Archive for June 2010

On the low expectations of bigotry: Chuck Schumer/data matters edition

June 14, 2010

Picking up a thought from before the weekend, when John Cole posted on a gem of insight moment of uncharacteristic clarity from the senior senator from New York.  It was notable for an admission that the Gaza blockade has as its overarching purpose not the military one — but a collective punishment, a starve-them-out intention.  Schumer said that beyond the search for weapons, the blockade is

actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere. And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.

Alright — that’s grotesque.  (Not to mention stupid:  last time I looked near-starving someone’s kids was not the best hearts and minds strategy, but maybe that’s just me.)

You didn’t need me to tell you that.  Cole, and the folks over at Think Progress caught the malevolent absurdity of this is a strategy.  (I am not a huge sci-fi fan, but I’ve long thought that John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider was more than worth the price of permission.  It’s last thought (paraphrased):  treating human beings as things defines evil.  To echo the tradition in which both Senator Schumer and I were raised, such thoughts are the outcome of giving in to one’s yetzer hara.)

But there was another line that really struck me as evidence of the damage done not just to Schumer’s credibility, nor simply to the Middle East and US policy towards same, but to our whole politics:

The Palestinian people still don’t believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution. More do than before, but a majority still do not.

There’s the rhetorical cheat there:  “The Palestinian people don’t….More do than before….” which leads to the Which-is-it response.  And this isn’t mere pilpul* either:  the answer matters to policy and the approach to any hope for a peace process.

If the numbers of Palestinians welcoming a two state solution is growing, then it would be worth knowing why and how one might encourage it.  And while arguing from a priori principles is not all that helpful in lots of real-world situations, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, again, that starving someone’s kids until they concede the point is not obviously the best way to go about nurturing human empathy between communities.

But there’s a bigger problem here.

Schumer is not telling the truth.

As of 2007, a substantial plurality of Palestinians favored a two state solution.  46% in fact, with 26% seeking a single, binational state and about a quarter refusing to choose between the two alternatives.  To suggest, as Schumer does, that Palestinians are committed to the destruction of Israel to the exclusion of other possibilities is to give cover to those in the Jewish community who oppose a two-state solution — some of whom, one must sadly note, are now in cabinet positions in Israel.

Now, 46% is not a majority, to be sure; Schumer could perhaps cover himself with a figleaf.  But it is a strong majority of those expressing an opinion, and damn near an absolute one.  The clear implication of Schumer’s remarks, if not the most charitable reading of it, is that the Palestinians obstruct the path to peace, leaving the poor Israelis with no choice but to devastate Gaza.  And if the numbers are now worse (as, data-less, I’d bet they are) then that’s a useful datum too.

And even if they are, that result doesn’t make me forgive Schumer’s sin here.  He makes a claim.  There are data that bear on that claim.  They contradict it.  Schumer himself roundly ridiculed the Republicans for their refusal to pay attention to the real world in the matters of health care and financial reform.  He gets no more lee-way, for this good reason:  it’s too damn easy in politics/policy to choose to ignore inconvenient data.  It makes the narrative run better, and the country run worse.

If this is a science blog, this is where that heritage comes in.  The one great virtue of science is that it has a method for both uncovering facts about the world and analyzing them.  It is not a perfect system; no human enterprise could be.  But it is damn good, and it has built in the mechanism that permits self-correction.  And most of all, it is a practice, a habit of mind inculcated through years of training and acculturation.  That we desperately need such practice in politics, Senator Schumer inadvertently attests.

*in the colloquial, derogatory sense.

**That Judaism that is, in his words, “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” combined with a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.”

Image:  “The Siege of Tripoli,” before 1400.

In the Matter of the US vs. Bush…

June 9, 2010

not yet indicted for confessed war crimes, I give you an amicus brief from Ambrose Bierce:

PARDON, v.  To remit a penalty and restore to the life of crime.  To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude.  (From The Devil’s Dictionary)

That second definition applies particularly well to the accused’s partner in such crimes, the also not-yet-indicted Richard Cheney.

That “not-yet” should most likely read “never” is merely a reflection of a my suffering the lapse of mind Samuel Johnson described in defining a second marriage: “The triumph of hope over experience.”

