Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What are we supposed to eat then?

Oh boy.

I've read about this for years, but this article seems to make it far more close to official: Plants have feelings. Plants have perceptions and memories.

Now what? Eat rocks or tin? Nope, says this article. They have feelings too.

As I said, Oh boy.

I knew it all the time, but thanks for the sourcing...

Jared Bernstein points to a great study showing that lowering taxes on rich people leads to growth only in an unequal society. And further, raising taxes on rich people leads to economic growth.

Actually, I am a little surprised by the second proposition. I have long viewed raising or lowering marginal tax rates as having very little effect on economic growth either way. If we want economic growth, we need (1) unions that push for squeezing out profits from an enterprise that would normally go to executives and (2) tariffs to promote domestic industry and services. You know, what Alexander Hamilton liked to say--well, only the second. He never experienced labor unions, and only saw local guilds in his time.

Still, I really got a kick out of the economists saying that a nice marginal rate for the highest income persons or entities should be 83% total income taxes (state and federal combined). Yeah, that's some margin, and one we would like to see at the billionaire level, whether it be after the first billion for ExxonMobil or for Warren Buffett.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dean Baker rips George Will while making a case for the USPS

Read it here. (ADDENDUM 11/28/11: And I wrote about the Postal Service here).

Is it that George Will is an idiot or is he corrupt? So hard to tell after so many years and so many instances of this sort of foolishness on his part...I tend to lean toward corrupt, only because Will is a guy who used to rant against "judicial activism" when judicial liberalism was in its hey-day (see his "The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts" (1978)), but recently says "judicial activism" is the way to be now that we have a far more conservative oriented judiciary. Will is a guy who rants against government power, but supports wars of choice until they become inconvenient; eminent domain to keep a sports team from re-locating (see his columns from the 1970s when the Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles); and government research into Down's Syndrome to help his Down's Syndrome child. And let's not forget Will's obscurantism with regard to climate change. That was almost an embarrassment for Will's enablers at the Washington Post, but he played the part of victim of activist harassment and survived to deliver more propaganda for a corporatist and GOP party political agenda.

Will is easy to ridicule when we deal with the specifics of particular issues because Will speaks and writes as if he is expounding on philosophical principle. He speaks in declarative sentences with a "just so" sensibility. It is, however, in the thicket of Will's particular policy prescriptions that one sees that the only principle Will has over the years is to support the ascendancy of the GOP and maintaining its power in the metropolitan corridor that leads to Washington DC, where Will is "made" villager. Even Will's change of opinion on the Iraq War II and growing concern over Afghanistan appears animated more by his concern for the GOP electoral prospects. His writing style, meaning the philosophy that he claims to invoke when discussing any particular issue, is what makes his columns so misleading.

Something to say when people rip professor salaries at universities as the cause of higher tuition

This Felix Salmon article is must reading.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Some nice sounds for Thanksgiving

I thought I had posted some Seekers before, but it did not show up in the index search. So here goes:

The Seekers
were this wonderful, kind and charming folk group from Australia. In the midst of the chaos and strife that characterized aspects of the 1960s, they were an oasis of decency and hope. They might seem sentimental to some, but there is a genuineness to Judith Durham's voice with the male band mates' harmonies that is simply beautiful.

Here are "I'll Never Find Another You" and "World of Our Own." Tom Springfield, Dusty's brother, wrote both songs, by the way.

And recently, I fell in love with a composition and arrangement from Ralph Vaughan Williams that I had not heard before: Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. This is so marvelous and, that word again, beautiful I find myself tearing up before it is over. I've written before about Vaughan Williams here. I also compared the outstanding Rachel Portman's soundtrack music to Williams here.

Today is a quiet Thanksgiving for my family and me. Our son has been ill all week, and hopefully getting better. I do love Thanksgiving for reasons I set forth early in this blog's history (here).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Embarrassment of American Party Politics

Bill Maher put it this way, "...(T)he Democrats moved to the right and the right has moved into a mental hospital."

Now, Republican speechwriter and former insider, David Frum, writes an essay in The New Yorker, asking "Where did my party go?"

Still, one wishes to say to Frum, let's not get too nostalgic for policies in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when and where Republicans supported a war against minorities in urban cities where they locked up minority men and threw away the keys, while leaving those cities to rot; sponsored terrorist attacks against peasants in Central American and Latin American countries; shot up the national debt between 1982 and 1989 that was equal to the amount of debt we accumulated as a nation between 1789 and 1980; gave the first modern tax cut parties for rich people who proceeded to buy Rolexes and spend their money building factories abroad; and thereby presided over the first wave of de-industrialization of our nation in favor of an ideology that owed more to the mean and selfish Ayn Rand than the frugal and yet fairly humane Herbert Stein.

