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Archive for December, 2009

The Higher Nagging sinks to new lows.

[ 0 ] December 17, 2009 |

I am, most likely, the only person on earth currently taking a break from the serious work of reading and writing about comics by reading a novel whose cover declares that it “only [could] have been devised by a literary team fielding the Marquis de Sade, Arthur Edward Waite, Sir James Frazer, Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky, C.G.Jung, Aleister Crowley, Franz Kafka.” But because academics are not allowed to take vacations, the World reminds them of what they should be doing at all times—the idea being that if you can make words, you must be making words that count.

I thought that this Higher Nagging would absent itself from my current project, but clearly I was wrong. There I was yesterday, next to a stack of unread comics, and because I had the temerity to be reading a thick late-modernist novel, the World retaliated:

“I found myself in France a little more than six weeks after I enlisted. I had no aptitude with the rifle. I could not even bayonet an effigy of Kaiser Bill convincingly. But I was considered ‘sharp’ and they also discovered that I could run quite fast. So I was selected as company runner, which meant I was also a kind of servant, I forget the word …”

“Batman!”

“That is it.” (123)

Which is precisely what I was thinking (albeit with a bit more bluster) as I hurled the book across the room. But as the trolls will quickly remind me, I live a privileged life that allows me to do whatever I want whenever I want to, because guilt has never motivated anyone to do anything that made them miserable.

Throw grandma down the well

[ 0 ] December 17, 2009 |

So your taxes can be free.

The current estate tax mess is a story of almost mind-numbing greed and legislative incompetence. A quick summary: In 2001 Congress greatly decreased the (already tiny) number of estates subject to taxation, by gradually raising the exemption to its current level of $3.5 million per individual ($7 million per married couple), while lowering the tax rate on the non-exempt portion of estates from 55% to 45%. This by far the most progressive tax in American law, as it currently affects less than 1% of taxpayers while raising, even at the current radically reduced rates, tens of billions per year.

Because of various procedural manuevers, the law was scheduled to sunset in 2010, and then spring back to legal life in 2011, at the 2001 rates (individual exemption of $1 million/$2 million for married couples; 55% rate). This meant that if nothing was done there would be no estate tax in 2010. For the No Billionaire Left Behind wing of the GOP, this created a long lusted-after opportunity to eliminate the tax altogether (at a modest estimated cost of $1.3 trillion over the first decade after elimination, i.e. the price of one extra medium-sized Middle East war, which explains why the Neocon wing has been quietly opposing repeal. Or, if you prefer, the cost of one health care reform bill).

Still, nobody outside one of Grover Norquist’s more elaborate onanistic fantasies really believed the tax would be allowed to lapse altogether. A couple of weeks ago the House voted to make the 2009 rates permanent, with every single Republican present voting no (along with 26 Democrats).

Well today the Senate refused to go along, meaning that as of now there will be no estate tax next year. (One ironic consequence of this is that instead of subjecting a tiny handful of families to estate taxes, the disappearance of the tax will impose capital gains taxes on more than 60,000 heirs who would otherwise avoid them, thus proving that our leaders remain willing to tax the sort of rich if the only alternative is taxing the ultra-rich).

Blanche Lincoln and Jon Kyl are working on a compromise proposal that will raise the estate tax exemptions to $5 million individual/$10 million married couple with a 35% rate beyond that, but it now looks like any such measure will have to be applied retroactively to 2010 estates — a move which seems likely to trigger quite a few lawsuits. So at least trusts and estates lawyers (not to mention their richest clients) will be happy.

The Mustache of Understanding

[ 0 ] December 17, 2009 |

Wow. Just, wow. Whatever our disagreements about Taibbi’s polemical style, I think we can all agree that if there are any flaws in this classic they result from not going far enough…

The Devil and Rand Paul

[ 0 ] December 17, 2009 |

Just when you begin to think that it’s literally impossible for Rand Paul’s Senatorial campaign to get any more entertaining:

The gentleman behind the mike is Chris Hightower, Rand Paul’s campaign spokesman. In addition to his affection for Satan, Mr. Hightower appears to have demonstrated an unfortunate aversion to “Afro-Americans.” LOL!

