Archive for October 2010

Belatedly…A Bloggy Announcement

October 28, 2010

It’s been quiet around here the last few days (and more or less for a while).

The highly episodic nature of this blog for the last few months has been due to the usual stuff — summer, then the sheer joy of the start of the fall semester, combined with the shock of a new gig at the ‘tute.  But over the last couple of days something else has been going on…

and that is, thanks to the very kind (and/or certifiable) hospitality of John Cole, I’m guest blogging over at Balloon Juice.  I’ve put up a couple of posts there so far, with more to come.

So, while I’ll try to be more conscientious than I’ve been to flag posts over there over here, that’s where you should check in for my stuff — and all the rest as well.  It’s a great place to hang on the nets, and I’m honored and very happy to be sending stuff that way. (I’ve been talking thuggery and Godwin, but if you want to check out a relaxation, politics-free post on good science writing, the Krebs cycle, and how many hydrogen atoms died for this post, check this one out.

Image:  Abraham Solomon, “(Travelling) First Class” 1862


Live Blogging Joe Haldeman

October 26, 2010

12: 10

Joe Haldeman is talking now about typing vs. digital tools for creative writing.

Took typing as soon as he could in school — only boy in the class of girls — thought, “this is the life for me.”

Some time people have illusions that the book rules the writer — but once it did work that way for me — as if the book were guiding me “first this finger then this finger.”

When I wrote the forever war in the ’70s, and I didn’t have air condition — I’d go to a pizza joint and write on a clip board, and then in the evening I’d go home and type.

But when I started this book ultimately called “buying time in America,” — I realized I wrote as much per day and sometime even more if I wrote in longhand as if I’d keyboarded.

I realized I actually enjoyed it more. I was on my 4th computer by then — but I realized that hte distraction of the computer and the web was more than I needed when I was trying to concentrate on novel.

So for the next 20 years — I’d write on my porch in Florida in longhand without lights, just my fountain pen and some notebooks — bit spiral 8/11 inch books.  Those are the books — we’re looking at Marsbound, Earthbound…I was in a store and saw Earthbound brand notebooks, not superstitious, but still..

Shows us how he plans the book out in the notebooks — outlines, notes, conceptual diagrams and “Samuel L. Delaney in a book lined study.  Junot Diaz told me that he’d seen my picture in a book — he remarked on Chip Delaney’s. He’s a remarkable looking man, Santa Claus looking, crazed expression, and I had to use him in this book as a minor character who lives in one the last real bookstore in this world of the book.

12:19:  talking now about writing a trilogy — last novel has to carry a lot of narrative weight.

He talks now about using his diagrams etc. — they seem more like aids to thinking than real plans.

He writes very slowly — a page to a page and half a day, “but that’s enough for a novel every year or year and a half.”

To get a feel for how a character looks like — he gets casting books from Hollywood, so when  he say, needs a black man as a character he’ll look at a hundred pictures of black men between 20 and 40 to get a feel for what his character might look like.

Now he shows  his everyday notebook that he carries around — then he found a notebook for drawing as well as text (draws a lot of his thoughts….)

He shows a drawing, beautiful, of the split reed section at St. Martin in the Fields.

12:23 — complains he doesn’t get up as early anymore “sleeps in till 5:30 now.”

He gets up, does his email, eats breakfast, and then gets on his bike and chooses one of nine coffee shops in which to write that range froma 4 to a 14 mile or so loop.

He doesn’t go to the same one — doesn’t want to become a regular and have people talk to him.  “Real determining factor is the pastry.”

In Boston as opposed to Florida — not as much choice.  To many coffee shops dominated by young mothers with children banging on spoons.  So I’m starting out in Arlington, moving into Somerville…need some place having good coffee.  I don’t mind noise — a din of talking. But if I can hear one person talking to another and get what they are saying — that’s hard.

12:25.  Gay Haldeman is “my portable brain.”  She types up the manuscript about every twenty pages…every hundred pages or so he binds into a spiral bound book.  That becomes his reference.

He reads that every 15 – 20 days.  By the time he finishes each book, he reads the book about 50 times…which is why “I have a reputation for not needing a lot of copyediting.”  That’s also, Joe says, his personality.

