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    Turn! Turn! Turn!

    Posted by Sean at 12:10, February 5th, 2009

    At Hit and Run, Matt Welch is on fire. First on the anti-bourgeois crack high of a salary cap on upper management at banks:

    I’ll stack up my class resentment against anyone’s, particularly when it comes to billionaire hosebags scarfing at the public trough. However, the only “outrageous” thing going on here is that the government forced itself upon a comparatively successful private company, bitched about the host’s ingratitude, and is now doing what the federal government does best: Setting compensation rates at commercial banks. What’s that you say? Bank stocks tumbling on “nationalization” fears? Why I never!

    To sum up: In a fit of righteous anti-greed, people who make several hundred thousand dollars a year as federal employees (then millions more out of office doing whatever it is Tom Daschle was doing) are consciously driving the best talent out of endangered firms that are sitting on scores of billions of taxpayer dollars that they were made to accept by force. Shoot, what could go wrong with that?

    It will likely never be that time [when President Obama deems it acceptable for banks to make profits and pay out bonuses], as long as the government is in the business of running private commerce. Banks will be forced to write 4 percent mortgages. Automakers will be forced to build magical green cars that spew out 3 million jobs from their exhaust pipes. Airlines will be forced to Buy American, governors will be forced to spend their budget-filling bounty on unionized teachers, and newspapers will be forced to run Rahm Emanuel columns. Local commercial decisions will be made in Washington, based on politics, instead of by business-owners, based on consumers.

    And, again, no one who supports this kind of interventionist malarkey is in any moral or ethical position to be working up to high dudgeon about the omnipresence of lobbyists in D.C.

    Welch is even better on Obama’s column in the WaPo today. The president’s introduction reads in part:

    What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives — action that’s swift, bold and wise enough for us to climb out of this crisis.

    Well, then, Americans are screwed. Federal officials may have the best of intentions, but many of them have clearly never run so much as a lemonade stand successfully, and there is much on-the-ground information about actually operating a business in a way that’s good for shareholders, employees, and customers that they just have no way of knowing.

    So the wisdom part’s kind of suspect. Welch has issues with the boldness part, too, especially when it’s characterized as a departure from all those free-market, capitalist policies that have been blighting our lives lately.

    There is one charge here that I for one am happy to embrace: We can indeed “ignore…energy independence”…because there’s no such as thing as energy independence. Really. It’s b******t.

    Why do people oppose the stimulus? Here are a few actual reasons: There is no strong evidence that stimuli work, and plenty of evidence that they don’t (a relevant consideration, no?). Like the deeply flawed PATRIOT Act, the deeply flawed Iraq War resolution, and the deeply flawed bank bailout, it is being rushed through the legislature in an atmosphere of pants-wetting crisis and presidential warnings of impending doom. It is filled with special interest giveaways, big-government featherbedding, and “Buy American” considerations that have about as much to do with stimulating an economy as playing violin has with putting out fires. By taking from fiscally responsible states (like South Carolina) and giving to fiscally irresponsible states (like California), it violates basic notions of fairness and creates still more moral hazard in an already hazardtastic universe.

    And remember–aside from misportraying his opponents’ concerns, Obama is also blaming their “theories” for the whole crisis in the first place. Neat! But who had the theory that the federal government should be the elephant in the room of the mortgage business, pressure commercial banks to write mortgages for risky borrowers, even while applying less oversight to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than on actors in private sector? It certainly wasn’t the free marketeers. Who thought credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities should be left to expand like crazy without providing for a clearinghouse to at least measure their number and worth? It wasn’t the house libertarian on the SEC. Who thought elevating Alan Greenspan to deity status while he maestroed the long era of loose credit was the capital thing to do? I know this will come as a surprise for those who think an Ayn Rand habit gets people a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card on Planet Libertarian, but Greenspan’s bubble-blowing policies were plenty controversial in these quarters before the dukey hit the fan.

    Who knew Barney Frank was a libertarian?


