here is the playing field: Health care hasn't yet passed and is still fairly unpopular. The public has lost the forest for the trees - the focus is no longer on the problem, the fact that the status quo will make us more bankrupt than the bill (I think that's true - correct me if I'm wrong), but on rage and anger at government spending and size. The people who the bill will help, the costs it will save, the necessity of the thing - all have been forgotten (even/especially by the beneficiaries of the bill).

But we must not forget the flip side of the coin: there are still issues to be solved, and now the Republicans have to actually exercise the threat of filibuster if and when they please.

So what is the way forward?

Step one is reminding the public what they have forgotten, and then getting health care off their minds. Now, if only there were a publicized stage where a charismatic speaker would have an unfiltered voice to remind the public of the bill's merits. Oh, wait, there is - the State of the Union.

This is the perfect forum for the President to remind us why he's the Man: by sticking to his guns. He needs to go up and acknowledge the criticism and hit back, tactfully. Facts, figures, emotional persuasion. Tell us stories of who it's going to help. Tell us stories of some of the tens of thousands of people who lost their grandmothers, spouses, or kids because of our broken health care system. (Do I have that stat right?) Remind us of the problem, and tell us how the bill will fix it. Shine light on the misinformation spread about the bill and channel anti-corporation rage - not too much, but just enough.

Then pivot to the future - cracking down on the corporations: big insurance, big oil, big whatever else, and...

Step two: Wall Street. I've heard rumors of a special tax on banks that received bailouts. That's a little two baldly popular for my taste, but it's a start. Even better, there has been talk of a sort of reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act (separation of commercial and investment banking, essentially).

This is brilliant. It left my favorite conservative financial/economic blogger dumbfounded and ecstatic. (Seriously, he's great, and he makes a lot of sense. He's also a riot to read and absolutely crazy. I would love to meet the guy.)

It's so brilliant because it does two things simultaneous - tap deeply into populist anger and accomplish something real and necessary. The support for Glass-Steagall-type reinstatement comes from all fronts - liberal and conservative economists, bloggers, and pundits - and it will do much to blunt the growing conservative/Tea Party movement.

With huge majorities, the Democrats will dictate the agenda. At this point, the Republicans will have two alternatives - go along with financial reform (and cede serious momentum) or oppose/filibuster it, allowing the Dems to wear the crown of the populist party.

There are roadblocks - health care and a second stimulus come to mind. But these can be handled. The former needs to be passed, and quickly, to get it off the public's mind. This is essential - get the Senate bill through the House, get it signed, and let the public forget about it. Tack stuff onto it after the 2010 elections.

The latter may be a little trickier. The Tea Party-ers will be out in full force, decrying the era of big government and spending. The President needs to use the State of the Union and the bully pulpit throughout the year to link the recession and debt to Bush while simultaneously reminding the public that he tried to get us out of the recession with as little spending as possible, but that didn't fix unemployment.

It's going to be a tough sell, but that's why Obama is Obama.

From there, it's focusing on popular bills - I'm not up with politics enough to know exactly what they are, but I'm pretty sure they're there, and tempting the filibuster whenever possible.

So, in short, this is how I truly believe the Dems can seriously minimize losses come November (or maybe even break even):
  1. Use the SOTU to set the record straight on health care and turn the focus to Wall Street and the economy/unemployment.
  2. Pass health care asap, likely through the House (get it together, idiots), and push modifications till later. Get it off the public's mind.
  3. Push serious finance reform, focusing on Glass-Steagall.
  4. Minimize damage if a second stimulus is necessary by the spectre of Bush and honest attempt to fix the problem with as little money as possible that was the first stimulus.
  5. Focus on popular issues and force the Republicans to use the filibuster (often at their own peril).
There you have it - a complete amateur's take on how to navigate 2010. I'm sure I'm wrong for 3120329 reasons, but writing this has been a fun thought exercise. Also, I know "step one" and "step two" that I wrote about above don't line up with the 5 step process laid out a few sentences ago, but whatever. I have to get back to work.