I Think I’d Enjoy Being Rich and Famous

Like everyone else, I spend a lot of time following news about President Trump and his various advisors. I may not agree with everything they say, but I can’t deny that they’ve inspired me. After carefully considering their biographies and their public statements, I have completely changed my life goals. If I had to narrow it down, I guess I would put it this way: I want to be rich and famous.

I thought about just being famous without being rich. It would be nice to have people ask for a selfie with me at Panera. And I wouldn’t mind People running


pictures of my abs or an Us Weekly poll indicating that I “wore it better.”  I  could probably make a little money from being famous,  but I don’t want to have to appear at the opening of a Mazda dealer or keynote the annual meeting of payroll accountants in Reno. I’d get sick of telling the inspiring story of how I safely landed that plane, or how I showed the world that a 42-year-old man could medal in gymnastics.

I also thought about being rich but not famous. I could just just sit in one of my open floor plan homes looking at my Apple watch until it was time to go to”the club” or some sort of gala dinner “for charity”. Also, I could buy cool stuff from Pottery Barn that looks like authentic stuff but costs more. And I suppose if people saw me at  one of my houses or my expensive replica stuff from Pottery Barn, they would say “hey, he’s really rich! Well, good for him. Huzzah!”

That wouldn’t happen, though, because no one would know I was rich unless I was also famous. That is why I want to be both. I think this might be confusing to people. Yes, I want telephoto shots of my abs in a weekly magazine and I want to have reproduction tchotchkes from Pottery Barn. But being rich and famous is just a means to an end.


I want to be rich and famous because I have certain beliefs. I believe that black pepper is a topical cure for colorectal cancer, for example. And that the many celebrity deaths in 2016 were actually assassinations – part of Fidel Castro’s terrorism long game (that bastard’s henchmen took two members of ELP in one year, and we did NOTHING!) And I’m convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is the only proper source of a STEM curriculum for middle schoolers.

Are you laughing at me? You wouldn’t be if I were rich and famous. If I were rich like Betsy DeVos, I could set up foundations with lots of staff and media people to publish lesson plans on Jesus-based technology. I could make big donations to politicians who would pass laws banning ropa vieja and rumba unless and until Cuba released all of its files on Florence Henderson. Sean Hannity would probably have a segment asking why scientists don’t admit they can’t prove putting black pepper in your butt doesn’t cure cancer.

Unfortunately, Betsy Devos will get to make schools safer for rapists  and less safe for grizzly bears while my equally factual and useful positions never get heard. Robert Kennedy Jr. compares vaccinations to the Holocaust, which Ben Carson says wouldn’t have happened if the Warsaw Ghetto had more AR-15s.  Are those opinions better than mine? I say Polish immigrants introduced eczema to the US in the 1920s.  National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says that Shariah law is being imposed in Florida. You can’t say these aren’t all equally serious ideas.

What do these people have that I don’t have? Money and fame, of course. It would be so great to just spitball ideas and theories and then have people buy my books. I could meet Dr. Oz! Bill O’Reilly would probably let me finish my sentences! I bet I could get Kid Rock to tweet out links to my YouTube videos! If I became rich and famous, other rich and famous people would want me at their events. I could be on the red carpet and say things like, “yes, I am wearing Brioni. But you know what matters tonight? That all kids have the opportunity to learn what Jesus teaches about trigonometry.”

No one would think that was weird! I could get my teeth capped and use pomade and Americans would think I must be on to something because I was rich and famous. If Meryl Streep criticized me on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough would probably say “but wouldn’t you agree we have to teach both sides of the debate? There are serious questions about the Poles and skin…” and the Meryl would try to answer, but Joe would cut her off because they have to go to commercial.

Mary Lou Retton

The best thing about being rich and famous is that once you become rich and famous, you will basically always be rich and famous. Someone from New York Times might “discover” that my grabbing the yoke didn’t save that plane, and that I was really just lunging for the female pilot’s breasts. And that maybe my gold medal in gymnastics wasn’t from the Olympics, but from  the Ol’ Impiks, a competition my family sponsors every year in Martha’s Vineyard where I’d impishly hired Mary Lou Retton to dress up like me. It wouldn’t matter, because the people who bought my books and admired my abs would say the media was trying to bring a good man like me down.

When you are rich and famous, people think you can do anything – even if those nerds at Vox insisted that all of my money was from my wife’s family who made it selling tear gas in Birmingham in the 60s. I could start a lifestyle brand, or fund a start-up to develop my idea for a car than ran on safe, renewable kittens. Maybe I could even run for President!


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A Strong and Belated Opinion About the Lucas Museum


Urbs in horto

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art isn’t coming to Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is very angry about this. Rahm wants you to think he’s angry because Chicago lost a great opportunity for a new public cultural attraction. He also wants you to think that a small group of killjoys ruined Chicago’s chances to accept a very generous gift from George Lucas, the very same man who very generously gave the world Jar Jar Binks.

I love this story. I love that our bullying mayor and the billionaire behind Howard the Duck  could line up the Chicago City Council, the Illinois Legislature, and the Park District, and then get whupped by a troubled advocacy organization, Friends of the Parks. Score a win for the little guys!

mayor1percent-600Or..the little guys didn’t win, and nobody got beat.  Rahm isn’t angry about missed opportunities. Rahm is angry because he needed a win, and he lost. There is one thing our racially divided city agrees on: Rahm sucks. The only thing interrupting news stories about the dire state of our schools are news stories about gun violence and police brutality. He invested his last two ounces of prestige for a legacy project and blew it.

Worse for Rahm, he sided with a raging egomaniac who likes to take his toys and go home. Here’s what got overshadowed in the coverage of the museum: George Lucas, the chinless former wunderkind writer of Willow, quit. Was there a lawsuit to stop the museum? Yes, but it never actually went to trial.  All of the legal action in the case was the city trying to get the case dismissed, and a federal judge allowing it to proceed. The city tried to get the case thrown out twice, and then engaged in some extravagant legal tricks to argue that the case shouldn’t be in court in the first place. Chicago is pretty good about keeping things out of court, usually by paying huge settlements to people brutalized by cops. So I guess you could see why Rahm thought this would work.

