Tuesday, September 30, 2008


A lot of places I've gone today on the Web, I've read people railing against Republicans for their obstructionism in failing to pass the bailout bill yesterday. Some of it is nearly frothing at the mouth, as opponents see their insistence either on: a) listening to their constituents, or b) adhering to free-market principles, as hopelessly out of touch. Not that I want to pick on Brad DeLong today, who I usually find very incisive, but his rhetoric is quite typical:

As I said, raze the Republican Party to the ground. Plough it under. Scatter salt in the furrows so it can never grow back.

We need another, very different opposition party to face the Democrats. We need it now.

But here is what Brad is responding to, a Georgia Republican explaining why GA representatives voted against it:
[T]he final plan did not reform what has created the problem nor did it adequately explain how the taxpayers get their money back. Moreover, the bailout seemed to create a new entitlement in a federal insurance system for every home loan in America.
Now I myself have concerns along those lines, and I am certainly no longer a staunch Republican. These are realistic concerns of anyone who fears that this will create an unpardonable intrusion of government into a system which most people feel works, the free market (including Democrats, by the way).

Furthermore, this is a representative government, and these folks were elected to be representative of the folks who put them in office. And the Republicans have had a pretty good run of it the past 28 years: 20 of those years have featured a president from their party, and Congress has been pretty well controlled by them for 12 of the last 14 years. They've had a great deal of success doing just what they've been doing, and you can't fault them for doing more of the same.

I might feel that it's time for many of those people to go, and that it's time to get past the limited view of Ronald Reagan (and strange view of George W. Bush), and that it's time for the Republican party to make some fundamental changes in its world view, but that's a far cry from suggesting that a failure to roll over and accept an incomplete, massive bailout bill implies that the party itself should be "raze[d]...to the ground."

The great unraveling (maybe) - Part 1

As everyone who cares knows by now, the initial vote on the big financial bailout bill failed in the House yesterday. I can't sort out the claims and counterclaims. Were the Republicans who voted against it acting on principle, or pandering to the uninformed electorate? Did they scuttle something which is needed to save the world, or did they give us breathing room to find a better solution? Did Hank Paulson mess it up through inartful political handling, unaided by the inept White House, or is he still our last best hope of staving off financial collapse? Is Nancy Pelosi to blame? Was John McCain more of a help or a hindrance? Did Barack Obama do enough?

I don't know the answers to any of those questions, and I don't find them very interesting for the most part. Since I imagine something will end up happening eventually, lest Congressmen see their stock portfolios drop to 0, and I would guess that the price tag will ultimately be just about the same (we hear about dropping the initial request to $350 billion, with provisions for more to be added later), I really only have two fundamental questions here. My questions are considerably longer-term in nature, and I think they've been overlooked as people run around in crisis mode.

The first essentially comes out of the question that was asked at last week's debate, and that is how government initiatives will be curtailed by whatever funds we commit to this bailout. (By the way, if one of the reasons we're bailing out the banks is to save the world financial structure, shouldn't the world be contributing something to the effort?) Both candidates gave enormously weak answers to this question, but it's fair to ask: If we're paying for this, what will we have to give up?

A couple of days ago, Brad DeLong agreed with Larry Summers on this, in a post titled, "How Much Will This Cost? How Does This Constrain the Policy of an Obama-Biden Administration?" The basic contention is that the answers are "not much" and "not at all" (to quote DeLong). From Summers:
The American experience with financial support programmes is somewhat encouraging. The Chrysler bail-out, President Bill Clinton’s emergency loans to Mexico, and the Depression-era support programmes for housing and financial sectors all ultimately made profits for taxpayers....[The ultimate cost] is very unlikely to approach $700bn and will be spread over a number of years.
(If you're wondering, this article is from the Financial Times, and was obviously edited; I don't think Larry Summers has become British - "authorisation" and "programme," indeed.)

While I certainly see that no one in the government will be writing a $700 billion check tomorrow (or whenever they get passed whatever sum we're going to spend), this strikes me as remarkably rosy predicting. In each of the cases Summers mentions, this money went to aid a fairly narrow set of Americans at a time when that money could only stay in America. The world is different now, and the broad-based "aid" that we're offering to multinational financial corporations, indemnifying them against risk they willingly adopted, seems different from those other plans. We have already seen too many ways in which profits can "leak" out of the system, in this case leaking away from the taxpayers who assumed the risk.

I don't want to say Summers and DeLong are wrong here - they are very respected economic minds - but it concerns me that they can believe that we can count on Washington to make this happen inevitably well. Summers even points that out, while blithely dismissing it:
It is impossible to predict the ultimate cost to the Treasury of the bail-out programme and of the other guarantee commitments that financial authorities have – this will depend primarily on the economy as well as the quality of execution and oversight.
I'm not fully reassured.

To move to the second part of DeLong's question, the one which concerns me, as to how will this limit actions in a new administration, Summers' reasoning is actually a bit chilling:
Indeed, in the current circumstances the case for fiscal stimulus – policy actions that increase short-term deficits – is stronger than at any time in my professional lifetime. Unemployment is now almost certain to increase... to the highest levels observed in a generation. Monetary policy has very little scope.... [E]xperience around the world with economic downturns caused by financial distress suggests that while they are of uncertain depth, they are almost always of long duration.... The more people who are unemployed the more desirable it is that government takes steps to put them back to work by investing in infrastructure, energy or simply through tax cuts that allow families to avoid cutting back on their spending.
Understand what Summers is saying here. He is saying that the situation will be so bad that government will be forced to intervene to keep American families afloat. High unemployment will force Uncle Sam to invest in job creation strategies or cut taxes to allow Americans to continue to spend. Therefore, none of Obama's ideas for helping the economy will need to be curtailed, his priorities will not need to change one whit.

This is where I inevitably find economists unpersuasive. It is well-known that Summers is an adviser to the Obama campaign, and he is often on the short list of those speculated to take a powerful role in a new administration. So his conclusion is not surprising.

It is equally unconvincing. We have a colossal deficit now, and Summers believes that we can add a bailout plan (maybe ultimately profitable, but not for quite a while) and fiscal stimulus on top of that. Leaving aside the moral example of government running a long-term debt machine, who will take the other side of this bet? How much more of our government paper can we expect the Chinese to buy?

I understand the Keynesian argument that, in times of downturn, deficits are desirable. But that belief depends on the idea that the deficit will easily be paid back when times are better. Two things can go wrong with that argument: 1) The deficit might be too big ever to be easily repaid; and 2) Times may never get better enough to allow the repayment.

We've never run into a situation where either 1) or 2) applied before, but this triple storm that Summers and DeLong apparently think benign strikes me as very chancy. A small deficit to permit the country to get back on track and grow, at which point the deficit disappears? Sure, sometimes. But a deficit based on a two-front war and growing entitlements and a bailout of transnational financial institutions and a stimulus package of infrastructure and energy to get people back to work? Ask yourself how much the economy would need to grow to pay all that back in a world in which other countries are eating our lunch.

(By the way, that's assuming that the government expenditures would even fully stimulate the economy. Since modern accepted fact does not allow for direct government job creation, we would have to "stimulate" the economy by promoting private job creation. I have already written several times as to my doubts about the casual assumption that New Energy = New Economy - the manufacture of fan blades will not happen in this country, there's no reason to think so.)

My guess is that this bailout will force a dramatic reprioritization of our government, whoever wins, and we will have to look at another (pick a number) years of no movement on health care, no progress on early childhood education, no sweeping energy policy, and so forth. I'm not saying I support all those things, at least not in the form in which they've been presented, but we're going to spend so much time and energy and money on the financial system that we'll likely make little progress toward any of those objectives.

My second big long-term question is something that I'll have to take up tomorrow.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Even more on Palin

Via Andrew Sullivan, James Wolcott expresses it better than most:
The political journals buried at the bottom of the boxes, bearing deadlines two weeks old, buzzed with excitement-dismay-apprehension-torrid speculation over the slingshot release of Sarah Palin onto the political stage--Diana the Huntress in a red power suit. Liberal commentators appalled by her heat-lightning celebrity and (neo)conservative commentators eager to form a conga line behind her caboose shared a conviction that she had charisma to burn and was a force to be reckoned with, despite her scanty qualifications. (Stage door Johnnies such as Victor Davis Hanson and Jay Nordlinger even crooned that her relative inexperience only enhanced her unpolished-diamond potentiality to the public, her peppy authenticity.)
But that was before Wolcott left on vacation. Now:
In less than a month Palin has shrunk from a crossfire hurricane into a delicate flower of flame that must be cupped and protected like the candle in the wind that Elton John so movingly eulogized. Instead of liberals advising other liberals on how to contain her, conservatives are urging that those around her take off the wraps and Let Sarah Be Sarah. They blame her poor performance with Katie Couric and her no-show after the presidential debates (while Joe Biden made the rounds) on too many advisers cramming so many facts, soundbites, and comebacks into her head with crash-course briefing sessions that she's become self-conscious, incapable of uttering the simplest sentence or sentiment without a traffic jam spilling out of her mouth.
After some ridicule of the frequently ridiculous Kathryn Jean Lopez ("If she [Palin] had been as comfortable walking into an interview with Katie Couric as she was with Charlie Rose — ready to push back and have a little fun while doing it like she did with some Republicans in Alaska — no one would be worried at all about this week's debate."), Wolcott ties the hopeful new Republican administration to the last:
Going with your instincts, as opposed to, I don't know, thinking things through, is what's gotten this country into such a hole these last eight years. Have the National Review editors learned nothing from their former lionization of George W. Bush? He too was hailed for being real, following his gut, and acting decisively while others temporized. Sure, he may not have known all the little pesky details--that's what policy wonks are for--but he had a sure hand on the reins and God to guide him. Now, our financial system is on the brink and we're supposed to entrust our fate and place our faith in another novice whose interests up until now have been strictly parochial.

