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In Fairness, There Was Nothing About Drug Running at the Mena Airport

[ 36 ] October 22, 2014 |

I am not particularly thrilled about the prospect of a noncompetitive Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee.  An article that explained why and how a candidate could be preferable would be useful.  Alas, Doug Henwood’s Harper‘s cover story is not that article.  Some of the problems are conveyed even in the intro that isn’t behind the paywall:

“How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?” Sarah Palin asked American voters in a taunting 2010 speech. The answer: Not so well. We avoided a full-blown depression, but the job market remains deeply sick, and it’s become quite mainstream to talk about the U.S. economy having fallen into structural stagnation (though the rich are thriving). Barack Obama has, if anything, seemed more secretive than George W. Bush. He kills alleged terrorists whom his predecessor would merely have tortured. The climate crisis gets worse, and the political capacity even to talk about it, much less do anything about it, is completely absent.

Of the last two assertions, the first (implying that while Bush supported torture he opposed targeted killings) is risible. The argument that nothing has been done about climate change during the Obama administration is just demonstrably false. (Even Thomas Frank concedes that Obama has a good record on the environment, fer Chrissakes.) The claim about secrecy is, I will grant, a judgment call on a small-potatoes issue. And the first talks about structural trends divorced from policy changes and without any explanation of what more Obama could have done about unemployment. (And if you think that a large stimulus was just inevitable, cf. most of Europe.)

As the use of Dick Morris’s “expertise” suggests, things don’t get much better when things get to Clinton. For example:

While it was certainly not the diabolical conspiracy Republicans made it out to be during the fevered days of the Clinton impeachment, it was not nothing.

No, it really was, at least insofar as the Clintons were concerned. Gene Lyons explains:

Basically, the author has performed a simple trick: putting leftward spin on GOP talking points from the 1990s. Because everybody’s either forgotten the details or never knew them, it’s possible to make long discredited charges of corruption against both Clintons sound plausible again.

Whitewater, Henwood assures readers, definitely “was not nothing.”

What it may have been, however, he appears to have no clue. The most basic facts elude him. No, the late Jim McDougal’s doomed Madison Guaranty savings and loan did not finance the Clintons’ real estate investment. They were never “investors in McDougal’s [other] schemes.”

Maybe Henwood would better understand the Clintons’ surprising “escape from the Whitewater morass” if he grasped that they were basically the victims, not the perps.

Here’s how Kenneth Starr’s prosecutor Ray Jahn put it in his closing argument at poor, mentally ill Jim McDougal’s trial:

“Why isn’t the President of the United States on trial?…Because he didn’t set up any phony corporations to get employees to sign for loans that were basically worthless…The president didn’t backdate any leases. He didn’t backdate any documents. He didn’t come up with any phony reasons not to repay the property. He didn’t lie to any examiners. He didn’t lie to any investors.”

A lot of the rest of the analysis isn’t much better. He derides her legislative record, arguing that “of all her senatorial accomplishments, “the [Iraq War vote] arguably had the biggest impact. The rest were the legislative equivalent of being against breast cancer.” Certainly, Clinton deserves a great deal of criticism for supporting the Iraq War, but since this vote almost certainly cost her the Democratic nomination it’s not exactly news. But it’s also true that this was pretty much the only “impact” the vote had — the war was happening however she voted. It’s fair game because it reflects a serious error in judgment, but its causal impact was on the war happening was nil.

The bigger problem, though, is criticizing her for not getting major legislation passed. (This deeply odd way of evaluating a senator’s record is reflected in his language: “Hillary passed a total of twenty bills during her first five years in the Senate.” Individual senators don’t “pass” anything.) The rather obvious problem here is that the entirety of her Senate tenure happened with George W. Bush in the White House, and 6 of those were with a Republican Congress. Of course the only legislation she supported that passed was trivial symbolic stuff. This really takes Green Lantenism to a whole other level; apparently, if Hillary Clinton was a good senator a Republican Congress and Republican president would have passed transformative progressive legislation. That seems plausible!

So while there’s a good Clinton critique waiting to be written, this ain’t it.

