Saturday, August 08, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

The economy is wreaking minor havoc with Dream Theater's Progressive Nation tour. Pain of Salvation and Beardfish had to drop out because InsideOut Records distributor, SPV, declared bankruptcy. These two bands, which I was looking forward to seeing, have been replaced by Bigelf and Scale the Summit.

Bigelf seems to be channeling all sorts of influences - psychedelia, early Black Sabbath, and Rob Zombie. They look like they're a fun addition, and I look forward to seeing if they can deliver the goods live. This is "Pain Killers":

Scale the Summit only does instrumentals. All I can say is . . . wow. And, they all look to be no more than seventeen years old. THis is "The Great Plains" from their CD release party. A seven-string guitar, a six-string bass, and an eight-string guitar.


Charles Lane, you are lying. You sound like Sarah Palin, only slightly more reasonable. That doesn't make what you have to say any less factually inaccurate.

The section of the leading health care reform bill in question does not present end-of-life considerations "disconcertingly close" to fiscal considerations. That. Is. A. Lie. You might as well say that, yes, the Democrats do indeed want to kill Grandma, and so all those protesters out there might just have a point.

You are a liar.

Even if you believe every word you have written. Even if you accept your interpretation as accurate.

Liar. Lying.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Obscenities (UPDATE; UPDATE II)

I used to get some grief from folks because I would type a dirty word on my blog. Seriously. There are some people whose eyes melt when the letters f, u, c, and k are arranged together. Now, I realize that overuse of this particular expletive can become deadening, revealing a lack of imagination and even a glaring lack of education. Occasional use, though, is good for the soul, like a spiritual enema.

I once posted a photograph entitled "Original Sin" accompanying a post on the effect of women's sexuality on men. The photograph depicted a nude woman with an apple resting between her thighs. It was perfect, because it depicted St. Augustine's notion of original sin as concupiscence so well. One commenter was so put out by the sight of the unclothed female form that he wrote several comments on the questionable taste of placing the photo on the blog, going so far as to call it pornographic. Apparently unmanned by the vision of beauty unadorned, he just couldn't get past it.

In our normal parlance, foul language and depictions of nudity are often labeled "obscene", synonymous with "gratuitous", "filthy", "dirty", "offensive". I usually find these reactions to certain colorful turns of phrase and images to be far more revealing of the person so put off, rather than having anything to do with me. Comfortable with both my word choice and my sexuality, getting all huffy about a word or a picture usually point out something about you, rather than me.

True obscenity exists, though.
[A]t that time—during the nearly four-year reign of Angkar lasting from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979—the killing was so random and widespread across Cambodia that death became a near certainty, especially if you were sent to the prison camp known as S-21. While the odds were roughly one in four of dying—and worse depending on your demographic (for instance, adult men died in much higher percentages)—your chance of survival at S-21 was .04 percent.

Or put the opposite way, the odds of your death were 99.96 percent.


[T]he man was 44 years old when the body of his wife disappeared, the same age as I am right now. There is no equivalence; this is only a fact.

And one other: At this same age, though I have three children, he’d already lost four.


[F]rom the book of Atrocities, the evil fable begins like this: Once upon a time, a group of men educated in Paris and steeped in communist ideology had a dream for their homeland. To create a Cambodian society that surpassed the greatness of Angkor, the kingdom that reached its pinnacle under the god-king Suryavarman II in the twelfth century with the construction of Angkor Wat. From the jungles—where their leaders had fled to escape the repressive measures of Prince Sihanouk in 1963—they fought a guerrilla war, led by a soft-spoken, enigmatic schoolteacher named Saloth Sar. These communists, however, did not believe in gods, kings, or culture, as it turned out, but they were good at biding their time. In the vacuum of power left after the eight-year American bombing of Cambodia, they swept east across the lowlands to the capital, Phnom Penh, finally wresting control from the corrupt U.S.-supported regime in 1975. (The premier, Lon Nol, had already fled to Hawaii.) Their first act was to evacuate the city, hurrying the populace under the pretense that the Americans were coming to bomb again, emptying hospitals, setting millions of people—including the elderly, lame, and pregnant—walking on the roads that led to the countryside, a scene of hunger and corpses straight out of Brueghel.


[A]lmost immediately the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary pretenses gave way to the sickening irrationality of brutes. In that first spasm of violence, everyone wearing glasses was killed. Everyone who spoke a foreign language was killed. Everyone with a university education was killed. Word was sent to expats living abroad to come home and join the new Cambodia; when a thousand or so arrived on special flights from Beijing, they were killed. Monks, so revered in Cambodian society and long the voice of conscience there, were killed. Lawyers, doctors, and diplomats were killed. Bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, even factory workers (who in the minds of the Khmer Rouge were equivalent to industrialization itself), were killed.

