Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why the healthcare debate suggests that an effective third party would result in an impotent government

As is my wont, I’ve been following the current Senate maneuverings on healthcare, but for different reasons than partisans on either side of this particular policy debate. The difficulties that the Democrats have experienced in expanding a majority vote into a filibuster-proof supermajority present an object lesson for why a two-party system, imperfect as it may be, is likely the best method to ensure that the machinery of government will work at all. It follows that, in the absence of changes in the nature of our political discourse or government institutions (and possibly both), a robust third party would be a civic disaster.

At present, a handful of disaffected Democrats and independents have been able to force extensive changes in a bill that a majority of the legislature supported. For opponents of health care, this state of affairs is a godsend. For proponents of an effective law-making process, it is profoundly disheartening. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of healthcare itself, a minority’s ability to block the will of the majority is fundamentally at odds with how we expect a legislative body to function. Forget the fact that one might oppose healthcare reform as a matter of principle. If one swaps “healthcare reform” with “Bill X,” and Bill X is what one personally believes to be a good policy, then it is difficult to reconcile the majority-rule norms of a democratic republic with what has been going on in the Senate as of late.[1]

The striking thing is that the holdouts on healthcare reform are not members of the formal opposition. They are senators who caucus with the Democratic party. All else being equal, if one swapped Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson with a 20-strong minority third party, securing their votes would likely be impossible (as has been the case with Republicans). And in the current environment, it is unlikely that a third party would be full of pure-hearted, principled, enlightened, commonsensical servants of the people. Instead, it would likely be the same mix of serious policymakers, self-interest crooks, and fame-seeking clowns that are pretty much the norm in any large organization, let alone a national political party. While this might act as a check on the influence of special interests in the legislative process (which is a dubious proposition at best), having more than two political parties would likely prevent many good policies from being enacted in an effort to block a few bad ones.

Some might say that is a good thing, i.e., “That government is best which governs least,” and all that pedantic nonsense. However, people who will embrace that pithy platitude as an actual principle are few and far between.[2] Instead, fine ideas about limited government are conveniently forgotten or glossed over depending on whose ox is being gored. There are big government advocates on either side of the political spectrum, with the most common examples being the left’s advocacy for strong social safety nets and the right’s preference for a robust military. So, regardless of one’s particular belief about what specifically falls within the legitimate exercise of government power, – be it universal health care, the projection of military power, gay rights, gun control, the interdiction of illegal drugs, counterterrorism – once one concedes that the government has some necessary function, then a permanently paralyzed national legislature quickly loses its academic charm.

I recognize there are those who advocate radical reforms, such as commentators who view the Senate as an anti-democratic institution and propose its abolition. Such reforms may very well be necessary. However, a third party alone is no cure to what ails us. A third party wouldn’t make our existing law-making process any more effective, and the development of a third party in the absence of any broader structural reform is likely to make the problem worse.

[1] For those who will reflexively argue that the United States is not a direct democracy, bear in mind that I am discussing how our legislature works, not the country as a whole. And from a constitutional perspective, the dominance of the majority is the rule rather than the exception.

[2] Granted, some libertarians (little L) claim that this is exactly what they are striving for. To the extent that such true-believers exist, wishing to see a viable third party slow down the workings of government, such an act would undermine democratic values. A third-party that exists merely to paralyze the government may be the “best” from an ideological standpoint, but for a minority third party to do so is fundamentally anti-majoritarian and at odds with our underlying democratic principles.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reaction to President Obama's Afghanistan speech

I took some time out from studying last night to watch President Obama’s address on how his administration will pursue the war in Afghanistan. Below are my reactions to his speech. Overall, I was pleased, although there were some areas I wish he had addressed in more depth, such as the details of what a “civilian surge might look like.” Overall, though, my strongest responses were to the following issues.[1]

1) Why We’re Fighting.

