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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Even businesses admit healthcare competition is sick

Posted By on Wed, Dec 31, 2008 at 9:58 AM

Worth a look is this op-ed piece in today's Post-Gazette. Writer M. Christine Whipple, head of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, asks whether UPMC really needs to build a new hospital in Monroeville. Whipple notes that the facility would be built near Forbes Regional, an existing (and recently improved) factility operated by UPMC rival West Penn Allegheny Health System. 

Whipple's key contention:

Service duplication virtually ensures increased health-care costs. Instead of one emergency department adequately handling the area's patient volume, two could be available. That would mean more personnel and overhead costs for the same patient volume. The likely result would be higher overall costs, passed along to employers and consumers in the form of higher payments or increased premiums.

It's a little weird, when you think about it, to hear the head of a business group questioning the value of competition. I thought that was the "genius" of the American health-care system. Can we no longer depend on head-to-head competition to deliver the best possible care at the lowest possible price? It's one thing to hear Republicans denouncing George Bush as socialist, but now even the Chamber of Commerce is sounding kind of bolshie.

Perhaps Whipple's wariness is the result of increased scrutiny I've predicted UPMC will have to get used to. Perhaps it stems from the sense that a Monroeville hospital will be another nail in West Penn's coffin, resulting in a net decrease of competition over the long run.

But more importantly, I think, it's a symbol of how screwed up healthcare really is in this country. And Whipple's point dovetails with an argument made by financial journalist Maggie Mahar in a recent story by my colleague Bill O'Driscoll

"Our whole health-care system is designed largely for the benefit of people who make profit off it, rather than patients," says Mahar, author of the 2006 book Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much.

That creates overspending in several ways, she says. One is overcapacity: Too many hospitals compete for too few patients, whom doctors then hospitalize more than is necessary. "Once the beds are there, we fill them," says Mahar, by phone from New York.

Even if it kills us.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Who Oversees the Overseers?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 29, 2008 at 10:14 AM

I'll confess that when City Councilor Pat Dowd starts thundering about "transparency," sometimes my mind starts wandering. After he took office earlier this year, for example, he was all het up about the transfer of years-old UDAG funds, monies that he maintained were not properly being allocated on the balance sheets of ...

OK, I'll stop now. Because Dowd is onto something potentially much more interesting, and problematic: who is really calling the shots in this town.

Earlier this morning, Dowd's office sent out a copy of a proposed proposed "restricted defeasance account agreement between the city and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, one of two state-appointed panels charged with overseeing the city's troubled finances. And as Dowd first began noting a few days ago, the agreement raises questions about who oversees the overseers. 

Essentially, the agreement would "irrevocably transfer" some $45.3 million in public money to an ICA-managed account, where it could only be used to pay off debt. The goal is straightforward: Put city funds in the equivalent of a "lockbox," where politicans can't get their grubby hands on them and use them for luxuries like, um, filling potholes or hiring cops.

But decisions about which debts to pay, and under what circumstances, would be made by the ICA alone (with the city controller's office facilitating transactions). Once the agreement is signed, elected officials would have no say in how the money is spent. Ordinarily, for example, city council is charged with the responsibility for approving expenditures -- right down to what it spends on photocopies. But in the three-page agreement, the words "city council" appear only once: The ICA pledges to notify council after any debts are paid.

Not surprisingly, that doesn't sit well with at least one city councilor. Of special concern to Dowd is paragraph 9 from the agreement:

The selection of trustee banks or any other professional support for
transactions under this Agreement shall be made by the Executive Director of the ICA pursuant to Act 11 of 2004, 53 P.S. 28101 et seq.

Act 11, for those following along at home, is the legislation that created the ICA. And among the powers allocated to the board is the ability

to make and enter into contracts and other instruments necessary or convenient for the conduct of its business.

It's not clear how the ICA would choose the financial advisers and other consultants who would help it manage that $45 million. The agreement says nothing about it, and ICA Executive Director Henry Sciortino told the Post-Gazette last week that "We do not have a preconceived notion of who should do what or how it should be done."

