Friday, February 29, 2008

A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

BBC picked up on this one and so can I (link):

I haven't really had a shower for four days, I haven't washed my clothes for a week. It's very nice to be sort of a normal person for once...

--Prince Harry on his military service in Afghanistan

Alternate headline: The Great Unwashed.

More on the Long Line of Dead People

Flipping through the March/April issue of FP magazine last night, I found myself recalling the passage at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, where Leonatus asks the messenger:

How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?

And the messenger replies:

But few of any sort, and none of name.

—William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing I,1

"None of name," humph. So some dead are deader than others?

Uncharacteristically, Shakespeare foregoes the opportunity to deploy the anonymous dead as an occasion for pathos. He could have echoed Horace:

Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
Multi; sed omnes illacrimabiles
Urguentur ignotique sacro

—Horace, Odes IV, IX, 25

That is:

Brave men there were before Agamemnon,
Not a few; but, all unwept and unknown, are lost in the distant night,
since they are without a divine poet to chronicle their deeds.

—Trans. ?? Not me?

Which gets an homage from Byron;

Brave men were living before Agamemnon
And since, exceeding valorous and sage,
A good deal like him too, though quite the same none;
But then they shone not on the poet's page,
And so have been forgotten:

—George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, I, v

Anyway, FP Magazine: this stuff all came back to mind last night when I read the answers (at page 94) to the monthly FP quiz. We are told that “it’s believed that two thirds of the world’s deaths…go undocumented.” And I remembered Jill Leovy’s remarkable piece about murders in Los Angeles County (link):

Detectives routinely admitted that the names and ages they had recorded for victims were, at best, conjecture: Many victims, including illegal immigrants or career criminals, had lived entirely underground.

For contrast, I remembered how I went trekking through the old Austria-Hungarian Empire with Mrs. B, in search of her ancestors: how many records we found, how detailed and how carefully preserved, even to the listing of children who died in infancy.

But among memories, perhaps most famous of all:

1 Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
2 The Lord hath wrought great glory by them
through his great power from the beginning.
3 Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
men renowned for their power,
giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
4 Leaders of the people by their counsels,
and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people,
wise and eloquent are their instructions:
5 Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
6 Rich men furnished with ability,
living peaceably in their habitations:
7 All these were honoured in their generations,
and were the glory of their times.
8 There be of them, that have left a name behind them,
that their praises might be reported.
9 And some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished, as though they had never been;
and are become as though they had never been born;
and their children after them.
10 But these were merciful men,
whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
11 With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and
their children are within the covenant.
12 Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.
13 Their seed shall remain for ever,
and their glory shall not be blotted out.
14 Their bodies are buried in peace;
but their name liveth for evermore.
15 The people will tell of their wisdom,
and the congregation will shew forth their praise.

--Ecclesiasticus 44:1

I can remember hearing this read by a 13-14 year old girl at a school commencement, going on 32 years ago. Obviously made an impression.

Youwalkaway and Condoflip

I hadn't been intending to blog this because I didn't feel any need to give these guys more publicity,* but since it's in the NY Times (link), I guess I can call attention to

Those are the guys who explain, inter alia, anti-deficiency rules, which may let you walk away from your overmortgaged real estate, without liability for any deficiency claim. A friend of a friend comments:

I guess this is the successor to my old favorite,, which went dark last summer but which has been bought and revived as a plain-vanilla condo sales shop

*Publicity? Underbelly? Ha, you jest!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

25,000 Christian Sects?

Yglesias and RBC have useful posts up about John Hagee, the fire-breathing San Antonio preacher who has endorsed John McCain. Extra points to Yglesias for situating Hagee’s much-touted “support” for Israel:

He argues that a strike against Iran will cause Arab nations to unite under Russia's leadership, as outlined in chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Ezekiel, leading to an “inferno [that] will explode across the Middle East, plunging the world toward Armageddon.” During his appearance on Hinn's program at the end of last March, for example, the host enthused, “We are living in the last days. These are the most exciting days in church history,” but then went on to add, “We are facing now [the] most dangerous moment for America.” At one point, Hinn clapped his hands in delight and shouted, “Yes! Glory!” and then urged his viewers to donate money faster because he is running out of time to preach the gospel.

[“Hinn” is faith healer and televangelist Benny Hinn.] RBC remarks on how successful Christian politics has proven to be at bringing together “Christians” who are, historically, blood enemies (link).

All this reminded me of the assertion that there are 25,000 (or 22,000) Christian sects in the world, and to wonder whether they are all sending each other to hell, and if not, why not (Isn’t truth unique? Isn’t error error?). But wait—on what authority do I claim such multiplicity? Google “25,000 Christians” or “22,000 Christians” and you come up with plenty of hits, but no real baseline. The number—either one—actually sounds plausible to me, but is there any truth behind it, or are we all just making this up?

The $5,000 Dinner Date

Lots of blogger buzz this morning about the restaurant in the Bronx (sic?!) that invites its customers to stump up $5,000 per couple as "advance payment" for restaurant food--all this in a desperate attempt to feed the landlord dragon (link).

Cute but perhaps not as unusual as some of the commentary would suggest. Isn't this the problem of "the financing buyer," famed in song and story among commercial law professors? Or isn't it like franchising, where the customer (the franchisee) floats some of the capital cost of the franchisor?

Or another variant. There was a fancy restaurant in Palookaville that went broke (surprise!). My friend Hank got together a bunch of doctors and lawyers to buy shares to get it back into being. He once (mis)understood me to be saying that I wanted a piece of the deal. "My god no!" he said. "This isn't an investment!" Translated, the folks were all just paying club dues, and they knew it.

I do like the line that says

If by chance we can make a profit, profit sharing with our "investors" will be discussed.

Now, that's my idea of a prospectus!


Source: DeLong, who says he gets it from A Tiny Revolution, but I couldn't find it there. DeLong also says "The last five of these are, I think, the worst from the point of view of their long-run implications," but why? I can think of several other candidates. And gasoline only at $3.07 a gallon? I was hoping for $12.

Land of the Free Redux

Well, now here’s a surprise: one in 100 U.S.adults is now behind bars, per the New York Times.(link). Only one in 355 white women (35 to 39) but one in nine black men (20-34).

Okay, I jest. But this is a surprise, at least to me: incarceration rates are going down in 14 states, including the largest—Texas, California and New York. Is there some kind of policy shift here or is it just systemic bloat—unless we start treating them like cargo, there simply isn’t room enough?

Here are some other places where the prison population is going down: New Mexivco, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Michigan, New York and the leader, Montana, with an ’06-’07 drop of 3.9 percent. The biggest increases: Kentucky with 12 percent (whoo, must have been a stiff gubernatorial race back there); New Hampshire; Iowa. If you can see a general pattern there, tell me about it; certainly not obvious to me.

Hey Wait,They Use Anaesthesia in New Jersey?

