March 5, 2011

Watering The Tree Of Liberty

Watching the protests in Egypt last month descend into violence, especially seeing video from the BBC and CNN of pro-democracy protesters clashing with agents of the authoritarian status quo in one of Cairo's most important open spaces near its center of government reminds me of an incident from my own nation's history. It is a reminder that democracy is rarely achieved without paying a cost in blood. Today is a good day to commemorate the anniversary of that awful incident, a reminder of what our freedom is built upon.

In Boston on March 5, 1770, a young man named Edward Gerrish, who was the apprentice of a wig maker, confronted a British soldier, Captain John Goldfinch, near Goldfinch's post guarding the customs house. Gerrish said that Goldfinch had not settled up his bill with Gerrish's master. In fact, Captain Goldfinch's account was good, so he ignored the request for money. Gerrish came back later with some friends and renewed the claim that Goldfinch owed money. A low-ranking British soldier named "Private White" then hit Gerrish, either with his fist or the butt of his rifle. One of Gerrish's friends tried to retaliate, and a fistfight broke out between the civilians and the redcoats.

The fight grew, and attracted the attention of both Bostonians who were already upset enough that there were active-duty military troops in Boston to collect taxes, and the soldiers who felt their paramount duty was to keep the peace. One of Goldfinch's superiors sent a squadron of eight soldiers with fixed bayonets in to the growing fight to try and regain control of a chaotic situation. This did not work, as the crowd responded to the escalation of force from the redcoats by throwing so many snowballs at them that they could not advance to join the other soldiers.

They also taunted the British soldiers as having no right to be in the colonies and said that they should go back to England where they belonged. While crudely expressed in the riot, this mirrored an argument made by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams, who had publicly denounced King George's government for putting a standing army in the peaceful civilian city of Boston. Characteristically, the troops remained stoically silent in response to the jeers of the crowd, but it is hard to imagine that being accused of acting lawlessly had no emotional effect on the soldiers.

Then, a few people in the crowd produced clubs and began physically attacking the relief soldiers. The soldiers responded by using the butts of their rifles to club back, and the situation deteriorated into a general melee. Someone -- it does not seem likely to have been the commander of the relief troops -- shouted "fire!" and five of the soldiers fired their rifles into the crowd. We know that it was at least five, because five people died, three of them instantly. These are thought to be the first casualties of the American Revolution.

After the shots were fired, the crowd sobered up quickly, many running away in panic. The next day, the military commanders withdrew troops from the area to barracks, waiting for the mood of the town to die down. The growing patriot movement, however, was not content to allow the situation to end, and pressed for murder charges to be filed against the soldiers who had used their rifles on the crowd.

It is doubtful that any legal action would have been taken if it were not for Paul Revere. Americans celebrate Paul Revere for his famous "midnight ride" from Boston to Lexington in 1775, alerting people along the way that British troops were moving to secure a cache of small arms and cannon stored in a depot inland. But Revere's biggest contribution to the cause of independence was his creation of a colored woodcut depicting what came to be known as the "Boston Massacre," showing in graphic detail (and with a little editorial license) the moment of March 5, 1770, when the redcoats opened fire on the rioting colonists. Revere's illustration was reprinted, first in newspapers in Boston and over the course of several days, in papers from Quebec to Augusta, and eventually found its way to London. The graphic illustration of a line of British soldiers firing their rifles into a crowd of unarmed American colonists outraged nearly everyone who saw it.

Revere's woodcut is also one of the first uses of the mass media and the distribution of visual arts which mobilized significant political movement -- and an example of the slowness and clumsiness of the government thus challenged in realizing what was going on. The power of a new media expression of such an event to move hearts and minds is immense. Revere's woodcut has echoes through the ages in the graphic photographs of the horrors of the U.S. civil war, FDR's fireside chats, the indelible images of terrified students at Kent State University and the execution of NVA infilatrators in Saigon during the Vietnam War, the Rodney King videotape, and now in twitters and blog posts from the Muslim World throughout the past several years.

In any event, the political pressure brought to a boil in part by this use of a new form of media raised pressure on the government, which agreed to allow the prosecution of murder charges against the soldiers. By itself, this was a significant concession -- the colonial government was admitting that there was a possibility that the soldiers had acted unlawfully. Public sentiment against them was very high and they had to be confined for their own safety during the trial. It appeared that convictions were a foregone conclusion.

That was when John Adams, the man who later would be the second President of the United States, stepped in. He volunteered to defend the soldiers at no cost. He was already a prominent citizen of Boston and was identified with the patriot movement -- which at the time did not want formal independence from England but rather what we would today call "local autonomy." John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams had a bitter falling-out over the first man's offer to defend the soldiers in the high-pressure trial. The firey patriot Samuel Adams said that this was a betrayal of the cause of freedom; the future President said that the reasons the colonists wanted independence was to free themselves from the lawless actions of the government, so their first duty must be to ensure the rule of law, and that required that the defendants be able to present the best legal defenses to the charges against them that the evidence would support.

In the trial, argued that the confusion of the fight, the initiation of violence by civilians against the soldiers, and the simple fact that the soldiers were being physically attacked all meant that they had the right to defend themselves from immediate attack. Adams put the blame solidly on King George for having sent a standing army to be stationed amongst civilians in the first place -- Adams said that if this incident had not happened, then something else very much like it would inevitably have happened. The fault, he argued, lay not with the soldiers but with the orders they had been given from London.

The defense worked. Of the eight soldiers who were charged with murder, six were acquitted and two convicted only of manslaughter because of their own admissions that they had fired their rifles directly into the crowd. Adams reduced the sentence for these two by invoking the ancient rule of "benefit of the clergy," by having the two soldiers in question demonstrate that they could read from the Bible. While this looks like sort of a cheap trick to modern eyes, it also helped demonstrate the very frivolity of that ancient and outmoded rule -- these men were obviously not priests but soldiers. Nevertheless, Adams' maneuver reduced their sentence from death to a branding of their thumbs. All eight defendants were sent home to England alive.

Along the way, Adams risked a substantial loss of political standing for defending these very unpopular men, and doing so vigorously. It took him some time to recover from many of his friends and clients turning against him in retaliation for having taken the case, and Adams was very sensitive about public approval to begin with. But history has vindicated the lawyer over the brewer. John Adams' defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial is a powerful example of a man putting principle first, above even his own politics. He made it clear that he believed the soldiers should go home, too, and that the King had no legal right to have stationed the soldiers there in the first place -- but even if George Hanover would not respect the rule of law in London, John Adams would respect the rule of law in Boston, and so should the jury.

Adams demonstrated in the trial that even the military was subject to the rule of law, and that the law demanded that even the King could be criticized in court with impunity if the rule of law were to be upheld. He showed the world that the King's policy of having active-duty troops in a civilian city to maintain order and collect taxes was very bad idea indeed and a legitimate cause for grievance by the colonists against the King. And in so doing, he ensured that the deaths of the five civilians would culminate in the independence of the United States of America and the founding of a Constitutional republic on the western shores of the Atlantic.

Whether a similar result can be achieved on the banks of the Nile in 2011 remains to be seen. Sadly, not all nations can experience velvet revolutions and Egypt will look more like the former colony of Massachusetts than the former Czechoslovakia in that now, the blood of martyrs has watered the tree of liberty. Let us hope that the tree flowers and blossoms, without need of any further nutrition.

February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Halftime Entertainment

Here's the recent history:

2001: Aerosmith (and guests)
2002: U2
2003: Shania Twain (and guests)
2004: Janet Jackson And Her All-Star Nipple
2005: Paul McCartney
2006: The Rolling Stones
2007: Prince (and guests)
2008: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2009: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2010: The Who
2011: Black Eyed Peas (and guests)
 With the exception of 2004, there was an unbroken string on what seemed like they would have been really good acts. In fact, the Janet Jackson halftime show was actually pretty good, as these things go, up until the Justin Timberlake song which I didn't much care for in the first place and which everyone forgot because it came punctuated by a split-second glance at an attractive woman's BOOBIE!OMFGwereallgonnadie concealed by a pasty as if the nation had nothing else to worry about in 2004 other than that. Prince was quite entertaining for the likes of me, but probably a bit subversive for mainstream America. The Who was a little disappointing last year, starting strong but by the end of their set, Roger Daltrey looked like he needed to go take a nap.