Generally, financial advice falls under the category of "professional service" -- and contracts for such services do not require competitive bidding. In the past, that has often led to "pinstripe patronage," in which politically connected lawyers and other professionals get lucrative contracts. And it would be ironic if the ICA decided to ignore such procedures: The legislation which created the board stressed the need for "improvement of procurement practices, including competitive bidding procedures."

Or as Dowd noted in a statement: "In a matter so critical to the city’s financial recovery, the ICA shows a blatant disregard for the
need for reform."

Personally, I'd feel a lot better if the draft agreement didn't commit everyone to wrapping up this whole deal by the day after tomorrow. (The agreement reads: "On or before December 31, 2008, the City and the City Controller shall irrevocably transfer $45,300,000 from its unrestricted general funds into the Restricted Defeasance Account.")If the mayor tried to sneak through an 11th hour transfer of $45 million to anyone else, we'd all be howling.

I'd also feel better if the ICA didn't already have a track record for playing fast-and-loose with the Sunshine Act, which requires advance public notice about its meetings. I'm sure everything the ICA does complies with the letter of the law. But the same could be said of a lot of objectionable behavior by elected officials. 

In recent months, the mayor and city council have been going through an almost proctological amount of scrutiny for almost everything they do. It'd be ironic as hell if the ICA -- whose unelected board is supposed to hold officials accountable -- was able to avoid practicing what it preached.  

But hey, maybe that's just me. And, I guess, Pat Dowd.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bricolage’s Chicks With Dicks

Posted By on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 2:43 PM

The commercial success of a stage production is entirely relative; the total turnout for a good three-week, 15-performance run at most local professional theater companies wouldn't constitute a decent weekend's work for a big touring Broadway show like Wicked. But on the local level, there are trends that suggest ways newer or smaller companies can get noticed.

This came to mind at the Dec. 13 final performance of Chicks With Dicks, the uproarious, sassily campy 1960s biker-babe movie sendup by Bricolage Productions. The script, by Trista Baldwin, already had a cult following here, after readings at Bricolage. But the full production, which opened in October, extended its original five-weekend run by two weeks, and judging by the closing-night sellout, it might have gone longer still.

The show, directed by Tami Dixon, was big goofy fun: lots of women in tight-fitting and/or minimal clothing, declaiming ludicrous dialogue; a you're-much-smarter-than-this plot; outrageous, cartoonisly mimed violence; and, eventually, mutation. But my guess is that one thing that made the show a big hit on the little company's terms was some canny marketing.

Instead of trying to make it "theater," Bricolage -- basically, Dixon and group co-founder Jeff Carpenter -- made it, literally and figuratively, rock 'n' roll. Shows were booked on Friday and Saturday nights only (i.e., non-school nights) and late, at 10 p.m. And Bricolage actually had a local rock band play a short pre-show set each night in the troupe's Downtown lobby. (I saw the satisfying old-school glam of The Science Fiction Idols.) The carnival atmosphere included cotton candy and a chance to get your picture taken on a vintage police motorcycle, complete with sidecar.

Bricolage's smart tactics reminded me of one of the local trends I've noticed: The past few years have seen many more live-performance groups, and indeed arts venues of all kinds, turning shows into events, even parties. Several years ago, for instance, barebones productions helped launch its move to the top ranks of local indies by having rock bands and beer after performances of the play This is Our Youth. That sort of thing is pretty common these days; even big, established groups like Pittsburgh Public Theater and the Pittsburgh Symphony are hosting mixers and other social events to make themselves more attractive to younger audiences.

The second trend, by the way, is holding one's event at an odd, nontheatrical location. The oldest running practitioner of that tactic is Quantum Theatre, which by design seldom uses traditional theater spaces, building anew for each show (whether in a cemetery, a park or a defunct municipal swimming pool). The old Flux art happenings partook of the idea too, commandeering warehouses and other underused spaces for its shindigs. It raises the curiosity factor, for one thing, and also makes it feel more like an event than just another show.