…Tom Till in comments:

There are plenty of issues where Hillary Clinton deserves close, even withering scrutiny and where reasonable people can and should debate. The grotesque and preposterous sham known as Whitewater is not one of them. That a number of prominent reporters, editorialists, members of the judiciary, and various elected politicians, operatives, lobbyists, committee staffers, and wingnut bottom-feeders conspired to hatch it, prolong it (in many instances blatantly disregarding the law or at least legal ethics), and infect the political bloodstream with it to such a degree that it ultimately resulted in a president’s impeachment is, well, neither forgivable nor forgettable.

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Urban Raccoons

[ 44 ] October 22, 2014 |

Evidently, raccoons in the city are smarter than rural raccoons because the city teaches them so much, primarily how to get at food.

Personally, I fear they will ally with the monkeys and robots to enslave us.

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“A Happy Blend of the East and the West”

[ 12 ] October 22, 2014 |

Because of course you want to watch tourist films from 1976 promoting Bombay, now Mumbai.

Need to get that song on itunes.


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The New Gilded Age

[ 16 ] October 22, 2014 |

And we keep marching on into the New Gilded Age:

Once upon a time, the American economy worked for everybody, and even the middle class got richer. But this story has only been a fairy tale for almost 30 years now. The new, harsh reality is that the bottom 90 percent of households are poorer today than they were in 1987.

This is actually a much more dramatic statement than it sounds. While the Federal Reserve has already told us that the median households is worth less now than it was in 1989 — that’s the household right in the middle — it turns out that everybody but the richest 10 percent of Americans are worst off. That includes the poor, the entire middle class, and even what we would consider much of the upper class.

It’s been a lost 25 years for the bottom 90 percent, but a lost 15 for the next 9 percent, too. That’s right: altogether, the bottom 99 percent are worth less today than they were in 1998.

But this isn’t a story about the top 1 percent running away from everybody else. It’s a story about the top 0.1 — scratch that, the top 0.01 percent — doing so. You can see that in the chart below, again based on data from Saez and Zucman, of each group’s share of US wealth. Indeed, since 1980, the top 0.01 percent’s piece of the wealth pie has increased by 8.6 percentage points, while the next 0.09 percent’s has done so by 5.4. The bottom 99 percent, meanwhile, have seen their wealth share fall an astonishing 18 percentage points.

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Apparently, An Oxford Education Isn’t What It Used To Be

[ 100 ] October 22, 2014 |

Charles C.W. Cooke is very upset that people who oppose antidiscrimation laws are compared to people who oppose antidiscrimination laws:

In this manner, too, have we come to discuss the ever-diminishing scope of private property rights, our debates centering nowadays not on whether individuals should have a general right to decide whom they will serve, but on why anybody would be asking these questions in the first instance. Think you should be able to decide who comes into your bar? Drop the act, Bubba, you must be in the Klan.

Let’s leave aside the silly assumption that businesses who want to be exempt from civil rights laws are all “individuals.” Do civil rights statutes violate longstanding “rights” of public accommodations to exclude customers for any reason of their choosing? Well, I have someone with some expertise with the subject right here, and:

[I]f an inn-keeper, or other victualler, hangs out a sign and opens his house for travelers, it is an implied engagement to entertain all persons who travel that way; and upon this universal assumpsit an action on the case will lie against him for damages, if he without good reason refuses to admit a traveler.

–Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England

This common law tradition, requiring public accommodations to serve customers with the ability to pay on equal terms, was carried over to the United States. Civil rights laws applying to public accommodations do not represent a dimunition of traditional rights; they represent a statutory recognition of long-standing common law rights. The Jim Crow “general right [of businesses open to the general public] to decide whom they will serve” arrangement Cooke prefers is the anomaly in the Anglo-American legal tradition, not civil rights laws. Generally, people who advocate for policies designed to advance segregationist policy preferences against well-established rights should not be surprised when they’re likened to segregationists.

[Via Edroso.]

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Honestly, I wouldn’t even know what one looked like

[ 82 ] October 22, 2014 |

COP: Have you noticed anything unusual this morning?