I appreciated that he devoted some time at the front end to review the reasons why we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place. When I read a number of pundits and commentators who advocate drawing down our involvement in Afghanistan, the underlying assumption appears to be that the war never should have been fought in the first place. While it would be unfair to lump every critic into that category, the ones who strive for a quick and simple answer to justify their positions tend to take issues that are important to consider – such as the fact that the terrain in Afghanistan makes it difficult to accomplish military operations or the fact that even justified military action may alienate or radicalize locals who oppose having foreign troops in their country toward – and convert those issues into the only ones worth considering. No decision about Afghanistan should fail to consider the difficulties and secondary consequences of military action. However to focus solely on those aspects as if they were the only ones that matters is disingenuous, as it ignores the fact that our war in Afghanistan was a direct response a group that used the territory of that country to plan and launch an attack that killed thousands of civilians. While there are any number of domestic security and diplomatic responses to prevent other attacks, the proper response to punish the group that executed that attack was to launch a war in Afghanistan in order to disrupt Al Qaeda.[2]

One area that I wish the President had emphasized more was why military action against Al Qaeda justifies military action against the Taliban. He casually shifted his focus from one group to the other and back, without clearly articulating the reasons why both are threats. One compelling reason is that the most ideologically-driven Taliban want to institute a government that keeps their country mired in the Middle Ages, restricts religious freedom, and turns women into domestic slaves. Personally, I have some trouble grasping how some of the same parties can criticize President Obama for not taking China to task over its human rights violations (or, for that matter, stridently advocate equal rights here in America), yet refuse to acknowledge that on some level, if we withdrew from Afghanistan on the basis that “the Taliban aren’t Al Qaeda,” we would effectively consign a number of Afghanis to a civil hell if the Taliban seize power again. Considering that at least some of the Aghan population have been the ones who helped us decimate Al Qaeda in that country, there is a moral commitment to those people that cannot be discarded or glossed over just to simplify the anti-war position.

The unfortunate reality is that in a world of limited resources, the fact that a group is despotic and despicable isn’t always sufficient reason to commit our own resources to rooting them out. However, on a more self-interested (and perhaps more cynical) level, the Taliban leadership could have avoided going to war with us by turning over the Al Qaeda leadership 8 years ago. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, if the Taliban turned over Bin Laden tomorrow and sincerely agreed to pursue their program through the democratic process rather than the battlefield, that actually would be a good justification for distinguishing between a war with Al Qaeda and a war with the Taliban. It is a moot point, however, because the Taliban leadership, to my knowledge, have refused to do either. In diplomacy, we pressure countries that work against us. In law enforcement, we arrest people who harbor fugitives or act as an accessory to a crime. And in Afghanistan, the mere fact that the Taliban continues to aid and abet the Al Qaeda leadership that remains in Pakistan is a good reason to continue military action. There might be other, better reasons not to continue the war, but any decision to do so should not be based on some spurious notion that since the Taliban never directly attacked America, any action against them is inherently unjustified.

I’ll take a moment to note that the president’s speech did avoid going too far in the other direction, i.e., acknowledging that to the extent there are members of the Taliban who would “abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens,” we are willing to deal with them. The Taliban is in fact more heterogeneous than commonly depicted in the media. There are elements that belong in the “aiding and abetting camp,” and there are elements that have no real interest in protecting Al Qaeda and are aligned with the Taliban as a matter of pooling resources against common enemies. On a more fundamental level, there are probably a number of lower level leaders and fighters who are aligned with the Taliban because they want to be on the winning side in the conflict, not because they particularly care about imposing a strict Sharia law. I’m assuming that it’s these Taliban-in-name-only elements that the President wants to co-opt.

2) The costs and benefits of the 18-month deadline.

I’m sure many folks on the right will be concerned with one aspect of the President’s plan , the fact that he announced an 18-month timetable for the surge of troops in Afghanistan. The conventional wisdom on the right is that any announcement of a timetable sends the message to our enemies on the battlefield that we are in the fight for a limited amount of time, and that they need only avoid losing for 18 months. There are certainly merits to this position, but like many arguments on the left, it’s an argument that tends to oversimplify the situation in order to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts. If the world just consisted of the Americans and the Taliban/Al Qaeda on a battlefield, I would be squarely on the side of those who argue that putting any deadline on our operations is a horrendous mistake.