Bricolage, of course, staged Chicks in its usual retrofitted storefront. But by the looks of the turnout, that was enough.

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Happy Holidays -- with a SPECIAL wish

Posted By on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 11:05 AM

Usually, the City Paper offices are constantly thrumming with the sound of consent being manufactured, but this morning a quiet calm has settled in. It's the sort of magical silence that descends on only the holiest of days -- those which our salespeople take off for vacation. So let me take a moment to wish a happy holiday to the folks who read this blog. The three of you are what the season is all about. 

Oh! And a special shout-out, as the kids say, to state Rep. Chelsa Wagner and longtime League of Young Voters political activist Khari Mosley, who recently got married. (I'm always the last to find out about these things. No fondue set from me, you two.)

Earlier this year, Rep. Wagner broke some hearts by deciding not to run for mayor in 2009, but look at it this way:

Not being mayor of Pittsburgh means you won't have to contend with massive financial headaches. Or an aging infrastructure in constant need of repair. Not to mention constant carping from people who second-guess every decision you make. And if you find yourself missing any of that, well, take it from me -- getting married is the next best thing! 

Thank you! Thank you! You've been a great audience! Happy holidays! I have to go home and apologize to my wife!

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cullen It In

Posted By on Tue, Dec 23, 2008 at 8:03 AM

Wondering what Lynn Cullen is up to these days? Fans will be distressed to hear that, since being ousted from WPTT earlier this year, she's been reduced to hanging out with the likes of ... me. 

Last week, Cullen and I did one of those John McIntire-organized panel discussions in the Cultural District. It was less successful than some of the previous ones I've done -- one of those things where the number of panelists nearly outnumbers the number of people in the audience. On the bright side, I was sitting right next to Lynn Freakin' Cullen. And in tough times like these, I find her wry, even antic, outrage especially appealing.

In such circumstances, my role is to to sit quietly and let the stage lights reflect off my giant forehead, bathing Cullen in a warm glow as she holds forth. That gives me a lot of time to listen to what people are saying -- and judging from her remarks, Cullen wants to put aside the partisanship that characterized her presence as local radio's "Lone Liberal."

When the topic was a controversy like evangelical minister Rick Warren's participation in Barack Obama inauguration, for example, Cullen expressed impatience with pundits on both sides of the debate. Pundits "make their living" exaggerating the importance of such issues, she contended ... but Obama's election proved that Americans across the political spectrum want to put aside such divisiveness. 

Of course, cynics might contend that Cullen wants to drop partisanship now only because the president-elect is a Democrat ... whereas when George Bush was in office, her criticism was unrelenting. Or they might say Cullen is only dropping the partisan shtick because, since she's no longer on the radio, it's no longer how she makes her living. But I don't agree. Based on stuff Cullen said before and after the discussion, and her obvious passion all evening long, I have a feeling she really is sick to death of it.

Anyway, put aside whether Cullen really means what she says about post-partisanship: It's obvious that Obama meant it. And honestly, I've never been sure that was such a great thing. I was one of those people who always found Obama's post-partisan appeal to be kinda vacuous. That said, I'm a little surprised that anyone else is surprised by what's happening.

When Obama would talk about how there were no red states or blue states, and promised to reach out to people in the former ... just who did we think he was talking about? Did we think he was going to transcend partisan differences by including only the people we already agreed with?

A lot of us, I think, interpreted his post-partisan message in partisan terms -- when he complained about divisiveness, that message resonated in a special way with everyone who'd been scapegoated over the past 8 years. When he talked about inclusion, we assumed he only meant us -- because we thought that we were the only ones who felt excluded. 

