Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Julia Child of Public Health

My favorite C. Everett Koop story might be a fantasy of my own but that doesn't matter; there's a point to it anyway.

It's about Koop in a movie.  I can't identify it in his Imdb database (yes he has one) so it might have been a lookalike or I might have just made it up.  But still: it's some kind of blaxsploitation thingy from the 90s.  The gent is about to make his moves on the lady when the bearded gent with the bow tie and the gold braid  interrupts to remind him that (I quote from memory) "when you have sex with her, you are having sex with anybody she ever had sex with--and just to drive home the point, I've brought them with me here tonight."  Whereupon we get a parade that would do justice to a Shrine hospital fundraiser.  ("My brother?  You're my brother!--Hey man, you were away for the weekend...)  

And that's all I remember which may mean "that's when I woke up," though rarely are my dreams quite so funny.  Still, even if I did spin this thread out of my own gizzard (very unlikely) or was befuddled by a standin (more possible)--even it wasn't the man himself still, isn't that just the way we think of our late distinguished surgeon general--able make an emotional connection up there with the best of politicians. able to be funny without losing his dignity, able to deliver a health message with with a sense of urgency, yet without making himself a nuisance or a bore? 

Some would say I exaggerate; some will remember the notorious pamphlet he sent to every household in America warning against the risk of AIDS (here's the pamphlet).  Indeed he did ruffle some feathers.   In the pamphlet he talked about condoms and anal sex, and he said that homosexual males were more at risk than the general population.  But can you name any other politician so willing to touch so many third rails on public health--or even more, any who could have gotten away with it?   Koop was one of those rare individuals who could, in effect, say "I'm not a politician but..." and make you believe he really was just trying to speak the truth--and, bye the bye, that he had some warrant, by way of background or knowledge, for speaking as firmly as he did.

The corollary was the emotional connection: we came to see him as a person who really cared about  nothing so much as saving lives, or of removing the impediments against living life well. The attitude imbued his campaigns against AIDS, against tobacco (the other great hot-button issue), against abortion.

Abortion: for anyone who lived through the Reagan years, the story of Koop and abortion scarcely needs retelling.   He came into office as an avowed foe of abortion, yet used almost none of his political capital to pursue that issue.  Called to account, he seemed to try to finesse the issue.  He said he'd concluded that abortion was not essentially unsafe.  Having so concluded (he told the New York Times) "he had declined to speak out on abortion because he thought his job was to deal with factual health issues like the hazards of smoking, not to express opinions on moral issues."

I can believe there is a core of truth in that statement, but I suspect it needs context.  Koop does seem to have had a knack for dialing hot issues down.  And while I don't doubt that he maintained his personal aversion to abortion (he was, after all, a master at saving infant's lives), I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that he came to have compassion for women thrust into the awful choice, and unwilling to intrude himself into a private decision.

I said he was  the Julia Child of public health. Actually, that's too simplistic.  So far as we know, Julia Child had no enemies, none.  Koop had plenty of enemies--on abortion, on tobacco, on homosexual sex and whatnot.  But even the loudest opponents seem oddly blunted, considering the general nature of the debate on issues of this sort.  Maybe it was just political prudence--they felt the heat, even if they didn't see the light.  Whatever: in any event, it cleared the way for Koop to make his connection with America, and to deliver his message.  Maybe Julia Child is not the right comparison: maybe I should have said Oprah.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Desanctification of Silent Cal

I confess to a certain soft spot for Calvin Coolidge.  Partly just local affinity: I am from New Hampshire, he is from Vermont.  But there's more.  He had an appealing lack of pomposity and a self-deflating wit.  He thought Herbert Hoover a pious gasbag.  And he probably had better temperamental instincts on race than any president before Lyndon Johnson.

I haven't read Amity Shlaes' new biography--or is it a hagiography?    But with blowback like this, the consequence so far is to remind me of all the reasons I never should have gone soft on him in the first place.

Meanwhile, here's a fascinating capsule on the place of Coolidge in the history of big government.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bankruptcy and Changing Tastes in Impropriety

Here's news that near-bankrupt San Bernardino has hired as its city manager a man who has been through personal bankruptcy twice--the latest in February of 2011;.  By all accounts, the city pretty clearly needs somebody with insolvency experience, but let's waive the easy jokes about how it takes one to know one. Rather, take a closer look at the file.  I see by a press report that he disclosed ownership of a house which he valued at $147,500.  Like wow: I don't have any idea where exactly he lived, but even in the (then?) current real estate market, that sounds pretty modest.   But maybe not that modest: Zillow pegs the median price for a San Bernardino County home as of February 1, 2011 at $171,000, which would put him in the low side of the ball park.  The same index shows that the estimated value for the area peaked in early 2006 at about $383,000.  That's a drop of about 55 percent, which tells you why California's "Inland Empire" (heh!) is one of the basket cases in the late real estate meltdown (Wiki, citing a local news account, puts it fourth in the nation for foreclosures in 2010).