Aetna wants to stop paying for anaesthesia during colonoscopy; New Jersey doctors protest (link), Underbelly's Wichita bureau explains:

Hello, I’m your gastroenterologist and I’m going to ram this snake up your colon but your insurance won’t pay for anaesthesia so you are going to be awake during the whole thing. Aetna will allow you to have moderate sedation so please hold still while we hit you on the head with this rubber mallet. We’d give you some aspirin but that causes bleeding so just bite this belt, please and hold the screaming to a minimum. Oh, nurse, where are my noise canceling Bose headphones?

My first suggestion would be that all members of the top management and the committee who recommended the policy change first have to undergo the procedure twice before putting it in place.

A Disappointment::The Great Risk Shift

Here’s another one I got around to late: The Great Risk Shift, by Jacob S. Hacker (Rev. ed. 2008). But I must say it’s a disappointment. This is a shame. Hacker is basically on the side of the angels: Ordinary Americans do, indeed, bear more risk than they experienced 30 years ago.* They haven’t shared fairly in the great explosion in productivity. And they have lived through a revolution in the management of risk.

Strong start, no follow through. Hacker very quickly plunges into a porridge of soft leftism that succeeds in ignoring, sidestepping or muddling just about every difficult issue.

Here’s a central difficulty: Hacker muddles risk with privation. Some Americans are just too poor. They need handouts—either from the state, or from private charities, or from the person who drops change in their cup. Lots of people are not too poor, but are at risk: they are at risk of losing their job, or suffering a health calamity, or outliving their money. They don’t need handouts. They do need effective means to smoothing their cash flow.

I’m not at all sure how exactly to draw the line between these two groups but I didn’t write the book. To be persuasive, to be analytically coherent, Hacker has to draw it, and then to address the issues as appropriate.

I think there is good reason why Hacker muddles this distinction. That is: he’s part of a discourse in which everybody muddles the distinction. The reason is that everyone—more precisely, both left and right—has a stake in the muddle.

A classic instance is Social Security. From the beginning, Social Security was at least in part a wealth transfer—from prosperous to poor, or at least from young to old (which may or may not be the same thing). The left didn’t want to admit it, because once your program gets tagged as wealth transfer, you lose. So they sold it as “your” savings for “your retirement.”

In time the right figured out that the left could be treed with its own hounds. Okay, so the critics, if it’s just investment, there’s no reason why the government should do it. Of course, the right knows perfectly well that it’s not “just investment,” but they know that the left won’t blow the whistle.

Perhaps an even telling example is the history of private pension plans. Hacker hates 401ks: he thinks they are a cheat, and they never will provide the kind of security that investors need in old age. He treats it as if it is a problem of insurance. But insofar as it is just a problem of insurance, it is a problem that is solvable (we’re even—at last—beginning to see the outlines of a decent annuity market).

The real point—you would think Hacker might have noticed this—is that the shift from company pensions to 401k’s is not just a risk management problem---it’s a shift in wealth. The kind of employer who bore the cost of a company pension simply isn’t bearing the cost any more, and it isn’t giving the money to employees either.

A different issue is the matter of middle class wealth per se. As I say above, I think Hacker is basically right that the middle class is more insecure than it was a generation or so. But less wealthy? I can see at least two problems here.

One, our standards have gone up. We drive bigger, fancier cars. We live in bigger houses with more bathrooms. We take fancier vacations. And we’ve got an infinity of cool toys.

But relatively, we feel pushed. We feel pushed because some of us have become super- (okay, “obscenely”) rich. I get it, I’m pushed; I feel no need to protect or legitimatize the super-rich. But we also feel pushed because the rest of the world is catching up with us. Not just Japanese and Germans but Koreans, Thais and Indians—Indians for crying out loud—are enjoying a life style we once thought reserved for ourselves. Feeling pushed because your neighbor is doing better—it’s a human response, but not edifying. There is simply no reason in principle why Thais and Indians should not live as well as we do. And if it makes us cranky, why so much the worse for us.

There’s also the issue of money. Hacker clearly supports an increased level of public funding for “security” programs. There’s nothing shameful in embracing this view. But he owes us the courtesy of showing us how he is going to pay for it. Conservatives usually blow us off with platitudes about “cutting government waste,” which is of course bollox. But Hacker doesn’t even offer much by the way of bollox.

I can suggest at least one reason why he is reluctant to go after the issue of spending. The reason is that we already have a fairly liberal budget for public services—but a good deal of the money already goes to salaries and benefits for present (or former) public employees. They’re certainly not the super-rich but they are secure and comfortable—often much more so than most of the readers whose cause Hacker presumes to advance. Hacker isn’t likely to make a lot of headway unless he finds some way to persuade the mass of the insecure that it is in their interest to expand a class that is already much more comfortable than themselves.

There is another 800 pound gorilla here—the third rail of liberal politics in this generation. And that is the question of immigration. There’s a large segment of the “insecure” who believe that their problems would be over (or at least more manageable) if only we could make those 12 million illegals go home. I’m not one of that segment; I tend to think that on the whole, immigrants probably do more to enhance the economy than to retard it.

But if the government is to act as provider, there has to be some way of defining the limit of the pool of those to whom the benefits may be available.

In a way it is no surprise that Hacker doesn’t talk about these issues. No “reformist” politician talks about them and with good reason: they’d be blown out of the water if they did. But Hacker is not a politician, he’s a scholar. And a scholar can do better.


*In response to the original issue of the book, a number of conservative critics challenged Hacker’s assertion about the riskiness of ordinary people’s lives. In this current revised edition, Hacker responds to his critics and sticks to his guns. See the five-page footnote/essay beginning at page 203. The discussion gets pretty arcane on this point, but I’d say on the whole, it looks like advantage Hacker and I don’t think we need to be much distracted by the criticism.

Headline of the Day

And it's true:

GOP Senate hopeful got rich diverting corpsemeat from burn victims
to enlarge penises

Link. And it's not even time for breakfast yet.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Middle Name in History

Carpetbagger picks up on (gasp!) Karl Rove saying we shouldn’t call Senator Obama “Hussein” (link). Rove is speaking in chorus with John McCain—the latter of whom, at least, is in his own way a man of honor. CB says that they won’t inhibit the wingnuts. I am sure he is right: they probably remember Joseph McCarthy and the “who lost China?” jihad--the campaign in which he tried to show that just about everybody except Mickey Mouse and Mother Theresa had the taint of Maoism about them.

McCarthy’s particular targets were a gaggle of faceless diplomats who had the misfortune to have middle names. McCarthy loved to roll the names off his tongue--John Paton Davies, John Carter Vincent and John Stewart Service, the last of whom, at least, made a point of saying that he’d never used his middle name before. McCarthy evidently felt that a middle name was the mark of a striped-pants pansy diplomat, just the sort you’d expect to be consorting with the enemy (in fact, all three of these had careers that resonated less with Foggy Bottom than they did with Indiana Jones). The New York Times reported (link) that Service “ once predicted wryly that although he never used his middle name, only the initial, his obituary would identify him not only as an official once accused of espionage, but as ‘John Stewart Service.’” But the quip appeared under a headline saying: “John Service, a Purged 'China Hand,' Dies at 89”—no “Stewart.”

