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Monthly Archives: January 2012

What We Do Not Want to Hear Anymore

January 28th, 2012 - 7:11 pm

NO MAS, MR. PRESIDENT

The State of the Union could have been written by a computer program. All the now familiar Obama furniture was in the room: the mock outrage at “them,” the psychodramatic first-person boasting (as in, “I will oppose..,” “I will not work with…,” “I will decline…,” “I will not stand by …,” I will not cede…,” “I will not walk away…,” “I will not back down…,” “I will not go back…”); the now customary rear-view-mirror jab at his fading predecessor; the monotonous promising that something is so bad that we must have a new program for it (each year the same threat, the same solution, the same failure); and the silence about the Obama legacy of stimulus, debt, and ObamaCare.

But the people are tired and simply by now shut their ears. Here are five things in the current age that exhaust us.

Go Pay For It Yourself!

What is it about debt that Mr. Obama does not get? Please spare us any new programs or initiatives. We owe now $16 trillion. America is borrowing at the rate of $3 billion-plus a day. So please, Mr. President, no more Solyndras. We did not want or need Cash for Clunkers. There is no money for more expansions of food stamps. Nothing is left for student loan reprieves, high-speed rail, or anything else. To propose any new expenditure would first require some honest disclosure, like the following: “I wish to borrow $10 billion at 3% interest to lower student loan debt and I propose to pay for it by selling off 1000 new oil leases.”

The problem with these Obama initiatives is not just that we do not have the money and must borrow to pay for them, but that we feel most of them only make things worse, whether by subsidizing another mortgage for someone who is by market standards not likely to meet the loan payments and would be better off renting, or by paying some insider crony to make and sell solar panels at a loss. Again, chill on the new programs, and just start paying off what you already borrowed. Outside government, psychiatrists often treat with mind-altering medicines the unstable who compulsively charge things that they cannot pay for and do not need.

Enough Bogeymen, Already

What is it about George Bush that obsesses Obama? It is now January 2012, 40 months after the September 2008 meltdown. So let us finally quit scapegoating “they” (“In the six months before I held office…”; “In 2008…”) who did such terrible things to poor us. Instead, accept the truth about both culpability and responsibility.

Wall Street crooks were only one third of the equation. Another third were equally dishonest and greedy insiders at Freddie and Fannie, such as Clinton hacks like Franklin Raines, Jamie Gorelick, or James A. Johnson, who made millions for themselves without much banking expertise, and were egged on by congressionals like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. who hid their own conflicts of interest with high talk about helping the poor. That the three chiefs of staffs in the Obama White House were all Wall Streeters who made millions, in part from the housing bubble, is proof enough of the revolving-door, get-rich schemes. (I don’t remember any particular banking skills that Rahm Emanuel ever displayed that would result in $16 million in profits from two years on Wall Street. Apparently he was a fat cat, a millionaire, and one who did not know that at some point that he already had made enough money.)

The other third party, of course, was “we.” We were not forced to buy homes by “them.” Some of us were greedy and wanted to keep flipping real estate and got caught when the music stopped. Some were stupid and leveraged their homes to pay down credit card debt and write off the interest — or take on even more consumer debt. Some were always better off in an apartment or rental. True, some just bought at the wrong time; but that’s called “bad luck” and not quite the result of a mustached black hat forcing an innocent widow at gunpoint to sign on the dotted line. What are we to think when the president thunders, “We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them”? What does “we learned” mean? Did we ever not know? And what does his passive-voice “had been sold” mean? Are we to learn now that it does not mean “bought”? Americans did not “buy” houses, but were pried out of their beds to have too costly homes “sold” to them?

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The Latest Scandals

Taxes: What does it matter that Gingrich released one year of his tax records? Any candidate can prep them a year in advance. Were I running for office a year or two down the road, and were I cynical, this year I would triple my charitable contributions, cut back on freelance writing to lower my income, and trim my deductions — on the assumption that one transparent year would be proof of thirty out of sight. So to be fair, Gingrich and all the candidates, if we go down this full-disclosure road, should release the last three years of returns. If so, I suggest that Gingrich will have as many tax/income problems as Romney.