Image:  William Hogarth, “The Bench,” 1758.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong…Health Insurance Reform/Great Depression edition

June 7, 2010

I’m trying (and failing – ed.) to learn how to go all Daniel Goldin on my blogging stylz these days (you know, “faster, better, cheaper” and all that), so let’s see if I can keep this latest bit of outrage at Megan McArdle’s willed incompetence short and to the point.

In this post she considers a broad claim…

I’ve been pretty skeptical of the Amity Shlaes argument that regulatory uncertainty was the major culprit in prolonging the Great Depression…

And then rejects her doubts…

Over time, however, in talking to banks and business people, I’ve become more convinced that it’s at least a minor problem…

In support of a conclusion that should make you go hmmm.

About that, more in a moment.  To slice and dice — of McArdle’s first statement,  she shoulda stood in bed.

The historical record is pretty clear (a) that Shlaes is a dishonest and incorrigible hack and the (b) the signal policy that slowed recovery from the great depression in this country (leave aside the global nature of the beast), was the decision to switch from stimulus measures to premature attempts to balance the budget in 1937.  (Something you can see graphically here, with a nice additional slam at Schlaes.)

On her second claim: this is the kind of reporting that has given Ms. McArdle so much of her notoriety to this point…in that, of course, whatever this post represents, it ain’t journalism.

There are certainly actual attempts to study regulation, and that subset of the field, the issue  of uncertainty in regulatory regimes.  If you’re interested in the subject, it takes very little time to find dozens of interesting threads to pull — I’ve just been reading this one on the paradox of prudential regulation [pdf] (i.e., because the cost of regulation is obvious and individual perceived but the benefits from successful regulatory systems are broadly dispersed and individual, it becomes hard to sustain support for such systems).*

But that’s not what McArdle has done here.  There isn’t even a shred of an attempt to suggest that she actually has mustered some real data here.  Instead, she’s talked to some folks she knows and they have told her they don’t like regulation.  They especially don’t like it if they sense that they might not be effectively in charge of the regulatory agencies that purport to govern their industries — which is how I translate “uncertainty” in this instance.

So, to this point, here’s the state of play:

McArdle invokes an often debunked partisan writer to suggest that one of her routinely disproved claims might actually be true. She says this seems to be so because we should trust her when she tells us that her unidentified sources in an industry that has just disastrously failed have told her so.

But never mind, because all this is preliminary to this stirring confirmation that regulatory uncertainty right now is causing businesses to shutter.   Her evidence?  This:

And this seems like a pretty clear cut case of death by regulation:  startup health insurer forced to shut down because of uncertainty surrounding health care reform.  According to the insurer, at least, they neither have the capital to handle the new requirements, nor have any prospect of raising it from the markets, where they’ve already tried and failed to get more investment.

She’s not even trying.

It’s almost not worth the effort to sneer at this.  McArdle’s link is to an article in a local Virginia business journal that, as McArdle indicates quotes the insurer to account for why that insurer is leaving business.  This isn’t journalism, this is stenography.

The whole story boils down to a complaint that an unspecified insurance model established two years ago (hence, in the last administration) may not in the future meet requirements specified by the new health insurance law, and that this is the reason this small insurer has been unable to raise capital.

There are two things to note here, beyond the simple sloth and meaninglessness of taking a failed businessman’s account of why the enterprise went bottom up at  face value.

One is that McArdle is playing a very slippery game here.  Remember:  she began by specifically calling out regulatory uncertainty, all the bad stuff that happens when a new administration starts changing things.  But this company is complaining not simply about lack of knowledge, but of the substance of the change itself:

“…the uncertainties in the regulatory climate coupled with new demands imposed by national healthcare reforms have made it challenging to sustain the level of sales required to remain viable over the long run.” (from James Slabaugh , executive vice president of nHealth.)

New demands, eh?  I’ll leave the reader to judge whether it is the fact that the new health care rules include provisions like prohibiting revocations of policies (rescission), or the like, or whether it is unspecified “uncertainty” that weighs more heavily here.

And while McArdle is careful to fudge just a bit — she refers to “new requirements” after all — she is really trying to have it both or maybe three ways.  Regulatory uncertainty is bad; regulation is bad; and the health care reform is bad…and because she knows these truths to be self evident, she needs do no actual reporting or research to prove her case or identify the specific root causes of the one actual business failure she tries to adduce as proof for these articles of faith.

