Monday, June 30, 2008

Dessay in Lucia:
How do you Top Daughter?

Natalie Dessay has long since established herself as a first-tier coloratura, but she had a career-defining hit last season with her performance opposite Juan Diego Flórez in Daughter of the Regiment at the Met—about the most cheerful and engaging big-stage performance that ever I’ve seen Still, nothing comes without a price. In San Francisco this month with Lucia di Lammermoor, she found herself in competition with herself.

That is: in Daughter, Dessay does one memorable entrance dragging a rope line of laundry. The scene and, indeed, the performance as a whole, established that Dessay knows how to give good comedy. In Lucia, she seems still to be dragging the rope line of comedy behind her. But Lucia is a much more spookily serious than Daughter—funny weird if anything, and definitely not funny ha ha. Dessay sang it wonderful and acted it well. Still for so much of the stage business, she didn’t seem to know quite what to do except plan it for laughs. This was particularly true in the first act, where she has to establish that she is half over-the-edge already, so we will accept her later percipitious collapse. Some of her caterwauling came perilously close to clowing.

This isn’t a complaint, exactly. Her mad scene, with blood fingerpaint-smears on her face, was leisurely, slow, fully realized, yet never seemed to strain for effect. It’s certainly one I’ll remember, and this is not trivial—comparing notes after the show, we agreed that we’ve seen others that we can’t really remember at all. And in general, you can just take it as evidence of how performers gain texture from their own history.

Dessay’s backup in Lucia was creditable, but a bit disappointing. As Edgardo, Giuseppe Filianoti offered a lovely voice, but he seems to be a soloist, not up to drama. In their first-act encounter, Dessay kept flailing desperately about for some kind of human interaction, while Filianoti continued with his private cabaret turn In he second half where he was truly on his own he was less constrained, but he still brought to mind the old rule (Stanislavski?) that too many actors think about what they can bring to the character, not what the character can bring to them. Gabriele Viviani as Lucia’s brother Raimondo, understood his character and sang well, but his voice didn’t really conquer the space of the War Memorial (throwaway comment: has anyone noticed how the plot here parallels Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure—sister doesn’t want to traffick her virtue but brother, for whatever reason, thinks trafficking would be a pretty good idea--?).

On the whole, then, a fine performance, worth a detour; not up to Daughter, but hey, what is? Taking her bow as the mad Lucia, Dessay pointed her bottom at the ceiling and folded her hands above (it works; you’d have to see it)—a cute piece of playful clowning, utterly unmotivated by anything in the production. What matches Daughter? Evidently Dessay isn’t so sure herself.

Higher Ed

My friend Majnails ran across "a remark supposedly made by someone in the Nineteenth Century to the effect that there was one university in France, two in England, six in Prussia, and 52 in Ohio."

Who said this?--asks Majnails, and answers his own question: "Just guessing here but I'd bet on Mark Twain."

Might be Mark Twain, but if you extend the definition of "university" to include "jerkwater cowtown college," then it is very likely true, not so? In the sense that virtually every county-seat town in Ohio had at least one such, maybe two?

Afterthought: but then there is this one.

From the Sacerdotal File

I assume I'm late on this, but hey--am advised that the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX, with its 140-acre campus, is known by the locals as "Six Flags Over Jesus" (link). And that its pastor has been arrested on multiple charges involving sex and children (link).

Thanks, Larry.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


We're off to San Francisco for a bit of opera and to catch up with some friends. We planned this months ago but it couldn't be more convenient: here on the flat of the Sacramento Valley floor, we are under an inversion layer of smoke for an unexampled ring of forest fires in the foothills and mountains that surround us on three sides--and we are only at the beginning of the fire season. We've mostly stayed hunkered down inside the air conditioning for the last couple of days. I did venture forth to the super market last night, where I saw a couple of people wearing breather masks. So, a good time to go gaze at the Pacific. Probably no more posting until Monday but meanwhile, you can follow the fires here. Thanks for the pointer to a somewhat ambivalent Yves Smith.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fear Factor: What McCain Could Say,
But Almost Certainly Won't

McCain Campaign Manager: Terrorist Attack Would Help Campaign

--CNN (link)

Announcer: Ladies and Gentlemen, Senator McCain (applause).

Senator McCain: My fellow Americans, I understand that my Campaign Manager has said that a terrorist attack would be good for my campaign. I have been asked whether I endorse these views. I can answer in two ways. The first answer is purely technical, operational: is it a fact that a terrorist attack would be good for my campaign? The fact is that no one knows. It might be, if it frightened Americans, and if they believed I could better relieve their fright. It might not, if the voters took it as evidence of a failure of Republican leadership in the war on terror.

But let that be. The point is (and this is my second answer)—I don’t want to win the election that way, even if I can. Mine is a campaign of hope, not of fear: a campaign of promise, not of suspicion; a campaign of daring, not of caution. I am in this race to mobilize the energy, the great sense of purpose of the American people—and, yes, their resilience, even in the face of misfortune.

I think there are good reasons to vote for me in November, and I hope you will be persuaded to do so. But fear is not a good reason. If you fear terrorist attack, and if you are driven by fear, vote for somebody else. If you have—as I have—confidence in the American people, and hope for our future, then vote for me.

The devilish part of this speech is that it is so sneaky and deceptive: give this speech and McCain gets all the fear vote anyway—because he reminds then that he is the candidate who will comfort them in their fears. But he would leave Democrats stripped and deprived of their opportunity to mock him for campaigning on the fear platform.,

The Democrats should wake up every morning giving thanks that they have so backward-looking and unimaginative an opponent.

Miami Spice

A thousand kudos to TPM for bringing me up to date on Efraim E. Diveroli (link; cf. link), the 22-year-old Miami merchant of death, by comparison to whom a Carl Hiaasen novel is about as much fun as the back of a Dade County bus transfer. Where else will I find, for example, an arms dealer named Bar Kochba Botach (link)—and if you were in the business of purveying weapons and ammo, wouldn’t want your customers to be, like satisfied with your goods & services? I see from Efraim’s MySpace page that he is in my “extended network”—which I cannot possibly fathom, because he has only one MySpace “friend”, and to the best of my knowledge, so do I (and it ain’t the same one). I do see that Efraim is looking for

a woman that will stand by her man because she knows he would do the same for her no matter the circumstance.

…and I can only hope he found one in time for the arraignment.

Oh, and a word about John L. Withers, II, the US Ambassador to Albania, whose copybook seems to have been blotted in the whole affair. I see by the Embassy web page that the Ambassador is a career appointee, and a second-generation civil servant. Which leads to two thoughts;

  • I assume guys like this know what is permissible (=what they can get away with?) in a job like this?
  • But I would assume that guys like this are also supposed to be good at covering their tracks?

Dan Wakefield on "The Silent Generation"

Dan Wakefield (b. 1932) is an unlikely candidate for his rôle as chronicler of the cultural elite—middle class kid from Indianapolis, and an Eagle Scout, his style is modest, almost circumspect, with not a hint of rage or rancor, and not much by way of irony. What seems to have transformed him was his time at Columbia University in the golden age where he studied under Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, and became an acolyte of C. Wright Mills. What stamped him was his ten years in Greenwich Village, where he scratched out a living as a writer and exhibited a Boswellian knack for friendship (Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Norman Podhoretz, Murray Kempton--Wakefield drops good names). He’s not as discerning a critic as his model Malcolm Cowley (of Exile’s Return), but he’s got a sharp eye and a concern for getting things right—and in the long run is judgments on, say, Jack Kerouac or Dorothy Day, or Freudian psychoanalysis, appear to hold up pretty well.

No wonder, then, that Wakefield’s New York in the 50s appears to have established itself as the definitive account of the city between, as it were, Fiorello LaGuardia and John V. Lindsay—not quite a forgotten decade, but one whose memory can be swept up in the deluge of what came after. One of its many names is “the silent generation.” Wakefield believes the label is misunderstood:

If my generation was “silent,” it was not in failure to speak out with our work, but in the sense of adopting a style that was not given to splash and spotlights. Max Frankel says, “We set out essentially to be spectators and reflectors in life. A dogged kind of centrism came out of this, and it was later confused with unfeelingness in the sixties, as if we didn’t care enough for issues like the environment.”