However, that is not the case. The situation in Afghanistan includes the Americans and NATO, the Taliban and Al Qaeda we are fighting, and the Afghanistan government and security forces. We are not just fighting for America – we are fighting on behalf of and protecting an Afghani government that some watchdog groups have ranked as the second most corrupt in the world. Because of the points I made above about the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, I believe that, in the short run, the corruption in the Afghan government is a necessary evil in an imperfect world – while it is important to influence Hamid Karzai to operate a legitimate, modern country, that concern is secondary to our military objectives. On the other hand, to the extent that the corruption in the Karzai government makes it easier for the Taliban to maintain their presence in Afghanistan, that corruption actually subverts our military objectives. On a basic level, if the Taliban can offer security and social services in the areas they control, and the officials in Kabul are more concerned with lining their pockets than governing, then we as Americans run the risk of losing a crucial intelligence asset that actually allows us to target our enemies.

The broader implication is that we need to give the Kabul government a strong incentive to behave like a legitimate government that serves the needs of its people. While I am not well-versed enough in diplomacy to know what all the options are, it makes a certain amount of sense to say, “Shape up, or take your chances with the Taliban.” So, while there are legitimate risks to imposing an 18-month deadline, it may be the best way to balance the competing goals of showing strength to the Taliban while showing Karzai that we are also not chumps who will allow his government to continue to undermine us. It is probably not a perfect strategy, because it is not a perfect world. The fact that the Afghanistan strategy was hashed out over several months, and ultimately appears to have the support of the experts on the security side of the equation (i.e., Secretary Gates, General Petraeus, General McChrystal) at least assures me that the costs and risks of such a strategy were fully vetted rather than simplistically adopted or rejected out of hand.

In defense of the hawks, I will be disappointed if President Obama ultimately gives the timeline itself more importance than the situation on the ground. If, in 18 months, the situation has improved, but needs additional time due to unforeseen events, and there is a sufficient stake in our security to continue our involvement, then I would rather him abandon or adjust the deadline rather than embrace a foolish consistency. On this issue, both Obama’s speech and his recent history suggest that he would not adhere to the deadline to the exclusion of reality and good sense. First, the overwhelming majority of his speech was dedicated to detailing the historical background of the Afghanistan war, the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and our security interests involved. When it came to the issues that weigh against continuing the war (e.g., the corruption in the Karzai government), he devoted less time and addressed those subjects more obliquely.[3] That suggests that the security interest trumps the good governance-in-Afghanistan interest. Imposing a timeline isn’t nearly as big a risk as imposing a deadline that ignores reality on the ground; by signaling where his priorities lie, I’m hoping that President Obama knows the difference. Furthermore, President Obama’s track record in domestic politics suggests that his approach to deadlines is, to put it charitably, flexible. While on can argue the merits of that method, it should at least give some comfort to those who fear that the president would remain inflexible on this issue.

3) Putting it in context.

One of the reasons I voted for President Obama is that he seems to have a greater appreciation for the fact that competing priorities need to be balanced. While I don’t believe that the costs of the war alone should dictate how we fight it, I appreciate the fact that President Obama stressed that we live in a nation of limited resources, and that governing is about balancing resources in a number of areas. Too many people on the left or right are unwilling to step back and recognize that simple fact about how government should work. As an aside, I’m well aware that in a democracy, the way we make policy on a national level is for different groups to advocate their position fiercely and vigorously. I also believe that is an effective way for a democracy to function – vigorous advocacy plays an important role as a tool for getting us to the best possible outcome. Where I part company with a number of people is that I believe that, while vigorous advocates play an important role in helping us reaching the best policy, the best policy is not necessarily identical to what the vigorous advocate wants. And the best policy is the one that does the most toward accomplishing important goals while doing the least to harm other important goals.