Still, this is a pretty consistent record of high-quality acts delivering solid musical entertainment in a compressed amount of time and with an unlimited budget for showmanship. So let's grant that with acts like Springsteen, Petty, Prince, the Stones, and McCartney to follow, the bar was set pretty high. Disappointing would have been easy. Yet despite the understandable potential to have underwhelmed, somehow the musical acts supporting this year's big game found a way to come in below expectations.
 This year, it was bad enough when Christina Aguilera botched up the lyrics of the national anthem -- and then they went ahead and did the obviously lip-synched performance with the botched lyrics. You could tell it was lip-synched because her voice had the same volume no matted how far away she held the mic from her mouth. The fact that it was lip-synched means that they could have done another take if they'd card about getting the lyrics to the national anthem correct, but obviously they didn't. At least they made her take all the hardware out of her nose in order to clear security. 

But then, we got the Black Eyed Peas at halftime. This left me wishing quietly that the NFL had gone instead with a return engagement of "Up With People." can't sing without autotune, Fergie can't sing period (or at least didn't, judging by her cover of "Sweet Child O'Mine" in which Slash got dredged out of the 1990's to stand there and play the same eight notes over and over and over and over again), and I have no idea what those other two guys were even doing out there because it didn't even sound like rap, much less singing. Based on how they were all dressed, I kept on hoping for Rinzler to show up and take care of business for us but there was no relief until the teams re-took the field and we could return to football.

Next year, they could do better with Kermit the Frog leading a sing-along of "The Rainbow Connection" and "It's Not Easy Being Green." I wrote that as a joke, but actually, that might be a lot fun suitable for the whole family to enjoy. And really, it's no worse an idea than a halftime show starring "Indiana Jones."

This Is Number Thirteen Or Is It Number 4,000

This is very close to my four thousandth post. So of course it gives me much joy to dedicate it to the Super Bowl XLV champions, the 2010 Green Bay Packers, improbably coming from 14 players on injured reserve and losing one of their star cornerbacks during the game, winning the championship and proving that in football, explosive action can beat slow and steady pressure.

I'm a little bit too drunk at the moment to muse intelligently about the not-quite-a-diplomatic-flap over the weekend involving Britain and the START treaty. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I'll just enjoy my team winning the Super Bowl.

February 5, 2011

A Sub-Ordinary Gentleman

This blog is moving.  I'm not shutting down, I'm taking advantage of a fantastic offer from one of the best blogs out there on the Interwebs, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  For a time, I'll be cross-posting most of my posts.

After a while, though, this blog will become of interest only to my personal friends and family and those who are interested in other stuff (yes, including the food and cooking) will need to follow the better-supported and nicely-formatted blog at the League.

The new blog site can be found here.  Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds.

February 2, 2011

Perhaps This Is Not The Best Prize

A homeless couple in Green Bay won an all-expense paid trip to the Super Bowl. Where it's only marginally warmer and less snowy than in Wisconsin right now. They are, apparently, big fans of the Packers (as should be all right-thinking Americans, including not only Chicago lawyers but also the guy who makes Pittsburgh's Terrible Towels). So they'll get flown down to Dallas, have a nice weekend in a nice hotel and some good food, and flown home. It would be an experience of a lifetime for a Packer fan, to see the team play in the Super Bowl.

But at the end of their adventure, they're still going to be homeless. Tickets, flights, food -- how much is all that worth? $10,000 or so? The median price on a house in Green Bay is $109,000. That same ten grand could go to for a 5% down payment on a median-level house in their own home town and closing costs, some basic furniture, a couple of new suits for job interviews, and finding some leads on suitable employment. Wouldn't that be better?

I'm a fan of the Packers and I'm excited about the game. But as much fun as it's going to be for those of us who can afford the luxury of indulging in its frivolity, it is still just a game. Watching the Packers play in the Super Bowl in person would be a big thrill, yes, but if I were homeless and unemployed, I would much rather watch them play on TV -- from the comfort of my own new house.

Macchiavelli, Mubarak, and Assange

The amazing thing, I suppose, is that it took nine days before things began to turn seriously violent in Egypt.

After Egypt’s dictator President Hosni Mubarak announced his intention to finish out his constitutional term of office and not seek re-election in regularly-scheduled elections this September, protesters calling for regime change in Egypt’s government seemed to split, with most of them crying that this wasn’t good enough and a sizable minority saying that Mubarak ought to be allowed to “depart with dignity” and make good on his vow to “die on Egyptian soil.” It turned ugly, people started throwing rocks, and now the Army wants the protests to end.

The U.S. response to all of this is diplomatic and nuanced in tone, too carefully and cautiously nuanced for some and not sufficiently bold and ideological for others. Many both in and out of Egypt fear that Mubarak’s announced leaves him sufficient time to put a puppet in place and that there will be no real change in how Egypt is governed, and that the United States actually has no particular problem with the idea that Egypt remaining only nominally democratic but a dependable ally is what we really want.

As I noted before with my comments about what Machiavelli would have thought of all this, that perception is probably exactly right. The problem is not that this policy is erroneous, it is that it has been stripped naked and its cynical, hard-headed realism is exposed for all the world to see. Consequently, the U.S. is losing standing and political capital with the very people out there in Tahrir Square, who for a week seemed to be open and sympathetic to the idea of engagement with the west and forming a secular democracy, who wanted a signal that they were thought of as the good guys in Washington and London and Paris.

Now, they’re not so sure. Now, they’re wondering if they have to look elsewhere for support. The handoff has been fumbled — it’s not clear whether that has been by some sort of mistake by Western diplomats, by Mubarak’s half-a-loaf concession, or if some kind of interference has made this all clear.

Which is why floating the idea of giving Julian Assange the Nobel Peace Prize on this of all days seems poignant. Assange wants to portray himself as a martyr for the cause of complete transparency in government, particularly the U.S. government. But that kind of transparency would prevent exactly the sort of public idealism/private realism maneuver which Machiavelli advises as the best way for statecraft and diplomacy to be practiced. Without the ability to be, well, Machiavellian about it, it forces a government outside of a situation like this to go all-in for one side or the other early on. It prevents hedging of bets, it raises the stakes of outcomes, and most importantly, it short-circuits the possibility of negotiated compromise settlements. Complete transparency means that gradual change becomes more difficult and revolutions, or violent repression of the same, become the only way change can take place.

Which is why Assange’s self-appointed mission of transparency is not a force for peace. Mubarak’s proposal contains the potential for being a tissue over the swapping of one strongman for another at the helm of the Egyptian ship of state, but it also contains enough of a framework for incremental change and a transition to democracy. That transition does not need to be generations long, but it probably can’t be successful overnight. Iraq did not transition from military dictatorship to constitutional democracy overnight, and neither will Egypt. Or Tunisia or Syria or Jordan or Libya or anywhere else that does not have a meaningful culture of peaceful political discourse and a tradition of democratic institutions upon which a constitutional republic can be built.

Mubarak’s compromise solution to protests against his government allows everyone some breathing room — it allows the West the breathing room it needs to assure itself that a new Egyptian government will not fall into the grips of radical Islamists or develop overt hostility to Israel. It allows the Egyptian military to stand back and not kill anyone, which it does not seem to want to do. It allows Mubarak the ability to withdraw from the field peacefully. It allows for democracy to actually develop in a way that will be enduring. And most of all, it allows the people of the various factions united only in their opposition to Mubarak’s authoritarian government the time to organize and present their visions of what Egypt could be in the future to the people of Egypt, without throwing rocks at each other or at pro-Mubarak forces and getting themselves hurt or killed.

This requires that there be some level of opacity in negotiations. This requires some tolerance of dissonance between public statements and official actions. It requires patience and nuance in forming policy. And it requires the maturity to tentatively accept compromise solutions. These are not things that radicalized crowds of protesters are good at. These are things that only leaders can do — and if Julian Assange forces their hands, radicalizes them, and prevents them from adopting these kinds of nuances, then he is not a force for peace, and he can look at the college kids in Cairo clashing with riot police and enjoy the spectacle of the world he has made.

January 31, 2011

Vino Intercontinentale

So The Wife and I had another blind wine-tasting party. We invited three other couples, to limit seating, and limited wine to six bottles. I found a California Tempranillo, a Bordeau, a Barbera d'Asti, an Argentinian Malbec, a South African Syrah, and an Australian Shiraz (yes, Shiraz is the same as Syrah, just spelled differently). All vintage 2006, which I thought was pretty clever on my part.

