Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Apocalypse Later

Bad news sells. It's a cliche, yes; it's also evidenced by a cursory glance of the media. Pick up the New York Times and witness the new heyday of doomsday journalism: the chorus is singing an elegy for American prosperity, with glee. From cable news analysts to news magazine cover features, the consensus is that there are dark times ahead. Implicit in their doomsaying is that the American system of capitalism has brought us here.

As I've
posted before, the media are ignoring the fact that, fundamentally, our standard of living continues to improve. Things are getting better. That's why this article on comes as a bit of a surprise.

Partisan cynics will claim that the sentiment of the article is tainted by the very partisanship of the source. But the article is merely an aggregation of statistics from government agencies like the CDC, the DOJ, and the NIH; nonprofit organizations like the National Bureau of Economic Advisers; and mainstream media outlets like
US News and World Report and the Washington Post.

What does the article find? Crime rates continue to plummet. Life expectancy continues to rise. Americans have more free time, more free time to use the latest everyday gadgets that were inconceivable just 30 years ago.

A sampling, from the article:
  • Crime rates are still falling. Violent crime in America has been in a freefall since the early 1990s, despite a slight uptick in 2005 and 2006. Economists, criminologists, and sociologists can't conclusively say why. Explanations range from the 1990s economic boom to changes in crime-fighting strategy to the legalization of abortion to reductions in childhood exposure to lead. Whatever the reason, long-term trends show crime is down across the board.
  • Life expectancy is up. In June, the Centers for Disease Control announced that in 2006 (the latest year for which data is available), Americans once again set a record for life expectancy. Men, women, blacks, whites — all can expect to live longer today than at any point in American history. Discrepancies in the average age of death between ethnic groups are narrowing, too. All of those things we're told need heavy regulation because they're potentially killing us — obesity, alcohol, coffee, sodium, pollution, stress, cell phones — aren't doing a very good job.
  • We have more leisure time. Americans work on average eight fewer hours than we did in the 1960s. Believe it or not, lower-income Americans are actually more likely to spend time at leisure and less time on the job than their wealthier counterparts, suggesting that when we do work long hours, it's more likely to be because we want to than because we have to. We also seem to be enjoying ourselves more. We're spending more money per person on recreation. And the toys we do have (high-definition televisions, iPods, computers, sound systems) are immeasurably more fun than they were generations ago.
It's not in the media's interest to report the good news. I'm not arguing that the media should put on their rose-tinted Ray-Bans and ignore the bad news, and there is bad news. Our economy is ailing, but let's not misdiagnose the patient and reach for the hemlock, instead of the medicine.

HT: Marginal Revolution.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seen and Unseen: Converter Boxes

If you've been watching Jeopardy lately, you may have noticed that Congress has mandated that all over-the-air broadcasting must be switched from analog to digital. This means those (mostly low-income) households who receive their broadcasts from an analog signal will now need a special converter box to continue to enjoy CSI after February 17. Congress has allocated $1.5 billion in funds for vouchers, to offset the cost of the box to households.

Well, it looks like Econ 101 has reared its gorgeous head: the vouchers are in short supply, and officials are worried that many households will be shut out of Must See TV.

Here's the full story, from the Washington Post.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: John P. Holdren

Obama has chosen John P. Holdren as one of his four science advisers. Holdren is a colleague of fellow neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich. Those two, along with John Harte, famously made a wager with Julian Simon on the scarcity of resources that would result from the detonation of The Population Bomb. It turned out that that bomb was a dud: they lost. However, Holdren is still one of the most strident opponents of anyone who disagrees with his claim that there is an impending environmental apocalypse.

While he considers himself a Cassandra, Holdren is squarely in the mainstream. So why does he need to viciously attack those who oppose him? This Cassandra doth protest too much, methinks.

Here's the NYT's John Tierney on Obama's pick.

Tierney elaborates on why Ehrlich and Holdren's loss of the bet is important to the failure of their central thesis.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Christmas in America is an exuberant display of human ingenuity, capitalist productivity, and the enjoyment of life. Yet all of these are castigated as "materialistic"; the real meaning of the holiday, we are told, is assorted Nativity tales and altruist injunctions (e.g., love thy neighbor) that no one takes seriously.
That's Leonard Peikoff on the commercialization of Christmas. You can read the entire article here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jesus, Gary, and Joseph!

Have a Christmas, Mary.

