Monday, March 31, 2008

Baseball on the East Coast!

Since today is opening day of baseball, I am posting about the Washington Nationals. I am thrilled that Washington has a baseball team, because I love the city of Washington, DC. I've lived there, and I always like going back to visit. I would like to root for the Nationals, but I already root for one baseball team (the Yankees) and one team in Washington (the Redskins). I am geographically diverse in my sports teams: I also root for the Lakers, because I live in LA, and the Pistons, because I was born in Detroit, and my parents still live there. And the Connecticut Sun, because I once lived in Connecticut, and that is a great state for women's basketball.

There's a good article in Fast Company about the new stadium. Apparently it's quite the green machine. It's LEED certified, and has all kinds of fancy new environmental technology. Best of all, they weren't that expensive:
"We'd heard it would be $10 million or $20 million more than normal to build a LEED-certified park," says architect Joe Spear of HOK Sport, which designed the stadium with Devrouax + Purnell. "In the end, it was pretty affordable -- somewhere around $2 million more."

$2 million out of $611 million sounds like chump change, and I'm sure they'll realize that in savings fairly quickly.

But I can't root for the Nationals, because I don't root for National League teams. Why? Because of the designated hitter rule. The American League has a designated hitter, and the National League does not. And for me, the designated hitter represents innovation and progress. It makes the game more exciting. And that's what America is all about: innovation, progress, and giving the customer what she wants. So I root for American League teams, because, while I believe in tradition where appropriate, as an American, I take pride in our ability to constantly improve ourselves. Not just our in our politics, but in our stadiums.

Baseball on the West Coast!

Today is opening day for baseball. A couple of days ago, the Dodgers and the Red Sox played an exhibition game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, one of the most important stadiums in the country. I am somewhat conflicted about this. First of all, it's the Dodgers and the Red Sox, my two least-favorite teams. On the other hand, it's the Coliseum, home of two Olympics (1932 and 1984) and the USC Trojans, and what is good for the Coliseum is good for the Trojans, which is good for me, since I am a Trojans fan. And this was clearly good for the Coliseum: they packed in 115,000 people. For a baseball game! For the Dodgers! They did it because this season is the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers in LA. Fifty years of mediocrity and dashed hopes. I don't like the Dodgers, which is not a popular opinion in LA. But I'm going to be hearing about this 50th anniversary all year. At least it got off to an interesting start. For the record, the Dodgers lost, 7-4.

Well, at least we're talking about new financial regulations now

The Treasury announced a slew of new regulations for financial institutions. I'm not enough of an economist or policy wonk to really judge how well they would work, but I am skeptical, for at least a couple of reasons. First, obviously, I don't have a lot of faith in any kind of proposal on regulations of the financial industry from this administration. Second, this came up very quickly after the Bear Stearns debacle. It's clearly been in the works for a while, but it also seems to me that at this point it's probably more of a PR thing than a serious proposal. Bush & Paulson & Co. know they have to at least LOOK like they are doing something. Sounds like the key players aren't buying:

As Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. on Monday formally laid out an ambitious plan to overhaul the regulatory apparatus that oversees the country’s financial system, senior lawmakers and lobbyists from industries opposed to the plan predicted that most of it would be dead on arrival.

Paul Krugman is not impressed. No surprise there.
"it’s all about creating the appearance of responding to the current crisis, without actually doing anything substantive."

The key issue is actually fairly straightforward. Banks, like Citibank, Wells Fargo, etc., the kind where people put money into a normal checking account, are regulated by the federal government. In return, the government guarantees deposits, up to certain limits. This is a result of all the bank failures during the Great Depression. The federal government is kind of like a parent: you live in my house, I pay for the roof over your head, you play by my rules.
Investment banks, on the other hand, don't have the same kind of regulatory oversight. So they can make deals and buy and sell stocks and bonds and commodities and derivatives and all kinds of exotic financial instruments without the constraints that regular banks have. But they're not guaranteed by the feds like the banks. More freedom, but more risk.
Bear Stearns changed that, because Bear Stearns's survival, such as it was, was backstopped by the government. So now the investment banks, or at least one, are moving back in with the parents. They very well need the money that only the federal government can provide. And they clearly need the kind of supervision that only the government can provide. Will that happen under the current regime? Krugman, of course, is not optimistic, given the track record:
"The Bush administration, however, has spent the last seven years trying to do away with government oversight of the financial industry."

I'm going to be following this. There are a couple of political implications up front: Chris Dodd is the key player in the Senate, and Barney Frank in the House. I'm very glad both of them are on the case, I have a great deal of respect for both. Dodd is an interesting player, because, as the Senator from Connecticut, Wall Street is in his backyard, and there are a lot of Wall Street types among his constituents. So he might come across as a Wall Street guy. But he won a lot of street cred taking on Bush over wireless wiretapping, so liberals will probably have faith in him. And you just have to listen to Barney Frank talk policy to realize he's brilliant.

Huffington Post doing well, according to NY Times

The Huffington Post is doing very well, according to the NY Times.
In February, The Huffington Post drew 3.7 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen Online, for the first time beating out The Drudge Report, the conservative tip sheet with which The Post is often compared.

Good for Arianna! Personally, I have found myself reading it more and more. Time to add it to my blogroll. still sucks

I read the dead-tree edition of the LA Times every morning, because I live in LA. I moved here in 2000, and I think the LA Times has actually gotten much better since I've moved here. They've revamped the Op-Ed section a couple of times, and I think they now have a very good selection of columnists. They don't have any stars on par with the NY Times, but they do have a wider range, and they do have columnists like Meghan Daum, who has a talent for writing about highly topical subjects in a way that others don't.

And they have Dan Neil, who is the only automotive critic to win a Pulitzer. He's not just a great car writer - he's one of my favorite writers in the country, in any medium. Several years ago, he wrote a review of a Ducati motorcycle (the LA Times now has a columnist, Susan Carpenter, who only covers motorcycles, which I think is quite cool. She's also a good writer). It was a great piece of journalism, and included the line that the bike "runs on damned souls and is lubricated with the fat of unbaptized children," which is a very clever way of saying that it is hell on wheels.

I once impressed a woman with that review (which I found on another Website, NOT on I tried to find it today on and couldn't. So, although I constantly link to for recent news articles, as far as I am concerned, until I can find that article with one or two searches, still sucks.

Good news from South Central LA

The LA Times has a good story about some good news from Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles (LA has lots of suburbs - there are 88 cities in Los Angeles County) more famous for violence than good news. A new shopping center has been built, and has brought some prominent national retailers, including Best Buy and Target. And Starbucks! And there's a new Fresh & Easy, which is a British chain of supermarkets. The debut of Fresh & Easy was quite the affair - Prince Andrew opened it up.

We don't hear a lot of positive things coming out of Compton, so this is good to read. And kudos to the LA Times for publishing it.

I'm rooting for Memphis

It's down to the Final Four in the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, and it's all the No. 1 seeds! Personally, I'm rooting for Memphis, because they beat Texas, and I am still bitter about Texas beating USC in the Rose Bowl in the last 19 seconds. I still have to pay off the bet that I lost to brother-in-law on that one. The bet is that I have to wear a Texas t-shirt when I visit he and my sister. Which I still have to do. I actually have the t-shirt, fortunately. When I ordered it, I got the wrong size - they sent me a small. I didn't think they sold t-shirts in size "small" in Texas, but I guess they do.

I'm also rooting for Memphis because they are playing UCLA in the Final Four, and I root for whoever plays UCLA. In my last post about Kareem, I said that I would root for UCLA for one game. Which I did. I have to admit that I did it rather quietly, and didn't tell my co-worker, Sherri, who went to UCLA. But I rooted for them in my heart. But now they are close to another national championship, and that is the last thing that UCLA needs. UCLA has 100 national sports championships, and they were the first to 100. That's enough! Fortunately, the Olympics are coming up, and USC dominates American colleges in Olympics glory - we've won at least one gold medal in every summer Olympics since 1912.

But for now, go Memphis!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The contadictions of Kumbaya

First of all, a milestone to note. This is my 100th post! OK, back to the blogging.

Meghan Daum, one of my favorite dead-tree-media columnists and easily the best reason to read the LA Times on Saturdays, has a great column about the word "kumbaya." I have such positive associations with that word. Pine trees, campfires, toasting marshmallows. But alas! Now it is being used to paint people as a little too touchy-feely. So it has kept its old meaning, but also morphed into something strangely other:

"The term allows its users to have their coolness cake and eat it too. To invoke "Kumbaya" is to display one's countercultural credentials while simultaneously letting it be known how stupid and irrelevant those credentials are in today's world. Like those loathsome shibboleths "think outside the box" and "let's take a blue sky approach," which combine self-help jargon with corporate doublespeak, "Kumbaya" manages to be completely earnest and completely disingenuous at the same time."

