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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 7:01 PM

I've often thought of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's editorial page as a form of performance art: Reading it is like watching a performance by Karen Finley ... except when it's time to simulate the smearing around of fecal matter, the creators use newspaper ink instead of chocolate.

Even so, I never thought of the Trib's editorial page as a place to find art criticism. Until today, with the publication of this rather singular piece of journalism.

Headlined "A slip and a slap at the Carnegie," the unsigned editorial denounces the Carnegie for the marketing of its current exhibit, Paul Thek: Diver

With this exhibit, the editorial argues, "The Carnegie Museum of Art obviously has forgotten who bakes its biscotti and caffes its cappuccino, so to speak. For the shot-and-beer crowd, that means Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread."

Once you're done being dazzled by the Joycean wordplay here -- "caffes its cappuccino"? -- you'll note the characterisitcally Tribbish tone. On the one hand, it affects to be speaking for us dumb yinzers, who just like art if it's got pretty "kellers" n'at. On the other hand, the paper's real gripe is with cultural institutions who ignore the demands of wealthy elites -- the people who "butter its bread."

Because after a couple paragraphs of mocking the concept of "avant-garde art" ("sane people would call it 'rank,'" we're told), we get to what really bugs the Trib about the exhibit: 

[W]hat's even more tasteless is that for one of the billboards used to promote the retrospective, the Carnegie chose a Thek work that features the phrase "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted" in yellow paint surrounded by a sea of purple.

Wait a minute ... yellow and purple ...  that sounds familiar ... where have I seen that combination of colors together before? Hmmm ...

Oh, noes! Somebody get Glenn Beck on the line pronto.

But of course, the Trib doesn't need a chalkboard to see the dread hand of socialism here. 

Thek created this particular work in the latter years of his life, as he was dying of AIDS. But the expression "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted," the Trib duly notifies us, has its origins in a saying by a humorist Finley Dunne. It was intended, the Trib says, to warn "against some newspapers' proclivity to misuse their power."

The Trib then adds: "[T]he phrase has been roundly misemployed -- interpreted literally -- by liberal media types and their oftentimes socialist acolytes."

Hmmm ... newspapers that abuse their own power? You don't say. I can see why a paper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife wouldn't want me to interpret such a warning literally. If you did that, after all, you might suspect that the publisher could be using his paper's editorial page to settle a personal grievance.

For lo! That "afflict the comfortable" business is, it seems, disrespecting wealthy benefactors ... like the ancestors of Mr. Scaife himself!

The editorial denounces the museum for an ad campaign that "arrogantly backhand[s] the very benefactors who make the Carnegie Museum of Art possible today."

"Museum managment should feign no surprise if Mr. Carnegie's philanthropic heirs slap back," the editorial concludes.

Whew! Lucky thing the Thek exhibit isn't housed in the museum's Scaife galleries! (It's housed in the Heinz galleries instead -- where it can be better appreciated, one presumes, by a certain pickle heiress and other freedom-haters.) 

In any case, the Carnegie, to its credit, is standing firm. It has already plastered the Trib's editorial on its Facebook page, and tweeted about it repeatedly today.

And the Trib's own art critic wrote a straight-ahead preview of the show, noting that Thek's work can be disturbing, but exploring the artist's intentions. (This would be a good place to say that many rank-and-file Tribune-Review staffers are honest souls and good reporters. Embarrassing editorials like this are not their fault. This is me, comforting the afflicted.) 

But what's really interesting about this editorial is not what it says about the museum ... but what it suggests about the Trib's ideas of philanthrophy. Apparently, the Trib believes that once you take money from a rich person, you are to consider yourself bought and sold. You are never to say anything that your benefactor -- or his heirs -- might disapprove of. When you take a check from a guy with a lot of money, in other words, you are supposed to be his bitch, forever. 

That, I'm guessing, is what it means to be Dick Scaife's editorial writer. Similar rules may apply to the numerous think tanks that have been bankrolled with Scaife's money. Whether such rules should apply to a museum, however, is a matter for debate. 

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Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage -- whose column of course appears in City Paper every week --  was in town last night, giving a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. Savage was on hand to talk about the It Gets Better Project, an online outreach effort directed at gay teens. Savage and his partner Terry Miller launched the project after a spate of suicides involving LGBT youth. The website now hosts thousands of online videos posted by LGBT adults, as well as their friends and allies -- all encouraging young teens that, yes, life can indeed get better after high school.

I met with Savage before his Pitt appearance, and we talked about the project ... and about a certain former US Senator from Pennsylvania whose name -- thanks to a Savage-led Google bomb -- has become a synonym for the "frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

The idea behind It Gets Better was to use social media to talk to kids directly. So why do a book?

