Saturday, January 24, 2009

Spingsteen's Overlooked Classic

This Tuesday will see the release of Bruce Springsteen's 16th studio album, Working on a Dream. It's his fifth album this decade, making his aughties output the most fecund and, arguably, the most celebrated of his career. The early reviews are a bit mixed. Rolling Stone has awarded the album five stars, something they rarely do for a new release. (Actually, Bruce has already received two five-star reviews from RS since 2002, for The Rising and Magic. Bob Dylan is the only other artist this decade to earn multiple five-star reviews for new material, for "Love and Theft" and Modern Times.) A number of other critics have derided the album, for its "clunky, banal lyrics."

The consensus is that Dream is a return to the exuberance of Springsteen's early records. This ignores Springsteen's best album of his late career, and one of his greatest ever: 2006's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The Seeger Sessions was an improbable achievement. Ostensibly, it's a covers record of Pete Seeger standards. When the album was first announced, I shuddered at the thought of another ponderous folk album from Springsteen (since it followed the lumbering Devils and Dust, and let us not forget The Ghost Of Tom Joad). Boy, was I wrong.

The Seeger Sessions turned out to be a buoyant, riotous, setting-the-woods-on-fire hootenanny. He and his motley band of twelve musicians barely rehearsed before they recorded the tracks, and you can tell. At times, the songs sound like they're going to rip apart at the seams, until Bruce shouts out for a key change, at which point they reconvene and bring it all back home. It has the feverish energy of a live album, which it essentially is, but with the production of a studio record.

Ironically, only the title track--which Spingsteen recorded in 1997 for a Seeger tribute record--falls flat. Otherwise, the Seeger Sessions soars. Stylistically, the album stands side-by-side with the aforementioned Dylan albums (or even his and the Band's Basement Tapes), like throwbacks to the American music of another era. The upbeat numbers (like "John Henry" and "O Mary Don't You Weep") start soft and build in energy, while others (like "Jacob's Ladder") start big and crescendo from there. The more subdued tracks are only so in tempo and dynamics; they still contain the energy of a punk record.

It is to Springsteen's credit that he was able to take these American standards and make them his own. It's likely that The Rising and Magic (and maybe even Working on a Dream) will be remembered as Springsteen's late-career achievements. But it will be The Seeger Sessions, his oddball gem, that will continue to sing from my speakers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Best Album of 2009 Announced

If you haven't heard, the music media have already announced the best album of the year: Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion. The rest of the year's unreleased music be damned!

My first reaction was: "why the hell did Animal Collective name its album after that pain-in-the-ass venue?" (Answer: they really like the venue.) My second reaction was to purchase the album, so I could disagree with the rampant hyperbole of its reviews.

Alas, after a few spins, I find myself really enjoying the record. It's the kind of music I usually love to hate: pretentious avant-garde psychedelia. Unfortunately it's also ridiculously catchy, and refreshingly original. The best description I could give is "bubblegum experimental music."

Here's the video for the (ahem) single "My Girls." Listen to it a couple of times and just try to get it out of your head.

In other news, Animal Collective is currently in the studio working on 2010's best album.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Boudreaux Nails It

Don Boudreaux, Chairman of GMU Economics:

President Barack Obama's inaugural declaration that "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works" is further evidence that the wisdom and values that animated America's founding generation are lost - evidence that too few Americans today possess a mature skepticism of power and a love of liberty, and that too many Americans today are subject to adolescent crushes on charismatic charmers.

If Thomas Jefferson thought as Mr. Obama does, he would have written in 1776: "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their government with the unalienable right to be taxed, subsidized, regulated, lectured, scolded, herded, harassed, and otherwise ruled in whatever ways work."

Better than "Phantom Menace"

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

[HT Andrew Sullivan]

With Apologies to Al Gore

President Obama has made it clear that climate change is one of his top priorities. Recent polls show that he is out of step with the American people.

