Friday, October 31, 2008

More on (moron?) the market (and other systems)

I wrote yesterday about how government intervention, even that which is designed to "free the market," is inescapably non-market in nature. I may have appeared to disagree with that intervention, but I don't; despite being essentially a free-market guy myself, I recognize the need for democratic institutions to condition the market at times. It's the specific remedy which needs to be discussed, and I really don't care for the snake oil that's being peddled by folks who want to cover up the real effects. For example, a cap-and-trade system is not market-based at all, as the cap has to come from somewhere, and it is fair to question how these caps will be derived, who will benefit, and so forth.

More broadly, and excuse me if I've written about this before, we need to understand that these systems in which we live are created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. There are those who would claim that free-market capitalism and representative democracy have somehow been conferred on us by God, but that's a pretty unhelpful view, not to mention kind of nuts.

Since they are human-created systems, we have the right to change them when they don't work in the ways we would like, when their results cause conflict with other values. We could have a health care system based solely on market principles, but it offends almost everyone's sensibilities to see people dying in the street.

Clearly, if we believe in the basic premise of the system, it makes sense to find solutions within the system itself. One of the remarkable aspects of our democratic system is that it offers a marvelous balance of powers within the system, so we can frequently find redress by using the system as it was designed. For example, no elected official has an infinite term, so dissatisfied voters can turn out that official at the completion of the term.

More amazingly, our democracy allows us to change the system itself. Do we want term limits for senators? We can get that by passing an amendment to the Constitution. One of the current issues in Illinois is that we don't have a recall provision in the state constitution, and a lot of people would like one, if only to get rid of the hugely unpopular governor. However, there is a mechanism by which we can add a recall provision if it has sufficient support, and this is a real strength of our democratic system.

Unfortunately, free-market capitalism has no such facilities within itself for change. The very essence of it is "freedom," which includes freedom to uplift as well as tear down. If a CEO decides to pay his/her workers 50 cents an hour while pocketing $20 million a year, there's nothing in free market doctrine that prevents that, no matter how much our sensibilities might be offended. (Yes, I understand that there are other countervailing long-term tendencies, such as competition among companies for that labor and worker mobility, but these tend to work fairly slowly.)

It is natural to assume that, were pure free-market ideology allowed to prevail, that individual incomes would fit a bell-shaped curve. I don't know if that's exactly true, but let's assume that as reasonable. Obviously, that would leave significant numbers of people below a line of subsistence, and that result offends most of us. But, working within the free-market system, we have no correction to this.

Therefore, we need some extra-market way of making results conform to our other beliefs, our sense of fairness and justice. Few people realistically complain about such things; only a very small number of people on the fringe would seriously contend that we should dismantle our public education system, even though it clearly is not the result of free-market forces.

Most of us understand this pretty well, we really don't think, Reagan notwithstanding, that government is always the problem. It is the only system through which the mass of people, through their elected officials, can effect changes to the result of the pure free market. That is why the current Republican thrust to paint Barack Obama as a "socialist" for believing that wealth needs to be shared is doomed as a campaign strategy, because there are few of us who are rich or heartless enough to believe otherwise - we are all, in the Republican formulation, socialists, even the preposterous Joe the Plumber.

What is interesting is to see even the most unassailable orthodoxies, upon closer examination, fall prey to modification based on real-world results. There have been few things more unanimously supported over the last few decades than wondrous free trade. Anyone who pointed out potential pitfalls (or that the very definition of "free" in this context is problematic) was hooted down as ignorant; certainly no self-respecting economist would utter a discouraging word. That "amateurs" would point out that 60,000 Americans paying $1 less for a sweater doesn't really make up for the loss of a $40,000 per year job made no difference to the folks who believed that national income was the only measure of success. Concern over the plight of workers who were losing their careers was swept aside in a fervor of graphs and equations that proved we were better off, no, really.

So it's interesting to read an article in The New Republic by Christopher Hayes in which he documents growing doubts among economists that the gains from free trade are as large as we were promised, that other factors need to be taken into account (link from Mark Thoma). I won't quote from it, you should read it for yourself, but it does show that theory can sometimes yield to practical results, at least in some minds. We would be wise to heed this example in considering future "common wisdom."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sign of the times

The 10th congressional district of Illinois is pretty high-income, and is correspondingly reliably Republican. This time around, incumbent Mark Kirk is being targeted by his opponent, Dan Seals, as being close to George W. Bush. Kirk won by 6 points last time, but the most recent polls have Seals leading this time by 8 and 6 points.

These campaigns have each raised a lot of money, so, wherever you live in the Chicago area, you've been inundated with ads for these two. And in an ad I just saw, Kirk is running with the tag line: "In this district, we vote for the person, not the party." Is there any better example of just how devalued the Republican brand has become?

Oh, those darn markets

Andrew Sullivan, yesterday, The Trouble With Lower Gas Prices:
But the sad truth is: only high gas prices will ever wean us off Middle Eastern oil and provide the real market incentives to pioneer non-carbon energy. Falling oil prices could derail a serious move toward energy independence, which will be achieved in the end by the private sector, not the government. My own view is that the one thing the government can do right now is keep gas prices high, by raising gas taxes.
Sullivan then quotes Robert Samuelson (whose full post is here) to the effect that we should raise fuel taxes by one cent in each of the months over the next four years, for a total of 48 cents. Congress "must also create a market in which buyers favor fuel efficiency." Sullivan concludes:
The point of this is not big government trying to find a solution to our energy needs. It is for government to provide the context and incentives for us to innovate.
I'm not going to rattle on as to what we "should" do about energy; the likelihood of a Manhattan Project or an Apollo project is pretty much nil. Anyway, I wrote a post on this subject just last week, and in it I laid out some of the limitations the free market has in dealing with long-term issues.

At the same time, however, let's not accept the foregoing less-than-rigorous articles as to how the government should "create a market," then sit back and watch the free market do its amazing thing.

Because the very act of government creating a market, whether through a gas tax or a cap-and-trade system or innovation incentives or whatever scheme, means that the free market is no longer operative. When you impose a tax simply for the reason that you want to reduce demand (which, by the way, lowers the price, but we'll ignore that effect today), you're interfering in the real market. You're creating an artificial price, one that has little to do with supply and demand.

I'm not saying that these measures aren't necessary or desirable, simply that those people who tout them as proof that we can make the market work aren't telling the truth. We have a political body attempting to flout the will of the market for other ends, then spouting the nonsense that it is evidence of the wonders of the market. It's rubbish, and I would like to see the rhetoric stop.

The market, as it is currently constituted, is not capable of dealing with the long-term effects of running out of oil. There's no way to look ahead and price those effects, that's not what markets do. If we want to take into account those long-term costs, well, that's probably necessary, but it does constitute interference with the glorious free market. We need to stop fetishizing the free market as the source of all good; it has its problems, and we should focus on best solutions for those problems, not on babbling about foolish orthodoxy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brooks, again

I really don't want to turn this blog into a series of "Bash David Brooks" posts, but he is quite influential (it would appear that Charlie Rose has added Brooks to his list of "people who must be mentioned," joining Tom Friedman and Warren Buffett). He is also smart enough to be reckoned with, especially by those of us who disagree with more often than not.

However, as I've written before, Brooks has a tendency to, first, be almost preciously clever (at the expense of consistency), and second, make sweeping generalizations that are misleading, if not downright wrong. Two recent columns demonstrate both of these, particularly the second.

On Monday, in a column titled The Behavior Revolution, Brooks attempts to demonstrate why such luminaries as Alan Greenspan were so wrong about the financial crisis:
Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.

But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. As Alan Greenspan noted in his Congressional testimony last week, he was “shocked” that markets did not work as anticipated. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
Brooks then goes on to state that we will be changing our view of decision-making, that we will now begin to focus on step one instead of step three. He cites the work of Tversky and Kahneman, and the writing of Nassim Taleb (best known for "The Black Swan.")

This, of course, is classic straw man work from Brooks. It is true that far too many social science models have assumed away his steps one and two, and focused on step three.

But no reputable thinker would do that, and Brooks proves that by citing the decades during which "economists and psychologists have been exploring our perceptual biases." Well, which is it? Are all the models based on uncritically accepting step one, or is the cutting-edge research exploring exceptions to that?

And let's apply some common sense to this. Anyone who thinks about belief in any serious way understands that everyone brings biases and prejudgments to any decision, that they frame all questions in terms of their extant world views. One of the greatest concerns about Greenspan is his Randian philosophy and how it has informed his decision-making; it is only a set of extremely simple people who allowed themselves to believe that Greenspan was freeing himself from his core principles.

One of the great dissatisfactions that many of us have with economic models is the massive amount of the real world they assume away. One of the reasons that free-trade orthodoxy is suspect is that it extrapolates a two-entity, two-good model into an unmodelable world of 200 countries (plus transnational corporations), thousands and thousands of goods, and ignores the smaller components (like individual constituencies within those countries). Similarly, I don't think that people really believe Brooks' view of decision-making.

