Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Charlie Manuel Achieves Enlightenment
I think Charlie Manuel is the greatest manager in Phillies history, and it's not particularly close. But he's made a few questionable decisions this year, from over-using his lineup regulars to sticking with cratered closer Brad Lidge way, way too long. The result has been a team that probably has under-performed its talent and made things unnecessarily hard on itself in the last days of the regular season; had Lidge converted even five of his 11 blown saves, the Phillies would have clinched the division last week. Instead, until last night's win and the Braves' loss to Florida, the specter of a historic collapse was haunting every Philly phatalist.

But not Cholly. He called a team meeting before Tuesday's game, and afterward had this to say about it:

“I like where we’re sitting right now,” Manuel said. “The only thing we’ve got to do is win three games. We’ve got to win three out of six games. We’ve got to play the Houston Astros and Florida Marlins and win three out of six games. I didn’t want nothing about this meeting to be a negative. You won’t see me panicking. I’ve been in this game a long time. I love everything about the game. Getting slapped and losing and getting up, that’s all part of enjoying it and having a good life in it. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to be tough, and you’ve got to mentally tough. That’s something we’ve got in common in Philadelphia. They always say how mentally tough or rough they are. Then, I belong here, because I’ve been tough. Ever since I’ve been in baseball, I’ve been a fighter and I’ve come to whip your [butt] every day.”

Emphasis mine. This is pretty much Buddhist philosophy for lay folk, at least as I understand it: life inevitably includes pain and struggle and doubt, and you're much better off recognizing and accepting this truth than resisting it. When my brother was diagnosed with cancer not quite five years ago, when I was getting ready for my heart surgery this past summer, whenever things have been painful, I've tried to keep this in mind. That Charlie Manuel understands it just further confirms my sense that he's a great manager--despite the fact that he had Lidge warming up again last night, and evidently was prepared to use him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Actually Interesting Values Debate
David Brooks thinks he's figured out how America has *really* lost its way: after 200 years of more or less solid adherence to Puritan thinking about money and wealth and risk, we all got unreflectively greedy.

...[D]espite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed. Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.
Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. [...]

Evidence of this shift in values is all around. Some of the signs are seemingly innocuous. States around the country began sponsoring lotteries: government-approved gambling that extracts its largest toll from the poor. Executives and hedge fund managers began bragging about compensation packages that would have been considered shameful a few decades before. Chain restaurants went into supersize mode, offering gigantic portions that would have been considered socially unacceptable to an earlier generation.

Other signs are bigger. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, in the three decades between 1950 and 1980, personal consumption was remarkably stable, amounting to about 62 percent of G.D.P. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of G.D.P. in 2008.

During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.
If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

Maybe the most striking thing about this to me is the seeming convergence between Brooks, an undeniably high-caste Beltway Insider with bona fides among both neoconservatives (he was a big-time Iraq War cheerleader who used to edit the Weekly Standard) and liberal internationalists (he conspicuously supported Obama last year and continues to have more good than bad things to say about the president and his administration) and James Howard Kunstler, who pretty much despises everything Brooks supports. Kunstler, whom I probably enjoy more than admire, has made a half-career on the idea that our blind consumption habits, facilitated by cheap and easy fossil fuels and exacerbated by irrational physical development patterns and a bloated credit economy, are going to destroy us as a society... and soon. Brooks, after many years of celebrating the sort of Americans that Kunstler detests ("Patio Man") and sneering at his fellow elites--you and me, basically--who disdain them, suddenly seems to agree.

But is his concern appropriate? And is he blaming the right people?'s Andrew Leonard says, Hell no:

My my my. I've seen some high horses in my day, but David Brooks is perched on a saddle so far aloft in the clouds of self-delusion that he can't even see the earth, much less reality. Let's examine his thesis more closely.

Americans ran up a lot of debt in the last few decades. There's no question about that. But one of the most striking developments of the last year has been how Americans have responded to the financial crisis at an individual level. We made a collective decision to start saving and stop spending. Is this because we woke up one morning last fall and suddenly became born-again Calvinists? No, it seems clear that we were responding rationally to economic incentives. The economy crashed, unemployment surged, home prices plummeted, and presto: We all started pinching pennies. Morality, insofar as expressed via our spending habits, is merely a reflection of the economy.
But a far more pertinent point of reference comes much earlier. Has Brooks somehow forgotten that just nine years ago the U.S. operated under a balanced budget and enjoyed a budget surplus? The explosion of public debt since that point has very little to do with the moral failings of Americans, and everything to do with objective fact. George W. Bush cut taxes, but did not match those cuts with spending cuts. Instead, he ramped up spending dramatically, on two wars, healthcare, and finally, a huge bailout of Wall Street.