According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, out of 20 "top priority" issues, human-caused global warming ranked dead last. Crime, moral decline, and lobbyists (siblings, those three) outranked global warming. Moreover, a Rasmussen poll found that 44% of the public believes warming is due to long term planetary trends, 7% attribute it to some other reason, and 9% are unsure. Adding them up, it turns out that only 40% believe global warming is a result of human activities. In 2006, 46% of the people believed global warming was caused by humans, while 35% thought it was caused by natural phenomena. The trend has been favoring skepticism.

Sorry, Mr. Gore.

Unremarkably, 51% of Republicans believe planetary trends are the cause of global warming. Conversely, 44% of Democrats did not believe humans are causing global warming. Doesn't that seem a bit high? I figured that number would be below 10%.

It's clear that there is a healthy amount of skepticism out there. Is this a push back from the apocalyptic sirens of the media and the moral haranguing of politicians (like the aforementioned Al)?

[HT: Andrew Revkin]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Just for the Sake of Accuracy

While I disagree with the content of Obama's speech, I'm not a complete curmudgeon. It's great to see people reacting with such giddy optimism. Whether it's blind optimism or not has yet to be seen. Still, the joy that is being expressed is a fundamentally American reaction, that things can and will get better.

So -- for all of you out there celebrating, far be it for me to begrudge you your moment. I'm happy that you are happy. Here's hoping there is something to be happy about.

Roberts on Obama

Here is Russ Roberts' response to the question "can Obama lead the US out of recession?"
I love the image of President Obama leading the country out of recession. America is lost. Adrift. Off the path. But the Great Leader with his torch (or lantern or GPS system, depending on one's taste for nostalgia versus gritty realism) will lead us home, into the light, into the future, towards prosperity.

It makes for a good future hagiography. For human beings in the real world - it's a fantasy. Barack Obama has no idea of how to get the economy out of the mess we're in. That doesn't mean we're not going to get out. Or that he might help. It's just that the phrase "lead us out of the recession" implies a plan and design that isn't plausible in the current economic environment.

No man or woman runs the economy. No man or woman or team of people can possibly plan the evolution of the economy in the coming months. America will come out of the recession but the time and pace are unknown. Obama can help. But he can just as easily slow down any recovery. Some part of the current mess we're in is the result of erratic government policy that has added to the uncertainty facing consumer, investors, and entrepreneurs.

"A New Era of Responsibility"

President Obama has just finished his Inaugural Address. My snap judgment: if the content of the speech was not just grandiose pablum, it seems he is modeling his presidency after FDR's. When you cut through the fluff, there are some frightening passages in there:
Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.
Read: free-markets have failed. What is this new age he is referring to? Your guess is as good as mine, but we can be sure that it doesn't involve more freedom.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
True, but the wellspring of this collective neurosis has mainly been left-of-center media outlets like the New York Times.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.
Read: interventionism. Hardly a "bold" and "new foundation," interventionism is the stale status quo that, except for a brief period of time in England and America, has dominated human history.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
I guess this is addressed to persons like me. The problem is not "too many big plans," but economic planning, as such. I'm not sure what he is referring to with the "short memories" remark, probably the New Deal. (Which, by the way, most economists think prolonged the Great Depression.)
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
Obama smears those who disagree with him by calling them "cynics." He says, "the political arguments of the past no longer apply." Because the debate is over? Because Obama has been proved right?
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.
So much for the end of "the era of big government." As if it ever ended.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
There's all you need to know about Obama's economics: regulation, intervention, spending, redistribution. The only way you can achieve these goals is through taxation or by firing up the printing presses. Obama's invoking of the "common good" is telling: as a student of history, he knows that the "common good" has been used as the justification for the greatest evils.
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
Here's the payoff: sacrifice and duty, the ethics of altruism and deontolgy. Obama is getting us ready for the pain.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
Obama turns it around here, and claims that sacrifice and liberty are corollaries. They are not. It is unfortunate that he included that line in an otherwise poignant moment in his speech.

Rhetorically, the address was a patchwork that nodded to Bartlett's: Washington's Farewell, Lincoln's Second, Roosevelt's First, and King's "I Have a Dream" ("let it be said by our children's children"). As such, it lacked an identity of its own. It was self-conscious and disjointed.