Footnote: And my researches yielded up this anecdote that I’d never heard before, from the obituary of Davies (link): “When Mr. Davies and his colleagues were accused, it was noted that many were named John, which gave rise to a bitter riddle: Who was responsible for losing China? John S. Service, John Carter Vincent, John Paton Davies and John Kai-shek.”

It Ain't Over

All that stuff about lunatic mortgages--lying borrowers and venal brokers and lenders who scooped up the cash until the roof fell in. You think it's over? Ha! Here's the Google Ad at the top of this page as I write:

Refinance Rates at 4.875% $150,000 at $609/month.

And then, the sweetest words in the English language:

No SSN Rqd.

Afterthought: Hm. A little arithmetic suggests that 1/12 of 0.0475=0.004063, and that $150,000*0.004063 = $609. Actually $609.375, but who's counting? Anyway, this appears to be an interest-only loan.

A Not-Very-Gracious Farewell to Bill Buckley

The thing about William F. Buckley, deceased, is not that he was the arch-fiend of conservatism, the center of the vast right-wing conspiracy, but rather that he was the perpetual schoolboy. His conservatism was not so much that of armies and nations as of the mischievous prankster whose practical jokes would end with a chamber pot on the rector’s podium.

He certainly could charm his friends and who can blame them? He had a knack for good living with the best booze, the best speedboats, the best music and often enough, some pretty good company. But as Talleyrand said, there’s no better recipe for happiness than a good digestion and a hard heart. He could be the best of entertainers and, in his own way, the best of companions, serene in the knowledge that little by way of human misery would ever make it past the front gate.

Oddly, he became rather more of an impish schoolboy as he reached maturity. His early work—God and Man and Yale and McCarthy and his Enemies had a streak of bitterness and rancor unbecoming in one so privileged. At some point he must have decided that life was too short for bile, and the mere fact that other people took him seriously was no reason for him to take himself so. Thus he morphed from the combative aggression of his early work into the genteel self-mockery of what you could call his sesquipedalian phase—the Bill Buckley of the PBS Firing Line, whose serpentine smile was not so much the face of triumph as it was a throb of self-congratulation at his own elegance and wit.

I think in the end, you’ve got to give Bill Buckley two things: one, there’s no doubt that his National Review was seismic event in American journalism. It made conservatism relevant in debate and also, not least, often well-written and funny (but it might not do to go back and review all the early issues to see just how mean-spirited and ruffian-like some of it could be).

Two, for all his failings I think we do owe Buckley something for his efforts neutralize conservatism from some of its worst poisons. It may be hard for the current generation to grasp just how much closely wedded was traditional conservatism to nasty anti-Semitism. All this has changed now. I suppose it was Irving Kristol who led his battalion of tattered Trotskeyites into the castle. It was the Papist Bill Buckley who lowered the drawbridge and unlocked the gate.

Be nice if we could say as much about his relations with other outsiders—particularly Blacks—but nobody’s perfect.

His death is big news (cf. links here), and I expect his funeral will be a great social occasion. Fair enough. There are loads of people who loved him—who will regale you with stories of his grace and good nature; even (up to a point), his generosity. But in our time, we have not seen a more unapologetic apologist for the privilege of the wealthy and well-born. He never did much to afflict the comfortable nor, so far as I can tell, to comfort the afflicted. And so far as I can tell, that was fine with him; at the end of the day, for all those outside the charmed circle, he really didn’t give a damn.

Update: My friend from P.S. 109 invites me to recall also "this memorable insight:"

In 1967, William F. Buckley, an alumnus then running an insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, declared that Yale had ceased to be the "kind of place where your family goes for generations" and had been transformed into an institution where "the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere."

And another afterthought: I see that Rosalyn Tureck is on my favorite music list. I have to admit I first heard about her via Buckley.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Har de Har

Keep the heat on 'em, is what I say:


The Wichita Bureau weighs in on Hillary. It's the voice:

Hillary (and almost any woman) addressing a large group comes across as shrill. She needs to speak in normal tones and rely on the amplification system to make her heard. The tone of her voice is just too high. Grates.

Oddly, the Royal Army trained (and may still train) its RSMs to give marching and maneuvering orders in shrill voices – as being more easily heard in the din of battle. It sounds funny to us who have been trained to listen to the low pitch voices of speakers as ‘better’. Kennedy had a high voice and seemed to avoid the ‘Dean scream’ – and speak conversationally.

I’m not sure there is a woman speaker who doesn’t come across as shrill – possibly excepting your buddy the Italian correspondent at NPR Silvia Fujoli (I can’t begin to guess the spelling). She might sound good in a debate.

That's Poggioli, big guy.

Charlie Cook Says it's Over

....Out of politeness, the Democratic establishment is holding off on calls for Clinton to drop out of the race until after the Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont nominating contests on March 4. Democrats owe her that much.

However, Clinton victories in those states with sufficient margins to generate the delegates needed to overtake Obama are extremely unlikely. Once she comes up short, the calls for her to get out will begin. Within a few weeks, this is precisely what should happen. Maybe sooner, maybe a bit later -- but it will happen.

If the political situation were not futile enough, the financial reality certainly is. There simply will not be enough money for her to go on.

Source:Charlie Cook's weekly email newsletter, from The National

What Homer Wanted

Tyler Cowen discovers the express 7-11. He brings to mind the immortal words of Homer Simpson:

Isn't there anything faster than a microwave?

Obama and the 1955 DeLorean

Here's the best reading of the day: Noam Scheiber's New Republic piece on Obama's thinkers (link). It's good at two levels: good at giving names, and also good at comparing (contrasting) styles:

[the Bill clinton 1992 approach was] what you might call a "deductive" approach--an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. ...

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive--working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. ... Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. [Robert] Reich and [William] Galston are the kinds of people who'd sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. [Austan] Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

Confession: I always felt a little nervous around Robert Reich and his grand pronouncements (so, I suspect, did Clinton: I bet Reich expected more out of Clinton than the crummy Department of Labor). And where, I wonder, is Ira Magaziner? Oh. Right. Got it (link).

Appreciation: Paul Collier

I had tagged Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion when it first came out but I hadn’t got round to reading it when my sister Sally said she was going to be reading it with her church group. Not wanting to be upstaged by my sister, I finally tackled it. Lucky me. It’s the best current events book I’ve read in months. Collier is an ideal expositor: he’s got lots of on-the-ground experience, an intelligible conceptual framework (lightly worn), a non-dogmatic openness to possibilities, all bound together with an easy, energetic engaging style.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is even a cheerful book. Note for starters that the title is not “The Bottom Five Billion.” Collier begins by pointing out that in terms of wealth and well-being, as a planet, we’ve made lots of visible progress over the past half century or so and that large swaths of what we used to see as hopelessness are now theatres of energy and advancement. The great exception is Africa—also parts of Central Asia—so this book really ends up being a book about Africa.