I think books are magic. I've heard so many instances where somebody stumbled across a book at a time when they really needed to read that particular book. We're also trying to be sensitive to the fact that not all kids are online, not all kids can risk an incriminating browser history. And it's a way to call schools out and say, "All right, you say you're doing what you can to let the queer kids in the school -- out or not out -- know that they're supported by the administration. So shelve this book in the library."

For a lot of us -- particularly guys my age -- our first encounters with any writing about homosexuality was to go to a library, find the gay books, and sneak off to another part of the library and read them.

We want to call schools on their bluff. There are a lot of schools out there that are hostile environments for gay kids, that don't have GSAs [gay-straight alliances], where bullying is unchecked. And they're all pretending that butter can't melt in their mouth right now. So we want to say, "Where's your GSA, where's your anti-bullying program? Shelve this book." The President of the United States has an essay: What's controversial about that?

Well, last year the school district I grew up in refused to air Obama's speech about studying hard. So in some places, that might make things worse.

Oh my God.

So, what were the gay books in the library when you were a kid?

Oh, they were horrible. They were like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by David Ruben. It was just this horrible book: "The relationships are short-lived and violent, and they can never be totally satisfied with each other -- blah blah blah." Unlike those 100 percent satisfying, never-violent straight relationships.

In selecting stories for the "It Gets Better" book, you had thousands of videos to choose from. What criteria did you use?

We really looked for a spread. There's only about 100 pieces in the book, and we wanted the book to represent the breadth of the LGBT experience. We have pieces by folks from all faiths, and religious traditions, people of all races, classes, trans people, bi people.

One of the early criticisms -- very early, like practically when our video was the only one up –-- of the project was that it was just gay white men talking. That made me psychotic because the project was open-sourced. Anybody could contribute. If there isn't something in there, or you don't feel represented, make the fucking video that represents you. Take some responsibility to participate.

And really -- at the end of the first week, when we had about 1,000 videos, everybody was in there. You can find everybody. There's tons of African Americans, tons of trans people, tons of white people, tons of other people of color.

The story I like to tell about that aspect of it is early on, we got an e-mail from a professor at Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf, scolding us for not having closed-captioned our video. And sending us the software so we could do it. Terry dropped everything and spent I think 12 hours one day closed-captioning our video. We wrote back to her and said, very proudly, "OK, our video is closed-captioned!" And she wrote back and said, "Now do the rest." There were like 1,000 videos on there, and we didn't have the 12,000 hours.

So we wrote her back and said, "You're right -- gay, deaf kids are isolated twice, and they need to get the message too. You're a professor at Gallaudet -- make some videos. There are gay people on your campus who speak ASL." Now there's lots of ASL videos on the site.

Were there videos that really surprised you, whose experience you just never expected to hear?

I've been around, and I've heard so much. So I can't say there's anything that leapt out and me and I went, "That's a life experience that shocks me." There were videos that really touched me, though. Gabrielle Rivera's video -- she's the lesbian poet from the Bronx who says, "It doesn't get better; you get stronger." I love that video.

And I've been really touched by the videos by straight people. It's great that people feel such a sense of ownership over the whole project, but early on people were like, "Why are their videos from straight people here -- that's not what the project is about. Take those down! How dare you!" they were writing to the straight people themselves, scolding them, after Terry and I -- who founded the project -- had posted the videos to our fucking project. And for me, I think a lot of the straight videos -- even Ezra Klein did a video, and he talks about having been bullied and how he got through it. He doesn't talk about LGBT issues at all, he just talks about coping. For me, the subtext of those videos for gay kids is, not all straight people are your enemies. And that's an important lesson for them to learn. So I love the videos by straight people.

But doesn't invite the argument that "your blues aren't like mine," and that straights are wrong to think that they know what gay kids go through?

Bullying is bullying, but there are unique and particular aspects to anti-gay bullying that account for gay teens being at four to eight times greater risk for suicide. So to address that, I think it's legitimate to have a gay-specific anti-gay bullying campaign. But that doesn't stop anyone else from doing a general one.

[According to University of Illinois researchers,] there are 67 anti-bullying programs designed for middle-schools and high schools. Only five of them even address anti-gay bullying. So it's a little straight-privileged for folks to turn around and say, "This one anti-bullying program doesn't talk about straight bullying," when of the 67 programs, 62 are entirely about straight-bullying. Even though anti-gay bullying in the schools is 50 percent of the bullying problem.

Were you surprised to get a video from President Obama?