The mayor and the writer of Captain Eo insist that the case was about Friends of the Parks preserving a parking lot. Who would want to do that? Surprising answer: no one. The mayor wanted to get his 9.5 fingers into lakefront property that is protected as a public trust. Friends of the Parks argued, and the judge agreed, that building the museum would primarily benefit a private entity, namely George Lucas’ Death Star-sized ego in edificial form. It’s not about a parking lot – it’s about preserving the lakefront for public use. And Friends of the Parks hoped that the parking lot could be returned to public use sometime before the 297 year lease on the museum ran out.

Let’s talk about the ego of the man who brought us Strange Magic.  Who offers a museum with the huge condition that it be built on a waterfront? Even if you think it was dumb to preserve a parking lot, is it any less dumb to offer to build a museum and be completely inflexible on the location?   As the Tribune pointed out “We wonder whether Lucas appreciates the irony that he could hold his 2013 wedding on Promontory Point only because Chicago for nearly two centuries had protected that stretch of lakefront from the kind of development he now demands for himself at another lakefront site.” Not surprisingly, San Francisco rejected this sort of ultimatum, which is why Lucas brought his toys to us in the first place.

Yes, three other museums make up the “campus” on the lakefront, and when the Bears play at home Soldier Field becomes the Museum of Minorities Concussing Themselves. Tiny Dancer said, “museums belong on a museum campus,” apparently forgetting about the non-campused Museum of Science and Industry. And the Art Institute. And the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. He really wants to forget about the Chicago Children’s Museum. That museum caused all sorts of controversy when it wanted to move onto public land in Grant Park until – wait for it – it was quashed by Mayor Emanuel in 2012. At the time, he reasoned that it was better to keep the museum in Navy Pier “as a strong pillar in the redevelopment vision” for Chicago’s best place to get shit on by seagulls.

Perhaps Rahm could’ve stuck with this idea for redevelopment when the genius who brought you Tucker: The Man and His Dream came knocking. The mayor could have suggested building the museum on the Michael Reese Hospital site. There are two big advantages there: it’s not far from Lucas’ fantasy site, and the city has owned it for seven years. Just look what we’ve done with it:

CT  ct-biz-0419-michael-reese-hospital-MM.jpg

The property was bought when Chicago’s previous petit autocrate, Mayor Daley, decided that we really needed the 2016 Summer Olympics. We dodged that bullet, but taxpayers are left holding the bag for the original $91 million plus another $43 million in interest if isn’t sold soon. Instead, Mayor Emanuel came up with a different plan to build the museum on the site of the current McCormick Place. This plan would have required $1.2 billion in state funds. In Illinois. In case you haven’t noticed, state funds in Illinois aren’t easy to come by. And oddly enough, this violated one of the rules of the original site selection committee: that it not cost any money to Chicago taxpayers. 

Let’s pretend that Father Michael Pfleger forgot about the $200,000 George Lucas gave his church in 2014 when he questioned the motives of Friends of the Parks.  Why not move the museum to a site the city already owns and give a boost to development in area south of downtown for a change? It can’t just be because the idea man behind Red Tails had his heart set on being near the water, can it?

Now that the project is dead, we’re supposed to bow our heads at the lost tourists, tax dollars, and jobs the museum would’ve brought. Boosting tourism, taxes, and jobs sounds a lot like the argument Daley used to hype the Olympics and the one used to build sports stadiums, both of which rarely work out well for cities.  First, people have a finite amount WattoHSof money. The dollars spent buying a replica Hayden Christensen Oscar at the Lucas Museum can’t also be spent on whatever the hell it is you buy at Navy Pier. Second, all the traffic caused by the whimsical Phantom Menace: Racist Alien Caricatures exhibit will probably keep other people from going to the Shedd Aquarium. This is already true: visiting the museum campus is a nightmare during a Bears game. But Soldier Field is a Park District building, and the Bears lease it for $6 million a year. The Park District can use it or lease it out for other things the rest of the time. Chicago could wait until 2313 for the same access to the Lucas Museum.

I’m not the sort of creative genius who could bring you Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like George Lucas, and 70% of Black Chicagoans don’t think I suck. But I have an idea: what if Rahm redirected all of his docile allies and the cajoling, bullying, and lawyers, into repairing Chicago’s infrastructure and making people less afraid of being shot? I bet tourists would like that. You know who else would like that? Chicagoans. We could also go for having enough police on the streets and having a reasonable expectation that they were accountable. A new museum would be nice; nicer still would be families not fleeing to the cultural desolation of the suburbs because our schools might not open in the fall. It wouldn’t be as visible a legacy as a new museum, but it would be a great story about the failing Mayor who fixed Chicago – the guy I voted for twice. Maybe Rahm could get George Lucas to chip in – the guy wrote an ok story long, long ago.










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The Happy Story of Bernie Sanders & Iraq



Bernie Sanders really, really, wants you to know that he voted against the 2003 Iraq War and Hillary Clinton voted for it. He’s mentioned in it every single debate. His ridiculously named website, feelthebern.org, has a whole page dedicated to it (see below).

The funny thing about that feelthebern page is how carefully it jumps from his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. The US had Iraq policy in the 1990s. What were Bernie’s positions during those 12 years? He’d rather you not think about that. And you probably won’t, especially if you’re among the people he consistently does best with –  voters 29 and under.

The thing about voters under 29 is that the first Presidential election they could vote in was 2008.  The oldest members of that cohort were 15 or 16 when Hillary Clinton made that vote.  For them, Iraq is synonymous with a humanitarian and foreign policy disaster that began in the Bush years and continues to this day. Senator Sanders knows this. And he knows that, outside of Vermont, voters didn’t really know who he was until last year. This lets him tell a fascinating story about a reliably left-wing anti-interventionist peacenik politician who foresaw disaster back in 2002. Telling that particular story, though, relies on a clever mix of 20/20 hindsight and the short memories of his core constituency.


from feelthebern.org

Let’s tell another story – about diarrhea. For adults, it can be a messy inconvenience.  Over a prolonged period, it is fatal for children as their bodies dehydrate and lose nutrients. Between the two Iraq wars that Bernie Sanders so bravely opposed, lots of Iraqi children died of malnutrition and dehydration. Lots. A conservative estimate put the number of dead children at 106,000 between 1991 and 1998. A 1995 study in The Lancet estimated it at 576,000. Iraq was prevented from importing water purification and sanitation equipment under the sanctions imposed by the UN and enforced by the US and its allies. Bernie Sanders supported those sanctions.