Unfortunately, instead of accepting that reality, partisans on the left and right tend to get so caught up in their single issue that it ends up skewing their world view. Their important goal becomes the only goal worth pursuing. By that logic, anyone who advocates for a competing goal is necessarily dealing in bad faith. And that tendency is not limited to either side of the political aisle. Some of those who zealously advocate healthcare reform, when confronted with the cost, need to believe that Afghanistan is a wasteful, futile endeavor rather than accept something less than perfection. Some of those who favor the war in Afghanistan, likening it to the Herculean struggles of World War II, need to believe that spending on social programs is un-American, socialistic, and wasteful, unlike the hallowed spending on defense programs. Neither side should abandon their advocacy, but they should be willing to recognize that the job of our government is to decide what the best allocation of resources between those issues is. If thousands of Americans run the risk of dying, whether from preventable diseases or from an airplane crashing into a building, then whatever reduces that risk is, by definition, an important goal.

The bottom line principle for our government needs to be what will benefit the most Americans – not what satisfies some unquantifiable need to either indulge our altruism for the sake of altruism, or “win” a war as a matter of pride rather than security. And by signaling that he understands how these competing priorities coexist, I am reassured that the President will make a good faith effort to balance them appropriately. I can only hope that I’m correct.

[1] I’l add, as a caveat, that I am not a subject matter expert on Afghanistan, national security, or the current state of the Afghanistan war. I strive to make myself as educated as possible, given the limited amount of time I can devote to the subject, but ultimately there will be gaps in my knowledge that bear on the conclusions I make. I welcome any additional information that I’ve overlooked in the comments. That being said, I am more inclined to listen to facts and well-reasoned conclusions rather than platitudes and half-baked analogies.

[2] I make the distinction because uber-hawks tend to believe that only military action the appropriate response to combat terrorism, and uber-doves tend to believe that law enforcement and diplomatic initiatives are the only correct tools for this problem. I tend to believe that the less costly preventive measures are preferable (so long as they work), but that there is an important retributive and deterrent value in using military action where appropriate.

[3] Granted, he did acknowledge the constraints of our resources (e.g., his focus on the financial cost of the war and the implicit acknowledgment that our military efforts rely on a strong domestic economy to underwrite them), but those issues were addressed toward the end, rather than being explicitly used to bolster the case for a timeline.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Releasing the Abu Ghraib photos is a good idea, but it would be the wrong choice

Coming on the heels of Dick Cheney’s disingenuous, absurd attempt to burnish his legacy, it’s useful to consider what the Abu Ghraib abuses meant for this country, and where the most recent Abu Ghraib photos fit into the broader discussion of how we fight against our enemies.

What happened at Abu Ghraib was a despicable blot on our country. In the grand scheme of things, it certainly wasn’t as evil as the acts carried out by some of the erstwhile victims, although it makes my skin crawl a little bit to have to weigh which is worse, sexual humiliation (as occurred at the prison) or kidnapping someone in your neighborhood drilling through their kneecaps (as at least some of the jihadists in Iraq were fond of doing). However, the fact that some of the prisoners had it coming is more of an evasion that anything else.

The practical difficulty with the “had it coming” position is the very fact that when you have a prison in a war zone, there is a real possibility that some of the prisoners may not be guilty of anything particularly heinous. Generally speaking, it’s a necessary but unfortunate consequence that in a war zone you err on the side of security – the standards of proof are lower and the risk of false positives (i.e., a non-guilty person getting locked up) are higher. I characterize this as a necessary consequence because the risks associated with a false negative (i.e., releasing a guilty person on the basis of insufficient evidence) in a war zone are also higher. (As a point of clarification, a war zone is a place where shooting is going on and bombs are going off; it is not a relatively stable suburb or city where such things are the exception rather than the rule.) Therefore, if you routinely turn a blind eye to inhumane treatment of prisoners, there are going to be at least a few who didn’t “have it coming.” If one tacitly approves of prisoner abuse because most prisoners are guilty of something awful, one should at least be forced to grapple with the question of how many potentially innocent abused prisoners it would take before the abuse becomes wrong.