Women: The Marianne Gingrich Nightline tell-all was a bust. In theory, we must sympathize with her: 60-ish, without much income, suffering from MS, forced to watch her ex — now soaring, both financially and politically, without her and without apparent acknowledgment of her long support for his career that must now be evident in his success — with insult added to injury as Newt parades around a younger, more attractive third wife as if he were a perpetual honeymooner. But to hear her is almost immediately to wonder, “Hmmm, let’s get this straight: you are mad that Mrs. Gingrich III and Newt did to Mrs. Gingrich II what you and Newt did to Mrs. Gingrich I? If you were sick and penniless when he left you, so was the poor first wife whom you once replaced.”

I wish I could believe (because I want to believe) that fidelity is essential in a leader, but unfortunately history tells me that Charles Lindbergh was a better pilot and inspiration than his more moral rivals, that the wayward George S. Patton saved thousands of lives by his brilliance in a way the more admirable but limited Omar Bradley did not, that the randy Bill Clinton was a better president than the devout Jimmy Carter, and that recklessly promiscuous JFK was no worse and probably more effective than loyal Richard Nixon. But marriage has so many variables (the devout husband can be mentally cruel and indifferent, the noble wife can be a shrew, the publicly supportive spouse can privately forgo sex, the faithful husband can be lazy and a leach), and leadership so many contours (natural brilliance, rhetorical flair, stamina, courage), that fidelity in marriage simply cannot quite trump them all. Was the wonderfully devoted Harry Truman a better president than Dwight D. Eisenhower (who once or twice probably strayed with his chaufferess), and if so, was it because he never looked at other women other than Bess? In short, the ABC interview was a dud. It only confirmed that dragging out a 12-year-old story on the eve of an election told us more about the morality of ABC than of present-day Newt Gingrich.

Romney’s money: Cannot Romney explain that, to be blunt, he does not have, and does not need, a regular day job any more? And therefore he does not pay taxes on income? In other words, cannot Mitt say that he once was so skilled or lucky that he made enough to allow him in retirement to either sell assets yearly, or buy and sell from his ample portfolio and therefore be taxed at the capital gains rate? The same unapologetic defiance should apply to Bain. If one devotes his career to winning the good life from taking over, trimming down, and selling companies, and one is not solely interested in cashing in and others be damned, cannot he in one minute, Newt-style, explain why he is a sort of personal trainer that both profits and does good from beating the out-of-shape into shape, and that when he cannot work with the flabby and unresponsive, he moves on?

The alternative is the sort of well-intentioned stumble in which the viewer sighs, “Come on, Mitt, you can do it. Don’t apologize or don’t gloss over, but explain, your success!”

Newt Gingrich

Why his death/resurrection/death/resurrection candidacy? His so-called checkered past and shoot-from-the-hip binges ensure that, on any given day, something arises from his past (women, book deals, consulting, etc.) or he says something provocative that leads nowhere (dressing down federal judges) which confirms the general take that he is too unstable for executive governance — a charge buttressed by the fact that Gingrich has never run a state or a business. But then, just when the op-ed writers and worried Republican elders write him off, he begins his comeback by questioning, rather than merely critiquing, the entire liberal experiment.

So he attacks the nature of the journalist’s question rather than answers it; he rails at overspending but in an existential way that suggests it is a symptom of a deeper malady; he assesses his rivals in the abstract as well as the personal. That takes gumption and talent.

The effect on primary voters? Gingrich becomes their everyman. He speaks for the beaten-down conservative, sick of reading about D.C. insider politics, race-baiting, crime, media bias, or apologizing abroad, as if to say, “I am your idea guy, your own PhD know-it-all, the good D.C. insider on your side who knows how the bad works, and I’ll out-talk, out-argue, out-think, and out-emote the entire Ivy-League elite Obama technocracy.” (Though I am not so sure he would win a debate with Obama given the exposure he offers through so many claims of multifaceted genius.)

So how long can the wild Gingrich needle graph go up and down, given his uncanny ability to die and be reborn a thousand times? I’d say about a month longer when one of two things will occur. One scenario: He is so thoroughly vetted that no more disclosures can emerge and he stops expounding ad hoc on Newtology in a way that confirms an undisciplined and wacky nature. In that case, he has a 50/50 chance of winning the nomination, regardless of the current status of his funding, organization, and endorsements. Or, we will hear yet a new Newtism (e.g., something like another neo-Marxist take on Bain Capital), or yet another brilliantly unworkable plan that serves as a proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and the voters collectively sigh that they prefer Romney and pray he is not Dole, Bush Sr., or John McCain, more convinced that Gingrich is a Goldwater albatross rather than a Reagan savior.

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So Why Read Anymore?

January 16th, 2012 - 9:51 am

Is Reading Good Books Over?

