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    Hold a chicken in the air / Stick a deck chair up your nose

    Posted by Sean at 16:14, October 27th, 2008

    Eric and M. Simon link to this masterwork of scintillating ninnyism by, not to put too fine a point on it, the sort of person I vowed I would never, ever become when I left the Lehigh Valley. I will leave aside the ha-ha-but-I-really-kind-of-mean-it argument that white people should be banned from voting. Whatever thesis it was in service of, Jonathan Valania’s conclusion would be an insult to everyone referred to:

    By this point, you either think I am joking or are calling me an elitist. I assure you I am neither. OK, maybe a little of both. But it wasn’t always like this. I come from the Coal Belt, from that Alabamian hinterland between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as per James Carville’s famous formulation.

    I am, in fact, just two generations out of the coal mines that blackened the lungs of my grandfather, leaving him disabled, despondent and, finally, dead at the ripe old age of 54.

    So, understand that I am saying all this for the good of the country and, in fact, for the good of those hard-working white people that Hillary used to pander to.

    I know those people, I come from them. They are not some shameful abstract demographic to be brushed under the rug of euphemism by Wolf Blitzer and his ilk.

    I have broken kielbasa with those people. I went to school with their children. I have gone to Sunday Mass with a deer-hunter hangover with those people. They are bitter with good reason, and they are armed because they are scared. They mean well, but they are easily spooked.

    I fear for what is to become of them after the campaigns leave town for the last time, and Scranton and Allentown and Carlisle go back to being the long dark chicken dance of the national soul they were before the media showed up.

    I am, in fact, just one generation away from the steel mills of Bethlehem that sent my father to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns one day when I was a child, have chronically aggravated his psoriasis, and have dinged him up with joint problems.

    But you know something? Much as I adore my parents and many of my elder relatives, I have no idea what it’s like to be a plant worker. Therefore, when the discussion turns to their lives, I generally trust them to know themselves at least as well as I do.

    That’s not to say that I don’t disagree with them on policy frequently…though my disagreement, I imagine, runs in the opposite direction from Valania’s. To my mind, people who claim not to need the government to take care of them are far too ready to embrace further distortions of economic decision-making through changes to the tax code, protectionism, and support for national health care–as long as they’re pitched as “relief for Pennsylvania families.” I think they’re wrong to support such policies, and I wish they didn’t. But no one is required to adhere to my wishes when prioritizing which political values they’re going to use their vote to optimize. If a free society is to work, we have to be ready to accept other people’s choices even if we think they’re bad.

    I’m not trying to dodge the simple fact that people often make judgments based on prejudice; my point is just that you can’t tell from someone’s ballot how he or she decided whom to vote for. We’re a gigantic country in a gigantic global economy, and all of us deal with daily torrents of signals. Not even trained social scientists concur on policy, for heaven’s sake, and they’re the ones who spend their working lives poring over the data. How difficult should it be to accept that ordinary citizens, trying to make the most sense of the fragmentary information they have, don’t all agree with you or your candidate? (It might also be pointed out that Allentown is in the 15th Congressional District, which went for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. Yes, it’s a notorious swing district, and the margins were narrow; and as a registered Republican, I’m not pointing these things out as some kind of point of pride. I just think that someone who’s going to bitch about white people’s voting the wrong person into office in one paragraph and then cite Allentown in another should have a surer hand with the numbers.)

    Middle PA has its fair share of born hotheads and sourpusses, but so do Tokyo and New York. What does that prove? I have relatives who hunt. They like hunting, and they like guns. They go to church regularly and like the people in their congregations. Most of them take pride in their jobs, even if everyone has plenty of stories about being screwed by bureaucratic bossiness or the idiot colleague everyone else has to carry. The economic dislocations of the last few decades have been painful, and people can certainly get riled up over what they see as betrayal by the government. But bitter in the all-around sense? I just don’t see it. And if you want to see easily spooked, just try announcing in a group of gay guys here in New York that you’re voting for McCain.