Then two of the three couples canceled, with less than two hours before "go" time. We tried scaring up other people to come, but on such short notice, no one could. The result was us and one other couple with six, count 'em six, anonymous carafes of five-year-old red wine. We had our tasting anyway, and had a very nice evening visiting with our friends.

With the result that we had nearly two and a half liters of red wine left over because really, how much are only four people going to drink? So I took one of the containers I use for infusing liquor and dumped the remains of all six carafes in it, intermingling the grape juice in a combination never before or again to ever be replicated by anyone, anywhere.

The result: vino intercontinentale. Some of that wound up in tonight's spaghetti sauce. Some of it is in glasses being drunk right now. The truth of the matter is, it's quite good. I need to let it warm up -- we stored it in the fridge for some reason that made sense to us when we were inebriated -- but even a bit on the cool side, it's quite enjoyable. I don't think I'd attach a high price tag to it, but I'm drinking it and pretty happy.

Machiavelli On American Policy Towards The Egyptian Revolution

There seems to be some debate about whether the U.S. should be backing the Mubarak government in Egypt, backing the protestors, or standing back doing nothing.

Mubarak, after all, has been a good ally to the United States in a region of the world where that is not always the easiest thing to do; under his leadership Egypt has been both a leader in the Arab world and a symbol that peace with Israel and cooperation with the United States is possible.

On the other hand, obviously we want to see actual democracy in Egypt and if we take a principled approach to our relations with the rest of the world, the self-determination of the Egyptian people ought to be the highest goal we could encourage in that nation. We can be reasonably hopeful that a post-Mubarak Egypt would remain on good terms with the West, but not certain.

Standing by doing nothing, moreover, pleases no one and may embitter whatever leader comes out on top of Cario's current struggles. Egypt is the most ancient civilization on Earth and has the richest history of anywhere on Earth. So perhaps it is to the wisdom of the past that we should look: is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs o everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

Il Signore Niccolò could be speaking directly to President Obama here. Actions should be strictly motivated by angles for advantage, and public statements should come dressed in the trappings of the highest moral ideals. Prior commitments and loyalties should only be honored in fact to the extent that honoring them is actually useful.

Mubarak has been a good and useful ally. But that is irrelevant. Which side we should support should be determined on which side promises to deliver more advantage to the U.S.A., and nothing more. Outwardly, we should be piously observant of the ideals of democratic self-determination, human rights and liberty, and the free traffic of both commerce and information among peoples.

How can we do this? The most sensible thoughts on the issue I've yet read can be found here.

If we can be reasonably confident that the Muslim Brotherhood will not get into a position of power, in a democratic Egypt, then Mubarak should be eased out peacefully, perhaps naming Mohammed ElBaradi as the "First Minister" or something like that. After a period of time, Mubarak resigns and retires to a sinecure somewhere that, importantly, is not in Egypt. Then a new constitution gets adopted, elections take place with the U.N. and Jimmy Carter and all the rest of the hoopla to make sure it's free and fair -- since as long as the really bad guys aren't going to call any meaningful shots, we like democracy.

But if there is a realistic chance that the bad guys could take power, then Mubarak stays.

January 30, 2011

what do these celebrities all have in common?

Beyonce. Halle Berry. Tim McGraw. Jessica Simpson. Mariah Carey. Sean John. Sarah Jessica Parker. Christina Aguilera. Britney Spears. Usher. Elizabeth Taylor. Faith Hill. Avril Lavigne. Paris Hilton. Ashley Judd.
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January 27, 2011

Roshambo Economics

Usually we think of economics as studies in supply and demand, price and consumption, in a setting of scarcity. But scarcity can come not from the vagaries of supply and demand, but also from logic. And economics is the study of human behavior when choices must be made -- much like political science is also the study of human behavior in a realm of forced choices.

Another way to think about it is not like finding the "sweet spot" of optimal amounts of guns and butter, but instead trying to plan out a game of rock-paper-scissors. The result is, at least on the double example that I find here, a preference for short-term rather than long-term utility.

People want to eat as much as they want, not endure the unpleasantness of exercise, and still lose weight. Obviously, you can't have all three -- not because food, exercise, or weight loss are expensive, but because once you have two of those, the third is necessarily excluded from what can be achieved. You can eat as much as you want and still lose weight, but only if you exercise a lot. You can skip the exercise and lose weight, but only if you restrict your food consumption. Or, you can eat at lot, not exercise, but accept weight gain as the consequence.

As it turns out, YMMV, but the most common choice seems to be weight gain rather than exercise or reduced consumption. Weight gain involves deferring a long-term pleasure, while exercise and reduced consumption involves deferring a short-term pleasure.

The body politic makes similar choices. We want the government to provide services (principally social welfare and defense), low taxes, and balanced budgets. Can't have all three. We can have robust services and low taxes, but the debt will rise. Or, services can be robust and the deficit will make sense, but only if we pay for it with high taxes. Or, We can enjoy low taxes and reduced governmental debt, but only if we make do with fewer services from our government.

As a people, we have opted for long-term debt rather than deferring short-term pleasures of low taxes and governmental services. This is reflected in our current political dynamic in which there is much sound and fury but no substantial action over our public debt, and adamant refusal on the part of either major political party to meaningfully cut social services or meaningfully raise taxes. The behavior of the parties accurately reflects the desires of the voters as a whole.

What tripartate, mutually-exclusive choices show us is that humans have a preference for immediate over long-term gratification.

January 26, 2011

Democracy In North Africa

We're not anywhere close to seeing democracy emerge in the north African nations (other than Algeria). But that doesn't mean there aren't notable things going on.

Over the past three weeks, Tunisia has been a nation whose remarkable events have been shamefully underreported in the American media. As I understand it, the tough economic times resulted in a young man who could not find work, and took to selling fruit on a street corner, and then was arrested for not having a permit. Distraught over his situation, he committed suicide, and this set in motion a chain of events which led to popular demonstrations and riots. Just over a week ago, these reached a level of intensity that the well-entrenched President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed. Popular calls for the institution of a functioning democratic government continue and the interim leaders of the country -- the military and the Prime Minister -- are struggling to find a way to respond to those popular demands, which so far seems to consist of issuing arrest warrants for Abidine and his family.

There are similar protests going on in Egypt. As in Tunisia, public demonstrations are outlawed but happening anyway, again led by calls for democracy on the part of economically disaffected young people in massive street demonstrations. They seem to have united around the figurehead of Mohammad ElBaradei, who has returned to his native nation at some risk to his own liberty to join the protests against the deeply-entrenched President Hosni Mubarek. Mubarak is dealt with as a partner to the U.S. because of his overt hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood -- but the really good news is that the protesters in Egypt seem to reject the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they do Mubarak.

While the violence is regrettable, it is perpetrated by the repressive, functionally dictatorial governments who are being challenged by their own people. The moral fault for the violence and people hurt by it rests ultimately with the leaders who clamp down on protests rather than recognize the sovereignty of their people. It looks like 1989 in north Africa; it remains to be seen if the result will be like Eastern Europe or like China.

Let us hope that the Egyptian, Tunisian, and hopefully other peoples prevail and new democracies, ones with true respect for the rule of law and human rights, emerge from the struggles quickly and with minimal bloodshed.

Beat About The Head And Shoulders

That's how I feel after a day like today. I need to remind myself that the number of people who go see doctors for problems, get prescribed medication, fill those prescriptions, and then take the medicine in the manner directed by their physicians is less than one-third. It's frustrating seeing clients not only fail to appreciate their problem but actively counteract all the good I've been doing for them. It's frustrating to have seen clients go through wrenching, tear-jerking experiences and then see them repeat the same mistakes that I pointed out to them caused the tears to flow in the first place. It's frustrating to see future plans frustrated by innocent-meaning actions of third parties. It's frustrating to have to deal with issues outside my area of expertise because the colleague better-equipped to deal with them is simply unavailable.

This is, of course, why there is such a thing as Scotch whisky. Would that I could enjoy some tonight.

January 25, 2011

I don't think there's all that many singers out there who would do something like this song today. So many of them are auto-tuned into oblivion and don't invest the time into learning how to use their voices like musical instruments -- much less writing lyrics like this.

