Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Theories about the new season of Mad Men, based on its poster

Mad Men doesn’t give much away. New seasons have never been advertised with fresh footage. Commercials and teasers for individual episodes are usually oblique, offering context-free snippets of dialogue and unrevealing shots of characters. The posters that precede a new season, however, do have some allegorical relationship to what happens over the season.

Season two's poster had Don standing stationary in Grand Central Station, crisply defined against a blur of people moving around him, symbolizing our growing familiarity with a man who spent most of the first season a cipher.

The third season’s had him in his office with water rising around him, suggesting how untenable his life has become and maybe foreshadowing the inevitability of the changes he makes at the end of the season.

The fourth has him in an empty office, looking out a window. It’s expressive not just of the fresh start in his business and his personal life (as a divorced father) but of the loneliness that characterizes him for at least the fist half of the season.

So, for speculating on what the fifth season may bring, this poster is likely all we’re going to get until March 25. It features Don looking in a department store window at two mannequins, a naked female (standing) and a clothed male (sitting), facing each other. What might this suggest about the new season?

• The naked mannequin being looked at by the clothed one may hint that Don’s fear of exposure could be a bigger theme this year. His secret, that he’s really Dick Whitman, gets less secret each season. In the fourth season's tenth episode, he has a panic attack after mistaking some men in suits in his apartment building for FBI agents. In addition, each season has shown him making contingency plans for his family should his secret come out (the implication each time being that he would run). In addition to Betty and Pete knowing, he nearly let it slip to both Faye and Peggy in season four. Even Sally noted (in the fourth season’s finale that he referred to himself as Dick when he signed Anna’s painted wall.

• That it’s about Don’s fear of intimacy. Don’s never been comfortable with people knowing who he was (though he has allowed Peggy and a few of his mistresses glimpses). This is related to his secret, though also, I think, separate from it. As successful as he is, he's still has a lot of shame about having grown up poor and occasionally having eaten horsemeat. As he’s breaking up with Faye at the end of season four, she sums him up as only liking the beginnings of things. The poster might be illustrative of his fear of being with someone who sees past his artifice, which would not bode well for the new marriage he seems to want at the end of last season.

• The show has been about the experience of women in the 1960s as much as anything else. The poster could also be (a kind of heavy-handed) shorthand for the continuing sexual revolution. Don’s always had some torn sympathies here, in some ways welcoming and in other resisting, the era’s changing gender and sexual norms. As the show moves into the latter half of the ‘60s, the contrast between the mannequins, with Don’s reflection positioned between them, might be significant. The male is not just dressed, but dressed very conservatively. The woman’s clothes are on the floor, and the image suggests she’s about to step forward.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Entertainment industry incentives and sacrifice bunts

I've been reading a lot about state incentive programs for the entertainment industry and I've come to feel about them the way I feel about bunting (in the baseball sense).

These incentives take several forms (for instance tax breaks, transferable tax credits, and/or actual production grants). Most states have some form of them. In Texas, the state government will subsidize a certain percentage of a film or television show production's in-state spending or hiring. As this sort of industry incentive goes, we're relatively demure here; some states will actually subsidize spending and hiring in other states or issue refundable tax credits that exceed a production's total tax liability.

It's obviously hard to estimate what would happen in the absence of such incentives, but most states have at least anecdotal evidence to support the position that these incentives result in in-state hiring that may not have happened otherwise. Generally, this is the conclusion of an analysis sponsored by a business association or industry group. In spite of that, it seems fair to assume that, yes, if you bribe an industry well enough they will come to your state.*

(*Proponents of subsidies sound a lot like anti-tax partisans, arguing that a business will always go where it's tax liability is the smallest. This is clearly not the case, though. A whole bunch of states offer industry incentive packages that are much more generous than Texas', yet Texas still attracts a lot of film and television show productions. While productions may well be responsive to incentives, they're clearly not the exclusive factor in deciding where a production will locate.)

While the incentives may result in jobs and spending that otherwise would not have happened, states lose money on them. The entertainment industry tends to produce jobs that are short-term (they just last the length of the production) or that don't necessarily result in a net gain of employed people (like, a person who works as a private hairdresser getting a job as a film set hairdresser, essentially an employed person trading one job for another). In addition, the industry has a relatively low spending mulitplier. The overall economic activity resulting from a film or TV show production is probably less than the overall economic activity you'd get from putting that same amount of money into a different industry subsidy, another part of the state budget, or even a tax cut.

This is where this topic reminds me of baseball and of bunting. In his great book Moneyball (which is explicitly about baseball statistics but implicitly about public policy) Michael Lewis describes the school of thought that bunting is a terrible strategy, one not worth the cost. Basically, each bunt costs a team a limited resource (an out, of which you only get 27 per game) in order to advance a runner into scoring position. Statistically, though, the inning is probably going to ends before that runner scores, or a subsequent batter hits a triple or a home run (which would have scored the runner anyway).

