Archive for January 2011

A Little Light Sunday Snark For Your Delectation — Outsourced Edition.

January 30, 2011

This letter to today’s Times nailed it, IMHO.  Mr Samuel Reifler of Rhinebeck, N.Y. (one of my favorite town names, for some reason) writes:

The bizarre behavior of Gil Meche, who gave up $12 million because he “felt bad” about taking money he had not earned, is a slap in the face to those toilers in the finance industry who courageously set aside their moral scruples and accept multimillion-dollar bonuses in the face of an economic crisis of their own making. It is to be hoped that Meche, in light of the example of those whose Ivy League degrees attest to a deeper understanding of this sort of moral and ethical quandary, will change his mind.

To which I can only add, in the spirit of this song, that there is some DFH in everybody.  (Michael J. Fox excepted, as always.)

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Image: Margret Hofheinz-Döring, The Miser, 1926.

Quote of the Day (The Philosophical Underpinnings of Galtian Fail–Historical Division) + a touch of self promotion

January 27, 2011

I’m reading a really good book, right now, a new biography of Adam Smith, titled, naturally enough, Adam Smith:  An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson.  I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, so I can’t give a real review, but so far it is a model biography:  well written, smart, learned without being oppressive, and above all remarkable in the way it rescues this thinker from the caricature Galtian saint that the market fundamentalists of the right would have him be.

In fact, there’s a passage early on that captures beautifully what the Randian and Tea-Party right (which is to say, the entire Congressional GOP, functionally at least) don’t get about what underpins the wealth and long term health of nations.  In it Phillipson talks about the roots of Smith’s ideas about the way the social world works — or must, if groups of humans are to prosper both materially and morally (two categories always intertwined in Smith’s ideas about human relations).  Discussing Smith’s education in the small-town school of his childhood and  youth, Phillipson writes that Smith was being taught to cultivate

…the ability Robert Burns was to characterize so brilliantly as seeing ourselves as others see us.

Which capacity leads to an approach to life lived in the company of others in which it would be not just possible, but valued to

exchange the company of cronies for the friendship of strangers who belonged to different walks of life….The company of strangers would teach one to moderate one’s own prejudices and would give one more ‘extensive’ views of the world.  It would encourage tolerance, taste, judgment and a respect for that sense of propriety that played such an important part in securing the decencies and pleasures of ordinary life…

The suggestion that exchange — not of goods but of thoughts and conversation — between strangers is an essential element in the forging of a livable life in an increasingly mass-society proved, Nicholson argues, enormously valuable to the young Smith, as it…

…gave him a way of viewing human beings as agents whose lives and happiness depend on their ability to cultivate the moral and intellectual skills they need to live sociably, at ease with themselves, with other and the world. They encouraged him to think of self-command as the essential skill on which sociability, success and personal happiness depends….

Smith wrote Moral Sentiments long before he completed The Wealth of Nations. The latter did not supercede the former; rather it was built upon the ideas Smith developed there about the ways in which a diverse society may endure the encounters of its disparate members.

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To me, there’s an almost perfect hint to the diagnosis of what ails our Palin-esque friends (and all those who use the marvelously consuming force of her crazy to obscure their own):  what we find there seems a photo-negative opposite to the notions above, that which Smith was absorbing to serve as the foundation for his theory of happy and prosperous social life.

Consider this a belated Robert Burns/Scottish Enlightenment celebration…

…and if I may attach just a bit of a programming announcement, if you want to hear my perfect-face-for-radio-voice this evening, Jay Ackroyd and I will be talking about my book, Newton and the Counterfeiter; the NRA and its hatred of science; and a bit about the post here of a couple of days ago about the possibility of new web-video undermining the hold of Big Cable on TV opinion mongering. Digressions are always possible, and given who’s talking, almost guaranteed.

Time: 9 p.m. EST at Blog Talk Radio, with the chance to take part in the “studio” audience in Second Life at the Virtually Speaking theater.

Image: Adolph von Menzel, Weekday in Paris, 1869

Might As Well Get This One Out Of The Way Early in the Superbowl Hype Fortnight

January 26, 2011

Consider this a diversion from real life.  Still a downer, a bit, (or perhaps just a PGO).  But at least it’s guaranteed Bachmann-free.  Give me that….

As a born-and-raised Bay Area kid, I grew up on Brodie, Stabler, Lamonica, Plunkett — and then the glorious experience of watching Joe Montana.  Steve Young was the lagniappe.  With all that, it took me a decade or two after arriving in Boston to start actually caring about the Pats, and we all know how that has turned out.  All in all, I’ve had a sunlit time as a fan of the NFL, Franco F***K*** Harris and his maculate reception notwithstanding.

But over the last few years — and this year more — I’ve found it harder and harder to stick with the games.  I used to joke about how pro football was just 22 supremely fit young men, all taller, faster, stronger and just flat out more wonderful physically that I ever could have been pounding on each other themselves for my entertainment.  It wasn’t funny then, and it is less so now.

How not funny?   It happens that yesterday I was at the doctor’s office, waiting for one of those indignities visited up on those of us on the far side of fifty, when I came upon that eternal resource of the waiting room:  old issues of Sports Illustrated.


I picked up one from last September, and came across this piece by Selena Roberts.  Here’s her lede:

This couldn’t be the right room. It was only a clinic door, but when he swung it open, Wesley Walls passed through a portal to his future. He stood among bingo-hall sharks with their sock-hop memories, their early-bird dinner plans and their new ceramic hips. Just 41 in December 2007—four years removed from a career as a Pro Bowl tight end—Walls found himself stretching with the oldies after hip-replacement surgery at a facility in Charlotte. “I was doing physical therapy with some of my parents’ friends,” he told me six months after his surgery. “It was like, Hey, you’re that Walls kid, right? I thought, Man, I am too young to be in here. This can’t be happening, not this soon.