This Is Not News

Why is it top-of-the-roster news for two days in a row that Antonin Scalia isn't going to attend the State of the Union address? I've serious doubts about whether any of the Justices of the Supreme Court should ever do so. Maybe one who was just nominated, as a gesture of thanks and support for the President who just nominated her and the Senators who confirmed her. But that's about it. Justice Samuel Alito causing a flap last year for silently shaking his head back and forth during a point he believed the President was misrepresenting a controversial opinion only highlighted the fact that the judicial function is best removed from the fray of politics.

Which is why it ought to have been bigger news that Justice Scalia spoke to the Tea Party Caucus in Congress. The Tea Party Caucus is obviously identified in partisan terms, although a few Democrats attended Justice Scalia's visit with them. I don't imply that in giving the talk, Justice Scalia acted improperly -- he did not. I imply that by giving this group the favor of his time and attention, he indicates a degree of sympathy with what they have to say. This isn't improper, but it pushes the limits of propriety. Some people might reasonably perceive bias from his attendance.

I attended a speech Scalia gave once at a Federalist Society function once where he received a hero's welcome and he clearly enjoyed receiving such treatment (as is only natural); he was careful to not discuss pending or likely cases that would come before him and so he didn't cross the line into misconduct. But it was odd to hear him castigate or lionize historical decisions in apparently direct opposition to the traditional view of the liberal academy -- he offered a full-throated defense of Bowers v. Hardwick and I was both put off by his decision to defend that particular decision, one which I thought was the least defensible in modern Supreme Court history.

I was even more put off by the thunderous applause given by nearly everyone present (myself and a handful of others excepted) at those particular remarks. I'd known that the Federalist Society was a collection of libertarian and conservative lawyers but I hadn't counted on my fellow libertarians being such a small minority of those present. I left the event thinking that taken as a whole, the event had the feel of partisan pep rally, cheering on the advancement of socially conservative causes in the courts. While no individual element of the night, by itself, struck me as technically improper, taken as a whole it left me with the impression of bias.

Now, I'm not entirely sure that it's hugely important that Justice Clarence Thomas misunderstood disclosure forms and neglected to include work done by his wife for partisan causes. Unlike the Common Cause advocate int he linked story, I think it's fair to say that Justice Thomas could have in good faith misunderstood what the forms were asking for -- he filled them out the way he did for twenty years and no one complained until now; Justices on the Court disagree on how to interpret things all the time. The news is that his wife works for such causes at all, because that it was creates the potential for a perception of bias.

On examination, it doesn't look like bias or anything improper, but it's important that the courts be perceived as unbiased and a part of that perception comes from the willingness of the members of the bench to make disclosures so as to display their impartiality. I see a lot of similarities here to the situation in the Prop. 8 case involving Judge Stephen Reinhardt and his wife Ramona Ripston, and the same standard -- one of disclosure but not recusal or a presumption of bias -- ought to apply.

I don't know what the Justices who are thought of as "liberal"* do with their time out in the public, or whether they or their spouses are to be found on the periphery of similar sorts of partisan-flavored activities. If so, it would be just as improper. I've seen two other Justices speaking at public events -- Anthony Kennedy, a "moderate," and Stephen Breyer, a "liberal" -- and both of them spoke at law school events about matters of academic interest. Why it should be that so much discussion about the political sympathies of these "conservative" Supreme Court Justices should be percolating around in the news, at this point in time, is very unclear to me. There is no reason to withhold similar criticism from the "liberal" Justices were they to behave the same way, and I have simply not looked into whether they are vulnerable to similar kinds of criticism. Perhaps they are, but for whatever reason they aren't in the news with it right now.

But if I were advising these jurists, regardless of their ideologies, I would tell them to keep as low a political profile as they can, and that the stuff mentioned above is not low-profile. The judiciary should be perceived as a resting place for fairness, objectivity, and equity, not as a political football. And since the media and the political branches of government labor so hard to politicize the judiciary, the judiciary should respond by underlining, whenever possible, that it tries to keep itself about the fray.

In that light, skipping the State of the Union address is not a snub to the President. It is a proper fulfillment of the judicial function and I say, none of the Justices should be there tonight.

* I put their media-assigned ideological alignments in quotation marks because calling them liberal or conservative does not accurately reflect the bulk of the work they actually do. No one outside those particular specialties really cares when they disagree about interpretations of Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code or the scope of ERISA pre-emption law. Nor do they always reach the results they do even in the hot-button cases for the same reasons.

January 24, 2011

Scary News For International Travel

You would have thought that security wouldn't have been a problem in Russia, unburdened as it is with concerns for civil liberties. But the bomb that the TSA will be looking for next blew up this morning in Moscow, killing 35 people who were waiting to enter Russia and apparently detonated by a suicide bomber. Naturally, everyone's hearts and sympathies go out to the families of those killed and the Russian government catches those responsible and punishes them as only Russians can.

Terrorism Russia is problematic because it could come from so many sources. Our friends from al-Qaeda are always on our minds when something like this happens, but it could be Chechen rebels, Dagestani rebels, someone trying to liberate South Ossestia -- it's almost like Russia is behaving imperialistically and making enemies along the way. Even if that is true, though, it in no way justifies this sort of violence on innocent civilians.

So Much For The Nixon Going To China Moment

In a move that surprises no one but simply continues politics as usual and adds further assurance that we will run our national debt into fiscal oblivion one day during my lifetime, the President has announced that he opposes changing either the retirement age for Social Security or the amount of benefits people will receive under it in the future. This means that the only ways to deal with the looming drawdown of the Social Security fund will be to a) raise taxes or b) divert money from on-budget programs to SSI or c) both.

Democrats, your leader has made it clear that he has no taste for entitlement reform. Republicans have already done the same -- not just for Social Security but also for Medicare. (But they are opposed to "socialism.") Without entitlement reform, there can be no serious discussion of deficit reduction -- defense is only about one-fifth of the total budget, cannot be cut completely, and our spending problem is much bigger than that.

This is the public policy equivalent of a gangrene patient opting to not take antibiotics and other nutritional improvements, and also opting to eschew debridement or removal of the necrotized tissue, proclaiming, "It'll heal on its own." No, it won't. Social Security won't get better on its own. The budget won't get better on its own. We have to cut, something, at some point. The sooner we do it, the less painful it's going to be. Just like pulling off a band-aid, it'll be better if we do it fast and all at once than if we do it slowly and over time.

What's In A Taco Anyway?

In a maneuver clearly calculated to engender massive respect for the legal profession, an Alabama law firm has taken advantage of that state's surprisingly liberal class action laws to sue Taco Bell for claiming that the mild, grainy substance they use to fill their tacos and burritos and chalupas and enchiritos and other made-up not-really-Mexican food is only 36% beef.

What, you might reasonably ask, is the remaining 64% of whatever was stuffed in the tortillas of your fourthmeal? The answer, allegedly, is a tasty and savory blend of water, isolated oat product, wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate. Pick one of those and go do your own obligatory Homer-Simpson-drooling joke. Taco Bell has denied any wrongdoing and says it will vigorously defend itself -- but the unfortunately common gastrointestinal aftereffects of actually eating at Taco Bell suggest that there may be some substance to the allegations that your "Mexican Pizza" is, well, just a bunch of fried fatty glop laced to the point of chemical supersaturation with monosodium glutamate. But you should have known that already.

So if you want good taco flavor, you'll just have to go out and buy Doritos. Seriously, go buy taco flavored Doritos. Taco was the best flavor Doritos ever made and for some reason the marketing geniuses there think it won't sell. But since it's out in "limited release" right now you can help me prove those marketing weenies wrong. When the bags of taco flavor Doritos start flying off the shelves, they'll change their minds. And my efforts to lose weight will be for naught, but I'll have my tasty taco Doritos as consolation.

January 23, 2011

Today's NFC Championship Game

My next-door neighbor is a big Bears fan. This brings a fine bit of midwestern rivalry out to sunny, warm California:

This was to have been a music video for the popular Wisconsin pub song "The Bears Still Suck" but the video was removed due to a copyright claim. I have no desire to infringe anyone's copyright. I do, however, have a desire to talk trash to Bears fans before a game I expect the Packers to win (with justification, as it turned out)
Enjoy the game.

January 21, 2011

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

This is what I get for being a comic book geek and a political junkie -- an auto-select of news stories from Google that takes me to a review of the premier edition of Steampunk Palin.

No, your eyes did not deceive you. Someone has gone through the time and effort to create a comic book called "Steampunk Palin."