Sanctions starved Iraq of resources and supplies, and Saddam Hussein allocated what was left to reinforce his regime. Sanctions precipitated a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions.  The bills that shaped US sanctions policy, the bills Sanders supported, all came up during that decade gap his site skips right over. It’s an uglier story. Tell that story,  and the man campaigning as champion of the underdog looks a lot more like any other establishment politician supporting the status quo, no matter the cost.

And there was a cost to sanctions – and not just the Iraqi lives lost at the time. In May, 2000 The Lancet ran an editorial alongside a study showing that child mortality in much of Iraq was getting worse. The editorial concluded that UN sanctions bore significant responsibility for this tragedy and that “(t)he courageous policy…is to suspend (not abandon) sanctions lest upcoming generations of Iraqis, out of resentment, suffering, and isolation, grow up to be as aggressive as their current leader.” A quick bit of arithmetic should tell you when the many young Iraqis recruited by ISIS were born.


Back when Hillary Clinton was still defending her Iraq War vote  she said she acted “in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade.” This is the same context in which then-Representative Sanders supported every single bill supporting Iraq sanctions and regime change that came his way. Because he, like every other member of the political establishment, was far more concerned about Saddam’s WMD than he was about the Iraqi people.  Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush – believed that Saddam was trying to restart WMD programs.  He wasn’t.

Bernie didn’t have to be a reliable vote in favor of humanitarian disaster. Twelve of his colleagues voted against House Joint Resolution 75, which stated that Iraq was “a mounting threat to the United States” in 2001.  Bernie supported the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which stated “that it should be the policy of the United States to ‘support efforts’ to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” This bill threw buckets of money at the Iraqi National Congress, a corrupt opposition movement which fed lousy intelligence to the US right up to the 2003 invasion.  Thirty-eight of Bernie’s colleagues voted against the bill, and it was publicly opposed by the State Department and Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Middle East. Had he voted against it, Bernie would’ve had good company.

It’s fair to say that on WMD, Representative Sanders had no way of independently knowing that Saddam had abandoned his weapons programs. That’s not the case for the sanctions. By the mid-1990s, serious people were arguing that sanctions were crushing Iraqi society, having dire effects on child mortality, and enriching Saddam’s inner circle. Quaker groups, pacifists and human rights activists mobilized against sanctions. These are Bernie’s people. Presidential candidate Sanders doesn’t like to talk about foreign policy. But as a mayor, Bernie used his position to work as a lefty foreign policy activist on disarmament, Nicaragua, and issues. Did he not read a paper or meet with activists for a decade?

Given his history, and his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, you might find his votes odd. But that’s only if you believe the story of an outsider. A guy who speaks truth to power and rejects the conventional wisdom. That guy might have taken a stand against sanctions. But not the go-along to get-along guy that Bernie actually is. That’s the story of a politician who is a reliable vote for military interventions: in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. The story of a politician who made a deal with Democrats so that they wouldn’t run someone against him in his Senate campaign.

In the debate in Milwaukee Wednesday night, Bernie went after Hillary on regime change on Iraq: “I think an area in kind of a vague way…where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change.” Bernie voted for regime change in Iraq in the 1998 law. If you read the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq, the fourth paragraph cites that that law. The one Bernie voted for, along with all the other bills he supported in the 1990s that explicitly had as their goal regime change in Iraq.

And it’s not just that. Go read House Concurrent Resolution 104 from April 2003. The one in which “the Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the Nation– (1) to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq.” Bernie voted in favor of that, too. Eleven of his colleagues didn’t.

So why would Bernie bash Hillary over a policy he supported before, and he implicitly supported following (he also voted in favor of defense spending bills to support the war)? Of course, it helps that he ended up being right. It’s also one of the few instances where his vote wasn’t indistinguishable from Senator Clinton’s. But it’s also because his vote on the Iraq War is one of the few times where he wasn’t just another status-quo, by-the-book, conventionally thinking, go-along-to-get along, veteran politician with all of the accumulated baggage of his years in office. And that’s a story he’d very much like you to hear.






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Reading Holy Books and Mourning David Bowie

I used to teach a class on Middle Eastern history. The director of the program wanted me include the Qur’an among the recommended readings. I was against it, but I relented. So I turned its inclusion into a teaching point.  As an exercise for the class, I asked students what books they would recommend to people from the Middle East for an American history course. Some mentioned DeToqueville or Thomas Paine, some mentioned the Bible. If the student did mention one of those, I’d ask if they  themselves had read those books. The discussion went from there.

This brings me to the passing of David Bowie. Social media exploded this week with professions of love for Bowie, heartfelt comments on his influence and the like. There is no doubt that David Bowie was an interesting and influential artist, a compelling personality, and a commercially successful musician. He was not, however, my type of music, though I really enjoyed “Heroes” and “Changes.” Was I being left out? Judging by social media yesterday, I was in the minority in my ambivalence towards the Thin White Duke.


I don’t think that reading the Qur’an is useful for a Middle Eastern history class for three reasons. First, the Qur’an is a contradictory, vague and very long read. Second, reading a text from a millennium and a half ago to understand current events is insulting to the people in the region, as if they stopped thinking in the 7th century. But never mind those two, because my main argument was this: is it worth reading something to understand people that most of them probably haven’t read themselves?  I would guess that, people being people, most folks either read something about the Qur’an or have it explained to them by someone else. They know the big teachings, the declaration of faith, and the proper celebration of the major holidays

I guess this because of my personal experience as an American. If students suggested the Bible, I asked if they’d actually read it. Most hadn’t. They also hadn’t read DeToqueville or Paine, or any of the other important works they’d recommended.  They’d read things about those books or had the key points of the books explained to them. I would then turn to the books Americans actually read. To judge by the best-seller lists, these are  diet and self-help books, genre fiction, and celebrity memoirs. Things that are much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Bible or the books you skipped the first time in Political Science 101.

