Saturday, November 29, 2008

A smidgen of good news for the Big Three

There's a little bit of good news for the Big Three. Well, at least for one of them. Dan Neil loves the new Ford F-150 pickup. Rarely is he so effusive.

Yes, Dearborn has its troubles but this is the best pickup truck on God's little acre. Yes, the Japanese have beaten up on the domestics, but Toyota and Nissan only wish they knew how to build a full-sizer as tight, as tough, as well-sorted, as keen and mean as the thing behind the Blue Oval. I mean, people, it isn't even close.

My Car of the Year is a truck.
He also makes the obvious political point:

Pickup trucks have an ideology and that ideology is conservative, Red State Republicanism.

Pickups just lost the White House.
Once again, I'm conflicted. I am fine with pickups losing the White House - maybe now the Big Three will remember that they should be making cars for the rest of the country as well as their macho customers in the heartland. But I have some connection with Ford: my grandfather started working there in the late 1920's, and didn't buy a different brand of car until he was in his '80's (when one of his sons-in-law got him a deal on a GM car).

I actually think Ford is in a better position to ride out this recession better than GM or Chrysler; they're bigger than Chrysler, with a better selection of cars, and they don't have the dysfunctionality of GM's excess brands. I'm expecting Ford to close the Mercury division. That would be a good sign of permanent change, the kind of sign that Democrats in Congress are looking for. Right now, tho, I'll take my good news for the American car industry from wherever I can find it.

Next step on Prop 8: talking to black women

Part of the aftermath of Prop. 8 was that liberals had to deal with a clear divide between two interest groups, gays and African Americans. Another large part of the debate was the ineffectiveness of the No on Prop. 8 campaign, which Andrew Sullivan has chronicled extensively.

Charles Blow, an African American columnist at the NY Times, has an excellent post that combines these two concerns. Specifically, he writes, gay activists should target black women, who tend to attend church more regularly than black men. Black women also have complicated views of marriage.

One reason this is so important is that I heard essentially no discussion of any of this before the election. The issue on Prop. 8, from the "No" side, was simple: it's an issue of civil rights and the right to love someone. What Blow explains, in what is easily the best piece I have read about this, is that those issues are not - pardon the pun - black and white for black women. Many are not married, and might see gay men as more competition. So a large part of the failure by the LGBT community on Prop. 8 can be attributed, unfortunately, to a failure to understand the perspective of the opposition. That problem is quickly being addressed. One thing that strikes me as odd, however, is that after so many gay marriage initiatives in so many states (at least 30), that these issues are only now coming up.

I would love to see a similar post about homosexuality and black men, because I have a feeling that there is just as complicated a constellation of issues (but different ones) for black men and gay marriage. For example, the use of the term "boy" to refer to black men is a tool to denigrate their masculinity. How does a tradition of fighting for their pride as men affect black men's view of gay men? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure I'm qualified to address the issue, but it seems like something that should be explored if we are to make progress on this issue.

This is also a great opportunity to explore what I call the "repairing the psychological damage" phase of civil and equal rights in this country.

All of us have some degree of psychological trauma, from being embarrassed at a party, to failing an exam, to being divorced, to the death of a loved one. We all have ways of dealing with it, usually involving other people, particularly family. And almost all of us eventually recover from each episode.

But African Americans in this country have, collectively, far more trauma than the rest of us can even imagine. Moreover, they do not necessarily have the same strong families that the non-black people do, because of that collective trauma. The civil rights movement took the first steps towards integrating minorities into mainstream American society, and thereby repairing that trauma. With the election of Barack Obama, we have taken a very large step towards collective healing, on all sides.

But the trauma is still there, and there is still a great deal of healing to be done. We cannot take that healing for granted; some of it will take place over the natural course of time, but some of it won't. Blow's piece is a great example of what has to happen.

Much of this argument about "healing" could just as easily apply to feminism and women, or Hispanics and immigration.

The best part of a healing process, of course, is what happens after it's over.

Welcome back to Samantha Power

Samantha Power, Obama's foreign policy adviser who was exiled for calling Hillary Clinton a "monster," is back on the Obama team. She's part of the transition team for the State Department. Whose predicted nominated Secretary is, of course, Hillary Clinton. I'm not surprised that Power is back, and in fact am very glad that she is. I had an opportunity to hear her speak about a year ago, when I was canvassing for Obama in Nevada, and was very impressed. I also saw her on the Colbert Report.

I expect no fireworks or problems between her and Hillary, because they're both pros. And goodness knows Hillary has been called worse.

Buy Nothing Day

Yesterday was "Black Friday," when millions of people start their Christmas shopping. I didn't, and thereby inadvertently participated in "Buy Nothing Day." I feel accidentally virtuous.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What I am thankful for

I have a lot of things to be thankful for this years.

I am thankful that I have a job.
I am thankful that I am relatively healthy.
I am thankful that I have lots of family and friends.
I am thankful that I have the opportunity to serve on my church council.
I am thankful that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America.
I am thankful that I like my job and my coworkers.
I am thankful that there are some good movies coming out soon.
I am thankful that the Democrats have large majorities in the House and Senate.
I am thankful that Hillary Clinton's and Sarah Palin's candidacies not only broke barriers for women, but created opportunities for more women comedians, also.
I am thankful that Twilight, a movie directed by a woman, based on a book by a woman, and aimed primarily at teenage girls, did as well at the box office as the latest James Bond movie, because I think this will mean more opportunities for women in the film industry.
I am thankful for whoever at Google decided to buy Blogger, because it has given me this great tool for self-expression.
I am thankful for, and the opportunity to create a great Obama t-shirt.

Very specifically, I am thankful for this clip on YouTube.

This is a scene from Stranger Than Fiction. It's one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies. Will Ferrell, playing an uptight IRS agent, is falling deeply in love with someone that he is auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is also his polar opposite. She's a free spirit who isn't paying part of her taxes as a protest against the imperialist system. She's a little skeptical that anything could work out between the two of them.

He's playing the guitar because it's the one thing that he has always wanted to do - he's always wanted to make his life more musical. And since he might be dying soon, this is probably a good time to learn - make the most of the rest of his life, that kind of thing.

The one song that he knows is, of course, the one song that completely turns her on. He has no idea that this is the case, and he's not even aware of it when he's playing. There's a moment when he sees her sitting next to him, and for a moment he's scared - does she really like it? - and then she makes it clear that yes, she really likes the song, and she really likes him.

I am thankful for the level of craftsmanship in intelligent comedies like this. The cinematography is brilliant - the lighting is wonderfully layered throughout the whole room, and then she walks from the shadows into the light. Her costume is great - she looks incredibly sexy without showing any cleavage.

I am thankful that smart romantic comedies like this can be made in Hollywood, and that there are smart, funny people who can write and direct them, and that there are smart, funny people who can produce them and convince people like Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to be in them.

I am thankful that people like Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Maggie Gyllenhaal want to be in movies like this.

I am thankful that all of them gave great performances.

I am thankful that I went to USC film school, where I learned a huge amount about appreciating the finer points of craftsmanship that goes into movies like this.

I am thankful for this line, from Dustin Hoffman in this movie:

"Let's start with ridiculous and move backwards."

I am thankful that I can go to YouTube and pick up a little bit of inspiration from a couple of minutes that somebody I'll never meet ripped off a DVD.

I am thankful that, many years ago, I decided that art is more important than politics, even though sometimes it isn't.

I am thankful that I have many things to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An idiotic civics test

Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist, writes in the WaPo about one of those civics test that occasionally demonstrate just how stupid the American public is.

O ut of 2,500 American quiz-takers, including college students, elected officials and other randomly selected citizens, nearly 1,800 flunked a 33-question test on basic civics. In fact, elected officials scored slightly lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent compared to 49 percent.

Only 0.8 percent of all test-takers scored an "A."
I took this test a few days ago, and got 31 out of 33 right, so I guess I am part of the 0.8%. Parker doesn't provide a link, but I googled it, and retook it - this time I got 100% (I remembered the correct answers the two that I got wrong the first time).

Parker goes on to bemoan the lack of intellectual curiosity of the average American (Parker is one of the few conservatives who have criticized Sarah Palin, which has gotten her in trouble with fellow conservatives), and proposes some solutions, including forcing high school and college students to read newspapers. Good luck with that.