    I know that this is not a new point, but the best way to approach people with opposing beliefs is to argue with them. Maybe you have something to teach them, or maybe they know as much as you do but have drawn different conclusions. Vigorous disagreement is built into the American experiment, but it can’t work if we’re all busy accusing each other of voting based on our hang-ups.

    Oh, and I’m not even going to go after that “broken kielbasa” nonsense. Well, except to say that, as an incoherent metaphor and in combination with the reference to the chicken dance, it put me in mind of “The Chicken Song,” which, while no more logical than Valania’s piece, at least is as funny as it intends to be.

    Added on 29 October: Happy Diwali (that’s the greeting?) to our Indian friends. And thanks to Eric for the link and the kind words as always.

    Added on 30 October: Thanks to Eric for pointing out that Valania’s confirmation bias and lefty-from-central-casting cultural and economic illiteracy go back at least a half-decade. Check out this piece that, among other things, contrasts two Philadelphia-based businesses that are owned by former partners. The founder of Urban Outfitters is now, at least to a degree, a conservative. His retail chain is described like this:

    The interior of the flagship store at 17th and Walnut streets is stylized to evoke what can only be described as janitorial chic: exposed brick, scraped plaster walls and low-hanging ventilation ducts. Everything is illuminated by the soft glow of warehouse loft light fixtures. All the merchandise is displayed against pegboard backdrops faintly reminiscent of ye olde family rec room or dad’s workshop. And piped in over the sound system is the jarring electro clatter of Peanut Butter Wolf’s oh-so-appropriately titled album Badmeaningood.

    His former paramour is still gratifyingly liberal, so her enterprises are characterized thus:

    “Hi, this is Judy in the woods,” says the voice on the answering machine at the Poconos summer home of Judy Wicks, owner and operator of the White Dog Cafe, a homey restaurant/bar in University City, and of the adjoining artsy gift shop called the Black Cat. Wicks is a prominent local businesswoman and a diehard liberal activist.

    Judy went on to open the highly successful White Dog Cafe, where she would host and coordinate countless social and community activist campaigns, while Dick went on to build the Urban Outfitters empire out of the humble beginnings of Free People.

    If you don’t know Philadelphia, you may not know how laugh-aloud hilarious it is to see the White Dog depicted as “homey.” I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with its carefully cultivated shabby-genteel atmosphere, but it’s a joke to try to argue that the place is any less pretentious than, like, Le Bec Fin. (That goes double for the bibelots at the Black Cat.) Here’s an item from the White Dog’s current dinner menu:

    Pulled Duck Confit on Chickpea Panella
    coco agro-dolce and an arugula, radish, and zucchini flower salad

    Just like Mom used to make, huh?

    As I say, I think it’s great that Wicks found a marketable business model that helps fund causes she supports. There’s nothing immoral about combining peasant-y ingredients in a fashion formulated to appeal to the Mother Jones set, but I don’t see how it’s any more inherently forthright an enterprise than Urban Outfitters. And Valania never seems to get around to noting that Richard Hayne’s company, having grown so large, has helped create wealth and employment across the globe. (He’s busy decrying “sweatshops” while giving short shrift to potential arguments about what their employees’ lives would be like if factory work weren’t an alternative.)

    Words get in the way

    Posted by Sean at 16:07, October 26th, 2008

    Heather MacDonald has a characteristically smart piece in City Journal about Sarah Palin (via Amy Alkon).

    I know, it’s elitist to expect a candidate for president or vice president to speak like an adult. Sure, there are parents out there battling the “like” epidemic who might not appreciate having someone in the White House validating their 15-year-olds’ speech habits. But, hey: “Total role reversal here.” (Palin, of course, can sound adolescent even when she uses the right verbs, as when she disingenuously denied her snarky put-down of Joe Biden’s age while lauding herself as “you know, . . . the new energy, the new face, the new ideas.”) It’s even more elitist to expect a vice president to put together sentences that cohere into a minimally logical progression of thought. There was a time, however, when conservatives upheld adult standards—such as clarity of speech and thought—without apology, even in the face of the relentless downward pull of adolescent culture. But now, when a vice-presidential candidate talks like a teenager, mugs like an American Idol contestant, and traffics in syntactical dead-ends and non sequiturs, we are supposed to find her charming and authentic.

