20 August 2009

Old World v. New World – wines, that is!

Today I'm serving as substitute blogger for my good friend Cecilia Dominic the Random Oenophile, who decided to go chase tropical storms for her vacation. She will be cross-posting this entry on her blog, which you should read anyway because of its wealth of wine and food info. She usually recounts the fine bi-weekly wine tastings at one of our mutual favorite joints, JavaMonkey in Decatur, as well as her other oenophilic and gastronomic adventures. If you haven't been there, I strongly encourage you to go check it out – great wines and beer, excellent food, and oh yes, fine Free Trade coffee by the cup or by the pound.

Anyway, on to the wines. This week's tasting was billed as an “Old World v. New World” matchup, but of course Jess (the proprietor of said JavaMonkey) wanted to throw in a wrinkle, so the tasting was essentially a blind one, with the exception of identifying the predominant varietals of each wine. That is, we got a sheet with the six wines listed, two chardonnays, two sangioveses, and two syrahs, but that was it. We were left to deduce which wine was from the Old World (which, by the rules of the tasting, pretty much meant Europe) and which was from the New World.

Our first pairing was the aforementioned chardonnays. Chardonnay #1 was grassy, perhaps slightly vegetal (but in a good way – maybe a hint of green pepper?), with some overtones of pink grapefruit, a little lemony also, and it had some funkiness (again in a good way) and a nice long finish. This one was a double thumbs-up from all tasters with whom I spoke, and was one of my faves. I guessed this as an Old World (hereinafter OW v. NW).

Chardonnay #2 had more of a green apple flavor up front (thanks to Kurt for identifying the correct apple varietal). It definitely showed some oak barrel aging (unlike Chard #1), and had a slightly shorter finish than #1. It was also a bit sweet, almost a candy apple flavor but not quite that sweet. It was good, but the other Chard was my preference. I guessed NW.

Sangiovese #1 was a light to medium bodied red, very smooth, with a slightly tart flavor – sour cherries was the best description I could come up with. It had some “legs” - for the uninitiated, “legs” refer to the coating trickles left on the inside of the glass after swirling the wine up the sides of the glass. The viscosity of the wine thus observed is a rough measure of its alcohol content (or ABV), i.e., the longer the legs, the higher the alcohol content. As a general rule, OW wines are lower ABV than NW wines. My guess here was OW.

Sangiovese #2 was darker, very big and punch on the nose with more legs. It was a little “hot” (in terms of ABV, not just temperature, although I could have done with having the reds served closer to “cellar temperature of about 65 degrees Fahrenheit). It was chewy and sticky, definitely peppery, with more of a dark cherry flavor. I picked up some tannins (but not too many); others noted a hint of anise. I guessed NW.

Syrah #1 was a little hot on the front of my tongue, and it was hard at first for me to pick out any distinct flavors as the high ABV smacked me upside the palate at the beginning. I eventually settled on “dark berries” as the flavor-in-chief, with some chocolaty aspects as well. There was definitely a lot going on with this wine, although it was just a bit too fruit-forward and high intensity for my tastes – I'm guessing, however, that this would have been Cecilia's favorite of the evening. I guessed NW.

Syrah #2 was perhaps my favorite wine of the evening. It was dark and slightly sweet, with big legs, but not quite as in-your-face as #1. I got some dark berries again – but that's characteristic of the varietal – maybe blackberries in this one, or perhaps blueberries also. There were also some tannins and a little minerality, but not so much as to overwhelm the other flavors. I also got a hint of anise on the sides of my tongue as I tasted this one. I guessed OW.