Roberts trades in the controversial number that each year playing in the NFL costs the player one – three years of life expectancy.  On a quick search I haven’t been able to turn up any real primary data — it may be out there (consider this a bleg), but we already know plenty about what an NFL career does to the living. Reading Roberts reminded me of the first story to really erode my ability to watch the game with unalloyed eagerness:  the Boston Globe’s 2007 story about Ted Johnson’s descent into dementia.  (In some ways, this story is even more depressing, given the age of player studied.)

The dementia reports are heartbreaking of course, but at least there does seem to have been some coherent response from the league and the players association — a push for better helmets, new rules, all that.  But the central message of Roberts’ piece is obvious, really:   the game played properly is a meat grinder.

That said, all the familiar arguments apply:  professional football players are well compensated adults who choose and (most of them) love what they do.  The facts here aren’t hard to track down:  any professional player knows, or should, that careers are short and injuries are an inescable part of the game.

I’d bet it is true that most rookies coming into the league can’t or don’t begin to imagine lives at forty constrained by multiple knee operations or what have you — but twenty something males (and women too, of course — but that’s for some other post) in lots of lines of work get to make decisions that to their older selves will seem dumb as hell.  Why should football players be singled out for enforced wisdom?

They shouldn’t — and Roberts wasn’t and I am not arguing that the game should die to protect young men who’ve made the calculation (whether they know they’ve done so or not).

Rather, the issue in that article was the proposed shift to an eighteen game regular season in the NFL.  Roberts pointed out that such a shift adds the equivalent of a year of play every eight…and it would ensure shorter careers and less time for fans to watch any great players whose prime should properly by measured in hits endured rather than seasons completed.

So the only affirmative claim I’m going to make in this post is that Roberts, and Peter King and the lots of others who have argued this are absolutely right:  leave the game alone.  Roger Goodell and the owners have laid the proposed shift on the fans; it is said we want more real contests and fewer exhibitions.  To be as charitable as possible in the face of the obvious, that justificaton omits the fact that two more games means an equivalent boost in the cash the owners get to pull off the game.

So, despite the fact that no one who gets to decide here cares what this fan thinks, I’m saying no. Don’t lay that sh*t on me.  Sixteen contests per season (plus up to four more for the good teams) are enough.  I want the players whose remarkable skills have given me so much excitement over a lot of years to last.  Even more:  I’d like to think that they will have better than a puncher’s chance of being able to lift a grandkid over their shoulders later on.

That’s all — but for this: I make no claim for anyone else, and I have no wish to tell the next supremely gifted and smart young athlete how to live his life.  But I get to decide how I want to live mine.  I’m 52 now, certainly not wise,  but I hope more mindful of taking my pleasures at no one else’s expense.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to watch the game.

Images:  Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899.

François Boucher (1703-1770), after Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength: The Choice of Hercules or Hercules and Omphale, c. 1750.

Annals of the Village: Mickey Edwards edition.

January 25, 2011

This is so far from being important to the state of the Republic that you can treat what follows as a kind of duty-of-care post: it won’t add anything much to what we already know about the way the Villagers play, but we have to keep pointing and smirking as much as possible.  Naming and shaming is part of how we get our politics back, IMHO.

So after that sermonizing break, here’s a little item that caught my eye a couple of days ago from Mickey Edwards.

Edwards is wired; he’s active; he’s pulled every stop on the Village organ, and no one has ever said that he’s a dummy.

But his post telling us not to “Gloat Over Lieberman’s Exit,” almost comically gives the lie to that presumption of insight.  To begin a minifisking, here’s where Edwards transcribes Lieberman’s self perception:

The truth is, Lieberman is neither fish nor fowl, which makes him the kind of member of Congress we should all hope for; one who decides issues on their merits, not party dictates, and who listens to his constituents, not party insiders.

Well, except for matters like this, in which Lieberman consistently listened to certain constituents (give Mickey one there) but not to anything remotely like a majority of his electorate.

Reality 1, Edwards 0

Then there’s this:

…an opportunistic millionaire named Ned Lamont challenged, and narrowly defeated, Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary for the Senate…

This is just Village playground taunting, of course.  Ned Lamont is the opportunist, for the outrageous act of having dared to oppose Lieberman over a fundamental disagreement on the value of the Iraq War before running when no one else would.  Yes, he could run because he was rich…but given that this was one campaign (actually two, primary and general) truly argued over a crucial matter of policy, it seems a little odd to those of us outside the Beltway to call Lamont somehow untrustworthy for his decision to run.

And of course, there is the inconvenient fact that it was Joe Lieberman who made the decision of his own free will to enter the Democratic primary, and, when it came time to accept the decision of the voters in that election, chose instead opportunistically to take advantage of Connecticut’s quite forgiving ballot process and run in the general election as an “independent.”  (AKA, Lieberman I-ElectricBoat/Hartford Insurance).

But that’s OK with Edwards, because, as a true villager, actual democracy is awkward:

…in a race that highlighted the way in which closed party primaries distort the election process.

What?  I mean this is mostly gibberish, interpretable only when you realize that Edwards is here offering his voice to the Broderesque choir that sees a parrticular group of self-styled centrists as the only true party of government.  They’re not centrists, of course.  They are bureacratic-elite centralizers, those who want to govern in a father-knows-best manner with minimal checks. But they are deeply constrained, if not, sadly, utterly ingnorable, by the fact that actual people with particular views combine to select candidates to reflect those views, and place those candidates in elections in order to propel those views onto the national stage.