In that first moment, the lucky ones were directed to keep walking to their home villages—some traveled for months this way—where they were sorted, sent to collectives, and worked from sunup to twilight. A person’s worth was eventually measured by his ability to move cubic yards of earth. “To keep you is no profit,” said the executioners to the unworthy before killing them, “to destroy you is no loss.”


[T]he man who would survive S-21 but lose his wife—the man named Chum Mey—realized that the troops first entering Phnom Penh were mostly lost boys from the jungle, dirty and ragged with blank expressions, who, within hours of being greeted as liberators by cheering crowds, turned on the masses with their AK-47’s. In the south of the city, they fired warning shots; in the northwest sector, they fired on people. Never having seen toilets before, the soldiers drank from them as if they were cisterns, shat on the floor, wiped themselves with sticks that they left strewn about abandoned houses.


[T]he leaders of the revolution were designated as Brother Number One (Pol Pot), Brother Number Two (Nuon Chea), Brother Number Three (Ieng Sary), and so on. And they were nothing if not ambitious in trying to build a new society. The Brothers abolished courts and banks. They abolished money and holidays and love. They abolished time and history, setting everything back to Year Zero. And they abolished the four things Cambodians hold most dear: food, family, village, and Buddhism. Those who hailed from the city were branded with the designation “New People,” versus “Old People,” who were from the country. New People were those most often badly punished. The entire populace was forced to wear black pajamas, the women Maoist bobs. So secretive were the Brothers that for a year no one knew who was running the country. Until Saloth Sar emerged under his new revolutionary name of Pol Pot, it was as if the faceless godhead Angkar decided all.

When it came to song, workers were only occasionally allowed to sing from a menu of revolutionary anthems like “Struggling to Build Dam and Dig Canals” or “Bravery of Construction Revolutionary Soldiers” or “Best Wishes to People in Northwestern Zone.” But a jingle secretly murmured by workers at the time spoke the truth: “Angkar kills but does not explain.”


S-21 had been directed by a man named Kaing Guek Eav, whose revolutionary name was Comrade Duch (pronounced “doik”). Once a teacher of mathematics, he’d first been conscripted by the Khmer Rouge to run a jungle prison camp, where he’d studiously refined his ideas about torture, and was then put in charge of S-21. It was here that he condoned “living autopsies” (the slicing and flaying of victims); that he demanded the extended use of torture to obtain confessions (including near drownings, the removal of toe- and fingernails followed by a dousing of alcohol, electric shocks applied to genitals, suffocation with plastic bags, and forcing prisoners to eat human excrement); that he ordered the murder of at least 15,000 people, who were taken to the Killing Fields and shot or bludgeoned (with iron rods, shovels, and axes) and then dumped into mass graves.


[P]risoners were hooked up to a pump and IV line and had all of their blood drained for use in the hospitals. According to witnesses, the breathing turned to gasps, then wheezing, until the victim’s eyes rolled back in his head, leaving only the whites. Bloodless, the corpses were then thrown in pits.


In my case, the aftermath of a visit to S-21 left me with (a) a suffusion of paranoia and (b) a feeling of utter futility. It was the futility that stuck with me, though, the gut-wrenching realization that somehow the Khmer Rouge had gotten away with their experiment and that they had razed a country of its lawyers and leaders, intellectuals and activists (all those who might have had the expertise and wherewithal to hold them accountable for their crimes). By “smashing” (their word) the populace, by pathologically replacing the individual with the collective (and making sure that the collective knew how to do only one thing: grow rice), they’d instilled a paralysis and fear that had so far, thirty years later, saved them from retribution. They’d effectively lobotomized their own country.

It was astonishing, really. In the annals of the century’s great crimes against humanity, the Nazi leadership had been tried—and many of them executed—in fairly short order, as had the Japanese war criminals. Guilty parties convicted of genocide in Rwanda, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia were imprisoned and in some cases executed. Those responsible for apartheid in South Africa were subjected to a truth commission, which at least demanded confession and supplication.

Meanwhile, after being forced from power, the Khmer Rouge leadership set up on the border of Thailand, in the jungle stronghold of Pailin. From there, Pol Pot and his minions carried on their killing (including taking the lives of Western backpackers visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex) and tried to muster a second revolution. (It was said that between ordering the murder of his top lieutenants, Pol Pot, who was never pursued as a criminal, enjoyed Cognac, Pringles, and reading Paris Match, a French celebrity rag.) During this time, the Khmer Rouge continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the U.N. and receive foreign delegations in the jungle. The regime was so deeply entrenched that even the United States couldn’t cut final ties until 1991, a decade after learning the worst about it. Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders were invited back to Phnom Penh and given villas by the government.

The mystery to me, and many others, was also a pique: What was the exact purpose of all this accommodation? And more: When was someone going to pay?

[N]ot long after returning from Cambodia that first time, I had coffee with an editor in Manhattan. As happens at such meetings, an air of false importance hovered over the proceedings as we discussed “big stories” that seemed to have been overlooked by the media, even though we were the media. When I brought up the untried Khmer Rouge leaders, pointing out the 1.7 million dead from nearly thirty years ago, his eyes glazed. Yes—but no: More than that, he wanted to talk about Hollywood. “What people tend to miss,” he said, “is that George Clooney’s much more than an actor.”