A note on Sullivan's view: His takeaway was the last paragraph, in which Wolcott criticizes David Brooks for his appearance on Chris Matthews, in which he seemed to indicate that Palin might rise to "mediocre" after her debate this week with Joe Biden. Sullivan:
Maybe her regular-gal act could work for 90 minutes. But serious people concerned about the fate of this country do not back sub-mediocre candidates for the presidency at a time like this. Shouldn't these people put country first?
I'm not 100% sure that Andrew is criticizing Brooks specifically in the last couple of sentences; assuming he is, I'm not sure where he even begins to believe Brooks is a "serious" person. Having seen a lot of Brooks this campaign, I see him as far more interested in being clever than being insightful, far more concerned with how the race can demonstrate that he, David Brooks, is a really smart guy who really understands the rubes in the electorate. What good points he makes, and there are some, are buried under a wave of smugness and superciliousness that make him, for me, barely watchable or readable.

Our "leaders"

As for the bailout, if I hear one more politician say, "I don't like it, but I'm going to have to hold my nose and support it," I think I'm going to lose it. This is simply pandering, given that public support is running so strongly against this. This is eating your cake and having it too, as you show your constituents that you care enough not to like it, but you still feel compelled by principle to getting behind it.

If you don't like it, propose something else. If the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the same people who spent years ignoring the problems bothers you, say so and back it up with a vote.

As it is, what you're actually saying is, "I don't really understand it, but I know the voters don't like it, so I will say I don't like it, but I'm not going to tick off the party leaders by voting against it, especially when they well know I won't have any idea why I'm voting against it." Haven't we had enough of "leaders" who approach issues in that way?

More on Palin

Speaking of Palin, a lot of attention is being given to the way in which, over the past few days, Republicans have started to distance themselves from her. Remarkably, much of that seems to come from the now-infamous Katie Couric interview (which, apparently, isn't over yet) - personally, I was surprised that Katie could still ask reasonably tough questions.

Another voice that has received a lot of attention is that of Fareed Zakaria. While not a traditional conservative, his view, published in Newsweek, has drawn a lot of interest:
Will someone please put Sarah Palin out of her agony? Is it too much to ask that she come to realize that she wants, in that wonderful phrase in American politics, "to spend more time with her family"? Having stayed in purdah for weeks, she finally agreed to a third interview. CBS's Katie Couric questioned her in her trademark sympathetic style. It didn't help.
Added to that, the McCain campaign seemingly will not allow her to conduct a press conference before the election.

I don't know if this choice will end up sinking the McCain campaign - there still seems to be a lot of happy buzz from the base about this bizarre choice - but it tells me that McCain has the same lack of seriousness toward government as does the current president, and I really don't think we can afford four or eight more years of that.

McCain tired?

I thought John McCain looked tired yesterday in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. It's not just that he was subdued, he looked downright weary to me. Added to the reports that he "followed" the debate over the bailout package from his northern Virginia home on Saturday, and I wonder if we shouldn't be concerned.

I've tried to stay away (mostly) from the age question, but one does have to wonder how well he can stand up to the rigors of the presidency. I know he did a lot of running around in the previous week, including prep work for the debate, but that's kind of a big part of what the office demands. And that makes his choice of Sarah Palin even more reckless and inexplicable. I also wonder if that support may be starting to fray, given McCain's weak retraction of her statement on Pakistan.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Another who will be missed

A lovely remembrance by Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast, paying appropriate tribute to Paul Newman, who was by all accounts a truly class guy, and a heckuva actor. I can't add too much to that, so I won't try.

However, this really has been a tough year for the obituary column. I'm not going to pore through the past twenty years of deaths, but it seems to me we've lost a ton of well-known, significant people this year, more than other recent years.

One starts with the two Hollywood giants, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston, pushing the great Richard Widmark, Paul Scofield, and Roy Scheider to the supporting cast. Then there are a bunch of folks who were the kind of solid performers who brighten up our films, and they'll be missed: Bernie Mac foremost among them. And two great directors, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella.

We cannot forget two great young talents who had more to offer, if only they could have escaped their personal demons: Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro.

Television brings its own kind of intimacy, and, even though many of these folks were not front-burner any more, they still occupy a special place in many of us: Allan Melvin, Lois Nettleton, Barry Morse, Ivan Dixon, Harvey Korman, Estelle Getty, and, a particular favorite of mine, Suzanne Pleshette. And, of course, we lost the unclassifiable George Carlin.

Two of the truly great writers, similar only in their talent, are gone: Arthur C. Clarke and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. William F. Buckley, Jr. has left the building, not one of my top choices, but a large figure. And Robin Moore, and Tasha Tudor, and Gregory McDonald.

In music, Eddy Arnold, little-remembered today but a giant in country music, Bo Diddley (and how many people get a rhythm named after them?), Isaac Hayes, Jerry Reed, Jeff Healey, all gone.

And some other big names, Edmund Hillary, Bobby Fischer, Robert Jastrow, no longer with us (though, in so many sad ways, Fischer left us years ago). And Christopher Bowman, who seemingly yesterday brought a unique quality to a sport which constantly threatens to devolve into a bland sameness.

Too many folks, some before their time, others after long and productive lives, have passed away. While I don't like to write major downer posts, I didn't want to let these folks get away without saying something.

So put on a Newman movie, or catch the relentless Lt. Girard on a Fugitive rerun, or watch Bob Hartley and his lovely wife Emily, read 2001: A Space Odyssey, listen to the remarkable Theme from Shaft, take a look at a picture of Mount Everest, and remember.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

1 potato, 2 potato...oh, potatoes

No, not a Dan Quayle post.

English has this irksome rule for pluralization that says that "zero" items are treated as plural, leaving "one" item as the only singular. Anyone who has worked in programming for any length of time has dealt with this rule; if you have used a substantial number of programs, you have likely seen one (or more) violate this rule.

Yet, it's pretty simple to implement correctly in every computer language I know. I won't bore you with too much code, but it is often as simple as:
(num == 1 ? sstr = "" : sstr = "s");
itemstr = num + " item" + sstr;
which simply means you put the 's' on the end of "item" in all situations except that for which the number of items is 1.

It is one of those things which is simple enough that, when I see a program that has failed to do it correctly, I grow concerned about the overall quality of the program. At the very least, it suggests to me that the company has little concern for the polish, those finishing touches that make a program a pleasurable experience.

So it's pretty irritating when a program that I use every day hasn't been able to get it right. And that program is...Blogger. That's right, the basis for all the blogspot.com blogs has, at least on some goodly number of their templates, managed not to get this right.

But if you look right now, you'll see that, on humble Androcass, it is correct. And that's because it is quite easy to fix. I finally got bothered enough to open up the code, and I didn't even need the kind of code I listed above. I was so surprised that I went out to the Web to verify that it really was that simple, and it was. Since I like to give credit to those who did the work first, I'll point you to this post, which describes the two modifications very succinctly.

(The odd part is that Blogger does have a provision for treating the two cases differently, so somebody thought of it, but they then failed to execute it and make it right. Strange.)

To augment the instructions, you hit Customize from your blog, then Edit HTML. Under Edit Template, you check Expand Widget Templates. Then follow the instructions, and your blog will look far more professional (unless you really don't care, in which case you're probably already not reading).

I use the Rounders 3 built-in template, but I have seen other Blogger blogs and believe that it's a larger problem than just that template.

Friday, September 26, 2008

After the first debate

I'd be curious to know what someone thought who hasn't paid much attention to the campaign before; as for me, there was very little new here tonight. They both pretty much took the positions to which we've become accustomed, there were no major gaffes (not that those should matter as much as they tend to), and this debate didn't really advance my understanding at all.

The only substantive issue which was ducked was ducked equally by both McCain and Obama. No matter how many times and ways Jim Lehrer asked the question, neither one came up with a suitable response as to how their priorities would change in light of the massive amount being spent on the bailout. I wasn't surprised, I haven't been impressed by the specifics of either candidate's fiscal program, so one couldn't have expected much as to how their current nebulous program would change.

As for the questions, they were very limited, especially because the "foreign policy" debate spent 40 of 90 minutes on the bailout. We basically heard about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Russia; no mention as to how we might engage the vast tracts of the rest of the world, most particularly our relationship with China and India.