Furthermore, we criticize our own people for their crimes because we, as a country, are supposed to be the better ones. If a dog pees on your rug, you clean it up; if a fully-grown adult pees on your rug, you’re probably going to file a restraining order.

While I do believe that Dick Cheney and his ilk are the cause of what happened at Abu Ghraib, I also believe the official story that what happened there was the work of lower-tier jackasses taking matters into their own hands rather than following any orders to do so. Even so, Dick Cheney’s attempt to distance his policies from the actions of “a few sadistic guards” is, in a word, bullshit. When your national leadership embraces a bunker mentality, and when your country starts being willing to sacrifice constitutional principle on the altar of fear and paranoia, it creates an environment where cruelty to perceived enemies becomes a little less unthinkable. Even if no one gave an order to abuse a prisoner, that’s beside the point. When leaders like Dick Cheney encourage their country to jump directly from “unidentified person located at a suspected terrorist safe-house” to “worst of the worst,” then those leaders ultimately bear the responsibility when the less intelligent ones among us can’t quite make fine procedural distinctions between “harsh interrogation” and sexually abusing prisoners.

Given that very real threat from rhetoric like Cheney’s, there is a persuasive argument for releasing the most recent batch of detainee photos. That argument is not that withholding the photos will prevent the public from finding out the truth of what happened, or that it allows the government to undermine the public debate. The facts of what went on at Abu Ghraib and other prisons are widely known, and to the extent that they are not, the photos are hardly going to contribute anything new. Furthermore, as the ongoing dialogue in the press, and the blogs, and the Facebook postings illustrates, it’s a reasonable conclusion that the public debate has hardly been imperiled.

Instead, releasing those photos would illustrate, in the starkest possible terms, exactly what we become when we lose sight of our principles. Violence, even when justified, takes a psychological toll on the perpetrator. We train our Soldiers and marines and law enforcement officers to use the appropriate violence necessary to defend themselves and others. What we don’t do is train them to be ruthless, amoral murderers – that would make them effective in their jobs, but it would also make them a danger to the community. I wouldn’t particularly care if a mass-murdering radical jihadist was torn apart by wild dogs. But I also don’t want those same dogs in my house. If treating our prisoners humanely is what we as a country need to do in order not to become monsters ourselves, that’s hardly a great sacrifice.

The photos would serve as a useful reminder of the risks involve in encouraging ourselves to bend the rules or toss them out altogether. Words can capture what happened at Abu Ghraib, but they are also more suited to appealing to reason. Many of those in the “pro-torture” camp have already rationalized it to the point that words alone are ineffective in changing hearts and minds. Breaking that complacency would require something that hits them at a gut level – if the photos in dispute are as graphic as has been suggested, they might be the harsh imagery that forces the Dick Cheneys of the world to reconsider their opinions.

That being said, President Obama probably made the right decision by not releasing the photos. Because while Americans would react strongly to the photos, so would the citizens of countries where American soldiers are in harm’s way on a daily basis. If those emotional reactions turn into violent riots, American soldiers will be forced to face that, not the citizens or policy-makers involved in the torture debate. Iraqi citizens, no less than American ones, are subject to very human reactions. If they see something horrible, they’re going to look for someone to blame, just like we have done. And while most of them may not translate those emotional reactions into violent demonstrations, the ones who would turn to violence probably won’t be inclined to make fine distinctions about who is responsible for what’s shown in the pictures. If they see a group of American Soldiers who look just like the guards the Abu Ghraib, rioters probably not going to care whether the ones they attack were the ones who were responsible either.