We had no desire to shout political slogans or march with banners, because we had seen thee idealism of the radical thirties degenerate into the disillusionment of Stalinism and the backlash reaction of name-calling anticommunism. The naïve hope of salvation by politics seemed to have burned itself out in the thirties, replaced in the fifties too often by an equally naïve belief in salvation through psychoanalysis. … Ours was not the silence of timidity or apathy, but the kind James Joyce meant, in Portrait of the Artist, when he spoke of the young writer’s vow as “silence,exile, and cunning.” The “silence” of Joyce was not surrender; it simply meant not to blab or brag about your work. The “cunning” was finding a way to make a living and then doing it. The “exile” was the place far enough from the censure of home and middle-class convention to feel free enough to create.

Fn: Wakefield is another guy who needs a Wiki.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This Just In: Fascism on the Rise in Italy

Milan--The Fascisti, or extreme Nationalists, which means black-shirted, knife-carrying, club-swinging, quick-stepping, nineteen-year-old potshot patriots, have worn out their welcome in Italy. Banks and large commercial houses, who contributed the funds that launched the Fascist movement as a protective measure against as threatened Communist revolution, have withdrawn their support and the mass of the Italian press have turned solidly against the Fascisti. Meanwhile the Fascisti, solidly organized, are forming themselves into a political party and by a constant series of outrages, keep Italy in a state of class war.
--Ernest Hemingway, The Toronto Star Weekly, June 24, 1922

McCain and Obama on the Battery:
Can't Anybody Play This Game?

I know not what others may think (I haven't been checking, really) but I still think that McCain's $300 million battery is the dumbest public policy idea since, oh maybe since this. Or at least the dumbest idea from a Republican. Jimeny Christmas, hasn't this guy ever heard of the Patent Office? What did he think Our Boys have been Fighting For in all these wars? Or restated: if ever there was an enterprise that can safely be left to the market, I should think it would be this one.

But if McCain breaks the tape, I'd say that Obama crosses the line just a little later. Does he use this as an occasion to mock and deride the old codger, to suggest how totally clueless the aspirant Leader of the Free World really is? Hah. No, Obama thinks this is a grand time to drop hints about the need for a massive public program:
...I don’t think a $300 million prize is enough. When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn’t put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win – he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people. That’s the kind of effort we need to achieve energy independence in this country ...
Link (emphasis added). Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We do not need to put the full resouces of the United States behind this program. We do not need to march forward to 1955.

We do need to do stuff. For example, I take it for granted that the oil companies have done everything they know how to thwart and deflect any entrepreneurial innovation that might have done anything to disturb their comfortable market niche. We do need the resources of government to help level the playing field. And we do need the government to stop being a collaborator-enabler with this kind of retrograde rent-grabbing. But aside from that, the best thing government can do is get out of the way.

All the smart money tells us that Obama is the greatest rhetorician since JFK. This would have been a fine time for him to deploy some of that skill to so the world just how bankrupt and incoherent McCain's portfolio really is. Instead, we get the economic equivalent of My Pet Goat.

I see I'm suffering from an italics imbalance today. But thanks, I'll be okay once I get my meds adjusted.

Factoid: Generals

"There are currently 57 active-duty female generals in the US military..."
Link. Wonder how many male generals?

Update: Haven't yet come up with a full answer on generals, but I do find this (link) suggesting that there are 35 generals authorized in the Marine Corps. Beginning to remind me of the lion who escaped from the Washington Zoo--he stayed loose because he went to the Pentagon and ate a general a day and nobody ever missed them.

Some Stuff I Am Trying to Learn About Central Asia

Trying to get my mind around Central Asia. That would be: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghyzstan, Tajikistan (I suppose I could include Afghanistan, but it is not on my travel agenda).
  • Kazakhstan: is the big one, in area. Ninth largest in land mass  in the world, just behind Argentina, ahead of Sudan. Mostly steppe, but a Caspian Sea border, lots of oil.  The word "Kazakh" is apparently related to the more familiar western "Cossack."  The locals like to tell you it means "free spirit."
  • Turkmenistan: mostly desert, but plenty of natural gas. Only country I know of whose president is a dentist.
  • Uzbekistan: biggest in population, and most complicated. Uzbeks, but also Russians, Tajiks (how many?), Koreans (Koreans?—yes, Stalin moved them out here) and others. Double-landlocked: a landlocked country surrounded by landlocked countries. Euphonious ancient names (Samarkand, Bukhara), but also a living monument to the failure of old Soviet environmental management (the Aral Sea, in an air shot, looks like a cancerous kidney).
  • Kirgyzstan: the one whose prime minister tried westernizing, wanted  his nation to be the Switzerland of the east, and who wound up a math teacher in Moscow.
  • Tajikistan: the one where they speak a variety of Persian. The smallest and poorest, the one with eight 20,000-foot mountains. The one that celebrated its post-Soviet freedom with a five-year civil war. The Afghanistan of the stans.

    Source: mostly Martha Brill Olcott, Central Asia’s Second Chance (2005)

Oh, and he "-stan" apparently the same Indo-European root that produces all those Greek "-mi" verbs. So, station, anastasia, instance. And, of course, "stand."

Good Image: Seinfeld on Carlin

Or more prescisely, how Carlin did comedy:
He was like a train hobo with a chicken bone. When he was done there was nothing left for anybody.


Charlie Cook is Cranky This Week

From Cook's weekly email:

One of the byproducts of each major party nominating its most self-righteous and sanctimonious candidate is that with some degree of regularity in the campaign, each will be embarrassed by not adhering to an impossibly high, and politically impractical, standard of moral and ethical perfection. . . . Perhaps it is because I am on the wrong side of 50 years of age that I don't understand the concept of "post-partisan," the new buzzword that, as best I can tell, means that your last name is not Bush, Clinton or Dole.

This is, by the way, one of the best politics newsletters you can imagine. If you aren't getting it already, go here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Misunderestimating and the Bush Legacy

Conservatives--pardon, Bush diehards--seem to be going all giggly over Andrew Roberts' suggestion that we may be misunderestimating George Bush and that his place in history may be somewhat grander than his derisory 23 percent poll rating today. Strictly speaking, Roberts is right: spot and forward markets offer different prices. Nobody was ready to put up as marble temple for Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War. More narrowly also: if, as, and when we "win" the "War" on "Terror," then lots of the incumbent's crimes and follies may be forgotten, if not exactly forgiven. Just remember how Ronald Reagan was saved from looking like a doofus by the utterly unexpected (unexpected at least by Republicans) intervention of Mikhail Gorbachev. Okay,granted, Reagan still looked like a doofus, but a loveable doofus instead of an industrial-strength clusterfuck. Same thing could happen to Bush.

But there are all sorts of possible endings to this story. Take Warren G. Harding: still much loved and admired when he decamped in 1923--only months later did the true awfulness of his incumbency begin to become apparent. Or, Franklin Pierce. He looked bad when he left office; even worse by the end of the Civil War. Someday, those conservatives may look back on 23 percent with nostalgia.

Deuce the Ace

Somebody—I think it might even be Proust—once said that you can get to go to bed with just anybody if you sit up and listen to them until three o’clock in the morning.

My friend Scott has a milder version: if you sit up and listen to somebody until three o’clock, you hear a lot of dull stuff, but once in a while you hear somebody incredibly interesting.

I was thinking of Scott (and Proust) yesterday when I read the long, fascinating New York Times report about (no kidding) Deuce Martinez, ace debriefer and his work as an Al Qaeda interrogator (link). And he made me a remember a lesson I learned (and could have learned better) back in my days doing newspaper journalism.

Of course, we did not have the option of beating the living shit out of our subjects, but we did know: it is absolutely amazing what people will tell you if you just still and listen.

I remember one of the best I ever knew—he went on to a distinguished career but I won’t embarrass him by outing him here—who used to sit back there in the corner with his old fashioned headset on saying “yeh…uh huh…no kidding…yeh…yeh.” And his copy was just spilling over with wonderful stuff.