The True Cost of Corruption

The Blagojevich scandal, viewed through the lens of Public Choice economics.
It's easy to look at the Blagojevich case and see a failure of personal ethics. It is about character. But it's also about how government itself creates the very conditions for corruption. Think of all the special privileges governors can bestow: subsidies for stadiums, public-works contracts, special taxes and fees, not to mention myriad regulations with myriad loopholes. Chief executives – mayors, governors, and presidents – are supposed to be the chief enforcers of the law. Today, though, they are also chief bestowers of privileges. As such, the trading of favors is intense, leaving little bandwidth for actual public service. Society loses.
That's Don Boudreaux of GMU.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Trouble with Christmas

The Gay Party (cont.)

Here's a funny article from Reason on how totally un-gay the Democratic Party is. Sounds familiar to me.

Why do we let ourselves get pulled into these dysfunctional relationships over and over, LGBTers? It's not like Barack and Vice President-elect Joe Biden didn't warn you. It was during Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum that Obama said, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a's also a sacred union." But he also said he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and that he'd repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which sounded good. We always hear what we want to hear, don't we?

Anyway, your relationship with the Democratic Party isn't abusive, you just fight sometimes, right? Obama doesn't beat you up, does he? I only ask because of what I heard from that big gossip Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade. He said Warren's "presence on the inauguration stand is a slap in the faces of the millions of GLBT voters who so enthusiastically supported him."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Uncle Josef

Here's a chilling article about Stalin's legacy in Russia, from the Tribune.
Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of his citizens, has been undergoing a makeover of sorts in recent years. Russian authorities have reshaped the Georgia-born dictator's image into that of a misunderstood, demonized leader who did what he had to do to mold the Soviet Union into the superpower it became.
My favorite quote:
There were, writes Filippov, "rational reasons behind the use of violence in order to ensure maximum efficiency."

An Introduction to Obamanomics

Where's Henry Hazlitt when we need him?

"Happy days are here again." Indeed.

(HT: Mises)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Time Names Obama Man of the Year, Surprises No One

Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time, appeared on the Today show on Monday to promote the magazine's annual Person of the Year issue. Matt Lauer seemed to annoy Stengel by implying the pick was obvious and foreordained. Stengel demurred and earnestly replied that it was a competitive year; his shortlist included Sarah Palin, Henry Paulson, Michael Phelps, and the guy who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies.

Time announced today that its surprise pick is...Barack Obama. Yawn.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Patron Saint of Redistribution

John Maynard Keynes is the man of the hour, the toast of the media. It seems like everyone has forgotten (or doesn't know?) that Keynesian policies are doomed to fail; they are wrong in theory and in practice. Here's a good (and admittedly pedestrian) video on why that is.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Worst Album Covers of 2008

The reliably snarky Pitchfork Media has released its list of the Worst Album Covers of 2008. For once, I can get behind one of their lists. The worst offender is the Magnetic Fields' Distortion, a pretty good album whose cover looks like it was designed minutes before the artwork was submitted. You can view the entire list here.

Killer Iconography

I have long been both baffled and disgusted by the proliferation of communist iconography on everyday merchandise like t-shirts, mugs, and knit onesies. What makes Nazi paraphernalia reprehensible, but the far-more-bloody communist paraphernalia winsome (like the aforementioned onesie)? Here's a guess: the left is still holding on to the "ideal" of socialism. They understand the ideological connection between Marxism, and the "friendlier" forms (democratic socialism, welfare statism) they advocate.

It seems like Reason has had enough, as well.

Sock Puppet: Too Cute To Fail is looking for its share:

Stop the Presses: Donkeys Go to College

Is anyone surprised to read that Republican communities are poorer and less-educated than Democratic ones? The Republican party is almost stridently anti-intellectual. On the other hand, U.S. university faculties are overwhelmingly leftist. Since college students tend to be influenced by their professors, it's no shock that even "moderate" freshmen leave university as dyed-in-wool democrats (if not hippy dippy socialists). From the Slate article:

People with fewer money-making skills are moving into counties that are voting increasingly Republican. Those with higher incomes (and more education) are moving into counties that are voting more Democratic. The more lopsided the local political victory, the greater the differences in income and education.

This phenomenon held true in cities and rural communities alike. In those urban centers that voted overwhelmingly for John McCain, 23.6 percent of the adult population had at least a bachelor's degree. In urban counties that voted in a landslide for Obama, 33.3 percent had at least a college degree. In rural counties that voted in a landslide for McCain, 15.2 percent of adults had a college degree or better. In rural Obama landslide counties, it was 19.2 percent.

What's interesting is that both sides are migrating to areas where others share their beliefs. So it seems like Richard Florida got it half right; there is also a flight of the Conventional Class. If this trend continues there should no longer be any need to gerrymander. Right.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Smoke Signals

A nascent backlash against anti-smoking puritans? First, there's this (somewhat silly) Slate article that advocates a smoker President:

In fact, I'd argue that Obama's smoking habit gives us another reason to like him: He's not a perfect paragon of the Whole Foods boho sensibility, comments about arugula notwithstanding. I'm told there are people who were surprised to learn he smoked, as if it was somehow shocking he didn't fit all the virtuous liberal-elite stereotypes. It would be refreshing (and not in that cool-menthol way) if he's more a democrat, less a virtue-crat.