Against that $147,500, the paper reports that he had mortgage debt totaling $267,500.   So the home value is (as luck would have it) about 55 percent of the debt, fortuitously close to the percentage drop for the area as a whole.  He reportedly also scheduled bank and credit card debt of $137,252.  I really don't have a clue where that debt came from but I'm guessing a guy who was out of work, falling progressively further behind on his mortgage, and struggling through the week on his plastic So, just like an awful lot of his constituents: they'll have plenty to chat about down at the coffee shop, if San Bernardino has a coffee shop.

I do note a signs-of-the-times datum here, though.  That is: a spokesman for the city sounds just a teeny bit defensive about the whole business but basically ready to hang tough: we knew he did it, and we don't care.  Fine, and not really a surprise.  But my bedtime reading these past few  days has been David Cannadine's fascinating biography of Andrew Carnegie.  I just last night read some stuff about Carnegie's father, quoting a personal memoir the old  man prepared assessing his life in the fullness of age.  Papa presents himself as the very model of a flinty, hard-working Scotch-Irishman with a bit of business sense and a near-speechless horror at the idea of debt.  If the word "bankruptcy" appears in papa's memoir (I've only read the excerpts), I suspect it would set the page on fire.

And that was the way it was in the old days: bankruptcy as a matter of shame (the Scots, I am told, used to make them wear dunce caps).  These days, not so much.  Indeed, it looks like that in San Berdoo at least, bankruptcy is no bar to a position of public trust.  As I say,  I pass no judgment. But I'm diverted to speculate what might happen had somebody surfaced, say, a 10-year old citation for a domestic dispute--his (e.g.,) wife or girlfriend called the cops.  My guess is that he'd be out on  his ear.

Disclaimer: I express no view on whether he should be fired for bankruptcy, or a domestic dispute, or neither or both. And I certainly have no reason to suppose he was ever cited in a domestic dispute: hypothetical only. Just sayin'.

Scooter Scamming

I see the FBI is declaring war on The Scooter Store.  I asked my friend John, no stranger to scooters, for his insights.  He replied: 
Not surprised: the scooter places push the damn things on everyone without any real evaluation of need. Or longevity. I know of two cases where Medicare paid a small fortune for a motorized chair for an elderly person who promptly died. the families got nearly nothing for the virtually unused chairs. They also aren’t built to last – and repairs are pretty hard to find (or pay for). Then there’s the transport problem: most people don’t seem to realize that these things won’t jump into the trunk of your car by magic. So the owner becomes housebound. It’s a racket all the way around.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Does Ted Cruz Know What he is Talking About?

This is not  rhetorical question, but first some context.   Achieving some sort of land-speed record, the new senator from Texas appears to have established himself already among his Senate colleagues as an industrial-strength prick jerk, by the standards of any civilized community except perhaps Texas.  People seem to be falling all over themselves to compare him to Joe McCarthy but as I've said elsewhere, I think this is wrong: McCarthy was an undisciplined thug who finally self-immolated in an alcoholic haze (dragging, ironically, the cause of anti-communism down with him).  I have said I think the better comparison might be Pat McCarren of Nevada, far more disciplined than McCarthy, with more focused nastiness--the last senator, I believe, who could castrate a baby lamb with his teeth.

Cruz, that is, appears to be both disciplined and smart but the question remains: does he know what he is talking about?  I refer in particular to the kerfuffle over the Harvard Law faculty.  Cruz now-famously said that in his day "there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government" (link).  

Now this is pretty clearly flapdoodle.  Many others have laid out the case in some detail and I can't improve on it except to note: he's pretty clearly talking about Duncan Kennedy and Roberto Unger and their ilk.  For bona fides,l let me concede that I have never really known either of those guys;  but I've had opportunities to observe Kennedy off and on since the spring of 1969, and I actually undertook to read (oh quit giggling) a fair amount of Unger in the 1970s, and take it from one who has been there: the chances of building  revolution around Kennedy and Unger are about the same of getting one out of Wayne and Garth (I almost said Beavis and Butthead but I will grant that that's a stretch).  Woolly headed: confrontational in a middle-class adolescent sort of way (Kennedy); big dreamers (Unger)--but revolutionary?  It is to laugh.

Still, back to the question: does Cruz know this?   Does he really understand that they are just a couple of duffers or does he really think he is gazing into the abyss? Is he just playing to the crowd--or, by chance, is he really so flat-footed ignorant that he might really believe it to be true?

Deflationary response: I really can't make up my mind.  Maybe yes, maybe no. But here's the thing: almost all of the blowback seems to take it for granted that the bum is just lying like a sheepskin rug--after all, he can't be that smart and that wrong by accident.  I wouldn't be so sure.   He does seem to have spent a lot of time inside the bubble, reading his own press releases and drinking his own Kool-ade--more harmful on the whole, I suspect, than drinking his own urine.   I'm open to the possibility that the reason he can hang on through all the guffawing is that he really genuinely, honest and truly,  believes this stuff to be truly true.  Oh, Ted, Ted.  Oh Wayne and Garth.  Oh Ted.  Oh humanity.