And right now, there are people who still feel that way -- including some of Obama's glbt supporters. (Local blogger Sue Kerr's nuanced take is here.) They wonder why Obama is trying to console the feelings of evangelicals, of all people. Haven't they been calling the shots for the better part of a decade already? And this isn't just an issue for pundits to kick around. There are glbt folks out there for whom outrage over Rick Warren isn't just a way to make a living -- it's about the very fabric of their lives.

It's easy for straight white male like me to applaud Obama's outreach to evangelicals as a political masterstroke. I may even be right in hoping that this is a largely symbolic gesture that -- who knows? -- may make it easier for him to pass health-care reform, or even civil unions. Cullen (who called herself "the original Fag Hag" during the panel discussion) is right that Obama deserves a chance to actually, you know, get into office before we open up on him.

On the other hand, it seems deeply unfair that the first people to be sacrificed in the name of "post-partisanship" are the people who've been the most demonized by partisans on the other side. 

In any case, I hope 2009 redeems Obama's decision, and the hopes so many of us, including glbt voters, vested in him. I hope we don't replace bitter partisanship with bitter post-partisanship.  And I hope Lynn Cullen regains an audience commensurate with her talent.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Survivor Post-Mortem

Posted By on Mon, Dec 22, 2008 at 4:16 PM

So Survivor just ended, and Mark Burnett and the gang are going back to the well for the 18th time. The next series will take place in Brazil and is likely already underway, but that won't stop me offering some suggestions, should this show run on into infinity.

More old people. The ones that don't get voted out in the first couple of episodes generally fare fairly well. Experience does count -- whether it's a lifetime of acquiring useful skills or just simply knowing how to get along with people. And, nothing brings out the rallying fans like supporting the oldster underdog. (See also Rudy and Yau-Man.) This time, Bob overcame a seemingly double handicap of age and physique to win.

More chunky people. Seriously, after a month of not-eating, some of these contestants become alarmingly skinny. Look, you know folks are gonna drop a bunch of weight, so don't pick people who leave us at the final challenges rooting for who appear to be death-camp survivors.

More mean people. Yes, they appeared to be simply awful human beings, but admit it: Randy and Corrine were a blast to watch (and even more fun to watch get taken down hard.) This isn't the Hallmark Channel, and reality fare is low-rent by nature, so give us villains, not group hugs.

Different challenges. Seriously, if I see one more run/swim/crawl, collect puzzle pieces and assemble puzzle to raise flag challenge ... The challenges that work best involve tapping a less obvious skill (rather than just speed and strength), and include some mental element. At least this season, Survivor dropped the pro forma final challenge, which has always been some standing endurance test. Building a house of cards was a fresh idea, a tough challenge, and rendered surprising results -- Susie beat the physics instructor?! -- that changed up the whole game with only a day to go.

Immunity idols. Finally, this thing was actually employed, and cleverly. But the novelty of the immunity idol has worn off, and I hope Survivor 18 either ditches it or changes how it can be played. Best case scenario: The show dreams up some other concept to help or hinder individual immunity outside of challenges. Contestants are too savvy about the immunity idol as it stands now.

New tie-breaker. The tie-breaker has always been building a fire, and that's exactly why Bob won (he went and practiced) and exactly why it should be retired (he went and practiced). Here's hoping if we need a tie-breaker, it's a surprise to all.

New lines for Jeff. This poor man might as well be a pre-programmed robot: "Survivors ready?"; "Want to know what you're playing for?" "Drop your buffs"; etc. Let Jeff speak -- or at least program him with fresh lines.

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It's A Burgh(er) Thing

Posted By on Mon, Dec 22, 2008 at 8:27 AM

So it's come to this: Pittsburgh's finest local-politics blog, The Burgh Report, has gone dark. As you'd expect, there's been some online gnashing of teeth. But whereas the departure of PittGirl attracted a front-page story in the Post-Gazette, and Teacher.Wordsmith.Madman author Chad Hermann got a full-page op-ed piece to explain his departure, the Burgh Report merely received an online-only write-up. Apparently, it doesn't even warrant a mention in this week's "Cutting Edge," the P-G's wrap-up of internet gleanings. (Though in fairness to the P-G, news of the BR's demise may have reached the paper after its Sunday op-ed section was already laid out.)

