January 2010 Notebook
Index
Latest

2014
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2013
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2012
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2011
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2010
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2009
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2008
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2007
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2006
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2005
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2004
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2003
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2002
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2001
  Dec
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb

Saturday, January 31, 2009

More Killers

Thinking about yesterday's post, I came up with a few more things to say about assassination policies.

One thing that's notable about Israel is that the program of targeted assassinations against Palestinian leaders took off right after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jew. Rabin's assassin wasn't what we'd call a "lone madman"; he was the all-but-inevitable response to a public campaign by right-wing rabbis calling for Rabin's blood. The campaign worked so well that Rabin's party and successor lost the following election, allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to take power and substantially wreck the Oslo Peace Process. In other words, assassination worked, both for its immediate intentions and as a warning to any future Israeli politicians who might be tempted to "give land for peace." So it's little wonder that Israelis see assassination as effective policy.

Of course, assassinations go way back in Israeli history, all the way to Israel's founding war in 1948 when UN mediator Folke Bernadotte and UN observer André Serot were assassinated by future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Lehi organization. While Israel likes to talk about all the "terrorists" they've knocked off, the occupation of peacemaker has proven every bit as precarious.

One can only speculate as to how much historical impact Israeli assassinations have had, although at a bare minimum they have often served as pretexts for further killing. And it should be obvious by now that the idea that Israel can subdue Palestinian resistance by decapitating its leaders is impossible folly. Rabin is a trickier case: on the one hand, he was extremely cynical in his Oslo machinations -- shaking hands with Arafat while at the same time continuing to grow the settlements that produced his killer. Still, no subsequent Israeli politician has risked even going as far as Rabin promised toward trading "land for peace." It is easy to imagine anyone trying to follow in Rabin's footsteps meeting the same fate.


As it happens, Israel evidently managed to kill Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh a few days ago, committing the murder in Dubai, one of the Arab countries Israel has had relatively friendly relations with. For more details and analysis, see Paul Woodward: Hamas to Israel. This sort of thing should be deeply embarrassing and discrediting, but with Israel in this age of shoot first, talk never, it's likely to be taken as business as usual. No doubt you can even find someone to call you antisemitic if you doubt Israel's right to murder their enemies in foreign countries.


One more thing that occurs to me: it is striking how opposite the US Bill of Rights is to counterterrorism dogma, but it should not be surprising. The Bill of Rights was written as much as anything to express Americans' disgust with British Occupation. Nearly every specific right contrasts explicitly with British policy in attempting to suppress rebellion. British Occupation law evolved somewhat over the following century-and-a-half, up to the legal system Britain used to rule over Palestine, which Israel kept pretty much intact, also to rule over Palestine. But the essential policies were recognized early and maintained to the end of the Empire, basically because the British never found anything that worked better. The word "terrorist" is a relatively recent invention, but as William R. Polk shows in Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, the revolt that led to the Bill of Rights had all the markings of the insurgency Israel has struggled to put down for more than 60 years.

We've lost track of this because we've lost track of the rights our nation was founded on. And this has happened less because fascist-leaning politicians like to pick on the Bill of Rights than because we've increasingly come to identify with occupation regimes -- such as we are running in Iraq and Afghanistan, and such as our model and hero Israel. This is the essential background for Glenn Greenwald: Nostalgia for Bush/Cheney radicalism. It seems ironic that Greenwald should wax nostalgic for Ronald Reagan's recognition of legal restraints during a period when there was arguably more terrorism around the world than we have now -- especially given all the laws Reagan broke in the Iran-Contra affair. But Greenwald is right that Obama is producing a far more egregious record. The difference is that Obama inherited a couple of failing occupations, and conventional counterinsurgency theory depends on trampling precisely those rights that our Constitution is based upon.

How far we've sunk since Reagan, as documented here, is troubling, but even more so is Greenwald's insistence that Obama has gone even further astray from constitutional principles than Bush/Cheney did. Part of this can be chalked up to heckling from the idiot gallery, as in the notion that we're coddling terrorists by putting them on trial. Part is no doubt the inertia of a state that for the last eight years has primarily been shaped around the selection pressures of occupying hostile countries. But still we're left with the real question of whether Obama's abdication of the principles behind our Bill of Rights reflects his lack of will or his lack of interest. Both prospects are troubling.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Killers in America

Glenn Greenwald: Presidential assassinations of U.S. citizens: I don't normally pay a lot of attention to lawyers who get all worked up over how Bush (and now Obama) trample the constitution allegedly to keep us safe from the terrorists that American policies work so hard to motivate, but for some reason this article struck a nerve. I'm bothered not merely by a hit list to take out American citizens, although the constitution is pretty explicit in that case -- look for the words "due process" and pay some attention to everything that surrounds it. Equally bothersome is the hit list to take out foreigners. I suppose that if you had a Congressional declaration of war -- which we don't -- that would be constitutional, but it wouldn't be any more justifiable. I find it difficult to think of any circumstances where the any state would be justified in assassinating anyone -- your own citizens or foreigners.

Not too long ago most Americans agreed with that. Certainly we've had more than our share of politically significant murders. (In fact, a jury just convicted one such murderer this week here in Wichita, something that was handled with constitutional due process, as opposed to, say, obliterating the terrorist's car with a Hellfire missile.) We had also seemed to learn a lesson that having our government going around trying to kill foreign politicos was either embarrassing (as in the Kennedys' obsession with Castro) or worse (cf. Vietnam, Chile, Indonesia). Nor did we appreciate it when the guy we empowered in Chile started blowing up people in Washington, DC. Until 9/11 and Bush, it was illegal for US presidents to order assassinations; now it's in vogue.

What happened? One part of it is the neocons' Israel envy. Israel has practiced "targeted assassination" for many years now, and they've gotten increasingly sloppy about collateral damage. (Whereas once they took out an enemy with a booby-trapped telephone, nowadays they think nothing about dropping a couple of 1,000 lb. bombs on a house full of children.) But it's also just sunk deep into the culture, almost casually so. I'm reading David Neiwert's The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, and he has plenty of examples -- like Ann Coulter wishing Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times instead of that federal building in Oklahoma City, or urging us to invade Arab countries and kill their leaders. (This was back in 2001, before we actually did just that, so it's hard to laugh her off as a humorist.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Affordable Speech

Glenn Greenwald: What the Supreme Court Got Right: Interesting piece on last week's Supreme Court money-speech ruling. Greenwald is more sanguine than I am: partly because he thinks of himself as a free speech fundamentalist, partly because he regards the issue of corporate personhood (which he admits misgivings to) as separate, but mostly because he regards the ruling as equitable -- e.g., it allows unlimited advocacy from unions as well as corporations. Whether or not the latter is in principle true, one thing you can be sure of is that the right-wingers on the court who wrote the ruling recognize that the practical effects will not be balanced. They want corporate political dominance, because they regard it as advancing their personal political beliefs. Same thing basically happened when the FTC dropped the fairness doctrine. In principle, that would have allowed all those left-wing radio station owners to stack the deck in their favor, but it turns out that radio and television stations and networks are owned by people like Rupert Murdoch and corporations like Clear Channel instead. The other point worth singling out here is that Greenwald is right that corporate political dominance is here already, even before this ruling: he compares the net effect to North Korea passing a new law to become more tyrannical. On the other hand, I've found that we do tend to take these things lightly, to our detriment. What bothers me so much about the ruling isn't its immediate impact so much as the roadblock it sets up against ever bringing corporate interests under public control. One thing that should be clear if only you pay a bit of attention is that the right-wing think tanks are not only plotting their moves to take power, they're plotting their retreat to make it that much harder to take back common ground.

Glenn Greenwald: The Sanctity of Military Spending: Newspaper headline this morning is that Obama will propose some sort of freeze on "non-security discretionary spending" in his State of the Union address. Needless to say, this idea is stupid, stupid, stupid. It's stupid because it ignores the fact that the economy has fallen down and can't get up -- indeed, the federal government should be spending more than planned, not less. But it's also stupid because almost all of the money that government is wasting these days is in the security sector: specifically, in the Department of Defense.

Tom Engelhardt: Our Wars Are Killing Us: Coincidentally, this piece came out today, not just on Pentagon waste but on the broader, deeper costs of it all.


Many more comments on Obama's budget debacle today, including this: Paul Krugman: Obama Liquidates Himself:

A spending freeze? That's the brilliant response of the Obama team to their first serious political setback?

It's appalling on every level.

It's bad economics, depressing demand when the economy is still suffering from mass unemployment. Jonathan Zasloff writes that Obama seems to have decided to fire Tim Geithner and replace him with "the rotting corpse of Andrew Mellon" (Mellon was Herbert Hoover's Treasury Secretary, who according to Hoover told him to "liquidate the workers, liquidate the farmers, purge the rottenness.")

It's bad long-run fiscal policy, shifting attention away from the essential need to reform health care and focusing on small change instead.

And it's a betrayal of everything Obama's supporters thought they were working for. Just like that, Obama has embraced and validated the Republican world-view -- and more specifically, he has embraced the policy ideas of the man he defeated in 2008. A correspondent writes, "I feel like an idiot for supporting this guy."

Back in 2008, I would have sworn that one thing that America in general and Democrats especially learned from eight years of Clinton sacrificing his platform on the altar of a balanced budget, only to have Bush piss it all away in record time and by record margins, was to never again sacrifice ourselves just to make some -- as Clinton put it -- "fucking bond traders" happy. This is so wrong on so many levels it's hard to see how anyone can ever care about Obama again.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 16292 [16275] rated (+17), 792 [785] unrated (+7). Made a small bit of progress on Jazz CG, but found myself in a deep hole with the deadline for updating the Willie Nelson piece for Rolling Stone, so spent most of the week crawling out of that. Terrible fucking week. Glad it's over.

  • Willie Nelson: Legends of the Grand Ole Opry (1964-67 [2008], Time/Life): "Nashville was the hardest" not for lack of songs or voice, but maybe charisma, which Nelson found in Austin; nothing here he didn't do better in the studio, often in demos licensed so loosely you can find them in dozens of competing cheapo product. B
  • Willie Nelson: Naked Willie (1966-70 [2009], RCA/Legacy): Pooh on Chet Atkins, as Nelson finally gets the chance to offer his own mixes, shorn of the string and choral treacle Atkins so loved; limiting is that they could only work on multitrack masters which appeared in the latter half of Nelson's RCA tenure, so these aren't his best songs, and sometimes he sings too forcefully once the competing dreck is removed; conversely, back on 1965's Country Willie: His Own Songs the songs songs and singer were so great not even Atkins could ruin them. B+(**)
  • Willie Nelson: It Always Will Be (2004, Lost Highway): Three originals, the title song as simple and indelible as Nelson gets; a couple by other Nelsons and some choice filler, including a drinking song that claims "I've been thrown into better places than this"; three duets, with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams attesting to Nelson's star power. B+(***)
  • Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws and Angels (2004, Lost Highway): Friends include Al Green, Ben Harper, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Holmes Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Kid Rock, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Toby Keith, and (most important) Merle Haggard; they do what they do, and have a good time doing it. B+(**)
  • Willie Nelson: Countryman (1995-2004 [2005], Lost Highway): Ganja on the cover, but Nelson's reggae album is played straight, with two Jimmy Cliff songs and one duet with Toots Hibbert the seeds for the usual delightful riddims; the idea seems to be to cross one of Nelson's songs over like Toots did to "Country Roads"; pleasant enough, but none of the songs here catches a fire, much less inhales. B
  • Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006, Lost Highway): Walker wrote some 500 songs, hits for everyone from Bing Crosby to Mickey Gilley, with Bob Wills recording more than 50; if you don't know her, you probably don't know who Fred Rose is either, but you should still recognize the title song, if not from Eddy Arnold then from Ray Charles; I recognize most of the songs, and Nelson sweeps them all. A-
  • Willie Nelson: Songbird (2006, Lost Highway): A Ryan Adams album with a better singer, but Adams' indistinct rock backdrop provides more grout than structure; Nelson wanders over a soundscape where even his own songs seem like strangers, the sole find being Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," ending as "Sad Songs and Waltzes" turns into a gloomy Adams-arranged "Amazing Grace." B
  • Willie Nelson: One Hell of a Ride (1954-2007 [2008], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): The third or fourth "career spanning" box of Nelson's still unfinished career, and definitely not the last given that he's released one great album (Willie and the Wheel in 2009) and several good ones since the cutoff date, but at age 75 this sets the standard. The package is slim but the booklet runs 96 pages, with all the pictures you'll ever need, and more credits than you usually get. The songs pick their way through the years, not an obvious canon but plenty of fond memories, and less obvious ones that get by as Nelson so often does, with charm and a golden voice. A
  • Willie Nelson: Moment of Forever (2008, Lost Highway): The guest catalyst this time is Kenny Chesney, who duets on one song, co-wrote another, and co-produced the set, not that he actually adds much; in the end an average Nelson album, with Nelson borrowing more than he writes, his Randy Newman cover welcome and his Bob Dylan all but inevitable. B+(*)
  • Willie Nelson: Lost Highway (2002-08 [2009], Lost Highway): Nelson's signing to Universal's alt-Nashville label seemed promising, but his seven years there produced a mixed bag, with a couple of superb vintage country sets and a maddening mess of bad ideas -- guest duets, reggae, Ryan Adams; the good albums yield good cuts, the not-so-good ones don't, and four unreleaseds just confuse, from the gender-crossing "Cowboys Are Frequently Fond of Each Other" to the homophobic "Ain't Going Down on Brokeback Mountain"; go figure. B
  • Willie Nelson: Stardust (Legacy Edition) (1976-90 [2008], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Nelson's 1978 album of venerable Tin Pan Alley standards marked his emergence as a great interpretive singer, and was his bestseller to boot; the first disc doesn't tamper with the short original 10-cut package, so it remains as pristine as ever; the bonus cherry picks 16 similar cuts from 9 albums, a little more scattered, but better as a whole than his occasional more explicit returns to the Stardust formula. A-
  • Willie Nelson: American Classic (2009, Blue Note): A return to Stardust territory, vintage standards elegantly swung and sung, with Lewis Nash anchoring the mainstream band; Diana Krall and Norah Jones join for duets, the latter warming up "Baby It's Cold Outside." B+(*)

Also added grades for remembered LPs from way back when:

  • Willie Nelson/Roger Miller: Old Friends (1982, Columbia): based on twofer including Willie Nelson/Faron Young: Funny How Time Slips Away ([1999], Koch). A-

No Jazz Prospecting

I know, this is getting ridiculous. Got a request last week to update my Rolling Stone Album Guide piece on Willie Nelson, and foolishly said, "sure." Turns out there are something like 16 Nelson albums since I wrote the original piece in 2003, more or less while the Bushwacking of Iraq got started: I remember going back and forth between Fela Kuti piece and my Another Day in Infamy post. I can't find a good up-to-date account of the war costs, but between Iraq and Afghanistan, it works out to close to 5,000 US soldiers dead, 40,000 injured, several hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed, several million displaced; over one trillion dollars allocated for the wars, which will wind up costing more than three trillion once you factor in the future costs; and all sorts of other ridiculous side effects -- possibly including the financial meltdown, which was caused by the same geniuses who dreamed up the war, and maybe whatever global warming has in store for us, which I'll chalk up to opportunity costs even though it's not clear who else knew better.

Jazz Prospecting will return next week, for sure. Whether Jazz CG will be done by then is less certain. The big thing I am hoping to finally get done this week is the kitchen project, which has dragged on even longer. But right now I have all of the missing pieces. Some are not in the right places, and some are not the right color, but all that seems doable. Jazz CG seems doable as well, despite my recent lack of performance. Willie Nelson, at least, is done.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bernanke

Needless to say, Ben Bernanke was an improvement over Alan Greenspan, whom he replaced as chairman of the Federal Reserve, although much of that was just the relief of seeing a new face. Greenspan never deserved the reverence he cultivated, which is part of the reason his reputation collapsed so completely when his bubble burst. But Bernanke came into power the same way Greenspan did: as a senior economic adviser to a far right Republican president, promising to be a hawk against inflation. Fighting inflation -- which ever since 1980 has meant keeping wages down; it certainly has nothing to do with the prices of oil, medicine, or education -- was his game plan, and while it became pointless in a severe recession you have to figure it will again be his game plan as soon as conditions warrant -- e.g., unemployment drops to a point where workers start to have some job options.

So why did Obama nominate Bernanke for a second term? That he behaved less egregiously than Hank Paulson during the bank meltdown wasn't much of a reason. He is, after all, a respected academic, whereas Paulson was not just a businessman but an icon of the same greed that caused the crisis. Still, Bernanke got way too much credit for pulling us back from "the brink of the abyss" -- the phrase that was endlessly repeated -- and he even started basking in his own Greenspan-like cult of adulation. At one point, Paul Krugman exclaimed "thank God for Ben Bernanke"; before long, the list of econobloggers who endorsed a second term extended as far left as Dean Baker. Still, it wasn't Krugman and Baker who moved Obama to nominate Bernanke. More likely he saw it as a way to reassure the banks that nothing much will change after the crisis runs its course. Moreover, it seemed like a safe non-partisan gesture to the Republicans Obama thought he could woo (or at least reason with).