Now, Joe says, he’s trying an experiment with Macspeech software.  Fascinated by what the software can do and fascinated by its mistakes.  The mistakes it makes can give you ideas for the story — the mistakes are often rhymes or homonyms…”I’ll take ideas whereever I can get them.”

“I diagram everything.  (shows a large sheet — maybe 20 by 24, covered in bubbles and text and lines.)

Had to write a story for a festschrift.  Opened up a text and got the phrase “good likeness,” and so wrote down “bad likeness” — and then went on, getting quotes and word, and placed them on an outline…after an hour and a half of playing with this, having fun, and came up with the story “Sleeping Dogs.” (Title check to come — I’m not as fast as Joe.)

Shows another diagram — much neater, from a book that was 90 percent done — and to be sure he covered all the bases on one character, he made this diagram — what he cares about in daily life, what are his internal concerns –and used the diagram to organize this part of the process.

12:31:  when I teach Sci Fi at MIT — he gives out first a random assignment, starting with a book called “The Science in Science Fiction” — and assigns one student time travel and so on.  This year he did “psychotropic drugs” — he made a diagram to put himself to the same test, and worked out a character to whom such drugs are central, but not in the obvious way.

Shows us 3 cups of coffee worth of text…will finish the story over thanksgiving.

Problem with writing short stories is you have to stop the freight train that is the novel, then write the short story for a while and then go start up the freight train again…and that’s not a useful use of energy.  So short fiction comes between books– and sometimes there is not between.

Talks about doing books on spec, and how he got hammered…publishers just sat on it till Joe got hungry enough.  Selling the book first, on a synopsis and a couple of chapters — the publisher has to pay to see the rest of the book.

Works — as long as you can finish the book. If you can’t — they get very irritated.

Sometimes towards the end of a book, you’ve closed off the possibilities and so you can sit down and write the only thing that can happen.  In a trilogy — that’s a quarter of a million words.  I’ve known the emotional ending of the trilogy for months — not the plots, but plots take care of themselves. I’m a writer who writes about character.

(Gay says — tell them about the pens.) Joe says — I have two dozen pens — I can’t walk past teh Bromfield Pen store without going in to see what they have — it’s a sickness, but no worse than stamp collecting.

When writing — he changes pens at the end of the day so he knows where he stands.  Lots of pens and lots of inks.  I went down to Bromfield last week and bought two new loooovely colors of ink that I’ve never tried.  A green that is just like dollar bills (“I could branch out…”) and a royal purple.

12:39 Q and A — Do you write your 250 words and work them over during the day? No — I write about 5 % of the time, and the rest is spent looking at the paper.  I get transported into the world of the writing.  I’ll think about a sentence, and I’ll get maybe just the main clause, and then a few minutes later another clause willl come along.

I draw a lot — begin with the eye and go down to the toes…and get one line for a whole drawing.

Q:  What about plot — how do you choose your path.  A:  I take care of it mostly while working on the notes. When I’m writing the text, I dont’ think that way, and I just wait for the text to come.  In the afternooon, I’ll be writing about the novel, about the work I’ve done — for a 75K word novel, I’ll write 30K of notes.

Think about it this way: left brain thinking in the notes, right brain on the text.  I don’t know how it happens — a concatenation of experience and random…I don’t know cosmic rays.

Q:  You remind me of when I hand wrote everything.  It makes me think that I’ve lost the intimate connection with words…

A:  it may be that slowing down to handwrite has an impact on your thoughts.  I’ll write 250-350 words by hand of the text, and a 1000 words or more typed in notes, blogging, student responses. THat’s easy writing.  The hard kind of writing is the stuff that comes from nowhere.

Q:  do you type up or database the handwritten notebooks and sketches.  A:  I keep a rough archive.  Universities want my archives — and I have 2 warehouse rooms in Florida full of mss and correspondence and papers and 2 rooms in my house waiting for some poor graduate student…:

Follow up Q:  Don’t you want your notebooks accessible in digital.  A: limitation — need hypertextual linking to organize all the ideas and details in the notebooks.  I can see that tool.  My brain is that way – I have the relationship between  5 or 6 books in my head right now.  I can see that especially in writing a trilogy. My brain is working like a time machine — why did I make a character do that in the beginning.

This will, Joe says, probably be my last trilogy (did one before.)

