Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Does it Matter if Obama Can't Tell a FICA from a 6672?

Yesterday I let loose with a few testy remarks about how Obama doesn't understand business.   Just after I posted I got the bright idea to cook up a little "Do You Live in a Bubble?" quiz, in the manner of Charles Murray, designed to show the test-taker (maybe the President) really doesn't understand the world he lives in.

I think I recognized that as an idea, it was pretty callow from the start.  After all, for nearly 50 years now I've had the police to collect my salary.  Otium cum dignitate.  What that hell could I know about the poor slob who is just trying to make a living?  Well, yes, but I have spent a bit of time hanging out at the bankruptcy court, which can be a culturally broadening experience. So I repackaged a few of  my war stories. But I wasn't able to come up with enough good ideas and so I emailed my homies for help.  

And hoo boy, did I get blowback.  Almost instantaneous.  Blowers made several points but the chief one seemed to be that I was being unfair or unkind to Obama, asking an  irrelevant or totally bogus question.  "Could Franklin Roosevelt have answered?" responded one of the first, in a tone I took to be rhetorical (suggested reply: no, he could not).  Could Ronald Reagan?

My rejoinder: actually, no.  I'm reasonably certain that FDR had not the foggiest notion of how to cope with (the 1932 equivalent of) a 1099, or Section 6672, or a FICA limit.  He had people to do that.  But Roosevelt did have something essential that I had failed to put my finger on.  That is: he had a knack for making you feel that he understood--maybe not in detail, but in a way that would make your life easier, more reassured.  It's why--I think--Roosevelt was able to ride to a landslide reelection victory in 1936, even though his own first term had been pretty much of a mess.  He kept you believing that he was on your side, that with him, things eventually would work out.

So also in a slightly different way, Reagan.  Actually with Reagan, I suspect that even most avid partisans knew he didn't sweat the details.  I think a lot of them even knew that most of those little moral fables he liked to dispense--that most of them were just threads spun out of his own gizzard.  They knew that he was a President who thought World War II was a movie, but that was okay with them--they knew he let them share in the movie with them, and that was all that mattered.  Contrast: a President who has to say "I feel your pain"--that President sounds like a guy who does not feel your pain.

Clinton is a somewhat more complicated case. Of all the examples, he is perhaps the one most likely actually to have known what a FICA limit is.  We all know about his almost protean capacity for assimilating detail. Yet as I've argued before, I think Clinton succeeded in spite, rather than because, his mastery of the intricacies of policy.  Mr. Detail was Jimmy Carter and we know how that ended.  

Which morphs into the flipside problem--not just whether I think you feel my pain, but whether too much detail in a President is positively harmful.  I think this is a complicated question: almost every example has a counter-example.  To my taste, perhaps the best response comes from Elliott A. Cohen's fine book, Supreme Command, in which he explores political leadership in time of war.   None of his examples of successful leadership was himself a military man.  What they did seem to have is a capacity to talk to military leaders, to understand them, and (what may be more important) to make them understand him.  Contrast, say, Lyndon Johnson, a bottomless well of energy and manipulative management, who never seems to have figured out how to establish the right kind of conversation with the military.

So I'll grant that the issue is a good deal more complex and subtle than I let on in my previous blog post (or in my email).  But on my main points, I think I'll stick to my guns.  Refining my expression somewhat: I think it's a failure on Obama's part that he doesn't seem to know how to talk with the finance types the way Lincoln knew how to talk with generals.    At the same time, he doesn't seem to know how to convey to "the business people" (whatever that may mean) that he understands what they are up against--in short, that he feels their pain.

Statement of disinterest: this screed should not be read as an endorsement of the Republican aspirant. I think he, for his part, has made it pretty clear that he really doesn't give a rat's hind end whether you live or die.

Now I think I'l take a whack at that bubble quiz.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Obama and Business: What He Doesn't Get

Boy,  that Obama fella just can't catch a break, can he?  The wingers think he is a Muslim socialist.  His ex-friends on the left think he has gone whoring after the false god of Eisenhower Republican.  Meanwhile the zillionaire bankers are outraged--outraged--that he won't  kiss their shiny pink backsides show them the respect they believe deserve.

This can't all be true, can it? Specifically, he can't be both a friend and an enemy of "the business community," yes? Rhetorical question, of course. My answer is yes, it can indeed be true. But we do need some clarification on just what his attitude entails.

Start with the easy part: Wall Street. Of all the formidable skills in Larry Summers' portfolio, I'm beginning to think that one of the least understood is his power of hypnosis. If not Summers, then somebody* must have cornered Obama in the elevator on the way to the Oval Office and instructed him: "until I snap my fingers and say 'peaseblossom!' you will do everything--everything!--the bankers want you to do!" I can't think of any other reason why a president would work so hard to protect the essence (I almost said "integrity") of the banking system, at whatever cost to the economy as a whole. I am not at all sure why this might be so; it's not that he's ever actually been a banker, and I doubt that he is really hoping to be one when his incumbency ends (yeh, and good luck with that one if you do want it, Barry baby). But I would observe that he does seem to have picked up a kind of awe in the presence of the seemingly brilliant--same thing that made Jsck Kennedy go all mushy in the presence of Robert McNamara.

Does this mean he understands the banking system? You anticipate me here. Of course the point is precisely that he does not understand it. If he understood it half as well as, say, Barry Ritholtz, or Yves Smith, or Andrew Redleaf (just the the names on the surface of my cortex), he'd know just how riddled with fraudulent pretension it is. He'd know that yes, of course, we need a banking system, but that what we have here is a metastasized monster that clearly sucks more wealth out of the community than it provides.

Which brings me to another hobbyhorse of mine.  That is: Wall Street isn't really business, it's finance.    And what the Obama crowd has done is to ringfence finance while letting business go pretty much its own way.  And this latter part--the non-finance part, the business part--is something that Obama seems just not to understand very well.

Consider his resume.  In some ways, it's an amazingly rich and diverse panoply of experience, and it provides much that enhances his capacity to do his job.  But as the old snarl goes, "have you ever met a payroll?"  --I think the answer has to be "no."  He just doesn't seem to have much of a feel for what business do, and how they do it.

I don't want to glamorize here.  There are plenty of businessmen who are crooks and god knows there are more than enough who are just incompetent.  But there are an awful lot (including, ironically, many of the crooks and scoundrels) who are just trying to get through the day.  I don't think Obama is actively hostile to them; I do think he is just not quite clear why  they are there.

Fn.: anticipating your objection--no, I don't think the other guy does, either.
*A reader objects: it's Geitner.  Point taken; if anybody shows even more supine servility before the bankers, it is our Secretary of Treasury.  But remember DeLong's  rule: the Cossacks work for the Czar, and Geitner has been in office for near-four-years now because his President wants him there.

There Ain't No Free Health Care

Look, I'm all in for some sort of government-sponsored universal health care.  We may (and perhaps should) dicker over particulars,  but I think ObamaCare is a fine start and I'm glad the Supreme Court thought so too.

But I do so wish that people who should know better (I'm talking to you, little Kevin Drum) keep calling it free health care (KD: "free, universal healthcare funded through the tax system").