Practically, though, can a baseball team never bunt? Can they really announce that their opponents will never have to play their infield in? That they can always position for a double-play ground ball instead of a single-play bunt?

Likewise, it might make sense for a state to give up a wasteful incentive program and still not be practical. Or, put another way, it's one of those situations where everyone is kind of right. Supporters of the policy can point to jobs the industry says are created by the incentive, opponents can point to the opportunity cost; apples, oranges. The question really isn't of efficiency; it's more a litmus test for government spending priorities.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl RevolutionGirls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book about a short-lived but far-reaching subculture of punk music and political activism. Given the subject matter, the highest praise I can give is to say that it's not only about the principles of the Riot Grrrl movement, but it practices them, too.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Family planning in Texas drama summary

In addition to the big fights everyone knew were coming this legislative session (over the budget, over redistricting), there have been numerous other smaller, but significant, battles. One of those has been over family planning.

Texas provides family planning services (which generally include cancer screenings, sexually transmitted disease tests, vasectomies for men and prescription contraception for women) through the Medicaid program and the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and, both of whose services could be completely abolished or severely curtailed this session.

On the Medicaid family planning side, the state has the Women's Health Program. This program is a Medicaid waiver, meaning the state waives some Medicaid eligibility requirements in order to provide family planning services to clients who, if they were pregnant, would be on full Medicaid. In order to encourage the states to do this sort of thing, the federal government pays 90% of the costs of these services. In contrast, the federal government only pays for about 40% of regular Medicaid services for Texas, including pregnancy services (which average about $16,000 per pregnancy).

Quite a few states have these family planning waivers, and in all of them (Texas included) they've proven to save both the state and federal governments money. The Texas program needs to be renewed in state law this year, though, and that renewal has gotten hung up on whether the state would exclude Planned Parenthood from participating as a provider.

Planned Parenthoods only account for a small percentage of all Medicaid providers, but they see a large proportion of the Women's Health Program clients. Both federal and state laws prevent any clinic or affiliate that does abortions from receiving any tax money. In spite of this, activists and members who all know better have stoked a concern that the Women's Health Program is a stealth form of funding for "the abortion industry."

The Health and Human Services Commission, which runs Medicaid for the state, has estimated that letting the program expire will add about $88 million (in state money) to the cost of Medicaid over the next two years. In addition, the Legislative Budget Board estimated that expanding eligibility to include about 100,000 new adult women who don't qualify for the program, but would qualify for full Medicaid if they were pregnant, would save the state an extra $5 million over the next two years. These are women who, by the spirit of the law, should be in the program but, by the letter of it, are excluded.

Several members, both Democrats and Republicans, introduced or were joint authors on bills to at least renew the program. Several of these bills also included provisions to increase participation and/or expand program eligibility to further realize savings. None of these bills have been voted out of a committee in either chamber.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee created a special subcommittee to draft a bill that would find the "common ground" between those who want to save the program, and those who express concern that it's secretly funding abortions. This week, that subcommittee voted to send a bill to the full committee that would extend the program (though make no other changes to it) but exclude all Planned Parenthood clinics from participating. The bill also has a provision that would cancel the Women's Health Program completely if Planned Parenthood (or anyone else, for that matter) sues the state over that exclusion. The committee is scheduled to vote on that bill next week.

House committees have considered a number of bills on the Women's Health Program, but so far haven't voted on any of them.

Family planning services via the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) are paid for by a small amount of state funds but mainly by one of three sources of federal funding, known as Title V, Title X, and Title XX.

Title X funds, which all come from the federal government, are strictly for family planning services. Money from Titles V and XX, though also mostly federal, can be used on a range of services; there's no requirement that any of it be spent on family planning.

When the budget bill was introduced in the House, the combined funding for family planning services through DSHS for the next two years was about $67 million (and approximately $99 if you include the Tittle X funds that they state doesn't have any discretion over). Before passing the bill out of the House, though, Republicans passed a series of amendments that transferred almost all Title V and Title XX money out of family planning services and into other programs and services. Total family planning spending was reduced about $62 million dollars.

So far, the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats are having much more trouble than in the House agreeing on a budget, has not made the same cuts. Presuming its budget preserves all or most of the introduced funding levels, the $62 million difference between the House and Senate budget bills will somehow have to be resolved by the Conference Committee.

If you assume that it costs about the same to provide family planning services to a client in the DSHS program as it does Medicaid (about $240 a client a year) then the $62 million cut from the House version of the bill would mean about 258,000 fewer low-income people in Texas would get family planning services.