Soldiers living in Iraqi towns and trying to stabilize that country are not the ones who committed the abuses at Abu Ghraib. No one who actually committed the crimes at Abu Ghraib is being protected by the President’s decision – it’s the folks who have been doing their jobs the right way that we’re concerned about. By and large, they are fundamentally decent men and women, doing the job that they were ordered to do, under circumstances that pose constant threat to their lives. While it’s true that these service members have agreed to put themselves in harm’s way by virtue of their service, the fact that they are willing to die does not give anyone the right to risk those lives needlessly.

For those of us who are trying to push back against the Cheney mentality, the photos would be a great tool. But if using that tool means that an American Soldier has to die – or worse, has to fight back with lethal force against an enraged group of Iraqis – then the human cost of our public debate is too high.

One should always look askance at a government decision to withhold information based on claims of a security risk. Claiming that the free flow of information is too dangerous is a time-tested tool of oppressive governments, who use it as a sham to avoid legitimate criticism of their decisions. That technique has been used so often, in fact, that we are sometimes unwilling to admit that any government decision to withhold information from the public could be grounded in a legitimate security concern. In this particular case, looking at all the circumstances, the President deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially when he very publicly changed his decision after consultation with military leaders. While the military, like any other profession, is not immune to covering its collective ass, that fact alone, without more, doesn’t show that they are fabricating a security threat in this case.

For many, that’s probably an unsatisfactory answer. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world – while we shouldn’t trade our security for our liberty, we also shouldn’t force good people into harm’s way by disclosing the photos just for the sake of disclosure.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Calling a jackass a jackass

The controversy over the New York Post’s "monkey cartoon" reminded me of an odd incident from my high school English class. During a class discussion of Tale of Two Cities, one of my classmates described the scene where two characters robbed a grave, which Dickens described as "fishing with a spade." I think all of us grasped the metaphor fairly easily, so all of us were a surprised when my classmate interpreted this passage as "fishing with a black guy." This left most of us baffled, because we all had a pretty solid understanding that “spade” is a synonym for “shovel.” Most of us were apparently raised in homes without such a finely-honed knowledge of racial slurs, so about half my classmates had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Even if you knew that "spade" is a semi-obscure racial epithet, it made no sense to take that passage completely out of context and then read in a racial interpretation of the language.

Looking back on it, there are two explanations for my classmate’s error. The first is that he had somehow managed to combine being well-read with being completely fucking racist, and "spade" had only one possible meaning to him. The second is that he was just being a jackass, and wanted to get a cheap laugh out of his buddies by sneaking a taboo phrase into the classroom. (I suppose the two possibilities aren’t exactly mutually exclusive.) In any event, he really had to go the extra mile to find attribute some racial character to an innocuous phrase.

I assume that the defenders of the Post cartoon would apply the same argument to the critics who were outraged about its racist connotations. If you think the Post cartoon was obviously just a reference to the New York police shooting a rampaging chimp, then the controversy is merely a case of people being oversensitive about what was intended as a harmless, if poorly-executed, joke. Supposedly, a reasonable person couldn't find the racial component to that cartoon unless, like my jackass classmate, you were straining to find one. Since the average American supposedly wouldn’t get how comparing a person to a monkey might have any racial connotation, the outcry over the cartoon is obviously the overblown hysteria of those damned politically-correct types.

This argument works if the reader wouldn't associate the stimulus bill with Obama, but that's a tough sell. Just about every news story characterized the bill as Obama's project, even if we know he wasn't the author in the strictest sense of the word.

Alternatively, the argument works if, for the average person, Obama's race is such a non-issue, and the use of "monkey" as a racial slur is so obscure, that the average reader wouldn't make the connection. The problem with this position is that it makes the average reader about as oblivious as the character in a scene from Clerks II. (As a warning, this video includes the repeated use of common racial epithets, and is most definitely not safe for any sort of polite company, let alone work.) In the scene, Randall repeatedly uses the term "porch monkey," sincere in his unawareness that the term is a racial epithet, while the other characters frantically point out that he's insulting every black person in earshot. The joke here is that Randall is so clueless that he never even knew the term was a racial slur and has no idea why everyone is freaking out. The humor of this situation comes from the fact that the slur is common enough knowledge that you'd think it impossible not to have picked up on the racial implications of the term.