SEK: Not to my knowledge.

COP: Nothing at all? Not even a…suspicious dump truck?

SEK: A suspicious dump truck? I’ve seen a lot of dump trucks across the street, at the construction site, but I don’t know what would make one suspicious.

COP: You know, like one that didn’t look like it…belonged with the other dump trucks.

SEK: Sorry, they look like a happy little dump truck family to me.

COP: I understand. Just keep your eyes peeled, and call me if you see anything suspicious.

SEK: Will do.

UPDATE: Someone did come in and steal all the dump trucks. Video here. Looks like someone will finally earn his Boy Detective merit badge…

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Oh! Canada

[ 29 ] October 22, 2014 |

The scope of the attack remains unclear, but this is evidently a frightening development.

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The Fortress of Solitude

[ 4 ] October 22, 2014 |

Hi all!  You may remember me from my guest blogging stint this summer. I’m supposed to be a new permanent blogger for LGM but I have been terribly remiss.  But I saw The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public theater based on the Jonathan Lethem novel, and I had so many swirling thoughts about it I knew they must become a blog post.  Hopefully I will get my act together to write more blog posts, perhaps about non-theatrical topics. Anyway:

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of Dylan, a white boy in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, who after being abandoned by his mother, befriends Mingus Rude, son of Barrett Rude, Jr., a washed-up soul singer. To the credit of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and bookwriter Itamar Moses the show is a continuously entertaining two-and-a-half hours. I appreciated their effort to write a musical motivated by character and story and rooted in time and place. During the first act, I both enjoyed and was bemused by its curiously slow, contemplative energy, which somehow persisted even during high-energy dance sequences. I think it managed this strange effect through its music. In a gesture toward the way Dylan is said to live his life trying to make meaning out of fragments of music (and yes, unfortunately, this show does sometimes get just that ponderous), the songs cycle rapidly through styles, and numbers sample and reincorporate each other. Of course it’s normal in a musical to hear songs reprised and refrains repeated, but it’s notably aggressive in this score. The effect is somewhat dissonant, resisting conventional satisfaction, never taking the audience to an emotional high, but instead propelling us through a wall of sound.

Notable exceptions are sung by Kevin Mambo, who plays Barrett Rude, Jr. with glowering, broken ferocity.  He and his fictional quartet, The Subtle Distinctions, get the most powerful, coherent music. “Who’s Calling Now?” is plausibly ruthless as a rage/despair anthem in the same emotional genre as “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s also a pleasure to watch André de Shields play Barrett Rude, Sr., with gleeful, devilish pomposity. He appears singing his own name with a hilariously sustained note and every time he’s on stage he struts like he’s skipping on the inside. Kyle Beltran as Mingus has an open face and a fluty voice. For days after I could hear his dreamy, otherworldly pride when he sang “If I could fly/Like superman through the sky/I’d live forever in my fortress of solitude/A fortress built for Mingus Rude.” These are the most memorable musical moments and the strongest moments of character building.

But despite the charge of these character sketches, the show as a whole fails on the level of story. The strength of Mingus and Dylan’s bond is never established sufficiently for the audience to mourn its eventual rupture. It doesn’t help that the sequence that is meant to portray their relationship in its fullest form is the sequence in which they become superheroes. This is handled clumsily on stage by director Daniel Aukin. Flying is variously represented by the actors standing on tiptoes and waving their arms, their shadows cast large on a screen behind them, two little figures projected on a screen, and weighted boots that allow them to tilt forward at an improbable angle. The interlude of magical realism doesn’t make sense amid a plot that’s otherwise naturalistic. It isn’t clear whether they are really supposed to be flying, or whether its a fantasy they have, and either way it serves no apparent plot purpose.

Adam Chanler-Berat is Dylan, the protagonist, and yet he doesn’t have much to do. The character doesn’t move or develop. His mom left; his best friend falls into misfortune; he is the observer. The story is supposed to be about his observing, of not being enough of an actor, not sufficiently self-aware. But this is a hard trick to pull, requiring a deft hand with storytelling, and the hand is not deft enough here.