    Posted by Sean at 18:17, February 4th, 2009

    Kasumigaseki, perhaps even more than Washington, is full of the sort of people who have been thrillingly sure, since the moment they won the Scissors and Paste Monitor of the Year award in kindergarten, that they were destined to boss their fellow citizens around for their own good.

    天下り (amakudari: lit., “descent from heaven,” used the way we say, “revolving door”) is one of the first words you learn when studying Japanese politics. The system is one of the reasons very smart, capable people are willing to join the civil service for less money than they would make in the private sector: their reward later in their careers is to take over “advisory” positions in semi-governmental organizations related to the ministries or bureaux they once worked for, using their connections and insider knowledge to everyone’s benefit.

    Except that of the taxpayers, naturally. The amakudari system keeps regulatory power within a closed circle of insiders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, however inimical to innovation that may make them. And, of course, it encourages back-scratching and sweetheart deals on the public-interest projects under the control of the ministries and semi-public corporations involved.

    The Asahi has a news article that lays out the essentials:

    Prime Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday moved up the planned abolishment of mediations by ministries in finding cushy post-retirement jobs for bureaucrats. But he left intact a new personnel center that opposition parties say will continue the harshly criticized practice of amakudari in a different form.

    Aso said he plans to issue an edict to ban, by the end of this year, ministries from setting up opportunities for amakudari, in which retired bureaucrats land jobs in industries once under their jurisdiction, and watari, the practice of retired officials hopping from one job to another in those industries.

    Under revisions made in 2007 to the national civil service law, amakudari mediations by ministries will be abolished by December 2011.

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today urges Tokyo to expedite the process of barring ministries from serving as HR brokers for these sorts of deals, declaring that the Aso administration and the Diet have a responsibility to push through reform over the objections of the federal bureaucrats. Prime Minister Aso has stated that he doesn’t plan to approve any deal-brokering for watari from here on, and a proposed new edict would ban it.

    The new Public-Private Human Resource Exhcange Center (or however it’s officially Anglicized) will not succeed in separating the moneychangers from the temple, to be sure, but the intention is to put revolving-door deals under some sort of centralized scrutiny, which may help somewhat. Of course, it may succeed in nothing but adding an extra layer of rubber-stampers to the amakudari process; that will depend partially on the personnel actually selected to run these things, which is still being discussed.


    Posted by Sean at 18:35, February 3rd, 2009

    Spring according to the lunar calendar adopted by Japan from China begins in the first week of February.



    haru to ieba/kasumi ni keri na/kinou made/namima ni mieshi/awadjishimayama

    shun’e houshi

    They say spring is here.
    There is a shroud of mist
    where just yesterday
    I saw it between the waves–
    Awaji Island peak

    The Priest Shun’e

    Winter air is cold and clear; with spring comes warmer, moister air, bringing haze and lower visibility. Shun’e the poet draws a pat distinction between yesterday, when Awaji Island was clearly visible some distance from the shoreline, and today, the first day of spring, when mist has risen around it. The poignancy of the poem comes from the unstated recognition, by Shun’e the person and by us, that things don’t actually change quite that cleanly. Today’s mist would have no meaning if yesterday’s clear weather didn’t linger in his mind. And even in literal terms, the cold winter air is probably not gone for the year yet.

    Added later: In completely unrelated news, Inauguration Day may not have changed as many things as it first seemed, either.

    Fire in the hole

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, February 2nd, 2009

    Damn. Recalls of cars and gyoza are bad enough, but this is way too much:

    Manufacturers of electric toilet seats equipped with a warm water bidet are warning users of a potential fire risk following a series of accidents, which they said were caused by defects and, in some cases, improper usage.

    An industry group is issuing customers with flyers featuring illustrations on proper usage, while explaining past accidents.

    Electric toilet seats with bidets began to be widely produced in 1980. According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, 68.3 percent of households across the country had at least one such product as of March.

    However, a committee comprising 10 electric toilet seat manufacturers has said some of the accidents might have been caused by improper usage. Of 152 cases of fire and smoke accidents reported by the manufacturers since 1991, the committee judged that 24 were highly likely to have been caused by improper usage.

