Monday, July 30, 2012

Follow the money

A somewhat less than gripping story in the Times about new criteria for teacher certification being developed in several states—uh, that's nice. Less testing, more live observation, that's still nicer. But it's a long story, and by paragraph 21 you're really wondering why it's there. Then,
The new system [in New York state] will require teachers to electronically submit their work, including the videos, for grading by trained evaluators who have been recruited by the education company Pearson.
Ah, Pearson!
“Our decisions are being outsourced,” said one faculty member at a state university in New York who supervises student teachers and asked not to be identified because she feared retribution from her employer.
At the University of Massachusetts, 67 of the 68 students in a program for future middle and high school teachers refused to submit two 10-minute videos of themselves teaching, as well as a 40-page take-home test. The students said that evaluators chosen by Pearson were not qualified to judge their abilities, and should not be allowed to do so over their own professors. 
It's that story, about another little hole being tapped in the public school system by corporate giants through which they can suck out more cash. It's just about always that story, nowadays, if you read it all the way down.

If you clicked the above link and wondered what Pineapplegate was, click below and find out:

(1) The Hare and the Pineapple, by Daniel Pinkwater. With comprehension questions. (2) Helplessly outraged commentary.
From W.I.L.D. Exploits.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Romney's Opposite Day

Last time we visited Willard Mitt Romney's Middle East policy, he'd come up with a persuasively simple program to cover just about any eventuality:
He responded with ridicule when asked what he would do, if elected, to strengthen U.S. relations with the Jewish state.
“I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite,” Romney said, to laughter and applause from members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical Christian political organization.
Now, after his hilariously triumphant tour of the London Olympics, as he takes his first trip to the region as official about-to-be presidential nominee (I think the correct term would be nominandus), let's have a look at how he's doing with that.

The fact that he's there is not exactly the opposite of Obama. As a matter of fact, it's exactly the same. Democratic nominandus Barack Obama visited Israel toward the end of July 2008, just four years ago.

Before dawn Thursday morning, July 23 2008, Obama made an unscheduled visit to Jerusalem's ancient Western Wall, leaving the customary prayer on a slip of paper. On Sunday afternoon, July 29 2012, Romney visited the Western Wall, leaving a personal prayer on a slip of paper. But: Romney's not wearing a kippah!
New York Times.
New York Times.

Obama met separately with President Peres, prime minister Olmert, and later in Ramallah with President Abbas. Romney is to meet with Peres, prime minister Netanyahu, and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad--couldn't manage to fit Abbas into the schedule. Or the Israeli Labour Party.*

*Nope, with Labor it turns out that Netanyahu just ordered him not to go, so he cancelled.

Obama didn't schedule any fund-raising events in Israel, as far as I can determine. Romney, of course, planned a $50,000-a-plate extravaganza for today, but it turned out to be Tisha b'Av in the Jewish calendar, a day of national mourning and fasting commemorating the destruction of the two Temples and hence not a great time to invite a lot of Jewish people to a party. Never mind, they'll just have it tomorrow.

Obama issued a warning to Iran that
''A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.'' He said no options were ''off the table'' in dealing with a nuclear threat from Iran but that the country should be offered ''big carrots'' as well as ''big sticks.''
Romney, of course, feels about carrots the way Justice Scalia feels about broccoli. In the first draft of leaks about what he intended to say about Iran, he was expected to say—repeatedly!—that Israel should feel free to bomb Iran whenever they liked, but was walking it back an hour or so later:
“Governor Romney believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so,” Mr. Senor said in an e-mail statement released by the campaign. “In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. Governor Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it.”
 Romney himself seems to have felt that statement was a little too specific, so he came back with more:
In an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mr. Romney said: “I’ll use my own words and that is I respect the right of Israel to defend itself and we stand with Israel.”
There's some opposite behavior for you: Obama never announces that he'll "use his own words" but habitually does use them. With Romney, it's just the opposite!

Update 7/30
I have to make a correction: Romney was wearing a yarmulke, a very discrete little black number; you can hardly make it out in the pictures unless you know it's there.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Inside the Brooksian mind

Shorter David Brooks:
A house divided against itself actually can stand, as long as it doesn't have anything to do with slavery, and if it's a house of Congress it's a good idea, because then politics will be just like the Olympics, i.e., incoherent.
While Friedman may get much of his information from taxi drivers (or perhaps, come to think of it, it's just one polyglot taxi driver following him around from exotic location to exotic location, because he always says pretty much the same thing), Brooks tries to think like a taxi driver: about how long he can keep the meter running and still have the passengers think they're getting a surprise shortcut.
Charon's Big Yellow Taxi. Photo by Desolate Places.
Broken down into skeleton form, the itinerary on this occasion is something like this:

1. Deconstructed quotation no. 1:
"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. (Abraham Lincoln, June 1858)
Deconstruction: Actually, it can. *

2. Definition: A house divided is a contradictory individual or institution. [jump]

* Not many people know this, but this is what deconstruction actually means—turning an overfamiliar idea upside down and seeing if it works any better that way.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Facepalms and headbangs

Foreign Policy magazine's blog, Passport, reports a new use by US forces of heavy metal music as an implement of psychological pressure, from their friend Mikko Hyppönen, a Finnish security expert, who received an email from an anonymous Iranian nuclear scientist:
I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.
According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.
There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC. 
A lot of people think these stories are kind of amusing, every time they come out, which is surprisingly often. I don't exactly; used in combat, the music may not be so evil, although [jump]
From Vulture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Airborne Elephant Watch: London

The Olympics have not yet begun, but there's already a hot contender for this year's Thomas P. Friedman Award for best "Islam is scary" story composed exclusively of materials that can be found in an ordinary taxi.
From Roqoo Depot.