It is a strange symbol of how fast language is evolving and how different parts of our culture reference each other. Everyone understands what "kumbaya" means, even people who didn't have post-60's campfire experiences. And I don't think the cooption is actually working all that well. It doesn't matter how many times I hear it used as a term of condescension. I don't care if it refers to how airheaded hippies were. I can still reach back and associate it with my own experiences. Which is a solid defense against being emotionally manipulated.

Frank Rich on Hillary's Bosnia misadventure

Frank Rich asks a question about Hillary's Bosnia misstatement:

"Why would so smart a candidate play political Russian roulette with virtually all the bullet chambers loaded?"

We may never know.

James Carville is an idiot, Part 2

First of all, I should clarify that I don't really think that James Carville is an idiot. He's obviously a very intelligent man, and I am very glad that he is on my team (at least in terms of party). But I want to expand a bit on my earlier post. I think his comment about Richardson was idiotic because it reinforces what many people are saying about the Clintons: it's all about them. They put their interests ahead of everyone and eveyrthing else. Calling a former colleague who supports Obama "Judas" and justifying it in terms of loyalty makes that blatant. I'm still glad I supported and worked for Bill Clinton in the 1990's. But it is increasingly clear that people like Andrew Sullivan are right: you are with them or you are against them.

James Carville is an idiot

James Carville wrote in the WaPo recently about his description of Bill Richardson as "Judas" for not supporting the Clintons. He's unrepentant - Richardson is a traitor, pure and simple. He does add some classic Ragin' Cajun flavor:

Heck, I give myself some credit for managing to get the Clinton and Obama campaigns to agree on something -- that neither wanted to be associated with my remarks.

He is personally deeply loyal to the Clintons, which is perfectly appropriate - they made him. And, at the very least, Richardson could have kept his mouth shut: "Silence on his part would have spoken loudly enough."

For Carville, it's pretty straightforward: "I believe that loyalty is a cardinal virtue."

Fine. Nothing wrong with loyalty. But Carville is a political operative, not an elected official. And for someone holding an elected post, I think the loyalty should first go to the three c's: country, conscience, and constituents. Richardson's loyalty to the Clintons is superseded by his loyalty to America, his principles, and what he believes is the best for the people of his state. If James Carville can't handle that kind of complex political calculation, maybe he should keep his mouth shut.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gail Collins on McCain's economic proposals

A day after David Brooks praised John McCain's foreign policy speech for being level-headed and NotBush, Gail Collins takes apart McCain's economic policies. Which is much more fun. I love Gail Collins. She always writes part of her column in a calm, soothing tone of voice, as if she was that nice lady who lives next door and always has the neighbors over for tea. And then she slips it in:

[A]t bottom, his economic vision makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. He’s going to keep the Bush tax cuts, continue our $3-trillion-and-counting war in Iraq and decrease corporate taxes. And how is he going to pay for it? By getting rid of pork-barrel earmarks.

How reasonable is this? Not very. Let's go with a simple domestic metaphor.
And I am planning to remodel my house by purchasing a tube of Elmer’s glue.

It's fascinating how a man who is so thoughtful and articulate in one respect, i.e. foreign policy, can be so out to lunch in another.

Wealth gone, sympathy follows

In an earlier post, I questioned the investing savvy of James Cayne, since he lost close to a billion dollars because he kept most of his wealth in Bear Stearns stock. I pointed out that this ran contrary to basic investing advice, i.e. be sure to diversify your portfolio. And he wasn't alone - Bear Stearns employees owned a third of its stock. Turns out I wasn't the only one questioning this strategy.

“I used to think Enron was the poster child of what not to do with company stock,” said Mike Scarborough, president of an investment advisory firm based in Annapolis, Md., referring to the energy trading company whose collapse shattered the nest eggs of employees who held so many of its shares.

“But it may ultimately turn out to be Bear Stearns, because money and investing is their business — and it still turned out badly.”

Nice to see the New York Times coming to the same conclusion that I did, but, really, what were these people thinking? No money, no job, no sympathy.

David Brooks on McCain's speech

David Brooks had a good piece on John McCain's foreign policy speech on Wednesday. Brooks argues that McCain, unlike the Democratic characterization of him, will not be continuing George Bush's foreign policy. Specifically, he cites three speeches has given, the first in 1983, in response to Reagan's decision to send troops to Lebanon. Brooks points out that, true to his reputation as a maverick and a realist, McCain has opposed the use of force when he does believe it can achieve our objectives, opposed his party and President when he thinks they are wrong, and has adjusted to changing realities. All qualities that would be very welcome in a Republican administration. And then Brooks obliquely chastises those of us who are focused on other issues at the present time:
Anybody who thinks McCain is merely continuing the Bush agenda is not paying attention.

I have to admit that I am one of those people who have not been distracted by events in the Democratic race. Feeling slightly chastened, I decided that I should pay attention. So I read McCain's speech.

Brooks is right, there is a great deal of difference between McCain and Bush. McCain almost sounds like a Democrat when he says
"Recall the words of our founders in the Declaration of Independence, that we pay "decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed. We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them."

That sounds like real humility. And I think there's an excellent chance that he actually believes it.

I am glad that McCain is the Republican nominee, because I agree with him on a lot of this. He obviously will attract some people disillusioned with Bush
But there are a couple of key issues that he does not address, both around Iraq. The first is, was it a mistake to invade in the first place? McCain will, I assume, always answer yes. That is a fundamental point of disagreement between him and Obama. Second, although he talks about staying in Iraq until we achieve victory, i.e. a stable Iraq, he never addresses the cost. He argues that the surge is working, which suggests that he thinks success is just around the corner. But the events of this week are not encouraging. At what point, Senator McCain, is the price too high?

David Brooks on McCain

Barack Ads!

Barack Obama in Indiana:

I think he needs better lighting on his face, so you can see his eyes better, but other than that, good ad!

And in North Carolina:

hat tip: Talking Points Memo

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ford sells Jaguar

My Mom says that Ford only bought Jaguar so Ford executives could drive Jaguars. I hope those were fun to drive for those Ford execs, because it cost them a chunk of change.

Ford Motor is selling its storied Jaguar and Land Rover brands to India's Tata Motors in a deal that will net the U.S. automaker $1.7 billion -- roughly a third of the price it paid for the two luxury brands.

Selling anything for 1/3 of what you paid for it is not a good sign. I have a certain amount of nostalgia for Ford: one of my great-grandfathers was the construction foreman on Henry Ford's mansion, and one of my grandfathers started working at Ford in 1925. I still have faith. Thank goodness they finally bit the bullet and got rid of these two companies. And how ironic is it that two icons of the British automobile industry are owned by an Indian company.

And just when Jaguar was running a great ad campaign. Those are just gorgeous images in those ads.

How to lose $900 million

You've got to feel sorry James Cayne, the chairman of Bear Stearns. He was once worth a billion dollars.

But on Thursday, Mr. Cayne, the chairman of Bear, disclosed that he had sold all of his shares in the troubled investment bank this week for just $61 million.

Well, maybe not too sorry.

[F]or Mr. Cayne, the liquidation evokes a deep sense of loss.

Well, yeah. But still not feeling too sorry.

To the end, Mr. Cayne heeded the advice he often gave his colleagues at Bear: hold on to your stock. Whether the stock was flying high, as it was early last year, at $171, or plummeting, as it did in recent months, Mr. Cayne kept the vast bulk of his 5.6 million shares.

OK, sympathy gone. How stupid is that? As long as I can remember, a basic principle of investing is do not put all of your eggs in one basket. Diversify. That's why most people have not just several different mutual funds in their 401(k)'s, but different kinds of mutual funds. And yet this guy, head of an investment bank, and therefore allegedly a very savvy investor, did not follow this very basic advice. He might claim that keeping all of his stock is a sign that he has faith in his company. But it's also a sign that he's not a good investor. And if he has that much faith in his company, he's an egotist. No one is perfect. No one is that good. With the possible exception of Warren Buffett. Who, it should be pointed out, has his wealth tied up in Berkshire Hathaway. But that company is itself a great example of diversification of investments.

Hillary Deathwatch #1

Slate has a Hillary Deathwatch. It currently puts her possiblity of winning the nomination at 12%. That sounds about right.

Hillary the B-Ball player?

You can tell a lot about how a political campaign is going by how the jokes are going. I haven't heard a lot of Obama jokes or satire. Maybe I'm not paying attention, but I haven't picked up much. I think that is partially because he just doesn't provide that much good material. It's hard to make fun of someone who is doing a good job.