But allow me to remind the Democratic Party stalwarts: The president who did the most to complete the Reagan Revolution was William Jefferson Clinton. He killed AFDC payments for welfare mothers. He shepherded the NAFTA and WTO through Congress on behalf of his financier backers (It was a cruel and sick joke that he ran on a platform of "Putting People First"; we just didn't know he only meant bankers and corporate executives), which codified the global trends of beggaring peasants and workers in favor of an emerging global economic elite. And Clinton, like his wife and now Obama, wouldn't recognize a labor union if they tripped over it.

And worst of all, when more money came into the federal government accounts than left it in those last years of the 1990s, Clinton squandered the political moment, where he could have called for a massive infrastructure rebuilding. Instead, we had to endure an impeachment because Clinton could not keep his zipper zipped. Worse, as the Old Leftist Alexander Cockburn and the libertarian Cato Institute are one of the few to point out, Clinton was not interested in infrastructure rebuilding had there been no impeachment. Had Clinton not had to defend himself from being removed from office by hypocritical, mendacious Republican Congress leaders, Clinton would have more likely promoted the privatization of Social Security (and we can bet he'd have taken a meat cleaver to Medicare right after).

Yikes!

So, rather than just pass the popcorn and relax as we read Frum's piece, let's remember that we landed in this mess through more than merely Republican recklessness, mendacity, corruption, murder and out and out craziness. We also landed here through a failure of nerve and deep corruption by Democratic Party leaders who continue to spend way too much time with investment bankers...whose idea of "liberal" means they have gay staff members with whom they are friends, and want to ensure their girlfriends and mistresses can get abortions when "mistakes" happen.

That's the definition of "liberal" for FoxNews pundits, too, and it's why New Deal ideas continue to simmer inside liberal think tanks, and have such a hard time finding traction in our political discourse.

Oh, and don't look for Maddow, O'Donnell, Schultz or Olbermann to blame the Democrats the way I just did. One or more of them will reference this Frum article, but only to discuss Frum's half the political equation. However, in a binary system, it takes two to tango.

(Whoa! That was a lot of mixed metaphors in just one blog post!)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Excellent take down of Gaddis' bio of Kennan

I am no fan of John Gaddis. I find him to be a shallow cheerleader for the recklessness of the American Empire. He has little understanding of the pre-World War II era, and his perception of American and Russian motives post-World War II blindly gives succor to the reactionary elements in American foreign policy.

It is a pity that, in the late 1970s, George Kennan, smarting over some revisionist accounts of his actions at the dawn of the Cold War, chose Gaddis as his biographer. Frank Costigliola, a writer with whom I have been unfamiliar, has written a powerful smack down of Gaddis' bio of George Kennan. Costigliola provides multiple instances of Gaddis slighting his subject, treating Kennan's views from the late 1950s forward as if Kennan was a doddering naive fool.

I wish I had sent a copy of my novel to Kennan when he was still alive, as I think he may have liked most of my portrayal of him (Use the "Search Inside" mechanism at Amazon.com by citing "Kennan" for examples of what I mean). In the novel, I give voice to Kennan and his views from the late 1950s to the late 1960s in seeking a grand bargain with the Soviets that would culminate in a pullback from Eastern Europe, with us moving mostly out of Western Europe--and his testimony in the US Congress against the Vietnam War. I also show Kennan's consistency (which seems even to elude Costigliola), which is that the way to understand Kennan's seeming twists and turns is to run his views through a prism of elitism. Kennan consistently favored protecting elites, even when they had behaved very badly--and murderously. It is why Kennan was one of the main forces behind the post-World War II Operation Paperclip and other Nazi recruitment activities, and why he wanted to protect Soviet leaders as the Soviet Union was falling four decades later.

Costigliola is absolutely correct that the definitive biography of Kennan remains to be written. Should another biographer undertake such a project, he or she should recognize first and foremost that Kennan is more often a voice of caution, a voice of the diplomat and a voice for an elite sphere of influence. Kennan's sensibility is that of a man of the late 19th Century, a man who wishes to live in a world of facts, who claims to disdain demagoguery, but who nonetheless may engage in a touch of propaganda if it is necessary to protect elite power. For Kennan, democracy was something dangerous, requiring skillful maneuvers to avoid allowing the "rabble" to rule--which is why he found the Sixties student movement's emphasis on procedure and flatline leadership so detestable.

A definitive biography of Kennan must give Kennan his full due, even when the biographer disagrees with Kennan. Kennan is sufficiently important in the intellectual history of the 20th Century to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Gaddis, Cold War triumphalist he is, appears to have failed to follow such advice.

ADDENDUM 11/18/11: This article by Jim Sleeper in Dissent shows how Gaddis has tried, without the same level of success, to follow Henry Kissinger's trajectory. Kissinger appears to use Gaddis, and to perhaps ensure Gaddis only succeeds so far, but no further.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stephen King's JFK book...