It isn't quite a snap of the fingers, of course. It takes tact, preparation, a certain skill at manipulation and of course p-a-a-t-ience, which may be the hardest part of all. Maybe it doesn’t work every time, but it sure works often. Lots of lowly hacks know it. How come the Vice-president’s office never got the memo?

Post Editor Leaves, Standards Deteriorate

Bob Woodward, überjournalist at the Washington Post, saluting the departure of editor Leonard Downie, Jr., says "he grew accustomed to Downie's 'notorious pencil marks all over a draft story'" (link).

The story also says that Downie is " The son of a businessman whose career included work as a Cleveland milkman." For valuable prizes, readers are invited to explain who worked as a milkman--father or son?--and who the heck was asleep at the switch when the story was being edited?

It also reports that Downie " has never been accused of fostering a star system." I assume this will come as a surprise to Woodward, and perhaps also to Howie Kurtz, who wrote the story.

McCain Prizes

McCain wants to offer a prize for battery power (link).  I say God bless im but don't stop there.  Here are other projects for which a grateful nation ought to be willing to offer a reward:

  • Perpetual motion.

  • Gold out of base metals.

  • Squaring the circle.

  • An end to world hunger.

  • Peace in our time.

  • And a pony!

More on "Bad Guys Get the Girls"

Regular readers of Underbelly will not be surprised to learn that chicks go for bad guys. But here are a couple of researchers who offer some thoughts on just which bad guys, and why (link):
The traits are the self-obsession of narcissism; the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of psychopaths; and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism. At their extreme, these traits would be highly detrimental for life in traditional human societies. People with these personalities risk being shunned by others and shut out of relationships, leaving them without a mate, hungry and vulnerable to predators.

But being just slightly evil could have an upside: a prolific sex life, says Peter Jonason at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "We have some evidence that the three traits are really the same thing and may represent a successful evolutionary strategy."

Might be profitable to tie this together with a comment over at TigerHawk (link):

The way that I know how out of touch I am is that the two things that turned me around from voting for GWB just because he wasn't the coward snake in the grass Kerry was his "Bring it on," and "Wanted dead or alive." My reaction was finally a man who will be a man. I became an ardent supporter at that point and I haven't wavered.

I don't know where I'll put my strong loyalties after he leaves office. I find Barack Obama, the poster boy for Beta males, beneath contempt. I do not trust John McCain, who seems to be more interested in not having people mad at him than in actually standing up. I'll vote for him because the other guy is so repulsive, but I can't see myself feeling any great loyalty to him.

My guess is that the commentator--she's a she, apparently--speaks for a fairly large market niche. Forget the guys who change didies--this chick wants a guy who will breed strong sons, who can beat the sand out of their adversaries. Beta male, indeed--as in "hah, when I want you, I'll throw you a bone."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Some Stuff I Think I Know about Health Care

Some stuff I know about health care, I think, via David Dranove :

  • Most reliable indicator of surgeon skill: number of surgeries performed. But nobody is quite sure why: could be because he gets lots of practice, could be because the good ones get a lot of business.
  • Most reliable source of information about the quality of specialists—your primary care doctor, if (big if) your primary care doctor will tell the truth. But whom does s/he want to please more—the network of specialists, or you?
  • A generation ago, a lot of uninsured got medical care via compulsory cross-subsidies. Translated: providers who got money to build hospitals under the Hill-Burton Act were required to provide services to the unserved. So paying patients unknowingly paid for the non-paying.
  • Using emergency rooms for non-emergency care is not as goofy an idea as it seems. The big item for an emergency room is having the team ready for, well, for emergencies. The marginal cost of using their extra time to treat non-emergencies is near zero. If the patient is willing to wait, might as well let the docs use their extra time that way.
  • Our model of medical care is still Dr. Marcus Welby, MD, of the TV show (link). Interesting thing is, though, that the Dr. Welbys of the world weren't all that good at doctoring. They got away with a lot of mistakes because people trusted them. Incidentally: somebody must have explored the proposition that the ultimate model of modern manhood was Robert Young—star of both Marcus Welby and Father Knows Best—and that Young suffered from alcoholism and depression, culminating in a suicide attempt (link).

Who is

Fethullah Gülen?

Ignoto knows (link).

Thanks, Ignoto.

Cross Elasticities

Mark Perry has a useful summary of cross-elasticities of demand, triggered by the spike in gas prices (link). Example: an increase in the sale of locking gasoline caps. Mr. and Mrs. Buce have responded more directly, choosing rather to park their car on its side.

Update: The Mess in Washington

From instuctions on a government form:
Print on Single-Sided Paper Only
I'm thinking, I'm thinking...

Update to update: Kansas bureau points out that there is single sided paper; just hard to get it into a printer (link).

Apreciation: Dranove on Health Care

I could say that David Dranove’s Code Red is the best book I’ve ever read about the economics of health care but it wouldn’t be saying very much because I don’t think I’ve ever read any another book about the economics of health care. So I can’t do a strict comparison, but my guess is that it’s a pretty good book in any event—lots of particulars about what works and doesn’t work in health care and some (perhaps not enough) about what might be made to work in a new presidency.

And clarity: Dranove has a lot of that on offer, but with a catch. The catch—perhaps the central takeaway point of the whole book—is that health care is inherently complicated, a simply massive spaghetti-net of exceptions, qualifications, special cases and GOK what else. And yet even so, he doesn’t do everything: unless I missed it, there is not a word about what might be the most successful public health care program, the Veterans’ Administration (well, maybe an even better one is the one that Congress provides for itself, but it’s a special case).

If you had to get it down to a soundbyte, I suppose that one candidate might be “the rise and inglorious collapse of the HMO”—the “health management organizations” that swept over the landscape in the 90s, leaving almost everyone unhappy, and quickly receding on the advent of the “PPO,” the “preferred provider organization.” The PPO, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is supposed to be a kind of “HMO lite,” without the same level of consumer dissatisfaction, but perhaps also without the potential for economy tht the HMO was supposed to offer.

Dranove doesn’t waste a lot of energy regretting the failure of the HMO: he concedes, at least that they emerged as an administrative nightmare. He does argue, at least in passing, that HMOs were actually pretty good (or at any rate, not obviously bad) at health care, even if they were dreadful at paperwork. He does insist that the problems that HMOs were intended to solve remain with us: lack of meaningful quality control, or cost control.

Dranove does have one drab candidate for a pathway to improvement in both quality or price: more and better electronic data sharing. It’s astounding how often, 30 years into the computer age, doctors still do their paperwork with obsidian chips on sandstone (but I did see my internist with a laptop last month, first time ever for me).

He also suggests (channeling Burton Weisbrod) “that the most impoertang long-run engine of our healthcare system is technological change.” X-rays and antiseptics revolutionized medicine a generation ago; microsurgery and genetic tinkering may do it for the next.


David Dranove, Code Red: An Economist Explains How to Revive the Healthcare System Without Destroying It (Princeton UP 2008)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Who are the 406 in "Operation Malicious Mortgage"?

I wonder if anybody has actually seen a list of the much-hyped "406" indicted in "operation malicious mortgage," the FBI's vaunted crackdown on mortgage fraud, or any other fullscale survey of particulars. A Google News search (link) churns up a number of local names in local stories of people who, to all appearances, did in fact phony up mortgage applications to suck money out of lenders. But the initial press release (link) is full of enough grandiosity and short enough on specifics to make one wonder how many of those cases got swept up under the marquee for decorative purposes only.

Life in the New World

I can't decide where to place this on a continuum between self-satisfied solipsism and really kind of interesting--this description of how they work at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall's primo blog, or rather blog network (link):

Explaining how TPM works can be daunting, especially if you're describing it to someone from a traditional journalism background or, say, older relatives for whom something as simple as email is still intimidating.

As most of you know, we have a bricks-and-mortar office in Manhattan. But that's just the anchor for our operation. We have a reporter in DC, another reporter who works most of the week from Connecticut, and I'm in Missouri. So a third of our staff of nine is not based in the NYC office.