Funny how this became a trilogy.  Started out as a novella, called “The Mars Girl.”  Thought that I should expand it into a young adult novel (never wrote a YA novel before) wrote it up and sent it to a top YA Sci Fi editor — and got rejected, first time in 30 years.

Thought, maybe I’m not a YA writer.  So did the obvious thing — made the heroine older, gave her relationships, sex– which never hurts the sales of a novel…

And then, on a train, working on a computer because you can’t use the pen on Amtrak for the bouncing.

So I’m going on tap, tap tap, closing in on the end, and then I thought, “I have to write a sequel.”  Didn’t want to — but had to. Then as he worked on the second synopsis, he realized that there had to be a third one…and he committed a trilogy, where he could have had a two week novella.  There goes 5 and 1/2 years.

Now starts to talk about the process of selling the book. He says: some of your most important writing is for an audience of one. Not jsut trying to sell your editor, you are trying to save her some work, so that she can use your work at sales conference to sell the book to the house.  Editors like that — and then they work for you. (INTERPOLATION:  This is the Word, folks.  Believe it.)

Q:  What about the problem fo making promises on the book when you don’t know yet what it is really going to be.  A:  The editor knows that the pitch is a sales document, the ending can change. “It’s only a novel. It’s just whatever goes through your head.”

I did get into a minor problem, Joe says.  I needed money — and my agent got me a contract to do 2 Star Trek novelizations.  You read fan lit, and your write plots for movies as novels.  I hadn’t seen the shows — I was in Vietnam while they were going around the galaxy — but I did my research and I had fun with it.  But between novel one and novel two got his first big advance for an original sci fi novel (his second); tried to ditch the second…and Paramount said no, and I had to do the second one.  It took 9 months instead of 3 and I hated it. It’s horrible to write a novel you  hate.  “Here comes f***king Spock again…and so on.”   Weirdly, many people who’ve read both say the second one is better.  (I felt I had to do a perfect job, because I didn’t want Paramount to say I was doggin it (my epithet, not Joe’s)

Q: do you listen to music while writing. A: no, not even when writing a business letter.  I love music too much, it interferes with my thinking.  (Joe says he used to perform…and it may be too much.) He tells us Harlan Ellison puts on headphones with hard rock on — “I don’t know how he does it.”


Now That’s An Interesting Approach To Research…

October 25, 2010

Just a bit of Monday silliness before diving back into the struggle.

How’s this for a protocol (in a study that shall remain nameless to protect the proofreading reputations of its authors) through which the researchers plan to test a new scheme for tissue classification:

Since the problem was rather small—larger data set are being prepared to be run at the supercomputing facilities provided by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications—we run the ten-fold cross-validation runs in a 3GHz dual core Pentium box with 2 GB of rum.

I’m not sure just how looped my computer could get on the mojitos to be made out of 2GB of Captain Morgan’s, nor do I hope to find out.

Depressingly serious stuff to resume shortly.

Image: Joe Machine, “Sailor and Rum

Time to Go Viral: Mark Twain Was Right/Eight False “Facts” On Which To Fight This Election

October 24, 2010

Via Digby, I came across Dave Johnson’s essential piece, “Eight False Things  The Public “Knows” Prior to Election Day.”

Here’s the link, and here’s the core of the post:

1) President Obama tripled the deficit.
Reality: Bush’s last budget had a $1.416 trillion deficit. Obama’s first budgetreduced that to $1.29 trillion.

2) President Obama raised taxes, which hurt the economy.
Reality: Obama cut taxes. 40% of the “stimulus” was wasted on tax cuts which only create debt, which is why it was so much less effective than it could have been.

3) President Obama bailed out the banks.
Reality: While many people conflate the “stimulus” with the bank bailouts, the bank bailouts were requested by President Bush and his Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson. (Paulson also wanted the bailouts to be “non-reviewable by any court or any agency.”) The bailouts passed and began before the 2008 election of President Obama.

4) The stimulus didn’t work.
Reality: The stimulus worked, but was not enough. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus raised employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

5) Businesses will hire if they get tax cuts.
Reality: A business hires the right number of employees to meet demand. Having extra cash does not cause a business to hire, but a business that has a demand for what it does will find the money to hire. Businesses want customers, not tax cuts.

6) Health care reform costs $1 trillion.
Reality: The health care reform reduces government deficits by $138 billion.

7) Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, is “going broke,” people live longer, fewer workers per retiree, etc.
Reality: Social Security has run a surplus since it began, has a trust fund in the trillions, is completely sound for at least 25 more years and cannot legally borrow so cannot contribute to the deficit (compare that to the military budget!) Life expectancy is only longer because fewer babies die; people who reach 65 live about the same number of years as they used to.

8) Government spending takes money out of the economy.
Reality: Government is We, the People and the money it spends is on We, the People. Many people do not know that it is government that builds the roads, airports, ports, courts, schools and other things that are the soil in which business thrives. Many people think that all government spending is on “welfare” and “foreign aid” when that is only a small part of the government’s budget.

This stuff really matters.

Yes it does.  I stole as much as I did of Johnson’s work because it matters so very much.  Go to his place to read the whole thing.  Then steal it too.  Let’s make this thing go as viral as we can in the nine days we have left.  I’m just sick of this election turning on lies; I’m sick of our country being bought and sold on the cheap.  Time to hit the bad guys every way we can — the high road, with facts like these…and Aqua Buddha too, over and over again….

So:  I’m going to twitter this, I’m going to stick the reference in every open thread of the blogs I visit that I can, and I urge those of you with the stomach for the comment threads on the other side of the fence to post it there too.  Post it in comment threads at MSM newspapers, at the CNN sites and so on.  Maybe we can get someone who hasn’t quite lost their mind to the other side to read it, and vote accordingly.

BTW:  for those who aren’t up on your Mark Twain aphorisms/cliches, the reference in the title is to this quote:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

That quote alone would make him the patron saint of much of what this blog is about — so in homage, this image:

Just a bit of homage, ya know.  Not bad for a man of 48.  I should look so good….

Image:  Mark Twain shirtless, c. 1883.

Lest We Forget: How The Banks Are REALLY Screwing Us In The Foreclosure Mess

October 23, 2010

Everyone, and I mean everyone you ought to be reading, has been working through the mechanics and the meaning of the foreclosure fraud being performed on the nation by our biggest banks.  For a quick overview, head on over to Rortybomb, just read your way down, and check out Naked Capitalism as well.  I promise you, once you start down the trail of links, you’ll have days of infuriating study ahead of you.

But for all the justified outrage at the simple disdain for the concept of property rights and the rule of law* there’s something else being missed here, something that astute observers have commented on, but that seems to be a bit obscured as we all, understandably, rubberneck in horror at the trainwreck that the major banks have made of the foreclosure process.

And that is that the entire foreclosure endeavor is in fact a huge imposed cost on American homeowners and our economy; it almost certainly runs against the long-term interests of the financial system as whole, whatever the incentives may be for individual companies (and it may well be a long term fail for many of the short-term beneficiaries as well).  Foreclosure as it is being practiced now is likely to be a net negative for homeowners now, to the point that subsidizing in some way those who got into trouble is economically rational, even if it might be galling to those who’ve paid up and gone about their business.

At least, that’s how I read this paper by John Campbell and Stefanio Giglio and my MIT colleague Parag Pathak, “Forced Sales and House Prices.”  It uses an ingenious trick to isolate the implications of forced foreclosure sales for prices of both the foreclosed home and nearby properties by tracking such sales in comparison with other forced sales, like those that follow the death of an owner.

Their results are of a sort fairly common in applied or empirical economics:  quantifications of the seemingly obvious.  Foreclosed properties sell at a deep discount to their local markets and in doing so, drive down the values and sales prices of nearby homes.  Money quote:

We find that foreclosures predict lower prices for houses located less than 0.25 mile, and particularly less than 0.1 mile away. Although foreclosures and prices are both endogenous variables, the fact that foreclosures lead prices at such short distances does reinforce the concern that foreclosures have negative external effects in the housing market. Our preferred estimate of the spillover effect suggests that each foreclosure that takes place 0.05 miles away lowers the price of a house by about 1%.

Not the sexiest prose in the history of styli and tablets, I’ll admit, but the point is clear enough: this study found that foreclosures sell at 27% discount to the unforced sale price, and that the loss to the seller (the foreclosing banks) is compounded by a loss to every homeowner in the neighborhood.