And then there's Brooks from Sunday, where he identifies "at least three major political tendencies":
The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.

But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.
I was tipped to this by a Matt Yglesias post, who dismantles it pretty successfully (and his commenters take great issue with Brooks' broad statement about Alexander Hamilton, "who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed"). Yglesias demonstrates that equality is strongly correlated with mobility, pointing out that rampant inequality (like that in our United States) makes mobility far more difficult.

What Matt doesn't spend time on is the incredible statement that liberalism is about "maximizing" equality. Perhaps Brooks is hedging his bets by putting the word "orthodox" in, but, even so, this is sheer nitwittery. I have had huge disagreements with American liberalism over the years (if we can't optimize both, I lean toward freedom), but I would not make such a claim. (Actually, his simplistic take on conservatism is overstated, as well.)

This is, yet again, straw mannery. The peculiar thing about these two strands of American belief is that their goal is, in essence, the same: they want to maximize the "pursuit of happiness." They (not so) simply differ about how to get there.

The point, of course, has nothing to do with Brooks' novel theory. He sets up the false conflict between his second and third schools, argues that this is the central issue in defining the Republican party, then argues, ineptly, how this applies to the McCain campaign:

McCain shares the progressive conservative instinct. He has shown his sympathy with the striving immigrant and his disgust with the colluding corporatist. He has an untiring reform impulse and a devotion to national service and American exceptionalism.

His campaign seemed the perfect vehicle to explain how this old approach applied to a new century with new problems — a century with widening inequality, declining human capital, a fraying social contract, rising entitlement debt, corporate authoritarian regimes abroad and soft corporatist collusion at home.

In modernizing this old tradition, some of us hoped McCain would take sides in the debate now dividing the G.O.P.
Talk about projection. If this campaign has demonstrated one thing, it is that McCain is profoundly un-philosophic. Brooks does concede this, admitting that the campaign's tactical decisions got in the way of the necessary redefinition of the Republican message. This incoherent mess finally concludes with the remarkable paragraph:
McCain would be an outstanding president. In government, he has almost always had an instinct for the right cause. He has become an experienced legislative craftsman. He is stalwart against the country’s foes and cooperative with its friends. But he never escaped the straitjacket of a party that is ailing and a conservatism that is behind the times. And that’s what makes the final weeks of this campaign so unspeakably sad.
Apparently, the second, third, and fourth sentences are meant to justify the first, but we have seen the essential falsity of those premises. And that takes a lot of edge off the idea that we should see John McCain as the innocent victim of larger trends (if that's what Brooks is arguing).

What we have is another example of a pundit ignoring the past two years of campaigning, substituting the heroic vision of McCain that they already had, and trying to understand how this great man could lose. What Brooks should be doing, as in his own column that I discussed in the first half of the post, is questioning his own perception of who John McCain really is - there's the answer as to how he could be where he is today, and that's far less sad.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


In baseball, Babe Ruth set a single-season home run record of 29 in 1919 when he was still with the Boston Red Sox. This made him a big star, but his superstardom came the next season when, after being traded to the New York Yankees, he hit 54 homers. He broke his old record on July 19, a little more than halfway through the season.

This accomplishment was a game-changer, one that altered the way fans looked at numbers of home runs forever. Hitting 20, even 30, home runs didn't seem so amazing when 54 (and, the next year, 59 - then, six years later, Babe took it to 60) was on the board.

Sports, because it's very public and many numbers are collected, are full of such feats, ones that render subsequent performances routine (only 5 different players have scored 70 or more points in an NBA game, but Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game makes 70 look pretty humdrum). Occasionally, however, we see game-changers in other areas.

To me, the $700 billion bailout (clearly a conservative number) is one of those. That number is so big as to render comparisons almost meaningless. Oh, the car companies want $25 billion; fine, that's nothing compared to $700 billion. My fear is that, once we're used to that, we'll get casual about all types of government spending ("that Defense project is wasting $950 million, is that all, no big deal"). I hope we can continue to understand just how big these numbers are. Let's write out $700 billion, just to help us remember: $700,000,000,000. Whew!

A question about infrastructure

One of the commonplace ideas that's being bandied about these days is that the magic bullet to stimulate the economy is to put massive amounts of money into fixing our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our reservoirs, and so forth. A lot of bright people has touted this "solution" in articles and blog posts and in appearances on talk shows. I won't try to cite names (try Googling "stimulus" and "infrastructure" and see what you get), but Robert Reich offers a pretty good ongoing summary of the argument.

Here's what I don't understand, any more than I understand why "investments" in new energy necessarily imply great wealth and riches for the American people: why is infrastructure going to rebuild our economy any more than anything else?

I know that we need to spend this money, that most governments have hopelessly neglected such projects in their continuing need to maintain the fiction that they get more and more things done without raising taxes. We have not kept up with the things we have, though we do sometimes find money for new splashy things (I live close to a multi-year project that is rebuilding an intersection, along with associated interchange improvements, despite the fact that the reality of the labor market means that the troublesome intersection is no longer a problem).

But there are two contentions I don't get. One is that these projects will create good jobs. I'm not sure what the profile of jobs created by construction work is, but I'd like to see some evidence that it's necessarily a high-compensation set of positions. Since we've seen the diminishing power of unions in this outsourcing world, I don't know that these are great jobs with good pay and limitless futures.

The second contention that confuses me is the idea that these projects will help our economy grow. The growth of any economy is directly tied to innovation, and it just doesn't seem to me that rebuilding a bridge or a highway is "innovative" enough to create that growth.

There are two possible answers to my questions that I can foresee, and they may provide enough of a positive effect to offset my concerns. The first is that infrastructure improvements enable other segments of the economy to grow, that by building new roads we create opportunities for the faster movement of goods, which helps the economy. True though that may be, I'd think that our long-time neglect of these things implies that much of this "investment" will be used to maintain the status quo, not directed to growth.

The other possible answer comes from something that the proponents sometimes include in their message, that we will improve our human infrastructure as well, by building new schools, extending the Internet, offering help for college. And I suppose that these things, even if they're part of any legislation, would help (though I have serious doubts as to the matching of future supply with demand). But these are long-term solutions with no guarantee of proper implementation; if we haven't figured out how to fix our schools yet, why is now any different? So, even in the 10-15 year timeframe, it's hard to see how this part of the "investment" solves any of our current problems.

It's possible I'm missing some part of the argument, but I've been reading what I can find about it, and specific details as to how our infrastructure spending will transform our lives are few and far between. One of the apparent problems with this year's "stimulus" is that it was unfocused, that it had no framework to guarantee that it would stimulate anything in particular. I'd sure like to have a few more answers before we commit more billions to build more stuff.

Monday, October 27, 2008

One-party rule

From what is apparently the continued desperation of the McCain campaign, we now have the message going out that offers the horrifying specter rule! A vote for Obama is a vote for giving unlimited power to Pelosi and Reid, and the republic will be inextricably lost. A couple of thoughts:

1) John McCain is a maverick, forever willing to buck party orthodoxy, flouting Republican beliefs to stand up for what's right. He's barely conservative, perhaps the most Democrat-ic of all Republicans. (Forgetting that that is almost completely untrue) we should have everything to fear from a McCain presidency, as he will be continually reaching across the aisle and working with the dreaded Pelosi and Reid to get things done, so he'll be every bit as bad as Obama.

2) More seriously, though I have some sympathy for the view that suggests that the consequences of either party having control of the White House and Congress is negative, I don't think that's an argument that will fly right now.

The negative perception of Congress is based, in my opinion, on their total lack of ability to accomplish anything. This country faces great challenges, and has for some time, and our lawmakers have dithered around, spent more time trying to manage perceptions than to solve problems. One can take any example, but I think of the immigration "crisis" that has bubbled up periodically over the past few years. Each time, our leaders move this issue to the front burner, treat it as a vital threat or promise, and make bold speeches on the floor of the House and Senate. People march in cities across the country, get a lot of media attention, believing that something (whether they like that something or not) will happen. Legislation is drafted, amendments offered, talk shows booked. And nothing happens. We still don't have comprehensive immigration reform, but our solons have managed to fill their reelection coffers with money.

This example, multiplied by a factor of everything, is emblematic of Congress' approach. Even in 2007, when the Democrats took back a majority, Nancy Pelosi was everywhere, vowing to get big things done. Where are those things?

Unless one seriously believes that Barack Obama is a closet radical or Marxist, it's hard to get too worked up about one-party rule this time. I don't have much confidence that, even with a like-partied president, our lawmakers will get off their duffs, take some chances, and enact some meaningful changes. Coupled with Obama's apparent deliberative nature, I don't see much chance that we'll undergo a massive leftward tilt in our policies and programs. But maybe we'll see some kind of shift toward action instead of stasis. Frankly, after the inertia of the last several years, I'd welcome some movement, even if I don't agree with every single program that is put in place.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review - Four-Letter Words

I am an inveterate puzzler. I'm not a big fan of Sudoku, though anything that gets people thinking about numbers, even if it doesn't lead to an uptick in true math appreciation, is OK by me. I've enjoyed crosswords since I was a kid; I don't buy many crosswords magazines because I find the easy, medium, and many of the hard ones too easy, and the miser within me has trouble leaving 70% of a puzzle magazine blank. There have been periodic attempts at newsletters that publish only difficult crosswords, but none that I've seen have had staying power.