It's NPR's faith-based correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, for

Olympians' Dilemma: 'Starve My Soul' For Ramadan?

with the Olympics falling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the 22-year-old athlete had to make a choice: be in top physical condition or maintain a primary tenet of his faith.
She didn't find any religious authorities to say that you had to fast (you can postpone it, as with pregnancy or sickness), or any Muslim athletes who would in fact be fasting, though she thought there must be some of those from the more conservative countries or in some of the less aerobic sports, so the amount of controversy she found on the issue would be exactly 0.0, but she filed the story anyhow.

Best of luck to Egyptian 10.000-meter open-water swimmer Mazen Aziz, who loses 11 pounds in a typical race!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Deep in a world of delusion

Shorter David Brooks:
A person who commits a spree killing is likely to be mentally ill; therefore, don't start by limiting his access to guns, start with therapy.
It's the new gun-nut compassion!
When you investigate the minds of these killers, you find yourself deep in a world of delusion, untreated schizophrenia and ferociously injured pride.... The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones.  Yet, after every rampage, there are always people who want to use these events to indict whatever they don’t like about society.
Like say, for instance, what you don't like about society is the way it allows crazy people to buy very dangerous weapons.  Then when something like the Aurora massacre happens you will be totally tempted to blame it on that and start howling for better gun laws instead of worrying about your killer's exaggerated sense of his own significance and deeply wounded self-esteem. You'll be treating a symptom instead of the disease.

Anyway, gun control might not even work;
 it’s not clear that those laws improve public safety. Researchers reviewing the gun control literature for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, were unable to show the laws are effective.
It's true! That CDC study in 2000-2002 found that there was not enough evidence to say whether the laws currently in operation in the US were effective or not. You remember 2000-2002, don't you? That was when the Bush administration cleaned all the rotten old politicization out of the CDC and other agencies by staffing it with brilliant young professionals from academic hothouses like Regent University. Or something.

And familiar charts like this one?
From Sodahead.
I guess we'd be told that they're obviously biased. They leave out countries with very strict gun control and horrifying murder rates, like Russia and South Africa. It's so unfair to compare us to places like Canada and Australia with which we have virtually nothing culturally in common.

Brooks ends up going the full Oprah, as it were:
The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control.
At least if you can find them; you can usually recognize them by the fact that they seem totally normal, quiet and polite, not the kind of person who would ever do such a thing. That's what all the neighbors always say. Anyway, Brooks foresees such objections—that's why he recommends something that's a cross between the individual mandate and racial profiling:
there also has to be a more aggressive system of treatment options, especially for men in their 20s.
Mandatory hugs! Self-esteem boot camps! Makes your average gun-control law sound downright masculine, don't it?

Next up, swimming pool vouchers (for people with adequate back yards only)

Glory be! The Times thinks "Republican Senators Face Risks" over insisting that this round of tax cut extensions should be only for the wealthy:
Senate Republicans will press this week to extend tax cuts for affluent families scheduled to expire Jan. 1, but the same Republican tax plan would allow a series of tax cuts for the working poor and the middle class to end next year.
Republicans say the tax breaks for lower-income families — passed with little notice in the extensive 2009 economic stimulus law — were always supposed to be temporary. But President Obama had made them a priority in 2009 and demanded their extension in 2010 as a price for extending the Bush-era tax cuts for two years...
Wow, I sure hope they stick with this. It will be so clarifying for people who aren't quite sure what the party stands for.
Sheriff of Nottingham costume from Haslemere Wardrobe, UK.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Out of hell

I've always ranked Batman low on my personal scale of superheroes, below Superman, say, and particularly Spiderman, on sort of political grounds--that he doesn't really have any superpowers, just money, that his invincibility is all hardware, which he pays for by calmly writing a check, whereas for the others there is some fatality in their being different from everybody else, born on a different planet, bitten by a radioactive spider, and some big emotional cost in getting there.

Yes, I know Bruce Wayne lost his parents to criminal terrorism and this is why he fights, but that just proves the point: it's his own personal therapy, not some broader vision; he doesn't have to choose against private happiness, unlike Peter Parker, who is constantly forced to think about how happy he could make Aunt May and Mary Anne if he dropped the quest, even became a criminal himself.

