Thursday, July 31, 2008

Obama at Chicago Law

The NY Times profiles Barack Obama's record at the University of Chicago Law School. A couple of things struck me: he taught there for 12 years, and he never published. Professors publish because they want to burnish their reputation in academia. But Obama always knew that he did not want a career in academia, so he didn't bother publishing. Instead, he concentrated on teaching. In retrospect, this was a great move, because this was how he first built a following. His students were some of his best first volunteers and fundraisers. That's a brilliant strategy.

He was teaching at the same time that he was practicing law at a law firm, and while he was in the Illinois State Senate. Talk about combining theory and practice.

There is one comment from a former colleague of his with which I must take issue:

“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”

I think running for President constitutes "taking a full swing." I think running for President is also a good way of venturing beyond your "ideological and topical comfort zones."

The article seems a little harsh on Obama for not sharing his views more widely at the school, but that might be in part because the man himself did not talk about it on the record. That's too bad, I wish he would have. I think that would have been a good move on his part. Otherwise, tho, it's a good piece.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One good lesson from the earthquake

There is one good lesson that we learned from yesterday's earthquake: Californians have learned the lessons of the past. After each major quake in the past, building codes were strengthened, with the result that we now have many buildings that can withstand a 5.4 earthquake with no damage.

In other words, government regulations are sometimes a good thing.

And that's how we roll in California.

McCain's sleazy "celebrity" ad

John McCain has an ad that describes Obama as a "celebrity," implying that there is something wrong with that. I noted earlier that Republicans have apparently forgotten that Ronald Reagan got his start in politics because he was a Hollywood celebrity. You can see the ad here on TPM; I don't want to dignify it by posting it on my blog.

What's ridiculous about this ad are the shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Those are completely gratuitous. They have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Barack Obama. Zero. Zilch. Nada. They're just celebrities with reputations for bad behavior. And it is transparently obvious that the only reason they are in this ad is to somehow associate their bad behavior with Obama.

This is sleazy. Is John McCain completely unaware that there are many Republicans out there with good taste, who will be offended by this? Is this what an "honorable" campaign looks like?

What's even more bizarre is that there are a number of shots of people shouting "Obama" and the man himself smiling and waving. Isn't the McCain campaign aware that images like this speak louder than words? Did these people learn NOTHING from Reagan?

I like Obama's response (from TPM):
"You know, I don't pay attention to John McCain's ads, although I do notice he doesn't seem to have anything to say very positive about himself. He seems to only be talking about me... You need to ask John McCain what he's for and not just what he's against."
Now that's classy. John McCain is clearly afraid of Obama, and he wants other people to be afraid of him as well. But Obama is NOT afraid of McCain, and he refuses to play that game. Which, in the long run, is a much more powerful approach.

Obama as a celebrity

The latest meme from the McCain campaign seems to be that Obama is a celebrity, with all the attendant baggage and negative implications that comes with that word, i.e. the misbehavior of certain Hollywood stars, etc.

Seems like an odd criticism from the party that elected Ronald Reagan, a former movie star, President.

Bush signs the housing bill

George Bush signed the housing bill today. Good for him. My take on it is here.

This is another example of how George Bush is just not a very good politician. He signed the bill, but Congress gets the credit for pushing the issue. Henry Paulson pushed for it, which is good. So Bush gets credit for hiring a good Treasury Secretary, and listening to said Secretary. But Bush is not going to get much credit for making this happen. From my perspective, it looks like Congress basically put a gun to his head. This is a serious crisis, and Bush has not provided much leadership on the issue. He's very much a lame duck.

Doha round collapses

The Doha round of trade talks, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, have collapsed. I'm not surprised, and I don't think many people were. Free trade is not exactly a popular cause these days.

I blame Bush. I haven't followed the talks closely enough to assign him blame for a particular reason, but America's reputation in the world clearly has not helped. People do not want to give up ground to a bully, and that's how Bush is perceived around the world.

There are two things here that conservatives have not come to terms with. First, George Bush simply is not a very good politician. One reason conservatives lionize Reagan is that he was a great politician. For me, that's a compliment, not an insult. Evaluations of political ability are, for me, value neutral. A good politician can be a good or bad person, just like a good quarterback might be a good or bad person. The ends for which a politician uses their ability is different from that ability itself. Reagan was a great politician because he was able to work with people he disagreed with, and because he was able to maneuver himself to take advantage of political developments. Reagan had a fine sense of what was possible at what moment, and how far he could push something. Bush has no clue on that score. He just does what he wants, and damn the consequences. He's also incompetent at explaining complex ideas. But what is particularly damning about Bush is that his opponents simply don't trust him. They assume that he is out for his own good, and does not care about them. His refusal to compromise on so many things gives others very little incentive to compromise with him.

The second thing conservatives have not come to terms with is a corollary of the first: the fact that Bush is not a good politician has caused immense damage to the causes that conservatives hold dear. The failure of the Doha round is a big deal, particularly for American corporations, and they will be disappointed in Bush. There is no possible way that Republicans can blame Democrats for this, try as they might (and I'm sure they will try). This has been a project of the Bush administration, and its failure is Bush's fault. And with this failure, the cause of free trade is going to lose significant momentum. It is always ironic to me that Clinton was actually a far more effective proponent of free trade than Bush.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


We just experienced an earthquake here in Los Angeles. It was 5.8. I'm on the 20th floor of a tall skyscraper, so that was interesting, feeling the desk move. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any major damage or injuries here in LA. I was in the elevator about 5 minutes before it hit.

For me, this was a great example of how news travels fast. It happened at 11:42. My Dad, who is in Detroit, called at 11:47 to make sure I was OK. Thanks Dad!

It's odd to be in an earthquake, because you have no notice, unlike hurricanes or wildfires. But it's also over very fast.

That's life today at Talented Earthquake Productions. This was not, fortunately, a talented earthquake.

Update: Looks like I picked the wrong day to stop drinking coffee.

Monday, July 28, 2008

William Kristol's cloudy crystal ball

I will say one thing about William Kristol: he's entertaining. He's a good writer, and, even when I find his ideas absurd or repugnant, he can write about them with a sense of humor. Such he does today, taking us through his own emotional roller coaster of the last few days, as he goes from fear and despair at the prospect of an Obama presidency to the hope that maybe, just maybe, John McCain can pull it out.

It's not just the writing itself that is amusing, of course: I also enjoy him grasping at the thinnest of straws.

What I particularly enjoyed was his attempt at justifying the tiny shred of hope that he has. His argument is obtuse at best, and very much the product of an inside-the-Beltway imagination. He hopes that voters, looking at the prospect of Democrats holding both members of Congress as well as the Presidency, will rebel, and vote for John McCain. It's possible that some voters will be motivated by this logic, but I doubt that it will be enough to help McCain win.

[I]t occurred to me that one man’s “deadlock-proof” Democratic majority is another’s unchecked Democratic majority. Given the unpopularity of the current Democratic Congress, given Americans’ tendency to prefer divided government, given the voters’ repudiations of the Republicans in 2006 and of the Democrats in 1994 — isn’t the prospect of across-the-board, one-party Democratic governance more likely to move votes to McCain than to Obama?
What is deliciously ironic here is that one of the examples he cites, of the voters rejecting Republicans in 2006, is very much still on voters' minds. He has a good point, of course, about the inherent problems of one party controlling all of government. But the best example of that, the failure of Republicans in the first six years of the Bush Administration, is the reason why Obama is ahead. The best possible proof of Kristol's theory is also a thorough repudiation of his ideology.

I almost feel sorry for the man. But not enough to stop enjoying watching him try to squirm his way out of his predicament.

The LA Times visits Mackinac Island

In the LA Times' Travel section this weekend, the cover story is about Mackinac Island. One nice thing about travel pieces is that they're almost entirely positive. So is this one.

I haven't been to Mackinac in years, but I did go when I was much younger. I was there as part of Boy Scout troop, the Governor's Honor Guard. We had wear uniforms constantly, and march in step. For years afterwards, I found myself trying to march in step with whoever I was walking with.

I also went a couple of times for a high school debate tournament. One year, we got stuck in the elevator. That wasn't fun. We got stuck because there were too many people, so we exceeded the weight limit. The big problem with that was that it was therefore incredibly crowded, and one person started to freak out a little. But we got out in an hour.

So if you go to Mackinac Island, I recommend staying in the Grand Hotel, renting a bike, eating a lot of fudge, and avoiding overcrowded elevators.

The housing bill

A friend of mine texted me the other day to let me know that he was disappointed in the housing bill, because he doesn't want to see his taxes going to bail out people who got greedy and are now being burned. Or something like that. Anyway, he was unhappy.