The soft stuff didn't really make a big impression on me tonight. McCain looked really ticked off a couple of times, and he has too great a tendency to go with a Bushian smirk. But, for the most part, neither looked unready for the job of commander-in-chief, so, again, I doubt many minds were changed.

For me, the most bizarre note was McCain's twice saying that he hadn't been Miss Congeniality in the Senate. Given the association of Sarah Palin with that title (and some questions as to whether she actually won it), I would have thought McCain would steer far clear of any such reference. So I don't understand that.

Sports "journalism"

I know, I'm flogging a dead horse even to try to take seriously what goes on in the fun and games section of even a respected newspaper like the Chicago Tribune, but this is my last chance to criticize the "old' Tribune before their upcoming cool, compete-with-the-Internet redesign (coming Sunday, apparently).

Actually, the Tribune is only one of the many outlets that suffer from what I'm saying here, but I have higher expectations of them than I do of local sports news or the abomination that is sports talk radio. One assumes that their columnists are a little more considered and rational than the blowhards who make and take phone calls right after the game.

Of course, I'm wrong. Tuesday the buzz in Chicago was that the White Sox were going to wrap up the divisional championship with ease, that their 2-1/2 game lead made the title a cinch, that it was business as usual. I can't really convey to you the offhandedness with which these assumptions were made, but it pervaded every single story.

Let me say here that I am the unusual Cub fan who also roots for the Sox. My first baseball game was at old Comiskey Park, and the first pennant race I remember well was the 1967 American League, in which four teams, including both Sox, had a chance to win on the final weekend (I still have vague memories of the long list of playoff possibilities if 2, 3, or 4 teams all tied for the title). I don't follow the Sox as closely as I do the Cubs - I waste enough time on baseball every summer - but I have no animosity toward them, and I can never understand why that's considered so natural in Chicago (I think it has to do with pinheads, yes, pinheads).

Each day since Tuesday, though, has been a lesson in journalistic hysteria. The Sox lost all three games against the Twins this week, now trail them by a half game, and the attitude has turned 180 degrees. Now there's screaming, gnashing of teeth, calls for the manager's head, statements that the writer "knew it all along."

What a joke! Even within the strange rules of "sports journalism," this manic-depression is inappropriate. Try covering the games, gang, tell us what you see, explain why things are happening. I don't want a deep dose of your psyche every time a game goes the "wrong way." I'll decide what I want to feel, I don't need your hyper-overreaction trying to frame it for me.

Before the first debate

I'm profoundly disappointed with John McCain. While I never really bought into his "maverick" status, no matter how eagerly the press thrust that label upon him, I thought him free enough of current Republican orthodoxy to offer something different in this campaign. While I have been frank about my slight preference for Obama in 2008, feeling that he represented the best hope of swinging the pendulum back toward democratic ideals and away from free-market obsession, it has always been a curiously passionless preference. His lack of experience is a concern to me, though what I have seen of his approach to that, so very unBush-like provided some comfort.

My greatest hope was that McCain would force Obama to up his game, that he would run a campaign as free of Republican orthodoxy as he has been touted as being, that we would avoid the Willie Horton-izing and the Swift Boat-ing, at least mostly, and focus on our challenges. [I realize that seems naive, that no campaign in my lifetime has spent enough time on the issues, but I can dream.]

At least as important was my wish that we could spend an election pretty much ignoring "the base," that collection of theocratic knee-jerk voters who seem to be the ones mostly responsible for the Bush horror show. They don't like McCain, I know because Rush told me, and they sure as heck don't like Obama. So maybe, for once, instead of ignoring my needs as a voter, we could ignore the needs of those who are convinced that we need less gum'mint, so we need to get gum'mint to tell gum'mint to lay off (or whatever their reasoning is).

But then McCain decided to throw in his lot with Bush on the two biggest issues we have; though that didn't seem to appease the base much, it certainly turned off anyone like me. And then came Sarah, one of the most cynical and contemptuous choices I have ever seen from a major candidate. We can find a few motives for McCain's choice, each one more distressing than the last.

And then this week, the week of suspending the campaign, which was foolish, unnecessary, and a total lie, the inability to do anything to assist in the bailout effort, and the unsuspension of the campaign, all done with incompetence and mendacity. And we've seen this all before, for the past eight years, and we see that McCain can do Bush, only, amazingly, less competently.

So here is the first debate, coming up in less than an hour, and, my friends, I expect very little. Given what has happened over the last couple of months, I would be stunned to see anything that will change my view. And that is profoundly disappointing, as I would love to be in a position in which there was something left to decide, in which two honest men were laying out their plans for the future of this nation, and I could look at each plan, and weigh, and decide.

But that isn't going to happen. Only one of the men on the stage tonight has even a chance to be honest. The other, blinded by his ambition for an office that he thought should be his already, stunned that he lost in 2000 to a profoundly unqualified candidate and is likely to lose again, in his last chance, to another man he considers of less merit, has no "straight talk" to offer. I'll watch, but McCain's chance of regaining his credibility with me is vanishingly minute, and that saddens me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bush and Brian, making us laugh

The funniest part of Bush's speech last night, which I'm rapidly becoming convinced nobody but me watched, had nothing to do with the speech itself; there's really nothing at all funny about a president who neglects problems for 7-3/4 years, then tries to convince the country that we should all jump on his bandwagon now to address them.

No, it was afterwards, as Brian Williams hastily tried to make way for America's Got Talent, and he did the usual, "for more coverage of the financial crisis, turn to MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo (or does NBC own Univision), Polska TV, Oxygen, HGTV, and the Internet (you may have guessed I'm paraphrasing generously here), and also tune into your late local news (emphasis mine)."

Ha, ha, ha, Brian. The probability that my late local news will have any insight into this situation is less than zero. I knew they would cover the Trump Tower topping-off ceremony (look, the Donald noticed us, this Podunk town of Chicago), show a few baseball highlights, devote an inordinate amount of time to the weather, but Warner and Alison (fill in the names of your own ethnically-, racially-, and genderly-balanced news team here)? Give us any information about a complicated business problem? Please, Brian, I know you've met them, I've seen the ads where these seven-figure news readers swoon over breathing the same air as you.

I guess that's why Brian makes the big money, his ability to read stuff like that without dissolving into gales of laughter.

The downside of prayer

Do you think there are a whole bunch of people sweating right now, people who underwent some crisis in their lives and, in the bargaining stage, said, "God, please just keep me alive until the Cubs win the World Series," then sat back, secure in the knowledge that they had very likely just become immortal?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The vacuum of leadership

I will admit that I haven't gone out and checked every possible blog, but I have looked at many of the usual suspects, and there has been pretty much zero comment on the Bush speech tonight, at least so far (two hours after he finished). It seems clear that few people find any of what the president has to say particularly relevant.

For my part, I found the speech pitched at about the third grade level, and basically boiled down to the typical Bushian "I think it's a good thing to do so just go along with it." Given his approval ratings, isn't this more likely to turn citizens away from the plan?

Review - Compulsion

Clinical psychologist Jonathan Kellerman has become famous (and, presumably, wealthy) from his series of crime novels, most featuring (as the flyleaf says) "the modern Sherlock Holmes of the psyche," psychologist Alex Delaware. I have read this series (now up to 22 books) ever since the first, When the Bough Breaks (1985), so I have followed the exploits of Dr. Delaware even before these books became guaranteed Number 1 best sellers.

And that's why I have found recent entries in the series, including the most recent, Compulsion (2008), so disappointing. The original books crackled with excitement as we saw Alex, whose independent wealth gives him the time to go traipsing around crime scenes, wrestle with psychologically complex killers as he worked out his own life. We never delved into the doctor's mind the way that James Lee Burke has done with his Dave Robicheaux character, but there was some sense of progress and, in a series, the main character's development is a critical part of why we keep coming back.

Obviously, that can be overdone. As I talked about in my review of the last Kay Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell, a writer can get so carried away with the development of the main character that it can swamp the actual book, leading to preposterousness or, worse yet, boredom. And Kellerman has avoided that trap in Compulsion by failing to show us any of the internal workings of Delaware, even though the story is told in first person.

What used to be a nice juxtaposition of the mental insights of the doctor with the straight-ahead police work of his longtime foil, Milo Sturgis, has been reduced to a few admiring comments from Sturgis on Alex's incisive questions in an interview. There is virtually no reason for this police procedural even to include a psychologist, as his talents are not needed (most of Alex's effort involves the kind of legwork that any young cop could do).

So we're left with a few interesting character sketches (Kellerman has always had a talent for including a few witnesses/suspects who are drawn in brief but fascinating ways) and a plot, well, two and a half plots (the half is a minute subplot concerning Delaware's long-time love, the beautiful luthier Robin). The main plot concerns a series of killings that initially seem to be unrelated, but we never doubt will be, and this is a by-the-numbers, Law & Order: Criminal Intent-style story with very little engagement and even less menace. None of it really comes together, the surprise twist is ho-hum, and the resolution unexciting.