Once again from the top, kiddies: if it is tax supported, it is not free.   Somebody is paying for it,  Maybe even you.   I'm not entirely certain why we are so diffident about saying so; my best guess is that the crazies have so hijacked the debate that any embrace of the T-word in any context anywhere  is like endorsing one of those ick-factor examples Jonathan Haidt and his pals like to dream up for their (fiendish) morality experiments.

There are all kinds of reasons why we should talk about taxes.  "Fairness up" is one; it's important to know that a guy who wants to be president walks away with one of the lowest overall tax rates in captivity.  "Fairness down"  is another; it is equally important to know that a good bit of taxation takes money from the relatively less well off to make life easier for th cosseted and comforted.
But in this context, a more important reason is that to talk about "free" health care makes us looks like idiots.  It makes us sound like we don't know that stuff costs money.  "Hey, I never meant that!" says a hypothetical Kevin and of course he did not mean it.  But he doesn't want to have to waste time and money explaining an irrelevancy.   In brief, don't make life easier for the wingnuts.  They've got it easy enough already.

Afterthought: I think I have probably outed myself as a type-four conservative--on Vagabond Scholar's chart, the ones in the blue box in the southeast corner.  As VS says,  folks in this cohort  "make up the smallest portion by far" off his four-way analysis.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thanks, I Think I'll Pass

Robert Gottlieb, reviewing John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists:
I’m grateful to him for resuscitating Florence Barclay, who, although she hasn’t lasted, gave us, in her tremendous 1909 best seller The Rosary , one of my favorite heroines. The Honorable Jane Champion, after rejecting the man she loves because she is far too plain for this lover of beauty, rushes to his side after he is blinded, pretends to be a nurse, is recognized by him through her glorious singing of Ethelbert Nevin’s famous song “The Rosary,” and helps him morph from England’s greatest portrait painter (a hard act to keep up when you’re blind) to England’s greatest composer
Fun fact: Nevin in 1940 was commemorated on a 10-cent postage stamp.  No word on whether it effected any cures. 

Annals of Academic Marketing (New Antioch Division)

Antioch College in my day was famous as a den of free love and communism.  Or that was the public image; if there was any truth to it, nobody ever told me.  Anyway, as Antioch continues to claw its way back from its near death experience, they seem to be putting some money into some glitzy PR.

But help me on this one, people.  I take it their target audience is loving (and solvent) parents who might be persuaded to disencumber themselves of $35,750 a year to  give their beloved a start in life.  And that is their audience, do you think this little creation conveys they message they want to convey?  Opportunities and possibilities, oh boy.

Who's Yer Daddy, Mitt?

Bonasera: .... Then I said to my wife, "For justice, we must go to Don Corleone."

Don Corleone: Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me first?

Bonasera: What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.
I suppose politicians have always gone hat in hand to the person who pulls the strings--the archbishop's man of business, the clerk with all the file cards. the ward boss.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, riding high at the end of his third term, got himself some grief when he settled the vice-presidential nomination by telling the troops to "clear it with Sidney."*

But have we ever seen anything more embarrassingly supine than the spectacle of Mitt Romney beginning the foreign policy phase of his presidential campaign by going to the capital of a foreign country and meeting with his big donors behind closed doors?  And this at the beck of a prime minister who won't even show him the courtesy of remembering who he is?

I suppose we have to grant the candidate this much, though: I suspect it isn't really his idea. I don't think even this candidate would be so clueless to think he can gain points among the homies by beginning with a kowtow to a foreign leader. And probably not Netenyahu's either--he who I suspect cares far more about showing that he can make an American presidential candidate jump when he snaps his fingers than he is in the more paltry question of who actually wins the race. That leaves the remaining suspect: the money man, Mr. Casino himself, Sheldon Adelson, the 35th richest man in the world, to whom Romney's few hundred millions are a rounding number. In perspective, Adelson probably doesn't understand politics nearly as well as he thinks he does, but if you have that kind of money, nobody will ever clue you in.

Don Corleone: That I cannot do.
Bonasera: I will give you anything you ask!
Undocumented bonus: I asked my friend Ignoto to clarify this stuff about showing up on the eve of Tisha B'av, the solemn anniversary of the destruction of the first and the second temple? Was it another flatfooted gaffe, like telling the Brits they don't know how to run an Olympics, or can he spin it as a gesture of solidarity with a beleaguered people. Ignoto responds:

Well, technically, it's worse to show up on the Shabbath.

It is not a biblical holiday, but a rabbinic one, which means the rules are much less strict.

Interestingly, the fact that the T'ish fall on the Shabbath this year means that the fasting is on the following (this is a product of rabbinic (Tisha B'av) vs Biblical (Shabbas).

This means that those attending banquets would be violating Tisha B'av -- although some people no longer observe since Jerusalem was captured.

He can't spin it as a show of respect, but Netanyahu said it was ok.
That last is perhaps the killer argument, not so? Netenyahu says it's okay, end of story...

Oh wait folks, there's more (link).
*In fairness, Roosevelt survived.   Dewey tried to beat him over the head with the remark but without success.  Fun footnote: apparently some unreconstructed old laborites now run a weblog  named "Clear it with Sidney."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Old Professor

And speaking of longevity:
...as far as I am concerned I live here like a hard-working Professor of History, and am content if everything remains as it is; not that everything is perfect, but with advancing years one no longer expects any special gain from changes.  I too have had some heavy sorrows, of the kind that do not make men young.  I worked out seven-eighths of my Art of the Renaissance in the winter of 1862-63, but then found it inadequate both in principle and in execution, and put it back in my desk, probably for ever, as I can't hope to make good the lacunae with only six months in Italy.  Here we never have more than four or at the most five weeks' holidays at a stretch, and that does not allow of a journey such as I need.  My consolation is that at least I was not afraid of a great work.

I now consider my modest literary career as finally closed, and feel much better and more content reading sources, as I only study and make notes for teaching and not for possible book-making.  The historical market is tremendously overcrowded as things are, and it will be worse if peace lasts.  Then, my good kind publisher died ten days ago, and my opera omnia of which there are cart-loads, are to be moved en masse,,= i.e., they may perhaps be bought by some wholesaler in Leipzig, and offered for a time at reduced, indeed, very reduced prices, and then pulped, all of which I look upon with stoical calm and a genuine secret joy.   My cure is: after eight in the evening I go to the café ((sci. Weinkeller) or into society, to gossip.  Saturday evening to some nearby village, and Sunday afternoon I walk a little further.  For years now I have avoided concerts, because of the slavery involved, which is balanced  by the fact that I have acquired a pianino, and make my own music.

Some years ago I asked you to look out my letters to Kugler and after having read them if you wished to, to destroy them.  I should be pleased if that were to happen, as there are quite a lot of things in them that are not meant for the uninitiate.  Let me know what happens!
Jakob Burckhardt to Paul Heyse, Basle, 5 April 1863.  a month shy of his 45th birthday.  He lived on to the age of 79.  Heyse was a young poet, in his own time the winner of a Nobel Prize for literature.  "Kugler" is Franz Kugler, art historian and Burckhardt's mentor.  Burckhardt had already published the two works for which he is best remembered: the Age of Constantine the Great (1853) and Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

The young Friedrich Nietzsche attended Burckhardt's lectures beginning in 1869.  They became cordial acquaintances, though Burckhardt seems to taken pains to keep his distance from what he saw as Nietzsche's dafter ideas.  There is a fictional account of their relationship in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi, where Burckhardt appears as the wise Father Jacobus,  and Nietzsche as the passionate youth, Tegularius.