Closed primaries do not distort the election process — they are the process, where they are used.  They only distort if by that word you mean, make it more plausible that actual differences of view will be represented in the general.   It’s open primaries that are much more prone to manipulation — as we’ve seen as recently (at the Presidential level) as  Rushbo’s attempt to work mischief in his “Operation Chaos” nonsense urging his listeners to vote for Clinton during the primary campaign.

Edwards knows this.  He’s too smart, too experienced not to grasp the basic idea that allowing political parties to choose their candidates by themselves is not a threat to democracy.  Or rather, if it is, we’ve been in trouble in the US since 1792.  Why, then, did he write this?

Two reasons I can think of.  The first is that he is a lying tool adding his voice to the collective Village Pravda feed — but that’s not what I believe is the right answer.

Rather, it is that Edwards is suffering from a familiar disease, that narrowing of conceptual understanding that comes from too long within an environment in which certain ideas are simply inexpressible.  He writes nonsense because, like those cave-fish who have evolved the loss of sight, he has severed his own capacity to see himself and his companions as other see them. Spend too long in such a sensory-deprived condition (especially when that’s where they keep your iron rice bowl, of course), you diminish.

Hence this kind of elegy:

Agree with him or not, when a Joe Lieberman can no longer be appreciated or welcome in our increasingly uncivil politics we have indeed lost a vital part of the deliberative process upon which a vibrant democracy depends.

Again with the prophet without honor stuff!

Dude! Remember why Lieberman announced his retirement:  the citizens of Connecticut showed every sign of tiring of his act.  Given the dangerous persistence of incumbents most of the time, I’d say this was exactly the kind of development on which a vibrant democracy depends.  Why does Edwards disagree?

Lots of reasons, probably.  I’m guessing, for example, that he doesn’t believe that Lieberman should pay a consequence for his behavior on Health Care Reform, perhaps because he agrees with Lieberman, and disagrees with a majority of Connecticut voters.  But the closest thing to a real argument Edwards advances in the post itself comes here:

I, too, have argued that our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not in the nation’s best interest, but even if I disagreed with Lieberman’s assessment, there was no doubt that he was a man who had weighed the issues carefully and was doing what he thought was right.

No doubt? I wouldn’t be so sure of that…but that’s not my point.

That would be that to the Village, it is not the consequences of your actions that matter.  Rather, it is whether or not you are the “right” kind of person.  Lieberman meant well, according to Edwards, so it doesn’t matter that he was catastrophically wrong in his judgment on waging the Iraq war.

It’s a view that prevails too often. There were lots of things that molded the outcome of the 2010 midterms, but it was striking that so many Republicans who argued for exactly the same choices that got us into such trouble so recently still managed to claw back into power.

But even so that doesn’t make the “right kind of person” trope either coherent or good for the republic.  Lieberman was nearly bounced from office four years ago because he got Iraq wrong.  Now, the disaster is even more obvious.  Even if you were to grant that Lieberman in this case exercised his judgment sincerely, disinterestedly and in the hope of coming to the best possible decision, he failed.

This ain’t a game, folks.  A lot of people have died, more will, and the US will suffer consequences that range from lives and families shattered to infrastructure un-built and kids uneducated because Lieberman and others thought it was a good idea to wage a war of choice in a place and context that they thoroughly failed to understand.

Did we lose a vital part of our democracy when we tossed Joe Lieberman?  Only in the mind of someone for whom what leaders actually do doesn’t  matter.

We have got to get these folks into a new line of work.

Images:  Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1503-1504.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Grotto in the Evening, 1774

Cross Posted at Balloon Juice

Once More Into Comcast’s Breach:* KO’s KO Foreshadows Cable on the Canvas?

January 22, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Amidst the gnashing of teeth over the suspicious coincidence of Comcast’s take over of NBC and Keith Olberman’s disappearance from the air, my first reaction was, who cares?  Or rather, who really will notice?

That’s because I’ve been feeling, without much evidence, that cable blather is reaching a diminishing returns point, at least as far as political mobilization is concerned.  Certainly, their impact exceeds their actual reach. As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million.  In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so.  Not bad — but not exactly dominant either.  Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of.  His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings.  Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.

It is indeed horrifying that the top 11 programs in cable news are all Fox shows — but the point is that however successful Fox has been with its business model,** these are not impressive numbers within the mass media and in an electorate the size of ours.   Fox has had influence disproportionate to its actual reach — but it helps to remember its man-behind-the-curtain quality.

By comparison, Balloon Juice scored around 25 million total page views last year.  Obviously the two media are enormously different, and there is a profoundly distinct impact when a message is delivered in spoken word and picture over and over again.  A few hundred words on the screen, however successfully they start your rhetorical engines, can’t hope to set the same emotional hooks in its audience.***

But that’s not actually my point. Rather, it is that the experience of just this one blog demonstrates that there exists a means of distribution and engagement that reaches audiences that are within an order of magnitude of those of great big gazillion dollar media machines.

I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page.  But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production.  The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that.  But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***

Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy.  My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app.  In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it.  The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen.  No more.  More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.

That’s the missing piece.  Once it’s easy to find web TV on televisions, then the fortifications protecting  traditional content originators and distributors totter.

Which is why I think the bits and pieces of rumor I’ve heard about Olberman thinking about headlining a web network — even if they are wholly fantasy — is exactly the thought that ought to terrify Big Cable the most.

All of which is a long winded way to respond to DougJ’s prediction about liberal hosts on MSNBC in five years time.  My guess is that he’s right.  But I don’t see that I care.

The caveats:  Obviously, the mere physical capacity to create and distribute programming is no substitute for actual talent, smart program choices, tolerable production values and all the rest. It is the easiest thing in the world to make crappy, undiscoverable, utterly irrelevant web-video.  There’s already a surplus of such out there.