I have a better solution: let's all completely ignore idiotic tests that do nothing except make us feel bad about ourselves. This test is not a worthwhile examination of a person's understanding of American democracy. Some of the questions have nothing whatsoever to do with America, and some are so obscure that only people with a well-above-average interest in history or politics even have a chance of getting them right. Try this one:

13) Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that:
A. all moral and political truth is relative to one’s time and place
B. moral ideas are best explained as material accidents or byproducts of evolution
C. values originating in one’s conscience cannot be judged by others
D. Christianity is the only true religion and should rule the state
E. certain permanent moral and political truths are accessible to human reason
"D" is a trick answer: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all lived in ancient Athens, a good 300 years before the birth of Christ; they could not have been Christians. "Evolution," as in what we learned from Darwin, was also an idea formulated in an era somewhat past their time. I have a degree in philosophy and I had to think hard about the answer, and took an educated guess. The correct answer is "E." I don't associate "E" particularly strongly with any of those four philosophers, and I've read several Platonic dialogues. In other words, very well-educated, politically aware and sophisticated people could easily get that wrong. It's absurd to claim that average Americans are not politically aware because they got that question wrong.

There's a very subtle hidden agenda at work here. "A" and "C" are clearly statements of moral relativity. "E" does not say anything about moral absolutes, but it forces you to define these four philosophers in a way that specifically DOES NOT associate them with moral relativism. At the end of the test, there are several questions about how to define capitalism, which strongly suggests that the writers of this test designed it to put conservative, "traditional" values in a positive light. There's nothing wrong with that, except that they're not upfront about it.

Or consider this question, which is about American history, but is very obscure:

11) What impact did the Anti-Federalists have on the United States Constitution?
A. their arguments helped lead to the adoption of the Bill of Rights
B. their arguments helped lead to the abolition of the slave trade
C. their influence ensured that the federal government would maintain a standing army
D. their influence ensured that the federal government would have the power to tax
I've lived in Washington, DC, and have been an avid student of politics and American history for decades, and I had to take an educated guess on this one. I guessed "A," because the term "Anti-Federalists" suggest people skeptical about the power of the federal government, and part of the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to constrain the power of the government (the First Amendment being a prime example). But I couldn't name a specific "Anti-Federalist" off the top of my head if you paid me. The question implies that they had an impact on the Constitution when it was being written, which also leads me to the Bill of Rights. But, again, it's a tricky question, and not being able to answer it correctly says essentially nothing about a person's knowledge of American politics or history. You would have to have specifically studied this one group in one era of American history to know this well. I haven't done that, and I have an excellent education.

And then, some of the questions are open to interpretation:

29) A flood-control levee (or National Defense) is considered a public good because:
A. citizens value it as much as bread and medicine
B. a resident can benefit from it without directly paying for it
C. government construction contracts increase employment
D. insurance companies cannot afford to replace all houses after a flood
E. government pays for its construction, not citizens
The correct answer is "B." I got this wrong the first time (I think I chose "D"), but just about any of those answers could be considered valid. A member of a construction workers' union would probably choose "C," and who could blame her? And isn't "D" technically correct? If I were the CEO of an insurance company, that would probably be my answer.

Finally, some of the questions touch on important topics, but do so in a trivial way:

15) The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
A. George Washington’s Farewell Address
B. the Mayflower Compact
C. the Constitution
D. the Declaration of Independence
E. Thomas Jefferson’s letters
Separation of church and state is a fundamental American democratic value, but the fact that the specific phrase "wall of separation" is found in Thomas Jefferson's letters ("D") is a piece of trivia. Again, I had to take an educated guess, and used the process of elimination: I doubt George Washington talked much about the separation of church and state. It probably wouldn't have been an issue in the Mayflower Compact, because that was a small group of people from the same religion; the issue comes up once in the Constitution, in the First Amendment, which doesn't use that phrase; and I've never read it in the Declaration of Independence, which was about justifying the separation of the colonies from England. And I know that Jefferson was particularly proud of his efforts to advance the cause of religious freedom. But knowing the origin of that specific phrase signifies nothing about whether or not a person understands the significance of the idea of separation of church and state in American history and politics.

I could go on. There are a number of questions that are, in fact, perfectly legitimate, simple questions that, I agree, Americans should know.

3) What are the three branches of government?
A. executive, legislative, judicial
B. executive, legislative, military
C. bureaucratic, military, industry
D. federal, state, local
That one everybody should get. But without seeing any results, we don't know how many people did, in fact, get that one right. It's possible that 99% of the people who took this test got that question right. I have no idea. So I am not going to worry about it.

This test is garbage. If it were a test designed to test students of a particular course, it might be worthwhile. But it asks questions that highly educated people could easily get wrong for perfectly valid reasons. The fact that there are journalists out there who use this test to complain about the political and historical literacy of the American public says more about those journalists' lack of critical faculties than it does about the American educational system.

Quote of the day: movies

[H]e’s really just an old-fashioned movie man, the kind who never lets good taste get in the way of rip-roaring entertainment.
Manohla Dargis on Baz Luhrmann, from her review of Australia.

Sarah Palin, poet?

Julian Gough, a writer at the British magazine Prospect, has a somewhat unusual proposal: Barack Obama should appoint Sarah Palin poet laureate.

Here's an example of her poetry:

And the relevance to me
With that issue,
As we spoke
About Africa and some
Of the countries
There that were
Kind of the people succumbing
To the dictators
And the corruption
Of some collapsed governments
On the Continent,
The relevance
Was Alaska’s.
(formatting by Andrew Sullivan)

And perhaps her most famous quote turns out to be a haiku!

What’s the difference
Between a hockey mom and
A pit bull? Lipstick
Hough's justification for considering Palin a poet:

A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake.
What's funny about this is not just what it says about Sarah Palin, but what it says about contemporary poetry. Read that first bit, imagining a breathy, halting, melodramatic voice, and it almost works. The line breaks establish the pacing that seems to define poetry today.

Perhaps Yeats was anticipating Sarah Palin when he wrote that famous description of the outcome of Easter 1916:

All changed, changed utterly.
A terrible beauty is born.
Rereading it, with my appreciation for irony quite sharp these days, I found these lines immediately after those above:

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
Sarah Palin as Maud Gonne? She is certainly a muse to many.

One day early, here is something I am thankful for: that I have the freedom to have fun with this idea.

Big Three lose a battle in Rhode Island

A Federal judge in Rhode Island threw out a lawsuit brought by the Big Three challenging Rhode Island's attempt to impose strict clean-air regulations.

I can't believe that the Big Three are still fighting this fight. It's absurd. Don't they realize what a PR disaster these kinds of lawsuits are? I can appreciate that they don't want a patchwork of differeing state regulations, but one reason that California has higher standards than the rest of the country is that the Big Three have fought higher federal standards for years! The Big Three are going to need help from Democrats, and they sure aren't helping their cause by keeping up the fight against tighter clean air regulations.

They have basically no leverage. Democrats are holding all the cards. The not-so-Big-Three-these-days have to demonstrate that they are changing their ways. John Dingell is no longer in a position to protect them.

Stopping whatever lawsuits like this one are left would be a great way for them to start showing the world that they understand that they are in a new world. It would also be an admission of failure. But that's necessary because they did fail. They lost this fight. Time to throw in the towel.

Chinese Democracy

The new Guns and Roses album, Chinese Democracy, has been released.

Just for the record, I could care less.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

HSX: Thanksgiving Weekend

Because of Thanksgiving weekend, the movies opening this weekend are opening tomorrow, Wednesday. HSX is using a different formula for the adjust, using a multiplier of 2.0 instead of the normal 2.8.

The three movies opening this weekend are Australia, Baz Lurhmann's epic ode to his homeland, Four Christmases, a romantic comedy about the holidays, and Transporter 3, Jason Statham's latest butt-kicking delivery experience.

It's a nicely diverse crowd, all solidly mainstream, with something comfortable for everyone. There are no surprises in the options; all of the calls are trading high, mostly above the prices for the stocks, but that's normal. There's some profit-taking going on with Australia and Transporter, but, again, nothing really out of the ordinary.

Of the three, Four Xmases is the highest flyer. The stock is trading around H$70, with a strike price of H$35. It's been volatile on a day-to-day basis, but fairly stable over the last two weeks. There are no contracts on Intrade, which is probably not surprising. Best Picture contracts are up, though, and Slumdog Millionaire is already a favorite.

Australia and Transporter are both trading around H$40, which is right where Transporter has been, but down from a high of H$53 for Australia. Not terribly high expectations for Ms. Kidman and Mr. Jackman. I think it's underpriced; the plot looks fairly predictable, but that could be a virtue; you know what you're going to get. Which is also, of course, a perfect description of a Jason Statham movie: you know EXACTLY what you are going to get. There certainly isn't the kind of downside for Australia that there was for Bolt.

None of them are doing well on, but that's not a surprise. It's also a little early to get a good critical read, although the 25% for 4 Xmases is lower than I was expecting. I like the idea of pairing Reese Witherspoon with Vince Vaughn. I think they could be good together; I have good gut instincts about their chemistry.