[T]hey did not believe in gods, kings, or culture. In fact, it’s fair to say that in spite of their communist doctrine, they believed in very little at all except a very dark, dominating kind of nihilism. They abolished schools, sport, toys, free time. They banned words like beauty, colorful, and comfort from the radio. They forced all children 7 or older from their parents, placing them in packs called “mobile units” to help with the rice harvest. (It was a “vagrant life,” said one survivor, “like that of a plant floating in the ocean.”) They abolished happiness, as it was their supreme belief that in order to purge individuality, the people must be made to suffer, and having suffered, would be void of dreams and expectations. That is, without minds of their own, they’d be perfect revolutionaries.

I read this article in Gentleman's Quarterly yesterday while waiting to get my haircut. Finding this article in this particular publication is enough of an instance of cognitive dissonance, to say nothing of sitting in the peace of an American suburban mall while waiting for something as droll and mundane as a haircut.

But, as obscene as the horrors of this Kafkaesque nightmare are, there are other obscenities, too.
And after comparing Democratic health care reform efforts to the murderous regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, the speaker advises his audience to "go to offices of members of Congress and put the fear of god in them."

Consider that for a moment. The Democrats want to make affordable health care available to as many Americans as possible. The opposition considers this on a par with murdering people because they are wearing eye glasses, making them eat human excrement, and outlawing singing, sex, and smiling.

Fucking obscene.

UPDATE: This is just God-awful:
RedState's Erick Erickson has posted a new piece on the support that AARP has given the House health insurance reform bill, but instead of using factual information in his column he stoops to using scare tactics and fear mongering.

Erickson writes:
Does the AARP's members know about the endorsement of a healthcare plan that requires seniors to get instruction every five years on assisted suicide - a fact the AARP calls a "myth"?


Any insinuation otherwise, any attempt to suggest that Democrats' plan to decrease cost is to kill people, is foul. The attempt to continue the spread of these lies is pathetic - and shows just how far the Republicans are willing to go when the facts aren't on their side.

The time is long past for a contemporary Joseph Welch to stand up to these people and say, "Have you no decency, sir, at long last?" Decency is a concept these folks just don't understand.

UPDATE: Gov. Palin has this on her Facebook page:
The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

No, Mrs. Palin. What is evil is spreading this bullshit as if it had any connection to reality. If you know this lie is what it is, and repeat it anyway, you are a truly horrible human being. If you do not know, but don't waste time trying to find out if it's true or not, you are horrible and lazy. If you don't care one way or another, but see this as a way of scoring political points against the President and Vice-President who so soundly beat you in last year's election, then you are horrible, lazy, and small-minded.

Your fifteen minutes ended months ago. Please take MacArthur's advice and fade away.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Watching As They Kill A Party

A couple days ago, I wrote that it isn't really necessary to counter all the nonsensical anti-health-care-reform antics the right is ginning up:
Even if there are concerns and questions about the health care reform bills currently in front of Congress, the approach the right is taking will, I believe, backfire. Americans may be uneasy about such a huge sea-change, and there is enough misinformation out there to stir the pots of even the most educated citizen; for the most part, though, Americans do not like mobs acting like, well, mobs. Once there are enough pictures and videos and stories of Congressmembers being harangued into silence, escorted out under guard, and the various folks sounding alike across the country, my guess is that, however successful they may be at shutting down local discussions, on the national level - it's going to fail badly.

In just a couple days, my wildest dreams concerning how this will play out seem to pale in comparison to reality.

Screeching, being incoherent, turning off other folks who turned up to ask legitimate questions regarding health care and other issues, seniors who receive Medicare decrying "socialized medicine" - it has all the marks of farce, with the occasional scary face of rage. Whoever thought this was a good idea will probably end up a "political consultant" on some cable chat show. Failure is no barrier to becoming a lip-flapper on TV.

Once again, whether you support health care reform or not, attend any meetings your Congressional Representative may be having. Be respectful. If the mob shows up, don't try to shout them down. Give them as much room to act out as possible.

And, if your cell phone has video capability, catch a few seconds of the fun and upload it, send it to TPM or some other news or website. The more attention this kind of thing gets, the better off we'll all be.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


First, a whole heap of thanks to Erudite Redneck for linking to the following video:

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

ER asks a good question. Since it seems we are able to sing in harmony, and to follow the pentatonic scale, without a whole lot of help, why don't we? One answer he receives is so wildly off the mark, I have been assembling a response to it.
Why don't we? Because we were born in a western rationalistic, protestant culture that has been suspicious of music and how it moves the soul for some time now.

If you get into homes that aren't so hegemonically identified, you get music, harmony, rapture, and then dinner. Or dinner first.

Same thing in Brasil or Mali or Tibet.