The show’s failure to make a case for telling the story of its white hero means that despite fairly oozing liberal consciousness about race, it manages to verge on racist. It claims awareness of the problem of viewing black people as if they are props in a white story, of always making the implied subject white, as if it’s the white person’s journey that really matters. Dylan, we are told, has an attraction to black art and black pain, and uses their music as a substitute for understanding his own interior life. But this musical uses its black characters as props in its white protagonist’s journey. I don’t know how or whether the book managed to write itself out of this trap but this show totally fails to. It’s not as obvious in the first act, but the second act it becomes embarrassing. Older Dylan is given a black girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who as a character spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, and whatever we should call the black/white analog, in an agonizingly clunky, on-the-nose song about how he hasn’t told her the truth about his childhood, she is worried about being a black collector’s item, and he’s attracted to black music because of its “authenticity” and is not in touch with his own real emotions. She then has literally nothing else to do, but she still hangs around on stage through much of the second act, singing refrains from this one song.  The irony is apparently lost on the writers. Mingus and Barrett Rude, Jr. and Sr. are interesting characters, but they are viewed through the lens of what they mean to the milquetoast white guy we, the audience, are presumed to identify with.

My theater companion asked: why did we have to see another white protagonist?  Why wasn’t this show about Mingus?  “Because The Fortress of Solitude is a semi-autobiographical novel” is an unsatisfying answer if I’m trying to evaluate a work of fiction by the universe its created, and not as a therapeutic act by the author. Dylan is a boring character. He doesn’t move or develop. His disconnection isn’t a compelling story next to Mingus or, who I’d propose as the real star: Barrett Rude, Jr. The black characters get stage time but it just doesn’t make up for the framing. The musical begins: white Dylan has something to explain about his childhood. It ends: white Dylan and his father, looking at his father’s abstract art film, in an awkwardly literary passage that made me picture the page in a novel it came from: the shape the father paints over and over represents the space inside, separated from the space outside. It’s not wrong to use that kind of abstraction on stage, or to tell a story about a character whose movements are very subtle, but in this case it’s not successful. The Fortress of Solitude never explains to the audience why it’s telling the story it chose, why we should care to be inside with Dylan, instead of any of a richer character who can carry their own story.

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Those Who Fail To Learn From the Results of Nominating Shitty Candidates Are Doomed To Keep Losing

[ 70 ] October 22, 2014 |

The Titantic, the Hindenberg, the 2007 New York Mets, Martha Coakley:

National Democrats are haunted by memories of Martha Coakley’s unforced stumbles and missteps in 2010, which cost them a U.S. Senate seat in one of the country’s bluest states.

Four laters later, the Massachusetts attorney general might be about to blow another major contest: The race to succeed Deval Patrick as governor.

With two weeks left to go, a new poll by WBUR, which tracks the race weekly, found Coakley trailing for the first time against Republican Charlie Baker, a former health care CEO who served as secretary of finance and health under Gov. William Weld in the 1990s.

It’s still a close contest: Baker has 43 percent while Coakley has 42 percent, well inside the poll’s 4.4 percent margin of error.

But the troubling sign for Coakley is that Baker appears to be gaining steam down the stretch after consistently trailing throughout the campaign.

“It’s one of several polls which over the last week or so have shown a movement toward Baker,” Steve Koczela, the president of MassINC Polling Group, which conducts the polls, said. “Coakley has essentially been treading water while Baker’s been climbing.”

Coakley’s late drop-off seems eerily reminiscent of the 2010 special election against upstart Republican candidate Scott Brown, when the Democrat blew a huge lead, fell behind in the final stretch, and went on to lose.

Hopefully she’ll pull it out anyway, but it’s ridiculous that the Massachusetts bench is so shallow that someone who ran one of the worst campaigns in known human history — a bad campaign with very substantial consequences for the country, yet — could get nominated for a competitive race again.