If you analyze this the same way the state's Health and Human Services Commission evaluates the success of the Women's Health Program then, without those preventive services, the birth rate among those 258,000 people (presuming they're mostly women) would add approximately $120 million in state Medicaid costs over the new two to three years.*

*Presuming these pregnancies are all covered by the regular Medicaid program and not Emergency Medicaid, which pays for births in indigent, non-citizen populations. These costs might be slightly less on average, but this population may have a slightly higher birthrate.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Budget drama summary, part 2

In the months preceding the comptroller's announcement of the Biennial Revenue Estimate (BRE), the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) works with state agencies to write a first draft of what will be the budget bill introduced in each chamber of the legislature. The agencies submit appropriations requests to the LBB, and the LBB in turn makes recommendations for each agency's funding level.

One of the first things to happen in each legislative session is committee assignments. Two of the most powerful are the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. For this year's legislature, the chairs of these committees are Steve Ogden (R- Bryan) and Jim Pitts (R- Waxahachie), respectively. The initial draft of the budget gets introduced once these committees are set, and the two work simultaneously but independently to revise it. Revising the budget involves committee testimony from LBB staff, from state agency staff and from the general public.

In spite of rhetoric about the size of the state government, by almost any comparative measure Texas is a low tax, low service state. To the extent that we collect taxes at all, we only spend that revenue on the stuff we have to: public education and health care. This means that when it comes to closing a budget shortfall estimated to be about $27 billion, it's public education and health care that will have to pay for it. The Texas budget spends so little money, in fact, that you could cut all the non-health care, non-education General Revenue spending from the rest of the budget, and still not close the gap.

Given the political climate of the state most years, and the especially conservative cohort of freshmen elected to the House for this session, closing the budget gap via any means other than cuts was off the table immediately. There are other options, though, even aside from raising sales or property taxes (it's not even worth mentioning the possibility of an income tax).
As budget hearings began for both the Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees began, cuts were pretty much the only strategy anyone would talk about. To their credit, both Sen. Ogden and Rep. Pitts made it clear to their committees (and their audiences) that everyone needed to understand the gravity of the cuts they were considering. Both held several days worth of public testimony on the effects of, for instance, reductions to funding for nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The more conservative House passed a budget that has about 12.3% less spending in it than the current biennium's budget. It not only doesn't take any population growth into account, but it cuts spending on public education by about $7.8 billion and health and human services agencies by over $11 billion.

The Senate will vote on its committee's budget bill later this week. While the House is dominated by conservative and tea party-affiliated Republicans (part of an overall Republican majority that already neutralizes the Democrats), the Senate will need support from Democrats to pass its bill. As a result, the Senate's budget bill spends about $12 billion more than the House's, mostly in Medicaid reimbursements to nursing homes and public education.

The differences will be worked out in Conference Committee, and then each chamber will have to pass, without amending, that version of the bill. Either way, the budget will be cut in ways that people are going to notice: government workers and teachers will be laid off, nursing homes will close, there will be less money for roads, etc.

The House and Senate are each vowing to not budge towards the other. Pitts, with the more conservative chamber, says he doesn't expect a lot of support in the House for the Senate's budget. Ogden seems similarly dug in, declaring that the House's version of the budget would "wreck" public education.

Not clear right now how this gets resolved.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Budget drama summary, part 1

I got to work this morning on the 41st-to-last day of the Eighty-second Texas legislative session, and right not all signs are that I won't be going home until after the 40th-to-last begins. A huge amount has to happen in the next six weeks, and possibly the most vital is passing a budget. At the moment, it also seems like one of the most difficult.

State governors and legislators like to compare their budget process to regular people's: they can't spend more than they take in (though, to be fair, state governments are allowed accounting tricks not afforded regular people; they're also allowed to be wrong in their budgeting and make up for it later, but never mind). Before each Texas legislative session, held for about 4 months every odd-numbered year, the comptroller releases the state's biennial revenue estimate (BRE), the official estimate of how much tax revenue the state will have over the next two years. This is how much money can be in the budget. The comptroller estimated the state would have about $72.2 billion* for writing the 2012-13 budget.

*This doesn't include federal fund (such as Medicaid and block grant funding, nor some other sources of state revenue that are dedicated for specific purposes).

This budget has been controversial since before the legislative session began. Democrats began calling on the comptroller to give some indication of what the BRE would be back in the fall, while the governor was running for re-election on the supposed strength of the Texas economy.

Though the governor never mentioned it during his campaign, everyone has seen this year's budget problem coming. Part of the problem was obviously going to be the economy. The main sources of state revenues in Texas are the sales and property taxes, both of which bring in less money when the economy is hurt. The bigger problem, the more predictable one, was what's called the structural deficit.

The structural deficit was created in 2006, when the legislature cut property taxes and tried to make up the difference with a new business tax (called the franchise tax). The comptroller at the time warned the governor the latter wouldn't generate enough revenue to offset the former and urged him to veto it, but he didn't. The next, regular session was in 2007, when a revenue surplus made everything seem okay. The next session, 2009, had a budget shortfall but the state didn't have to deal with it, federal stimulus money closed the gap for us.