I also wonder—and this will seem wildly heretical to virtue-crats, so hide the children—whether some of Obama's finer qualities aren't bound up in his alleged nicotine sins. That contemplative self-possession that so many admire him for. It might come from Obama's ability to sit back, inhale a puff or two, slow down and think—meditate, cogitate—before acting. Sure it's a trade-off. Lung cancer later in life: the percentage grows grim.
And now this op-ed in the Times, about anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packages:

Each subject lay in the scanner for about an hour while we projected on a small screen a series of cigarette package labels from various countries — including statements like “smoking kills” and “smoking causes fatal lung cancers.” We found that the warnings prompted no blood flow to the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers alarm, or to the part of the cortex that would be involved in any effort to register disapproval.

To the contrary, the warning labels backfired: they stimulated the nucleus accumbens, sometimes called the “craving spot,” which lights up on f.M.R.I. whenever a person craves something, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, tobacco or gambling.

Further investigation is needed, but our study has already revealed an unintended consequence of antismoking health warnings. They appear to work mainly as a marketing tool to keep smokers smoking.

Prove Your Greatness: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector by Various Artists

The first half of Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time features all of the usual suspects: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, Led Zeppelin--check, check, check, check, check. Scrolling through the list, you begin to wonder if RS was just going through the motions. That is, until you reach the entry for 142. Wait. What? Did they seriously just put a Christmas record on their list? Ahead of classics like Paul's Boutique, Houses of the Holy, and Murmur? Well yes, and for good reason.

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector consolidates the best of Spector's Wall of Sound--those drums!, those 500 background vocalists!, those endless tracks of music layered on top of each other!--and stuffs it all under a Christmas tree. Hell, the mere fact that Spector and his artists make you want to listen to a bunch of holiday songs is an achievement enough. But Christmas Gift goes further by featuring some of the most exuberant and giddy music ever recorded. It also features some definitive performances of the most popular music ever: The Ronnettes' "Sleigh Ride," The Crystals' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Darlene Love's incredible original track "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Most importantly, Christmas Gift inspired one of the greatest contemporary Christmas songs, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." For that I say: "thank you, Phil."

Sure, this is not music you'll be listening to in July (for that you have Spector's Back to Mono set, which includes Christmas Gift) But in December, when you have to listen to this stuff, why not listen to the best?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bjorn Lomborg on Global Warming

Great video from Reason.

Too Big to Bail

Here's a great op-ed on the auto bailout from Donald Boudreaux, chairman of GMU's economics department.

Bankruptcy doesn't make assets -- such as factories, machines, contractual options to buy raw materials, workers' skills -- disappear. If markets still exist for products produced by these firms, Chapter 11 is the best way to discover this. Some workers might lose their jobs and some suppliers might lose their markets, but there would be no industry-wide collapse of the sort portrayed by the bailout's cheerleaders.

But what if refusal to bail out these firms results in their complete failure? Even then -- especially then -- the case for a bailout crashes. Really big firms such as GM, Ford and Chrysler are really big users of productive inputs, like rubber and steel. Almost all of these inputs have alternative uses and could be used by other firms or in other industries.

And here's great entry from Russell Roberts, also of GMU economics.
As we prepare to partially nationalize the American automobile industry, it is a good time to remember that George Bush is not a free market ideologue and that he did not pursue free market policies. Please remember that in his last year in office he initiated and condoned measures that helped destroy the natural feedback loops that allow markets to recover from the inevitable mistakes that human beings make. And tell your children. I know. It seems obvious. But twenty and thirty years from now, there will be people writing about how George Bush's free market ideology caused the mess we're in.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Prove Your Greatness: The Score by The Fugees

Allmusic describes Alternative Rap as a genre of music whose practitioners "refuse to conform to any traditional stereotypes of rap...." They often "blur genres, drawing equally from funk and pop/rock, as well as jazz, soul, reggae, and even folk." The entry goes on to note that "most alternative rap groups are embraced primarily by alternative rock fans, not hip-hop or pop audiences." That seems like an apt description to me. I am not a member of the hip-hop audience, but have long admired the most successful Alternative Rap album of the 1990s: the Fugees' second album, The Score.