Friday, July 27, 2012

So, What Is The Purpose of Life
If Not to Outlive Your Enemies?

In his new memoir, Bernard Lewis, now 96, recalls his  brief, unhappy tenure as head of the Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic and Near Eastern Studies in Philadelphia--and in particular, his his experience dealing with the sponsor of the project, Walter Annenberg, who died a decade ago at 94:
 Normally [the principal fuinction of] directors of a nonprofit institution would have been to give or find funds, but as this was endowed by Annenberg, one of the wealthiest men in the United States, it was generally assumed that no fund-raising or fund-giving was necessary. Since the board was not fulfilling its normal function, it was not quite clear what their function was and how power and responsibility were to be allocated between the chief executive, me, on the one hand and the board of directors on the other.  This led to growing tension. ... [B]oards function on the principle that the directors will contribute one of the three “W’s”— work, wealth or wisdom, or they can provide one of the three “G’s”— give, get or get off. My immediate reaction was to comment that my board offered the three “I’s”— ignorance, incompetence and interference. 

One of the problems was Walter Annenberg himself. As he was providing all the funding he assumed that he would have the final say on all issues. Unfortunately he had no direct knowledge or experience of academic life but nevertheless expected to have the final say on all academic issues. I found him a difficult man with whom to work, and eventually, impossible. ... Annenberg was arrogant and peremptory and took it for granted that his wishes on all issues, even including those on which he was ignorant, would be immediately accepted and enforced. The directors, with few and rare exceptions, were deferential and submissive and just assumed that whatever he said or did was right and must be obeyed. 
 I pass over the story of the kosher kitchen, and the one about the dodgy quotation.   At last, Lewis achieves his own kind of comeuppance:
During my time at the Annenberg Center Pope John Paul II came on a visit to the United States. Annenberg decided that he, Al Wood, then chairman of the board, and I, as director of the Institute, should go to Miami to welcome the Pope. There was a gathering of about fifty people from various organizations standing in a semicircle and the Pope made the usual round, exchanging politenesses, receiving the appropriate deference from Catholics and courtesy from others. When he came to me it was different. As I have explained elsewhere, I was on friendly, personal terms with this Pope and when he saw me, he smiled, greeted me by name, said how much he had enjoyed my last visit to Castel Gandolfo and was looking forward to the next.  Al Wood, standing next to me, was beside himself. He repeated several times: “If I had not seen this with my own eyes I would never have believed it.” Annenberg saw the exchange from a distance but could not hear the conversation; he came over and demanded to know what had happened. I explained to him and his reaction was mixed. Clearly he would have preferred the Pope’s friendly gesture to be made to himself rather than to one of his employees.
 Bernard Lewis with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Notes on a Century
(Kindle Locations 4186-4224). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Afterthought: wait a minute,  Lewis did get his revenge while Annenberg was still alive.  But now he gets it again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

You Don't Want Neil Barofsky Thinking
You are a Pompous, Careerist, Lackey to the Banks

Elevator pitch for Neil Barofsky's  Bailout: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring a guy with as highly actuated sense of right and wrong, and  the brass balls of an assistant U.S.Attorney from Manhattan."    Which latter is, of course, exactly what Barofsky was before somebody plucked him out of obscurity to make him the first inspector general of TARP, the benighted "troubled asset relief fund, so much the center of our narrative of the 2008 meltdown.

You really have to wonder who had the bright idea of giving him this job in the first place.  It's unlikely that any government official would have handed such a this guy this mandate had they entertained any notion of just how big a loose cannon (I use the phrase in the nicest possible sense) he might be.  In retrospect, you'd have to say they might have known.  Manhattan USDAs are not famed for winsome self-constraint, and in Barofsky, they picked a guy who had (if you believe him) faced down FARC guerrillas in Columbia--including one who (if you believe him) had been sent to kill him and relented only when she learned that there might be a spot for her in a witness protection program.

Whatever; but it couldn't been many days before they realized they had given the secret handshake to a guy disposed to assert the broadest possible definition of his mandate, and great enthusiasm to explore any opportunity that presented itself.   And in addition to his work with narco-warriors, he brought to the table an impressive background in the intricacies of financial fraud.  What he did not bring was equally impressive: he had zero ambitions for a Washington career.  By his own account (and the evidence richly supports him) he was a political naif. And if he had any humility, he must have left it in the commuter waiting room at Penn Station.

All of which makes for, if not else, a riveting read--one of the best first-person memoirs that I've read coming out of the crisis.* It's a ripping yarn in which you wouldn't want to be one of the legions whom Barofsky came to hold in contempt. His high-mindedness is somewhat defanged by the consideration that he is also severe with himself: it can be fun (by reason of rarity?) to read anyone who is so candid and forceful in owning up to blunders on his own.

Barofsky almost certainly defined the job more broadly than his handlers would have expected him to. He took on "audits"--the boring shuffle of paper that makes up so much of the life of inspectors general. Much more he seems to have preferred fullscale "investigations," and it was only a blink of an eye before he had clothed his staff with full law-enforcement powers--guns and badges--and making referrals for prosecutions.

Early in the book he takes note of so-called "media whores"--IGs who define their job their name in the paper. The phrase was not Barofsky's, but by the end of the book he more or less acknowledges that he pretty much became one himself: he concluded, almost certainly correctly, if he was going to have any impact at all, he had to make enough of an uproar that Congress and the press would pay attention.

So it is hard to go through it without accepting his conviction that he is one of the good guys. But dig down under the hood a bit and there are some interesting issues that bear further exploring. This is so in at least two respects.

First, as to the nature of the mandate. There can't be much doubt that an IG has a brief to work for prudent management: to try to make sure that government dollars are not stolen, neither by recipients, nor by government employees themselves.

But (second) "stolen" quickly morphs into "squandered," and "squandered" very quickly leads to the question of what the government is supposed to be doing with the money--in a word, to questions of policy. Subtleties like this don't seem to have bothered Barofsky a lot. By his view,this is a battle of--what shall we say?  Main Street versus Wall Street?  The Banks versus the little guy? Choose as you wish, but Barofsky clearly sees himself on the side of the Main Street, the little guy.   However sympathetic one may find him in this role (I find him very sympathetic indeed), still there is the question: who died and made you king?  How far is it your role to establish the agenda for the program?

One answer to that question might be: well from the start, the program had a dual mandate.  It had the job of assuring that the banking system did not fall off the cliff.  And it had the job of providing some succor for all the assorted innocents who fell victim to financial dysfunction.
If you grant that ambivalence, then you will be impressed by the next insight. Specifically--it's clear beyond any cavil Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner has never seen it that way.  By all the evidence--not just Barofsky's--we can see that Geithner saw and sees his mandate under a banner that says "no banker left behind."  If some consumers get helped in the process, why that might be okay (or does Geithner even care that much?).  But it can't be anything more than an incidental and unintended side effect of the world according to Tim.