Hillary, on the other hand, is getting hammered. Another sign that things are not going well: people and Web sites that don't normally pay attention to politics are jumping in. Yet another sign: people actually spend some time on their satire. They know enough people are going to appreciate the joke that it's worth it to put in some effort. Hopefully my explication hasn't ruined anyone's anticipation of this piece from the Sports Pickle:

Hillary Clinton Fondly Recalls Leading Arkansas to 1994 NCAA Title

Asked by a reporter if she was participating in an NCAA Tournament pool today, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wowed media members by recalling the magical run the Arkansas Razorbacks made to the 1994 championship – a run Clinton says she fueled by averaging 38 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, good enough to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Hillary can play ball? Who knew? Since I am trying not to comment on Hillary's appearance, I'm not going to imagine her in a basketball uniform. Not going to go there . . .

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Nancy Pelosi stands up to Hillary supporters

I wrote a couple of days ago about some Hillary supporters who wrote to Nancy Pelosi about superdelegates. They were threatening to withhold their support for the Democrats if she didn't change her tune on how superdelegates should vote. A friend of mine in New York (thanks Laryssa!) sent me a link from the NY Daily News. Nancy didn't even bother responding to the threat:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blew off warnings from Hillary Clinton backers Thursday, refusing to acknowledge their veiled threat.

The source is interesting. The Daily News is very much a New York paper. They respect strength in a politician, and that's clearly what they were recognizing here. The headline says it all:

Nancy Pelosi unafraid of Clinton backers' warnings on superdelegates

Some people tried to play hardball with the Speaker of the House, and she played hardball right back, because she is, after all, Speaker of the House. And a NY tabloid gave her props for it, so she earned a bit of street cred in the process. Good job, Nancy!

Kareem on Golf

I am quickly becoming a big fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's blog, which is on my blogroll. Today I found a post about the inventor of golf tees. Talk about great trivia. Who has ever thot about the origin of golf tees? Apparently this was a major innovation:

What was golf like before the invention of the golf tee in 1899? Golfers had to carry a bucket of sand from hole to hole. They would scoop the sand out and build a little mound, placing the ball on top like a cherry on an ice cream sundae.

Well that's certainly inefficient. So someone came up with the idea of a little piece of wood that you stick in the ground. And the guy has quite the story besides that:

Then along came Dr. George Grant (1847-1910) to completely revolutionize the game by inventing and patenting the modern version of the golf tee. But Dr. Grant was used to being a revolutionary. Born in Oswego, New York, this son of former slaves was the first African-American to receive a scholarship to Harvard University Dental School. Two years after graduating, Dr. Grant became the first black faculty member of Harvard, where he was a highly respected professor for nineteen years.

How random is that? The inventor of the golf tee was the first black guy to attend Harvard Dental School. Wasn't that worth 30 seconds of your day?

Obama was a professor

OK, now this campaign has gotten truly ridiculous. I've heard rumors that the Clinton campaign is accusing Obama of exaggerating his experience at the University of Chicago Law School, because he says that he was a professor, while his actual title was "Senior Lecturer."

Talk about a fine distinction. For me, "professor" means someone who teaches at a university. I don't care what the official title is - if you're getting paid to teach in a classroom at an institution of higher education, you're a professor. Now U Chicago is clarifying things:

From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track.

So hopefully that puts an end to that little escapade.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ten Days That Changed Capitalism

That's not my own hyperbole in the title of this post - that's the headline of a Page One article in the Wall Street Journal. The world is different now.
"The past ten days will be remembered as the time the U.S. government discarded a half-century of rules to save American financial capitalism from collapse."

It is different in ways that many people don't appreciate. "[the changes from the government] are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms."

The political implications are, to use an overused word, profound.

"A Republican Administration, not eager to be seen as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess."

This is a dramatic change in ideology. Conservatives argue that the market works best when it is regulated as little as possible. This mess has illustrated, very clearly, the limitations of that ideology. And it's only going to get worse. When will we know it's gotten worse? When the bill shows up. "The next step, if one proves necessary, is almost sure to require the explicit use of taxpayer money." How happy are Main Street Americans going to be about bailing out people on Wall Street? Not very. I'm not going to be thrilled about it, that's for sure.

That's the article on Page One: change is coming, get used to it. But one interesting effect of reading the Wall Street Journal is that you notice a strong divide between the reporting and the editorial pages. Sometimes it's an almost schizophrenic divide. Just a few pages behind the article articulating just exactly why and how the government intervened in the market is an Op-Ed piece challenging the need for new regulations. Allan Meltzer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, lets us know that "Mistaken regulation contributed greatly to the current problems in financial markets." So apparently it wasn't investment bankers making bad decisions based on greed and an unclear comprehension of how much risk they were taking on. It was the government trying to regulate the markets. I was under the impression that establishing guidelines for behavior was the government's job. I was also under the impression that responsible citizens generally try to follow those guidelines. Not according to Prof. Meltzer: "The first principle of regulation is: Lawyers and and politicians write rules; and markets develop ways to circumvent these rules without violating them." So it's fine to violate the spirit of the law, as long as you're within the letter. This is sort of like Martin Luther King's doctrine of civil disobedience, but for yuppies instead of oppressed minorities - if you consider the law unjust, try to work around it. Ethics be damned, apparently.

I've worked for investment banks, and I can actually understand this point of view. Investment bankers are paid to be creative with finances, and that requires knowing where the lines are in the law. And who among us has not thot about just how fast you can drive above the speed limit without getting caught? But instead of being creative on the legal side, shouldn't the core principle of a business be figuring out how to deliver value for your client? I notice that JPMorgan was in a position to take advantage of Bear Stearns' mishaps. I'm fairly certain that's because JPMorgan understood that one purpose of the rules and regulations that structure our financial system is to protect people from themselves. Those laws exist because when people get themselves into trouble, they tend to get other people in trouble, too. That's also why we have laws against drunk driving.

What's particularly bizarre about this line of argument is what happens when you apply it to the world outside of Wall Street. Let's try this. Should we have laws against robbing banks? No, because robbers are constantly innovating, and we can't catch up with them. Maybe we shouldn't try. Or how about this: if you install a burglar alarm in your house, some thief is just going to figure out how to get around it. So don't even bother locking your doors!

Conservatives occasionally make a good argument for too much regulation having unintended consequences. But the solution is not to abandon the enterprise of regulating the financial system or to take the path of least resistance. Conservatives, I think, are getting desperate to protect their franchise before it becomes so invalidated that they lose elections. But it's not working, because reality is intruding. You can tell people are is this kind of trouble when their arguments are sloppy. Prof. Meltzer uses a couple of examples of the failure of regulation that I think fail to prove his case:

"Regulators did not see the chicanery at Enron. Nor did they prevent the dot-com bubble or the Latin American debt problems in the 1980s."

They didn't see the problems at Enron because Enron was engaged in criminal activity and hiding it from regulators. And the dot-com bubble was a normal market correction - too many people got too greedy, and did not exercise good judgment. That's unfortunate, but there was very little illegality. And I don't know enough about the Latin American debt problems in the 1980s to comment intelligently. But the point is that this is a red herring - these are not examples of failures of regulation.

Mr. Meltzer seems to think that those who took the risks should pay the price - enforcing the moral hazard. Let the government keep this system afloat, but don't save anyone's skin who doesn't deserve it. Let the idiots hang. It's a harsh perspective, but not unusual (and, for some, I'm sure, a nice revenge fantasy).

What I find bizarre is the idea that we shouldn't bother trying to learn the proper lessons from this so that we can prevent it from happening again. It will happen again, the good professor seems to be arguing, so what's the point of even trying? Because, Prof. Meltzer, trying to find the proper range of regulation to balance the disparate needs of society is the purpose of democracy.

Come back, Sam come back!

Sam Stein in HuffPost suggests that Samantha Power might come back to the Obama camp at some point. Good rumor! I saw her when I was campaigning for Obama in Las Vegas. Brilliant woman, very inspiring to hear her talk and realize that she is part of Obama's brain trust. I think it was totally ridiculous that she had to resign from the Obama campaign. I think she should have apologized, taken a vacation for a couple of weeks, and then come right back. But at least she got a smidgen of publicity for herself out of it.

Hillary's lost makeup time

Michael Kinsley, finding something interesting to write about, as usual, has an Op-Ed piece in today's LA Times about a particular disadvantage that Hillary has in this campaign: she has to wear makeup. Not that that in and of itself is a disadvantage - I actually think Hillary looks good these days. She reminds me of Susan Sarandon, who I think is aging very gracefully. Even though I don't support her for president and, like many people, I find her a little grating, I think she does have an air of competence and authority, which I find attractive. I think she's rather handsome these days. She also seems to be comfortable with her appearance, which is a big help.

But Kinsley's point is that she has to take extra time every day to put the makeup on, and, over the course of a campaign, it adds up. His calculation:

"If you figure 20 minutes a day over a year and a half of 14-hour days and six-day weeks, it comes out to an extra two weeks of campaigning or sleep for a male candidate."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Yes, it's a disadvantage. But the emphasis on her appearance also might have advantages. I remember seeing at least one Democratic debate, with five or six or seven or eight guys in dark suits, and Hillary is bright red. Or bright yellow, or whatever. She really does stand out, which can't hurt.