Somebody Help Me Here: Contracting Out

Should the Treasury Department run its own cafeteria?  Was it stupid of Henry Ford to run a limestone quarry?  What, if anything, is so all-fired wrong about putting a prison in the private sector?  Or if it is wrong for the prison, is it also wrong for the hospital?  Should I care that or Hewlett Packard operate as centers of a force field of production and invoice? Should I rue the day when the draft gave way to the all-volunteer army?

DamifIknow, and that's the point. There is a common thread through this stuff and I pull on it, and it snags.  In short, I don't get contracting out.  I get the basics.  I've read Coase:  I know it is all about cost-reduction: we (should?) organize and manage when it is cheaper than buying on the market; if not, not.

I also know (snark alert) what bureaucrats are, habitually: they're lazy and self-absorbed, bent on protecting their turf and aggrandizing their domaine.  Of course I also (more snark) know that private providers are chiselers and wheedlers who care nothing about the product and everything about the bottom line.  I also know that it's a matter of comparative advantage: we should do what we do best and buy what the other guy does better.  

I guess I know that it comes down to comparative advantage: we should do what we do better than anybody else, and buy the rest.  Treasury should not run a cafeteria.  Henry Ford probably was wrong to run a limestone quarry but it's probably not wise to second-guess Henry on matters of organization and efficiency.    Still-- a while back I read Gerald Davis provocative Managed by the Markets (perhaps it was he who got me started on this wheeze).  I got the sense that Davis feels (he didn't quite spell it out) that all this contracting-out stuff bespeaks a calamitous, perhaps even a tragic, departure in our society: that we have lost some essence at the core of our being (Gerald, if you are out there, I apologize for this flight of fancy).

Go back to Milton Friedman, who saw compulsory military service as akin to slavery.  Set him up for a face-off with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought we ought to see military service as a kind of privilege--not just privileged access to pay and bennies, but a privilege in the sense of a chance to participate as a full member of society.    Is this, by the way, why gays battle (heh!) for the right to join the military, why women show so much eagerness to make it to the front lines?   Is this something that Friedman the free market ideologue missed, or something that Friedman the master polemicist seems simply chose to ignore?  Maybe I'm just being coy here: surely we can observe millions who would regard compulsory of service as an infringement on their freedom, yet who regard loyalty, community, yes (ack) patriotism as essential to their being.  Are they simply confused, or am I missing something?   Turned round, how can any libertarian be a patriot?  If we make the state so small as to drown in the bathtub, what is there to be patriotic about?

The army may be a high-salience instance but Davis, if I read him right, seems to feel somewhat the same way about Hewlett-Packard or Nike--that there has to be more to life than just putting your brand on an athletic shoe or, come to that, on a stadium.  I bet I know what he thinks about private prisons.  I wonder what he thinks about the all-volunteer army.   As I write, it's dawning on me that there is probably a whole literature out there, just something that hasn't come my way. Anybody want to tell me where to start?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Funniest Line in American Lit

Sometimes I think it is in this bit from Bernard Malamud's Magic Barrel.  Salzman the marriage broker has come to call on Finkel, aspiring rabbi perhaps in need of a wife:
"So good evening, I am invited?"
Leo nodded, disturbed to see him again, yet unwilling to ask the man to leave.
Beaming still, Salzman laid his portfolio on the table. "Rabbi, I got for you tonight good news."
"I've asked you not to call me rabbi.  I'm still a student."
"Your worries are finished.  I have for you a first-class bride."
"Leave me in peace concerning the subject."  Leo pretended lack of interest.
"The world will dance at your wedding."
"Please, Mr. Salzman, no more."
 "But first must come back my strength.," Salzman said weakly.  He fumbled with the portfolio straps and took out of the leather case an oily paper bag, from which he extracted a hard seeded roll and a small smoked whitefish.  With a quick motion of his hand he stripped the fish out of its skin  and began ravenously to chew.  "All day in a rush," he muttered.
Leo watched him eat.
"A sliced tomato you have maybe?  Salzman hesitantly inquired.
Well, I guess you had to have been there.   Anyway, Finkel answers "no."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Homeland: The Lie Detector

Unencumbered by cable but awash in Netflix, Chez Buce is just now getting around to Showtime's Homeland.  I was a skeptic in the early episodes; it seemed a bit clumsy and improvisational in its set-ups.  Just wait, Mrs. Buce said, these things time.

Tonight we did Episode 4 and I suspect she's right again--that bit about the lie detector test is one of the cleverest bits of plotting I've ever seen.

[Oh, I didn't give away anything.   You knew a lie detector was coming.  Just keep your eyes open when it shows up.]

End of Western Civilization as We Know It

"Straitjacket" get 774,000 Wiki hits.  "Straightjacket" gets 3,310,000, apparently including all of "straitjacket."


Close friends of Underbelly will know that my doppelganger frequentlyregularly deploys the figure of the defenestrator for purposes of illustration and edification in the classroom.  It's a serviceable example for the teaching of depreciation, of tax shields, of economic rents, whatever.    They may therefore be pleased to learn that Michael Quinion in his newsletter on language has served up an ample backgrounder on "defenestrate," offering a political and also a linguistic history.