Far more affecting are the other two plots, which do carry some real emotional kick, but are quite brief. That the resolution of a 16-year-old case carries more weight than the main plotline is a serious problem for this book; that the virtual throwaway of the half-plot concerning the construction of a mandolin does too is even more of a fatal flaw.

After writing three Alex Delaware novels, Kellerman wrote a crime thriller set in Israel called The Butcher's Theater; that was surprisingly good even without the crutch of the hero we had come to know. Maybe it's time for him to put Delaware on the shelf for a year or two, do something else, and come back to the tried and true with fresh eyes.

Let 'em keep their bucks, what can it hurt?

At least that seems to be the attitude of a lot of the punditocracy. Over the weekend I heard several commentators opine that an insistence that putting limits on executive compensation as part of the bailout plan was pointless, that it wouldn't accomplish much, that it would detract from the real hard work of straightening out the nation's economy. Then Andrew Sullivan points us to an Ezra Klein post (titled The Executive Compensation Scam) that reads, in part:
The Democrats are making a big deal over limits on executive compensation. Such limits are nice, but in the context of this crisis, utterly meaningless. If Democrats extract concessions such that CEOs can be paid a lot of money rather than an obscene sum of money, but are unable to add provisions protecting homeowners, they will have lost, and lost badly.. Limits to executive compensation are a feel-good provision with little real world relevance or impact, and while it would be nice to have them in the bill, no one should be fooled into thinking them a high-level priority, nor believing that a compromise where compensation limits feature as a key Democratic boast suggests anything other than a total collapse in the negotiations.
This is rather stupid. Is there really someone at the negotiation table who has the power to say, "OK, we'll put some limitations on CEO pay, but, in return for that, we will do nothing to help homeowners"? Who would be taking that position, exactly? No one in politics, to be sure, and this crisis has inconveniently come around in an election year.

At any rate, this is not really supposed to be a negotiation, but a bailout. The people with the money, namely the representatives of the American people, need to dictate the terms of this deal to the people who need the money, the CEOs. If they don't want the money, fine by me, we'll just let the taxpayers keep a bit more of the money they've earned. (Actually, given the virtual acquisition of AIG by the government, one can easily envision the U.S. employing hostile takeover tactics if needed; let's make an offer to the board if the CEO doesn't want to play just because we'll take away a few of his toys.)

For those people who call this a minor issue, one which shouldn't be allowed to sidetrack an otherwise wonderful deal (yes, that was sarcasm), it's not, because SYMBOLS MATTER. Any journalist who sat through two four-day political conventions just a few weeks ago should understand that these content-free shows are designed to produce gobs and gobs of happy symbols, fleecing the voter with feel-good moments instead of serious attempts to convince anyone why one party's better than the other.

Yet these same journalists are now applying cost-benefit analyses to the bailout and deciding that it just isn't worth it to apply some unwanted discipline to runaway executive compensation packages. We shouldn't be bothered that the three-month tenure of AIG CEO Robert Willumstad is entitled to be rewarded with $22 million (yes, I know that he has turned it down, but the appalling thing is that he is eligible for it).

We're asking the American people to take on vast amounts of risk and debt while permitting those who profited from the risk and created that debt to walk away with treasuries worth of money, and educated people see that as just part of the price that needs to be paid (and I am tired of Barney Frank and others telling us that the government may make money off this bailout; you have no way of knowing that, so you're just lying).

There are people, hard-working people, who are wondering if they'll keep their houses, keep their jobs, keep their lives, and we debate whether or not we can put a provision in a rescue plan that punishes the perpetrators of this monstrous fraud? Is this crazy?

Guess what, pundits, it's possible to put more than one provision into a complicated piece of legislation. We can try to fix the financial situation (with emphasis on the word "try"), maybe help out some of the homeowners and investors (attempting not to reward truly irresponsible behavior), and penalize the nimrods whose poor judgment and laser-like focus on the short term got us into this Ponzi scheme in the first place.

I'm not incredibly hopeful here anyway. We have two disfunctional groups, our Congress and the high-roller financiers, sitting down to hammer out an agreement to fix a system which rational people knew was already broken. Crisis rarely brings on judicious thought, and the American people seem all too content to call on Bruce Willis...no, Superman...no, of course I mean Big Hank Paulson (and his successor - Phil Gramm, anyone?) to clean up a problem which he ignored, well, until now.

Yo, government, hurricanes can hit cities, wars kill people, and an unregulated financial system leads to collapse and insecurity. Prayer might have seemed like a good proactive step to handle all these things, but it just hasn't worked. The cracks have been in the foundation for years; the time to seal them came before the 2-foot rain.

But we didn't do that, so now our basement is flooded. Is it really so wrong for the American people to insist that the CEOs have to get out the buckets like everyone else?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Speaking of Joel Spolsky, as I did in my last post, I don't mention him very often because his very popular site, Joel on Software, doesn't need any pub from me, and I don't write about software much on this blog.

I'll make an exception here because Joel published a post while I was away that deals with the problem of managing passwords. If you're like me, you have passwords on a whole lot of different sites (five e-mail accounts, a few bank and financial institutions, and so on, and so on), and you might get nervous about either of the two common solutions: 1) Use the same password for all (maybe with some slight variations), or 2) Have a file someplace that contains all of your passwords. Neither of these is ideal, as I'm sure you know.

I cannot yet personally vouch for the method that Joel outlines (I just read the post), but I plan to give it a try, and Joel has a pretty good track record on ideas and recommendations.

So what makes...

a successful blog? I surely don't know for certain, but it's a question I've seen discussed a time or two and I'll offer some thoughts.

If one listens to the hype about Web 2.0, one would assume that a good blog needs to have an open and active comments section. Then it's not just a series of thoughts by a single person, which could seem boring after a while, but it becomes a community in which the blogger throws out ideas and the intelligence of the crowd magnifies those ideas.

There's a lot wrong with that theory, clearly. All the successful blogs of The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, James Fallows, and the rest, seem to have quite large followings, and there is nary a comment to be found on them. At some point someone seems to have reached the conclusion that there was no need to create that kind of community on these blogs, and they seem to work fine.

[Note 1: I find Andrew Sullivan pretty good, if exhausting to read, but does he always have to have a target for his feelings? I wasn't in love with Hillary's run, but Sullivan posted many times a day on why she was such a bad candidate. Now that she's gone, it's on to Sarah Palin. To be sure, he is talking about important things (The Twelve Lies of Sarah Palin is a must-read), but it is tiring to wade through the number of words he puts down about her every...single...day.]

[Note 2: I'm using Web 2.0 in its most common definition, that of user-generated content, which is how most people seem to take that term. For an alternative view, read the invaluable Hank Williams at Why does everything suck?, who has been writing some posts (one recent one here) on Web 2.0 vs. Web 3.0 - very provocative, uncommon thinking.]

Furthermore, given the relative meaninglessness of the vast majority of comments that are written, that community objective certainly isn't being realized very often on the sites that do allow comments. Despite the publicity about how the Web is what the users will it to be, I've seen little so far that convinces me that we're getting particularly close to that. Too many blog comments are still the random scribbling in the margins of a book you find in the street; there's a far greater chance that the book is interesting than the scribbling.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of coming around to a prosaic idea: Content remains defined by the original content, and the model really hasn't changed all that much from the newspaper, book, and magazine method we've had for years. If someone's blog is reasonably well-written with interesting subjects and opinions on those subjects, it's probably a good blog.

We may one day move beyond that, to a point where the Web enables new structures that allow blogs to be more than their base-level material, but I don't think we're particularly close yet. (That's not the case with non-blog material, and admittedly I haven't tried to define "blog" here. For a look at what someone is doing that tries to use the Web in a more expansive way, check out this post by Joel Spolsky, in which he describes how some folks are trying to redefine Programmer Q&A websites, which are, for the most part, dreadful and disappointing. Even if you're not a programmer, it's worth reading the post to see how some people are trying to think beyond the already-ossified way things are done on the Internet.)

So, if I were to offer advice to a new blogger, it would be to write interestingly about interesting things, and let the Web 2.0-type stuff take care of itself. In the end, you will learn more from your own efforts than from your comments (some people will argue with that statement, but I'm referring to the vast majority of blogs), and the discipline of casting your thoughts out into the ether will prove useful to you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Blogging fatigue

One might think that I would come back from vacation fired up and ready to blog, full of lengthy trip reports and photos of the remarkable Utah geography, with the kind of insights that only travel can bring (what does the Utah story reveal that is different from my usual Illinois existence?).

Instead, I barely got a truncated trip report in on Friday, made a political comment on Saturday, and gleaned one personal observation from my travels on Sunday. I've also taken the questionable time to respond to comments I received while I was away, the vast majority of which were from a single person - some of them had some interest, others betrayed a colossal misreading of what I wrote and imputed to me beliefs I have never espoused. I probably should have spent less time formulating replies to those.

