Review: National Philharmonic plays Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, Dvorak’s 8th Symphony

Today Haochen Zhang played the second of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with the National Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore.  The program also included Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, composed in Bohemia shortly after the striking success of his 7th.

Zhang is a Van Cliburn winner and played like it; the orchestra responded in kind.  I found only one tiny flaw, and that not, from my recollection of various recordings, uncommon: at fortissimo the orchestra did once or twice simply drown the sound of the piano.  Though I was also in the second balcony.

He also performed – not on the program but as an encore to the first half – a solo piano piece which I did not recognize but believe by length and form was a movement of a sonata, perhaps Schumann or Brahms.

The Dvorak unfortunately did not come up to the same standard.  The first movement was clean, beginning beautifully and remaining solid.  The second opened in unremarkable fashion, but when the emphasis was in the brass, the string sound was muddy, damaging the force of the crescendos marking the halfway point and again near the end.  This might again be due to my position in the balcony, but here I suspect not.  The orchestra handled the waltz opening the third movement wonderfully, but the more energetic second portion felt cluttered.  In the final allegro the opening fanfare was good but the transition notes to the main portion were awkwardly phrased; the movement was otherwise solid but the brass once again had a tendency to run over the strings a bit, although the finale came together just about perfectly.

My impression was that the orchestra – or the conductor – Piotr Gajewski – overdoes everything just a little bit.  Loud brass a bit too loud, the slow a bit too slow, the energetic with more focus on energy than precision.  Altogether a good concert, but not a great one.

Three Paragraphs on Health Care Law

I support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. In the mean time, or if that proves unworkable, I would strongly suggest amendment or repeal both of parts of the ACA and of other Federal regulations which have tended to make the health care process more and more a hassle, and especially those parts which make unwarranted demands on citizens. Additionally I would like to see the government pursue a policy of opening health care as much as possible to the free market: expanding options for insurance across state lines, cutting out subsidies for special interests such as insurance companies, and removing corporate versus personal distinctions in regards to, for instance, tax law.

The Affordable Care Act is un-Constitutional.  It was passed on a strictly partisan basis.  It has not met the goals with which it was advanced, either the well-publicized claim that it would preserve then-current insurance plans or the obvious and stated goal of saving people money on healthcare.  Premiums have gone up for health insurance- as was in fact predicted beforehand by many who did not support the bill – and it is not clear that overall any significant improvement has occurred either in quality of or access to actual health care.  Certain parts of the scheme have not worked as planned.  Moreover the regulations imposed in enforcing the bill have so far blatantly disregarded the Constitutional and traditional American protections of the private conscience.  The ACA has been so unpopular since its introduction, and more so since its passage, that the Republican Party has been running virtually on a repeal platform alone and through three elections has been successful to varying degrees in so doing.  It is barely even a “done deal”: its full requirements were not in effect at the commencement of President Obama’s second term.  The point is this: while it is understandable that some would decide that – despite these drawbacks – the ACA is preferable to the state of affairs before it became law, it does not make sense to consider repeal efforts surprising, inexplicable, or unconnected to the desires of the electorate.  I would even add that the potential for repeal illustrates why we should not hand more power to government than absolutely necessary.  What the strong arm of the government can “give”, it can most definitely take away again on a whim.

However, the repeal of the ACA should be done in a straight-forward manner.  The current effort to mangle the law by budget resolutions and amendments is not the way the repeal ought to be achieved.  I linked and support the bill Senator Cruz sponsored to repeal it properly.  I do not support the budget chicanery (on this or any other of the issues it is so often invoked).  Lincoln is supposed to have said that the best way to get rid of bad law is to enforce it thoroughly – the implication being, of course, that enforcement would result in increased public displeasure with the measure – and with laws not blatantly immoral this is the method I would endorse as well.  Admittedly some of the ACA provisions, at least as currently regulated, are such – but not, that I can tell, the ones targeted at the moment.  The question of the morality of a law which is illegal by higher law – I did earlier and seriously call the ACA un-Constitutional – is a difficult one.  To take the possible counter-example most easily proposed: what if the higher law is itself immoral?  I do not believe this of the Constitution as currently amended (currently interpretations I will pass by), but the principles involved are certainly enough to give one pause.)

Five Focus Points for Policy

One of the things I discovered fairly early on was that my particular items of discontent with the political status quo were not always shared by everybody or even anybody else.  A slightly later discovery was that what you discussed led people to assume other things about your opinions.  And at some point, I noticed that popular opinions could prioritize a discussion.  In general I take a somewhat cynical view of politics, so where the discussion is already focused where I would like to see change, I am happy enough to add to the volume there and leave other things alone for a while.  On other items, I see a problem, but do not like the dominant ideas behind possible solutions being discussed: here it is easiest to let things go by, especially when I do not know enough to say anything particularly helpful.

However, I am here taking one post – possibly others in the future – to discuss some of the major problems I would like to see specifically addressed by the governments of the United States at their various levels.  (Though I do not expect to be even widely read.)  These in general can be summed up by saying I would like to see these entities due their proper jobs without prejudice but with regard for reality.  A key premise is that a good number of things which are not being done, or are being done badly, ought to be done, but the central government – especially its bureaucracies – should not be trying to do them.  Particular ideas I have range from the vaguely reasonable to the highly unlikely to the ideologically sound but ridiculous to outright dreams.  Despite being generally in favor of limited, not to say inactive, government, the activity of change in most of these areas would be massive.  I have selected five broad categories.