Now for the revealing of the hidden truths. First, I must pat myself on the back for going 6 for 6 on the OW v. NW identifications (not that they were particularly difficult). Here's the full lineup:

Chardonnay #1 was Verget Macon-Villages 2007, Burgundy (France)

Chardonnay #2 was Mark West Central Coast (California) 2008

Sangiovese #1 was Stella 2007 from Puglia, Italy

Sangiovese #2 was Niner 2006 from Paso Robles, California

Syrah #1 was Clos LaChance Black-Chinned Syrah 2006, from California's Central Coast

Syrah #2 was Saint Cosme 2008, Cotes-du-Rhone (France)

I hadn't thought about this until now as I was looking over the lineup, but Jess (and Joe, wine rep from Prestige Wines, who is always a fine source of knowledge) chose all of their New World wines from one specific region, the Central Coast of California (Paso Robles is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the Central Coast). Very sneaky of them...

That's my report from the wine tasting. Thanks to CD for allowing me to fill in for her in her absence. And thanks to you readers for letting my indulge this diversion into another of my life's passions. Salut!

19 August 2009

The only thing we have to fear is...that other guy!

I know I've written about this before, but it's time once again to plumb the Jungian depths of the fear of the other, or maybe I should capitalize that: The Other. I'm referring to the virulently angry protesters at the various Congressional town hall meetings over the past few weeks. Of course, much of these protests are of the “Astroturf” variety (i.e., fake grass roots), and right-wing bloviators are responsible for stirring up much of the vitriol on display. However, there are some genuinely angry, genuinely afraid people out there.

What are they afraid of? Are they really afraid of reforms to the health insurance industry? Are they afraid of a public option for health care, or of losing tax deductibility for employer-provided health insurance benefits? If they are, these aren't the issues they're articulating (and I use the word generously), at least not in most of the news clips I've seen of the protests. Speaking of which, Barney Frank delivered a fine smackdown of a nutty protester at a recent town hall meeting, as shown on this YouTube clip.

No, what they're afraid of, quite specifically, is President Obama and his plans to implement a “Nazi” government. That's right, it's apparently Summertime for Hitler and America. Protesters are feverishly brandishing posters of Obama with a Hitler-esque mustache (I suppose they chose Nazis instead of Communists because a Stalin mustache just looks too silly on anyone) and chanting all manner of nonsensical anti-reform slogans. Oh yeah, and they're starting to bring guns to the protests too.

Now, last I checked, the Nazis didn't offer universal health coverage. Neither did they make many attempts to rein in pharmaceutical costs. So the Nazi comparisons aren't meant to be point-by-point accurate historical parallels. What the protesters are trying to say, as best as I can figure out, is that just as Hitler was evil, Obama also is evil, and he's trying to turn America into some sort of evil shell of its former self. If you listen to the protesters, you'll hear them say things like “This isn't the America I know and love”.

What is the America they know and love? Perhaps the growing popularity of the AMC series Mad Men might help explain this. The America these folks know and love is the pre-Woodstock, pre-Stonewall America, the Eisenhower Happy Days years, when men were men and women were women and blacks knew their place and gays were firmly locked in their closets.

To put it another way, these folks are afraid of Obama because he's not like them. And I don't mean because he's Harvard-educated, or because he has a hot wife. He's not like them because he's a black guy. That's it, plain and simple, and if you know me at all you know I hate simplifying complex issues down to simple charges like “racism”, but in this case, I think that's at least what's at the root of all this. Have you noticed that every single one of the protesters featured on the news just happens to be white? But don't believe me – check out the most trusted man in news for yourself on this point.

Back to Hitler - if it's Summertime for Hitler and America, is the heartland happy and gay? Well, maybe in Iowa, and in a few New England states that have recently legalized gay marriage. Aside from the health care reform debate, however, nothing stirs up the vitriol of some parts of the populace like the gay marriage debate. This is another one in which opponents of reform decry the destruction of our society, the end of America, etc. etc. if the reformers get their way. The legalization of gay marriage would supposedly crumble the entire foundation of our country. How this would happen (outside of the presumed wrath of a vengeful, homophobic Divine Being), I'm not sure. Since I don't believe in a vengeful, homophobic Divine Being, I'm not too worried about that outcome. I am, however, deeply troubled by the discrimination against a whole lot of people in our country simply because they love certain other people and want to spend a lifetime together in a committed, loving partnership. What's so scary about that?