THIS COMMENTARY CONTAINS SPOILERS GALORE! BE FOREWARNED!

King's book, 11-23-63, was released the other day. I finally had a chance to peruse it this evening.

1. Let's give King kudos for his understanding that saving JFK is not really the answer to our dreams. King is fairly convinced that JFK was, in actual fact, an ineffective president, who, if re-elected, would not accomplish what LBJ did with respect to Medicare, civil rights and anti-poverty programs. I won't speak for King about LBJ, but I have long concluded that LBJ skillfully used JFK's martyrdom, in addition to LBJ's own legendary legislative prowess ("I've got his pecker in my pocket") to get those laws passed.

2. In later alternative years, Stephen King's story is a bit nuclear bomb happy in its assumptions. However, there is some reason to believe King's choice to succeed JFK in 1969 could have happened, though that fella would likely have changed political parties first.

3. I like the way King messes with timelines and his book shows he clearly understands the butterfly effect. However, since King's book is nearly 850 pages, I wish he would have edited down some of the gooey, little folks story of love and loss, and given more space to the Twilight Zone sensibility that drives the ending. Still, who am I to give such advice to an author who sells more books than Hewlett-Packard sells personal computers?

4. Notwithstanding the above, King's research struck me as limited on the subject of the JFK assassination. It's like he wanted to believe Oswald acted alone so his character wouldn't have to worry about more powerful forces like the Mob or renegades from the anti-Castro movement. King lists his main sources on the subject of the assassination at the end of the book, but he fails to identify the granddaddy anti-Warren Report writer of them all: Harold Weisberg. That is a strange omission.

At page 845 of his book, King says that no reasonable person can deny Oswald acted alone. Sorry, Steve. Ask some still living people such as Dan Moldea, David Kaiser and G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel for the House Assassinations Committee, and now a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School. They can tell you all about the Mob and the murder of JFK. Oswald was at best a patsy. And for those who think conspiracies are something that have to be rare, let's understand the legal definition of "conspiracy" is "two or more people engaged in an illegal act." In other words, conspiracies at some level happen every day, as any District Attorney can tell you.

5. From what I can see so far, though, King is in far better control of his material than Philip Roth was in his Lindbergh alternative history. Roth's book was weak for a few reasons, including: (1) Lindbergh was not going to run for president in 1940 as he hated politics as a vocation. His Dad, a former socialist oriented congressman, was hounded out of politics and he never forgot that; (2) Lindbergh was as much against financiers, despite his marrying into reactionary wealth, as against "Jews" (though even his degree of anti-Semitism was overstated by his critics) and (3) the ending to Roth's book, which consisted of trying to put back the regular time line and having Lindbergh go missing, was so weak as to be pathetic.

Overall, King's book strikes me as a better read than Roth's. His book seems almost jaunty in its prose. The story, in fact, seems more like "Back to the Future", a wonderful film in my not so humble opinion. There is also a Forrest Gumpian sensibility of nostalgia for the late 1950s and early 1960s America, which I admit makes me wince, as it over-glorifies the military warrior while denigrating the domestic dissenter.

In other words, the book is a winner for most of us Baby Boomers. The question will be how the younger age group--the group which grew up on wizards and vampires--sees it. I think the differences between King's novel and my "saving RFK" novel, which is supposed to be re-released by iBooks any day now, is that my novel is all about the alternative history. It is also not a love story, but an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction that tackles public policy, history and culture.

Last thought
: King proves what I had told my Dad as I began "A Disturbance of Fate." He asked, "Isn't it better to save JFK, since he was already president?" I replied, "Dad, saving Bobby is the way to go. Saving JFK does nothing for civil rights and the poor, and JFK stays on in Vietnam, no matter what Arthur Schlesinger thinks..." Whether King agrees with me that 1968 was the real focal point year, and that Bobby was the real force for positive change that year, is a whole other question...:-)

ADDENDUM 11/13/11: I meant to note something else of a literary matter: The alias name of the time traveler in the book is George T. Amberson. The name is from "The Magnificent Ambersons" by the great, but now mostly forgotten Booth Tarkington. The lead character's name in Tarkington's novel is George Amberson Minafer (his mother was an Amberson who married a guy named Minafer). So why the T. added? Because of Tarkington, I suppose. And where was Stephen King born? Per Wikipedia, King was born in Maine, but his father was born in Indiana. And who was born in and associated with Indiana, and most of whose books take place in Indiana? Tarkington. King has long been a careful reader of literature, and may well be a fan of Tarkington, as I am. I know King has had nice words for the most underrated writer of the late 20th Century, William Kotzwinkle, which again is interesting from an "inside baseball" (well, literature) perspective.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Maslin rips Vonnegut and we respond...