Michelle Arnot, crossword creator and editor, has written a new book titled Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider (2008). It's a curious work, kind of an OLIO of topics about crosswords, none delved into with much depth, all built around the four-letter words that appear regularly in puzzles (if in few other places). There's a smattering of history, a mention of contests (but nothing so entertaining as the documentary film Wordplay), some excursions into three-letter words, but the bulk of the book deals with such stalwarts as EBAN and EDER, GAGA and HULA, NEVA and RANI.

The book is not without its charm, as there are brief definitions (and the occasional short anecdote) about many of these words that are necessary to fill out troublesome spots in diagrams. There are probably some solvers who have learned that the clue "Chaplin wife" is filled in with OONA without learning anything about Eugene O'Neill's young daughter.

For experienced solvers, however, this book rapidly descends into stasis. The trick comes in finding something of interest while wading through this small volume's dissection of, for example, who Anita LOOS was; if you already know it, you're going to want to move on quickly. But that takes you to AYN RAND, so, again, if you're well-read, you're wasting your time. And I don't know how much a neophyte, or TYRO, is going to get out of this. The way you learn this crosswordese is by doing crosswords, not so much by reading through a book.

I, and I accept that I may be an exception here, thought this book should actually be longer than its 211 pages. Had the lengthy list of words been supplemented by more of Arnot's experience, by more history and solving tips and stories of competition, I could have glided by the words. It's not at all a bad book, it just really didn't do much for me. If you are new to the world of crosswords, this is an excellent introduction (though I still think the long chapters of words will be eye-glazing). If you've lived with crosswords for years, it will probably not be as valuable.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Three reviews

Each of the last three nights, my wife and I took advantage of the cultural riches Chicago has to offer and attended a different event. I have said before that I am far more an uninformed fan than an expert, so these are, of necessity, the scribblings of an amateur. Read these at your own peril.

Wednesday night, it was off to the Lyric Opera. Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is an opera I've seen once before, and, other than a couple of hit tunes, I've found it rather flimsy. The story is preposterous, even by opera standards; worse yet, it is close to non-existent (the tale is told that the librettists, upon hearing the music the 24-year-old Bizet had written, apologized for the poor quality of the story). I won't bother to summarize, it's irrelevant to whether you'll enjoy it.

There are only four singing parts, one of which is the small role of the high priest, so we're left with two male friends and the woman they both love. The most moving and famous song is the friendship duet between the two men, and it was handled well at the Lyric. One thing that irks me about many of the recordings I've heard is that the remarkable flute parts often get swallowed up; Wednesday night, the flute was left as the third partner that it should be.

The rest of the opera just doesn't grab me much. There's some nice orchestration, if not as impressive as in the 12-years-older Bizet's Carmen. It's all pleasant, at times even lovely, but there's really nothing here that grabbed me emotionally. I have this problem with French operas in general, that they're light and delightful, but the stories are thin and the music unmemorable. Perhaps that's an unfair generalization, but it has been pretty consistent over the years. All that said, the performances by Nathan Gunn, Eric Cutler, and Nicole Cabell were wonderful. They invested this opera with as much gravity as possible through their singing and acting.

Thursday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The hot young conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya brought his new Caminos del Inka project to Symphony Center, an attempt to bring the music of the Andes (he is from Lima) to the orchestral stage. The pieces ranged from folk tunes of the 18th century (or before) to a couple of works on which the ink was barely dry. The only one most people had heard before was El condor pasa, and that only because Paul Simon worked it into a famous Simon & Garfunkel song.

I am generally unmoved by these experiments. The brilliance of Dvorak or Bartok came from their ability to take folk tunes and spin them into serious orchestral works. Barring that, one ends up either with music that is inflated to fit a large orchestra, or that is largely standard fare with exotic accents (as in Soro's Tres aires chilenos, which came off as stirring Hollywood-type music with South American influences - not horrible, but nothing that couldn't be pasted together by a Waxman or a Herrmann).

Added to this was a slide show that detracted from realization of the music. It's difficult to trust that there is a complete commitment to the orchestra when the audience is asked to watch Peruvian scenes or, worse yet, completely unrelated abstract images. These are invariably attempts at expanding an audience that is presumably assumed to wish to multitask, but the images condition the music in ways that are almost certainly not the intention of the composer.

One piece was called Illapa, a tone poem for flute and orchestra, a piece composed in 2004. This one featured a soloist on Andean flutes, Jessica Warren-Acosta; oddly enough, she mixed the South American flutes in with standard flutes to no particular effect. Another was Mariel, a piece by the well-known contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov. This featured a remarkable solo effort by cellist Kenneth Olsen, but the orchestral part seemed underwritten and incompatible. I'd love to hear the original piece for cello and marimba.

There were a couple of other pieces, but the whole thing was pretty much unmemorable. When one looks at the "standard" orchestral program, where there is a short piece, then a concerto, finishing with a symphonic work, any of these seven pieces would fit into the first slot and give the audience some exposure to the culture. For a complete concert, these works just don't hold up.

Harth-Bedoya seems to be trying to bring the success of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project to gain some recognition of the music of his homeland. It's a noble effort, one that is worth pursuing, but not one that I feel works at this stage with a high-powered orchestra like the CSO. If the audience reaction was any indication, my opinion was widely shared.

Friday night, it was off to the Joffrey Ballet. The three works on the fall program were quite varied, and the Joffrey did its usual impeccable job of bringing them to us. The company may not get quite the attention it did when it was based in New York, but, in my limited experience with "the dance," I find them truly superior. (As an example, the ABT gave a performance of Swan Lake in Chicago a couple of years ago, and the corps de ballet was appallingly out of synch. The Joffrey rarely has these problems.)

Each of the three works, though this is not expressly stated, seem to be focused around a series of pas de deux. Perhaps it betrays a lack of sophistication on my part, but I generally enjoy solo turns and large group dances over duets. So there was not enough of what I like for my taste, but there was still plenty here to enjoy.

The first piece, Postcards, was Robert Joffrey's final work. The revelation to me was the music of Erik Satie, a composer about whom I've always been pretty indifferent. (I own a version of his Gymnopédies which is dreadful, it's played so slowly.) And it was quite good here. The dancing was not so appealing to me. There wasn't anything wrong with it, it just struck me as repetitive and uninteresting. Maybe it was just me.

The second piece, In The Night, was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, famous for his Broadway and Hollywood work. This piece was so much more, showing three different phases of love. The last in particular I found quite moving as danced by Suzanne Lopez and Patrick Simoniello, but all the couples were good. This was kind of a revelation, as I had not realized that Robbins had created "classic" ballets, but this was absolutely gorgeous.

The final work, Age of Innocence, is a new piece by Edwaard Liang. I thought it got off to a rough start; the first two parts (of five) seemed stock and static. But it came into its own in a dance for four men, then moved into what was, in effect, a duet for Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani, two of the real stars of the Joffrey. This part was amazing, with novel holds and positions, and was followed by a fast-paced finale that marked Liang as a choreographer to watch.

So that's enough culture for me for one week, it's time for a rainy weekend of football (and assorted chores and things).

Friday, October 24, 2008


I've alluded to the Chicago Tribune's "makeover," which features more graphics and color, fewer stories on the front page, section breaks that aren't tied to content (business no longer has its own section, it's kind of randomly stuck into the paper), and a new level of snark that is, apparently, supposed to attract the non-newspaper reading youth of America. Much of it is probably harmless, most of it pointless, but one does have to be concerned with the loss of the experienced reporters who were "offered" early buyout packages (under the standard business theory that experience is just a big drag, not worth paying for).

If today's interview with Sarah Palin is any indication, the Trib is in troub. Here is an opportunity for one of the country's great newspapers to spend some time with a controversial candidate, and the interview (with Jill Zuckman) reads like something out of Teen Beat. (The story is here, the interview transcript here.) Whatever you might think Zuckman and Palin would discuss, you're going to be surprised and disappointed.

I would imagine that many people will think that the Trib is taking it easy on Palin because of their editorial endorsement of Obama. Others will contend that allowing the campaign to steer the interview in return for access is pretty standard behavior. But neither of these reasons excuses a question like this:
You're giving this policy speech tomorrow, but has this journey been worth it to you when you're getting nitpicked on wardrobe and polls?
One wonders if Zuckman is asking questions out of her notebook, or off a piece of paper handed her by a Palin staffer. Let me help this experienced reporter.