If we want to understand America, should we read the books Americans want us to read about themselves, or what they actually read? I vote for the latter, but I’m not certain that I’m right. Your own opinion will vary depending on whether you want to understand people as they are, or as they want to be.

Many people clearly have a deep connection to David Bowie. In addition to admiring his persona and his music, he had a significant influence on popular music. If we wanted someone to understand the popular music of the late 20th century, I suppose you would include his works as a necessary part of the canon. But very few people actually listen to David Bowie. Not one of his albums is featured on the Billboard Greatest 200 Albums of All Time, which measures album sales since 1958. He’s also not on the Top 200 Artists of All Time, also based on sales. He doesn’t warrant inclusion into the BMI 100 Songs of the Century, which is based on radio airplay. When given the choice, we Americans actually listen to things like Journey, Bob Seger, and Toby Keith (nos. 58, 75, and 79 on the Billboard list), the checkout lane genre fiction of music.

You could take this to a very cynical conclusion, which would be that social media is full of people hoping you’ll think of them as having carefully considered musical taste, while they are actually listening to dreck like Rascal Flatts and “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” America is a nation spending a fortune on diet books and exercise wear while we sit at home marbling our hams with Stouffer’s Cheesy Colon Packer Deluxe. We’re lying to ourselves and everyone else.

I’m more positive than that. We all want to put their best self out there in the world.  The self that likes unique art, idiosyncratic personalities, and difficult music. We should like music like Bowie’s, even if our Spotify playlists are pockmarked with Sam Smith and Walk the Moon. More importantly, we aspire to be part of a community that does as well. A newsfeed full of David Bowie is comforting. Trapped in the Trump Nadir, we can be part of a community of taste. We can be people who value art, people who celebrate individuality, and  people who enjoy important music. At least, as Bowie would have it, we could be them – just for one day.


Costco Has 12 Days of Twosies for Your Favorite Candidate!

There’s only a week before Christmas, and you still don’t know what to get for the Republican Presidential candidate on your list? Don’t worry! Costco is here to help. These candidates have been working hard most of this year, excreting their feculence all over America. Isn’t it time to thank them for dropping deuces on immigrants, Muslims, climate scientists, gays, Mexicans, common sense, good taste, and decency? We think so, too! Lucky for you and them Costco is number one for number twos!  Here are just a few suggestions to keep their back doors swinging all the way to the election:

Ted Cruz: 144 Preparation H Medicated Wipes
Look at that pinched face and that forced smile. The guy is clearly uncomfortable. Is it the cognitive dissonance of being a Princeton and Harvard alumnus and former Supreme Court clerk running as an everyman populist?  Or is it being an being an anti-immigration Cuban-Canadian? Maybe. Or maybe he’s just got the fire down below. Preparation H is the trusted name in taking care of flaming assholes. But careful! If Senator Cruz uses all 144 at once, he might disappear!

Marco Rubio: (2) 2 oz tubes of Preparation H Ointment
Rubio and Cruz are two sides of the same coin: young, inexperienced Latino senators from big southern states. Until Cruz finishes ripping Rubio a new one, his old one has got to be plenty sore: pushing out a steaming pile like a massive tax cut for the wealthy and finding $4 trillion to pay for it has got to burn. Get him the two pack – one for now, and one for when he has to explain why he thought George W. Bush did a “fantastic” job.

Ben Carson: 400 Kirkland Signature Brand Anti-Diarrheal Caplets
Most people would rethink many of their choices when realizing they needed to buy anti-diarrheals by the crate. But most people are not Ben Carson. The good doctor is squirting stools faster than his aides can wipe them up! Is China fighting in Syria? Were the Egyptian pyramids for storing grain? Did he actually stab a guy?  Ugh. This is getting disgusting. Act now to get this guy some anti-diarrheals before he smears his drawers like he smeared the reputation of neurosurgeons.

Jeb Bush: 200 Dulcolax Laxative Tablets
Hey! Remember Jeb?! We’re shocked to find out he’s still running. The electorate just isn’t ready for a gentle, predictable candidate this time around. But Bush is definitely ready for the gentle, predictable relief of Dulcolax – helping him drop the twin loads of his brother’s execrable Presidential record and his own failed education reform.  Jeb’s going to a need all the “comfort coating” he can get when the job he thought was his slips through his fingers all warm and wet like when your niece blew out her Huggies.


Chris Chrstie: Economy Pack of Preparation H Suppositories
Where would gift givers be without Costco’s incredible variety of Preparation H products? Finding the perfect one for the governor of New Jersey is tricky. Christie has been talking from his ass for so long, it’s gotta be sore: he was for gun control, Common Core, and immigration reform until he decided he wasn’t. Show the big guy you care with this supersized pack of suppositories: he can stuff ’em up there side by side.


Carly Fiorina: Trunature Digestive Probiotic.
Women don’t get constipated or irregular. They get “bloated” and need help restoring “digestive balance.” This is just the kind of euphemistic language perfect for Fiorina, who has turned her destruction of Hewlett Packard and disaster at Lucent into “qualifications” to be CEO of the US. Her “record of success” includes firing 30,000 people and the lack of a real job since 2005. Even through that weirdly botoxed face, you can see she’s straining under the weight of those giant BMs.


Donald Trump: Fleet Enema Six Pack
We had a great summer with Trump: every shart about Mexicans, women, and POWs was reported on like the embarrassing noise it was. It’s winter now, and The Donald is full on dropping ’em down his pant leg. There’s plenty more dookies in him – and this six pack is just the thing to get it all out at once.  Fleet enemas have a patented “comfort tip” – but that’s only for losers and cowards. Just wedge ’em in there, and let it all wash out at once. One big, stinky flow of fascism, racism, and misogyny. Just the kind of shit that should help keep his poll numbers strong. C











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50 Jewish Organizations. Barely a Peep. Cowards.

It’s a long running tradition: in the wake of any terrorist attack by Islamist extremists,  talking heads will ask why American Muslim organizations aren’t loudly condemning the attack. Never mind that they are. There’s never a bad time – particularly not with an election coming – to demonize Islam in America.  And there’s a practical problem for the American Muslim community: it’s highly decentralized and diverse, with no recognized voice to speak for the millions of American Muslims.