    As someone who lived in Tokyo for a dozen years and had an electronic toilet seat for most of them, I miss the thing terribly. Having come back to the States, I feel like a gorilla having to go without the butt wash. I hope all these householders can go back to using their appliances in trusting bliss.


    Posted by Sean at 13:39, February 2nd, 2009

    It’s a few days old, but Cato’s David Boaz posted at Real Clear Politics with clarity and point about the latest attempt by special-interest politicians to interfere with honest profit-seeking:

    Every company and industry wanted to be sure that it would be eligible for some of the money, and members of Congress worked to slip their constituents and campaign donors into the bill’s 451 pages. By the time it passed, it included special provisions for Puerto Rican rum producers, auto race tracks, and corporations operating in American Samoa (such as Starkist, which is headquartered in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district). It required that insurance companies pay for mental health benefits and granted tax benefits for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and makers of children’s wooden arrows.

    Once the bill passed, the lobbying frenzy only accelerated. Banks and other companies focused their attention on the Treasury Department regulators. A Treasury spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that political influence played no role in the department’s decisions: “The decisions are made by a committee of officials at Treasury based on recommendations and data provided by the regulators through the application process.”

    That’s always the official answer. Put the government in charge of handing out money, and the decisions will be made by highly trained, public-spirited economists or lawyers, irrespective of political considerations.

    Even if regulators are as smart as Leonardo da Vinci and as incorruptible as Mother Teresa, they can never have as much knowledge as the decentralized, competitive market process, so planned economies and planned industries fall further and further behind free-market systems. But in reality, even if they’re smart, they’re not incorruptible. Political influence always comes into play. What we’re seeing with the bailout funds will also happen with the stimulus money.

    I get why people don’t like lobbyists, but it’s not hard to understand why they exist. When Congress wields power over Americans on all sorts of little local issues, it’s irrational for affected individuals and organizations not to try to leverage it in their favor. And then there’s the problem that no congresscritter can be an expert on everything from sheep farming to municipal opera outreach programs to traffic engineering, so decisions are inevitably made on the fly based on what sounds good (yet another opening for clever lobbyists). And we citizens who have better things to do must waste all sorts of time keeping an eye on Washington in order to stay even marginally informed about the shenanigans going on there.


    Posted by Sean at 18:17, January 30th, 2009

    Virginia posts about the stimulus package:

    Now if you’re going to lavish tax money on infrastructure projects, I’ll concede it makes good sense to use trained construction workers, not random day laborers. But politically it’s still a union payoff. And there’s no public-spirited reason to overpay for materials (or, for that matter, for labor).

    But the cost to taxpayers isn’t the biggest problem with the bill’s protectionism. A trade war threatens to exacerbate the single largest danger in the worldwide downturn: that a serious contraction in China will lead to domestic unrest and that that the Chinese government will engage in military aggression to focus frustration outward.

    China’s precarious balance of prosperity and unrest is a relatively new problem, so I think most people can be forgiven for not realizing it needs to be factored in.

    The reality that favoring American steelworkers means screwing over equally American factory workers further down the supply chain is, however, not new. Virginia cites this WaPo article:

    There are early signs that nations are putting up trade barriers to protect domestic companies as the global downturn worsens. Despite promises offered during a major economic summit in November to refrain from taking such measures, countries from France to Indonesia have done so.

    That, some argue, may be reason enough for the United States to follow suit. But in recent decades, the United States has stood out as the global champion of free trade; some analysts fear a move by Congress to restrict foreign companies from stimulus spending would mark an important shift away from that philosophy.

    Supporters say expanded Buy American provisions could help ensure that the treasure trove of government contracts for new highways, schools, bridges and energy grids creates jobs at home instead of abroad. They note that much of the tax rebate checks that went out last year to stimulate the economy went to Chinese-made televisions and Korean-made refrigerators.