So I guess it's my turn to be the paid journalist who makes a big deal out of a blog shutting down. Which is fine by me, because I think this one really does matter. 

Let me say right off that I don't see any great conspiracy here. I have a pretty good guess about who The Burgher is, and what I know about that person's life circumstances makes shutting down the blog a totally natural thing to do. (You can find The Burgher's own explanation here.) Those looking for the Hand of Zober in this are probably wasting their time. 

Even so, this is a blow. When previous blogs shut down, I was in the camp of those who said, "For every blog that goes dark, 10 more will arise in their place." Now, I'm not so sure. 

For a time, it was easy to believe (or at least hope) that Internet technology would be a new machine, one that could effectively contest with the mid-20th century technology of Pittsburgh's party-machine politics. And it would be nice to think that progressive voices on the internet were self-replenishing -- the way that, say, Democrat-endorsed candidates for City Council District 2 are. But not so.

As corroded as its cogs and gears may be, the Democratic machine in town doesn't ask a lot of its constituent parts. Almost anyone could fill in for outgoing councilor Dan Deasy -- who heads off to Harrisburg without having made an impression on anyone or anything. Any flunky or hack will do. 

But it isn't that easy for the rest of us. When you don't have access to power, you need numbers and smarts. And the Burgh Report, along with a couple other blogs going silent, is a case where we've lost the latter especially.

In post after post, the Burgher demonstrated an obvious knowledge both of law and the inner workings of government. You're not going to find that many people who bring such expertise to bear -- and who want to share it with the rest of us so openly (albeit under cover of anonymity). It would be equally difficult to imagine someone replacing, say, Chris Briem at Null Space. How many people can write knowledgeably about bond issues, in a way that makes you want to read about them? If the Pittsburgh Comet were to stop posting on those interminable city council meetings, how many people out there would bring Bram Reichbaum's zeal (or flexible work schedule) to the task? 

It's worth remembering that Pittsburgh's original political blog, the notorious Grant Street 99, started in 1999 and went dark after legal action against its anonymous author commenced. It was years before any site rose up to replace it. 

I don't think it will take that long to replace the Burgh Report: Blogging is a much bigger part of the discourse than it was in the late 1990s. But I do think we may be witnessing a sea-change here.

Perhaps we simply got spoiled by an initial spate of bloggers who, under cover of anonymity, were willing to make use of obvious gifts that they were ALSO using in their day jobs. Something was bound to give: Either the threat of losing that anonymity, or the more mundane demands of their working lives, was bound to intrude. 

And now, perhaps, it's up to the rest of us. 

The mythos of blogging is that it is a "crowdsourced" phenomenon, in which a whole bunch of independent voices at some point swell into a thunderous consent, and drown out the chorus of doubters and hacks. But so far, it hasn't played out that way. Instead, we've ended up with a handful of blogs that a crowd of readers rely on. Even now, internet hopes have turned toward the Comet, with Bram Reichbaum playing the part of the Ringbearer, carrying progressive hopes into the depths of Mordor. Which is a hell of a burden to put on Bram.

This is the mirror image, really, of the local progressive approach to politics. We don't seem to have a ton of numbers behind us, and despite our best efforts, we don't seem to be building the massive grassroots progressive campaign that will allow us to storm the halls of power en masse. So instead, we go looking for the Great Hope -- Bill Peduto? Chelsa Wagner? -- who will slay the Democratic Goliath with a sling fashioned from $25 Paypal contributions. Yet the champion departs the field, in large part because there aren't enough of us behind him or her. 

There's a chicken-and-egg thing going on here: Do we not have the right champion because there aren't enough of us, or are there not enough of us because we don't have the right champion? Barack Obama seems to have resolved the conundrum on the national level, but I don't think anyone knows how to pull it off here. 