As foreclosures mount, that loss grows — and, the study found, such effects are often concentrated in lower-priced neighborhoods, which is to say that when scum like those dispossessing Kirk use fraud and deceit (advising him to skip a payment to start up the loan modification process, only to use the action taken on that advice to begin the process of seizing Kirk’s home) — and thus maximize their short term return by dragging out a foreclosure process, they are imposing a charge on every homeowner and every bank lending on homes in Kirk’s neighborhood.

Expand your view to the country as a whole and you see that over the last decade, the banks lent recklessly, leveraged insanely, and then resorted to a range of unsavory-to-illegal manouvers to limit exposure to the consequences of decisions that, taken altogether, effectively bankrupted the US and much of the world’s financial system.

They have received enormous sums to prevent an overt bankruptcy, and in response have pursued tactics that do untold harm to thousands, perhaps millions of American citizens as they foreclose on the properties they recklessly exposed themselves to over the last several years.  As they pursue those foreclosures, those banks have both deceitfully tripped some homeowners into default (see Kirk, above) while performing multiple frauds and failures to proceed in a legal fashion in a sequence of actions that looks suspiciously like a fee-maximizing game of delay.

In  so doing our financial lords and masters harm us all by slashing yet further the value not only of homes in default, but those of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of homeowners who had nothing to do with either the bad loans in the first place or the foreclosure fiasco now taking place. This is effectively not so much as a tax as a taking — one that reduces the wealth of millions of Americans who don’t have scratch to spare thank you very much

Duncan Black (can’t find the link in haste…will try to dig it up) among many others have been screaming for years that the appropriate policy from both a social and an economic point of view has been mortgage cramdown — I’d add you’d need a (non-kangaroo) court-supervised dispositions of the properties too far underwater to permit any reasonable mortage adjustment to save the day.  But whatever the details, there is a growing body of work that suggests it would be cheaper for our country, if not for an individual bank or holder of an ill-begotten MBS, to keep people in and maintaining their homes while not imposing what amounts to a huge fine on every nearby homeowner who has kept their property out of default.

And that is not just this DFH talking.  This is the clear implication (expressed in a rather different language than the authors of the original work would use, no doubt) of the soberest of sources, two Harvard and one MIT economist, as respectable a set of oracles as you could possibly hope to find.**

One last thought:  There are those (as noted below — see the Wall St. Journal) who argue that the foreclosure documentation mess is merely a matter of trickery and delay on the part of those who shouldn’t have bought houses in the first place, and that,in the words of the Journal,  “the bigger damage here is to the housing market, which desperately needs to find a bottom by clearing excess inventory and working through foreclosures as rapidly as possible…”

If, however, you live in the reality based community, and not in the ideological bubble chamber that is the Journal’s — and the modern GOP’s — true home, then you would read things like the paper cited above, and maybe think twice before suggesting that the best outcome for America (and maybe the banks too, in fact) is to accelerate a process that destroys value for homeowners who are not in arrears, in the process of depressing the country’s real estate market for years, at least.  Just a thought, you know.

*One of the weirdest things about the whole housing mess to me has been the wholesale abandonment by the alleged “conservatives” among us of any commitment to — or even basic understanding of — the idea of property rights, contract law, and the roles and duties of parties to contracts governing real property.  We have McArdle outraged that folks who got their sums wrong walk away from mortgages — as if the banks did not have a full, contractually specified recourse, to take possession of property they were supposed to have exercised proper caution in evaluating.  We have the Wall St. Journal dismissing as mere sloppy paperwork sustained, widespread and long-lasting fraud by the major banks in their attempt to pursue contractual remedies to which they are not entitled.  It seems to me that there is nothing more likely to produce a long-term threat to the American real estate market than confirming the belief that one of the biggest risks in home purchasing is that your lending will f**k you over.  Yet the Wall St. Journal thinks it appropriate to dismiss criminal conspiracies by banks as mere high spirits.  Astonishing — but worth remembering the next time that paper opines on the sanctity and infallibility of “free” markets.