Still, I never liked the idea of keeping Bernanke on. As Bush appointments went, Bernanke was one of the least worst. (Back when his arrogance was flying full staff, you could imagine Bush handing the job over to someone like Phil Gramm.) I don't doubt that whoever holds the job should focus primarily on keeping the financial system stable and viable, and that means profitable, but lurching between bubble and bust doesn't seem like a very good way of doing that. Moreover, there is a big difference between keeping banks profitable and maximizing their profits, since the latter is often at the expense of everyone else. I'm a believer in the notion of countervailing power, so what I'd like to see is a Fed chairman who can pull against the worst instincts of the bankers, and who can provide some balance of other interests at the table: most importantly now, someone who cares about the plight of unemployed and underemployed workers. There is no reason to think that Bernanke would fill that bill.

We're finally seeing some politicians and pundits having second thoughts on Bernanke:

Matthew Yglesias: Maybe Ben Bernanke Is a Conservative Republican: Starts quoting Noam Scheiber wondering why Bernanke doesn't "show a little more savvy" by responding to popular rage against the banks, then goes on to explain:

I think a lot of apparently mysterious things about Ben Bernanke's career can be solved if you just assume that Ben Bernanke is doing things that a conservative Republican would do because he is a conservative Republican. For example, remember when conservative Republican George W Bush was president and made Ben Bernanke chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors? And remember when Bush put Ben Bernanke in charge of the Fed? And remember when Ben Bernanke didn't see the underlying problems in the financial system? But remember how, in a moment of crisis, Bernanke did turn out to believe in forceful government intervention on behalf of financial institutions and asset owners? And that time when, having stabilized asset markets, Bernanke stopped caring about unemployment and wages? And then, of course, there was the time Bernanke opposed the creation of an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck. As Paul Krugman says Bernanke "is a great economist" and he's acting just how you would expect a great economist to act, were he a conservative Republican. The only thing that's weird about this is why Barack Obama, who's not a conservative Republican, would appoint him to the single most important domestic policy job in the country.

Paul Krugman: The Bernanke Conundrum: Krugman has always been very flattering to Bernanke, whom he seems to regard as a friend -- Bernanke was chairman of Princeton's economics department when Krugman was hired there -- as well as a distinguished colleague. Still, he expresses some concerns:

The second is that since the acute phase of the crisis came to an end, and especially since his renomination, Bernanke has seemed out of touch with the severe problems that remain. He hasn't engaged in any self-criticism, at a time when we really need to know that policymakers can learn from their mistakes. He hasn't been a strong voice for financial reform. And most important from my point of view, he has seemed deeply worried about defending himself against the inflation hawks, not at all concerned with the question of whether the Fed is doing all it should to fight catastrophically high unemployment. (It isn't).

As I see it, the two things that worry me about Bernanke stem from the same cause: to a greater degree than I had hoped, he has been assimilated by the banking Borg. In 2005, respectable central bankers dismissed worries about a housing bubble, ignoring the evidence; in the winter of 2009-2010, respectable central bankers are worried about nonexistent inflation rather than actually existing unemployment. And Bernanke, alas, has become too much of a respectable central banker.

Calculated Risk: On Bernanke's Reconfirmation: Starts with some links noting increasing resistance to confirming Bernanke for a second term, then sums up:

Bernanke definitely supported policies that contributed to the crisis, and he failed to see the problems coming. However once Bernanke started to understand the problem, he was very effective at providing liquidity for the markets.

But since his renomination, he hasn't done himself any favors. He has admitted the Fed failed as a regulator, but he hasn't explained why -- or outlined a clear path forward. And Bernanke keeps saying really dumb things, like claiming incorrectly to have an exploding adjustable rate mortgage. That was an ignorant remark considering his position as Fed Chairman and the plight of so many Americans. And quoting a bank robber in testimony to Congress when addressing the long term deficit (suggesting Congress steal from middle class Americans?), and this right after he claimed he wouldn't comment on areas outside of the Fed's authority. Dumb.

One thing I'm struck by here is that even if Bernanke was exceptionally, extraordinarily "effective at providing liquidity for the markets" when it was most needed -- if, in other words, we were just plain lucky to have him in office at the time, that in itself doesn't make him the right person to run the Fed for the next four years. That's a fairly common logical fallacy, a variation of which was long ago dubbed the Peter Principle ("every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence"). Or, at Matt Zeitlin puts it:

The best positive case for Bernanke is that he did a good job when shit hit the fan. Which is true, but sort of irrelevant. The question is whether or not he should continue to be Fed chairman, not whether he should get a merit badge for his actions during the crisis.

The reasonable assumption here is that given another term Bernanke will revert to type, which means he will be tight with money to fight inflation and insensitive to joblessness, which is a much truer gauge of recession than what bank profit statements and stock market indexes show.


Of course, the political calculus is bizarre at this point. It's unlikely that enough Democrats would revolt to stop Bernanke if he had Republican support, but with Republicans opposing Obama at every turn, a left-right combination could work, especially if it only takes 41 votes. On the other hand, the Republicans could fillibuster any more progressive candidate -- if, indeed, Obama had any inclination to nominate one. Still, opposing Bernanke is a good talking point. Obama might be better off with the Republicans stonewalling a better candidate than trying to rationalize giving them this gift.

For more on the politics, see Yglesias.

Friday, January 23, 2009

2009 Pazz & Jop/Meta File Analysis

The Village Voice's 2009 Critics Poll is out. A week ago I compared the 2008 results to my metafile projection, so I should do the same for 2009 now. The big difference between my metafile this year and last year's is that I sampled many more year-end lists this year. One measure of this is that the winner count this year is 224, vs. 41 last year. The correlation was actually better last year. The probable reason is that most of the extra counts come from bloggers who most likely deviate from critics in certain uniform ways: I'm guessing they're younger and play fewer records; what I'm sure of is that they're more narrowly into alt-rock. Even, I should say, since Chuck Eddy observes that the poll critics themselves are more like that than ever before.

Let's start off with a table of the top 50 records from my metafile, listed in metafile rank order. The two numbers on the right are the P&J poll rank and the ratio of the two ranks: anything less than 1.0 did better on P&J, anything greater did worse.

1.Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)22.000
2.Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)10.500
3.Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (Warp)62.000
4.Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino)51.250
5.Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz (Interscope/DGC/Dress Up)40.800
6.The XX: XX (XL)71.167
7.Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti-)30.429
8.St Vincent: Actor (4AD)121.500
9.Girls: Album (True Panther/Matador)101.111
10.The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)171.700
11.Passion Pit: Manners (Frenchkiss)363.273
12.Fever Ray: Fever Ray (Mute)131.083
13.The Antlers: Hospice (Frenchkiss)513.923
 The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner)90.692
15.Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)211.400
16.Japandroids: Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)332.063
17.Raekwon: Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. 2 (Ice H2O)80.471
18.Bat for Lashes: Two Suns (Astralwerks)231.278
19.Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown)110.579
20.Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career (4AD)301.500
 The Decemberists: Hazards of Love (Capitol)291.450
22.The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (Columbia)150.682
 Florence and the Machine: Lungs (Island)683.091
 Metric: Fantasies (Metric International)522.364
25.Atlas Sound: Logos (Kranky)502.000
26.Mastodon: Crack the Skye (Warner Bros)180.692
27.Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (Fat Possum)813.000
28.Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport (ATP)391.393
29.The Horrors: Primary Colours (XL)652.241
30.Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3 (Roc Nation)270.900
31.Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador)200.645
32.Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)581.813
33.Micachu & the Shapes: Jewellery (Rough Trade)381.152
34.Wild Beasts: Two Dancers (Domino)1474.324
35.Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Drag City)561.600
36.Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)772.139
37.Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You (Capitol)220.595
 Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (Domino)2075.595
 The Dead Weather: Horehound (Third Man/Warner Bros)280.757
 Dinosaur Jr: Farm (Jagjaguwar)481.297
41.Antony and the Johnsons: The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)260.634
 Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La)691.683
43.Future of the Left: Travels with Myself and Another (4AD)671.558
 Regina Spektor: Far (Sire)892.070
 Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador)400.930
44.Dan Deacon: Bromst (Carpark)851.932
45.Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)420.933
46.La Roux: La Roux (Cherry Tree)1463.174
 U2: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)320.696
48.Doom: Born Like This (Lex)440.917
49.Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon: The End of Day (Universal Motown)1012.061
50.Baroness: Blue Record (Relapse)190.380
 Converge: Axe to Fall (Epitaph)240.480
 Neon Indian: Psychic Chasms (Lefse)1122.240

Animal Collective beating out Phoenix wasn't unexpected. I didn't do any weighting, but had I done so Animal Collective would have easily finished on top: of the lists that I did keep rank info on, Animal Collective won 15 vs. 3 for Phoenix. More on this later, but first let's track the major movements.

The biggest drops from my Meta list are: Arctic Monkeys (207/37: 5.595), Wild Beasts (147/34: 4.324), The Antlers (51/13: 3.923), Passion Pit (36/11: 3.273), La Roux (146/46: 3.174), Florence and the Machine (68/22: 3.091), Andrew Bird (81/27: 3.000), Metric (52/22: 2.364), The Horrors (65/29: 2.241), Neon Indian (112/50: 2.240), Regina Spektor (89/43: 2.070), Sunset Rubdown (77/36: 2.139), Japandroids (33/16: 2.062), Kid Cudi (101/49: 2.061).

I picked up a lot of UK lists, but P&J polls relatively few UK critics. Inevitably, some UK albums didn't make much of a splash here, with Arctic Monkeys the prime example. La Roux and Florence were others. In general, a whole cluster of arty indie-rock albums following Animal Collective and Phoenix slipped, starting with Grizzly Bear (6/3: 2.000) and including Antlers, Passion Pit, Horrors, Sunset Rubdown, and Neon Indian.

To get a better sense of the gains, we need to look further down the Pazz & Jop poll results. The following table lists everything from the top 100 that didn't make the metafile top 50.

14.Maxwell: BLACKsummers'night (Columbia)600.233
16.The-Dream: Love vs Money (Def Jam)710.225
25.Miranda Lambert: Revolution (Sony)550.455
31.Lady Gaga: The Fame/The Fame Monster (Interscope)650.477
34.Brad Paisley: American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville)750.453
35.K'naan: Troubadour (A&M/Octone)710.493
37.Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)910.407
41.Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia)750.547
43.Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)600.717
45.Rosanne Cash: The List (Manhattan)1100.409
46.Levon Helm: Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard)2210.208
47.Dâm-Funk: Toeachizown (Stones Throw)860.547
49.Vijay Iyer Trio: Historicity (ACT)660.742
53.Leonard Cohen: Live in London (Columbia)1940.273
54.Pissed Jeans: King of Jeans (Sub Pop)1100.491
55.Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali (Because Music/Nonesuch)1580.348
57.Bruce Springsteen: Working on a Dream (Columbia)1810.315
59.Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)1030.573
60.Pearl Jam: Backspacer (Monkeywrench)660.909
61.Ida Maria: Fortress Round My Heart (Mercury)910.670
62.DJ Quik & Kurupt: BlaQKout (Mad Science)1260.492
63.The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa (Green Owl)840.750
64.Oumou Sangare: Seya (Nonesuch)3140.204
66.Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino)1580.418
70.Tune-Yards: Bird-Brains (4AD)1260.556
71.Kylesa: Static Tensions (Prosthetic)2720.261
72.The Black Crowes: Before the Frost . . . Until the Freeze (Silver Arrow)1810.398
73.Loudon Wainwright III: High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (161)3140.232
74.Paramore: Brand New Eyes (Fueled by Ramen)1170.632
75.Art Brut: Art Brut vs Satan (Downtown)860.872
76.POS: Never Better (Rhymesayers Entertainment)860.884
78.Drake: So Far Gone (Young Money)1580.494
79.Jay Reatard: Watch Me Fall (Matador)1030.767
80.The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come (4AD)711.127
82.DJ Sprinkles: Midtown 120 Blues (Mule Musiq)3140.261
83.Jarvis Cocker: Further Complications (Rough Trade)840.988
84.The Raveonettes: In and Out of Control (Vice)1360.618
86.Real Estate: Real Estate (Woodsist)861.000
87.Buddy and Julie Miller: Written in Chalk (New West)1260.690
88.Broadcast & the Focus Group: Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp)1260.698
90.Built to Spill: There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros)1260.714
91.Mayer Hawthorne: A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)1100.827
92.Health: Get Color (Lovepump United)551.673
93.Kurt Vile: Childish Prodigy (Matador)821.134
94.Nellie McKay: Normal as Blueberry Pie (Verve)3140.299
95.The Clientele: Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)1360.699
96.Brother Ali: Us (Rhymesayers Entertainment)980.980
97.A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Ashes Grammar (Carrot Top)2490.390
98.Black Eyed Peas: The END (Interscope)2720.360
99.The Fiery Furnaces: I'm Going Away (Thrill Jockey)1170.846
100.Glasvegas: Glasvegas (Columbia)1940.515

The big gains were: Oumou Sangare (64/314: 0.204), Levon Helm (46/221: 0.208), The-Dream (16/71: 0.225), Loudon Wainwright III (73/314: 0.232), Maxwell (14/60: 0.233), Kylesa (71/272: 0.261), DJ Sprinkles (82/314: 0.261), Leonard Cohen (53/194: 0.273), Nellie McKay (94/314: 0.299), Bruce Springsteen (57/181: 0.315), Amadou & Mariam (55/158: 0.348), Black Eyed Peas (98/272: 0.360), Baroness (19/50: 0.380), Sunny Day in Glasgow (97/249: 0.390), Black Crowes (72/181: 0.398), Green Day (37/91: 0.407), Rosanne Cash (45/110: 0.409), Big Star (66/158: 0.418), Neko Case (3/7: 0.429), Brad Paisley (34/75: 0.453), Miranda Lambert (25/55: 0.455), Raekwon (8/17: 0.471), Lady Gaga (31/65: 0.477), Converge (24/50: 0.480), Pissed Jeans (54/110: 0.491), DJ Quik & Kurupt (62/126: 0.492), K'Naan (35/71: 0.493), Drake (78/158: 0.494), Animal Collective (1/2: 0.500), Glasvegas (100/194: 0.515), Bob Dylan (41/75: 0.547), Dâm-Funk (47/86: 0.547), Tune-Yards (70/126: 0.556), Tinariwen (59/103: 0.573), Mos Def (11/19: 0.579), Lily Allen (22/37: 0.595), Raveonettes (84/136: 0.618), Paramore (74/117: 0.632), Antony and the Johnsons (26/41: 0.634), Sonic Youth (20/31: 0.645), Ida Maria (61/91: 0.670), Avett Brothers (15/22: 0.682), Buddy and Julie Miller (87/126: 0.690), Flaming Lips (9/13: 0.692), Mastodon (18/26: 0.692), U2 (32/46: 0.696), Broadcast & the Focus Group (88/126: 0.698), Clientele (95/136: 0.699), Built to Spill (90/126: 0.714), Allen Toussaint (43/60: 0717), Vijay Iyer (49/66: 0.742), Very Best (63/84: 0.750).

Only a few of these belong to the dominant alt-rock aesthetic. Nearly every hip-hop record improved -- Kid Cudi was the exception, although you might also count Brother Ali. Maxwell and The-Dream did even better. Country/Americana made gains, as did African pop, veteran rockers (which seem to include Green Day as well as Dylan and Springsteen), and Lady Gaga. A couple of top jazz records also improved, despite my focusing on jazz lists -- this didn't hold up lower down the list. You can chalk these shifts up to an older, more professional electorate. By "professional" I'm not making a value judgment -- just recognizing that newspaper and generic pub critics have to cover a wider range of popular music than bloggers, and that necessarily means some hip-hop, soul, Americana, and whoever's selling -- this year, Lady Gaga.

The value judgment I'm inclined to make is that the Pazz & Jop critics promoted better records than my metafile found. Three of my ballot picks found no other supporters, but everything else I voted for gained ground. One possibility is the uniform use of a top ten standard in P&J, whereas my metafile occasionally picked up 100-deep lists. Another possibility is that my metafile undervalued Robert Christgau's real (though certainly limited) influence: those seven records were all very favorably featured in his Consumer Guide (as well as one of my three solo picks -- the other two were jazz records; I did find a few non-jazz A-list albums that haven't appeared in Christgau's CG, but none finished high enough to make my top ten ballot -- Mika's The Boy Who Knew Too Much came closest; Syran M'Benza, Fuck Buttons, Ersatzmusika, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Khaled, and Van Morrison had others; a similar number of records appeared in CG much lower than I had them -- Maria Muldaur tops that list).