Insofar as Barofsky blew the whistle on this kind of blinkering, I think we can thank our lucky stars that he was on the job.  But the issue doesn't end there.  Even--especially--if you accept this kind of dual mandate, then  you have to face some questions of how or whether the two stakes can ever be reconciled.

Take HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program that got so many straitened debtors deluded with false promises of loan workouts.  I think everybody except the program's administrator's mother would now concede that HAMP is a classroom example of bad governance, poorly conceived and appallingly excecuted.  And Barofsky provides compelling evidence that Geithner saw it only as a device to help banks, not consumers.

But what if you decided that you do want to help debtors on underwater mortgages? Just exactly why do you want to help them?  And what exactly do you do?  The first question--why?--itself invites an ambivalent response. Are you doing it out of compassion?  But why compassion?  Aren't these just risk-takers who took a risk and lost?  And is compassion to these debtors compatible with compassion for other homeowners who did pay their bills and did not get whipsawed by the economy?  But maybe you are not doing it out of compassion; maybe you are only doing it because you think the economy needs it, in which case a different set of questions may arise.  And in general, if we give this relief, where does the money come from, and why?

Or take a somewhat less earthshaking issue that appears, nonetheless to be dear to Barofsky's heart: auto dealerships.  One facet of the Rattner auto bailout was that it generated a rash of dealer closings.  Barofsky is not at all happy with that decision which he thinks ill-founded or at least ill-thought-out.  And he is surely right that closing a dealership hurts, very likely the dealer and probably also the community he serves. But it's less clear how you allocate the costs/benefits of this sort of thing.  Barofsky floats (though he does not really embrace) the idea that the dealers took the fall for the employees--that there wasn't enough money to save both, and the (largely Democratic?) employee cohort at the expense of the (mostly Republican?) dealers.  That's certainly a possibility and I'm not sure how I'd come down on it myself.  My point is I'm not sure the issue was quite so much within Barofsky's brief as he seems to believe.

Concerns like this may seem nitpicky, mere lawyer stuff.  The hell with the fussiness, his friends will say.  Those are just excuses and evasions. Barofsky was a man of action.  Even or perhaps especially (they say) you read what his enemies say about him, you can see that he's a man of integrity who was doing what he felt was best for the system.  The hell of it is, I think his friends are right.

*Others: Steve Rattner's Overhaul on his work in the auto bailout (sounds like Rattner and Barofsky are not the best of friends); Harry Markopois' No One Would Listen by a guy who seems to have gone half nuts trying to tell the world about Bernie Madoff before Bernie told on himself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mitt's Patchwork Past

I can't add much to the bath of righteous indignation about the "Romney Anglo-Saxon" meme, but I offer a meta-meme.  That is: I really can't remember a Presidential election in my lifetime where so much attention was paid to the details of the pedigree of the contenders.

Yes, I know, a bell just went off in your head saying :"racism," and it's in there somewhere.  But it is more than that. We are fascinated--horrified or otherwise--by Obama's complex transoceanic roots (trying to remind ourselves that he did, after all have an "American" mother, along with the Kenyan (or should I say "Luo"--?) father).  We're equally intrigued by Mitt's Mormon roots--the 1846 trek, the flight to Mexico, the return, the whole works.  Some people have noticed that there is the extra spice of polygamy in each account, though it seems to have been more of a problem for the Romneys.

So, there's good stuff here. But then we can bring in our new friend, the internet.  Took me about three clicks to come up with a battery of sites purporting to tell me just how "Anglo-Saxon" Romney is.  Some seemed to be just anodyne ancestry sites; others pretty clearly saw the Presidential race as a subsidiary of the Breeders' Cup (I won't favor them with links).  Most of the content will not surprise you if you have read this far in this post, but one curiosity catches my attention.  That is: the general view seems to be that Romney is predominantly "English" with a large "Scotch" (Scots?  Scottish?).  But wait, a lot of that "English," seems to  be "northwest"--i.e.,that part of the Isle which, but for the Battle of Halidon Hill, might well be Scotland itself?

In any event, aren't we dealing here not with "Anglo Saxons," but with the losers--Gaels, Celts, Picts, Britons, whatever, all those peoples pushed back to the fringes by the Anglo-Saxon onslaught?  Suffice to say I think that's a distinction often lost by those who want to make much of an "Anglo-Saxon" heritage.

Final statement of interest, and a warning.  Just for the record, last time I checked I concluded that my bloodline is at least as vanilla as Mitt's, with an important qualification.  That is: my mother's parents were Swedes, which means I am licensed to loot, burn and pilllage.

Whatever. In any event, it's always a good time to quote Defoe:
Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend'ring off-spring quickly learn'd to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv'd all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
--Daniel Defoe, The True-Born Englishman (1701)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Self-Pitying Whine about AT&T

Okay, call it a self-pitying whine if you like but if I warn just one lost soul off a particularly annoying little fiddle from ATT, I'll count myself well pleased.  Call it an updated version of Crank's broomstick scam.

Here's the deal: ever heard of  "www.numsvc.com"?  I want to say neither had I but apparently they had heard of me.   Sunday afternoon a message popped up on my cell phone telling me that my "Info Svc" was going to "renew" unless I sent them a message to "numsvc" telling them to STOP.    Since I had not the slightest recollection of ever ordering such a service, and figuring it might well be a fraud, I just ignored it.

But await a minute--home last night, I got a little nervous and  I checked my bill. You know an ATT bill?  Mine is four pages; one is boilerplate and the other three are mostly numbers, fiendishly calculated to obscure more than they reveal:  ATT is in love with "0.00s," and they specially love itemize every single government charge on its own line--I count four"0.01s," two "0.02s" and "0.05s,"  along with an "0.03," an "0.04,"  an "0.08" and suchlike.

There's my phone charge on the bill, too, plus a second line for Mrs. Buce, hers at $9.99.  But wait--over on the net page, there is another $9.99--, with the unsettling superscript: "to stop a subscription, text STOP" etc. Uh oh.  Stop, what?  A bit of Googling tells me it's that mystery website again--a service that will look up 10 phone numbers a month.  Oh, be still my soul:  save you guessing, I can assure that I haven't felt the need to pay for a phone number ever, not once in my long and not-overly-corrupt life.

 Suitably steamed up,I did something I hate to do: I called ATT.  I didn't want to go straight to shout mode so I opted for online chat.  And here's the infuriating part: almost the first words off her* keyboard were "I will assist you in removing the charge."

Wait a minute, wha--?   Yes, of course, I should have saluted "removing the charge" as the magic words, but here's the thing: evidently these guys have instructions such that when anybody questions the charge, they remove it. Otherwise, it stays.

Like I say, I suppose I should have quit there.  But I admit, probably someplace in the bowels of the intertubes, somebody will be able to show me that I once punched a button saying, why yes, thank you, I'd love to pay you $9.99 a month for a service I have never needed and have no conception of using!  Not even $10!  Such a bargain!