For that model to work, we rely some on phones, a lot on email, but primarily on Skype. That means a whole series of Skype chats going on at any one time between and among editors, reporters, and interns. Even most of the internal office interactions are via Skype, so that those of us not in the office proper can be kept in the loop. Picture a staff of mostly 20-somethings squeezed into a 700-some-odd-square-foot newsroom, hunched over their computers, fingers flying across their keyboards as they IM with colleagues who may be sitting right next to them.

As I say, it's a hard arrangement to explain to the uninitiated. Spencer Ackerman, who used to work for us at TPMmuckraker, captured it pretty well in this blog post:

If you want to understand what it's like to work at TPM, spend a couple days with your ten smartest friends and constantly IM with them. Set up IM windows for multi-person conversation, and break out those discussions with individual participants. And make the substance of those conversations deep-in-the-weeds investigative journalism. Make sure you don't often go more than, say, two minutes without contributing to the discussion. And see if you can avoid being overwhelmed.

As odd as all that may sound, one of the most out-of-the-box things about TPM was that until Wednesday, I had never met any of our staff in person, including Josh, even though I've worked at TPM in one capacity or another for approaching two years now, the last 10 months as managing editor.

It had just worked out that way. Josh and I both have young kids. Travel is expensive. Whatever. A hundred reasons why it hadn't happened yet. ...


From the NYT:

[I]t would be a bad idea to plan on getting any inheritance from your older relatives. ... [W]ith each passing year, the pressures on the nest eggs of those older people will only grow. The truly rich will be fine, as they usually are. But a lot of other people, even retirees with net worths well into the seven figures, could end up spending every dime before they die.

(Link). Notice to all expectant children, indifferent grandchildren, harebrained nieces and nephews, etc:

  • We have not yet dipped into our capital.

  • We plan on living for ever.
That is all. Resume lives of carefree self-indulgence.

In the "Bleeding Obvious" Sweepstakes ...

we have a winner!

Bush May End Term With Iran Issue Unsettled

Source: New York Times (link). Thanks, John.

Update: Mrs. Buce offers a non-trivial response--"you mean we will not go to war?"--which, true or not, seems to be more or less what the piece says.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pension Planning

Ignoto finds that if you live long enough, you must face the issue:

"But after all, life begins at sixty-five."

"It's for different reasons entirely that my life began at sixty-five.
That was when I qualified."

"Qualified for what? Voting?"

"Qualified for the old age pension, son. Ever since then I've been my own
boss. No more getting pushed around, no more licking asses, not for me!
Nobody can't take that pension away from me."

"It's a great thing," I said.

"It's a wonderful thing. It's the most wonderful thing that ever happened
to me in my life."

"Can you imagine what they did to me?" the old man said. "And that was
when I couldn't walk yet after my second stroke. They put me out in the
county poorhouse, with nobody to look after me except my chums out there.
They said all the hospitals were full. I still have some of the bedsores I
got then. And then they weren't going to give me my old-age pension, even
after I qualified."

"Now I got me a little place of my own under the stairs at the warehouse,
and nobody can say boo to me."

--Ross Macdonald, Blue City 8-10   (Alfred A. Knopf ed. 1947).

The Spirit Moves Me...

I seem to have kicked off a bit of email chatter with my reference to the divine afflatus (link, last graf). Hm--well, I admit it is not a household phrase, but it was familiar to me, I assumed from my newspaper days back in Kentucy, where politicians provide a dependable flow of hot air. Sure enough, it turns out that there is an essay of that name by H. L. Mencken, reprinted in his Prejudices: Second Series (link)—Mencken, the presiding deity of journalists of my generation (our Tim Russert? Now, that bears some thought). And apparently there is a straight line back to Cicero.

It seems the phrase gained prominence among the 19th-Century romantics as tarted-up Sunday dress for “inspiration.” I assume it is also cognate with “flatulence,” and in an age of Victorian propriety, I don’t suppose it was much trick at all for an impudent schoolboy (with even a minimal classical education) to suggest the imputation that nice ladies might, well, em, fart.

In an age where the nicest of ladies has established her connection with main drainage, I suppose the connection is no longer even salacious. Perhaps the pivot point was the limerick conventionally attributed to Woodrow Wilson:

I sat next to the duchess at tea;
It was just as I feard it would be:

Her rumblings abdominal
Were simply phenomenal

And everyone thought it was me.

I’ve seen that one in the teacher’s edition of a songbook for primary schoolchildren. So I’d say the gas is pretty much out of the bag.

Uh, let me rephrase that your honor. Meanwhile, here is a particularly ripe example:

[She] writes like an inspired priestess—not without a most truthful heart, but a heart that is devoted to religion, and whose individuality is cast upward in the divine afflatus, and dissolved and carried off in the recipient breath of angelic ministrants.

--Richard Hengist Horne, A New Spirit of the Age 27- (1944), quoted here.

The Importance of a Classical Education

At least in Britain (link):
A Cambridge University student was handcuffed and marched to a police car after launching an extraordinary attack on a spectator at a jelly-wrestling competition.

Minutes earlier, shamed Classics student Nadia Witkowski had been wallowing around in a paddling pool full of red jelly, wrestling fellow scantily-clad students in an attempt to win a £250 prize.

But after being booed by onlookers who judged the Trinity College student to have lost the match, the 23-year-old lashed out at a spectator, punching her on the nose.

Thanks, Ignoto. And (on Ferdinand Mount's autobiography (link)):

[T]his is the story of a man who flitters from one admittedly nepotistic posting to another: society children’s nanny; journalist on the Daily Sketch (his expensive classical education proving itself perfect training for the writing of pithy 250-word tabloid leaders); political columnist for the Spectator; head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit; before sinking back into what he describes as his easiest job ever, editing the TLS from 1991 to 2002.

Who's He Losing? Oh, Them

If Obama is so popular with so many people, why is his lead so small? Charlie Cook has an answer, and it impressed him, and it impresses me: Obama is losing the baby boomers. Cook explains (link)

Of all people, the generation that brought us the Vietnam War protests and the Summer of Love is proving to be a very tough nut for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to crack. ...

Obama trailed McCain by 9 points among both 18-to-34-year-old white voters and those 65 and older. He lagged by 10 points among 35-to-49-year-old whites. But among those 50 to 64, Obama is losing by a whopping 18 points, 51 percent to 33 percent....

Some of this may be attributable to long-term voting patterns. These are voters who remember the disappointing--some would say failed--presidency of Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, which was followed by the fairly popular--many would say successful--presidency of Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989. The voters in this bloc were ages 19 to 33 when that 12-year downer period for Democrats began and 31 to 45 with their voting patterns set, most likely for life, when it ended. Obviously, there are exceptions.

It is often said that Reagan drew a whole generation into the Republican Party. And some observers wonder whether George W. Bush may have driven another generation away. If this is true, Barack Obama, meet Ronald Reagan, your real opponent.

But do white Boomers' past voting patterns explain Obama's problems with them? Or, is his difficulty that these are voters in their prime earnings years, when they are most sensitive to the issue of taxes? Do they view national security issues differently and want beefier credentials than Obama offers? ...

Cook says he doesn't know the answer to his own question, but would like to find out. He does recall a first principle of modern politics, well known to political junkies although perhaps not so well among the population as a whole: the last Democrat to carry even a plurality of white voters was Lyndon Johnson in 1974.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Rawls Factor on Not Fighting the Tape

I met John Rawls once; he seemed like the nicest man you could imagine. But one reason I have never been too crazy about John Rawls the philosopher is that he seemed to good at comforting the comfortable: reassuirng cosseted young Harvard students that their all-you-can eat smorgy of privilege came with a complimentary side dish of entitlement.

You see a lot of that sort of thing in academic writing: results that cast a gratifying warm glow on the inquirer. My friend Ignoto offers up a compelling example in the abstract of a new paper by an economist:

A theory is developed that explains how stocks can crash without fundamental news and why crashes are more common than frenzies. A crash occurs via the interaction of rational and naive investors. Naive traders believe that prices follow a random walk with serially correlated volatility. Their expectations of future volatility are formed adaptively. When the market crashes, naive traders sell stock in response to the apparent increase in volatility. Since rational traders are risk averse as well, a lower price is needed to clear the market: The crash is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think this means: don't blame us smart guys when we lose all your money by following the stupid guys down.