One thing I did with the results was to pick out all of the ballots by people who voted for my picks. Adding them up, and dropping out my picks (which swept the top six spots), I'm left with (my grades in brackets; many of these are based on Rhapsody):

  1. Brad Paisley: American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville) [*]
  2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz! (DGC/Interscope) [A-]
  3. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti) [B]
  4. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote) [*]
  5. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) [*]
  6. Maxwell: BLACKsummers'night (Columbia) [*]
  7. Nellie McKay: Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (Verve) [A-]
  8. The XX: XX (Young Turks) [***]
  9. The-Dream: Love vs. Money (Def Jam/Radio Killa) [*]
  10. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino) [C+]
  11. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (Warp) [B-]
  12. Black Eyed Peas: The E.N.D. (Interscope) [A-]
  13. The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (American/Columbia) [B]
  14. Miranda Lambert: Revolution (Sony/Columbia Nashville) [A-]
  15. Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) [A-]
  16. Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali (Nonesuch) [A-]
  17. Girls: Album (True Panther) [A-]
  18. Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador) [A-]
  19. Lady Gaga: The Fame/The Fame Monster (Streamline/Interscope) [*]
  20. Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (World Village) [A-]
  21. Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia) [A-]
  22. Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch) [**]
  23. Rokia Traoré: Tchamantché (Nonesuch) [**]
  24. Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown) [A-]
  25. Khaled: Liberté (Wrasse) [A-]
  26. Wussy: Wussy (Shake It) [***]
  27. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam) [***]
  28. Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara: Tell No Lies (Real World) [**]
  29. Levon Helm: Electric Dirt (Welk) [*]
  30. Rihanna: Rated R (Def Jam) [*]

Of these, Paisley, McKay, perhaps Black Eyed Peas, and certainly Wussy can be chalked up to Christgau's promotion. Some records from the alt-rock consensus leaked in, although the reordering of nos. 2-5 is significant (although I liked Case the least). For what it's worth, the critics I intersected with more than once (and therefore counted more than once) are: Leslie Berman (2), Max Berry (2), Larry Birnbaum (2), Robert Christgau (4), Banning Eyre (3), Steve Knopper (2), Frank Kogan (2), Todd Kristel (2), Tom Lane (2), Milo Miles (4), Derk Richardson (2), Ellis Widner (3), K Leander Williams (2).

Glenn McDonald's voter similarity stats gives this order: Christgau (0.569), Miles (0.566), Widner, Eyre, Williams, Kristel, Richardson, Berman, Berry, Kogan, Knopper, Lane (0.366). Conversely, I came off as the voter most similar to Christgau, followed by Ted Cox, Miles, Berman, Alfred Soto, Dan Weiss, J Anthony Ware, Chris Herrington, Williams, and Ken Tucker. My "centricity" figure -- a measure of overlap with the winners -- was 0.12, tied for 506 of 696 critics. (Five voters tied with 0.00, meaning they filled their ballots with records no one else picked. Christgau came in at 470, with 0.146.) McDonald has been doing his centricity analysis for some time now, and my placement there has been pretty consistent.

McDonald also has an interesting chart on album similarity, which I should return to later.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Unindicted Co-Conspirators

Justin Elliott: Tiller Stalker: Ex-AG's Crusade Against Kansas Abortion Doctor Revealed in New Complaint: Ex-AG is Phill Kline, who merited a minor profile in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? even before he became a one-term attorney general. (He was defeated running for re-election by former Republican Johnson County district attorney Paul Morrison, who switched parties to run against him. Morrison then resigned in some sort of mistress-money scandal, by which time Kline had maneuvered his way into Morrison's old job -- the county Republican party was able to appoint the replacement without letting the county vote. Kline soon lost that job too.) Nothing here is really news: it was obvious at the time that Kline was obsessed with Dr. Tiller, and that his main preoccupation was using his office to harass Tiller. Still, if you're not familiar with the details, read the piece.

Probably just a coincidence that Kline is back in the news the same week jury selection has started for the trial of Scott Roeder for murdering Tiller. Roeder's defense attorneys kicked off the trial by trying to use it to subpoena Tiller's business records -- even the man's murder becomes an excuse for a fishing expedition. The attorneys also argued that Roeder's defense will be what they called "imperfect self-defense": that he drove 200 miles to shoot an unarmed Tiller in his church to defend unidentifiable fetuses from their imminent slaughter by Tiller. It will be embarrassing if the jury buys that logic.

No one has established a connection between Kline and Roeder yet, but you have to wonder if they even looked. Both legendary anti-abortion activists hail from the same Johnson County, along with their most notorious competitor, Senator Sam Brownback. It seems unlikely that Kline and Roeder never crossed paths: even though their methods differ, they share a common contempt for the law. Brownback, by the way, is giving up a safe Senate seat to run for governor. It's hard to think of any reason why he should do so other than his desire to use the executive power of the state to advance his holy war against abortion. It will be sad and painful if that happens, but it seems inevitable, if for no other reason than that the Democrats have yet to find a substantial candidate to stand up against this fanaticism.


What's Left?

Glenn Greenwald: Blame the all-powerful left! Buried deep in this is the point I made a couple of days ago. I think it bears repeating (and repeating and repeating):

All that said, and as horrible as the Democrats have been all year, the most amazing -- and depressing -- aspect of all of this is how Americans have so quickly forgotten how thoroughly the Republicans, during their eight-year reign, destroyed the country. Whatever the source of our national woes are, re-empowering that faction cannot possibly be the answer to anything.

The main point of the article is the repeated charges, especially by right-wing Democrats like Evan Bayh, that Obama's problem is that he's fallen under the spell of "the furthest left elements" of the Democratic Party. As Greenwald documents, this is based on "exactly nothing" -- other than the idiot repetition of a line that strains credulity even when mouthed by Republicans.

Paul Krugman: Do the Right Thing: At last reckoning, the Democrats still had a majority in the House of Representatives. A majority -- less than the official party majority, but still a majority -- have even voted for a health care bill at least somewhat to the left of the one the Senate voted for 60-39. That bill was in fact so "moderate" that it was approved by Lieberman, Nelson, Bayh, and others who repeatedly held it up. One had hoped that reconciling the two bills would have resulted in one slightly better than the Senate bill, if not as much better as the House bill. But now that the Senate Republicans are free to wreck any bill, that option no longer works. But what would work would be for the House to pass the Senate bill as is, avoiding the need to reconcile versions. All we need for that is for the same Democratic majority to approve the weaker Senate bill as approved the stronger House bill. Do that, and Obama will have something significant to show for all his mealy compromises and uninspired leadership. Do that and the Democrats can claim to have delivered the one thing their base wants more than anything else. Don't do that and all the House Democrats will have to show their base is that they don't have any principles, and America that they don't have any guts. I wouldn't bother lobbying any Republicans on this: all they've shown is that they'd rather break America than let the Democrats get credit for facing up to a major problem. But go after the Democrats with everything you got. Any Democrat who refuses to stand up for this bill doesn't deserve the party's ticket. Or the party doesn't deserve its supporters.

Krugman adds this on his blog:

Maybe they'll come to their senses over the next few days. It would be really helpful, of course, if Democrats actually had a party leader -- you know, the president or someone.


One more point: although I'd be happy to see the Senate bill passed by the House and signed by Obama -- if served up on a silver platter, he'd at least do that much, wouldn't he? -- it's not at all clear that Obama's habitual rejection of leftist proposals has done him any good. Maybe it's politically determined by the intransigence of the Republicans and the clout of established interests -- the health care industry accounts for about 18% of US GDP, and the finance industry for a bit more, and if you give extra weight for profits over the last 10-20 years you can add to those figures. But genuinely leftist proposals would in many cases have more resonance with more people than those who identify themselves as leftists: they build on a sense of justice and fairness, they hold established interests responsible for their transgressions; they are simpler, they make more sense, and they are more likely to actually work.

To take one example, Obama's hands-off approach to Big Pharma deprived him of using one of biggest, most obvious villains in the health care costs death spiral. (Instead, Billy Tauzin came back at the last minute demanding even more patent extensions, threatening to withdraw his lobby's hitherto useless support.) But there are plenty of more examples: get tougher on the banks, deflect the deficit projection gibberish by raising taxes on the rich, get out of Afghanistan, and scale back the incredible waste that is the US Department of Defense.

Funny thing is that if he actually moved left it wouldn't change the Republicans line one iota. But it would give him something to stand up for.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Packed Court

Zachary Roth: Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Campaign-Finance Provision: Regardless of whether the conservative packing of the Supreme Court ever reverses Roe vs. Wade, today's 5-4 ruling is about as blatant payback as the right-wing's sponsors could ever hope for. I haven't seen much commentary, but this paragraph is worth quoting:

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) warned last week that if the court found unconstitutional all efforts to ban corporations and unions from financing political ads, it would take the country "not just back to a pre-McCain-Feingold era, but back to the era of the robber barons in the 19th century."

It is no accident that this ruling is based on the critical 19th century ruling that helped launch the so-called Gilded Age: the one that decided that corporations should enjoy all of the constitutional rights of individuals, including the right to free speech. (Jack Beatty's The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 covers this case in detail.) Corporations are intrinsically more powerful than individuals: that's why they are useful for promoting commerce, but it's also why we need checks and balances against corporations abusing their power. (That was, after all, one of the painfully learned lessons from the robber barons.)

The ruling also confers a right to fund propaganda on those able to afford doing so. No doubt the speech content itself is protected, but the purchase of media time is something else, something which if unchecked and unbalanced gives those who can afford it an immense advantage over those who cannot. The effect of that is to subvert equal rights, to undermine the basic right of one vote for each person, and ultimately to make a mockery of democracy. That's not even really disputed here: that's why Scalia et al. wrote this decision.

It should be noted that as a result of this we will not only see the airwaves inundated by corporate interests. We will soon see this as an effective threat to influence and extort votes. Any representative or senator facing a close race will have to think twice about crossing a corporation that's willing to shell out whatever it takes to defeat him or her. Of course, in our money-driven world of politics, things like that already happen; just not as brazenly as this vile ruling makes possible.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Croakley

The Massachusetts Senate loss bummed me out for one simple reason: it reversed the trend which had been strong in New England, and which should be strong everywhere, of voting against Republicans simply because they are Republicans. This was the trend that rid Chafee and Sununu from the Senate, and should have been bearing down on Snowe and Collins. The reason it developed was that the Republican leaders in Congress were able to command such strict party discipline that the only vote that really mattered anymore was the straight party line vote to organize Congress. And that matters so much because Republicans have been up to no good at least since Gingrich's 1994 coup d'etat.

The thing that's so disturbing about this is that since vacating the White House in 2009, the Republicans have done absolutely nothing to suggest they would wield power more intelligently, let alone more responsibly, than they did in command of Congress from 1995-2007 or the White House from 2001-2009. If anything, they've become more narrow-minded, more obtuse, more obstructionist, more nihilist than before. You may not be happy with the economy, but the Republicans have sandbagged the stimulus, opposed banking regulation, denied that there even is a health care problem. We're lucky they're not in power, because if they were they'd be worse than Herbert Hoover. You'd think all this would be obvious, but here we go: Massachusetts just voted to give Mitch McConnell an extra vote. A commenter at 538 summed it up this way:

Just one year after Bush, Massachusetts is ready to elect an affable Republican frat boy with a pickup truck who thinks government is incapable of solving our problems? We're too stupid to have a democracy.

I'm not sure how much of a democracy we can claim to have here. Everything in politics is influenced by money, including -- even though it matters only one day every few years -- voters' votes, and that systematically biases both parties to work for those who profit from the system. You may think you're voting against war, but the outcome depends as much or more on the media and lobbies and the expert opinion on what works and doesn't work in politics. Same for any other issue. The result is that voters have little say or influence, which is how those best able to game the system like it. To see how this works, compare what Obama said before and after getting elected; then compare Bush, Clinton, etc.

But that's just the lay of the land. The bigger problem is how quickly we forget Bush and the Republican noise machine that brought him to power, allowing him to do so much damage. Part of that problem may well be because "we're too stupid." Still, we'd be less stupid if the Democrats in power, starting with Obama, spent some time and effort reminding us both what the Republicans did to get us here and what they intend to do if they ever get another chance. Democrats need to hit that point every day in every election.

How bad this news is depends on whether it wakes up and shakes up the Democrats -- in particular, whether Obama takes notice. Thus far he has liked to play a role safely above the partisan turmoil. That may be OK for his own reelection prospects -- Clinton showed you don't have to have coattails to win a second term, especially if you don't have any agenda other than being president. I doubt that Obama plans on flying that low, but he's on that trajectory. On the other hand, we do need Democrats in Congress, and they need a leader who's going to fight for them. A good sign that someone realizes this would be to bring Howard Dean back as Democratic Party Chairman: he built the current Congressional majority, and he'd provide some reason (as well as technical skills) to preserve it.

Another 538 commenter:

Yeah, it's funny how, when you run against George W. Bush (a president who people hate) and promise big changes, and then continue most of his policies, independents turn against you. Can't imagine why that would happen.

The "fillibuster-proof majority" prooved to be not much of a prize: mostly it meant giving in to extortion by Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Evan Bayh. On the other hand, Obama could take the struggle against the Republicans know-nothing, do-nothing "41-59 majority" out of the back rooms and into the bright light of day. He could even try calling it "democracy" -- people might even like that idea.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Music Week

Music: Current count 16275 [16247] rated (+28), 785 [786] unrated (-1). Transitional week, some year-end Rhapsodizing, some effort to get back to the jazz grind. Not much success on either count. Another distraction coming up: Rolling Stone wants me to revise my Willie Nelson piece. That means listening to some 16 records since 2003, and writing up something about each. I'm familiar with about half of them.

Also added grades for remembered LPs from way back when:

  • Lightning Bolt: Ride the Skies (2001, Load): Actually, listened to the new one, and remembered the old one as being comparably annoying. B-

Jazz Prospecting (CG #22, Part 9)

Still in mid-winter doldrums, but after several dry weeks, there's enough here to post. Only minor progress on Jazz CG, but it will come along soon. Mail has been generally light the last few weeks, but 2010 is starting to pile up.


The Second Approach Trio With Roswell Rudd: The Light (2007 [2009], SoLyd): Russian group, has seven albums since 1999, plus various collaborations. Consists of Andrei Razin on piano, Igor Ivanushkin on bass, and Tatyana Komova singing or otherwise exercising her voice, with all three credited with percussion. Razin plays a little bit of everything, ranging from plaintive accompaniment to rough and ready avant-garde. In the latter context, Komova can hurl sounds against the wall, and is remarkably engaging at it. Rudd stopped in Moscow on his way back from a Siberian engagement with Tuvan throat singers, and he reminds you that he can hold his own in any avant-garde circus, as well as dash off a touching solo. B+(***)

Albert Ammons/Henry Brown/Meade Lux Lewis/"Cripple" Clarence Lofton/Pete Johnson/Speckled Red: Boogie Woogie Kings (1938-71 [2009], Delmark): Your basic boogie woogie piano sampler with some vocals; Lofton's six cuts are the oldest; Red, with four cuts including a previously unreleased (and relatively mild) "Dirty Dozens" is the most recent; Lewis gets three sharply played cuts, plus one with the Ammons-Johnson-Lewis triumvirate. B+(**)

Memphis Nighthawks: Jazz Lips (1976-77 [2009], Delmark): Trad jazz band formed at University of Illinois by clarinetist Ron DeWar, with trumpet (Steve Jensen), trombone (Joel Helleny), bass sax (Dave Feinman), guitar (Mike Miller), and drums (Bob Kornacher) -- didn't recognize any names, but all but the drummer and the leader have notable credits lists. They cut this album for Delmark, another live shot, and quit. Delmark dug up five previously unreleased cuts to fill out the CD length. In some ways this is like every other trad jazz revival project, but the horn layering is subtle and powerful, and the guitar-drums rhythm cooks. B+(***)

Harry Allen: New York State of Mind (2009, Challenge): A follow-up to his Hits by Brits: I suppose Hits by Yanks would have seemed too broad, just as a London-themed album would have been too narrow. Not sure that it's such a good idea to drag Billy Joel into this, but his "New York, New York" is decidedly tender, and almost everything else swings powerfully. Half quartet, half with trombonist John Allred added -- latter half is better. B+(**)

Oliver Jones/Hank Jones: Pleased to Meet You (2008 [2009], Justin Time): The younger Jones is a Canadian, 65 now, grew up under the spell of Oscar Peterson, has been a favorite of his Canadian label since 1984, with a couple dozen albums in the catalog -- titles like Speak Low Swing Hard and Have Fingers, Will Travel. The elder Jones is 90, born seven years before than Peterson, who died before this session, drafting it into something of a tribute. Piano trio plus extra piano. These things rarely work, but Oliver doesn't have to overstretch knowing that Hank's got his back, and Hank is a rare jazz genius who doesn't mind fitting in. Peterson might have tried playing both parts, and might have gotten away with it, but he couldn't have made this much piano power sound so effortless. B+(***)

Scott LaFaro: Pieces of Jade (1961-85 [2009], Resonance): Legendary bassist, almost exclusively known for his work in Bill Evans' trio culminating in Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard -- the most essential records in Evans' considerable discography. He died in a car wreck in 1961 at age 25, leaving no records in his own name, but has grown in stature to the point where he regularly gets substantial votes in Downbeat's Hall of Fame poll. This release gives him something for the books, but it's pretty scattered. Five tracks pick up a trio session with pianist Don Friedman and drummer Pete LaRoca -- fine work, as you'd expect from Friedman. There follows a 22:44 rehearsal tape of LaFaro with Evans, a 13:39 interview with Evans talking about LaFaro from 1966, and a 6:23 Friedman solo, "Memories for Scotty," dating from 1985. All this is interesting but in the end it strikes me that we're reading more into his premature death than his short life warranted. He's not even unique in that regard -- cf. Ray Blanton, Richard Twardzik, and others who actually did leave more to chew on, like Charlie Christian, Booker Little, and for that matter Charlie Parker. B

Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens: Two Cities (2009, Delmark): Chicago sextet, with leader on alto sax, Keefe Jackson on tenor, Josh Berman on cornet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Anton Hatwich on bass, Frank Rosaly on drums. All lean avant, and they are capable of some energetic slicing and dicing, which is bracing when it works. Just doesn't work as often as it should. B+(*)

Jon Irabagon: The Observer (2009, Concord): Alto saxophonist, best known for his slash and burn approach to Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Won a Thelonious Monk Saxophone prize which came with a Concord recording contract. Some evidence that Concord tried to turn him into another Christian Scott, but he outfoxed them: held out for his own songs, compromised by getting a mainstream rhythm section, but held out for a really good one, best known for working with Stan Getz: pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Lewis Nash. He blows rings around them, but they never lose a step. There's even a little duo with Barron -- not exactly like Getz, but lovely. Nicholas Payton slides in on a couple of cuts. Bertha Hope takes over the piano for one of three covers, one of her late husband's songs. Another cover is from Gigi Gryce, safe common ground. B+(***)

Empirical: Out 'n' In (2009 [2010], Naim): UK group, based in London, a quartet with Nathaniel Facey on alto sax, Lewis Wright on vibes, Tom Farmer on double bass, and Shaney Forbes on drums, expanded here with Julian Siegel on bass clarinet and tenor sax. The occasion for the latter is an interest in Eric Dolphy, who provides the two covers and inspiration for a Facey original, "Dolphyus Morphyus." B+(**)

Andy Haas/Don Fiorino: Death Don't Have No Mercy (2005, Resonant Music): Haas is a saxophonist (alto, I believe), who also plays piri, fife, and live electronics here, didjeridu elsewhere. He first appeared c. 1980 in a Canadian rock group called Martha and the Muffins -- their Metro Music was one of my favorite records that year. Since then he's worked with God Is My Co-Pilot, circulated in and around John Zorn projects, and landed with a group called Radio I-Ching. I liked their latest when I streamed it from Rhapsody, asked for a real copy, and got a lot of background material in addition. This is a duo with Fiorino, who plays guitar, lotar, banjo, and dobro. Some of this stuff is fascinating, including the stretched way out "Anthem" which you will recognize as "Star Spangled Banner," but it tends to wander especially when they get off their main instruments. B+(*)

Andy Haas: Humanitarian War (2006, Resonant Music): What's it good for? Absolutely nothing. Sorry, couldn't resist. The ten tracks are named for weapons, especially ones that are more oriented toward maiming than killing -- cluster bombs ("CBU 87 Steel Rain," "BLU108B Cluster"), anti-personnel mines ("PFM-1 Green Parrot," "Valmara 69"), "White Phosphorus" and "Depleted Uranium." "AGM-142 Have Hap" is an Israeli air-to-ground missile; "MK77 Mod 5" is a US incendiary bomb, updated napalm; "BLU 113 Penetrator" is a US bunker-busting "smart bomb." Solo improvs, with shofar and fife prominent on the instrument list. Educational, I suppose, but not very enjoyable. B

Andy Haas: The Ruins of America (2007-08 [2008], Resonant Music): Another solo job, which is inevitably its weak spot. Haas is credited with sax, piri, fife, live electronics and prepared loops, footnoting that the electronic sounds are processed from unnamed acoustic instruments. Two Brazilian tunes, but mostly Americana -- a lot of trad., a little Irving Berlin, the three part original title track split up into four pieces. Tends toward abstraction, deconstruction, sonic mischief. B+(*)

Radio I-Ching: Last Kind Words (2005-06 [2006], Resonant Music): Andy Haas once again (sax, fife, morsing, live electronics), Don Fiorino too (guitar, lap steel, banjo, lotar), but also drummer Dee Pop, invaluable for moving things along. Otherwise similar to the earlier albums by Haas (one with Fiorino): deep Americana like "Let My People Go" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"; also "The Mooch" and "Caravan" and "Song for Che." B+(*)

Radio I-Ching: The Fire Keeps Burning (2007, Resonant Music): The first in this series of records to break away from Andy Haas's peculiar interest in Americana, which pays immediate rhythmic dividends. Starts off with two Arab pieces (Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Hamza El Din), for good measure adding a piece of Count Ossie nyahbinghi. Second half has a jazz sequence -- Roland Kirk, Prince Lasha/Sonny Simmons, Thelonious Monk -- sandwiched between Captain Beefheart and Jimmie Driftwood. B+(**)

The Hanuman Sextet: 9 Meals From Anarchy (2006, Resonant Music): Radio I-Ching -- Andy Haas (sax, raita, morsing, live electronics), Don Fiorino (lotar & lap steel guitar), Dee Pop (drums, percussion) -- plus Mia Theodoratus (electric harp), Matt Heyner (bass, erhu), and David Gould (more drums, percussion). Two covers -- one from Jamaican saxophonist Cedric Brooks, the other "Everything Happens to Me" -- plus eight joint improvs. The latter are rather scattered, but rarely short of interest. B+(**)

Linda Oh Trio: Entry (2008 [2009], Linda Oh Music): Bassist, born in Malaysia, raised in Australia, based now in New York. Trio with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Obed Calvaire on drums, a nicely balanced arrangement. B+(***)


These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.

Bud Shank Quartet: Fascinating Rhythms (2009, Jazzed Media): Alto saxophonist, b. 1926, worked his way up through Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton bands, one of the most distinctive figures in the west coast cool jazz universe; worked steadily until he cut this (presumably) last record, a live set at age 82, a couple of months before he died. Quartet with Bill Mays (piano), Bob Magnuson (bass), and Joe La Barbera (drums). Mostly well-worn covers, two possibly picked for their titles (Monk's "In Walked Bud," Jobim's "Lotus Bud"). Feels a bit rough edged, with some chatter, occasional harshness in his tone, ambling by Mays. Still, this has some awesome moments. B+(*) [Rhapsody]


And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Rez Abbasi: Things to Come (2008-09 [2009], Sunnyside): This is a great group but not quite a great record. Part of it is that guitarist Abbasi and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa shine on their solos but they remain separate things. Part is that pianist Vijay Iyer doesn't shine even though he's the most talented player here. Part may be that Dan Weiss plays drums instead of tabla, which steers this toward American jazz instead of Indo-Pak. Then there is the matter of wife-singer Kiran Ahluwalia, who tries to steer the album back toward India on her four spots, leaving it a bit unhinged. Reminds me that no matter how much they like the idea of an Indo-Pak coalition, what they really like is being in the forefront of jazz back home in the USA. B+(**)

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet: ˇBien Bien! (2009, Patois): As Latin Jazz goes, this is well-ordered and consistently listenable -- especially if you're a trombone fan. The extra trombones don't hurt, but the vocals sometimes do. B+(**)

Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: Thin Air (2008 [2009], Thirsty Ear): Guitarist and violinist respectively; both sing some, but not well. Halvorson has occasionally played brilliantly in the past, but there's little evidence of it here, in what is roughly speaking jazz chamber anti-folk. Obliquely primitivist when they're just playing, suggesting little talent and no finesse, but something distinctive. Can't say anything nice about the vocals. (Note unusually big drop from first round.) B-

Michiel Braam's Wurli Trio: Non-Functionals! (2009, BBB): Dutch pianist, plays a Wurlitzer electric piano here along with bass and drums or some such like. Something of a more modern organ groove, or a swing around from EST -- not really fusion, but more playful than serious avant-gardists like to present themselves. B+(**)


For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.


Unpacking: Found in the mail the last several weeks:

  • Big Crazy Energy New York Band: Inspirations, Vol. 1 (Rosa): Feb. 16
  • Hadley Caliman: Straight Ahead (Origin)
  • Bill Cunliffe/Holly Hofmann: Three's Company (Capri)
  • Dan Dean: 251 (Origin)
  • John Ellis & Double-Wide: Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound): advance, Feb. 23
  • Roberto Fonseca: Akokan (Enja/Justin Time): Feb. 16
  • Abdullah Ibrahim & WDR Big Band Cologne: Bombella (Sunnyside): Feb. 2
  • Jon Irabagon: The Observer (Concord)
  • Dave King: Indelicate (Sunnyside): Feb. 2
  • Pete Lockett's Network of Sparks: One (Summerfold): Jan. 25
  • Pat Metheny: Orchestrion (Nonesuch): Jan. 26
  • Paul Meyers Quartet: Featuring Frank Wess (Miles High): Feb. 16
  • Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Forty Fort (Hot Cup)
  • Neel Nurgai: Neel Murgai Ensemble (Innova): Jan. 27
  • Maria Neckam: Deeper (Sunnyside): Feb. 2
  • Dave Nelson & the 32nd Street Quintet: 32nd Street (Independently Released): Mar. 1
  • Vince Norman/Joe McCarthy Big Band: Bright Future (OA2)
  • Linda Oh Trio: Entry (Linda Oh Music)
  • Opsvik & Jennings: A Dream I Used to Remember (Loyal Label)
  • Kat Parra: Dos Amantes (JazzMa)
  • Gail Pettis: Here in the Moment (OA2): Jan. 12
  • The Respect Sextet: Sirius Respect (Mode Avant)
  • RG Royal Sound Orchestra: Impact (RG): Feb. 2
  • Dave Sharp's Secret Seven: 7 (Vortex Jazz)
  • John Stein: Raising the Roof (Whaling City Sound)
  • Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté: Ali and Toumani (Nonesuch): advance, Feb. 23
  • Mort Weiss: Raising the Bar (SMS Jazz): Feb. 16
  • Aaron Immanuel Wright: Eleven Daughters (Origin)

Purchases:

  • Doom: Born Like This (Lex)
  • Metric: Fantasies (Metric International)
  • The XX: The XX (XL)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Book Notes, Part Drei

As threatened, forty more. And not just leftovers; I'm finding a few more along the way.


Amir D Aczel: Uranium Wars: The Scientific Rivalry That Created the Nuclear Age (2009, Palgrave Macmillan): Short book on early uranium research, focusing on the 1920s but extending more or less to Hiroshima.

Ken Auletta: Googled: The End of the World As We Know It (2009, Penguin): Author has written extensively about software and telecom industries, including critically about Microsoft, but he seems to have found something even more alarming in Google. I doubt that, but I do believe that the price we pay for advertising-sponsored services is much higher and far more perverse than we can imagine. I think Google tries to look at this pact benignly, asking how much useful service we can provide based on its advertising revenue stream, but I don't think it is so benign. Still, none of this exculpates Microsoft.

Louise Bardach: Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington (2009, Simon & Schuster): Claims to have inside dope on Castro's medical condition, but is mostly interested in speculating on what happens to Cuba once he passes. I imagine she finds a lot of nonsense. Don't know whether she can (or wants to) sort it all out.

Michael Belfiore: The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs (2009, Smithsonian): DARPA is the Pentagon's R&D arm, which often came up with useful inventions -- at least until Reagan redirected its attention to the Star Wars nonsense. Since then their reputation for reclusiveness has increased, probably for shame. Author also wrote Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space, which sounds pretty gushy.

Walden Bello: The Food Wars (paperback, Verso, 2009): A third world view of US agribusiness and its designs on what the world eats, how it is grown, and who profits.

Michael Bérubé: The Left at War (2009, New York University Press): Something on the US Left's response to Bush's War on Terror, possibly inching back to Clinton's Balkan wars; details "a left at war with itself," presumably between liberal hawks who have no sense of what war actually does, and those of us who do. Focuses on "Manichean" Noam Chomsky, "juxtaposing him with Stuart Hall" (whoever that is). Bérubé seems to be one of those self-appointed thought police who identify with the left just to muddle it up.

James Bradley: The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2009, Little Brown): Author wrote Flags of Our Fathers, about his own father's experience in the war over Iwo Jima. Despite the broad subtitle, this appears to be a book about some specific mischief President Theodore Roosevelt and then-Secretary of War William Taft undertook in 1905 to fix US interests in the east Pacific by dividing up Asia.

Michael Burleigh: Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2009, Harper Collins): A broad ranging smorgasbord of evil terrorists starting with 19th century anarchists, culminating in Al-Qaeda, most European or more/less directly tied to Europe. Lots of detail, but doesn't seem to have any overarching logic -- other than that terrorism is bad, of course.

Robert Cohen: Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (2009, Oxford University Press): Savio was the leader of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the early 1960s, an interesting and iconic new left figure who largely faded from the spotlight from the mid-1960s.

Len Colodny/Tom Schachtman: The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama (2009, Harper Collins): Faces on the cover: Kissinger, Cheney, Nixon, Bush, Perle (I think), Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Obama. Only some of those are neocons, although Kissinger's usual exemption doesn't seem all that stury. Unfortunate that Obama hasn't been able to shake this association, especially given how completely the prime neocon movers had been disgraced under Bush. Foreword by Roger Morris, who knows his way around this topic.

Alan Dershowitz: The Case Against Israel's Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (paperback, 2009, John Wiley & Sons): Second sequel to The Case for Israel, which may be the most deceitful book I've ever read. He followed that up with The Case for Peace, which was a pile of rationalizations for anything but. That Dershowitz, and Israel at least in his mind, has not the slightest desire for peace should be clear from who he targets as Israel's greatest enemy: Jimmy Carter.

Jenny Diski: The Sixties: Big Ideas, Small Books (paperback, 2009, Picador): Something of a memoir from London in the 1960s, which keeps her slightly removed from parochial US concerns like civil rights and Vietnam -- allowing her to focus on the important things, like sex and drugs. Seems to conclude that the "big ideas" of the '60s led to the bad ideas of the '80s. Easy to argue that, but harder to prove culpability.

Timothy Egan: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (2009, Houghton Mifflin): Follow-up to Egan's bestselling book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time. Again he takes an event that was legendary locally and had some political repercussions that he makes the most of: a forest fire in 1910 that burned some 3 million acres, bringing Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot into play.

Charles S Faddis: Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA (2009, Lyons Press): Another 20-year CIA vet with the usual load of FUBAR stories, the only surprise being that the book is remarkably slim (192 pp).

Tim Flannery: Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future (2009, Atlantic Monthly Press): Short (176 pp) book by a natural scientist, wrote a good book on North America called The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples and, more recently, one on climate change, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth. This attempts a broadside, but isn't terribly convincing.

Lloyd C Gardner: Three Kings: The Rise of an American Empire in the Middle East After World War II (2009, New Press): No real idea what the title refers to, but up to WWII the Middle East was ruled effectively by Britain through proxy monarchs, ranging from Farouk in Egypt to the Pahlavis in Iran. By the 1970s, the US had supplanted the British, and that's the point of this book. This follows, or perhaps fills in the background for, Gardner's recent The Long Road to Baghdad: A History of US Foreign Policy From the 1970s to the Present (New Press).

Al Gore: Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (paperback, 2009, Rodale): Gore's sequel to An Inconvenient Truth. Still practical, still optimistic. No doubt features outstanding charts and illustrations. Amazon reviews are divided between 28 5-star and 27 1-star. Young reader's edition available, although it's probably already as simple as it can or should be.

David Ray Griffin: Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive? (paperback, 2009, Olive Branch Press): Short book (120 pp), but the author doesn't claim to know the answer, even though he raises plenty of doubts. Still, it would be nice to know whether you've bumbled into a snark hunt, getting bumped and bruised and wasting your fortune in pursuit of nothing.

Donald Gutstein: Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy (paperback, 2009, Key Porter): The argument here seems to be that politicians don't become stooges for business interests because they're corrupt so much as because they're brainwashed. No doubt true, but that hardly proves they're not "greedy, corrupt, double-talking, and unqualified" as well. Indeed, those conditions seem to go together quite agreeably.

James Hansen: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (2009, Bloomsbury): The NASA scientist best known for pushing the science and issues related to global warming. This book raised some hackles by opposing the cap-and-trade schemes that politicians like -- at least the ones that take the issue seriously at all. Hansen is also the subject of Mark Bowen: Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming.

Tom Hayden: The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (2009, Paradigm): Claims Obama for the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements that brought Hayden to public attention. Seems like a stretch and a formula for disappointment, although Hayden was hardly alone in investing hope in Obama.

Martin Jacques: When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (2009, Penguin): Title indicates the fevered imperialist mindset. It's rather ridiculous to think that China could ever "rule the world" -- as well as presently unclear that China has any such intention. He means more like "when China corners the world's industrial capacity and stockpiles most of the world's money because China's the only country that invests in its labor." I suspect that even that will be self-correcting as other nations want to get in at the bottom, while the US is turning into a shell by getting out at the top, because the politicians here care more about profits than about workers.

John Lanchester: IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010, Simon & Schuster): I don't see the word in any of the review notes, but my impression is that this is about leverage. Politically convenient cheap credit has led to a mountain of highly leveraged investments that don't seem to be based on much of anything. Getting that money back is going to be difficult. Author started researching this for a novel, then decided truth is stranger, or maybe just more powerful, than fiction.