And there are things going on, things that cry out for some comment, the financial meltdown and accompanying bailout (the American Taxpayer Hold-Executives-Blameless Plan), the continuing campaign with pigs and lipstick and a chirpy small-town mayor who has an excellent chance to become president, the clinching of a second straight division title by my Chicago Cubs, the perfect awfulness of the Emmy telecast, the rapidly encroaching autumn if I want to wax rhapsodic over the seasons. Heck, I could take some of the comments I received and turned them into posts (but should I really spend time defending myself from spurious ideas? Is it really worth my while to point out that I have never claimed that we are run by an "idiocracy," especially when my commenter uses that erroneous formulation to brand me a loser and a failure?).

But right now, I don't care. Whether it's due to the fact that my few reasonable readers are all quite quiet and the noisy ones are, well, not consistently reasonable, or the reality that nine months of blogging really hasn't amounted to anything (c'mon, one little book contract is all I ask), or the realization that all the bloggers on all their chairs haven't made one executive think, hmm, what are the long-term effects of this offshoring and should I hold off?, I'm simply weary of opening up my head and my heart for the examination of anyone who wanders by.

I'm even tired of reading other blogs. These careful examinations by bright people as to why McCain or Obama would be a disaster for this country, all these futile words being thrown at people who are still going to vote by the famous Bush, who do I want to have a beer with, measure, they all seem rather pointless. The earnest people who look at the financial bailout, try to make sense of it and propose something other than that we give Hank "Working for the Weekend" Paulson czar-like powers, they're just spittin' in the wind (as Sarah would say) if they think that these decisions will be made on the basis of what's best for the taxpayer or the homeowner. I've started to see posts and articles on defining the Bush legacy, as if history will look at these eight years as anything other than the point at which it became clear that you couldn't just set and forget the American Dream in order to sustain it, that laissez-faire and "king of the mountain" are great ways to produce rich people but lousy ways to produce a functioning society.

Maybe I'm just frustrated by other people in general. The folks who believe that a good People magazine back story about moose and snow machines and five oddly-named kids are a replacement for actual competence and truth, the folks who have twisted respect for an office into a need to prop up the complete incompetence of the people who hold the office, or, more personally, the people who purport to be friends when you have something to offer them, whether it is a job opportunity or a ticket to a playoff game, but are absent when you simply want to be and to have a friend, I'm kind of down on all of them right now.

I have no conclusion to offer here, perhaps I'll have some spring in my step and a song in my heart tomorrow. Maybe the season premiere of Two and a Half Men will redefine my life and make me eager to embrace the world in its totality again (I don't know about you, but that Charlie Sheen never fails to make me laugh). It's possible that I'll read that Howie Mandel has decided to quit show business after watching a tape of his Emmy performance last night, and I'll know once again that there's a God in heaven and justice can prevail. I'll let you know.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hanging-out stuff

I don't comment on things like personal attractiveness, because this isn't that kind of blog. But I'm going to make an exception today; I hope that doesn't turn off any readers.

I am a straight male, so I do tend to notice the, ahem, attributes of females, I think in a fairly natural and visceral way. I don't walk around with my tongue hanging out, I don't whistle or catcall, and, most importantly, I don't confuse that first reaction with anything larger (at least I hope not; I've met smart blonds and stupid people with glasses, and I find that my initial impression based on looks is very quickly subsumed to other considerations, but I'd be lying if I claimed I'm totally oblivious to such things).

During my trip to Utah, I took a quick stop at Brigham Young University on a Sunday afternoon. My knowledge of the Mormon church is scant, though I know enough to recognize that it does tend toward the conservative in personal matters, so I was not entirely surprised to find that the students dressed quite well, suits for the males, long skirts or dresses for the females. (I also happened to be there eight days later and, while Monday doesn't feature quite the formality, there still appears to be a higher standard of dress than at the average college.)

Of course, I also spent quite a bit of time in our national parks and other outdoor locations, and, as anyone with eyes could probably foresee, saw quite a bit of unharnessed flesh. The most extreme case may have been the young woman who removed her pants to go wading in the Great Salt Lake, walking about in rather scanty unmentionables, or perhaps it was the young woman on all fours at the Four Corners Monument, but it would be hard not to have noticed the acres of cleavage and rear exposure.

And you know what, I found the first group far more attractive. Whether the members of group two had the goods or not (no, the muffin top look is never very alluring, ladies...and gentlemen), there simply was something unmoving about the bosoms and buttocks that seem to be de rigueur in today's "fashions."

I suppose one might say something about primate display, as young people attempt to demonstrate their sexual availability, or it might imply something about my encroaching fuddy-duddiness - I don't know about that. I'm sure the young women with all their stuff hanging out don't care what I think, but, in my book, amazing other people with how much you can show is not the same thing as demonstrating how attractive you can be. A pretty girl can wear a parka and still be lovely; a bustier and a thong don't do anything to enhance that.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The future of the Republican Party

To show that I have not been totally oblivious to some of the larger issues during my trip, I had another thought about the McCain selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. I have expressed puzzlement and concern about this pick before, and Governor Palin's remarkable media and popular attention has done little to dispel my misgivings.

I accepted long ago that I would rarely find absolutely perfect politicians to get behind. While it is clear that I lean toward Obama, I have doubts as to his ability to effect major change in Washington, and doubt that he even really means to. It's very hard for someone for whom the system has consistently worked to understand how badly it is failing for so many. When Obama did his community work, his "customers" were people who had fairly obvious problems, be it addiction or poor education or long-term poverty, and helping them, while frustrating at times, was a matter of gaining for them opportunities to get things they had never had - addiction counseling, training, and so forth.

But the problems that confront a growing number of people today are afflicting some who have done the right things, who have gone to the "right" schools and had good jobs, but are seeing opportunities to succeed taken away by those who would rather use overseas or immigrant labor. I don't believe the problems of income inequality and, worse, opportunity inequality are likely to be solved by legislative fiat; therefore, those problems, the result of complex social and economic transactions, will be harder to solve, and I don't think Obama has the answers to them (as I have written before, there is no reason to believe that New Energy will beget a New Economy, and Obama's inability or unwillingness to understand that is a major blind spot).

But let's look at McCain's choice of Palin, what that implies for the Republican Party in the future, and what that says about John McCain, the "original maverick."

Whatever happens in November, Sarah Palin is poised to become a major figure in the party for at least the next 30 years (ending around the time she becomes a great-great-grandmother). Her fame and popularity, which may actually be enhanced if her ticket loses this fall (the actual need to govern so often causes problems, darn it), will ensure that she will be a "name" for years to come. And that means the party will likely continue on its current path, its theocratic, anti-science, anti-logic, know-nothing path. And that means there will not be a place in it for people like me, well, probably as long as I'll be here.

I have written before that I am a lapsed Republican, and that is largely the result of the party moving away from me, beginning in the time of Ronald Reagan and continuing through the reign of G.W. Bush. All of the precepts that I grew up believing are no longer convenient for the party, not in the Atwater-Rove period of anything-for-a-win, and I cannot in all conscience call myself a Republican any longer. And there is nothing in the record or stated beliefs of Sarah Palin that could bring me back. If she is a dominant Republican force going forward, I, and I believe other moderate Republicans, will have no standing in a party made up of ignoramuses (no, not "ignorami," no matter how cute I might think it is). The chant of "Drill, baby, drill" at the Republican convention was chilling in its celebration of stupidity.

And what does this say about the judgment of John McCain? As a self-styled maverick, one who ostensibly takes issue with the policies of George W. Bush, he might be thought to want to move the party away from its bizarre and ahistorical orthodoxy of the past few years. His apparent desire to pick Joe Lieberman as his running mate, no matter how disastrous I would think that to be in specific, showed that kind of willingness. I wanted to believe that he desired taking the party in a new direction, one that might have a place for people like me.

But then he chose Palin, whose People magazine-ready personal narrative totally fails to compensate for her antediluvian stand on issues. Either McCain recognizes that he is casting the party into a direction antithetical to his previous stance, or he doesn't care, so desperate is he to appease the base and win the election. Whichever is true, that is simply not the kind of thinking we need in this country today, and I am content to cast my lot with the thoughtful candidate, the one who seeks out different viewpoints in formulating his decisions. And, no matter how it squares with my upbringing, that candidate is the Democrat.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Utah, in brief

Time grows short today, largely because of all the necessary post-trip doings, so I'll give brief impressions of the Big 5 national parks in Utah, with longer trip reports to come. I'm also not prepared to post any pictures yet, as that would involve finding my cable and looking through all the photos.

Arches: I had pictured a vast plain punctuated by arch-like structures, and it wasn't that at all. There are a lot of ups and downs as you drive around the park, and the arches are not all there is to see. The famous Balanced Rock is even more imposing than it is in the guide books. I admit to being partial to Double Arch, though there is a poignancy in seeing the fallen Wall Arch.

Bryce Canyon: The Bryce Amphitheater is remarkable, as these spires of rock come shooting off the canyon floor. Hiking near these huge structures was probably the visceral highlight of the trip; it is hard to believe that they weren't constructed, so city-like and intricate.

Canyonlands: We only went to the Island in the Sky portion, which is aptly named, as the Y-shaped road leads along a plateau that is surrounded by the cutting left by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Here, the vistas are enormous in scale, and there is a smallness you feel as you look at just how much land has been removed. It is absence that is awe-inspiring here.