Though I don’t give a whit about God or Israel , I consider myself part of the American Jewish community. And we’re lucky — we do have a centralized voice, the abundantly named Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the “proven and effective voice of organized American Jewry for more than half a century.” The Conference represents 50 different Jewish organizations, from the AJC and the AJC (really, there are two different organizations) to the World Zionist Organization and the Zionist Organization of America (not to be confused with the American Zionist Movement, B’nai Zion, or Religious Zionists of America).


My grandmother came to this country as a German refugee in the 1930s. Most American Jews are descended from refugees – whether from Eastern Europe, Russia, or the Middle East. So yesterday, when the governors of 27 states said they were going to try and illegally close their borders to refugees from Syria, where were the official voices of American Judaism?

Absolutely nowhere. There isn’t a single word anywhere on the Conference site or anything I could find in the news condemning the racist, xenophobic pandering of these governors. So I visited the sites of each of the 50 organizations the Conference represents and checked the news for a full throated stance in support of refugees. Just two organizations had statements: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Society. Two of the fifty.

If you spent 30 minutes combing the sites of 50 Jewish organizations, you would find two things: some God-awful web design, and in place of any moral outrage or courage, full throated support of Israel. Israel, which has a per capita GDP higher than Japan, South Korea or Italy. Israel, which is run by a race-baiting, anti-peace extremist, who shows nothing but contempt for the US administration.

An administration which – by the way – is still likely to grant Israel $4.5 billion in military aid, wholly supported by the organizations in the Conference. By the other way, that works out to $3 million for every Syrian refugee admitted to the US so far. That’s a lot of money per refugee — because the US has only admitted 1500 refugees since 2011. No really. America’s governors are threatening to turn back the population of Teutopolis, Illinois.

American Jewish organizations can’t be asked to do more for these refugees, because they aren’t doing anything. Not before the Paris attacks, and not as near as I can tell, on behalf of all the rest of the world’s refugees or migrants either.

It’s not as if Jews’ history as refugees and migrants is part of a lost and unknown past — the Holocaust is America’s #1 favorite point of historical comparison. Just ask Ben Carson. America’s reluctance to take in refugees in the 1930s and 40s is rightly seen as one of the 20th century’s biggest mistakes.

Why didn’t America want to take in a bunch of Jewish refugees? Jews were suspected of being enemy Communists and Anarchists. Also, they weren’t Christian. They might have taken jobs away from Americans during difficult economic times.  Wow, it’s like we’ve been here before.  I thought that the lesson of the Holocaust was “never again.” Not just never again to mass extermination, but never again to the indifference. You can make too much of a comparison between then and now – but you could also be a bit expansive with that lesson, so that it’s not properly read as”never again to us.”

Rather than vocally pointing out how wrong America was then and how wrong the governors and others are now, what are the Conference and its partners doing? Nothing.  Are they afraid that if they remind everyone how close we are to a period of massive anti-Semitism, it will coming washing back? Better to sit back and focus on Israel – something younger Jews don’t care about much, but that is a convenient common cause with the Religious Right – people who used to want to keep us out of their country clubs, boardrooms, and universities.

Years ago, I brought my non-Jewish wife along to a talk I was giving to a group of mostly elderly Jews. Finding me after the talk, a woman from the audience asked if my wife was Jewish. Upon learning the answer, the woman said “Where did we go wrong?”

Back then, I’m pretty sure I said something about the horrors of Hebrew School, but I’ll say this now:  American Jews are organized and well off. They’re in positions of power.  I can’t figure out how organizations that claim to represent the Jewish community see a humanitarian crisis and creeping  xenophobia, racism, and fear mongering and decide that their best course of action is cheerleading for Israel and holding gala dinners.

American Jews insult their co-religionists with the epithet  “self-loathing“. I’ve been called self-loathing on more than one occasion, but I know it’s not myself I find loathsome.



These Clowns Totally Prepared Our Kids. Just Not How We Wanted.

When my eldest son was pre-school age, my wife and I went on a tour of the University of Chicago’s Lab School. It was a formative experience. Here’s what we learned from the mom hosting the tour:

(a)arts classes don’t matter
(b) there is no homework and no grades in the elementary program
(c) the food of  Asian children smells funny
(d) that children with physical disabilities often “feel more comfortable somewhere else”.

I remember that last line clearly. One thing was emphasized over and over again on the tour: : students at Lab were constantly “evaluated for fit” during their careers to make sure they could continue on. Fitting in is important. And you can only do that if you eat appropriately fragrant food, learned piano on your own time, and please – don’t limp. I

You would think this would remove all sorts of kids from consideration at Lab. Heck no. Each person from the school took pains to say how diverse the school was. Mayor Emanuel sends his kids there, as does recently resigned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Diversity: when kids of local and federal officials are at your school. At one point on our tour, I asked our host if “diversity” meant actual economic diversity, or just racial diversity. All I got was a blank stare. And an elbow from my wife. It was a dumb question: the diverse student body at Lab is filtered through a screen of eye-watering tuition: more than $30k a year, plus an expectation that you’ll “donate” more to the school. If a Potemkin village had a school, it would be like Lab.


The Potemkin Village might also choose Gems World Academy, a school so fancy that it exists in a residential area of Chicago I didn’t know existed – because there’s only one road in and out. I found myself in the lobby a few months ago. On a table near the giant touchscreens was a brochure extolling the diversity of the school, and focusing on their “core values,” which include “global citizenship.” Gems and Lab’s competitor, the Latin School, also wants to “shape leaders” for a diverse world. Francis Parker seeks to create “citizens and leaders…in a global community.” Francis Parker is also where the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Forrest Claypool, sends his kids – though he tries not to talk about it. I don’t know why it’s a big deal, it’s totally ok to run a public school system without actually having kids in public schools.

These elite private schools have tuitions higher than the per capita national income of all but 20 countries (I checked). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the global community. Just not the whole global community. The good parts. The parts without smelly food, limping weird kids, and poor people. And the students they’re turning out are absolutely prepared for a global community. But it’s a gated community.