Yitzhak Laor: Myths of Liberal Zionism (2010, Verso): On the self-proclaimed "peace camp" Zionists, such as Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, a group that invariably rallies for each new Israeli military offensive, only to bemoan it once things go awry. Short (128 pp), probably scathing. The core problem is that the Liberal Zionists are more concerned with proving their Zionism than their commitment to peace or justice -- concepts that are disallowed by the very nature of Zionism.

Charles M Madigan: Destiny Calling: How the People Elected Barack Obama (2009, Ivan R Dee): Looks like this tries to move the election dynamics back to the grass roots, which would be a lot more refreshing and hopeful than, e.g., David Plouffe's The Audacity to Win.

Robert W McChesney/John Nichols: The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (2010, Nation Books): An Amazon ranter: "They insist that intelligent journalism will soon come to an end when the NYTimes goes belly-up." Looks to me like the NYTimes has become an example of the death of intelligent journalism. On the other hand, depending on corporations for basic info necessary for democracy has never worked very well. The authors have some ideas to move on, which probably don't involve the ranter's charge that they want a government-run Pravda.

Paul McGeough: Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas (2009, New Press): Starts with an event in 1997 seen as backfiring against Israel and promoting Hamas to prominence. Not sure why this vs. the 1996 assassination of "The Engineer" which led to Hamas retaliation that is generally regarded as tipping Israel's elections from Peres to Netanyahu, with disastrous results for the Oslo Peace Process.

Raj Patel: The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (paperback, 2010, Picador): Starts with Oscar Wilde quote: "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." This distinction between price and value leads to many ideas that could upset the conventional apple cart of economics. Previously wrote on food, Stuffed and Starved. Naomi Klein raves about him.

Ami Pedahzur/Arie Perliger: Jewish Terrorism in Israel (2009, Columbia University Press): They backtrack to zealots in Roman times, and look at the Zionist use of terror in Israel's 1948 war, but there are contemporary examples as well -- efforts to solidify Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and to derail any peaceful accommodation with Palestinians.

William R Polk: Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, from Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (2009, Palgrave Macmillan): Historian, longtime US diplomat, wrote a similar book primer Understanding Iraq a few years back, as well as a valuable comparative history of the pitfalls of occupation called Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq. A lot of people are sorely in need of such a book.

Peter Richardson: A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009, New Press): I don't know that I'd say that Ramparts changed America, but it was a big part of my life during my later teens, with nearly all of the issue covers on the cover clearly memorable. A lot of solid reporting, also a lot of attitude that wasn't always sound -- for one thing, we now realize that David Horowitz has long been mentally unstable.

Doug Rossinow: Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2007; paperback, 2009, University of Pennsylvania Press): Covers 1880s-1940s, as various progressive and pro-labor strains merged into Rooseveltian liberalism.

Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice (2009, Belknap Press): Indian economist, perhaps an important philosophical thinker as well. Not sure what to make of it, and unlikely to try to tackle it head on. I have a copy of Development as Freedom, which has set unread on my shelf for quite a while now. Probably a good book.

Frederick J Sheehan: Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (2009, McGraw-Hill): Well, Greenspan's reputation didn't take long to drop into the toilet.

Ned Sublette: The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans (2009, Lawrence Hill): I'd rather he write that promised second volume of Cuba and Its Music, but I have his musical history of New Orleans awaiting my attention on the shelf, and I imagine he finds interesting things to say about recent (pre-Katrina) New Orleans as well.

David M Walker: Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility (2010, Random House): A popular book with the establishment: I see early rave reviews by Paul Volcker, Ross Perot, Bill Bradley, Paul O'Neill, Carls Hills, and Robert Rubin. "Nonpartisan, nonideological, and filled with a love of the country its esteemed author has spent his life serving." Among his nonideological "bold ideas": "control spending, save Social Security, dramatically alter Medicare, and simplify the tax code." Works for the Peter G. Petersen Foundation, in case you think you've heard all this before.

Ethan Watters: Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (2010, Simon & Schuster): Argues that part of the cultural baggage we dump on the rest of the world includes our notions of mental illness and how it should be treated -- i.e., how we treat it. For example, he follows US trauma counselors to tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, and psychopharmacologists everywhere, marketing diseases as well as drugs.

David Wessel: In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic (2009, Crown): The 2008 financial panic seen by focusing on the Fed. Don't know whether this makes Bernanke out to be a hero, which was the usual theme with Greenspan until the dam burst. Bernanke didn't choose this war; it was thrust upon him by the banking industry's self-inflicted collapse. Still, the fashion of making heroes out of Fed chiefs -- which goes back through Greenspan to Paul Volcker -- strikes me as dangerous, not to mention dishonest.

Richard Wolff: Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (paperback, 2009, Olive Branch Press): Given the title, could have used a slightly grosser cover illustration -- the one they have shows a stack of Franklins scattering in the wind. Wolff is a Marxist economist, so he's in his moment.

Julian E Zelizer: Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism (2009, Basic Books): Big history of US foreign policy, actually going back before WWII to include movements toward internationalism under McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson. Looks to me like it should focus more on arms sales, but that seems to be a secondary issue.


John Lanchester: Bankocracy: Looking up info on Lanchester's IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, I ran across this review of two books about the Lehman Brothers failure. Good summary, worth noting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Book Notes, Part Deux

I usually hold up these brief new book notes until I get 40, but sometimes don't notice until I get considerably more. This time I find myself with more than 40 left over after publishing 40 yesterday. Hence the double dose. More politics yesterday, since that's generally the focus, but I'm inclined to note any nonfiction that strikes my broad interests. Still have 54 left, so maybe a third part will follow.


Dean Baker: False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy (paperback, 2010, Polipoint Press): Cover photos of Bernanke, Greenspan, and Paulson, although I doubt that it ends there. Baker was one of the first to understand the bubble and what its collapse would mean. This looks to be a little more developed than his slim Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.

Robert J Barbera: The Cost of Capitalism: Understanding Market Mayhem and Stabilizing our Economic Future (2009, McGraw-Hill): Seems like a fairly establishment guy to go around badmouthing capitalism like that. Hyman Minsky follower, learning lessons from one bubble/panic to the next. Evidently a good deal more readable than Minsky's own recently reprinted Stabilizing an Unstable Economy.

Phyllis Bennis: Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (paperback, 2009, Olive Branch Press): I saw this as a pamphlet several years ago, but at 208 pp. most likely this has been updated. Bennis has a bunch of primers like this, including Ending the Iraq War, Understanding the US-Iran Crisis, and most recently Ending the US War in Afghanistan (with David Wildman). She's very good at getting to the point.

Peter Berger/Anton Zijderveld: In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic (2009, Harper One): Sociologists, authors respectively of The Social Construction of Reality and The Abstract Society, seek moderate, measured grounds on which to base contingent beliefs. I'd like to think I do this already, but I'm not so sure about everyone else.

Piers Brendon: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 (2008, Knopf): Big book (816 pp), natch. Nice to see that he dates the decline from the American Revolution: nice to think that we started off by doing something right. Most Brits note that the empire achieved its greatest growth later, but the hideous effect the British had on their subject peoples makes it all look like decline in one sense of another.

James Carroll: Practicing Catholic (2009, Houghton Mifflin): Son of an Air Force General, ordained as a Catholic priest, long-time Boston Globe columnist, has written major books on the Pentagon (House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power) and Catholic anti-semitism (Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews) -- deeply ingrained stains that he was evidently able to overcome without losing his religion.

David C Cassidy: Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb (2009, Bellevue Literary Press): A follow up to Cassidy's 1992 Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg with more info, especially on Heisenberg's controversial role in Nazi Germany's atom bomb project.

Lizzie Collingham: Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (paperback, 2007, Oxford University Press): A history of Indian cuisine in India and the world, with various comings and goings, compromises and coups. Less exploitative, more complex than an economic history.

Graham Farmelo: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (2009, Basic Books): One of the pioneering figures of quantum mechanics. I doubt that it's right to call him a "mystic," but I wouldn't bet against strange.

John Farmer: The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 (2009, Penguin): A pretty detailed chronology of 9/11/2001, likely to be useful as reference if not much more. Author was involved in the official 9/11 report, so I'm not sure how much "untold" he has left to tell.

Howard Fineman: The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country (paperback, 2009, Random House): Who Is a Person? Who is an American? The Role of Faith; The Limits of Individualism; What Can We Know and Say? Who Judges the Law? Debt and Dollar; Local versus National Authority; Presidential Power; The Terms of Trade; War and Diplomacy; The Environment; A Fair, "More Perfect" Union. Mixed reviews on this, but sore losers abound.

Gary Giddins/Scott DeVeaux: Jazz (2009, WW Norton): This takes a bunch of famous jazz performances and tears them apart measure by measure, sometimes note by note. The technical level is way too much for me, but Giddins is one of the essential critics of our age, so I figured I had to pick up a copy. The records are also available in a 4-CD, evidently drawing on the Sony catalog, running about $60. I'd be real surprised if there's anything there I don't have somewhere, so it might be a good mixtape project -- when/if I get the nerve to delve deeper.

Louisa Gilder: The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn (2008, Knopf): Focuses on the further implications of quantum theory which started appearing with Bell's Theorem in 1964, the work of David Bohm, etc. Some fascinating science there, but I've never made much sense out of it, and too often it gets spun into a weird form of mysticism.

John Michael Greer: The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (paperback, 2008, New Society): Archdruid, organic gardener, peak oil blogger. Not clear, but I suspect he sees the descent as future rather than already done, and that he sees it happening slowly as people adapt to alternative lifestyles like, uh, organic gardening. Similar: Sharon Astyk: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front; Pat Murphy: Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change; Lyle Estill: Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy; David Holmgren: Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change; better known is Bill McKibben: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

Ralph Hassig/Kongdan Oh: Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom (2009, Rowman & Littlefield): Not much else available on this subject. We tend to reduce what little we learn into cartoon form -- South Park is a good example. Also new: Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009, Random House).

Hendrik Hertzberg: ˇObámanos!: The Rise of a New Political Era (2009, Penguin): New Yorker political columnist, looks like he's recycling old essays and wrapping them up to look like something new. Includes something on "Palinopsia," which was probably his alternate title if McCain won. "Brouhaha" was about Clinton. I guess he had it covered.

Alexandra Horowitz: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (2009, Scribner): One of those topics you wonder about now and then. Seems like a good idea for a book, but how do we know that the author knows what dogs know? And even if someone knew all that, could it be communicated over an epistemological that is no doubt pretty broad?

Arif Jamal: Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir (2009, Melville House): First thing to understand is that Kashmir is the bee in Pakistan's bonnet, and almost everything that Pakistan's security sector does is done with Kashmir (and India) in mind -- and it's tough to wrap your mind around that because it often makes little sense. The Kashmir conflict is little known, little understood -- well, it doesn't help that it doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense either.

William Kamkwamba/Bryan Mealer: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (2009, Morrow): Story of a 14-year-old boy in Malawi who built his own windmill, bringing electricity, power, and freedom to a small patch of the third world.

Robin DG Kelley: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009, Free Press): Likely to be the essential book on Monk, never a very straightforward subject.

Tracy Kidder: Strength in What Remains (2009, Random House): I've read two of Kidder's books: The Soul of a New Machine and House, both of which showed great skill at explaining technical challenges. His other work is more scattered, hard to characterize. This is the story of a student from Burundi who fled the mid-1990s war there (and more famously in neighboring Rwanda) for New York. Most likely a powerfully human story.

Jen Lin-Liu: Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China (paperback, 2009, Mariner Books): Chinese-American journalist tramps around China, attending cooking schools and checking in on the food industry. Includes some recipes.

Barry C Lynn: Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction (2010, Wiley): Argues that the most dangerous trend in American business is the persistent move towards greater monopoly power. I think he's basically right here, and that this may be an important book. Author previously wrote End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation, which I have on my shelf but unfortunately haven't gotten to.

Barry W Lynn: Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom (paperback, 2007, Three Rivers Press): Author is a minister in the United Church of Christ, concerned both about the politics and theology of the right-wing rush to make this a Christian Nation whether we like it or not.

Margaret MacMillan: Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2009, Modern Library): A short (208 pp.) book on how to lie with history, or how others have lied. A perennial favorite topic.

James E McWilliams: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (2009, Little Brown): Some backlash against the local foods movement, basically arguing that industrial agriculture isn't that bad -- at least that it has some useful economies of scale, and that there's some upside to genetic engineering.

Stephen L Melton: The Clausewitz Delusion: How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward) (2009, MBI): On the faculty at Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College, which is why he sees his job as finding "a way forward." Otherwise, he's pretty effective at showing how nothing the Army is doing these days in Iraq and Afghanistan or pretty much anywhere else has a chance of working. Phrasing this as an argument with Clausewitz is rather obscure, perhaps to obfuscate the core point that the US Army has no worthwhile role in the modern world.

George Packer: Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade (2009, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Wonder how interesting they'd be if he actually understood them?

Ron Paul: End the Fed (2009, Grand Central): In the great debate between freshwater and saltwater economists, Paul sides with the Austrians, who'd gladly forego any kind of water in favor of heavy metals. I like Paul on some issues, and I'm not a fan of the Fed, but I find it really hard to take this seriously.

Scott Rosenberg: Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters (2009, Crown): A history of the blog, or weblog for long, sort of a metablog. Author previously wrote Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software, which seemed likely to be close enough (maybe too close) to its subject matter (but then I've run a lot of code through my dreams).

Jeff Rubin: Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization (2009, Random House): Economist and energy consultant, made his reputation predicting skyrocketing oil prices, and doubles down his bet here. Another new book in this vein is Christopher Steiner: $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better. A hard change is coming.

Richard Sale: Clinton's Secret Wars: The Evolution of a Commander in Chief (2009, Thomas Dunne): When you do the math Clinton engaged in overt and covert wars about as often as the Bushes before and after, although not as flamboyantly as the latter. Sale concludes that by the end of his term Clinton was a "tough-as-nails" commander in chief "in the same vein as Ronald Reagan" (who did more saber-rattling but less actual warmaking). Instead of rolling back the cold war, Clinton kept the military and the CIA back in play, setting up the precedence and expectations that G.W. Bush capitalized on. This is ugly stuff, but probably not a critical writer.

Michael J Sandel: Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (2009, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Philosopher, hacks his way through the long history of thinking on ethics and justice. Looks like a reasonable presentation, worthy of some thought.

Dan Senor/Saul Singer: Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle (2009, Twelve): Senor, you may recall, was the US Army PR flak in charge of bullshitting the media about the US occupation of Iraq. Now a "senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations," he's got a new client and a new line of . . .

Bill Streever: Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places (2009, Little Brown): First-person experiences in extreme cold places, a physical state that is surprisingly alien to our experience. How well this works depends on how well he ties it all together, but one hint is that global warming shows its most profound effects in the cold.

Tristram Stuart: Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009, WW Norton): Looks all over the world food industry to see how much waste there is, and why. Much as the cheapest way to salvage energy is conservation, a good part of dealing with future hunger may be in wringing the inefficiencies out of our current vastly wasteful system.

Terry Teachout: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009, Houghton Mifflin): Major new biography of Armstrong, always a subject of interest and fascination.

Ann Vileisis: Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back (2007, Island Press): The loss has much to do with food processors acting as increasingly opaque mediators between farm and table, a business shift advanced by urbanization. The interesting thing here will be explaining why it matters.

Richard Wrangham: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009, Basic Books): One of many books trying to sort out the differentiator that distinguished human evolution -- another is Derek Bickerton: Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans. Probably more interesting for its analysis of how cooking changed eating. Closely related: Francis D Burton: Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution.

Leonard Zeskind: Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (2009, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Focuses on Willis Carto, William Pierce, and David Duke, who don't strike me as all that mainstream (although other names I see, like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, are more so). Author knows this stuff and has written a fat (672 pp) book on the subject.


Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:

HW Brands: Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008; paperback, 2009, Anchor): Actually, missed this one earlier, but bought it and read it, so I figure I should note it. Big book (912 pp), but I also recently read Ann Hagedorn's big book on 1919 (Savage Peace) and Adam Cohen's book on FDR's first 100 days (Nothing to Fear), and can attest that Brands covered the overlap with remarkably accurate succinctness. Filled in a lot of background I lacked, both on FDR's early interests in politics and on his dedication to plunging the US into WWII. I gather that Jean Edward Smith's FDR covers the same ground and detail equally well.

Tony Horwitz: A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America (2008; paperback, 2009, Picador): Seems like one of those writers who tells a good history yarn by tracing his travels the various spots -- cf. a previous title, Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. [book page]

Rashid Khalidi: Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance of the Middle East (2009; paperback, 2010, Beacon Press): Shows how the US imposed its neuroses onto the Middle East -- a paranoia over communism that put us in bed with Islamic jihadists, a messianic embrace of Israeli and apocalypse that put us on the outs, an obsession with oil and money, and with our own military omnipotence, no matter how often it failed. [book page]

George E Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008; paperback, 2009, University of Chicago Press): Most likely a major book on the development of avant-garde jazz in the 1970s, told by a major figure in his own right.

Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin Press): Big bestseller, consolidating his arguments from The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New Book Notes

Overdue for a books post. Actually, I have enough material for two, so this is the first installment, with another soon. Some emphasis on politics and money this time, but I certainly didn't bag them all.


Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson: The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election (2009, Viking): Looks like this 2008's The Making of the President. Given that it was just about the only political story of 2008 that was adequately (indeed, excessively) covered in real time, I doubt that they have much to add.

William K Black: The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry (paperback, 2005, University of Texas Press): A couple years old and looking back on several scandals ago, but the title is as true as ever, and the lessons evidently still haven't been learned.

Taylor Branch: The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009, Simon & Schuster): The great historian of the civil rights movement sat down with Clinton 79 times to keep a contemporary record of Clinton's sense of his own history. This book is evidently not the verbatim tapes but Branch's comments from each session. Not quite primary sources, but not far removed either.

Christopher Buckley: Losing Mum and Pup (2009, Twelve): The author's famous parents died 11 months apart, triggering this memoir. As mine died three months and three days apart, I can relate, although our sets of parents had nothing at all in common. The Buckleys were born filthy rich, and spent their whole lives in fervent ideological celebration of their good fortune. The son somehow found a sense of humor in this, which sometimes helps him overcome his upbringing.

John Cassidy: How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (2009, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Another book on the financial collapse of 2008, focusing mostly on the shortcomings of conventional economic theory -- all that stuff about robust, rational, reliable, all-seeing and benificent markets. What he calls Utopian Economics.

Kathleen Christison/Bill Christison: Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation (paperback, 2009, Pluto Press): Short book with 50 photographs depicting life in the Occupied Territories.

Stephen S Cohen/J Bradford DeLong: The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money (2010, Basic Books): Well, China, for instance, as opposed to the US, which used to be the world's banker but isn't even its own these days. Short book (176 pp.), simple point.

David Cole, ed: The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable (paperback, 2009, New Press): Given the intellects involved, I wouldn't call what they did unthinkable; shameful, of course, and unconscionable, criminal even. Seems like a lot of these memos have made the rounds already.

John Derbyshire: We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (2009, Crown Forum): Author has previously tended to write about math, although he also wrote a novel about Calvin Coolidge. Attitude here is refreshing in a world which has been, in Barbara Ehrenreich's term, bright-sided. I wouldn't have any trouble taking the same theme and running it from the left. Still, I'd be missing out on some inadvertent humor. For instance, Amazon's "frequently bought together" pairs this with Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life. Customers also bought Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous, and for that matter, Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Rosemarie M Esber: Under the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians (paperback, 2009, Arabicus): Another in-depth (448 pp.) run through the Palestinian disaster of 1948-49, drawing on details from both sides. Ilan Pappe covers similar ground, more briefly, in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Atul Gawande: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009, Metropolitan): Surgeon-writer, has written a couple of good books and some good essays on practicing his craft, especially on learning to do it better. Argues that checklists not only help but are essential for not screwing up, especially in complex, harried tasks, which include but are hardly limited to surgery.

John Gibson: How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History (2009, Harper Collins): Funniest book title of late. I especially love the list of things the left misrepresented Bush on: "his response to 9/11, the Iraq War, warrantless wiretapping, enhanced interrogation techniques, the Surge, uranium from Niger, the number of deaths in Iraq, the federal response to Katrina, and much, much more." Gibson claims that "Bush's performance was much better than most people now believe." Imagine that.

George Gilder: The Israel Test (2009, Richard Vigilante): Do you have what it takes to uncritically support Israel? Can you write: "Tiny Israel stands behind only the United States in its contributions to the hi-tech economy. Israel has become the world's paramount example of the blessings of freedom." Or do you prefer "murderous regimes sustained by envy and Nazi ideology" and "a Marxist zero-sum-game theory of economics [which] has fueled the anti-Semitic ranting of Hitler, Arafat, bin Laden and history's other notorious haters"? I mean, if you have any second thoughts about Israel, how can we be sure you'll line up for all the other Middle East wars we have lined up?

Richard N Haass: War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (2009, Simon & Schuster): A realist functionary in both Bush administrations, a fan of the first Iraq war, a critic of the second, unable to see the connections, e.g., how the first war led to the second.

Victor Davis Hanson: How the Obama Administration Threatens Our National Security (2009, Encounter): One of a series of short "broadsides" (this one is 48 pp.) slandering Obama. I just picked this one out because it's probably the most vacuous. Others include: John Fund: How the Obama Administration Threatens to Undermine Our Elections; David Gratzer: Why Obama's Government Takeover of Health Care Will Be a Disaster; Stephen Moore: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting the US Economy; Andrew C McCarthy: How the Obama Administration Has Politicized Justice; and, of course, Michael A Ledeen: Obama's Betrayal of Israel.

Ron Haskins/Isabel V Sawhill: Creating an Opportunity Society (paperback, 2009, Brookings Institution Press): Haskins was a Bush staff adviser on social policy, since moved on to Brookings. He also wrote, Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. Sawhill, also at Brookings, has co-edited a book with Alice Rivlin, Restoring Fiscal Sanity. So I figure these for pretty conservative types, but Yglesias recommended this, arguing that how can you study inequality without moving to the left?

John Heilemann/Mark Halperin: Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (2010, Harper): Dirt on the campaign trail. It's not like you really thought any of these people were normal.

James Hoggan/Richard Littlemore: Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (paperback, 2009, Douglas & McIntyre): I basically accept the global warming hypothesis, but what I'm more certain of is that the disinformation campaign of business and political interests is way off base, so this book at least should be on relatively firm ground.

Asgeir Jonsson: Why Iceland?: How One of the World's Smallest Countries Became the Meltdown's Biggest Casualty (2009, McGraw-Hill): Interesting case study, although both the extreme boom and the bust were exaggerated by the tiny size of the economy.

Antonia Juhasz: The Tyranny of Oil: The World's Most Powerful Industry -- and What We Must Do to Stop It (2008; paperback, 2009, Harper): Easy enough to paint the oil industry as evil, especially if you go back to Rockefeller and cram it all into 480 pages. Author previously wrote The Bu$h Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time.

Zachary Karabell: Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009, Simon & Schuster): Historian, last two books focused on the Middle East, but before that he did books on Chester Arthur and Harry Truman, so he jumps around. The idea of looking at China and America as one co-dependent economy is interesting, and a good history would be useful.

Richard Kim/Betsy Reed, eds: Going Rouge: An American Nightmare (paperback, 2009, Health Communications): A rip-off, of course, the most obvious difference from the bestseller it mimics is the gloomy sky behind Palin's crazed gaze into space. Note that at least two other books hit on the same title: Bob Silber's Going Rouge: A Candid Look Inside the Mind of Political Conservative Sarah Palin and Julie Sigwart's Going Rouge: The Sarah Palin Rogue Coloring & Activity Book. Still, when I googled the book title, the search engine served up "going rogue" instead. I've seen it suggest more common alternatives, but never substitute one before.

Amanda Little: Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells -- Our Ride to the Renewable Future (2009, Harper): A travelogue of sorts through how we produce and consume energy, realistic enough to recognize the big problems, optimistic enough to think we can handle them. I wouldn't want to say she's wrong.

Frank I Luntz: What Americans Really Want . . . Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears (2009, Hyperion): Republican pollster, strategist, weasel worder -- previous book: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. Could be a useful book if he manages to explain what really drives people to the right as opposed to the mostly idiotic ideologies they find once they get there.

Alfred W McCoy: Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (2009, University of Wisconsin Press): Big book (672 pp) on the US experience in the Philippines, starting with 1898 and the counterinsurgency from then to 1913 then returning periodically as the Philippines required further imperial policing, with side glances at what all that meant for democracy at home. Author has also written: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade; A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Alfred W McCoy/Francisco A Scarano, eds: Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (paperback, 2009, University of Wisconsin Press): Scattered papers, many on the Philippines and Cuba, where the US first got used to the idea and perils of empire, with occasional nods toward Iraq.

Bethany Moreton: To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009, Harvard University Press): Places Wal-Mart in the framework of right-wing Christian movement -- don't know how far it does into other businesses, but there is room to explore how Wal-Mart can get away with its business practices.

Charles R Morris: The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker, and the Maelstrom of Markets (2009, Public Affairs): Author of one of the better books on the crash, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown (doubling the tab for the paperback edition). I'm rather tired of putting finance people on pedestals, although these three are a bit off the beaten path. Still, two of them are primarily known for the basest of reasons: obscene riches.

Greg Mortensen: Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009, Viking): One-time mountaineer, saw a need and starting building schools in rural Pakistan, leading to the book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. This updates the story, including a massive earthquake and the political upheaval of the Taliban. I've always been leery about charitable efforts inside US war zones because they inevitably mix up the messages, although I don't doubt that what he's doing there is more appreciated than Richard Holbrooke's contribution.

David Owen: Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability (2009, Riverhead): New Yorker writer, Connecticut suburb dweller, has written a bunch of books on housebuilding (marvelous) and golf (who cares?). Seems to argue that the bigger the city the better. Conversely, he points out that green-tinged pastoralism doesn't really make much difference.

Robert Palmer: Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer (2009, Scribner): Posthumous anthology, edited by Anthony DeCurtis. Not sure what all is in here, but Palmer is one of the more important historian/critics of early rock and roll and its precursors -- Palmer's Deep Blues is one of the best known books on the subject.

Michael Pollan: Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (paperback, 2009, Penguin): After his important, and bestselling, food book The Omnivore's Dilemma, he seems determined to reduce the essential points, first in In Defense of Food and now in this 112-page "pocket guide." Also has a recent children's edition of Omnivore's Dilemma. Also has a recent reissue of an old book, A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, that strikes my fancies much more.

David Ransom/Vanessa Baird, eds: People-First Economics: Making a Clean Start for Jobs, Justice and Climate (paperback, 2009, World Changing): Contributions by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Susan George, Walden Bello, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Evo Morales.

Wayne Allyn Root: The Conscience of a Libertarian: Empowering the Citizen Revolution with God, Guns, Gambling & Tax Cuts (2009, John Wiley & Sons): Uh, drugs; you forgot drugs. Gotta have drugs to be free, not to mention solvent.

Arundhati Roy: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (2009, Haymarket): Essay collection, mostly on Indian politics, which is troubled on several accounts.

Joe Sacco: Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel (2009, Metropolitan): The history of a couple of incidents in Gaza under cover of the 1956 Suez War, one leaving 111 Palestinians dead and casting a long shadow on the subsequent occupation. Sacco has been doing this sort of thing for a while. He has a previous graphic "novel" called Palestine, and others, including Safe Area Goradze: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995.

Andrew Ross Sorkin: Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves (2009, Viking): Most likely one of the more important histories of the financial debacle of 2008, focusing on the politics of Washington basically in thrall to Wall Street.

Joseph E Stiglitz: Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (2010, WW Norton): Been waiting for him to weigh in on the global meltdown, and this is it. Reading a long review at Amazon it looks to me like he caught just about everything.

Benjamin Tupper: Welcome To Afghanistan: Send More Ammo: The Tragicomic Art of Making War as an Embedded Trainer in the Afghan National Army (paperback, 2009, Epigraph): I don't usually post these soldier chronicles, figuring the soldiers are the most ignorant and least interesting people writing, so take this with a grain of salt, but be free to wonder how all this is supposed to work out. I've lost count of soldier books on Iraq, but Afghanistan is more sparsely documented. Some titles include: Mark W Bromwich: Captains Blog: The Chronicles of My Afghan Vacation; Jeff Courter: Afghan Journal: A Soldier's Year in Afghanistan; Joe LeBleu: Long Rifle: A Sniper's Story in Iraq and Afghanistan; Platte B Moring III: Honor First: A Citizen-Soldier in Afghanistan; Craig M Mullaney: The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education; Mike Ryan: Battlefield Afghanistan; Doug Stanton: Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan; Regulo Zapata Jr: Desperate Lands: The War on Terror Through the Eyes of a Special Forces Soldier; more grandiosely, Dalton Fury: Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander's Account of the Hunt for the World's Most Wanted Man; also, Vladislav Tamarov: Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story; and, what the hell, Ali Ahmad Jalali: Afghan Guerrilla Warfare: In the Words of the Mujahideen Fighters.

Ben White: Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide (paperback, 2009, Pluto Press): Short (144 pp), case is pretty straightforward, don't you think?


Will do paperback reissues next time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2008 Meta File Performance

I happened to stumble across last year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop results, and thought I should compare them to last year's Meta File, just to get an idea how closely they correlate. It's worth noting that last year I looked at far fewer lists -- the winner count was 41 vs. 224 this year -- which may or may not mean anything. The following table shows the top 46 from the Meta file, everything that counted 13 or more. The right two columns are: where the record placed in P&J, and P&J rank divided by Meta file rank. In the latter column, anything less than 1.0 did better in P&J than it did in my Meta rankings. Anything more than 1.0 was overrated by my Meta method. Because I have more ties, the norm is actually a bit more than 1.0.

1.TV on the Radio: Dear Science (Interscope)11.000
2.Portishead: Third (Mercury)31.500
 Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend (XL)21.000
4.Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)41.000
5.Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)81.600
 Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III (Cash Money)61.200
7.Santogold: Santogold (Downtown)71.000
8.MGMT: Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia)172.125
9.Girl Talk: Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)151.667
 The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (Vagrant)131.444
 No Age: Nouns (Sub Pop)141.556
12.Erykah Badu: New Amerykah, Pt 1: 4th World War (Motown)50.417
13.Nick Cave: Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-)90.692
14.Beck: Modern Guilt (Interscope)412.929
 Coldplay: Viva La Vida (Capitol)211.500
16.Hercules and Love Affair: Hercules and Love Affair (Mute)181.125
 Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)120.750
18.Sigur Rós: Með Suð I Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (XL)543.000
19.Deerhunter: Microcastle (Kranky)110.579
 M83: Saturdays=Youth (Mute)281.474
 The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely (Warner Bros.)703.684
 REM: Accelerate (Warner Bros)251.316
 The Roots: Rising Down (Def Jam)392.053
 Al Green: Lay It Down (Blue Note)462.421
 Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (Astralwerks)331.737
26.Los Campesinos!: Hold on Now, Youngster . . . (Arts & Crafts)220.846
27.Cut Copy: In Ghost Colours (Modular)230.852
 Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Flight (Fat Cat)341.259
 My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (ATO)160.593
30.Black Keys: Attack and Release (Nonesuch)551.833
 Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West)270.900
 Duffy: Rockferry (Island/Mercury)531.767
 Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)381.267
 Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple (Atlantic)1143.800
 Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash (Matador)431.433
 Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It (Columbia)190.633
37.The Bug: London Zoo (Ninja Tune)1082.919
 Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway)601.622
 Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (Atlantic/WEA)471.270
 Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid (Geffen)441.189
 Flying Lotus: Los Angeles (Warp)591.595
 Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song (Mercury Nashville)561.514
 Kings of Leon: Only by the Night (RCA)350.946
 Lykke Li: Youth Novels (Atlantic)812.189
 Metallica: Death Magnetic (Warner Bros)371.000
 Conor Oberst: Conor Oberst (Merge)862.324

The top four are pretty much dead on. The biggest drops from my Meta list are: Gnarls Barkley (114/30: 3.800), Raconteurs (70/19: 3.684), Sigur Rós (54/18: 3.000), Beck (41/13: 2.929), Bug (108/37: 2.919), Al Green (46/19: 2.421), Conor Oberst (86/37: 2.324), Lykke Li (81/37: 2.189), MGMT (17/8: 2.125), Roots (39/19: 2.053). Aside from P&J prejudice against Scandinavians, I don't see much trend there. Gnarls Barkley won the song category, so that outlet probably explains the album vote drop.

The big gains here were: Erykah Badu (5/12: 0.417), Deerhunter (11/19: 0.579), My Morning Jacket (16/27: 0.593), Raphael Saadiq (19/30: 0.633), Nick Cave (9/13: 0.692), Randy Newman (12/16: 0.750). Badu broke late, and I can attest that Saadiq and Newman had records that kept gaining on you. But to get a better sense of what the Meta file missed, you need to look at the records that finished in the top 40 P&J that didn't make the above list. The first number below is the P&J finish rank, and the last number is the raw count from the Meta file. I don't have a good way of merging these in with the above, but note that 12 just missed the above list by one.

10.Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella)5
20.Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs - Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (Columbia/Legacy)10
24.The Gaslight Anthem: The '59 Sound (Side One Dummy)6
26.Q-Tip: The Renaissance (Universal Motown)10
29.She & Him: Volume One (Merge)12
30.David Byrne/Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo)11
31.Torche: Meanderthal (Hydra Head)3
32.The Walkmen: You & Me (Gigantic)12
36.Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal (Back Porch)10
40.TI: Paper Trail (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)7

Kanye West broke real late, and was a record that initially disappointed most critics, many of whom then turned around and decided that it was pretty good after all. It's safe to say that there's no such record this year. Dylan was caught between the new/reissue division many lists impose, but he also always does better in P&J than elsewhere. Torche, Gaslight Anthem, and TI had significant jumps, but the others were within statistical range.