I like to ask students if they have ever heard of defenestration before I bring it up. Most have not; surprisingly, a few have--perhaps often those of Czech background-- it is for the Czechs, as Quinion explains, that defenestration provides the founding political narrative (although he might have gone further; way I understand it, the Czechs identify two, sometimes even three or more, defenestrations as part of their national story; cf. link).

The history I sort of knew.  Quinion presses the envelope, however, with his account of the linguistic evolution (Quinion doesn't like people to excerpt him, so go here for the full account).  Quinion does say that he hasn't noticed its modern jokey sense in dictionaries yet.   Grievous oversight, I'd say, though it may be too late.  My guess is that defenestration in the modern sense has already been supplanted by its not-exact synonym thrown under the bus.  Or, as you might say, defenestrated.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Takes Me Back

I knew a guy--he died years ago--who was tending bar in San Antonio when he noticed a little teeny story in the local paper saying that a body had been found in the vat down at the brewery, and that nobody knew how long it had been there.

Thereafter he said he liked to pop open a bottle of the local and let 'em take a swig and  remark, "say did you see that story in the paper the other day..."

Now this.

Death Watch

Two deaths worth noting this week.

One: Donald Richie.   I don't think I had ever heard of Richie until just after the return from my first trip to Japan in 2006, when my friend Suzanne did me the courtesy  of taking it for granted that I knew Ritchie's inimitable travel memoir, The Inland Sea.  Don't go telling Suzanne but I did not, and I do now, and I am the richer for it.  

And aside from the book--I don't think I had seen any Japanese movies before 2006 either, save only two or three Kurusowas.  Inspired by our travels, Mrs. Buce began to stock the Netflix queue with Japanese offerings-Tokyo Story and Ugetsu and some lovely animated offerings.  It was only on reading his obituaries that I came to understand that I owe all this to Richie too: apparently aside from (or more important than) his role as a writer, he apparently made it his project to help Westerners understand this treasure trove of culture.  Interesting to learn also that he was never that great at spoken or written Japanese--only conversation.  Maybe that is why he fell so naturally into work with film.

And two: Armen Alchian.  My friend Ed and I once amused ourselves with a thought game in which we considered what would happen if the charity solicitor tried to cadge funds from any of three great free-market economics.  We agreed that X would probably throw him out and call the cops.  Y would say, "well, it's against my principles, but if you won't tell, here's $50."  And Alchian would say: "no, my friend, you are a nice man, thank you for asking, but no."

A factoid that will scandalize some: Armen Alchian was my teacher.  No, not in school, exactly, rather in the notorious "economics boot camp," where law professors (and others) imbibe free market doctrine science at the hands of an expert.  There are those who say that Armen and his co-conspirators tainted out minds, the same way the guards did in the North Korean prison camps.  These critics are, I suspect, not entirely wrong: I came from boot camp believing some things I had never believed before, and disbelieving some things I have never believed since.  I don't think I ever drank the full beaker of Libertarian Kool-Ade (indeed there are a lot of ways in which I think the presuppositions of free-market economics are pathetically naive).  Still on the whole, I think I am the better for the experience and so I am in his debt.

As a classroom presence, Armen was a virtuoso--relaxed and informal in manner, yet always clear-headed and never at a loss as to where he wanted to go and what he wanted to say.  He brought the same of easy mastery to his legendary coursebook (with William A. Allen), University Economics, and I half regret the fact that I let my copy go in a cull.

In his manner, I found him somewhat like what I tried to capture with Ed in  our thought experiment, above: clear-headed, purposeful, civil but perhaps just a tad robotic, seemingly a bit too indifferent to the suffering of others.  Still I have to say I enjoyed his company (he flattered me by seeming to remember after a hiatus of 20 years).   I don' suppose it would be easy to find any two men more unlike than Richie and Alchian, but on the whole I'd say the planet is a better place for having enjoyed their presence.

Undocumented extra:  thanks to Larry for the epitaph of the week: "... he was not afraid to mingle with the wives of other musicians."  Link.

Ricks' Three (or Four) Books on Military Leadership

I've now finished the other half of Thomas Ricks The General: American Military Command from World War II to Today, and I have a bit of the yim yams.  It's still a valuable and instructive product but it's an almost entirely different book from the first half. No: it's more like three books, huddled uneasily under an attempt at a single overarching framework.

Remember the takeaway from the first half: George Marshall fired generals.  Great guy, George Marshall.  This is a story line that dominates the early chapters of Ricks' book, and one I find largely persuasive, if somewhat overdone and perhaps undercontexualized.

As if to provide a unifying theme for the whole, he keeps returning to the second half (was I wrong to sniff the pheremones of his agent here, who tells him he needs a single dominating soundbite?).  Anyway--the point is still relevant and plausible but increasingly it tends to obscure rather than to clarify three  (possibly four) other topic of greater saliency.  One might be tagged "bureaucracy" or "careerism," where we encounter more and more men who take the army as a job, not a calling--folks who are masters of get-along go-along, and of kiss-up, if not necessarily kick down.  Two is a glaring and calamitous deficiency in military doctrine--its failure to teach its officers anything about the political context and its blood cousin grand strategy.  This is the deficiency that gave us generals like Norman Schwartzkopf and Tommy Franks who might have been superb at running a platoon or even a battalion, possibly a division--but who had no conception how to think about the larger framework in which they were enjoined to operate.  Three would be what you might call "the civil-military conversation"--the way generals and presidents come to understand each other, their intentions and capacities.   It's the subject of at least one superb book in its own right=-Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, which Ricks cites with warm approval.