It wasn't all bad, though. As I mentioned above, the speech was poignant when it acknowledged the history of the moment. Also of note, Obama mentioned that we are a nation of "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and
non-believers." [Italics mine.] Talk about a historic moment. His tribute to "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things" seemed perfunctory, but it was still nice to hear. As was this hawkish passage:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
The fawning media have been expecting a "masterpiece" from Obama. I suspect their reactions won't deviate too far from their expectations. For those of us who still love liberty, we have to wait and see if Obama's words were those of empty grandeur, or of warning.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chicken Little Squawks: The Recession!

Naomi Klein's rantings to the contrary notwithstanding, increased government intervention in the economy typically follows a government-caused "disaster." The most notable example is the New Deal, which followed the Crash of '29 and the Federal Reserve's contraction of the money supply: the result was the Great Depression.

It is in the interest of those who seek to expand the power of the federal government to liken our current recession to a cataclysmic economic event. Yet, is there cause for this paranoid frenzy? In his blog, Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune tries to put things in perspective:

From listening to politicians and news coverage, you might conclude we are in the worst recession since the Great Depression--if not in an actual depression. President-elect Obama said recently, "This is a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime."At times, the alarms have been close to hysterical. So it may come as a surprise to find that so far, this recession has not been so bad.

When the government's December job report came out last week, we were told it was the biggest one-year job loss since the end of World War II. But that's a fatuous comparison. In 1945, the nation's population was less than half what it is today. So last year's job loss was less than half as painful as that year's.

Speaking at a faculty forum today at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, economist John Huizinga offered some figures to put the current downturn in perspective. Right now, the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent. In the 1981-82 recession, it peaked at 10.8 percent. In 1974-75, it hit 8.8 percent. Even if we do nothing in the way of fiscal stimulus, according to the incoming administration's own estimates, unemployment this time will top out at 8.8 percent.

Or, as GMU's Don Bourdreaux summarized:
It ain't great, but it's hardly the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe that conventional wisdom has already declared it to be. (Of course, it could become such a catastrophe if Uncle Sam continues his frenzied interventions.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nationalization: Before and After

Two articles from the New York Times this week provided an eloquent before and after look at nationalization. First, an article on the possible nationalization of many large US banks:
Last fall, as Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials rode to the rescue of one financial institution after another, they took great pains to avoid doing anything that smacked of nationalizing banks.

They may no longer have that luxury. With two of the nation’s largest banks buckling under yet another round of huge losses, the incoming administration of Barack Obama and the Federal Reserve are suddenly dealing with banks that are “too big to fail” and yet unable to function as the sinking economy erodes their capital.
What sort of results can we expect when the government nationalizes an industry? Remarkably, the NYT reported on that this week, too:
President Hugo Chávez, buffeted by falling oil prices that threaten to damage his efforts to establish a Socialist-inspired state, is quietly courting Western oil companies once again.

Until recently, Mr. Chávez had pushed foreign oil companies here into a corner by nationalizing their oil fields, raiding their offices with tax authorities and imposing a series of royalties increases.

But faced with the plunge in prices and a decline in domestic production, senior officials have begun soliciting bids from some of the largest Western oil companies in recent weeks — including Chevron, Royal Dutch/Shell and Total of France — promising them access to some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, according to energy executives and industry consultants here.

Venezuela may have little choice but to form new ventures with foreign oil companies. Nationalizations in other sectors, like agriculture and steel manufacturing, are fueling capital flight, leaving Venezuela reliant on oil for about 93 percent of its export revenue in 2008, up from 69 percent in 1998 when Mr. Chávez was first elected.