The Box Office Derby on is only playing the prediction game for Fri-Sun, although they are not accepting submissions after midnight tonight. They are predicting Australia at $19.4 for Fri-Sun, which would put it at probably $28 for the entire weekend. That's much more optimistic than HSX. I'm not a huge fan of Box Office Derby because I think predictions run a little high, but I'm taking this as a good sign. They have 4 Xmases at $24.9, which is close to the HSX prediction, and Transporter at $15.5, again, fairly close to HSX.

The only one of these that has a Blockbuster Warrant is Four Christmases, which has a strike price of $80. That's practically a gimme. It's trading at H$14, which might still be cheap.

I did just notice that there is some easy money to be made on a couple of the other Blockbuster Warrants. Bolt has a strike price of $120, which now looks ridiculous. It's at H$4.48, i.e. taking a while to drift down to H$0.06, which is where it is going to end up. Talk about easy pickings. Twilight also has a strike price of H$120, which it should blow past in the next couple of weeks. The price of that is H$23, still quite cheap.

Bottom line, don't expect any surprises this weekend, and I hope you bought all of these a long time ago, because I don't think there is much of a chance to make much money this weekend. I'm holding everything long, going long on the calls, and shorting the puts.

Wednesday morning update: All three are trading up this morning, between H$2 and H$4. Looks good for the weekend!

Monday, November 24, 2008

HSX Week of Nov, 21: The Bolt Bloodbath

Last week, I took a look at the opening weekend predictions for two movies, Bolt and Twilight, and how I expected them to do on HSX. My Twilight prediction was good; it opened at $70 million, well above expectations, so I made a solid chunk of money on it. As did the producers; it made a profit just on the grosses from the opening weekend, which, as the NY Times puts it, means that it is in one of the "most exclusive clubs in Hollywood." Technically it hasn't made a profit yet, since the grosses are split with theaters, but very impressive.

Bolt, on the other hand, was a disaster. I noticed a discrepancy between the price of the stock and the price of the options, and the stock had shown some weakness, but I was still optimistic. It's a Disney movie about a dog; how family-friendly can you get? Maybe because it didn't have the Pixar brand name attached, audiences didn't show it the Pixar love. And they did not show it much love. It was down H$5 when I checked it Friday morning; that really should have been a sign to short it. That's a major move, and not in the right direction. I even wrote about the importance of Friday morning last week.

How bad was it? It adjusted down H$43. I lost over H$2 million. I didn't lose a spot on the rankings, which is good, but if I had shorted it, I probably would have gone up a notch. I immediately sold the Holiday Blockbuster Warrant (at a 100% profit), and shorted it at around H$10, so I'll make some money that way, but only about H$100,000. Meanwhile, I shorted the stock last night, but it's only down H$1.50 today, so maybe I'll hold it long until the delist, on the theory that a family movie with great reviews will make money over Thanksgiving. Fortunately, I played the options on both correctly, so I made good money there, but not enough to overcome the failure to take my own advice.

Lessons learned, and learned repeatedly. I've known about the importance of Friday morning for years. I didn't do a worst-case scenario analysis, which I really should have done. There was very little potential upside holding Bolt long, but some fairly serious downside. There was almost no chance it was going to open above $50, but there is a long way to go between $45 and zero. It opened with $26 million, which, for a regular movie, is not a bad opening. But less than respectable for this one.

What's odd is that it was so far below most expectations. On Intrade, the lowest contract had it opening above $37.5 million, with a top contract at $50 million (and jumps of $2.5 million in between). On's Derby, the average prediction was $40 million. Maybe I'll have to actually see it to figure this mystery out.

So I was not alone in my wildly optimistic prediction. But still, note to self: imagine the worst.

Obama's To Do List (according to People magazine)

This is Obama's To Do List, according to People magazine.

1. Keep the family routine.
2. Get the girls settled in D.C.
3. Make the White House their own.
4. Prepare for the social scene.
5. Become leader of the free world.

I love the last item.

I read this in dead tree edition of People that I bought because Obama was on the cover. This was the first edition of People that I ever bought, although I have read it before, mostly in doctor's offices. Fortunately for both Barack Obama and People, he is surrounded by three very photogenic women. This is fortunate for all parties involved because gossip rags like People rarely put men on the cover (the Sexiest Man edition being a notable exception), because they don't sell.

One odd note: I looked for a link to this on, but couldn't find it. The link above is to a pdf of the actual pages from the magazine. Of course, People is owned by Time Warner, an old-media company, which might explain why their website doesn't seem to synch with the newsstand version of their magazine. But you would think that they would also be somewhat adept at exploiting their own intellectual content.

Hillary as Secretary of State - the rationale

Any day now, we should hear confirmation that Hillary Clinton has accepted Barack Obama's offer to be his Secretary of State. Unless she decides against it, which is looking pretty doubtful at this point.

This raises the simple question of why would she give up her Senate seat, which she could easily hold on to for another 20 or 30 years, for a position which she will probably give up in 4 years, if not sooner? If she's still interested in running for president in eight years, she would go from having merely a very good resume to having an incredible one, even better than George H. W. Bush's.

But I don't think she's going to be running for President in 2016. She would be 69, and it would be her 4th presidential campaign. I also think she'll have plenty of competition from younger candidates by that time. She can retire, spend time with Chelsea and Bill, sit on panels, give speeches, and change the world at a leisurely (and lucrative) pace. Hillary does not need to be in the Senate to change the world.

I think Hillary will accept Obama's offer because she can have a profound impact on the world in a relatively short period of time. There are 100 Senators, but there is only one Secretary of State. This is a dangerous time on the world stage, but it is also a time of incredible opportunity. The challenges are many, not least of which is rebuilding America's relationship with the rest of the world. In the Senate, she represents the people of New York in an American legislative body; the scope of her purview is between Buffalo and Montauk. As Secretary of State, she represents the United States of America to the entire world; her purview is between the North and South Poles.

That's why I think Hillary will accept: repairing America's relationship with the rest of the world is a massive challenge. And Hillary, just like Bill, loves a challenge.

Update: It occurs to me that an additional rationale for Hillary to take this job is that she performs a weird sort of political alchemy when she does so. For just about anyone else, becoming Secretary of State would be a promotion; it certainly was for the current occupant. For Hillary, it's almost a lateral move. She enhances the prestige of the position just by the fact of her taking it, if that's possible for a job first held by Thomas Jefferson.

For Obama, appointing Hillary does a couple of things. First, he gets a potentially great Secretary of State. Second, he takes advantage of Bill Clinton's expertise and contacts, but he does so in a way that is not directly tied into domestic politics. Obama gets "two for one," and the Clintons used to describe themselves. Second, he demonstrates that he has the strength to trust people he has not only had disagreements with, but has strenuously competed with. He has demonstrated that he is willing to be challenged by people in his cabinet, which is, of course, a powerful contrast to the last eight years.

Ready for Christmas!

Contra Andrew Sullivan, I have been ready for Christmas since the election. Today, I felt like the Christmas season has officially begun: I heard "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano on the radio.

A REAL "Team of Rivals"

Andy Borowitz reports that Barack Obama has named some serious rivals to his cabinet:

Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston.

Can't wait for that press conference!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quantum of Solace

So I saw Quantum of Solace. I'm still not sure what the title means. I take no solace from the fact that I know what a quantum is.

As I was making plans to see it with a couple of friends, one of them asked if we should perhaps wear tuxes (there is a group of men in LA who do wear tuxes to the opening weekend of every Bond movie). I said no, because that would violate Rule #2 of John's Rules Of What Men Should Wear When They Go Out In Los Angeles. Specifically, Rule #2 states that:
You should not wear a tie when you go out unless you are a) giving a speech; b) receiving an award; or c) you will be photographed.
Rule #1 is: When in doubt, wear jeans.

James Bond movies have rules as well, of course: martinis are shaken, not stirred. "Bond. James Bond." A beautiful and dangerous woman. Another beautiful and dangerous woman. A dangerous guy, who is somehow related to at least one of the beautiful and dangerous women. Really cool gadgets that are not available to mortals. Bond wearing a tuxedo. Bond wearing a suit. Bond making some lame joke, but pulling it off and not looking like an idiot, because he's James Bond. An incredibly expensive car that has been highly customized.

I did not break my rules about What To Wear, and neither did Mr. Bond. He wears a tux, and suits by Tom Ford. Of course Daniel Craig looks great in both. In the case of almost any other human being, wearing Tom Ford anything would up their cool quotient. In this case, however, I believe the hipness equation flows the other way; it is Mr. Ford who benefits from the association with Mr. Bond, not the other way around.

In art, of course, rules are there to be broken. Casino Royale, the first Bond movie with Mr. Craig, broke some of the Bond Rules. Mr. Craig's Bond famously did not give a damn whether or not his martini was shaken or stirred. The justification for this was that it was a "restart," a reimagining of the franchise, very much like the "restart" of the Batman franchise with Christian Bale. Of course, only Bond could break the Bond rules, and, by doing so, the caretakers of the Bond tradition made him that much cooler.