We were blown away. It's not like Terry and I were sitting in a bar, having a cocktail telling oral-sex jokes about the night we met, thinking, "Oh yeah, in three weeks the President of the United States is going to make a video for this project." That kinda took us by surprise.

We launched the project after Billy Lucas' suicide in early September. It was Tyler Clementi's suicide at Rutgers that touched on race, and class, and technology -- it hit so many buttons. And that was the suicide that sort of exploded the issue into the national conversation. It was the shark attack that was so gruesome we started looking at all the other shark attacks ... it just felt like something has to be done, and we had stepped up a few weeks before and said, "Here's something you can do." So when everyone wanted to jump in, we had already built up a structure and some momentum.

How did you hear that Obama was going to be contributing a video? Did they just e-mail you the link?

No, the White House called. It was the second time I'd gotten a call from the White House in a few weeks.

What was the first one?

In the first week of the project, [White House advisor] Valerie Jarrett gave a speech to the [Human Rights Campaign]'s annual fundraising dinner titled, "It Gets Better." And I wrote a typical-of-me, measured, even-handed blog post. I said they had no right to promise kids, to give them hope, and to say "it gets better," because they can actually make it better, they can deliver, and they weren't. And I was really angered by the attempt of the White House to co-opt a campaign from a place of powerlessness about giving kids hope, by people who had a tremendous amount of power and could deliver more for these kids, and for all LGBT people -- stop enforcing Don't Ask/Don't Tell, stop appealing DOMA decisions that are going in our favor. Both of which things they have now done.

That must have been a hell of a blog post.

I don't take total credit. I actually think it was the mid-term elections, where they saw the total cratering of money from gay donors and the 33 percent of the gay vote [going] for Republicans. They went, "Now we've got to actually deliver, and not just promise."

Were you concerned that Obama's video was itself an attempt at co-optation?

We were worried going in, because what we'd gotten from Obama up to that point was him saying all the right things: Every speech he gave about gays was beautiful, and every cocktail party where he made remarks was very moving. But he wasn't delivering. He'd give these speeches as if he weren't the president of the United States -- like he was just some guy who thought gay people were nifty and shouldn't be discriminated against.

But then we watched this video. And even if he hadn't acted on DADT, or taken action on DOMA, and now the White House anti-bullying initiatives ... he not just said the right thing, but said something that was so powerful that it was doing something. He looked right into the camera and said, "There's nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with the people who are telling you there's something wrong with you." For many gay kids, those people are their parents, and their faith leaders. So the president of the United States is taking sides in a battle between a 14-year-old and his parents about his sexuality -- and siding with the kid -- that's powerful.

And Obama has to know that what he could get for that is conservatives saying, "This is Big Government intruding in the family, and standing between kids and their religious leaders!"

But nobody's said that. It's been six months since his video came out, and there has been no blowback. That's one of the things -- you don't ever want to find a silver lining in the deaths of teenagers. But at least it's harder now to claim that being gay is a choice. It's harder now to deny that there is such a thing as gay children, and that they are suffering -- in part because of the people who insist that being gay is a choice. So Tony Perkins is rattling around the country, and Rick Santorum, insisting that being gay is a choice and a sin. But it was easier for Asher Brown, at age 13, to choose to put a bullet in his own head than to choose to be straight. If it's easier to choose to blow your own brains out, it's not a choice.

There has been some political blowback created by It Gets Better. [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg in New York City made a video where he said to LGBT kids, "If you're living in a small town, and they reject you, come to New York. New York's great, we welcome everybody." At the same time, his budget was zeroing out monies for the only homeless shelter in New York for LGBT teenagers. And 40 percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT; they wind up in big cities and, if there aren't services, they turn to things like survival prostitution.

And people were able to beat Michael Bloomberg up with this video, and he restored funding.

You've brought up Santorum now. What was your reaction when you heard he was in the mix of Republican presidential candidates?

You know, I honestly believe that barring some catastrophe, Barack Obama is going to be a two-term president. And I think the Republicans all know it, which is why you're not seeing any serious R's step up. You're seeing Huckabee, and Bachmann, and Palin, and now Santorum. You're seeing the jokes. And they're not running for president, they're running for Fox News contracts. If they're the nominee, and they get all that exposure, then they will be on Fox News for the next four years, and they will make shitloads of money. That's what they're running for.

So what's Rick Santorum doing? He's not running for president. He's reapplying for the job of being a Fox News talking head.

So if that's the case, why try to restart the "Spreading Santorum" website? Which, by the way –

-- Which I keep talking about and then not doing.

Yeah. What's going on there?