    Nevertheless, Palin’s verbal hodgepodge may say nothing about her qualifications for the vice presidency. Judgment and political acumen could well rest on different mental capacities than the ability to order thoughts into smooth sentences. But the inability to answer a straightforward question about economic policy without becoming tangled in words suggests either ignorance about the subject matter or a difficulty connecting between ideas. Neither explanation is reassuring.

    The Palin nomination has unleashed among Republican pundits and voters a great roar of pent-up rage against liberal elites, much of it warranted. But the conservative embrace of Palin comes at considerable cost to conservative principles. The populist identity politics that Republicans are now playing with such gusto may come back to haunt them in the future.

    Liberal hypocrisy on Palin’s family dilemmas has matched the conservative turnaround with perfect symmetry, of course. And perhaps both sides will blithely and unapologetically switch places yet again as soon as circumstances allow. Still, the conservative position on the family happens to be the right one. So, too, was the erstwhile conservative defense of articulateness, knowledge, and uncommon achievement. It’s a shame to have sacrificed these ideas, even temporarily, in the quest for political advantage.

    I, too, wonder how the backing and filling is going to play out when Republicans start making rigorous classical standards of education one of their favorite topics again. I’m a bookish man who gravitates toward bookish people and lives in a bookish city, but I recognize that Palin has good instincts and has held her own in terms of hands-on achievement in office.

    What worries me is that she doesn’t give any indication of having been exposed to Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and written,” which you can do at the University of Idaho as surely as you can at Amherst if you’re of a mind to. I spent the first half of the ’90s as a comparative literature major at Penn, so believe me, I am well aware of the limits of cutesy verbal game-playing. That she’s not more honey-tongued in the lawyerly sense we’ve gotten used to since the Clintons is not something I hold against her.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that much of the history of mankind is stored in language, and Palin doesn’t seem to think or talk like someone who’s been absorbing the lessons of the past from the Founding Fathers or Orwell or even Margaret Thatcher. Palin’s “you know” and “like” don’t bother me as much as the fact that her phrasing makes ideas squishy and the connections between them unclear. Isn’t the point of exalting folksiness usually to prize blunt, fearless truth-telling?


    Posted by Sean at 19:56, October 23rd, 2008

    Well, I was all set to post a translation of an autumn poem; then I did a search on a hunch and–naturally–I’d already posted it a few years ago. Darn. Guess I’ll just have to hunt high and low for some other Japanese poem about autumn.

    Okay, I’ve put up a bunch of poems by Saigyō, but I don’t think I’ve gotten around to this one. When I was in grad school and we got to this one, Donald Keene (whose Shinkokin-shu seminar I was fortunate enough to be able to take) broke into a broad, frank grin: “It’s rare and moving to see Saigyō write a poem with such warmth and humor.”



    oyamada no/iho chikaku naku/shika no ne ni/odorokasarete/odorokasu kana

    saigyou houshi

    Just outside my hut
    nestled in a mountain field
    the cry of a deer
    has jolted me right awake
    I think I’ll jolt him right back

    The Priest Saigyō

    “See how he likes it!” the sleepy Saigyō seems to say. The notes from my edition say that his plan is likely to use a clapper or noisemaker, rather than to lean out the door and tell the deer to shut up already so decent folk can get some sleep. Deer make disconsolate noises that are considered fundamental to the lonely, aching beauty of autumn.

    Added on 25 October: I think I’m a moron, but (unusually) it’s not entirely certain. I took 小山田 as a place name and had in some shadowy, inaccessible synapse a memory of having been instructed to render it thus twelve years ago; however, the edition I use almost invariably gives a note for each place referred to that tells where it would be in contemporary Japan, and there’s nothing like that here. Also, 山田 can just mean “mountain paddy,” anyway. So I’m playing Ministry of Truth (真実省? But at this point it probably would have merged with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the 2001 restructuring, so maybe…okay, focus, Sean) and changing it above.


    Posted by Sean at 13:13, October 22nd, 2008

    Today’s lead editorial in the Nikkei is headlined “Accounting improprieties by regional governments cause trouble with separation of powers.”