My son, as a small boy, hated Batman, whose name I think he misheard as "Badman", and wanted nothing to do with him, but by the time he was 11, when The Dark Knight was released, he wanted to see it, and so we did. I felt very peculiar about it--extraordinary in parts, but I hated the structure of the screenplay building to its greatest tension when they blow up Maggie Gyllenhaal at the end of act 2 and then nobody ever speaks her name again, like poor Clover Adams, as if it were all her fault instead of the writers. And then I was repelled by the way Batman collaborates with the transparently fascist district attorney, does a torture interrogation himself on the Joker, and never distances himself from that Dark ideology even after the DA is revealed to be a Two-Face, a hypocrite who has never been more than a step away from being a criminal all the while. Harry, meanwhile, thought it was the best film he had ever seen.

Still does, too; we were talking about it, the other night. The interesting thing is this: he didn't disagree with my moral scruples at all. He just doesn't expect the protagonist to be a good guy, and it doesn't interfere with his pleasure if the hero is a dick. I thought that was pretty sophisticated.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

1% problem

Sometimes when my daughter realizes that she is on the point of getting seriously upset about something monumentally trivial, she smiles brightly and says, "White girl problem!"

Which I like very much, also in the variation I've overheard a couple of times, "First-world problem."

How is one to respond to the story in today's Times headlined,

What to Tell the Children About Their Inheritance and When

For the rest of us, inheritors seem like a democracy’s version of royalty: born into a world of privilege we would love to know. Yet the inheritors I spoke to said they were ill equipped to handle the windfall and found that it quickly made them feel separate from their peers.
For example,
Jason Franklin, now 32, said he received a call from his grandfather’s secretary asking if he wanted to serve on the board of the family foundation. He was 21 at the time, and up until that point, he said he thought his parents were just affluent professionals like his friends’ parents. The invitation prompted questions.
“If your family has enough money to create a family foundation, that means you have to ask about issues of wealth,” said Mr. Franklin, who works for a philanthropic consultancy. “It caused me to really pause. The reaction I was getting from my friends — it was isolating and confusing.”
So he had to go out and buy some new friends, right away, and they didn't have any in the right sizes. No, that's mean. Similarly,
When Naomi Sobel learned at 20 that she would receive a large inheritance, she said she knew it was a lot of money, and for her, too, it raised questions about a house: would it be enough to buy one? She laughs at this today, since it would have paid for many, many homes.
“I have enough money that I don’t ever have to work,” said Ms. Sobel, now 28.
Heh heh indeed, that's a scream.

Luckily, there are consultants to help you through it all, as well as a book, by Roy Williams and Vic Preisser, Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values (Robert Reed Publishers, 2003). Or there are special therapists, according to Mother Jones, "wealth psychologists", who can assist in pulling you through.

And for the rest of you, sleep, well, adding yet another to the list of problems you don't expect to have.
Photo from The L Magazine.

Depends what you mean by credible

Talk to any credible economist, wire any serious politician to a polygraph, and you will hear at least 80 percent agreement on what is to be done: investment to goose the lackluster recovery and rebuild our infrastructure, entitlement reforms and spending discipline to lower the debt, and a tax code that lets the government pay its way without stifling business, punishing the middle class or rewarding sleight of hand. (Bill Keller, 7/21/2010)
I'm going to start referring to Krugman as the Incredible Economist.
From the Pulitzer Prize citation for David Leonhardt, NY Times, November 2010.
I'm intrigued by the image of the polygraph: why a serious politician in particular? Does it mean a serious polititican is more inclined to lie than a frivolous one? Or that they're all equally likely to lie but only a serious politician will know what the correct answer is? Watch out, Friedman, looks like you may have some competition!

Still, there's something going on here. Keller doesn't bemoan the absence of a president willing to try to stimulate the economy and balance the budget at the same time, because he knows we already have one, which is a big step forward in awareness, and he (and old Erskine Bowles) have joined what I thought was an entirely leftist crowd—well, starting with Senator Patty Murray last week, and then Matthew Yglesias—urging Democrats to play chicken with those Bush tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year, and also with the ghastly across-the-board spending cuts from the last budget pseudo-agreement, which kick in at the same time.

That is, after Boehner offers his next unacceptable budget, Obama could Just Say No, and then call a lame-duck session after the election to crank something out before January 1. I don't know, though, wouldn't that be affected (1) by what happens during the election, and more important (2) what the congresspersons, victorious and defeated, think happened?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sim pathogen

Scientists at Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute have developed the first software simulation of an entire organism, a humble single-cell bacterium that lives in the human genital and respiratory tracts. (NYTimes, 7/20/2012)
I am curious-mycoplasma. From The Inquisitor.
Mycoplasma genitalium, whose full-time job is causing an STD, has the simplest genome of any known organism, at 525 genes (compared to 4,288 for E. coli, and a bit over 23,000 for a mouse or a man), but it takes 128 computers to run the simulation.

The inevitable theological part, for me, is like this: if this is the handiwork of a god, the watchmaker who left his watch on the beach x many millennia ago, why is it so absurdly complex? Why so roundabout in getting where it's going, why so profoundly inelegant? Why is there no engineer's pride here?