Defending the Post cartoon relies on a Randall-esque oblivousness on the part of the authors or the intended audience. Some epithets are common enough that even if you’re not well-versed in the history of racial imagery, you have enough common sense to recognize when an image has unfortunate implications. Granted, the chimpanzee shooting was recent, and probably common knowledge on the part of New Yorkers, but since the Post reaches a national audience, the paper probably assumed a little too easily that readers outside New York would immediately think of the subway incident. Speaking for myself, I had no knowledge of the chimp getting shot -- my Google News trackers do not keep me apprised of errant monkey stories, and I tend to ignore news stories that have no chance of impacting me personally. Had I seen the Post cartoon before the public outcry over its connotations, I'd have no idea that it was referencing the chimp incident. Which would pretty much leave me with the "Obama is being compared to a chimp" interpretation, with all of its unfortunate implications readily apparent.

So, much like the case of my errant classmate those many years ago, I’m left wondering how the Post could have been this obtuse. And, just as I ultimately concluded that my classmate was just trying to get a cheap laugh out of sneaking an obscure racial epithet into the classroom, I’m pretty sure that the Post authors were jackasses -- they likely understood the potential racist undertones in the cartoon and got a kick out of trying to sneak it past the radar.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I learned something today: Don't eat at Mama's Boy.

Dear Mama’s Boy waitress,

You might be confused about why I left you a $1 tip for an $18 meal. After all, I’m sure people usually come to this place and gush about the unique atmosphere, which is so completely different from, and therefore much more awesome than, those crappy chain restaurants like Waffle House and IHOP. I’m sure that among those of you who share the tip, I’m now known as the cheap bastard who doesn’t appreciate the wonder that is Mama’s Boy. Or maybe I’m just the cheap bastard who doesn’t appreciate you. Let me assure you: I do appreciate both your individual contribution and the collective efforts of the Mama’s Boy staff to combine decent food with terrible service.

First, we waited an hour. Generally, I’m a reasonable guy, and I understand that it might take a while to accommodate a group of eight people. Then again, several groups of four came in after us, and got seated before us. Since all you did was put two four-person tables together anyway, I’m not entirely sure what took so long. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against the waitress – it’s not like you control the tables.

Once we sit down, I’m not really that impressed with the menu. In fact, the menu itself is irritating me. As I’m reading through the seven or eight choices, it becomes clear to me that you actually have three dishes: eggs and cheese with a biscuit, eggs with salmon, and granola hippie crap. (On that last one, I know you have a more detailed description of it on the menu, but trust me – anything where you lead off with granola is your standard hippie crap.) The fact that you have the items in those dishes arranged in slightly different ways doesn’t make them different meals. The egg and cheese sandwich is the exact same fucking thing as the egg and cheese with a biscuit – you just put the eggs inside the biscuit.

Perhaps if I had been sitting here thinking, “Gee, I’m in a hurry, I can’t take the time to eat the eggs and the biscuit separately,” I’d see why it’s worth it to pay a couple extra bucks for the “sandwich” option. Then again, if I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t have waited an hour for the opportunity to read this menu. So really, crap like this really just comes across as insulting to my intelligence.

And while we’re on the subject of the menu – can you folks update the damned thing? The menu says that the “breakfast scramble” comes with cheese grits. I grew up in Georgia, so I’d probably enjoy the cheese grits, even if that’s not what drew me to Mama’s Boy. However, if I had been looking forward to the cheese grits, I’d be a little disappointed when the cheese grits came out as hash browns. This obviously wasn’t a mistake with my meal, but a mistake with the menu, since the guy across from me ordered the same meal (which is bound to happen when you have only seven meals on your menu) and also received it sans cheese grits. Apparently, the cheese grits, while on the menu literally, where never on the menu figuratively. Errors like these make me think that you guys aren’t really a detail-oriented business. First it’s the menu being inaccurate, then the cook isn’t washing his hands, and the next thing you know, there’s a fingernail mixed in with the granola hippie crap.