    After the Board of Audit conducted a nationwide investigation of 12 prefectures, it came to light that federal subsidies exceeding 500 million yen had been used improperly. Cases in which slush funds were eked out through fabricated orders to suppliers were also discovered. Each entity should, at the same time as it returns the misappopriated portion of funds to the federal government, do its own thorough investigation that includes how the slush funds were used.

    The accounting improprieties indicated by the Board of Audit are largely of two types. One was the MO of “deposit,” in which orders for purchasees of office supplies and things were fraudulently generated, and the capital accumulated in the account of the relevant supplier. Because subsidy money left over must be returned to Tokyo, the method was to move it into suppliers’ accounts at the end of the fiscal year, and from the next year on, to make payments from that account when goods were actually purchased.

    Another was the allocation of subsidies. There were cases in which temporary employees hired for the work of allocating subsidy money were rotated to other jobs, and funds for their business travel were obtained from subsidies that were unrelated to it.

    Increasing the transparency of administration and use of public funds is one of the minimum conditions for moving forward with regional separation of powers. Even those entities that were not subjects of the current investigation should do their own investigations and clear out all the corruption [“drain out all the pus,” in the evocative Japanese phrasing–SRK].

    That accounting improprieties were left unattended in each prefecture until the Board of Audit pointed them out is also a problem. Even if we allow that the tricks used were clever, what on earth were the prefectural assemblies and the auditing committees, which were supposed to verify budgeting and book-closing, doing? We call on everyone from the employees of the regional entities to the audit committees to do some hard soul-searching.

    Aichi Prefecture apparently took (the biggest slice of) the cake, with diverted subsidies and dodgy expenditures totaling 130 million yen. Bear in mind that only a quarter of Japan’s prefectures were studied, too.

    The “separation of powers” part is, of course, the longstanding argument over what and how much Tokyo should be giving back to prefectural (and municipal) governments. I can see the point that giving more power to regional governments that are busy creating slush funds is a bad idea. On the other hand, the sense of assurance that Tokyo is far, far away and not looking too hard makes it easier to get crafty. And pouring so much tax and revenue from around Japan into one federal pool makes the resulting funds seem to come from big, abstract Tokyo rather than living, breathing taxpayers in local officials’ own communities. It’s inexcusable that they regard the subsidy system as an open tap, but it’s not really hard to see how they get that way.


    Posted by Sean at 21:25, October 15th, 2008

    Yes, because I also know which pronouns are singular and plural.

    And they complain about Sarah Palin’s intelligence.

    Added at 21:26: “Are each of you willing to…?”

    Added at 23:00: May I just say…I will never agree with Hillary Clinton on policy, but she’s come a long way in terms of her public persona. Good on her.

    In the neighborhood

    Posted by Sean at 16:02, October 10th, 2008

    Wow. Looks like a fire behind our building–on 39th, I think, just east of Park. There’s been smoke pouring out of a building for the last twenty minutes. Murray Hill’s mostly residential, especially on the Streets (as opposed to the Aves.), so the probability is well over 50% that it’s someone’s house or apartments…though it’s close enough to 100 Park that I can’t tell. Here’s hoping there are no injuries and that property damage is minimized. FDNY seems to be there.

    Don’t blame this sleeping satellite

    Posted by Sean at 11:34, October 10th, 2008

    Eric links to this post by Bill Whittle about Barack Obama’s assertion that citizens have a right to health care in the debate the other night. Eric says,

    [H]ealth care is not a right. Certainly not a right in the way our country has always defined rights, for if there is an obligation for other people to pay for it, it becomes not a right but a duty, to the government, by other people — duties to the government being the antithesis of rights.

    Having lived in Japan for twelve years and had several friends who (unlike me) work in health care, I had a lot of lively discussions about the relative merits of socialized medicine. What always drove me crazy was when people talked as if the money for health care weren’t going to have to come from somewhere. There’s plenty of great health care available in Japan, but stories have surfaced recently about patients’ being turned away or dumped by hospitals, and about desperate Japanese who travel to China for organ transplants. One doesn’t want to be like the NYT Style Section and inflate every clutch of three colorful anecdotes into a Major Trend, but the aging society does mean that there will be fewer workers supporting more geriatric patients in short order. Everyone is worried.