I don't think anyone is happy about bailing out people who bought houses and signed mortgages for the wrong reasons. But this is a crisis, and it has to be addressed. If we don't help these people out, there will be a lot more economic damage. And I'm not a big fan of increasing our population of the homeless.

Daily Kos has a rundown of the legislative history of the bill, which is fascinating if you're part of that subgenre of political junkies who are seriously into the minutiae of getting bills actually passed. For a policy take, Paul Krugman approves, with some serious caveats. He writes, for about the zillionth time, about how unrestrained greed in unregulated or lightly regulated financial markets allows people to make really stupid decisions.

My take on it is this: it's probably the best of a bad situation. But if we want the greatest possible range of freedom, we must accept the greatest possible range of error. If we want the freedom to be able to make mistakes, we have to allow others the same freedom. And if, when we make mistakes, we occasionally depend on others to help us out of the jam we have gotten ourselves into, we must be prepared to offer the same in return to others. If we want forgiveness with a minimum of judgment, we must be prepared to, again, offer the same in return.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Put your money down on Christine Todd Whitman!

Regular readers of this blog know that I think there's a decent chance that John McCain will choose Christine Todd Whitman as his VP. I checked out what the odds for this were at Shockingly, there was no contract for Christine Todd Whitman as McCain's VP at Intrade! Fortunately for all of those of us who are passionately following this issue, I took decisive action and corrected this flaw. Using my powers of persuasion and my command of English grammar, as well as my email, I sent off a missive to the powers that be at Intrade, and requested a contract for Gov. Whitman. They obliged, and now you can buy a contract for Christine Todd Whitman to be John McCain's VP at!

Hey, if obscure people like John Kasich and Richard Burr (who I have never even heard of) can have contracts, why not Whitman? You can buy her contract very, very cheap right now, at 5.0 (which is 50 cents). That would turn into $10 if she does get the nod. As of now, there has only been one contract bought for her. That would be me. I am putting my money where my mouth is - I have 50 cents down (I have very little money in my Intrade account right now).

This could be a great opportunity to make a killing! Place your bets now!

The Wingnut Index

Every now and then at DailyKos, Kos mentions some bizarre bit of hate email he gets from a rightwinger who disagrees with him. Apparently many of the people who email him have skills of expression that lie on the wrong side of articulate, so they tend to be somewhat intellectually sloppy. And somewhat repetitive. And not very well written. So Devilstower, one of the writers, decided to have some fun with this continual stream of invective, and came up with The Wingnut Index. A sample:

The Wingnut Index

5 points
Each use of "Democrat Party."
Each use of "liberal elite."
Each declaration that kos readers should "leave America."

10 points
Each use of the phrase "hate site."
Each mention of Nazis, Commies, Reds, brownshirts or stormtroopers.
Each blind repetition of phrases provided by your close pal Bill, Rush, or Sean.
For contending that liberals are aiding terrorists.
Each time the writer insists that the recipient is "going to burn in hell."
Each physical threat to the recipient.

15 points
Including "San Francisco" in letters that have nothing to do with San Francisco.
Discussion of water / food additives and their feminizing effect on the men of America.
Insisting that liberals "want America to lose."
Each alternate theory for the death of Vincent Foster.
Each alternate theory for the death of Ron Brown.
Each alternate theory posed to replace evolution.
Each explanation for why global warming is a hoax.

It goes up to 100 points. Check it out.

The comments have some great reactions, as several people tried to score the maximum number of points.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Joel Stein is not into the Tour de France

The Tour de France has cracked down on steroids this year. For Joel Stein, this means that it is now tragically boring.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In search of a Coldplay video

I'm loving the new Coldplay song "Viva La Vida." Great song! Wow. I've never been a Coldplay fan before, but they've sort of been on my radar for awhile. I would very much LIKE to be a Coldplay fan, because if I ever meet Gwyneth Paltrow, I'd like to be able to honestly say that I like her husband's music.

But I can't seem to find a video for it on YouTube! This is most frustrating. The best I have been able to come up with is a 30 second clip from an ad for iTunes, and a couple of fan mashups. Which I am not even going to link to. I tried to go to and, against my better judgment, but they both crashed my computer. And I don't mean froze the screen - I mean crashed it to the point that it restarted by itself. Pretty much what I expected from MTV and VH1 - not just an artistic wasteland, but a technical one as well. Then the same thing happened at, although I don't want to describe that in any kind of negative terms. I posted a message somewhere on YouTube about my frustration, and got a message that a video has been made, but has not been released yet.

What the f---? I find this very annoying. Coldplay is supposed to be one of those rare bands that can maintain their artistic integrity while they rumble towards world domination. I am a big fan of tasteful hegemony, and this is a great example of it.

Tasteful hegemony, people! World class world domination - that's what I expect from people like Chris Martin. And I'm NOT GETTING IT! How can a band possibly begin a tour without a great video for its first single? And I don't want to hear that MTV is prohibiting them from posting it on YouTube. MTV is the antithesis of tasteful hegemony. If it worked for Avril Lavigne (93 million hits for "Girlfriend" and counting), it can sure as hell work for Coldplay. How hard can it be to negotiate a deal to post a video for one of the most popular songs in the world?

What is particularly ironic is that the song is ABOUT RULING THE WORLD! Talk about a missed opportunity - what could be better than engaging in tasteful hegemony with a song about the very idea? And yet - no video.

This better be a damn good video. I really hope it's worth the wait.

I would very much like to be a fan of Coldplay's ambition and entrepreneurial abilities, as well as of their music, but I have to say that as of now they're just not doing it for me.

I give them a week. Then I'm going to let myself slide into disillusionment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bob Barr in the LA Times

Bob Barr is running for president. Running hard. As hard as he can. As hard as he can with absolutely no shot and very little money. But he's running!

Bob Barr, for those 290 million or so of you who are not aware of him, was a Republican Congressman from Georgia for four terms. He was one of those people who hated Clinton so much, he tried to impeach him.

Now Bob Barr is a Libertarian, which is sort of like a Republican, except a little purist on the whole "freedom of the individual" thing, so they tend to be opposed to Republican attempts to regulate personal behavior. The Cato Institute is probably the most famous libertarian think tank.

Being a Libertarian, as opposed to a Republican, has certain advantages for Mr. Barr, such as the fact that he can run for president on the Libertarian ticket. Which he is doing. The LA Times profiles our friend Bob today. It's a nice, long piece, so you can find out all you ever wanted to know about Bob Barr, courtesy of an LA Times reporter who tagged along with him for a day or two.

I think this is great. I'm glad that the LA Times wrote a Page One story about an obscure presidential candidate, because I think it strengthens our democracy when we pay attention to, and listen to, the views of people outside the mainstream.

And now that the LA Times has fulfilled their civic duty and has written a story about Bob Barr, Libertarian candidate for president, well before the election itself, during a somewhat slow news period, they can spend the rest of the election almost completely ignoring him.

News flash for conservatives: Germans speak German in Germany

Obama is going to be traveling to Germany, and is going to be giving a speech there. Given that Obama tends to attract massive crowds, his campaign is distrubiting flyers advertising it, with the time, location, etc. These flyers are, naturally, printed in German, because, after all, the rally is in Germany, where people speak German. This sheer, unadulterated linguistic competence has some conservatives in a huff. Patrick Ruffini, who blogs at The Next Right, finds this disturbing:

This is pretty extraordinary. A candidate for the American Presidency is using flyers printed in German to turn people out for his campaign rally in Berlin on Thursday.
. . . .
They are using the same tactics to turn out Germans to an event as they would to any rally right here in America.
. . . .
The sea of Germans drummed up by the Obama campaign will be used as props to tell us Americans how to vote, and the campaign isn't trying to pretend otherwise. That's breathtakingly arrogant, and par for the course for Barack Obama.
Sometimes politics feels like a soap opera, but this campaign is like a sitcom. This is just hysterical. You cannot make this up. Will the absurdity never end? It's like a particularly bizarre episode of Seinfeld.

I can't begin to figure out where to begin. Flyers have been printed in German, for people in Germany. Oh, the horror. What is he expecting them to do, print them in French?

They are using the same tactics in Germany that they are in America. Yes, and those tactics include letting people know about an event that is coming up. Oh dear God, the Obama campaign is competent at very basic marketing. Wow, they can type, design flyers, and speak a foreign language!

Maybe they are using the same tactics in Germany that they are in America because those tactics are working in America. Maybe conservatives are upset about this because John McCain is not using the same tactics. Maybe if McCain DID use the same tactics as the Obama campaign, he would get results more like the Obama campaign, and then his supporters would stop complaining. I'm not going to wait for that to happen.

The fact that Germans are sitting in an audience, listening to an American politician, means that those people are telling us how to vote? How does this work? Perhaps Mr. Ruffini takes his cue about how to exercise his right to vote from watching foreigners in groups listening to an American politician waxing eloquent about what we all have in common. I don't. I take my cues from the American politician, but not from the foreigners listening.