Collier builds his case around “the four traps” (and cf. marketing note, infra.” That would be: “conflict” (really, civil war); “natural resources”; “landlocked with bad neighbors”; “bad government in a small country.” Of these four, “landlocked” is perhaps easiest to corral, though not particularly easy to solve: turns out that even today, access to the ocean matters, and if you are stuck inland, you are stuck: the Central African Republic is reduced to dreaming that itmight be Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Chinese Turkestan (my example) may have its problems, but at least the Uighurs are part of a single nation that has to offer some pretense of protection.

His discussion of “the natural resources trap” is perhaps most interesting. He makes the plausible general case that too much wealth is corrupting because it masks a lot of mistakes (think trustafarians, lottery winners). But he also does a superb job of sketching out the more technical economic argument that resources riches tend to damage other parts of the economy. This is valuable stuff and it’s no real criticism to point out that the problem is hardly limited to Africa—the jargon label is, after all “the Dutch disease,” after the fate of Dutch manufacturing, following the discovery of North Sea gas.

“Conflict” is good not because of the theoretical framework—no surprise that civil war is a bad thing—but because it displays Collier’s formidable command of on-the-ground examples. With a ton of evidence, he is able to drive home the point that there is nothing, really nothing, so helpful in fending off conflict than steady economic growth.

The stuff on “bad government” is absorbing and instructive, if somewhat more protean. And why, exactly, does he say “in a small country?” Is bad government any less bad in, say, Russia, merely because it happens not to be small?

On the development political spectrum, readers naturally tend to situate Collier as the “centrist alternative” to Jeffrey Sachs (the true believer) and William Easterly (the ultimate skeptic). This is probably fair enough, although I suspect Collier is on the whole a lot closer to Easterly—read either one and you come away convinced that we’ve spent a lot of money that hasn’t done any good. The big difference is that Collier takes it upon himself to try to offer some solutions. This is surely a heroic undertaking in itself and I don’t have the space to canvass much of it here. Suffice to say, first, that he’s willing to leave lots of room for first-world technical advise and leadership; and second, that he’s willing to accept a substantial, if tightly defined, role for the military.

Indeed, this suggests an assignment to Collier for his next project. Specifically, I’d love to hear Collier on impediments that may bar first-world countries from playing the role they should. For example, Collier offers a lot of shrewd commentary on the role of the military as a dead-loss drain on economic growth in African nations. Has he any advice to offer on how to run a government in a nation where military spending equals that of all other countries combined? Get back to me on that one, will you Paul? Paul? Hello operator, I’ve been cut off….

[As an aside—this isn’t a complaint, but I must say Collier knows something about marketing. “The Bottom Billion” is a catchy line all its own (soon to be a major musical!), and a book about poverty in general is bound to catch more attention than one about Africa per se. “Poverty traps” is good; “survival of the fattest” is cute and, in context, apt. Remarkable that with Collier and Easterley and, okay, even Sachs, this field of development economics attracts such good non-technical writers.]

Monday, February 25, 2008


My friend Penobscot has been sending me stuff about Zeitgeist the movie, previously unknown to me. Here’s the BoingBoing link (where do they get this stuff?). Here’s a Wiki. I wish I had some clever insights. It is, indeed, the first time I’ve ever seen a two-hour clip on YouTube (which is not to say I watched it—nor that I plan to). I guess I’m a bit surprised to see that the villain of the piece is Christians—I thought conspiracy theorists usually saved this stuff for Jews. I am amused to find that one of the cross refs from Wiki is to an article on fractional reserve banking. I must say—I don’t teach this stuff in any formal way, but it does come up from time to time, and that when I try to explain it to students, a fair number of them conclude that it must be a scam. I suppose it might be me. But it might be that this is about as complicated and contentious a subject as you are likely to find, one that is very hard to get right, or at any rate almost impossible to present in a non-contentious manner. So, ripe for deployment in any kind of conspiracy theory.

And so, of Zeitgeist, I guess you’d just have to say it is part of the temper of the times, heh heh.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Big Bucks in Farming

It may not be new news, but Carpe Diem highlights a great database on farm subsidies showing “fewer than 5% of congressional districts (19 out of 435 districts, or 4.35%) accounted for almost half (49.7%) of crop subsidy program spending in the U.S. between 2003 and 2005.” (link,; for the database, (link)).

He didn’t go into detail but it’s okay with me if he wants to get under the hood here and smoke out some particulars. For example, how many are Republican? Not all, surely but I bet quite a few. Just at a scan, I can see that the list includes the poster boy of libertarianism, Ron Paul (#39 with $262 million); also Former Speaker Denny Hastert (#45 with $212 million); and, okay to be fair, Palookaville’s own voice in Washington, Wally Herger (#25 with $340 million).

The champ? Oddly enough, it is not a Louisiana sugar plantation, but the Nebraska third district, the western two thirds of the state of Nebraska, which gobbled up $1.737 billion. Divided up among 51,702 recipients, that pencils out to an average of $33,595 each, but my guess is that the distribution is decidedly non-average.

The proud representative of these horny-handed sons of the soil is one Adrian Smith. Smith is a first-termer, boasts that in the state legislature he “quickly earned a reputation as a champion of conservative values ... [He] voted against tax increases, voted to protect the right of gun ownership, and maintained a strong pro-life record” (link).

Wiki says that “approximately one-third of the funding of his campaign came from the Club for Growth, an economic conservative group that supports tax cuts, limited government, school choice, and advocates eliminating all agricultural subsidies and the elimination of the US Department of Agriculture” (link). Wiki also says that it is “one of the most Republican districts in the nation”—Democrats came close to capturing it only twice (the most recent, when Smith won in 2006).

Update: I feel obscurely drawn back to this subject. Killing time, I've now perused the record for #2, Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas. Turns out his district is in principle the same as Smith's--the vast western hinterland of his state. But Moran, unlike Smith, is fairly explicit that he's there to put his hand in the troughl (link):

In the house, Moran is a leading advocate for protecting and preserving the way of life in Kansas. … Moran focuses on legislation that will allow Kansas farmers and ranchers to remain viable.

Trans: Belly up, boys, party's on Uncle. In fact, Moran brings home $1.316 billion, for 75,802 recipients. That's 3.8 percent of the total, meaning that Smith and Moran between them knock back 8.8 percent of the grand total.

Update to Update: But wait folks, there's more. Here is Tom Latham, #3 (lin):

Since his very first day in Congress, Tom Latham has been dedicated to the ideals of change in Washington. His Iowa values and common sense are a testament to the work he strives to accomplish such as the promotion of individual liberty, economic opportunity, personal responsibility, and a smaller and smarter federal government.

Translated:$1.289 billion for 35,696 recipients; tht's 3.7 percent of the total and a running tab of 12.5%.

Kudos to Larry

I see that Larry Block, friend of my youth, has made the Telegraph list of 50 great crime writers (link). Hard earned and well deserved, I say. Best way I can tell, Larry has never had a blockbuster hit. But if winning is showing up, he richly deserves all the credit he can get. By all appearances, Block is the guy who slugs it out every day (although I believe he uses a yellow pad*).