As for advantages that Hillary has personally, we can start with the fact that she's married to a former president. So even if she has this one disadvantage, she also has several unique advantages.

The one thing that I can think of on the male side is that men have to work out to keep in shape. But women have to do that too - being on the campaign trail, I'm sure, requires that you be in good shape. So I really have no idea what to make of this. Comments are welcome.

Good news about LA real estate

OK, this is somewhat bureaucratic, but it is now easier to get building permits in LA. That has to be good news for people interested in LA, which is just about everyone. Builders use to have to go through 12 city agencies for permits; that has been reduced to 2. That's good. My only complaint is that it's not a very deep report in the LA Times. For example, the story mentions that it should make it easier for non-profit developers to build affordable housing, but doesn't quote anybody to that effect. And it doesn't explain much about how this change actually happened. Which, for a political junkie like me, is fascinating. What role did our Mayor Antonio play? Where's the gossip?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Martin Marty on Jeremiah Wright

Martin Marty, one of the great American theologians, defends Jeremiah Wright. Andrew Sullivan's eloquent examination of the issue here. Sullivan isn't a fan of Wright's, but he recognizes his right to speak his mind, and the unfairness of the attacks on him.

The Spy Who Loved Basketball

Fascinating story today in the LA Times about Shabtai von Kalmanovic, one of those guys in Russia with lots of money and not much to do with it. Apparently he has decided that he wants Russians to get excited about American basketball.

Women's basketball.

He hires superstars from the WNBA and pays them - get this - 10 times what they make in this country. Not that he is making any money.

"On the contrary, it's better described as an extravagance than a business: Kalmanovic has to pay Russian television to air the games, and they often end up being broadcast in the middle of the night. Nobody even bothers to sell tickets to the games."

OK, so my title might be a little misleading. It's not clear whether or not he is or was a spy, but he did spend some time in an Israeli jail because someone there thot he was. You just can't make this up.

The obvious question is: why? My guess is that it's a matter of getting value for your money. It sounds like a lot, but, hey, compared to the cost of buying, say the Lakers, or another NBA team? The man has snagged himself a great deal. And American women are benefiting. This is one thing that absolutely no one, in their wildest dreams, ever thot would be an outcome of the end of the Cold War.

More not-so-good news for Hillary

In contrast to the good news for Obama (see my post immediately below), there's a little bit of weird, and not necessarily good, news for Hillary. Seems that some of her supporters are a little miffed that Nancy Pelosi seems to be drifting into the Obama camp. Talking Points Memo has the letter. It's not even that thinly veiled:

"you suggested super-delegates have an obligation to support the candidate who leads in the pledged delegate count as of June 3rd , whether that lead be by 500 delegates or 2. This is an untenable position that runs counter to the party’s intent in establishing super-delegates in 1984 as well as your own comments recorded in The Hill ten days earlier"

They go on to articulate why superdelegates should consider a number of factors in their decision on who to support.

"Super-delegates, like all delegates, have an obligation to make an informed, individual decision about whom to support and who would be the party’s strongest nominee."

Which is code for "we don't care how many votes Obama has, we still don't think he'll win the general election."

And this lays it on the line: "We have been strong supporters of the DCCC." Hint, hint, do what we want, or we'll make big donations to the local museum instead of the Democrats.

I can appreciate people playing hardball. I have no problem with people with money using their money to make their voices heard. Hey, it's their money, they can do what they want with it. If I ever have oodles of money, I have every intention of doing the same thing. You write large checks, you get to go to great parties. I'm glad people with this kind of cash are on my side. Of course, I'm also very much in favor of transparency when they do. But everyone involved put their name on the letter, so they're upfront. That's all to the good.

But judging from the reactions at TPM, this could seriously backfire with the base. The word "extortion" appears several times. Guess what? The Democratic party is allegedly the party of the little guy. Guess what else? The little guys don't like being pushed around by the big guys. Or the big girls.

And guess what else? Nancy Pelosi is a big girl, too. She can take care of herself. She can also read the handwriting on the wall.

Good news for Obama

Blue Majority Endorses Obama. Blue Majority is a coalition of three progressive Websites (Daily Kos, Open Left, and the Swing State Project). I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, since I don't have much money to donate. But it's clearly good news for Barack. Kos, who is a brilliant Democratic strategist operating outside of the party structure, originally favored Dodd. He has come around to the Obama camp for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Obama has run a great campaign. More momentum for Barack!

Kareem on Wright

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a post at HuffPost today about Jeremiah Wright. First of all, thank goodness for this, because I finally have something I can write about that isn't about the Clintons. Kareem also has a blog at the LA Times.

I like Kareem, not just because he's a classy guy, but because he played for the Lakers. He also played for UCLA, which is unfortunate (I went to USC), but that is balanced by playing for the Lakers.

He has a very measured, careful piece about Jeremiah Wright. He makes what I think should be an obvious point: we are carrying the burdens of history.

"Because of the nature of the problems, which in many cases were started in the 19th Century, Americans in this day and age have to pay for issues that they didn't cause and shouldn't have to fix. But nonetheless we are stuck with the tab."

He specifically cites Katrina, and, believe it or not, cuts FEMA some slack:

The incompetence and unpreparedness of the authorities who where supposed to do something about the disaster was seen by blacks as racism pure and simple. But actually the folks at FEMA were trying to straighten out a situation created by racist policies put in place 80 or 90 years ago. Again and again these situations rear up and bite us all and create more bitterness and distrust between different sectors of Americans.

I think this is something that gets lost in the debate. Lots of white people look at our current reality and wonder why black people don't work harder, or go to college, or somehow pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But we forget that we have lots of advantages. I sure didn't have to pick myself up by my bootstraps. I was fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood with great public schools, and even more fortunate that my parents could afford to send me to an elite private college in the east. And my parents were the beneficiaries of the hard work of their parents, and so on.

Kareem also explains the tendency of African Americans to believe in conspiracy theories. I'm going to quote this at length:

Reverend Wright suggested in one of his sermons that AIDS was intentionally allowed to infect people because it would probably do most of its damage in the black community. White Americans see this view point as racist paranoia. But black Americans remember the Tuskegee experiment when black men who had syphilis were left untreated intentionally so the progress of the disease could be studied by government doctors. This actually happened and its memory has caused a collective distrust of doctors in the black community for which white Americans can not see any rational basis. Again we are stuck with dealing with the evil deeds that were done before many of us were born.

There's a very simple reason many blacks see conspiracy theories where white people don't: because, for many, many years, there WERE conspiracies that kept black people oppressed. Paranoia is justified when people are, in fact, out to get you, or even when they no longer are, but were in the past. Jim Crow was not just a conspiracy theory, it was a whole bunch of conspiracies, perpetuated by lots of different groups in different parts of the country, and affecting blacks in most areas of their lives.

But Kareem, at the end, is optimistic, both in his own ability to explain:

"I am mentioning these events to give a more complete background to Rev. Wright's comments from his pulpit."

and our collective ability to heal the wounds:

"Together we can make the dreams of the Founding Fathers a reality for all Americans."

Tell you what, Kareem, just writing this post, I'll root for UCLA in the NCAA. For at least one game.

Good news about the Clintons

In the interest of fairness, and because I like being positive, here's a bit of good news about the Clintons. Actually, it's about Chelsea. At a college campus, someone asked her if her mother's credibility was damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Her response:

"Wow, you're the first person actually that's ever asked me that question in the, I don't know maybe, 70 college campuses I've now been to, and I do not think that is any of your business," Clinton said during a campaign visit for her mother, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Huffpost also has the video. Good for her. I think she's right. Much as I was disappointed by Bill's behavior, I think Chelsea is dead-on. That's not an appropriate question, particularly for a daughter. We need to keep some boundaries.

I also want to take this opportunity to point out that Bill and Hillary can be proud of their role as parents. Chelsea has turned out really well. She's very poised and gracious, and clearly very competent. And, at the risk of being sexist, she looks pretty good.

Good Question!

The Associated Press asks an interesting question about this Hillary-going-to-Bosnia kerfluffle:

"Why Wasn't The Truth Good Enough For Hillary?"

Good question! She claims that she "misspoke." Fine, we all do that, but she also has the resources to back up her memory - there are all kinds of records, public and private, of just about everything she did as First Lady. There is no reason for her to have made this kind of mistake. There's also no reason for her not to have admitted it upfront very early on, when she could have diffused it. The AP has a psychological take:

Clinton was an exceptionally active first lady who knows more than most about what it takes to be president. So it must drive her nuts when Obama and his allies dismiss her role. Their condescension must make it harder for Clinton to accept the fact that hers was a largely ceremonial job, especially after her ill-fated attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system.

