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Archive for April, 2012

Uruk-hai vs. Dothraki

[ 63 ] April 28, 2012 |

Charli and I talk about racial representations in Tolkien and George R.R. Martin:

But I have to ask… Uruk-hai vs. Dothraki: Who would win in a fight?


The Ground Beneath His Feet

[ 12 ] April 28, 2012 |

Nice Alex Pareene profile of Tucker Carlson:

The Daily Caller, the site he launched with a promise to offer a new model for conservative journalism, is primarily a catalog of sleazy traffic-baiting aggregated Web garbage (“Top 10: Most beautiful ‘most beautiful’ women [SLIDESHOW]“), ancient relics of online commentary with nowhere else left to publish (Ann Coulter, Mickey Kaus), and overblown scandal-mongering headlines that promise much more than they can deliver. In other words it is like a mean-spirited parody of a conservative version of the pre-AOL Huffington Post, with a healthy dose, recently, of attention-grabbing race baiting. This is not the sort of thing Carlson used to be known for.

The title (“The Downward Spiral of Tucker Carlson”) isn’t quite right, though; the issue isn’t so much that Carlson has spiraled as it is that the incentives for conservative punditry have shifted. There is very limited (not completely absent, but very limited) space for the smartish conservative pundit who occasionally tries to speak truth to (movement conservative) power. Carlson occupied part of that space a decade ago, but the ground shifted and he was left in an untenable position. A graceful slide into irrelevance wasn’t in Tucker’s plans, and so the Daily Caller makes every effort to outfox Fox, out-breitbart Breitbart, etc.

No one has any money

[ 55 ] April 28, 2012 |

Joe Nocera is broke. Well, not broke exactly — he’s got a very nice job that pays the bills, but he’s broke in the sense that if he lost his job he wouldn’t have any money, even though he’s nearing what will soon come to be thought of as the anachronistic concept of “retirement age.” Why does Nocera, a very successful journalist and author, not have any money?

Like millions of other aging baby boomers, I first began putting money into a tax-deferred retirement account a few years after they were legislated into existence in the late 1970s. The great bull market, which began in 1982, was just gearing up. As a young journalist, I couldn’t afford to invest a lot of money, but my account grew as the market rose, and the bull market gave me an inflated sense of my investing skills.

I became such an enthusiast of the new investing culture that I wrote my first book, in the mid-1990s, about what I called “the democratization of money.” It was only right, I argued, that the little guy have the same access to the markets as the wealthy. In the book, I didn’t make much of the decline of pensions. After all, we were in the middle of the tech bubble by then. What fun!

The bull market ended with the bursting of that bubble in 2000. My tech-laden portfolio was cut in half. A half-dozen years later, I got divorced, cutting my 401(k) in half again. A few years after that, I bought a house that needed some costly renovations. Since my retirement account was now hopelessly inadequate for actual retirement, I reasoned that I might as well get some use out of the money while I could. So I threw another chunk of my 401(k) at the renovation. That’s where I stand today.

Nocera’s story is unusual only in that, as he points out, he has a job he loves that requires no heavy lifting and that he can keep doing until he drops. The vast majority of his generational cohort isn’t so lucky:

Only 22 percent of workers 55 or older have more than $250,000 put away for retirement. Stunningly, 60 percent of workers in that same age bracket have less than $100,000 in a retirement account. . . the average savings for someone near retirement in America right now is $100,000. Even buttressed by Social Security, that’s not going to last very long.

How did we get into this mess? Part of the explanation is that traditional defined benefit pension plans have been replaced by defined contribution plans, which depend on using tax incentives to get workers to save for retirement, with, in theory, matching contributions from their employers. The problem is that people, or at least people in contemporary America, find it difficult to save lots of money for the day they can no longer work. Why? One reason is that stuff happens: people lose jobs, suffer health crises that require pouring their savings into The Best Health Care System in the World, and get divorced.

Another reason is that, due to “the predictable effects of widely shared cognitive limitations” (this is the polite academic way of pointing out that human beings are basically idiots) we’re not very good at saving and investing in general:

When I related my tale recently to Teresa Ghilarducci, a behavioral economist at The New School who studies retirement and investor behavior, she let out the kind of sigh that made it clear that she had heard it all before . . . most human beings lack the skill and emotional wherewithal to be good investors. Linking investing and retirement has turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

“People tend to be overconfident about their own abilities,” said Ghilarducci. “They tend to focus on the short term rather than thinking about long-term consequences. And they tend to think that whatever the current trend is will always be the trend. That is why people buy high and sell low.” Financial advisers — at least the good ones — are forever telling their clients to be disciplined, to create a diversified portfolio and to avoid trying to time the market. Sound as that advice is, it’s just not how most humans behave.

Now a key to understanding contemporary American politics is that it’s structured around either a continual denial of these unpleasant truths, or a perverse celebration of them. The Randroids and Hedge Fund Calvinists who run the contemporary Republican party (official slogan: Socialism Makes the Baby Jesus Cry) believe that if you’re broke it’s your own goddamned fault, while the neoliberal believers in capitalism with a human face who infest the Democratic establishment live in an intellectual fantasy theme park called FriedmanLand, where with just a little more “education” Americans will all become optimally thrifty software engineers.

