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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Cause or Effect?

February 22nd, 2012 - 9:08 am

The Heritage Foundation has a series of graphs which appear to depict two trends: an ever increasing dependency of the American population on government transfer payments and a narrowing income tax base. It writes, “it is the conjunction of these two trends—higher spending on dependence-creating programs, and an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers who pay for these programs—that concerns those interested in the fate of the American form of government.”


The Official Truth

February 21st, 2012 - 4:09 pm

The Associated Press reports a White House apology for burning Korans in Afghanistan.  The books in question were apparently “removed from a library at a nearby detention center because they contained extremist messages” taken to a garbage pile and burned.  “Press secretary Jay Carney says it’s a ‘deeply unfortunate incident’ and doesn’t reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people.”

Readers will recall that a year into the President’s term, CNN reported Bibles had also been burned — intentionally and as part of policy. “Military personnel threw away, and ultimately burned, confiscated Bibles that were printed in the two most common Afghan languages amid concern they would be used to try to convert Afghans, a Defense Department spokesman said Tuesday.”

The unsolicited Bibles sent by a church in the United States were confiscated about a year ago at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan because military rules forbid troops of any religion from proselytizing while deployed there, Lt. Col. Mark Wright said.

Such religious outreach can endanger American troops and civilians in the devoutly Muslim nation, Wright said.

“The decision was made that it was a ‘force protection’ measure to throw them away, because, if they did get out, it could be perceived by Afghans that the U.S. government or the U.S. military was trying to convert Muslims,” Wright told CNN on Tuesday.

Troops at posts in war zones are required to burn their trash, Wright said.

And that’s where the Bibles belonged. In the trash, by policy. Recently Newt Gingrich raised the question of whether these types of decisions are really religious questions or one of intellectual honesty. The former speaker of the house argued before an audience that the real problem in Washington was the dismaying tendency to make policy on the basis of fantasy. First you lied, then the lie became official, and finally the lie was funded by billions as if it were the truth.


The Most That You Can Keep

February 21st, 2012 - 10:16 am

An opinion piece carried by the Associated Press contrasts what Erica Werner calls the new “spare, fundamental” American Dream to the “rhetoric from Obama’s 2008 White House campaign.” The soaring promises have vanished; in its place is the new line that Obama is the best candidate to keep you from losing it all. “With the economy showing no signs of life: no jobs, mortgages they can’t pay, dwindling retirement funds and college savings,” it is hope of a different kind. The residual aspiration is you can actually have a “job, a house, a college education for the kids, health care, money for retirement,” some day anyway.

The article quotes Xavier professor Michael Ford, who explains that the downsized dream is pretty much all anyone can still believe in without laughing out loud: “It’s pretty basic stuff (Obama) talks about and I think as it turns out that’s pretty much where the dream is right now.” But Werner says it’s working, because now Change You Can Believe In is real. Hoping for food on the table is so much more convincing than promising the oceans will fall and the Earth will begin to heal.

And speaking of food, MSNBC says a new poll shows Americans really want smaller portions at food outlets:

What if the server at your favorite fast food joint asked if you wanted to downsize your order, instead of asking you to supersize it? That’s a strategy that might make some patrons happier — and a lot thinner, a new study suggests.

Consumers want higher gas prices too. Describing the steps necessary to remove the carbon threat driving global warming, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” It was an idea the president opposed — unless it could be done gradually:

I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment. The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment, first of all by putting more money into their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more quickly, particularly US automakers, then I think ultimately, we can come out of this stronger and have a more efficient energy policy than we do right now.

Then presumably higher prices would be alright. Some on the Democratic Party’s left wing argue that this does not go far enough: a certain amount of poverty — just how much is open to debate — should be an actual policy goal. Greedy Western capitalist consumers already consume too much of the world’s resources, so the thinking goes. Lower levels of resource consumption are actually good for the Earth. Then there is the argument from necessity — that higher levels simply can’t be delivered. Sorry if President Obama campaigned on them — he misspoke.

James Kunstler writes that President Obama had better get down to managing expectations. He will need to:

Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. “Consumerism” is dead. Revolving credit is dead — at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.

If contraction and downscaling are indeed the case, then the better question is: why don’t we get started on it right away instead of flogging rescue plans to restart something that is DOA?

Why not get started on downscaling indeed? Why not change the optics on the American Dream? The new watchword should be “keep all that you can keep.” Rhetoric is equally useful when describing the valleys as well as the mountaintops.

When Edward Kennedy eulogized his brother Bobby, Ted paraphrased his deceased sibling’s catchphrase, itself derived from George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” But that is so Sixties, an age when more seemed better. Today the motto should be: “Some men see things as they are and say why? I say, why not less?”