But breaking the rules a second time is not quite as interesting. The thrill is a little less; the joke is slightly stale. He doesn't introduce himself as with the trademark three-word line. "Bond. James Bond." was apparently a victim of an editing decision.

More important than the details, however, what is missing is the sense of humor, and, most important, the sense of elegance. Sean Connery's Bond was, in some respects, a wonderful snob. He was the best in the world at what he did, he knew it, and he enjoyed it. James Bond should be ridiculously self-confident. But he's not arrogant, because he's playing deadly games, and too much self-confidence at the wrong moment could be deadly.

But Bond is defending the free world, and what's the point of defending that freedom, if you don't occasionally enjoy it?

Not that Daniel Craig's Bond doesn't have fun, and isn't self-confident. He's very sure of himself, sometimes to the point of seriously annoying M (the great Judi Dench, who demonstrates why England was one of the first countries to elect a woman to its highest office). He plays games with his opponents.

Bond still has his wit, but he lacks accouterments. Part of the problem is that he doesn't have great gadgets with which to play games. Bond's memorable exchange with Goldfinger ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.") was all the more so because a laser was about to slice James Bond in half. Movies are a visual art form; gadgets are a very visual element of the James Bond mythology. They're part of the reason Bond is so good at playing games with his opponents. It's not just his wit that he's using; he's also using toys created by the best minds in Britain. That's part of why James Bond is so cool: some of his best friends are geeks, and he makes geeks look cool. For which effect many people with engineering degrees are eternally grateful.

Women accessorize with necklaces, bracelets, earrings, purses. Men don't really accessorize much, beyond watches and, now cellphones, but James Bond sure as hell did. Marc Forster, the director of Quantum, explained that he didn't go with gadgets this time because it seemed "old school."

Well, yes, of course it's old school. That's the bloody point. It's James Bond. He is British. It is my understanding that tradition is rather important to England's sense of itself. It certainly is a key part of my understanding of England.

Forster also argues that, with the profusion of advanced technology, gadgets do not cast the spell that they used to; once everyone has a cell phone, it's just not that exciting to see a really cool one. I disagree, and would argue the opposite. We all know someone who has lots of cool gadgets; they got the iPhone before everybody else, they have GPS in their shoes, etc. But the fact that we all know someone like that should, if anything, heighten the interest in what Bond has. Bond should make everybody's ultracool friend look like a dork. Bond shouldn't just have the latest phone; he should have the next phone.

The same applies to the car. I know people with cool cars that go fast; I learned how to drive a stick on a Porshce 944. But I don't know anyone with a car that has an ejector seat or that can go underwater. Part of the fun of a Bond movie is supposed to be seeing what the filmmakers came up with for the car. I can't imagine what else a Bond car could do that one hasn't already, but that's the point; the people making the Bond movies are supposed to be the ones with the imagination. They are supposed to imagine something about this car that I can't. That's what I am paying them for.

So we have rules being broken, but we also have tradition being ignored. We also have some editing that is frantic and, unfortunately, utterly predictable. Fists fly, bodies whirl, punches are thrown, and I could hardly follow any of it. I like my action fast and furious, but I also like it comprehensible, thank you very much. Two of my favorite action sequences are the first fencing scene in the first Pirates, between Jack Sparrow and Will Turner, and the training sequence in The Matrix. The fencing is slow, but that allows time for Jack to taunt Will. In the training scene in The Matrix, Morpheus and Neo fight incredibly fast, but there are also some great pauses and slow-motion shots. "You think that's air you're breathing?" The first chase scene in Casino Royale was breathtaking partially because it was very believable, and part of the reason it was believable was that you could actually see what was happening. The filmmakers want to make Bond more realistic. That's a noble goal, and I recommend they start with fight scenes that can be believed because they can be understood.

Great dialogue between people who are trying to kill each other should be the difference between a standard action-adventure movie, and, well, a James Bond movie. Steven Seagal can throw a punch. James Bond is supposed to throw a punch and make you remember why he threw it. Which is that he is James Bond, and you're not.

Quote of the day

"I didn't have any talent. I just had genius."

Grace Hartigan, expressionist painter, from her obituary in the LA Times.

That can be a problem.

Dingell out at Energy and Commerce

Henry Waxman defeated John Dingell for chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Good for Waxman. I am not sorry to see Dingell go. Waxman has done yeoman's work for the last couple of years as chairman of the Oversight committee, going through the malfeasance of the Bush administration with one hell of a fine-toothed comb. He's my favorite New York Jewish politician from California.

One reason I'm not sorry to see Dingell go is that he has been blocking the imposition of tougher mileage standards for cars. Dingell is the Big Three's man in Congress, and has been for decades. But I actually think his departure from the chairmanship could be a blessing in disguise for GMFordChrylser.

They need to start clearing out deadwood. That's an apt description of Dingell. He's old-school, old guard, and very set in his ways. We need some radical change in southeastern Michigan, not more of the same complaints. Removing Dingell will hopefully put a little more pressure on Rick Wagoner et al. to make more substantive changes. GM still has far too much manufacturing capacity, and far too many models. All GMC does is take Chevy trucks, put a different name on them, and sell them as GMC. The only reason it exists is so that dealers who sell Pontiacs and Buicks (and, formerly, Oldsmobiles), but not Chevys, can also sell trucks. But it must cost GM at least several hundred million dollars a year to maintain an outdated brand.

This is not a time for "restructuring," tinkering with the org charts, waiting until the economy improves, and redesigning some models. This is a time for massive, revolutionary change. The Big Three have structures that are left over from the 1950's. GM could survive perfectly well with Cadillac, Buick, Chevy, and Saturn. Does Ford really need Mercury?

That is the message that the Democratic leaders were sending when they refused to provide a bailout. The American people need some serious change.

On the union side, the UAW still has its 30-year contracts. When people complain about high union costs, this is what they are talking about. It's possible for someone to start working at LincolnDodgeChevy at the age 18, work 30 years, and then retire at 48. My mother has a cousin who retired at 49. Do some simple math: suppose someone actually does retire at 48, and then lives until they are 98. They would work for 30 years, and then receive a pension and health care for 50 years. It is possible that the Big Three are currently supporting retirees who started working in the 1920's and stopped working before Kennedy was elected. Of course, some kind of national health care would solve a great deal of that problem, and the union took over retiree health care a couple of years ago. But there are still many, many union members drawing pensions.

I don't want to deny someone the right to a good retirement. My grandmother drew a pension from AT&T for many years. But I also don't want to pay a higher price for a car because of those pensions. Unless I get very lucky very fast, I'm sure not going to be retiring in my early 50's. There are a lot of people who retired and based their financial planning on having a Big Three pension. I think all of those contracts should be honored. And there are many current employees who have been planning their lives around being able to retire after working for 30 years. Those people really, really don't want to give up those pensions.

But I have no incentive to buy a car with those pensions built into the price.

Bill Clinton talked about building a bridge to the 21st century. Guess where we are. This ain't the 1950's any more. The idea of job security that the UAW holds so dear has turned out to be a brittle one. There is no such thing as total job security. There's only good luck, and that only lasts so long. At some point, we're all on our own. The only way to really deal with change is to be prepared for it.

John Dingell didn't recognize change coming until it was too late. He won't be the first to lose his apparently very secure job.

I've been hearing about layoffs and problems at ChryslerMercuryPontiac for decades. I am a firm believer in the American car industry; I think it can survive and thrive. I think there is still a great deal of potential there. But I also think there are some bad habits that are going to die a very painful death before rebirth can begin.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hillary for Sec of State - looking like a done deal

Intrade is offering a contract for Hillary to be offered the Secretary of State position. As of this writing, it's at 96.5%. Looks like a lock. I wasn't a fan of this idea, but I think she could do a great job. Andrew Sullivan likes it, and god knows he's not a Hillary fan.

Price for Secretary of State (open for suggestions) at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A cold hard look at Lieberman

Joe Lieberman will be chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. That's old news, but some people are still upset about it, and it looks like this might be one of those touchstone issues that demarcates ideology and alliances. Maybe not quite that dramatic, but it will not be forgotten.

I don't care that much, but I think the issue is worth a second look because of what it says about how Obama intends to govern. One of the primary concerns about letting Lieberman keep his post is that it makes Democrats look weak. I disagree.

Lieberman will tell you that he campaigned for John McCain because he honestly believed that McCain was better prepared to deal with the war on terror. I'm willing to buy that, because it was clearly against his best interest to actually campaign for McCain. If McCain had won, which was always a long shot, Lieberman would have been in his good graces, but the rest of the Senate Dems, who control the Senate, would have been furious with him. From a political strategy standpoint, it really did Lieberman no good to campaign for McCain. Which is why I believe that campaigning for McCain was, for him, an act of conscience; he certainly wasn't motivated by cynical political considerations.