For schools that make such strong claims about diversity, it’s awfully hard to get data on their demographics. And it seems to be impossible to get information on their expulsion, suspension, and attrition rates -their filters. Of course, if they published it, it might cause a minor scandal, like the when data from Chicago’s charter schools went public. That was especially embarrassing, because even while filtering out the difficult kids, they still didn’t do much better than the traditional schools – the very places where those filtered-out kids land. Charter schools. For parents who want choice. But not informed choice.

All of this makes me feel incredibly smug, since my kids go to a Chicago public school. No filtering here! Well, except for the fact that it’s a magnet school. Getting into a magnet school lottery required some work: a year before my son was to enter kindergarten, we attended information sessions, did research at the library, and filled out a bunch of forms. It was pretty confusing, and I’m a native English speaker used to dealing with public bureaucracy. And the end result is that my kids’ school is much wealthier and whiter than nearly any Chicago neighborhood school.

Nevertheless, our school is facing cuts like every other publically funded school, including the charters. Forrest Claypool, former Cook County Board member, head of the park district, and the CTA, appointee of our angry little Democratic mayor, is asking parents to to lobby the Democratically-controlled state legislature for education funding. You would think a veteran Democrat serving as CEO of the largest school system in the state would take the lead on that. But why should our leaders lead? This is Chicago. Claypool’s predecessor is going to jail, so he’s actually an improvement.  Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Illinois House, who has been in power almost non-stop since 1983, and the Governor, still test driving the office he bought last year, are in an epic pissing match. So this seems unlikely to end well.

Meanwhile, my sons get to ride the listing ship of public education. Nothing is the same year to year. Programs start and then are eliminated. Same with staff. Young teachers have kids and leave for the suburbs, because there’s no guarantee they can get their kids through the lottery process. Oh, and there was that teacher’s strike.

My wife and I sent our kids to public schools for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was this: we knew it was going to be a bit rough navigating the system, and we knew they’d meet people who weren’t like them. We thought that going through CPS would prepare them for adult life in the actual global community – tremendously diverse and more than a little challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding if you pay attention and invest some effort.

It turns out we were right about preparing them for adult life, but we had the context all wrong. In Chicago, a fair amount of money can buy you a gleaming existence free of the systemic failure, difficult people, and occasional unpleasantness everyone else contends with daily. Those without the means do their best to play within the system, selecting among bad choices and watching the value of their efforts steadily decline.

When I think about it that way, I figure that we probably didn’t do a great job preparing kids for the world, but we did a stupendous job of preparing them for America.

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Actually, National Geographic and Fox Deserve Each Other

Last week, news broke that the National Geographic Society had sold its magazine, TV channels, and other media properties to 21st Century Fox. This caused more consternation than your usual media/business story. Fox also runs Fox News, and is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who uses his media empire to deny the science of climate change and is also the devil.  National Geographic magazine on the other hand – as we all remember from our childhoods – is known for its deep commitment to science and exploration. Also, the boobs of women in developing countries. But mostly about science and exploration.

1414525011610_wps_53_CAPTION_October_1978_PhotYour childhood was wrong. As a long-struggling non-profit, National Geographic – and especially its TV channel – has planted its boots well on the tainment side of edutainment.  As a media enterprise, the desire to tell a good story has rarely been derailed by the concerns of experts or the truth. Just like Fox News. 

I started to pay attention to this a few years ago, when I wondered whatever happened to the star of one of my favorite NatGeo stories: Koko, the gorilla who could use and understand sign language. As a kid, I thought her story was incredible. How cool to be able to communicate with a gorilla! And the gorilla had a pet cat! Someday, I would be able to talk to animals!

What happened? It’s been decades and we’re not exactly awash in semi-articulate apes (outside of Republican presidential candidates – zing!). It turns out that  there were a lot of problems with the “science” around Koko – not least of which was the fact that her handlers never released their data to other scientists, and no one has been able to duplicate the alleged results. As far back as 1980, there was pretty fierce debate about how much “science” factored into work with Koko, and how much was intentional or unintentional cueing by her handler combined with some wishful thinking in interpreting the signs Koko made. Also, her first pet cat escaped and was run over by a car.

Then there’s the story of the discovery of the Titanic. I was 11 in 1985 when the oceanographer Robert Ballard and his team discovered the wreck, solving the then-73 year mystery of its location. It’s hard to remember a time when the biggest mystery surrounding the Titanic wasn’t the appeal of James Cameron’s terrible film, but that the ship itself had never been found. And then Ballard and his robots, funded by the National Geographic Society, found it. What a great story. What a great, not exactly truthful, story. Robert Ballard was on a secret mission funded by the US Navy to locate two sunken nuclear submarines. The Navy agreed that if he found the Thresher and the Scorpion, he could use the time left on his contract to look for the Titanic. The fact that he found it was an excellent cover story for the real purpose of his mission, and kept the Navy’s search and capabilities a secret from the Soviets. I won’t deny there’s a different kind of swashbuckling romance to the true story, but it definitely detracts from the “exploration for its own sake” aspect that Ballard peddled for 33 years.


In the late 90s, National Geographic breathlessly announced the discovery of a fossil that would be the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. But they somehow missed fairly obvious links in the fossil itself- which turned out to be glue joints from the 88 different pieces of various animals assembled by a Chinese farmer. The magazine retracted the story, and admitted they got caught up in the excitement over an animal that – let’s face it – looks awesome. Speaking of awesome looking, do you remember NatGeo’s T. Rex Autopsywhere dignity-free “scientists” cut into a fake tyrannosaur model for television cameras? That’s the kind of hard hitting natural science we usually expect from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.  Sidenote:  it’s called a necropsy when performed on animals. I don’t know what one calls it when it’s performed on fake animals. I also don’t know what it’s called when a National Geographic explorer-in-residence announces the discovery of a new dinosaur, and it turns out it might be a juvenile known dinosaur. The issue remains unresolved because they don’t know where the dinosaur was discovered since it was removed from China illegally.