**I hope it is obvious, and if it is not, let me make it so here: every interpretative statement and every conclusion not drawn from a direct quote from Campbell, Giglio and Pathak is mine and mine alone.  If I’ve made analytical errors, they are mine, not theirs; if you dispute my characterizations or conclusions, your beef is with me, not them.  To give you just another taste of their reasoning however, here’s one more passage from the concluding section of the paper cited above:

Our results cannot be definitive on the causality from foreclosures to house prices, but the combination of timing effects (stronger from lagged foreclosures than from future foreclosures) and geographical effects (stronger at extremely short distances) suggests that there is reason to be concerned about spillovers from foreclosures to neighboring houses…

The authors are cautious writers.  They make it clear, however, and they quantify their reasoning, that foreclosure does damage to the sales price of both the defaulted property and the neighborhood.  As I say, a quantified glimpse of the obvious — but it is often necessary to prove what you know, both so you can say so with authority, and because every now and then the obvious is false.  Just not this time.

Images:  Winslow Homer, “The Camp Fire,” 1877-78

Dorothea Lange, “Migrant family from Arkansas playing hill-billy songs. Farm Security Administration emergency migratory camp. Calipatria, California” 1939

Isn’t This The Kind of Thing You’d Want In Writing?

October 22, 2010

So now, via The Raw Story, we learn that the Republican Christine O’Donnell, running for the Senate seat in Delaware has admitted to a clear violation of campaign finance laws by using campaign funds to pay part of her rent.  Her excuse?  She got permission:

Her attorney maintains someone with the Federal Election Commission approved the arrangement, although the commission’s rules say candidates can’t use campaign money for their mortgage or rent “even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign.”

I mean really. This goes beyond criminal (though it passes through that territory); beyond pathetic (though O’Donnell has staked a pretty damn good claim there) and on into full bore comedy.  “Someone” from the FEC approved the arrangement.

“Someone?”  “Someone!”  You mean the non-witch impersonating me (and you, and you, and you…) actually had a break lucid enough to think that she ought to get clearance before embezzling that last dime — and didn’t get someone to send her … hell, not even a note on letterhead, say, but an email.   A text? Semaphore?  Anything.

Oh my.

Long ago the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen faced deadline on a slow day, and pumped out a dozen or so wonderful ways to say someone lacked that little something upstairs.  You know the sort: “The elevator doesn’t stop on her top floor;” or “a brick or two shy of a load.”  But for all the filler, Caen still came up with one I hadn’t heard before, that I’ve never forgotten, and that seems to describe Candidate O’Donnell precisely:

The wheel is spinning, but man, oh, man:  that hamster’s dead.


Image: Walter Heubach, “Hamster,” before 1923.

Comforting the Comfortable Part Two, or Sullivan’s Follies Redux

October 20, 2010

In the last post, I followed John Cole in snorting derisively at Andrew Sullivan and James Joyner for demanding that we honor the rich and super rich rather than merely tolerating them.  In that post I concentrated on the pure wrongness of the concept of taxation that the two offending writers presented.  Here I want to undermine their larger claim, that we owe homage to the best off among us because it is only through the energy and talents of those individuals that (a) they gained their wealth and (b) the rest of us receive all the boons of modern living.

The shorter of what follows is simple:  Joyner and Sullivan are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.  They need help.

For the reality is that the rich are not Galtian autonomous superheroes. They exist, as we all do, in a context in which a huge range of circumstances conspire to permit them to do whatever specific acts they did to get stinking rich.

Sullivan and Joyner miss this entirely. The tenor of their posts seem to evoke the hero of industry — they thrill to Kipling’s portrayal of folks like Captain’s Courageous’ railway magnate Harvey Cheyne the elder.  So, just to take a first cut, I thought I’d do something radical…like look at some data.

To get a handle on whether this vision is accurate, I took the path of least resistance, a tour through the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans.

And it turns out you can knock out almost a third of the list from the superhero game right from the start:   They, including six out of the top ten richest Americans inherited either all their wealth or the foundations of their fortune.  They are self-made sons and daughters.

The rest, about 280 out of 400, made their money across a range of activities from New York real estate to Facebook. That might seem to suggest that Sullivan and Joyner might be onto something, that the preponderance of the American super-rich are exceptionally hard working creative types building wealth out of sweat, brains, and a determination that should earn our admiration, and apologies for the temerity to ask for Uncle Sam’s cut.

And they’re even kind of right — but only if you suffer from severe mental presbyopia.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Charlie Munger — these are people who did great things after investing enormous amounts of time and energy and who knows what else.  They are admirable, and admired — even by stone lefties like myself, noting as I type the three Apple devices at my fingertips.  These people have been central to developments that make daily lives of millions better, and for that they are, and ought to be celebrated.

