Moral hazard

One of the nice things about living in a civilized society is being able share the risk of catastrophe across populations larger than your family and close friends.  We have all sorts of machinery for this, private and public, from welfare to fire insurance to fire departments, arrangements that protect each of us, for example, from either needing savings accounts large enough to pay for a whole new house (or a triple bypass heart operation) with cash, or being on the street, or dead, if chance rolls us snake eyes or boxcars.

Republicans are much exercised over the incentives to laziness and fecklessness these programs breed in poor people; as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell observed, if the lower classes don’t set us a good moral example, what’s the use of them?  Continue Reading…

Five centuries of misrule

A three-week vacation in southern Spain and Portugal is a bittersweet experience. Both countries are clean, picturesque, and full of nice people who were helpful, and patient with my Spanish and Portuguese.  The roads are good and public transit a rebuke to every American city.  Lots of old city centers have been preserved and remain lively and populated, and the architecture, monuments, and museums, are well-presented and worth a lot of attention. Hotels are cheap, food reasonable, service is excellent, and it’s easy to find live fado in dozens of Lisbon restaurants…wait a minute, why is that? It’s because unemployment is 26% in Spain and 15% in Portugal; much worse for people under 25.

These countries are really hurting. The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3. In Andalusia, hillsides almost too steep to stand on are being terraced for avocado trees and almonds. We drove through endless stretches of low-grade pasture dotted with cork oak trees.  This is not a high-grade, efficient agricultural sector (granted that a lot of both countries is sub-prime ag land, and dry).  I can’t think of anything I own other than a bottle of olive oil or wine that was made in either place.  Tourism is nice for the rest of us, but the jobs it generates are mostly making beds and serving food.

These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European power.  How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much better off now? The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it.  Spain, particularly, is only a few decades out of a half a millenium of unrelenting, insistent, across-the-board failed governance, not only incompetent but aggressively wrong-headed.

Continue Reading…

Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas

We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes.   Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell.   I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here.  He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them. Continue Reading…

Learning from Michael Sam

Jonathan Vilma is an NFL player who is not afraid of colliding with great, big, strong guys in fiberglass armor on the field. He is not afraid to sell his post-career lucidity for money.  He is courage on the hoof, is Jonathan Vilma, and yet he is afraid of someone looking at him with sexual interest that he does not requite.  Good for Jonathan! That diffidence, and his heartbreaking plea for our sympathy should he ever to face that challenge, expresses the chivalrous culture of his sport.  It is why every woman knows she is never at risk of sexual assault — or even a moment’s embarrassment — if a football player should look at her with sexual interest that she does not requite. Every one of these paragons understands how she feels, respects that feeling in word and deed, and in fact they are known to avoid bars and parties with women, lest they put one in that impossible “how am I supposed to respond?” state of anxiety that terrifies Jonathan.  Good for Jonathan, and shame on Michael Sam for threatening him with a situation Jon, and his peers, would never inflict on anyone.

Comments

Readers may have noticed some teething problems with our new comments system. No, Mark did not get fed up with the odd ill-mannered reader and erase everything.  Our wonks are on it: sorry, patience!

Employment and freedom

Kevin Drum, who had the nerve to suggest that leaded gasoline that  was bad for people (as though that mattered next to the admirable and meritorious fortunes it made for GM, DuPont and Standard Oil!) has finally posted a graphic even I can understand.

However, Kevin completely misses what’s before his eyes. See, the Republican/American private sector jobs (red, of course) are going up while the Democrat/Socialist jobs are going down.  When something goes up while something else is going down, you don’t need a stinkin’ PhD to understand the situation: as any fool can see — I can see! — the government jobs we’re finally clearing out are not just parasites, but the jackbooted regulatory oppressors with their feet on the throats of our job creators! Teachers making kids do boring homework, librarians saying “shush!”, cops writing speeding tickets, weights and measures guys telling Safeway they can’t call 14 oz a pound if they want to, EPA busybodies telling entrepreneurs what they can and can’t dump in the river and the air, ATF thugs after my personal machine gun.

Fortunes are being made selling  bottled water in West Virginia right now because those proud, independent mountain people kept the government from messing with Freedom Industries.

Fire ‘em all and we’ll be rich.

Also, Benghazi.

 

Authorship and authenticity

Mamoru Samuragochi, until yesterday, was a deaf composer widely admired in Japan.  It now appears he is not deaf, and most of his works were ghostwritten for two decades by Takashi Niigaki, a music teacher with no public presence at least until now.  The story, including the world’s reaction to it, highlights interesting issues in aesthetic theory and the psychology of art.  In particular, it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work  by itself.