Bruce Bartlett has calculated that even without Obama stimulus-related spending increases, the current deficit for fiscal year 2009 would be about $1.3 trillion instead of $1.6 trillion. If you are a believer in Keynesian economics, you can make a pretty good case that Obama's additional spending is designed to get the economy growing again, so as to avoid even worse deficits in the future. Do nothing, and a shrinking economy means lower tax revenues and higher social spending. Morality has very little to do it -- the appropriate, responsible fiscal choice at this point is for government to spend, while the people save.

I have a lot more sympathy for the second point than the first. Yes, people respond to strong incentives--but you learn more by comparing behavior under similar circumstances than different ones. We had prosperity in the '50s and '60s too, and personal consumption wasn't anything like what it was in the '90s or '00s. Even in the supposedly self-indulgent '70s, by which time the Depression generation (with its obvious and experientially derived inclination toward thrift) was giving ground to the Blanks and Boomers, we weren't anything like what we were three years ago. Sometime around when Reagan came in, we began to get it in our heads that we deserved everything, right now, without ever have to sacrifice or even work particularly hard for it. Maybe a reason people seem so into the show "Mad Men" (other than its quality, which, not having seen more than a minute or two, I can't opine on) is that they grasp on some level how profoundly the rise and maturation of advertising as an industry--the science of wanting--has changed us as a culture.

Onto Leonard's second point. If you're grading the Clinton and Bush43 administrations on fiscal responsibility, it's obvious who passes and who fails (even if you put it on a curve for the fact that the same Republican Congress that stalemated Clinton utterly enabled Bush's recklessness; one-party control of government is a virtual guarantee that government will play Santa Claus through spending and/or tax cuts, because there's only one place the credit can go). I think it's more likely than not that Brooks would acknowledge as much.

But there's another dimension in which I think Bush might be culpable, and whatever Brooks's intent, it actually kind of validates his "cultural decline" hypothesis (and reinforces my "Mad Men" notion): under Bush, to an extent we'd never seen before, we began to define ourselves as consumers. When we were attacked on 9/11, we were told to go shopping. The American way of life was said to be non-negotiable; there would be no mass sacrifice for the war effort, not even higher taxes to pay for the costs of defense (or empire, depending on your perspective). For our grandparents, who subjugated pretty much everything to the war effort sixty-five years ago, this would have been unimaginable--and at some level, it has to send a profound message.

Brooks comes up short on specifics for how to fight this new culture war. I think it has to start with political leadership, and I'm not sure it's as far-fetched that a figure of national stature could articulate the point as it probably seems today. (Kunstler thought that Obama might do it as of last winter/spring, though he seems to have reached the view that ultimately, this president is just another pol.) But both Obama and John McCain made more or less explicit appeals for greater citizen engagement, which would seem to be a prerequisite to a call for sacrifice. A lot of Democrats seem fairly comfortable with asking the public to take some (small) steps in combatting the effects of climate change; others want a straight carbon tax. The Republicans, still in thrall to the Bush legacy whether they realize it or not, aren't yet ready to ask any sacrifice of the American people--but they do want to shrink government. Eventually, one of the cleverer Republicans will make the mental leap that extending this idea beyond the halls of power might be politically resonant.

Otherwise, it's possible that this will be imposed on the political class from the outside, through a Perot-like third party movement. This is probably more what Brooks has in mind; if it does start to cohere, the concern will be to make sure that the demagogues and psychos on the right don't get ahold of it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Crack of Daylight
Glenn Greenwald of might not be my favorite commentator out there, but I'm coming to think he's the most important--a true liberal of principle who's as comfortable calling down righteous thunder on "his" side as on the pseudo-conservative Christianists who triply loathe him as a lawyer, a progressive, and a gay man. Yesterday, he noted this Huffington Post story on how the effort in Congress to de-fund ACORN could trip up some of the biggest, baddest Beltway behemoths:
The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) picked up on the legislative overreach and asked the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to sift through its database to find which contractors might be caught in the ACORN net.

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gumman both popped up quickly, with 20 fraud cases between them, and the longer list is a Who's Who of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors.

Greenwald was back at it today, talking with Rep. Grayson about his probably quixotic but incredibly revealing effort:
I spoke with Rep. Grayson this morning regarding the consequences of all of this. He is currently compiling a list of all defense contractors encompassed by this language in order to send to administration officials (and has asked for help from the public in compiling that list, here). The President is required by Constitution to "faithfully execute" the law, which should mean that no more contracts can be awarded to any companies on that list, which happens to include the ten largest defense contractors in America. Before being elected to Congress, Grayson worked extensively on uncovering and combating defense contractor fraud in Iraq, and I asked him to put into context ACORN's impact on the American taxpayer versus these corrupt defense contractors. His reply: "The amount of money that ACORN has received in the past 20 years altogether is roughly equal to what the taxpayer paid to Haillburton each day during the war in Iraq." [emphasis in original]

The irony of all of this is that the Congress is attempting to accomplish an unconstitutional act: singling out and punishing ACORN, which is clearly a "bill of attainder" that the Constitution explicitly prohibits -- i.e., an act aimed at punishing a single party without a trial. The only way to overcome that problem is by pretending that the de-funding of ACORN is really about a general policy judgment (that no corrupt organizations should receive federal funding). But the broader they make the law in order to avoid the Constitutional problem, the more it encompasses the large corrupt corporations that own the Congress (and whom they obviously don't want to de-fund). The narrower they make it in order to include only ACORN, the more blatantly unconstitutional it is. Now that they have embraced this general principle that no corrupt organizations should receive federal funding, how is anyone going to justify applying that only to ACORN while continuing to fund the corpoations whose fraud and corruption is vastly greater (not to mention established by actual courts of law)?

I have two reactions to this story: gratitude that it exposes the profound hypocrisy in our political system, and despair at both the near-certainty that nothing substantial will come of this effort--after all, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Gumman contribute to Democrats too... and maybe even more so at the near-total silence of both the mainstream media (here's the one tiny story I saw through a Google News search for "ACORN Grayson") and ostensibly progressive entities such as the Congressional Black Caucus at a cynical measure largely aimed, after all, at their core constituency. (Of less surprise is that there's been nary a peep from the ostensibly anti-corrupt, small-government protest tea-party crowd on this one. After all, it can't be blamed on Obama.)

It's hard to fathom what might bring together disaffected elements of the political public to significantly reduce the massive corruption in our system, and even more difficult to imagine how this might be accomplished absent socioeconomic disruptions that would inflict enormous human suffering. But it has to count for something that people are out there noting the hypocrisy, keeping track of the routine foulness of even a relatively progressive national government such as the one now in power. Doesn't it?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Obama to Paterson: Hit the Bricks
Maybe it isn't ideal to have national authority intervening in a state political race (even though administrations of both parties, perhaps most notably LBJ and George W. Bush, have done it for decades). Still, I was glad to see this:
President Obama has sent a request to Gov. David A. Paterson that he withdraw from the New York governor’s race, fearing that Mr. Paterson cannot recover from his dismal political standing, according to two senior administration officials and a New York Democratic operative with direct knowledge of the situation.

The decision to ask Mr. Paterson to step aside was proposed by political advisers to Mr. Obama, but approved by the president himself, one of the administration officials said.

“Is there concern about the situation in New York? Absolutely,” the second administration official said Saturday evening. “Has that concern been conveyed to the governor? Yes.”
The move against a sitting Democratic governor represents an extraordinary intervention into a state political race by the president, and is a delicate one, given that Mr. Paterson is one of only two African-American governors in the nation.

But Mr. Obama’s political team and other party leaders have grown increasingly worried that the governor’s unpopularity could drag down Democratic members of Congress in New York, as well as the Democratic-controlled Legislature, in next fall’s election.

Obama's been compared to a Vulcan, but in this instance he seems to have the Klingon idea about revenge. As the Times article notes, two aspects of Paterson's epic bumbles in picking Hillary Clinton's Senate replacement rankled the administration: his dissing of Obama friend Caroline Kennedy, and his pledge not to appoint Kirsten Gillibrand before doing exactly that.

I wonder if there isn't another aspect to it, though. Paterson is a legacy pol; his father Basil has been one of the big cogs in the Harlem Democratic machine for the better part of a half-century. Before joining Eliot Spitzer's ticket as the nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006, David Paterson was known above all else for his amiability, a go-along-to-get-along state senator in an utterly neutered minority. To put it baldly, he didn't have to work very hard in politics; he was royalty, and his ticket was punched. Even when he ascended to the governorship, he came in with great initial popularity and widespread goodwill--and, while the recession certainly hurt him, I think he squandered most of that through his own ineptitude and the clear fact that his abilities were and are insufficient to his responsibilities. Compare that to Obama, who started with no political advantage and had to build his own network, find an opportunity, do some (not unusually, but still) ethically questionable things to create an initial political identity, and then win ever-more-unlikely races for national office on guts and skill. A little resentment would be understandable, as would the thought that the maturation of African-American political leadership might well entail accelerating the process by which the likes of Paterson give way to the Corey Bookers and Deval Patricks and Artur Davises, self-made individuals rather than dynastic scions.

Still, that's a sideline. The main point as far as I'm concerned is to get Paterson gone, and to forestall the possibility of a Rudy Giuliani governorship. Were the choice between Paterson and Giuliani, I honestly have no idea how I'd vote--probably for some Bolshevik third party goober, but maybe not. Much as I detest and fear him, I think Il Douche would do a better job in the governorship, and I'd kind of enjoy inflicting him on our bastard scumbag legislators. (Who says liberals never spite-vote?) But I'd much prefer another option--even if it's Andrew Cuomo, of whom I'm also not particularly fond.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pynchon's Sentimental Journey

First of all: Thomas Pynchon speaks!

Yeah, that's his real voice, and it conveniently sounds like how you'd imagine the protagonist he's speaking for: hippie private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello. Among Pynchon's fictional heroes, he's not in the league of Tyrone Slothrop or Oedipa Mass, but he'll do--and admittedly, it's kind of nice to have one character to follow after the cast-of-thousands impenetrability of "Against the Day." 

So I finished Inherent Vice this morning. Given its brevity--369 pages, a modest novella by Pynchon standards--I can't take too much pride in this being the first Pynchon novel I've finished since Vineland, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little satisfying. (It wasn't like I gave up on either of the last two, Mason & Dixon or Against the Day, quickly or easily: I got within 100 pages of finishing M&D, and maybe 200 of AtD. On the second book, I'd read that, like Gravity's Rainbow before it, there really was "no ending," and after 800-plus pages I felt like I'd gotten what I would get from it.)

That said, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this new one. On the one hand, the classic Pynchonian theme--large impersonal and conspiratorial forces twisting reality and bending nominal authority to their unaccountable wills, and small communities trying to come together in independent resistance to those forces--is there, but at a much more modest scale than in Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day. Likewise the atmosphere of paranoia and dread that runs through all Pynchon's work: Doc is paranoid, for sure, but he attributes most of it to being high even when the facts suggest that anyone "on the natch" should be freaking out as well. Similarly, the master's stylistic tics--an endless parade characters all with goofy names, some of whom break into song at odd times--are present, but more subdued than usual. As if to make up for that (but also in keeping with the end-of-the-'60s milieu) there's more sex, and a lot more drugs, than usual. 

One review I read suggested that a few years back, Pynchon must have watched "The Big Lebowski," and thought "hey, I could do that." Maybe. But I think it's more likely that he decided to revisit in fiction a world he evidently knew and for which he has uncomplicated affection: I'm pretty sure he was in the LA area as the '60s turned into the '70s, writing Gravity's Rainbow and probably hanging out with the real-world analogues of Doc Sportello and Sauncho Smilax and Shasta Fay Hepworth. 

I'm a little surprised that I haven't yet read somebody try to present Inherent Vice as the capper of Pynchon's "California trilogy," starting with The Crying of Lot 49 and continuing through Vineland. (Actually, I now notice that Amazon refers to a "California cycle," which I guess sort of counts.) But it doesn't really work: Lot 49, like Pynchon's debut novel V., was an ambiguous shaggy-dog story that focused on the large, dark forces which Inherent Vice mostly keeps in the background, with many (and brilliant) digressions into things as varied as 17th century theater and the business of radio. Maybe more to the point, beneath the madcap comedic elements, there was something genuinely terrifying in Lot 49; for all the occasional references to subterranean gangs, mental institutions into which individuals are forcibly committed, white supremacist prison gangs and shadowy supporters of Nixon and Reagan, IV doesn't generate the same unease. To lift that off Pynchon's shoulders, the difference could be the difference between Lot 49's ostensibly sunny mid-'60s vibe, in which the darkness loomed, and IV's setting in 1970, by which time the darkness had started to take hold.

This book is even less like Vineland, which largely concerned itself with the defeated aftermath of The Sixties (and was set in northern California to boot). There's a warmth to Inherent Vice absent from Vineland, an affection Pynchon has for these characters that I think he mostly lacked for a group who, after all, had spent 15 years disappointing and betraying each other in a wide variety of ways. It's as if that book was, among many other things, his way of working out the disappointments of his salad days, where this one is a relatively unambiguous celebration that also gave him a chance to kick back after previously working in much heavier topical terrain.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Shearing off the Lower Middle Class
Before going into the hospital, I was working on another Huffington Post entry which is now online, again co-bylined with (and posted under the aegis of) my colleague Brandon Roberts of the Working Poor Families Project. We took as our jumping-off point the notion that, statistically at least, the recession is at or near an end, but noted that the same segment of the labor market that has suffered most in the downturn is least likely to benefit as recovery gradually takes hold. The least-skilled workers are already facing near depression-level jobless rates (15.6 percent for those who didn't complete high school), and those who are working get fewer hours and, of course, much lower pay. Direct federal stimulus can't really help these folks; as this insightful and troubling article notes, technological advances have meant that a task which three generations ago might have entailed giving 10,000 workers shovels now can be done by a few machines. Hence the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, supposedly designed expressly to put Americans back to work, required education beyond high school for an estimated 54 percent of the jobs it created. What will the under-educated do in our emerging economy?

Overlaid with the disturbing specter of a deep and persistent skills mismatch is the disproportionate suffering of non-whites in the recession, detailed in a New York Times op-ed today.

Despite the sense of white grievance, though, blacks are the ones who are taking the brunt of the recession, with disproportionately high levels of foreclosures and unemployment. And they weren’t doing so well to begin with. At the start of the recession, 33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of falling to a lower economic level, according to a study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.

In fact, you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over. It occurred from 2000 to 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During those seven years, one-third of black children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.

That was the black recession. What’s happening now is more like a depression.
In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family. Only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.

Racial asymmetry was stamped on this recession from the beginning. Wall Street’s reckless infatuation with subprime mortgages led to the global financial crash of 2007, which depleted home values and 401(k)’s across the racial spectrum. People of all races got sucked into subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, but even high-income blacks were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime home-purchase loans as low-income whites — even when they qualified for prime mortgages, even when they offered down payments.

According to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, a research and advocacy group, from 1998 to 2006 (before the subprime crisis), blacks lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. The researchers called this family net-worth catastrophe the “greatest loss of wealth in recent history for people of color.” And the worst was yet to come.

In a sense, I'm conflating two distinct sets of concerns here: low skills, a structural/long-term problem, and particular risks in this recession that seem to correlate to race, which hopefully have a shorter time frame. But I don't think it's a stretch to suggest a deep connection: though low skills don't necessarily have a racial/ethnic distinction, the fact of educational attainment disparities by race is I think well enough established that I don't feel the need to cite it here. (Or, to put it another way, I don't feel like looking for it right now. Trust me, it's real, in pretty much any geographical context you'd like it. The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, is the one that makes my blood run particularly cold when I look at the New York City outcomes.) And the exploitative elements that Ehrenreich and Muhammed note in the Times article are demonstrably correlated with low-information consumers--who are, of course, more likely to be poor.

This is a very difficult nexus of issues to get at. The problems cut across clear policy turf lines, and the constituency isn't very significant in political terms: the Democrats "have" these votes, and the Republicans don't particularly want them. But their travails, which will continue to worsen over time whatever the momentary state of the economy, create such a drag on our economy and represent, or should represent, such an affront to our national pride that continued inaction would be both shameful and impractical.