Any attempt to make broad ideological statements such as this, that have whole histories and facts militating against them, make me itch.

From the early 19th through the early 20th century, the music business was more specifically the music publishing business. As America grew wealthier, and pianos and other instruments became a staple even of lower-middle class homes, it created a demand for music to be played. The greatest popular song-writer of the 19th century, Stephen Foster, was nothing more than a hired gun of the music publishing business. In the days before copyright, he remained poor even as his songs made quite a bit of scratch for his employers.

The invention of the phonograph was not initially considered a threat to music publishing; indeed, after the first couple decades, as it became less expensive and more popular, and recording shifted from classical and opera (the first big recording star was Enrico Caruso, whose popularity stemmed from the sale of recordings), the hunger for more popular musics, ethnic music, regional and local music, expanded not only the possibilities of recording, but also publishing (this is still reflected in many contracts recording companies make with artists, wherein publishing rights to the music are too often surrendered to the company; thus, for example, when the Beatles created Apple Records, they signed publishing rights over to the company, only to have those rights become another commodity to be sold at auction when the company dissolved; they were bought by Michael Jackson in the 1980's, creating more legal headaches for the surviving Beatles, who sued over Jackson's decision to sell "Revolution" to Nike for commercial use). Up until the Great Depression, which shuttered many recording companies and sheet music publishers, the early days of recording and publishing were a wonderful array of everything from jazz and blues, often on subsidiaries of big recording companies, hideously referred to as "Race Records", to companies making colloquial song and spoken-voice recordings in Italian, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Yiddish. Unfortunately, many of the original acetate masters were lost when the small companies (including Black Swan, the first all-African-American company) had to be sold off during the Depression. The large companies either put the masters in poor storage conditions, or tossed them in the garbage outright. Yet, enough of the recordings still exist that one can find them in private collections. My father's collection of 78's includes an entire recording of a Shakespeare play (I can't recall which one off the top of my head), a collection of songs performed by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (recorded live at The Cotton Club), and Beethoven Symphonies.

While it is true there were many who detested early Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll because of its overtly racial nature - all those pure white kiddies being led to dancing and other immoral behavior by those crude colored folk, don't you know - because it was wildly successful as a business, the attempt to co-opt it became part and parcel of the history of the music. Once the initial surprise and excitement of the earliest pioneers passed - Chuck Berry ended up in federal prison on a Mann Act conviction; Elvis had the double strike of having his contract at Sun Records sold to RCA for a pittance (the head of A&R at RCA at the time was Mitch Miller, who had many misgivings over the deal) and being drafted in to the Army; his label-mate, Jerry Lee Lewis got busted for marrying his underage teenage cousin; Little Richard, in a fit of moral confusion, quit music for a time to become a minister - the center of popular music shifted from emerging small, regional labels (like Sun, one of whose A&R men was Ike Turner, who is credited with recording the first true Rock and Roll record) to . . . music publishing firms in New York. The center of the action was The Brill Building. They turned out hit after hit after hit, some of them excellent ("You've Lost That Loving Feeling"), and some, well not so much ("Calendar Girl").

The backlash against, first rock and roll and r&b, and later rap music, is largely overblown. Part of the problem, in the former case, was that the rise of this wonderfully mongrel music coincided with the Civil Rights movement, stirring race-hatred and fear among white elites (particularly but not only in the South). The initial reaction against rap music was fueled not only by racial fears, but also, I believe, a rural-urban divide. Many older artists tended to trace their roots to the Delta Blues and country music; rap, like jazz, is an urban phenomenon (like the difference between spirituals and gospel music). The age-long urban-rural split in America is manifest in much of the disdain for rap in its early days.

Yet, through all this time, all sorts of people in America make all sorts of music. Part of the music industry's problem right now is the collapse of a business model that worked for a short time (roughly the mid- to late-1960's through the mid- to late-1980's) in which, in collusion with the radio industry, had a rough monopoly on what was and was not considered "worthy" of being heard. In the heady days from, say, 1965 through the late 1970's, before the American economy started to stagnate, record companies managed to sign all sorts of acts, tossing all sorts of sounds in to the mix. Thus, King Crimson could combine jazz, fusion, rock, and even Indonesian Gamelan due to Robert Fripp's experimentation. While the industry tried desperately to control "America's Music", C&W with offices and song-writing workshops on the ground in Nashville, performers like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson proved that an artist could break the strangle-hold and be successful.

With burgeoning technology - everything from the democratizing of recording and musical technology through MIDI and music editing software for the home PC to the rise, first, of Napster to YouTube and even MySpace and Facebook providing a forum for all sorts of bands to get their music out there to a wider, even worldwide, audience - along with a stubborn refusal to reduce the cost of actually purchasing music (it costs roughly a buck and a quarter to make a finished CD including the gatefold and jewel box; yet still costs anywhere from twelve to seventeen dollars to buy a single CD, the same price as when the technology was introduced a quarter century ago, despite ongoing promises that someday the price will come down), along with certain business practices that refuse to die (the aforementioned publishing rights nonsense) are sinking the music industry.