What unites our rulers all across this vast ideological spectrum is their unshakeable belief that people should not be as they are.

Today In Texas Justice

[ 33 ] April 28, 2012 |

This story of another innocent man exonerated after 25 years in prison because of suppressed evidence (while the man who killed his wife was left free to kill at least one other person) contains an excellent of example of the kind of “evidence” that seems to frequently come up when innocent people have been convicted:

“There were a lot of cars in the street. There was a big yellow crime-scene ribbon around our house,” he says. “Neighbors were across the street, clustered on the corner … talking to each other, and of course, when my truck comes racing up, they all kind of key on me.”

Boutwell met Morton outside the front door and, in front of everyone, bluntly told him Christine Morton was dead, murdered in their bedroom. Morton reeled.

“You really don’t know how you’re going to react until it happens to you, and with me, I remember it was as if I was … falling inside myself,” he says.

Morton was stunned, nearly mute, which fueled the sheriff’s suspicions and became a major prosecution touchstone at his trial. The fact that Morton didn’t cry out or weep became evidence that he didn’t love his wife and had killed her.

As it happens, this also came up during the Willingham case. And, of course, Amanda Knox. And while Casey Anthony is a different issue in that it’s very possible that she actually committed the crime, the focus on how she allegedly acted incorrectly after the fact made it pretty clear that the state was lacking in actual evidence. There is, we can be confident, no single way in which people who find out that loved ones have been killed act.

In addition, see this recent story of a Texas woman convicted on an extraordinarily implausible theory that she poisoned her son with salt, which also relied heavily on this kind of crap. Hannah Overton is almost certainly another person rotting away in prison because of this variety of pseudo-evidence, and unfortunately she can’t be exonerated by DNA evidence.

Agenda 21

[ 16 ] April 28, 2012 |

I’m really glad that Agenda 21, the United Nations guidelines on sustainable development, is becoming an issue in the Virginia Senate race. That’s not because some lunatics are talking about it in hidden meetings. It’s a big deal because George Allen is making it a theme in his campaign.

At first, Mr. Allen looked as if he would take the bait, speaking gamely about preserving the nation’s sovereignty and mentioning Agenda 21, a United Nations sustainable development plan that some conservatives fear has morphed into a global land use agenda for their hometowns.

What do wingnuts think about the perfidious Agenda 21?

I think the real question for all of you is whether you want to start wading in the cesspool of wingnuttery. I’ll only say that expect to read a lot about George Soros and socialism. Good times.

Frankenstein Wildlife Management

[ 16 ] April 28, 2012 |

There’s a lot of weird wildlife management going on in the Pacific Northwest. First, you have the killing of barred owls in order to save spotted owls. The barred owls have naturally migrated to the Northwest where they alternatively mate with and/or kill their smaller cousins. But because the environmental movement sued the federal government to list the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in order to stop old-growth logging on federal lands, there are a lot of vested interests in keeping the spotted owl a viable species (environmental organizations, government scientists) and an equal number of interests (logging companies, rural politicians) that would like to see the spotted owl go extinct. The temporary solution has been for the government to shoot barred owls, which is ridiculous and awful.

Another area of contention in Pacific Northwest wildlife management concerns the salmon population. For over a century, the Northwest has decimated its salmon populations through damming rivers, overfishing, industrial pollution, and effectively creating a new river ecology throughout the region. Yet people remain employed in catching the few salmon left in the region and they want to see their livelihoods protected against all threats–including sea lions and birds:

Oregon officials were successful in getting permission to kill sea lions that feed on protected salmon trying to swim upriver to spawn. Now they want federal approval to shoot a sea bird that eats millions of baby salmon trying to reach the ocean.

In an April 5 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by The Associated Press, Oregon Wildlife Chief Ron Anglin says harassment has “proved insufficient” in controlling double-crested cormorants, and officials want the option of killing some of the birds.

Oregon needs federal approval to start shooting double-breasted cormorants because the birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Once considered a nuisance bird, cormorants were added to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972, the same year the pesticide DDT was banned.

Like eagles and other predatory birds, cormorant numbers started to climb. Current estimates are that about 70,000 cormorants live in the West between southern British Columbia, the Mexico border and the Continental Divide, said Dan Roby, a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University who is studying the birds.

If only we legalized DDT, we wouldn’t have this problem!

I understand the needs of salmon fishers to survive, but like the region’s loggers in the 1980s, there comes a time when you have to prioritize the resource over employment in a dying industry. And that time comes when you start killing native species evolved to eat fish in order that you can catch those fish. This is a worldwide problem; in the United States, you have dying cultures of fish workers who can’t survive anymore because they’ve simply fished everything out. That’s a big issue right now in New England as Whole Foods is refusing to buy fish caught at unsustainable levels, which includes many of the fish New England fishing boats rely on to make a living. And that’s horrible for those workers, but it’s reaching a point where we can either keep fishing and have no fish left at all or stop fishing these species for 10 years, let the populations rebound, and then institute a more rational fishing regime.