UPDATE: David Rothkopf shares the schadenfreude:
Meanwhile, in other Latin American news: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seems to have lost a little of his bravura recently with reports in the papers today that as his reserves of fuck you money dwindle due to declining oil prices, he is offering the oil companies he once screwed the chance to come back to Venezuela. Bienvenido a Caracas, mis amigos, all is, please forgive me. Now if only we could harness the power of those oil companies to really deliver a lesson. Imagine for a moment a different world, in which big multinationals committed to a program of not investing in countries that were not dependable democracies or showed disregard for the rule of law. Think of the countries that would be squeezed, forced to change. Now that would really be the power to change the world. Meantime watch: slowly but surely Chavez's chutzpah-laden outreach will bear long as there is a safe profit to be made...and he will more than likely be propped up by some of the same people he once abused.
[HT: Andrew Sullivan]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From "Butterstick" to Lard Ass

The Washington Post reports on the National Zoo's shortage of bamboo:

The zoo this morning is issuing a public appeal for bamboo to feed its famous giant pandas. For a combination of reasons, the zoo's supply of the crunchy green stalks are critically low, and zoo officials said they might not have enough to last the winter.

One problem is that the zoo now has three more or less adult-sized giant pandas -- the main consumers of its bamboo. At 160 pounds, 3-year-old Tai Shan is no longer a cub, and his parents, 275-pound Tian Tian and 250-pound Mei Xiang, are ravenous grown-ups. They scarf up bamboo 12 to 14 hours a day, consuming some 1,400 pounds of the stuff a week.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Passing the Onus

In an article about a controversial London ad campaign (see right), Christian activist Stephen Green is quoted as saying the following:
"I believe the ad breaks the Advertising Code, unless the advertisers hold evidence that God probably does not exist."

Mr Green has challenged the adverts on grounds of "truthfulness" and "substantiation", suggesting that there is not "a shred of supporting evidence" that there is probably no God.
Perhaps Green could explain how one can show evidence of a nonexistent. Still, I'm sure that if the question were turned around on him (as the onus for the existence of a God is on he who is claiming the hypothesis to be factual), he would have a "shred of evidence."

HT: Matt Briner.

Oil Meets Water: Obama at GMU

Obama outlined his economic plan at my alma mater yesterday. That our incoming president presented his statist economic "remedies" at the current bastion of free market economic thought is more than ironic. Here is Pete Boetke, a former professor of mine, on the speech:

The speech was important for Obama because he is setting expectations. Don't blame his administration for the economic situation and don't even blame his administration for the economic situation 3 years from now because the situation is that dire caused by the "do nothingism" philosophy of old ideas on the economy and government. Government must be an active player in the economy, and seen as the corrective to our social ills. We have sunk into such a deep hole, in fact, that ONLY government can get us out. If our economic situation is anything other than grave in the coming years, it will be because of the bold and pro-active steps his administration will have taken. All praise go to the articulate and intelligent leader. Who, let me remind you, is pragmatic and open to discussion, but you better get onboard quickly with these policy initiatives or we are going to be in a living hell.

I really don't see how as an economist in the tradition of Adam Smith, JB Say, L. Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan can see ANYTHING positive in Obama's speech. That it was delivered at GMU is as ironic as it is disturbing.

Here's Russ Roberts, another professor of GMU Econ:

As I type these words, President-elect Obama is here on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University giving a major economics address. Read Eric Sweeney writes:

That whirring sound you hear is George Mason spinning in his grave as Obama speaks at GMU!

I'd be curious to know why he's speaking here. The speech is invitation only. I was told it will be attended by "dignitaries--governors and mayors, politicians." Maybe they should call them undignataries. Having coffee this morning in the student center, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, was one table over. He did not have his hand out but I'm sure he's been practicing, getting ready for the Obama administration. I resisted the urge to ask him about this disgraceful behavior.

Professor Alex Tabbarok isn't so concerned:

Overall, my view is that the Obama fiscal stimulus plan is evolving in a sensible direction. As promised, he is a pragmatist who is listening to a wide variety of well-qualified, centrist economists.

Do note that I am evaluating Obama relative to what we can expect given the situation and our current politics and also relative to say the New Deal.

Damn Yankees

The Washington Post (not the Onion, mind you) is reporting on the hard feelings being felt by some Virginians about bridge closings on Inauguration Day. Some of these people believe the reason why the Secret Service is only closing Virginia bridges (and not Maryland routes) is because of some residual ill will from...the Civil War:
"I think that shutting Virginia off from the party is all just an old Civil War snub," Rocky Semmes wrote on a community e-mail list. "The Yankees are no quicker to forget the past than are any of the dyed-in-the-wool Rebels."