I'm just in denial that this asshole is actually running. And I'm a little conflicted because he's trying to play the Sarah Palin victim card and saying [in weepy voice] "Look how they attacked me. I'm just a poor defenseless US Senator who was trying to take this man's child from him, and make sure gay sex and straight masturbation remain illegal ... and they made fun of me." So I'm a little hesitant to get that going again. And his "Google problem" remains whether I write another blog post about him or not.

But you promised my readers new content on the site!

I know, I know, I know. And I have had people say, "I will blog every day." ... I want to get my picture with him, but now I think it's too late. Because they're building this campaign whining about Spreading Santorum, if I show up at a Santorum event, they're going to be all over me.

They're waiting for you to lick doorknobs [as Savage famously did during the 2000 election season to give conservative presidential candidates the flu].

No, I've aged out of the licking-doorknob stage of my writing career.

Hemingway went through the same phase, I understand

I know -- Vonnegut was still at it in his 80s, but I can't keep it up. There's too much residual Purell on everything these days. Now the doorknobs burn.

Rick Santorum's career took off here. Do we have an obligation to do something about his presidential bid?

I think you've done enough. You've handed him an 18-point defeat, and elected that empty suit, Casey, in his place. And he's really made a mark, hasn't he?

I'm sorry. It was the best we could do.

No, I'm totally for your anti-choice Democrat over your anti-choice Republican. And you handed Santorum his ass. There are two things he has to answer for in running for President: You lost your home state by 18 points -- what the fuck are you thinking? And your name is a swear word.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 5:16 PM

Like most really good plays, this new work by Madeleine George is about more than one thing. But one of its concerns involves both up-to-the-minute science and the human complexities that play out on the flip side of such studies.

As befits a play largely about language and communication, the protagonist is a linguist. Brodie believes that language is the key to unlocking human consciousness. Books proliferate on the subject, and so do popular media. (I must have heard half a dozen episodes of public radio's Radio Lab that touched on the subject.)

So what happens when Brodie studies the all-but-last speaker of a dying Asian language, even as she (a) learns that it's possible that her unborn child is developmentally delayed, perhaps to the point of lacking the power to speak and (b) makes the acquaintance of a zoo-bound gorilla who has been taught the rudiments of human language?

It should first be noted that Precious Little is foremost very entertaining -- funny and fast-paced, and clocking in at an intermissionless 75 minutes. Yet it's quite full -- of action, dialogue and ideas.

Especially poignant, and telling of the language theme, is the relationship between Brodie (played by Kelly McAndrew) and Cleva (Laurie Klatscher), the frail, elderly woman whose language Brodie is trying to catalog before it vanishes.

Cleva hasn't spoken her native tongue in decades, simply because there's no one to speak it to. (The fact that she never learned English very well is another of the parallels between her and the ape -- parallels the play emphasizes in numerous ways, including apportioning both roles to the same actor.) As Brodie prompts her to recall, the effort summons up memories for Cleva -- good ones and terrible ones both. Language in this case is nearly equivalent to consciousness.

At the same time, Brodie confronts the notion that her child might not have language -- and struggles with whether to continue her pregnancy. This anxiety is at least part of what's prompts her fascination with the gorilla, who is both not-ape and not-really-human -- someone between consciousnesses, or states of being.

And it's most moving that the story of a protagonist who starts out insisting on the primacy of language resolves (or at least concludes) with a potently wordless visual that symbolizes the only solace she can just now find in a world suddenly grown uncertain.

Precious Little continues at City Theatre through Sun., April 3 (


Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 8:54 AM

One of City Paper's charming little quirks is that while our print edition comes out Wednesday, its contents aren't uploaded to the website until Thursday. That's because we want people to pick up our print edition -- each copy of which is lovingly assembled by master craftsmen -- and we don't wish to scoop ourselves. 

But as fate would have it, today's Post-Gazette has a story about a police officer, Garrett Brown, who is also the subject of a story in our print edition this week. The P-G's Sadie Gurman discusses conflicting accounts of a late-night encounter between Brown and a pair of deliverymen last year, and reports that the incident is being reviewed by the city. 

City Paper's story, by our own Lauren Daley, also discusses the incident -- but in the context of a broader history. It's a history that involves previous complaints about Brown -- who was at the heart of a $150,000 legal settlement earlier this year -- and a decade-long debate over how to best handle officers who have been named in multiple civilian complaints. Because the P-G story is online today already, we thought our online readers might appreciate seeing our story as well.

And so here it is

After all, at this point, it's not like we can be scooped. 


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Susan Morris (right) on the air.
Susan Morris (right) on the air.

It's Tuesday night on WRCT and a Carnegie Mellon student panel is explaining to host Susan Morris about "sexiling." Sophomore computer-science major Amy Quispe says it's when one roommate kicks out the other for the purpose of hooking up. Morris gets the idea, but she calls it "sexting" instead, which provokes laughter from the college kids.        

