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Monday, June 29, 2009
NRO vs. "The Mob"
Well, it's another Monday, so let's see where the National Review -- America's beacon of liberty! -- is landing on the issues of the day:

After a long, embarrassed silence for most of the day, National Review Online finally weighed in on the Bernie Madoff sentence. You will recall that our Bernie got a 150-year sentence for running a multi-million-dollar, decades-long Ponzi scheme. But NRO's Eli Lehrer says that punishing the guy makes no sense whatsoever:

Putting Madoff in prison, of course, does nothing to protect society. He harmed people through the bloodless act of stealing their money. So long as he doesn’t start an investment firm — something that’s not going to happen — he’s no threat to society. Deterring future cons along the same lines as Madoff’s, of course, provides a pretty good reason to imprison Madoff. But a longer sentence seems unlikely to change the deterrence factor very much. No high-living investment manager wants to spend any time in prison and the certainty of any sentence for fraud provides sufficient deterrence. Nearly all sophisticated white-collar criminals operate on the basis that they are too smart to get caught.
Yes, no sense in punishing that silly "bloodless" white-collar crime! Hey, why even bother calling it crime? It's caveat emptor! Ramesh Ponnoru adds:

Weren't most of the victims rich investors who failed to do due diligence on too-good-to-be-true returns? And don't we suspect that some of them knew it was a Ponzi scheme but that they would be among the winners?

Of course! What investor wouldn't want to put his money in what he knew to be a crook's Ponzi scheme? Too bad Bush isn't still in the White House -- he'd probably be pinning the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Madoff's chest at this very moment.

Meanwhile, Ray Walser opines on the military overthrow of the democratically elected government in Honduras, an act which has been condemned by the OAS and the State department:

[T]he Obama administration is in a pickle. Utopians in the administration believe the Organization of American States, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, and the State Department can all work comfortably together to put Zelaya back in power and, thus, "defend democracy." But "Mad" Mel's penchant is for mob democracy. And realists fear a restoration to power would only produce vendetta politics and populism of the worst sort. A few souls in Washington are leery about promptly delivering Honduras into the eager hands of Hugo Chávez and company.

Warts and all, the U.S. should find a way to recognize that the new government of Honduras has preserved constitutional order and that Zelaya is the problem, not the solution.

"Mob democracy": what an interesting phrase! It is, of course, an oxymoron -- unless you happen to regard democracy, and a constitutional government, as itself a form of mob rule. That has certainly been the National Review's editorial policy for the last half-century.

They are not necessarily against democracy, as long as the mob -- er, excuse me, the people -- don't make the wrong choices.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The Ghost Road

Back in the mid-1990s I made the mistake of working for Book-of-the-Month Club in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. The Internet was still in its infancy then. Amazon.com had just recently launched and most Americans had never heard of it; in fact online shopping was still seen as a strange, perilous activity. If you wanted to buy something you would go to the store, or call an 800-number, or order through the mail.

BOMC was strictly a mail-order operation. You got a little card in the mail every month that told you what the main selection was. If you weren't interested in the main selection, you could choose from a list of alternates. If you forgot to send your card in, or sent it late, the main selection would be mailed to you automatically. So BOMC was not a good deal for people who were busy, or who frequented bookstores, or who knew what they wanted.

However, it was a good deal for certain types of people: shut-ins, mainly. Or people who lived in ghost towns of the southwest. Agoraphobes. Indecisive people. Transylvanian counts. Gatsbyesque characters who were into self-improvement. Residents of strict Islamic countries where access to porn was banned. People who would read anything. You get the idea.

You might think that Book-of-the-Month Club would be a bucolic, intellectually stimulating place to work, full of bookish, interesting people who delighted in ideas and wordplay and saw their business as an opportunity for service, a mission to bring literacy and enlightenment to the benighted provinces of the world.

You would be wrong.

In fact, BOMC was a wildly dysfunctional den of intrigue, paranoia and inefficiency. Most employees were dimwits and screwups; most managers were backbiting incompetents. The human resources department existed mainly to bamboozle sexually-harassed employees into believing that they had no rights under the law.

At one point a company vice-president was fired, and this was handled in much the same way that the Soviet Union might handle the firing of a senior official: the person in question simply vanished one day, and when people began asking questions about her whereabouts, the HR department grudgingly issued a terse statement saying that she had suddenly decided it was time for her to resign so that she could walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. There was a peculiar finality to that phrase, as if she had sent on a death march. She was erased from the photographs, she had ceased to be. She had become an unperson. Within the company we jokingly referred to people who'd been terminated as "walking the Appalachian Trail". It was a ghost road, a trail from which you never returned.