If a Left answer to the Right’s domination of traditional cable is to have traction, it will have to both concentrate creative talent and build a conceptual infrastrucure — some model to absorb and remake the notion of channels and shows and a programming schedule.  And of course the largest cost of anything remotely like a studio program or even a curated and organized repository of audience-sourced material lies with the people who drive the cameras, cut the footage and so on.  Cheap isn’t free — but when startup costs thousands (tens of, maybe) instead of millions, you’re in with a chance.

Most important, as we’ve seen with the print world, once the barriers to entry drop, the numbers of those who can do really interesting things grows.  That’s been true in radio for a long time — just check out stuff like the Third Coast festival or a lot of what NPR has catalyzed over the last decades. (And look at the new book Reality Radio if you want to learn about how folks like Jay Allison or Ira Glass,  the Scissor Sisters, the legendary Scott Carrier or the impossibly young Jad Abumrad — and many others all found their voices telling true stories in sound.)*****

Now the underlying elements are there for video too, in an almost zero (in television terms) cost of the acquisition and post production of video and a nearly costless network on which to “broadcast” the finished product — and in the existence (finally) of an audience equipped with the tech that makes it relatively easy to engage with what could be made with such tools.

I hope the left blogosphere takes advantage.  I’m now officially thinking about what I could do to help.  And you?  More the merrier, folks.

*Breach guys, not breeches. Geez. This is a family blog.*******

**And make no mistakes: Fox is all about the cash.  If dittohead hippies became a larger and more exploitable demographic than tea-tardists, you’d see changes.  Murdoch is vile boil on the body politic, but it’s C.R.E.A.M for him too.

***Mixed metaphor alert. It’s OK, kids.  I’m a professional.  Don’t try this at home.

****Not to gear-head up the main body of the piece, you can now shoot decent HD video on cameras that run $2,000 or less.  (You can do pretty well with a camera that runs $6-800, but if you go that route you (a) have to spend a fair amount of money on add-ons that the consumer gear does not possess and (b) have to be a really clever video person.  Smarts can substitute for money, up to a point, but the price paid is in all the work-arounds you need to deal with.)  Sound gear will run you a few hundreds more for a basic kit.  Lights — you can do a lot with “practicals” — the stuff you already have lying around — and a tolerable basic 4 head light kit is another twelve or fourteen hundred at retail.

I’m thinking like a documentary person here, not a studio guy — but the same deflators apply there.  A three camera set up with grip, lighting, and sound enough to mike two or three people could be put together on a shoestring of less than $20,000, perhaps even less than $10K if you really scrounged and dumpster-dived.  That’s a lot of scratch for any individual — but in the media landscape, in a context of blogs that reach tens or hundreds of thousands per day?  It’s not much of a reach.

As for editing — it’s become almost cost free as far as the tools go.  You need a reasonably recent laptop, some hard drives (many backups folks!  Be paranoid!), and if you are just doing studio stuff, the latest iMovie will do what  you need — at a program cost of something like $80 bucks.  Even the pro editing bundles are cheap now.

In sum:  while it is certainly possible to spend an unlimited amount on anything to do with motion pictures, the point is that  you don’t have to if all you want to do is get folks in a set talking to each other or scribbling on a black board — that’s the easy stuff, and it’s unbelievable for someone like me, who started out in the ’80s, just how many barriers to entry for creative types have dropped away.  Berlin Wall c. 1989, baby.

*****Which thought makes this perhaps the right place to let y’all know that I’ll on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd — commenter here from time to time, and an FP poster at Atrios’s place, Eschaton.  My slot arrives this coming Thursday, 27 January, at 9 p.m. EST.  I believe this all happens in Second Life — which is why, I kid you not, I’m having an avatar make-over tomorrow.  Come on down!  And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

******If you missed Rocky and Bullwinkle, you missed civilization.

Images:  Trophîme Bigot, Crying Man, 1625

Johann Heinrich Roos, Gypsies in an Ancient Ruin, 1675

Why Can’t Life Be More Like Reservoir Dogs?

January 21, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

The Tucson shootings have produced the predictable results:  as ever when faced with mass murder, deep thinkers like Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, along with armchair warriers from all over are arguing that the solution to gun violence is more guns in the hands of untrained fantasists.

As Tim F. pointed out at Balloon Juice several days ago, the story of an almost-wrongful-shooting at the Arizona massacre gave the lie to that nonsense.  Now Timothy Egan writes a really good piece for The New York Times Opinionator blog that drives the  point home.  Here’s a typical bit of Egan intelligence:

Gohmert has enough trouble carrying a coherent thought onto the House floor. God forbid he would try to bring a Glock to work. By his reasoning, the Middle East would be better off if every nation in the region had nuclear weapons.

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At least two recent studies show that more guns equals more carnage to innocents. One survey by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that guns did not protect those who had them from being shot in an assault — just the opposite. Epidemiologists at Penn looked at hundreds of muggings and assaults. What they found was that those with guns were four times more likely to be shot when confronted by an armed assailant than those without guns. The unarmed person, in other words, is safer.

Other studies have found that states with the highest rates of gun ownership have much greater gun death rates than those where only a small percentage of the population is armed. So, Hawaii, where only 9.7 percent of residents own guns, has the lowest gun death rate in the country, while Louisiana, where 45 percent of the public is armed, has the highest.

Read the whole thing — remembering as Egan writes at the top of his piece, that this is no deranged, Birkenstock-wearing, vegan, never-touched-a-gun liberal facist writing, but rather a lifelong westerner who’s been around guns since he could walk.

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The key to Egan’s presentation — what it adds to Tim’s discussion — is its deployment of data on the connection between gun ownership and gun tragedies.