Is Mr. Ruffini so insecure about his own ability to make up his mind about his political convictions that he is scared of the influence of a few thousand people on another continent? If he thinks the crowds in Germany have an undue influence on him, there's a simple solution: don't listen to them.

Conservatives once derided liberals for their absurd tendency to take offense at seemingly meaningless or trivial things, but now they seem to be doing the same thing. This guy is just about twisting himself into a pretzel to figure out how to be offended. One would think that an American citizen would be proud that an American presidential candidate in a foreign country demonstrates the basic decency to communicate with people in their own language. And it is the simplest of things - a flyer for a rally. I don't read German, but I cannot imagine there is anything more offensive than time, place, and some boilerplate about what to bring. This is logistics, not ideology. How more basic of a distinction can you get?

Maybe he's offended because he thinks it's a campaign rally. And the problem with this would be . . . what exactly? There are American soldiers stationed in Germany. There are American citizens working for American companies in Germany. Maybe some of those people want to come to an Obama rally.

But of course there will be mostly Germans at this speech - that's why the flyer is printed in German. So what? Germans are excited about an American presidential candidate. How can that be a bad thing? Isn't it supposed to be a good thing when people like Americans? Last time I checked, the kind of people who hate Americans do things like kill Americans.

I'm half German, but that has never really meant much to me. Right now, however, I have a certain pride in my heritage that I haven't had before.

Dick Morris on McCain's VP choices

Dick Morris tries his hand at the current blogosphere game, trying to figure out who John McCain should choose as VP. This is an interesting game to play, because it's like trying to find the grey area between the absurd, the impossible, and the bizarre. McCain simply has no good options. Morris is mostly interested in why Mitt Romney would not work out. He throws out other possiblilities: Condi Rice, Colin Powell, and Joe Lieberman, with this justification:

Any of these three choices would make a "wow" statement that would make voters see McCain in a new light.

Yes, but each has serious problems. McCain has been trying to distance himself from Bush - choosing his Secretary of State, and one of his closest advisors, a woman strongly associated with his failed foreign policy, would not serve that purpose well. Colin Powell? I've heard that Powell and McCain are friends, and I don't doubt it. I'm sure Powell would be a good VP. But I think hell will freeze over and demons will carve angels out of the ice before Colin Powell campaigns against the first African American to have a serious chance at being president.

Lieberman? There's a possibility. One problem is that that's just about a guaranteed way to lose Connecticut, since people there are already upset with Joe. And who would it help with? He might swing a few Jews, which might help McCain
with Florida, but that's about it. He would presumably have to switch parties, and Democrats would have nothing to do with him, but that doesn't seem to bother Lierberman. He may go down in history as being the losing partner in two presidential campaigns, but, again, I doubt that would bother him. On foreign policy, they are obviously in sync. But on social issues, Lieberman is still very much a Democrat, and I'm not sure how happy the base would be about that. And the man is not the most charismatic politician. Against Obama, that matters. If Obama picks someone like John Edwards, it will be two fresh young guys against two old white guys. On the other hand, McCain could then claim to be bipartisan and a maverick. So I don't think I'm going to rule Lierberman out.

Morris likes Huckabee, but Huckabee, apart from his personal charm, is a good old boy from the South who would alienate suburban professionals in the rest of the country.

Morris' primary goal is to shoot down Romney. Which, of course, is not difficult. I just think Romney is one of the least worst choices McCain has.

My favorite candidate is still the dark horse that no one has mentioned in a long time: Christine Todd Whitman. She has all the advantages of Romney, with few of the negatives: she's very smart, highly accomplished, the former governor of a northeastern state. For all of those who supported Hillary but are uncomfortable with Obama, choosing Whitman would give them a reason to vote for McCain. She has some environmental credentials, having served as EPA Administrator under Bush. She didn't work well with the rest of the Bush administration, which, at this point, is a selling point for many people.

McCain-Whitman '08! Place your bets now - you'll get great odds on this one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

David Brooks on debt and responsibility

Today David Brooks worked a little of his I-used-to-be-liberal-now-I'm-a-sensitive-conservatvie magic, and comes up with a very good column on the problem of debt in American society. He finds a middle ground between the people who blame society, in the form of predatory lenders, rapacious banks, etc., for our ills, and those who demand that individuals in trouble be held accountable for their errors. A third way, if you will.

People are responsible for their actions, writes Brooks, but they are also strongly influenced by the society around them, which shapes and molds their subconscious. But when they make a conscious decision, they return the favor, shaping and molding the society around them.

It's a personal thing AND a cultural thing, which is not a contradiction, because neither of those is static, neither personality nor society. It makes a lot of sense, and is, thankfully, reason to appreciate the fact that the man has one of the most coveted spots in journalism, on the Op-Ed page of The NY Times. This is a somewhat complex topic, and he explains it cogently in one column, with some nice color.

What he DOES NOT DO is assign blame where it really belongs: at the top, with the man who believed that he could deliver Americans tax cuts without asking them to pay for them, George W. Bush. If anyone set the tone for our culture's psychotic relationship with debt over the last few years, it was him. Talk about living beyond your means.

As much as I appreciate David Brooks' excellent writing ability, and his willingness to take on subjects that defy categorization, he will have a lot more credibility writing about accountability when he takes his fair share of responsibility for enabling the most irresponsible man any of us have ever seen in the White House.

Where the Bushes live

There are a couple of media mentions today of where the George Bush's, Jr. and Sr., live. Kos thinks that Jr. will be leaving Crawford as soon as he doesn't need it as a campaign prop. That sounds eminently plausible to me. How much of a ranch hand is Bush, really?

Meanwhile, back at the original Bush family stomping grounds, New England, John McCain stopped by Kennebunkport and visited the President Bush that even some Democrats miss, George H. W.
The first President Bush and the former first lady, Barbara Bush, opened their large shingled home on a dramatic promontory in the Atlantic Ocean for a brunch and tour for contributors to Mr. McCain.
George & Laura have 1,600 acres, but the ranch is in the sweltering summer Texas heat. Meanwhile, Dad, having abandoned any pretense of being a resident of Texas, enjoys a view of the ocean in Maine. Personally, I, too, would take the northern climate right about now. But of course I don't have the option of picking up and moving wherever I want to.

George H. W. Bush had a semi-legitimate reason for claiming to be from Texas: he moved there, built a business there, represented part of it in Congress. But was he ever really a Texan? Culturally? I'm not in a position to judge, not being from the Lone Star state, but somehow I just don't see him in a ten-gallon hat or even on a horse. But it was a convenient antidote to being a preppy elitist. Ironically, he lost his two Senate races in part because he was a carpetbagger preppy northeastern elitist.

One detail of W.'s life that I have always found amusing is that he went to Harvard for business school partially because he was rejected by the University of Texas Law School (PBS has an excellent chronology of his life here). W. has a more legitimate claim to being a Texan than his father - the family moved there when he was 1. But they sent him back East for high school (Andover), and he went to college there (Yale) and grad school (Harvard).

So now the father is back in Maine, now that he no longer needs to pretend not to be a prepster, and the son will probably be at least leaving the homestead in Crawford (although Laura is a Midland native, so they might stay in Texas itself).

Sort of like the Clintons left Arkansas for good a long time ago. And the wonder of it all is that, if W. does sell the spread in Crawford, some people might actually be surprised.

Pelosi has a Republican opponent

Nancy Pelosi has a Republican opponent in the general election. Her name is Dana Walsh. Pelosi has had Republican opponents before; last time, it was a guy named Mike DeNunzio, who raised $149,842 and got 10.7% of the vote. That's par for the course against Pelosi, who has won reelection 10 times with an average of 81% of the vote.

But this record is not deterring our erstwhile Republican interior decorator/sacrificial lamb/deluded martyr Ms. Walsh! She is planning on raising $1 million for her race against Pelosi.

This is yet more proof that the Republican reputation for being fiscally responsible is highly undeserved. Raising $1 million to run against the Speaker of the House, who is wildly popular in her own district, which has a 6 to 1 Democrat advantage among registered voters? How smart is that? Why not just raise money to do something like endow a chair in conservative thinking at Berkeley? Why not raise money for a retirement home for all the GOP Representatives and Senators who are going to be out of a job next January? Why not hire a bunch of therapists and grief counselors for the GOP staffers who will also be out of work?

Conservatives argue that individuals are better at spending their own money than the government. This is strong evidence to the contrary. I would love to see someone try to justify this as an efficient allocation of resources. Or even a responsible allocation of resources.

A large chunk of this money is going to be spent on TV ads, which means that GOP donors around the country are going to be sending their money to support the media in San Francisco. I'm sure the TV stations in the Bay Area will be more than happy to take their money.