All this came back to me as I read the deeply weird story of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who has been missing since last Thursday after checking out an SUV from the state's law enforcement division. He told no one where he was going -- not his wife, not his security detail. After several days of mixed messages and conflicting stories, his staff announced that he had been "walking the Appalachian Trail", which after all these years sent shivers down my spine.

Good God, no. Not that. He has a wife and kids, you know.

Monday, June 22, 2009
Looking back now, it seems ironic that the day after the Iranian elections -- when it was clear that the government had rigged the results and the people took to the streets to protest -- there was little more than a few murmurs from the National Review Online's team blog, The Corner. In fact the longest response to the issue came from K-Lo, who linked to this post from Daniel Pipes:

[W]hile my heart goes out to the many Iranians who desperately want the vile Ahmadinejad out of power, my head tells me it's best that he remain in office. When Mohammed Khatami was president, his sweet words lulled many people into complacency, even as the nuclear weapons program developed on his watch. If the patterns remain unchanged, better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep, even as thousands of centrifuges whir away.

That seemed to be the consensus of the right at the time: bombing Iran is the objective, and Ahmadinejad would make it easier to achieve that objective than Mousavi.

But as the protests continued, and President Obama refused to inject the U.S. into the Iranian election controversy, the right wing clearly saw an opportunity. If the U.S. could be drawn directly into the Iranian elections, and made a primary stakeholder in the success of the protesters, then we would inexorably find ourselves committed to a policy of -- you guessed it! -- regime change! Whoo hoo! Doug Feith, call your office!

So now all that murmuring about Ahmadinejed being the better choice is no longer operative. Now we're getting teary-eyed, we-are-all-Iranians-now mawkishness, with a healthy dollop of dolchstoss thrown in for good measure:

The fact is that, as a man of the hard Left, Obama is more comfortable with a totalitarian Islamic regime than he would be with a free Iranian society. In this he is no different from his allies like the Congressional Black Caucus and Bill Ayers, who have shown themselves perfectly comfortable with Castro and Chàvez. Indeed, he is the product of a hard-Left tradition that apologized for Stalin and was more comfortable with the Soviets than the anti-Communists (and that, in Soros parlance, saw George Bush as a bigger terrorist than bin Laden).

I guess this is the latest iteration of the "liberal fascism" meme: now all repressive regimes are "liberal", even the fundamentalist theocratic ones. The logic here is so circuitous and distorted that it only makes sense within the right-wing media cocoon.

And I suspect it doesn't make a lot of sense there, either.

UPDATE: Apparently, Obama also supports the brutal theocrats in Tehran because he's secretly a Muslim!

While the mullahs may be "anti-American" as we understand that term, Obama doesn't think they would be resolutely anti the America that he intends to shape. I think he sincerely believes he could deal with the mullahs and make them less anti-American than they now are, once they realize how he is reversing a lot of what offends them (and him) about America.

I'm learning so much today.

Saturday, June 20, 2009
You FOOLS! That Machine You Are Building Will DESTROY You!
You can laugh. It's funny, and a bit poignant, to see this 1981 TV report about newspapers offering their content via home computer. It's clear that no one in the newsroom imagined that what they were building would eventually put them on the unemployment line and destroy their entire business model. But that's exactly what happened:

The movie Colossus: The Forbin Project explained these risks in great detail eleven years earlier. The inhabitants of 1981 can't say they weren't warned.

Aw, the hell with them.

Monday, June 15, 2009
A Cat Of The Right Color

For years, the brave new world of privatized municipal services has had the pulse rates of young conservatives pounding, but I have to admit it doesn't turn me on. As Deng Xiaoping famously said, it doesn't matter what color the cat is, as long as it catches mice.

But of course, the ideologue's corollary is that it doesn't matter what the hell the cat does, as long as it's a cat of the right color.

Thus I can understand the argument that privatizing some city services might result in lower cost and higher quality. For instance, privatizing trash collection could result in different companies ardently courting new customers by undercutting the competition’s prices and offering better service. It sounds reasonable.

In the real world, however, these benefits are limited, because competition can only do so much to reduce prices or increase efficiency on established services. I very much doubt that anyone pays less to the private trash hauler than they paid previously, when trash disposal was rolled into the nominal infrastructure fees that everyone paid -- sewer, water, and trash.