In any event, my prediction is that there won't be another Burgh Report. But this may actually be a good thing. What could happen is the rise of a chorus of voices -- perhaps none bringing the singular expertise The Burgher had, but perhaps not constrained by anonymity either. Perhaps those voices will prove more robust, and the debate they spawn will be more robust as well.

If that doesn't happen, well ... maybe that little itch should be telling us something. If we can't even maintain a decent stable of blogs, it's hard to imagine how anything is going to get done offline either.  Just as you can't run anonymous candidates for office, you can't rely on an online movement to effect real political change.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Blogs That Aren't Here Any More

Posted By on Fri, Dec 19, 2008 at 1:10 PM

This space laments the departure of The Burgh Report, which has inarguably been the city's premiere blog for local news junkies

Why did the shadowy Burgher depart the scene? He e-mailed both WTAE's Bob Mayo and I the following a few minutes ago:

You have to choose your enemies wisely because they will come to define you.
 
At some point you have to realize that certain caves are too dark for your flashlight. Either change caves or get a bigger flashlight. I couldn't get a bigger flashlight in my current situation.
 
I could do a thousands posts detailing how a former D-III placekicker is unqualified -- ethically and professionally -- to be the Mayor, but I've come to the conclusion that the best way to move Pittsburgh forward would be for me to direct my energy elsewhere.
 
Maintaining my anonymity was too much stress to deal with.

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Scam Artists

Posted By on Fri, Dec 19, 2008 at 11:30 AM

There's been some buzz lately about Pennsylvania adopting "early voting" procedures in future elections. In other states, such procedures -- which include measures like making it easier to vote by absentee ballot -- reduced long lines in the 2008 election.

The advantage of early voting: It makes it easier for hard-working family-raising Americans, to get to the polls. 

So of course, the party of "family values" opposes it. 

I've been getting a trickle of statements from Republicans opposing early-voting reforms. Among them are these insights from Stan Saylor of York, the chair of the Republican Policy Committee: 

"We have election fraud constantly taking place. And we in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Republican Party have been advocating for years that we need to reform the election process. While early voting sounds great, until you reform the process and take out the corruption that's there now, it's tough to trust the idea of early voting and who's going to make sure that the ballots that are being cast are being cast by the actual people that are registered to vote."

And of course, I've also heard from the Pride of Cranberry, Daryl Metcalfe: 

"The effort by some of my colleagues to push early voting in Pennsylvania as some other states have done, really brings up that phrase that we've heard so often over the years of "vote early vote often." ... And I think the most important thing that we have to do as state legislators is to insure that the process is one that has as many protections as possible against fraudulent votes being cast." 

What's surprising about these statements is that they allege sweeping corruption without citing a single concrete example. If Republicans are aware of cases in which people "voted often," shouldn't someone have filed charges? Or at least a press release?

I'll open it to the floor. Can someone tell me, please, about this election fraud "constantly" taking place in Pennsylvania? Or even that took place this year? Anyone?

For that matter, how many allegations of voter fraud have there been in OTHER states, states where they have early voting? 

I'm talking about bona fide election fraud here, in which somebody showed up at the polls to vote more than once, or to vote under a name other than their own. You get no credit for citing accusations against ACORN -- all of which predate Election Day, to the best of my knowledge. It's clear that some signature-gatherers paid by ACORN padded their paychecks by registering imaginary voters. But I'm not aware of a single case in which an imaginary voter actually appeared at the poll. And as I've argued before, there's a real difference between making up false names on a form, and actually trying to vote under that name. Only the latter threatens the outcome of an election. 

And let's say, just for the sake of argument, that we could find a handful of Mickey Mouses who showed up at the polls this year. As we ponder our approach to elections, wouldn't it worth putting those incidents of fraud in some context? When we contemplate taking measures to restrict access to the polls, shouldn't we weigh the danger of fraud against the danger of driving away legitimate voters? 