Janet Maslin, last seen writing a shallow review of a book about the Baby Boomers' Henry Ford, is now attacking Kurt Vonnegut. But at least Maslin's writing showed some punch this time in her review of the new bio of Vonnegut.

Still, Maslin's views about Vonnegut and especially his "later" writing have all the earmarks of someone who hangs out at literary professors' cocktail hours, but who has not read as much as she lets on. I have reason to doubt Maslin ever read "Galapagos" or "Hocus Pocus," which perfected a literary narrative style Vonnegut first experimented with in "Slaughterhouse Five." That narrative style is to stretch and pull back time as if time was a rubber band, and allow space to overpower time. Also, it is quite obvious from her review she is deeply offended by Vonnegut's simple but brilliant insights about human cruelty and how hard it is for people to be kind to each other. For Maslin, as with denizens of the lit-crit cocktail party circuit, Vonnegut is damned for exhibiting that supposedly worst trait in literature: sentiment.

Still, give Maslin props for a clever put down of Vonnegut at the end of her review: "Twitter might have suited him perfectly if he were still here." So it goes indeed.

The most unseemly attack in her review is not even the drive-bys against Vonnegut's second wife, Jill Krementz, though that is bad enough (Maslin herself seems uncomfortable with the bio author's attacks on Krementz, but feels no need to find out anything for herself). No, the unseemly attack is her view that Vonnegut was just a hack who kept recycling his stories to make money. This is distasteful because "Gallapagos" and "Hocus Pocus" were among his last novels, and as more knowledgeable critics than Maslin saw, were fairly remarkable works. Vonnegut was already in his late sixties by 1990, when "Hocus Pocus" was published--and Vonnegut was entitled as any writer with more than ten published novels to rest on any laurels later hurled his way. If anything, we should give Vonnegut credit for no longer trying to write a novel after "Timequake" (1997) as he publicly admitted he was running out of ideas for novels. And note: Vonnegut published no novels between "Hocus Pocus" and "Timequake." He knew when to quit, which again is worth acknowledging.

The definitive biography of Vonnegut remains to be written, though Gore Vidal still has it right in saying the lives of most writers should be--and mostly are--less important than the work they created. With Vonnegut, that is definitely true, even when we are tempted to learn more than what is hinted at in his "memoir-collages" such as "Palm Sunday" or "Fates Worse Than Death".

PS: When Vonnegut died in 2007, this is what I wrote at the time. I should add that after he died, I finally decided to complete my reading of his novels, reading "Jailbird" and "Deadeye Dick." I found the latter to be his saddest novel, yet quite moving. Still, I adored "Jailbird" for its more humorous pathos.

Krugman exposes the dodges on the latest proof of deepening economic inequality

Read it here.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

That'll teach the financiers to rip off my blog name...

I see MF Global has filed for bankruptcy.

I noted in the last year or so that it had created a blog it called "The MF Blog."

That'll teach those financiers to rip off the name of my blog, which has been around since May 2005....:-)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

You've just entered...The Euro Zone and the Middle East Night Gallery

I have watched the events in Europe concerning Greece's default with concern, coupled with mild contempt--and a touch of amusement.

When asked by friends or colleagues about the situation, I have consistently said: Europe essentially set up a federated economic republic with regard to the European Union. If a poorer nation in the Union suffers, the rest of Europe should step up and help through the main European Union government.

Instead, since the 2008 recession decimated Greece, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, we've seen the more powerful nations in the European Union dither and quack, and there has been too little too late in terms of help. That is not what the Greeks signed up for when they gave up their own currency for the Euro.

Therefore, when the European bankers and their conservative governments led by Great Britain, France and Germany, force feed austerity measures that are beyond the pale, it is just fine by me that the Greek government said, "Let's see what our people think of this idea of yours..."

Just as the US should help Mississippi when it gets into economic trouble, so too should the European Union help nations like Greece when the Greek government and society are in trouble. Otherwise, what's the point of the Union?

I see tonight that Bob Kuttner appears to agree with me. I must admit we generally agree on these things, so I am not really too surprised...:-)

And over in the Middle East, I see tonight the Israelis are showing they are still not interested in peace: More settlement building in the West Bank? Really?

I continue to say the Palestinians declaring themselves a state is a good thing because it strengthens the two state solution, regardless of what hardline Palestinians think. In fact, sober people ought to find it odd that Hamas and Iran are in agreement with Netanyahu in opposing Palestinian statehood as Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, has proposed in the United Nations.

Of course, Israeli right wingers and Islamic fundamentalists may not be so strange bedfellows when we recall from history how Israeli intelligence services actively supported the development of Islamic fundamentalist groups against then Palestine Liberation Organization leader Arafat. Look up that story sometime if you want to shake your head in sadness...