This isn’t even a parody of journalism.  As I said above:  she’s not even trying with this stuff.

And one last thing, my second point:  it remains amazing to me how gutless and pathetic the glibertarian crowd becomes in the face of actual capitalism.

This insurance company had an approach (unspecified in the linked article) to providing insurance.  It’s approach did not survive a change of administrations, a change in the landscape of health care delivery and payment, the competition within the insurance market itself, and/or the problems that are face  undercapitalized companies at any moment — and especially in a period of disruption in the financial markets.

The company and its owners/managers made bets on certain expectations about the future.  Those bets didn’t pay off.  They go out of business.  I’ve run my own small business and I don’t wish that outcome on anyone…but it is a fact of life in the marketplace: some folks don’t grab the gold ring.

Sorry.

Try again.

I’m a screaming liberal, social-safety-net, environmentalist, birkenstock-wearing**, Berkeley, California born and raised, Kremlin-on-the-Charles educated, Massachusetts-pointy-headed-university type, yellow-dog Democrat, and I got no problem with that.  What’s McArdle’s excuse?

Wimp.

* It’s relevant here because it suggests just how McArdle’s sources may have in fact connived in the regulatory relaxation that permitted the reckless behaviors that lay behind the recent near-collapse of the financial system.

**Actually, I’ve never owned or even tried on a pair of Birkenstocks.  They look ugly and uncomfortable to me … but you got to ride with the stereotype that brung ya.

Image:  Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl, “The Newspaper Reader,” 1881.

President Obama’s Real Identity — Picture>1000 words department.

June 7, 2010

Presented, without further comment:

Helen Thomas, We Hardly Knew Ye

June 7, 2010

Update: John Cole catches the other key point to be made about the unpersoning of Thomas.  It continues the cleansing of the White House press corps capacity to commit journalism.

Update 2: See Glenzilla for a quick update on the thesis that Helen Thomas’s error was to pick the wrong group to repatriate, and nothing more (check out his links for details.)

Ted K., one of the regular commenters here, has asked me if I would write about Israel’s stupid and morally bankrupt raid on the Turkish flagged Gaza blockade runners, and I will.

I’ll do so despite having nothing to add to the growing number of observers who have noted that a nation to which I feel enormous connection has in its occupation policy in general and in this instance in particular managed to combine the dumb and the bad with a spectacular disregard for both the lessons of the prophets and its own self-interest.

But before I get to that post, this news struck me as sad:  Helen Thomas has resigned, in what appears to be a “jump before we push you” move.

Now, to be on the edge of 90 and choosing to retire is not the worst thing in the world — except, as everyone knows, Thomas did not retire.

She was forced to leave because she said something supremely stupid and hateful in its own way about the need for Jews in Israel to go back to where they came from — Germany, Poland, wherever.  Josh Marshall has a short post up that captures just how deadly that remark was.

It’s almost impossible to count the ways in which that is a catastrophic statement — but in the context of a broad demonization of anyone who dares speak ill of a disastrous Israeli government, I’m not ready to throw off the bus one of the few journalists who did not lose her wits during the Bush years (and for decades before).

To put my reaction in the simplest terms:  I’d like to live in a journalistic world in which the utterance of hateful statements about ethnic, religious or racial groups would get them both fired and shunned.

But the last time I looked Pat Buchanan still has a job.  He’s said worse than Thomas ever did, over and over again.

Glenn Beck rolls in the mud with Nazi sympathizers (and has this peculiar predilection to dress up in East German Secret Police garb, for which I do not advocate banning, just ridicule.  Not my fault if the uni fits him well, you know (plus it makes me think of Dire Straits great “Les Boys” tune).

Dan Michael (wee bit o’ difference there, doncha think –ed.) Savage trades in anti-Semitic code — and not so coded nastiness.

And so on.

And did I mention that Buchanan still has a job?

Now I’d be down with Helen Thomas having to quit, or take Talmud classes for six months or whatever if we had a consistent standard here.  Or perhaps, to be more cold, if losing Helen Thomas’s voice in the White House Briefing Room were the price to pay to get Pat of my teevee, it would be worth it.

But we don’t get that option.

I wonder why?