In which she forms an unlikely alliance with the cyborg President "Robama" to fight an evil big corporation that's doing, um, something bad up in Alaska and turns out to be led by Al Gore. No, really.

And as you can see, Steampunk Palin has hu-u-u-u-uge breasts. It is a comic book, after all.

Bad Attorney Advertisements, Part 3

For the third installment in my occasional series of bad attorney advertisements, I have found a television commercial.

Embedding of the video here is disabled, so you'll have to follow this link to see a truly tacky TV ad for a lawyer. Now, you might think that a divorce lawyer would be uniquely able to produce something that could readily cast the entire legal profession into serious disrepute (and indeed, they are well-equipped to do so), the fact of the matter is that at least one other candidate for that the title of "most shameless TV ad ever" comes from that same "Hammer" guy. Frankly, this bit of trivialization of bankruptcy, while lowbrow, doesn't really go over the top the way a lawyer using the decidedly unoriginal nickname "the Hammer" can. (This other "Hammer" guy even uses the same stock clip-art graphic of a steel hammer.)

The lack of dignity in the commercial is apparent. But this begs the question of whether good taste is actually necessary for the ad to accomplish its purpose. Maybe not -- the point of the commercial is to attract business to the lawyer and he doesn't owe any duties to the profession to make the rest of us look good. It's hard to say whether Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro is able to discern what good taste even is, given that the commercial may well not fairly represent what he's like in real life. Who knows, maybe he's really a quite sedate, pleasant, and polite guy when he's not cheesing it up for a TV spot.

But if the commercial is intended to give an idea of what he'd be like as your lawyer, I for one would rather take my business elsewhere.

Why is that? While people might be looking for a zealous advocate who will get angry on their behalf and I would too, I don't think most clients with worthwhile cases are looking for someone whose mental health is subject to reasonable question based on their presentment on TV. Both of these commercials hint that "The Hammer" is a little bit, well, off. Particularly knowing what I know about how litigation works, I know that there is a "sweet spot" that you reach in every case, when the settlement value maximizes with respect to the work done. I don't want a lawyer so blinded by his hatred of the evil insurance company that he does not understand when the case has reached its "sweet spot."

Beyond which, what if I piss him off? Clearly he's contemplated ripping peoples' hearts out and severing their heads from their bodies, and that's just for people who hurt his clients. What might he want to do if you did something he personally didn't like? Maybe it's best if I just avoid the guy altogether.

Now, I can't fault the guy for a lack of focus. A good TV ad should have as a prominent element a clear, direct focus and I'll admit it: Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro has achieved in this respect. One might take issue with the nuance of the focus on display. There is no pretense that what's going on here is about "fairness" or "justice" or "compensation for the innocently hurt" or "healing injuries." Many other personal injury ads speak to equalizing the fight between a claimant with few resources and a big, scary, powerful insurance company. Others tout the competence and aggressiveness of the attorneys whose services are being sold. Still others focus on the money that can be obtained in court, which is after all the point of personal injury law.

But here, it's not even so much about the Benjamins, or even about zealous advocacy, as it is about revenge. For anyone who has thought about how personal injury law works on an economic level, it ought to be obvious that a 40% contingency share of revenge isn't worth a penny, and speaking as someone who has interviewed his fair share of potential clients with worthless cases, I can assure the rest of you that the emotional intensity of a client's desire for revenge has nearly nothing to do with the magnitude of tangible injuries for which I might conceivably recover damages on their behalf in a court. Once again, the fact that the guy went over the top makes me question his judgment and disinclines me to hire him to handle my personal injury situation.

Now, on to practical matters. You only take away one thing from a typical TV commercial and the thing to take away from an injury lawyer's commercial is the number you should call if you've been hurt. Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro is so busy explaining how much hatred he has for the people you want to sue that he only leaves himself enough time to say his telephone number once. It's easy to forget the number after the commercial is gone, because he hasn't hammered it into your head through repetition. What I take away from this commercial is that Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro has got more than his fair share of Teh Crazee. He's practically spitting in the camera at the end when he says "You call, I hammer!" But I've completely forgotten the phone number because I'm so astonished at the lack of good taste and common sense that went in to the commercial itself.

He tries to make up for it with the overall presentation. The whole commercial is a black background frame with parallel video windows in it. The graphics are changing in the right-side window, showing a series of explosions and fires, interspersed with fast-edited black-on-white graphics. But steady on the top part of the background frame is the name of Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro and stead on the bottom of the frame is the phone number.

YMMV, but I personally think this technique fails, because my eye is drawn rapidly back and forth from the image of the frothing lunatic in the left video window with the violence of the explosions in the right video window. I can't concentrate on anything at all while watching the commercial, and my residual reaction when it's all done is a combination of stunned incredulity at the bizarre emotional intensity of the strange man screaming at me, and fatigue in my eye muscles from bouncing my visual focus so many times between the left and right video windows. It's too much, too fast, for me to mentally process.

The Determinist Explanation

Because of the autonomic responses of the chicken's internal nervous system in response to visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli, moving through a complex neural network to stimulate the chicken's behavior. Likely, the neural programming within the chicken's brain was influenced by both pleasure and pain induction, perhaps modeled after previous experience such as when the chicken had previously crossed other roads and located a source of food, or an instinctual response left over from hundreds of thousands of generations of successfully-breeding ancestors which "hard-wires" into the unconscious motive imperatives of the chicken the notion that across the road, a place of apparent safety from foxes or other threatening predators is likely to be found, e.g., a coop. While our understanding of the natural phenomena which are the inputs leading to the particular behavior under examination is admittedly limited, a complete and comprehensive understanding of those phenomena and how they are internally processed by the subject is ultimately unnecessary to come to the realization that in no event can the chicken be understood to have "chosen" to have done this.

The Primary Reason Why I Gave Up Assigning Essays

I would not be surprised to learn that Bar Jester Jason Peters is reverse-engineering an actual essay from his freshmen composition class. His note to the female students of his college is well-taken -- this isn't worth suicide for them -- but I can find no similar consolation for the professors and TA's who are forced to read this stuff in exchange for starvation wages.

Via LoOG.

January 20, 2011

Multi-Lingual Legislatures

So far as I had known, the only multi-lingual deliberative body was the United Nations' General Assembly. But it turns out that the Senate in Spain is a forum in which legislators desire to speak not only the primary language of the nation, Spanish, but also Catalan, Galician, Valencian, and Euskara (the language of the Basque), and the nation includes many speakers of Aragonese, Asturian and Leonese.

One suspects that in the areas near Portugal, Portuguese is also a commonly-spoken language, that English is spoken near Gibraltar, and that near the northern border there is a fair amount of French going on too. That's eleven languages in a country smaller than Texas, five of which are spoken on the floor of the nation's legislature. When The Wife and I visited Barcelona, we saw many more Catalan flags flying than Spanish, and most people spoke Catalan (sounded like Spanish with a lisp to me) and their eyes narrowed just a bit when I spoke Spanish. Yet somehow there does seem to be a common identity, even if many peoples' primary identities are regional rather than national.

The BBC maintains that nearly all Spaniards speak Spanish as a first or second language, however; so the protest that there is a common language and therefore a common ability to communicate and discuss affairs of government is there. I suppose I can understand that spending €12,000 a day on translators who are not really necessary is a waste and people might get a little peeved about that. But really, is it so bad? All told the translators for the Spanish Senate probably cost something around a million Euro a year or so -- and Spain's money problems are much, much deeper than that.

Permanently Bald Othello

I suppose that Othello will always look like Lawrence Fishburne, at least for the foreseeable future. Not that Fishburne wasn't a good Othello, or anything. But I wonder if in this day and age, an actor could play Othello, or an artist could depict him, with a look other than Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head.

Now, don't get me wrong. Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head is a cool look and most movies, plays, and pretty much any other kind of entertainment media you could name are all enhanced by the presence of a Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head. Even movies that are otherwise seriously flawed. And yes, Othello is a warrior and a shaved head is obviously a practical hairstyle for someone whose job description includes hand-to-hand combat. So it's not like there's anything wrong with depicting Othello that way.

It just seems so... obvious. There's more than one way to depict a warrior, especially one who is in repose, enjoying the fruits of his labors and his lovely, younger Venetian bride. One need not even have to have particularly dark skin to to play the role; such ultra-white actors as Anthony Hopkins and Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier have all played Othello effectively. And there are other ways to signal that some dude is officially a Mess-With-Me-At-Your-Own-Peril Badass than a Shaved Head.