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Campaigning, Alaska-style

[ 39 ] October 22, 2014 |

Yes, the town of Wasilla will forever have to live with the shame of launching Sarah Palin’s political career, but it’s not their children’s fault, and they didn’t deserve this:

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that students and staff at Wasilla High School said U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) “acted in a disrespectful and sometimes offensive manner to some students, used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage” during his 60-minute appearance.

When one student asked Young why he thought same-sex marriage was so bad, the congressman responded: “You can’t have marriage with two men. What do you get with two bulls?” according to Wasilla Principal Amy Spargo.

Witnesses told the Dispatch News that Young’s comments on suicide also stunned the assembly, as students and staff were mourning the loss of a Wasilla student who took his own life last week. Young mentioned alcohol and depression and said that suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family, according to the witnesses.

This, of course, is coming right on the heels of Young implying that he may have murdered someone in retaliation for violating his personal space.

I’m sure the good people of Alaska will return him to congress to serve is 73rd term.

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“Dane Cook with a better vocabulary and an accent.”

[ 55 ] October 22, 2014 |

Let’s just say that when Russell Brand briefly had that dreadful show that followed up Louie — come back Colin Quinn, all is forgiven — his choice of sidekick was Hank Kinsgley Mr. Matt Stoller.

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Changes in VMT forecasting

[ 18 ] October 22, 2014 |

Earlier this year, in a lengthy post about the disastrously stupid plan to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct with a risky, costly deep bore tunnel with no access to downtown Seattle (update: still not looking good!), I expanded my complaint to WSDOT’s planning process, mirrored by DOTs around the country. They exhibited a stubborn refusal to adjust their future projections about vehicle miles traveled based on a new information; up through the 2013 projection, they were insisting that the steady increase in VMT that characterized the second half of the 20th century is likely to return immediately.  The September 2014 WSDOT projections are now available, and something appeared to get through to them this time:

Washington State Transportation Revenue Forecast Council - Peak Traffic

Looking at the data, the change here is really striking: they went from assuming the 80′s are coming back immediately to assuming the modest declines in VMT per capita will not just continue but accelerate, such that VMT per capita is now projected to drop by over 1% per year, at a slightly increasing rate, throughout the 2020′s and 2030′s, resulting in a 2041 VMT per capita a full 33% below the peak rate (see pg 28 here). I would have expected formulas and assumptions to be tweaked and nudged, not radically revised. I think these projections are more sensible, and I obviously certainly hope they’re correct, but it’s striking to see such a dramatic change. One possible reason might be political–forecasts like this make extravagant highway projects funded by assumptions about the future more politically difficult. (That WSDOT might now recognize this is a good thing is a happy possibility to contemplate). Whatever the reason, this shift in forecasting is good political news regardless of whether it’s accurate or not, as Clark Williams-Derry explains:

Second, even if the forecast is wrong, assuming that traffic won’t grow much is the most fiscally prudent way to plan a transportation budget.

For far too long, “build now, pay later” has been the transportation budgeter’s mantra. In the 2000s, for example, Washington committed itself to massive road projects that it didn’t have the money to build. So the state floated bonds, assuming that revenue from gas taxes would show up to pay them off.

That hasn’t worked out so well. Traffic didn’t grow as expected, and gasoline and tolling revenue has gone AWOL as a result. Gradually, planners have come to realize that debt service will swallow up most of the state’s gas tax receipts, crowding out everything else. As the chart below shows, WSDOT predicts that within a few years three-quarters of the state’s gas tax receipts will pay for old projects.

And because so much of the state’s gas revenue is going to pay off old debts, state and local governments simply don’t have the money to keep existing streets and roads in good repair—let alone complete projects, such as the SR-520 bridge, that we’ve already started. And there’s even less money left for the transportation priorities where demand is actually growing, such as walking, transit, and biking.

The irony here is that one reason we might see future VMT decline is declining investment in transportation infrastructure maintenance, caused by foolishly overspending in the 00′s based on budgeting on future VMT increases. It will be interesting to see (and when I have more time I may do some digging) if this is part of a national trend. USDOT’s last VMT forecast appeared to be straight from the late 20th century, even as the US Energy Information Agency projected little to no growth. It’ll be interesting to see what they’ll do with the 2014 report.


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