With its witty rhymes, left-field samples (read: the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin"), and "socially conscious" theme, The Score was out of step with the mainstream gangsta rap of 1996. It still became a massive success, thanks, in part, to its superlative singles "Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not," and (the, at the time, inescapable) "Killing Me Softly." After its release, anticipation was high for a follow-up that, ultimately, never came. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill went on to release their own records that established them as superstar solo artists, while Pras Michel went on to do soundtrack and production work.

The Score is not a concept album, but it plays like one. For one, it's repeatedly self-referential: it begins with an intro that incorporates all of the song titles and themes of the album; the mid-album title track is a pastiche of samples from the record. The short sketches that begin each track further unify the record, giving it an almost cinematic feel. (Of course, the Fugees go out of their way to invoke the movies. The album alludes to a number of films, most frequently The Godfather.) Taken as a whole, The Score comes off as an album about the rap genre: its subjects (inner-city life, racism, police brutality), its myth and facade ("Cowboys" and "The Mask"), and its members ("How Many Mics" and "Ready or Not").

On second listening, the album still holds up for two reasons: hooks and rhymes. In many ways, The Score is a spiritual successor to the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. The songs on both records are hook-laden, and the best hooks are stolen. But the Fugees have impeccable taste. And, like the Beasties, their theft spans disparate genres. Their rhymes, on the other hand, are as original as their hooks are borrowed. They are smart, biting, and often funny. Unfortunately, they are also riddled with topical references that sound dated to modern ears (sorry, Newt).

For as good as it is, elements of The Score can sometimes grate. The chorus of "The Beast," for example, has Jean using his voice to imitate (what I think is supposed to be) a police siren. It makes me want to skip ahead, but the raps on the song are so good that I usually stick with it. The nadir of the album is the cringe-worthy "Chinese Restaurant" sketch. What's so offensive is not the crude stereotypes it employs, but how unfunny and awkward it is.

The album is notable for featuring two sung cover versions, "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman, No Cry." The former is still the revelatory showstopper it was in 1996. Even the strongest material on Hill's (overrated) solo album never topped it. The latter is a wholly unnecessary, but pleasant, cover of a song everyone already knows. But, a great song is a great song, and this one works as the penultimate track of the album.

The Score deserves its classic status by virtue of its singles, and the excellent album tracks "How Many Mics" and "Zealots." Even at its worst, the album comes off as it did 12 years ago: confident, smart, and tuneful.

Paglia Defends, um, you know, Palin's English

I'm no fan of Sarah Palin, but that doesn't mean I haven't been put off by the Left's frequent lambasting of her syntax and grammar. Outside of an English classroom, Grammar Nazism is usually just a petty way for a snob to assert intellectual superiority over another; it has little to do with the integrity of the language. Camille Paglia agrees:
English has evolved, and the world has moved on. There is no necessary connection between bourgeois syntax and practical achievement. I have never had the slightest problem with understanding Sarah Palin's meaning at any time. Since when do free Americans subscribe to a stuffy British code of veddy, veddy proper English? We don't live in a stultified class system. In the U.K., in fact, many literary leftists make a big, obnoxious point about retaining their working-class accents. Too many American liberals claim to be defenders of the working class and then run like squealing mice from working-class manners and mores (including moose hunting and wolf control). What smirky, sheltered hypocrites. Get the broom!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Social Conservatives to Newsweek: "You're SO Gay"

From Politico:
Leading social conservatives blasted Newsweek for its current cover story, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage," which they said misinterprets both biblical scripture and their own political movement.

“It doesn’t surprise me. Newsweek has been so far in the tank on the homosexual issue, for so long, they need scuba gear and breathing apparatus,” said Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “I don’t think it’s going to change the minds of anyone who takes biblical teachings seriously.”
Scuba gear, by definition, includes a breathing apparatus. That's all I have to say about that. Tabakis: out.

Obama, Moonlighting

You would think that the president-elect has enough money in the bank, given the two best sellers he's penned. Did he really need to model for this local Washington Metro ad for a "dental spa?"

This is not a complete surprise, however. He did heavily advocate sedation dentistry when he was on the stump.

Thanks to this guy for snapping the shot.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: The Republican Party