Ironically, Cindy Sheehan is also hoping to run, as an independent. This is not surprising or even interesting - as noble as her crusade is, Ms. Sheehan doesn't seem to have the best political judgment. But her presence, if she gets the necessary 10,000 signatures, will make it more interesting!

My favorite part of the story is Walsh's justification for why she is running:
Walsh said she knows the odds against her are long. “It’s a two-party system. Someone has to run,’’ she said.

Well, no, actually, someone does not HAVE to run. And someone does not HAVE to raise $1 million for a suicide mission. And someone does not HAVE to provide material for Democrats to be amused.

But we are glad that Ms. Walsh is obliging.

Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain's VP choices

In the LA Times today, Jonah Goldberg, the resident conservative columnist there, writes about McCain's choices for VP. The upshot is that he doesn't any great choices, just several almost-decent ones. My guesses for the top six:

Mitt Romney
Rob Portman
Sarah Palin
Tim Pawlenty
Carly Fiorina
John Thune

Even those six have problems. Mitt Romney came across as Mr. Flaky in the primaries, changing his position with the position of the sun. Rob Portman is strongly associated with Bush. Sarah Palin is a somewhat obscure candidate. During the campaign, I anticipate some logistical problems: won't she have to, you know, go home to Alaska to be governor every now and then? Won't that take up large chunks of time? Not a huge deal, to be sure, but it occurred to me. Tim Pawlenty sounds good, but I don't know much about him. Carly Fiorina has not held elected office, and she was fired from Hewlett Packard. In other words, there isn't any good, solid reason to choose her, apart from the fact that she's a woman. John Thune is close to the same age as Obama (47), and has similar experience: he served in the US House from 1996-2002, and has been a Senator since 2004, same as Obama. Weakens McCain's charge that Obama is inexperienced. Also, he's very conservative, and strongly associated with the Christian right, so he brings both the good and bad karma associated with believing in creationism.

I'm going to narrow my choices down to Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and John Thune. Choosing Palin would be a bold choice, but she's younger than Obama (only 44), and her experience in office is so light it makes Obama look like an elder statesman - she was elected governor in 2006, and before that was the Mayor of the city of Wasilia, Alaska, population around 8,000. Say what you will about Obama's experience, next to being the mayor of a suburb of Anchorage, state senator in Illinois suddenly has a lot of weight. She has a lot of time to make her mark, I don't think this is her turn. But having a woman on the ticket young enough to be his daughter would only highlight McCain's age. On the other hand, her approval rating is in the 80's. Of course, the fact that she's very pretty doesn't hurt.

Pawlenty is a bit older (48), still young enough to be McCain's son, but has been governor a little longer than Palin (since 2002), and before that was a state represenative. Again, not a huge contrast with Obama. He doesn't really have any foreign policy experience, but that's not much of an issue for McCain. He's very conservative, which might help with the Republican base, but not so much with independents. Sounds like he's pretty hardcore on cutting taxes, which is not as popular as it once was. So he's attractive, but not perfect.

Thune has the problem of the other two, i.e. that he doesn't have much to compare against Obama in the realm of experience. Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996, Thune was elected to as South Dakota's sole US Representative in the same year - not a huge difference. Having another senator on the ticket would also reinforce Obama's claim to be running against Washington insiders.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that Mitt Romney may be the best of the lot. He has more experience than Obama with running things. He's older than Obama, but still younger than McCain. He's energetic. But he's also strongly associated with the kind of capitalism that has resulted in spectacular income inequality - not going to go down well with the blue collar voters.

If I were McCain, I think I would have to go with either Pawlenty or Romney.

Angelina Jolie as Catwoman

I haven't seen The Dark Knight yet, but this suggestion sounds wonderful to me: from the LA Times, how about Angelina Jolie as Catwoman? I am so there.

Hubble Kaleidoscope

From the Onion, we learn about the Hubble Kaleidoscope. That's totally freaky. A kaleidoscope in space! What will they think of next.

I worked in a toy store in Washington, DC, once, that sold kaleidoscopes. Not the $3 kind with a cardboard tube - ours were made of wood or metal, were very elaborate, and could cost hundreds of dollars. The best were works of art. I learned a lot about kaleidoscopes working there. The owners had another store just for kaleidoscopes, "Stardust by the Red Balloon," in Tyson's Corner, but as far as I can tell, it's gone ("The Red Balloon" was the name of the toy store). One thing I learned is that there are people who collect kaleidoscopes. It can be an expensive hobby - the coolest one I heard of was huge, had its own beautiful wooden stand, and cost $19,000.

So it's great that NASA has put a kaleidoscope in space! I wonder if anyone has downloaded all of the images from the Hubble Kaleidoscope and watched a slideshow of them while listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon." That would probably be really cool. Or maybe you could do that while listening to a Grateful Dead tape. I bet that would be pretty wind-blowing as well.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

So many movies

I have a bunch of movies out right now that I want to watch, among them:

Hellboy II
The Visitor
The Dark Knight
Mamma Mia!

Of those, one is about a fraternity of assassins, one is about an adorable robot, one is about a hero who is demon spawn, one is a heartfelt drama about immigration, one is about Hunter S. Thompson, who pretty much defines the term "dysfunctional genius," one is a very grim take on Batman, one is a fluffy confection based on ABBA songs, and one is about Genghis Khan.

Among the other movies currently in release are:

Kit Kittredge
Kung Fu Panda
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Get Smart
Lou Reed's Berlin
Space Chimps
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Of those, one is based a line of dolls, one is about an alcoholic, moody superhero, one is an animated movie about a panda with delusions of martial-arts greatness, one is about the aftermath of a very old case of statutory rape, one is based on a 60's spy spoof, one is a documentary about a very depressing and obscure album from 1973, one is about lovable primates playing at being astronauts, one is a huge, expensive, and special-effects heavy action-adventure extravaganza, and one is based on a book originally published in France in 1864. And those are the ones that I am familiar with (but have no intention of seeing).

From the pages of the NY Times, these are some other movies currently in release:

Before I Forget
Wonderful Town
Brick Lane
The Edge of Heaven
Mad Detective
The Last Mistress
A Very British Gangster
A Man Named Pearl
Tell No One
The Wackness
The Counterfeiters
Days and Clouds
The Doorman
The Human Condition
My Winnipeg

I have no idea what most of those are about. Several of them are from countries other than the US - I know that. Here's an interesting little factoid: Ben Kingsley is in two of them (The Wackness and Transsiberian). Here's another little factoid: several of them were reviewed in Friday's (7/18) NY Times (Transsiberian, Felon, Before I Forget, Mad Detective, The Human Condition, A Man Named Pearl, A Very British Gangster, The Doorman, Take, disFIGURED, and Lou Reed's Berlin). Most of those will never make it past New York and/or Los Angeles. But all of them have a chance to attract notice in at least one of the media centers of the world. And I would bet that all of them will be available on Netflix in several months.

I used to worry that corporations were homogenizing our culture. I don't worry about that anymore.

Good news on the environment in LA

From the LA Times, there are a couple of stories today about good news for the environment. First, there is a new park in downtown. That's great. Los Angeles, for all its reach and beaches and mountains and sunshine and dedicated environmentalists, actually suffers from a severe shortage of good parks. The national average for park space is six to 10 acres per 1,000 people. LA has 3.4. We haven't had our Frederick Law Olmstead. So this is inspiring. The article has lots of good stuff about kids being able to play outside.

The second article is about a restored wetlands that has become a habitat for lots of birds and fish. The Bolsa Chica wetlands are a great success story of environmentalism working.

Just wanted to share some good news about the environment on a Sunday morning.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Obama in Afghanistan

This was something of a surprise, which it actually should have been: Barack Obama went to Afghanistan. It should be a surprise because of security reasons. Good for him. I think that's a positive.

There's one bit of conventional wisdom about this trip that bothers me. The NY Times sums up the political implications of Obama going overseas:

While the trip carries political risk, particularly if Mr. Obama makes a mistake — the three broadcast network news anchors will be along for the latter parts of the trip — or is seen as the preferred candidate of Europe and other parts of the world, his advisers believe it offers a significant opportunity for him to be seen as a leader who can improve America’s image.

That part about Obama being "the preferred candidate of Europe" is annoying. It plays into the stereotype of many Americans as anti-foreigner, or anti-European. But what about the Americans who have positive experiences of foreign countries? Every large American corporation - most of which are run by white men - has operations in other countries. I think we can assume that the people running Ford, GM, IBM, Coke, Microsoft, Apple, Disney, and McDonalds, among others, would be thrilled to see an American politician score points with Europeans. Not only do they want to do business there, they want to encourage people from other countries to come here - to study, to go on vacation, and even to work!