He adds, "frenzies cannot occur in this model," though what that has to do with anything is not obvious from this abstract.

"My Courage and Skill to Him That Can Get It":
Mollie Panter-Downes on London in World War II

Here's someone who deserves a Wiki page: Mollie Panter-Downes.

You remember Mollie? Perhaps you do. She was a sometimes novelist and short story writer, and more importantly the London corespondent for The New Yorker magazine, whose "Letter from London" did so much to form our enduring picture of the doughty British as they fended off the Nazis in World War II.

I've been thinking of Mollie lately as I thumb through a collection called The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (Schockdn, 1988), one of those items that resurfaced in the recent housecleaning. There are a lot of names to remember here: Rebecca West, A. J. Liebling, John Lardner and, at last, John Hersey, whose epochal "Hiroshima" ends the collection. There are others perhaps a tad more recherché: E. J. Kahn, Jr., St. Clair McKelway, Brendan Gill. And Mollie Panter-Downes.

I haven't made an exact count, but Mollie may come first through the tape with number of pieces anthologized here (Liebling is a contender), and it is uncanny how familiar they all sound, to anyone who lived through the period, either in life or in books--familiar even if you have never read them at all. Her picture of England in a troubled time is as much a part of our mythology as all those old Mawsterpiece Theatre soapers that still clog the airwaves on Public Broadcasting.

Here is Mollie on September 3, 1939, just after Hitler crossed the border into Poland: "the London crowds are cool--cooler than they were in 1914--in spite of thundery weather that does it best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for air raids at the end of breathlessly humid days." And on May 12, 1940, as Chamberlain fell and Churchill came to power: "London itself seemed much the same as usual except that everyone carried a paper and most people for the first time in months carried a gas mask." And on June 22, after the fall of Paris--though stunned (she says) the British people "took refuge in the classic formula for disaster: calmness, and an increasingly dogged determination to hold back for bitter months--or years, if necessary--a juggernaut that everyone now knows is out to annihilate the nation in weeks."

It's that last one that is really striking. Any fool can say after the fact that "we know they could do it all along." But here is Mollie in the heat of (literally) battle saying: buck up, steady on, things will be all right in the end.

Mollie has not quite vanished into history. Amazon still recognizes the name (link): a couple of her books appear still to be in print, thanks to the dedication of one or two small presses. I have my own copy of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, a short story collection acquired at Palookaville's best second-hand bookshop ("Merry Christmas 1999, Love--Jessica, XOXO"). A jacket blurb describes her as one of her own characters: her father died at Mons in 1914; she lived for more than 60 years with her family in Surrey; "each day Mollie took a basket with her lunch to a writing hut in the woods where, between 1938 and 1984, she wrote 852 pieces for The New Yorker."

I suspect Mollie may pale by comparison to her more flamboyant opposite number in Paris--that would be Janet Flanner, aka Genet, Flanner the flâneur, bisexual, restless, polygynous, and to boot with a sister named Hildegarde. Flanner does have her own Wiki (link), and it is a treasure; Mollie is relegated to some scattered footnotes (link) ("is this a real name?" one commentator inquires). Oddly enough, Flanner is not so heavily represented in this particular collection, although her "Paris, Germany" is justly recognized as a classic. In the end it may be Mollie's very posture of ordinariness that makes her less visible--hiding in plain sight. Too bad, here is a writer who deserves not to be forgotten.

[You ask--why don't you write the Wiki yourself? Answer, I don't do Wiki. They lock me out for some reason--I think it may have to do with the Google Accelerator. And I have never tried to break through the lock, because I figured that if once I started, I might never stop.]

Update: But there is a New York Times obit (link)--oh and an even better one in The Independent (link)--oh and this book passage (link)--but but but apparently she is not the original for Mrs. Miniver (link).

No, Wait, it was the Spin Cycle on the Washing Machine

My friend Larry starts my day off with a story about a woman in Croatia who sat dead in front of her TV set for 42 years (link). I wrote back to say I'd seen a similar story a while back only it was more like one year. Larry responds:

The first year is the hardest. After that it's mostly re-runs.

Mrs. Buce chimes in:

Forty-two years ago, someone in Croatia had a TV set?

"There's No Cause for Alarm,
We're Just Stopping to Take on More Ice"

Adjacent headlines in my Google Reader:

Dutch government acknowledges peak gas.

So you want to see a show?

[Near-er my God to thee, Near-er my God tothee...]

More Cool Graphics

US Open on Line via Prime Time TV (Kedrosvsky)

Projected Dutch Gas Production (Oil Drum)

Foreclosed Properties on Offer from Countrywide (Carpe Diem).

Miscellaneous Gloom and Doom from Perot (Financial Armageddon)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pig-time Operator

My friend Margaret just sent me a picture of a kid kissing a pig. Made me remember one of my first adult jobs: I was a photographer for the daily newspaper in Washington Courthouse, Ohio. One of my duties--it may have been my most important duty--was to take the picture of the prize pig at the County Fair 4-H auction.

The only good angle for the picture was from inside the auction ring. Now, pigs may be ill-informed, but they are not dumb; when the prize pig came into the ring, he knew that something was going to happen that he wasn't going to like. Also, pigs are not Christian, or at any rate, they do not have the spirit of Christian charity. So when they are in a bad mood, they go looking for somebody to hurt.

So there was I, with a 4"x5" speed graphic in hand, trying to change flashbulbs while hopping backwards around a show ring, inches away from an angry porker.

Pretty good training for being a law professor, though.

Oh, and Margaret's picture--cute pig.

Update: Hoo ha! I just checked the website at the paper. Looks like life back there may not have changed all that much (link).

Cool graphics

Say aah.

Crude prices.

Not a Team Player, That Boy

The two-star general who led an Army investigation into the horrific detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib has accused the Bush administration of war crimes and is calling for accountability.


[Note: irony/sarcasm protocol applies.]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Snips and Snails and Puppydog's Tails

Tyler Cowen (and a whole slew of commentators) weigh in on a noteworthy proposition: liberals tend to think that homosexuality is hardwired and gender differences are not, while conservatives think just the other way around (link).

As a generalization, I suspect there is a good deal of merit to this view, but I don’t think either position does very well at describing me. At the very least, my views evolve: when I was young, I took it for granted that gender differences were hard-wired and I didn’t know enough about homosexuality to have an opinion. In the 60s and 70s, I submitted to the prevailing wisdom that gender differences were cultural (I think maybe I always had my fingers crossed but who knows). And once I began paying attention, I pretty quickly came to the view that homosexuality must be hard-wired.

On homosexuality, I still hold that view, but on gender differences, I’ve regressed: I think we were closer to right the first time. I’ll grant that there are a whole slew of differences that are “merely” (ha!) cultural, and it is maddeningly difficult to disentangle nature from culture, but I suspect that there is far more to the essentialist case than the 60s or 70s were willing to admit.

Mrs. B throws in a couple of wrinkles that I hadn’t thought of it. One, re homosexual “deprogramming.” Even if we could do it, she asks (not that she thinks we can), still, why would we want to? IOW, suppose it is a mere cultural choice—so what?

The other is on the matter of sado-masochism which, I admit, I do my very best not to think about. Mrs. B grants that she doesn’t know much about it either, but if there is an avenue for cultural intervention to reduce its prevalence in society, she’d be delighted to give the avenue a try. Granted there seems to be a lot of it going on between consenting partners. One might still want to be a moral absolutist about this sort of thing; consent or not, it’s just not what you want society to be about.

Firefox 0.0.0

You'f think I'd know better than to try to join the mass Firefox 3.0 download. Anyway, it (a) wiped out Firefox 2.0 and (b) disappeared. Repeated rebootings, reloadings, did nothing to help. A visit to the Firefox tech support page brought up a blank screen.

Well, I had been thinking about trying Opera...

Like, Yes and No?

My friend the New York Crank is on a rant (surprise!) about language usage (link). I give him part credit here. I’d agree with him that making every declaration into a question is to be discouraged, not so much as a linguistic nicety as a character flaw: it represents an unwholesome concern for the opinion of the listener—about whose opinion, in many cases, the speaker really should not give a rat’s patootie.