The Republican party deserves the trouncing it has been getting since the election. Its supposed free-market policies are being blamed for the financial mess we're in, when free-market policies were not its cause, and the Republicans have long deserted free-market capitalism, anyway. As John Lewis states in his excellent new article, the Republicans "have ceased to be Republican in anything other than name." The Republican party has turned into the Theocratic-Democratic party. There are very few essential differences between the two major parties (especially in the realm of economics). Nor can there be, since they share the same essential morality. From Lewis' article:
The same Christian doctrine, far from differentiating Republicans from Democrats, is the basis for Republican agreement with Democrats about the welfare state. Republicans have anchored their “compassionate” welfare state in the ethics of Christianity. They have become fiscally indistinguishable from Democrats because Christianity and Marxism share the same moral premise: “give unto the poor” or “to each according to his need.” This premise, whether grounded in dialectical materialism or in biblical spiritualism, tells those who embrace it that they can be moral only by caring for “the least among us” through the sacrifice of others. The “compassionate conservatism” that has motivated Republicans to outspend Democrats in social programs is a search for moral goodness by the standard of altruism: the morality of self-sacrifice.
The Republicans are worse than the Democrats because they co-oped the latter's economic policy while dropping its secularism, thus advocating "against abortion, for prayer in government schools, against embryonic stem-cell research, for religious icons in courthouses, against gay marriage, and for censorship of the media." All of which are incompatible with the political system of capitalism.

The time has come for the Republicans to repudiate any connection to capitalism on the grounds of false advertising. Capitalism is being blamed for the policies of a Republican government when the two have been divorced for decades. The divorce needs to be acknowledged with words, as it's been acknowledged with actions.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Gay Party?

Here's a NYT op-ed piece on the "pro-gay" party. The Democratic party has reached a crossroads. The passage of Prop 8 shows that the Democrats need to deal with the fact that their "Big Tent" covers enemy factions.

It is a common accusation of the overwhelmingly Democratic gay community, that any homosexual (like me) who is not a Democrat, is necessarily "self-hating." The supposed truism is that the Democratic party is the pro-gay party. Even before Prop 8 was passed, in one of the bluest states in the union, a cursory examination of the facts shows that, while individual Democrats tend to be more accepting of homosexuality than Republicans (because they tend to be more secular than Republicans), the Democratic party is hardly pro-gay. Don't Ask Don't Tell and DOMA, which are the defining anti-gay federal laws passed in the last 15 years, were passed by a Democratic president. During the Vice-Presidential Debate, Joe Biden emphatically expressed his opposition to gay marriage, a sentiment Barack Obama shares.

To oppose special "gay rights" is not the same as being a "self-hating" gay. To not see your sexuality as the defining characteristic of your character, or your interests, is not the same as being a "self-hating" gay. Furthermore, to align yourself with a party just because it doesn't hate you as much, is not the same as being a "self-loving" gay.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Prove Your Greatness: Live Through This by Hole

This is the first entry in a series of posts that will take a second listen to the "Great Albums of Rock." One of the favorite pastimes of the music media (and, sometimes, the mainstream media) is to create lists of the "Greatest Albums of All Time." But are these albums really great, or did they secure their place by being Groundbreaking, or Important, or Difficult, yet now gather dust in the musicophile's collection? Is Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope really a better album than the Who's Quadrophenia, as Rolling Stone says it is? We'll see.

The first album is 1994's
Live Through This by Hole. Does it still stand up? Does it deserve the plaudits it got when it was released?

In a word: yes. In two words: Oh yes.

It's easy to forget that Courtney Love is not just a Paris Hilton-style celebrity. She is, or at least was, a regular tabloid queen. But unlike America's favorite heiress, Love's artistic work exists alongside her gossip-rag antics. Sure, we know her because she was Kurt Cobain's wife (and then widow). But she, at least, has one masterpiece to justify the media attention surrounding her.

Live Through This was ecstatically received upon its arrival. Unlike many albums that are considered the masterpieces of the rock canon, it made its splash on entry, but didn't cause ripples. It was the the last gasp of grunge, a style of music that became unfashionable (at least with the critics) soon after its release (or, more accurately, after Cobain's death, which occurred four days after its release). So, unlike Beck's Odelay, Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, or Radiohead's OK Computer, it was never borrowed from or replicated.

It's also an anachronism. Its lyrics verge on early-90s alt rock parody. Angst and self loathing abound. A sample lyric: "
I'm Miss World, somebody kill me [...] No one cares, my friends." Its lyrical hostility can be off-putting and adolescent. Lyrically, Live Through This is also also a laundry list of third-wave feminist complaints: femininity, domesticity, motherhood, daughterhood, eating disorders, negative body image, marriage, broken relationships. (Was Love a Women's Studies major? You'd think so listening to the album.) They're all there, and they weigh down an otherwise excellent album.

Live Through This has one notable virtue, which lifts it aloft the above complaints and makes it compulsively listenable: its songs are incredible. They are gorgeous and furious, and almost always at the same time. This is the genius of the record. This loud soft loud, this melodicism with noise, this textural juxtaposition, is, of course, the trademark of the Pixies and Nirvana. But (here we go), as a woman, Love doesn't have to hold back on the plaintive splendor. She doesn't have to choose between "Landslide" and "Lithium," "Both Sides Now" and "Debaser." She can have both, and does.