Nevertheless, if Denzel Washington were to be cast as Othello today,* I bet that he'd shave his head for the role, too. What's going on with that? Why must Othello always be bald?

* Maybe with Connie Nielsen as Desdomena and Ciarán Hinds as Iago?

January 19, 2011

Three Classes

This post is about what exists in reality and how I've seen it, not what I think that reality ought to be or my moral approval or disapproval of it. On balance, I'm not particularly happy with seeing the world this way but I believe it to be a useful and accurate lens with which to understand things.

Class And Personal Experience

Perhaps the most consistent thing about the many phases of my own law practice has been the very wide spectrum of people that I have met, people from all sorts of walks of life in so many different phases of their lives. It's hard to say whether one's own experience is truly representative of the world under the best of circumstances, and my experiences have comes from people who are facing legal troubles. And you get a good sense of what people really are made of when you see them grappling with their troubles. So a substantial part of what I have to say here is based on the least reliable sort of evidence, which is anecdotal. I've little else other than media to rely on for observations about broad social classes, however – media both popular and academic, to be sure, but really, what other sources of information does anyone have about the way one's own society is structured?

Also having substantial weight on my observations here is a book which has been influential among my peer group, Paul Fussell's Class. Prof. Fussell wrote this slim and trenchant observation on American society in 1983, in an attempt to explode the myth that the United States enjoys a classless society. Fussell identified nine primary socio-economic classes in the modern United States – five of which he described as "proletarian" or less – and asserted that upward mobility between the classes was extraordinarily difficult even if one overcame the odds and acquired sufficient money to afford the kinds of things that members of the next rank up might acquire with minimal difficulty.

For instance, Fussell posited that a "high proletarian" would simply never be comfortable or fit in as part of a world of "middle class" people, because the high prole's recreational preferences, aesthetic tastes, educational experiences, and socialization habits would not match those of her neighbors. She would leave Christmas lights on the eaves of her house all year, change her own oil in the driveway of her house rather than take it to a mechanic, buy cheap beer to serve at a party when her guests would be expecting imports and white wine, prefer televised stock car racing to the Super Bowl, and so on. But more to the point would be that the high proletarian would in all probability never even get to the point that she would be in a position to make such a series of faux pas to her new neighbors because the kind of jobs she would need to get in order to make that kind of money would never open up to her – there would be formal qualifications for education and work experience that she could not meet, and social hurdles during job-selection processes which she could not overcome because of her lack of a peer group in the class to which she aspired.

The highest and lowest economic classes were, according to Fussell, at such economic extremes as to be functionally invisible to the rest of society – the very poor living under bridges, committing petty theft and scrounging garbage cans for their very survival and keeping out of sight of others so as to avoid detection by a world that hates them for their poverty; the very wealthy living in rarefied and isolated enclaves having isolated dinners served to them by their servants, in which the only subject able to generate any emotion was the pressing imperative for the preservation of capital.

The basic observation that the United States is a classified society, and that class boundaries are by this phase of our history significantly ossified and impermeable, seems so true as to be beyond reasonable dispute.

Real-Life Experience

In later editions of the book, Fussell added a new chapter, alleging the instance of a "Class X" which transcended the nine-tier system originally posited. "Class X'ers" engaged in the arts for their existence, could come from nearly any of the classes, and 'enjoyed' social mobility. Wealth to them would be irrelevant and if they exhibited skill at their craft, they could gain both fame and fortune and in that sense find easy acceptance in nearly every level of society. I have always been of the opinion that Fussell was induced to add this by his editors, who found the overall thesis of the original book too depressing despite Fussell's interjection of acidly humorous observations about the behaviors of specimens from all nine classes. The existence of such a class is in too great of contrast, too blandly optimistic, and too obviously calculated to please editors of large New York publishing houses, to enjoy substantial credibility.

Real-life experience shows that there are artists and then there are artists. There is an economic spectrum within the arts and the great, great majority of those who make their career in the arts do so in exchange for shockingly low amounts of money and live in tremendous obscurity. Those who seek entrée into the elite levels of the arts world need the right kind of education (not necessarily found in a university, mind you) before undertaking their careers and the right kind of peer network so as to be noticed by the right kinds of people. In other words, they already need to at least be in the proximity of other elites in order to become elite themselves – which is, ultimately, the definition of a class.

Real-life experience contrasts with Fussell's nearly thirty-year-old observations in many other ways. I look at myself – as a lawyer enjoying a good income and a superior education, I should fit in to what Fussell described as the "upper middle class," the third-highest tier in Fussell's taxonomy – a collection of people who have significant economic comforts, who actually want for nothing, but do not consider themselves wealthy and aspire to greater wealth than they have. But my neighbors are an aircraft engineer, a postal worker, an assistant human resources manager at a community college, a termite exterminator, a drywall applicator, and a retired plumber. Some have been to college, one (other than I) has completed graduate school. These people span the sorts of professions from "middle prole" to "upper middle"; but unlike the "upper middle" Fussell described, I actually know and socialize with my neighbors periodically. We all enjoy professional football, wear similar kinds of clothing when off work, we all sporadically enjoy nights out at various performing arts venues, and we all drink high-end beer and mid-range wines when we get together. The traits and backgrounds of these people (myself included) are all blended together.

This is not to disparage Fussell, who provides a useful framework upon which to build. But it is to say that economically, it's not necessarily any great shakes to be a lawyer anymore and it's entirely possible to have a very comfortable existence without the kind of educational and professional background that Fussell associated with the middle or upper middle class. Fussell's regime is not fundamentally incorrect – but it is too compartmentalized. It describes a continuum, not a stratification.

Capital And Class

At the same time, Fussell observed that there are people of fantastic wealth, people for whom money is so plentiful as to never be an issue. These people, he says, behave differently than those who have to work for a living. Real-life experience bears that observation out and it is enduring. They have to do something with their money and they typically put it in things like real estate and securities. Thus, I encounter such people as clients. For them, money is like air – there is always a lot of it around and even if they don't have it themselves at a particular moment, there will always be more around. There are differences in behavior and world view that come from that background.

Such people sometimes seem to lack anything one could identify as a "job." They own stuff, they do things, but there seems to be little by way of structure or pattern to it. Some day-trade online for a few hours a day, some scour real estate opportunities in something like an orderly way, but for the most part they don't pay a lot of attention to what other people do to support their activities. Like their lawyers – they hire me to do certain things and leave me alone to do them. This is pleasant enough for my practice, but in dealing with them they seem to lack a realistic understanding of what is happening on the ground with their own assets. Indeed, they are often unaware of the value of their own assets or the (highly variable for both better and worse) extent of their own creditworthiness.

More importantly, they don't always have, or at least have access to, the money which so permeates their existence. And they don't always live particularly well. I'm not talking about Mitt Romney flying coach to the winter Olympics because coach seats were the only ones available for the flight he wanted. I'm talking about trust fund babies who continually mooch money from their accountant friends while smoking a lot of pot and buying new guitars to ornament their beach houses. I'm talking about people on the make who try to put together eight-figure business deals based on half-baked ideas, and who have temper tantrums when their lawyers present them with bills for a few thousand dollars.

Those tantrums seemed inexplicable to me when I first encountered them, before I realized that my clients simply didn't have the money and were using their emotions as a substitute for the money I had requested. All the shell games with future money and investors' money they promised me at the end of the tantrums were proof that for them, the money was like the air – it was simply there, somewhere, and its presence was sufficient. Beyond that, they had never given thought about money at all.

The takeaway is that proximity to capital is the key to this class. Most of the people I'm referring to here earned their money the old-fashioned way – they got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, and so on and so on. Consequently, ready access to liquid money is not always a defining trait of this class, but money permeates their existence in a way that it does not for those who make their living like me and most likely like you, my Reader, by exchanging some kind of useful work – whether that is manual labor, intellectual work, or professional services – for money and thus survive.

Entitlement And Class

On the other end of the spectrum, I get to see people – middle-aged, sometimes even elderly – who seem to have little experience at all working. Their entire economic lives revolve around various kinds of entitlement payments from a variety of governmental agencies. Perhaps there is relatively more of this here in relatively generous California than in other parts of the country. But my experience living in Tennessee tells me that such people are found there in appreciable numbers as well. These are the apparently able-bodied people who always pay their rent late because they're waiting for their Social Security and state disability payments, which despite being electronically wired to bank accounts, always seem to arrive late.