But Lieberman lost his gamble. He ended up with the worst of both worlds: McCain lost, and the Democrats won enough seats that they don't need him as much as they used to, although they still would like to enjoy his company.

He didn't just lose his gamble; he lost a lot of political capital. Even after he kept his chairmanship, he's not the senator he was before. His chances of winning in 2012 are slim at best, so he's not a long-term threat to other senators. Most important, though, he accomplished nothing with his endorsement of and campaigning for McCain. Obama won Connecticut and Florida, the two places where Lieberman's endorsement might have made a difference.

Obama approaches Lieberman from a position of seriously superior strength. Obama put Lieberman in his place just by winning. By not opposing him, Obama put Lieberman in his debt. That is not weakness; that is being aware of your own strengths.

After gambling and losing, Lieberman's grip on his status in the senate was tenuous. If he had lost his chair, he would have been rendered impotent. By saving him, Obama made him powerful again, which is why he is in Obama's debt (and Harry Reid's). He disagrees with Obama on the war, but he's slightly less likely to oppose the new, very popular president if he owes him big time. Supporting the president is a powerful motivating factor in Washington; it's going to be difficult for Lieberman to do so.

But whether or not he would even do so is a different question. At the end of the day, it comes down to policy. There are a number of things that Obama wants to do that potentially involve homeland security, but his most important goals, i.e. ending the war in Iraq, winning the war in Afghanistan, would go through Foreign Relations, now chaired by John Kerry, or Armed Services, chaired by my favorite old pro from Michigan, Carl Levin. Will Joe Lieberman be able to make trouble for Obama? Honestly, I don't really know enough about the influence of the chair of the Homeland Security Committee to make a judgment there. Does Joe Lieberman want to make trouble for Obama?

My guess there is no. He will want to engage Obama in debate, but that's fine, and even healthy. I'm sure there will be some disagreements that are stronger than others; I wouldn't be surprised if Lieberman frustrates Obama now and then. But serious trouble? I doubt it.

Barack Obama was elected President in part because he promised to change the tone in Washington. Part of that means calming down the rhetoric, respecting people who disagree with him, listening to those people, and not picking fights just because you think you're right. Obama is not interested in retribution, particularly for comments made in the heat of the campaign that ultimately turned out to be meaningless.

I once read a story about Abraham Lincoln after the end of the Civil War. He met some Southerners in the White House, and charmed them. His aides were distressed; they had hoped he would punish the rebels. Lincoln replied that he not only gained friends, he lost enemies in the transaction. Joe Lieberman is much more useful to Barack Obama and the other Senate Democrats as a grateful friend than as a bitter enemy. Lieberman might be able to make trouble for Obama as chair of his committee, but he's less likely to do so, given that Obama let him keep it (I'm not going to address to what extent Obama interfered with the drama in the Senate, but I think it's clear that if he had wanted Lieberman gone, he could have made that clear, and he didn't). If he had been kicked out of his chairmanship, he would not have had as good of a position for causing trouble. But he would have been much more likely to do so.

Welcome to an administration that understands how powerful being gracious can be. It's going to take some getting used to.

Blogalyzing Talented Earthquake Productions

According to Typealyzer, this blog is an ESTP. What does this mean?

The active and play-ful type. They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities.

The Doers are happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time.
Wow, spot on! Well, maybe not. But I like this description of myself! Seriously, plug in your favorite blog, see what it's like!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

World Toilet Day

Today is World Toilet Day. I bet you didn't know that. Neither did I, until I read about it in today's LA Times. I'm not quite sure what kind of celebration or acknowledgement is required, but I figured at least I post a notice about it. At the very least, it raises awareness about sanitation issues in the developing world, which is a good thing. Suggestions for how to recognize this day are welcome.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Begich wins in Alaska

Mark Begich has won the Senate race in Alaska. Congrats to him. So much for Uncle Ted. This can't be good news for Sarah Palin, either. It's a feather in the cap of the netroots. That's 58 Democrats in the Senate, with 2 more races to go. It's a good day.

HSX: Week of November 21

I've decided to try and do some regular blogging about the Hollywood Stock Exchange, HSX, because my post about the atrocity that was the HSX redesign attracted a lot of attention. Also, I'm not actually sure where there is much detailed discussion of openings. I liked the analysis at, but that's long gone, and the folks at the successor,, don't do opening weekend analysis, as far as I can tell. The Numbers has lots of great stats and info, but not a lot of color commentary. Another HSBR spinoff,, has lots of good trading advice, as well as some definitions. I don't need any of it, and I don't think the site has been updated in a while, but most of it is still relevant. If you need advice on how to play HSX, or how to play better, that's a good place to start. I am going to assume that, if you're reading this, you know how to play and have your own style and strategy.

My qualifications for analyzing securities on HSX are easy to enumerate: I'm one of the best players in the world. My current ranking is 229 (out of several hundred thousand), which puts me in the top 99.97%. My portfolio just topped H$2,000,000,000 (that's billion), which gives me a lifetime rate of return of over 101,000%. Probably my best investment ever is Watchmen (WATCH), which I bought at $.66, and which is now trading around H$183, which gives me a return just on that stock of 27,700%. I own every stock on the Exchange (usually about 1,400), every fund, usually about 200 bonds, and almost every derivative (I stay away from the TV-related ones). I have almost $H600 million in cash.

But enough about me. This week the openers are Twilight (TWLIT) and Bolt (BOLT). I noticed something odd about Bolt when I looked at the options. Normally I try to buy the options on the day of the IPO, but I was a slacker last week, so I checked them out today. The strike price for TWLIT and BOLT are both H$50, which is unusual - I don't think I've ever seen two strike prices that high on one weekend, but they don't have any competition, so it makes some sense. The calls are both trading high, BOLT is at $4.99, TWLIT at $7.59. For TWLIT, that makes sense, because the stock is trading around $160, so both the options and the stock are predicting opening grosses somewhere between $55 and $60 million. That sounds high to me, but I'm not a teenager, so I don't know how wildly popular this franchise is. I just remember thinking that the original Fast and Furious was wildly overpriced on opening weekend, shorting it, and then getting burned when it adjusted up by more than 50 points. So I am leery about betting against popular teen movies. I'm holding both the stock and the call long, and, of course, shorting the put. I'm a smidgen uncomfortable with this, because this means I am assuming an opening of around $60 million for a movie with stars I have never heard of. But I'm not a teenager, and the buzz has been building for a long time. I retain the option to change my mind, based on what happens Friday morning. That's key. A major move on Friday morning is a great signal on where the movie is headed. The Matrix shot up something like $10 on the Friday it opened.

The BOLT securities, on the other hand, are sending conflicting signals. The stock is trading at $125, and its high is $142. So the call is predicting an opening of about $55 million, but the stock is predicting an opening of about $44 million. One of those is wrong. I think it looks like a funny movie, and I am hesitant to bet against Disney animation, particularly now that they have absorbed Pixar. But I am a firm believer in not betting against the market unless you have a really, really good reason to. It's possible that the market is undervaluing this because it's a family movie, but I doubt it. Disney and Pixar are very well-known quantities. I'm shorting the call, but going long on the stock and the put. In other words, I think it's going to make somewhere between $44 and $50 million.

Bailing out the Big Three: the video

My mom sent me a YouTube about the effects of the Big Three going under. I wrote about this yesterday, but didn't have much in the way of facts and figures. This video supplies that. I'm normally skeptical of numbers that induce fear the way these do, but I don't think there is much exaggeration going on here - GM is, in fact, one of the largest companies in the world. Any bankruptcy is disruptive. A GM bankruptcy would be massively disruptive. All three going down would be catastrophic.

One note: the video mentions the national security implications of the Big Three going down. This is a tactic that I am normally VERY opposed to - I've seen the "national security" card used enough times in political debates that I normally dismiss it out of hand. But, again, I have to admit there is a point here. I don't like military spending; I would cut the Pentagon's budget with a meat cleaver if I could. But sometimes wars have to be fought, and sometimes that requires heavy machinery. I had a temp job once at AM General, the company that originally made the Hummers (they sold the civilian version to GM). I worked on the technical manual, so I know something about the technology that made the original Hummers. It's a pretty damn impressive piece of machinery. Or it was.

The Website is Here's the video.

Is Kristol history at The Times?

HuffPost has a post about William Kristol possibly not having his contract renewed as a columnist at The New York Times. Apparently he only has a one-year contract.

First of all, very good call on the part of Times management to only sign him to a one-year contract. Second, I would bet good money on the Times not even offering him a renewal. Kristol says that he hasn't had a conversation with Times management, and that he's ambivalent. In other words, they aren't making a lot of effort, and he's not worried about whether or not they do.