The wardrobe issue is important because, in a campaign that is getting outspent, that is having trouble with finances, somehow it found $150,000 to outfit their vice presidential candidate in designer duds. This is money that was raised by supporters who felt, foolishly, that their money would be used to defeat Barack Obama. And this figure wasn't created by the evil liberal media, it came off official campaign spending statements.

As for "nitpicking" on polls, well, I guess it would be impolite to ask the candidate about the numerous polls that indicate that her presence is hurting the campaign, that her Bushian incuriousness is leading people to believe that she is not a serious candidate.

By the way, Governor Palin's answer is not exactly enlightening:

SP: "It is all worth it because we know we are on the right path here in providing Americans a choice on Nov. 4th. You can support a children that will do all that we can for children with special needs and we support policies that will create jobs and get the economy back on track. Of course it's worth it. But I'm glad you brought up the wardrobe.

"That whole thing is just, bad! Oh, if people only knew how frugal we are."

"The clothes that were loaned to us during the convention. And I don't think it was anywhere near...What did they say, Tracey? $150 grand? It wasn't anywhere near that. Those are not ours. We give those back, those go to charity or they'll be auctioned off or whatever. That's not even my property. So to be criticized for that, that is not who we are."

Q: So you're not carrying around cartons of brand new clothes that people have gone out and bought for you?

SP: No, I think some of them were in the belly of the plane. No, yeah, that's not have we live.

There's a great answer, all too typical of what the American people have come to hate about their politicians. "It's bad, because we're just not like that, and the number is wrong despite what the official disclosure statements say, and we're not keeping them anyway, and we're not using all of them, and leave me alone or I'm going to pout."

Self-serving rubbish.

Lest you think that this is just one isolated incident out of a long interview, try simply looking at Zuckman's questions. Clearly, she agreed to ask questions only about Palin's upcoming "major policy speech" that will focus on higher funding for special-needs children. And, because personal narrative inevitably trumps political ideology or consistency, Palin will, as she does in the interview, focus on her personal story of dealing with special-needs children.

Of course, this flies in the face of her running mate's vow to freeze government spending. Palin:
We have a $3 trillion federal budget and we're looking at a miniscule amount of money in the grand scheme of things here. And it is a matter of prioritizing the dollars that are already there. Not necessarily asking for more funding, but re-prioritizing dollars that are existing in federal budgets today, and then allowing some of that to trickle down to our states and allow the states to prioritize also according to the needs in our individual states and how they feel best to, to provide services to special needs children.
And more:
And government can play an appropriate role in that assistance. So that's what I want to work on, also. Especially with autism. We need to strengthen the National Institute of Health. There needs to be funding there. If reprioritizing it is the answer, we'll do that, reprioritizing funds to make sure we're researching everything about autism and trying to find out what it's cause is and what we can do to help these children and then again, its humanitarian, how we can help these families.
I'm certainly all for helping special-needs Americans (that includes adults and children), and I would love for us to find a cure for autism. But is there anything in Palin's quotes that couldn't be filled with any number of other worthy causes and used to justify government spending on anything?

This highlights the current intellectual vacuity of the Republican party. Spending on things that Palin classifies as "humanitarian" justifies the "sharing the wealth" for which Obama is being criticized. Other things, items that are not "compassionate conservatism," spending on those is radically liberal, socialist, Marxist.

I suupose I'm asking too much to believe that the new Chicago Tribune Lite would bring up issues like this, that such questions would be "nitpicking."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Percentage points

In a list of things to be irritated about, the following is probably not at the top of the list, but time is short today, and this topic is somewhat significant. It is the confusion on the parts of many people between "percentage" and "percentage points," one that is typified by this comment (identification withheld because it's just too prevalent to single out one writer):
A poll commissioned by the New York Times and CBS News found that 23 percent more people think McCain is very knowledgeable about foreign affairs compared to Obama – 45 percent to 22 percent.
(This is from a while ago, I think the numbers are different now.)

This statement is simply wrong. It's not that 23 percent more people thought McCain knowledgeable, it's 105 percent - more than twice as many. It's 23 more percentage points, a number far more contextual (99% - 76% gives one a far different perception than 27% - 4%).

I don't think I expect too much of the media that they get things like this right. But their inability to handle simple statistical concepts allows them to be manipulated, witness some of the National Sales Tax movement members. Their marketing concept is that, in charging a 30% sales tax, they can call it 23%. What they do is divide the increase by the result (30/130), an intellectually bankrupt attempt at sugar-coating the bite. And I've read articles which cite a 23% increase, or discuss it as a "point of contention." No, it's a lie, and it comes directly out of an inability or unwillingness to learn junior high-level statistics.

It's hard to see how we can trust members of the press on anything regarding numbers, and a financial crisis brings forth a lot of numbers, when they fall prey to simple mistakes like these.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Energy and the free market

I've said it before, I'm a big fan of the free market. It has been one of the true liberating and civilizing influences in our world, and there is clearly no better way of getting the most goods in the most hands (and I use goods in its broadest economic sense).

However (and you knew a "but" or "however" was coming), it isn't perfect. There really isn't such a thing as a truly free market, and the differences do matter. More importantly, the free market is at its best in a transactional economy, not so good in the parts of an economy that represent relationships. For example, strict free market theory would suggest that we should all get up each day, ascertain where we can make the most money, and go do that. Obviously we don't, because we have a "relationship" with the kind of work we do and the kind of skills we have, so we establish a relationship with a career and an employer; if we are not truly optimizing our day-to-day return, we gladly make that tradeoff for stability and predictability.

The market tends to have trouble with long-term initiatives for a number of reasons, one of which is the difficulty of predicting value in the future - one in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but how about three in the bush?

Our current approach to alternative energy is relentlessly free market-based; the proposals on the table are mainly about tax cuts and incentives to people and companies who want to work with new energy. We hear about a "Manhattan Project," but no one is seriously contemplating any such thing. No matter which party runs our government, there is almost no possibility that we're going to create a government-run effort to replace petroleum. Instead, we're going to let the free market work its magic and produce a new future.

Except the free market is going to consider things other than, we need new energy as soon as possible. It's influenced by the price of oil, by the ability to get financing, by the difficulty of actually solving the problem. And this is all highlighted in a New York Times article from yesterday titled, "Alternative Energy Suddenly Faces Headwinds." Essentially, capital is drying up, people have fewer incentives to buy alternative energy as gas prices come down, and Washington may not be able to deliver on its meager promises:
But after years of rapid growth, the sudden headwinds facing renewables point to slowing momentum and greater dependence on government subsidies, mandates and research financing, at a time when Washington is overloaded with economic problems.
60 Minutes just had a story on alternative-fuel automobiles, and Lesley Stahl had a fine time at Tesla Motors, the company that believes it can bring the quick and dirty ethos of Silicon Valley to the car industry (but has inconveniently found that building them is hard without knowing anything about, well, cars). But even Tesla, which contemplates making unaffordable alternative cars, is having troubles, as Citizen Carrie documents here.

We needed to win World War II, so we cranked up government efforts to do so. If we had waited for private industry to figure out what needed to be done and to find financing to do it, we might well be speaking some kind of German-Japanese pidgin today.

At some point, we may have to decide that we need to win the alternative fuel struggle. Clearly, we haven't made that decision yet; by the time we figure it out, we may be sending our energy dollars not to Saudi Arabia, but to China. I'll let the reader decide if that's really preferable.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

W's next home?

Last night Charlie Rose did one of those double-dipping things where he hosts a seminar someplace, tapes it, and uses it as a program. This one was held at Harvard Business School, where they conferred this year's Alumni Achievement Awards on five business luminaries, and had Charlie host a discussion on leadership. It may have been edited, but there was very little talk about leadership on what we saw. Instead, Charlie wanted to get these folks' views on the current economic situation.

A couple of gripes: first, is it necessary for Charlie to work something from Tom Friedman into every single business discussion he has? Once again, he told the panel that "some people" (Friedman) believe that we should give a green card to every foreigner who graduates from an American college. The panel, mercifully, didn't pick up on this with any vigor.

Second, does Jeff Immelt, head of GE, bring anything to the table? Of the five, his comments were the least incisive - it was like a fifth grader at a table of smart collegians. Perhaps his skills don't translate to that forum (and one might question his inclusion given the recent results out of GE) but, other than a few platitudes about the global marketplace, he didn't give us a lot.

But the most interesting thing to me was a statement from Anand Mahindra, an executive at Mahindra & Mahindra, the large Indian conglomerate. I'm not sure what the question was that generated his comment, but he said that many Indians were uncertain as to who they liked in our presidential election; Barack Obama was intriguing, but John McCain was perceived as a third term of Bush, and Indians had no problems with Bush, that they thought he was just fine.

The reasons Mahindra cited were offshoring, outsourcing, and the big nuclear deal the U.S. approved this month. He could also have mentioned that the U.S. took the burden for a war that has ensured the continuation of a major source of oil (and the removal of a dictator), and that we are bearing much of the cost of propping up global businesses in the current crisis.