The Guardian calls doing with less “an exciting idea.” In a piece that begins by expressing its disgust at American crowds stampeding through shopping malls on sale days, it paints the picture of a newer, better — and yes, ok, poorer world. Poorer yes, but cooler and trendier too:

Rachel Botsman, a “social innovator” who has presented her ideas at Downing Street and before Microsoft and Google executives, retells the event in her book, What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live. “It’s a sad and chilling metaphor for our culture at large — a crowd of exhausted consumers knocking down the doors and ploughing down people simply to buy more stuff.”

Botsman rails in the book against the excesses, futility and contradictions of mass consumption, but she doesn’t rehash the usual tropes of anti-consumerism. Rather, her book is a cry for us to consume “smarter” by moving away from the outdated concept of outright ownership — and the lust to own — towards one where we share, barter, rent, and swap assets that include not just consumables, but also our “time and space” …

“Cars are 90% under-utilized by their owners,” she tells me from her home in Australia. “And 70% of journeys are solo rides. So we now see car club companies such as Streetcar proving very popular in cities. In Munich, BMW now has a scheme where it lets members pay for a car by the minute rather than by the hour. And websites such as ParkatmyHouse.com are allowing people to make money from unused space outside their properties. A great example is a church in Islington, London, which was facing financial trouble. But it started renting parking space out front and it now makes £70,000 a year from doing so.”

Isn’t that exciting? And even if it ain’t, perhaps we’ve got no choice. Carpooling, smaller portions, vehicles left in the garage for lack of gas and barter. These had a name once: it was called poverty. Today it’s just smart consumption. It’s good for your soul too, as a figure of speech of course, since Heaven does not exist and Hell isn’t as bad as it was cracked up to be, now that it’s here.

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My Country ’tis of Thee

February 21st, 2012 - 1:43 am

All through the crisis period of 1969-1972, when the Philippine Republic was collapsing, I faced with the same problems every teenager had. Namely, a crisis of identity. “Who am I?” During that period there were  a number of competing centers around which one could form an identity.  There was, for example, the political and chess-club environment of the Student Council. Alternatively, there were the portals to the underground, which were even then opening to me. But my own private sanctuary centered around a small circle in the suburb of Pasig, Metro Manila, the home of who I will refer to as the S sisters.

I’d walk in from wherever I’d come from and become immediately immersed in music scene of that extraordinary house. The one rule in the house was that you became American, or a reasonable facsimile thereof for the duration of when you were there. And we listened to Stevie Winwood, Jethro Tull, PF Sloan. Whoever.

Angela S, who was one of the sisters, presided over it all. She was perhaps one of the most attractive women of her generation. Not that she was pretty. But she was damned attractive on account of her intelligence and verve. I didn’t know a single person who didn’t want to marry her.


702 Rue Vermont

February 20th, 2012 - 2:04 pm
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When Occupy Wall street was rousted from Zucotti Park, they had an idea. Instead of camping out in public spaces, they would occupy homes on behalf of the homeless, thereby highlighting not only the evils of capitalism, but demonstrating the positive good of hope and change. The initiative was called “Occupy Homes”. Their first attempt was at 702 Vermont Street.

It had been the home of one Mr. Wise Ahadzi, who “was forced to leave in 2009 when he couldn’t make the mortgage payments to Bank of America.”  But for some reason, he didn’t present well, so Occupy cast Alfredo Carrasquillo “as the man to move in, because he was a homeless advocate some of the members knew.”

Any misgivings Ahadzi felt were allayed by Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) who would inaugurate the Occupy project. Ahadzi was assured that he would be taken care of. What could go wrong?


Bad Habits

February 19th, 2012 - 6:26 pm

Scene is familiar. Half naked kids beg for food in the streets. Poor people search through trash cans for food. Soup kitchens close their doors on long lines of people still waiting to eat. Professionals leave for overseas.  People squirrel their money into foreign bank accounts.

Welcome to Europe in crisis, or at least to Greece. The approved word for poverty in Europe is “social exclusion,” a concept invented to describe people who had not yet been brought into the European Social Model. It  “refers to processes in which individuals and entire communities of people are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources (e.g. housing, employment, healthcare, civic engagement, democratic participation and due process) that are normally available to members of society and which are key to social integration.”

According to the European Statistics Office in 2010, 27.7% of people in Greece, 24.5% in Italy, 19.3% in France,  25.5% in Spain and 25.3% in Portugal were “socially excluded.”  As a whole 23.4%  of[r] around half a billion European citizens fell into this category.

Medecins Sans Frontieres is watching the rise of infectious diseases and malaria in Greece, things it believed were gone from Europe.  How did it come to this? Nick Cohen of the Guardian is beginning to understand that collapse of southern Europe is the direct consequence of the European political project:

Currency union is — self-evidently — a disaster. Admitting that would bring a loss of face too great for the European elites to bear. To take the most discreditable example, Germany and Holland have benefited enormously from the single currency holding down the exchange rate for their goods, while imposing effective tariff barriers on southern Europe.

Still, it was all done with the best of intentions. Even now, admitting that a mistake has been made requires more gumption than most politicians can manage. For years the European Social Model — and Europe itself — was such an act of faith that to express skepticism would have been blasphemy. It still is.