Can we please move beyond the idea that the most important voters in this country are automatically conservative white people who are viscerally opposed to basic liberal ideals?

Au revoir, Mr. Gramm

Phil Gramm has resigned as co-chair of the McCain campaign. This is his statement:
"It is clear to me that Democrats want to attack me rather than debate Senator McCain on important economic issues facing the country. That kind of distraction hurts not only Senator McCain's ability to present concrete programs to deal with the country's problems, it hurts the country. To end this distraction and get on with the real debate, I hereby step down as Co-Chair of the McCain Campaign and join the growing number of rank-and-file McCain supporters."
Wow, talk about classic Washington spin. Not only does he refuse to take any responsibility for one of the stupidest comments of the campaign so far, he blames Democrats! Can't blame the guy for trying, I guess.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Obama Jr. & Sr.

We now know a fair amount about Barack Obama, but not as much, obviously, about his father. The LA Times provides a sketch of Barack Obama Sr. One interesting fact: both of them studied at Harvard. There are strong similarities, but also strong differences:

Although the lives of father and son scarcely intersected beyond a few letters and a 1971 visit in Hawaii when the younger Obama was 10, friends and family see similarities in the men's charisma and eloquence, even if their lives took dramatically different turns.

Both achieved success at a young age. Both advocated change. And both displayed a self-confidence that friends described as bordering on cocky.

"The father was full of life, ebullient and arrogant, but not unpleasantly so," recalled Philip Ochieng, a former drinking buddy of Obama Sr. and veteran Kenyan journalist.

"But in many ways, the son is quite the opposite. He has self-control. The ambition is controlled. And he has a more sober mind."

The elder Obama was one of Kenya's most promising sons, rising from the goat pastures of a western village to the study halls of Harvard, eventually taking a coveted spot among the nation's post-colonial government leaders.
He sounds like a fascinating guy, a classic example of the tragic hero:

Despite his ambition and talent, the elder Obama's career disintegrated amid
external forces and personal weaknesses, including the alcohol problem, which
led to a string of car accidents. A crash in 1982 took his life.
Friends and family say his career imploded in part because of his brash personality and an idealistic belief, nurtured in America, that the best ideas and smartest people would always rise to the top. Confronted with the reality of corruption and cronyism in Kenya, Obama sank into disillusionment and despair.

"To that extent, he was naive," said his friend Peter Aringo, a longtime member of parliament from Obama's home village. "He thought he could fight the system from the outside. He thought he could bring it down."

Instead, it brought him down.
The relationships of our recent Presidents, and Presidential candidates, with their fathers is a rich source of drama. Bill Clinton, of course, never knew his father. Both Bushes benefited enormously from their fathers' power and influence, as did Kennedy. And now we have Obama, who had a complicated relationship with an absent father, and McCain, who also had a complicated relationship, with a father who was far away for much of his life, but also extremely powerful and influential. Maybe an emotionally fraught relationship with your father is a challenge that drives particular politicians.

The story of Obama's relationship with his father is particularly fascinating, because it also tells the story of the relationship of America with the rest of the world. Obama Sr. came to this country to prepare himself to help run a post-colonial Kenya. One of his fellow Kenyans described it this way:

"We were going to the U.S. to be educated so we could come back and take over, and that's exactly what we did."
In the immigration debate, this is something that is very sorely overlooked: when we invite people to come to this country, we invite them to learn our system, and when they return, they take our ideals with them. In this respect, the Bush Administration's tendency to close the doors on immigrants is a crying shame. Given Barack Obama's personal history, I think we can trust that he will be very, very different.

Tap Water vs. Bottled

From Aguanomics, an interesting statistic:
A direct comparison of drinking water from the tap with unrefrigerated bottled water shows an environmental impact of tap water which is less than one percent of that of bottled water.

It's pretty obvious, just by looking at a bottle of water, that it's not very good for the environment. Now we know how much worse. And personally, I can't tell the difference in taste. And I've never gotten sick from tap water.

Welcome to America, Andrew Sullivan (permanently)

The Senate has now passed the PEPFAR bill, which lifts the ban on those with HIV from coming to the United States. I haven't followed it that closely, since it doesn't affect me or anyone that I know directly, but Andrew Sullivan, one of my favorite bloggers, has been following it incredibly closely and has encouraged his readers to lobby their Senators. He has AIDS, and is not an American citizen - he's British. He's been living in this country for a long time, and even married an American man recently, but his visa runs out next March, so this was an incredibly important issue for him personally. I'm very happy that this passed, but particularly happy for Andrew Sullivan. Welcome to America permanently, Andrew.

I didn't contact either of my Senators, because I live in California, and I was pretty confident that both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer would be strongly in favor of lifting the ban, since both are not only from California, but from San Francisco specifically. And now we can all celebrate that it passed.

I think this is a watershed moment, not only for AIDS activism and gay rights, but for liberals in general. The presumption that the conservative position would ultimately succeed - that the right would be more powerful than the left - proved not to be true. On many issues, I think that presumption serves as a strong deterrent - many people just assume that there are enough conservatives on an issue like this that it's not worth it to try and change. Hopefully, that is now changing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Phil Gramm, walking disaster

When Phil Gramm made his "nation of whiners" comment, one thing that confused me was why he was even around. I have a low opinion of Gramm even for Republicans. He strikes me as very bombastic and combative, someone who is primarily interested in making news for himself. I remember a joke floating around DC that the most dangerous place in Washington was between Phil Gramm and a TV camera.

Now Max Blumenthal at HuffPost reminds us of just how bizarre a character Gramm is. Apart from being bosom buddies with Enron, way back in the early 70's he invested in soft-core porn. I am just amazed that McCain has had anything to do with this guy. All you have to do is point out that his wife was on Enron's board, and people will start to think suspicious thots.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mr. McCain does the Internet

This is just so wrong, so grossly unfair, but oh so funny:

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama on the cover of The New Yorker

The New Yorker has a cartoon illustration of Barack and Michelle Obama on its cover for this issue. Here it is:

Of course, there's a raging debate about whether or not this is offensive. I come down strongly on the side of "Yes." I like to think that I have a good sense of humor when it comes to my own political idols and ideals, but this is absurd. First, there's simply nothing funny about it. The question of whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim is a very serious one - there are lots of people who actually believe it, and are going to vote against him because of it.

The best political cartoons poke fun at some kind of hypocrisy or stupid idea/policy/quote associated with a politician. But this doesn't take aim at any actual policy or belief of either Barack or Michelle.

I've subscribed to The New Yorker in the past. There's an envelope on my desk with a subscription offer from it on my desk. It's going the same place as the rest of my junk mail.

For any conservatives who think liberals are being thin-skinned, turn it around. Suppose it were John McCain dressed in white robes as a member of the KKK, standing in front of a burning cross. Would that be funny?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tim Gunn answers your questions

I'm a Tim Gunn fan, even though I've never seen Project Runway. This is a fun interview that he did for Time. He deserves all of his success. Love you, Tim!

A couple of points:

"Fashion is semiotics."

Well, duh.

I like his point about having to think more carefully when you are shopping on a budget, but he forgets that it's also more fun to shop when you have money. Personally, I am dying to walk into Tom Ford's store in NY and be able to drop mucho bucks on a great suit and tailored shirts.

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, July 12, 2008

With friends like these . . .

One part of John McCain's bad week was that Phil Gramm made the rather inappropriate comment that America is a "nation of whiners." Oops. Not good. That has already become a soundbite, and that is going to be hanging around McCain's neck. And Gramm is not just some random politician who shows up on talk shows - he's one of McCain's key economic advisors. As a former senator from Texas, he has strong cultural affiliation with Bush.

McCain, of course, repudiated the comments. Obama's response was brilliant, because it is now associated with the original comment. Obama said that America already has one Dr. Phil. Now, almost any time Gramm's comment is discussed, Obama's comeback will be discussed as well.

But then Fred Barnes had to show up on Fox News and make matters just a tad bit worse for McCain. He argues that we are not in a recession, and that this is, in fact, a nation of whiners.

The other people, Brit Hume and the woman (didn't catch her name), to their credit, disagree. I have no clue why someone - anyone - would think that you're going to help your candidate by insulting the American people.

I am hoping that what we are about to see is a turnaround in the whole "who's a snob" debate. The idea that an African-American politician is a snob, while a man married to a woman worth $100 million, is somehow a man of the people, is ridiculous. One reason Republicans have hammered Democrats for so long about being elitists is that it's the best possible defense against Democrats doing the same thing. Which Democrats can very easily do, because many Republicans are elitists.