You'll think less of me when I tell you I still wouldn't quit.     Can you confirm for me, I asked, that I ever actually ordered this stuff?  Oh no, came the response--and this one got me steamed all over again--we don't know that; it's an independent contractor.   That's when I  the caplock and--but you have the essence, I should  not bore you with the detail.

In short, we have one more item of evidence that ATT's business model is to make your telephone experience as unpleasant as possible.  And if that $9.99 pops up on your bill, give 'em a call.  And tell 'em I sent  you.
The name was, I think, female.  But it might well have been a bot.

Jack Shafer wins the Nil Nisi Bonum Award

Can't say I was that-all crazy about Alexander Cockburn, which makes me all the more desirous that Jack Shafer writes my obituary.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sharia Law Comes to Kentucky

Link.  But cf.  link.

There's Hope

Muslim Brotherhood has a sense of humor (link).

Good Earners, and Others

I think my all-time favorite Mafia movie scene is the bit in Donnie Briscoe where the underboss (sic?*)  is trying to sweat some collections out of the caporegimi while they rebuff him with a wall of excuses, evasions and promises.    You can sense the fear on both sides--not least from the underboss (is that Michael Madsen?), whose performance is a cosmic soup of wheedling, seduction, threats and fear.  That would be the fear he tries to instill in the capi, of course, but also the fear he fears for himself if the doesn't produce for his betters.  Little fish, as the poet says, have bigger fish to bite 'em

Meanwhile on the other side of the room we have Lefty Ruggiero --Al Pacino to you--who repeatedly slugs a parking meter with (if memory serves) a sledgehammer.  More than once, somebody from the negotiating table shouts something on the order of will you shut the f--- up?  To which Lefty respond with threats, excuses and evasions of his own.

And that, it occurred to me, is the Mafia. A bunch of not-very-effectual hoodlums in a not-very-remunerative business.  A brilliant insight, this?   I suppose not; I suppose in the post-Sopranos (and post Donnie Brisco) world, it's old stuff to recognize that the Mafia is old stuff.

Yet there still may be room to meditate on how easily one can generalize this model.  If you sell auto repair tools (I name no names), you spend half your life haggling with your customers to pay down some of their marker, and the other half haggling with your supervisor over how much of your commission you get to keep.  If you sell cosmetics (again, I name no names), part of your job is hustling customers and the other half, trying to line up subcontractors in an ever-expanding period.  If you broker anything, you find that everybody who ever lost a game of golf to the guy thinks he deserves a piece of your deal.  A taste, Tony Soprano would say.  I want a taste.

Or the  Catholic church.  It's also old stuff to mutter "Mafia" and "Catholic church" in the same breath when discussing, say, the machinations of the Vatican Bank.  But how often do we consider  the comparison at the level where parking meters are smashed open?

One person who does is the novelist J. F. Powers, in The Wheat that Springeth Green, the wry, bittersweet ("comic" is too strong) account of Father Joe Hackett, and his daily life as a suburban pastor--spirituality, politics,  and very far from least, the neverending task of raking in the bucks.  "A good earner," we can hear some distant subdeacon muttering.  Or, more sinister: "not a good earner."

I thought about Father Joe this morning when reflecting on the ongoing dustup between the Pope and the nuns.  How much of this, I wondered, is just a fight over money--recapturing some prize property, for example, or (perhaps more on point) getting the girls off the pension rolls?

I put the question to my friend Ignota--Ignota, Catholic born, who took to the hills a few years back as the world began to learn the awful truth about priestly child abuse.  Ignota takes a somewhat different view:

You mentioned it's probably all about money.  My feeling as well as others'  (the Pope and Cardinals and the other men in Black Dresses--how they love to float around in those dresses and their little red skull caps!!!! ) --we feel they just want to get off the topic of sexual abuse and dishonor the good work of the good nuns who in most cases just worked for their board and room in the rectories--cooking, laundry, house cleaning.  All for the love of God.  God bless these devoted and unappreciated women.
So, more about realpolitik than about more lucre.  But having spoken her piece about realpolitik then moves on to the question of money:

If they received any pay--so for certain it would have been little--I believe they were considered as Independent Contractors--as are the Priests.  At least that was the way the Priest compensation was treated when George was doing taxes after his retirement and had a couple of Priests whose taxes he did.  They had to pay both sides of FICA

I worked as a secretary for the regional catholic system when my three kids were in college all at the same time.  I worked for 2 1/2 years and learned so much.  We had several young school teacher nuns who wanted to earn money as their pay was so small.  Of course they had their housing provided for them by the parishes,  and all I had to do was send the convent a check for their food.
It's so long ago I don't even recall how much I sent for each nun living in that convent, but I do know that several got part time jobs, in order to provide clothing etc for them selves.  One who was very young and as one would call a "live wire"--was a bartender in one of our better local restaurants.  Of course patrons didn't know she was a nun.  Just Mary.  Another wonderful nun, who was a good friend of mine, got a job delivering records in a cart around at a local medical facility.  Others took care of children on weekends.  So sad they were treated so very badly, when the local priests drove around in good size expensive cars.  OH gosh I'll get off my SOAP BOX as I get so frustrated thinking about the unfairness within the church.
 Ignota signed off so she could go find out what the NCAA did to Penn State.  Hope she was satisfied.  Meanwhile I wonder whether the girls got to keep all their earnings, or whether the pastor got his taste. 

*Okay, I may have ranks wrong.  I make no claim to proficiency in the rankings of the Mafia.  Or the Catholic Church,.

The Planets Must Be in Alignment

Wouldn't have expected I would ever find an occasion to say something nice about Rand Paul. Nor about James Sensenbrenner. And on the same day, yet. Jupiter must be in the cusp of Sagittarius.

Afterthought:  It is absolutely fine with me that so many Republicans are leaping to the defense of Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's trusted aide who is a Muslim.  But--why, exactly?  In these fractured times, what did she do to earn a bye from the (seemingly) interminable partisan sweepstakes.  The only reason I can think of is my old favorite fallback: for all its rifts and cleavages, Washington belongs to the insiders.  Or as de Jouvenal said, there is more difference between two socialists, one of whom is a deputy and the other of whom is not, than there is between two deputies, one of whom is a socialist and the other of whom is not.  Seemingly even under conditions of near-open-warfare, it still works.   Is there any other possible reason?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Clarity of Vision is not Easy
When You are Peering Out of a Garage Elevator

Apologies for beating a dead horse to death but it just now sunk into me, the real reason why Romney isn't letting loose of his tax returns.  It's not all the corrupt and mendacious horseplay he (or his accountants on his behalf) have engaged in all these years.   Well, maybe there is corrupt and mendacious horseplay but that's really not what bothers him.

 Rather, Romney isn't releasing the returns because he doesn't want to.

I mean consider, for Pete's sake. He is rich, you are not.  He is a job-creator,  you are--I don't know\, whatever you are.  He just doesn't understand why a captain of finance industry ought to have to waste his time explaining stuff to a guy who spends his time--what is it that you do,anyway, keep pigs? Anyway, it is the same sentiment that made Donald Trump believe he could campaign with rubber gloves on. 