When we talk about the role of violent speech in creating the context for actual violence, that’s a fuzzy argument.  I like many here believe the link exists.  But there is no doubt, as has been exhaustively and often dishonestly pointed out, that strict cause and effect doesn’t apply here. So right after the Tucson shootings, I called around a bit to see if expert opinion could add rigor to my gut reaction.  The short answer I got was, sort-of, partly because the control experiment is impossible to run.   Still, I heard, shooters are disturbed but not disorganized to the point of inaction — which makes it is very hard to escape the notion that they are no more immune to context than the rest of us — while possessing a much shorter fuse.

That’s not very satisfying of course, though the prudential logic seems ironclad:  violent rhetoric sure doesn’t reduce the risk of more mayhem, so it should be a no-brainer to tone oneself down, unless, of course, you just don’t have a brain (or a conscience).

But the point here is that there is no such waffling around the gun-gun tragedy link.  The correlations are brutal, literally, and as Egan documents, are present across different ways of measuring the violent consequences of widespread distribution of the tools of violence.

For another look at just such a measurement, check out this rendering of the geography of gun violence from Richard Florida . His conclusion, after a bunch of geolocative number crunching:

Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).

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While the causes of individual acts of mass violence always differ, our analysis shows fatal gun violence is less likely to occur in richer states with more post-industrial knowledge economies, higher levels of college graduates, and tighter gun laws. Factors like drug use, stress levels, and mental illness are much less significant than might be assumed.

The bottom line:  concealed carry laws and pressure to expand gun ownership and deployment will most likely lead to more Americans killing each other, with a depressingly likely growth in the number of those killed in error or by the fatal assumption that possession of a gun means that the other guy won’t shoot first, faster, and/or straighter.  (And it won’t matter whether that shooter is bad or merely one more citizen-soldier, lately risen from a couch placed in front of a 24 marathon.)

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I know that in our facts-are-optional/liberally-biased public discourse, none of this data will matter.  But I do think that we ought to keep trying to put a check on folks’ impulse to treat the guns they are going to get no matter what as costume accessories within some fantasy of mastery.*    Are guns the problem? Yes — but only in the context of their possession and use by people who don’t respect that what they have in their hands is a machine that by design delivers deadly force over distance.

So its in that context that I think we should push constantly for an insurance/liability approach to gun ownership. Want a gun? No problem.  But then you ought to be both civilly and criminally responsible for all that flows from your decision to purchase and keep a firearm…and just as you are required in car ownership to carry minimum insurance to cover liabilty, so should you be for your gun(s).

This is long enough, so I won’t pound through the details of what is, after all, hardly an original thought. But the basic idea is clear enough, I think — and certainly if the Right wants market responses to social problems, surely this qualifies.

And in the meantime, move to Hawai’i. (Or Massachusetts! We get snow. We don’t get (many) shooters.)

*I make here a similar disclaimer to Egan’s.  My grandfather and maternal uncle were career gunners, members of the Royal Artillery.  I spent every summer in ranch country, and guns were tools, handled by people who understood the care and use of all such gear.  I fired and enjoyed doing so a range of weapons, from .22 pistols to my high school biology teachers .30-30 rifle.

Images:  Francisco de Goya, Friar Pedro Wrests the Gun from El Maragato, c. 1806

Ilya Yefimovich Repin, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel, 1899

Decline and Fall Open Thread (Starbucks subvariant)

January 19, 2011

Belatedly cross posted from Balloon Juice

With the news that the new “Trenta”* size Starbucks will offer exceeds the average volume of the human stomach, I (a) gain the opportunity to say I’m not dead yet to this (very spiffy, suddenly) community…

…and more important, have an excuse to post a couple of really juicy bits of art appropriate to the news.

First, for all of you who may wish to revisit what might have been chemically aided visions of your youth, this:

(Next pic after the jump)

*I believe “Trenta” is Seattitalian for “Anti-Personnel Drink.”

And then, I suppose no kinder to anyone with a dread of flashbacks, there’s this:

Bottoms up all.

Images:  Hieronymous Bosch, “Gluttony,” from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, c. 1480

Hieronymous Cock engraving after Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices – Gluttony, 1558

Belaboring the Obvious (Or, why oh why does the GOP hate America so?)

January 19, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Here’s the shorter of everything that is going to follow from here:  if you are looking for death panels, to a pretty damn good approximation you can find one in the Republican caucus of the US House of Representatives.

What follows is a retelling of what we all already know:  health care reform repeal is a ticket back to a system that was long ago recognized as a disaster, a ride powered by zombie lies and a damn good media machine.

That said, in all of this, I detect just a glimmer of hope — if not for the persons of the uninsured still at risk, then perhaps for the body politic.

For example, today, as the House GOP seems about to succeed succeed in passing their repeal of last year’s health care reform act, that psalter of Village worship, The Washington Post notes that despite having run on “Repeal and Replace,” (italics added, obviously), there will be no replacement.  Rather, as the headline writer demurely announces, “The GOP lacks clear health care plan.

If you’ve lost the Post

No worries, mate,  says the GOP.  We don’t need no stinking plan.*

After all, the chorus dins, the consequences of continued survival of the health care reform would be catastrophic enought to merit repeal even without anything to put in its place.  Look! — we are told, The Worst Bill Ever will cost us 650,000 jobs.

That is, or would be a half percent bump to the unemployment rate, except, of course, it isn’t.  The AP just came out with a fact check, tracking back to the CBO research on which the GOP spinmeisters based their claim.  That bit of actual journalism revealed that the reason most of those who would not be working because of health care reform are doing so because they would no longer need to work — or as the AP reported:

What CBO actually said is that the impact of the health care law on supply and demand for labor would be small. Most of it would come from people who no longer have to work, or can downshift to less demanding employment, because insurance will be available outside the job.