Here's Barnes:

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tom's Diner, back to the original - in cyberspace

Probably the most famous remixed song ever is Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." I'm sure there are many, many people who only know her through that song or possibly because of "Luka." For me, she's a memory of the 80's, someone who I listened to many years ago. I bought her greatest hits album a few months ago. I've only put it on a couple of times, but it's like comfort music - it's just nice to know that it's there.

Every now and then I have wondered what happened to her. She didn't quite fall into the "where are they now" category, because she wasn't a superstar who burned out - she was just more famous at certain times than at other times.

But now she's popped up in a couple of intriguing places. She wrote about the process of writing and recording "Luka" for the New York Times. She has no problem with being a "two-hit wonder," because, after all,
I think it’s better than being a one-hit wonder, thank you very much.
And those two hit songs?
They are like the cherries on top of the sundae.
This is a woman with her priorities straight, an artist with her feet on the ground. Not a crazed, dysfunctional genius with a maddening need to be understood, but a creative professional who is apparently fairly normal. Very refreshing.

But what's even more intriguing than this piece in the NY Times is another appearance she made, this time in Second Life. She performed Tom's Diner on - how can I describe this? - a radio show hosted by John Hockenberry. Except that the radio show was broadcast in Second Life, the virtual reality game/world/playspace. Hockenberry is a great radio host, and prods her to tell an interesting story about Tom's Diner. The guy who invented the MP3 used it to refine the technology, so she is sort of the mother of the MP3.

The audio portion of the performance is solid - this is one of the only hit songs, after all, that became famous because of an acapella version, so we're used to hearing it sung without accompaniment.

What's intriguing, of course, is watching it in Second Life. I've never been in Second Life, I have enough going on in my own life. So I have no idea how normal this is.

Apart from the novelty, it's actually quite boring. There's really very little going on, because, of course, the song goes faster than the avatars can move. But it's also one of the first times something like this has been done.

Great to still have you around, Ms. Vega. Very much looking forward to seeing what you're up to next.

Update: Well, that didn't take long. This is a second performance from the same show, but this time she plays guitar. Slightly more visually interesting, even if her left hand seems to be wandering away from the guitar.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Gail Collins: One pundit who gets Obama

I love Gail Collins. She's very sensible and calm, and has the most wonderfully dry sense of humor. And she's not angry, which is great. Her column on Obama and his alleged recent policy shifts is just wonderful:

Think back. Why, exactly, did you prefer Obama over Hillary Clinton in the first place? Their policies were almost identical — except his health care proposal was more conservative. You liked Barack because you thought he could get us past the old brain-dead politics, right? He talked — and talked and talked — about how there were going to be no more red states and blue states, how he was going to bring Americans together, including Republicans and Democrats.

Exactly where did everybody think this gathering was going to take place? Left field?

When an extremely intelligent politician tells you over and over and over that he is tired of the take-no-prisoners politics of the last several decades, that he is going to get things done and build a “new consensus,” he is trying to explain that he is all about compromise. Even if he says it in that great Baracky way.
Bingo. This is why I am surprised when liberals accuse Obama of moving towards the center. That's where he has always been. His raison d'etre, his modus operandi is to find a middle ground. If you deeply, passionately committed to one position, that will probably piss you off. If you are interested in resolving differences and getting things done, it's much more your style. Obama is not an ideological liberal. The sooner liberals figure that out, the better they will be able to deal with Obama.

Obama usually ends up on the liberal side of issues, but not because he's a liberal. He ends up there because he thinks things through, and usually ends up on the liberal side of an argument. But not necessarily.

Gail Collins explains it perfectly:

if you look at the political fights he’s picked throughout his political career, the main theme is not any ideology. It’s that he hates stupidity.
. . .
Most of the things Obama’s taken heat for saying this summer fall into these two familiar patterns — attempts to find a rational common ground on controversial issues and dumb-avoidance.
I love that: dumb-avoidance. If there is one thing that Americans should be in favor of in their next president, it is dumb-avoidance. I think many, many Americans, of all ideological persuasions, will agree that the President of the United States should be smart.

What George Bush demanded of his supporters was unthinking, unswerving loyalty. What Barack Obama demands of his supporters is the exact opposite. Barack Obama demands of his supporters that they adhere to that old-fashioned definition of what liberals do: Barack Obama expects his supporters to think for themselves.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mr. Herbert is disappointed in Mr. Obama

Bob Herbert is disappointed that Barack Obama has allegedly changed his position on a number of issues.

Bob Herbert is angry. This is not even remotely surprising. Bob Herbert is very often angry.

I find this idea that Obama is "lurching" to the center patently absurd. On the death penatly and gun control, he has been consistent; he supports the death penalty for extreme cases (which I find surprising and disappointing) and he believes that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to own guns. I intend to write about both of those at greater length later, but for now I want to point out that the president's position on those is actually mostly irrelevant: most death penalty and gun control legislation is passed at the state level.

Bob Herbert would be well advised to pay attention to this article in his own newspaper:

Barack Obama had heard quite enough of the complaints that he is pirouetting, leaping, lurching even, toward the political center.

He is at heart, he told a crowd in suburban Atlanta, a pretty progressive guy who just happens to pack along a complicated world view.

“Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he said. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.”
What I think has liberals riled up is the discovery that Obama does not have the assumed liberal positions on these issues. He has not changed; what changed was that people started paying attention to these issues, mostly because of a couple of Supreme Court decisions, and suddenly they discovered that they disagreed with him.

Welcome to democracy, folks.

I find it bizarre that people would express such profound disappointment at such an early stage of the campaign. The man has not even won election yet. Hold your fire and keep your powder dry, people, and save the outrage for the big fights, when he's actually trying to get legislation passed. Right now, people like Bob Herbert sound like they are crying wolf.

I think one problem too many liberals have is that they are simply too accustomed to automatically criticizing politicians, so their knee-jerk response when something happens that they don't agree with is to wail and moan and make grand pronouncements. You wonder how these people make it through the day.

I think Obama should propose legislation mandating prescriptions of Valium for all liberal political commentators. So they can learn to chill out.

Another problem is that too many liberals simply have no experience with a president, or even a major politician, that they can really trust. They're so used to being profoundly disappointed, they don't know how to deal with trivial disappointments.

On the big issues, like withdrawing from Iraq or achieving universal health care, Obama has not wavered. He believes that we can withdraw troops from Iraq at a rate of 1 to 2 brigades a month, and that at that pace, we can have all troops out in 16 months. That is the message that he has been sending on this issue ever since the campaign began. On health care, he hasn't wavered at all.

Here's some more perspective. I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, and had two internships in Washington, DC, opposing it. I'm also in favor of gun control. But neither of those two issues has ever directly affected me, and, God willing, neither of them ever will. But health care affects me constantly.

By far the biggest issue that I have with Mr. Herbert's column is that the idea that Obama is moving to the center and flip-flopping on key issues is part of the Republican's attacks. And the worst possible thing that Bob Herbert can do for Barack Obama is to perpetuate John McCain's ridiculous attacks on him.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Happy Birthday Phil!

Today is my brother Phil's birthday, so I thot I would post a video from a dance company he was once part of. I don't think he's in this video, but it's very cool nonetheless. Happy Birthday, Phil.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Disney v. the NRA

How's this for a bizarre political conflict: Disney vs. the NRA. The state of Florida just passed a law allowing gun owners who have a concealed-weapons permit to bring their guns to work, as long as they keep them in their cars. I'm not sure why gun owners feel this is a necessary law. Is bringing your gun to work a threatened Constitutional right? I'm having trouble seeing this. In my office, we just got an email reiterating our company's policy that guns are not allowed at work. At first, we thot it was a joke - isn't that obvious? Not, apparently, in Florida.

The Walt Disney Company, to its great credit, has been fighting this, along with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation. This is because most businesses do not want their employees carrying around guns in the workplace. This is because, on this very basic issue of employee safety, business owners are sane, rational people who understand that guns are dangerous. Nonetheless, the law passed. There is an exception for businesses that handle explosives. Yes, we do not want to combine guns and dynamite. At the last minute, that exception was expanded slightly, to property owned by companies that handle explosives. Disney falls under that because of its fireworks displays.

I can't wait to see how this plays out in the Republican party. Here you have two key constituents are loggerheads: businesspeople and gun owners. I'm not always a big fan of the Walt Disney company, but on this issue, they will win any PR battle without even trying. They don't want people bringing guns to Disney World. How hard is that to understand? What parent is going to object to that? Disney is on the side of its visitors, the NRA is on the side of people who feel so threatened that they feel a need to bring guns with them everywhere. Disney wins.

The press release from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation frame the issues:

“This law is unnecessary and a violation of the private property rights provided by the Constitution,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “We are taking this action to restore what 80 percent of Florida voters believe to be true—that a business owner should be able to decide if employees can or cannot bring guns on their property.”