Citizenship and Identity

The Constitution of the United States does not offer any particular definition of citizenship, leaving it at the time of ratification in the hands of the various States, either explicitly or implicitly.  Various laws and amendments have altered the situation somewhat, yet the legal situation with regard to the status of various groups as “Americans” remains problematic.  Speaking broadly, there are three groups not satisfactorily accounted for with regards to identity, property, rights, and status: Native American tribes and residents of non-State “territories”; residents of the United States whose presence is formally illegal; and would-be immigrants.

The first group are descendants of residents of territories annexed to the United States by force, and their resulting status has not really yet ever been satisfactory either in moral sense or one of national identity.  The problem of the Native American tribes, the reservations, and faulty administration is well-known if rarely discussed; the problem of the territories mostly forgotten.  But this is a lot of people to leave in a second-class position.  Puerto Rico would, formally joining as a State, be roughly the 30th most populous, with corresponding numbers of representatives, actual senators, and so forth.  To point out the problem is not the same as determining a solution, of course.

The second and third groups have distinct problems but can in some sense be taken together: in each case these are people who (largely) would like to live as Americans but are not.  Immigration policy, as I understand it, currently favors those already “skilled”, with a reluctant acceptance of some few refugees, making the boast on the foundation of the Statue of Liberty rather hollow.  Meanwhile various persons have in fact managed to live in the country without formal status.  I am not opposed to a distinction between resident and citizen, which seems to me the simplest solution to both issues.  The problem of how many immigrants might actually be absorbed – mainly in terms of provision for their life – is a vexed one I am not prepared to hazard an answer to.  I will not here even speculate on where responsibilities might properly fall.

Welfare, Insurance, and Medical Care

The government of the United States has over the past years grievously overreached its appointed role.  Various programs such as Social Security and Medicare have no basis in the Constitution, and a great many other regulations are dubious.  Most recently the “Affordable Care Act” attempted to restructure the provision of medical insurance, and among various measures which have mainly resulted in cost increases included a mandate of purchase: among problems with the law the unfounded audacity of the mandate overrides even the mere philosophical offense to principles of free exchange.  To say this should all be done away with is hardly a revolutionary opinion.

The difficulty comes in the intermediate steps.  While some argue for sweeping all these away at once, and letting a single shock then subside into a more normal situation, I think there is a difficulty in that some of these programs now have long standing.  Provision for persons who have planned with the handouts provided do need to be made, because in some sense Social Security, for instance, is a “common law” guarantee at this point.  Similarly, each individual State government – and more local authorities – ought to examine whether the case for providing such “social” insurance programs (which most States’ constitutions, unlike the Federal one, seem readily to authorize – and where they do not, well, State constitutions are regularly amended) is a good one.

Taxes

The Federal tax code is an immense collections of regulations at this point – a puzzle, really.  There are a great number of taxes, which is one problem; and they are accompanied by an even greater number of exceptions, which is another; and the taxes collected do not in fact cover the government’s expenditures, which is perhaps the worst indictment.  This is not a simple problem to solve – I have my own pet scheme, as I think everyone does, but it presents various difficulties itself – but ought to be addressed on more than a continuing patchwork basis.

Regulations and Bureaucracy

The Federal government has created, in the pursuit of solutions to many problems (many of which are not even legally its business), a whole host of agencies, bureaus, and departments.  I have come to believe it was an oversight in the original Constitution to not specify more clearly the nature and limitations of this “fourth branch” of the government – while it was not the Founders’ intentions to produce anything like the sprawl we have today, even the business of the government authorized by that document must be done by someone, and those persons organized.  An amendment, or several, I believe, are called for, which ought to do the following: state specifically which spheres the Federal government may operate in; authorize those existing departments (or new ones, though I believe ideally this would result in considerable consolidation and virtually no expansion) which are necessary to those spheres; detail processes for creating any other departments as necessary by technological advancement; and provide explicit authorization and methods for Congressional review, or even preliminary approval, of any rules promulgated.

Privacy and Conscience

It is becoming more and more common for politicians, courts, media, and other influential parties to view religion dubiously – or in fact any determined moral stand on whatever grounds.  This is seen generally in two legal trends: first, legislatures and especially judiciaries take pre-emptive action on socially disputed actions, on the acting assumption that government is the highest law.  Second, many advocate for severely limiting all religious expression, and clamor for private persons to be held to certain standards which are fitting and necessary only for public officers.  This is particularly worrying in that expressions challenged are often on a natural reading of laws expressly legally protected, but many persons seem unconcerned that this is the case, and it seems to me more and more surprised that anyone should even think it is the case.

On the other hand, a growing portion of the populace is engaged in or approving of behaviors traditionally found morally heinous in the United States.  Unsurprisingly, reactionary movements to use government to suppress such behaviors follow close behind, not asking careful questions but taking emotional stances.  That the stances taken emotionally are often less absurd than the things reacted against can often be easily shown, but does not justify the means and method.  Even the exact ends ought to be more severely examined before the power of the state is called in.  The problem should not be exaggerated, nor should the extent of governmental power (and socially weighty opinions) brought to bear in favor of perversions be understated: on both sides political force is brought in to impose, and public opinion sought in order to to shame, the perceived offender.

Very rarely does anyone seem to look for a secular accommodation – which is to say an acceptance of society shared and shareable by those with whom we disagree or even those whom we dislike, a removal of governmental (especially Federal) force from questions at issue.  It is of course no credit to any society when significant moral matters are shrugged off: but it would be, at the moment, far better to let certain things go than to risk nation-wide formal endorsements of villainy.  I would rather have no credit than gross moral debt.  If the cost of avoiding embrace of evil is that praise of some good things is also lost, I will accept that trade, because I do not believe government, while necessary and an inherent good, is perfectible, and so I do not demand perfection.  Practically, if stability can be maintained, it would still be better than a descent into civil wars of irreligion, which is, if history is any guide, the current trend shaped by our power struggles.