But not music making. On the contrary. There is more variety available to a wider taste public than ever before. Even as I write this, I am listening to Pandora, internet radio I can program. I have seven distinct channels on Pandora, ranging from prog through Baroque Choral music (I even have a channel dedicated to the Dead, the Allman Brothers, Umphrey's Magee and other jam bands). There are other internet radio sites as well as XM radio competing with commercial radio on the EM spectrum. For a very small fee, one can download thousands of songs from iTunes and other music-sharing sites.

The notion that we don't make music because we are scared of it is just preposterous. Not only do we continue to make music, there is a wider variety available to a wider audience at low and no cost than at any time I for one can think of. Musical instruments remain relatively inexpensive and most folk can get a handle on simple guitar chords, keep a beat on a drum, and with MIDI, even compose rudimentary songs. We are in the midst of a musical Renaissance, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to take advantage of it.

When Economists Say Things That Hurt

I was on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal on another errand (perhaps more later) and saw that Arthur Laffer - beloved by Republicans of a by-gone era for his curve demonstrating . . . something that isn't really true - had a piece there, I wondered. I know that our op-ed pieces are full of nonsense. The Washington Post's is a veritable sewer of nonsense these days, dragging the last dregs of whatever passed for credibility down the drain. But Laffer?

You see, in a recent TV interview, Laffer said the following (it's been on any number of sites; this link is picked at random):
If you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they’re run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government.

Like most everyone else, I've been in situations where I've said things I wish I hadn't. My mouth is open, the last bit of air is escaping, and yet I devoutly wish the sounds I had just made could be silenced forever. Fortunately for me, that has never occurred on television.

Medicare and Medicaid are government programs. The VA - government-run health care. I will assume out of good faith (and no other evidence whatsoever) that no host corrected him on the spot because they were completely gobsmacked, sitting their, jaws agape, thinking, "Nah, he didn't just say that did he?" Like indulging the crazy uncle at the family reunion who always brings up his prostate surgery, inviting all and sundry to see his scar, you want to smile politely and move on, hoping no one will notice.

Fortunately, the video exists, and will exist, forever.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Risking Ire

There is a whole lot of fuming and fussing over the reported unleashing of anti-health care reform mobs on Democratic members of the House and Senate holding town hall meetings. While it is pretty clear from the available evidence these are not spontaneous uprisings of popular anger against socialized medicine, but orchestrated efforts to create confusion and bring fear to those who will be voting on the issue after the August recess, there is still the frightening prospect of these events becoming local TV news fodder. And not just local.

There has been frustration on the left because there doesn't seem to be a concerted effort to counter this nation-wide unleashing of the hounds. FireDogLake has a list of meetings around the country, so that folks can go and try to strike some kind of balance. Brad at Sadly,No! is insisting "our side needs to have boots on the ground at these town hall meetings to counteract wingnut madness."

All very noble. Except, the evidence seems to be that such efforts would be wasted. Unless, of course, he and others are arguing that supporters of health care reform should act in a similar fashion, attempting to shout down the shouters.

One of the complaints has been the relatively slow reaction time to this obviously well-organized effort. While the White House has called this phenomenon out, there is a desire by many to "do something more".

Last fall I got some attention from Brad at Sadly,No! because I cautioned against panic in the face of the alleged threat posed by McCain/Palin. As noted here, even as I was writing the piece Brad trashed, the trend in McCain's numbers was ebbing, with the fall just a few days off. My guess at the time was that Obama was allowing McCain to defeat himself. From the poll data, he was correct.

If I had to guess, the White House (as distinct from Democrats in Congress who seem congenitally prone to self-destruction) is taking a similar tack on the ensuing onslaught of anti-reform hordes. While the dim possibility exists that a defeat of health care reform could spell disaster for Democrats in the '10 mid terms (anything can happen, after all), the Republicans are leaderless and rudderless, and the prospect of a new Newt arising in so short a time is dim indeed. Moreover, this isn't the 1990's, and we have far less to fear from right-wing hordes taking over Congress than sixteen years ago. Furthermore, I think Obama's political instincts, at least on this matter, are fundamentally sound.

Even if there are concerns and questions about the health care reform bills currently in front of Congress, the approach the right is taking will, I believe, backfire. Americans may be uneasy about such a huge sea-change, and there is enough misinformation out there to stir the pots of even the most educated citizen; for the most part, though, Americans do not like mobs acting like, well, mobs. Once there are enough pictures and videos and stories of Congressmembers being harangued into silence, escorted out under guard, and the various folks sounding alike across the country, my guess is that, however successful they may be at shutting down local discussions, on the national level - it's going to fail badly.

While it is important to attend these meetings, there won't be much of a chance to shout these folks down, and I wouldn't recommend it anyway. The information is already out there, including from the official White House spokesman, that this entire effort is coordinated from on high. There are already enough instances of these scenes bordering on ugly to start to make folks nervous.