Welcome to What Would Your Mother Say? It's a brisk, 60-minute, live-on-air conversation in the basement of the Carnegie Mellon University Center between college students, moms and Morris. Sometimes, experts on topics as varied as nerds, depression and sex come to chat. There's a lot of laughter, but it's all as earnest as the incoming emails seeking advice on a weed-smoking roommate or whether a casual hook-up is ever a good idea.

Morris was born in New York, raised in Pittsburgh and went to Mills College, in California. The veteran of Pittsburgh's WDUQ, as well as National Public Radio, just moved back from Stanford, Calif., where What Would Your Mother Say? was born five years ago.

Back then, Morris was doing "little segments in a show on finance for students, and this friend of mine said, 'That sounds really boring, Susan, why don't you do a show called What Would Your Mother Say? and I'll fund it.'" Morris suspects her friend, who then had college-aged kids (Morris' were a bit older), wanted her daughters to listen to somebody's mom, even if it wasn't their own.

The Pittsburgh show has been on-air about two months. Tonight there's one mom, Niki Gorecka, who has four kids and is still getting the hang of her radio voice. Amy Quispe, freshman Lindsay MacGillivray and the lone male -- sophomore physics major Dan Kirby -- are more relaxed. But everyone has something to add about tonight's hot topics, drama queens and dating rules.      

According to Morris, a more accurate title for the show might be What Would the Students Say?, but that's not as snappy. Besides, both the students and the moms learn from each other. The kids want to know what the moms think, and the moms can lecture a little bit, but not too much. Quispe loves being on the show because "I'm encouraged to talk frankly," she says.

On the topic of dating and hooking up, Gorecka and Morris say it was different in their day. But Kirby offers the soothing commentary for anyone with "kids today! hysteria.": "I think even today people don't expect sex on the first date," he says.

What Would Your Mother Say? airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays 88.3 FM and

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Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 12:46 PM

Hey! Good morning. Just popping in to alert you of a new video from local live-band-rock-hip-hop outfit Formula 412 -- Gotta Give was just released today and features some gorgeous/harrowing shots and montages of natural and man-made destruction.

And speaking of man-made destruction, their last video, Step To the Rear, was filmed on a Port Authority bus; if you ride the bus, that's a phrase you'll be hearing every day from now until forever since there are only like five bus routes left in Pittsburgh and there are 146 people trying to cram onto every bus. Just sayin'.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Hey guys! I hope you're not letting the cold weather, global warming and/or the world's potential end in 2012 get you down. But if you are suffering from a bad case of seasonal depression I've got an mp3 to cheer you up!

Pittsburgh natives Lovebettie are taking the indie music world by storm with their new EP, The Red Door, which was released on March 3, right in time for the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. So check out their rhythm rock ballad, "Are You Out There!" It won't cure global warming but it might just get rid of your Monday blues.

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Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 at 2:26 PM

For the first time in its 20-year history, Quantum Theatre has had to delay the opening of a show.

That doesn't sound so impressive unless you know that Quantum is a theater company homeless by choice: It creates a new theater space for each show, usually in nontraditional venues, whether cemeteries, old swimming pools or vacant warehouses. That requires a lot of retrofitting the built environment, and also a good bit of negotiation with various property owners and government entities.

Maria, a sort of surreal tango opera by Astor Piazzolla, is being staged in the East Liberty YMCA. But this time, unlike all the others, Quantum ran into some problems with building codes that were not fixable by curtain time last week. The issues is accessbility for patrons with physical disabilities.

In a statement, Quantum said it would get the necessary waiver this week from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry's Accessibility Advisory Board.

So Maria now opens on Fri., April 1, and artistic director Karla Boos has scheduled new performances to make up for the lost week.

Maria will now be  performed April 1-17, with a show every single evening except April 11. The shows on April 4, 5, and 12 are at 8:30 p.m., and on Sat., April 16, there will be two performances, at 7:30 and 10 p.m.

Quantum can be reached at 412-697-2929 and


Friday, March 25, 2011

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2011 at 3:50 PM

Performance art has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, as the opposite of entertaining.

So what to make of Ragnar Kjartansson, who's definitely a wacky performance artist -- he's sung songs for days on end in an abandoned theater -- but also a born entertainer?

In other words, should we be glad that a man jouncing his he-boobies is considered art fit for the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall?

Kjartansson, 34, is the internationally feted Icelandic artist whose exhibit at the adjoining Museum of Art included last night's performance. Kjartansson had billed the show as "Ingmar Bergman-style vaudeville," though what that meant was largely a matter for personal interpretation. We knew only that it would involve Kjartansson, some family members and friends, and music.