    Well, yes, but the entire retail price didn’t go directly to the PRC and ROK. It also paid for the salespeople working the floor, the truckers who got the goods from port to warehouse, and the operations people who took care of the planning, ordering, and logistics here in the States. And forcing manufacturers to use more expensive materials means they pass the increases along to customers–a.k.a. the American consumers we’re supposed to be helping here.

    “What we’re already seeing is that demand is going down, but imports of Chinese finished steel is going up because they are subsidizing it,” said Thomas Gibson, president of the industry-funded American Iron and Steel Institute. “What we’re saying is that this is a stimulus package to promote American jobs. We ought to maximize every dollar in that bill toward that end. If you were building a bridge in West Virginia, you wouldn’t bring in German workers to do it. Materials should be no different.”

    That final comparison reveals itself as inane the moment you try to generalize away from West Virginia and German laborers (mmmmm…German laborers). Imported labor is used all the time, around the world, when local labor is too scarce or costly. The first part has a certain emotional resonance, but the tit-for-tat policies Gibson is using it to push for don’t seem to me to make much sense. The best hope that China will be convinced to loosen controls and distortionist government meddling is the increased flow of ideas and people, as well as goods, that comes with increasing trade.

    Tamed by the purr of a jaguar

    Posted by Sean at 10:44, December 25th, 2008


    That’s the sight that greeted me when I went, on rising this morning, into my parents’ kitchen to see whether any of my father’s first pot of coffee was still stewing. (It was. The man can’t ride a roller coaster without going green, but his stomach can handle coffee that’s been on the hot plate so long it’s turned to crankcase oil.)

    Good morning, Kitty. If you’re going to ambush me from up there, could you please at least wait until I and put on my eye gel? I have this vague idea that well-hydrated skin heals more quickly when torn.

    You all know about my ability to charm small pure-bred animals by this point. My parents’ cats are no exception. Bear in mind, Ludwig, above, is the friendly one. Romeo, his father, is more beige and more crabby. Whenever I come home, he spends my entire visit–no joke–glaring at me with undisguised antipathy, as if I were going to make off with the silver unless under continuous surveillance.

    Thanks to everyone who’s asked after me since I haven’t posted for a month; I’m grateful. Yes, things are fine. I doubt that I’m entirely adjusted to life back in New York even now, but coming home was the right decision. Without really planning it, I kind of took a rest from following news–either here or in Japan–to closely. I imagine I’ll be posting more regularly soon.

    For now, I’m being true to my Lehigh Valley roots and eating cake for breakfast. (How do people do this every day?) Tomorrow, I’m seeing some friends from high school for dinner and drinks–the sort of invitation I would have flung myself headlong in the opposite direction from up to a few years ago. Now, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Everyone seems well, and for the first time in twelve years, I’m not going to be the person coming from farthest away to the gathering.

    In between, it’s Christmas. Have a happy one, everyone.

    When you’re seen anywhere with your hat off…

    Posted by Sean at 14:06, November 14th, 2008

    My blog friend Sarah Hoyt is a sci-fi author, so she does a lot of thinking about social issues and the evolution of institutions. She has a post up about her support for gay marriage that takes what is, I think, the best tack possible: arguing that institutions such as marriage exist at least partially to push people toward beneficial behavior and away from destructive behavior that other around them may end up picking up after. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced, but she goes far beyond the soundbites along the lines of “But my partner and I love each other just as much as straight couples do” or “Well, gee, why shouldn’t our gay friends have the same rights as my wife and I do?”

    Sarah also brings the perspective of someone reared in a country that was not the States:

    A law might be able to institute a system like the one in Portugal – and please, those of you who know me, engrave this in stone, because it’s the one time in my life where I’ll say something is better in Portugal – where you have to get a “legal” marriage before the religious one. The legal one is a right, (though I don’t think they have gay marriage, before anyone jumps on me) the religious one isn’t. In fact, the religious one isn’t needed. It is between you and your G-d. The legal is usually done quietly and not celebrated by those people who intend to have a religious ceremony later. (In Dan’s and my case we had our civil ceremony in South Carolina in July, then went to Portugal for the religious wedding in December after I got my green card. It gives us two anniversaries.) At any rate a law could spell out that no religion will be forced to perform unions that offend its tenets or beliefs.