Image:  Henryk Nowodworski, cartoon depicting the pogrom  in Białostock in 1906.

In Which the Times’ Daddy Complex Escapes the Opinion Page for Wider Pastures

June 6, 2010

I just read Matt Bai’s piece for this week’s “Week in Review” section of the NY Times.  In it he makes the perfectly sensible point that administrations are undone by the fact or appearance of not just one crisis unmet, but a series of them.

Then he goes blooey, trying to place the Obama adminstration and the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster into the framework he identifies in describing the demise of the Carter and the second Bush II presidencies.  The result is incoherence, leading up to yet another wail for Daddy President to come in and make all the bad stuff go away.

Bai begins his Obama thumbsucking this way:

The man-made catastrophe in the gulf does not yet constitute an existential threat to Mr. Obama’s presidency. (There’s not much Mr. Obama can do about it at this point, anyway, short of slapping on a scuba suit and sticking his hand in the pipe until the relief well is completed.)

Pretty sensible, right?  There is a lot of blame to go around for the Deepwater Horizon wreck, and this administration was at least caught unawares of the risks involved in deep water drilling, but no one is claiming that the primary failures were Obama’s.  And Bai seems to understand that when you are dealing with a very difficult technical problem, you can’t ask that much of the President.

But then he goes on to make his core point, that thought about accumulating appearances of incompetence or failure in the face of crisis.  In essence, he argues, that the Presidency is a matter of theater, and what matters most is being seen to be in control, and not necessarily  actually accomplishing anything in the crises.  He acknowledges, for example, that Carter was probably done in by runaway inflation, but it was everything from tanks in Afghanistan to the fall of Skylab (no, really) that made him vulnerable.  On the other side, Bai tries to argue that Clinton’s high approval ratings had as much to do with his calm after the Columbine shootings as it did with low inflation, budget surpluses and high employment whilst the nation was at peace.

This is, I think, handwaving of the highest order.  Bai caps his analysis by noting, again correctly, that one of FDR’s strengths coming in was to seem active in the face of the Great Depression.   But this misses the point that more of it worked than not, with the exception of the decision to go for deficit hawkery rather than continued stimulus — and that sustained rise in output and economic activity may have had rather more to do with FDR’s lasting popularity than the mere appearance of effort.

Worse, this passage in the piece signals the moment at which Bai goes in for full self-parody, telling us that “Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.”

“Just do something,” you can almost hear Bai scream at Obama.  “Anything.”  Doesn’t matter if, as Bai has already told us, he can’t.  He should be seen to be solving an unsolvable problem (or at least, one that is unsolvable swiftly and to order).

And why is that so important now, more so than in previous periods of real crisis in American history?  Why, of course, because we know that government cannot actually accomplish anything.

In part, this is probably a function of our having lost so much faith in the ability of government generally. There is, after all, a short distance between believing that government doesn’t solve our problems to believing that government actually causes them, and a lot of Americans in the last few decades have made the leap. If tar balls are turning up along the Gulf Coast, then some bureaucrat somewhere must be to blame — and why not the bureaucrat-in-chief?

Here he drinks the kool-aid. It would be a different (and better) piece if Bai were to think just a bit about his easy use of that convenient word “our” having lost faith — who is this we, and how were we constructed?  There is no data at all to support this statement — rather, it’s presented as a truth universally acknowledged, and one that emerges (as we will see) organically from social and economic change over the last forty years.  That Bai can’t bring himself to note the sustained thirty year attempt to erode government capacity under a succession of GOP presidents is a tell, in my view.

But the headscratcher in that paragraph is the assertion that, for non-tinfoil-hat-wearing Americans, it is a short step to go from saying government is incompetent then government blew up the damn well.  I don’t know the polling on this, but I’m going out on a limb and say this is Matt Bai just throwing sh*t out there.

Then there’s this

On a deeper level, though, we may be reacting to our own lack of control as workers, providers and parents. For about 40 years, since the onset of industrial decline, Americans have been trying to negotiate an increasingly unstable economic and cultural landscape, the effects of which are clear in any community where factories or farms (or often both) have withered away — substance abuse, failing schools, higher rates of crime and divorce. The chaos is all around us, and what we ask of a president, increasingly, is to somehow use the instruments of government to rein it in.