His novels probably count as noir, but they can be darkly funny--he has a knack for the devastating one liner--and for a guy who keeps such low company, he shows a real streak of compassion--not to mention a lifelong love affair with Manhattan. You read Simenon for Paris, Donna Leon for Venice; read Block for a wry post-Batman overview of his favorite city.

An interesting, if not entirely typical, place to start, would be with Small Town, his Valentine to the Manhattan after 9/11 (link). Then again, maybe not; maybe try instead Eight Million Ways to Die, one of the Matt Scudder series: it gets 18-out-of-20 five-star Amazon reviews (link). Amazing to me, my current research even turned up a link to Mona, which I think may be Larry's first grownup work (link). I first read it in an Army barracks at the now-long-defunct Fort Slocum in Long Island Sound, not long after we had separately decamped from Antioch College, back around 1960. It has a shocker ending that stood my hair on end.

Wiki has a remarkably sympathetic and thorough exposition (link), including a hilarious shot of a pulp cover from the 60s. Block's own website is here.
*Wrong. An impeccable source says he uses a MacBook, sometimes an Imac.

Wish I'd Written This

Is Barack Obama black?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

When the Lone Ranger Found Out
What Kemo Sabe Really Meant...

My dad used to love the one about Harry S Truman making a speech on an Indian Reservation:

--And we promise you lower taxes!

--Um Gawa!

--And more federal funds!

--Um Gawa!

--And a pony!

--Um Gawa! Um Gawa!

Truman turns to walk back to his train and the Chief says: Careful, big guy, don’t step in the Um Gawa.

Now the learned Mike Gillelund finds evidence that it’s pretty close to true.

Stuff About McCain that Could Hardly Interest Anybody

I’m about as far from the epicenter of McCain versus NY Times as it is possible to be but hey, perhaps that just gives me some constructive detachment. In any event—

One, I’m as impressed as others at how effective the Times has been at accomplishing in one news cycle what McCain himself could not do in 33 years—i.e., solidify the support of the wingnuts. I guess I am impressed with the Olympic-grade delicacy and finesse with which they have executed the 180-degree turnaround, from implacable hostility to unwavering support, but I think I can suggest a reason. Namely, it's a version of IOKIYAR: convinced right-wingers think that sexual misbehavior (strike that, manly sexual misbehavior (link, link)) is forgivable unless you are a Democrat. Think Newt Gingrich, think Dave Vitter, think Henry Hyde. Okay, I grant you Bob Livingston, except that his resignation itself may have been no more than a ploy in the anti-Clinton campaign. What Clinton does is a felony. When a Republican does it, why boys will be boys.

Couple this with the fact that the Times never actually had the goods on McCain—never, as Grandpa Simpson said, put honest Abe in the oval office. This led the wingnuts to believe that they’d caught the Times in a trick-taking squeeze, like they did when CBS found that Dan Rather couldn’t verify his story about George W. Bush and the National Guard (query, is there anybody alive who honestly, truly believes that Bush really did his National Guard service?).

Yet here is the irony: the Times never said they had the goods on McCain. They rattled on about appearances, and staff nervousness and suchlike. The most damaging thing you could infer from the story is that Mr. Clean is a lot more cozy with lobbyists than the mass of the public might think.

Political junkies have known this all along, which is why I thought even the lobbying angle would wind up as a big yawn. But I might be wrong on this one. Just as the righties are doing their best to associate “McCain” with “Sunday School,” so also the lefties are making whatever hay they can with McCain’s lobbying connections and his (supposed) veracity (see, e.g., link, link, link, and (best of all) link, all drawing on link). So far, they seem to have caught him in at least one fib which ought to be enough to embarrass him for a few minutes but I doubt it is the sort of thing that will take the wind out of his sails.

So at the moment, each side has the other in a headlock. This is rational: he who controls the agenda, controls the answer. But I suspect in the end this one will go just where it has gone so far—exactly nowhere. Afterthought: I said “headlock;” maybe a better image is the Western Front in 1914.

Plutarch, Rawls, Lord Mansfield and Buster the Dog, etc.

Brad DeLong linked my snippet from Plutarch on Cato the Elder, setting off an instructive thread about slavery (link). It brought to my mind the story of the Slave ship Zong, notorious from the JMW Turner painting, where Master Luke Collingwood ordered that slaves be thrown overboard so the owners could collect on the insurance (link). No one was ever prosecuted for murder in the case, although there was litigation over the insurance claim, prompting Lord Mansfield to say that there was "no doubt that (though it shocks one very much) the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard"—and if you think this is gauche, take a look at the argument of the Solicitor General.

A DeLong commentator remarked that John Rawls characterized non-human animals as lying "outside the scope of the theory of justice" – echoing Plutarch. The commentator continues:

Of course, Plutarch himself seems to have regarded treatment of slaves *and* animals as issues of "kindness and charity," while "justice," I suppose, applies to free people. Rawls would undoubtedly say that "justice" applies to human slaves, but still keeps non-human animals in the sphere of "compassion and humanity." [Martha?] Nussbaum … attacks Rawls with the critique that "justice" also applies to non-human animals.

Over lunch yesterday, Mrs. B tried to explain to me that “mercy” is best understood as some sort of subset of the “justice;” she didn’t persuade but she is the philosopher in the family, so perhaps I should defer to her judgment. It does make me remember, however, the story of the guy who asked the rabbi deliver a eulogy for Buster his dog. The rabbi said he didn’t do memorial speeches for animals, but the petitioner persisted, saying that he was a prosperous man with no family, and would make it worth the rabbi’s while. The rabbi, being a reasonable fellow, reconsidered the issue, and set him down for 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon when, he figured, there wouldn’t be much of a crowd.

Thursday came and sure enough, the synagogue was almost empty, but the rabbi gave it his best shot. After the service, his petitioner approached him and passed over a $50,000 check. “You know,” he told the rabbi, “until you spoke I just didn’t realize what a great friend Buster was to Israel.”


Overheard in New York enjoys the guy who gives directions on how to get to Essex Street (link):

Tourist guy: How do I get to Essex Street from here?
New Yorker guy: Go down about seven or eight blocks, make a left, and ask somebody there.

Cute, but two things. One, in Italy this is standard. Ask how to get anywhere and the responder will wave a hand in a general direction and say “avanti!” Which means, go that way for a while and then ask somebody else.

Two, I think it is pretty good advice. The questioner here was at Second Avenue and Saint Mark’s Place. A more comprehensive response would have been:

New York guy: Drive, walk, subway or bus?

Tourist guy: Um, walk, I guess, unless…

New York guy: Well, where on Essex Street?

Tourist guy (fumbling through his guide): Number 90.

New York guy: What’s the cross street?

Tourist guy: Um, I have no idea ...

New York guy: Well if it is near Delancy you go down, let me see, six, seven, eight—no, I think ten—no, nine—blocks, and then you turn left and go, um, six—no maybe ten—let me count…

Tourist guy, disappearing down Second Avenue: got it, thanks!