As an aside, it really isn’t all that surprising that white supremacists flock to Rand Paul and his daddy. Neiwart has detailed this in the past; the particular vision of libertarianism that Paul and his father propound is attractive to white supremacists, in large part because the supremacists believe that the federal government invariably acts in the interest of racial minorities. Anything that prevents the good white citizens of this country from keeping the darkies down is an affront to God, the Constitution, etc. The white supremacy is rather the point of the anti-statism, explicitly for some and implicitly for others.

Abortion Access in Uniform

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

Bad:

For military women, who lack all rights to medical privacy, facing an unplanned pregnancy is a daunting obstacle. Thanks to anti-abortion forces in Congress, military hospitals are banned from providing abortion services, except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest (and for the latter two, only if the patient pays for the service herself). Amy says her options were “like being given a choice between swimming in a pond full of crocodiles or piranhas.”

“I have long been aware of the stigma surrounding this circumstance and knew my career would likely be over, though I have received exceptional performance reviews in the past,” Amy explains. Although Fallujah has a surgical unit, and abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures, Amy knew that if her pregnancy were discovered, she would be sent back to her home base at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, where she would then have to seek a private abortion off-base, or she could request leave in Iraq and try her luck at a local hospital. She also knew she could face reprimands from her commanding officers for having had sex in Iraq (part of a broader prohibition on sex in war zones), and that she might not be promoted as a result: a potentially career-ending situation in the Marines, where failure to obtain regular promotions results in being discharged. Moreover, as a woman in the military, accustomed to proving herself to her male peers over her six-year career, Amy was wary of appearing a “weak female.”

It’s not just about the dominance of the religious right in the US military; it’s also about Congressional cowardice and inane bureaucratic politics.

A random walk down Wall Street

[ 1 ] December 16, 2009 |

Whoops.

If you had bought $1000 worth of stock in each of the ten recommended companies on the day this article was published, and then held them until today, you would have watched your $10,000 investment transformed into $5,160 (or about $4,475 in 2000 dollars). By contrast if you had simply bought a passive mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 you would have about $7,470.

Fun quote:

The same reinvention skills are apparent in the management at Houston-based Enron. That company has successfully transformed itself from a traditional natural-gas outfit (complete with a 32,000-mile pipeline) into a middleman for the new economy. Last November, Enron launched an e-commerce site that lets companies trade electricity, coal, gas, and other energy commodities over the Internet. Total amount of deals brokered so far? Try $100 billion, which is more online commerce than anyone else–Amazon.com included. In conjunction, Enron is about to complete a 15,000-mile fiber-optic network that will help it broker the sale of that most precious resource right now, broadband capacity. Need extra pipes to run your telecom network during a busy season? Enron can actually buy bandwidth from one customer with excess capacity and sell it to another. That’s a lucrative strategy, given how explosively broadband demand is growing. Gannon at SunAmerica estimates Enron’s core gas business can easily grow profits 15% a year–a big jump over its competitors. Tack on the broadband service, which should turn profitable in a few years, and annual earnings growth can top 25%, he says. “Enron is going to become one of the leaders in broadband communications.” Not bad for a gas utility.

See also.

Could We Have A Quasi-Parliamentary System…If We Wanted It?

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

Longtime readers will know that I believe that the president’s role in passing new domestic initiatives (as opposed to applying existing regulations or putting issues on the agenda) is an essentially subordinate one, and those who think that a ruthless president with partisan control of Congress can get what he wants need to (for starters) explain Bush and Social Security. My take on Obama and health care, roughly is:

  • My guess is that, if we had a parliamentary system, or even a separation-of-powers system without an anachronistic Senate, at a minimum the health care plan would have a public option, with Obama’s support.
  • On the other hand, for obvious political as well as ideological reasons, Obama wants a health care reform to pass in a timely manner, and thinks that the current deal is about as good as he can get. Here, I agree with Obama’s progressive critics that he’s OK with the bill as it now stands even if he would support a better one.
  • I think Obama’s analysis of the political situation is correct; nothing he could do could assemble enough reactionary moving parts among Lieberman, Nelson, Snowe, et al. to get a public option as part of the bill.