The HuffPost article quotes George Packer in The New Yorker at length. He nails it here:

The real grounds for firing Kristol are that he didn’t take his column seriously.
Which is, in a sense, unfortunate, because the Democrats do need competent opposition. I've enjoyed Kristol's appearances on The Daily Show, and thot that his best asset as a commentator was his sense of humor, his willingness to laugh at himself. Of course, not being an intellectual heavyweight makes it that much easier to not take yourself too seriously.

If Kristol leaves the Times, it would be the beginning of a winnowing of conservative intellectuals. Hopefully Jonah Goldberg would be next - he's taking up valuable space at the LA Times. I have an old friend from high school, Mark Molesky, who wrote a book, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France with someone from the National Review. Maybe the purging of a few conservative intellectuals will open up opportunities in the public sphere for people like Mark. He's very smart - he has a Ph.d. from Harvard - and he's a nice guy, with a great sense of humor. I can see him on Meet The Press. He certainly has more intellectual discipline than Bill Kristol.

So here's hoping that Kristol does make an amicable departure from the Grey Lady, and that a new generation of conservatives - ideally less rigid, less arrogant, and maybe even more compassionate - than the current crop takes the place of the current crop. That would be refreshing.

Lieberman survives

Joe Lieberman has survived a vote of no-confidence from his colleagues, the rest of the Senate Democrats, and will continue as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. The vote was 42-13. Looks like I was wrong.

There's a certain amount of bitterness on blogs, disillusionment with the Senate Democrat leadership, anger at the apparent refusal to discipline the wayward Senator. I'm not in that camp; I'm not that worried about Lieberman. Looking at this from a new perspective, I have an idea why I was wrong: for most Senate Dems, the punishment does not fit the crime. Lieberman campaigned for McCain, but he didn't actually make a difference, or at least not much of one. So the Senate Dems are probably feeling like they can afford to be magnanimous. It's a slap on the wrist for an infraction that was ultimately meaningless.

It's also very much insider baseball. This is the kind of thing that, for about 230 years, went on inside the Capitol, and never saw the light of day, let alone the light of YouTube. There's that old saying that those who like politics and sausage should watch neither being made. There have protestations of outrage, followed by handshakes and people agreeing to disagree, forgiving each other, and moving on. Politics as usual. But a level of detail that most Americans have never seen before.

As for the criticism of how Lieberman actually ran his committee. Apparently he didn't do a stellar job of oversight during the last two years, when oversight of how the Bush Administration was handling homeland security would have been welcome. But whether or not he should be removed from that post because of a failure of leadership is an issue to be decided by members of that committee. And it would be decided by them if any of them decided to challenge him for the chairmanship. Apparently no one is, so that option is foreclosed. I am not as worried about oversight of the Obama administration's homeland security policies. I would like there to be oversight of Obama & Co., just on general principle, but I'm not as worried if there isn't. As for the fact that he didn't exercise oversight when Bush was in power: water under the bridge.

Lieberman disagrees profoundly with Obama on the war. A major committee chair disagrees with the president of his party. Yes, and? This is normal. And probably healthy, actually. One aspect of the Obama presidency that I am looking forward to is a healthy respect for dissent within the party. Guess what Lieberman will be providing.

Politically, there's a slightly odd logic at work. The fact that Lieberman survived this vote may, in fact, be good for the Democratic caucus, because it means that Lieberman is now indebted to his fellow Dems. That effectively makes it impossible for him to switch to the Republicans. It also reduces the tension between Lieberman and the other Dems, particularly Obama, because Obama made it clear that he doesn't hold grudges.

Get used to it, folks. This is the Obama style: no vengeance, or at least no vengeance for the sake of vengeance. Too many Democrats, progressives, and liberals are still in reaction mode against the Bush administration. Time to change the narrative, folks. Joe Lieberman is still a United States Senator, and it's easier to work with people when you actually get along with them. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. More important: whenever possible, convert your enemies into friends.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bailing out the Big Three

The topic of the week is whether or not the federal government should bail out the Big Three American car companies. If it doesn't, there are a number of foreign car companies poised to step in. Megan McArdle tries really hard not to be a heartless libertarian. Turning whimsical (complete with Tom Lehrer videos!), she proposes bailing out journalism, of which group she is one. She also proposes an analogy with the film industry (she's from upstate New York, home of Eastman Kodak). The problem with this analogy is that film was rendered irrelevant by a new technology - digital cameras - that didn't use film. Nothing is going to be replacing cars any time soon.

Thomas Friedman takes a few blasts, not only at the management of the Big Three, but at the entire Michigan Congressional delegation, for their mistakes. Then he admits that he's terrified of what would happen if GM actually declared bankruptcy. As are most people.

I have a complicated view of this. As a Democrat, I would normally be defending the union, but I've heard enough to know that the UAW made sure that they were taken care of really well when times were good, and unwinding that legacy has been, and will be, a big part of the problem.

But can you blame the union for making sure they got theirs? They got what they could out of their negotiating partners. They demanded, and got, great pay and benefits because that's what the companies could afford to pay them. There's a reason some Detroiters refer to as GM "Generous Mother." Friedman grudgingly admits that something is going to have to be done, but demands conditions. Which I think the Big Three are going to have to agree to. The UAW is not quite as agreeable, as they feel that they have been paying the price for a long time. They're right. The Big Three have been downsizing for years.

In a sense, that's a good thing. A lot of the hardest work has already been done.
That's one of the reasons I support a bailout (with conditions). The Big Three have already offered a chunk of people buyouts. They've already written massive losses. They've done some of the necessary restructuring - GM killed Oldsmobile a few years ago. Ford sold Jaguar. Chrysler killed off Plymouth. The current recession will force the closure of some unnecessary dealerships. There will be a great deal of pain. There already has been a great deal of pain.

Politically, I can't believe the Republicans are opposing this. I understand that most of them opposed the Wall Street bailout as well, but it ain't going to play well in Peoria to write a check for $700 billion to white guys in suits, but deny a fraction of that amount to blue collar workers in the Midwest. Obama did very well in the Rust Belt this year. If the Republicans really oppose this bailout, they can pretty much write off Michigan and her neighbors for a long time.

I'm not a fan of nostalgia in politics, but this is, in some respects, deeply personal for me. My family history is deeply intertwined with that of the American car industry, going way, way back. On my mother's side, one of my great-grandfathers was the construction foreman on Henry Ford's mansion. My paternal grandfather only finished eighth grade, but went to trade school at Ford, became an engineer, and eventually ran his own tool and die shop. His roommate in the 20's was a man named Walter Reuther, who was president of the UAW for 24 years, and one of the most important labor leaders of the 20th century. My grandfather hated unions, but he always told us that Walter Reuther was the most honest man he had ever known (and one of the cheapest - Walter didn't like paying for gas, so they would double-date, and my grandfather would always drive).

Someone in my extended family has worked either directly for one of the Big Three, or for a supplier, for decades. My father got his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). I have a cousin who currently does PR for Chrysler. I have an uncle who tried to change GM from the inside for many years. So I'm not a fan of nostalgia in politics, but I can't help but be nostalgic about the American car industry.

Economically, it would be a catastrophe of the first order to let the Big Three go under. I hope and pray that no one demands that they declare Chapter 11, because that could very easily lead to Chapter 7. Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW, explained the problem this morning on NPR: would you buy a car from a bankrupt car company? Many people wouldn't, so Chapter 11 could very easily be the beginning of a death spiral. The people affected wouldn't just be the workers and their families - the ancillary effects would be felt by their suppliers, and many other companies who serve the populations of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc.

Apart from the hardheaded economics, I think the most important reason to save the Big Three (or Big Two, if GM takes over Chrysler) is one that I have to admit borders on nostalgia: to let the Big Three go under would be an admission of failure on the part of this country as a whole. We have already seen many industries leave for other shores, and each loss has a certain poignancy, but nothing compares to the importance of the car industry, on many levels. Sure, we've all had "Kodak moments" shot on Kodak film, but I don't notice a much of a difference when it's captured by a CCD instead of 35mm (motion picture film excepted, for all my DP friends).

In purely romantic terms, there is a sizable piece of American history carried in the icons known as the Corvette, the Mustang, and the Jeep, among others.

I'm not advocating spending billions of dollars on preserving sheet metal memories. I'm a romantic, but I don't like using nostalgia to save doomed projects.

What I am advocating spending billions of dollars on preserving is the incredible insfrastructure - physical, corporate, industrial, cultural, intellectual, and even artistic - that the Big Three represent. Unwinding the Big Three would cost billions, just for dealing with car dealerships. The psychic cost would be staggering. But I'm not advocating a $25 billion Xanax.