“The legislation, on net, will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount — roughly half a percent — primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply,” budget office number crunchers said in a report from last year.

Which is to say, that half a percent change in the labor supply is not a half percent shift in unemployment: you are only unemployed if you are seeking work and cannot find it.

Instead of acquiescing in a matter of labor-statistical fact well known to everyone in the business, the GOP chose to do what they do so well:  make some stuff up, and then support what is technically known as bullsh*t by a bit of mathiness.  That 650,000 jobs “killed” number?  Some staffer took the total current employment number of roughly 130 million Americans and divided it by 200.  Hey presto! — an Obamafashist Jobapocalypse.  (See also this McClatchy debunking.)

But of course, everyone here knows about this kind of tactic, employed here in a mere skirmish in the long, long GOP War on Logic.  All I want to do in this early morning rant is to remind everyone of what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are actually trying to do with this attempt at repeal.

They propose to destroy a law that will reduce the deficit by a small but welcome amount; extend  health care coverage to approximately 70% of the currently uninsured; establish a number of pilot programs intended to explore both health care improvements and potential cost containment; and ensure that Americans in the time of greatest need cannot be denied coverage, despite suffering from “preexisting conditions.”

And in its place, the Republicans offer?….Nothing.

So the one message I want to keep hammering is that we need to remember exactly what the GOP says they want:

A system which costs much more and delivers less than those of our major economic contributors.

A system in which the GOP is, apparently, happy for the rest of us to continue to bear the burden of covering the unreimbursed costs of care for the uninsured — which is, in essence, a hidden $30 billion tax on you and me. (That figure comes from a paper by MIT health care economist Jonathan Gruber.)  They don’t seem to care about the larger economic context in which lack of portable, reliable health care is a drag on labor mobility and entrepeneurial ambition.

Worst of all, they are willing to accept that all 47 million uninsured remain so — many of whom are employed and who thus form examples of what Gruber terms the modal uninsured individual, the “working-class poor.”  That translates into exactly what John earlier today reminded us was what Alan Grayson was drummed out of respectable conversation for saying:

The GOP plan for health coverage for the uninsured is: die.

Back to Gruber’s paper, in a passage worth quoting at length:

A recent (October 2005) Institute of  Medicine (IOM)*** study reviewed hundreds studies documenting the health problems associated with uninsurance.  The IOM estimated that uninsured individuals use only half as much medical care as the insured, and have a mortality risk that is 25% higher, with over 18,000 people dying each year because of lack of insurance.9  The studies reviewed by the IOM, however, were mostly observational analyses documenting a correlation between a lack of health insurance and poor health, perhaps controlling for other correlates of insurance and health.  Few, if any, of these studies dealt with the endogeneity of health insurance coverage with respect to health status.

Several other studies have used careful empirical methods to more carefully document a causal impact of health insurance on health.  Hanratty (1996) studied the impact of the staggered introduction of national health insurance in Canada across the nation’s provinces, and found that it was associated with a 4% decline in the infant mortality rate and an 8.9% decrease in the incidence of low birth weight among single mothers.  Lurie et al. (1984) studied the removal of eligibility for public insurance for a large group of individuals in California (due to a fiscal crisis in that state in the early 1980s that forced the state to cut back its insurance coverage), and found that health deteriorated significantly after losing public insurance.  For example, blood pressure rose among hypertensive patients, leading to 40% increased risk of dying: overall, 5 of the 186 patients who had lost insurance had subsequently died, compared to zero of the 109 patients in a comparable group of individuals who did not lose insurance coverage.  Currie and Gruber (1996a, b) studied the expansion of public insurance across and within the U.S. states in the 1980s and 1990s.  They found that this expansion led to an 8.5% reduction in infant mortality and a 5% reduction in child mortality.

The shorter of all that: being uninsured is hazardous — and worse — to your health.

Like John, I’m infuriated by the fact that so far, the GOP has paid no political price for the barge loads of night soil they’ve dumped on this debate, and on us.

Unlike John, I’m just slightly hopeful that this will change.  The AP piece even more than the McClatchy one seems to me like a straw in the wind.  (When you’ve lost the Associated Press….)

I’m probably just playing Charlie Brown to the Lucy of the MSM, but maybe, just maybe, Boehner and his merry band of locksteppers will find it a little harder sledding than they thought.  It’s slow work, but it seems to me that the one thing we can do here in the media weeds is to keep offering the counter narrative — or rather, shout the real story loud and often enough to water the tender shoots we see in media coverage of the nonsense that is GOP governance.

Crappy metaphor.  But hell – I haven’t even made it half way through my first cup of coffee.

*Yeah I know that’s not the actual quote.  Pedants.

**That link takes you to an NBER working paper by Gruber. The figure referenced comes in Part 6 of the (unpaginated) paper.

***The IOM is the branch of the National Academies that deals with medicine.

Images:  Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, before 1679.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Woman, 1915.

I Hope Erick Erickson Lives A Long and Miserable Life Afflicted By At Least Six of the Ten Plaugues*

January 11, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

I’m working on a longer post on the question of causation, madness and murder, but I have to stop that for a moment of sheer rage.

Y’all know that I’m a bit squeamish in my language here — the way I write f**k and all that — but let me drop that reticence for just this once and say that I hope that notorious goatbuggering cretin, Erick Erickson, suffers every possible anguish reserved for those who see the suffering of others as evidence of their god’s love for them.  Fuck him.  Fuck him with a rusty hatchet.

Why say I so?