Capitol Reef: The park of which I expected the least, but I was impressed to find that the Waterpocket Fold which defines this landscape had a beauty all its own. In some ways, perhaps because of my sense going in, this was my favorite, as it has a somewhat more intimate feel than the others.

Zion: The flagship park, but the one I found the least thrilling. Its fame comes, I think, from the sylvan nature of the canyon, offering a lovely river and surrounding trees. But the surrounding structures are not so "wow"; it's not that I was disappointed, per se, just that I had thought it would be the highlight, and it didn't quite make that for me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The return of Androcass

What do I do first, catch up on my online world, or my real world? Clean up my inbox, or clean my laundry?

Well, folks, I know you're breathlessly anticipating my insights on my travels, and they will come one of these days, but I think I'll have to go with the real world today. I'm sure some stuff has happened in the world the past couple of weeks, but it has seeped in only as a foglike substance around the need to get in the car and see stuff (I gather there was some kind of financial problem, some big storms, and so forth, but my concerns have been focused on where the cheapest gas station is).

So I thank those of you who have been reading, and I will read and comment on your comments, maybe later today, more probably tomorrow. I will just say this today about my trip: If you want to appreciate the natural world, go to Utah - you will see things that are absolutely remarkable in their scope. The trip was essentially a natural park kind of thing (I'm still catching up on all the things my mother never did, so I'm still doing the, it's 1:00, we should be in Bryce Canyon by now, kind of vacation). But it was amazing, and I'll tell you all more over the coming days.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The business candidate, part 2 - 1/30/08

[Journalists still fail to see the things I'm talking about here; they simply don't know enough to look beyond the resume.]

TIME magazine once referred to President Bush as the first CEO president. After eight years of stasis in Washington (years that the most ardent Clinton supporters have forgotten), while the business community created prosperity for all, the 2000 campaign hinged on competence. Gore was a remnant of the political fighting, Bush offered the knowledge to keep the gravy train running. He had an MBA! He had run companies! He got the Texas Rangers a new stadium!

What no one seemed to understand was that Bush was a lousy CEO; it certainly wasn't reported by the docile press. His "successes" came from bailouts by friends of his father, and he had to go back to Dad's Rolodex when he put together the deal for a new stadium that enriched him at taxpayers' expense.

What he did have was the CEO mentality. If you say something, people jump to do it. If you believe something, everyone around you will support you, and call you brilliant for believing it. That his corner office came, not out of years of work and growth, but from the name he held never occurred to him.

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that these are not the skills needed by a president. Negotiation, subtlety, nuance, these are the tools of the effective president (and many successful CEOs - again, Bush was not successful).

Journalists seem to understand none of this. They see a CEO, commanding people, expressing a vision, and they assume that these surface qualities are useful in a president. They fail to see the disconnect between the appearance and the reality, and they don't see how even the best CEOs may not have the qualities needed to run the country.

Romney's experience may have nothing to suggest as to how well he would run the country. A CEO has tools unavailable to the president, and vice versa. CEOs can focus on competition, while presidents need to think about cooperation at least as oftem. I don't know how Romney would fare as chief executive of our country, but the pundits and columnists don't either.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making history - 1/26/08

[Obama's winning the nomination and the choice of Palin as the Republican running mate have intensified this trend, to the point where commentators believe that people will vote simply to "make history." If that's true, it's sad, and shows me that we may never escape identity politics.]

I've written before about the misuse of the word historic, a word that, for a variety of reasons, is applied to almost any event of whatever significance. It's an inflationary word, one that is used to pump up all manner of fairly trivial events. The vast majority of events described as historic will not be noted by history (except as stored on various servers on the Internet, preserved for all time, the Domesday Book of our time), because they offer no insight on the flows of history.

Now the word has come full force into the presidential campaign. It has become commonplace for commentators to throw around the word in every story reported or written. That a black man, or a woman, might become the president of the dominant world power is treated as the story, and is seen as justification by some voters to throw their vote one way or another.

There have been 43 presidents. Given the importance of the United States on the world stage, every president has found himself prominent in the mix of world events. Some have risen to the challenge, some have not. Some changed the direction not only of the U.S., but of the globe. Every single one, yes, even Millard Fillmore, can be considered historic.

It is interesting that the country may be ready to elect either an African-American or a woman. I don't know that I fully buy into the vast significance, because this country still has race and gender issues, issues that will not disappear simply because one person has been elected to one office. It certainly does not denote the kind of self-congratulatory back-patting that we will go through if one of these people does become president.

But the issues that confront this nation transcend identity politics. There are so many challenges facing anyone that would take the job of president, and those are not black challenges, or female challenges (what constitutes a women's or black issue, anyway? I well understand the legal and moral hurdles that an earlier generation of activist had to overcome, and I'm not suggesting that we are precisely where we should be on gender or race, but do we want a president who will see redressing past wrongs as a big priority?).

Even if a president didn't want to be historic, world events would prevent that. The office, by its very nature, is historic, and it's very hard, especially in real time, to decide what will be more or less historic. I'm hoping the next president will make history, not because of the color of skin or the presence of certain chromosomes, but by helping this country deal with its internal divisiveness, uniting us in taking a path back to where we should, and can, be.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Picking a chief - 1/22/08

[Nothing to say here, my concerns haven't changed a bit.]

To follow up on my last post, it's fair to ask why I am pessimistic that Americans will carefully consider the candidates for president and make a rational choice based on their priorities. Why do we base our vote (for any office, but most importantly for president) on half-baked emotionalism or imagined personal compatibility?

There are probably any number of reasons for this; I'll just jot down those that come immediately to mind, and think about them as the campaign forges on.

First, there are people who honestly don't believe there is any difference between the parties and, thus, the candidates. It's easy to see why. All the candidates (save the unelectable mavericks like Paul or Kucinich) believe unquestioningly in the benefits of the free market and free trade, they all believe in the inescapable power of representative democracy, they all believe that we're under siege from Islamo-fascistic terrorism. Given the simplistic questioning in the debates or on the interview shows, it's no wonder we can't find distinctions. Have we ever asked Hillary Clinton how she squares the conflict between the free market and democracy? Have we ever asked John McCain why terrorism is so much worse than other forms of conflict?

No. We just accept the prepackaged, focus group-tested sound bites (I'll be an agent of change, I'll be ready to use my 35 years of experience day 1, and so forth). In addition, we know that the probability of fundamental change inside the Beltway is very small. The president really doesn't have control over a huge percentage of what goes on in Washington, so we're unlikely to see, for example, significant less influence by special interest groups.

Second, we're lazy. Most Americans are not engaged with the issues; they don't spend any time trying to find distinctions between the candidates. It's true that the jargon doesn't help in grappling with the nuances of the various health care plans or the long-term foreign policy direction. But most people don't even try.

It probably takes a crisis to focus our minds on the issues that we face, and despite 9/11, or our loss of jobs overseas, or our real estate meltdown, most Americans are just not convinced that any of this denotes a crisis. (I'm not sure what would rise to that level; Hitler and Sputnik got this country moving, but not unanimously.) As long as most of us get our three squares a day (even if we pay more), or can still drive little Johnny to his oboe lessons (even if we pay more), or are not under siege from Islamic terrorists, we're going to believe we're essentially OK.

It is said we get the president we deserve, and that is probably true. It's also unfortunate, in that I believe that we face previously unknown challenges, and it's going to take a little more than vague hand-waving about "change" to confront them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Recession, schmecession - 1/19/08

[I hesitate to get into the whole recession thing again, because so many people are so touchy about the term. But the conclusion here seems to have been a valid one; the economic stimulus has worked no miracles.]

Justin Fox, writing The Rites of Recession in the current Time magazine, gets it just right, I think. The economy, which has been remarkably underreported during the presidential campaign, is a major concern of a lot of people. But the reporting, what there has been of it, has been devoted to the possibility of a recession: Are we in one? Will we be in one? How long will it last?

All of which misses the point. The problems that confront this nation right now transcend this discussion. Who cares if we're technically in a recession? As I've written before, much of the country is already in a recession. So our current challenges go beyond whether we're in something called a "recession" or just in a "slowdown." If you lose your home, or your job, you don't feel better if it turns out, years later, that you didn't lose them in a recession.

Even Fox spends 80+% of the article talking about recession - interesting stuff, but not vital. What is important "[are] long-term trends like the rise of China and India, the growth in income inequality, ... U.S. competitiveness, the state of the middle class." That he even mentions the possibility that "America's global role has been permanently downgraded" is journalistic progress that I am surprised to see.

Despite all that, the bandwagon-jumping legislators, who in a remarkable show of non-partisan support are backing the President, in what coincidentally is an election year, are getting behind a fiscal stimulus plan. Tax rebates (that even respected economists say should not be used to pay down debt, despite the fact that Americans desperately need to pay down debt) will be thrown around, but just try getting Americans to spend this windfall domestically. It won't happen, as we endorse our new checks directly over to China or Korea.