Laced into the middle of these is one spectacular and I think little-known narrative--the account of the rehabilitation of the Army after Vietnam in the hands of the (largely unknown, I suspect) General William E.DePuy.  DePuy is responsible for the two most important changes in the Army after Vietnam, one indispensible and one disastrous. "Indispensable" was the rehabilitation of th Army as a functioning instution--weeding out the thugs and the incompetents, initiating an effective program of training and generally restoring the Army's self-respect.  "Disastrous" was the Army's commitment to fight, as it were, the last war--to build its battle model around the idea of a ground war in Poland.  It's a fascinating story, heartening and horrifying all at once, and has a lot (though this is complicated) to do with the army we have today.

That's a lot for one book, or even for two or three, though I doubt Ricks could have found as broad an audience for two or three.  As it stands, Ricks doesn't always control his material, and he too often leaves you (perhaps ironically) aching for more probing on particular points.    Still for all such deficiencies, it's one of the best books on the (rather short) list of books that I've actually read about modern warfare.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Language Notes: Spitalian

Chatting with a Latin American student this morning, I remarked on how Argentines seem to me to speak their Spanish with an Italian flourish.  Oh yes, he said, that's well known.  And in fact--this was new to me--when Italians learn Spanish in school or as adults, they always wind up sounding like Argentinians.

Prompts me to remember an American landlady I paid rent to once in Italy.  I asked her if she spoke Italian. She said: I think so.  I have studied Italian.  But I know Spanish much better, and when I try to speak Italian, I am never quite sure which I am speaking.

Oh, and one more:  I heard one of my Shanghai students assure a Shanghai student friend that Italian and Spanish were really the same.  I guess he wasn't that far off.

Here's an instructive Wiki on the place of Italian and Italians in Argentina.

Query:  Argentinians?  Or Argentines? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Somebody Help Me Here--Rick Scott's Mother

Florida Governor Rick Scott, in the vanguard of the soak-the-poor and succor-the-rich school of governing, says he has changed his mind and will allow the Feds to shower money on him for the expansion of Medicaid, providing it doesn't cost his folks a red cent.   Per the local press:
The governor said he gained new perspective after his mother's death last year, calling his decision to support a key provision of the Affordable Care Act a "compassionate, common sense step forward," and not a "white flag of surrender to government-run healthcare."
Wait, his mother?  So far I can't find anything that explains this cryptic remark but I can't think of any reading that puts it in a good light.  Is he saying that it took the death of his mother to remind him that Floridians might have a tough time getting medical care if they earned $9,001 a year?  If so, he's an impressionable sentimentalist who doesn't have any business making decisions for the mass of us.

Or perhaps he meant it took the death of his mother to teach him how expensive medical care can be?  If so, welcome to hard times, guv, and you might want to spend a few more minutes with the briefing book.  Or could he be saying  he's damn glad his mother fell under the protection of those socialists in Washington who implement Medicare, else he might have had to stump some--but wait a minute, isn't this guy a stalwart of the family values party?  Wouldn't it have been the honest and honorable--indeed the life-affirming thing to reject all tainted lefty dollars and make mom comfy on the couch himself?  

Afterthought:  yes, I am aware that Scott built his personal fortune on the looting of Medicare.  I'm open to the notion that his real reason for his changed of mind is tht his cronies in the hospital business can smell money.  Mother would have loved that.

Oh. Here's morePer The Atlantic Wire, the hers of Republican governors who switched sides on Medicaid
 bleed for the suffering poor. Florida's Scott, for example, talked about his mother in his announcement Wednesday. "I remember my Mom's heartbreak when she could not afford to give my younger brother the treatment he needed when we learned he had a hip disease," Scott said. "She eventually found him a Shriner's Children's Hospital hundreds of miles away… where my brother would go back and forth for treatment."
 I think I'll stand by original snide remarks.

Defining Deviance Down

Thanks to Elizabeth for the catch of (my) day: private prison as stadium sponsor-- the GEO Group stumps up for a new stadium at Florida Atlantic University.  You know about Florida Atlantic?  It's a public (state) university built on land seized from Japanese farmers at the beginning of World War II; its first degree was an honorary doctorate to Lyndon Johnson. You know about  GEO?  It's the nation's second largest provider of private prison services, with headquarters more or less cheek by jowl with Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton.

Huffpost, where I'm reading the story, feigns bewilderment: Stadium sponsorships usually involve a product that a company wants to market to consumers. But:
GEO Group's customers are government agencies offering contracts. Prisoners don't have a choice of where they land behind bars. "It appears to be a charitable gift that is trying to be a marketing vehicle, and it just doesn't make a lot of sense," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's business school. "To link themselves with an athletic department when their business is locking people up, it just doesn't connect to me really well."
 Okay, plenty of corporate donations can count as "marketing," narrowly defined.  And plenty of others qualify as a thinly-veneered indulgence of the CEO's private whim: a gallery for an artist specially favored by his wife, for example.  Or maybe a mix: a stadium that just might please the fans but will certainly give the CEO dibs on a skybox.  