There is great “truth and beauty” in Homer’s Iliad, but I would not try to make his sale on such platitudes. Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains a classic. But I confess it can be hard to get through. Conrad’s Victory or Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, if authored by writer X this year, would be trashed on Amazon.

So what are the reasons, in this age of the iPhone, Xbox, and PlayStation — or Fox News blondes and HBO — to sit down and read old stuff for an hour or two each week?

Here are a few reasons other than the usual defense of the “classics,” the “canon,” and the glories of “Western civilization.”

Mental Exercise

The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much — indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca, but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.

By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony — a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading. The actual vocabulary of our present youth seems to me reduced to about 1,000 words or so. “Like,” “whatever,” “you know,” “cool,” and other pop culture fillers now substitute for entire phrases, a sort of modern porcine grunting. The Greeks used particles to accentuate vocabulary and guide syntax; we used them instead of vocabulary. Our syntax, both written and oral, is reverting to “Spot is a dog”: noun, verb, predicate — period. How did incomprehensible slang, spiced with vulgarity, become an object of emulation? I used to listen to farmers without college degrees speak wonderful English; now to listen to a member of Congress almost requires a translator.

Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.

A Master of Words

Think for a minute: why did the Right often ignore the contradictions of Christopher Hitchens, and the Left mostly give up most of its anger at him? He was not necessarily a classically beautiful stylist, and could be needlessly cruel. He wrote no great history, no great novel, no great single essay that we can instantly recall in the manner of an Orwell or Chesterton. But Mr. Hitchens surely was a rare and gifted writer, polemicist, and savant. To read 800 words was to learn something new in passing. Even in his most ridiculous rant, a nugget of wisdom could be uncovered. A reference to an obscure Eastern European politician might appear side-by-side a line from Wordsworth — and would make a better illustration of his argument than just showcasing his erudition. He mastered the odd, even perverse turn of phrase, the ability to juxtapose the colloquialism next to Latinate pomposity, or to write a ridiculous 10-line long sentence, stuffed with semi-cola, dashes, cola, and commas, followed by a two-word noun-verb sentence that a five-year old could produce. In short, Hitchens was a voracious consumer of texts, and the result was that he achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore. He could hold, even shock, the reader or listener from sentence to sentence, moment to moment.

But We Are So Much More to the Point

But you object that at least our current economy of expression cuts out wasted words and clauses, a sort of slimmed-down, electronic communication? Perhaps, but it also turns almost everything into instant bland hot cereal, as if we should gulp down oatmeal at every meal and survive well enough without the bother of salad, main course, and dessert. Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation. Unfortunately these days, those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard. In this drought, Dante’s Inferno and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico provide needed storms of new words, complex syntax, and fresh ideas.

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The 2012 campaign is heating up and we can see the outlines of an impending us/them class war. But in our strange 21st-century world, lots of crazy things blur the president’s 1%/99% divide. We watch the super-rich struggle for ever creative ways of blowing their money to distinguish themselves from the rest of us (cf. Johnny Depp’s [$50 million in income last year] hosting of a creepy, expensive costume Halloween party at the White House, in the style of the idle 18th-century French court).

Meanwhile we see the “poor” near rioting over buying the first few pairs of Michael Jordan $200 sneakers, or mobbing for big screen televisions on holiday shopping sale outings. Are we mad that too many are really poor, or that too many are simply unequal, in the sense of not having what “they” enjoy — a “they,” however, that cannot quite figure out how all their money leads to all that much better a life? I am sorry, Mr. Obama, but for all the Vegas-junketeering, no-time-for-profit rhetoric, I simply do not believe the one-seventh on food stamps, or the 48% who pay no income tax, are suffering like the starving 19th-century Norwegian immigrants on the windswept Dakota plains of Ole Rolvaag’s epic Giants in the Earth.

Capital for What?

I am not suggesting that poverty or life in the lower middle class is not tough, only that in comparison to past centuries, hardly as tough. Being “poor” is certainly closer and closer to those for whom life is pretty good — and yet this blending of the classes is entirely ignored by our class warriors in Washington. Life in “poor” nearby Selma is far different from Warren Buffett’s. Or maybe it isn’t really — again, in the sense that I’m not sure he bathes, eats, dresses, or goes to the doctor in ways we out here cannot.