In other words, like McCain picking Palin, it will get some attention at first, but the end result will be an even bigger failure than if another choice had been made. That's my prediction, and the next few weeks will prove me right or wrong.

A (Serious) Modest Proposal

In line with my previous post, I would like to ask what would be the benefits of moving to a thirty-hour work week from our current forty-hour week? With unemployment continuing to rise, even as the bottom of our current economic slump seems to have been reached, I would like to know if it might not be possible through regulation to increase employment, productivity, purchasing power, and economic growth, as well as reduce various stresses, by offering full-time employment for shorter hours.

Consider, first manufacturing. Even if a plant currently operates two eight-hour shifts, it will still take x man hours to complete a given unit of manufacture. So, with a turnover every six, rather than eight, hours, a third shift would need to be added to complete a given order. More people employed means more people earning money to spend buying not only the goods produced at their own place of employment, but others as well.

Consider, then, retail. Many retail outlets operate three eight-hour shifts in order not only to ensure that goods are on the shelves for customers to buy, but that the retail outlet is clean, the shelves are neat, and the product displayed and accessible for the shopper. The number of man hours needed to do all this work is a function of the limits of human capacity; in other words, it would still take x man hours to get items from a truck standing at the dock to the shelves, and to have the store clean and ready for shoppers. So, like the manufacturer, if a six-hour day, thirty-hour week rather than an eight-hour day, forty-hour week were instituted, a fourth shift would be necessary to do the work.

I don't know if this is feasible, or realistic. It is, however, a serious proposal, offered for your consideration.

Some Fundamental Questions

In light of our economic near-full-stop, some basic questions regarding economic policy are actually being asked. Via Matt (whom I don't know, but consider on a first-name basis anyway), comes a link to a book review in The Guardian (the book is entitled The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett):
On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable "low" end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable "high" end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world's richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence - murder, in particular - that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality - within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.

The graphs also reveal that it is not just the poor, but whole societies, from top to bottom, that are adversely affected by inequality. Although the UK fares badly when compared with most other OECD countries (and is the worst developed nation in which to be a child according to both Unicef and the Good Childhood Inquiry), its social problems are not as pronounced as in the US.

Rates of illness are lower for English people of all classes than for Americans, but working-age Swedish men fare better still. Diabetes affects twice as many American as English people, whether they have a high or a low level of education. Wherever you look, evidence favouring greater equality piles up. As the authors write, "the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance".

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of reading this book is the revelation that the way we live in Britain is a serious danger to our mental health. Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

Wilkinson and Pickett's description of unequal societies as "dysfunctional" suggests implicit criticism of the approach taken by Britain's "happiness tsar" Richard Layard, who recommended that the poor mental health of many Britons be "fixed" or improved by making cognitive behavioural therapy more easily available. Consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all follow from inequality, they argue, and so cannot rightly be made a matter of individual management.

There's an almost pleading quality to some of Wilkinson and Pickett's assertions, as though they feel they've spent their careers banging their heads against a brick wall. It's impossible to overstate the implications of their thesis: that the societies of Britain and the US have institutionalised economic and social inequality to the extent that, at any one time, a quarter of their respective populations are mentally ill. What kind of "growth" is that, other than a malignant one?

As this is a review article rather than, say, an opinion piece or an analytical article, I find Matt's take somewhat . . . well, I don't think he gets it.
Long-term readers will recognize that I’m a longtime booster of all-things Scandinavian, and it’s actually as a big fan of Nordic countries that I have my doubts about this argument. The crux of the matter is that the Scandinavian countries are not poor. They’re not even close. These are some of the richest countries on earth. After all, good health and high levels are trust are not only consequences of equality, they’re causes of growth. Likewise, it strikes me as unlikely that Denmark would stick with its egalitarian social model if it entered a prolonged period of declining real living standards. The lesson of Scandinavia isn’t that other countries should abandon growth in the quest for equality, it’s that if you can manage to build an effective public sector that people have confidence in, that will pay off in terms of both growth and equality.

The other issues to consider here have to do with the interconnected nature of global life. If we sealed the border and kicked all the immigrants out, measured inequality in the United States would plummet. But real living standards for the remaining poor people would only increase modestly and real living standards for the exiled used-to-be-immigrants would decline drastically. This sort of thing is not sound policy even if the egalitarian result has some desirable aspects. Similarly, economic growth in China and India is unquestionably leading to large increases in human welfare and it will be very hard for poor countries to grow unless rich countries also grow so we can buy stuff from them.

The review essay itself is nothing more than a precis of the book being reviewed, presenting the argument that economic policies that opt for economic growth as the chief good toward which all other social goods should be geared creates as many social ills as it does generally raise the standard of living, therefore access to amelioratives for these negative results (the debate over health care reform going on right now is a wonderful example of this phenomenon).