    I know at this point my gay friends – or their sympathizers – reading this are groaning and saying that the law will never come because look at all the defense of marriage stuff going on. Well… a properly written law might have a better chance. It might calm a lot of the fears.

    She may be right about that, though one of the problems is that so many of the most voluble proponents of gay marriage are too wrapped up in using it to get approval from all quarters. I’m not so sure they could be trusted to lay off the churches in exchange for marriage performed by a justice of the peace.


    Speaking of fabulously opinionated pro-SSM blog friends, Virginia Postrel appeared on PJTV to discuss the problems that Obama’s glamour might pose when he actually tries to carry out his duties as president. It turns out that her chemotherapy, in addition to helping beat her cancer into remission, has given her a Marcel wave. Do we live in an age of wonders, or what?

    Love on your side

    Posted by Sean at 12:37, November 13th, 2008

    Thanks to those who e-mailed to ask what I thought about California’s Proposition 8 and its aftermath. I didn’t post anything largely because I thought I’d said what I had to say about the gay marriage debate many times over.

    I still do. But Caltechgirl, whose blog I haven’t visited nearly often enough in the last several months, hit many of the important points:

    For the record, I voted NO on Prop 8, folks.

    Now that THAT’s out of the way, let me get to my point.  Last night’s protest rallies in West Hollywood and elsewhere did NOTHING to help the No on 8 cause.

    The election is OVER.  The ballots have been counted.  The “No on 8″ side lost.

    Sitting in a busy intersection, holding up traffic and waving signs from an election that’s past now doesn’t make people want to support you.  It makes people think you are a bunch of whiny crybabies with nothing better to do than to hold them up in traffic.  Which, as we LA folks ALL know, is sh***y without protesters blocking up the main intersections.

    So get over it.  Wipe your tears.  Get up and fight back. The RIGHT way.  The SMART way.  Don’t make your opponents so upset that they resent you.  That’s no way to “win friends and influence people.”

    You looked like a bunch of sissies in front of a big bully last night.  Seriously.  Do you WANT to play to stereotypes?  Do you think that’s anyway to bring people to your cause?  Sure it rallies people who agree with you, but the majority of Californians (at least according to the vote) probably thought it was pathetic and predictable from a “bunch of whiny sissies”…

    Last night’s protest here in New York appears to have been more dignified, but several essential problems remain:

    Mitchell Stout, 41, an actor from the Upper West Side, said, “We want to have the freedom and liberty to express our love for our partners the same way any American has.”

    One of the most pervasive beliefs about gays and lesbians is that we all suffer from arrested development and are driven by unexamined and unchecked emotions–we can’t deal with being told no by Daddy (either literally or as embodied by the state), and we deal with everything based on what feels good. When our most politically active men and women appear in public this way, all they do is reinforce that crap.

    Increased gay visibility was accomplished in the context of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when reflexive posturing against The Man was the order of the day among trendy liberals. Unfortunately, like other leftists–gay, straight, male, female, white, black, yellow, other–the loudest gay activists seem to be stuck in that mindset.

    Gays did not invent the entitlement mentality, we didn’t set it loose in the land, and given how many people just voted in Obama under the apparent assumption that he would make their kitchen-table problems disappear, we can hardly be considered its most egregious proponents. It may not be fair that we should have to work extra hard to combat that image, but it is a fact that any sensible, even-keeled person with a modicum of political savvy is aware of, even in California.

    Along the same lines, I have my doubts about targeting religious organizations in these contexts. Yes, the Mormons contributed a lot of money to supporting Proposition 8, and they probably seem like a good target for gay opprobrium because a lot of Americans regard them as a bit weird. And not nice to women. Still, such demonstrations have a way of looking like protests against the moral and spiritual ordering power of religion in the abstract, an effect that’s hardly counteracted by appeals to the Mormon history of polygamy (where are people’s heads?) and soppy invocations of a government-sanctioned contract as an “expres[sion of] love.”