Translated: way too much information, bro. I go down about seven or eight blocks, make a left, and ask somebody down there.

Which is just exactly what New York guy said.

It's Pronounced YOW-ee

Michael Quinion the word man introduces me to “Yaoi,” hitherto unknown to me, which he describes as (link):

…a type of manga or anime, so originally Japanese, that focuses on male-to-male sexual relationships. Though it's therefore popular among gays, it has proved to be still more popular among women. So it has that in common with the - originally SF - genre of slash fiction, in which male stars of popular TV shows and films are portrayed as engaging in gay relationships, a genre that's also popular with and mostly written by women.

Quinion’s a generous guy: he assumes you already know that a manga and anime are avatars of Japanese comic art. Two points in particular caught my notice.

One--my friend Ignoto, in the entertainment business, told me that the nice thing about lesbian porn films (from a marketing standpoint) is that some women will watch them, while men will watch anything—so you increase your market share. Didn’t realize it worked the other way around.

And two, Quinion showcases this:

One of the earliest examples of “yaoi” Shakespeare is Yasuko Aoike’s manga for girls, titled Ibu no musuko tachi ( Sons of Eve, Tokyo, 1978), in which Shakespeare, Lear, Hamlet and Romeo appear as male gay characters.

...Crediting Peter Holland, Shakespeare Survey 60, 2007

Quinion also introduces us to “the Twaddell Scale,” deployed inter alia for the proofing of Scotch whiskey.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Iron Law of Oligarchy (Web 2.0 Variety)

aka Some pigs are more equal than others (link).

Underbelly: Your Go-to Blog for
Beyond-parody Viagra Email

Here's another:
Been drunk and get with the girl? Don't try your luck, insure yourself with blue-pill!

WTF? Greg Mankiw Department

In a comment on Barack Obama, Greg Mankiw, hugely popular and successful econ prof--and gold medalist in the "running dogs of the oligarchy" sweepstakes--offers this exremely odd bit of snark:

The sloppiest sentence so far [in Obama's Audacity of Hope] (page 146):

Over the past decade, we've seen...hefty corporate profits, but a shrinking share of those profits going to workers.
I am pretty sure that the share of profits going to workers has been stable--at zero. Profits are what owners get to keep after workers have been paid.

WTF? Is Mr. Free Market conceding that owners walk off with all the rents, while working stiffs have to slug it out at marginal cost? Is there a dog-eared copy of Ricardo tucked under his pillow? Of Marx?

Or, come to think of it, is he conceding that labor unions offer absolutely no obstacle to owner's attempt to walk off with all the swag?

Who Are the Payday Borrowers?

I haven’t seen the paper yet but Newsweek (and apparently, some blogs) are showcasing a new study by a couple of Catholic U profs showing that payday loans are heaviest in states with high Christian(or Mormon) populations (link). The authors identify (it says here)

a correlation between high concentrations of Christians in states with a proliferation of payday lenders. [The authors are] quick to disclaim any causal effect of one group begetting the other … The boring numbers show a state such as Illinois with an estimated 10.6 per cent Mormon and Evangelical population has .625 payday lenders per 10,000 people; while neighboring Missouri with 2.5 times as many Christians as Illinois has almost 4 times the payday lenders per 10,000 of population. [They] found the highest concentrations of payday lenders in the Mormon mountain West and the Bible belt.

Like I say, I haven’t seen the original and I don’t know what the original authors make of it (internet meta-note: I think I am now reporting the story at fourth hand). But I offer this: the data seem to be all of a piece with other data showing that heartland evangelicals in general are having a tougher time: struggling to maintain respectability on limited means against big challenges--and in a mood of growing disappointment and perplexity. It’s a topic that Anatol Lieven addressed with great sensitivity in America: Right or Wrong (2004). The whole book rewards patient (re)reading, and it doesn’t excerpt easily, so let me content myself with repeating the poem that Lieven deploys to introduce is chapter on “The Embittered Heartland”:

Defeat of the aspen groves of Colorado valleys,
The blue bells of the Rockies,
And the blue bonnets of old Texas,
By the Pittsburg alleys
Defeat of the alfalfa and the Mariposa lily.
Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi,
Defeat of the young by the old and silly,
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.

—Vachel Lindsay, “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,”
on the defeat of William Jennings Bryan’s populist campaign for president, 1896)

H/T: Marcus Reed.

Update: This one sounds right to me also.

Honest, I am not Mocking This

...but it's too good to pass up:

Mr [X] also worked at the post office for several years, making a suggestion on how to improve the city's mail collection system that won him as $200 award in 1962.

--Obituary, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 22, 2008

On the other hand, maybe I am mocking this (link):

Woman Dies Trying to Rescue Dead Chicken

A 63-year-old woman died on Saturday night after falling down a well while trying to fish out a dead chicken.

H/T Sally.

Brian Urquhart reads John Bolton's Memoir

...and you can too:

Not surprisingly, Bolton's stubbornly held opinions often involved him in arguments and even rows, which he appears to enjoy in a joyless sort of way. His epithets map out the vast landscape of disapproval: The High Minded, The True Believers, Candle Lighters, Crusaders of Compromise, The Weak-kneed, The Chattering Class, Euroids, Mattress Mice, EAPeasers (members of the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs), and so on.

--Brian Urquhart, "One Man Angry," New York Review of Books
March 6, 2008 12-15,14.
Mattress Mice?

Update: Mrs. B says he must have meant mattress lice.

Update to Update: A web search yields this, but I still think maybe Mrs. B is onto something.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

BeenWondering if That Would Happen

Had been hearing some speculation on this (though mostly uninformed, I guess) from people who know about this stuff (link):

FBI Will Not Go After Borrowers Who Lied on Mortgage Applications

Feb 21, 2008

Borrowers who defrauded lenders by lying on their mortgage application could be thrown in prison for up to 30 years and forced to pay a $1 million fine under the current federal law. But the FBI says there is no intention to pursue borrowers at this time.


In 2006, the FBI studied three million mortgage loans and found that 30 to 70 percent of early payment defaults can be linked to misrepresentations in mortgage loan applications.

The figures aren't really surprising when you consider the fact that most of the defaults occurring right now involve borrowers who have not yet seen a payment reset. It is blatantly obvious there were an overwhelming number of borrowers approved for mortgages they could not afford.

The only way for this to happen was for someone to lie on a mortgage application. Some media stories have implied that it was lenders who did the lying and that most borrowers are victims of predatory lending schemes.

The truth is that borrowers did their fair share of lying too. More than 40 percent of subprime borrowers received loans without having to document their ability to pay. The borrowers simply 'stated' their income on the mortgage applications.

Almost 60 percent of stated-loan applicants inflated their incomes by at least 50 percent, according to the Mortgage Asset Research Institute. The worst part is that everyone knew the income was being inflated. The industry even had a name for these kinds of loans--'liar's loans.'