Whether Obama deserves primary responsibility for the failure of health care reform to include a major public check (whether a Medicare buy-in or robust public option) depends largely on whether you think I’m right on point #3, which Glenn Greenwald doesn’t. But while I don’t disagree with all of his criticisms of Obama, I simply don’t think he has the goods. The fact that the President can strong-arm some freshman House members (and perhaps one Senator coming up for re-election) simply doesn’t constitute good evidence that he has significant leverage against the number of senators that would be needed to come aboard, particularly given the number of them who come from states where Obama isn’t popular, a more liberal Democrat isn’t viable, and/or aren’t up for re-election in 2010.

Even more tendentious, however, is the fact that he takes Russ Feingold’s claim that “This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place” at face value. As I think Glenn would recognize in most other contexts, bare assertions made by obviously self-interested parties don’t constitute reliable evidence. As Armando — who is much close to Greenwald’s position on Obama’s power here than mine — points out, given that Feingold has made his opposition to using reconciliation to pass a better health care bill clear, he’s not in a very good position to criticize anyone else’s strategic choices. The supermajority requirements in the Senate are the single biggest obstacle to getting a good bill passed, and the fact that even some progressive Senators aren’t willing to challenge them has crucially undermined the final bill, in a much more concrete way than Obama’s excessive moderation and strategic mistakes. (I’d be much more receptive to claims that Obama not being sufficiently cutthroat is the key factor if the marginal votes he needed were in the center of the Senate rather than the tenth seat to the right.)

It’s hard to know how to apportion responsibility exactly — separation-of-powers systems tend to nullify accountability, and we can’t trust the accounts of either senators or the White House about what’s going on. But I certainly haven’t heard a plausible account of how even a more liberal White House could magically get 60 votes for a bill with a robust public option in the Senate.

…Let’s not forget Baucus and the Gang of 6, either.

Random Musings about Baseball, College Students Having Sex, and Airlines.

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |
I’d really like to say a few things about the Cliff Lee to Seattle trade, but Scott already put it out there, and as per usual, USS Mariner have it covered.

The New York Post has a newsflash: Columbia University students can now “live in sin – on their parents’ dime.” Because, as we know, college students would never have had premarital sex until the advent of co-ed dorm rooms. This changes everything!

The Times, of course, has a more balanced take. Rather unlike this one commenter to the Post article: “Let’s keep looking into the future. How long would it take for another outrageous move, like government passing a law that would allow a brother and sister to get married?”
I thought that was already legal in some unnamed states?
Seriously, as my partner pointed out, is this really all that radical, or is Columbia simply acknowledging what has been going on informally for, well, generations? (One of the arguments in favor of co-ed rooms is that best friends can share, even if they are of the opposite sex. Had me and said partner done that 22 years ago, perhaps we would have fast-forwarded things. Probably not, that would have been living in sin! Unlike now of course.)
While speaking about sex, the mind naturally wanders to the French. I have a new favorite airline: Air France. When I moved to Holland nine years ago, I tied myself to Northwest / KLM, due in large part to NW 33 / 34, which is (was) a direct flight between SEA and AMS (and until 2003, on ancient DC-10s) Mileage programs create a seductive incentive: always fly that carrier or the carriers in their alliance, as once you get status, it’s difficult to fly anything else, even if you have to pay a modest premium to remain tied to your carrier of choice. Also, living in Amsterdam made it hellishly convenient to go pretty much anywhere.
Fast forward to life in England. When Air France bought KLM, I was concerned, but more of the “better the devil you know” framework. When Delta bought Northwest, I was very concerned, especially after my grim experience flying through Atlanta this past October. So this trip, flying out of Bristol, I ended up on Air France on the outward leg (BRS-CDG-SEA-PDX) and Northwest home (PDX-SEA-AMS-BRS). It’s probably cliche, but the food on Air France was terrific — the best airline food I’ve had since flying Air Cubana a dozen years ago. It came with a menu. In coach. A menu that changes every couple of weeks, which is refreshing after having been fed the same crap on Northwest for two years.
Did I mention that the food was good? Fresh salmon and tomato starter, the beef ragout with mustard sauce was good, even if it came out of a microwave, the Camembert was a nice touch, and the chocolate tart for dessert was delicious. The wine kept flowing, and the flight attendant, when clearing the food service, asked me if I wanted another red wine (without my prompting) to which I said yes, of course; he then added “and I should think you want a cognac to go with that?”
Duh?
This is my kind of airline. The flight attendants were, well, attentive, unlike the stoic (and downright bitter during the bankruptcy and then merger period) Northwest crews, the blunt, methodically efficient KLM crews, or the generally absent Delta crews. They even served champagne in coach, kept the wine flowing happily, and were charming and amiable.
This all made me nearly forget that my bag didn’t make the connection at CDG, or that we hit a patch of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced (the scary bad thank god for the seatbelt and this wine oh crap is the plane really supposed to do this? sort of turbulence) that couldn’t help but remind me of that Air France A330 (same type as I was on) that didn’t quite make it over the Atlantic this past June.
My bag was on to something, I figure. It knew about the impending nastiness of the flight, and opted instead to remain behind in an airport bar in Paris. To Air France’s credit, when I arrived in SEA, they knew my bag hadn’t made it, were prepared, took my details, and it arrived here in Oregon 24 hours later. Class.
Unfortunately, Air France did not supply me with a free sample for this post.