OK, the Samuragochis are actually Niigakis and not a note of them has changed: now what? Western critical tradition is much concerned to link works of art with the identity of the artist, so a largish industry exists to find and authenticate the authorship of paintings, music and other work.  If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu.  Fritz Kreisler, whose talent  as a violinist and a minor composer are not in any doubt, attributed a bunch of his small pieces to early composers like Tartini and Vivaldi, and later took credit for them unapologetically, saying they were just as good as people thought they were when mislabeled. How different did they sound after listeners knew who really wrote them?  What was their “real” artistic merit before and after?

Continue Reading…

Engineering porn

One of the specialized delights of crossing the Bay Bridge while its new eastern span was under construction was seeing the Left Coast Lifter at work.  Especially in a tech world where the witchcraft and magic of Maxwell’s equations rule and stuff is just bits in a cloud.  “Wow,” I said to myself, “I bet that’s close to the biggest crane in the world!”  and I was right. Coming soon to a river near our northeast readers, and renamed I Lift New York. Don’t miss it if you like drop-dead awesome machinery.

Graphics and editing

One of the results of the economic squeeze on newspapers has been a loss of editorial talent, including copy-editing (has anyone else noticed how rough and sloppy the prose is getting?), and publication of truly terrible stuff that a good editor would have protected us from.  And at top-end outlets, like the New York Times.  Poor Carl Levin and Angus King have a sensible op-ed in today’s paper that a copy-editor could have tightened and sharpened in a single pass, and the art editor, or whatever intern is doing that now, saddled it with a cut so bad as to garble their argument just by sitting there on the page.

iran

If I understand it properly, this picture is constructed around the expression “to throw a monkey wrench into” some sort of machinery, and the American Eagle is about to do it (L & K are warning against Congress ginning up new sanctions against Iran while negotiations seem to be working).  Almost everything that could go wrong does, though. Only partly because the wrench isn’t a monkey wrench, but something miscalled (like Kleenex for tissue) a crescent — a useful thing that fixes stuff and has no association with sabotage.  I had to deconstruct the picture for at least a minute before I got it.  The only eagly thing about the bird, who could almost be a dove with malocclusion especially given its size compared to the wrench (one of my dead-end misreads, actually), is its beak. But in a cartoon, you need to be careful about the things that quickly identify your subject.  If a bird is going to read as “the USA” it has to have white feathers on its head and tail, big strong feet with serious talons, and feathery legs. If it’s a hawk, what do the arrows have to do with it?

Actually, nothing works here.  The bird isn’t flying, nor sitting on anything (one of my wrong tries was that it was hanging on the wrench), and it certainly isn’t about to throw anything, as both its dainty little feet are tangled up with graphic symbols it took off a flowchart. The bird on our national coat of arms has real, physical arrows, and for a reason.

If he threw the wrench into the negotiations as rendered (that is, rendered as an enormous poker game), it would fall on the table and astonish everyone.  But it wouldn’t break anything; the metaphor needs something like a machine with gears and stuff…maybe with the diplomats turning a crank?

A picture that has to be turned into a word paraphrase and then back into a picture isn’t really graphic, or anything really (maybe a Sunday supplement puzzle).  Somebody at the Times decided they couldn’t afford an artist who was ready for prime time, couldn’t afford an art editor who could coach artists, and couldn’t afford a managing editorial staff who could look at a page and say “wait a minute!”  Maybe they were right about what they could afford, but if so, this episode is exhibit 203b.2 that we’re losing Really Important Social Capital.

 

 

Pete Seeger

When someone like this dies at 94, working for what he thought was right to the very end, I don’t think there’s anything to be sad about.  Seeger’s political judgment wasn’t always the best, though he was wrong ‘for the right reasons’ (ignorance and misplaced hope, not bloody-mindedness or cruelty), and in the days he got Stalin wrong, a lot of good people did the same.  A fine musician, and a big heart.

When lefties were finding him jobs during the blacklist, he was my fourth and fifth-grade music teacher.  I still remember all the Spanish Civil War songs, union songs, and political songs he taught us, and there were a lot.  I will always think of him leading a big group of people singing together about something important, which he did as long as he could hold the banjo inscribed “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

No tears, just gratitude.  Pete would have loved this song: “When I die, I don’t want crying and candles…I want a yellow ribbon…and a pretty girl dancing on my coffin…just music from a flute, guitar and cavaquinho.”  He would surely remind us of Joe Hill’s valedictory: “Don’t mourn for me, organize!”

Goodbye, Pete, and thanks.