But we aren’t talking about kudos here, but rather the notion of being “self-made” — and the degree to which we need to grovel when seeking to move the tax rate on the wealthiest from its historic low to its historic near-low.  And when you dig a little deeper into the list, it gets a little funky to say that even so famously visionary a figure as Jobs, for example, got to the billionaire’s club simply on the strength of his presumptive Galtian worthiness.

For example, what of the 40 gazillionaires whose fortunes derive from technology?  How much of that wealth, and all the tools and systems that they’ve been involved in that make our lives richer, derive from critical government expenditures.  The semiconductor industry was famously nurtured by the American defense establishment — especially in the development of ballistic missiles and space exploration.  How about the internet (and the fortunes of Brin, Page and Zuckerman)?  There was this little thing called ARPANET, another DOD expenditure, that had something to do with it — and if you ever happen to do anything on the World Wide Web (like read this tome) then you have the governments of the European sponsors of CERN and the US taxpayer support for SLAC to thank.

And so on.

Go a little further into the list, and you’ll find that 94 of the 400 derive their wealth from a category called “investments” — a tally which includes stock picker/conglomerateurs like Buffett and Munger along with hedge fund types, bankers, stock jobbers (actually, mutual fund merchants, but I like the old term).

That’s a wide range of actually quite different functions, but for this post there are two points:  one is a that a great deal of this wealth is simply not that impressive in the hero stakes.  A lot of the folks on this list may  have performed an essential feat of capital allocation…or they could have harvested a surplus that could otherwise have gone more efficiently into capital formation.  The evidence of the last decade suggests that plenty of the latter fueled many individual fortunes…

…But even more than the argument that some of the super rich in the financial sector basically ripped off the economy and the average American, the key point here is that our financial system, just as much as our technological economy, depends deeply on a strong governmental infrastructure.  Bank insurance schemes, (FDIC etc.); loan facilities (the Fed); extensive research into every corner of the economy (half of the executive departments); market regulation (SEC, many others — known to be highly imperfect, but essential to the system nonetheless) and so on — modern capitalism requires an enormous infrastructure to create markets in which the participants can participate.  I know that this is a little subtle — but the collapse of the banking system in Sept. 2008 and its rescue over the next weeks and months provide an at-the-extreme example of the central role government, supported by taxation, plays in the system through which one quarter of the 400 richest Americans gained their fortunes.  And that role keeps on going even in more placid times.

Self made, perhaps, many of them, but only within a system made workable by, in essence, the willingness of 300 million Americans to pay their taxes and empower their government to guarantee the system.

This has gone on long enough.  You can go on down the list and look for other examples yourself: the medicine-based fortunes, entangled at every turn in a system of government support from direct health care payments to enormous taxpayer investments in drug discovery and basic research; the sports wealthy, whose wallets have been fattened on many occasions by a wide variety of taxpayer-delivered goodies, from roads built around stadia to bonds sold, with taxpayers on the hook, to subsidize “private” business.  Media?  See internet, taxpayer funded, above.  You get the picture.

At long last, then:  all this is to not to deny  that the rich, many of them, haven’t done impressive things that have in many cases dramatically improved one aspect or another of human experience.

It is to say that they have already been very richly rewarded for their accomplishments, that even the most original of them have reached their happy state within a framework of public goods, owned in common, and paid-for-by-others  — and to note that a substantial proportion of them have less reason than others to claim particular personal credit for their fortunate situation.

And that in that context, being obscenely wealthy ought to be its own reward; taxation the fortunate result of success and the down payment made on future prosperity.  It is the price owed, not confiscated, to support a system, a government and a society that however imperfectly did and does so much to create the opportunities in which many of these folks got so rich.

Pace Sullivan and Joyner, the rest of us need reward them not by giving them wet sloppy kisses just for being the exceptional specimens they are (or aren’t), but simply by buying what they’re selling — when and if we want to — and watching them get richer.

And paying a buttload more tax.  Right now.  Lots.

Image:  “Jesus and the Money Changers” from a parish church in Villach, Austria

Comforting the Comfortable, Or Why Andrew Sullivan Isn’t a Reliable Guide To The Pathologies of the American Uber-Class

October 20, 2010

Over at Balloon Juice, a number of posts culminating here, and a gazillion (technical term alert) comments, have fully roasted Andrew Sullivan (and James Joyner) for their whimpering over the hurt feelings of the deserving rich.