In any comparison like this, you'd expect that the correlation would be tighter at the top, and looser at the bottom as the samples get ever smaller, and that's pretty much what you get here. Other than the surprise gains by Badu and West I don't see much out of line. I don't see any comparable records this year, although I do expect the late-arriving Ghostface Killah to do a bit better than my Meta file suggests. Mary J Blige too, but she came in late even for the P&J deadline. Historically, P&J voters have tended to provide token support for a couple of select black albums each year, which gives the sort of pattern we see here -- Badu and West significantly up, Roots and Green down. Raekwon and Mos Def are the leaders this year (at 17 and 19), but I doubt that either has the crossover support to break top-10.

So I think this will go pretty much as expected. Which means, among other things, the surprises will be surprising.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Israel/Carter

Good letter from Laura Tillem in Wichita Eagle this morning, under title "Honor cease-fire":

Regarding "Gaza reality" (Jan. 11 Letters to the Editor): What is it with these Israel defenders that they cannot admit what the Israeli Foreign Ministry itself confirmed? During the cease-fire from June to November 2008, before the attack on Gaza, there were almost no rockets from Gaza. So the Hamas authorities were obviously working hard to prevent angry Gazans from launching rockets into southern Israel -- because it was a cease-fire.

Then on Nov. 4, 2008, Israel broke the cease-fire by assassinating several Gazans. No doubt the Israel defenders will give an excuse for that, but it sure does explain that there is a way to stop the rockets -- honor the cease-fire.

As one of many American and Israeli Jews who oppose Israeli policy, I cannot believe how blind those in the Israel lobby are to the danger they are bringing to both Jews and Palestinians.

We watched a movie a couple days ago: a documentary Jonathan Demme made about Jimmy Carter's publicity tour in support of his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. There was a lot of "how dare you" interviews which gave Carter opportunity to respond and explain, and there were things there I'd quibble with. In particular, he defines Palestine as a real place separate from Israel -- presumably he's following the Green Line -- and he limits his apartheid charge to Palestine, exempting Israel, which he repeatedly praises as an open and democratic society. The actual situation is more complex, with many elements of segregation and discrimination applied to the so-called Israeli Citizens of Palestinian Descent that managed to survive the 1948 war without fleeing, lived through 20 years of military rule, and 40 more years as second-class citizens, both economically and politically. Their status is certainly more benign than that of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. In those cases South African-style apartheid would be an improvement. There is in fact no word that adequately describes life under the arbitrary and capricious boot of Israeli occupation. In particular, the signature of oppressed peoples everywhere is economic servitude, but countries like South Africa or classes like the white owners of the Jim Crow South are dependent on ultracheap labor, which gives that labor some small measure of power and respect. This is not the case in Occupied Palestine, where Israelis have become utterly indifferent to Palestinian labor.

This indifference has rendered Palestinians invisible to Israelis, at least beyond their utility as cartoon demons. Although it's only a tiny part of the movie, one thing you will notice is how pro-Israel, anti-Carter hecklers can't conceive of anyone other than Israel as having legitimate rights and desires. The most obvious case is the guy who screams, presumably at Palestinians, "You are nothing!" The same sentiment is often raised to a political argument, as when our local Israel sentry -- the source of the article Laura responded to -- tried to answer every legitimate complaint about Israel occupation, including the devastating siege of Gaza in 2006, by bringing up the homemade rockets fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli villages. He, like nearly every propagandist Israel employs, implies that only Israel's security matters, and that nothing that Israel ever does can ever be faulted because to do so would endanger Israel -- and Jews worldwide. In other words, he is saying that only We matter, that no one else matters; that only We have rights, that no one else does.

One question then is why do they worry about being tagged for apartheid (or racism)? The central problem with these terms isn't whether they are accurate. What Israel's flaks are responding to is the implicit recognition that apartheid and racism, therefore Israel, are things that decent people should oppose. They could care less about accuracy, because they've become so blinded to what they actually do in the Occupied Territories, but they can't abide by the notion that they should be criticized. The irony of all this is that throughout its entire history Israel has never shied away from embracing racist allies, starting with Imperial Britain and continuing to the colonial French in Algeria, good ol' Jim Crow America, and especially apartheid-era South Africa. Israel is the last of the White Settler Republics, hanging on for dear life. As the first, it's not surprising that America should be Israel's great ally, but more and more we're getting over that, which threatens to leave Israel as stranded as they expect to be.


Matthew Yglesias: Jimmy Carter. Seems like a reasonable summary of the Carter presidency, but this misses some context and significance. No doubt that Carter was more aware of major problems facing the nation, and more willing to face them even at personal sacrifice, than any other president in his era -- you have to go back to Truman to find anyone with remotely similar traits. (Hoover was similarly snakebit by events, but it's hard to see any of his principles that have been vindicated by history.) The Volcker Recession is the most obvious example, not least because it's the one that killed Carter's reelection campaign. By contrast, Nixon and both Bushes pulled all sorts of strings to keep interest rates arbitrarily low: in Nixon's case that led to galloping stagflation and Volcker's constriction; for Bush I the excess money was shunted into bubbles that soon collapsed in Mexico and later in East Asia; for Bush II the money went into the real estate bubble and its subsequent collapse. But in all three cases cheap money helped paper over lagging economic performance and -- excepting Bush I -- got disastrous presidents reelected. You can say that Carter gave himself up for the better management of the US economy, but it's harder to say that that was a good thing. The real problem with Carter's presidency is that he lost it to Ronald Reagan, and not only did he give way to Reagan, he paved the way.

A number of the things that Reagan became notorious for actually started under Carter. One was the turn to deregulation, which seems to have been a good idea for trucking, a mixed one with airlines and telecommunications, and a disastrous one with banking. Maybe a second Carter term would have managed the mistakes better, but Reagan made them worse. The Volcker Recession is another case in point. Inflation was a real problem, although it's never been all that clear to me how much of a problem it was. What was clear was that under Reagan the purpose of the recession became to bust the unions. Inflationary pricing caused by quasi-monopolies has never seemed to bother the Fed, as long as workers don't have the pull to index their wages to the cost of living. The persistent fall of real wages since Volcker may not have been part of the original plan, but it was by the time Reagan got through with it.

Carter also got a leading jump on the Reagan military buildup. He instigated a new aggressiveness with the Soviet Union, most publicly by boycotting Moscow's first-ever Olympics, but more notoriously by sponsoring the Afghan Mujahideen even before the Soviet Union moved troops into Afghanistan. Again, what Carter did was much more modest than Reagan's escallation, but once again it was easier for Reagan to move once Carter had pointed the way. It was also under Carter that the US formalized its self-appointed hegemony over the Persian Gulf: what was for a long time called the Carter Doctrine. He didn't really invent the idea -- the US had been picking up the pieces of the British Empire for several decades and had had ties to the Saudis back as far as WWII -- but in pushing the idea he did much to break up Iran and leave us permanently, precariously estranged. In that regard he didn't pave the way for Reagan so much as for the two Bushes.

Like all Democratic presidents since Roosevelt, Carter was elected by the left which he then shunned in favor of the rich and entrenched. His accomodation to Reaganism was one way he wound up hurting democracy in America. Still, thirty years later it's tempting to cut him some slack. No former president in US history has worked harder to redeem himself, and we see that in many ways, from his everyday piety to his willingness to interpose himself in conflicts all around the world. His constant efforts and example, more than anything else, tempt us to revise our estimation of his presidency. As Yglesias points out, there is some merit to that, but I'm inclined to look at it differently. The old saw is that "power corrupts" -- and Carter's presidency was his taste of power. His failures there no doubt involved some measure of bad luck, but they mostly derived from his compromises with entrenched power, and his sense of how to accommodate it. Once out of office, he's been much more free to pursue, and respect, his own conscience. Give him credit for that, but also take note of what the presidency and the political machinations that got him there did to him. Those pressures are, after all, even more institutionalized today, which is one big reason Obama is so hard pressed to live up to the hopes invested in him.


I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't point out my book pages on Carter's books on Israel:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Year End List Wrapup

I wasted the last couple of days poking through a hundred or so late-arriving year-end lists, adding count and notes to my meta file before deciding that I'm done with the research for this year. Looking back, I wish I had been more systematic, although I dread that doing so would have entailed even more work -- possibly much more. I especially wish I had kept a list of links to (some of) the lists with (some) notes on them: while most were hideously designed and sloppily conceived, there were exceptions, and a few of the more specialized lists (e.g., on electronica) might bear further scrutiny.

I kept notes on most of the multi-critic publication lists, as well as a few critics of personal interest (including myself), but in most cases I just tallied up counts of references. When lists overran ten I usually kept counting -- some ran on to 100, and some of those I counted. (Jazz critic Bill Milkowski had the longest list, at 130, which I didn't count for no better reason than fatigue at the moment. It's actually a pretty good list.) I picked blogs whenever the name struck my fancy, but didn't hit anywhere near all of them. I did go out of my way to grab as many jazz, country, hip-hop, and electronica lists as possible. I didn't do the same for metal, but didn't avoid it either, winding up with a couple dozen lists. About the only thing that turned me off immediately was Christian Music, although I think I also passed on a Pop Jazz list, and can't recall seeing any New Age. In a couple of cases I dug all the way through individual voter lists (one I recall was Dusted), although sometimes I tried to amalgamate them (one count for any record listed by any voter; examples were Jazz Times and Other Music). Some prolific writers got counted multiple times (a couple I recall are Michaelangelo Matos and Geoffrey Himes). I counted all of my B+(**) ratings and all of Rober Christgau's single-* HMs, but I didn't incorporate his year-end Dean's List. I tried to track down sources that I had used in the past, but sometimes couldn't find them or make any sense out of what I found (Billboard is a prime example of the latter). I picked up a lot of reissues and compilations, hoping that those lists will provide some fodder for future Recycled Goods columns. I avoided EP and singles lists, bootlegs and mixtapes, but some survived anyway. (Indeed, the lines there are not always crystal clear.) Toward the end, I occasionally skipped albums not already on the list, figuring the returns didn't justify the work. I also found I screwed a few things up -- especially cases where an artist had multiple titles (Lady Gaga's The Fame and The Fame Monster is a case in point, all the messier because the latter has more than one configuration, including or excluding the former).

I want to start here by listing the top 50. In brackets at the end of the line I include the total count and my grade -- in most cases based on a quick review from Rhapsody.

  1. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote) [224: *]
  2. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion, (Domino) [212: *]
  3. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (Warp) [191: B-]
  4. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino) [158: C+]
  5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz (Interscope/DGC/Dress Up) [149: A-]
  6. The XX: XX (XL) [143: ***]
  7. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti-) [113: B]
  8. St Vincent: Actor (4AD) [100: **]
  9. Girls: Album (True Panther/Matador) [96: A-]
  10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland) [95: ***]
  11. Passion Pit: Manners (Frenchkiss) [94: *]
  12. Fever Ray (Mute) [93: *]
  13. The Antlers: Hospice (Frenchkiss) [90: **]
  14. The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros) [90: **]
  15. Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch) [86: **]
  16. Japandroids: Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl) [85: *]
  17. Raekwon: Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. 2 (Ice H2O) [82: ***]
  18. Bat for Lashes: Two Suns (Astralwerks) [81: B-]
  19. Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown) [76: A-]
  20. Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career (4AD) [72: *]
  21. The Decemberists: Hazards of Love (Capitol) [72: *]
  22. The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (Columbia) [67: B]
  23. Florence and the Machine: Lungs (Island) [67: B]
  24. Metric: Fantasies (Metric International) [67: A-]
  25. Atlas Sound: Logos (Kranky) [66: *]
  26. Mastodon: Crack the Skye (Warner Bros) [64: B]
  27. Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (Fat Possum) [63: *]
  28. Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport (ATP) [59: A-]
  29. The Horrors: Primary Colours (XL) [58: **]
  30. Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3 (Roc Nation) [55: **]
  31. Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador) [55: A-]
  32. Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope) [53: ?]
  33. Micachu & the Shapes: Jewellery (Rough Trade) [52: *]
  34. Wild Beasts: Two Dancers (Domino) [51: *]
  35. Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Drag City) [49: ?]
  36. Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar) [46: ?]
  37. Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You (Capitol) [44: A+]
  38. Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (Domino) [44: B-]
  39. The Dead Weather: Horehound (Third Man/Warner Bros) [44: A-]
  40. Dinosaur Jr: Farm (Jagjaguwar) [44: B-]
  41. Antony and the Johnsons: The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian) [43: ?]
  42. Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La) [43: **]
  43. Future of the Left: Travels with Myself and Another (4AD) [42: *]
  44. Regina Spektor: Far (Sire) [42: **]
  45. Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador) [42: ***]
  46. Dan Deacon: Bromst (Carpark) [40: **]
  47. Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord) [39: ?]
  48. La Roux: La Roux (Cherry Tree) [38: *]
  49. U2: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope) [38: B]
  50. Doom: Born Like This (Lex) [37: ***]

I started the file early last year, tracking reviews as they came out in places like Blender and Rolling Stone, adding in AMG's monthly Editor's Choices and several other convenient sources (which exclude webzines like Pitchfork and Pop Matters that aren't convenient at all). So the early leader was Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but as soon as the year-end lists started accumulating, Phoenix pulled out front, followed closely by Animal Collective. For a while Animal Collective even pulled ahead, only to lose the lead in the last week. As it turns out, the top three or four records were joined on most of the same lists, with Animal Collective almost invariably finishing above the others: of the lists I noted, Animal Collective scored 15 first place finishes, Phoenix 3, Grizzly Bear 2, Dirty Projectors 2. Those lists also tended to intersect with Passion Pit, Antlers, Atlas Sound, Horrors, and Wild Beasts. (Possibly others: I don't have the data organized to check, so I'm mostly working from memory. One needs to distinguish here between single author lists and multi-input lists. The latter would show a lot of intersection with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and St Vincent, but often from different sources. On the other hand, hardly anyone who picked Wild Beasts didn't also go for Animal Collective and/or Grizzly Bear.)

In his year end essay, Robert Christgau makes a distinction between "young people's records" (specifically listing Phoenix, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors) and old folks' records (Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Loudon Wainwright III, Marianne Faithfull, and Neil Young were in his top 20; they averaged 9 counts each in my accounting, which is arguably biased in their favor). That's an easy conclusion when you're 67, or 59 in my case -- I made a similar comment when I first tried to write up my sense of Animal Collective.

I certainly haven't listened to Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, or Dirty Projectors enough to register more than my limited amusement with the first and initial distaste for the latter two. I'm inclined to give them credit for being alien, mostly because I don't see how so many conscientious critics can warm to them unless there's something coherent to them that I haven't been able to discern. I know from my own experience that records that defy your expectations take a while longer to sort out. One indication that there might be more here comes from Nate Chinen's 10, where he mixes Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear in with 5 hip jazz picks (Steve Lehman, Henry Threadgill, Vijay Iyer, Fly, and Darcy James Argue) along with 3 more scattered non-jazz, non-rock picks (Brad Paisley, Rihanna, Oumou Sangare). Ben Ratliff, the other New York Times jazz critic, also included Dirty Projectors in his 10 (along with Lehman and Iyer, some more idiosyncratic jazz records, Bill Callahan and Raekwon). Still, my first encounter doesn't seem to promise much, and it doesn't seem cost effective to proceed. About the only musician I forced myself to listen to enough to eventually come around on was Charlie Parker.

There are other records on the list that I can imagine growing on me: XX, Antlers, Fever Ray, Horrors, Flaming Lips. But most of the these work in ways I feel I understand well enough. On the other hand, Phoenix (and Neko Case and Florence and Bat for Lashes and maybe St Vincent) strikes me as just ankle deep, pleasant but uninteresting and inconsequential, with dozens or more antecedents every bit as worthwhile. Putting them so far up the list suggests the idea that the critics are just ignorant and/or lazy.

Certainly, it's a big stretch to expect young critics to bring forth the specific backgrounds to contextualize Cohen or Nelson/Wills or Wainwright/Poole. Christgau represents the first and last generation to span the whole history of rock, starting with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley when they were brand new. Eight years younger, I learned my Berry and Buddy Holly songs from the Beatles and the Stones, and couldn't quite take Presley seriously after his movies and army tour. It wasn't hard for me to recover the history I missed, at least back to King Oliver and Bessie Smith, and doing so gave me a new appreciation of figures I had known from my childhood, like Nat Cole and Presley. Recorded pop music doesn't go back much past 1920, so I've experienced a little more than half of everything in real time. Anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana has a big disadvantage -- all the more so because the world keeps getting more and more complicated.

One measure of how complicated the world has become is that my meta list adds up to 3137 new records plus 626 recycled ones. Critics are notoriously obscurantist, but there's more going on here than the desire to identify with something no one else knows about. I didn't keep a close count, but it looks like I consulted approximately 600 lists, so the top three showed up on 30-35% of the lists, numbers 8-14 around half that. Only 27 records showed up on 10% of the lists; 70 records on 5%. I'm a little surprised that the lists are as concentrated as they are: the top groups are popular, but not very, and once you get into the blogs it gets hard to blame it all on hype. Still, it must start there: why, after all, should so many people think that a group as slight as Phoenix is worth taking seriously? I don't know how writers decide which artists to take seriously and which not, but there must be some parameters here. One thing of interest is that the top 13 are all artists who emerged this decade, with several first albums (XX, Girls, Pains, you can also count Fever Ray). The list breaks at Flaming Lips and Wilco, and there's not much more in the top 50: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo, U2, the list's four rappers. Most groups do have an active span of less than ten years, but I don't recall past lists being skewed like this.