Nevertheless, there is an overarching -- though largely unexamined -- assumption that a private contractor is inherently more efficient than a public employee .

The most bone-headed example of service privatization has to be in the city of Chicago, where a private company was given a long-term lease on all municipal parking meters. The results have been disastrous:

The City Council approved the privatization plan swiftly in December, despite complaints from some aldermen.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC hired local parking garage operating firm LAZ to collect the money from the city's 36,000 meters. As part of the deal, rates skyrocketed to a quarter for 15 minutes in many neighborhoods when it had been a quarter per hour, and as much as a quarter for 5 minutes downtown.

The rates are set to go up every year through 2013, by which point parking for an hour downtown will require 26 quarters.

Free parking on Sundays and holidays was abolished, and meters also must now be fed overnight downtown.

Many meters broke, and drivers complained that the signage with the new rates was not posted or legible, so that motorists got tickets when they thought they were parked legally.

Frustration with the jacked up new meter rates led to blocks of empty parking meters, and in some neighborhoods, meters were vandalized.

This result was entirely predictable, because privatizing parking meters doesn’t benefit anyone except the company that got the contract. Competition won’t increase efficiency or lower prices, because Chicago Parking Meters LLC holds a monopoly.

You might argue that the city government had a monopoly too, but there is a big difference: elected officials are accountable to the people. Chicago Parking Meters LLC isn't.

So now the citizens of Chicago have the worst of both worlds: they get to pay through the nose at a parking meter that is more likely than not malfunctioning, or improperly labeled, yet they have no way to redress the problem. Chicago Parking Meters LLC is not beholden to anyone. Presumably unhappy citizens could bring their concerns to the city council when CPM's contract is up for renewal.

Unfortunately, that won't be for another 75 years.

I'm sure conservatives will offer the horse-sense alternative they always do: if you don't like the prices, don't park at a parking meter.

After all, the meters belong to CPM LLC. Right?

From their lips, to the market god's ear.

Saturday, June 13, 2009
Tracking The Tehran Protests

As the evidence mounts that Iran's two most powerful groups -- the military and the theocracy -- conspired to rig last week's election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, street violence has exploded across Tehren. Rafsanjani is reported to have resigned his posts in protest and Mousavi is apparently under house arrest. There's a lot happening right now, but the MSM is curiously low-key about it. The blogosphere is all over it, though; Juan Cole, TPM and Andrew Sullivan offer the best coverage right now. TPM offers a remarkable slide show of events on the ground; check it out.

Right-Wing Extremism? Never Heard Of It
A lot of crazy things have been said by the right in the wake of the James Von Brunn shooting at the Holocaust Museum, but the award for batshit craziest goes to our old friend Andrew Breitbart. Congratulations, amigo!

According to Breitbart, Von Brunn was:

[A] multiculturalist just like the black studies and the lesbian studies majors on college campuses.

A multiculturalist! Yup, the right wing has doubled down on Jonah Goldberg's "liberal fascism" trope. We now learn that there is no such thing as violent right-wing extremism. Violent extremism, you see, is entirely a construct of the left.

You might find this baffling, because you've read The Turner Diaries and you always felt it was safe to assume that a violent overthrow of the government and its Jewish puppet-masters, in response to an attempted ban on firearms and the force-feeding of multiculturalist nonsense to the white population, which leads to wholesale extermination of not only the Jews but a whopping 75% of the world's population in order to bring about an all-white planet, would emerge from the right, not the left.

But you would be wrong. The Turner Diaries was written by William Pierce, a close associate of Comrade Van Brunn -- more evidence that The Turner Diaries was a lefty tract!

Apparently the right has at least one thing in common with the Nazis: they know that if you tell a lie often enough people will begin to believe it, no matter how big a lie it is.

Maybe I Took The Wrong Lesson From That Book

One book that had a profound influence on me as a kid was The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Ray. Written in the mid-60s, it told the story of Rex, a pet robot who belongs to the family of a young boy named Paul. The family is living in a settlement on Ganymede, and when they are recalled to Earth, they are forced to leave poor Rex behind. But Rex and Paul conspire to make it back to Earth together, and they hatch a plot to be reunited.

What really struck me about the book was its tragic ending. Just when it appears that Paul and Rex's plot will succeed, Rex is caught by authorities on Earth as he's searching for Paul. The last thing Rex tells us is how he is literally backed into a corner, and he must watch as a policeman reaches toward him, pushing his "off" button, and watching the world plunge into darkness.