Yet, the question needs to be asked: Should unhindered economic growth be the chief goal of national social and economic policy? Don't the deleterious effects (apparently presented in vivid if literally graphic detail in the book under review in the original article) create social ills that, at some point, hinder a society's attempt to provide for the maximum welfare for the greatest number of citizens? How do we structure our social and economic policy in such a way that these negatives can be treated, yet still encourage innovation, and economic well-being? Is economic growth a zero-sum game? Is the pursuit of greater social equality a brake on economic prosperity for society as a whole?

These issues have been kind of swirling around in my head for some months. The on-going economic downturn has accelerated my interest in them, precisely because it is right now that we have the opportunity to ask these questions as we fashion, one hopes, different economic and social policies that recognize other social goods of equal and even more importance than increasing the annual GDP.

Of course, asking the questions is not a substitute for pursuing certain achievable goals in the near-term. Yet, as the health care reform debate goes on, it is part and parcel of the whole series of questions that really come down to one question: What sort of society do we want? Is the simplistic dichotomy between equality versus economic growth even correct?

While I have no answers right now, it is nice that some other folks besides me are asking the questions, and offering in to evidence some real data to be considered.

A Look Back

I realized that my family missed a milestone. It was ten years ago, August 1, 1999, that we settled down in our little parsonage in LaMoille, IL, beginning a new chapter in our lives. Like any such noted lapse of time, celebrating a decade is as arbitrary as celebrating, say, seven years. In the ten years since we moved from far southern Virginia to a tiny town that is no more than an island in the ocean of corn that is north central Illinois, we have moved to our third President, our second appointment, had a second child, lost a dog and a cat, gained a dog and guinea pigs, added a second part-time job for me, lost family (Lisa's father), and done all the other things that ten years of living will do.

When we moved, my only real experience of Illinois was the quasi-suburban reality of DeKalb County, where my mother-in-law and sister-in-law still live. When I saw LaMoille, I realized that I was about to be immersed in a part of Illinois that is lost, in many ways. Out of the way, far from major highways and crossroads, LaMoille is a narrow strip of streets that cuts through the farms of Bureau County. The first morning we were in our new home, standing in the kitchen drinking coffee and looking out the back window, looking out on the corn that started again at the fence line in our backyard and stretched beyond the horizon, I said to Lisa, "Well, there's not a day goes by I won't know I live in Illinois." We laughed, because the similarities between Jarratt, VA and LaMoille, IL were and are quite striking. Small towns, lost in time, even as big changes swirl around them. Both quaint, even comely, yet awash in the same troubles all communities face.

What is far more interesting, to me at any rate, is how little around us has changed in the past decade. The larger political and social scene is remarkably similar to those last, heady days of the Clinton era, although economically its mirror image. Rather than cycling higher and higher due in no small measure to the "Dot Com" bubble, our economy has ground to a halt, even reversing itself a bit, as the chickens of deregulated banking came home to roost. While it would be nice to think that a decade would have changed the faces and the names of our politicians and publicists, it is depressing that, in a time when we have elected a man President who has an African name, far too many of those who still swirl around the various seats of power are the same people who, ten years ago, were making fun of Al Gore, telling us there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between Gore and his likely Republican challenger, George W. Bush, and who spoke from on high, oracles to the masses offering their views through the filters of television, news magazines and whatnot. At the time, I still subscribed to The New Yorker, and I remember an article by Joe Klein, who was writing regularly for them at the time, I believe in the autumn of '99, on how frustrated he was, not with the substance of a speech then-VP Gore had given on education policy; Klein was frustrated by other things - the lack of attention the details of the speech would receive (a problem Klein himself didn't fix by offering them in his article), and the delivery style (Klein, ever the striving lover, seeking that one perfect political soulmate, always to be frustrated by the grim realities of clay feet and wooden delivery styles), yearning as he wrote for the nasal incantations and high-pitched voice of Harry Truman over the slower, somewhat stilted baritone gravitas of Gore. Of such nonsense much of our public discourse still consists.

I guess the one thing that has changed, and made a change for the better, is the very thing you are reading. I don't mean my web log in particular. I mean the entire phenomena of political blogging. While I am still frustrated by the truly stupid level of much of our elite discourse, by its superficiality, its domination by insiders, and its focus on trivia and its refusal to discuss the merits and substance of policy, the blogs have managed in some small way to correct that. Our large, elite journals and purveyors of opinion have noticed, yet most of the pushback has consisted of a haughty disdain at foul-mouthed bloggers who are parasitic on the hard-working "real" journalist (as if all bloggers are frustrated journalists). This general opinion still exists, and erupts now and again, such as when a writer from The Huffington Post asked a question at a Presidential news conference recently. The rest of the White House Press Corps acted as if a homeless person had wandered in to the briefing from Lafayette Park, pissed on the carpet, and was treated to a beer and some crackers with the President.