I’m unpersuaded about the asserted inferiority of “gone missing” as against “is missing.” “Gone missing” has a nice active-verb flavor, and I like active verbs. Moreover, “gone missing” conveys an important linguistic distinction. Judge Crater “is missing,” having “gone missing” on the night of August 6, 1930. When my neighbor tells me that his cat has “gone missing,” I infer that it is something that happened so recently that we are still called upon to revise our behavior or change our attitudes—be on the alert for suspicious characters, or perhaps join the hue and cry. Both “gone” and “in” may be tactful euphemisms for “and is presumed dead” (Judge Crater would be 119 this year). It’s indirect, but at least in the case of “gone missing,” perhaps a bit of diplomatic evasion is forgivable (I remember the life insurance salesmen who were trained to say “if, God forbid, something should happen to you…”).

Which brings me to “like.” I mostly agree that we use it, like, way too much? But a few years ago, we had this faculty candidate—it was clear from the moment she got off the plane that she couldn’t imagine she was debasing herself even so much as to interview at so paltry a school. Anyway, midway through her ordeal she was coming out of the campus restaurant when her eye fell on a somewhat amateurish statue, the residuum, I suppose, of a student project. Through clenched teeth, she hissed: “You’ve got a lot of, like, art around here, haven’t you?”

Quite right, I should say, a lot of like art, which is not the same as real art. Standards must be maintained; certainly no place for a lady. The candidate, of course, has, like, gone missing--her divine afflatus now hovers over the exalted purlieus of a much more dignified venue (as does,for all I know, that of Judge Crater). Oh, and Francisco Franco is still dead.

Shafer (and Buce) on St. Tim

I was resisting saying anything about the late NBC Washsington Bureau Chief, but Slate’s Jack Shafer has a piece up on “The Canonization of Tim Russert,” which says most of what I would have wanted to say (and says it better) (link, and thanks, John). And it induces me to throw in three afterthoughts.

One, Shafer could have laid more stress on one important reason for the wall-to-wall coverage: the cable news hole. You have to have something to fill that yawning chasm of dead air. That’s why know so much about a blonde who went missing in Aruba, why every bit of political slippage is a “controversy,” and so forth. Bummer about Russert but as a(nd against my better judgment) viewer, I say thank heaven for the Iowa floods. Otherwise, we would have heard even more about St. R (come to think of it, don’t they have to prove he performed three miracles?).

Two, it’s time to say it: Russert wasn’t that great a journalist. Okay fair enough, nobody was that great a journalist. And Russert was, I grant, hard working and far better informed than the average pretty-faced chin-wagger. But at the end of the day he was a mainstay of the toxic web of journalistic clientism—the you-give-me-inside-dope, I-give-you-face-time symbiosis that has gone so much to degrade and vulgarize mainstream news coverage. It’s deadly for the polity and Russert was one of the principal purveyors of the virus, and in a very particular way: from the standpoint of his corporate masters, perhaps his most important skill was his knack for asking questions that seemed trenchant, penetrating, without ever pressing hard enough that they might have stopped people from returning his phone calls. I’ll grant you that journalism has been a mess from the get-go, but the celebrity of guys like Russert makes me pine for the era of the ink-stained wretch.

Which brings me to the third point about the canonization: it’s casting the ice axe up the canyon wall. Hey, if this guy is so great, then maybe the rest of us aren’t so bad at all. In a torrent of hot air, all egos rise at once.

Documented extra:
Shafer’s piece took me back to one I had missed before: his own obituary on a beloved friend (link)—and the most savagely funny skewering of the late Richard Darman that one could possibly iimagine.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Anne Applebaum Meets Vox Populi
And Finds It's Not a Pretty Sight

There’s a marvel of chattering-class confusion up at Slate, from Anne Applebaum (link), about the Irish rejection of them Lisbon treaty where she alternately tries (a) to scold those ungrateful bog jockeys for biting the hand that propelled them into the first division of the per capita income sweepstakes; and (b) to pontificate, knowingly, that it is the sort of thing you have to expect from voters, the poor dears, who just cannot be expected to understand what is good for them.

She doesn’t for a moment seem to consider ( c) the deeply undemocratic nature of the European Union process, top to bottom, which takes it for granted that “legitimacy” in Union affairs is an affair not of democracy but of marketing. From day one, the Union has never been about what the voters want—because, as Applebaum has learned, the voters want a lot of irrational, self-contradictory, self-deluded and deeply anti-social things. The Union has been structured the beginning as a mechanism designed (1) to recognize this fact; and (2) to steamroller the voters into taking what is good for them, whether they want it or not.

The extraordinary thing is not the Irish result, which, in the long history of the Union, counts as a huge ho hum. The Eurocrats have an unbroken track record of success at neutering this kind of popular sincerity and they’ll find a way to do it again. Bully for them, too much democracy is a frightening spectacle. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s really afoot.

Wish I'd Been There: Tito Entertains the British Navy

“Tito”—Josip Broz, the Croat-Slovene peasant child who grew up to be leader of Yugoslavia—spent most of World War II as the leader of anti-Nazi partisans in the wilds of the Balkan Peninsula. In the early months of his campaign, the allied leadership had no idea who he was, or indeed whether he was perhaps just a fiction. Time and circumstance at last put him into contact with more conventional forces and in the summer of 1943, Tito had himself smuggled out of Yugoslavia for an encounter with British. His biographer recounts:

Disliking the status of refugee, Tito remained in Italy no longer than was necessary. After spending a few days in a villa on the outskirts of Bari which had been placed at his disposal by the British authorities, he crossed by night to Vis in H.M.S. Blackmore, a Hunt Class destroyer. On his way over he was entertained at dinner in the wardroom in the best naval style. The atmosphere was hilarious, there was plenty to drink, and Tito’s natural shyness soon wore off. By the end of the evening he was reciting “The Owl and the Pussy Cat" in fluent English to an admiring audience of young naval officers.

--Fitzroy Maclean, The Heretic 221-2 (1957).

Tito was, among other things, a natural learner, who seemed to pick up the language of any group he was among after a matter of days.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Humphrey Lyttleton, RIP

This will only make sense if you’ve lived in Britain or, failing that, if you’re a BBC fan and happen to have discovered Humphrey Lyttleton, sometimes British jazz great and chairman-for-life of that very British institution, the quiz show I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue. Clue, “the antidote to panel games,” aestheticized silliness with items like “One song to the tune of another” and “name that barcode.” The capstone, which developed a life of its own, was “Mornington Crescent,” the very unreal game (no one has ever been found who could claim to know the rules) named for a very real London tube station.

Humph died last week at 86. Flowers are said to be showing up, you guessed it, outside Mornington Crescent. Courtesy, we assume, of the lovely Samantha.

All Bad News is Good News for Somebody


It was a kid's voice, as I rolled my bike up to the stoplight. He was walking with his mother, and her bike.

"Hi," I replied.

"We're on the way to get my new bike!" he shouted.

And his mother muttered: "Can't afford gas any more."

You know, if we could do something about these !@#$ bike lanes. Like stop letting them end in the middle of nowhere. ...

Still Around and Making a Lot of Sense

Back when bankers were riding high, Martin (is that guy still around) Mayer looked pretty much like an old fuddy duddy. Not that banks are imploding, Martin (is that guy still around?) may be coming back into fashion. Via Yves Smith, here’s a wonderful interview of Mayer from Institutional Risk Analytics, in which he is sober and tactful enough not to say “I told you so”—but to give the reader plenty of leeway to figure it out for himself. Here’s a money quote:

… there are a certain number of tested Wall Street scams that have been forbidden by regulation. If you can find a way to use technology to revive one of these scams, then you are an innovator and you get paid extremely well for the five years these techniques work, and then you go away.

Makes me remember my friend Bernie who said there were two ways to make partner at his hubba hubba Wall Street firm in the old days: one was to invent a new security, and nobody remembered what the other one was.

Water--Maybe You Could Drink It!