    Of course, that’s a practical, not philosophical, problem. Whittle writes,

    Constitutional rights protect us from things: intimidation, illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and so on. The revolutionary idea of our Founding Fathers was that people had a God-given right to live as they saw fit. Our constitutional rights protect us from the power of government.

    But these new so-called “rights” are about the government — who the Founders saw as the enemy — giving us things: food, health care, education… And when we have a right to be given stuff that previously we had to work for, then there is no reason — none — to go and work for them. The goody bag has no bottom, except bankruptcy and ruin.

    And, of course, when the government is in charge of giving out goodies, it gets to set priorities and trade-offs for individuals. Is your need for a procedure “urgent”? What’s an acceptable minimum for “quality of life”? Would you prefer to buy less health coverage and more of something else you value more highly? What happens when functionaries start telling fat people they don’t deserve bypass surgery because they’ve spent their lives tunneling through five Entenmann’s cakes a week?

    Not, I hasten to add, that the current American system is anywhere near perfect…but then, neither is it a free-market system. Former AIG executive (!) Jon Basil Utley wrote the following in Reason a few months ago:

    So why isn’t all this being debated in the presidential campaign? For one, some of the richest and most powerful lobbies in Washington are run by the medical and pharmaceutical establishments. They don’t want a competitive system. Democrats do propose forcing everyone to “buy” high-cost insurance, while continuing with the current system, and then have taxpayers subsidize premiums for the poor. But they also oppose tort reform which would hurt their trial lawyer political allies. Many Republican congressmen, meanwhile, also benefit from the lobbies and don’t want to rock the boat. After eight years in power, they don’t want to take criticism for having made little reform.

    Medical cost reform is just one of many areas where Washington is corrupt and paralyzed, in particular because of the gerrymandered power structure, whereby sitting congressmen are almost invulnerable to defeat. They then legally collect millions in “campaign contributions” from the lobbies. Reform will only come about if Americans become better informed, yet most of the media is ignorant about health costs. Reform depends also upon major corporations attacking the current system, such as Wal-Mart has started to do with its in-store clinics. But most companies are silent and afraid to tackle the medical power structure. The Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses seem reluctant to challenge both the monopolies and the current system. Lessons from the experiences of other nations are certainly available, but most Americans are ignorant of them and still believe claims that “our system is the best.” It may be “best” for Medicare, some Medicaid recipients, congressmen, state and federal government employees, and the military, but then they already have “socialized” medicine; they just don’t pay most of the costs.

    I’m not sure exactly what can be done about the current mess. Public policy that enshrines health care as a right does not seem like a great plan, though. It would further separate the health-care payments citizens make from the goods and services meted out, muffling useful price signals. And it would further insulate government officials controlling the goodies from competition, feedback, and new ideas. That always works out well, huh?

    World Turning

    Posted by Sean at 23:23, October 7th, 2008

    I watched the debate with my buddy, a few friends of his, and some friends of theirs. I was pretty much the only right-of-center person in the room, but I feel safe in saying that we all had more pointed, concrete things to say about The Issues than either man in the hot seat tonight. (And Tom Brokaw seriously needs a different surgeon.) I’m still voting McCain–at this point, nothing would make me trust Obama with the presidency–but between the jabbering about ending dependency on foreign oil and the nattering about using federal power to play Mr. Fix-it with the economy, I was (even more) glad (than usual) for the nectar of the grape. Ugh.

    Added later: Will Wilkinson:

    Holy god there is nothing more important than not trading with foreigners for energy. Double the Peace Corps, so we can renew America, because there is no non-state way to do that.

    Why are you right when I’m so wrong?

    Posted by Sean at 15:07, October 5th, 2008

    Ann Althouse takes issue with Andrew Sullivan’s sardonic comments about Sarah Palin’s winking during the debate. Althouse specifically tackles this Rich Lowry post, in which he admits to finding Sarah Palin sexy. Althouse makes a good point, but she doesn’t seem to remember this post by Sullivan himself a few years ago. About a VP candidate. In a debate.