The curiosity factor must have helped. The show -- a joint production with The Andy Warhol Museum's Off the Wall series -- drew some 400 folks, by my estimate. The performance actually began in the music hall's grand, marbled lobby, where eight local guitarists has been recruited by Kjartansson to perform the same chord progression for a couple hours straight while strolling about (even while no one else was around). The musicians had been asked to wear pajamas and drink beer, though not all had complied with the former request.

On stage -- alongside a big stuffed lion (the Warhol's, I think) -- longtime Kjartansson collaborator David Pór Jónsson began with a lengthy piano improvisation. It was impressive, ranging from classical airs to loungey interludes. Most of the show, in fact, was music, including several charming, dark-humored little original ditties played as a two-guitar duo by Kjartansson and Pór Jónsson.

They even paid tribute to Pinetop Perkins, the 97-year-old bluesman who died this week -- a bit eerily, just weeks after Kjartansson's video honoring him went on display at the Carnegie. (Perkins "started smoking in 1921 and died Monday," Kjartansson reminded us.)

At its best, the evening truly had the feel of a living-room get-together, as Kjartansson had promised in interviews.

So where was the "performance art"? You know, the concepty stuff?

Well, there was this "melodramatic play" (Kjartansson told us) written for the show by his wife, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. It was in four or five scenes interspersed throughout the evening, most of them involving Gunnarsdóttir playing a sort of tortured artist.

At first, even knowing Kjartansson's impish humor, you were inclined to take the play straight ... by which standard it was deadly performance art of the sort everyone fears: pretentious, impenetrable, etc. (At one point, after reciting some terrible poetry, Gunnarsdóttir flicked on an overhead projector and sort of scribbled on it.)

So this was a joke, right? Had to be. Except it wasn't over the top enough to be funny ... unless it was instead some sort of Andy Kaufman-like exercise in audience discomfiture. But that wouldn't really fit Kjartansson's style.

Regardless, most of the audience stuck around after intermission and really got the better of the deal. Especially, this involved the extravagantly bearded Kjartansson and Pór Jónsson appearing respectively in the balcony-boxes above either wing of the stage, clad in gladatorial breastplates and, wielding electric razors to the strains of heroic symphonic music, shaving their faces clean down to the mustaches. Now that's performance art you can dance to.

The encore ended with Pór Jónsson on piano, accompanying Kjartannson for a set of German lieder, or art song. Kjartansson's a passable singer, and the melodies were quite lovely. So of course beefy Kjartansson crescendoed by peeling off his shirt and concluding with the aforementioned burlesque move -- a sight few will forget, no matter how hard they might try.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 11:41 PM

Yes, there's been another lapse of blogging here. I'll make up for it with an unreadably long post today, and the promise of shorter posts in the days to come. 

But first, some thoughts on the demise of the late, and not-very-lamented, line-warranty program offered by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. On paper, the program was sweetness and light -- created to protect Pittsburgh homeowners, whose city is plagued with aging infracture, from the steep cost of sewer and water-line repairs. But the program was distinguished by a controversial "opt out" provision, in which  customers were automatically enrolled in the program, and had to pay a $5 monthly fee. Worse, the firm retained to provide this warranty, Utility Line Services, was riddled with conflict-of-interest problems. 

The first reaction to the program's death, naturally, is celebration. Business-as-usual and special interests in Pittsburgh took it on the nose, thanks to Judge Stanton Wettick's deeming the plan illegal.

But although the bad guys may have lost, that doesn't mean the good guys -- or ratepayers -- have won. I actually think this is a sad story, one that says a lot about how truly fucked up this city is.  

Naturally, any story involving sewers suggests a metaphor for Pittsburgh's civic life. But the metaphors here are especially apt. Because the story of the line-insurance program, in all its promise and peril, sums up Pittsburgh's political scene right now. It's the story of a city whose populace is afraid of change, and whose leaders too often botch the job of delivering it.

There's a huge irony at the heart of Wettick's ruling. He didn't strike the line-warranty program down because of all the things that made it controversial. Instead, he said the line-insurance was a good, workable solution ... and that is why it had to die.

When news of the PWSA $5 charge first surfaced, city councilor Doug Shields and others objected vociferously to the the fact that customers were involuntarily enrolled in the program -- and had to take the time to un-enroll themselves from it. This was, Shields and other critics contended, against a city ordinance prohibiting "negative option billing." That ordinance prohibits providing "goods or services without any prior agreement of or a request from the recipient and then ... attempts to collect payment from the recipient."