And so the best explanation for her Bosnia embellishment may be this simple, and this human: She's overcompensating.

This makes sense. But at the same time, she has only herself to blame if other people question the importance of her accomplisments. She is, after all, the one who is claiming "35 years of experience." She parlayed her experience into a Senate seat, in a state that she had never lived in. Even if she never makes it to the Presidency, she is still one of the most accomplished women in the history of American politics.

What kind of an ego do you have to have to need to win the Presidency to finally feel validated?

One Contradiction for Hillary

Hillary is, as we all know, determined to keep fighting for the Democratic nomination, apparently until it's technically impossible for her to win. This might go to the convention. Yahoo has an interview with her about this.

But I sense a flaw in this strategy. She wants to win the nomination because, obviously, that is what is in her best interest. But what if she fights Obama so long that, even if he wins the nomination, he's so damaged that he loses the general election? I don't think that will happen, but it's possible. What happens then?

What happens then is that literally millions of Democrats will focus their anger directly on Hillary. She will have her defenders. But the acrimony will be extraordinary. There are a lot of people who were unhappy with Bill for various reasons that I don't need to elaborate, but who temper that with the recognition that, as a Democratic president, he was still better than a Republican one. But all of that anger is going to combine with the anger at Hillary for how she has run this campaign.

Of course, it's also possible that she will win both the nomination and the general election. This, I think, is highly unlikely. She simply cannot attract enough independents, particularly after the way that she has run this campaign.

Hillary is up for reelection to the Senate in 2012. But if Obama loses, she would also be the Democratic with the highest national profile. But her negatives are already high. If too many Democrats blame her for losing this year, her negatives would be through the roof.

So in the short term, it's in her best interest to keep running, because it's still possible for her to win the nomination and the election, however unlikely. But in the long run, I think she's going to end up doing herself far more harm than good.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

One line about Hillary

I've said before that I don't particularly enjoy seeing Hillary in trouble, but this is too good to pass up. From a comment thread at Talking Points Memo:

"She misremembered whether or not she was being shot at. Yeah, that happens to me all the time."

That would seem to be the kind of thing that would stick in your mind.

Fun with geneaology

How bizarre is this: Some geneaologists in New England, apparently with too much time on their hands, discovered some interesting connections. Barack Obama is distantly related to Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie is distantly related to Hillary Clinton. Maybe I should do some more genealogical research! I hope I'm related either Claire Danes or Natalie Portman.

Clinton on Jeremiah Wright - dangerous territory

Hillary finally gives us her opinion on Jeremiah Wright:

"He would not have been my pastor," Clinton said. "You don't choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend."

That's a not-so-subtle slam against Obama. Yes, you do choose what church you want to attend. For me, however, this raises questions of church and state. Not constitutional issues, but personal ones. A person's relationship with their church and their pastor is deeply personal. It is also one of the most sacred relationships - in some respects, the most sacred relationship - a person has. I am extremely reluctant to criticize another person's relationship with their pastor or their church, because to do so is to question their faith, their relationship with the divine, the sacred, the transcendent. There's a fine line here. Obama did make a decision to attend this church. But he has also made it clear to what extent he disagrees with Jeremiah Wright. Beyond that, I think he deserves a certain amount of respect for the privacy of the space in which he has chosen to worship. I think we go down a dangerous road if we open up a person's faith for too much critique.

A church or synagogue or mosque or any other religious place is where someone goes to come to terms with things that we cannot deal with in an earthly medium - the nature of mortality, questions of sin and redemption, eternity. In America, we very carefully proscribe politics from interfering in those realms, because it is important for people to have the greatest possible freedom to address those issues as they see wish to. To question too deeply a person's relationship with their pastor, their church, or their religion, is to intrude on that sacred space that we have worked so hard, literally for centuries, to protect.

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Outsourcing passports - maybe not a good idea

From the AP:

"But the practice of outsourcing allowed hired hands to snoop around in presidential candidates' files. And now it's pointing to questions about whether outside contractors should have access to such sensitive information about any citizen."

Um, no.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Tex, asks a good question:

"Have we gone too far in recent years by perhaps relying too much on contractors?"

What's odd about this question is that's not yet a rhetorical question, but it should be.

From the Financial Times Weekend, #1

I love the Financial Times Weekend edition. If I could only read one newspaper a week, it would be the FT. There's always good, succinct coverage of both financial and political news, but there's also great cultural coverage. In the US, the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today are national newspapers, available just about everywhere in the country, and covering, at least in part, most of the country. But the FT is working on becoming a WORLD paper. They cover as much of the globe as they can, particularly in the arts coverage. I think I've learned more about the rest of the world just reading the FT than any other source I've ever encountered. They make a conscious effort to report on neighborhoods in Cairo, ex-pats living in Japan, and museums in Dubai.

I found some good articles from this weekend's edition.

First, a good quote from Renzo Piano, the architect:
"Creativity doesn’t need freedom, it needs rules, then you can enjoy occasionally breaking those rules."

The wonderful wine columnist Jancis Robinson on the problems of shipping wine in trucks without adequate temperature control. Apparently this is a big problem - wine is ruined if it the temperature isn't properly when it's shipped, and not enough shippers take proper care. Good to know.

Susie Boyt on buying flowers in Covent Garden. Sounds like fun. The next time I am buying flowers in London, this is where I am going to go. Seriously, I helped my mother pick out flowers for my grandmother's funeral, so I have this on the brain of late.

Every week a writer for the FT has lunch with someone famous and fascinating. This week it's Mario Cuomo. No surprise, he would like more substance in the Democratic campaigns.

And finally, Rowley Leigh, chef and food columnist, was cooking with a fellow chef who has a very modern approach to the culinary arts. He, however, took a more traditional approach: "I was a prime example of the Neolithic [cooking] school: give me meat, give me fire and I give you food."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hillary in Tuzla

I have no idea where Tuzla is. I spent the 90's trying not to think about Bosnia and Serbia and Croatia, because it was just one too many things to have to worry about. At some point you have to block some things out, or you burn out.

So I don't have a lot of background on Hillary's trip to Tuzla. But it's pretty clear that she did not handle this well. Andrew Sullivan provided the video:

Josh Marshall has a more detailed response.

The upshot is that Hillary claimed that she went into Tuzla, in Bosnia, under sniper fire. The video record clearly disputes that. This should not be a big deal - her memory is playing tricks on her. Big deal. But the urge to spin seems to be getting her in trouble.

I don't want to criticize Hillary for stuff like this. I take no pleasure in this. It's no fun being slowly more ever-disillusioned. But at best, this is sloppy. At worst, it's deceptive. The woman has been in the public spotlight for many years. She allegedly has world-class people working for her. She has all kinds of resources. When she makes a comment in public, she should know that there are literally thousands of people waiting to prove her right or wrong, and they have the means to do so. She is clearly wrong. That's not a big deal - people misremember things all the time. As soon as someone flagged this, she should have just admitted that she was wrong, and the story would have died. But she had to keep fighting. She claims being a "fighter" as one of her key virtues. She also claims "competence." But it is looking more and more like she isn't competent when she needs to be, and she fights when it's just not a good idea.

Quote of the day

From an interview with REM on NPR's Morning Edition:

Steve Inskeep, NPR host:
"I wanted to get to that line,
'All you sad and lost apostles,
hum my name and flare their nostrils.'
That could be wicked, it could be playful, it is fun, it could be Biblical, it could be profound, it could be meaningless."

Michael Stipe:
"I'd like to think it's all of the above.

Speaking as the man who wrote the line. You know, there's a lot of fun rhyming "apostle" and "nostril." I don't know that it's been done before."

I think I need to buy the new album. It's called Accelerate.

Serious music video regression

This takes me way, way back.

The Contradictions of Conservatives

Andrew Sullivan notes a trend in response to Obama's speech:

This controversy really is separating the thoughtful and hopeful conservatives from the others. I can't believe I'm writing this, but it seems to me to be helping conservatism reform itself as well.

I am not surprised. As with every ideology, conservatism has its contradictions, and I think we are witnessing the breakdown of conservative ideology along one of its fault lines. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this breakdown among political commentators is happening at the same time that we are witnessing radical failure on Wall Street - I think there's a strong parallel.

Liberalism went through its own version of this split years ago. Classic liberalism encourages individuals to place as much, if not more, importance on the community as on the individual. There are good things about this, obviously - we work together to solve our problems. But too much of a good thing is a problem: if there is not enough incentive for individuals to take responsibility for themselves, or if there is no reward for individual initiative, the community is not renewed and enriched. Thus communism died in 1989.