The Lump of Labor Utters Its Minatory Snort

Go read the chart. Read the article too, if you like, but at least read the chart.

Floyd Norris Minus the Long View

Foyd Norris offers a useful reminder that public pensions aren't the only ones in trouble: private employers, too, are busy stiffing their lifers and loyalists as fast as they can. It's a useful summary, and my guess is that it spotlights at least one reason why some segments of the electorate get so bitter about the thought of having to bail out the public sector: we're not getting ours, why should they get theirs. As an aside, I'd venture that the same sense of discrimination may explain (some of) the hostility to public employee unions, but leave that one for another day.

The only thing really odd about the Norris piece is that he never points out how this tradition of greed and betrayal is nothing really new: employers have been stiffing the the pension plans since there first were pension plans. It's the capitalist corollary to the corrupt union bosses who looted their union-sponsored funds although I don't recall the great and good getting nearly so upset over the management promise-breakers as they did over the labor looters. To my recollection, the pension-reform issue that most excerised the greedy bosses was the matter of balance-sheet reporting: put our true iiabilities on the balance sheet and disaster will follow! For the gods; sake, don't make us tell the truth!

But I digress. Here's a chart (H/T USNews), now three years old, of the 10 largest fund failures in history up to that time. I note that four out of the ten are steel: once the monarch of American industry, it's the monarch that never learned to keep up, that stood by paralyzed while the market changed and its protected central position disintegrated through its fingers.

The other is, of course, airlines, of which we could say "legacy carriers"-those who never learned how to adjust to the new world of airline degregulation. Idle thought, could it be that the greatest enemy of the union movement in the post-war period was our greatest modern Republican president, Jimmy Carter?

The Upmarket Version

You say that yesterday's limerick was a tad, well, impertinent?  Well sure, but it is the job of limericks to be impertinent--not least to help us bear the awfulness of the underlying message.  But for a more dignified version, we pass the mike to Edna St. Vincent Milllay:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

So Sonnet XLIII.   Repeating:

Stands the lonely tree/Nor knows what birds have vanished..."  

An echo of

"Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang..."

--one of he many best lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gun Violence: Some Context

Back to back in my Google reader tonight, two good posts on the declining (sic) incidence of violence, particularly gun violence, in the  United States.  Read first Patrick J. Egan, and then Kieran Healy.  For more perspective, here's Harold Pollack, recounting how he tracked 200 consecutive  homicides in Illinois in 2005.

The Imagined Life

I wrote the other day about the difference between Shakespeare as presented and Shakespeare as imagined.  Here's a particularly forceful expression of the point:
How many a woman who sees or reads As You Like It either believes in secret that she does resemble Rosalind or wishes that she did! And how many a man projects on its heroine the image of the woman he loves best, or, if not, the memory of some lost first love who still embodies the purest instincts of his youth, and hears her voice instead of the words on the printed page! Which is why the imaginative man will always prefer to read the play rather than to have some obliterating actress come between the text and his heart. ... In her own way, and on a lower level, Rosalind contributes her mite to our understanding of why Dante chose the Rose as a symbol of the ultimate paradise.
--Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare I 292-3 (1951)

Goddard may be offering nothing more than a special case of a more general point.  Consider: 
Chaque homme porte en lui un monde composé de tout ce qu’il a vu et aimé, et où il rentre sans cesse, alors même qu’il parcourt et semble habiter un monde étranger.
Every man carries within him a world which is composed of all that he has seen and loved, and to which he constantly returns,even when he is travelling through, and seems to be living in, some different world.
From Chateaubriand, Voyages en Italie, entry dated December 11th. It's from his entry for his outing to Tivoli outside Rome.  In the 21st century, Tivoli is still a tourist spot, though you have to change busses to get there so you wind up with mostly Italians. I ran across the observation in the first chapter of Claude Lévi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques.  I see in my battered paperback that I underlined it (I think in 1979).  I tend to think Chateaubriand is right, although I suspect I have believed it moreso since I read it than I did before.

Lévi-Strauss quotes Chateaubriand in a long meditation,  puzzling over the construction of his own vision of the world. Here's a taste:
Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories.
As I write, I'm remembering what might be the flip side:  a passage from (Walker Percy?) where he says we can never see the Grand Canyon neat because on our first trip we will have already seen a post card of the Grand Canyon and will be measuring our reality against the post card.  And there's this:
I once knew a man from Khartoum
Who kept a live sheep in his room.
"It reminds me," he said,
"Of a lover long dead,
But I never can quite recall whom."
Saddest poem in the English language. 

Nostalgia Quiz

For readers (listeners) of a certain age, a nostalgia quiz:
The most rah-rah of sentimental poems, the least convincing and most annoying, the one known to people who cannot otherwise quote a line of verse, perhaps the first poem-as-bumper-sticker, is surely..
Surely who?  Go here

Friday, July 20, 2012

Obama's Foreign Doctrine

Politico, 7/17/12
Romney singled out a line from Obama’s stump speech on Friday in Virginia, attacking the president for saying no one is successful on their own, calling it “insulting” to all entrepreneurs.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said in Roanoke, Va. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.”

The crowd of about 1,000 booed when Romney quoted a line, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” (Update: But there's this).
 Book of Job, 6c-4c BCE

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

“Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?

Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy? ...

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it? ...

“Have you entered the springs of the sea?
Or have you walked in search of the depths?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?

Tell Me, if you know all this.
[Odd to hear someone from perhaps the most communal of all American religions--and one with an exemplary record of concern for the poor-embrace a posture of nihilistic individualism.]

Explaining the Romney IRA

Something delectable, almost respectable...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Was Shakespeare Italian? Another Look

It's not my intention to turn this into an all-Shakespeare blog, but Ken beguiles me with a question: was Shakespeare Italian?  No, that's too flippant.  Rather, did Shakespeare visit Italy, spend time there?  Else where and how did he get all that Italian material for his plays?

As to the first--did he visit Italy? I've already given my answer: Sure.  Maybe. I don't think so, but who knows, whatever. As to the second--where and how did he get all those Italian materials?  I suppose the answer here comes in two parts.  One, Shakespeare was the world's greatest literary pillager.  Almost everything he does is a rework of something else--invariably better by orders of magnitude, but still a response, a reaction to the work of another (think "I see possibilities here").  And two: this is, after all, the Renaissance we're talking about here, and in the nature of things the Renaissance begins in Italy.  England in Shakespeare's time was awash in Italian themes, Italian works, Italian culture for export at retail,  and it cannot be surprising that the great responder found himself responding. Robin Kirkpatrick says:
Shakespeare  makes reference to Italy in at least fourteen of his pays, choosing Italian settings, or employing story-lines from ultimately Italian sources.  The range of references would be much increased if one admitted the evidence of echoes, allusions and analogy.  Plainly, Shakespeare shared with his contemporaries and immediate forebears a fascination with Italy.
Kirkpatrick proceeds to explore "the results of his fascination."  He observes that "in the detail with which he reformulates his sources ....  Shakespeare's literary craftsmanship will at once be apparent.  So, too, will his appetite for experiment..."    Moving on to consider what he calls "the myth of Italy," Kirkpatrick says that "Shakespeare may be expected to have looked upon Italy as, by turns, an exotic and sophisticated other world or as a target for patriotric satire."  But he adds:
More subtly, however, his use of the myth will display an ability to represent and analyse not only character types but also types of social and political organization.  Shakespeare did not share, perhaps, Machiavelli's oitical animus.  But he does share a profound interest in the way that human beings operate in groups, and is alert to the possibillity of institutional and cultural difference."
Kirkpatrick also weighs in on the diverting, if perhaps less important, question whether Shakespeare--though he may not have visited Italy--still understood how to read the Italian language.  Conceding that we can't know, Kirkpatrick  finds it on balance rather likely:
[A]s we have seen, English authors had never found it difficult to acquire a reading knowledge of Italian.  In Shakespeare's own time, teachers of Italian ... were active in the circles which Shakespeare himself frequented, and Italian language texts ... were being printed and published in London ... .  It seems plausible .. that in composing plays such as Othello and Coriolanus he should have been able to consult Italian texts.
--Robin Kirkpatrick, English and Italian Literature from Dante to Shakespeare 277-8 ( 1995)