In the year 2012, would a retiree be living better off the interest of $1 million — saved over a lifetime of work as a self-employed contractor — or would the beneficiary of an average public pension? Would you prefer to be working at 62 at the DMV making $50,000, or a near-retired real estate agent, in a down market, at 62 surviving on the “earnings” from the $450,000 in your 401(k)?

Suddenly, the income from stored wealth seems almost nonexistent. I speak to a few affluent groups and often afterwards hear that those who retired in their early sixties, and who are now in their mid- or late-eighties, have no income. You say, tough luck? But most are gradually consuming their capital and selling off assets — a great leveling effect of the ages. (Just wait until the second-term Obama administration decides that non-interest-earning $300,000 in the bank qualifies you as rich, and thus ineligible for need-based Social Security payments: it is not just that you will be punished for playing by the rules, but that the rules themselves do not matter much any more.)

The value of capital not spent is in decline. The interest on it earns seldom over 2-3%. It is lost easily in today’s wild Wall Street. It won’t show much immediate growth invested in a depressed housing market. Saved capital declines faster in value than the interest it earns — given the recent soaring prices of food and fuel. What is so good about saving up for retirement? To try to get a once despised 6% on your savings is to risk it all. If the president had his way, the capital that earned almost no interest would be taxed away at death anyway.

Debt—What Debt?

In the car today, I heard the usual con ads on the radio. Got problems with the IRS? No problem, we can renegotiate that away. Too much credit card borrowing? No problem, we can settle it at half what you owe. That mortgage of yours unfair? No problem; we can renegotiate it for you and forgive some of the debt. Often there is a vague reference to some federal program that some of us are eligible for. Lately I heard ads from the Department of Agriculture, reminding me that if I belong to some such minority group, I can sue if I felt I was discriminated against. (Who are the “they” with all the money to forgive all the debt?) Are we back to the Catiline conspiracy and calls to “forgive debt and redistribute property”?

When In Doubt—Sue!

Then there are the law firm ads: have you suffered whiplash injuries, been turned down for a job, worked with asbestos, had a bad drug reaction to brand X, been discriminated against, had a pass made at you, fallen on a banana peel? If so, the local John Edwards-like law firm will sue on your behalf. Fresno has just announced that its latest lawsuit settlement has pretty much exhausted the city’s self-insured fund for the year (but is it not month 1 of 2012, with 11 more to go?), with over a dozen other claims pending. What happens when we all become litigants and we run out of targets? Who is to play Germany to our Greece?

Like in Petronius’s Croton, where there were lots of con artists and far too few wealthy to con, things get ugly.

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Being There — the Obama Sequel

January 5th, 2012 - 6:32 pm

Rip Van Obama

President Obama went into a deep slumber in December. When he woke up this January, he found himself back even in the polls, with neither a press conference nor another overhyped presidential televised address to be heard. Sleep, quiet, and solitude — all that appears wiser than campaigning, visibility, and speaking, both for Obama and Americans. In short, the president has really hit on something: an Obama going into a Rip Van Winkle somnolent state might just mean waking up again as president.

If conservatives once alleged that Obama got elected as Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner — the empty vessel that all put their hopes and dreams in — they might complain even louder that he now plans on getting reelected as him as well, as if 2009-2011 were now a dream and we are back to fall 2007 when a political unknown proclaimed himself a new Lincoln declaring his candidacy from Springfield.

Meanwhile, Fratricide

While the Republicans were tearing each other up in Iowa, to the delight of the liberal media, Barack Obama said not much at all from Hawaii. He did not have to, given that no Republican was offering a simple anti-Obama plan to drill for gas and oil as never before, repeal Obamacare, balance the budget, reform the tax code, and redo Social Security and Medicare. Instead his would-be opponents argued over who voted for what fifteen years ago.

We heard from the press and other Republicans in Iowa that Cain was a supposed womanizer, Romney a liar, Gingrich a blowhard and hypocrite, Perry clueless and tongue-tied, Paul a nut, Santorum a whiny complainer, Bachman a loser, and not much of anything about Huntsman. Who cares that the debt is hitting $16 trillion, the Iranians are enjoying our reset diplomacy, Iraq is heating up after our departure, and we are talking to the Taliban via the Muslim Brotherhood? Who mentions that our rendezvous with Obamacare is daily coming closer? Or that the Simpson-Bowles commission, the super-committee, and all talk of the debt is now but a distant, bad memory? Does it matter that Obama decided not to follow federal immigration law and will sue states that do? What are recess appointments when the Congress is not in recess? While Obama sleeps, all sorts of strange things do not.