I can believe that GEO's "gift" involves some such mix of motives. But there's more: I suspect you could read this as one (more) ploy by the prison to detox the prison industry; to make its business just as anodyne as the marketing of hairpins or chewing gum.  The one thing we can be sure: it has nothing to do with "charity."  Which is just as it should be: let management start actuallygiving money away for on a motive of disinterestedness, and the shareholders will be all over them like a cheap prison tattoo.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ricks on the Generals

Having spent four months as a cook at Fort Leonard Wood Mo in 1958, I feel comfortable pronouncing  on military matters (better qualified than most members of Congress, wouldn't you say?).  So I'm happy to declare Tom Ricks' Generals to be a fascinating read--imperfect, but full of good stuff which I, despite my vast experience, did not know.  

If you've read any of the reviews, you know the takeaway point: Marshall fired generals.  Eisenhower fired generals.  Ridgeway fired a few generals (in Korea, remember Korea?).  But after aside, since World War II, nobody fired generals, except in a few notorious cases where the President fired the Man at the Top.   The army became, in oversimplification, a careerist's army, on the order of the corporate megalopolis.  As in, how to succeed at extermination without really trying.

Related point: looking back from a later generation, it's possible to see more clearly what an awful cockup we made in Viet Nam: how completely we misunderstood the war and  how (consequently) we came so completely to mishandle it (Ricks' account of the My Lai massacre is harrowing--not news but worth retelling).

All this is worth the price  of admission.  But there are some disappointments.  Most important, Ricks doesn't seem to have much to offer on how it was the Army changed its command pattern so completely and so fast.  He does make the point that the Marshall/Eisenhower scheme worked fine in a big and popular war that we seemed to be winning; less so in smaller less popular wars where mischievous home front Congresscritters were always happy to find an excuse for interfering.  And he's got some wonderful side points about the different command structure of the Marines, always operating in, around, but never of, the Army.

You will surmise that I haven't finished the book yet; haven't got to the Bush wars where, from the standpoint of an outsider, the Army seems to have realized that there are things it hasn't done right and on which it must (or maybe not) change.  I suppose I'll have more to offer when I get there but for the moment, a vagrant thought: I've already remarked (tracking Ricks) on how much the 50s/60s Army reminds the reader of the 50s/60s corporation, where the trick was to keep your tie nicely knotted and your nose clean.  Of course that kind of corporate life has more or less vanished now.  Will it be possible once again to map changes in the modern Army onto changes in the much-transmogrified private sector?  If it is, you know  you'll read it here.

Oh, and One More Thing:  Can anyone recommend a comparable book on the leadership of the Vatican?    Management Lessons from Benedict XVI; now there's a page-turner.

How Sweet It Is

My students gave me a birthday cake with a balance sheet on it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

How Harold Ickes Spent February 18, 1936

Harold Ickes, diarist-general of the Roosevelt administration, learns about Father Coughlin:
Tuesday: February 18, 1936:  I had a session with the President on Monday. He asked whether I had heard Father Coughlin talk on the radio Sunday afternoon and I told him that I had never heard of him.  He said he was worth listening to.  On Sunday afternoon Coughlin made a violent attack on Congressman O'Connor, chairman of the Rules Committee directly, and on President Roosevelt also, indirectly.  He charged that O'Connor was Roosevelt's man and that Roosevelt could either cause him to resign or have him removed as chairman of the Rules Committee.  He demanded such action unless O'Connor should report out a rule which would bring up the Frazier-Lemcke Farm Mortgage Bill. From what the President quoted to me,Father Coughlin must have made a very violent attack.  It sounded outrageous to me--arrogant and blustering and altogether presuming.  In the Monday morning papers Congressman O'Connor invited Coughlin to come to Washington and give him the pleasure of kicking him all the way from the Capitol to the White House.
"Father Coughlin" would be Charles Coughlin of Royal Oak, MI, scamp of a radio host, a Rush Limbaugh wannabee whom Roosevelt came to see as a serious challenge to his presidency.   "O'Connor" would be Rep. John J. O'Connor of the New York 16th, one of the Democrats Roosevelt tried (unsuccessfully) to unseat in 1938,  "Frazier Lemcke" would be the farm relief act invalidated by the Supreme Court in Louisville Joint Stock Co. v. Radford, 295 U.S. 555, then validatebd in only slightly cosmeticized form in Wright v. Vinton Branch, 300 U.S. 440 (1937).