“We have said it time and again: this is a deeply flawed solution in search of a problem,” said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. “We will reaffirm the fundamental right of every private property owner provided by the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution and the Florida Statutes to decide if a firearm can be brought onto their property.”

Property rights vs. gun rights. Two basic tenets of Republican ideology, clashing badly. The irony is that one of the arguments the NRA makes is that guns are necessary to protect property. So how are they going to argue against the right of business owners to protect their rights to control their property?

The NRA also makes the argument that owning guns is important for self-defense. I can understand this argument as it applies to someone at home. But your car? Your place of work? How many employees of Disney World need a gun to protect themselves on the way to work at the Happiest Place on Earth? I have the feeling that the vast majority of Disney's employees completely agree with the company on this one.

For me, this is clearly a case of the NRA overreaching. Is this law really necessary? I like the quote from the retail guy - it's a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem that is being addressed. Why even bring it up? Shouldn't business owners have the freedom to make these kinds of decisions on their own? The NRA just wants to score points legislatively. This is about the egos of gun owners.

It's also a colossal waste of time and money. Businesses are going to spend money fighting something that they shouldn't be fighting, and for what? So a few people can bring guns to work and leave them in their cars?

I can't wait to see how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert handle this. It's going to be like manna from heaven. You just cannot make this up.

Presidential trivia quiz for the 4th of July

The LA Times published a trivia quiz today on US presidents, in honor of the 4th of July. My favorite: who is the only president to be sworn into office by a woman? Hint: it's a Democrat, and it's question #12 on this quiz.

Kung Fu Panda

So I saw Kung Fu Panda. This review will be short, because I don't have much to say about it. It's a cross between an episode of Sesame Street and a Jackie Chan movie, with dialogue inspired by fortune cookies. There isn't really anything wrong with it, and there are several things that it does well, but it never rises above the level of a decent cartoon. The animation is beautiful, there are many scenes that are humorous or clever, the action is exciting, and then it ends fairly quickly. That was probably the best part - it was mercifully short. The kids in the theater where I saw it seemed to like it, and I'm sure it will function very effectively as an electronic babysitter for years to come. There aren't any silly pop culture references, and I'm sure that there are some references to real Chinese culture, which is nice, so four year-olds will have a bit of a multicultural experience, which is nice. The plot is interesting enough to hold a kid's attention. But not mine.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Obama on Iraq

I've heard whispers and rumors recently that Obama has somehow changed his position on Iraq. This is usually heard in connection with the idea that he is moving to the center, now that the primaries are done, in order to win the general election. I think that's ridiculously overblown, but, for this post, I'm going to focus on Iraq.

My favorite line from Obama about Iraq is that we have to be more careful getting out than we were getting in. He wants to remove troops at a rate of 1 to 2 brigades a month, and, at that pace, believes that we can get all American troops out in 16 months. That sounds reasonable to me. The point is getting them out. This is in sharp contrast with John McCain's plan, which is to stay until some undetermined time in the future.

Josh Marshall at TPM has a great post about this, where he draws a key distinction between strategy and tactics. To wit, the president sets the strategy, and then relies on his military officials to develop the tactics to achieve the strategy. Makes perfect sense to me. Josh:

I've listened to Obama's position on Iraq. He's been very clear through this year and last on the distinction between strategy and tactics. Presidents set the strategy -- which in this context means the goal or the policy. And if the policy is a military one, a President will consult closely with his military advisors on the tactics used to execute the policy.

This is an elementary distinction the current occupant in the White House has continually tried to confuse by claiming that his policies are driven and constrained by the advice he's given by his commanders on the ground. There's nothing odd or contradictory about Obama saying that he'll change the policy to one of withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq with a specific timetable but that he will consult with his military advisors about how best to execute that policy.
Josh also makes the point that political reporters can't seem to get this basic, fundamental point. TPM has a video of Obama at a press conference today, hammering home this point again and again and again.

Baby Boomer liberals retiring from academia

Good news from the NY Times. Baby Boomer liberals are starting to retire from academia.

Thank you God. Hallelujah. Hope springs eternal.

I consider myself fairly liberal, and I think Baby Boomers achieved a lot of good things in the '60's, but I am thrilled that Baby Boomer liberals are starting to leave academia. My college experience took place very much in the shadow of the '60's, and it was not healthy for me. There was a strong sense of confrontation, that our purpose was to prepare ourselves for ideological battle, rather than prepare ourselves to actually be able to make a living.

I could go on at substantial length on this topic, but I'm just going to enjoy the fact that time moves on and time heals all wounds.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

WaPo on Obama's mortgage: bad journalism 101

Today the Washington Post is driving me nuts. I just blogged about a column challenging the conventional wisdom that Bush is "The Decider." I obviously liked that column because I agreed with it. But I also read an article about the Obamas' mortgage that I think is shoddy journalism. Obviously, I'm biased because they're criticizing Barack Obama. But I think I can handle that. I'm fully expecting to read criticism of Obama that I agree with.

This article, however, is riddled with innuendo and guilt by association. The basic facts are this: after he was elected to the Senate, the Obamas bought a new house. Being elected to the Senate meant that Barack got a raise, and Michelle was promoted at the University of Chicago. Together, they were making around $500,000 a year. His job is about the most secure in the country; she's got a great track record. They have no debt, and they just sold their condo for a profit. So their credit record is, presumably, damn good. Also, Barack had just signed a book deal worth over $2 million.

The problem, according to the WaPo, is that the interest rate was preferable.

He locked in an interest rate of 5.625 percent on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, below the average for such loans at the time in Chicago.
Never having applied for a mortgage, I'm not sure how good that is. But takes apart the stats (via Basically, The WaPo does not have anything regarding a case. Barack and Michelle Obama were making good money, had very secure jobs, and no debt. They got a good deal on their mortgage because they deserved it. Like millions of other responsible, normal Americans. Also, the WaPo does not seem to understand the concept of "average." It means that there will be people on both sides of a number; some below, some above. There HAVE to be some people below the average, by definition of the term.

Let's repeat this central idea: The Obamas are, personally, models of financial rectitude. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what we want in our presidents? But somehow the WaPo spins it as smelling fishy.

There are a lot of good comments at, many about the bad math at the WaPo. But none of them seem to notice the slippery language in the article. The article sets out the political context: other senators, we have recently found out, got sweetheart deals from Countrywide financial. Jim Johnson, Obama's guy for vetting his VP choices, the one who resigned, was head of Fannie Mae. Of course, Johnson was head of Fannie Mae many years ago, long before any of this happened, which makes his position there utterly irrelevant.

The writer asks this question:

Driving the recent debate is concern that public officials, knowingly or unknowingly, may receive special treatment from lenders and that the discounts could constitute gifts that are prohibited by law.
That's a fair question. The next paragraph would seem to be fair, as well. It's technically accurate, after all.

"The real question is: Were congressmen getting unique treatment that others weren't getting?" associate law professor Adam J. Levitin, a credit specialist at Georgetown University Law Center, said about the Countrywide loans. "Do they do business like that for people who are not congressmen? If they don't, that's a problem."
But note that the speaker is referring to the Countrywide loans. Those were the loans made to the other senators, i.e. the ones that ARE NOT BARACK OBAMA. Obama did not receive a Countrywide loan. But this article is almost entirely about him, so it's almost impossible NOT to infer that the speaker is referring to Obama when he refers to "congressmen getting unique treatment." You have to stop and think and realize that he cannot be talking about Obama, because Obama did not get a Countrywide loan. But unless you stop and think, anyone reading this is almost invariably going to associate Obama with this practice of receiving preferential treatment.

Then there's this line:

"It's certainly safe to say that this borrower did better than average," said Keith Gumbinger, an HSH vice president, noting that consumer rates vary widely. "It's a good deal."
Given the context established, i.e. that senators have been getting sweetheart deals, the suggestion is obvious: Obama got a sweetheart deal because he's a senator. But look at the quote: "this borrower did better than average." But if Obama got a better deal than average because he's a senator, that might be because Senators are better than average. They make more money than "average" people, and they have extremely secure jobs. And maybe these borrowers did better than average because both husband and wife are graduates of Harvard Law School. Maybe they did better than average because they ARE better than average. Which, personally, is a solid part of my defining criteria for president.

Now the article gets into the details of the Obamas' income and their finances, but it is after establishing the controversy of senators getting sweetheart deals. I find this this paragraph particularly egregious:

Jumbo loans are for amounts up to $650,000, but the Obamas' $1.32 million loan
was so large that few comparables are available. Mortgage specialists say that
many high-end buyers pay cash.
Look at the line "the Obamas' $1.32 million loan was so large." This sounds suspiciously like it's reinforcing the "elitism" charge against the Obamas - they got a huge loan. They were doing very well financially, and so they bought a nice house. Isn't that the American dream?