One of the downsides to globalization is that you can't control what happens within your own nation any more. The fiscal stimulus package may do very little to create growth in the U.S., but it may allow China and India to continue their surprising progress. Of course, our CEOs will still skim off some of that money as it crosses the border, so some of it will stay here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 3 - 1/13/08

[I've developed some of my ideas about education further, and will continue to do so, but this gives something of a summary of my feelings on the subject.]

Let's work out a hypothetical situation. Say we want to have a nation in which every person can high jump. We look at the problem, and we reason that we are unlikely to train a lot of adults to high jump; the specter of Grandma having to clear the bar in her short shorts is probably enough to cool us on this idea.

So we turn to our usual method of social engineering - we will teach all of our students how to high jump. That won't do anything for our adults, but they'll all die eventually, leaving us with a population of high jumpers.

We start by establishing standards for age-group high jumping. We'll be hard-pressed to find any world or national records by age for young people (if a quick Google search is any indicator), so we'll assemble a blue-ribbon panel of elementary and high-school coaches, maybe a few famous high jumpers, some human performance experts, and so forth. The panel will meet, perhaps in Washington, more likely in St. Kitts, and come up with grade standards: kindergarteners will need to clear 1'6", eighth-graders 3'0", seniors in high school 3'9", or some such.

Now we have our first big choice. Do we mandate the methods by which we must teach our students how to high jump, or should we simply publish the standards and provide negative incentives, that is, punish schools that don't manage to get every student over that bar? Let's say we believe in standard economic thinking, where creating proper incentives will solve every problem, so we'll take the latter of the two approaches. (This is also preferable to the former approach in that it allows us to duck the responsibility if our mandated methods fail to work.)

It's really important to us that everybody be able to high jump, so our negative incentives are quite harsh. We can even close schools if they don't get those kids over that bar.

Let's try to figure out what will likely happen. First, a lot of school time will be spent on teaching the high jump. Other activities will be curtailed in order to teach the Fosbury Flop, the proper run-up, leg clearing, and the like. Second, we will see a lot of experts emerge who understand how to get an eighth-grader over three feet. Some of them will be self-taught P.E. instructors who will buy the Complete Book of Jumps and apply that to all the kids, and some will be consultants who will charge a lot to do the same thing (but they're worth it, because the alternative is to CLOSE THE SCHOOL).

The other main thing that will happen is that we will stop training the naturally outstanding kids. We're devoting a lot of resources to getting every kid over that three-foot bar, so we're not going to expend a lot of effort on the child who lines up the first time and clears it with ease. (In fact, what we'll likely see is an attempt to have that child become something of an auxiliary coach; after all, you can't beat the cost, and we can convince ourselves that making a student into a teacher is a worthwhile educational experience.)

The problem with this won't arise until the Olympics of 20 years from now. We'll lose, and lose badly, because we haven't done the work necessary to develop near-8 foot high jumpers. Despite having the greatest national high jump training program in the history of the world, we won't be able to compete at the highest level of the sport. And we'll have almost nothing to show for this expensive program, as how many adults will continue to high jump once they're out of school?

Well, I've made the analogy too obvious, I of course am talking about No Child Left Behind. We mandate standards for all children, punish schools for not meeting the mandate, and ignore the truly gifted (they'll do fine anyway). No intelligent competitor would do it this way, not if they're competing in a global marketplace.

The intention is kind and nice, that we'll educate everyone equally. But anyone who has spent any time with children knows that they are endowed with different talents and skill levels. Equal education does not mean equal outcome, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.

Ultimately, NCLB will not make us more competitive in the world economy, not if it means that we are going to train every student down to an average level. Like it or not, it is the outstanding who lead the way, not having large numbers of the mediocre. The Chinese education is constantly winnowing at each level, trying to identify the students of greatest potential.

When we establish our highest educational priority as the minimal attainment for the maximal number, we will have a pudding of uniformity, and we will lose the top, the potential innovators. And that is no way to remain competitive.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 2 - 1/12/08

[I haven't included Competitiveness - Part 1 because it now seems redundant. As for this post, I've only seen this trend intensify. The Olympics are a case in point; Michael Phelps becomes a proxy for our system and our way of life, but he's just one guy. As a nation, we have no intention of competing in the Olympics, not if it means tax dollars and state gymnasiums and so forth. The chances are very good that the Chinese will beat us in total medal count in 2012, at which point we'll talk about how irrelevant this all is. We will continue not to do the things that we need to do to remain competitive in anything important.]

To follow up from yesterday, it's my contention that, despite all the talk about our wonderful capitalist system, and how the cream inevitably rises to the top, and how individual failure comes from a lack of will or ability, the U.S. actually has very little knowledge as to how to compete in the new world.

Part of this comes from a willful blindness, a lack of recognition that a nation with the proper attitude and beliefs could fall from its self-appointed position as leader of the world. Part comes from the confusion between national and individual competitiveness (no, having the most billionaires does not serve as a proxy for having a strong country). And part comes from the confusion between the appearance of competitiveness versus actually being effective in competition.

If you were to ask the average American where the U.S. stands, the answer would almost certainly be that we are #1 in every category that matters. To believe that requires one to ignore our backsliding in areas relative to the rest of the world: health care, infant mortality, education, etc. Yet the concern about our slippage only seems to arise when our basketball team loses in the Olympics. We have replaced actual accomplishment with useless sloganeering.

Many people think that the financial success of a few somehow proves something about the country as a whole. We trumpet the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, we marvel at the salaries of our professional athletes and our actors, we live vicariously through the lifestyles of our rich and famous. At the same time, median real income is in decline, the savings rate is negative, and the comfort to which we once aspired seems to be forever farther out of reach. Which represents a strong country, the wealth of our wealthy, or the wealth of our average?

And we believe that our intense interest in competition translates into competitiveness. We compete furiously on the field, the court, the diamond. We lie, cheat, and steal to make the next deal, to get the corner office. But this furor has not extended to effective raising of standards. We're not competing on the same playing fields as the rest of the world; other countries intend to dominate the world economy and garner the wealth, while we shake our fists and claim that we fight hard.

We have seen a remarkable decline in our innovation, as other countries have been able to train engineers and computer scientists, open R&D centers (often with our money), and have at least begun to dominate certain technological areas.

Since I believe that innovation is the key to growth, and only through that growth do overall living standards rise, we need to understand how to foment innovation. That clearly comes through education, and our mistakes there are the subject of my next post.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Democracy vs. capitalism - 1/8/08

[I wish that we were making even the slightest bit of progress in thinking about these issues. Alas, we're not.]

This post is the first of a series in which I try to work out some of my feelings about democracy and capitalism. I wrote a post on May 22 of last year, which said some of what I think. It's bad form, I guess, to quote oneself, so I shan't, but, in that post, I outlined the basic conflict I see between the two systems.

I want to go further here and start to think about how we resolve those conflicts. Let me discuss it through the medium of the issue of offshoring jobs.

Offshoring is vitally important, not only for the effects it has already had, but for the future potential. I don't want to discuss comparative advantage here, but that idea, which is thought to allow maximum (and efficient) production in all nations, may no longer hold. With the triumph of technologies that eliminate borders, there may be nothing left (at least someday) for Americans to trade - not without a serious diminution of living standards in the U.S. There are other effects, like the lowering of prices, which factor in on the positive side, but I'm not writing about that here. I'm merely trying to show that offshoring is an important issue.

Unemployment insurance is a matter that we do not trust to the capitalist system, that is, we do not assume that companies will lay people off, but support them for a certain length of time. Because it is a social goal not to allow people to go without that support, the democratic system kicks in and provides for this insurance (which it does by taxing the capitalist system, i.e., making it less efficient).

Offshoring, however, of much greater potential import for restructuring the way we live, is left totally within the capitalist sector. Yes, I know there were some ineffectual Congressional hearings, and it flared as a campaign issue in 2004, however briefly, but polticians have steered clear of any real action.

Companies get to decide what industries, professions, jobs will be handed over to other countries. If that means that a town is without its source of livelihood, or a family is without a means of making a living, that's how change goes - at least you can pay a dollar less for that sweater down at Wal-Mart. But democracy keeps its hands off the issue.

I know that Ronald Reagan had a lot to do with this. His dislike of government (in all matters except his personal living style and providing arms illegally) has become the accepted norm, which means that, despite his stated intent, he hurt democracy to the benefit of capitalism.

For we are all complicit in allowing certain issues to fall outside of the purview of our elected representatives, and to be under the control of our decidedly unelected CEOs. (Offshoring is not the only such example; our energy policy, such as it is, seems to be driven far more by the desires of capitalists than by the needs of the people.) But what is the end result of this division (drivers' licenses to the democratic system, job policy to the capitalist)? It's not simply that business items fall into capitalism, because these items cross all lines in our society.

And how do we restrike this balance before everything important is handled by those who want to make money, not those who wish to fulfill larger social goals?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

OK, now... - 1/7/08

[I've had reason to reconsider my absolutist position on libertarianism, though I think it is still a long way from becoming mainstream. I'm glad that the party is discussing what it wants to be in a realistic way, but escaping "fringe" status will be hard.