So they tell me, anyway,.  I was busy at the Elliot Hospital in Manchester, NH.  Being born.  Or so they tell me.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Small Neighborhood

DeLong (with the help of an angel buddy) tracks the "internet neighborhood" of Ezra Klein, together with the neighborhoods of those who appear in Klein's neighborhood.    I guess it is interesting but I wonder what I am supposed to make of this?  I suppose there are several possible readings but I should think that one is: it is pretty damning evidence of the internet as "Daily Me"--a small circle of friends who provide good and interesting stuff to read but also go a long way to firm up each others' prejudices intuitions or convictions. Think of it: Klein, Yglesias, DeLong, Krugman, Drum, etc.--how long since you have seen any in this  crowd in a real ding-dong face-ripping cage match with any of the others?  Hah?  I ask you!  Perhaps the exception is Sullivan who always seems to get a bye for--I forget why Sullivan gets a bye; although in fact, his list may be the most diverse: he picks up Frum, Fallow and Greenwald, three of my own favorite stops who do not (unless I missed something) appear anywhere else in the magic circle.  

And BTW, where is Mark Thoma, or is he just the soup in which everybody else gets to swim (aka, Thoma's world, we just live in it)?

Met HD Rigoletto

You had to feel for Renee Fleming doing the intermission interviews for the Met Rigoletto  yesterday,  As in  --paraphrased--You've sung this opera before; how did the new 1960s Las Vegas set change your understanding of the opera?  --Oh, not a lot, Rigoletto is more or less timeless.  --Ah.  Well, how did working with this case enrich your appreciation of the part?  --Well, we are old friends and have sung it together before.

In short, happy, good-natured and a little bland.  Although the negative information is itself probably interesting: Rigoletto probably is an opera that survives changes of period and locale better than some others--seduction, betrayal and murder being, after all, among the constants of the man condition (leave it to the Germans, of course, to do it with apes).  Perhaps the two having most fun were Christine Jones and Susan Hilferty as set and costume designers--they are the ones that got to play around with the neon lights and those glistening faux-sharkskin tuxedo jackets.  Aside from those two, the most interesting thing I heard was the director Michael Mayer, fresh from the more conventional theatre, as he remarked on how invigorating it was to work with a cast who actually seemed to understand their roles: just as a guess, no mainstream opera star ever turns to the director and asks "what's my motivation here?"  (as Ronald Reagan is alleged to have done before a State of the Union message).

But good-natured and bland, you have to admit, sound like odd adjectives to apply to so murky a tale of vengeance.   Mrs. Buce (a special friend of Rigoletto) offers a telling insight--one important respect in which Verdian malediziione still trumps the Sinatran Las Vegas.  That is: take Don Rickles--the most point of comparison with the Verdian hunchback.  Rickles may have been a professional jerk, but you never doubted that he had his own bank account and that he might survive even if Frankie Boy cut him off.  But the Duke's jester--ah, aside from his keeper, he's got nothing.  I think she's right: since he is not hanging by a thread over the abyss, the Sinatran version loses an indispensable note of desperate  insecurity.

Footnote: I'd say the use of a n Arab guy in Arab headdress was a stretch that didn't get across.   I think I see the point:  Mayer wanted somebody menacing and exotic to deliver the curse.  But as staged, he just wound up looking a little silly,.  Besides, at the risk of indulging in chronological fussiness, this is the 1960s we are talking about: my guess would have been that the Arabs didn't show up in force until after OPEC quadrupled the barrel price of oil, i.e., 1973.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Oh, Give. Me. a. Break

 New York Times reporter visits the Paris lair of the last princess and wets his pants:
While she has long captivated the public as one of Truman Capote’s swans, the sister of Jackie Kennedy and a European princess, with romantic liaisons from Peter Beard to Aristotle Onassis, not one of those labels begins to capture the true woman. The inimitable Radziwill — direct, free spirited and true to her own ideals — offers a rare, personal glimpse into her remarkable world.
Idle thought: I wonder if she does VRBO sublets?

Friday, February 15, 2013

While You Were Out...

 What a long, strange road it's been:
...the dismantling of the Bretton Woods regime, the deregulation of interest rates, the legalization of adjustable-rate mortgages, the invention of securitization, the elimination of the consumer interest deduction, the demographic wave of baby boomers establishing new households,  deregulation of savings and loans, the savings and loan crisis, the invention of financial derivatives, the lowering of tax rates, or the 21st century real estate bubble...

Alan Blinder and the Treehouse Syndrome

Halfway through Alan Blinder's After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response and the World Ahead--it's a rewarding read, one of the best I've run across on the financial crisis so far (and I've read them in numbers way beyond the point of cost effectiveness).  I suspect what we've got here is the transcript of his "crisis" course for undergraduates--and that is no bad thing, not a bit worse than watching Yale on-line or some such.  It's far shorter on anecdote, much richer in analysis than the standard presentation.  For comparison, I think I've said before that you might rank these books in inverse order as indexed by the number of F-bombs: on this scale, it is important to report that Blinder is (so far) an F-bomb free zone, which I count as a plus.