Four hip-hop records (Raekwon, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Doom) seems light for the top 50. Not much more further down either: Kid Cudi (51), K'Naan (69), POS (86), Brother Ali (94), Tanya Morgan (119), DJ Quik & Kurupt (122), UGK, Wale, J Dilla, Eminem, Slaughterhouse, Ghostface Killah -- the latter would have topped 10 mentions if the album dropped sooner, but Black Eyed Peas didn't do any better with a big headstart. The few hip-hop lists I found reiterated these same names and not much more. The first two or three showed up in most of the magazine lists, but that was about it. All sorts of pop/dance music suffered poorly on the list. The most talked-about artist of the year -- at least she dominated Salon's Breakfast Club -- was Lady Gaga. But even if you added her two records into one tally, she would have wound up tied with M Ward at 64, just behind soul leader Maxwell.

No world music albums came close: Christgau predicted that Amadou & Mariam will finish Pazz & Jop top 40, but I have it down at 150. Unless you count Somali rapper K'Naan, the top world album was Very Best at 82, followed by Tinariwen and Mulatu Astatke (picking up some jazz voters). Oumou Sangare, which I had in my top 10, didn't crack 10 mentions. Ghana Special did fairly well among the reissues, but I can come close to attributing all of Franco's mentions to personal friends. I was on the lookout for world music lists, but I found very few.

Same thing for country. Unless you count the Avett Brothers at 22 (and I can't imagine why), the top country album was Miranda Lambert at 56, followed by Brad Paisley at 79, then Justin Townes Earle, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, Patty Loveless, and George Strait -- the latter two with just 11 mentions (and, actually, subpar albums), then superb albums by Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel and Loudon Wainwright III. Again, I looked for lists, and did a better job of finding them, but they turned out to be awfully narrow. Good records by John Anderson and Tanya Tucker were all but ignored. Hits were ignored too.

One more list here: new records (excluding 2008 releases and items on my reissue/vault music list) on Christgau's "Dean's List" that tallied less than 15: Loudon Wainwright III, Leonard Cohen (13), Black Eyed Peas (10), Wussy, Serengeti, Oumou Sangare, Nellie McKay, Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel (10), Marianne Faithfull, Ghostface Killah (10), Moby (13), Neil Young, Richard Hell, Coathangers, Hold Steady, Glasvegas (13), Death Cab for Cutie (EP), Modest Mouse (EP), Fruit Bats (10), Patterson Hood (10), Goran Bregorovic, Rhett Miller, Deer Tick (11), God Help the Girl (14), An Horse, New York Dolls, Living Things, Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, Shakira (14), Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, The Lonely Island, Lady Sovereign, Group Bombino, Staff Benda Bilili. I originally thought of drawing the line at 10, but found so many notable 10-14 records. There are more in the 15-19 range: PJ Harvey/John Parish, Tegan and Sara, Tune-Yards, Mulatu Astatke/Heliocentrics, White Denim, Amadou & Mariam. Above that there Jay Reatard (22), Brad Paisley (28), K'Naan (29), Dark Was the Night (33), Miranda Lambert (34), all out of the top 50. (That leaves 14 records in the top 50.) Doesn't look like he has very long coattails, does it?

I can't find offhand any previous analysis comparing my meta lists to Pazz & Jop poll results. As I recall, they matched fairly closely. P&J will poll slightly more voters than I looked at lists, but the ballots are capped at 10 records each, so the final tally tends to run 1600-1800 records. Christgau expects some degree of shift to older, more mainstream artists, even holding out a chance that Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- a young group that's perfectly comprehensible to anyone schooled since 1970 -- might win. If so, you should see Wilco move up from 15 toward 10; Sonic Youth from 31 toward 20; U2 from 49 toward 40; Bob Dylan from 74 toward 50. A second effect you should see would be records with high rankings gaining against records with broad support. Most clearly, that favors Animal Collective, and possibly its followers, over Phoenix. It's hard to say who else benefits down list, but I think Lily Allen will wind up moving from 37 toward 30. The ballot deadline is also later than deadlines for most year-end lists. One record this favors is XX. It could also help Ghostface Killah and Mary J Blige emerge from nowhere, but both are probably too late. Hip-hop records are likely to gain a bit, but not much. Lambert and Paisley are also likely to gain, although cracking the top 40 will be tough. Metal bands like Mastodon, Converge, and Sunn O))) have never done well, so I expect them to slip. The UK polls can be discounted, which will knock Arctic Monkeys way down, and may also hurt Bat for Lashes and Florence, less so Camera Obscura.

The main point of these polls isn't who wins but what you can learn from them. One thing is that they help point out records worth checking out. Another is that they tell you something about the people writing about music. It would be nice to have some better data on who those people are, but the picks themselves tell you something. If only you can puzzle it out.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Music Week

Music: Current count 16247 [16203] rated (+44), 786 [784] unrated (+2). Miserable cold week, with a couple of days dipping below zero, and none providing any relief. Failed again to make any significant Jazz CG progress. Fiddled now and then with year end lists, and streamed a lot of crap from Rhapsody, which bumped the rated count way up while not making any sort of dent in the backlog queue.

  • Dark Was the Night (2009, 4AD, 2CD): B+(*) [Rhapsody]
  • Franco: Francophonic Vol. 2 (1980-89 [2009], Sterns Africa, 2CD): A+
  • Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven (2009, Piranha): [was: B+(***)] A-
  • Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy: Good Time Music for Hard Times (2009, Stony Plain): A-


No Jazz Prospecting

Miserable week here. Bitter cold, which has never bothered me quite so much. Did manage to finish H.W. Brands' 800-page Franklin Roosevelt biography, Traitor to His Class. Fiddled with year-end list stuff, which I expect to wrap up today. That meant streaming a lot of stuff from Rhapsody: a couple of finds (Fruit Bats, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Khaled) and near-finds (2562, Lack of Afro), some hyped albums that weren't as bad as I expected (Horrors, Wild Beasts, Decemberists, Baroness, Health, Dan Deacon, Big Pink, Andrew Bird), some that were worse (Dinosaur Jr., Brendan Benson, Julian Casablancas). Will post that later this week.

Sorry about the jazz. I've played things but just haven't felt like writing about them. Jazz Consumer Guide is in same state it's been in for 3-4 weeks now: full up, needs some tweaking including a few records I've put off too long. Have a lot of new stuff to listen to, but closing out this column is mostly figuring out what to do with what I've already sorted out. Could take a week, maybe two, but can't be committed until I get started. Safe to say the likely publication date has slipped well into February.

Warmed up to about 40F today, so that's a relief. Finished my data file on year-end lists. Will write up something on that soon, once I make sure it all looks right.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

List Things

Geoffrey Himes: The Himes 100: As a list, the 100 records are nicely distributed with jazz and pan-country especially well represented, but also Mika, K'Naan, Tinariwen, the Decemberists, Prince, a couple of classical albums (including a new John Adams). His jazz is more mainstream than mine, and he praises country albums I regard as disappointments (Steve Earle, George Strait, Patty Loveless), but he's on target often enough I wonder about the ones I don't know. Also not just a list: he writes something sensible about every entry, which is rare in the world (and more than I've ever attempted).

Country Music Critics' Poll - The Results: Geoffrey Himes seems to have coordinated this. Based on 77 critics. Don't have individual ballots. Miranda Lambert's Revolution beat down Brad Paisley. Dolly Parton's box won the reissue category.

Jazzhouse Diaries: Many top-ten lists from Jazz Journalists Association writers, some going well beyond ten (e.g., Bill Milkowski, who doesn't stop until 130).

Metacritic: Best of 2009: A relatively good summary of much of the year-end lists action, including links to many polls, Larghearted Boy's list of lists, and Acclaimed Music's spreadsheet.

A couple more lists:

  • Fast 'n' Bulbous
  • Jason Gross
  • Chris Monsen: "Perennial entries by Joe Lovano (ok-ish record) and Keith Jarret (yawn) makes me think too many Jazz critics have lazy ears, don't search hard enough for good music anymore, or are plainly just too conservative."

Should have kept more of these things. I had a Michaelangelo Matos list at one point, but can't find it now. (Here's part of it.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Rhapsody Streamnotes: Year End Edition

Spent way too much time during December collating year-end lists, but they gave me some hints as to what I've been missing. In years past I used to scrounge around used shops to scrounge up a few things to take a risk on. Much easier (and cheaper) to dial them up from Rhapsody, at least when I can find them. Usual caveats apply: only one or two plays leading to a snap judgment, which might be a bit generous but more often is cautious. Usually this quenches my curiosity, but on sometimes I've sought out records that I first encountered this way, and a couple of those I've bumped my rating on. Certainly the critics who are pushing Phoenix [a previous B+(*)], Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors to the top of the polls have listened to them more than I ever will. I don't doubt that greater exposure will make them seem less alien, and might even lead me to grant them some technical points, but I've listened enough to not care: I will always have better things to play.

This and previous sets are archived here.


Insert main section of file here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Recycled Goods (69): December 2009

File here.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Music Week

Music: Current count 16203 [16194] rated (+9), 784 [770] unrated (+14). Laura had the week off, which didn't result in us doing much, but I had a tough time concentrating, and mostly played year-end music that I had already rated. Also, the weather was brutally cold, with a couple of trivial snows.

No Jazz Prospecting

Just didn't happen last week. Did some work on the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll (see here for results and ballots); fiddled with my own year-end list meta rankings, which have tightened up to a dead heat between Animal Collective and Phoenix; and listened to some stuff for Recycled Goods and another Rhapsody report, which should get posted soon.

Now that the holidays are over, I should be able to concentrate better on finishing off that Jazz Consumer Guide column. I would be more confident but the cold weather has been really bothering me, and the forecast is for sub-zero later this week. Arizona is starting to look like a good idea.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Holiday Movies

Tried to catch some movies over the holidays, but with all the inclement didn't manage to get out much.

Movie: Where the Wild Things Are: Didn't take a lot away from this, other than to remember childhood as a time best forgotten. The monsters didn't seem very functional: they did join enthusiastically into Max's violent fantasies, but the wear and tear was rough. B

Movie: Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie's action film ultimately recapitulated the rational deductions of the master sleuth, but in quickly tossed off sequences after running us through huge amounts of hokum. The action sequences were better cut short for the trailer, where their outrageousness is more amusing. Robert Downey and Jude Law were entertaining, at least when Rachel McAdams wasn't around. Still, the only thing I was repeatedly struck by was the set direction. B

Movie: Invictus: Title comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley, referred to by Nelson Mandela trying to inspire the Springboks rugby team captain. A sports story tailor made for film: how post-Apartheid South Africa united behind a rugby team that had long been a symbol of Afrikaner racial dominance, and how the team's captain, and ultimately the team, picked itself up to win a World Cup. Someone would have inevitably done this, but we're lucky Clint Eastwood got the story -- not least for casting Nelson Mandela with the note-perfect Morgan Freeman. The scenes are eye-opening, the substory with the body guards measures the pulse of the movie. The big game drama is a bit of an ordeal, especially without much comprehension of the sport. My main thought during that slog was: thank God they're not playing cricket. B+

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Big Zero

Paul Krugman: The Big Zero. Another take on the formally departed decade:

But from an economic point of view, I'd suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true. [ . . . ]

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it's hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we're in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is -- tax cuts and deregulation.

So let's bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero -- the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing.

Krugman has a long list of zeros: zero job growth, zero growth in real income for median households, even near-zero stock market appreciation. When it comes to learning nothing, Krugman can even cite some controlled cases, like Larry Summers in 1999 and Larry Summers now. I wouldn't say that nobody's learned anything, but it is clear that whoever manages these things has managed to keep any hard-won insights far away from the centers of power. One can blame Obama for this, in that if he had such insights and a bit of courage he should be able to enter them into public discourse. On the other hand, it strikes me as more than coincidental that Clinton was in much the same position in 1993 and failed as bad or worse. Anyone who was paying attention could have figured out most of what would go wrong in the 2001-09 Bush years by thinking about what Reagan and the first Bush had done in 1981-93. The same mantras were operative: slash taxes on the rich, bleed the unions, spend foolishly on arms and political favors, deregulate industry and finance, look the other way as big wheels suck the value out of companies and send jobs abroad, and sell off much of what's left to foreigners fattened on trade deficits, while creating illusions of gilded age wealth through bubbles and scams. There's no reason to think that Clinton couldn't figure this out: there's plenty of evidence that he had in his 1992 campaign speeches -- same for Obama's 2008 speeches. It's just that they lost their minds after being elected. You have to wonder why: both how this dumbing down works and why people who are determined and charismatic enough to win nationwide elections give up without an evident fight.

Part of the answer is that it's very hard to be a self-made man (or woman) in America. This is basically because at each step along the way the slightest slip marks you for failure. After all, lots of people have brains and talent, which makes attitude so critical. Clinton and Obama both climbed from the bottom to the top, which sounds exemplary, but they couldn't have done it without repeatedly getting the approval of the rich and powerful along the way. They may have made it look easy, effortless even, but that's because they internalized the correct mores and manners. They did it so well that they could pander to the masses without ruffling the elites, who always knew that once elected they would prove as manageable as if they were born to the manor. That's pretty much what happened. There is a great myth in America that anyone can grow up to be president, but it's not so much untrue as irrelevant: there seems to be some strong force that holds whoever gets elected in thrall, faithful to certain ideas and interests that are never put onto political agendas. They are just there, forever warping the political universe.

The biggest problem with Krugman's zeroes is that he hasn't factored in the negatives. The 2000s have resulted in much more inequality than we've had in a long time -- at least since the 1920s, more likely the 1880s, and in some sense since George III was our despised monarch. And that's not just a set of numbers: it represents the foreclosure of opportunity for many millions of us. Education is less accessible: maybe a Clinton or an Obama can still slip through, but it's getting harder to keep up with the Bushes (or Kerrys or Gores). The notion that government might be a progressive force has taken a beating, and not just the idea that we're scarely permitted to discuss, but the dead weight of debt and degeneracy. The years of shipping jobs and money overseas have left us that much poorer except at the very top. The years of pursuing military dominance over some of the most wretched nations in the world have left us that much more despised, wary, and psychotic. The years of ignoring what we've done to the environment and the climate -- who knows how much of that can be reversed, if indeed we could ever drum up the will to do so? Who knows when and where we'll be hit by major resources shortages? We're already finding ourselves stuck in an economic downturn that is beyond our wherewithal (economic and political) to cope. It's not unlikely that whatever we do do will turn out to be too little, too late. We're already unable to act on what we know. And we're coming to know less and less all the time.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Shit Sandwich

George W. Bush was president of these states for eight years of the just-concluded decade, a fat eighty percent bracketed by a year and a few weeks of Bill Clinton at the front end and a few weeks less than a week of Barack Obama at the back end. The end slices aren't as distinct as we'd like. Clinton's obsession with slashing government and balancing the budget helped legitimize Republican shtick, even though Bush quickly proved such notions to be a sham. Worse still, Clinton's lustful embrace of his Commander in Chief role paved the way for Bush's favorite childhood fantasy. Clinton was channeling the same lines that propelled a series of Republican hacks to national prominence. After Bush showed how disastrous the GOP's ideas and morals could be, Obama should have known better. But he remains intellectually trapped in Clinton's shoes, all the more uncomfortably given the mess Bush left in them.

To say that Bush was the worst US president ever cuts him way too much slack. He wasn't just corrupt or egomaniacal or inept or vain or foolish -- past president have set pretty high standards on all those counts. He was a movement creature with a dangerous hidden agenda, which he pursued ruthlessly. And while he didn't get everything he wanted, he got an awful lot of it. It's just that everything he touched turned to shit. He stacked the deck in favor of the rich, who still wound up losing money on him -- just not nearly as much as everyone else. He started and finished with recessions, separated by a spurt of growth that never touched any worker's paycheck. No wonder, since his sole idea of growth is fraud (much like his embrace of democracy). He filled government with political hacks, undermining the civil service and doing his best to undermine the very notion of public service. Everything he did was double-checked by the pollsters and lobbyists, both to slip it past a naive public and to maximize his returns to political sponsors. And everything was wrapped up in lies and deceptions. Between the rotten ideas, the poisoned pills, and the treacherous spin, it will take serious work to unravel the damage Bush and his Republican cohorts caused.

Indeed, the task is so daunting that Obama and the Democrats haven't skirted most of the issues, while the Republicans have gone rabid. Without a serious effort to contain Bush, and for that matter Reagan and the rest of his ilk, they will continue to leach out and contaminate everything -- not least the sense that we can act deliberately as a nation, as a community, as people in the same boat. So that's the decade Bush has given us: the shit sandwich.


Dec 2009 Feb 2010