Because that danger is at least as real as the threat of fraud. Consider, for example, this finding conducted by the Census Bureau after the 1996 elections. Of the people who didn't vote that year, more than one out of five said "they could not take time off from work or school or were too busy to vote."

For all we know, of course, many of these folks were just making excuses. But let's assume at least some of those people are telling the truth ... and that some of those would vote if they had more than just a single day to work with. If early voting made it possible for an extra, say, 5,000 people to vote in Pennsylvania elections next year, would that be worth the risk of encouraging, say, an extra 10 fraudulent votes? Wouldn't such a system be a more accurate reflection of the public's will than a system in which those 5,010 votes were never cast?

To be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with that sort of math. But Republicans ought to be, because they do just this sort of algebra all the time.

They were, after all, willing to deregulate financial markets -- putting our retirement funds at risk -- in the theory that while this may make fraud easier, the "invisible hand" of the market would eventually weed the bad guys out. Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Bush Administration recalculated the cost/benefits analysis of environmental regulations. The EPA decided that when it comes to passing new laws to protect us, a human life was actually worth $1 million less than previously assumed. That means that, when we have to choose between costly regulation and protecting human life, the scale is now tipped in favor of pollution. So much for life being sacred. 

So in the name of economic growth, the GOP will put flesh-and-blood humans at risk of death ... but they aren't willing to take a chance on letting more of those humans vote. Because of the supposed danger that a handful of fictitious humans will vote as well.

To me, though, it's obvious what's going on here. The GOP isn't really afraid of more fake people voting. They're afraid of more real people voting. Conservatives have straight-up acknowledged that "[e]xpanding voter turnout is key to Democrats." Which means that suppressing voter turnout is key to Republicans.

And that, I think, is the real crime taking place here. 

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Brothers Size at City Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Dec 18, 2008 at 3:37 PM

In the often-thrifty world of local theater, this fascinating show is one of the few I've seen that might benefit from even more minimal staging. Tarell Alvin McCraney's play (running through Sun., Dec. 21) is rich in emotion, but theatrically it's spartan by design: McCraney says he wrote it to be played on a sidewalk, and you can see how it would work. Three actors portray two African-American brothers in rural Lousiana and the just-paroled younger brother's mysterious prison buddy. That the actors speak many of their stage directions aloud (in formal voices distinct from those of their characters) gives the play a ritual, almost mythic quality -- McCraney was inspired by Yoruba culture -- and makes props unnecessary, if not superfluous.

Brothers Size is about many things, including longing, loneliness and the paradoxes of being one's brother's keeper. Often, like the plays of August Wilson (to whom rising young artist McCraney not long ago served as assistant), it's about the pleasures and tensions of men hanging out together -- of talk, even. But it's distinguished from Wilson by (among many things) the small size of its cast and its stylization: Fences without a back-porch set, and Two Trains Running absent Memphis Lee's Hill District diner counter, would lose more than Brothers Size would sacrifice without the incarnation of older sibling Ogun's auto shop we see here, with its battered garage doors and ancient Esso sign.

While the well-designed Brothers set, in City's intimate Lester Hamburg black box, is appropriately gritty, the production is relatively lush: There's a fairly elaborate sound design, for instance, and special lighting effects. I wondered whether director Robert O'Hara could add by subtracting. Ogun already mimes digging with a shovel, so why does he need to lock a real box wrench onto a real metal frame (doubling as a chassis)? The spoken stage directions tell us dream sequences are coming, so what would be lost without the floor lighting and echo effects on the voices?

These are quibbles, of course. With an outstanding cast of Albert Jones, Jared McNeil and Joshua Elijah Reese (the latter one of Pittsburgh's best young actors), O'Hara has staged a wrenching show. But I couldn't help remembering how (in an interview in the weeks before opening night) McCraney harked to that chestnut about theater as shared illusion, and how the more you make audience members imagine, the more your accomplices they become.

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