Blinder also displays a gentlemanly nonpartisanship.  As a former Vice-chair of the Fed, he's obviously deep into the system and you'd certainly have to account him among those who believe that the system, within broad limits, works.  But is temperamental disposition doesn't inhibit his disapproval for so much of what went on before the great meltdown--of how much, to put it shortly, we brought it on ourselves (or at least "they brought it on themselves," which is different, but perhaps not greatly different).  He makes it clear, inter alia, that he does not buy into the "Barney Frank done it" school of crisis analysis--the school that blames it all on the Congressional Darth Vaders who made the banks their bitch and forced them to make lunatic loans to the unemployable and the illegal (though perhaps unfortunately, he doesn't linger to spell out the evidence on point).

In the same vein, it's clear that he thinks Paulson/Bernanke/Geithner made horrendous mistakes in the eye of the cyclone but he is inclined to be charitable in light of the consideration that they were making decisions unprecedented in scope and scale, and under the worst sort of pressure.

But I think one telling way to get a handle on Blinder's approach is to consider his presentation of the persistent conflict between Geithner at Treasury and the independent-minded head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair.  Blinder pretty much comes down on the side  of Geithner.  Given his natural civility, he speaks with none of the angry intemperance we got from Geithner himself (and speaking of F-bombs...).  But he makes it clear: Bair's insistence that bank creditors (as distinct from depositors) take some of the hit--that insistence, per Blinder. jeopardized the functioning of the entire system.

Ever fair-minded, Blinder does, in effect, concede that it's a couinterfactual and one that (absent the discovery of an alternate parallel universe) we'll never be able to test completely.  Okay so far, but let me offer two reservations.  One, a little more nihilism, please.  If you really are not sure that Bair was wrong, why not say you're not sure Bair was wrong and leave it at that?  I don't see an urgent need to legitimatize a position (Geithner's) of which you are less than convinced yourself.  This might be just the time to mimic the questioner on "Says You" who likes to say "could be that...could be something else."

And two--for myself, I'd feel a lot more comfortable with Geithner's no-creditor-left-behind policy if I trusted his motives.  That is,  I think all the evidence compels the conclusion that Geithner was driven by an almost manic determination to please the banks.  In short, if he was right, I'd say it is for the wrong reason.  

There is a kind of an irony here.   People who wish to blackguard Geithner frequently brand him as a former banker.  Of course he was nothing of the sort: he is one regulator type who never worked for a bank a day in his life.  But of course, this in itself may be the problem: could it be precisely his status as an outsider on the ground, gazing up the treehouse with admiration and envy?--thereby so much more willing to prostrate himself before the bullies on the block?

You might almost call it a reverse of the Joe Kennedy system.  Recall the flac that FDR got when he sent Kennedy, the old fox, to mind the chicken coop at the SEC.  Recall how FDR blithely dismissed the critics with the insight that it Takes One to Know One--and recall how correct he turned out to be.  

No such risk with Geithner.  And precisely for that reason, I would have been grateful had Blinder treated him with a bit more cynicism/skepticism.  In short, perhaps, been a bit less polite.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Greenstein on Leadership

Winding up a quick read of  Fred L. Greenstein's Inventing the Job of the President: Leadership Style from George Washington to Andrew Jackson..  It's an entertaining and (somewhat) instructive read, a companion piece to his earlier The Presidential Difference:  Leadership Styles from FDR to [insert the name of the President in office at the time of the particular edition].  The newer is a bit thinner than its predecessor, at least in content, perhaps because earlier Presidents had less to do and were thereby less likely to show so much nuance and complexity.  Still, I'm struck by how truly   awful several of the early incumbents were at their job.  And not just nobodys on the order of Millard Fillmore: no, we are talking about the Adamses, father and son; even more, James Madison, perhaps the dominant intellectual presence at the founding of the republic, utterly miscast in the presidency.  Thomas Jefferson gets somewhat better marks, building on a somewhat strained comparison to Lyndon Johnson.  James Monroe gets high marks for stable good sense,though beyond that it is hard to remember just why.  Washington--of course, Washington, and for all the well-known reasons.  Andrew Jackson comes across as the great paradox:a man of enormous energy and  purpose who redefined the Presidency in achieving ends that you'd just as well wish he had not pursued in the first place.

I found myself wondering for a moment whether we can look forward to further volumes filling in the interstices.  But then I thought--nah, "leadership style of" (Pierce, Buchanan, Fillmore., Harding, etc)--it doesn't bear thinking on. By indirection, that insight probably highlights what is distinctive about the Greenstein books: right or wrong, they do focus on what aspects of the job are uniquely Presidential, and who can fill them, and how.

Update:  No, wait, it's already here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Get Back to me on This One, Will You?

Some musicians play volleyball.
Immortals are ignorant of volleyball.
No poet is a musician.
All mortals are poets.

Is it possible that all four of these are true?

Cultural Notes from All Over


[Winston] Churchill evidently knew Byron's lengthy "Childe Harold" by heart and later recited it to his daughter Sarah in the eighty-five mile drive from Saki airfield to Yalta in February 1945.  Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry 78 (New York: Dodd Mead 1967)
--Jean Edward Smith, FDR 547 (Random House paperback, 2008)

And second: my friend Elizabeth tells me how she, as a small child, was left in the care of an old lady who served her lemon bars and champagne. Her minder also played her highlights from Verdi's Requiem, and declared that she hoped this music would accompany her as she entered into heaven.