Back to present day, and the $72.2 billion BRE. There is no official estimate of the size of the budget shortfall. There are several ways to measure it, but the one that is most often cited (possibly because it either the biggest or the first one someone had ready) comes from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. They compared the BRE to the spending needed to hold maintain current service levels and put the shortfall at about $27 billion.

Going back to work now, more later.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Friday Night Lights, episode 1.7: "Homecoming"

Even though Permian Panthers of the book have a handful of alumni who have gone on to fairly successful college and professional football careers, we have yet to hear of any such escapes from Dillon, Texas. In spite of the previous implication that the Panthers are a perennial contender for state, the first Panther alum we meet in the series faltered badly in college (both in football and in life) and never recovered, news that his hometown either doesn't know or refuses to acknowledge.*

*He's telling people in Dillon that he has a successful insurance agency in Dallas, though it doesn't seem like a lie one of Dillon's favorite sons could keep up for very long.

Lucas Mize was the star quaterback for the 2000 State Championship Team, and he's given a rousing introduction at a rally preceding the homecoming game. The town goes wild to see him again and the Panthers themselves are in awe, especially after he demonstrates at practice the next day that he still has a throwing arm.

The Panthers share the town's sad delusions, though. No matter how impressive Mize seems to them now, he admits to Coach Taylor that his college career, which was already fizzling, ended with a blown out knee in his sophomore year. Shortly thereafter, he lost his scholarship, dropped out of school and at some point had a kid he only rarely sees. His actual agenda in coming back to Dillon is to ask Eric for a job.

That Lucas flamed out is not a surprise to Tami, who repeats her criticism, first expressed in an Eyes Wide Open deleted scene, of how Dillon mythologizes its kids for their football talents, but fails to prepare them for life outside of football. She's further validated by his reaction to Coach telling him he doesn't have the budget for another assistant coach: bitterness and entitlement in lieu of humility and gratitude.

The cycle of entitlement continues, though, with Smash. After blithely dismissing a college scout's concerns about his strength and size, Smash chokes during the homecoming game so badly that he doesn't carry the ball at all in the second half. He's much more receptive to the scout's concerns after the game, but his solution isn't to hit the gym but to start injecting steroids. Doing the former, of course, would be a public admission of fallibility which, even if it is Coach Taylor's style, isn't what Dillon expects out of its stars.

Other thoughts:
  • More tension, last seen in a Who's Your Daddy? deleted scene, between Jason's parents, this time over whether he should make an appearance at the homecoming game. It's worth noting that Tim, with the good-hearted intentions, fulfills Herc's prophesy that showing up will mean Jason gets treated like a mascot.
  • At the rehab facility, Eric doesn't hesitate or flinch when Cory offers him a "stump" to shake when they're introduced.
  • I was wrong about Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War being the only references to real-world events, this episode has a 9/11 reference. (We learn that it indirectly ended Billy's career as a golfer and shortly afterward their father left town and Billy assumed responsibility for raising Tim.)
  • Tim Riggins sure sounds like a Canadian in his locker room speech
Trivia/Historic Moments
  • I think this is the first time Billy Riggins and Mindy Collette have a scene together. Mindy refers to her future husband as an "asshat."
  • Tami mentions having a sister in Plano, which is near Dallas.
  • Some confusing information about Dillon's location in Texas. Previous episodes have placed it in the west Texas panhandle, though (weirdly) in this one Lucas recalls that Eric used to drive __ miles from Macedonia, Texas to coach him. There are two Macedonias in Texas, one in central part of the state and one in the far east part. Obviously, neither is 22 miles from the panhandle.
  • Smash mentions that Dillon is in Carr County, though, which is consistent with a reference in the fourth season's finale. There is no Carr County, Texas. The Midland-Odessa area is in Ector County.
  • The Panther play, and defeat, the Larabee Lions in this episode.
Notable Texas Music (all replaced for the DVD):
  • Billy Joe Shaver, "Good Ol' USA"
  • Explosions in the Sky, "Remember me as a Time of Day"
  • Explosions in the Sky, "First Breath After Coma"

Deleted Scenes:
  • At the homecoming game rally, Buddy and Eric eat together while Buddy talks about how dangerous the Larabee quarterback is, and how a loss for the Panthers would put the playoffs out of reach; Mayor Rodell introduces more of the 2000 championship team, and Julie wonders "how can it be homecoming if they never leave?"
  • Tyra convinces Billy to call in sick so they can plan their anti-homecoming party
  • Smash at the diner, blowing off concerns about how tough the Larabee game will be and listening to some teammates speculate that some Larabee players must use steroids and discuss how to obtain some.
  • Matt trying to flirt with a resistant Julie