The conservative version of this is the mirror opposite: conservatives sometimes place more importance on individual initiative than on collective responsibility. Thus they reward individuals for success, while bemoaning government intervention. The contradiction here is that collective action is required for individual achievement. Bill Gates is wildly successful in part because he is an American, working within the American system of the rule of law. Many conservatives understand and appreciate the fact that the community is ultimately more important than the individual - no man is an island.

But some conservatives resist this, and what we are witnessing now is a split between those who accept the responsibility of individuals to advance the larger cause of democracy, and those who place their own interests first, unless they have little or no choice in a particular matter. Bear Stearns is a classic example of the latter. It did not participate in the communal effort to save Long-Term Capital Management, despite pressure from the Fed to do so, and despite the fact that other investment banks were doing so. It marched to the beat of its own drummer.

Of course, Bear was also part of a crowd that has pushed for greater deregulation for years. Part of the rationale is based on hubris, the belief that the market collectively knows how to police itself better than the government. Bear believed that it understood the rules of the game better than the bureaucrats. Unfortunately, it didn't. Most other investment banks and financial institutions understood this better. Which is why JPMorgan is buying Bear - they understood that the rules are there because the community is ultimately smarter than any single individual or even company. The rules we live by are a product of the collective wisdom of the community.

We are witnessing the same split in reactions to Obama's speech. Some conservatives have recognized that this is a call to embrace our collective responsibility to each other. Some, on the other hand, see it as a demand to put the interests of one group - African Americans - over another - whites. They put their own interests ahead of the community, so they see Obama as doing the same. Thus Pat Buchanan is bitter that blacks are not grateful to white people. To him, it's a zero-sum game - either white people get jobs and scholarships, or black people do. One wins, the other loses. Bear Stearns believed that it could win consistently enough that it did not have to participate in maintaining the standards of the community as other banks did. This is called hubris. When it turned out to be wrong, few people had sympathy for it. They gambled and lost. The irony is that Bear now does not want to take responsibility for losing its gamble.

But Obama believes, and many conservatives fortunately agree with him, that this is not a zero-sum game. White people do not have to lose for blacks to gain. On Wall Street, this is called adding value. A bank loans a homeowner money to buy a house. The homeowner pays it back, with interest. The interest represents added value for the bank. But the price of the house eventually exceeds the price the homeowner paid for it, so they sell it and make money. This is their added value. Everybody wins. For this system to function properly, however, the rules of the game have to be clear and fair. Which is only possible with a properly regulated market.

In politics, this is called the progress of democracy. Everyone benefits from being part of a democracy. But everone also beneifts differently. Some benefit greatly and become fabulously wealthy. Some only benefit marginally. But we have a collective benefit from all people having opportunity to benefit. And therefore each of us has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has as much opporunity as possible, and is treated as fairly as possible. Many conservatives understand this, and they recognize Obama as someone who understands it as well. Each of us has a responsibility to make sure that the system works. Those of us who have benefited the most from the system have a greater responsibility to ensure that it works properly. Barack Obams himself is a great example of this: he has benefited from the system to a great degree, and has accepted responsibility to ensure that it works properly.

The conservative coalition is splitting between those who acknowledge the importance of advancing the cause of collective responsibility, and those who want to act according to their own best self-interests. Thus Chris Wallace gets into an argument with his colleagues at Fox News. And Pat Buchanan makes absurd arguments about the need for black people to express their gratitude towards white people.

This contradiction will not be resolved in this election. But it will make for a fascinating debate.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Conservatives on race - A good guy

Earlier, I slammed Pat Buchanan for really not getting the African American experience. Other than being grotesquely bullheaded, it's an intellectually unsophisticated essay, with no attempt whatsoever at subtlety or grace. In the interest of balance, I am highlighting a much more enlightened piece from the Financial Times, by Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. I've never read The Weekly Standard; all I know about it is that it was founded by William Kristol, who has not impressed me with his column at The NY Times. But Caldwell is an eloquent and nuanced writer who rarely writes exactly what I expect him to. This is one of the best essays about Obama's speech that I have read, from any source or ideological position. It's almost too subtle - I had to read it twice before I really got it.

One of Obama's goals in this speech, he writes, was "to strip his speech of customary euphemisms." This is necessary, according to Caldwell, because those euphemisms obscure intentions and deflect criticisms. But the dangerous euphemisms come from the white people in the power structure, which does not foster trust between the races:

If the historic enemies of your people suddenly began talking about you in what can fairly be called a secret code, how inclined would you be to trust in their protestations of generosity?

Kudos to Caldwell for pointing out in a newspaper like the Financial Times what almost any postmodern academic would take as obvious: one of the purposes of the language of the power structure is to perpetuate that power structure. Barack Obama knows that as well as anybody. It is part of his genius ability as a politician that he can break through the obfuscation that has defined discussion of race in this country for so long. He is rewarded, thank God, in part by an honest and appreciative appraisal from someone who has very little in common with him ideologically. What they do have in common is an interest in moving forward:

This is the core of the problem Mr Obama aims to address. Bringing subterranean racial narratives into the light of day, where they can be debated openly, is a risk. Although the early news coverage of his speech has been positive, polls appear show that what Americans most want from Mr Obama is a simple demonstration that he is not like Rev Wright.

That is not exactly what they got. But they did get something better: the offer of a more intimate relationship among the races, a less instrumental use of them by US politicians and a breaking of the monopoly on interracial dialogue that has until now been held by elite censors. Americans ought to take him up on it.

The power of ideas. Sometimes it is a slow power, sometimes subtlety takes a long time to work. But work it does.

Two classic videos

These are two classic music videos. The first is Pat Benatar's "Ooh Ooh Song." This is classic, at least I think so, because it's very mid-80's: sort of cheesy, but lots of fun. This was back when music videos were still a relatively new art form, so there was a sense of freedom and innovation. I don't watch enough music videos these days to know how much that is still the case, so I don't want to be nostalgic about a past better than the present. No rose-colored glasses for me! I just love this video. I don't think the song itself ever got much airplay, but I remember just loving the video when it came out. I once bought the album "Tropico" on cassette in a used record store in Greenwich Village just because it had this song on it. I'm also always impressed that Pat Benatar looks incredibly good, despite wearing overalls, really not high on the list of sexy outfits for a rock star to be wearing in a music video.

And theres this video, "Cradle of Love," by Billy Idol. This DID get some significant airplay. I don't think it was one of his most popular songs, but it was probably at least a Top 40 hit. But the reason I like the video (apart from the obvious attractions for a guy) is that it's technically an extraordinary accomplishment. All of the elements come together really, really well: from the sound design (pay attention to the background noise when Devon is at the door) to the editing, to the cinematography, to the production design, to the costumes, even to the animation. Just about seamless.

Conservatives on race

The debate on race that Barack Obama helped begin with his speech in Philadelphia has started to take some interesting turns, particularly among conservatives. I know lots of conservatives who are not racist and recognize the burdens that African Americans face. Some conservatives don't like affirmative action. That's a legitimate topic of debate. Affirmative action is one of those things that we will know is successful when we can do away with it. The question is, when will that be? And there are some conservatives who are disgusted with Jeremiah Wright's apparently anti-American rants. Again, honest differences of opinion. Some people denounce him completely for his comments, others try to understand where he's coming from, and see the whole man.

But then there's Pat Buchanan. This is mind-boggling.

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

I'll be the one of the first liberals to acknowledge that one of the great virtues of American society is that we have lots of opportunities to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps - I'm the product of people who did exactly that. And Barack and Michelle Obama are both clearly examples of people who have done that, as well. And Buchanan is technicaly correct that lots of African Americans have prospered. But he seems to think that, once the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed in the 60's, all racism and its effects simply vanished, and that whatever problems African Americans have is strictly their own fault. That's beyond ridiculous.

He thinks that black people in America owe whites thanks:

We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

Seriously? Barack Obama is running for President of the United States of America. Does Buchanan think he's doing that just as a joyride? He's doing it because he loves this country, and he thinks he can make it better. He's incredibly grateful for the opportunities he has had. He makes that clear. If Pat Buchanan thinks otherwise, he's not listening. Which, of course, would not be surprising.

Buchanan claims that he's hearing the grievances, but he doesn't seem to give them any credence. He doesn't seem to think that the grievances have any legitimacy. Which is absurd and incredibly insulting to African Americans. Yes, there have been great strides in redressing the sins of the past in this country. But forty years of opportunity is not much time to make up 350 years of oppression. If Pat Buchanan wants to hear expressions of gratitude from African Americans about all the wonderful things white people have done for them, he could start by stop whining about the problems of being a white American male.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Since it's Good Friday, and Sunday is Easter, I am going to post a video from my church, Hope Lutheran, in Hollywood (yes, that Hollywood).

Happy Easter!