Utah Phillips used to do a routine about the great turtle drive from El Paso to Denver. You can back-engineer most of the jokes, but I did enjoy the punch line which was something on the order of: hey, if we can do this for turtles, maybe we can do it for cattle!

Comes now Underbelly’s Kansas bureau with news in the same vein from the that loutish, loonish parade of greed and blunders we call the Ethanol, um, “industry”—apparently somebody has got the bright idea of turning the stuff into food (link). Well enough in its way, I suppose, but I sign on with the Kansas bureau in asking how many operators—in a business that makes no economic sense anyway “will have the capital to put in a new process that costs $200MM per plant.”

WaMu's (And Everybody Else's) Atrocious Service

Felix Salmon has an instructive piece up about WaMu's atrocious mortgage sevicing. Ha, I thought it was just me. I had a little mortgage that got assigned to WaMu a few years back; I paid it off and went looking for the release on the deed of trust. I couldn't get anybody at WaMu to even admit they owned the damn thing--although I concede their denials were probably sincere, if wrong-headed, in that the folks I talked to probably didn't have any idea what they owned.

I finally deployed a tactic long recommended by my friend Ignoto: I wrote a detailed but patient and non-paranoid letter to the CEO, trusting that if only I could get into the system at the power level, my problem might get solved. Sure enough, a few days later comes a call from a local manager I'd never heard of before saying "you're in luck! Your release just reached my desk this morning!"

Yeh, right. I might add that what we see here is not just WaMu, it's a general business model. Think of the number of places--communications, health care, investment management, whatever--where somebody buys a book of business figuring he'll learn what he has bought, oh, I dunno, maybe when hell freezes over. Meanwhile it is left for the poor sods on the customer service lines--and the apopleptic customers like me--to try to sort out what the heck is going on.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Best Cop Movie Since I Don't Know When

…is Le Petit Lieutenant, about life and hard times in a Paris detective squad. Forget that it’s Paris; forget that it’s Nathalie Baye, and that she looks like a cross between Helen Mirren and Barbra Streisand: this is about as plausible a film about what cop life is about as your are going to find. Some of the reviews complain that it’s too languid, but that is part of the point. A lot of cop work is mind-numbingly squalid and routine; that’s precisely why you are at risk of getting wrong-footed when events kick into a higher gear. It’s great to see a policiere that is not just another knockoff of Law & Order. And it’s great to see the French not trying to be international, but just trying to be themselves.

Football is Like...

Time to freshen up the quote (see at left, under the picture). For more of the same, go here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

McCain and Obama on the Deficit:
Sure, That's the Ticket!

Instead of making snide remarks about the treatment of tax policy in the Presidential campaign, I could have spent my time at greater profit following the discourse over at Capital Gains and Games, where Pete Davis is weighing in with some helpful and apposite commentary. As a self-described deficict hawk, Davis isn’t going all hubba hubba over either candidate (link):

How much, if anything, would [Obama or McCain] do to lift the terrible $3.9 trillion of additional public debt that President Bush has incurred on behalf of our children?

Senator McCain is the champion of eliminating earmarks and curtailing government spending. However, eliminating earmarks and cutting non-defense discretionary spending, which has already declined from 5.2% of GDP in 1980 to 3.6% now, would have little impact on future deficits. McCain would continue the Iraq War well into the future at a cost of nearly $200 b. a year and would invest heavily in anti-missile defense. His proposal to expand private health insurance would do little to curtail runaway federal and private health care spending because it depends upon the development of a private health insurance market, as if we're pleased with how well health insurance works so far. Extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax would be twice as expensive as continuing the War by FY2012. McCain would lower the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% and expense all equipment investment to better compete around the world. He would also seek Senate and House rule changes to require a 3/5 majority to raise any taxes, which would further limit the ability to "pay for" tax cuts and entitlement increases. The deficit would rise sharply under McCain's policies. With rising interest rates around the corner, interest expense on the public debt would rise sharply as well. That's not a very pretty fiscal picture, but it's not necessarily any better under Senator Obama.

Senator Obama has an expensive tax cut for just about every voting block except for the rich. He has tax cuts for the poor, for middle class workers, and for the elderly with incomes under $50,000. He would extend most of the Bush tax cuts (the 10% bracket, $1,000 per child credit, and marriage penalty relief), as would most other Democrats. He would offset some of those costs by taxing the rich more heavily, raising the top marginal tax rate and repealing the Bush tax cuts for capital gains, dividends, and estates. He would also impose a truly massive Social Security payroll tax increase on those with incomes over $250,000 by lifting the income cap. These tax increases would have some negative effects upon the economy, as would his protectionist trade proposals. Obama would remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. Although that would have significant long-run savings, in the first two years or so, it would actually increase costs as the relocation costs were piled upon war costs that will be slow to decline. Meanwhile, he would increase the Army by 65,000 troops and the Marines by 27,000 troops. Obama's plan for mandatory health insurance for children and expansion for adults may be half as expensive as the war. Obama also proposes spending increases for infrastructure investment, green jobs and other job creation, fighting global disease, and increase veterans' benefits. Obama pledges to adhere to PAYGO, paying for new initiatives, but PAYGO often gets waived for "emergencies" and high priority appropriations for the War and for natural disasters. Here too, I would add additional interest expense on the public debt with higher deficits. The deficit would rise sharply under Obama's policies.

More wonkery in the same vein here. One possible source of solace: politicians, as Davis points out, rarely keep (or even remember) their promises.

The New, New Switzerland

Boy, nothing is too silly to be real. A year ago, I touted Afghanistan as the next Switzerland—landlocked, mountainous, resource-free, ready to serve as an intermediary for those around it (link).

I don’t think I was being more than half flip, but okay, I was being flip. Hah, shows what I know: set aside Afghanistan for a moment, it turns out that the (former) president of neighboring Kyrgyzstan had essentially the same idea—to turn his country into “the Switzerland of Central Asia.” So recounts Martha Brill Olcott in Central Asia’s Second Chance (2005)—“a financial center, a transport hub, and a popular destination for international tourists” (41). Olcott continues:

Cynically, it can be argued that Akayev was probably turning necessity into advantage, as he sought to distinguish his country and its leadership from that of other states in the region. Lacking the wealth of may of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan had little more than the personality of its president to serve as a magnet for attracting Western investments, loans, or grants in aid. (id.)

Hello, cynically? Sounds like a perfectly good plan to me—you play the hand that’s dealt you. Unfortunately, Akayev got a bit previous with some of the opposition and they chased him out; he is now (oh, the humiliation!) a math teacher in Moscow.

Well, I still think it’s a good idea. On second (or maybe third) thought, there may be an even better candidate for the role. That would be Kashmir—war-torn between India and Pakistan, but with a strong banking/financial infrastructure (and, so they say, one of the prettiest places on the planet, to boot). Now, if only they could get that silly religion business behind them. Of course, the Catholics and Protestants might have said the same thing in their time…

Reading Note: Galula on Counterinsurgency

I see that somebody had the good sense to republish David Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare (link). Last time I looked,* you couoldn't find anything but old originasl copies on offer at more than $100 each. Now there's a reprint, available for $25 and change. Also on the "Bare Bones Essentials" counterinsurgency reading list at Abu Muqawama, a counterinsurgency blog.


*Okay, must have been two years ago, but still...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

9/11 Changed Everything:

More on cops can do what they want:

Man on his own sofa laughing at TV winds up sprayed by police.


Here I Go Again: McCain the Old Guy Dept

I really ought to quit watching Chris Matthews. Then I wouldn't be tempted to get into a yackfest where nobody much cares about my opinion anyway. But here we go again...

Look, children, it really doesn't matter whether John McCain at 71 is "too old" to be president. It matters whether he says and does stupid things. For example, if John McCain insists on saying x on Monday and y on Tuesday, and denying any inconsistency, this says nothing one way or another about whether he is too old to be president. It's just evidence that he is a deeply unreflective guy who figures that he is the same person he was yesterday, and so there can be no consistency. This has nothing to do with age; my guess is that he was pretty much like this in flight school, back in the McKinley administration.

This is, FWIW, one traiat that is so maddening in the incumbent (who is not 71): white heart and an empty head are the best possible defense against criticism. Heaven save us from electing another Labrador Retriever.