It's an odd thing when an American president is perceived more fondly in another nation than in his own, as his policies have benefited that country more than the one whose constitution he swore to "preserve, protect and defend." I really don't see how the judgment of history (at least, U.S. history) will ever be kind to a president who has done so much to tarnish the American ideal, and has, managed to promote the interests of other countries and its people more than his own.

Get that negativity out of here

In my continuing catching up with things I missed during and immediately after I was on vacation last month, I came across a post from Kathy G. pointing to a New York Times op-ed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is one of the few reporters who has spent any time looking at the downside of our supposed boom times, most famously in her books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Her willingness to immerse herself in the struggles of those about whom she writes, instead of pontificating from her brownstone, should be an inspiration to any reporter who really wants to understand what's going on with "real" America.

The article, titled The Power of Negative Thinking, has some excellent thoughts about the hidden cause of the financial crisis (and, in my opinion, many of our underlying problems as well). Greed is cited as the prime mover behind our meltdown, but Ehrenreich also expounds on "the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking." Oprah, modern pastors, and self-help books have all contributed to the idea that:
[T]o firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen.
This nutty positive thinking, Laws-of-Attraction sort of "philosophy" has invaded even those areas that one might think would be relentlessly rational:
[I]n the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person,” and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.
My personal experience: I was working in what was once one of the pre-eminent research institutions in the world when it was swept with Covey fever. Suddenly, managers with patents and published papers were trucking out to an airport conference room to get their golden eggs as they learned "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." And they brought the tapes back, and all of us got to spend hours with the sleep-inducing voice of Dr. Covey as he gave us the secrets to success.

The Seven Habits are actually a pretty minor introduction to world of positive thinking, since it does advocate some personal effort at self-improvement. However, just like Myers-Briggs, there is a tendency to classify and coerce in order to get people to conform to an ideal that actually runs counter to the idea of "diversity" that was so much a part of that company. (I pretty much lost interest in Dr. Covey when I heard that "First things first" was third on the list; that incongruity kind of tore it for me, not unlike my unhappy revelation that no one really knew where Cain went.) Back to Ehrenreich...

She goes on to point out that the now-ruined finance industry bought into this thinking as thoroughly as anyone:
With the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.
Of course, our history was not made by the dreamers; our settlers were hard-headed realists, even pessimists ("a grim Calvinism"). Ehrenreich doesn't mention it, but a reading of the Constitution will tell you that our Founders, for all their new nation stuff, were very well aware of the accretional tendencies of people; that's what all that checks and balances stuff is about, a cool reading of the true souls of men.

She concludes:
When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.
This all seems pretty obvious to me, but that may be more the result of innate temperament than any particularly thought-out world view. However, few people can go through a job interview process and miss the inherent truth of the proposition Ehrenreich offers. Rose-colored glasses are in, reality not so much.

I have written before about the hollowness of the exurb idea, exurbs being those far-away suburbs that are supportable only so long as gas prices remain low and house prices are made affordable. Yorkville is one such, a farm-based town about 50 miles west of Chicago that has no public transportation, no real industry, no big commercial enterprises. I've been to Yorkville a couple of times, and it's a fine old town on the river, but it's far away from pretty much everything.

And yet, a town that in 2000 had a few over 6,000 residents, projected that it would be at 50,000 by 2010. Keep in mind, there's no real easy way to get to Chicago, and very little infrastructure that would support 50,000. But everyone wants their ordained half-acre, and "if you build it, they will come."

Except now, they aren't coming. Yorkville now hopes it will get to 19,000 by 2010, but the unfinished subdivisions and schools may even prevent that forecast from coming true (as chronicled in a recent Chicago Tribune article). I won't rehash the points the article makes, but there was a telling quote at the end:
"No one would have expected to see what's happening now," said Lynn Dubajic of the Yorkville Economic Development Corp. "You try to move forward."
Of course, that's idiotic. Plenty of people (including the writer of this blog) foresaw exactly this, that the kind of foolish expansion would be insupportable. For Yorkville to become a city of 50,000 would have taken a remarkable confluence of events, most of which were unlikely.

But no one gets hired by the Yorkville Economic Development Corp who says, "We should have a fallback situation in case the housing market collapses or the price of oil goes up or we can't attract large employers or...." So Lynn, who has undoubtedly churned out numerous positive-thinking position papers is nonplussed at events that were quite likely. And the people who relied on those rosy forecasts end up losing money on their homes; just another bunch of victims of foolishly positive attitudes.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The world of comments

Regular readers may have noticed that I have not been responding to comments as much as I have previously. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, I have had to reprioritize my activities lately. Without getting into a lengthy exegesis of my list of activities in order of importance, comment-handling falls behind quite a few other things, most notably researching and writing the daily blog post(s). Given a finite amount of time, comments have had to slide. That may change in the future, as I enjoy the give and take of those who take the time to write, but for now is the way it will be.

Second, when I do write in the comments section, I will no longer climb into what I would call the "psychological morass." I have grown less interested in the underlying motivation behind those who post comments, and am not at all intrigued by those who wish to delve into my motivation, my background, my experiences. The latter comments are frequently wrong, and I have no reason to believe that my "insights" into others are any more valid.

What I'm saying is that I'm going to prioritize within comment handling. Those comments that have something to say about the contents of my posts, I may well find the time to sketch out a reply. If you have a link to provide to an article or another blog, whether it supports whatever contention I'm making or not, I thank you in advance for expanding my intellectual world.

If, however, your intent is to speculate on my emotional state or to provide a personal narrative that has little bearing on the content on the post, I will almost certainly not find the time to respond. I don't necessarily value those missives less, it's just that I have less to say about them than fits into my schedule. You can go on making those comments, they could well be of interest to other readers, please just don't be surprised if I choose not to take the time to join in those discussions.

Also: I've had a few comments lately that have contained some questionable language. I'm not particularly fond of these myself, as an articulate person should be able to make his or her point without profanity, but I recognize that standards are changing. More to the point, bad language reflects the writer, and readers can make up their own minds.

However, I'd be curious as to how others handle this. If you're a blogger, do you impose your own standards on matters of language, or do you let the chips fall where they may?


As I look over some items I missed during my vacation, I find a post by Mark Thoma pointing us to a commentary by Jeffrey Sachs:
In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving.

Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism...

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.

Climate change, for example, poses dire threats... that must be assessed according to prevailing scientific norms... We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

Sachs goes on to discuss the opposition of the Bush White House, supported by the mainstream press, to science and the policies that logically follow.
These are not isolated albeit powerful individuals out of touch with reality. They reflect the fact that a significant portion of American society, which currently votes mainly Republican, rejects or is simply unaware of basic scientific evidence regarding climate change, biological evolution, human health and other fields. These voters generally do not reject the benefits of technologies that result from modern science, but they do reject the evidence and advice of scientists regarding public policies.
Some of these uninformed citizens are ignorant, having suffered through poor education, and others are willfully denying reality based on religious fundamentalism. It doesn't have to be this way:
The issue here is not religion versus science. All of the great religions have traditions of fruitful interchange with -- and, indeed, support for -- scientific inquiry. The Golden Age of Islam a millennium ago was also the age in which Islamic science led the world. Pope John Paul II declared his support for the basic science of evolution, and Roman Catholic bishops are strongly in favor of limiting human-induced climate change, based on the scientific evidence.
[For a wonderfully stated view of how to reconcile religion and science, see E.O. Wilson's article from 1998, quoted by Andrew Sullivan - "mutual respect" being the takeaway here:

Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. While the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. Ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. They are, however, far more a product of autonomous evolution than has hitherto been conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility.

Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments.

The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.]

Sachs sees this situation, given our current global challenges, as absolutely critical:
The US must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.
It's difficult to argue with any of this, so I won't, but I think Sachs understates the problem by using the word "intellectual." In common parlance, "intellectual" is associated with a tweedy, elbow-patched professor expounding on obscurities while puffing away on his pipe. It is a term taken by many to express a kind of inert pondering of each problem, in lieu of a muscular action-oriented approach. Intellectuals are by common understanding ineffective; therefore, what they do, thinking, is discounted as a strategy.

The bigger problem, of course, is that this country is anti-smart. Oh, we like the word, crediting people with intelligence even as we confuse stupidity with authenticity, glibness with depth. There are no shortage of articles with statements like, "George W. Bush is smart, but...." It is a strange necessity that we call him smart at the same time we recognize that he has profoundly misunderstood his office, his duty, his nation. And now we find the same idea attached to Sarah Palin, a woman who is credited as smart while she shows a complete ignorance of the fact that her statements can be recorded and played back.