Huh?  Crime rates are down, and so are divorce rates (see table A3) over the last several years — both facts that have been widely reported, including just two weeks ago in the pages of the distinguished journalistic organ for which Mr. Bai also writes.

If the chaos is all around us it is a creation of something other than the facts on the ground — that GOP attempt to portray an American in crisis, for example.  And more important, it doesn’t give the reader any confidence in the analytical skills of a writer when they toss around such easy — and wrong — “facts.”  This is basic journalism here:  before you say something is so make sure that it is.

Let me offer just a guess, here.  I don’t deny that there is frustration and a sense of inadequate governmental response to problems right now. But I don’t think it has much to do with with a cultural landscape in which over forty years or so women got to decide if they wanted to have sex for fun and African Americans learned that they could in fact, by law, vote (this is my interpretation of what the term “cultural landscape” means, more or less).

The economic landscape is more important — but the actual angst derives from what this chart is telling us, and not from any existential sense that we aren’t a steel forging nation anymore.  (Bai, born in 1968, may not remember what deindustrialization actually felt like.  We are in a vastly different economy now, and its stresses are very different from those days as well.)

Bai goes on to write

The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.

Obama sees himself as an intellectual critic of government?  This Obama?  Not with you here, man.

The disconnect was on vivid display during Mr. Obama’s news conference late last month, when, despite professing full responsibility for his administration’s response to the leak, he referred several times to what the “federal government” was doing, as if he himself were merely a disappointed spectator like the rest of us.

I guess this means Bai doesn’t like it when a President acknowledges in his rhetoric that he cannot, in fact, scuba dive down to 5,000 feet below sea level and slam his own Presidential hand into a gushing oil well.  It might just take one or two other folks, an agency or two, you know, the federal government.

He railed coolly against the “cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship” between oil companies and the government, despite the fact that his administration had been governing for more than a year. And he seemed unbothered admitting to reporters that he didn’t know whether his own director of the Minerals Management Service had been fired or resigned.

I’ll give Bai this one: Obama should have his story clear on the MMS head.  The problem is that he is actually right about the cozy and corrupt relationships, which proliferated under his predecessor and have not yet been adequately dealt with.

By the time the president spoke again at the White House and then revisited the gulf on Friday, he seemed genuinely enraged at BP. The writer in him, perhaps, sensed that the oil from a snapped-off pipe on the ocean floor might yet come to signify something deeper about his administration.

Or maybe the President in him sensed that an ocean destroying gusher is something to be enraged about.

But chaos-weary Americans no longer needed him to share their outrage at the leak. They needed him to finally shut it off.

Except, Mr. Bai, see Mr. Bai above: he can’t do that, at least not without enormous technical effort led by the offending party, BP.

This is Bai just giving up.  (Or channeling his inner MoDo.)He can’t stand the difficulty of being an adult in the world — or rather, worse, he thinks the rest of us can’t — and he is reduced to wailing, “Papa!  Make it stop!”

I get that the polls are saying that Obama has taken a hit over his response to the oil gusher.  I think he should:  not because he could have solved it any sooner, but because he did in fact, in my view, fail to convey the scale of, the risks inherent, and the time commitment required to confront the crisis as pointedly and as swiftly as he should have.   He is the teacher in chief, and he didn’t quite get there this time.  Also, I think it is fair to say that the original government response was slow and disorganized, and needed to be much more rapidly reformed.

But this notion that all of America somehow thinks that over the last forty years of significant change in American culture, we’ve suddenly decided that we can only surivive if the President is our daddy is nonsense — or more formally, an assumption not in evidence that cannot therefore be taken as a reliable conclusion.

(And I’m not even going into the ahistoricity of Bai’s piece.  This is hardly the first time in American history when cultural and economic change has seemed overwhelming.  We’ve gotten by without parental Presidents in the past, and I rather expect we will do so again.)

So , to channel my inner Brad Delong even though it’s important to note that Matt Bai himself is far from terrible, most of the time)…we do need a better press corps.

Images:  Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux, “Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon with his daughter Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon,” 18th c.

Civilian Conservation Corps constructing road, 1933

Georgios Iakovidis, “The Naughty Grandson,” 1884.