These ten years have been exciting, mournful, stressful, sometimes a strain and sometimes created a wonderful sense of escape from the world around us. Our children are growing (my older daughter, who turned two just weeks before we moved, is starting Junior High in a few weeks; our younger daughter was not only not born, but not even contemplated and she will be starting 3rd grade and got her first orthodontic appliance a few weeks back) and Lisa and I have more gray hairs (well, I do; thanks to L'Oreal, not even Lisa knows what her real hair color is). I miss our Great Dane, Gretchen, even as I celebrate our wonderful St. Bernard, Dreyfus.

Most of all, I am glad to be alive and active, participating in my children's lives, my wife's life, and our national life. I hope that the next ten years are as exciting and filled with unforeseen wonders and tragedies as the past ten have been.

And that it still finds us here, in Illinois (unless, of course, something better comes along).

Monday, August 03, 2009

Offered Without Comment

Read, if you will.

Malcolm Gladwell brings class in to the Jim Crow mix, for a different take on a classic.

Music For Your Monday

Discovered yesterday that Stravinsky wrote some perfectly lovely Psalm settings.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

C'mon George, Ask Her

There's Duncan Black. TBogg. Bob Cesca. Matt Yglesias. Ezra Klein. The roll of writers at Fire Dog Lake. Markos Moulatsis. Digby.

Then, there's Michelle Malkin.

The former are thorough, more than occasionally funny, erudite, pithy, irreverent, and most of all factual. Malkin, alas, is none of these things.

The former are still waiting for their stint on This Week. The latter will be on today's panel discussion.

I wonder if she will be asked about this:
From Pages 12-13 of conservative columnist Michelle Malkin's new book, Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies (Regnery Publishing, July 2009):
Fortunately, not everyone on the Left remains paralyzed in an irreversible state of Obama inebriation. This book would not have been possible without the contributions of some brave and lonely liberals -- whistleblowers at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), independent journalists and government watchdogs -- who rejected the excuse-making and white-washing of Obama's culture of corruption. While Obama sycophants in the mainstream media celebrated his "hipness"23 and his "swagga,"24 a few principled progressives finally began to question the cult.

But they are still in the minority. And there will be more predictable excuses. As I document in this book, Obama's cronies of color (beginning with his own wife) reach for the race card when their dubious judgment is questioned. And when all else fails, there's always the "I inherited the problem" alibi.

To which I reply: Read the book. Barack Obama owns this cabinet of tax cheats, crooks, and cronies. It is his and his alone. In the era of "new politics," judge him as you would judge other mere mortals. Judge him not by the company that preceded him.

Michelle Malkin is a small-minded, factually-challenged race-baiting ankle-biter. I just wish someone would bite back.

The Personal Is Political

When the feminist movement of the early 1970's coined the phrase "The Personal Is Political", they were thinking of the ways in which politics and social policy effected their lives in very personal ways. From earnings and incentives to work to women's health care, our society was (and to a large extent still is) geared toward privileging men and men's concerns over women. This is not to say changes have not been made. Women still make less than men, though, for the same work. Women's health care - from family planning to end-of-life to health maintenance - is still given a lower priority in many ways to the concerns of men. While it often used the first person singular as a way of illustrating the larger issues involved, biography was never seen as a substitute for serious analysis and seeing these very personal stories in a larger frame of reference.

Conservatives at once reject the notion, and caricature it to the point of ridiculousness. The personal has become so political for them that very often personal moral attributes become a part of a politician's or public figure's curriculum vitae. We are far too often given more information on an individual's personal life than should be necessary to judge that person's fitness for office. The too-often resulting fall from grace of these individuals results in a reduced seriousness in our public discourse. Questions of personal integrity are important, but weighing which parts of a person's life in the balance becomes more and more difficult as we see more and more feet of clay on self-professed upholders of traditional moral values.

The latest example?
AlaskaReport has learned this morning that Todd Palin and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin are to divorce. Multiple sources in Wasilla and Anchorage have confirmed the news. A National Enquirer story exposing previous affairs on both sides led to a deterioration of their marriage and the stress from that led to Palin's resignation as governor of Alaska.

I have written before that I am not the least bit interested in the Palin family and its various doings. At the same time, if it is true that she resigned from office because she feared the revelation of "previous affairs on both sides", this is important, if for no other reason than she was promoted as a candidate because of the strength of her commitment to her family. I wish them both well, and hope, for the sake of their children, the separation does not deteriorate in to recrimination and bitterness.

At the same time, this again raises the issue of the judgment of the Republican Party in choosing Gov. Palin as McCain's running mate last year. Not only was she intellectually and temperamentally unfit for high office; she, as seems clear now, was not what she was advertised to be. While I have no doubt there will be many on the right who will rush to her defense, the end of her marriage only confirms that Sarah Palin is far more normal and average than was advertised. She's a human being who failed. Rather than deal with those failings, and keep them private, however, precisely because of the misuse of "the personal is political", she has been forced off the public stage.

Virtual Tin Cup

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