What amazes me about dealing with this collection of people is not so much that they can survive on this kind of existence. The governmental entitlement programs are designed to achieve that goal and while the shoe doesn't always fit well, it does seem to fit most of the time. There are two things that stand out for me. First, a significant number of those who live in this way seem to do so with little real understanding of, and sometimes even apparent contempt for, people who exchange labor for money.

I say "contempt" rather than "resentment" because when I encounter them (either when they solicit my services or when I am evicting them from the homes they have failed to pay rent on) they do not evidence any real jealousy for either my station in life or my clients'. As best I can perceive, for them working is for suckers; why work when you can get the same money for doing the stuff you would rather be doing anyway? These are people in the entitlement system who grew up within it, who never really leave it for very long, and who seem to consider the ability to navigate it a fundamental life skill. They view others who lack those skills the same way I view people who do not understand the importance of having a driver's license or a checking account. This is why I refer to this group of people as a class – they are born into it, socialized into its values, and consequently face significant difficulties migrating out of it.

The second observation is that for some of these people, there seems to be a pretty substantial skill set, a collection of experiences and shared knowledge passed from person to person – a curriculum, if you will – that leads to a lifestyle that seems almost enviable.

An unemployed person lacking formal educational credentials can live in section 8 housing, in a bigger house and a nicer neighborhood than I do, paying double-digit monthly rent out of pocket, which may or may not be paid at all. AFDC provides enough money for the entire family to eat on – and indeed in many cases to eat out at restaurants with some frequency. General relief provides money. State disability and social security disability payments provide more money. Periodic low-end employment results in continuing eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as opportunities to make workers' compensation and wrongful termination claims, from which both money and disability eligibility is extracted. The end result is that for one who is able to navigate the paperwork, one can achieve a comfortable lifestyle not involving work but including material comforts such as new cars, new clothing, state-of-the-art cell phones in near-constant use text messaging friends, and cable television. Should the rent go unpaid, they can frequently stall out the eviction for six months or more, and there is little lasting consequence for them as a result. When they get sick, their medical care and medications are paid for by a panoply of public assistance programs.

This may seem a lot when taken at first glance, but it really isn't all that improbable. In terms of absolute dollars, cable TV, cell phones, clothing, and even auto leases are not terribly expensive anymore. One suspects that the cars lack insurance, that cash is not always readily available, and credit is on a downward spiral. Still, it's hard to feel sorry for such folks because their lifestyles – the actual consuming they do – appears to exceed that of a large number of people who exchange their labor for money; they are able to engage in such consumption in exchange for conforming the patterns of their lives (how many children they have, where they live, etc.) to incentives created by the government and filling out the appropriate paperwork.

Abuse, Not Cheating

I hesitate to call such people "welfare cheats," however, because it's clear that they aren't cheating the system – they are working within it, conforming to its rules, exercising their rights. They comply with the law. That's not cheating. It might be something else we don't like (call it "abuse"), it might be a cynical manipulation of the system beyond its intent, but particularly if your ethic is that the system permits something and therefore you can do it, it is more than possible to work the system into a life that features things that many people who actually work for a living cannot afford to enjoy – not the least of which is substantial amounts of free time.

This is not to say that everyone who is enrolled in government entitlement programs behaves in such a way, which when cumulated in that fashion looks very dishonest. Not everyone possesses either the skill set or the – how to put this politely? – disposition towards the government's role in society necessarily to manipulate the system in this fashion. I'm telling myself that this sort of thing is exceeding rare. But I can't say it's nonexistent, having seen it with my own eyes. What I tell myself is that my own view of things is skewed; my own personal sampling of what's out there in the world comes from being in the courthouse more days than not, and the population of a courthouse is, by definition, selective to include people who have legal problems and therefore not representative of the population as a whole.

The Tennessee Taxonomy

What all of this demonstrates to me is that wealth and affluence are different things. There are those who do not need to work, those who do need to work, those who lack the ability to work. But one's degree of poverty or affluence is a variable independent of one's ability or need to work for a living. My observation is that there are three classes of people – those who do not need to work for a living because of their association with (although not necessarily personal possession of) capital; those who exchange their labor for money in order to survive; and those who get what they need to live by way of governmental entitlements. This is a continuum, not a stratification. One might have access to capital but still either need or want to work for a living in order to secure cash flow. One might have a background of life "in the welfare system" but genuinely seek real employment.

What's more, within each of these three broad bands of ways of life, there are degrees of affluence and poverty. Some "capital-class" people live very affluent lives, some have kind of sketchy existences. As common experience for most of us shows, some people make better money at their jobs than others. And some people are very good at working the system and some are not so good at it.

So it's not right to say we have an "upper class," a "middle class," and a "lower class." Fussell's term "proletarian" was intended to reach people who do manual labor, construction trades, and the like, and do not enjoy wealth. But it is possible to make a reasonably handsome living turning a wrench, if you do it the right way and in the right place. It is possible to engage in a traditionally high-status profession like law, and only reap a meager income.

One's class is determined not by one's social status, education, or even income, but rather in how one's subsistence is derived. This is a function of heredity.

One's affluence is not determined by one's income, but rather by one's consumption. This is much more widely variable than might appear at first glance and Fussell's taxonomy is either outmoded or was never actually right. This is why I've put together a new chart, a two-dimensional taxonomy that examines consumption separately from the means by which consumption is made possible.

The result is something that to my mind looks a little bit like a map of the state of Tennessee. I have it that way because it seems to me that those within the capital class will only be allowed to fall so low by their fellow class members – wealthy family, well-off associates, and so on – and will probably not wind up in abject, grinding poverty no matter what. And I want to reflect that while it is possible for those who live mainly on entitlements to live affluent lives, this is actually a pretty rare phenomenon.

Both axes of this taxonomy are not intended to be broken down into discrete units. If I had more skill at graphics, I'd show the colors fading smoothly in to one another. The curves of the left and right sides, representing the extremes of affluence and poverty, are not ones I'm married to, particularly, although the general shape is, I think, correct. So I'll ask your indulgence, Reader, in imagining it drawn more proficiently than I have done here.

Government entitlements and subsidies may also be perceived in certain kinds of tax incentives – home ownership, for instance, is subsidized by the home mortgage interest deduction. I include those who are employed by the government in the "Labor Class" because they do, in fact, exchange their labor for money, and therefore have the same intellectual system of what skills and activities are valuable as those who pursue employment in the private sector. They have simply chosen to exchange their labor for the government's money rather than a private employer's money.

I've struggled as to how to classify Social Security in this taxonomy; people say, "But I earned Social Security," and the benefits are derived, in part, on how much of the SSI tax one has paid throughout one's lifetime. But Social Security is also used for disability regardless of what one has (putatively) paid in to the system and the system exists to ensure at least minimal survival-level income for everyone no matter what they've paid in. One's retirement income also comes from savings and investments. The right way to treat it, as I see it, is to place it somewhere in between "Labor Class" and "Entitlement Class"; on my crudely-drawn chart, those who live mainly on Social Security would be right about the line between those two. One would move up or down based on what kind of other income was coming in.

Finally, should note that capital-class people will only be allowed to fall to a certain depth on the affluence-poverty scale, while entitlement-class people do eventually face an upper limit on how far they can rise on that scale. That is why my chart looks, roughly, like a map of the state of Tennessee. That is designed to represent the fact that there are floors and ceilings that apply based on how one's sustenance is derived.

The big point of all this is to define wealth not as either net capital or the size of one's income stream, but rather in terms of consumption – and to separate that level of consumption from the manner in which that consumption is obtained.

January 13, 2011

Here It Is In Case You Were Waiting

The coolest scientific name for any creature anywhere. It is (drum roll):

Vampyroteuthis infernalis:

Vampyroteuthis infernalis is the scientific name for the vampire squid. This foot-long cephalopod takes its name from the red-and-black "cape" draped between its eight legs, thought to be useful in enveloping its prey before eating it. Science is really cool sometimes.

What A Migraine Looks Like

Many of my friends have not had migraines. Some, despite many years of hearing people complain of them, disbelieve that such things even exist and probably secretly wonder if complaints of migraines are malingering. Even if they accept the good faith of the migraine patient's complaints, they lack the experience to distinguish it from a simple (if intense) headache, and wonder why the sufferer cannot simply take some aspirin or other over-the-counter analgesic medication and go on about their day.