Officials said the decision had nothing to do with the Virginia's Confederate past. It didn't even have anything to do with the cultural tension between the perceived conservative Old Dominion and the lefty Free State. In fact, the idea for shutting down the bridges to personal cars came from Virginia's own Department of Transportation, local governments and the Virginia State Police.

"This was not a North-South vengeance thing or anything like that. We're not bringing out Lee's Army," said Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. "It's really about geography. There's a river. The only way across is a bridge. And once you cross the 14th Street Bridge, within a stoplight or two, you're going to be inside the security zone. There's nowhere for you to go."

"It does seem a little over the top to shut down all the bridges from Virginia into the city," Alexandria resident Paul Connolly said. "It's a bit of a symbolic snub to the bluest corner of the state that our president-elect fought so hard to win. We even have two Democrat senators now, and our governor is going to chair the DNC. Harumph!"

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Squirrel: It's What's for Dinner

Population control via ingestion, from the NYT:
Rare roast beef splashed with meaty jus, pork enrobed in luscious crackling fat, perhaps a juicy, plump chicken ... these are feasts that come to mind when one thinks of quintessential British food. Lately, however, a new meat is gracing the British table: squirrel.

While some have difficulty with the cuteness versus deliciousness ratio — that adorable little face, those itty-bitty claws — many feel that eating squirrel is a way to do something good for the environment while enjoying a unique gastronomical experience.

With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Paging Surgeon General Gupta

This is a change I can believe in:

President-elect Barack Obama has offered the job of surgeon general to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon and correspondent for CNN and CBS, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.

Gupta has told administration officials that he wants the job, and the final vetting process is under way. He has asked for a few days to figure out the financial and logistical details of moving his family from Atlanta to Washington but is expected to accept the offer.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Freedom (by Default)

Potheads of Massachusetts, rejoice!

Boston Globe reports on the inability of police departments in Massachusetts to enforce a new law that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana:
"We're just basically not enforcing it right now," said Mark R. Laverdure, chief of police in Clinton, a Central Massachusetts town of about 8,000 residents, who said the law was so poorly written that it cannot be enforced. "You'll probably have a lot of officers that, unless there's a caller complaining about it, won't even bother with it. They probably handled a lot of it informally before and probably more so now."

Andrew J. Sluckis Jr., chief of police in Auburn, said his 39 officers would not be issuing $100 citations for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, as required under the ballot initiative known as Question 2.

"If the Legislature enacts some changes, we'll be happy to do it in the future, but as it stands now we're not going to be issuing civil citations," he said. If an officer spots someone smoking marijuana, he said, "We will confiscate it and the person will be sent on their way."
HT: Andrew Sullivan.

Bracing for the Shit Storm

It's just three weeks until the American Messiah descends on the Federal City.

The Washington Post
Every inauguration presents huge security challenges because of the large, open areas the new president traverses and the large number of visiting dignitaries. A massive crowd presents further complications. The Secret Service and other agencies must increase the number of undercover agents they have mingling among the spectators, officials said. And even if a small incident occurs, people could be trampled in a panic.

The threats aren't limited to violence or terrorism: Freezing or rainy weather could send people fleeing for shelter or medical attention. The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is among the many agencies across the region gearing up for demands. And the crush of traffic will put additional pressure on police and transportation officials.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stop the Presses: Values Influence People

In his Findings column in the NYT, John Tierney reports on a new study by University of Miami psychologists Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby that finds "religious belief and piety promote self-control." The tone of the article is one of semi-serious surprise:

Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.

Hold on, atheists. Before we all make a mad dash for a pew, Tierney continues:

But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.

Great. So what now?

Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.” [Italics mine.]

Really, John? This is news?

I typically admire Tierney's articles, but this one is tantamount to reporting that "morality aids in decision making." Should it surprise anyone that adhering to a system of values, even a wrong one, influences how someone behaves?