Such a practice does seem blatantly unfair -- we expect to be asked if we want a service before being told to pay for it. And we assume that we, not some utility company or a government agency, know what's best for us. If we want line-insurance protection, then we'll buy it ourselves, thank you very much. 

Thing is, though, as I wrote a year ago, there's an ample body of reseach to say that we actually don't know what's best for us -- or, more precisely, that even when we know what's best for us, we may need encouragement to act on the knowledge. "Opt-out" provisions can provide that incentive, and many serious thinkers believe they should be used more often.

A good example is your employer's 401(k) program. Rates of participation in the retirement plans increase substantially when employees are enrolled automatically. And while they have the option of dropping out, few of them do so. We all know that saving for retirement is a good idea, but it's an abstract good. And some people have a hard time taking concrete steps in the here-and-now for an abstract benefit down the road. An opt-out retirement plan takes care of that for them. The net result? More people saving for their retirement, and fewer impoverished retirees burdening society.

Cass Sunstein, who serves as Barack Obama's regulatory czar, espouses just such approaches, as part of what he calls "choice architecture" -- creating polices that don't infringe on individual liberty, but do shape the context in which we decide how to exercise our freedom. (On the off chance you're interested -- this is the guy Glenn Beck likes to scream about -- Sunstein discusses this stuff in a book he co-authored, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.)

Sewer-line insurance, arguably, is a similar example of where a failure to act today can have catastrophic consequences in the future: It can cost many thousands of dollars to fix a sewer line. But because that possibility exists only in an abstract, theoretical future, it's easy to ignore.

By requiring customers to opt out, PWSA could plausibly say it was helping protect them against a danger that might otherwise deplete their savings. And because opt-out guarantees widespread participation, it would spread the risk out over the entire PWSA service area. That helps ensure a very low monthly premium. 

Wettick's ruling didn't consider that, exactly. He merely brushed aside concerns about "negative option billing" by noting that the city code applied to individuals and business entities -- not to government agencies. The code, he notes, specifically allows for taxes and fees levied by government.

Wettick did, however, acknowledge that the line-insurance program might well be serving the best interests of customers -- whether they recognized it or not. After all, he noted, the program "provides greater protection to the property owner and at less cost as compared to the warranty programs" of two competing firms. So much so, he argued, that "no PWSA customer is likely to continue in (or opt into) [private-sector] warranty programs because they offer less protection at a higher price."

In fact, it's obviously no coincidence that the two firms who offer those competing products, Dominion Products and Services and the Manchester Group, also sued the PWSA. And it was their complaint-- the complaint of self-interested for-profit entities, not ordinary ratepayers -- that overturned the law. 

Dominion and Manchester argued that by law, authorities aren't supposed to compete with private-sector business. An Wettick -- with what sounds like some reluctantance -- agreed.

As Wettick's ruling notes, the state's Municipality Authorities Act limits the kinds of services a government agency can provide. One portion of the law bars such entities from doing anything to "unnecssarily burden or interfere with existing business by the establishment of competitive enterprises." Another bars government agencies from "duplicat[ing] or compet[ing] with existing enterprises serving substanitally the same purposes."

From this, Wettick makes a somewhat surprising conclusion: Government can't be permitted to do things better than a private business. 

I recognize that it is likely that no business enterprise can provide the benefits to PWSA and to its customers that are provided by the PWSA Opt-Out Line Warranty Program. However, the apparent purpose of [state law] is to protect existing business enterprises from losing business to an enterprise created by a municipal authority. Or, in other words, the apparent purpose is to prevent a municipal authority from competing with existing business enterprises by providing a better service or a better product. (Emphasis mine)

We're all used to the claim that "government should be run more like a business." But by Wettick's reasoning, doing so might actually be against the law in some cases. After all, Wettick notes, state officials apparently believe in the goal of "keeping government small."

So if you liked the line program -- and believe it or not, some people did -- you have some consolation. Sure, you may have to spend more for private-sector line-insurance, and the insurance you get may not be as good. But at least you're being protected from socialism

And who can put a price on that?

OK, that was a cheap shot. Obviously, a government agency has access to a whole range of taxpayer support that a private enterprise can't rely on. (Unless it's a Downtown department store or a major-league sports team.) So, yes, a for-profit corporation indeed could have legitimate fear of government competition.

Except in Pittsburgh. Where government is its own worst enemy.

Because there's an obvious elephant in the room which Wecht's (editor's note: uh, I mean Wettick's) ruling-- and this blog post, so far -- have barely mentioned. And that is that while the idea of this program might be sound, the implementation was an absolute clusterfuck.