A more substantive menu misrepresentation was the corned beef hash. It has frequently been my experience that when I go to a highly recommended little diner like this, I’m probably going to leave hungry. After all, to maintain that trendy atmosphere, you’ve got to find money in the budget for pretentious art work, and nothing makes that easier than overpricing a small portion of food. Having learned this lesson several times in the past, I ordered an extra side dish of corned beef hash.

Ah, corned beef hash – tastes great, sounds like something you made by throwing together the random crap left in your pantry. This is a dish that requires little to no effort coming out delicious – you can get it out of a can, and it’s usually pretty awesome. So I’m a little impressed that Mama’s Boy managed to ruin it by taking a plate of hash browns, throwing in about four chunks of corned beef, and listing it on the menu as “corned beef hash.” While not as egregiously misleading as calling hash browns “cheese grits,” you have given me hash browns with corned beef chunks, not corned beef hash. Maybe studying the law has made me oversensitive to misuses of the English language, but you folks are pushing it.

Now, all of these issues aside, I'd still be perfectly willing give you a nice tip for good service. I’m not the kind of petty asshole who would take out my frustrations on the waitress for things she couldn’t affect. I’m more like this kind of petty asshole.

I’m no Steve Buscemi. I’ll put aside my problems with tipping in general, and I’ll do the 15% if you do a competent job. Not even anything special. Still, maybe you could have come by the table within 5-10 minutes of us sitting down. This is a small diner with about ten tables total, hence the hour-long wait. To attend to the eight or nine different groups of people eating, there are at least two other waitresses that I’ve seen, a hostess, a host, and a server. Shit, there’s almost the same number of employees in this place as there are customers. Frankly, I'm confused about what’s keeping you.

We waited about fifteen minutes to get water after being seated. It was nice of you to put carafes of water in front of us several minutes before bringing any glasses with which to drink it; that way, we could anticipate how great the water would be eventually. (Actually, come to think of it, many of us were hung over, so this might actually be less “nice” and more “cruel.”) All the same, I would have preferred you bring the water glasses first, and then the carafes to refill it.

Then again, since your hostess came by to apologize for the lack of silverware, maybe you didn’t have the glasses available. (And seriously, you folks ran out of silverware. You’re a restaurant. Exactly how low were your expectations for yourselves that you thought you’d only need enough silverware for one meal, rather than different patrons eating several meals in succession?)

Also, you skipped me at first when you were taking drink orders. You went directly from the person on my left to the person on my right. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but you’re already making some sort of salary for just showing up here -- the tip is for you not doing things to piss me off. And you can meet my low bar for not getting pissed off by just doing your job competently.

Near as I can tell, you weren’t really even doing that. The hostess brought us silverware. Some other dude brought out the food. Your job appeared to consist mainly of taking our order, then emerging from the kitchen at random intervals to peer over the crowd, looking lost, without actually coming by the table to check on us. I’m simply baffled at what you might have been doing at the time. But I am fairly certain what you weren’t doing – earning a tip.

I’ve actually been more generous than Mr. Buscemi there would have been. I very often tip waitresses who refill my coffee, say, once. You offered to refill my coffee at the end of the meal. At that point, you probably would have been better off not reminding me that you’d neglected to do that at any time in the previous thirty minutes when it actually mattered.

Yes, the food was fine. Your biscuits were delicious. Everything else sucked. And since the biscuits lasted about 45-50 seconds and the stuff that sucked continued off and on for an hour, I’m afraid you’ve become one more data point in my research project documenting how small, independently-owned dinners suck. Good day, miss, and be glad I didn’t have any loose change handy.

Quick word of explanation

By way of introduction, I'll explain the title of this blog. I'm a pretty even-tempered guy, and I like to look at all the sides of an issue before I make a decision. When it comes to politics, I'm much more liberal than my conservative friends, and much more conservative than my liberal friends. That pretty much makes me everybody's asshole.