Yes, it's beautiful, but the second half of the equation is that Live Through This is also immensely cathartic. Listen to "Softer, Softest," the album's greatest song. Halfway through, the sighing ballad climaxes into raging electric guitars and Love's screams. The listener's melancholy isn't alleviated, it is intensified and then emancipated. In this sense, the album can be compared to the works of two of Hole's contemporaries: PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney. But, for as great (or greater) as they are, they never struck the same balance of, what one critic once called, "rose and thorn." They can be beautiful, and they can be raging, but Live Through This is both at the same time without letting the seams show.

One measure of a classic album is the quality of its album tracks
its singles. On Live Through This the most famous singles, "Doll Parts" and "Violet," for as excellent as they are, don't match songs like "Asking for It" or "Plump." The latter hide their best elements in their refrains, asides that, on a lesser album, would have been broken off and made into their own songs. Here, they are part of what are already fine tunes. The best moments of Live Through This are in the interstices.

Live Through This succeeds because it has an embarrassment of riches: hooks, fury, melody, beauty. No, the album is not groundbreaking, important, or difficult. It's just damn great.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Naomi Klein

This week's New Yorker has an illuminating profile of Naomi Klein, the new Queen of Anti-Capitalism. Klein first became prominent with her anti-corporate tome No Logo, which was notable for being toted around by rockers like Thom Yorke in the early 2000s. Klein's most recent book, The Shock Doctrine, posits that capitalism requires disasters, natural and man-made, to succeed, that economic freedom requires "shocks" to force its unpalatable ideas down the throats of an unsuspecting public.

It would seem, at first blush, that Klein is a threat to capitalism, given her recent popularity. However, Klein's arguments are flimsy and contradictory. Her method is the Big Lie. She distorts history, rather than argue from principle. In fact, Klein can't argue from principle. Socialism has long been proved to be a bankrupt system. Instead, Klein drops context, conflates neo-conservatism with pro-capitalism, and knocks down a straw man named Milton Friedman.

To illustrate my point, here are some excerpts from the New Yorker article. Klein on the recent financial crisis:
On the one hand, the initial reaction to the economic crisis followed her theory—the shock (the bank failures and the market’s nosedive) had inspired the government to attempt to seize unprecedented power (seven hundred billion dollars with no strings attached), claiming that in such a crisis everyone should simply trust it to do the right thing, even though the actions it wanted to take would seem to enrich the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. That was the textbook part. But the plan wasn’t working. Constituents wrote thousands of outraged letters, and bloggers wrote about how this felt familiar, like the aftermath of September 11th, and how the bailout was the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act. It was just as she had written at the end of the book: memory was shock’s antidote. (Another difference, of course, was that the government wanted to enact not Friedman-style reforms but the opposite: enormous interference in the market. Still, since the point of this interference was to bail out banks, this difference did not strike Klein as of much importance.) [Italics mine.]
The difference didn't strike Klein as important. Of course it didn't. It refutes her argument. Corporatism is not synonymous with capitalism. Swedish historian Johan Norberg further illustrates Klein's distortion of history in his review of The Shock Doctrine:
The strangest thing about Klein's suggestion that crises benefit free markets and limited government is that there is such a long record of the exact opposite. World War I led to communism in Russia; economic depression gave us Nazi Germany. Wars and other disasters are rarely friends of freedom. On the contrary, politicians and government officials often use crises as an opportunity to increase their budgets and powers. As one prominent economist put it while explaining his opposition to war in Iraq: "War is a friend of the state....In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do." The economist? Milton Friedman.
Furthermore, Klein's arguments are contradictory. In the New Yorker article she is described as such: "In principle, she is a Keynesian, but she distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories—anything except extremely small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives." Anyone who is familiar with Keynesianism knows that it is rooted in "institutions, platforms, theories," albeit the wrong ones. But these quibbles are unimportant to Klein, the same woman who, as is shown in the New Yorker article, is comfortable with appearing on (the massively corporate) MTV. It's anyone's guess what the above "ad-hoc initiatives" would comprise of, given Klein's politics, without "centralization, institutions, platforms, [or] theories [italics mine]."