In reality, we have no idea what "smart" is or how to evaluate it; even if we can, we mistrust it, as if every scientist is trying to trick us with his or her "book learnin'." Until we respect and value intelligence, instead of falsely attributing it to anyone who can read a teleprompter, we are unlikely to find our way in intelligence, politics, business, or pretty much anything else.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review - The Whole Truth and Nothing To Lose

David Baldacci is a reliable thriller writer, mainly in the area of politics (at least in those books of his I've read). His strengths are in dense plotting, as the action tends to move quickly from scene to scene, not getting hung up on lengthy exposition or scene description or character development. He writes "popcorn" novels, ones that can be read quickly and provide visceral enjoyment. From what I've read, his quality seem to sustain itself in a way that David Morrell and Jonathan Kellerman have had trouble doing lately.

These virtues are in evidence in what is billed as "his first international thriller," The Whole Truth (2008). The main character, Shaw (no first name, something that is supposed to be taken as significant), is the typical physical and mental superman, with unique skills that make him invaluable to a secret crime-fighting organization. TWT is designed around the idea that Shaw's falling in love transforms him in ways that will presumably be interesting to the reader, so we're not just following a complex series of international machinations, but the flowering of a man's closed-off soul.

And none of the "soul" stuff is all that fascinating. You may be affected, a little, by his personal travails, but there is not enough depth there to make you care about this cipher of a man. Shaw is just not a character who grabbed me, though I reserve the right to modify that judgment if he becomes the focus of a series, as seems likely.

The rest of the book is fine, however, if not particularly memorable. You'll be buoyed along on the usual fast-moving plot, and the geopolitical nature of it is realistic, if somewhat underdeveloped for my taste (though events can conspire to make dramatic effects banal, even risible; see if you can work up horror over $130 per barrel oil, which you're supposed to see as a representation of world chaos). You'll move from page to page, you'll want to see how it turns out, and there are enough surprises to make it interesting, though the denouement is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

If the character of Shaw seems familiar other than expressing some clear lineage to James Bond, it is that he resembles Lee Child's Jack Reacher. A strong, powerful man who rights wrongs where he finds them, Reacher is one of the more compelling figures in modern pop fiction. He owns nothing but the clothes on his back, and travels where he wants to, showing no particular ties to anything. For Reacher, situations are morally clear and generally yield to some kind of violence.

That doesn't sound promising to many readers, I'm sure, but Child usually does a good job of justifying Reacher's actions, well enough so that you tend to see him as an outsider who can cut through red tape to do good, not as a vigilante who works outside the law to get what he wants. What is ingenious here is that Reacher never profits from his activities, but just moves on down the road to the next situation that he will (reluctantly) handle.

And that's why book 12 in this series, Nothing To Lose (2008), is a bit disappointing. Reacher comes across a town that treats him badly, and he decides to investigate no matter the cost. Child does find some plot contrivances that justify Reacher's actions, and he works with a policewoman from a neighboring town to provide further verification that these actions are "right," but it just didn't seem sufficient to explain why Reacher doesn't just keep moving down the road.

Now, Child doesn't seem capable of writing a truly awful book, so there is plenty of compelling description and action, and it's still a pretty good read. But it's a relatively minor entry in the series, not one I'd recommend starting with, and, obviously, I hope that the next Reacher novel gets this character back on track.

In summary, neither one of these books is a waste of time, but each has flaws that might provide fatal to any particular reader, depending on taste. Baldacci and Child have done better, and one can only hope that they will do so again.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Why Obama won the election

This will not be one of those cute posts where I follow up with another one titled, "Why McCain won the election." With 17 days to go, it seems clear that, barring anything dramatic, Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States. For McCain to come back now will require more than appearances with David Letterman (and isn't it telling that Letterman asks questions more probing than most of the pundits and "journalists"?).

So I'm going to offer up my take on why this victory is occurring. I'll leave to the usual suspects the standard explanations (it was the right time, the youth vote came out, the financial crisis made us realize that we didn't want any more Republicans in charge for a while). Those are all factors, but, to me, they were not the deciders. I've had a couple of thoughts, one that I haven't read anywhere else, the other one a variation on a common theme.

1) The Biden choice

I don't believe that Joe Biden will bring many votes to the Democratic ticket. I have favored the choice since it was made, believing that Biden lends some serious foreign policy cred to the team. But this veteran pol is not going to ignite massive excitement in the electorate.

However, I believe that Obama's decision (perhaps unwittingly) was the key moment of the 2008 campaign. Here's why.

Obama had a choice between two: Hillary or not-Hillary. There were a whole lot of people pushing him to put Clinton on the ticket, arguing that he needed the army of women that would only back another female. Let's say Obama had gone with that, let's look at where McCain would have been.

Before the convention, John McCain was in a most curious position. He was a Republican without his base, abandoned by the Rush Limbaugh wing (who essentially said they wouldn't vote), but perceived as a centrist due to his "maverick" status. In other words, he had done Clinton-style triangulation without having secured the base, which left him in a good position to compete with a relatively left liberal. That's, I believe, why the polls were relatively close - McCain had the spectrum from the near-right to a good number of the center, while Obama had the rest of the center over to the far left. Had it remained that way, I think the election would have been pretty competitive.

There was another problem, though. Most of conventional wisdom says that competence is important to surprisingly few voters. Image, shared sensibilities, a beer-drinking buddy, all these are considered more important.

But there are some voters who prize execution over ideology, and they (quite obviously) tend to be found in the center. Some of these are people who believe that Washington actions are so constrained that left-right distinctions are unimportant in terms of actual programs, so the crucial thing is how well the government pulls off their goals. Normally, these people are a small enough group that the campaigns don't see it worth their while to target it.

This election, however, coming after a profoundly inept administration (which probably made the group larger than usual), and perceived as so close, made this group potentially critical to success. For many reasons, one of which is mentioned below, the McCain campaign couldn't count on much support from these voters. So other groups would need to be brought in.

Let's look at the landscape the day after Obama chooses Clinton. The base immediately embraces the best of a bad lot, and flocks to McCain (they don't like him any more than they did, but the Blonde Devil in the Pantsuit must be destroyed). The women who weren't reliably for McCain except as a reaction to the Democratic primary are gone, but John didn't really have them anyway. The fight moves to the center, including the execution people, and McCain picks a running mate who appeals to that center and has a proven track record of making things work (a Romney or another governor, probably not Lieberman). In my view, McCain has an excellent chance to win.

But Obama screwed that up by not picking Clinton. He picked Biden, no hero to the base, but not objectionable enough to get Rush to hold his nose and go with McCain. The base stays home.

And Biden is competent, with a track record of making things happen. Suddenly, two parts of the electorate are much harder to bring McCain's way. If he tacks even more rightward, hard to do with his embrace of so many of Bush's policies, he loses whatever progress he's made with the center. What to do, what to do?

It was time for the last-ditch pass, and McCain went up to Alaska to find someone to catch it. He chose Sarah Palin, hoping that she would bring in the base, and that she would bring in all the disaffected Hillary supporters. Since she was a symbolic pick, almost no vetting was needed. She was a woman, she was far right, and she's a governor, she must be competent.

And we've seen what happened. The base was energized, so McCain's picked up support and money there. But women were unimpressed, since Palin's views are quite inimical to rights that many women value (I think McCain may have seen women as more malleable than they actually are, perhaps because he grew up before the women's movement was even a glimmer). For those in the center who value competence, well, it took almost no time before Palin's record was examined (and she was asked actual questions), and her shortcomings became evident. McCain lost way more than he won in this deal, and, as a result, the election was lost.

But there was another critical factor on which Obama beat McCain badly:

2) Personnel execution

Another of the many lessons of the Bush debacle has been a recognition that it actually matters who a president chooses to have around him or her. We suspected it during the Carter years, when the late Ham Jordan was actually an important adviser. But Bush clinched it with his appointment of profoundly incompetent aides and administrators. Managing personnel is an important part of a president's duties.

Since presidential candidates are not required to pre-appoint Cabinet members, we're left to look at the way they handle their campaigns. Obama has done so expertly, McCain decidedly less so.

You may recall Samantha Power, foreign affairs adviser to the Obama campaign who stepped down after calling Hillary Clinton a monster back in March. Here's the thing: she's truly gone, we've barely heard a word from her since her departure. I've seen no articles suggesting that she slips ideas to Obama under the table, she's...just...gone.

You may recall Phil Gramm, former senator and economic adviser to the McCain campaign. Back in July, Gramm called the U.S. "a nation of whiners" (he's also likely the leading legislator behind the current financial crisis). Yet Gramm continues to be part of the McCain team, cited in TIME as a top adviser. Similarly, Carly Fiorina, failed head of HP and the "brain" behind the decline of Lucent Technologies, makes gaffe after gaffe but never quite seems to disappear.

To be fair to McCain, he may well be the ultimate team guy, a good quality in the military where loyalty and team cohesion is so important. One cannot help but be moved by stories of how servicemen always "go back for their own" as they recover their dead at great risk to themselves.

But this is not a campaign against the VC, it's a campaign for the office of president. Voters look at the people who surround the candidate, and decide whether they're acceptable. Obama has preserved an inner circle that has stayed on message, and shown a willingness to heave out those who can't. McCain hasn't done that; next thing you know, Brownie is back in charge of FEMA, and nobody thinks that's a good idea.