The scientist never knows quite how to say this, but if it isn't God, that's because it's better than God! More true to life, funnier, more original, in the end more beautiful.

So congratulations to the folks at Stanford and Venter. Not sure I want to live to see the simulated mouse (by the time it's ready, I suppose, it'll be down to a couple of dozen computers, while our phones will be holding things like the international Zagat, self-updating star and planet charts,  and the complete bloodlines of all the thoroughbreds that ever lived).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I will not be afraid of death and Bain

I know, I know! It all has to do with the bizarre way Bain Capital was organized. I kept thinking, if old Romney was the CEO, and the president, and the chairman, and the sole shareholder in 1999-2002, wouldn't he have been obliged to show up once in a while, just to avoid awkward rumors? ("I heard that Romney's out on the West Coast in one of those rehab facilities—seems in the end he just couldn't handle the chocolate milk.")

But then the New York Times took a little time to explain to me. The Bain Capital, Inc., to which Romney was Lord High Everything was not the same entity as the Bain Capital that did all the deals. Indeed, in a certain sense the latter did not exist. Every time they did a deal they would put together a new little entity, with a name like "Bain Capital Investors Inc. VI" or "Bain Capital Investors Inc. VII", in which all the partners would be partners, and it was all these little Bains smooshed together, like pictures of square dancers in a kaleidoscope, that constituted the famous company. Presumably the structure turned their salaries into capital gains and reduced everybody's income tax by 50%.

But Romney's company was the managing company that managed them all, and so he had to do what managers always do, to wit, nothing.  In Boston, of course, he was also one of the active partners, so he must have been busy schmoozing and golfing and flying hither and yon to negotiate. The managing part would have taken up so little of his time, though, that he could move to Salt Lake City and "24/7" Olympics responsibilities, and continued on as bishop of Boston as well, and nobody would ever notice.

However, this is exactly what he is desperate that the American public should not know, that managers don't actually do anything; since it's a central part of his campaign that his managerial experience qualifies him uniquely for the presidency, just like Herbert Hoover.

Then again, I don't suppose he's aware that managers don't do anything. Most managers think they work like hell; or as David Brooks puts it,
They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.
Oh, those conference calls! It's worse than picking cotton!

The Times also noted that in 2002, after the brilliant Olympics were over, Romney had to fight off Democrats who said he wasn't qualified to be governor of Massachusetts, not having lived there for the past three years. To the contrary!
For 30 years, his lawyer argued, “the center of his social, civic and business life has been in this commonwealth.”
 He got that gig, as we know. Now he wants a gig for which, oddly, he is supposed to say that he did not live in Massachusetts from 1999 to 2002. So he'll say that. It doesn't matter, in the final analysis, which is true; he'll lie whichever way works. But oh, it does put him out of joint when they make him contradict himself.
Birnam Wood. From

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Retroactionary Watch

Via Vixen Strangely:
Just watching Ed Gillespie tap-dance between the raindrops, as it were, talking at conman velocity and making sure every word is in pre-approved boilerplate, is priceless. He's trying to explain how simply because Romney signed off as chairman, president, CEO, and sole shareholder of Bain Capital from 1999 to 2001 doesn't mean he actually did anything for the company, in spite of evidence that he did, which takes some pretty fancy footwork.

But the most glorious part is at the end of the clip, with the resurgence of retroactionary Romney, the time traveler, fresh from Restoring our Future and galloping full tilt towards antiquity. It seems he resigned from Bain in 2001, retroactive to 1999, so that any work he might have inadvertently done for the company during the two years would have simply—dissolved, poof! into a haze of quantum contradictions.
Entangled time. Graphic from Wired.

Better wed than dead

Times runs an enormous feature by Jason DeParle on life in the universe in which marriage is the key variable ("Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do'") from which everything else follows; Ms. F and Ms. S, who work in the same day care center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, are practically the same person, but Ms. F is married and Ms. S is not, so naturally Ms. F finished college, became the boss, and has the time and money to give her children a spectacularly nurturing and yet stimulating environment to grow up in, while Ms. S dropped out, became the employee, and consigned her own kids to a life of sensory deprivation and food stamps.

In other words, it's a dispatch from Brooksland, where income inequality is caused by sluts who persist in giving it away for free, thus creating poverty in an otherwise pretty cushy little society. Hold out until you see that ring, girls! The poverty you don't create may be your own.

Girl, Appalachian house. From America Watch.
Or, as DeParle puts it,

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Phoning it in

Friday the 13th

I was going to write something about David Brooks again—hilarious as ever today—but had the fortune to see the Charles P. Pierce take on that column before I got started and realized I'd just be humiliating myself worse than usual. Why is Pierce always so good? It doesn't seem fair.
Playing croquet.