Millions of people have put incalculable amounts of blood sweat and tears into the Big Three. There is still an incredible amount of brainpower and willpower in those companies. I'm not sure whether or not current management is up to the task of saving these companies. I'm perfectly willing to see the boards all tossed. In fact, I have a suggestion for someone who should be on the GM board: Dan Neil, the car critic for the LA Times. As a critic, he has intimate knowledge of pretty much the entire range of the automotive market. He's the only automotive critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He knows the issues backwards and forwards, and he can explain them extraordinarily well, and usually with a fair amount of humor. He could rally the troops inside GM, and set for them the standards they know they are capable of meeting.

I don't know who else I would nominate for any of these boards, besides my uncle, Len Allgaier. I spent many a Thanksgiving listening to him explain to me what exactly was wrong with GM. He's been retired for a few years, and I'm not sure how my Aunt Gwenne would feel about it, but I think he would jump at the chance.

There are many people like my Uncle Len. There are many people who have lots of ideas about how to fix the Big Three. And there are lots of people who are running the Big Three who have been ignoring those voices of dissent for years. There is a lot of deadwood in Detroit. There are a lot of people who are terrified of change, or in denial, or who still cling to that idiotic idea that Americans should buy American cars. I believe that Americans should buy American cars when Americans make great cars for Americans. But I also happen to believe that that is still possible.

Actually, I'm pretty sure my Aunt Gwenne, the daughter of a man who lived with Walter Reuther and started his own tool and die shop, would love to see her husband go back to work fixing GM. It would be the fulfillment of a dream; the culmination of a lifetime of work. It would give him something to fight for, something to believe in.

There are many people like my Uncle Len, and many people like my Aunt Gwenne, people who love solving big, huge, impossible problems. Problems like putting a man on the moon, or putting a black man in the Oval Office a very short time after the civil rights movement flourished.
This is why I believe we should try to save the American car industry. Not because we should. But because we can.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Rachel Maddow on Joe Lieberman

I love this woman.

I think Evan Bayh suggested that Joe Lieberman apologize for his behavior during the campaign for good tactical reasons that I agree with. If Lieberman doesn't apologize, which, at this point, I seriously doubt he would even consider, then Bayh and other moderate Dems have cover: they can claim that they were willing to welcome Lieberman back into the arms of the Dem caucus, they just had this one minor requirement that he apologize. If he doesn't, then they can claim that they were fair and open-minded, and he wasn't. They really have no reason to work terribly hard to try to keep him aligned with Dems.

Imagine if Lieberman actually switches sides and becomes a Republican. The one senator that I can think of who did that was Richard Shelby, from Alabama, who switched from being a Democrat to Republican a few years back. But he's from Alabama - he was moving with his constituents. Lieberman would be moving against his constituents. How comfortable is a pro-choice New England Jew going to be in a party dominated by southern Christians? The only Republicans among the Jews in the Senate are Norm Coleman, who might very well lose to a Democratic Jew, and Arlen Specter, who will probably retire soon. If he does convert, I don't think the RNC is going to be a lot of help in his next reelection campaign.

There's an outside chance that Lieberman would resign, which would mean that the governor of Connecticut would appoint a Republican, but I doubt Lieberman would do that. He could have exited gracefully in 2006 when he lost his primary.

It's nice being a Democrat and having the luxury of not really being too worried about whether or not we keep Joe Lieberman.

No Gays for a Day

Joel Stein, the laziest, but occasionally most inspired newspaper columnist in America, hits it out of the park today. In response to the passage of Prop. 8, he is proposing a "No Gays for a Day" day, sort of like the the day without a Mexican thing a couple of years ago. It's an incredibly simple idea: everyone gay will take the day off of work, to highlight how many gay people there are in this country, and what life would be like without them.

I love it. I think it's a great idea. It's very funny, which any protest movement could use. It's going to be on December 5th, which is my mother's birthday. Mom will be supportive.

The opportunities for camp are just wonderful. What's Ellen going to do? I can see her spending several days leading up to this talking about it, and then running a rerun on the day of, and then spending a day or two afterwards talking about it. Maybe she could go on Oprah's show.

A brilliant opportunity for gay people to take themselves seriously and not seriously at the same time. Take a vacation to protest! Laughing and crying at the same time.

Many, many people will not get the joke. But for those of us who do, it could be a great tonic. Make that a vodka and tonic.

All about Rahm

Just in case anyone has a Rahm Emanuel obsession, here's a Website created by some people who are already there. Let's put it this way; if it sounds too absurd to be true, there's a very good chance that it is, in fact, actually true.

Obama's GoTV technology

Marc Ambinder has an excellent post about the technology the Obama campaign used to get out the vote. It's a basic overview, but, as someone who used this stuff for several months, he seems to get it exactly right. He also pays attention to how the DNC laid the groundwork. What he doesn't capture, largely because he's doing play-by-play, not color analysis, is how gutsy it was to develop a lot of new technology on the fly, and at the last minute. During the primaries, the technology we used for GoTV was changing almost daily. Entire Web sites were launched with just a few weeks to go before the primary. Managers came and went with some alacrity.

It was occasionally frustrating, but it was also inspiring. Decisions were made quickly, and mistakes corrected almost as quickly. The people in charge stayed calm during some rather stressful episodes. And, at the end of the day, the stuff actually worked.

Hillary as Secretary of State?

I've been dismissing the rumors that Hillary might be named Secretary of State as more Hillary fans fantasizing about seeing her come just a smidgen closer to president. But apparently there might be a bit of fire behind the smoke.

There are pros and cons to Hillary as SoS. The cons are obvious: she's still a polarizing figure in the country at large. As chief diplomat, that might not matter all that much, because she will be spending a lot of time outside of the country, and her decisions won't have much of a clear, direct impact on the lives of people in this country. Also, many of her critics are on the right, and one of the Clinton administration's signature foreign policy accomplishments is Nafta, which many Republicans would be in favor of. In many respects, she's not a classic liberal on foreign policy - she did vote for the Iraq war. That would be a pro and a con; the left still isn't happy about that, but the right would see it as a positive. All in all, this is probably the least-polarizing job she could have in an Obama administration. It would certainly be less polarizing than putting her in charge of health care.

On the plus side, she's highly qualified. She certainly has met more foreign leaders than almost anyone else who is even in the running, possibly even more than Bill Richardson, who was ambassador to the UN. Even her most vocal critics respect her work ethic. Apart from policy issues, I think we can assume that she would do a good job. Given how she ran her campaign, I am not as much of a fan of her management abilities as I once was, but I'm sure she could actually manage Foggy Bottom.

The big question is, of course, the Big Dog, but I think Bill brings slightly more positives than negatives. Slightly. He already spends a huge amount of time traveling the world, so this would mesh well with his personal agenda. As to his personal personal agenda, there's always the risk of an "international incident." He is a private citizen these days, but his presence would also make many people nervous. Including me.

In the grandest sense, there are two issues. One, how well would she actually work with Obama? Would she be a good soldier, taking orders from someone much younger than her, or is there a risk of freelancing? She would clearly bring many of her own people, so State could be her own power base. That's a real risk, but, at the same time, as SoS, she ties her fate to Obama's. That one's hard to call. I don't think she is seriously thinking about running in 2016; it's possible, but she would be 77 at the end of a second term, and I think at some point she's going to be happy with what she has accomplished so far in life.

I think she would be a good soldier. I think Bill could be put to good use; he understands how closely tied his fate is with Obama's. And I think both Clintons are starting to respect Obama. I think they realize that they were beat by a great opponent. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but as great game players themselves, they recognize talent. Of course, it helps that Obama has been recruiting many Clinton people, so he has been paying them a certain degree of respect. It also helps that Obama is, in some respects, a better politician than Bill. He's just as smart as Bill, but more disciplined. I think Bill and Hillary enjoy the simple fact that Obama and his people like policy discussions. They can have geek fun in an Obama administration.

The second defining issue is that it would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that Obama is taking foreign policy very seriously, that he wants a strong presence representing him on the world stage. She would command attention, which could be useful in and of itself when visiting other countries.

At the end of the day, I come down against giving Hillary the post of Secretary of State. Apart from the baggage that she brings, and the potential for her own agenda, she does not represent change. Obama has hired many old Clinton hands, which is understandable simply because they tend to be the most experienced. The other names being considered are Sam Nunn, John Kerry, and Bill Richardson. Nunn would be a good choice, not least because he brings some geographic diversity, and he's eminently qualified, but he is somewhat conservative. John Kerry would be a safe choice, but not an inspired one. I'm leaning towards Richardson. He's extraordinarly qualified, he would bring some diversity, and he clearly has a passion for diplomacy. And he doesn't have a lot of baggage. Obama has made it clear that he doesn't like drama within his circle of advisors. Choosing Hillary as Secretary of State would be a serious challenge to that most excellent principle of governance.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Peter Schiff on Fox News

I've never heard of Peter Schiff, but apparently he is a money manager who is a regular financial commentator on Fox News. He's been predicting gloom and doom for a while now, at least since 2006, while many people on Fox belittled his predictions. Boy did he nail it:

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Obama did well in Birmingham, MI

Stanley Greenberg, long-time Democratic pollster, visited Macomb County, Michigan, home of the "Reagan Democrats," after this election. In 1984, Reagan won the county by 2-to-1, but Obama won it by eight points this time around. That's progress.