Klein's true motivation's are revealed when the New Yorker article focuses on her infatuation with Milton Friedman:
Why does Klein place such emphasis on Friedman? Perhaps because she wants to draw a parallel between capitalism and Communism, to make their two histories look as similar as possible, and for that she needs not the messy, pragmatic, ad-hoc capitalism of corporations but the purist, utopian capitalism of the Chicago School. Violent autocrats of the free-market persuasion, though there have been many, have not soiled Friedman’s name in the way that Stalin soiled Marx; somehow, the misdeeds of a Pinochet or a Suharto or a Yeltsin are attributed to these men as individuals—to their lust for power, their greed, their drinking. But Klein holds capitalism guilty of all their sins. Friedman’s followers must no longer get away with shaking their heads when their advisees start killing people, she believes.
It takes such a massive evasion of history, political theory, and philosophy to equate capitalism with communism, that someone as intelligent as Klein has to know better: (Observe, too, that the New Yorker writer states as fact that there have been many "autocrats of the free-market persuasion." It is no coincidence that the author of this fawning article has no idea what constitutes free-market ideology.) What you are witnessing is the Big Lie at work. Norbert's article on Klein for the Cato Institute illustrates Klein's evasion:

Astonishingly, in a book of more than 500 pages, Klein offers almost no argument to the person who isn’t already convinced that free markets are bad. […] A look at the EFW data shows that Klein has it backwards. Poverty and unemployment are lowest in countries with the most economic freedom. In the freest fifth of countries, poverty according to the United Nations is 15.7 percent, and in the rest of the world it is 29.8 percent. Unemployment in the freest quintile is 5.2 percent, which is less than half of what it is in the rest of the world. In the least economically free quintile, filled with the kinds of restrictions on private property, businesses, and trade that Klein claims are ways of helping the people against the powerful, poverty is 37.4 percent and unemployment is 13 percent.

The only way to oppose Naomi Klein is to identify that which she evades: history, theory, facts.

On Tonight's Shopping List: Tobacco and Eucalyptus Branches

Alinea, widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in America, recently put out a cookbook of 100 of its most famous dishes. Unfortunately for the average cook, its chef/owner Grant Achatz bases his recipes on molecular gastronomy, i.e. this is varsity league cooking. One brave blogger, Carol Blymire, is trying to cook her way through the entire book. I've eaten at Alinea, and know that some of Achatz's recipes require some crazy ingredients. While there is nothing new to the premise--there is no shortage of blogs based on the concept of cooking one's way through a cookbook--Blymire's choice of cookbook is a brave one.

Here is an article about her from today's Washington Post.

Hooked on Tina

It happens to the best of us.

What's La Difference?

"The purists are going to kill us," Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer told the Washington Post, about the Signature Theater's staging of the much-beloved musical Les Miserables, which opened last night in Arlington. Well, that depends on how pure those purists are. Sure, the (ahem) signature turntable is gone, as are the moving barricades. Yet, this Miz is closer to the original production than Schaeffer suggests: the cast is still huge, with 28 members performing each night; the show features a full Broadway orchestra; and none of the original material has been cut. Essentially, this is the Broadway production's oval peg, pounded into the Signature Theater's round hole: it fits, if a bit awkwardly.

Les Miserables is performed in a Black Box style theater, which means the stage is in the center of the room, with the audience surrounding it. This allows for an up-close and intimate experience for the 280 people watching the show, but it also can be a source of confusion; sometimes, during full-cast scenes, it was hard to pick out who was singing. The set design was minimalistic, except for a twisted-metal barricade upstage (which plays a central role in the show's second half). The set reminded me of the trash sculpture from Rent, sans the thrashing and shimmying twentysomethings. Oh, and for some inexplicable reason, chairs were hung on ropes from the ceiling. Whatever.

The cast was, for the most part, wonderful. Their full-cast numbers were Broadway caliber. Greg Stone's Jean Valjean was adequate, but nowhere near Colm Wikinson's grand portrayal. Tom Zemon's Javert, on the other hand, stole the show. (Both were reprising their roles from Broadway.) The show's Achilles' heel was Felicia Curry, whose Eponine fell flat (and whose pitch occasionally did the same.)

Overall, this did not feel like a regional troupe's stab at a Big Broadway Behemoth; it felt like the Behemoth itself, just a bit smaller.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

To Save a Mouse

Here is Jamie Berube responding to Peter Singer on Down Syndrome. Berube's post comes on the heels of a debate I recently had about Peter Singer and his ideas on "animal liberation." I have not read Animal Liberation, but I have been researching Singer's ideas and have identified two major problems with his ethical theories:
  1. Animals and man do not have "similar interests." For Singer, all moral decisions are made by using the calculus of "equal consideration of similar interests." For an illustration of how this calculation works, I refer you to Singer's FAQ:
    Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?
    A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something -- that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life -- that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.
    Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates).
    That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
    If such a process of reasoning had actually taken place in a burning building, both men and the mouse would have perished. Of course, Singer doesn't expect anyone to actually go through this reasoning. It's enough that you equate the two species at all (lest you be branded a--gasp--speciesist).
  2. Singer sets up a straw man by arguing against "intelligence" as the criterion for differentiating humans from animals. Singer argues that a normally functioning Great Ape is technically more intelligent than a brain-dead person. But it's not only intelligence that differentiates us from animals: our most distinguishing characteristic is that reason is our basic means of survival. No other animal survives by reason, no matter how intelligent.
These are my two major problems with what I understand Singer's position to be. Unfortunately, tackling either one would require an essay-length response, and a blog is not the proper venue for that. However, I do plan on returning to Singer, and the "animal liberation" movement, in the future; this is not an issue that is likely to go away anytime soon.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Two Consequences of the Recession