    Well, I could easily be wrong, but I have a feeling Cheney will crush Edwards tonight. The format is God’s gift to Daddy. They’ll both be seated at a table, immediately allowing Cheney to do his assured, paternal, man-of-the-world schtick that makes me roll on my back and ask to have my tummy scratched. (Yes, I do think that Cheney is way sexier than Edwards. Not that you asked or anything.)

    Your day’s complete now, right?

    Personally, I don’t see why we shouldn’t take note of a politician who’s unusually hot; it’s not as if Washington were so chock-a-block with irresistible sexpots that we’d run the risk of being distracted indefinitely from economic, geopolitical, and energy policy. Corn subsidies are at least as sexy as the average member of congress.

    Eric, BTW, notes that Palin’s winking is not exactly precedent-setting.

    Standing on shakey ground

    Posted by Sean at 14:04, October 3rd, 2008

    I didn’t go into the debate thinking Sarah Palin was either (1) the august Saint Jane of Sixpack, whose Middle-American horse sense is worth ten times its weight in Yale degrees and who has the stuff to remake Washington completely while one hand dandles a baby and the other cleans a rifle or (2) the dumbest religious-rightest bitch ever nominated for anything ever who can’t even make sentences and OMG have you seen those glasses and what does she think this is a Pantene commercial and that Valley-Girl-from-the-North-Country accent gives me hives and AAARRRGGGGGGHHHH?!

    I like Palin. I think she’s shrewd and grounded. I like that she loves her country without qualification. I have the same problems with her that I do with all politicians: I wish she weren’t an economics moron, and I wish her political compromises indicated a more consistent way of prioritizing principles and goods. And there are some more specific problems with her individually: shrewdness and cockiness are not substitutes for being informed, and there is, in fact, nothing elitist about deploying good grammar/usage/mechanics off the cuff. I was never persuaded that Palin was lacking in intelligence, but I’m still not persuaded that she has the hunger for knowledge or conceptual framework for driving policy effectively.

    That said, she did well last night. She appeared to believe what she was saying, and there were few “How’s that again?” sentence constructions. Biden’s been around for ages, so I have a difficult time assessing what the debate itself really made me think of him. He seemed more lizardly than usual, though he never acted like a jerk.

    Like Virginia, I like Will Wilkinson’s liveblog. Some excerpts:

    8:16 – Biden: Barack Obama will never raise taxes on anyone ever. Almost. McCain is middle-class-hating shill for megawealthy.

    8:18 – Palin: Higher taxes not patriotic, Biden. Government off our snow machines! I did a good job remembering talking points about McCain’s health care tax credit plan! Budget-neutral: I can say it!

    8:19 – Biden: Scranton, reprezent. Redistribution isn’t if you don’t call it that. Fairness! Health care, blah blah Bridge to Nowhere.

    8:21 – Biden: How to save? Screw foreign assistance, tax cuts for rich, can’t “slow up on” stuff that’s the “engine”, like subsidies for the energy companies we’re not going to give tax cuts to. Tax havens unpatriotic!

    8:31 – Palin: Extemp grammar weird. Global warming. Yeah, we’ve got glaciers in Alaska, so we need to pay more for energy by subsidizing the same energy companies I had to wrestle like polar bears.

    8:32 – Biden: Global warming totally manmade. I know. I made it. By Talking. BO likes clean coal and safe nuclear. China: Dirty dirty coal. Give em our tech. McCain hates environment because he opposes causing hunger in third world children by subsidizing corn. Drilling won’t get us anywhere until 10 years, as if prices don’t reflect expectations of future production.

    My biggest worry last night was that if Palin crashed and burned, she would not only discredit the McCain campaign but also the idea that bringing outsiders (“non-professionals”) into DC politics is a good one. She held her own and seems to be learning her lessons. That’s not major praise, but considering whom she’s running with and against, and considering her own very, very iffy performance over the last several weeks, it’s enough.