But what's more interest to Greenberg, for professional reasons, and to me, for personal reasons, is what happened next door, in Oakland County. That's where my parents have lived for almost 30 years. When I went to high school there, it was solidly Republican (although my teachers were pretty liberal).

Oakland County voted for Obama, 57% to 42%. That's technically a landslide (the technical definition of a landslide in an election is a winning margin of at least 10%). Considering how Republican I always thot Oakland County was, it's a blowout.

Greenberg specifically cites Birmingham and Bloomfield as areas where Obama did well. I'm not surprised. The people in Birmingham are good people. They don't like paying high taxes, but they know lots of gay people, or at least some, they're well-educated, and usually well-traveled. They understand that being a professional requires the ability to think, to listen, to analyze problems, and to be able to admit that you're wrong.

My Dad is the quintessential Oakland County Republican. Fiscally conservative but socially moderate, he doesn't vote for Democrats very often. But he's been impressed with Obama since the primaries. He was appalled at the choice of Sarah Palin for VP. He was part of Obama's 96,000 vote margin of victory in Oakland County. Another famous Michigander, Ted Nugent, has declared war on moderate Republicans. Good luck with that, Mr. Nugent. All of those RINO's (Republicans In Name Only) that he's suddenly so upset about are exercising that freedom that conservatives are so passionate about defending and claiming as their own unique virtue.

One key part of being free, of course, is having the freedom to fail. But with that freedom to fail comes the responsibility to accept responsibility for your failures. Good luck with that one, too, Mr. Nugent. My Dad's a big fan of rock and roll from the 1950's, but I don't think he could recognize a single Ted Nugent song. And he sure isn't going to start listening to him now.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I don't know Martin Eisenstadt. I'd never heard of him until I read this article in the NY Times. I had no idea that he was the source of the rumor that Sarah Palin thot Africa was a continent (although, to be perfectly fair, I'm still not absolutely sure that he was the source of that rumor).

And I will never meet Martin Eisenstadt. At least not the Martin Eisenstadt of the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. Of this I can be sure. Absolutely, 100% positive of that. How can I be so certain?

Because he doesn't exist. Apparently Martin Eisenstadt was a hoax, a long-term con job and joke, complete with YouTube videos. Brilliant. So I guess I was wrong when I wrote that you couldn't make up the rumor about Sarah Palin and Africa. Apparently not only can you make it up, someone did. However, I have not the slightest shred of sympathy for Sarah Palin as the victim of a rumor exaggerating her ignorance of geography. If she hadn't made a fool of herself on national television multiple times, no one would have taken such a rumor seriously for half a second. The fact that there were serious questions about her level of intellectual engagement on policy topics opened up the narrative for someone to float that rumor and get away with it. So, no sympathy.

I don't know Martin Eisenstadt. But damn would I love to meet him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What happened with Prop. 8

The LA Times, in an excellent editorial, nails a large part of what happened with Proposition 8, which made marriage in California a strictly heterosexual affair:
Ever since Proposition 8 passed Nov. 4, enshrining heterosexual-only marriage in the California Constitution, demonstrators from Sacramento to San Diego have staged daily marches and protests to express their anger and disappointment that homosexuals will continue to be treated as second-class citizens. It's a stirring movement, reminiscent of past civil rights struggles, but it raises a troubling question: Where were these marchers before the election?

Like nearly every aspect of the fight against Proposition 8, the recent protests come too late to make a difference. Opponents of the measure ran a disorganized campaign that consistently underestimated the strength of the other side. Apparently lulled by poll numbers that showed the initiative was likely to fail, the campaign's fundraising efforts were lackluster -- until it discovered that the Yes on 8 side was raking in millions from Mormons and members of other churches. By the time fundraising began in earnest, there wasn't time to mount a strong opposition.
I wouldn't have put it this way during the campaign, but I think there was a sense of complacency on the part of many gays for most of the campaign. Ironically, I think that sense of complacency came in part from success; I have a feeling that many gay people currently living in California feel very comfortable being out, and experience little, if any, discrimination in their personal lives. If you're gay and living in a large metro area, say, San Fran or LA, you probably just don't know many people who would be opposed to gay marriage. So it didn't occur to most gay people in those cities that there are large parts of California where gay marriage is not accepted. I know one gay man, who has never mentioned any kind of gay activism, who was suddenly sending out passionate emails about Prop. 8 - two days before the election. He just bought a house with his boyfriend, and I think he was fully expecting that they would move in together and then get married. I don't think it occurred to him that Prop. 8 might pass until he saw the polls just before the election. Then he freaked. He was seriously depressed after Prop. 8 passed.

Laws banning gay marriage have passed in many states. If gay people are to achieve equality, all of those laws are going to have to be overturned. I am optimistic that will happen, eventually, but I am not optimistic that it is going to happen any time soon. But if there is a silver lining in this, it is that a large and powerful community has been awoken. There's an old saying in politics that people rebel when they have hope. My guess is that people in states in the heartland, where being gay is not quite as hip as it is in LA, never really expected to be able to get married. In California, they could, and they did. The ones who did were very happy. The ones who didn't are really, really pissed. Much as I am sorry for outcome, I am glad that the fight is alive and well.

Democrats to vote on Lieberman's chairmanship

The Democrats in the Senate are going to vote on whether or not Joe Lieberman should keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. They're not kicking him out of the caucus, which is good. I like Obama's position - they don't hold grudges.

I would be surprised if Lieberman survives as chair of this committee. He's going to be running for reelection in 2012, and chances are not good that he will be reelected. Lots of liberals across the country are still mad at him, for lots of very legitimate reasons. By a strictly political calculus, how would any Democratic Senator benefit by supporting Joe Lieberman? Chris Dodd has a certain allegiance to him, which is perfectly understandable. But otherwise, what would be the logic for someone like Carl Levin to support Lieberman? Many of them have known him for a long time, but there are some strong arguments against him: first, obviously, he's not a Democrat, even if he still votes occasionally like one. Second, he campaigned against Obama. Third, chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee is an important post, with oversight of some key policy areas, and it should go to a Senator who will use it to enact some real change. Fourth, and finally, what does Lieberman have to offer in return? He's probably going to be gone in four years, he's just one Senator, and, assuming he loses, he won't have that much power in the Senate. Rumor has it that he will get the chairmanship of the Small Business Committee as consolation, but that won't be a post where he can do many favors for or exact retribution from people who vote against him.

The man is history. It's just a matter of time.

A Marine Mom for Obama

This is a great post from a woman whose son served in Iraq, and who was so frustrated that she started campaigning hard - and I mean hard - for Obama. I'm posting this in honor of Veteran's Day.

Veteran's Day

Today is Veteran's Day, so please take a moment to remember the people who have served our country.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How Obama dealt with McCain

Josh at TPM has a great post about how Obama dealt with McCain. This hasn't gotten enough attention yet, but it will, because it is key to how Obama will govern as President. Josh points out that when McCain suspended his campaign, what was key was not just what McCain did, but how Obama reacted. I'm quoting him at length:

It wasn't just that McCain suspended his campaign (and tried to postpone the debate). That wasn't the point at all. He unilaterally suspended his campaign and dared Obama not to suspend his. That was the key. Either Obama had to follow McCain's lead and suspend his campaign or reveal himself as the self-serving, all-about-himself, unpatriotic freak McCain's campaign had spent so many millions of dollars to portray him as. It was a classic play at the Republicans' 'bitch-slap' theory of electoral politics, with all the gendered weight and macho-hierarchy-setting the unlovely phrase implies.

But Obama didn't budge. I think there were a lot of Democrats who were really worried that McCain had put Obama in some kind of box or that Obama would see it as such and react accordingly. But he didn't.
Bingo. I would add that it's also key to understand why Obama reacted the way he did. First, he had a strong game plan, and he was confident in it. We see that with him repeatedly. He sticks to his game plan. Second, he gave himself, as he always does, time to think before he reacted. He could take that time to think because he knew his strategy was working, which it was. And third, both of those factors meant that he did not let McCain rattle him. McCain's suspension of his campaign was totally unexpected, but Obama dealt with it well because he was prepared, and because he had confidence in his ability to deal with it appropriately, and from a position of strength. All qualities I am very much looking forward to in a president I mostly agree with.