That last link from John Cole decisively rends from limb to limb the pathetic straw men trotted out by Sullivan and Joyner.  It is not the rich that require deference for their contribution to the nation’s well being; rather, it is the working stiff who has forked over what John accurately calls “a direct transfer payment to the most well off in the country.”

I have to confess, I simply don’t understand the possible chain of reasoning that would lead someone to write as Joyner does of taxes on the rich (and remember — we are talking about a very minor increase from historically low levels of taxation), that “to confiscate it from the successful without acknowledgment of the sacrifice… is to court resentment.”

I mean, who knows where to begin:  taxation is not confiscation, nor is it a priori an evil, necessary or otherwise, as  Sullivan also proclaims.

It is the price you pay for living in a civil society.  Reasonable people expect to pay for things like the assurance their airplane will be guided safely to a landing, or that traffic lights will reliable regulate the flow of traffic at 33rd and 3rd, that hurricanes will be tracked and volcanoes monitored…and so on.

Just to hammer this point home, consider this miracle of argument from Joyner:

the meaning of confiscate is not controversial.  Merriam-Webster defines it thusly:

1 : to seize as forfeited to the public treasury
2 : to seize by or as if by authority

Surely, when the government takes my money from me on the threat of civil and/or criminal action for non-compliance, it qualifies a confiscation.   That it thinks it has better use for it than I do doesn’t change that.   Nor, even, does the necessity of the services for which the funds are expropriated.

Uh…well no.  This is as completely wrong and wrong headed as it is possible to be in such a short space.

Just to begin, here’s Joyner’s own source on the definition of the word “tax,” verb first:

1: to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action)
2: to levy a tax on

and now the noun:

1: a: a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes

b: a sum levied on members of an organization to defray expenses

See where this is going: to confiscate is to seize; to tax is to levy.  In the context of a democracy, taxation is a collective decision; confiscation is a particular decision, which may or may not be legitimate.  In the US, the people, through their representatives decide whether to tax themselves. This is not the same thing as a confiscation, as ought to be obvious to Oxford, Harvard and West Point educated thinkers.  The failure to recognize this distinction is, I believe morally deranged and deranging.  It asserts that all attempts to levy the costs associated with securing the lives and property of 300 million people jostling cheek by jowl are at least potentially illegitimate — that’s the implication of Joyner’s “by or as if” — and of Sullivan’s witless cheerleading assent.

Down that road lies Galt’s hell.

I’m like Cole in one thing:   I keep thinking that Sullivan is smarter, or rather, for he’s clever enough, more self-reflective enough than to fall for this kind of nonsense.

But he’s not; this isn’t a new trope for him — and the ease with which he tosses off nonsense doubling down on Joyner’s use of terms like “confiscate” to describe taxation* confirms that this is just part of the essential toolkit with which he approaches the world, a romanticization of the hero (George Bush, back in the day, the lonely entrepeneur now) for whom any criticism, any constraint is anathema.

But just as it was dangerous as hell to indulge in hagiography of W, so it is to mindlessly celebrate the rich as those who will somehow withdraw all their goodness from society if we don’t make sure we tuck them up nicely, with a warm glass of milk, between their sheets of flawless felted Benjamins.

There.  I feel better.

And now…on to part two, where we can actually look at who the super rich are, and decide for ourselves whether they are owed a tongue-bath from the grateful masses.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, “The Tax Collector” 1620-1640.

Consider This the “I Don’t Know Much About Music But I Know What I Like” moment of your day.

October 18, 2010

I am working on some more substantive new stuff for the blog (oh really? — ed.), but for just because I love you, here’s a little amuse bouche. Check out the video at this link.  Then tell me your hand doesn’t hurt.

I can’t count as fast as that man plays the violin.

Image: “Violin” See here for copyright info.

I Love the Smell of Godwin in the Morning: Rich Iott/Gay Mexican Muslim edition

October 18, 2010

I’m as jaded on the snark-subtitled Hitler-in-the-Bunker vids as the next blogger, but this version did have a bit of a kick to it.  So in the spirit of Monday, enjoy: