Universal Translator

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quick Update cont'd, cont'd

Well, I'm screwed. A guy from the power company just came over and banged on my door and then told me that because the electrical pole bringing power to my house was pulled down and the wires are sagging they have to cut my power off. And apparently the power will remain off until I can get a permit from the town and hire an electrician to re-wire me.

And, in fact, they just cut my power off. So I'm gonna pack up the car again and move over to the mainland where I figure I'll be staying until I can get this sorted out. Staying on the beach without air conditioning isn't really an option, not least because the damn dogs are so prone to overheating.


Quick Update cont'd

So, I'm back home. Driving onto the island I had to get past the NC State Troopers and their "Road Closed" barricade, but was able to do so because - as a resident - I have a nifty little yellow Emergency Pass that allows me back onto the island after a hurricane hits. It is stupid, I know, but I kind of enjoyed waving my little pass at the cops and watching them wave me through; it felt kind of like getting backstage at a rock concert.

Electricity has returned to the island, which didn't appear to have been hit too badly. There were a lot of small branches lying around and a few traffic lights were twisted out of kilter, but I actually saw more damage inland than I did here.

And then I pulled into my place.

Well, I say I pulled into my place, but in fact I couldn't do more than pull off of the road; my driveway was blocked by a dogwood tree that appears to have been ripped out of the ground by its roots. In fact, I think I've taken more damage than any other place I've seen on the island. Nothing landed on my home, which is nice, so it's not like I've lost anything. But in addition to the dogwood a very large tree limb -- I'm guessing it's about a foot in diameter -- snapped from another tree in my front yard and is blocking my front door. I have to skirt it to get in, and I may break out the machete I have in the shed until I can hire a tree company to come and deal with this for me. Lord knows I don't plan on hacking the broken branch off -- that sucker snapped about 25 feet up in the air.

But all in all, I'm happy to have escaped so easily. Like I said, no major damage done to the home, just a week's worth of climbing out from underneath some downed trees. Oh, and I'm pretty sure I made the correct call when I decided to flee before the storm. I certainly would not have wanted to be trapped here, in the dark, listening to the wind and hearing trees getting plucked from out the ground.

So, once again . . . it's all good.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Quick Update

Well, as near as I can tell, the storm passed right over my island so I think I made the correct decision by leaving. Of course I have no way of knowing how much destruction the storm wrought there. Here, inland, there's been little to report. We lost power for about 90 minutes earlier this morning but otherwise there has been absolutely no impact from this thing.

Both dogs have gone outside twice since I woke this morning (they kind of had to) but they really, really didn't like it. The wind has knocked down a couple of tree limbs and the rain has been steady and they don't seem to know what to do about inclement weather other than to squat quickly and then run inside twice as fast.

Irene is passing north of us now, and past experience leads me to think that once she's gone we'll see an immediate improving in the weather, which means that sometime tomorrow I'll be able to get back on the island and find out how badly I've been hit.

But until then I am more than content to camp out with the dogs at my grandmother's house (she is spending the storm with her "gentleman caller," so I have the place to myself), watching the wind lash the trees and thinking how nice it is to be sheltered.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene and the Cassandra Effect

I am bracing for the onset of Hurricane Irene.  Local TeeVee has worked my fellow locals into quite a pitch over the course of the past week or so, but I only started paying attention as her expected landfall became more and more imminent and the last thing I’ve seen – from just three and half hours ago – is that our latest estimation is that she will land right on top of my home at around 2:00 pm on Saturday.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chasing the Consistency Hobgoblin

Everybody gets the quote wrong.

Way back when I was a very young lawyer I attended a Motion Hearing with a Senior Partner, who pointed out in support of his argument that the opposing counsel already agreed with him:  they had in fact adopted exactly the same position for which he was advocating just a few months previously in a different case.  Senior Partner had the legal briefs opposing counsel had filed – with their signatures on those briefs – to prove it.

But now they found it advantageous to argue the opposite position and – incredibly – they won the hearing.

Afterward, talking with opposing counsel while waiting for the elevator, Senior Partner asked them how they could so cynically argue diametrically opposing positions within only a few months’ time.  The other side smiled superciliously and said:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Senior Partner had never heard this expression before, correctly perceived it to be an insult, and railed afterward in the car about how it was just further proof that the other side were a bunch of ethically challenged shysters who didn’t really believe a single goddamned word that came out of their mouths.

Had I been a little older, and thus a little more sure of myself, I might have piped up at the elevators to correct those guys.  What Ralph Waldo Emerson actually said was:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

That initial two word qualifier – “a foolish” – makes all the difference.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Constitution: We're Working on It

"I love my country."

That is what you get to hear, right before the speaker rips into it.  And that is what I propose to do – rip into and talk a bit about how flawed and imperfect is the United States of America.  I mentioned, elsewhere, that I am not a big fan of jingoism, or even nationalism, but I am a big fan of patriotism.  I am a patriotic man, because when I think of the United States of America I think of our ideals, our struggle, and our goal to be a better country, a better people.

One thing that not many people think of these days is how audacious the United States were, when they were wielded into a single country.  For the first time a new nation was born, riding the wave of the Enlightenment.  John Locke, David Hume, these were our progenitors just as surely as were Madison, Jefferson and Washington.  For the first time a group of men (and, yes, they were all men) gathered together and thought:  how best might a people govern themselves?

It is important to note the time.  The Thirteen Colonies already had thrown off Britain’s yoke.  And they had been operating for some years under the original Articles of Confederation, which had proved inadequate for the task.  A new union was needed, a stronger union was needed, and yet no State (and they were States – no longer Colonies – by then) wanted to give up too much sovereignty.  So a congress was called to debate and to hammer out during that debate a new Constitution for a new nation.

I love that, that audacity.  For maybe the first time in the history of Western Civilization a whole bunch of people got together to try and find a way to live together as easily, as equitably, and as justly as possible without resort to any “revealed truth” of a religious text, and without thinking of a “divine right” of kings.  We were the product of the Enlightenment, and we believed in Reason.  We believed – with no historical tradition whatsoever to back us up – that we were capable of this monumental task.

And we fucked it up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Tea Party is Killing Michael Bay

I was talking with a good friend the other day and we were lamenting what recent budget cuts have revealed about American priorities: our political discourse has become so captured by the austerity-shrieking, tax-avoiding, infrastructure-eschewing members of the Tea Party that we no longer can even pretend to believe we have the ability to plan for, build for, or pay for the future.

Nowhere in the federal budget is this more clearly illustrated than with NASA. Back in the 50's and 60's, America was all about being the Country of Tomorrow, Baby! We were gonna land a man on the moon, we were gonna get flying cars, we were gonna be the Jetsons with better furniture and a hipper soundtrack. Even in the 70's and 80's, we had the space shuttle and were busy getting satellites into orbit so we could make long-distance phone calls and watch soft-core porn on late night cable movie channels. When SkyLab came crashing back to earth we shrugged and started making plans to build a new & improved International Space Station. Hell! We invested billions in a radar telescope array -- SETI -- just to have a couple of very bored people sit out in the desert for years listening for evidence that we were not alone in this Universe. The Universe was a weird, wacky, wild place and we couldn't wait to embrace it.

And it was this can-do, anything-is-possible attitude that was on display back in 1998, when Michael Bay captured it in his disaster-porn summer blockbuster Armageddon. (Don't look at me like that, you saw the movie -- we all saw the movie at some point, Michael Bay movies are the reason people invented the phrase "guilty pleasure.")

And you remember the plot, too. A giant "planet-killing" asteroid is on a collision course with earth and only Bruce Willis and his plucky band of eccentric oil-rig drill monkeys have any hope of intercepting the asteroid, drilling into its core, planting a nuclear bomb, and blowing it the hell up in time to avoid The End of All Life on Earth. And you remember those scenes toward the end of the movie too, after the mission was on its way and the entire rest of the planet was waiting with bated breath to see if John McClane could actually pull this off. Of course you do. From France to Italy to India to South America to Africa, the entire world was sitting on the edge of its seat to see if Bruce and his wacky group of modern American cowboys would pull the entire world's collective ass out of the fire.

The sheer arrogance of those scenes -- that of course the rest of the world would have to wait and watch and pray that the Americans pulled off this tremendous save -- never even registered for the American audiences watching this flick. 'Of course the world needs America to save it,' the American public reflexively thought, 'that's what America does.'

But that shit wouldn't fly today. If Michael Bay wanted to make Armageddon today he'd have to film a bunch of oil rig workers -- still jittery with post-traumatic stress syndrome after their oil platform blew up underneath their feet thanks to shoddy safety inspections by BP -- trying to cadge a flight out to the ISS with the Russians or the Chinese because, hey! America doesn't have a manned space program any longer. Audience members wouldn't buy the movie today because when Billy Bob Thornton called up the Russian embassy to ask if Willis could hitch a ride out to space to save the planet the audience could only expect the Russians to laugh at the suggestion. "Spasiba, Billy Bob," the Russians would say, "but why don't you let a real country handle this one?"

* * *

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a real big fan of jingoism, or even nationalism, but there is something sad about the way every time I turn on the TeeVee I have to listen to our leaders tell me about more and more things that America "just can't afford to do." I heard a report the other day that China has surpassed us in its number of supercomputers and in raw computing speed. I know that Hong Kong is planning to roll out new high-speed broadband capability easily 100 times faster than anything we have here. And I was in Hong Kong, briefly, nine years ago and let me tell you . . . flying out of Hong Kong's airport and into LAX is like leaving the Jetsons' cartoon for the Flintstones'.

So, no . . . I'm not what you would call "jingoistic" by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is a shame that in just over a decade we've managed to engineer a country, a society, where good ol' dumb American characters like the kickass modern cowboys featured in Armageddon really just can't carry a summer movie anymore.

Not because those characters don't still have the power to stir us, but because not even 90 minutes of Michael Bay explosions can distract us long enough to suspend our disbelief that we might still be capable of kicking ass on an epic scale.

The Stock Market is Bad for America

One of my pet peeves about financial and political reporting is that the stock market is often looked to as an economic indicator.  If the stock market is up, then this is claimed as evidence the economy is doing well.  Indeed, I remember listening just a few years ago to a radio interview with W.’s labor secretary, Mrs. Mitch McConnell Elaine Chao, who said the stock market’s performance is the only economic indicator anyone should ever be concerned with.  And this was the Secretary of Labor, forgawdsake!

Now I’ll admit that there may once have been a reason the stock market could legitimately be thought of as a valid indicator for how well the national economy was doing.  Basically, the idea was that stock prices reflect the market’s estimation of companies’ future profitability.  So if the market believed the economy was doing well or (more accurately) was going to do well in the future, then companies were expected to realize greater future profits.  Greater profit meant the companies would be worth more, and this would be reflected in their stock prices.  So if market investors were bullish on the American economy, then they were bullish on the stock market as well.

But there are two important things to note about this model.  First, the performance of the stock market doesn’t actually predict the nation’s economic future so much as it reflects what investors already think that future looks like.  Second – and more importantly – looking to the stock market to tell you how the United States economy is doing only makes sense if the value of the companies traded in that market does in fact depend on the U.S.’s national economy.

It is becoming increasingly clear that not only is Wall Street not dependent on the nation’s economy, its goals run directly contrary to the nation as a whole.  It has gotten to the point that when I see the Dow Jones has ticked up a notch I immediately think to myself, “I guess we’re all about to get screwed just a little harder.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fox Viewers Are Not Confused

Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly had a quick post up yesterday (completely with video clip and everything) pointing out that just a few weeks ago, when Conservatives were downplaying the threat involved in downgrading the nation’s credit rating, you could find people like Neil Cavuto, Fox’s vice president of business news, saying things like “I would welcome a downgrade.  I really would.  I think it would be the pain from which we have a gain.”  And yet now that Standard & Poor has in fact downgraded the U.S. debt Fox is telling its viewers that this “is a tragedy that must be blamed on the White House.”  Benen concludes with the observation that “[t]here’s a good reason Fox viewers seem so confused so often.”

Benen’s conclusion is correct, of course, but only because it includes the word “seem.”  Fox viewers seem confused to people in the Reality-based community, but the fact remains that they are not confused at all.  Not if you define “confused” as I do, to mean “uncertain, unsure or puzzled.”  I live in a red part of a Red State, and there are plenty of loyal Fox News viewers around here.  Something you cannot call these people is “uncertain, unsure or puzzled.”  At any given time they have an understanding of their world that is breathtaking for its clarity, and a commitment to that understanding that brooks no doubt or indecision.  The only reason their understanding “seems confused” to people in the Reality-based community is because that understanding changes constantly and fluidly as necessary to adapt to whatever change in circumstances presents itself.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Obama Doesn't Understand that He Doesn't Get to Set the Agenda

If a tree falls in the Beltway and nobody reports on it, does it make a sound?

Last Wednesday Austan Goolsbee – soon to be the ex-Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Obama – appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Goolsbee is about to head back to a teaching gig at the University of Chicago and Stewart spent a lot of time pointing out how “giddy” Goolsbee appeared to be now that he was getting out of Washington.  Goolsbee didn’t make much of an attempt to refute Stewart’s assessment.

During the interview Stewart asked Goolsbee to explain to him why Obama had seemingly acquiesced to using the debt ceiling discussions as an excuse to suddenly start talking about getting the deficit under control.  After all, Stewart pointed out, we had been told by the Obama White House that the stimulus had been what was needed and that it had worked.  Why then would Obama now, in essence, decide to do the opposite and focus entirely on cutting the deficit and government spending?

Goolsbee’s response was interesting.  Substantively, he punted and never really did answer Stewart’s question.  Instead he simply reasserted that an economic stimulus had been required back in early 2009 and then claimed as well that “dealing with the long-term deficit” is also something that has to be addressed.  He did not explain why it had to be addressed now, when one would think that greater and further stimulus efforts are really what is needed.  But the most interesting rationale Goolsbee provided was the following:  now that the deficit had been dealt with (kind of) by the Deficit Reduction Two-Step Shuffle, the President and the government could “pivot back” and start addressing the nation’s economic woes again.


Obviously, I don’t know Goolsbee and I am glad he is happy to be making his way back to academia, but if the man has spent the past two and a half years in the bowels of Washington and still thinks that now the government can pivot back to focusing on substantive economic issues the man is . . . well, he seems a little thick to tell you the truth.

Were this a fiction then I suppose it could be considered kind of naively charming to think of the President and his economic advisors imagining that they still have the power to set the nation’s agenda:  ‘Look!  they’re still innocents,’ we could all admiringly cry, happy that their basic humanity hadn’t been subsumed in cynicism.  But in the event this sort of naiveté is just chilling.  If the President thought he was cutting a deal by acquiescing to Republican demands in exchange for the power to frame the argument going into the 2012 election then, once again, he has traded the nation’s birthright for a mess of pottage.

Well, I’m Gonna Call It A .333 Average

Which isn’t bad for the Major Leagues, but Lord it ain’t good for government work.

About a month ago I wrote a longish post gaming out where I thought we were with the debt ceiling negotiations.  Now that a deal has been struck, here’s how my predictive abilities stacked up:

(1)  I predicted a deficit reduction plan “somewhere close to a $2 trillion to $2.4 trillion” range.  That appears to be fairly close; the deal put together calls for – ultimately – $2.5 trillion in cuts.  I’m gonna call that a win.

(2)  I predicted that about $400 billion of the reduction plan would consist of revenue increases.  Boy, was that wrong.  At the time I simply couldn’t imagine that Obama and the Dems would agree to a reduction plan that contained zero in the form of tax increases, tax loophole eliminations, reductions of depreciation schedules for things like private jets, etc., but I’ve learned my lesson since.  It’s sad to say, but I think the Republican Party has proved its point:  taking economic and legislative hostages pays off, because the party willing to play “responsible parent” will eventually cave completely.  So that’s a fail.

(3)  I never even came close to predicting a two-step deficit reduction plan largely overseen by a Congressional “SuperCommittee,” but – seriously – who would have?  That is a seriously, seriously bad idea and only underscores how badly dysfunctional is the 112th Congress (more about this later).  Still, that’s another fail.

So, I’m copping publicly to a not very good track record on federal entrails reading and general prognosticative abilities.  But since I spent so much time last month running through in exhaustive detail why I thought the way I did, I figured simple honesty compels me to admit now where I was wrong.

Well, honesty and also vanity.  I’ll probably continue to read entrails and prognosticate and sooner or later I’ll get it right, and then I’ll do a victory dance and talk about how really really smart I am.  (I’m just warning you.)  And I figure that in order to preserve my ability to do any kind of Happy Dance when I get things right, I’ll have to cop – as I am doing now – to all the many, many more times when I get things wrong.

Oh, the Stupid Things I Hear!

Driving into the office this morning, listening to the BBC News Hour broadcast, a high muckity-muck for PIMCO was being interviewed in his expert capacity by the BBC correspondent about Standard & Poor's recent downgrade of the U.S. debt.  The correspondent asked if S&P's actions weren't merely reflective of "what the markets have been telling us for some time now," and the muckity-muck began his response by saying, "Yes."

Uhhmmmm . . . .no.  If "the markets" had been telling us for some time that it was getting riskier to hold U.S. debt then we would have seen interest rates on that debt rise.  But we haven't seen that at all.  In fact, after last week's massive stock sell-off all of that investment money was plowed into . . . U.S. debt, driving bond prices up and interest rates down even further.  Despite everything, U.S. debt is still perceived by "the market" to be the safest of increasingly perilous harbors when it comes to docking up money.

Now, this might not be true.  As S&P's report noted, the reason it decided to downgrade the U.S. debt is because a crazy group of Teabaggers have made it clear that they don't have any problem with having the U.S. default if they think defaulting gets them closer to their mythical Galt's Gulch utopia.  And given the amazing number of veto points in our federal system, having a completely unhinged group of fanatics seize even a tiny portion of the federal government allows them to shut that system down.  So while everyone understands that the U.S. is capable of paying its debts, S&P's downgrade reflects that the nutbaggers might simply be unwilling to pay those debts.

So, y'know . . . Standard & Poor's downgrade may in fact be the correct call.  But it is a call that arises solely  from political concerns, and not from any economic, fiscal or monetary concerns.

The BBC broadcast represent just another example of the inane kind of reporting that passes for "analysis" in the financial press:  no matter what the facts, no matter what the circumstances, "the market" is always correct and perfectly predictive.  And yet, here we have "the market" flooding into U.S. treasuries because "the market" believes them to be safe; Standard & Poor's is downgrading these same bonds because they are now considered risky.  These positions are diametrically opposed.

Doesn't matter.  Tune in and listen to any financial analyst and you will hear them unthinkingly and reflexively tell you that "the market" omnisciently and correctly predicts everything, absolutely everything -- including events like the S&P downgrade, which are in fact the opposite of what the market really did predict.  Actual facts on the ground don't matter to these highly paid "analysts."

This isn't analysis, it is financial theology.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Al Gore Rhythm: The Mathematics of Dance

I can't believe that terrible pun in the title only came to me this morning.  In any event, here's a video.  Enjoy.