For Coriolanus, I think Kirkpatrick may have meant to say Cymbeline, but it's a detail.  On the general point, I'd be inclined to agree. 

Romney and the Shaviro Standard

David Shaviro thinks he sees a double standard in Romney's coy tax disclosure policy: would Romney, asks Shaviro archly,let an applicant off the hook so easily if the applicant were seeking an office of trust and confidence with team Romney in the private sector?

I assume the answer is "ha," but I'd press the point a bit further.  We're told that when he was a supplicant for the Veep spot on McCain's ticket, Romney showed over two decades' worth of tax returns.  Qjuestion, will Romney be exacting the same disclosure from Bobby Jindahl, Rob Portman, whoever?  When Mrs. Romney says Mitt has given "all you people need to know" about taxes, I take it she did not mean "us people"?   Can we surmise that Romney believes the presidency to be more about him than about the people who elect him?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Hey, here's a find: the inimitable Stephen Fry, reading Shakespeare's Sonnet Number 130--the one that begins "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and includes the oddly non-Shakespearean line, "If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head."

I've got a sentimental fondness sfor ol' 130: it was the first sonnet I ever heard aloud (perhaps the first I heard or read)-- read by Albert Liddell, Professor of English at Antioch College in the fall of 1953--maybe "Alfred," my memory is shaky and Wiki is no help. Liddell was the very model of a fubsy old English professor. He wasn't the star of the show at Antioch in those days (I suspect, not ever)--too old-fashioned and unassertive--but he was kind to me and showed me patience when I didn't deserve it.    He gave us the sonnet as our introduction to Shakespeare.  I guess you could say it worked, though in the years since, I've come across others that I think might serve him better.

I found my Fry reading at Open Culture, with a link to a new Ipad app that will deliver the complete of 154 sonnets for $13.99, from a variety of voices, famous and not so.  Apparently the whole lot is available for free grazing on line.  Here's Patrick Stewart, doing a particular favorite of mine (#29, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes...").   And another favorite: James Shapiro reading #138, "When my love swears that she is made of truth...:"  And--but wait a minute, I'm noticing something here.  That is: I don't like to listen to those guys.  Sure, they are talented, seasoned, Shakesperean--but the more I hear, the more I realize that I'd rather hear them in my own voice: once again, imagination trumps brute reality.  Hell, I'd even like to hear Al Liddell, but I guess he too lives only in imagination.    You know what? One of these days I'm just going to have to do my own, and post them here, and let you judge whether  or not I am Shakespearean class. I think I should pluck my eyebrows first, though.  Meanwhile, here's Patrick Stewart doing something I know I cannot top: the soliloquy "B or not B?"

William J. Dobson Peers into the Future,
And Forgets some History

I'm  enjoying The Dictator's Learning Curve by William J. Dobson.  It's a great survey of "soft dictatorship" worldwide--the kind that seems to be saveur du jour today everyplace in the world except North Korea.  It's journalism, not grand theory, heavy (a bit too heavy?) on anecdote, but Dobson has trekked the earth in a lot of dreary places and he has a receptive spirit of inquiry.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I've picked up so far is the Dog that Did Not Bark--the point that there really is  no necessary underlying similarity between governments that implement soft dictatorship.  We see, for example, how Putin in Russia proceeds via a near-total indifference to the dispossessed, while Chávez in Venezuela keeps the engine pumping by mobilizing them.  That's the base: the superstructure is that the both operate by a mix of cynicism and fear that keeps their adversaries off balance, bathed in the illusion of democracy without the substance.  

So, good stuff (I haven't finished yet).  But here's one real coffee-snorter. In fixing Venezuelan elections (Dobson says) 
Chávez' electoral engineers have been fond of gerrymandering, not unlike what was once practiced in America's Deep South to prevent African American candidates from being elected to predominantly white legislatures.
In the words of the great Steve Martin, excuse me?  Elites in the Deep South used to keep African Americans from voting by not letting them vote--by refusing to let them onto the vote rolls, by striking them off, by poll taxes, by naked intimidation, by murder.  It's in the modern age--since Baker v. Carr and one-man-one-vote--that elites have discovered the discreet charms of gerrymandering, this time to secure incumbents of either party. It's offense against the public welfare for which blacks, ironically, are at least as culpable as whites.  It's one source--there are so many--of the poisonous public forum in our time.  Dobson is a good journalist but he must have been dozing in his high school civics class.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Annals of Marketing

How come I can never get this kind of publicity?

H/T: Wichita.

Catch of the Day: "Us"

H/T David Frum, quoting (and sardonically commenting on) the GOP's anointed:
Romney: "The waiters and waitresses that come in and out of this room and offer us refreshments, they're not having a good year." 
Frum: Try to remember: we're all "us."

A Morning Meditation on the Nature of Judging

I just ran across the editorial in which the New York Timers lauds Tenth Circuit judge John Kane for refusing to allow a defendant to waive the right of appeal.  The headline is

Trial Judge to Appeals Court: Review Me

I'd have to say I don't think that quite captures the point of the piece but it's close enough for government work and it does showcase a hobby-horse of mine, about the nature of judging.  That is: the first requisite of a good judge is a non-neurotic disposition to decicde.   A judge who is allergic to deciding is like a duck without feathers.  For the system, there is no bigger calamity in judging than the guy who bobs and weaves, who kicks the can down the road, who does everything he can to avoid the job he was hired for.

I suppose there are any number of motives impelling one to avoid decision.  Perhaps the simplest is the naked horror of being wrong. Hmph.  Well of course, we want a judge who wants to be right.  But nobody is perfect, and stuff will happen.  In my brief and derisory judicial career, my secretary once asked me: but do you ever consider that you might be wrong? The honest answer is, of course: every single time.   The litigants don't deserve your perfection because perfection is not on offer.  What they do deserve is your best shot.  There's as bit of existential angst here of course, but that's why they pay you the big bucks.   Of course, it was easy for me to be blithe: I never had to do the hard stuff like death penalty or child custody.  I did bankruptcy, and as George Paine, lately retired at Nashville, liked to say, "the nice thing about the bankruptcy court is that we've got no problems money won't solve."  For the integrity of the system, there are few greater calamities than a judge who doesn't want to do what he was put there to do.

Closely related anecdote: I've got a friend (s/he'll remain nameless) who used to work tweendecks at the Department of Labor under Elizabeth Dole when she was secretary.  You remember Elizabeth, once a senator, once a candidate for president, in which role she was famous for demanding to know the color of the carpet she'd be standing on, so she could be sure her shoes would match?  My bud said the worked quickly got round that no decision item was ever to reach the secretary's desk.  Apparently her firm purpose in the job was never to see a headline in the morning paper saying "Senator Dole decides" blah blah, for fear that the trumpeted decision might be wrong.  I gather that not much happened during her incumbency, but I take it that this evasive strategy is not what we taxpayers were looking for when we put her in the job.

Another anecdote: I remember being at a retirement dinner for a bankruptcy judge once at which one of his colleagues congratulated him for having the lowest reversal record (=fewest reversals) in the circuit.  Is that something to brag about, I asked myself? No, it is not.  It almost certainly means that you have gone the Elizabeth route and evaded decision.  If you decide enough, you are bound to get something wrong.  And that is why we have courts of appeals.  No man should be the judge of his own case, and that includes the judge.  In contrast with the judge at the dinner, I remember my friend David, a modest, hard-working, no-nonsense bench jockey who knew how to work hard without letting his ego get in the way.  "My job is to decide 'em," David liked to say, "and theirs is to reverse 'em."   Something they'll never get to do if they don't have the chance.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney the Maximizer

I don't watch Sunday talk shows but here's a theme that showed up more than once this morning in my news feed:
The costs of not releasing the returns are clear, therefore he must have calculated there are higher costs to releasing them.
Link.  Cf. link, link.  The speaker is George Will.  The topic (you guessed?) is Mitt Romney, going famously coy on his tax returns.  Okay, I'd by as happy as anybody else to read about the offshore bank accounts, the minuscule effective rates, the fully deductable Guatamalan pistachio ranches, etc., etc.  But what interests me is the style.  It's the way Will treats it as purely a matter of cost-benefit analysis, suggesting that the candidate is acting as a Benthamite utility maximizer.  Since I believe we can stipulate that Will is an A-list megaphone for establishment conservatism, I take it that we can infer he is telling us exactly what his campaign overlords told him to.

And that's the thing, isn't it? Mitt probably does think of this as a pure problem of utility maximization, aka cost-benefit analysis.  Indeed, my guess is that Mitt endeavors to understand everything as a matter of cost-benefit analysis.  And my guess is that this is one aspect of the Mittster that makes both left and right feel about equally creepy.  Santorum's rages, Newt's befuddled vision, even Perry's good ol' boy downhomeiness.  Like them or not, they are all tinctured with a shred of human-ness that the Mittster just doesn't seem capable of offering.

And for extra credit, carry yourself back in time to the last time we had a serious cost-benefit administration in Washington.  And that would be?  Full points if you said "the Johnson adminisrtration in the Viet Nam War"--more precisely the architecture conceived and implemented by the last great cost-benefitman, Robert Macnamara, who really seems to have thought--and to have convinced Johnson--that we could treat war as some kind of exercise in linear programming: cue up the variables, pop in your LaGrange multiplier (or equivalent) and pop! the solution comes tumbling down the chute.  They add a platoon, we add a platoon.  They add a flame thrower, we add a flamethrower.  Except it didn't seem to work and at least one reason why it did not work is that it misses all the richness and confusion of the world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Schneier on Speaking Out: Maybe it Helps?

Security consultant Bruce Schneier offers career development advice.  His target audience is people who want to get ahead in computer security, but his thoughts seems generalizable so I quote length:
*Study.* Studying can take many forms. It can be classwork, either at universities or at training conferences like SANS and Offensive Security. (See below for some good self-starter resources.) It can be reading; there are a lot of excellent books out there -- and blogs -- that teach different aspects of computer security out there. Don't limit yourself to computer science, either. You can learn a lot by studying other areas of security, and soft sciences like economics, psychology, and sociology.
*Do.* Computer security is fundamentally a practitioner's art, and that requires practice. This means using what you've learned to configure security systems, design new security systems, and -- yes -- break existing security systems. This is why many courses have strong hands-on components; you won't learn much without it. 
*Show.* It doesn't matter what you know or what you can do if you can't demonstrate it to someone who might want to hire you. This doesn't just mean sounding good in an interview. It means sounding good on mailing lists and in blog comments. You can show your expertise by making podcasts and writing your own blog. You can teach seminars at your local user group meetings. You can write papers for conferences, or books.
Note particularly the boldfaced stuff on blog comments and mailing lists.  Bruce is the only person I can think of who actually has a good word for this kind of mindless yapping voluntary unsolicited comment. But could he be onto something? Anecdote: this year for the first time I required of my students that they make contributions to a classroom blog. I got a lot of blowback. Cynic that I am, I suspect that some of it came from people who simply didn't want to have to mess with just one more course requirement. But several of them said they didn't want to be required to post stuff that might come back to bite them in the ankle in the job market. On this one I just called their bluff: I said okay, it will be a private blog, open only to class members.

In time the flac died away and the the contributions rolled in. By the end of the semester, my own take was that they were writing some pretty good stuff. I had also encouraged them to comment on each others' work. In fact I got almost none of that on the blog, but I do presume to perceive that the general level of classroom discussion was somewhat higher this year than in the recent past, and I dare to speculate that the blog broke down some of the near-universal student reticence.

You can see where I am going here. If I were one of my former students now looking for a job (sadly, too many of them are), I might be tempted to showcase the blog comments to a prospective employer to show (say) a spirit of patient inquisitiveness, a breadth of interest, that sort of thing. IOW, is their paranoia hurting them?

Second anecdote: I lurk on a couple of professional chat lists. Some of the commentary is idiotic, embarrassing. But there are a few professionals on board who offer spectacularly good advice to their colleagues (and do it for free). A few  are names I never heard before. In a couple of cases, I've (cautiously, and with qualification) referred prospective clients their way. I have no idea whether it took; I made absolutely no attempt to tell the target what I was up to. But it wouldn't have happened had I not seen the kind of commentary that Bruce appears  to envision.

Wish I'd Said That...

[T]he world has its reasons for not being Walrasian.

Robert Solow via Lars P. Syll, via BDL.  Wish I'd written the whole thing, actually, but then I'm not a macro man, am I?*  Also on the Macro beat: Miles Kimball offers cool definitions of "IS-LM" and "grok."


“Qualia” is just a pretentious label for “WTF, unsolved problem”. 

James Wimberly explaining Higgs-Boson.  So at least I now know what "qualia" is.  For the work of a guy who (like me) does not understand the Higgs Boson, but who exhibits his incomprehension with great panache, go here.

*What, I wonder, is it like to be "a macro man"--to spend your entire life steeped in a stew that turns out to be so much goofball gobbledygook goulash?  Is it like being a senior professor of dialectics, turned loose from East Germany in 1989?