Mark Landler in the Times:
Mr. Obama’s advisers say he savors unscripted encounters with voters, and occasionally these moments can be revelatory.
Dropping in for a beer last week at Ziggy’s Pub and Restaurant in Amherst, Ohio, the president found himself explaining to a table of curious school administrators why the White House was waiving states’ compliance with the No Child Left Behind law. Moments earlier, he had an intense exchange with Art Davis, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who complained about delays in processing disability claims for veterans.
But then there are encounters like his kitchen-table conversation with a Cedar Rapids couple, Jason and Ali McLaughlin. Though avidly promoted by the campaign, it got off to a desultory start, with Mr. McLaughlin and the president comparing notes about how they coach girls’ sports teams (“Now, they run plays!” Mr. Obama marveled about his daughter Sasha’s team). Neither said a word about middle-class tax cuts — the ostensible subject of the meeting — until after the reporters had been ushered out.
What do you suppose this is all about? If they're revelatory, what are the revelations? I'd really like to know, for example, what Obama had to say about the NCLB waivers, but Landler declines to tell us.  In the case of the Cedar Rapids dinner table, Landler doesn't even know—or is this the example of when the moments are non-revelatory?

The big revelation for me is one of the tiniest blanks in the story: What sport is Sasha playing?* Landler must have failed to hear if it was mentioned and just left it out, and nobody up the editorial chain of command thought to fill it in. What it reveals is how completely these guys are phoning it in. If you look at it closely, there is really no content to these three paragraphs at all! It's like the party reports in the old society pages, just photo captions, except there are no photos.
T-shirt by Delbuc.
*The team the president is helping to coach is basketball.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The curious case of the penitent president. III

We've been looking at the war against leakers, and finding that it's not in fact much of a war, and that Obama doesn't have very much to do with it; and at the president's participation in the drone campaign Kill List for Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, in which—grotesque as it sounds on first hearing—it turns out you can make a case that Obama is really working to minimize the number of killings, and also taking personal responsibility for them.

Incidentally,  David Cole for the New York Review is also willing to give him some credit on that issue for being different from George W. Bush (though very far from letting him off the hook entirely):
torture and cruel treatment of detainees are absolutely prohibited during war and peace alike; indeed, they are war crimes. Killing enemy fighters in wartime is not a crime, but a necessary evil. There is no moral equivalence between what we did to KSM and to Osama bin Laden.
From Immigrant Lawn Work.
Here's another one: You remember the promises Obama made in 2008 about immigration reform and the sad reality of what has happened instead, as in no reform and a doubling of the rate of deportations?

James Verini argues at length in the Washington Monthly that that's not Obama's fault either. Stupid Blue Dogs wouldn't vote for the reform before the 2010 elections, of course, and afterwards it was really too late. As for the deportations, what  Obama intended was to refocus the work of ICE from anybody they could catch to those undocumented immigrants who were really criminals, the ones evereybody wanted to get rid of—a policy that would have decreased the number of deportations—
But in execution, critics say, the program has become an indiscriminate dragnet, sweeping up tens of thousands of minor offenders and tearing apart communities and families in the process. The official went on, “You have a situation where arresting people is a way of triggering this elaborate and expensive and broad removal procedure. The result is unfortunate from a lot of perspectives.”
OK, well; but now I'm starting to wonder about it from the other side—do we have a problem with Obama in that he's incapable of working his will?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Notes from the growing bifurcation

Shorter David Brooks:
The poors are very different from you and me.
No, really; David Brooks has been hearing about social inequality in America, what he calls a "growing bifurcation of American society," and he's very worried. He's been hearing about it from Robert Putnam, author of the famous Bowling Alone, and I figure he's been hearing about it at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where Putnam just gave a talk on his recent research.

The research is pretty hot, too, and nowhere near publication, but if like me you just couldn't make it to Aspen this year (oops! I forgot all about that gosh darn mortgage and all them credit card bills, and I didn't have anything to wear anyhow), you can still read about it in writing by someone who is not David Brooks; I found a very nice liveblog by David Weinberger at Joho the Blog, and I imagine there's more out there too.

From Tales from the Lou's Blog.
Putnam has been looking at children, and seeing hard class differences right from infancy, when more women who haven't finished college are giving birth than women who have, over the past 30 years, and more kids (obviously) are getting brought up in single-adult homes. The numbers are pretty much the same, by the way, for white Americans on their own as they are for people of all races (Putnam's study is limited to white people).

Parents from the upper level invest more money in their kids and they invest more time as well; up to an hour a day of additional quality time. Their kids are more active in sports, lessons, volunteering for the community. Kids from the lower level have fewer people they can trust, are less trusting anyway, and—of course—do worse on the reading and math tests.

Color me not terribly surprised by any of this, and why? I guess I always thought poverty was more of  a problem than teachers' unions. But Brooks is pretty shocked, almost to the point of understanding, briefly, what is going on: notice how he pulls back as if in terror at his own audacity from reality into surreality between paragraphs:

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.
Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.
(Yes, it can't have that much to do with unemployment, can it? Must be those selfish intelligent people marrying their own kind and leaving the rest of us stranded.)
From The Final Edition (and a very funny though slow-starting Brooks parody from sometime last year).
And in the end, as he's trying to establish his left-right equivalence for the day, he really loses control:
Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.
That's all he wants us to do? I'll take it! If you can't afford to get married you shouldn't have a baby. It would also help if Brooks's friends would loosen up some on abortion....