Source: Homeguide123. Get that bit about how "the borrowers did their fair share of lying too." From an industry trade mouthpiece, I'd take that as an iceberg-sized concession that a good deal of the lying was not done by the buyers--but rather was induced by the lenders, no strike that the brokers, who got their money in front and had a powerful incentive to bloat and exaggerate and flat-out lie whenever they got the chance.

What really gets me is how nobody up the line flagged the problem. There must have been hundreds of tweendecks underlaborers who processed this stuff and knew perfectly well that a lot of it was bollox. Apparently nobody had an incentive to own the problem, trusting, I suppose, that they would take their paycheck or commission and move on before the roof fell in.

All You Need to Know about McCain

Things to you need to know about the John McCain screwup, culled from a conversation with my friend Anon.

  • The Times pretty much screwed the pooch on this one, but it’s not what you think. Don’t picture Arthur Sulzberger and Gail Collins and Bill Keller sipping white wine on their patio overlooking Strawberry Fields. Picture a determined and obsessive investigative team who have been working on this for months and who think anyone who questions their judgment must be an ally of Darth Vader. Keller says he saw the story only last night and I think this is entirely plausible: he saw it only after the attack dogs had trampled the line editors into the linoleum.

  • For a guy who likes Mr. Clean, McCain certainly likes to hang with lobbyists. But we knew that.

  • The only thing you have to read on the subject is this one.

Cad and Bounder Redux

A couple of weeks back, I asked how to distinguish a “cad” from a “bounder (link). Turns out this ground was plowed a year ago over at Kevin Drum (link). Here’s the shorter Kevin Drum and friends, I think: a cad is a man who misbehaves with women. A bounder is an upstart.

Whether a bounder can be a cad is, perhaps, a more subtle question. Certainly a bounder can misbehave with women. But my sober considered judgment is that if a bounder does it, it’s no more than you would expect from a bounder. To achieve real caddishness takes something more—money and power perhaps, but at least position.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Don't Get It (Shoplifting Department)

I don't get it:

Big Retail Chains Dun
Mere Suspects in Theft
Demands for Money
Can Leave Targets
With Little Defense

February 20, 2008; Page A1

After Miami handyman Glenn Rudge was accused of shoplifting an $8 set of drill bits at Home Depot, he thought he'd settled the matter when he showed his receipt to prosecutors and they dropped the charge.

But a few weeks later, a law firm hired by Home Depot began sending him letters demanding first $3,000, then a total of $6,000, implying he'd be sued if he didn't pay it.

In an escalating battle against theft, retailers are going after anyone suspected of shoplifting, turning over their names to lawyers and collection firms, who pursue the suspects for stiff penalties and split the take with the retailer. ...

From the Wall Street Journal (link, and H/T Froomkin). I mean, we can stipulate that this is crude, vulgar goon-squad tactics and I certainly hope it violates a half a dozen laws.

But who authorized this? Back when I (thought I) knew anything about this stuff, the fact of life was that you knew you had to tolerate a certain level of shoplifting. Getting to zero was not cost justified: too many cops and too many patdowns and too many pissed-off customers. And now we are on the front page of the WSJ, as the poster child godzilla of bully-boys. Aren't there any grownups at Home Depot any more?

Goodbye to "Morning in America"

I admit I muted out the sound on John McCain’s Wisconsin “victory” speech when he started climbing on Obama, although I do find fragments of what I was trying to get away from here:

I will do everything in my power to make sure the American people are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change.

...he said, eloquently, if somewhat emptily. And Obama is a “no more than a holiday from history and failed policies that rely on government intervention in the lives of Americans."

No, no, it’s not that I’m that nuts about Obama. He’s an attractive guy in his way but I think he’s make a deeply flawed president (but so would all the other contenders in the race, so where does that get you). And I recognize that Obama’s a big boy. And that politics ain’t beanbag.

My real point is elsewhere. Meaning: is this really the way McCain wants to start his campaign—on a note of bitterness and rancor?

You guess my answer. Thing is, just in general I think McCain’s biggest enemy in this campaign is his age—not the actuality, but the appearance. He’s got a long, tough slog ahead of him, and only the most daring of generals will make a ground invasion of Moscow. Trust me, by the end of the campaign, he is going to look tired. And tired is what he sounds just now.

But apparently it was no accident. Josh Marshall digs up this McCain gem from 2006 (link):

I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics, I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's efforts to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness.

John, John, John—as one who is too much given to snark himself, let me warn you: the voters do not want snark. Oh, they may like it for a day or so. And the folks at The Corner may take it as a regular diet. But most of the voters get tired of that sort of thing. It’s Ronald Reagan you want to imitate, not an unfunny Bob Dole.

Cultural Literacy Note: Buffenbarger on Obama

At Slate, Mimi Sheraton puzzles over Hillary's taste in food, but for raw meat, yesterday Hillary turned to the Buffenbarger--Tom of that Ilk, an Ohio union president who seems to enjoy his duties as an attack dog. Per MSNBC (link), Buffenbarger:
called Obama a “thespian,” and ... sarcastically referred to the junior senator from Illinois as a “wunderkind.”

Those unschooled in political history should be informed that he's recycling one of the oldest of campaign jokes: "in his youth my opponent was a thespian down at the university, where the boys and girls matriculate together.

No idea what they'll make of "wunderkind." Maybe they can repackage it as a lunch special.

The Judge, the Purse and the Fishnet Stockings

I once knew a bankruptcy judge who was alleged to wear his Little League coaching uniform under his robes. But how could I have missed this?

Afterthought: As good a time as any to recall my own judging days, when I used to keep a tie hanging behind the door in chambers, to slip on when I went into the courtroom. My law clerk informed me that United Airlines (in those days, at least) used to supply its desk clerks with clip-on ties so when the customer reached out to grab it, at least they wouldn't get strangled. He said he thought that the Administrative Office of US Courts ought to accord us judges the same courtesy.

Fn.: Oops, I repeat myself.

One-Liner of the Day:
Conquering the CIA

The New York Times (link) this morning documents the difficulties encountered by Porter Goss when he tried to control of the CIA’s “operations wing.” The Times recounts how Goss discovered “that operatives who were trained to destabilize foreign governments could sometimes put those same skills to work inside the agency.” And then:

In a striking metaphor for Mr. Goss’s powerlessness, as officers of the Directorate of Operations, or D.O., ignored his instructions and shunned his staff, he later told a colleague that “when he pulled a lever to make something happen in the D.O., it wasn’t just that nothing happened,” the colleague recalled. “It was that the lever came off in his hands.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Plutarch on Kindness

As I get older, I tend to admire brilliance less and kindness more. This may be just selfishness: I am less and less likely to be brilliant (if I ever was likely to be) and I probably find (or expect to find) myself more in need of kindness.

One person who shared a taste for kindness was Plutarch, the essayist and biographer, so beloved of Shakespeare for his unerring skill at identifying a good story. Plutarch wrote in the corrupt post-Augustan period of the Roman Empire. There’s a certain “twilight” quality much of his work work. It’s as if he can look back on a long life in an aging civilization, and identify so many things he might wish could have gone differently.