That's my take, anyway, as to why Obama is rolling to victory now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The End Times are nigh

The Chicago Tribune has endorsed Barack Obama. This may make a great trivia question one day: What do Barack Obama, Horace Greeley, and Teddy Roosevelt have in common? They are the only non-Republicans the Trib has endorsed for president.

I wrote last week that I would be surprised if it happened, and I am. The editorial board seems to be impressed with Obama, and disappointed in McCain ("McCain put his campaign before his country") in his pick of a running mate and his incoherent back-and-forth message.

If you want to be discouraged, take a look at some of the comments (1167 as of this writing). I got through 20 or so, then turned away in disgust. At a time when this country needs to come together, we still seem mighty polarized, much of it based on scurrilous lies and pointless innuendo. I hope that some of those commenters will pull themselves together, realize that (unlike the past 8+ years) we will most likely have a president who will try to represent everyone, and pitch in with solving our problems. Perhaps that's just a dream, but I can hope...


One thing that we've heard a lot about is that we need a Manhattan Project for new forms of energy, that we need to commit ourselves to a massive endeavor to find the source or sources of fuel that will replace our dependence on foreign supplies. I have a lot of qualms about this, most of which I've expressed before (the two biggest: I doubt that New Energy = a New Economy; and there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be the great discoverer, so we'll just pay those billions to a different foreign entity).

Here, though, I want to talk about the analogy to the Manhattan Project, because its philosophy is virtually unsupportable in today's political climate. Let's remember that the Project was run by the government in secret, its budget hidden in a veil of "national security." I know that private companies had their hands in it, but it was, everyone can agree, a government effort.

But we all know from Ronald Reagan (and Sarah Palin) that government cannot be trusted, and this belief is so pervasive that very few Democrats seriously question it these days (I recognize the unreality of the current financial crisis, but the key word there is "crisis" - people are not yet convinced that the energy situation is in that mode). Therefore, no one sees an Energy Project; instead, we want to "unleash" the great creative power of the American people by offering tax credits or rebates or whatever. The government won't manage anything, because it can't, but it will dole out money and wait for magic to happen.

I'm not a lunatic liberal, there are many things where I want government to take a light touch. But there are areas in which government, as a representative of this great democracy, should take the lead. (I recognize that this is one of the great issues of political philosophy, this balance, but I think we've let the balance become tipped too far in one direction.)

China has not taken the world lead in manufacturing by providing vague "incentives." They don't turn out large numbers of engineers by hoping that kids would decide to go into the field. Maybe you don't like comparing us to a totalitarian system. Fine, then look at our democratic friends, the Indians. Do we believe that they just spontaneously saw the benefits of studying computer science, or providing call center services? No, in all these cases, their government made a concerted effort to steer their society along a path.

[To pre-answer my critics, I'm not advocating a Soviet-style 5 Year Plan. That was the apotheosis of a too-heavy hand. But the examples I've provided demonstrate that it's possible for a government to set targets and formulate policies to support them without strangling their economies.]

But we refuse to do that, so caught up are we in ideological purity. If I had to summarize our problems with education simply, I'd say that we have failed to establish real goals. Even No Child Left Behind, with its metrics and numbers, is not specific enough to carry through to the world of employment. After the TV show CSI started, there were numerous stories about how large numbers of students were choosing to study forensic science. No one explained where all those people were going to find jobs, given that forensic budgets weren't increasing by three figure percentages. A rational system, one in which we recognize foreign competition and the waste of resources, wouldn't permit that.

Who is more likely to come up with the Next Big Thing in energy? Americans working in their garages, taking a tax break for the 100 square feet they're using, or the Chinese, using tax dollars to set up huge industrial workshops? Think about where you'd put your money if you had to bet.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


A word that's been popular for a while is "transparency." Almost every one who writes an article or book on how to make business and government better cites more transparency as a goal. McCain mentioned it three times last night.

But what do we (and they) really mean by "transparency"? The Wikipedia entry is not too much help, talking a lot about openness and accountability. With government, it points out such positive steps as open meetings and freedom of information acts, and those are good things (too easily circumvented; we're still waiting to hear who "helped" Dick Cheney formulate an energy strategy in the early days of the Bush administration).

The concept gets even muddier when applied to business. Would this financial crisis have been mitigated by knowing exactly what securities were bundled into these shaky mortgage obligations? Perhaps, but how specific can you get? To understand the nature of those underlying mortgages, you would need to know not only the sales price of every house, but the financial condition of everyone who took out those mortgages.

Moreover, much of the value of a particular company comes from its "private" information, the techniques and ideas that they have developed and their competition hasn't. Should potential investors in Google, which, since they're a public company, includes everyone, be informed as to the company's exact search algorithms so they can ascertain the real value of their technology over, say, Yahoo's?

Back to government. McCain can be withering when he accuses Obama of giving away too much information: "You don't tell the enemy what your plans are." Perhaps true, but that's not exactly transparency, is it? Ultimately, everyone is in favor of more transparency for everyone else, but not for themselves. Until each person confronts and resolves that conundrum, calls for transparency seem easy and hollow.


We all know what spam is, and we've all received some. But is there a term for semi-spam, an unwanted piece of e-mail that has at least a small justification for being sent?

Back in April, I wrote a post about one of the Democratic debates in which I referred to an excerpt from a sports book. I took issue with one of the statements in the excerpt, but I was generally positive about the book based on what I had read.

So a day or two ago, I receive an e-mail from a PR firm which says (appropriately edited so as not to give any more publicity to this book):

Dear blogger--

I'd like to thank you on behalf of [the author] for helping spread the word about his book on your blog. If you find the time, we'd greatly appreciate any more words you could post for your readers to remind or encourage them to read this book.

Thanks for any and everything you can do.

All best,

This isn't exactly spam, I suppose, since I did write something about this book. It does share some characteristics with spam, in that it is unwanted, and almost certainly comes from an automated process. But semi-spam doesn't seem like a clever enough term; maybe I should put Barbara Wallraff on it.

I did respond to the flack:
Offer to send me a copy, and I'll be happy to review it on my blog.

I'll let you know when I hear something.

After the fourth debate

Once again, my familiarity with the stances of each candidate keeps me from being particularly surprised by anything I saw. I expected to see the measured, calm demeanor of Obama, and the energetic near-powderkeg of McCain, and I saw that. I expected Obama to be able to lay out his plans in a well-reasoned fashion, and McCain to shoot for one-liners while having less command of the details, and I saw that. (In fact, Obama seemed to understand McCain's own medical plan better than McCain did.)

Not that I wasn't disappointed. Neither man had much to offer in the way of an economic crisis plan; I suspect the real answer is that there is no such plan, that the economy is going to have to work its way through this period, and Washington can only hope to mitigate, not fix, the damage. Let's not forget that the New Deal didn't magically dissipate the Great Depression, it took a world war to do that (and I half expected McCain to offer that as a possibility: "My friends, we're going to invade Iran to perk up the economy.") Neither wishes to confront the reality that their objectives will have to be put on hold as America finds itself unable to pay for their bold plans. When you consider, however, that their advisers (like Larry Summers for Obama) don't see any such deferral as necessary, I probably shouldn't be surprised.

I thought Obama did a better job of pointing out that his plans would have long-term benefits at some short-term cost, though I don't really believe that those benefits as stated will be fully realized. McCain is less coherent here, cutting taxes and freezing spending while adding programs to do certain things. He also seemed to feel that vouchers are a magic bullet for transforming education, citing Washington D.C. as an example, and the schools remain terrible in our capital.

Some of the post-debate pundits said that they thought McCain's performance would energize the base, but that's not what McCain needs right now. With 19 days to go, he's going to have to chop about a half a percentage point per day off Obama's lead; even if he somehow achieved that last night, if only through increased turnout, that momentum is unlikely to be maintained. Unless he can come up with a new financial program that Americans will embrace as the solution to their problems, or find a way to cast doubt on Obama's fitness, it would appear that the race is over. It will be interesting to see which approach he'll take - I fear the latter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pay just one easy monthly bill...

I don't know about you, but I'm finding the series of bailouts, real and proposed, somewhat bewildering at this point. It appears the trough is open, and the hogs are coming to partake, and there is no limit. We hear about the auto companies and the airlines sneaking in to scoop up some public money while the vault is ripe for the plunder.

It all has the feel of those ads we hear for debt consolidation companies, the places that promise to help you work out your debt and let you make just one easy payment. The government seems to be trying to take all the bad debt out of the system, but not in a way where anyone actually loses anything. Took out a mortgage that you can only afford if you win the lottery? Don't worry about it, Uncle Sam is here to shoulder that burden for you. Invested in mortgage-backed securities that won't pay off for a while, if ever? Let Hank Paulson take them off your hands.