Monday, July 9, 2012

Is Allen West a neo-Marxist?

One index of how bad things are economically is apparently that more Americans went on Supplemental Security Income disability payments than got jobs last month. So Fox News asked Florida representative Allen West for a reaction to this factoid, and got:
That is an unfortunate consequence of failing economic policies coming from the president so that now when people are running out of the unemployment benefits, now they are looking toward going on Social Security disability… so once again we are creating the sense of economic dependence, which to me is a form of modern, 21st century slavery. (ThinkProgress, who are responsible for the bolding)
Let's just overlook the way the congressman suggests that being disabled is purely a matter of personal choice ("Tildy, looks like this is the last unemployment check—one of us is gonna have to chop off a couple of fingers and drive down to Social Security").
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple.
What's really intriguing is this concept of slavery as economic dependence rather than, say, being the property of another person, or being forced to work without being paid, under threat of violence. It's so—uh—different! Like what made them slaves in the old cotton economy was getting their food from the Big House; if they'd foraged it for themselves, they wouldn't have been slaves at all.

Here's another example (though it seems to have been edited by a Pajamas Media Gertrude Stein):
The congressman said that the regulatory environment is also “crushing” small-business growth in the country.
“So, I have to say it as it is. We do not want to see economic dependency or economic slavery become the mantra for the United States of America. It should be economic freedom,” West said. “But the policies of this and this administration doesn’t lend that so.” (my bolding)
Tooling around the Tubes trying to figure out what he's getting at, I don't believe it's a conservative commonplace; it looks like West owns it.  But there is something kind of interesting that I didn't know about, a whole social science paradigm going by the name of dependency theory or sometimes underdevelopment theory.

According to this perspective, the underdeveloped nations of the world are underdeveloped on purpose: you might say the developed nations actively underdeveloped them, to create a dependency of the poor states on the rich, which the rich could then exploit in the form of slaves (or at least cheap unskilled labor) and markets for surplus production; it was by this means in early imperialism that the Western countries accumulated the extra capital that funded the Industrial Revolution, and it continues today, presumably funding the Information Revolution, by massive offshoring of materially productive work to the Islands of the Underpaid.

Is the congressman saying that's what the S.S.I. is all about? Softening up the Lumpenproletarier so that they can more easily be enslaved? Is he suggesting they would be better off adopting the ideology of self-reliance, like the leadership of North Korea? Or throwing off their chains in worldwide revolution?

Tell us, Mr. West: What is your mantra?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lewd and unsupervised laddies

David Brooks just keeps hitting them out of the park. This time it's a Shorter Bill Shakespeare!
Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older.
But wait, there's more!
But suppose Henry went to an American school.
You might just want to pause and try to picture that, especially if you remember those early 15th-century haircuts. How would the Mean Girls react to this?
Judi Dench and Robert Hardy in Henry V, BBC, 1960
What Brooks has in mind is the old complaint about how our schools are designed for the "nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious," i.e., girls, so that boys naturally do badly. Brooks figures they'd be diagnosing young Harry with ADHD at an early age and no doubt pumping him full of Ritalin, and he'd end up rebelling, playing violent video games, or worse:
he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.
Which is hilarious, of course, because that's exactly what Hal did, without benefit of Ritalin. I mean of course not his ambitions, which were entirely specific and realistic, with him being the king's oldest son and all, but the lewd and unsupervised part. At sixteen or seventeen, he is spending all his time with the gang of Sir John Falstaff, drinking and whoring and occasionally participating in violent crime (highway robbery!*), a crushing disappointment to his dad. How does Brooks not know this? [jump]
Marin Shakespeare Company, 2007.
*We don't know that he actually commits highway robbery, or rather we only see him robbing Falstaff, for a prank, but it's money that Falstaff stole in the first place, his victims still tied up onstage.

It really does spoil the whole argument, too, because while we don't quite know what kind of school he went to, you can bet there weren't any issues about hands-on experience or competitiveness. Or girls, for that matter. And he doesn't present an alternative anyway, because he represents both sides of the Brooksian dialectic: he's rambunctious and courageous at the same time, and while he falls all the way into lewdness and subculture, he also rises all the way to "mirror of all Christian kings." Whichever upbringing led to one in his case, it led to the other as well.

Hal's youthful acting out is surely connected to the play's backstory, the subject matter of Richard II, which recounts how Henry IV originally attained the throne, through usurpation and murder. As 1 Henry IV opens, the king suffers from guilt and the fear of his own illegitimacy, and longs to take a Crusader army to the Holy Land to assuage his conscience; but he can't spare the time, because his erstwhile co-conspirators, particularly the Earl of Northumberland, are now conspiring against him.