And then there's the line "Mortgage specialists say that many high-end buyers pay cash." That's meaningless in this context. Yes, I am guessing that were Bill Gates to buy this kind of house, he would not be arranging for a mortgage, but would instead use his ATM, or whatever spare change he had lying around. Cindy McCain also presumably can afford to pay cash, which this article points out - the McCains have no mortgages on their houses. So what does that line have to do with the Obamas?

These two paragraphs towards the end also bothered me (just about everything about this article bothered me):

Unlike Countrywide, where leaked internal e-mails documented a special discount program for friends of chief executive Angelo Mozilo, Northern Trust says it has no formal program to provide discounts to public officials. Loan officers may consider a borrower's occupation when establishing an interest rate, the bank said.

"A person's occupation and salary are two factors; I would expect those are two things we would take into consideration," said Northern Trust Vice President John O'Connell. "That would apply to anyone seeking to get a mortgage at Northern Trust." He added that the rates offered to Obama were "consistent with internal Northern Trust rates at that time."

This is just ridiculous. Those two paragraphs are actually exonerating Barack Obama completely. But they start out by citing Countrywide, which is becoming a code word for "corrupt mortgage lender." How about that phrase "leaked internal emails?" That's more code for "somebody doing something bad." And is there any reason to cite Angelo Mozilo, other than to bring in another mention of another shady character?

I want to walk through the logic of the phrase "Unlike Countrywide." That means the opposite of Countrywide. Countrywide is a mortgage lender that has developed a reputation for what were, at best, sloppy mortgage lending practices. So the opposite of Countrywide would be, we can assume, something good.

But that's using a double negative to establish a positive, which is confusing. The article doesn't come right out and say "Northern Trust is a responsible bank that does not engage in the kind of nefarious practices that got Countrywide in trouble." The phrase "has no formal program to provide discounts to public officials" means that they do not provide favors to politicians. Which is a good, responsible approach to mortgage lending - we don't cut special deals for our friends. But it's a rather dry, technical description, and easily misunderstood. They are saying that do not engage in legalized bribery. Good for them! Solid Midwesterners, apparently. But they are also saying that they have no "formal" program to give discounts. What about "informal" programs? Can individual bankers use their discretion to provide favors to friends? Maybe. Which might be what is suggested with the next line, "Loan officers may consider a borrower's occupation when establishing an interest rate, the bank said." So they don't technically have a program to do favors for politicians, but they can consider a person's occupation. That's technically accurate - I would assume that all loan officers consider a person's occupation when they are applying for a mortgage. But given the context established, i.e. that some senators got sweetheart deals because of their occupations, this is highly suggestive.

This article has all kinds of implied negative judgment, but when a positive judgment is called for - i.e. that this bank DOES NOT engage in questionable practices, the writer uses obfuscatory terminology and phrasing. There's no definitive statement to the effect that Obama did not get any preferential treatment because of his status as a United States senator. Given the amount of innuendo to the effect that he did get preferential treatment, the lack of clarity on this score is very disturbing.

What's almost comical about the following paragraph is that it's classic lawyerese: it's making something completely normal sound odd:
"A person's occupation and salary are two factors; I would expect those are two things we would take into consideration,"
Well, yeah. My guess is that roughly 100% of the mortgage applications in this country take into account a person's occupation and salary. Wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible of a bank NOT to? And then the final line that

the rates offered to Obama were "consistent with internal Northern Trust rates at that time."
In other words, this is completely, utterly normal. Two highly educated, established professionals, both with good-paying jobs and excellent credit records, one with one of the most secure jobs on the planet earth, apply for a mortgage under very normal conditions, and they get it. But it's phrased in dry, bureaucratic terms, which sounds to many people sounds obfuscatory. Why can't the writer just write something along the lines of "the bank says that the Obamas got a regular deal?"

Having conclusively failed to produce any statistically damning evidence against Obama, the writer now turns to more good old innuendo, citing contributions by bank employees in federal elections and to Obama in particular. More suggestions of malfeasance without a scintilla of evidence. Perhaps employees of this bank donated money to Barack Obama because they are all from Chicago. I'm guessing you could look at any bank in Chicago and find donations to people running for federal office and to Barack Obama in particular. They also cite $739,000 in donations since 1990. That is well before Obama ran for any office, state or federal. That's a highly irresponsible number to cite; it has very little to do with Obama. "Federal" elections would presumably include all of the House and Senate races since 1990; in Illinois, that would be dozens of races. And among the people running in those races could be Denny Hastert, former Speaker of the House. I would be surprised if bankers in Chicago didn't contribute to the Speaker's campaigns. It's perfectly normal for bank employees, who are, we can guess, financially well off, to contribute to elections. More perfectly normal behavior somehow rendered suspicious.

And then of course the writer recycles the Rezko nonsense, which is so old at this point that I am not going to go into it.

Bottom line: this article is technically accurate, which is the only thing that keeps it from being a pure hit piece. But it goes to great lengths to imply that Barack Obama got a sweetheart deal on his mortgage, without providing one iota of evidence to that effect. Incredibly irresponsible journalism from the Washington Post.

What particularly bothers me, apart from the sheer irresponsibility, is the corrosive effect that this has on the public's faith in politicians. I hope many people see through this and recognize it for the sham that it is, but I know that others will buy it, and their faith in Obama, and their respect for him, will be diminished, and with it their faith in the political process. And all because Barack and Michelle Obama did exactly what millions of other successful Americans have done: they bought a nice house because they worked hard, and they could afford it.

I really don't like to criticize the "MSM." I think criticizing the press can very easily become an intellectually sloppy, knee-jerk response to bad news for your side. I think both sides practice it, and it comes from all kinds of commentators, from Noam Chomsky to Rush Limbaugh to bloggers of every ideology and degree of intellectual sophistication. The point being that I am reluctant to blame the press if my candidate doesn't seem to be doing well.

But this is ridiculous. The Obamas achieved the American dream: two African-Americans worked their way up the ladder, earning every ounce of their success. The one mistake Obama made was associating with Tony Rezko; he's admitted that, but it's a very trivial detail, and, as for buying their house, they did just about everything right, and basically nothing wrong (other than associating with Rezko).

The exact opposite, unfortunately, is true of the Washington Post.

Bush the non-Decider

The WaPo has a great column by Daniel Benjamin about how, contrary to popular myth, George W. Bush is not particularly good at making foreign policy decisions. It's packed with lots of good information.
[Y]ou can't fully comprehend the Bush record without understanding another Bush problem: a chronic failure to reach decisions or implement those that are made. On one key issue after another, from the Middle East to North Korea to the Department of Homeland Security, Bush has proven himself to be a dawdler, a foot-dragger who can't make fundamental choices or press his team to follow his commands. Call him the non-decider.
The writer was on Clinton's National Security Council staff, so he's obviously biased, but he makes a lot of great points. I hope we see more of this meme.

Obama on national and community service

Barack Obama gave a speech today in Colorado Springs about national and community service.

"I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate -- I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said.

"This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency," he said. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges."
On the one hand, this sounds like about the most cliched kind of platitude a candidate can offer, a verbose version of Kennedy's "Ask not what your country cand do for you, ask what you can do for your country." But Obama has the potential to follow this up with some real action. This article has a few specifics:

Obama, an Illinois senator, touted a package of proposals he first offered in December that would expand AmeriCorps, the domestic service agency, and double the size of the Peace Corps.

He also would offer more service opportunities to retirees and set goals for middle- and high-school students to serve 50 hours a year of public service, and for college students to serve 100 hours a year.
There are a couple of reasons I am giving him credit for something more than making vague promises. First, there is an infrastructure of national and community service organizations out there. For this, Obama owes a great debt to Bill Clinton, who set up Americorps. National and community service was a very big deal around the time Clinton was elected, and he was very supportive.

Second, those organizations, governmental agencies, and their advocates are starved for attention, and desperate for the right support. "Pragmatic idealism" was a watchword when I was in DC in 92-94. There are a lot of organization which are very focused and competent. They've survived the Bush presidency, and the years of Republican control of Congress before that. They are just waiting for the right legislative action to blossom. All Obama has to do is appoint the right people and set the right priorities, and amazing things will happen.

I have a good friend who once missed a concert because he was working so hard opposing Republican efforts to cut funding for national service. It was a bummer for him, but it worked out for me, because I got his ticket, and I got to see the Rolling Stones.

One of the coolest groups that I was involved with way back then was a group called Public Allies. The Obamas know it well: Barack himself was part of the founding, and Michelle ran the Chicago office.

I've said it before, I will say it again, and I am sure I will say it again and again: The revolution started in the '60's, was kept alive by Clinton in the '90's, and will be finished by Barack Obama in the 21st century.