Obama's speech

I watched Obama's speech last night. I was, of course, impressed. But a couple of things struck me: first, he's remarkably calm through the whole thing. He doesn't get excited the way he can when firing up a crowd. Second, it's almost prosaic in its honesty and simplicity. There are few rhetorical flourishes or great new revelations. There is very little that I haven't heard before or thought myself. But there is a lot that needed to be said, just to break the ice and get many, many conversations started. Nicholas Kristof put it well in the NY Times:

Much of the time, blacks have a pretty good sense of what whites think, but whites are oblivious to common black perspectives.

What’s happening, I think, is that the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation — and they are thunderstruck.

I think lots of white people, particularly conservatives, just want racial issues in this country to go away. As Obama pointed out, white people feel like they're not guilty of all these horrible crimes, so why should be they be victimized in turn? That's a difficult question to answer, but what Obama, and, apparently, Jeremiah Wright answer, is that what blacks are looking for is equal opportunity. But they also know, at least Obama and Wright do, that blacks must help themselves. That's part of the message that Obama, I'm sure, will be stressing. With himself as a prime example.

Some of the controversy over Wright's remarks stem from the fact that he was proposing some bizarre, at least bizarre according to the white perspective, conspiracy theories. But I think a black pastor thinking in terms of conspiracy theories is understandable because literally for centuries there WERE conspiracy theories against blacks in this country. And those theories were widespread, and extremely powerful, and, in many instances, deadly. And they did emanate from the white power structure. So to white people, a conspiracy theory sounds crazy, because they can't see themselves or anyone they know perpetuating it. But to someone who grew up surrounded by many conspiracies, it's very plausible.

Probably the best commentary on this so far came from Jon Stewart, who pointed out that, finally, a presidential candidate addressed the American people on the subject of race "as if they were adults."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

There Will Be Bud

This is one of the funniest movie parodies that I have ever seen. Shot at the University of Southern California.

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

Speaking of poetry (see my post immediately below), I am going to take the opportunity of St. Patrick's Day to post some lines about Ireland from a poem that I wrote years ago. One of these days I might post the entire poem, which is called "Irish and American Colors & Fires," and is partially based on a trip I took to Ireland right after I graduated from Swarthmore. There are a couple of lines:

An Irish mountain is a Colorado speed bump
blessed and cursed with a leprechaun's arthritic charm.

and . . .

there is a strong demand there for poetry
the land
has a sea-salt lick thirst
for ragefully gorgeous words

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Poetry cliches

The Virginia Quarterly Review, one of those obscure and probably old literary magazines that most colleges subscribe to because they feel an obligation to support the arts, has a great post about poetic cliches. I used to write poetry when I was in collge and for a while afterwards, but haven't written any in a while. I suppose film school will do that to you - you suddenly have LOTS of outlets for your creativity. When I was at Swarthmore, a friend of mine and I were talking about the cliches of bodily fluids in poetry - i.e., blood, sweat and tears. This friend of mine joked that no one wrote about lymph nodes. So I offered to do that. It was called "Panta Rhei," which is Latin for "everything flows" (my friend minored in Latin). I have no idea where it is any more, but I'm proud of the fact that, many, many years ago, I was so sensitive to artistic cliches that I made fun of them, and it only now that the poetry establishment is catching up to me. Ha!

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Sunday, March 16, 2008

This is bad

JP Morgan is buying Bear Stearns. For $2 a share. This is not a firesale. This is a volcano sale. Or whatever is more intense than a firesale. JPMorgan is paying $236 million. That's chump change. All of the marble and artwork in the Bear Stearns HQ is probably worth several million. Apparently Bear Stearns was effectively bankrupt last Thursday. So JPMorgan is basically buying the physical assets, they're not even paying for any of the cash that Bear has in its bank accounts. They're not paying for that cash because, apparently, there isn't any. The price is at a 93% discount to the price of Bear's stock at the Friday close. That is just unheard of. Even Enron took a while to completely collapse. JPMorgan is doing the world a favor buying Bear. They are keeping the world's financial system from going kaflooey. I don't know much about how Bear Stearns is integrated into the financial system, but if it went bankrupt, more than a few people would panic.

Things are going to get worse before they get better. There will be more than a bit of schaudenfreude at work here, as people who don't work on Wall Street take a certain perverse pleasure in watching people in expensive suits lose their jobs.

This may have an interesting effect on the Democratic presidential race, because Hillary, after all, is the Senator from New York. And that ain't going to be a good thing in the immediate future.

This will be one of those times which test the fiber of American democracy. I have a theory that the system of American democracy is designed to sustain the maximum damage that can be inflicted on it. Because everyone in this country has, theoretically at least, an equal opportunity to participate in the system, everyone has, again theoretically, an interest in preserving the system. This will be one of those moments when people with a vested interest in the system are going to have to band together to protect some elements of it. This will not threaten the existence of this country, but it is going to have a much wider impact than many people suspect at the present. This is going to be bad.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Good day for political humor

Besides the list of alternative names for Hillary that I listed below, there are a couple of other great instances of political humor today. Michael Kinsley in the WaPo on being offended:

"It is my job to talk about the issues, such as health care and the subprime mortgage crisis. It is your job as members of the press to ignore all that boring crap and to fan the flames of phony issues with no evidence whatsoever, and I call upon you to do your job."

It's a great parody. Normally I'm not a huge fan of Kinsley. He's one of the smartest pundits around, but sometimes I think he's a little too smart for his own good. He had a stint as editor of the LA Times, but that didn't work out so well. But this piece is priceless.

And then there's Andy Borowitz's report for today, letting the world know that Barack Obama is converting to Judaism:

“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a press conference in Scarsdale, New York, adding that he would change his middle name from “Hussein” to “Murray.”

Good move, Barack! I think this will settle the religious issue once and for all!

Cass Sunstein on Obama

Cass Sunstein, a highly respected legal scholar at the University of Chicago, has a wonderful piece in the Chicago Tribune about why he supports Obama. "But niceness and ability are only part of the story. Obama has a genuinely independent mind, he's a terrific listener and he goes wherever reason takes him." Almost makes me miss academia. Almost.

New names for Hillary

I recently discovered, a great humor site. The name stands for 23/6 (i.e., one less than 24/7), and their motto is "Some of the news, most of the time." They have a very funny piece about new names for Hillary. My favorite is "Smiley McNotabitch."

Eleanor W. Fisher 1910-2008

I haven't been blogging for a few days because I was out of town at my grandmother's funeral, and I really wasn't in the mood for blogging.

My grandmother was the quintessential grandmother, really sweet, and with a great sense of humor. She lived to be 97, outliving her husband by 31 years. We'll miss her.

This is her obituary at the funeral home, A.J. Desmond & Sons.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama?

There's been some talk about whether either Clinton or Obama would choose the other as VP. My thots are: Clinton would just about have to choose Obama, but Obama has no reason to choose her.

If Clinton wins, she will have very little choice but to choose Obama, for several reasons. He brings a huge number of people to the table, particularly African-Americans. That's normally a solid group for Dems, particularly for a Clinton. But the Clintons have managed to alienate their traditional allies, and healing would be good. Obama also has a superb organization that can raise a lot of money and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. If she doesn't choose him, lots and lots and lots of people will be pissed off at her. There will probably be some white men who won't vote for a combination of a woman and a black man, but most of those people won't vote for a Democrat.

The next question is whether or not Obama would say yes. There are some theoretical/ethical reasons for him to say no. Does he really want to be part of a Clinton administration? Would it compromise his attempt to move beyond the politics of negativity to say yes to Hillary? That's a real concern. But he could also argue that his highest principle is getting a Democrat elected to office. Some people will accuse him of selling out. But I don't think we can afford to have another Republican as President. Also, if Clinton loses, he'll be in a great position to run again in four years, because people will blame Clinton for the loss, not him. It's mostly a positive for him to run with Clinton.

But Obama-Clinton? Not such a good idea. Her presence would alienate a lot of people. Obama likes to talk about "Obama Republicans," i.e. people who will cross party lines because they are sick of partisanship, and believe in his cause of finding common solutions to our problems. Like the "Reagan Democrats" of the 1980's. The potential for this kind of bipartisanship is part of why I like Obama. But if she's on the ticket, those people are history. I think Obama would do well to choose a woman as his VP, particularly a woman governor. But it's not essential for him to do so. He was raised by a single mother, he's married to a strong woman, and he has two daughters - he's very sympathetic to the concerns of women. I think he can communicate that without Hillary being part of the equation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Crazy McCain VP prediction

Now that McCain has locked up the GOP nomination, it's time to start thinking about his running mate. Must be nice for him! I have a crazy, crazy, CRAZY idea:

Christine Todd Whitman.

It's a completely ridiculous idea. Totally insane. She's a moderate Republican, which would infuriate conservatives. She's from New Jersey.

But consider: She has no foreign policy experience, but McCain is not exactly lacking in that respect. She's from the Northeast, which used to have a solid block of Republicans, i.e. Establishment WASPS, but no longer does. So she would be a throwback, of sorts. Going retro in the East might be good for the GOP.