What's so scary about gays, and blacks, and Hispanic immigrants, and all the rest of the bogeymen conjured up by these protesters, is that they're NOT LIKE US. That is to say, they're THE OTHER. According to depth psychology, we fear that which is different from us - or alternatively that which represents some shadow aspect of our true selves, and then we find an out-group, an other or set of others, and then we project all of our fears and hatred onto that group. It really doesn't matter what that Other group is, as long as we can clearly identify and in turn vilify that group. I've written about this before on this blog so I won't go on too long about it now. Just realize that this is what's really at work in these seemingly irrational protests – the fear of the other. Do we really need to fear that which is different from ourselves? No, what we need to fear is that element within ourselves that we in turn project onto the other. As Carl Jung wisely noted, "The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others."

11 August 2009

Healthcare Boondoggle

Most casual observers have no concept of the real cost of our current, primarily employer-based, health care system. There are the structural and competitive “costs”, such as the inability to change jobs without fear of losing coverage (or not having “pre-existing conditions” covered). This obviously limits our overall productivity as a society, because individuals are not always truly free to move from one employer to another in order to raise their income or to work in a new position that would enhance their productivity vis-à-vis the economy as a whole. It also punishes entrepreneurialism, as smaller companies do not have the same purchasing power as larger ones. Also, since experts often cite small businesses as the main engine driving job creation, this system inhibits overall job growth.

Important as these points are, they still do not address the massive transfer of money from certain individuals to others that occurs in the employer-based healthcare system. You've probably heard protestors decrying the proposed “government takeover” of healthcare, along with their demands to not have any of their tax dollars spent to pay for someone else's healthcare. But there's the rub: When it comes to employer-based health insurance, our tax dollars already are being spent for others' healthcare, and to a mind-boggling degree.

When a company pays for health insurance premiums for its employees (in whole or in part), that payment, that benefit to the employee, is not taxed. That is, the employee is earning a benefit (health insurance) in exchange for his or her work, but those earnings are not being taxed as they would be if the employee were simply earning cash. Other individuals who purchase health insurance on their own (i.e., not through their employer) do not enjoy this same tax subsidy. (There are some tax deductions available for some self-employed persons, and the cost of insurance can sometimes be included in itemized deductions, but these situations are limited.)

Put another way, if your company paid you more money, and in exchange you had to go purchase your own health insurance, you would have to pay taxes on those extra earnings. Conceptually speaking, when some individuals in our society pay fewer taxes than they might otherwise (if there were no special benefits or deductions written into the tax code), the rest of us have to pick up the bill for the unrealized taxes – and by “the rest of us” I mean either us right now in order to balance the budget, or some future “us” down the road in order to pay off accumulated deficits.

The bottom line is this: Because of our current employer-based healthcare system, I as a taxpayer am already subsidizing the health insurance costs of everyone who receives health insurance through their employer. That's right, my tax dollars (and yours too) are helping to pay for the “private” health insurance of millions upon millions of Americans. How much does this subsidy cost, you might ask? According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service in late 2008 (drawing on calculations done by the Joint Committee on Taxation), the estimated calendar year 2007 tax expenditures for the employer coverage exclusion were $143.3 billion for the federal income tax and $100.7 billion for FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes, for an annual total of $244 billion. Note that this is only the federal tax subsidy; there are also tax benefits to be had under state and local income tax laws.

What's more, this tax subsidy disproportionately benefits the wealthiest individuals in our society, because the higher your marginal tax rate, the more benefit you gain from the non-taxability of employer-paid health insurance contributions. That's right, my taxes and your taxes help pay for the super-premium health insurance plans of the top executives in the land.