    Once, convincing people that gay men and lesbians really did fall in love and form life-long partnerships was a real victory in and of itself, but the argument over marriage has evolved far beyond that point by now. As long as those against gay marriage are advancing sophisticated arguments about child-rearing and community building, its proponents are going to keep getting trounced when all they do is come back with effusions about love, prejudice, and ever-expanding rights.

    Of course, it’s possible that I should be grateful that the pro-SSM activists at least seem to inhabit Planet Earth, Year 2008. Eric posts about a group of gay anarchists who are operating in such a fantasy land it’s almost touching. Almost. Eric realizes that Bash Back is not representative of the gay mainstream, but his point–that tactics that alienate Middle Americans are a great way to foment a backlash–is well taken.

    Added later: I hadn’t noticed that Dale Carpenter had, naturally, posted about the first protests almost a week ago, too:

    Here’s my advice to righteously furious gay-marriage supporters: Stop the focus on the Mormon Church. Stop it now. We just lost a ballot fight in which we were falsely but effectively portrayed as attacking religion. So now some of us attack a religion? People were warned that churches would lose their tax-exempt status, which was untrue. So now we have (frivolous) calls for the Mormon Church to lose its tax-exempt status? It’s rather selective indignation, anyway, since lots of demographic groups gave us Prop 8 in different ways — some with money and others with votes. I understand the frustration, but this particular expression of it is wrong and counter-productive.

    Public protest against a constitutional ban on marriage for gay families is entirely justified. More than a mere vote, protests communicate intensity of feelings. They’re valuable in a democracy. Something incredibly precious was lost on Tuesday. Those who lost it should not be expected to go back quietly to producing great art and show tunes for everybody’s amusement.

    That via Jonathan Rauch at IGF, who wonders whether the protests aren’t nevertheless an encouraging sign.

    Added on 14 November while dressing for dinner: Have I linked enough people yet? Of course not! Robbie at The Malcontent weighed in several days ago:

    What is required in these protests is a target. But the very nature of identity politics precludes the two most obvious demographics who voted for the initiative – Hispanics and African-Americans. Could anyone imagine a parade of mostly white gays and lesbians descending on black communities and churches in protest? No, and those pushing the protests know that tactic would never fly in America.

    Why not go after Catholics, a demographic that supported the proposition with both cash and votes? First, because Catholics comprise roughly 25% of the American population. In addition, California is a heavily hispanic state, and hispanics are overwhelming Catholic. Would any smart GLBT organizer have their activists and supporters declare war on the Catholic Church and expect support from hispanics and a large portion of white voters? No, not even in that liberal state.

    This leaves us with the Mormons, the red-headed stepchild of American religion. Secularists think they’re crazy, and other Christian denominations believe they’re a strange, deviant cult. We need look no further than the Republican primary to see that liberals and conservatives strangely converge when it comes to a low opinion of the Mormon religion. Right out of the gate, the protesters have a target that will be left wanting of defenders. Furthermore, the actual numbers of Mormons in this country is rather low.

    They’re the safe target. The only target. The one target that invites almost no recrimination among a large swath of conservatives, liberals, the religiously devout, and atheists.

    What these protesters should be asking is how a small, out-of-state religious denomination blew them out of the water when the media, history, every celebrity living and dead, and the demographic majority was soundly on their side. What these protesters should be asking is what went so wrong with their campaign and message that they could barely corral even their fellow gays into the voting booths.

    I don’t know that I entirely agree about the Catholic part; anti-RC animus hardly goes unexpressed in gay circles, though it hasn’t really flared up since the AIDS protests a few decades ago. OTOH, this was a special case, given the California demographics Robbie cites. Happily, the demonstrations planned for tomorrow target political institutions.

    Into the gap

    Posted by Sean at 18:50, November 11th, 2008

    Thanks to all our veterans today. It would be lovely if prosperity and peaceful business within a free society translated into prosperity and peaceful business all around. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. There will always be threats that need to be dealt with decisively; our gratitude to those who make it their business to handle doing so.