In 2014, the National Geographic channel had to pull a series that dealt with excavating Nazi war graves. It was a huge disappointment, because who doesn’t like exploiting graves for entertainment? Zahi Hawass loves it. He’s the famously self-aggrandizing former Minister of Antiquities in Egypt. To be fair, the graves he exploited for his TV shows, clothing line, and branded hats were from Pharaonic Egypt, thousands of years older than the Nazi war graves. More importantly, Egyptian pyramids and tombs are super cool – that’s edutainment! Dr. Hawass knows this, and so did National Geographic, which named him an explorer-in-residence in 2001. Presumably, they didn’t explore his support of the fabulously corrupt Mubarak regime, or how much he was disliked by everyday Egyptians and fellow archaeologists. You might ask if they ignored all this and named Hawass an explorer-in-residence solely to gain exclusive access to Egyptian antiquities for a bunch of lucrative TV shows. The Justice Department did ask exactly that.

Am I cherry-picking just the embarrassing moments of this otherwise esteemed American institution? Maybe. Or maybe National Geographic’s acquisition by Fox is just the last step in a progression that began decades ago, and reached its nadir recently when the channel aired the third movie adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” books. If you lost track, Bill O’Reilly’s ghostwriter has now written five “killing” books, and they’re exactly the kind of history you expect under O’Reilly’s name. Which is to say, less history than heavy moralizing with a thick smear of bullshit. And National Geographic helpfully frames each one with their trademark yellow border.

National Geographic loves grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history because audiences love grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history. Audiences also love manufactured controversies, prattling heads, and the fictitious news stories of Fox News, the most popular of the cable news channels. Why not bring the two together? It’s been a long time coming.

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How to Die, the Chicago Way

Everyone knows that Chicago has a murder problem. Gun violence and my city are practically synonymous. More importantly, we have a problem talking about Chicago’s murder problem. The Tribune starts out each week with a murders-per-hour recap of the weekend. What insight does this provide? None. Most shootings and homicides happen over the weekend – it’s like mowing the lawn. The Tribune also makes sure to compare the current pace of shootings and killings year-on-year. So does the Sun Times.  What do you do with this data? I don’t know, but I like numbers in my news. Murder: it’s like following the Dow Jones!

Being shot is how you die in Chicago, right? Nope. Chicago’s murder rate doesn’t even put us in the top 10 of murders per capita in America. In your face, Kansas City! Of course, the Daily Beast points out that it might be that our paramedics are getting better, or our gunmen are getting worse. So that’s encouraging.

At 407 murders (2014) for a city of 2.7 million, killing in Chicago is a more popular thing to talk about it than it is to actually do (even if you accept that the numbers are cooked). Murder happened to just .015% of Chicagoans in 2014. Put another way: the Cubs have won the World Series twice in their 112 year history. That’s about 2% – 133 times as much. If I threatened to kill you if the Cubs win the World Series this year, would you worry? Of course not! Because you know the Cubs are a tourist trap, not a baseball team, and tourist traps have no reason to win the World Series.

Murder is the Chicago way to die, but it’s not the way most Chicagoans actually kick the bucket. So what is? I wanted to know, so I poked around on the Department of Public Health’s mortality statistics page. You want to die like a Chicagoan? Here’s how:


Watch a ballgame, drink a bunch, and enjoy some deep dish pizza.

Well, maybe not those exact things, but the combination of alcohol, a low fiber diet, and the three hours of inactivity associated with watching baseball are excellent indicators for colo-rectal cancer, which kills more Chicagoans per year than homicide. My three part investigative series Your Ass: The Killer Behind You, will be published in the Trib this fall.


Act like wanna-be academic, short-term US Senator and former Chicagoan Barack Obama.

Lung cancer killed almost 6,000 Chicagoans in a four-year period. Obama has had a hard time giving up the habit, even though one cigarette takes 11 minutes off your life. Of course, if those 11 minutes were to be spent at a Cubs game, you might choose to smoke.

Combine numbers 1 and 2, and give yourself nearly every behavioral risk factor for a stroke.

Death by stroke has been a celebrated Chicago tradition since it provided the demise of Al Capone, Chicago’s most famous criminal never elected to public office. It doesn’t seem like a particularly tough way to die for the guy behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but neither does going insane from syphilis, which also happened to him.


Close the garage door, leave the car running.

You know what’s weird? Spike Lee has rejected my script about people in Chicago dying in poorly ventilated garages.   Unintentional injury kills thousands of people, and the leading cause is accidental poisoning. I suspected the popularity of Italian Beef might have something to with this, but it turns out it’s just boring old carbon monoxide poisoning and drug overdoses.

Eat more salt. Eat more of everything. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most distinctive way to die in Illinois is kidney disease. If you combine kidney disease with the number one cause of kidney disease, diabetes, then you kill a whole lot of Chicagoans.

Ok, fine. Be a male gang member and get involved with the local drug trade.

Why fight the stereotype? If you want to get offed, this is the way to do it. Half the homicides in Chicago in 2014 were gang-related, and 350 of the 393 victims were men. An awful lot of them involved narcotics. After reviewing this information, I have a bold public policy recommendation: limited legalization of drugs, provided they’re bought by women and sold through street gangs, which must be all-female. I bet a lot of things would change if every punk had to give his girlfriend the money to score some smack.

Choose your friends poorly and fight with your family.  

Lots of people in Chicago are killed by their partners, and about half of all people murdered were killed by someone they knew or were related to. This Thanksgiving, look around the table and think about which of those people will kill you when shit gets real. Oh – and if one of your nearest and dearest gets offed, you’re going to want to lay low for a while. A connection to a murder victim increases your chances of being murdered by 900%.

The Chicago Police are worried about who you spend time with. In their characteristically poorly thought-out and tone-deaf way, they suggest that you “be smart about with whom you hang out.” CPD knows that formal grammar really speaks to the kids. The cops also suggest that “before allowing someone in your car, ask if they have illegal drugs or guns with them.” Good idea.  The little jerks in our soccer carpool better fess up.

There’s one other way. 

Be a young Black man. Murder victims in Chicago are overwhelmingly a very small subset of the population:  Black men ages 15-34. It’s the leading cause of death for that cohort.