Because he had the wretched cruelty to write:

Through it all though, well meaning people on both sides of the ideological and partisan divide are not talking about the one thing that should be talked about — a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

(h/t Media Matters)

__

Just marvel first at the gutshredding stupidity of this — I mean, I know that Erickson is an imbecile, but surely even a man of his grotesquely limited capacities could recognize the problem of evil when, as in his own words, it steps up and whomps him upside the head?

Yup, sure, that’s my first thought:  kill a nine year old girl; shoot some nice lady through the left hemisphere, murder a judge, and the proper response is to reflect on just how much that Jewish love child Jesus has done for me lately.

__

In Jewish ritual, Shiva, the seven days after a funeral, is woven through with ritual and practices that center on leading those who have just lost someone through the most wrenching experiences of sorrow.  Among the traditions: those who would offer comfort a loss are enjoined to let the bereaved speak first — or not — and only when the mourner does should they respond, following the lead those who have suffered the lost give them.  There’s a reason for that: it’s so that gutless, self-absorbed, miserable excuses for humanity like Erickson don’t drop their trousers and beshit a house of bereavement.

__

In that light, what kind of shitheel tells those who have just lost all-in-all in this world that they should make (or should have made)  nice with jeezus and all would have been/will be well. Especially when the best known  victim, Gabrielle Giffords, is in fact Jewish.

SATSQ:  Shitheels like Erick Erickson.

Worse yet — he doubled down.

I mean, I  don’t think it takes a huge dollop of cultural sensitivity to realize that Jews — even or especially those, like me, drifting into committedly Jewish atheism, would find it both risible and hateful to be told to bow down to Jesus or go to hell.

Seriously.  He goes there:

…here is the reality: beyond us is a world we cannot see with our eyes. It impacts us on a daily basis. It is a world of very real angels and very real demons. It is a world of a very real God and a very real Satan, a very real Heaven and a very real Hell.

…And, frankly, at times like this I am more and more mindful of the great chasm in this world between the saved and damned.

To which I say that were there an Inferno, it would reserve a special place for one who says to those who have suffered and those who have lost all in all in this world that if they don’t make nice to his plastic jeezus they must suffer eternal torment.

As those struck by the Arizona tragedy already know, there is indeed a hell.  It exists in this world, and we sorrow for those cast into it through no ill-deed of their own.  Those who have true kindness in them — the saving grace of human mercy — will do what they can to ease the misery of those who have suffered so.  That worthless waste of sperm that is Erick Erickson would rather rub salt in the wounds.

Civilized people would shun the Ericksons of the world.  CNN has a choice.  For now, I make mine.  Til he goes, I withhold my eyes — from the channel, the website, the whole shooting match.

*Details here. I personally favor numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9, but YMMV.  Note the key point though:  I do not wish that Erick Erickson should die.  I do not seek to wreak violence upon his person.  Divine judgment, baby.  That’s all.

Images:  Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1612

Hans Memling, The Last Judgment, triptych, right wing (inner): Casting the Damned into Hell, 1467-1471

Weimar Politics in AZ

January 9, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

What do we know about assassination as a political tool?

It works.  Not always, but enough.

It can be effective even if the assassin is truly a lone gunman, truly crazy, utterly denuded of membership cards or explicit links to more formal political groups.

It achieved the desired goal for the Confederate Party when Booth shot Lincoln.  White supremacists were able to play the politics of the next decade or so to resume, through the ballot box and violent terror, a political dominance that would only begin to wane almost a century later, and is not all gone yet.

It was devastating in Israel, where the settler-Likud alliance managed to transform the course of Arab/Palestinian – Israeli-Jewish peace negotiations after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

 

And so on.  It works — when it does — because even though in the immediate aftermath of a political murder all parties may decry violence, the combination of the loss of leadership and the chilling effect of murderous force itself take their toll on the targeted side.

 

So, while I agree with those who say that this particular assassin may not himself be a poster child for the presumptive murderousness of the American right, I think, as John put it and Kay echoed:

The point we have been trying to make for the last couple of years is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.

Except I’d take this a step further, and say  — whatever the particular path this killer took to these murders — we need to follow that logic a little further, to look at what that rhetoric of hate is supposed to achieve. Sarah Palin et al., aren’t trying to debate. They are trying to gain power.  In that context, those on the right who chose to employ violent rhetoric do so to help gain ends that haven’t been won (or are too much trouble to acquire) by treading democratic paths.

 

 

This isn’t new, of course.  Let me offer one example of this kind of tactic taken to an extreme.  I spent most of a decade working on a book (Einstein in Berlin) — and in it, I spent some time engaging the tragic history of the Weimar Republic.  I’m not going to apologize for Godwinizing here, because, as you’ll see, Hitler and the Nazis don’t make an appearance in the episode below.

Rather, in the early years of Weimar, you find murder turned almost into  a precision tool of politics, long before the Nazi party appeared on the scene. Between 1919 and 1922, the violent right reasserted its presence in Weimar governance while destroying the core of skill and leadership available to the left through a sustained and devastating campaign.  As I wrote some years ago:

Emil Gumbel’s dismal report, “Four Years of Political Murder” demonstrated the depth of the danger faced by the Republic, and by the left.  “The right is inclined to hope that it could annihilate the left opposition…by defeating its leaders.  And the right has done it” Gumbel wrote.  “All of the leaders of the left who openly opposed the war and whom the workers trusted…are dead.”  … Gumbel concluded, “the effectiveness of this technique is for the moment indisputable.”

The climactic and most famous assassination of the more than 340 political murders committed in this early period of Weimar came in 1922, when Einstein’s friend, Walther Rathenau, then Germany’s foreign minister, was killed.  Here’s what happened:

At about 10:40 a.m. on June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau left his house in the countryfied suburbs of Berlin.  He settled into the back seat of his jaunty open car.  His chauffeur got behind the wheel.  There was no need for conversation between the two.  Rathenau, appointed Germany’s Foreign Minister less than three months before, drove to work each day along the same route at much the same time.  The driver put the car in gear and set out as usual up the Königsallee.  Germans are often parodied as creatures of order, and there was never a man who more aspired to be the perfect German than Rathenau.   By mid-1922 in Berlin, however, such precision had become not so much a routine as an invitation.