The EU cannot take responsibility for what it has done and be magnanimous for reasons British readers may not grasp. Raised in a Eurosceptic country, we do not understand how an absolute commitment to the European project was a mark of respectability on the continent. Like going to church and saying your prayers for previous generations, a public demonstration of commitment to the EU ensured that the world saw you as a worthy citizen. If you wanted to advance in Europe’s governing parties, judiciaries, bureaucracies and culture industries, you had to subscribe to the belief that ever-greater union was self-evidently worthwhile.

To the Left, the real problem with Europe was that it could not rid itself of the last taint of capitalism. Cohen recalls his conversation with “Liana Kanelli, spokeswoman for the Greek Communist party, about her country’s crisis”:

[S]he flew off into a rage about how the 1999 Nato intervention to stop Serb nationalists slaughtering Kosovo Muslims was an imperialist plot to extend capitalism into the Balkans.

Unfortunately the aspirin of fantasy can no longer palliate the hell into which southern Europe is descending. Kanelli is getting her wish, and the last vestiges of capitalism are being driven from the country.

University of Athens economist Panagiotis Petrakis ticks off the indicators: standard of living down, by as much as 30 per cent; bank deposits that have not been spirited out of the country are dwindling; almost 70,000 businesses folded in 2010 and bankruptcy is stalking more than 53,000 of the remaining 300,000; unemployment, 25 per cent – but youth joblessness is 47 per cent and rising; a quarter of the population living in poverty; homelessness, up 25 per cent, with well-educated youngsters accounting for much of the rise. Petty crime, doubled.

On top of all that Petrakis detects a slow run on the Greek banks. “It means a slow death for the economy,” he forecasts.

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Play the Game

February 19th, 2012 - 4:24 pm

The headlines are hilarious in their own way. AOL writes, “MSG posts questionable image of New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin”. And this from CBS local: “Is Knicks Sensation Jeremy Lin The New Tim Tebow?”

And of course there’s ESPN’s tagline, the “Chink in the Armor”.

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“Chink in the Armor” is a great line,  but ESPN outdid themselves in followup interview asking whether Lin now intends to date Kim Kardashian. The question was no doubt sincerely intended to flatter, but …

It may all seem exceedingly infantile and stupid, but there’s a deadly serious point to all of it.  Maybe all new ‘celebrities’ have got to be oriented into the right attitudes; shown into the narrative mold. Otherwise they will be out of place. The nudge will come in a hundred different insidious ways. But it won’t stop until the new entrant into the limelight emerges in the approved fashion.

Packet Collisions

February 17th, 2012 - 5:51 pm

How much would you pay someone not to do something? How much would you pay somebody to go away? In one of today’s Drudge links there’s a picture of President Obama touring the Boeing plant in South Carolina that he had tried to close.

President Obama rallied with union workers at a Boeing plant in Washington, but he praised the manufacturing conducted by Boeing in South Carolina, even though his National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) tried to close the South Carolina plant at the behest of the Washington union workers.

“So this company is a great example of what American manufacturing can do in a way that nobody else in the world can do it,” Obama told the assembled workers this afternoon at the Everett, Wash., Boeing plant …

The NLRB dropped the complaint in December after Boeing signed a new contract with the machinists

The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein argued that the NLRB “helped unions shake down Boeing” by pushing the complaint, which would have cost over 1,000 non-union jobs in South Carolina, until the union received the new contract.

A paper in economics describes the difference between racketeering and government.


The Plight of the First Bored

February 17th, 2012 - 1:09 pm

Kenneth Anderson at the Volokh Conspiracy makes the observation that Occupy Wall Street is really about the return of the aristocratic problem of primogeniture, though he calls it the problem of “trendy supply meets trendy demand”. “My point … was to observe that the Occupy movement was in large part about elite intra-class struggle, between an upper tier elite that was (and is) doing pretty well, and a lower tier elite that faces serious pressures and downward mobility.”

Back in the days of the landed aristocracy, when the size of the family wealth pie was fixed to the acreage of the desmain, every aristocrat had the credential but only the first-born actually had the money. “In Western Europe, most younger sons of the nobility had no prospect of inheriting property, and were obliged to seek careers in the Church, in military service, or in government.” The same phenomenon may apply to Occupy, where people in possession of academic credentials find themselves flipping burgers or working as housekeepers. Angry and unwilling to seek careers in the Church or the military, these princelings naturally prefer an expansion of government jobs to keep them in suitable employment.

But it’s a trap.


Jeremy Lin: The Wrong Kind of Guy

February 16th, 2012 - 8:09 pm
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USA Today tries to understand why what ought to be ordinary — success in America — has created a sensation in the media. After all, lots of players get recruited into the NBA without attracting this much attention. But Jeremy Lin’s story is different. The answer from the media is that the unusual attention arises from an obsession with race.  You see, not every valued NBA up-and-comer hails from Taiwanese parents in San Francisco.