Aside from the nausea, a big distinguishing symptom of the migraine is subtly distortion of sense perception, which is called an "aura." The aura is usually the first signal that a migraine event has begun -- for me, I will see an aura an hour or two before the onset of the pain. This is called an "aura" and last night I stumbled upon a video that does a pretty good job of illustrating what an aura looks like:
I suppose some people have auras that manifest only in black and white; I perceive them in color and more often as parts of my vision upon which I cannot focus, so they seem to be blind spots. If you follow the video's instructions and look at things other than the aura, it remains in your peripheral vision. Other people report different kinds of sensory hallucinations -- my mother gets them, too, and she reports the smell of burned toast in the hours before the pain sets in. While one patient's exact kind of aura may be different from another's, the common thread of aura is hallucination.

The word "hallucination" sounds frightening, as though the migraine sufferer somehow departs from reality, in the manner of a mental illness like schizophrenia. The video should demolish that perception -- the migraine sufferer fully understands that what she sees is not a part of objective reality. Rather, it is frustrating in that the victim knows that her eyes are playing her false but she cannot solve that problem, and there is dread in knowing that intense pain is likely on its way.

The good news is, preventative steps can be taken when the aura is recognized for what it is; analgesics dull the pain and I have found that withdrawing from areas where there is a lot of light and loud noises will help. Getting a snack sometimes helps, too -- it seems to need both carbohydrate and protein to be effective.

The bad news is, there doesn't seem to be any discernible cause to the event; it can happen at any time and it's not always possible to medicate or alter one's behavior to cut off the oncoming event. Once the pain sets in, it can echo for days afterwards. So for you non-migraine people out there, be happy you don't get these. It's a real thing, it happens to a lot of people (even professional athletes) and it's not just a "bad headache" or an excuse to defer sex.

The Acne Of Middle Age

I've been coming home for lunches instead of eating at restaurants for about a week and a half. Part of it is that my usual lunch buddies are busy elsewhere, part is a desire to conserve financial resources. I didn't do it expecting to effect a significant drop in caloric intake. However, that seems to have happened. When we're out somewhere, lunch will often be something like a pasta dish, a Mexican entree, or a hot sandwich. Typically these days I heat up a can of soup and make a small salad, which is a somewhat smaller lunch than I would eat while out.

I may have lost a pound or two this way, I can't be entirely sure. My complaint is that this shift in eating habits seems to have produced a blossom of acne. Like the acne of puberty, middle-age acne seems to blossom while one sleeps, resulting in unsightly skin appearing in the morning. But unlike the acne of puberty, middle-age acne strikes all over the body instead of just around the face. It's annoying and unsightly.

There must be something in the soup or the salad dressing, which I'm eating more of, that is giving me this reaction. It probably isn't salt or MSG; I would expect that to be prevalent in restaurant food too. I wondered if it might be canola oil -- I'm eating a lot of salad dressing and that's the based of most dressings one buys in the store. But I would eat a fair amount of salads from restaurants too, and I have to imagine their dressings are also based on canola oil, since they come from foodservice providers who are functionally the same as the manufacturers of retail food products.

January 11, 2011

Time To Make Hard Choices

A report from the CSM about Governor Brown's budget proposal is almost unremittingly positive, particularly given its rather dismal subject matter. It makes me distrust the objectivity of the reporter. The devil is in the details, but the big picture is this:
  • $12.5 billion in spending cuts
  • $12 billion in increased taxes, 
  • $1.9 billion in "other solutions"

"Other solutions" sounds a lot like "eliminate fraud, waste, and corruption," which generates my usual response of, "Wow! Why didn't anyone think to do that before?" I say that despite my firm conviction that there actually is a lot of fraud, waste, and corruption out there to eliminate. It's just a lot harder to do that than it looks.

Much of what we might call "fraud" or "waste" is really the result of gaming the system -- which is formally compliant with the law and therefore in something of a gray zone. For instance, is it "fraud" for a police officer, after having attained a full vesting of retirement, to claim a disability and leave the service with full salary intact, and thereby getting both an ongoing salary and an ongoing pension? Would it change your perception of this maneuver if the disability has been a real, lingering issue (police work is quite hard on the lumbar spine, after all) and the officer has tolerated it for her career and then uses it strategically in this fashion? There's a fair amount of this sort of "double-dipping" going on, or so I'm told. Is this "fraud, waste, or corruption"? We want to call it that, but at the same time, the rules permit it. Do we want to begrudge our police officers a comfortable retirement after years of public service? Does closing this loophole really deny them that?

Later this morning, I'll go to court to do evictions. There, I will no doubt encounter more people who have spent all or nearly all of their lives deriving income solely from government entitlement and anti-poverty programs. I am not so conservative as to think that such programs should be abolished or to lose sight of the fact that there are people who use them as they were originally intended -- as helping hands up the economic ladder rather than as the economic foundation of a life.

But I am also not so liberal as to think that the programs are not being abused and that someone who is participating in those programs is automatically entitled to my sympathy and compassion -- and therefore my money. Many of them come to court dressed in better clothes than I wear (other than my suits) and drive better cars than I do. I'll eventually get around to fleshing out my "three classes, three wealths" idea, but suffice to say for write now, I write of people who are affluent members of the Third Class -- the people who know how to work the system and maximize their governmental benefits. Are they engaged in "fraud, waste, and corruption"?

I have lots of questions like these, but not really any answers, because I've been so frustrated by the institutionalized corruption that pervades California's government to the point that these sort of behaviors are not only tolerated but, as a functional matter, encouraged. It's been this way for so long it's hard to imagine it being otherwise and harder to imagine how the system could change. And even if I labor my imagination in this way, I cannot make it labor so hard as to think that a Democratic governor, no matter how pragmatic he may be, will convince a Legislature dominated by Democrats to do anything meaningful about this.

The other critique I have of the budget proposal, at least as writ large, is its functional parity between tax increases and spending cuts. This may be a political calculation on the Governor's part, intended to sell at least the basic concept of an austerity budget. But as I've pointed out previously, California's real problem -- despite all the economic stumbling blocks we've faced since mid-2008 -- is not one of insufficient revenue. While we aren't at the top of revenue per-capita among the various states, we're near the top. The problem is not that there isn't a tremendous amount of money coming in to the state government's coffers.

The problem is that the law commits such a large amount of money to be spent that even the generous revenues California earns cannot meet those commitments. This is what must change. And as I've said before, it's going to suck.

The good (if unpleasant) news is that the rubber does seem to finally be hitting the road. If the Monitor is to be believed, at least the Governor has really taken to heart the idea that it is long past time for business as usual to continue, that hard, unpopular choices must be made, and made this year.


Right around the holidays, American Atheists, Inc. used some of its money to rent space on a billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel connecting Weehawken, New Jersey to Manhattan. They put up this image for one month:
A Christian church didn't like this so much, so they responded in kind -- renting the same billboard space for the month following the AA billboard:
This was exactly the right thing for the Christian church to do -- the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech of your own. The church's message was peaceful, pointed, and positive. While I don't necessarily agree with the message, I fully recognize their right to have done what they did, and I have nothing but praise for the way they went about exercising their right of self-expression.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as content as I to stand back and let others say what they have to say. The Friendly Atheist reports that this is what the church's billboard looked like yesterday:

This is totally and absolutely unacceptable. This atheist condemns the vandalism of the church's billboard, unequivocally, and I invite other atheists to do the same.

Now, it's not certain that the vandal is an atheist, but I'll admit that the motive of expressing disagreement with the content of the billboard seems substantially more likely than any other motive one might reasonably posit. He needs to knock it off. He's making the rest of us look bad.

Those Christians at the Times Square Church have the same right of expression that atheists do (and that everyone else does too, for that matter). Their church is, fundamentally, a collection of people, people of good faith and good intentions, who engaged a public debate in an appropriate and positive way. They paid good money to rent that billboard. For the month that they rented it, the billboard was effectively their property to have done with as they please (within reasonable limits which they obviously respected).

For someone else to come along and alter their message this way, however crudely, is stealing from them. Theft is not an appropriate form of expression. It is a crime.

Here's hoping the crime is detected and prosecuted. Vandal, even if you are a fellow atheist, you'll get no love from me. At least, not until you grow a pair, turn yourself in to the police, and apologize for what you've done.