And in both cases, there would have been plenty of trees and fish to harvest if technological advancement hadn’t rapidly upscaled the pace of production. Maybe there’s nothing that can be done to stop new technologies from transforming an industry, but they can have negative effects on long-term employment.

How Not to Review a Museum

[ 27 ] April 28, 2012 |

If the Times really wants to alienate everyone who doesn’t identify as an east coast sophisticate, Edward Rothstein provides a good starting point:

An East Coast visitor’s first reaction, provincially enough, has to be skepticism: does Colorado even have that much history?

Enough history to justify a $110 million museum — the History Colorado Center — which is opening on Saturday, with plans for 40,000 square feet of exhibitions costing an additional $33 million, state-of-the-art technological displays, a research center and archival storage for over 15 million items, including more than 750,000 photographs and 200,000 artifacts?

The state is under 140 years old, and even if you include the ancient cliff dwellings preserved in Mesa Verde National Park, there is little documented history before the incursion of outsiders in the 18th century.

Yet this building, designed by the Colorado architect David Tryba of Tryba Architects, is meant to be as monumental as the museum’s ambition.

And then ends:

But in the meantime, put aside provincialism. Colorado clearly has enough history to justify such a center. And enough history to make a visitor wish that the exploration were more complete and less ready to offer revision without real reinterpretation.

Well, thank you Mr. East Coast Elite for giving your seal of approval that a state like Colorado has History! As a native of Oregon, will you please fly out to Portland and tell us whether we have enough history so I can know whether to write my book or not?

Very Quick Round 2 Picks

[ 20 ] April 27, 2012 |

What can I say, when you’re right 25% of the time, you’re wrong 75% of the time. (Florida couldn’t even salvage my upset special!) For what very little it’s worth, I’m inclined pretty much to go chalk this round — In descending order of confidence, Philly, Predators, Rangers (although since New York has a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses as the Bruins I’ll be interested to see how Washington does.) Since I don’t like picking all favorites unless I feel really strongly, I’ll take Los Angeles, with some misgivings. St. Louis were very impressive in the first round but then so were the Kings against tougher opposition, and Jeff Carter (playing on one leg) might be able to contribute something. As I said last time, LA’s 8 seed is misleading; since Sutter took over they’ve been a 102 point team, which I think is truer to the talent on their roster. I think they’ll eke out what should be a close and terrific series.

What we don’t know we know, aren’t quite sure how we missed…

[ 10 ] April 27, 2012 |

…and are disappointed that none of you lot pointed out. Namely, that when I wrote this post a month ago, it never occurred to me that I was unconsciously admitting to a desire to be bossed around by handsome bald black men:

Lance reddick

But apparently I do. Regular posting to resume shortly, now that I’ve got the majority of the lesson-planning for my new course–which I’m currently teaching, so I’m scripting class-by-class instead of working from previously devised material–completed.

(Don’t be surprised if this is the last time you see Lance Reddick on this blog either. Or Benedict Cumberbatch or Hugh Laurie or Matt Smith for that matter.)

Cambodian Forest Activist Killed

[ 5 ] April 27, 2012 |

As we cut down our last tropical forests, decimating the lungs of the planet, at least a few people are bravely trying to stop it. In Brazil those activists are routinely killed. And now they are in Cambodia as well.

Although since I now understand that freedom means “letting loggers log,” I guess the illegal Cambodian loggers are the real heroes here.

The Republican Rape Caucus

[ 87 ] April 27, 2012 |

Your 31 pro-rape Republicans:

John Barrasso WY
Roy Blunt MO
John Boozman AR
Richard M. Burr NC
Saxby Chambliss GA
Tom Coburn OK
Thad Cochran MS
John Cornyn TX
Jim DeMint SC
Michael B. Enzi WY
Lindsey Graham SC
Charles E. Grassley IA
Orrin G. Hatch UT
James M. Inhofe OK
Johnny Isakson GA
Mike Johanns NE
Ron Johnson WI
Jon Kyl AZ
Mike Lee UT
Richard G. Lugar IN
Mitch McConnell KY
Jerry Moran KS
Rand Paul KY
Jim Risch ID
Pat Roberts KS
Marco Rubio FL
Jeff Sessions AL
Richard C. Shelby AL
John Thune SD
Patrick J. Toomey PA
Roger Wicker MS

Why Conservatives Love Decentralization

[ 15 ] April 27, 2012 |

For the reasons cited here — 1)state taxes tend to be very regressive, and 2)balanced budget requirements tend to mean that programs that benefit the poor are especially likely to end up on the chopping block. When “federalism” doesn’t advance conservative policy interests, of course, Republicans generally stop caring about it. If “federalism” advances conservative policy interests, conversely, no argument can be too specious or trivial.

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