If Hillary is the nominee, McCain almost has to choose a woman to be competitive, because a lot of moderate women Republicans and independents will vote for Hillary, or at least consider it. If Obama is the nominee but he chooses a male running mate (highly likely), choosing a woman makes McCain look slightly progressive. It would send a strong signal to moderates that he's not beholden to the right wing of the party. Which, of course, is one of the reasons that choosing her would piss off those right wingers. But it's also - supposedly - exactly the kind of thing that John "Maverick" McCain would do.

I lived in New Jersey under Whitman, and one thing that impressed me, despite my disagreements with her, is that she is really smart, and really, really competent. She's actually qualified for the job.

And then there's this little tidbit: "The Governor of New Jersey is considered one of the most powerful governorships in the nation". She's comfortable with power. And good at exercising it.

She also has environmentalist credentials. Odd credentials, to be sure, but she has them: she served as EPA Administrator under George W. Which wouldn't do well to sell her to independents, except that she was not entirely in agreement with Bush & Cheney on environmental issues. So some people will hate her for being in the Bush Admin, but others might like her willingness to fight the good fight, at least insofar as she did.

There are a few skeletons in her closet, notably apparently lying about the health hazards at Ground Zero post-9/11. And she's taller than McCain, which would make photo ops interesting. But it would be a very gutsy choice, and it would certainly have an interesting effect on the dynamics of the race.

You heard it hear first.

The Limbaugh effect

According to Dave Weigel at Reason, Rush Limbaugh had an effect on the Texas primary - he may have sent it into the win column for Hillary. Rush told his listeners to vote for Hillary, because she will be a better candidate for the GOP to face in November. There's no way we can tell if it really did work out that way, but it can't be dismissed. I don't blame Limbaugh or the Republicans; all's fair, etc., and I encouraged my Democratic relatives in Michigan to vote for Romney in that primary just to mess with the GOP. From Limbaugh's perspective, it's a good strategy. But it really doesn't say good things about Hillary's win.

March 4 results

So Hillary won Rhode Island, Ohio, and Texas last night. Congrats to her; she is the latest incarnation of the "Comeback Kid" that her husband was in 1992.

I didn't sleep well last night. I'm taking this campaign way too seriously. Which is, of course, the only way to approach it. It has been many years since I took politics too seriously. The last time I did that, I burned out. This time around, I hope I'm a little better prepared. The last time, when I burned out, I was campaigning against the death penalty. That's a tough one, particularly when you're 21. It's not easy to walk into an office every morning and be prepared to think about murder and executions.

I am thankful that, this time, I chose a great cause with a great leader, and that there are lots and lots of people thinking the same way I do.

The spin goes lots of ways today. This could further divide the party, particularly since McCain now has the Republican nomination. Obama still has a substantial lead in delegates, so it still looks good for him. I'm partial to the idea that Obama will have valuable experience responding to negative attacks - this is a precursor of what to expect from the GOP in the fall.

But I'm also thankful that Hillary's supporters have won some big ones. It's clear that Obama is not going to win this in a cakewalk, if he does. He will have earned it. Which is all to the good.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Obama and Superdelegates

Rumor has it, from Tom Brokaw, that Obama has 50 more superdelegates ready to announce their support for him. My guess is that the Big Three who have not yet announced their endorsements, i.e. Al Gore, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson, will announce their support for Obama very soon, within a week, at the latest. That's my prediction.

Fun counting delegates - Slate's Delegate Counter

This is fun - Slate has a Delegate Counter that shows how the remaining states could affect the race. It's almost impossible for Hillary to pull it out at this point.

Texas, Ohio, Vermont, Rhode Island

So today is the day that may decide everything in the race for the Democratic nomination for President. Personally, I am on pins and needles. Obama pretty clearly has Vermont locked up; Rhode Island seems to be Hillary territory. The betting seems to be that Hillary will take Ohio, but my guess is that it will be close. I think Obama will win Texas by a larger margin than expected. I think he's a Texas kind of guy - daring, resourceful, unafraid of his opponents. My gut instinct is that people in Texas will respect the fact that he has taken on the challenge of running for President now, and that he has risen to the challenge. Here's my predictions:

Obama: 65%
Clinton: 35%

Rhode Island:
Obama: 48%
Clinton: 52%

Obama: 49%
Clinton: 51%

Obama: 54%
Clinton: 46%

So I have Obama winning Vermont and Texas by larger margins that Hillary winning Rhode Island and Ohio.

We'll see in a couple of hours!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Democratic Candidates and Technological Metaphors

The NY Times proposes a technological metaphor and asks "Is Obama a Mac and Clinton a PC?" It's not hard to see the analogy - Obama is young and hip, Clinton is the establishment candidate.

But I think a better analogy is between the candidates and search engines. In this comparison, Clinton is Yahoo and Obama is Google. I like both sites and I use email at both. I started out at Hotmail (which I still use), switched to Yahoo, and just recently started using Google. The differences are clear. Yahoo is superior to Hotmail, which feels a little creaky at this point, but Gmail is much better than Yahoo (except that Gmail, for reasons that seem to be utterly inexplicable, does not use folders. It uses "labels" to sort emails. I find this very frustrating.)

Clinton and Yahoo are both products of the 90's. They were both insurgents once upon a time. Both have become, in a very short time, the embodiment of a traditional way of doing things. Obama and Google, on the other hand, are both products of the 21st century. Both came from nowhere to challenge the established order.

Clinton and Yahoo both made the mistake of taking their supporters for granted, and not empowering them. I like Yahoo for a lot of things. I buy all my domain names through it, because it's ridiculously easy. I once bought because I thot that sounded cool. But this blog is hosted at Blogger, which is owned by Google. I use it because I tried to set up a blog on Yahoo, and ended up feeling totally overwhelmed by the technical details. Blogger makes maintaining a blog very easy.

Clinton and Yahoo have both concentrated on media rather than technical superiority and executing a superior strategy. Hillary assumed that the air campaign, i.e. advertising, would win her the nomination. Obama, the former community organizer, understood that having people knocking on doors in their neighborhoods and making phone calls for you is vastly more effective than just paying for ads. His ground game, which requires more attention to detail, is better. Yahoo made the same mistake that Clinton did - they hired Terry Semel, a movie studio executive, to run the company. The Yahoo home page is chockablock with media items that visitors can click on and watch or read. It's a good strategy - I occasionally click on things I see there. And Hillary's strategy would have been a good one as well - if Barack Obama hadn't had a better one.

Google's strategy is obviously different just from the home page, which is almost pristine. No clutter or mess there! Unless you have an iGoogle page. But behind that pale facade, Google is much more technologically advanced than Yahoo. Most important, Google uses the technology to empower users. This blog is a great example. I once even almost sort of kind of had a blog at Yahoo - I had a Geocities account for years. But I put up all of two posts before I abandoned it, and that was years ago. Yahoo paid a fair chunk of change for Geocities way back when, but then never did anything with it. Even after other social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace or Facebook took off, Yahoo let Geocities languish. Google, of course, owns YouTube, one of the best user-enabling Web sites ever.

Obama's Web strategy, as the Times article points out, set the standard for empowering volunteers, giving them the tools to connect with other Obama fans, set up parties, raise money, etc. Very Googlish - develop cutting-edge technology, and let it loose into the world for the masses to have fun with it.

How far can I take this analogy? I'm only vaguely familiar with the different technologies that each site uses, but what I do know is that Google takes advantage of the networked aspect of the Web to find Web sites - the more links to something, the higher it is in the Google results (or so I understand). Obama's campaign is, again, something like this - by empowering individuals, it encourages them to take advantage of their own, preexisting, networks. Clinton, on the other hand, took advantage of the network that she and Bill have. That's incredibly extensive, but there are limits to how many people a couple can connect with. The Clintons have a great machine, but Obama's campaign was more organic. And it blossomed, when the Clinton's machine started to break down.

I actually got an email from Yahoo the other day about my Geocities account. It was a notice that, since I haven't used it in years, it will be deactivated in three days if I don't do something with it. Apparently someone at Yahoo is cleaning house, clearing out the old Geocities accounts that have been taking up server space for years. It's about time.

And now Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo. I have no idea why, but I'm not optimistic - Microsoft doesn't exactly have a great reputation for moving fast these days or for empowering users. Maybe Yahoo and Hillary Clinton's Presidential ambitions will have the same fate this year, one disappearing forever, one being absorbed into a vastly larger enterprise. Personally, I would be psyched if Apple bought Yahoo, but I doubt that's going to happen. All I know is that I ignored the email from Yahoo about an account I had almost forgotten that I had. Go ahead, delete my Geocities account. I like Yahoo. I have a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton. But I live in the 21st century.