Rathenau’s driver drove on sedately, hugging the middle of the road.  About three blocks from the house he slowed to cross a set of streetcar tracks.  As he did so, a six-seater open touring car drew level with Rathenau’s automobile.  There were a driver and a young man in the front, and two more young men in the back, all wearing leather coats and driving caps.  A witness said that Rathenau looked over, as if worried the cars might crash.  At that moment, Erwin Kern, twenty-five years old, a former navy officer, leaned from the window of the overtaking car.  He rested the butt of his automatic pistol on his other arm and aimed at Rathenau.  The range was no more than a few feet.   Rathenau was looking at his killer as the man fired.  Kern shot  rapidly, five times — the witness said it sounded like a machine gun – and Rathenau slumped over.  As he fell, one of Kern’s accomplices stood up and pitched a hand grenade into Rathenau’s car.

Rathenau’s driver pulled over, then sped on to the nearest police station.  As he drove, the grenade went off, jolting the car forward.  The driver kept the car moving, though, and a young woman walking by, a nurse named Helene Kaiser, leapt into the passenger compartment.  “Rathenau who was bleeding hard, was still alive,” she said.  “He looked up at me, but seemed to be already unconscious.” The chauffeur turned the car round and raced back to Rathenau’s house.  His bleeding body was carried back inside, and set down in the study.  By the time the doctor arrived, Walther Rathenau was dead.

Who were the murderers?  No one, really.   They were just pissed off, underemployed, violent young men,* ex-military, (a couple of them), meeting and talking in the context of a sustained and successful campaign to paint everything about the Weimar democracy as a betrayal of the “true” Germany.

Kern and his band of four other disaffected students and veterans found each other, and began to plan to assassinate some Jew prominent enough to matter.  They settled quickly on Rathenau — he was the most obvious target, as made clear by the doggerel rhyme that had become popular among nationalist and anti-Semitic circles:  “Knalt ab den Walther Rathenau/die gottverdammte Judensau.” (“Shoot down Walther Rathenau/the goddamned Jewish sow.”)  The conspirators began to study their intended victim, learning his habits and his routes.

… A test run on June 20 convinced Kern that a revolver would not do; he would need an automatic to be sure of hitting his target.  He picked one up that evening, no great feat in the gun-ridden Berlin of 1922.  On the morning of June 24, car trouble almost sidelined the murderers, inviting unhappy comparison with the Serb gang that had by blind luck managed to kill the Archduke Ferdinand in that distant Sarajevo of June, 1914.  But the car revived just in time.  They pulled out of an alley behind the minster’s car.  Within minutes, Walther Rathenau lay bleeding to death.

Rathenau’s death marked more or less the end of the murder campaign.  But that was not because the outpouring of sorrow and anger at his killing finally compelled the German right to cease their viciousness. Rather, it was because the battle was won.  The left had been substantially weakened, and the stage was set for a resurgent center right — and ultimately, the far right as well.

History does not repeat itself.  The United States in 2011, after more than two centuries practice at constitutional democracy (and all our experience of its ups and downs), is not Weimar Germany, emerging from catastrophic defeat and attempting to master the arts of governance in the midst of international sanctions and constant internal strife.  Sarah Palin is no Erich Ludendorff, that’s for sure — for all her seeming willingness to ascend to power on her reputed skills with firearms.

But even if repetition is a myth, our past still echoes across time — and listening carefully, we may find clues to the meaning of what is happening right now.

Rathenau was murdered by sane conspirators motivated by those who created a climate of hate in which a disgraced militaristic right could return to the political arena.  Rep. Giffords was shot and others murdered by someone who may well be crazy — but that man acted within a context in which her colleagues and allies deemed it OK for an allegedly sane “leader” who lost the last election to post crosshairs over the names of her political opponents.  So here’s the lesson I draw from all of this:

The least we can do Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll, Christina Green and all the other victims of this murderous attack is honor them through acts of memory, so that whenever next someone advances or excuses the rhetoric of violence we say “no, not this time, not mindful of those we’ve already lost to this kind of evil.”  Naming and Shaming is not just good clean fun at this point; it’s a duty.  We have to do whatever we can to make it political kryptonite to play in that (quick)sandbox.**

As a late addition to that thought — if John Kyl, Senator and Congressional colleague to the terribly injured Gabrielle Giffords, thinks it “inappropriate” for the Pima County Sheriff to condemn the vitriolic rhetoric of talk radio and its consequences in Arizona, then he is, as Mistermix suggests below this, exactly wrong.  I’d go further.  In trying to muzzle the sheriff, Kyl is not just an assh*le. He’s part of the problem, an enabler of those who incite violence for political ends, and he should be contemned as such from every corner.

*An odd and sad footnote to that murder, the driver of the death car ultimately repented and recanted, joined the French Foreign Legion on his release, and was instrumental in saving Jews in Marseilles from the Holocaust.

**Not to self-link, and to make sure I relegate to a footnote my contempt for a mostly negligible person in our civic conversation, let me here echo DougJarvus’s snark about McArdle et al.’s defense of open carry protests at presidential events.   Here’s my post on that subject, with a full frontal assault on McArdle’s capacity for reasoning, moral or otherwise.  It was fun to write at the time.  Rereading it now just makes me sad.

Images:  Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesar, 1867.

Francisco de Goya, The Third of May, 1814.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Actor, before 1861.


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