The Strategic Value of Nihilism

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

The dilemma facing progressives on health care is simply that the indifference in the face of suffering that the Joe Liebermans of the world have greatly increases their negotiating leverage. His threats to blow up health care reform are simply going to be more credible than those of people who actually care about whether people have access to health insurance. When combine this asymmetry with the Senate’s malapportionment and supermajority rules, this produces legislation that will produce a system vastly inferior — far more expensive with less access and no more effectiveness — to the health care framework of any comparable democracy.

But unlike Paul, I don’t really consider the question of whether the bill is worth supporting terribly difficult. Is the bill better than the status quo? It quite clearly is. And not just in a purely symbolic way, like the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but in a way that provides real, tangible benefits. So the only reason to oppose the bill is if you think that abandoning this bill would lead to a better one. Alas, it would be understating the case considerably to say that this is implausible. Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln et al. aren’t suddenly going to become progressives. Congress will almost certainly be less progressive, not more, after the 2010 midterms. As the fact that even people like Russ Feingold oppose reconciliation for health care makes clear, most Democratic senators are going continue to support various countermajoritarian rules that increase their individual leverage even though they undermine progressive change in the long-run. For those of who believe in the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power Over Domestic Policy, Obama’s going to be here until 2012, and if he loses, it will be to someone much worse.

Given what’s at stake, playing heighten-the-contradictions would be grossly irresponsible unless one has a very convincing story about how a better reform bill is going to happen in the foreseeable future. Given that there isn’t one, the bill should clearly be supported even in its current form.

I don’t want to be that guy

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

I.E., the guy who takes pride in not watching television, since

(a) I watch quite a bit of television; and

(b) I think getting academic credit for writing/talking about TV shows would be AWESOME. Indeed I would love to be the Stuart Scott of some Cultural Studies department — booyah!

But . . . all these end of the decade lists make me wonder: do people actually watch all these shows they’re arguing so passionately about? And go to all these movies? And listen to all these albums? (Or are they not called albums any more? I can never get that straight.)

Caveat: I love The Wire. And The Sopranos. Sort of loved Deadwood. But I would have thought the overlap of people who were regular watchers of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire and also have strong opinions about OK Computer and That One Film From Denmark About Coffee Shops was relatively modest. Apparently this particular Venn diagram includes 87% of the blogging population.

Now get off of my lawn.

It goes without saying that no one takes EW too seriously, but just in case you need more proof…

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

…some how or other the most innovative and compelling show in the history of television is only the sixth best show of the past decade. (And they wonder why print’s becoming irrelevant?)

Update. Since people are starting to ask for justifications, here is why Deadwood belongs on that list, and here is a start on trying to describe the narrative complexity of The Wire.

The Only Civilized Way to Settle This…

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

I have added a poll to the left sidebar.

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