Northumberland has a son, Harry Percy, who is presented as Hal's opposite, a son who devotes himself to the family business of conspiracy and civil war. Hal (Harry Monmouth) doesn't think much of him:
I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North, he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, "Fie upon this quiet life! I want work!" "Oh my sweet Harry," says she, "how many hast thou killed to-day?" "Give my roan horse a drench," says he, and answers, "Some fourteen..." (1 Henry IV II:iv)
And yet Hal himself has no place better to go than the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, with his ill-bred companions, while his brother John attends the councils of war in his place. He offers a kind of explanation, in a rather chilly address to the companions after they've left the stage:
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at...
But this isn't the real reason: he loves hanging out with these people, though he also treats them pretty contemptuously, and this strategy sounds like rationalization—suits me to live with you pigs for the time being, because I'll look so much better when I move out.

I think (and I'm sure it's not an original idea, though I don't know whom to cite) that he is rebelling, and what he is rebelling against is the guilt and corruption of his father's court, and his father in particular, the haunted old regicide, the original one whose head lies uneasy—and then if you read the soliloquy a little more broadly, taking the "you" to be not only the ill-bred companions but the whole kingdom, what he is really doing in his inglorious retirement is dissociating himself from his father and purifying himself, in this corruption rather than that one, for the day when he must be king after all—he has no intention, of course, of not being king.

What had absolutely nothing to do with it, in any case, was whether he made good choices at Circle Time or remembered to raise his hand before speaking to the teacher. And then when the call comes he shows up at the Battle of Shrewsbury, saves his father's life, kills Harry Hotspur, and generally covers himself with glory. He's a good kid in spite of everything!

Which brings me back to the boy crisis of our own time. When we look at the phenomenon—which is real enough, composed of real numbers in grades and graduation rates and college entrances—we always think of it as a technical problem, some flaw in our teaching technique, something missing from the classroom, something with a direct and mechanical kind of solution.

And no doubt there are problems at that level. Certainly the shrinkage in the time devoted to recess and gym over the years has made it harder for boys physically to bear being in school than it used to be; and the empowerment of girls has made it in a sense more threatening to boys, since they no longer feel any need to be inferior or subservient to boys in any way—not even to be afraid of math!

But mechanically school is hardly different from what it was 50-odd years ago. It was boring then and it's boring now. Only there's also a moral aspect, as with young Henry V, to which boys may actually be somewhat more sensitive than girls, which is that of the end to which we are forced to go there. It's in the gradual shrinkage of the curriculum to the math test and the English test, plus a little window dressing.

It's getting clear that school in America is no longer meant to broaden you out but to narrow you in; no longer to open us up to all the enormous variety of possible destinies but to bend us down to the small range of careers that remain available to most of us, at least the majority who can't go to those  nurturing-and-networking private schools. Forget the Crusades or whatever quest you have in mind: heed, and obey.

Maybe the boys can't concentrate because they've seen their beaten-down fathers and they know what's around the corner—the BS in accountancy and the 40 years in a cubicle, if they're smart, and sensible, and lucky; and the lewd and unsupervised if they're not. They will reveal themselves if they can like Prince Harry, at a time of their own choosing, or not at all. If you want them to perform the way they did in your generation you need to offer them an education worth having.

But you should have learned in college, if not high school, that when you bring out Shakespeare to make some dumb conservative point for you ("neither a borrower nor a lender be"), Shakespeare has a way of getting the best of it.

This is what I call Burkean minimalism and self-control.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sin tax and semantics

Willard Mitt Romney, having sent out his henchman on July 2 to say that the Obamacare mandate nonpayment fine-tax is not a tax even though the Supreme Court had just decreed that it was, by a majority of minus-eight votes,* came out himself on July 4 to agree with the Court. This latest flip-twist, by the way, is more than just a fun example of the difficulty he has agreeing with himself. Although it certainly is that.

I don't think he's ever made it quite so clear that while he lies with perfect cheerfulness, it makes him cross when he has to contradict himself. If he said the Obama administration has raised taxes on the middle class by 300% and you showed him evidence that this was not true, he'd just smile and repeat himself, quite comfortably; but if you showed him video of himself saying that the Obama administration had not raised taxes on the middle class, he'd be visibly angry.

I don't know why it is—it could be part of his definition of manliness, that if you have a lie to tell you should just tell it, squarely and boldly, not going all vacillating and equivocal. But since he does, in fact, contradict himself often, he's almost always just this side of a real temper tantrum. [jump]

*Just kidding. Everybody knows that it was a 9-0, 1-3-1-4, 5-4, 5-4, 3-2-4 decision, as NCrissie B carefully explains, and the liberal minority signed that piece of it; but we're free to believe that they didn't really agree with it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day

Kiss me Kate, London 2001. Dr. Google tells me that the star of the number is an English guy called Nolan Frederick.

Just sublime, from The Gay Divorcée, 1934. Try to watch it once through with your eye focused on Ginger, who is more than usually incandescent in her silent role.