More Stuff I Think I Know About Taxes

Some more things I know about taxes, I think:

  • “Flat tax” can mean at least three different things:

--A single rate (18.2 percent?) for all income-tax payers.

--A “flat base,” with all deductions, exceptions, exclusions, etc., boiled out.

--A retail sales tax (or a value-added (“VAT”)) with a single rate for all transactions.

  • One thing it (almost) never means is a single lump-sum payment for each and all potential taxpayers—in effect, a poll tax. But if you did have such a tax, it would be about $5,600 per person. That’s what you get when you divide the current income tax bill by the number of adults in the population.
  • A “single-rate” flat tax would on almost any plausible scenario reduce the taxes on the rich and increase the taxes on the poor. For example, using 2005 data, for a family of four, a “single rate” tax of 18.2 percent, supplanting a graduated income tax and getting rid of tax credits and alternative minimum tax—would reduce taxes for all those with incomes over $144,000, and increase taxes on all others.

It occurs to me you aren’t likely to hear much about these tax issues in this election year, or at least not in this traditional form. Re the single-rate flat tax, my guess is that most voters have figured out at this point htat it is a scam perpetrated by Steve Forbes to maintain his 151-foot yacht. Re getting rid of exceptions--one of the most desirable targets is the home mortgage interest deduction, and that has absolutely no chance of being eliminated in this rotten market. Re sales taxes or VAT, the biggest argument in their favor is that they increase savings. Personal savings are indeed near zero, but in a world clogged with surplus capital, the idea of promoting more savings just doesn’t seem to have a lot of traction.

Source: Still reading Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija, Taxing Ourselves (4th ed. 2008)

Update: Good stuff om taxes in the current presidential campaign here.

California: The Reddest of Red States

...according to this cool map of gasoline prices (link).

Roth Versus Trilling--and Remembering "When She Was Good"

NYRB Classics showcases a remarkable (unsent) letter in which Philip Roth gives a bit of what-for to Diana Trilling for what she said about Portnoy's Complaint (link, link). Good fun in its own right, but not least remarkable because it calls attention to an early Roth novel, now unjustly forgotten. That would be When She Was Good, which Roth himself obviously holds in esteem. I don't know anybody but me who still remembers it. I confess I haven't read all that much of the later Roth but this early one sticks in my mind more than Portnoy, more than Goodbye, Columbus.

Kinky versus Erotic

Okay, let's get this straight:
  • Erotic is – imagine a beautiful woman with soft skin and beautiful smelling perfume and she traces an ostrich feather across your lips—that’s erotic.
  • If she uses the whole ostrich, that’s kinky.
H/T: BBC Quote Unquote.

Some Things I Know About Taxes, I Think

Some things I know about taxes, I think:
  • In the USA, we paid 27.5 percent of GDP in taxes (including social security as a “tax”) in 2005, of which about two thirds (18 percent of GDP) was federal, the rest state and local. That is lower than any other comparable “first-world” country except Japan. The OECD average was 35.9 percent; Sweden was 50.4 percent. The federal tax number has hovered with remarkable stability around 18 percent of GDP for more than half a century.
  • By some non-crazy Office of Management and Budget estimates, social security plus Medicare and Medicaid are due to eat up about 17.8 percent of GDP by 2040 (mostly medical; social security alone is not a huge problem). Interest on federal debt would grab another 12.1 percent. The OMB numbers project total government spending for 2040 at 39.5 percent—still well below Sweden, but enough (at current tax rates) to imply a deficit equal to 21.7 percent of GDP. A train wreck.
  • As a percentage of cash income, the average taxpayer pays 21.3 percent of cash income in federal taxes—again, including social security. Contrary to widely held belief, the richest actually do pay most—the top one percent of earners pays at a rate of 30.8 percent (but that one percent also got 10.3 percent of all the Bush II tax cuts). The lowest earners actually receive money via the income tax, thanks to the earned income tax credit, but they pay taxes when you add in social security.

  • It’s an axiom of economics that people respond to incentives. In fact, the modern history of taxation provides at best weak evidence for this proposition. People do seem to respond to highly publicized, high-saliency changes in the tax laws—quite a bit of money shuffled around as investors tried to avoid the impact of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But in a great many cases, the incentive effect is non-existent, or so swamped by other effects as to be imperceptible. The supply-side mantra that we can tax-cut our way to wealth—appears on the all the evidence to be a fantasy.

  • On tax evasion: reported net income as a percentage of true net income—for wages 99 percent, pensions 98 percent. Non-farm proprietors, 43 percent, farm proprietors, 28 percent. As a wage-earner and pensioner, I can get pretty steamed about these numbers. On the other hand, I have the police to collect my salary; they have to hustle for theirs.
--Source: Joel Slemrod and John Bakija, Taxing Ourselves (4th ed. 2008)

Fn.: In the same vein, see this but I do my best never to wear socks.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Annals of Niche Marketing

Walkenhorst’s (link) must be (by all appearances) the leading merchandiser of goods to be shipped to inmates in California prisons. Evidently it is a niche market. A FAQ exchange specifies:

Q: How do I know what is allowed in an inmate package so I can avoid sending items that are not approved by the correctional facility?

A: Walkenhorst's is in direct contact with every facility's property officer to determine which items are allowed at each facility. All the items listed on have been pre-approved by each facility's administration; therefore, the possibility of ordering an item from this website that is not approved has been removed.

From the front page of the website, one can infer that there is demand for Oreo cookies, Starkist chunk light tuna, Folger’s instant coffee and beef jerky. A 100-plus page music catalog offers something for every taste, including “Baby Needs Mozart” and Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbande. There is a special catalog for prisoners in the supermax facility at Pelican Bay.

Thanks, Ignoto.

Shock of Recognition: Auerbach on the Politics of Boredom

One measure of the power of an artist is the response he induces in others--the "shock of recognition," as Thoreau Melville (and Edmund Wilson) said. Stendhal--vain, chubby, self-absorbed, probably a stalker, who said he wouldn't be appreciated for 100 years--has an almost unmatched knack for provoking this kind of response, beginning with his peer Balzac, who saluted him Balzac was already famous and Stendhal was still an unkown: "never before have the hearts of princes, ministers, courtiers, and women been depicted like this," said Balzac, of Charterhouse of Parma.

In Mimesis, on of the monuments of 20th Century literary criticism, Eric Auerbach offers an appreciation of Stendhal's other great novel, Le Rouge et le Noir. In particular, Auerbach shows how precisely Stendhal captures a specific moment in time--Paris, on the eve of the 1830 Revolution:

Even the boredom which reigns in the dining room and salon of [the Hôtel de la Mole] is no ordinary boredom. It does not arise from the fortuitous personal dullness of the people who are brought together there; among them there are highly educated, witty, and sometimes important people, and the master of the house is intelligent and amiable. Rather, we are confronted, in their boredom, by a phenomenon politically and ideologically characteristic of the Restoration period. In the seventeenth century, and even more in the eighteenth, the corresponding salons were anything but boring. But the inadequately implemented attempt which the Bourbon regime made to restore conditions long since made obsolete by events, creates, among its adherents in the official and ruling classes, an atmosphere off pure convention, of limitation, of constraint and lack of freedom, against which the intelligence and good will of the persons involved are powerless. In these salons the things which interest everyone--the political and religious problems of the present, and consequently most of the subjects of its literature or that of the very recent past--could not be discussed, or at best could be discussed only in official phrases s mendacious that a man of taste and tact would rather avoid them. ... [L]ife is governed by the fear that the catastrophe of 1793 might be repeated. As these people are conscious that they no longer themselves believe in the thing they represent, and that they are bound to be defeated in any public argument, they choose to talk of nothing but the weather, music, and court gossip. In addition, they are obliged to accept as allies snobbish and corrupt people from among the newly-rich bourgeoisie, who, with the unashamed baseness of their ambition and with their fear for their ill-gotten wealth, completely vitiate the atmosphere of society.

So much for the prevailing boredom.

--Eric Auerbach, Mimesis 455-6 (Princeton Paperback 1968)