The Perfect Game (Ooops!) (Still Catching Up on the Backlog)

June 4, 2010

I was over at Balloon Juice the other day, vacationing from outrage on a baseball thread, when someone commenting on why we seem to care so much about Perfectogate offered props to Ken Burns for his baseball series.  That show, the writer said, explains why we love baseball so much, or rather, why it appears to be such a good metaphor for America.

Well, as readers of this blog know, I’m not much into sloppy metaphors. Certainly, you can look at the history of the game and at least pull out strands of the great threads of US history — Robinson, Jackie for an obvious example, and more subtly, Curt Flood.

But Burns is an easy sentimentalist, too ready, IMHO, to do that “essence of America” stuff, even as he oh-so-painfully-slowly pans or zooms on another picture of Robinson, or the Babe or whoever.  Most of all, just as a story teller, Burns lost something after The Civil War.  I’m not a huge fan of that series, though I found it riveting on first viewing.  I think it fell too deeply into the Southern sentimentalist trap, though I understand that with the extraordinary performance of Shelby Foote and the narrative power of the marvelously chosen diaries and letters, some of that, at least, was inevitable.  I’ve made enough films to know that when you have good stuff, you use it.

But that adulation that followed that series — and more pertinently, the virtual blank check Burns received from his GM contract and the leverage it gave him over PBS mean that he could now do without any kind of critical oversight.  No executive producer for him, not really.

Now, I’ve worked with EPs who no doubt made my work worse.  Bad ones are out there, no doubt. But it’s still true that no one is their own best editor.  You saw the effects in baseball, from the numerology of nine programs (innings) and eighteen hours that felt much longer, to the kind of lazy “seriousness” captured in this, from Burns:

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has remarked that we suffer today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal and collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else — our bright past and our dim unknown future — what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization — passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity? Baseball provides one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime.

Oh FSM.   You see what I mean.  Who knew baseball was the DNA of American civilization.  Does that make steroids an oncogene?  Crappy metaphors, easy equivalences (baseball endures; we endure; therefore baseball explains our endurance to ourselves…or not), and always that weighty, wordy portenteousness, the wrapping of a tired old cliche of a thought in 157 words in the hope that the verbiage would mask the banality of the argument being advanced.

So no:  baseball is a metaphor for baseball.  Individual aspects of baseball are deeply instructive, often more than metaphors. See Stephen Jay Gould’s classic piece on the lessons to be learned from Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak for the transformation of the mythic appreciation of baseball into something much more useful:  baseball can provide models, in the scientific sense of the term, tools to help us better understand what’s going on around us.

Ken Burns?  He managed to turn baseball into a dirge.

There, I feel better.

Last, as I added to the comment thread in which the mention of Burns goaded me into screed-dom, I do have an answer as to what to read if you want to engage in the generational significance of baseball, and its role during a certain time in the making of the country in which we now live, I can’t recommend highly enough George Higgins’ wonderful memoir, The Progress of the Seasons.

Yes, I know it’s a Red Sox centered tale, which will make it anathema for many — but at least it was the bad old Sox, which might make it go down better.

But Higgins (of Friends of Eddie Coyle fame and much else besides) is not only one of the great regional writers of the last few decades, but also a wonderfully sentimental-without-being-sloppy observer of how links transfer from fathers to sons to grandsons.

I’m in my early 50s now, roughly the age Higgins was when he published Progress….  I’ve just had to confront athe loss of a beloved uncle, the last of that generation in my immediate family, so his theme holds me strongly.  (His is a boy book, I guess, in that it centers on male relationships, but I’d argue it’s a human book more than a gendered one; we all go through these transformations, these sudden shifts in scale, dependence and responsibility.)

Back to the thorn that provoked this post.  Given that baseball, like all big time sports, has become a matter of rooting for laundry, Higgins’ account of the way baseball could construct a family story does what great story telling should do, and what Burns, for all the hours and millions he devoted to his telling, did not:  Higgins tells a singular story, a glimpse of one family of Boston Irish, a telling centered in space to the evoked memory of old Fenway Park, and in that wholly particular story enables his readers to glimpse something of why the sport used to carry such mythic weight.

Plus, he is (to repeat myself) a really fine writer and this is a great read.

All this apropos of I’m not sure quite what.  Friday, I guess.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball Players Practicing,” 1875-