For starters, even a thinker like Sunstein -- who believes government can play a role in shaping our choices -- doesn't believe in being sneaky about it. Here he is in Nudge:

If government alters [rules] it should not be secretive about what it is doing ... [W]e need to be worried about incomptence and self-dealing on the part of Nudgers. If the Nudgers are incompetent, then they could easily do more harm than good by directing people's choices. And if the risk of self-dealing is high, then it is right to be wary of attempts to nudge. There are some who think that any decision made by a governmet official is likely to be incompetent and corrupt. 

A significant number of Pittsburghers fall into that camp -- and with good reason. The cases of "self-dealing" on the part of city officials are too numerous -- and too familiar to anyone reading this blog -- to go into.

The line-insurance program itself was a particularly egregious example. Of course ULS turns out to have personal and business ties to the PWSA's executive director. And of course the guy who gets the job of doing the repair work happens to be a Democratic committeeperson. That's just how we do things in Pittsburgh.

At this point, I wouldn't be suprised if the whole program turns out to have been some massive Ponzi set-up, with too little money being set aside for line repairs, and too much going into ULS's pockets. (I'm not alleging such a thing, just saying that given the troubling history here, it wouldn't surprise me at all.)

Making things worse: There was no notice on the front end about this program -- $5 charges just started popping up on people's bills. And on the back end, opting out was a cumbersome, months-long process. If the PWSA sought to antagonize its customers on purpose, it couldn't have done a better job. 

Add to that our city's (frequently deserved) reputation for fearing change, even with programs that aren't tainted by conflicts of interest. Well-intentioned programs too will meet with intense resistance. Just ask Alan Hertzberg, a former city councilor who tried to implement an innovative, but highly controversial program to fight "suburban flight."

The program, which had been used successfully in Chicago, enrolled homeowners in struggling communities in a kind of home-insurance program. Homeowners would have their homes assessed, and then be insured for the full value of the home -- even if neighborhood decline damaged property values in the years to come. 

The program carried a one-time fee for the assessment and a $20-a-year premium. In exchange for a small payment upfront, it offered residents protection from a catastrophic decline in the value of their property. By giving them a reason not to panic and flee to the suburbs, it helped shore up the community. But for his troubles, Hertzberg attracted a firestorm of criticism, and his program attracted a lawsuit.

You'd think the PWSA board might have learned from that example. Hertzberg was replaced on council for a time by Dan Deasy -- who as a state rep now chairs the PWSA board. Deasy is joined by city councilor Patrick Dowd. Not only is Dowd a former history teacher -- who should know what happens when you ignore the lessons of the past -- but he's also long been an advocate of by-the-book process and transparency.

I talked to Dowd this morning about the line-insurance program. On the on hand, he still thinks opt-out is "a great idea." On the other, he acknowledges he made mistakes in pursuing it. 

"The judge's ruling says that opting out is completely allowed -- and that it's a good program," Dowd notes. "The thing that's really distressing to me is that there are people living across the city who have no coverage now -- and the coverage they can get won't be as good."

But what about the total lack of notification? The fact that homewoners didn't know this program existed until $5 charges started appearing on their bills?

"If I made a mistake, it's that I was too anxious to get the program out of the box and solve the problem," Dowd admits. "I was listening to the people who were crying -- people all over my district were paying thousands of dollars to fix their lines. It's fair to say I moved too quickly because I thought the solution was the right one ... And obviously, I wasn't getting great advice from our executive director."

Indeed, Dowd says that once he and other board members learned of the conflicts of interest, "We agreed that the minute we had cause to terminate the contract, we would. And then we'd rebid it."

Wettick's ruling seems to preclude that possibilty, however. He writes that the line-insuarance program would still run afoul of state law even if the PWSA hired an existing business to cover and repair sewer lines. Such a move would "displace the status quo," he writes, in which such services are contracted directly by homeowners.

To address that, Dowd says, "I've asked Dan Deasy to look at [state law] and see if there is a possibility of exempting [Pittsburgh] so that we could offer that program. Then we could come back and try it again."

I won't hold my breath. This is a change-resistant city, and these are paranoid times. As we've seen, there are plenty of people lined up against the opt-out policy ... and the PWSA's ineptitude has ensured that there won't be many people lined up for it. "Opt-out" is now associated in people's minds with the worst kind of backroom dealing, though it need not have been that way at all. 

What's the result? Dominion and Friends stand to get some additional revenue, while customers may well end up with inferior coverage. To my mind, that isn't a defeat of the city's special interests ... that's  a victory of one set of special interests over another.

The rest of us just get an object lesson. Which is this: Even when Pittsburgh gets the right idea, we get the wrong execution.