You see a remarkable instance of Plutarch’s instinct in his discussion of Cato the Elder. Cato was the archetypical “old republican”—hard-working, thrifty, honest and just. Plutarch thought Cato a good man in so many ways, but he does notice one odd or unexpected quirk. When Cato’s slaves “became too old to work,” Plutarch says, “he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths.” Plutarch sees fit to pause and reflect on the point:

For my own part I regard his conduct towards his slaves in treating them like beasts of burden, exploiting them to the limits of their strength, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a thoroughly ungenerous nature, which cannot recognize any bond between man and man but that of necessity. And yet we see that kindness possesses a far wider sphere of action than justice, for it is in the nature of things that law and justice are confined to our dealings with our fellow men, whereas kindness and charity, which often flow from a gentle nature like water form an abundant spring, may be extended even to dumb animals. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out in his service, and will look after his dogs not only when they are puppies, but when they need special treatment.

For my part, I would not sell even my draught ox simply because of his age, far less turn out an old man from the home and the way of life to which he has grown accustomed for the sake of a few paltry coins, especially since he would be of no more use to the buyer than he was to the seller.

—Plutarch, “Cato the Elder” in Makers of Rome 119-151,
125-6 (Penguin Paperback ed. 1965)

I suppose it scarcely needs mention it seems never to occur to Plutarch to question slavery per se, and that he tops off his argument from principle with a fairly straightforward argument from practice (who would buy these guys anyway?). He concludes by saying that whether this attitude counts as “greatness or pettiness of spirit is a question which the reader must decide for himself.” Maybe, but I’d say it’s pretty clear that Plutarch has made his own decision.

Fn.: Spotted on the exercycle this morning: Karen Armstrong, speaking of Confucious, remarks on "his kindness and brilliance--an unusual combination." See Karen Armstrong, The Great Trnsformation 241 (Anchor Paperback ed. 2007).

Cross-cultural Factoid

"Going commando" is known in Chile as andar a lo gringo.

The Libertarian-Conservative Fault Line

I know I won't be the first or last to link this, but it it is admirable for concision and precision, and it invites comment (link):

McCain is not a classical liberal; he's the product of an intensely hierarchical honor culture that he seems to think would substantially improve the rest of us if we adopted more of its values. I have no shortage of respect for the military, and their willingness to place their own lives between the rest of us and war's desolation. But that doesn't mean I think America would be a better place if we had a more martial state. His record bespeaks little respect for spontaneous order and individual freedom. What free-market instincts he evinces seem to have come as part of the conservative ideas combo-pack he bought because it was cheaper than buying the parts individually--all he really wanted was the national greatness and the moderately conservative social structure.

Great, but incomplete. I don't know whether Megan recognizes it or not, but she has hit at the fundamental fault-line in modern conservatism: the rift between McCain's loyalty-and-order and what Megan calls "classical liberalism," but which we might recognize more easily if we just called it "libertarianism." Extra-credit reading would be Fred Kaplan's Slate piece on "The Creeping Monetization of Military Service" (link). Kaplan says:

[T]here is a ... danger in the growing monetization of military service. Yes, an all-volunteer force must be paid well, especially when serving involves not merely "learning a career" and being "all you can be" (as the pre-9/11 recruitment ads put it) but also killing and maybe dying in battle. But every good junior officer I've ever met gets very uncomfortable when the discussion turns to this topic; they emphasize, sincerely I think, that they're not in the military for the money; that fair compensation is appreciated, but they could make a lot more as a civilian if that was their goal. Putting so much emphasis on cash bonuses tends to draw people whose primary aim is making money—and who aren't talented enough to make the same kind of money in the civilian world.

I'd love to see Kaplan (or someone at his pay grade) pick up that one and run with it. We've just begun to explore the implications of that divide. Indeed, for the most part, I don't think we know they are there. The libertarians (okay, classical liberals) can do nothing with it because the social substrate is invisible to them. McCain at least recognizes that he is ignorant of economics, which is a start.

Update:Phil Carter throws some constructive oil on the fire (link):

I'd add a caveat to [Kaplan's] story, and that is that the all-volunteer force is monetary by design. Read the studies, memos and discussions that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly those involving Milton Friedman, Mel Laird, and other Nixon advisers closely involved with the end of the draft. They consciously built a force structured around monetary incentives that fit their vision of a market-oriented military. How well is it working today?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Factoid: Homeless

From an AP story (with a Cleveland dateline):

On any given night [homeless people] are outnumbered in some cities by vacant houses … .

(Link), with more stuff on how the rise in foreclosures is proving a boon to street people: properties in foreclosure are increasingly numerous and they are often more attractive than properties simply abandoned. The water and sometimes even the electricity and the heat are still on. The downside: you do have to be willing to cope with drug dealers, prostitutes and copper thieves. H/T: Bob Hiller.

Endorsement Update

Felix endorses Oscar (link).

Markets in Everthing

Somehow I am getting an unusual number of blue-pill advertisements this morning (is there a birthday angle here?). But who could resist a subject line like this:

Stay man even when drunk!

Fills a long-felt need.

Who Is It?

Who is it?

He was one of those men whom it is an honour to meet, in whom Nature seems to have achieved a masterpiece, not so rare as might be supposed, but who rise to eminence but rarely, since neither men nor circumstances conspire to make their value felt. Their strength of character, firm and lofty convictions, fine generosity and nobility of spirit shine out all the more resplendent because those connected with their history, beginning with their illustrious foe, display a mediocre, shriveled spirit, with a selfish outlook.

No, he’s not a candidate this year, and no, he is not alive. Mrs. Buce guessed “Aaron Burr?” which was either daringly imaginative or a crude attempt at mockery. No, the correct answer is (drum roll) Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Arveni who led the Gauls in their unsuccessful war against Julius Caesar. It’s quoted from A History of Gaul (p. 102, Barnes & Noble ed. 1993), authored by on Fr. Funck-Brentano, unknown to me but if you ask my friend Gail to recommend a history of Gaul, this is what you will get (I assume he is this guy). Vercingetorix is also, I assume, the progenitor of all those “ix” names in that greatest of all story comics, Asterix the Gaul. (Obelix, Getafix, Doubleosix, etc. etc. etc.). He surfaces in two episodes of HBO's Rome, played by Giovanni Calcagno.

This is as good a time as any to recall the only song I know about Caesar’s Gallic Wars. It has been rattling around in my head for a little more than 50 years now. I have it on good authority (but don’t ask me to explain) that this was written for the class musical show at Hunter College High School in 1955, and if the author wants to surface and claim credit, I will gladly accord recognition. It’s to the tune of “Mountain Greenery":

Caesar fought in Gallia,
Heduans et alia
Thought that he was Edward R. Murrow.

Could be Caesar’s rhetoric
Stumped poor Vercingetorix,
That’s what gave my forehead this furrow.

He spent his life
In civil strife
And got the knife
Outside the Se-nate.

While Caesar held his battle line,
Cicero fought Catiline—
Bless our mountain greenery, Rome!

That’s it. Resume normal idling.