But here's the kicker, if you listen to the learned people and the politicians telling us what we need. Not only are they promising to help us work out our debt, they're vowing that we will have extra money in our pockets (as that's needed to "stimulate" the economy).

And it goes still further. Not only will we only have one low monthly payment, but, in a John McCain world, it will be even lower than it is today, because we need tax cuts. And we'll get that extra stimulus money. And we're going to rebuild our infrastructure, and create new forms of energy, and fix health care.

Whew! Not even the most aggressive debt consolidator promises to combine our debt, give us more spending money, and come over to fix our deck and gas up our cars and give us an aspirin, but that's what we're hearing from Washington.

Look, I understand the Keynesian idea that governments should run deficits in a falling economy to maintain things while we wait for the underlying growth to emerge. But I don't think Keynesian stimulus applies at the levels we're currently talking about, and I doubt that we will be able to sustain our post-downturn growth at a level that will pay this back. I could certainly be wrong, but I wonder what kind of legacy we're handing to future generations.

Before the fourth debate

Not a lot to say, though I will be catching the final McCain-Obama contest. I don't think it will represent anything of a game changer, unless Barack brings Bill Ayres and Reverend Wright up on the stage and announces his intention to make them chief of staff and Secretary of Islam.

Obama's probably too careful to make any such major mistake, so McCain shouldn't hold out too much hope that this will propel him into the role of favorite. McCain could still win, though the polls make this less likely all the time, but it's going to have to be the result of convincing Americans that he really is the safer choice.

As they say in basketball, there's no such thing as an eight-pointer, so if you're down, you have to play good ball and come back over a period of time. McCain certainly has to avoid mistakes himself - he doesn't want to give people an excuse to jump - but his campaign cannot count on tonight to put him back in the game. We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How times change

For whatever reason, my wife is on the mailing list for the Republicans, which we could live without (that's not an overtly political statement; we're capable of making up our own minds without the mailings, and would rather neither party waste their money on pointless literature).

Here's the tagline on this solicitation for funds (marked EMERGENCY NOTICE):
Dear John, I realize that it is absolutely essential to our Party's success for us to raise at least $30 million in the next 15 days to battle back against the Democrats' massive and limitless fundraising machine.
There is no greater measure of how things have changed. Bush, under the tutelage of Karl Rove, raised fantastic amounts of money in 2000 and 2004, while the Democrats struggled. Now it's the Democrats who have the "massive and limitless fundraising machine."

If Republicans want to look for someone to blame for this turn of events (and they do), they shouldn't waste time excoriating Obama or Howard Dean. Look right into the big white building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C.

The punditocracy

One of the most enduring myths of America is that it is a meritocracy, that great people achieve great people, that rich people are rich because they have earned it. It requires huge contortions of logic to believe that at times; Britney Spears is worth $100 million because she has tapped into the zeitgeist of early 21st century civilization, or some such twaddle. We ignore that she is actually a broken-down brand, a sad young woman who has served as a receptacle for a series of music producers and video directors, and convince ourselves that she somehow "deserves" to be immensely wealthy.

Luck has no place in this formulation, as it's seen as excuse-making for the untalented to claim that bad fortune has had a hand in their lives. And the successful folks fear that an acknowledgment of their good luck will somehow undercut their obvious merit. I could cite example after example as to the role chance has played in the establishment of many in the world of business or politics, but that really isn't the point of this post (ask yourself, though: are the "leaders" of the Fortune 500 really the 500 best managers in America, or are the members of the Senate really the 100 men and women who are best qualified to make our laws?).

What has me writing about this today is some recent occurrences with the learned people who write for publications like the New York Times (NYT) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). These are, USA Today notwithstanding, our true national newspapers of record, and anyone who works for them are automatically anointed as the best and the brightest in the field of journalism. Those who have ascended to the rarefied air of columnists for these august publications become the opinion makers for our times, the people to whom everyone else must react. If you look at the number of blog references to what these people write, you see the truth of that - a Krugman or a Friedman writes a column, and bloggers and other columnists immediately leap to respond, to weigh, to consider their points.

William Kristol, son of the father of neoconservatism, writes a column for the NYT. He has accomplished many things in his life in editing and teaching, but the last several years have not been kind to Bill. His recent fame comes from his remarkable wrongness on every aspect of the war in Iraq, yet he was given a column in TIME last year, and now has a column in the Great American Newspaper.

So the less-prominent pundits have to comment on what he writes, no matter how hilarious. The perceptive Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
Let's get this straight. Two weeks ago, Kristol argued that McCain's campaign suspension was a great move. Last week. Kristol endorsed Sarah Palin and the McCain people's strategy of taking the gloves off. After it failed miserably, Kristol concludes that McCain "should fire his campaign."
(This came from Andrew Sullivan, who adds: And all this incoherent, unaccountable, intellectually vacuous drivel was published in the New York Times.)

David Brooks also writes for the NYT. I wrote something about him a couple of weeks ago, and I will deliberately commit the faux pas of quoting myself:
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.
It appears the rest of the commentary firmament is getting around to an examination of Mr. Brooks. Via Sullivan again, Jim Sleeper at TPM Cafe writes about how consistency has become an elusive quality for Brooks:
In one column, Brooks would stroke his chin like a sober savant, purveying credible analysis; in the next, he'd gyrate shamelessly for ideologues and Bush operatives such as Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.

He pirouettes like this constantly to maintain some intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, and to hold onto his market niche as a conservative Republican apologist, on the other. He has tried to square this circle with forced geniality throughout Republicans' Iraq War lying, torture and warrantless surveillance, borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, bottomless corruption, and, lately, national socialism.
What seemed to tear it for people was Brooks' saying in one breath that Sarah Palin was a major problem for Republicans in the election, then writing that Palin's debate performance was "vibrant and tactically clever."

This inconsistency bothers some people, like Sleeper above ("The problem facing Brooks is that everything in his record pushes him to guide his readers as gently and cleverly as he can into the McCain camp, even though that camp now worries and even scares him.") or Steve Benen at Washington Monthly writing about Brooks' focus on Palin's style:
You know who else flashed a bemused smile, accompanied by a never-ending flow of words, like a fearless neighbor who had no use for the idiocies of Washington? George W. Bush, circa 2000. Don't worry about qualifications, issues, or readiness -- vote for the charm. That turned out great, didn't it? I suspect there are probably more than a few Americans who believe we could do a lot worse than "seriousness" right now.
Some people are not so bothered by the whiplash we get as we follow the mind of Brooks. Jeffrey Goldberg:
At least one critic accuses him of dishonesty. It's quite the opposite, I think. David is one of the rare columnists today who wrestles with himself constantly, and who lets the public watch him change his mind. This makes him vulnerable, of course, to accusations that he is his own man. This, apparently, is a bad thing in Washington. So be it.
What it comes down to, I think, is that his critics value consistency more than Brooks does. I've already quoted myself as to why; Brooks is more interested in attracting attention than in presenting a coherent world view. I disagree with Goldberg, I don't think Brooks wrestles with himself at all - the pleasure he gets (as expressed in his oft-seen grin) at whipping out another bon mot overrides any desire he might have to actually believe something.

Peggy Noonan writes a column for the WSJ. One of her salient characteristics is the way that she, like Brooks, tries to explain America to itself. You can always tell in her frequent television appearances when one of these insights is coming. She cants her head, her voice gets even more whispery, and she gravely intones some fantastic "truth."

She writes this way as well. She had the good fortune of getting her new book hawked by Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press a week ago Sunday, and Brokaw even read a passage:
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. ... I think a lot of people are carrying around in their heads ... a sense that the wheels may be coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks, that in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed anytime soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with ‘right track’ and ‘wrong track’ but missing the number of people who think the answer to ‘How are things going in America?’ is ‘Off the tracks and hurtling toward an unknown destination.’
There is enough truth here to be interesting, but I'm fascinated by the "unspoken subtext" part. Noonan wishes to believe that there is some collective unconscious operating in the American people right now, because she's smart enough to find this revealed truth, she's the one who's smart enough to detect that and parrot it back to her fellow pundits.

What she could do, of course, is talk to real people or, if that's too difficult, deign to read a few blogs. The text is neither "sub" nor "unspoken"; there are plenty of us setting out in sharp detail what we feel is wrong with this country, and Noonan need only dip her hand in the pool to find that out. But that would take some effort beyond sitting back in the chair and opining.

In each of these cases, we see people who have been fortunate enough to be hired by journalistic institutions, who are near the top of the bookers' lists for talk shows, who demonstrate that they don't know what they're talking about. Kristol and Brooks cannot hold an opinion for a week, and Brooks and Noonan "know" the American people without actually interacting with any of them.

Nevertheless, these are the folks who are the opinion-makers, the talking heads who fill up chairs on Sunday mornings while providing very little actual insight. And they are so big by dint of their fortuitous positions that far more perceptive writers feel the need to react, if only to counteract some of their uninformed "commentary." It seems a waste, somehow (as is this post, come to think of it).
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