As this circular firing squad went on in Iowa (strangest of all was the New Newt Gingrich’s 30-day new persona of senior statesman grandly proclaiming unity and civility — only to descend into the Old Newt proclaiming Romney a “liar”), each couple of days Barack Obama’s poll ratings inched back up. The more he kept out of the news and kept quiet, the more his negative and positive ratings went back in sync, until they are today about even, a radical shift in just about a month — and as a result of doing absolutely nothing. Do Americans sort of like Barack Obama the more that they do not see or hear much of him — at least while they hear too much of the Republicans ripping each other apart? After all, in 2008 with no record or much knowledge of his past, Obama The Idea was adored; in 2011 with a record and a fledgling history, Obama The Flesh and Blood was not. Why then not go into deep sleep, do nothing, let his surrogates loose, and let voters’ imaginations run wild with past fantasies and dreams — especially in comparison to the screeching of fratricidal Republicans that for now precludes any reexamination of a mostly disastrous presidential record since January 2009?

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The No News Stories of 2011

January 1st, 2012 - 10:04 am

The German Stereotype

There were lots of stories that left a lot unsaid. The Germany/EU debt imbroglio was one of them. The more Germany’s 80 million people were looked upon to bail out the 120 million of Mediterranean Europe—if not still more in France and Eastern Europe—the more in our politically-correct age we never quite were told how this could be possible.

German Octopuses?

Did Germans not sleep? Did they each have eight arms? Was Germany itself sitting on secret oil reserves? Did it have tons of stolen war gold horded in its vaults (as some Greeks alleged)? Had it harnessed a new type of energy? How strange to be told that Germany was the new heart of Europe but never to be to told how and why?

So how, in fact, did a humiliated Germany of 1919, a Germany after the ashes of 1945, and a Germany stung by a $2 trillion bite in absorbing a ruined East Germany in 1989, find itself—as Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand once feared in 1989—once more adjudicating the history of Europe? Were we terrified of stereotypes that were cruel to Germany (goose-stepping automatons were back again?) or that were cruel to southern Europeans (the Danes and Dutch were likewise solvent in comparison to the siesta-napping, and perennially shouting sunny Mediterraneans)?

Is there such a thing as national character or habit—both having nothing to do with race—in our postmodern age? In the 21st century, can we still say that Germans go to bed when Athenians go to dinner, or that they more likely consider tax cheating theft rather than ingenuity, or that they make things to work well rather than just make things to sell? Is it that when you go into a German bank you are served, and when you go into a Greek counterpart you witness an unending coffee break? Do tiny habits like your bus driver going down the aisle to collect trash versus throwing it out the window add up? When I see two Greek drivers scream and gesticulate at each other in Omonia Square over a tiny fender bender—as four lanes are shut down for their fifteen minutes of machismo — and, in contrast, watch two German drivers on Neuhauser straße in Munich exchange information, shake hands, and help push their dented cars off the road, does all that 1000 times a day also make a difference?

Is there a reason, aside from weather, why one would rather relax for a week in the Aegean than in Berlin, or retire on the Costa del Sol rather than in Bremen? For all the angry op-eds about the unraveling of the EU, no one quite walked us through exactly what Germans do each day that makes them different from other Europeans—although most who have visited Athens and Munich, or walked through Rome and Copenhagen, or sat in a café in Madrid and Frankfurt might be able to offer journalists some help. Of course, throughout 2011, I did read clever essays advising readers about how not to walk into this trap of believing in archaic and stereotyped notions like national character when some esoteric and almost unfathomable “real” cause (Thucydides’s aitia) far better explained the differences.

Iran: If Only …

Iran was another incomplete story this year. As the year ended, the Iranians were once again, in North Korean style, sounding off about their great navy closing the strait of Hormuz, attacking “foreigners” and all the other 1% probability nutcakery that responsible powers must nevertheless prepare for.

Oh, the efforts we go through to explain Iranian hatred of America, as we search endlessly for the “moderates” and remain puzzled over how in the world anyone could not like Barack Obama. Ad nauseam, we hear of 1953, Mossadeq, and the Shah—never that we originally found ourselves involved in Persia not for oil (cf. the British), but in World War II to supply communist Russia against the Germans, and then afterwards to ensure the Russians did not do to Iran what they had done to most of Eastern Europe. From 2007-2009, we heard from Obama about reset and dialogue with Iran, and “face-to-face” negotiations. And we got all that and much more.

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