Ballet Paula Gasparini, São Paulo, 2011. The video is not very good and the orchestra seems to be having some trouble here and there, but I like the special spelling of the title and the Balanchinerie of the women's arms.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Brooks trousers down in flames

A lot of really smart people have been out to toss their pies in the face of David Brooks for his explanation of how the Republicans really do have a plan for replacing Obamacare, but there's still more to be said, believe it or not!
Flying penguins. From Wikipedia.
Namely, all these people are rushing out to trash the imaginary Republican plan, with good reason, and you should definitely click those links. But what he has to say about the Affordable Care Act is pretty goofy too.
In the first place, the law centralizes power. Representative Tom Price, a Republican of Georgia, counted 159 new federal offices, boards and councils, though nonpartisan researchers have had trouble reaching an exact tally. [jump]

Monday, July 2, 2012

Better bred than red

Shorter Steven Erlanger:
The fact that the Socialist Party swept the presidential and legislative elections in France just proves that Bernard-Henri Lévy is right and socialism has been dead since 1968.
Or maybe that's overinterpreting. Erlanger, the dean of the diplomatic correspondence, seems to have been laying down this kind of solemnity for so long that he could have been the model for Proust's M. de Norpois,* and like Norpois, he knows how to stop well short of a conclusion, so that his argument can be read as leading to either of two opposed views, whichever one turns out to be the Received Opinion.

The trick of it is in deploying your quotations carefully. Let's have a little look at how Erlanger achieves that in this little essay.

*Here's a classic bit of Norpois, from À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs:
But forewarned, as we know, is forearmed, and he just kicked the insults aside,” [M. de Norpois] said, with even greater force, and a glare that made us stop eating for a moment. “As a fine old Arabian proverb puts it: ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.’” M. de Norpois paused, watching us to see what effect this quotation would have on us. It had a great effect: his proverb was well known to us. All worthy men had been using it that year instead of “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind,” which was in need of a rest, not being a hardy annual like “To labor and seek for no reward.” (quoted in Shut up, Proust!)
The Marquis de Norpois, portrait by David Richardson.
He begins by noting that socialism in Europe certainly isn't as radical as it used to be—
it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.
And he gets this view certified by the Left, in the form of two grand old soixante-huitards, now veteran Greens, Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who ought to know, since they're not as radical as they used to be either.
Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it — you don’t allow people to die on the street.”
So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.
Then he moves on to the Center, in the person of Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Thomas Friedman of French philosophy:
“There are no more socialists — if they were honest they would change the name of the party,” [BHL] told me. Socialism “evokes the nightmare of the Soviet Union, whose leaders named themselves socialists.” Today, he maintains, European socialists are essentially like American Democrats...
except of course American Democrats haven't gotten us single-payer health care, free day care, six-week paid vacations, worker representation on company boards, pensions a person can live on, and all the rest of it.

"If they were honest" they would abandon the name "socialist", which "evokes the nightmare of the Soviet Union." How's that? Dishonestly evoking the nightmare of the Soviet Union is how they won the election? Uh, no. The voters were probably not thinking too much of the Soviet Union. But BHL is always thinking about the Soviet Union...
Jeunes filles en fleurs (1969), by David Hamilton.

A bit of Erlanger's prose reminds us that France is indeed pretty socialist no matter who's in power; 
delegates at the Socialist Party’s summer meetings address one another as “Comrade,” a gesture to the past for a party largely made up of academics and bureaucrats — in other words, state functionaries, of whom there are many in France. The French state represents 56.6 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest figures in the Western world.
(Although I realize now that he means to be joshing the party for its elitism, not for its effectiveness in nationalizing the economy.)

This leads him back leftward to an actual socialist of sorts, Marc-Olivier Padis, who fascinatingly divulges that "Socialism here is very statist" (hmm, unlike what other kinds of socialism?) and then a hard-right swerve to Alain-Gérard Slama, who assures us that those who voted socialist were not in the main socialists (presumably meaning they were actually patricians like himself, who felt that it would be better to have the government run by nightmare socialists than by anyone as ill-bred and ungrammatical as Nicolas Sarkozy).

And then it's BHL one more time, mentioning that the real leftist in the presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, didn't even win a seat in the législatives:
He then aptly quoted Marx’s famous line about Louis Bonaparte, that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
( M. d'Erlanger paused, watching us to see what effect this quotation would have on us...)

You see? If you don't read carefully, it corroborates virtually any opinion you might want to have, but on closer study its meaningfulness just evaporates into the aether. That's refined opionionating!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The curious case of the penitent president. II

Obama's other little signal to the beleaguered but believing left came in an earlier, and more famous Times article, this one by Scott Shane and Jo Becker, portraying the president as he agonizes over his "nominations" to the Kill List of people to be drone-bombed in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Because he doesn't just kill people, we learned*; he has a very thorough and responsible procedure for making sure he only kills the right people. It's not quite due process the way we studied it in middle school, where they never mentioned this extrajudicial type of due process, but it's extremely due, so to speak. He studies their portraits and biographies, flanked by
"I'll be judge, I'll be jury," said cunning old Fury...
his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict. [jump]
 *It's the CIA in Pakistan that does that, not to mention going after those who try to rescue the victims, or march in their funerals. Whatever you say about the president, he clearly does a better job in his three countries than they do in their one.