Two stories about Black Friday from the NYT. Good news for consumers:
Such crazy prices are a sign of the times, and analysts expect many more such deals during one of the toughest holiday seasons in decades.
At least for those who can survive the stampede:
Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.

"He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither."

This is for those of you who have to suffer through TSA this week. Hilarious and frightening.

The Myth of Declining Economic Well-Being

A recent study by Christian Broda and David E. Weinstein finds what I have long suspected: the CPI has has not been taking into account increases in technological innovation over the last 25 years.

From AEI's intro to the study:
The consumer price index used to compute official measures of real wages and poverty ignores two key sources of increased prosperity: the introduction of new and better products and consumers' ability to substitute between goods. Deflating nominal wages by a cost-of-living index that adjusts for these previously unconsidered factors of prosperity suggests that the real wages of the poor have actually risen by 30 percent since the late 1970s--and that the poverty rate in America has fallen dramatically over the last forty years.

How can we account for the discrepancy between standard measures of economic well-being--which suggest a trend of increased poverty--and alternative measures that indicate an upswing in prosperity? As Broda and Weinstein argue, product innovation has long been a key source of prosperity for American households. New and better household appliances, cellular phones, vehicle air bags, medicines, and computers are among the many product improvements that have benefited Americans, including the poor, over the last few decades. Yet current official price statistics capture only a portion of the benefits that these improved goods provide to American households. Broda and Weinstein conclude that adjusting poverty measures to fully account for the benefits of product improvements reveals that Americans in every income group are substantially better off economically than they were a quarter century ago.
The "fact" that economic well-being has been declining is a favorite talking point of op-ed columnists and politicians. What they conveniently ignore is that more people can now afford better goods than their counterparts could 25 years ago. We have all become significantly richer.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bubble and Squeak and Other Ridiculously Named Dishes

The Washingtonian recently published a "first look" review of CommonWealth in Columbia Heights. Seriously, guys? The place opened in early August. Tardiness aside, the review is spot-on. I'm glad the place exists, especially in Columbia Heights. There aren't many gatropubs in DC, and few restaurants match CommonWealth's atmosphere: it's cozy and boisterous. I've only eaten there once, so it's hard for me to judge the food (which was good, not great). The menu features some wonderfully named British fare, like frog in a puff and bubble and sqeak, and a ton of pressed meats.

As the Washingtonian review notes, the prices are a bit high for a restaurant that feigns to cater to the "people." Our dinner for two (with two beers) came out to $120, before tip (and no dessert). Yikes.

That said, I'll be back soon: it's hard to stay mad at a restaurant that has roasted bone marrow on the menu.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

GWB: The Dems' Best Friend

It's no secret that the George W Bush's failed presidency was a huge election-time boon for Obama and the Democrats. But as The Atlantic's Robert D. Kaplan shows, GWB's abhorrent legacy may also help Obama's approval ratings once he takes office:
Obama and Clinton are buying into a bottomed-out market vis-à-vis America’s position in the world. It is as if they will be buying stock after the market has crashed, and just at the point when a number of factors are already set in motion for a recovery. For President George W. Bush did not just damage America’s position in the world, he has also, over the past two years, quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy, and that, coupled with a bold new strategy in Iraq, known as the “surge,” has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out.
Ok, Dems: You still have a month and a half to send your singing "thank you" telegram to:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500

R.I.P Saturday Morning Cartoons

From the NY Times:

After terminating a deal with 4Kids, an independent producer of children’s programming, the Fox network closed down its Saturday morningblock of cartoons on Monday, and became the first major broadcast network to agree to sell a part of its schedule to producers of infomercials.

Fox executives said that children’s programming was simply no longer viable on network television — mainly because of competition from cable channels.
Somewhere, an Animaniac is crying seltzer water tears.

Tara Smith at the National Press Club

Dr. Tara Smith, Objectivist scholar and professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, will be speaking about pragmatism on December 8, at the National Press Club. If you are a fan of Ayn Rand's philosophy, or just serious about ideas, I highly encourage you to go. I've had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Smith speak on a few occasions. This is a free talk, so if you're a DC local, this is a no-brainer. (Har.)