The rest of this post holds up well. The two candidates we have are unwilling to confront our problems in an adult manner, pandering to the mass electorate instead of reexamining issues in the light of reality.]

I want to follow up on my Saturday comments about Ron Paul. Again, I do not support his "philosophy" (libertarianism is arbitrary and unrealistic), but he reminds me of, well, myself.

I'm a software developer with an MBA who has worked in quite a few industries on different problems. While I don't profess that this background grants me great wisdom (just a little, maybe), it does allow me to comment on things from a fairly broad perspective. I've seen various issues arise, and seen (and participated in) various solutions, some of which have worked better than others.

So, in a meeting, I'm frequently going to be the person bringing up the larger issues ("if we want to support the needs our customers have, we will have to restructure the database access to allow users to query it directly"). A huge proportion of the time, the response, from people ostensibly concerned with the same situation, is stark uncomfortable silence, followed by, "OK, now..." ("what color should the splash screen be?", a topic which then consumes the rest of the hour).

I don't think I'm particularly strident in bringing up these matters; quite the contrary, there are people close to me who say I'm far too quiet and unassuming. What I think is happening is that the room is simply not prepared to discuss such things, no matter how true or significant they may be. It takes a long time for most people to accept that the world is not the way they want to assume it is, that the status quo may be downright wrong.

From my standpoint, however, the worst thing is not that the problem is going to go on, possibly fester, until it becomes so obvious that change is needed that action is finally taken. (Managers, who ought to be taking the longer-term view, tend to be the leading proponents of the conservative, backward-looking approach.) That should bother me the most, but I'm human, and what frustrates me is the is-he-an-alien look that the other people tend to have before moving on to another, far less critical, issue. I want to go Close-ian on all these people who are neglecting what ought to be a major part of their responsibility ("I'm not going to be ignored, Dan").

And this is Ron Paul in a meeting of candidates.

Does terrorism against the West result from the actions of the West in Muslim countries? Does our "occupation" of holy Saudi Arabia inflame anti-U.S. passions (and "they asked us to be there" is no defense; many Muslims feel that the sheiks are as bad in their decadence and embrace of Western ways)? Is our historical interference in their politics a rallying cause? Do our actions come out of a need to prop up a failing, petroleum-based lifestyle?

These are valid issues to discuss, and discussing them would seem to be extremely pertinent in the changed post-9/11 world. (An interesting book on this is Imperial Hubris by intelligence official Michael Scheuer; regardless of how you evaluate his ideas and solutions, it struck me as an important contribution to the literature.) Being simplistic would seem to be the worst thing we could do.

Yet it is exactly what the candidates do. Ron Paul is trying to bring up these issues, albeit in a quasi-lunatic style that does not serve him well. And he gets the look (particularly from Romney, who strikes me as a supercilious smarm-master), that look that says we're not just going to disagree with you, but that you're insane to try to discuss such things.

But we have to discuss such things if we're going to reach a long-term accommodation with Islam. Sound bites like "they hate us, they hate our way of life" may sound tough on the stump, but will not assist the next President in actually engaging the problem. We all fear terrorism and the uncertainty it brings to our lives, but reducing the causes to individual pathology will not illuminate the situation, nor will it lead to a solution.

So I wonder how frustrated Ron Paul is getting, as he tries to be the adult in a room of intellectual children. I suspect that Paul's support, which has surprised a lot of pundits, comes from people who suspect that the issues we face are more serious and complicated than the other candidates are letting on. Blathering on about change is meaningless unless the change is meaningful (and kudos to Huckabee for at least acknowledging that), and meaningful change should only result from a deep understanding of the forces involved, not from focus group-tested, simplistic slogans.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

This post is historic, by the legendary Androcass - 1/6/08

[No change here; if anything, these words are being used more now that they were back in January. And Britney Spears is called "legendary" by some nitwits, just search Google if you want to see it for yourself.]

Two words that have become abused, almost beyond meaning, are "legendary" and "historic." The reason is the constant need for aggrandizement, for hype, even for promotion of self-importance.

"Legendary" is applied to anyone you've ever heard of, and has been reduced to the meaning of "famous." I'm not sure that Britney has been called that yet, but it wouldn't surprise me. The original definition, synonymous with "fictitious," has been lost in the rush to inflate everyone. A quick Google search shows the following legendary figures: Bob Marley (at least he's dead), Dr. John, The Jordanaires (they woo-wooed behind Elvis), football coach Bo Schembechler (most college football and basketball coaches are legendary), Bobby Darin, Van McCoy (do the Hustle), Alfredo Alcala (who?), Eartha Kitt, Sandra Dee, and on, and on.

"Historic," which used to carry at least some sense of something that had already happened, whether it had yet stood the test of time or not, now means something that the speaker or writer thinks will be important. Football playoff games are historic before they are played (the New England Patriots game last weekend was historic either way; they were going to win to go to 16-0, or they were going to lose to fall short). Charlie Gibson desribed last night's debate as historic before it happened, despite the sheer number of debates that have already occurred.

Folks, "historic" means something of significance, something that people will remember and talk and think about in decades and centuries to come. World War II was historic, no football game is (what was the result of that Bath-York soccer game back in 1734?).

It seems to me that both of these words have taken this prevalence (and, therefore, much less importance) due to a need/desire to seem significant. Charlie Gibson believes the debate is historic in no small part because he's a part of it. Sandra Dee is legendary because that makes your obsession with her somehow acceptable.

But all that ends up happening is that the words lose their meaning and their significance. If everybody is legendary, if every event is historic, than nobody and no events are, and we lose yet another distinction.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Move the People - 1/4/08

[Nothing has happened to change my opinion here. Given United's stated intention to downgrade their service, charge more for basic services, and so forth, I doubt there is a viable business model here any longer. One wonders how much longer they can continue without taxpayer help.]

Yesterday I called United Airlines "perhaps the worst-run major company in the history of the U.S." I'm probably inclined that way because I live close to its headquarters (one of the few left in Chicago) and hear a lot of news about it. Is it the worst? Hard to say. But it has to be a contender.

This is a company that was unquestionably #1 in the world just a few short years ago, and now cannot get through some snow and ice in December (surprise!), thunderstorms in the summer (double surprise!), pay workers what was promised, can't staff sufficiently, etc.

Mission statements are forever in vogue. For those who don't know, mission statements are designed to give focus to an organization's activities, to allow everyone, customers, suppliers, and employees, to understand the objectives toward which the organization will work. They are formulated by top executives, usually on weekend resort retreats, and are to be taken very seriously even after the tans fade.

United Airlines, like all right-thinking companies, has a mission statement: To be recognized worldwide as the airline of choice. This is supposed to tell us that, 1) United is a global enterprise, and 2) that they want to be first in market share. That's it.

Any company that has as its purpose the act of moving people from one place to another, whether airline, bus company, or train, needs a common mission statement: Get the people where they're going. I don't care how you want to be recognized, I don't care what your market share is, I want to go up in the airplane, and come down in the airplane safely and reasonably close to the time you promised. Every action, every stock deal, every negotiation with a union must be subsumed to the idea that you have to move the people.

United has forgotten this. Their bankruptcy was an exercise in indifference to anyone other than a few hundred corporate bigwigs, and their actions since have reinforced that idea. Move the people, United, and maybe you can remain viable. Don't, and you'll be the next on the aviation scrapheap.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

By-Products - 1/3/08

[Would that eight more months have made the ideas here more prevalent. But people still don't understand that American companies have no manifest desire to create American jobs.]

I produce sweat, carbon dioxide, urine, feces. That production is a biological imperative; I can control when I eat, when I drink, when I sleep (within certain limits), but it is difficult to control the output of waste products.

However, it would be quite a stretch to claim that production of waste is my purpose in life. Even if the proverbial man from Mars were to observe me and make that claim, it would not be true. (What my purpose in life is is unclear - maybe that's another day's post.)

Businesses exist to make money. They generate revenues through economic activity, incur necessary expenses, and this results in profits. These profits may be put to any number of uses (enriching executives), but the very survival of the enterprise depends on the creation of profit.

There are a lot of institutional structures in our system that support and assist business, especially big business. Our tax code, our bankruptcy laws, grants, TIFs, and on and on, all designed to help and protect business. United Airlines, perhaps the worst-run major company in the history of the U.S., can lay off employees, stiff shareholders, obliterate their pension obligations, all under the auspices of kindly bankruptcy courts, and return to disappointing customers and making their executive talent (?!) wealthy.

Why does business get treatment under our laws that the individual can only dream of? We have to assume it comes from the belief that companies create jobs in a way that the average person does not, that the synergy that comes from assembling a number of people in one place is worth the sweetheart deals.

But here's the flaw in the argument. Just as I do not exist to produce waste products, neither does a company exist to create jobs. The days when a CEO would look proudly at the company's employees, toiling away to create products and profits, are gone, replaced by resentment over how many resources those employees are using.

Companies do not want to create jobs, and public policies that devote tax dollars to assisting companies are reckless and wasteful. We who pay taxes to support this madness should insist that it stop.
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