I’m not saying that we cover homicide and gun violence in Chicago like sports scores and stock market averages because it happens to Black people. Oh yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. There were 52 homicides in Chicago last month, and I can’t name the victim or the perpetrator of one them. But I knew there were 52!

I can, however, name the perpetrators of a number of recent rampage shootings. This essay from NPR points out that if those 52 Chicagoans were killed all at once, the story would be covered as a mass shooting and get full national press coverage complete with profiles of the victims and perpetrator.  We have a “homicide problem” in Chicago, though, and so a few dozen killings a month aren’t a surprise. Mass shootings, though. Those are terrifying and darkly fascinating aberrations.

Unless, of course, you understand “aberration” to mean diverging from normal. Because mass shootings happen all the time, and they’re getting more frequent. Early this summer, mass shootings were averaging one a day. Makes you shudder to think about what normal might be, doesn’t it?

Thanks to the chaos in Mexico, America has only the second highest homicide rate among wealthy, developed countries. But it seems pretty clear that lots more people are going to die the Chicago way.

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I’m Happy to Pay Chicago’s Surcharge on Stupidity

I’m a Chicagoan, and I’m about to face an increase in property taxes, while the city prepares to make $200 million in cuts to the very public schools my kids are enrolled in. Also, on January 1, 2016 it seems pretty likely that my sales tax will be increased by 1% to 10.25%, which means I will start the new year with the satisfaction of paying the highest sales tax in the nation.  As of July 1, I’m already paying a tax on Netflix. The city raised hundreds of millions of dollars from me and my neighbors by shortening yellow lights and entrapping us with otherwise useless red light cameras.  Illinois has the highest state and local tax obligations, the second-highest real estate taxes in the nation, and among the least fair tax systems. Fun fact: Illinois is called the Land of Lincoln not for the president, but for Lincoln Smith, who made a killing running three card monte at Rush and Division back in the day.

You’d think I’d be outraged about all of this., but I’m not. Like everyone else in my city and state, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and given the choice between paying attention to all of this and paying higher costs for worse public services, I chose the latter. It’s like an ignorance surcharge. I’m a stupid person, and it’s not worth it to make myself smarter. Thinking and learning make my brain hurt!

You. Fork it over.

You. Fork it over.

One of the things I would rather not think about is the property tax increase. It’s coming because the city, abetted by the state, completely mismanaged the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. The cock-up didn’t start recently. If I were paying attention, I would’ve noticed that they’ve been mismanaging it for 20 years. Here’s an article from three years ago, describing what was then already a celebrated mess. I didn’t read it, though. It has numbers and graphs. I also don’t want to ponder the broader fuster cluck of public pensions in Chicago or Mayor Rahm’s plan to save the city with a giant casino, so I’m not going to. All of this math and finance is interminably boring and depressing. I’m a Chicagoan. It’s July. I’ve got the Sox and Cubs for interminably boring and depressing – and they have the upside of the opportunity for public drunkenness.

I’m a big dummy, and I’m sort of a racist. You know what numbers I pay attention to? The numbers of shootings that take place over the Fourth of July weekend. Shootings of minorities, that is. They’re overwhelmingly the people who get shot in Chicago, and I join my neighbors in comparing how many of them are shot this year vs. previous years. You know, like they were batting averages. We’re not following shootings because we’re scared. We’re following it so we can advance our armchair sociological theories about poor minorities! Don’t believe me? Read the comments section on this article.  Or my neighborhood discussion board. We’re stupid, and worried when the depravity we associate with the (Black) South Side seems to be happening on the (White) North Side. This raises the biggest fear we morons have: declining property values. What will happen if our neighbors flee to the unlimited breadsticks of the suburbs and minorities move in next door?

I've got a theory about this.

I’ve got a theory about this.

I’m too stupid to trouble myself about big picture social problems in Chicago – things like gross inequality, segregation, or failing public education. I’m also too dumb to be worried about aggravating factors like the lack of funding for infrastructure, public transportation, mental health facilities, etc. Smart people might look at these things and think that they’re precisely the sort of thing that our public officials should deal with. But we’re not smart people. When we consider someone for public office in Chicago, the most important question to ask is “are they related to another elected official?”  There’s only one other enterprise in Chicago so tied up with family connections: the mob. If I were smarter, I’d probably make something of that.

I get the stupid politicians that stupid people deserve. Our recent mayoral election was between a dissembling bully and Santa Claus’ slightly less munificent little brother. I’ve got the low expectations of a moron, and my public officials sometimes even fail to meet those. Chicago has the most corrupt politicians in the country. The federal judicial district for northern Illinois has more public corruption convictions than any other in the country – and this is a nation that still includes New Orleans and Albany. In 2013 alone, there were 45 corruption convictions. From 1976 to 2013 there were 1,642!

As a nitwit, I’d rather pay higher taxes than demand more from my public officials. It’s a convenient arrangement, because all of this corruption is expensive as hell. A couple of political scientists figure that it costs Illinois about $500 million a year. The hired truck scandal cost Chicagoans $15 million a year over 10 years. Illinois could potentially knock 5.2% off its budget if it weren’t for all the patronage hiring and bogus contracts. The number I don’t want to think about most is this: in the decade to 2014, the city of Chicago paid half a billion dollars to settle misconduct lawsuits against our police. That’s apparently enough to build “five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, (and) repave 500 miles of arterial streets.” Schools? Libraries? That sounds like stuff for smart people.

I don’t want to know about this, and luckily, our news doesn’t tell us. Like most Americans, I get my news from TV. Less reading. And our local news does a terrible job of covering local politics and government. In a typical 30 minute broadcast, one study found that exactly one minute was dedicated to politics. And thank God, too. Covering stuff that’s going to cost me money and impact my quality of life might cut into the seven minutes of sports and weather coverage. Here’s what I want in my news: information I could get by guessing that tomorrow will be like today. The weather will probably be within a few degrees and the Cubs probably choked in the 6th. Once that’s covered fill in the rest with ads for storm windows and coverage of people who got shot. Done and done.

Given the choice between paying more attention and paying a few extra dollars a year, I’m taking the latter. People say that you get what you pay for. I pay for not having to pay attention to any of this. Seems like a good deal to me.

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