This system hasn't always been around; in fact, it was only through changes to the federal tax code in 1954 that this system became cemented in our laws. While some would argue that we shouldn't change anything about our healthcare system because everything seems to work so well the way it is, I would argue that the tax exemption of employer-based health insurance results in a perverse manipulation of healthcare funding, and is a ridiculous boondoggle whose time should now be brought to an end.

Mind you, I'm not arguing (here, at least) about whether we should replace the current system with a robust public option, a full-on single payer system, or a network of private insurance providers. Adding transparency and making consumers aware of the true costs of their healthcare would most likely yield overall healthcare cost savings, but that's only a corollary benefit in my mind. I'm simply saying that we need to remove the current tax boondoggle and shift toward much greater transparency in the health insurance system.

09 August 2009

Gog, Magog, and Bush

I've been laying off of blogging, particularly political musings, for a while now, as I'm trying to work on a larger project. Of course, that's getting nowhere fast, and one astute observer has suggested that I ought to at least throw in a few smaller projects to keep my musing and writing skills at some level of competence. I had been uninspired about this possibility until very recently.

So what was it that drew me out of my slumber? Was it outrage over the insanity of the far-right belligerence about health insurance reform (quoting Charles Blow of NYT, “Belligerence is the currency of the intellectually bankrupt.”), or the shameless funding of politicians on both sides of the aisle by pharmaceutical and other corporate players in the health care realm? No, but at least I got in a quick shout-out on those points.

In fact, it's the revelation, not altogether recent but only now getting significant airplay Stateside, about President George W. Bush and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You remember Bush, the seemingly uncomplicated guy who made decisions of national and international import based on his gut rather than his head, and trusted in the leadings of his perception of God through Jesus Christ to guide his footsteps. Apparently we never realized just how much he was consulting the Good Book for foreign policy guidance.

According to several published reports, President Bush called French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 to seek his support for invading Iraq. According to Thomas Romer, a theologian at the University of Lausanne who claims that French officials turned to him for help in decoding Bush's cryptic Biblical references, Bush cited a prophecy from the book of the prophet Ezekiel (later cited in Revelation) about Gog and Magog, two warrior nations whose movements in the Middle East would foreshadow the Rapture and coming Apocalypse. According to Romer, Bush said to Chirac:

Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This may seem simply an odd, offbeat, obscure bit of Biblical end-times ranting (if it had come from anyone other than the leader of the free world and the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military power the world has ever known), but I can assure you from my days in the evangelical camp that it's standard eschatological fare, popularized by such very well-known authors as Hal Lindsey and championed by the likes of Pat Robertson.

I remember sitting in a lovely Stockholm cafe in the summer of 2006 enjoying a great dinner with a couple of my spouse's Swedish relatives, trying to explain to them the reasons behind America's foreign policy in the Middle East. As I described American evangelicals' obsession with eschatological prophecies and their resultant unquestioning support for Israel and concomitant opposition to Islam, and the expectation that Jesus would return to Earth and gather all of his followers up into heaven once the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, my Swedish relatives began snickering. When I told them that I had read estimates that fully one-quarter to one-third of all Americans actually believed in this one particular literalist interpretation of Biblical prophecies, they openly guffawed. But when I told them that our President and Commander-in-Chief was one of those believers, they fell silent. At the time I was only speculating that this insane religious worldview was part of President Bush's foreign policy motivation. Now, unfortunately, I find my speculations confirmed. If anything could encourage me to believe in a benevolent deity, the fact that the world survived eight years of the Bush Administration might be it.

References and links – check these out:

You can read the original report by French journalist Jacques Sterchi of La Liberté here (original is in French; use Google Translator if your French comprehension, like mine, is a bit rusty). An article by visiting Yale professor Clive Hamilton, in which he draws in the connection of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's practice of embellishing military memos with quotes from Scripture (presumably to help persuade Bush), can be found here. The original cover sheets of the Worldwide Intelligence Updates produced by the Secretary of Defense's office are available here – view these only when you're prepared to be thoroughly appalled.