I thought of this ending from time to time through the years, wondering that a kid's book would have such a downbeat ending. It seemed to me that the book was saying something important about life; that tragedy can strike at any moment, that the good guys don't always win. And that it's important for kids to know these truths because they can't be shielded from them.

A few years ago I found a copy online (God bless Alibris!) and when it arrived I had mixed emotions. I wanted to read the book again, but I wasn't sure if it would hold up as well as it did in my memory.

Well, it held up pretty well, up until the end. That's when I realized that the last page had been missing from the copy I had read as a kid. In a dizzyingly fast epilogue, Paul's family discovers his location and switches him back on. They are delighted to be reunited with him and promise that the family will never again be separated. And they live happily ever after.

I liked my ending better.

Saturday, June 06, 2009
There You Go Again

Both TPM and Matt Yglesias have noted the cover of the latest issue of National Review, which features a crude caricature of Sonia Sotomayor as a Buddhist monk -- or perhaps she's supposed to be the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama. It isn't clear, and the headline ("The Wise Latina") doesn't make a lot of sense when paired with the artwork.

Putting Sotomayor on the cover of the magazine was clearly going to be a problem for NR. Juvenile caricature is what passes for humor in conservative publications; nevertheless, depicting Sotomayor as a loud-mouthed, menudo-eating Puerto Rican cleaning lady probably would create more problems than the magazine could handle.

Lowry and company apparently decided that depicting her as an Asian was the next best option. It allowed the NR to yuk it up over a religious and ethnic stereotype (foolish, slanty-eyed pagan!) without directly attacking her religion (she's Catholic) or ethnicity (she's Latina).

I guess the cover doesn't bother me that much because broad ethnic and religious stereotypes have been NR's stock-in-trade from the beginning. Remove the crude caricatures from the magazine's 50+ year history, and all you'd have left would be a few pounds of chemicals.

Thursday, June 04, 2009
Obama Praises Israel, Criticizes Palestinians; Right Wing Goes Bonkers
Oh, that Barack Obama. He made a speech in Cairo. Did he praise Israel effusively enough? Not according to Ira Stoll. But of course, that's not possible:
Even when Obama was trying to be nice to Israel, he was tone deaf: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” he said. The missing words were those usually present in such passages about shared democratic values and strategic interests.

The horror! The horror!

And not only did he fail to praise Israel effusively enough, he also -- gulp! -- acknowledged that the Palestinians may have legitimate grievances:

The sections about the Palestinian Arabs were even weaker. He said of the Palestinians: “For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.” This buys into the claim that it was 1948, not 1967, that was the original tragedy for the Palestinian Arabs, and feeds the idea that the Palestinian Arabs have a claim to all of Israel, not just the West Bank and Gaza.

So Obama should have told the Palestinians it's all their fault and they should get over it?


And who would hear this speech and decide that Obama was saying that the Palestinians had a legitimate claim to "all of Israel"? Besides Ira Stoll, I mean?

Then he said, “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.”

This places the Palestinian Arabs as the victims, equating their plight to that of enslaved American blacks, Poles subjected to Communist tyranny, or blacks under apartheid.

Many conservative commentators have been taking this line - deriding Obama's speech as exhibiting "moral equivalence" -- how can Obama say that the grievances of the Palestinians have as much weight as the Holocaust? How can he say that the Palestinian situation is morally equivalent to slavery, or communist oppresion?

The short answer is, he isn't saying that. What he's doing here is acknowledging that the Palestinians also have grievances, and that they also might be legitimate. It isn't necessary that you think those grievances are morally equivalent to the Holocaust or slavery. Trust me, the Palestinians see it that way. You may think it's absurd or foolish -- I certainly do. But that's how they feel.

Acknowledging their frustration and their pain costs you nothing, and it opens the possibility that they will actually listen to what comes next. Which was this:

It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

And that statement goes hand-in-hand with another thought: throughout history, oppressed groups that have sought to have their grievances addressed through violent means always fail. However, oppressed groups that make their demands peacefully are far more likely to succeed. So Obama is really offering two reasons for the Palestinians to abandon violent tactics -- one moral, and one practical.

I don't know if the Palestinians have considered this before. It may be the first time, and it may take a while before they consider it seriously.

This is a long game Obama is playing. It probably will not bear fruit during his administration. But sooner or later - if we're patient enough - it will.

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